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 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.
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.
hONORING sHEARITH'S hOLOCAUST sURVIVORS AND THE dALLAS Holocaust and Human Rights Museum Board Members and DocentsRead Now
We honor Shearith Israel members who were on the Kindertransport or are survivors of the Holocaust. Their journey and their lives are a testament to the resiliency of the Jewish people.
We also honor the members of our congregation who graciously volunteer their time at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum as Board Members and Docents. As we celebrate the grand re-opening of the museum, we express our gratitude for the many hours of love and hard work these volunteers dedicate to our community.
By Rabbi Shira Wallach
For our third year, Avi Mitzner and I will co-lead ReNew, an alternative approach to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. It is a soulful, joyful, musical experience with a shortened liturgy, lots of singing, and room for reflection. We sit in the round so that we all feel responsible for the space. I create a new Mahzor supplement each year that augments the text in the Mahzor Lev Shalem.
This year, we will organize our service into three main sections.
First: the opening. How do we enter the prayer space? What music and words help us feel like we can approach God? How do we feel empowered to lift our voices in song? How do we reclaim and deepen our relationship with God and with one another?
Second: the Amidah. This year, we will only do one Amidah, combining elements from both Shacharit and Musaf. Now that we’ve established our relationship with God, what do we say in our private audience? What is in our hearts that is most important to share with God? What regrets do we have from the past year, what hopes do we have for the future? How do the special prayers for Rosh Hashanah speak to us, and how can we speak through them?
Third: the Torah and Shofar. Rosh Hashanah forces us to grapple with one of the most challenging stories of our tradition, the Binding of Isaac. How do we continue to find meaning and relevance in this tale? Why do we read it on Rosh Hashanah? What is its connection to the Shofar, and how do we discern the Shofar’s message for us?
After we put the Torah away, we will conclude our service with Ein Keloheinu, Aleinu, Mourners’ Kaddish, and Adon Olam.
We have charted out each and every moment of the service for maximum beauty and impact, which is why I insist that you try to come on time and stay through until the end. The service is only 10am until 12:30pm, and you’ll get much more out of it if you can experience the entire arc.
Avi and I look forward to celebrating the New Year with you! If you have any questions about ReNew, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Shira Wallach
By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
This past Wednesday up at the North Texas Food Bank in Plano, more than 1000 volunteers from all over the area, including a number of folks from our congregation, came to pack up 279,280 meals for those in need as part of the Communities Foundation of Texas’ 18th Annual Freedom Day. This year was the first year that our local Freedom Day was linked into the federally-recognized September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance and the associated efforts spearheaded by friends Jay Winuk and David Paine and the 501c3 they founded, 9/11 Day. The Dallas Meal Pack was one of eight major hunger-related service projects 9/11 Day organized around the nation this year, including New York, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Atlanta. It was also one of many volunteer service projects that Communities Foundation of Texas organized in the DFW area in observance of the CFT-created “Freedom Day.” Nationally, close to 12,000 volunteers participated in 9/11 Day Meal Pack projects with the goal of packing over 3,000,000 meals for people in need.
I was privileged to be invited to share a blessing with the hundreds of assembled volunteers at NTFB before the 12-noon packing shift began. But I was also privileged to share the stage with David Paine, who came in to support our efforts and then was on his way to hop a flight to Phoenix to visit their project as well; with Ruben Martinez, the sixth-grader from El Paso who created the viral #ElPasoChallenge, who has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN and other media to help spread the word and is asking Americans to do 22 good deeds for each of the 22 people killed in the El Paso shooting; and with my colleague Imam Azhar Subedar from the Islamic Association of Collin County, a real mensch and a huge advocate for interfaith collaboration. I was inspired by their presence and the presence of the hundreds of volunteers in the room. As a woman from our ceremony team sang “America, the Beautiful”, I looked around the room and saw people of all different faiths and colors and backgrounds gathered together for this sacred purpose of serving others and honoring the memory of lives tragically cut short and I was moved to tears. This truly was America, the Beautiful.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that today’s parasha, today’s Torah reading, Ki Tetze, ends with three powerful verses about memory. We read these verses today and also on the Shabbat prior to the holiday of Purim every year, known as Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Memory. These verses instruct us to “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget!”
Rather emphatically, the Torah calls on us to remember this arch-enemy of the Jewish people throughout our generations. The evil Haman on Purim is descended from Amalek and whenever his name is mentioned in the Megillah reading we blot it out with the sound of the graggers in fulfillment of the verse. Jews are known for our long-term memory, not only of the attacks and persecutions of our enemies, but also of the gracious acts of God on our behalf. And when God asks us to remember, there is an expectation on God’s part that we will take appropriate action as well in response to our remembrance.
When it comes to the events of 9/11, for many of us, these memories are still very painful and traumatic and difficult. Some of us may have lost loved ones, or known victims or their families, or had friends who narrowly escaped being among those individuals. Others have the indelible images of the attacks in our memory banks from the repeated showings on television and elsewhere. But we are now at the point, 18 years later, where close to a generation of people in our country either weren’t alive when this devastation occurred or were only toddlers and thus have no conscious memory of the attacks or the aftermath. I was at Yavneh Academy’s High School Back-to-School Night on Wednesday evening, and when I met my son Jonah’s Hebrew teacher, he told the assembled parents that for class that morning he had not focused on Hebrew, but instead showed the students some clips of video and audio footage from 9/11, including calls from the doomed planes and other similarly emotional testimony of the tragedy. For most of the kids it was the first time they had seen or heard these clips, which is why the teacher felt it was important to take class time out to show them.
This is an important reminder that memory quickly becomes history. Some among us are still survivors of the Holocaust, or children or grandchildren of survivors, and some may still remember U.S. national traumas like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but none of us remembers firsthand the blowing up of the Maine in Havana Harbor near the end of the 19th century, or the defeat of the defenders at the Alamo in the 1830s. But we still as a nation recall these events and others. The cries of “Remember the Alamo” or “Remember the Maine” or “Remember Pearl Harbor” still reverberate in our collective memory as a nation, just as “Never Forget” reverberates in the shadow of the Holocaust almost 75 years later.
It is important that we remember the pain and the sorrow, the trauma and the shock and that we express our feelings each year. However, it is also important to remember as well the response of our nation, the heroes, police, firefighters, military service members, doctors, nurses, health care providers, and others who tried to and in some cases succeeded in saving lives, who ministered to the injured and the bereaved, and those who attempted to bring comfort to all who were impacted by these traumatic attacks. I’ll never forget what I experienced at NY Penn Station the Friday after 9/11 when I was heading down from the Jewish Theological Seminary to my student pulpit at Beth El in Baltimore, MD. I saw people all around me and throughout the station begin to rise and applaud and was not sure why they were doing so, until I saw several firefighters in dirty uniforms emerge at the top of an escalator. An entire train station worth of people gave these four firefighters a prolonged standing ovation, which I must say was an incredibly powerful moment. Just a few short years later, would that still have happened? Or more generally, do we express our continued appreciation to our first responders for all they do and what they risk every day to help us and keep us safe?
It is important as well to remember how we came together as a nation and how we, for a moment at least, were united as one great family and were embraced by countless strangers around the world who felt our pain and offered their support. No doubt there are real and troubling questions as to what is left of that communal and national unity that was felt 18 years ago, but when I stood on the stage at NTFB on Wednesday I felt an incredible rush of pride in our country and in what we can be and what we can do when we set our minds to it. 18, “Chai”, years after 9/11, we must still treasure the gift and sanctity of life and challenge ourselves regularly to use that gift to leave a lasting impact on the world around us.
As I bring these remarks to a close, I’d like to share with you now the brief one-minute blessing I shared with the assembled crowd at NTFB on Wednesday, inspired by a prayer written by my colleague Rabbi Naomi Levy. And then I’ll ask you all to rise and join me in reading A Prayer for Our Country together on p.177 in our Siddur, followed by the singing of America, the Beautiful, on p. 453.
There’s a phrase in the Haggadah, the book from which we tell the story of the Exodus at the Passover Seder:
מאבל ליום טוב, ומאפלה לאור גדול
“From mourning to a day of goodness, from thick darkness to a great light”.
We remember the victims of the tragedy on 9/11. We remember those who stood up on 9/11 and gave their lives so that others might live. When all seemed lost, when the world seemed like a dark and heartless place, they restored our faith in people and our trust in God. They taught us hope, and fearlessness, and honor.
We will never forget their heroism and their sacrifice. We will teach our children and grandchildren about their courage in the face of danger. We will try with all our might to live up to the example they have set.
We will not ignore human suffering, we will not be indifferent to the cries of those who are hungry, or in need, or in pain; we have been changed forever by that fateful day of 9/11. May we who have gathered here today continue to honor the memory of those who perished and move from that day of deep and profound darkness to a day, THIS day, of profound goodness, blessing, and light. AMEN.
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 email@example.com
By Rabbi Shira Wallach
A lot of folks have asked me over the last two weeks how it’s been to return to work from maternity leave. First of all—it says a lot about the warmth and love of the Shearith community that so many of you have reached out to check on me and I am deeply grateful. And second—as you can imagine, it is bittersweet. But there are two fundamental thoughts that keep me going: I know that my daughters are well taken care of in a safe and nurturing environment and I love my job.
This past weekend was such an auspicious time to be present at Shearith. The end of summer often feels like a joyous reunion of dear friends as we all return from vacations and begin the school year together. And this year was no different: the Back-to-Shul Shabbat gave us the opportunity to look at our new collection of photos in our lobby, to reflect and recall the sacred moments we shared over the year 5779. Then, we ushered in Shabbat with our best boot forward in the Western Kabbalat Shabbat in Beck or the Western Shababa in Fonberg. To look around, to see old friends and new faces, beaming with the radiance of joy and connection, was truly special. This special feeling continued Shabbat morning as we shared a beautiful service together in Beck.
On Sunday morning, our blossoming Weitzman Family Religious School held its first day of learning. Parents, students, and teachers came together to study the mitzvah of welcoming and creating sacred community. At the same time, we hosted a seminar for Shearith leaders and staff to help us move from vision to action as we regard the inspiring and aspirational results of our Strategic Plan. The bustling energy in the building reminded me why I felt called to do this work in the first place, and why I keep coming into the office each and every day. I simply can’t wait to see the Ma’alot—the heights—to which we rise in 5780.
See you in shul,
CAt the Annual Meeting on Wednesday, June 5, Incoming President Shirley Davidoff shared her vision for the next two years. Here are Shirley's remarks:
Thank you. It is truly an honor to be the 58th President of Congregation Shearith Israel, following many other dedicated leaders of this synagogue. I want to specifically thank those Presidents who onboarded me to the path of Presidency—Sharon Levin, Todd Chanon, Gail Mizrahi and Jack Jacobsen. And Jack, it has been an honor to be your Executive Vice President and thank you for your leadership.
Little did I know, growing up in Galveston, that I would be following in the footsteps of my parents, Frances and Elihu (Chuck) Klein, of blessed memory, to become a synagogue president. Both my parents were President of Congregation Beth Jacob, our Conservative synagogue, and they individually or collectively were presidents of medical staff and auxiliary organizations, numerous Jewish organizations, and served on both community and nonprofit boards. I saw firsthand how they cared for others and how their commitment positively impacted our Jewish and non-Jewish community. Their leadership, volunteerism and philanthropy shaped my values and I am standing here tonight because they led by example.
I’d like to thank my husband—no—it is not Mark Davidoff—Mark is married to Tina and he is actually my uncle—Bill is my husband. Bill and I met the first day of college moving into a dorm at UT and since that moment he has been my constant supporter who understands my involvement and need for a strong sense of purpose. I am extremely grateful for our partnership and love.
I want to thank my other husbands—yes, I have a work husband Chuck Levin and two shul husbands, Jack Jacobsen and Irving Prengler.
Chuck, you’ve done this before with Sharon, your real wife, so this will be much easier. Thank you in advance and I appreciate your support.
Jack and Irving, my shul husbands, it’s been wonderful working with you—you both are true mensches and dear friends.
Jack—good news—Mark is stepping up as a shul husband so you are now off the hook.
Mark—welcome to the “family” and I’m thrilled to lead this congregation with you and Irving. With the two of you as doctors, and me as a nurse practitioner, I feel confident the “health” of our congregation is in good hands.
I want to thank my children, Eric and Kayla and Jeremy and Tina for being here tonight. I am extremely lucky to have raised two wonderful sons and I now get to nurture two wonderful daughters. I am proud to stand here as your mother so that you see how giving back to an organization is a good investment of time and resources as it can greatly impact and strengthen you personally.
And I want to thank each of you, from the professional staff, to you as congregants.
Thank you to our Klei Kodesh, (Rabbis Sunshine, Wallach and Roffman, Cantor Zhrebker and Avi Mitzner) for your dedication and commitment to move us spiritually, educationally and emotionally. You are true partners that raise us up and steer us on our Jewish journey.
Thank you to Kim West, our COO, and the entire Shearith staff, who work in front of, and behind the scenes, engaging us in programs, teaching us and our children in creative and thoughtful ways, communicating our strengths internally and out to the community, assisting and supporting each other’s work, tracking our budget, greeting us at the front desk, on the phone and in the hallways, maintaining our building, and cleaning up after our many Kiddushes, simchas and programs. You are all exceptional and appreciated.
A few other thank yous…
To the Board of Directors, Board of Education and the numerous committee chairs and members – thank you to those who have served - and to those coming on board, thank you in advance for being forward thinkers.
To our gabbayim and minyan supporters, thank you for your daily and weekly dedication.
To our SISterhood, thank you for your deep commitment and support of Shearith.
To our Men’s Spirited Study Group, thank you for revitalizing our Men’s Club, let’s keep it going.
And to You, our congregants, thank you for your participation and ongoing support. Because of those who came before us, Shearith has been around for 135 years and YOU are the reason we will continue to be here in the future. You make up our Shearith Community—as new members to multi-generational members; singles and families—each bringing commitment, loyalty, enthusiasm, ideas and VALUE to Shearith Israel. One of the many highlights from our Strategic Planning Process was developing new Mission/Vision and Value statements with our core value statement stating—We are: A Caring Community, A Spiritual Community, An Innovative Community, and A Dedicated Community.
These words are not hollow but represent not only what we value but what we can accomplish. As your President, I believe it is my job to help us reach this potential and strengthen us as a community. After working on the strategic plan, “Ma’alot—Ascending New Heights,” as a co-chair with Irving Prengler and Brad Altman along with the planning committee and foundations, I had the unique opportunity to help identify and discuss the many strengths and challenges we have as a congregation. These opportunities and discussions translated into a robust strategic plan document with initiatives that will structure our path moving forward. Our goal is to begin communicating and implementing these initiatives over the next several years, but we will be asking for your help. Don’t shy away—I, along with the officers, board, committees and staff will set things in motion but it is My role/Our role to energize You in this work. This isn’t about just showing up or the new service or program that is being planned for you. This is about partnering to create something bigger. It is about “creating meaningful moments”—moments of joy, wonder, understanding, reflection and kindness both individually and as a congregational community. Too often Presidents, boards or staff get caught up in prioritizing problems over creating moments. As president, I want to focus on creating “moments” through four areas that were so eloquently described in the book “The Power of Moments.”
It is my hope, through these four areas:
ELEVATION INSIGHT PRIDE and CONNECTION
we will see both positive and meaningful outcomes of:
—enhanced value and membership experience,
—increased commitment and volunteerism,
—positive financial trends
—and personal growth.
Our board, committees, Klei Kodesh and staff will work hard to organize events, enhance prayer experiences, and provide volunteer opportunities but You/All of Us have to be the one to create or identify “moments”—big or small. What will you hear, see, participate in that could lift you up, spark discovery and understanding, empower you, and deepen relationships based on shared values?
Here are some ideas of what to look for in regards to creating these moments within our Shearith community:
Elevate – Moments of elevation are experiences that change your expectation; break the script from your everyday, moments that make you feel engaged, motivated, joyful. These don’t have to be “wow moments” but are experiences that still impact you. Elevation is something we even describe in our new Mission statement: Elevate your soul.
Intriguing, but how do we get there? Let us show you.
Creating elevated moments will be in:
—our religious school where new teaching modalities awaken the student that can have a lasting impact for years to come. This year, we plan to take out four Sunday School days moving them to Friday night experiences to ELEVATE the learning of both the child and the parent, trading conventional learning with family-based learning.
—Moments will be available through our evolving prayer options ELEVATING meaningful, spiritual experiences from traditional to innovative. If you want traditional, we have it. If you want music, we have it. If you want young family options, we have that, too. Everyone is welcome to drop in. Make a point to come -to something- to see what it is about. It might be your style or it might not, but don’t formulate an opinion until you’ve tried it.
—Other moments of ELEVATION can be through a sensory boost—having music played tonight as we were eating, Elevates this installation; an alternate reading on Shabbat or even jokes after Shabbat announcements are elevating an experience.
—And look for Elevation through our social action projects. They will trigger your participation and stimulate your core beliefs while, at the same time, ELEVATING someone less fortunate who will benefit from your kindness. I became involved at Shearith through social action—those “moments” spoke to me and ultimately gave me my “voice” as a leader.
Insight What do moments of insight look like? These would be moments where you feel empowered or reflective.
—Insight can come from one-on-one conversations with our Klei Kodesh, staff, or other congregants that stretch our thinking and empathy.
—You can find insight through a sermon or teaching that awakens you and broadens your understanding and interest. We need to ask: What are the things Judaism needs to say that will be important enough to galvanize you or a younger generation to be involved and connected to Jewish life? Discussing poverty, hunger, human dignity, through a Jewish lens, can stimulate insight. It is important to speak out on anti-Semitism and hatred; and to support inclusion and civility. These issues concern all of us and energize younger generations. Don’t look through a red or blue lens – we are bigger than that, look through a human lens that can ultimately inspire us to live and act Jewishly.
We want to give you the tools to find insight - we can teach and motivate you but YOU will have to pursue what is offered. Imagine what you can learn, achieve, participate in, if you open yourself up and search for insight.
Pride: Shearith Israel has many proud moments of being a strong, vibrant conservative synagogue:
—moments of pride as our members grow as leaders and as philanthropists
—and moments of pride as we stand with Israel, committed to its existence and future.
These moments of pride are sparked by sense of accomplishment, of recognition and of achievement but it can also be about gratitude and telling our story.
Look for moments of pride as we become more “mission driven” in all that we do.
Pride…when we implement initiatives from our strategic plan – setting goals for committees to provide structure and accountability.
WE will have pride… as we embark on an Ambassador program where everyone representing Shearith, from our greeters and committee chairs to our volunteers out in the community, will go through a program to enhance our interactions and to be able to tell our story. This is essential as we connect with each other and the greater Dallas Jewish Community.
WE will have pride… in retiring the debt—not a popular topic but it’s there and not going to go away without each of us. Our pride IS connected to our financial stability. We are fiscally sound with tight checks and balances for us to continue to move forward but in order to strengthen our Jewish life here at Shearith, we need to pay off that debt. Join me and others in stepping up.
And... WE will have Pride in volunteering—I want to put the “Do” back in “Donate.” Show your pride by being on a committee, or volunteering for a one-time project. One person.. and another person.. and another person multiplies, adding pride to our synagogue, pride to the volunteer efforts and pride in ourselves. No successful organization or religious institution can have members with high standards but low commitment. Let’s shoot for high standards and high commitment. We will thank you and I hope you will thank us.
And lastly, moments of Connection: In a world of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where connections are brief “likes,” emoticons, shared photos and 140 max characters, moments of connections can be difficult. Our Klei Kodesh and staff truly value and care about each of us, but how to we deepen our relationships with one another?
—Based on our strategic plan, we will be creating engaging opportunities for smaller groups to connect for more meaningful interactions.
—We will work on spotlighting our members—each of you—in unique ways to get to know each other better
—We will reach out to introduce ourselves to younger generations, not forgetting about those of ALL generations that are already here
—And we will connect through shared community experiences, first rolling out a Shabbat program and dinner on Sept 20th to honor and thank our Shearith Holocaust survivors, Holocaust museum docents, volunteers and board members. We will then, after the High Holidays, have a Shearith night at the new Dallas Holocaust Museum to share this museum together, as ONE Shearith community.
Tonight, I have spoken to you about creating moments through ELEVATION, INSIGHT, PRIDE and CONNECTION. You now have your first assignment. You were handed a piece of paper as you were walking in that asks the question, “How can we help create moments with you?” Please give it some thought and let us know.
I am honored and excited to be your President and I look forward to helping you SEEK “moments” as well as YOUR help in creating them. Let’s focus on meaning and moments, not just on membership.
In closing, as I routinely do at Shabbat services, I’d like to leave you with an additional reading from our Siddur. I pick each reading based on what speaks to me that week and tonight I’d like to leave you with an adapted prayer for our congregation.
May the one who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless this holy congregation, men and women, sons and daughters, and all that is ours. May it be Your will to bless us, to hear our voices raised in prayer, and to protect us from any trouble and difficulty. Spread over us the divine canopy of peace and plant within us love and unity, peace and friendship. And let us say: Amen
At the Annual Meeting on Wednesday, June 5, President Jack Jacobsen reflected on his two-year presidency at Shearith Israel. Here are Jack's remarks:
Rabbis, Cantor, fellow officers, members of the Board, our staff and our Congregation:
Where to begin? The journey to ascend to president of this sacred institution began over eight years ago when Mark Davidoff asked me to meet him for drinks. I walked into the bar at the Westin Galleria and was ambushed by Mark, Sharon Levin, Todd Chanon and Gail Mizrahi where I was “asked” if I would consider becoming a vice-president; actually I believe I was told I didn’t have a choice, and thus I got on the track to becoming president. And now those eight years are coming to a conclusion.
These past eight years, and in particular the past two years, have been enormously rewarding. I have gotten the opportunity to know so many people throughout the congregation. I have heard your stories — about things you like about Shearith Israel and in some cases what you don’t like.
At my installation speech two years ago, I pledged to ensure that each of you would be heard. I hope you feel that I upheld that pledge. Whether it was the result of our high holiday survey and the actions we took based on the responses we received, or the input we sought in developing the strategic plan. But I’m confident those steps are only the beginning as I know Shirley, Irving and Mark will continue to seek your input as they continue to move the Shul in a new direction.
And while on the topic, when I started my presidency, it of course coincided with Rabbi Sunshine beginning his tenure as our new spiritual leader. Rabbi Sunshine, along with Rabbis Roffman and Wallach, Cantor Zhrebker and Avi, have done an amazing job to establish a direction for our future. And just in the past two years there have been so many new programs that have been implemented, including Torah on Tap, Prayer Rhythms, the Couples Class, Women’s Torah Study and Guys' Night Out and some that just continue to grow like Shababa. And under the leadership of Sarah Lipinsky, our religious school is once again the place where families want to send their children. People again are talking about Shearith Israel in the community for the right reasons.
When I took on the presidency, one of my foremost goals was to retire the debt. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. At this point, the current balance of the loan is $3,475,000 and we have $711,000 in outstanding pledges. I am very pleased to report to you that 91% of our board has made a donation or pledge to the Burn the Mortgage Campaign. Why is this significant? Because when we go to potential donors, we can show that our board is fully behind the campaign and to helping us eliminate this burden. With the help of Kenny and Sherry Goldberg who are chairing the campaign, we will get there. Thank you Kenny and Sherry for all your efforts on this important endeavor.
And now for a few additional thank yous.
To our Gabbayim, the various committee chairs, and the countless members and volunteers who have given your time and helped make the last two years a success, I thank each and every one of you.
To Kim and the entire staff—thank you for all your hard work throughout the year. Many congregants have no idea how hard you all work to make all services and programs appear seamless to us. I would ask the entire staff to please stand so we can all acknowledge and express our appreciation.
To the Klei Kodesh--Rabbis Sunshine, Roffman and Wallach, Cantor Zhrebker and Avi: I have so enjoyed working with all of you these past two years. You all have such diverse perspectives on prayer, but ultimately you ensure that all congregants are touched, enriched and feel special. And that’s what is most important. And to Shira and Adam – thank you for helping to increase our membership with the recent arrival of Rebecca.
Ari—I was lucky to start my presidency at the same time as you started here. I would joke to many people that we had our honeymoon period together. I have truly enjoyed working with you but will also forever value the friendship we have developed these past two years.
Mark--I am so pleased that you are coming on board as an officer. The bond that you will develop with Shirley and Irving is something truly special--I am just jealous that I won’t be a part of that circle with you all.
Speaking of bonds--Shirley and Irving--I’m not sure I have the right words to describe the love and admiration I have developed for the two of you. We truly were a team, we had lots of great laughs, mostly from Irving’s jokes, a few difficult moments, but I cannot think of two other people I would have wanted to serve my term of president with. You know I will be here for both of you--just as you were always here for me. I love you both very much. Shirley --all the best as president. I know you will do an amazing job.
To my kids--Elliott and Emma. Elliott, who just completed his second year at Colorado and Emma who just yesterday returned from her gap year in Israel, I am so proud of you both. But I also want to publicly apologize to you. I know that many times when you guys were still living at home and I had shul meetings, I got home later than you would have preferred. I know we can’t get those times back but please know I was always trying to do the best I could as your dad. You have both grown up so much and are remarkable kids. I love you both so much.
And lastly--to the Congregation—thank you for the opportunity to serve as your president these past two years. It has been a true honor and privilege.
I would like to close with a passage from the Torah, from this week’s parsha Bemidbar, chapter 27:15:27:
“Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, 'Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord's community may not be like a sheep without a shepherd.”
How is this relevant? While Shirley will be taking over as the leader and shepherd of our community, shepherds work not only from the front of the flock but also from within and at the rear as necessary. While I will no longer be leading this sacred community, please know that I will continue to be in the middle and at the rear, continuing to offer guidance and support to help our congregation move forward into its future.
It is with extreme gratitude that I say Toda Raba.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share