Friday, September 21, 2018

The secret meaning of the bagel.

The secret meaning of the bagel.
Yom Kippur 5779
September 19, 2018
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Behold the humble bagel, modest staple of East European Jews, abused with various colors and flavor combinations including the disgusting combination of cinnamon raisin with lox, red onion, tomato, and capers.  It had to be said.  But I digress.  The bagel is the delivery vehicle of choice for your lox, your whitefish, your cream cheese.  Behold the bagel, keeper of the secret of Yom Kippur.
Yes, the secret to Yom Kippur but we must travel quite the path before we understand.  We must travel a road of repentance, a path of penitence, engage a travelogue of teshuva.  We will find bumps along the way, frustration, denial, refusal and confusion but we will make our way and the secret will be revealed, the bagel will be there to welcome you.  Let us begin.  Indeed we already have.
Last night we began with meals more festive than just a bagel and we arrived here dressed in white, wearing a tallit, standing for Kol Nidre.  We stood at attention as we heard the solemn decree that our vows we made under oath which after earnest attempt we could not fulfill, be not held against us.  At different times there have been different versions.  There is this version, that we wish to be absolved for when we failed.  There is a version stating that future vows be not held against us.  This from a time when it was possible Jews would be forced to convert to Christianity by the sword.  And then there is the understanding that this has to do with vows we made to God alone, not to others in the course of regular business.  Kol Nidre is serious about your soul.  It is not an excuse to get out of a contract.  Indeed to use it that way would bring shame upon you and embarrassment to God.  Not a good way to start this day of atonement.
We finished the night in our tallit.  Why is that?  Because we were dressed formally for a trial.  We were before the great beit din, the rabbinic court.  No, even greater:  it is the heavenly court.  This is the metaphor and we embrace it.  The secret of the bagel demands that we give these proceedings great awe and seriousness.
We have arrived to this morning.  It will be, you will see, a roller coaster of prayers.  We begin with the usual.  Opening, barchu, shema.  Soon enough, though we reach the theme of the day.  “Remember us for life, sovereign God who treasures life.  Inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, God of life.”[1]  The famous book of life where we all want to be listed, the book of life that is opened, our lives are judged, we are written somewhere and then the book is sealed.  We pray for a good seal.  “Chatimah tova; a good seal for you,” we wish our friends.  “Chatimah tova, a good seal for you,” they say in return.  And please note that we do not ask for this chatimah tova for our own selfish reasons, a good seal so that we simply live.  “Inscribe us in the book of life for Your sake,” we pray.  It’s not for me, it’s for God.  Let me have another year so I can do what You have asked, to make the world a better place, make myself a better person.
The theme becomes clear.  We are on shaky ground.  We ask to be given a chatimah tova by convincing God it would be in God’s best interest.  Shaky ground, indeed.
Just a few pages later, Unetaneh tokef.  “Let us proclaim the power of this day… In truth You are judge and plaintiff, counselor and witness…”[2]  If you missed it before, you cannot miss it now.  The day has taken a turn.  The Day of Judgment is before you.  There is no escaping it.  We learn again that some will die this way, some will die that way.  We know this to be the very truest bit of liturgy ever written.  Some with us last year are not with us this year.  Some with us this year will not be with us next year.  But who that will be is completely unknown.  The frail live on, the healthy struck down.  There is no prediction, no way to know.  And now we know why white is the preferred color of the day.  We dress in our burial shrouds.  This is a day of the rehearsal for our deaths.
And how fortunate we are.  Most people are not blessed to know that death is coming and so they are not blessed to be able to sit and reflect and consider.  They are not blessed with the chance to have one last conversation with so many people.  But here we are as though we are attending what could be our own funeral.  This is not macabre.  This is not creepy.  This is a blessing!  Since we do not know when the day will come we pretend today is that day.  We are blessed to have such a day not so that we can hear what people will say about us but so that we can say what we must to those we love.  We all know those who had died never having the chance to say this or that to him or her.  We all know that regrets are found when we find ourselves out of time or simply too ill to say what we truly want to say.  Here is your day!  And it can be more than just, “sorry.”  Perhaps today is a day to say, “I love you,” or “I’m proud of you,” or “I didn’t understand then but I do now so thank you.”  We pretend it is the end so we can repair the present and live on for a better future.
How great is this day!  Never mind, we move on and we are dragged down again to this prayer:  “Our God and God of our forebears, pardon our failings on this day of Atonement; erase our misdeeds; see beyond our defiance.”[3]  Defiance?  Defiance.  Who am I kidding?  I’ll never make it.  Deep down I’m defiant, stubborn.  I don’t want to have those conversations, I can’t bear to pretend about my death.  We are told this is the day set aside for us, a gift for us.  But we resist.
No, we do not resist.  We embrace the opportunity of this day and indeed, we recreate the birkat cohanim, the priestly benediction as those with tallitot create duchenen, the spectral sending of blessings.  We bless our congregation invoking God’s name.  “May God bless you and protect you,” we intone with arms out and fingers spread.  See, God, you have to bless us!  We’ve already involved you, we’ve already called you! 
The tempo increases.  Avinu Malkeinu:  a series of statements that are both pleas and demands, acknowledgement of who we are and insistence that God hear our voice, end pain and sickness and grant us a good year.  This may be a rehearsal for our death but we are not going down without a fight.  We are humble in our approach but demanding in our words.  We demand, politely, but demand nonetheless before our father, our king.
Torah, haftarah and then we backtrack.  Have we been too bold?  Have we shown insufficient humility?  Now we make up for it.  Ashamnu, bagadnu.[4]  We betray, we steal, we scorn.  We do all these things.  We stand before God without embarrassment and just honestly admit that we are not perfect, that we have  made mistakes.  (But we don’t back down.)
Then, a little break but many of you don’t want to break the spell, don’t want to leave this world we are creating, this roller coaster of prayer.  Back home there is the radio and the email and television.  Probably best if you just ignore them all and take a nap.  Stay away from the kitchen.  It is too tempting.  It is torturous and the fast is not meant to be torture.
That is why so many of you stay.  We have a study session and a short break to put your feet up somewhere in the building.
We are back for mincha.  Torah, haftarah and then something old that is new to us.  The avodah section will return in this new machzor, the recitation of the ancient ritual.  The fight is renewed as we gather some strength.  The avodah section is a telling of the Yom Kippur ritual as performed in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Our machzor has broken it down into 15 steps each one another level of holiness, another aspect of holiness.  Each step sets us up as reaching, striving for holiness.  It is a challenge to God.  We are coming to You.  Will you not reach for us?
And then we get into the meat of it all the avodah service.  Once the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis had a decision to make.   Either our connection to God was forever broken or something else would have to replace it.  They chose the latter.  Prayer replaced animal offerings.  The three daily sacrifices became prayer three times a day.  The ritual of Yom Kippur became the prayers of Yom Kippur and so on for every holiday we have.  The prayers, the words weren’t just tokens.  The words, the prayers themselves were just as valid as the offerings themselves.  So now, instead of one Cohen Gadol in Jerusalem going into the holy of holies there are a million recitations of the Cohen Gadol going into the holy of holies in a million synagogues around the world.  Large and small, around the world the ritual takes place right at this very moment.  If God could be moved by one Cohen in one place saying it one time, what chance does God have with a million recitations in a million places? 
Let us review.  We are on trial.  We acknowledge our faults and we demand God judge us fairly.  We are blessed to pretend this is our last day so as to say what we would want to say to those whom we care for.  We recreate the greatest ritual on the greatest day to force God’s hand.  We arrive at Yizkor, a break to remember our ancestors.  We pause to remember parents, siblings, spouses, and even children.  We remember what they taught us.  We remember what we wanted to say to them.
Then Neilah.  The conclusion and so close to the secret of the bagel.  All day we have been dying.  We don’t eat or drink or indulge luxuries like the dead.  We wear white like the dead.  We fear for the book we will be inscribed in, like the dead.  But we are not dead… we are just pretending which is why we are so demanding of God.  Neilah, the final service.  It means “locking.”  The gates of repentance are closing, slowly but closing all the same.  We make one tired last ditch effort.  El norah alilah, the song repeats and repeats this urgent plea:  “Small in Number, “ we are called, we who lift our eyes to seek You, and with trembling hearts, beseech You in the hour of Neilah.  Or this:  Recall our mothers, remember our fathers; renew their righteousness in our days.[5]  Be near to us as You were to them, in this hour of Neilah.
We will be tired tonight, we will be thirsty but we will not give up.  We will have caffeine withdrawal headaches, and sitting too long backaches but we will not give up.  We are in this fight and we will prevail.  We will claw our tired bodies and our tired souls through Neilah to the very end.  We have sinned but we are not sinners.  You are the Judge but we demand compassion.  And so it comes to pass.
And we have havdalah and we shake each other’s hands and we head out tired but victorious and this brings us to the secret of the bagel.  The bagel that you will eagerly seek is not simply food for a hungry belly.  It isn’t even a reward for making it through the day.  It is the crust of victory and the symbol of the meaning of Yom Kippur.  We have not eaten because the dead do not eat and we are pretending as if we are dead.  But the living eat.  The living eat to survive, no, to thrive!  The living eat to live on and do great things.  The bagel says, Yom Kippur, you have taught me well.  You have, once again, been a difficult adversary.  You have forced me to see who I am and how I wish to be and so I will eat this bagel not as the finish of the day but as the start of the year!  The bagel is not the end of the day, it is the start of your life.  You are not dead.  You are very much alive and you have things to do, people to help, a world to make better.  You eat that bagel and drink that juice to begin, to start, to announce this year I will be even better.  I have been through the ordeal and now I start!    We have struggled, we have humbled ourselves, we have striven, we have demanded, we have pleaded and we have won.  That is the meaning of the bagel.  We eat because we have won.  We rise, we eat, we plan.  We begin another year, a sweet new year, a great new year.  The bagel is not the conclusion of the day.  The bagel is the start of your life.

[1] Mishkan HaNefesh, p. 202.
[2] p. 208
[3] p. 234
[4] p. 296
[5] p. 615

It's the fast of justice.

 Kol Nidre 5778
It’s the fast of justice.
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
September 18, 2018
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Let us begin with the words of Isaiah from our haftarah.[1]  Isaiah the prophet who famously comforts the troubled and troubles the comfortable has his words selected for this holiest of days as a reminder, a call, a scold and a challenge.  He begins, “Yes, they seek Me daily/As though eager to learn My ways.  As if they were a nation that does what is right/and has not abandoned God’s laws.  They ask of Me the right way, eager for God’s nearness.”
And do we not?  For the faithful, for the questioning, for the unbeliever, are we not all aligned, all as one in our desire, our yearning to know that we are doing what is right?  There is goodness in this world and we want to be part of that, do we not?  Is there anyone here who wishes to do, who prays to do what is wrong?  Is there anyone here who says, “Goodness exists; I want no part of it.”  Who says that?  Who says they wish to traffic in evil?  Who here looks to embrace the wrong way?  Alright then.  I will hold you to that.
Isaiah’s words resonate.  We seek to be near God, to be near what is right.  But Isaiah knew his audience back then and he was having none of it.  He quotes those Jews of yore who complained to God, “Why, when we fasted, did You not see?  When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”  Isaiah brings the condemnation:  “Because on your fast day, you see to your business and oppress all your laborers. Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist!  Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.”
God via Isaiah says, You say you are fasting so as to reach all that is good but you do all that is not good even as you fast!  What is this, then?  Do you think I don’t know?
Isaiah’s words condemned back then.  They challenge us today.  Are we just as guilty?  Would Isaiah have some choice words to say to us?  We pray “no.”  We fear “yes.” 
Isaiah offers help.  Without suggesting you actually not fast, he is reminding you then, he is reminding you now how this works.  Completing the fast is what we do for us.  Fulfilling the intent of the fast is what we do for God, for our community, for our world.  Isaiah offers God’s words:  “No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke.  To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home.  When you see the naked, to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin.”
What is our challenge?  What is the call Isaiah cries out even to this day?  Look out from your own self, from your narrow viewpoint, look out and around and find those who suffer from injustice.  I have been saying a variation of this for all my rabbinical days.  Your obligation cannot be simpler.  It is to make the world a better place and make yourself a better person.  This is my quip of Isaiah’s poetry which encapsulates the very reason we are Jews.  That is it. 
And how are you doing with this?
This past year the Air National Guard sent me to New York for disaster chaplaincy training.  We began as usual going around the room with introductions.  It was just the broadest group of people.  Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims.  Immigrants, gay, straight, men, women and on and on. Perhaps you’ve been at a similar conference.  It was quite the collection of earnest folks who wanted to alleviate suffering for those hit by natural disaster.  I remember being struck by the vast array of Americans in that room thinking to myself something surprising: being open to the wide variety of humanity is really hard.
It’s hard to be with different sorts of people.  A person has to admit to a lack of knowledge of what makes other people, other cultures tick.  A room like that requires that you speak honestly to people whose background you don’t understand.  You’re in a place with new people with whom you don’t share cultural shorthand, or inside jokes or food or history or anything. 
Now, plenty of people get to know their co-workers or neighbors or even simply the other conference attendees and become friends, truly friends, with an understanding of what makes the other tick.  It’s nice, you know?
But some people have trouble with this.  They don’t see a wide range of people as the glory of America but as the dilution of America.  Some people can’t do the work to get to know others and simply fear the influx of different kinds of people.  It’s a fear of being replaced.
Last year in Charlottesville, at the ugly white supremacist rally, we heard the chant, “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.”  It comes from a 71 year old Frenchman, Renaud Camus.[2]  He wrote in 2012 of “the great replacement” of native white Europeans by immigration of people not white.  From this grew many anonymous websites fearing for the extinction of the white European race.  This, slightly different from white supremacy, is white nationalism.  This is jacket and tie tiki-torch racism, not your backwoods cross burnings.  This is earnest racism.  This is the racism from people who cannot see past their own skin color and fear that anyone who comes from outside of Europe is a threat to Europe and by extension, a threat to America because, to hear them explain it, we are culturally European and must ever be so.
That is where the cry comes from.  You will not replace us, they cry, as though white people and white culture are under attack in this country.  And they add, let us be very clear, that Jews regardless of pigmentation, are never, ever white and never, ever European.  We are guests or interlopers, depending on how bigoted they wish to be.  Most cleverly, white nationalists explain that they don’t hate anyone at all.  They simply wish to defend white culture from dilution and white people from extinction.  These people, once under a rock, are growing.  They look back to some era when men (it’s mostly men) had decent jobs with decent wages and life was simple and everyone knew his place.  These men complain that white men just can’t get a break anymore.  Not that they can’t get a break because of their own skills or merit but that their race is the cause of so very much discrimination against them.  Well, they are done with this and those people will not replace them.
And what is our response?  Isaiah continues saying, “Then, when you call, the LORD will answer; When you cry, He will say: Here I am.  If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand, and evil speech, and you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature- then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday.”
Do what is right and God will return to you and care for you and reward you because that is what we fast for, that is what this is all about.  We must not give up.
It’s hard work to listen to someone else.  It’s hard work to learn something difficult, to have your assumptions challenged.  It’s hard work to truly hear and discern and consider.  That is why conspiracy theories hold great allure.  Great complex ideas are dispatched preferring a game of connect the dots resulting in pablum.  Conspiracy theories offer the promise of giving you the truth no one else will tell you but, ironically, prevent you from thinking for yourself.  Conspiracy theories require you to reject anything intellectual, thoughtful, fact based, challenging.  They begin with a dismissal of any data that would counter the conclusion.  Conspiracy theories give you chants of, “Jews will not replace us.”
I was talking to a nice guy at the base.  I arranged for an imam to come visit and talk to different groups of people so the topic of Islam was in the air.  This nice guy stops in while a bunch of us are chatting and says, “you know, Muslims are allowed to lie to further their agenda; it’s in the Koran.”  I did not know this so I looked it up.  It took me .44 seconds to find a thoughtful well written article about taqiyya, this idea.  To make it short, to avoid being persecuted or killed, Muslims can lie about their faith.  It would be as if I said Jewish law permits a Jew to deny being Jewish if an uncertain Nazi in 1942 is looking to shoot him or her in the head.  That is a very different situation than saying, Jews are allowed to lie all day long.
Somehow, my friend can read one hateful website and become an expert on Islam while actual experts on Islam are suspect because, you know, they always lie. My friend, he’s not a bigot but he is willing to give up thinking for himself and join in among actual bigots.
Isaiah understands that life puts you to the test.  He offers encouragement:
“The LORD will guide you always; He will slake your thirst in parched places and give strength to your bones.  You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail.”
We must stand against this.  It will be hard but God will give strength to your bones.  We must rise up against this hate, this foolishness.  Tolerance does not extend to nonsense, there is no right to spread ignorance and each and every one of us must have the strength to stand against white supremacy and conspiracy theorists and bigots wherever they are whether on the left or right because we fear for the soul of our country. 
Knowing you for 11 years, I tell you this:  y’all are fine.  A few mistakes here, some great things there, you’re fine.  I send you with a charge for this next year to worry slightly less about your own soul –you’re fine- and much more for the soul of America.  I call on you to speak out against hatred as an overt act of patriotism, as a Jewishly mandated sacred obligation, -a mitzvah- to make the world a better place.  You must call out these people, shut them down, tell them they are wrong.  There is no reason to be so open minded as to let the enemies of the glory of America run free.
I offer you a quote from a man I didn’t always agree with but whose heart was always in the right place.  Can you guess who?
 “I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get there. That's how I saw it, and see it still.” President Reagan’s farewell address of 1989.
You can say what you want about President Reagan and I’m sure I did back then but I never questioned his belief in this place and his belief that he was doing the very best he could to uplift his country, his people.
Isaiah spurs you on to toss aside feel good piety and do what is needed to better your world.  President Reagan, to name just one, used his oratory to dig deep and work hard for the betterment of our nation.  We are all called to do that every day and we must never give up on that call.
That is our fast, that is what we are charged to do not in a theoretical manner but in real world conversations and confrontations.  We will keep this country as a shining city on a hill and not give in to bigotry.  We will fast the fast of justice and righteousness.  We must never give up on that.  We will never give up on that.  And when we do that, when we defend and extend liberty and justice for all, then and only then can we honestly ask God to bless America.

[1] Isaiah 58:1-14
[2] “You will not replace us” by Thomas Chatterton Williams, The New Yorker, December 4, 2017, p. 24-30.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

What the Talmud teaches is what we need now. Rosh Hashana 5779

What the Talmud Teaches is what we need now.
Rosh Hashana 5779
September 10, 2018
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Almost a year ago in November, the Forward published an article in their ongoing series of asking various rabbis the same question.  This time they asked 27 rabbis, “What is the one lesson Jews today need to learn from the Talmud?”[1] 
Seems like a simple enough answer.  No doubt each rabbi will pick a favorite quote and expand upon it.  Sure enough Rabbi Rachel Timoner from the Reform Congregation Beth Elohim wrote in with this:
Today, when Nazis and white supremacists are on the march, immigrants and Muslims threatened, people with disabilities mocked, Sanhedrin 37a calls out to us urgently:  “Adam was created alone… so one person will not say to another, ‘My father was greater than your father’… And to tell of the greatness of the Holy One blessed be He, who stamped all people with the Stamp of Adam, the first [human] and not one of them is similar to another.  Therefore, each and every person is obligated to say, “The world was created for me.’”
This is a classic quote and truly a foundational way Judaism organizes itself.  At the very heart of the mitzvot regarding how we treat each other is the notion that we are all equally children of God, equal in our place among the great family tree of humanity.  We can criticize each other’s behaviors but there can be no place for any suggestion that one type of person is any less than any other type of person.  From this it follows that since no type of person or we might say class of persons is any less than any other, that means we have an obligation to create laws and systems that insist on fairness among all, equal justice for all, equal civil liberties for all, equal access for all.  We simply are forbidden to exclude people based on who they are. 
So that’s a good one.
The Humanistic Rabbi Adam Chalom from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism offered this:  “I am partial to ‘do not say one thing in the mouth and another in the heart’ (Bava Metzia 49a) as a call for personal integrity.”
Some rabbis offered an assessment of Talmud as encouraging Judaism throughout the centuries. One rabbi said that while one can certainly learn wisdom from any number of sources, there is something particularly moving from a “deep and honest study of our own sacred literature.”[2]  Very nice.
Conservative Rabbi Scott Perlo from Washington, DC’s Sixth & I Congregation offered this:
“That being a good, decent person requires a lot of thought.  We’re American and we’re influenced by the strain of American Protestantism that claims that goodness comes from the heart and a person has to follow their conscience in order to do what’s right.  But it’s not that easy!  The Talmud is full of examples where what’s right isn’t clear at all…  The Talmud believes that the moral intuition has to be trained, and it’s right!”

I do think he’s on to something here.  People sometimes treat Judaism as an ethnic extra-curricular but at its heart, it is trying to teach you something, it is trying to impress upon you morals.  Failure to listen means a failure to learn.  We do not believe that you can just pick up morality in the street.  It is something to be cultivated.
So far, so good.  All very nice.  But the real surprise came from the Orthodox world because these rabbis chose to focus not on a quote but on the very nature of the Talmud, what it is when you open it. 
A quick history:  Talmud is two parts.  The Mishna is the oral law passed down from teacher to student as a memorized extremely large document.  Yehuda ha-Nasi, born around the year 135 in the Land of Israel worried that the mishna was being forgotten, that the Roman Empire was limiting study and so he began the process of having it all written down.  After he finished, rabbis from the years 200 to 600 more or less, added commentary on that law.  And so what we have is law surrounded by argument to decipher what the law means and how to apply it in various situations.  That’s called gemarah.  Taken together we have a large numbers of rabbis arguing with each other over the course of centuries.  The Talmud is the written record of these legal arguments and Talmud study is the continuation of this legal arguing.  But here let me remind you that arguing in this case is not name calling but offering an idea, an opinion, an actual fact and having others parry with their own idea, opinion and actual fact.
And this is why Orthodox Rabbi Avram Mlotek, co-founder of Base Hillel writes this:
“The idea of a Talmud itself is the greatest lesson Jews may learn from its vast text.  We live in a time where we often speak only within our echo chambers of shared backgrounds and perspectives.  We often do not encounter those with whom we passionately disagree.  The Talmud records a plethora of dissenting voices, conversations and practices.  This is because the Sages understood there was a value to respectful discourse and exchange of ideas.  We have lost the capability to engage with the other and when we do it often resorts to antagonistic language especially on the blogosphere where the human being is removed from the conversation.  Judaism reminds us that our words have the power to create and destroy and the Talmud teaches us this with every page.”
Talmud, as a concept, reminds us that passionate argument can retain its decency.  Talmud reminds us, indeed all Jewish study reminds us, that excited engagement with the text may incur raised voices but only because of the urgency of finding a true, logical, convincing answer that can pass muster before others and can stand up to intellectual scrutiny.  Talmud offers a model for how a society can argue honorably amongst itself.
And what do we have today?  We have arguments based on snark and conclusions based on wishes.  We have sarcasm and insult that passes for wit with people congratulating themselves on their ripostes and rejoinders.
And worst of all, we have a willing rush to reject objective fact.  We have high-falutin nonsense that convinces us not to believe objective science.  We embrace the dumbing down of ourselves convinced that if it’s complicated, then it’s probably not true.
We are in a bad place right now in this country because we are giving up decency and thoughtfulness.  And we are doing this on purpose.  We are standing down from our very basic civic job of being an intelligent informed citizenry.  We are letting ourselves be mesmerized by internet graphics and TV production values and radio hysterics and we do this happily endangering our very democracy.
People say to me all the time, “Thank you for your service,” when they find out I’m a chaplain.  It’s very nice but misplaced.  No doubt the troops do sacrifice with their deployments and talented people truly do amazing things but it is all in the support and defense of the Constitution.  Our service is just to protect our country.  Your service is far greater.  Your service is to make yourself an informed citizen and this is far more crucial.  Your service, to vote, is far more crucial.  Your service, to push back loudly, vocally against foolishness and stupidity and neo-Nazis and white supremacists and emergent fascism, that is far, far more important.   Members of the military defend the country.  You determine the nature of the country.  Your service is far more important. 
There are troops leaving their families to do their jobs in Afghanistan for six or eight months.  The only sacrifice they ask of you is to put down the crank emails and read a newspaper.  The only sacrifice they ask of you is that you be a member of an informed citizenry with actual facts from actual sources, not some conspiracy theorist from a corner of the internet.  The only sacrifice they ask from you is to support a free press the same way you support the troops because it too is on the front lines of preserving our democracy. Will you do that?  Can you make that sacrifice?
One last rabbi.  Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz from Uri l’Tzedek:  Orthodox Social Justice.  He writes:
Perhaps the most important lesson we learn from the Talmud is that everything matters – how we speak, what we eat, how we spend our money, and even our thoughts.  It is easy to fall into a mindset that the ends justify the means, or to listen to only one opinion about matters of importance.  But the Talmud’s expansiveness reminds us over and over again that the thinking process matters.  Indeed, the sages don’t recite dogmas.  They constantly engage in argumentation to agitate for a new understanding, which in turn brings new opportunities for light and truth in every moment and encounter.
Reform Jews may not know a lot of Talmud but we have inherited the passion for study, the respect for scholarship, the insistence that arguments be made with logic and have a factual basis.  We have inherited the idea that our faith is not off limits to questioning.  We embrace our heritage that insists nothing is off limits and everything matters and everything can be subject to scrutiny with respectful passion.  This year, as we enter into the period of introspection, let’s do more than think of our obligations to our fellow but also our obligation to truth and facts and civic responsibility.  Let’s remember that the glory of our Talmud and of all Jewish learning is a desire and respect for good, helpful discussion.  Let us reject loudly ignorance and hateful speech and dogma and propaganda.  Let us be the ones who will stand up for our country and remind everyone of the value of the heritage of honest debate found in Talmud and Jewish learning.  Then, we may just push back the ever-growing assault on the soul of our country and we can be truly a light to the nations.

[1] 27 Rabbis on One Lesson Jews Should Learn from Talmud, The Forward, November 21, 2017.
[2] Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of

It's not about you. Rosh Hashana 5779

It’s not about you.
Rosh Hashana 5779
September 9, 2018
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Once again we gather to begin this journey of ten days.  This is a process we begin, a journey we start that includes celebration and reflection, repentance for the past, goals for the future.  A new year is upon us and that is always an exciting time.  Rosh Hashana begins that journey as we share our excitement of being together as we take the first steps towards reflection and self-awareness so that we can finish in ten days committed to being ever more ethical and upright people.  We begin – once again.
I think one of the reasons we need to go through this annual exercise of reflection is simply because we don’t understand how we are perceived by others.  What I mean is, we don’t get in trouble for the big things.  We aren’t murderers and bank robbers, after all.  We get judged on things smaller, more intimate, more personal.  The challenge is that it’s very hard to recognize those small things.  It’s difficult to be objective for a very simple reason:  we are the center of our world.  The Earth may revolve around the sun but the world revolves around us.  So it seems.  And that is just natural.  Life is a never-ending experience with the world and how we respond.  Alas, because the world revolves around us, and by that I mean when we indulge the idea that the world revolves around us, we run into problems.  So many problems can be traced down to our feelings of hurt, our taking umbrage or just lashing out because the world doesn’t recognize the righteous position of me as the center of the world.  Everything would be better if people would just understand how hurt I am, how unfair everything is to me!  It is easy to see how we can get caught thinking that everything is about you.  But it’s not about you.
Each week in the New York Times, there is a column called Social Q’s by Philip Galanes.  It’s a cross between an advice column and an etiquette lesson.  It seems to me that almost every week there is a pithy answer to a question that could be answered more simply in this way:  it’s not about you.  It’s not about you!
Let me offer an example.  Here’s one from May 3, 2018.
My son is dating a wonderful woman: kind, hard-working, self-made. My husband and I would be thrilled if they married. She grew up in a country where people lick their knives during meals. Although she’s lived here for a decade, she still does this regularly. I’ve never raised the issue with our son; I want to be supportive. But if they marry and have children, their kids will likely pick up this habit from Mom. Our extended families might find fault, as would their children’s friends. How may I broach the subject with this lovely person?
Answer:  So, this is about the imaginary friends of children yet to be conceived? (Color me skeptical!) The best-mannered people (somehow) manage to observe differences among us without judgment or comment.  This woman is not your child or mate, to whom you bear some responsibility. Nor do you seem to be her mentor, in which case, we might grapple with whether this knife licking is holding her back. She has simply kept a custom from home. Melting pots are like that: better for chunky stews than silky purées.  If she and your son marry and produce offspring, you will be entitled to express grandparental concern about sharp objects in tiny mouths. But that’s a problem for a far-off day. You’ve done very well to keep quiet about cutlery to date, and I encourage you to keep it up. A supportive mother-in-law trumps a Westernizing etiquette coach every day of the week.

If I were unkind, I would suggest she is really saying, “despite the fact that my son’s girlfriend comes from barbarian stock, it’s astonishing to see how she has civilized herself ; she even is hardworking.  My husband and I would deign to allow her to be part of our ever-civilized family.  It’s just that her barbarity has not completely left her…”
The potential grandmother is worried how this might affect the children’s reputation.  And yet I just can’t get past the need to set my Sunday morning coffee down and shout, “It’s not about you!”  I don’t think she’s concerned for the children’s reputation.  One knife lick in the first grade cafeteria will either get a dressing down from a nervous teacher or friends will be so flabbergasted that the child will stop.  Either way, I think the child’s assimilation into American culture will go forward.  It is the grandmother who has not made her peace.  She plays it like it’s about future children but it’s really about her standing among her family and friends.  She is loathe to have a knife licking barbarian as a grandchild.  Whatever will people think of her?
But it’s not about you.  The answer here is good but further work would require this good woman to be challenged to really consider what is bothering her. No one wants to imagine a child banished to a lonely lunch due to some unusual habit.  But that reasonable concern is blocking the real problem.  She is shifting her discomfort onto someone else instead of being honest and acknowledging what is truly concerning her. More on that to come.
Another one from this past July 19, 2018.
Plus-Ones for Singletons
My housemate and I are single and attending separate weddings where the brides have limited plus-one invitations to guests in serious, long-term relationships. This bothers us. We are close friends with these brides. (Is that why they think they can disregard our feelings?) And the friends we wanted to bring are closer to us than many people in serious relationships. Clearly, it’s the bride’s day. But how many free passes on social gaffes do we give them?
Answer:  You can’t say, “It’s the bride’s day,” then quibble with her rules. In addition to curbing the spiraling costs of letting every guest bring a guest, limiting plus-one invites can increase the intimacy of their wedding. I mean, who wants to get married in front of a bunch of strangers?
Protesting the bride’s plus-one policy to accommodate a close friend suggests that the day is about your happiness, not the couple’s. (And didn’t we agree that it’s the bride’s day?) I realize that long-term partners are imperfect proxies for familiarity with the people getting married. But it’s simple and tends to work. So, I’m ruling: no gaffe here!

I think the answer here is simply, “It’s not about you!”  To me, the most interesting sentence is this:  And the friends we wanted to bring are closer to us than many people in serious relationships.”  I mean, really?  Says who?  Not only is this person getting irritated at the bride not organizing her guest list to the guest’s preference, our guest has the gall to divine the nature of other people’s long term relationships.  Not only does the guest feel the right to bring a date, the guest looks down upon other relationships.  Oy vey.  Let’s say this together:  It’s not about you.
Let me offer a secret to having an easier life.  Don’t invent drama for yourself.  And the corollary to that is, let other people live their life as they see fit.  The bride has a vision of the guest list.  You are a guest and you have one job:  be joyful.  It’s not to question the food or be disappointed by the flowers or redefine her guest list or be snarky about anything at all.  You have one job: get dressed up, be pleasant and cheer on your friend.  That’s it.  Anything else is just drama that you invent.  Honestly.  It’s not about you!
A final one. My favorite.
I am a 36-year-old guy. For the last 10 years, my mom has invited me to Passover Seder. I never go. Religion is not my thing. But this year she didn’t invite me. We had a good talk the day before the dinner, so I don’t think she’s upset. But I heard from a cousin that the Seder went on as usual. I can’t help feeling insulted. What should I do?

Answer:  Insulted? If you weren’t 36 (and I didn’t object to corporal punishment), I would recommend a brisk spanking for you, Nathaniel. You haven’t once, apparently, in 10 years, given much thought to your mother’s hurt feelings at your declined Seder invitations. Still, you take offense the one time she forgets to invite you. Let’s acknowledge the sad truth: Your mother, like many, is probably a glutton for filial punishment. You would have been as welcome this year as any.
My suspicion is that the formality of inviting you slipped her mind in the rush of putting together a complex meal for many guests. (It’s not as if you were going to accept the 11th invitation, correct?) But let’s test my hypothesis: Mark your calendar now for next year; make a big show of telling Mom how much you want to attend; then go. Be sure to report back, O.K.?

His mother invites him.  He declines in a rather high-handed manner alerting us all to his clearly superior intellectualism that precludes him from getting involved in something as archaic as religion.  Forgetting the part about family gathering or the food or the family gathering or the nice opportunity for warm relations amongst the family or the food he just declines such things.  For ten years.  For ten years his mother sees all the family gathered round the table except one who refuses to participate.  I don’t think mom forgot to invite him.  I think she got tired of the charade of offering an invitation just to be insulted.  She wized up.  Look, she says, Nathaniel is not coming.  Why invite?  Why prepare?  Why bother to worry if maybe this year he’ll attend?  It’s not his thing.  We’ll see him Memorial Day. 
And yet, he has the chutzpah to be insulted that he didn’t get the chance to blow off the family!  He’s hurt because he couldn’t cavalierly dismiss what others enjoy!  And he heard from a cousin that the seder went off as planned.  Did he think that it wouldn’t?
It’s not about you.  The seder and your mother don’t revolve around you.  Now, it may very well be true that Nathaniel’s mother has done whatever she could to make it seem that her life revolves around him.  She might just be a terrific and loving mother who sets aside her needs for him and isn’t that wonderful.  But Nathaniel is not age 8 or 13 or even a young adult at 21.  He’s 36 years old.  Dude, you’re an actual adult now.  Your mother has other family and friends to worry about.  It’s not about you.  You’re in or you’re out, bro.  That is entirely up to you.  Leave your mother alone.
Back in July my friend Rabbi Rachel Van Thyn was our guest speaker for Tisha b’Av.  We met a few years ago in a class for Clinical Pastoral Education.  I learned a lot.  She became expert.  She now teaches and supervises others in the field.
One of the biggest things she taught me and teaches everyone is that it’s okay to feel our feelings.  In fact, more than okay it’s obligatory.  Feeling our feelings helps us understand what is happening to us and why we react the way we do.  Feeling our feelings and then identifying them is really important if we want to reduce the drama in our own life and behave better and more helpfully to others.
If something is bothering you it’s fine to feel hurt or irritated but it’s not enough to only feel hurt or irritated.  We have to consider what exactly is irritating us and think about why it is irritating us.  It may feel odd or uncomfortable to do this “inner work” as it is called but it does reduce the drama and helps us better amble through the world.  It helps us understand others and helps us resist thinking the world revolves around “me.”
So it’s not about you but still and all, it upsets you.  Why?  What are you feeling?  Dig down, be specific.  Identify the hurt.  Name it.  Say it out loud.  And then, once you wrangle that feeling, you’ll know it’s not about you.  It’s about this other thing.  And most of the time, releasing that other thing helps you move on and deal with it better.
Dig deep and be really honest about why your imaginary grandchildren licking that knife really bothers you.  Maybe you just really worry that in a tough world you don’t want a grandchild to be picked on for something unusual.  Or maybe you do have a little snobbery inside you.
Maybe you wanted to show off a new boyfriend at that wedding or maybe you are anxious about going there alone.  Maybe it’s something else that is making you a little anxious.  If you can figure that out, you can deal with it and not make the bride’s day all about you.
Maybe you really hate religious ceremony or maybe you really enjoy being the center of attention.  Maybe you’re a kill-joy who loves to turn his nose up at other people’s fun.  Maybe you have deep theological problems with gefilte fish.  I don’t know.  I suspect our 36 year-old man cannot abide not being in the thoughts of his family as they eat some matzah and this is what bothers him.
All these people need a therapist or just a really honest friend to hold up a mirror and remind them, it’s not about you.
Off we go into Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  No doubt as we remember slights and mistakes we have made, we will recall the slights and insults and hurt other people have done to us.  So much hurt others have done to us.  So, so very much…  You have no idea how horrible people have been to me…
And then stop and remember the world does not actually revolve around “me” and that “it’s not about me.”  The hurt done to us could be real and personal or it could be a whole lot of other things.  If we can remember that, if we can open ourselves up to the possibility that things are more complicated than how we usually imagine, the source of our hurt is more complicated than we might think, we just might come out of Yom Kippur in ten days with some real insight, some real healing.  Let’s see how we do.