Thursday, October 13, 2016

YK 5777 It only takes a little bit

It only takes a little bit
Yom Kippur morning 2016
Rabbi Larry Freedman
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

We have a problem with water in the city of Newburgh.  Like most things of this nature, it’s complicated but not impossible to understand.  As best we understand, there was a chemical used for firefighting at Stewart ANGB, perflourooctanic acid or PFOA.  To the best of everyone’s understanding, it was a very effective chemical and safe enough.  Upon further review, the chemical was found not to be safe enough and its use was stopped.  Production of PFOA ended in 2002.  However before that happened some of the chemical was used at the air national guard base.  Most of it was caught in industrial waste retention basins but the belief is that a very small amount of concentrate spilled into the ground water.  My source is from Public Affairs at the base and they gathered the info from their own records and various environmental agencies.  I hasten to add that this is the state of current study and is subject to change. 
There is a question as to why the ANGB was using this chemical.  The answer is: it was legal and the base complied with all rules and regulations that were in place at that time for its use.  When the rules changed, the base’s actions changed.
Why didn’t Newburgh test for this chemical in the water?  Turns out they did as required by various rules and regulations and they did report finding it.  It was when the EPA changed the regulations and determined that water quality inspectors should be checking not for 400 parts per trillion but 70 parts per trillion, that the new standard set off alarm bells.  Since then they have been working to fix the problem including switching the water source for the City of Newburgh.  The city no longer is drinking from Washington Lake.
Why am I telling you this?  The water in Washington Lake is very much a metaphor for what’s going on in our country.  There are scary things going on that we don’t even know about.  There are scary things that we know about but don’t feel we should be worried about.  And there are scary things that are happening right in front of us that we just don’t want to pay attention to because, perhaps, we just don’t.  Or maybe we don’t want to think about scary things because we don’t believe them.  We convince ourselves not to believe them.  And we don’t pay attention because we reject the knowledge of others and just make up our own mind.  70 parts per trillion.  How can such a small amount have such massive consequences?  Is it even possible that 70 parts per trillion can affect us?  How can that possibly be?  Won’t it be diluted?  Doesn’t that just make sense?  And yet, the answer seems to be no.  Just a teeny, tiny bit can have a massive effect.  It doesn’t take much and we are the fools who refuse to believe that.  We are the fools who won’t open our hearts and our minds to the idea that just a small bit of something can have massive implications.
I feel like one of themes I talk about all the time is trying to maintain civil discourse.  I try to tamp down gossip.  I try to hold judgment until I hear the other side of the story.  My boys are very used to me saying, when hearing some outrageous claim, “Just wait; there’s more to that story.”  And there always is.  And I try to listen and consider the other.  Before I get on my high horse, I try to consider the other.  I try to put myself in that person’s shoes, to see the world from that person’s perspective and I ask: what is going on that they would say that?  What is happening that they would arrive at a conclusion I would not?  And while I initially might think they are wrong, I’m willing to remain open enough to accept that they might be right.  They still could be wrong but then again, they might be right.  This is a pastoral approach.  Listen carefully.  Keep an open mind.  As we make our way through Yom Kippur, we ought to work hard, to struggle even, at getting out of our own way and opening ourselves up to hear the other.  We need to open ourselves up to considering the other because understanding the other leads to civil discourse.  When we understand the other judgment fades away.  That is not the same as having our opinions change.  Sometimes they will.  Sometimes they won’t.  But anger, resentment, hatred will fade.  And that is a noble goal.
A long time ago, 1990, Public Enemy had a hip hop song called, “911’s a Joke in this Town.”  You probably can figure out Public Enemy’s complaint that 911 sent emergency crews to white neighborhoods faster than to black neighborhoods.  Now, you can fact check every line of the song if you want but I had to wonder, what are they talking about?  911’s a joke?  Like everyone else in the country I saw 911 as one of the great public services this country ever created.  Hard working dispatchers responding to everyone sending help to everyone.  I’ve always seen them as heroic.  How dare Public Enemy spin such a libel.  And that song has stayed with me all these years because back then I asked, what is going on in their neighborhood that would prompt such anger?  What is going on that could inspire such frustration?  Turns out Public Enemy was right.  There were issues of delayed response and the black community had cause to be frustrated.  But most people at the time had the “how dare they” response and very few had the “tell me more” response that could have determined the accuracy of the complaint.
Today we have the Black Lives Matter movement.  Now, before you shut down because a lot of you are inclined to do so when you hear that phrase, try to remember it’s Yom Kippur and join me in a pastoral approach and keep an open mind.  Black Lives Matter started out as a hashtag, a catchy and quick expression of grief and frustration.  It is becoming a movement of some sort and one of those groups recently decided they would attach a blistering, non-factual attack on Israel as part and parcel of the Black Lives Matter movement.  This makes it difficult for an awful lot of Jews and Jewish organizations to be supportive of their plea.  Not because this section of BLM cares about Palestinians.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that they label Israel as genocidal, alone among all the other countries of the world.  That’s a real problem and a coalition breaker.  But, for a moment, just for a moment, let’s set that aside and listen to what Black Lives Matter supporters are saying.  I mean, why do they even need to say that Black Lives Matter?  Shouldn’t that be obvious?  Who says they don’t?  But can you begin to imagine that someone feels so put upon, so downtrodden that they have to affirm that their very life matters?  Who needs to even say that?  Who needs to claim that?  Someone who feels that others don’t believe their lives matter. 
If this were just a bunch of grumpy folks, the hashtag would have come and gone.  But when thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of black people start using #Black Lives Matter, one ought to pause for a moment and ask some serious questions to understand where this is coming from.
Of course, white people become very pious and try to outdo the Black Lives Matter by saying that All Lives Matter.  Let’s talk about that.  If you say, “Save the Whales,” it does not mean you couldn’t give a fig about baby seals.  It means, we can talk about those poor, sad baby seals being clubbed to death, sure, but right now, for just this moment, could we talk about the whales?  Yes, the lives of all marine mammals matter but just for a moment, could we focus on the whales? Yes, white lives matter, too, but for just this moment could we focus on black lives?  Just for a minute?  That is all that means.
So when black people say Black Lives Matter they are saying that they feel that somebody out there, they point to police officers in particular, don’t feel they matter. Here’s the pastoral approach I offer you.  You don’t have to agree with Black Lives Matter protestors but you should try to understand their pain.  Agreement is more complicated and requires real data and policy discussions.  Hearing their pain costs nothing.  What is going on that people can even make the assumption that their lives don’t matter?  How have things devolved that a significant chunk of our fellow citizens feel their very lives, and hear this, their very lives, their existence as citizens and human beings just don’t matter?
Do all police officers feel that way?  I highly doubt it.  But let’s remember 70 parts per trillion.  How many unnecessary deaths of black men is a permissible number before it gets toxic and we should question what is going on with the police?  The National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund[1] estimates that there are 900,000 sworn law enforcement officers.  Of those 900,000 officers, how many are allowed to engage in a bad shooting before we get upset?  There will always be a bad egg among any large group.  But we are well beyond one bad egg.  How many bad shootings are too many?  How many bad shootings does it take to ruin the reputation of all cops?  We have reached our 70 parts per trillion.  It is tragic that we have reached that number.  Compounding the sadness, we know that of those 900,000 officers, there are, I don’t even know, hundreds of thousands of police-citizen interactions every day and they all go fine.  The police act in a professional manner and folks are let go or arrested and nothing goes wrong.  In the last few months in New York there are have been police shootings that were legitimate and necessary and no one gets upset by that because that is just another example of police officers doing their very difficult jobs as professionals according to their training.  Most of the water is just fine.  But those 70 parts per trillion, that very small part must be attended to.  It cannot be ignored.  The 70 parts per trillion that doesn’t act professionally does tremendous damage to black lives, to their departments, to trust in a city and to their own careers and future.  The number of police shootings cannot be diluted into something we need not worry about.  We should worry.  And we should listen to the frustration of those who feel compelled to say black lives matter. 
And let’s remember, the complaints about the police from black communities have indeed been proven to be true multiple times.  Just this past year Chicago and Baltimore received scathing critiques and they are not the only ones.  There is something going on but if you are offended by the hashtag, how will you ever learn what is behind it?  And we must learn what is behind it for the sake of civil discourse and care for our fellow citizens.  We very much need to pay attention to 70 parts per trillion.
What else is in the news that has a moral component?  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t use Yom Kippur sermon time to talk about candidates but when I wrote my first draft quite some time ago, we were living with the fantasy that Donald Trump didn’t mean anything he said and besides, the argument went, he should get a pass since he’s not a politician.  As the weeks went by, I’ve had to cut and cut.  What is there for me to say that so many others haven’t already said?   All I’m left with is the reminder of the early days of his campaign when he was playing coy with white supremacists.  Now, obviously, plenty of people who support Donald Trump aren’t members of hate groups.  Obviously.  However, those who are, your white supremacists and the American Nazi Party members, love him.  They feel he is speaking to them and their concerns and they are becoming emboldened. Now, as always, I stand ready to try to understand what is behind the hatred of these folks.  It’s hard to read their websites or listen to their interviews but I’m trying. Some fear the loss of Euro-centric culture in America.  Others just believe white people are superior. I can’t say I’m very sympathetic but I’m trying to understand.  On the heels of the vandalism of the Temple Beth Shalom cemetery in Florida, NY with Heil Hitler and SS and swastikas, it’s worthy to remember that these people are still out there.
I’m worried about the tone his campaign has set.  I’m worried the racists and bigots feel free to take their hatred above ground.  That will not be good for the Jews, I can tell you.  You’re not worried because there are so few of them?  It doesn’t take much to spread havoc.  70 parts per trillion. 
This Jews have seen before and we know how it goes.  When the mob feels emboldened to hate others, it takes a very long time to make it unacceptable once again.
Of course, some of you are awaiting the criticism of Hillary Clinton.  If there is one thing we all agree on, it is that these two candidates are barely comparable.  It is less like comparing apples and oranges then comparing apples and pandas.  They just aren’t the same sort of thing.  Hillary Clinton has not courted white supremacists.  She is not beloved by the American Nazi party so whatever fears we have over the tone of her presidency, this just isn’t one of them.  Criticism of her is a policy criticism and that’s not what I’m talking about. 
A few years ago, a rabbi in Atlanta made a big splash announcing that radical Islam was coming and that it was here.  Do you remember that?  Even reading it at the time, I found that his passion was notable but his message was routine for those of us reading the headlines.  I’m offering something a little different.  Instead of screaming about what’s already here like the Atlanta rabbi did, I’m saying, we need to prepare for what may come.  We will need to be organized to protest and to lobby and to write letters and to insist that our country regardless of who is president will not be turned over to the 70 parts per trillion who can do so much damage.  The military has taught me that it’s better to be ready and not have to fight then need to fight and not be ready.  Jews know that you don’t want to fight bigots from a position of weakness.  You want to be out ahead in that fight right away.
It’s good to know that liberals and conservatives will find common ground in opposing that after the election.  We will have to join together to fight this 70 parts per trillion of hate regardless of who wins the election.
Today is a day of introspection, a day to look closely at our selves.  Few of us are true sinners.  We don’t murder, we don’t rob banks.  Most of us in this room have committed the sins that are small and ordinary.  We have our own version of 70 parts per trillion; just enough to ruin a perfect record, just enough to make us feel bad, that we could do better.  Today is a day of reflection. It is not a day to justify.  It is a day of honesty.  Why are black people feeling their lives don’t matter?  How shall we respond to a rise in brazen hate?  To these questions we must seek answers without, “yeah but…” without switching the conversation, without hiding behind something else.  Today is a day of honesty even when we don’t want to hear the honesty, even when it conflicts with what we want to hear.  Today is a day of honesty with ourselves and with the nation.  70 parts per trillion is all it takes to destroy something.  Let’s remain vigilant against even that small part.  Let’s be open to hearing what is going on.  Let us on this day be willing to hear something we don’t want to hear and grow from it. 


KN 5777 Teaching Israel

Teaching Israel
Rabbi Larry Freedman
Erev Yom Kippur
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

It all began with my boys complaining and my ignoring them.  They were talking about summer camp.  Ethan went to Eisner, Lev to Crane Lake and they loved their experiences but when it came to Israel at camp, they both complained.  They hated the way Israel was taught.  They complained that camp presented Israel as Disneyland, a happy shiny place filled with goodness and positivity.
At this point, my boys had been to Israel a couple times for bar mitzvah trips so they had seen Israel as a happy shiny place filled with goodness and positivity.  But as is the case for any country, they had also seen some of the problems Israel faces.  Along with the influence of a cynical father they were a little suspicious that any country, especially a country in the news all the time, could be just so perfect.  And now so was I because while I admit I didn’t quite believe them, I took them seriously enough to look in to it.
And you know what?  Turns out they were right.  We are teaching Israel badly at camp and not only just at camp.  We’re teaching Israel badly everywhere.  We are teaching it in a way that is turning off most Jews under the age of 30 and probably a generation or two older than that as well.  As we enter into Yom Kippur with a willingness to be reflective and self-critical, we need to do the same with how we talk about Israel.  The reason we need to do that is simple.  If we love Israel and we want others to love Israel, we need to be honest about Israel
Where to start?  How about we start with the understanding that not everyone in this room loves Israel.  Truth is a few of you do, many of you have some sort of positive association, a whole lot of you are completely passive and a sizeable minority of you are suspicious if not hostile towards Israel.  It’s difficult for me to explain why I love Israel.  It’s the place of my history and my mythology.  It is a place of vibrant Jewish culture that exists naturally and outside of a synagogue.  Knowing Hebrew I have a thrill using my Biblical and modern Hebrew for purposes holy and mundane.  And it is a thrill to see what our people has developed, the country our people has created in just 68 years.  I could go on and on but that’s another sermon -- and that would be the problem.  Just telling you how wonderful it is no longer cuts it.  It is an amazing place and you do need to go but until you trust me and do that, we have other problems and that’s what we need to talk about.
The tale of Israel’s founding was a story so good if it were fiction no one would believe it.  A secular newspaperman is energized into activism after covering the trial infused with anti-Semitism.  Tales of quixotic diplomatic derring-do are combined with tragic stories of 19th century Russian Jewish farmers.  And then World War II came and out of the ashes the small Jewish community of Israel maniacally brings in any Jew they can breaking naval blockades and other skullduggery.  And then 1948 came with a war that showed the world how quickly Jews can go from striped death camp garb to soldiers’ uniforms.  What a tale!  What a story!  And it’s all true! Amazing!  Jewish kids in America who used to get beat up going to school walked a little prouder.  And then, catastrophe hit.  We got too good.  In 1967, during the course of the Six Day War, Israel took over the West Bank and we became military occupiers.  Now things got tricky. 
At first it wasn’t too much of a problem because surely this was just the temporary result of war.  But as the military occupation dragged on, we became something other than the underdog.  Now there were Arabs under Israeli military rule not in the course of battle but day in and day out and these Arabs developed a sense of Palestinian identity and they did not like being under Israeli control.
And now, 50 years later they are still under Israeli control and they still don’t like it and this is where the problem arises.  You can say that the Palestinians have chosen a violent path to attain their own self-determination.  You can say that other Arab countries have done little to nothing to alleviate their plight.  You can that the Palestinian Authority is rife with corruption and you can say that the PA and the PLO before it, having been founded in 1964, before there was any occupation let’s remember, are focused on the dissolution of Israel over and above solving the problem of the Palestinians.  You can say all that and you would be right but it wouldn’t matter.
The problem with teaching Israel today is that we Jews have the hardest time acknowledging one basic fact.  Palestinians are suffering.  Life is really bad for a Palestinian in the West Bank.  Check points all the time, arrests all the time, work permits restricted or removed.  Harassment by soldiers, by settlers, a terrible economy.  There really isn’t any justice for the Palestinians. 
Jews who support Israel usually say, well, whose fault is that?  Fair question.  The PA has a lot to answer for what they’ve done to their own people.  The UN has a lot to answer for as well.  Here’s a fun fact.  The UN has an amazing office called the High Commissioner for Refugees.  They have done tremendous work all over the world setting up temporary housing for refugees and then, in a reasonable amount of time, resettled those refugees.  The High Commissioner for Refugees alleviates the suffering of people within a reasonable amount of time.  But in the West Bank, the UN set up the UN Relief and Works Agency in 1949 when the West Bank was part of Jordan.  Let that sink in.  This agency was set up exclusively for the Palestinians and redefined the word refugee just for them.   For Palestinians “refugee” was no longer something we think of as a temporary condition of people fleeing danger but a permanent status.  When it was set up there were 700,000 Palestinian refugees.  Today there are five million because UNRWA declared that the children of refugees through the male line are themselves considered refugees and that means that a native born American whose grandfather lived in Nablus before moving here counts as a refugee.  Let that sink in, too.  Generations of Palestinians who live in Jordan or Syria or Lebanon are considered refugees.  This stretches the limits of what we commonly think of as “refugee” but there it is.  We should know that.  And we should know that UNRWA’s mandate is not to resettle the Palestinians which would end their existence as refugees.  UNRWA has tragically kept the Palestinians in some kind of limbo, neither resettling them nor helping them rebuild their lives in the West Bank.  In some refugee camps, there is still sewage running in the streets to this day.  That’s UNRWA’s fault.  Many, including Arab leaders, have suggested that they stay this way as a permanent thorn and intentionally keep the Palestinians suffering because a settled and satisfied Palestinian is one who does not demonstrate and commit violence against Israel.  You can look it up.  But we’ll see why in a minute why that won’t matter.
Where did these refugees come from?  We don’t talk about this much but we should.   In 1948, during the War of Independence, many Palestinians became refugees.  Some of them were the elite wealthy who escaped early knowing war was coming.  Some were told by Arab leaders to leave their villages in order to get out of the way of the advancing and presumably victorious Arab armies.  Some were indeed expelled from villages by the Israeli Army.  It is estimated that 15% of Arab villages were evacuated in this manner.   That means 85% weren’t but still, 15% is note worthy.[1]  And then, like in most conflicts, the vast majority of Arabs became refugees because they were running away from the conflict.
To the extent we even talked about it, Israel education only focused on Arabs fleeing the conflict on their own or the Arab nations telling them via radio and loudspeaker trucks to do so.  We never spoke of the Israeli Army chasing Arabs out of their own villages.  First, because we didn’t want to (and it was an open secret) and secondly, because the State archives held these documents as classified.  But in the last decade, the State of Israel has declassified documents and Israeli historians have been studying and publishing these things openly.  So now we can’t ignore it and we should talk about it because Yom Kippur is a time of honesty and we should talk about it because others are talking about it.  We don’t have a choice anymore.
You’ve heard of BDS?  Boycott, Divestment and Sanction is a movement that speaks for justice for the Palestinians but really has as its goal the end of Israel.  Their goal is to plant the idea that Israel is a rogue nation and ought to be a pariah, that Israel among all the countries in the world is the worst offender of human rights.  Not North Korea, not China in Tibet, not various dictators around the globe.  Israel.  It would be laughable if it weren’t working.  BDS is making inroads and they are getting Americans of all persuasions to listen to a new narrative.  It is a narrative of a brutal Israeli army viciously murdering Palestinians.  It is a narrative of Israel stealing land and houses, of Israel cruelly working to destroy Palestinian life and treating Palestinians as second-class citizens.  If you are a Jew and wishy-washy on Israel, there is a strong chance that the BDS narrative has reached you.
BDS often fails when reason takes over.  When trustees of universities look at the reality of Israel they vote down these calls for divestment.  Outside of the boardrooms, they are having more success because they are able to take a small bit of truth and twist it into something massive and our people, our children who go to college campuses, are unprepared and caught completely off guard.  BDS will tell them that the Israeli army committed ethnic cleansing in 1948.  That is, of course, false but since it is true that some Arabs were kicked out of their villages and BDS has no interest in context or nuance, they gain the ears of our kids.  Just as the American army had Abu Ghraib, Israel had Deir Yassin.  However, the US Army should not be judged by Abu Ghraib alone and neither should Israel for Deir Yassin.  But our kids don’t know that.  They never heard of the things BDS says and so they can’t refute the charge.  And don’t forget, we have taught our children to care for the oppressed.   We should be extraordinarily proud of how we have taught them to be decent human beings and care for the oppressed and alleviate suffering.  What do we expect when someone comes up and says, “did you know this suffering is going on?”
They don’t know what to say except, and I have personal experience with this, they come back at their teachers angry and hurt and frustrated.  They want to know why we betrayed them.  Why didn’t we tell them the truth?  Why didn’t we tell them what is really going on in Israel? 
And why didn’t we?  They need to know that Israel is great and the very notion of self-determination of the Jewish people after 2000 years in exile is an awesome thing.  And they need to understand the difference between the State of Israel and a government of Israel.  They need to know that criticizing the governmental policies of the State of Israel is fair game.  Criticizing the legitimacy of the state to exist is a different thing entirely.  We need to acknowledge and teach that Palestinians are suffering because only when we acknowledge that will our children be willing to investigate the complex reasons as to why.  
The enemies of Israel today are those who are committed to alleviating the suffering of Palestinians.  The real enemies of Israel no longer come with tanks.  They come with moral outrage.  They are the enemy of Israel because they do not care why Palestinians are suffering only that they are and it must end.  Let me repeat that.  For those seeking justice for Palestinians, how their suffering came to be is of little consequence.  The Palestinians are suffering, Israel is maintaining a military occupation, end of story.  Why Israel maintains a very tough occupation is of no interest to them, only that it does.  That it is in response to violence taking the place of diplomacy, that without the wall or fence Israelis would be murdered daily, that suicide bombings are just not acceptable to Israel and that Israel maintains the responsibility to keep its citizens safe from being hacked to death with a cleaver is of no interest to those laser focused only on the suffering itself and the moral outrage against this suffering translates as a desire to see the end of the State of Israel.
On Yom Kippur, a day of introspection, we should teach Israel in a way that acknowledges some responsibility for the suffering of the Palestinians or we will lose the support of those who weep for the pain the Palestinians truly feel, those good souls who don’t like to see suffering, like for instance, our children and a lot of you.  We need to be honest that the current Israeli government has a settlement policy that little by little removes the chances of a State of Palestine from ever being realized.  When you look at the map you see a land mass that looks like Swiss cheese.  No country can be formed out of this and we need to acknowledge what is happening because the BDS people find our kids and adults and scream how Israel, the Jews, are the ones who are no partner for peace, that the Palestinians just want a country and it is the Israelis are uninterested in two states living peacefully.
You can say it is for security and you can say it is for this reason and that reason and you might be right but the bottom line is that the policy of the Israeli government is making the prospect for two states a diminishing hope.  If the idea of two states goes away then there will be a catastrophe.  Palestinians will either have to be given citizenship in which case they could vote Israel out of existence in a couple decades or they will have to be occupied by the military forever and the military will have to use strong and brutal methods to keep down the resistance.  That is how it works.  A single state can either be democratic or Jewish but it can’t be both.  Only two states will allow Israel to be Jewish and democratic.  Israelis talk about this all the time.  We have to talk about this, too.
There is a new approach to teaching Israel.  It is an approach of honesty.  It is an approach that recognizes the grievances of the Palestinians and doesn’t pretend they don’t exist.  The new approach is to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that Israel is no longer the little underdog but a mighty force.  The new approach does not absolve the Palestinians from their own misery.  It does not absolve the neighboring countries who, did you know, have laws that forbid Palestinians from full employment and even citizenship regardless of how long they’ve been in those countries.  The misery of Palestinians is real and hardly only Israel’s fault.  But for too many of us, we were never taught that their misery was even real and so when learning of it and being told it’s all Israel’s fault, we have very little to say.  We just don’t know enough because we were never taught the whole truth.
The new approach is an honest approach, a fuller approach.  Mind you, some of those who weep for the suicide bombers whose mothers give proud interviews praising the death of their children in the service of killing Jews, some of them could stand to be more self critical as well.  Seeing Palestinians as innocents is as foolish as thinking Israel is perfect.  They need to be reflective and honest as well.  But for now, since it’s Yom Kippur, it’s our turn for reflection. 
Let’s be honest and talk about Israel honestly.  Let’s not get sucked in to the claims of our haters but let’s teach ourselves to understand what they are talking about.  Let’s teach ourselves to be sympathetic because suffering is suffering and no decent person can just ignore that.  Let’s teach ourselves not only the gloriously uplifting Israel -and it is gloriously uplifting- but also the trials and tribulations a real country endures.  And let’s teach ourselves to be honest so that we can understand the difference between legitimate criticism and straight up anti-Semitism.  But if we are not honest with ourselves we will never be able to do that.
And finally, let’s commit to getting ourselves to Israel.  Go see it for yourself.  If you are ready, we could have a trip in two years, plenty of time to prepare and save up.  We can hear a variety of voices and meet a variety of people.  We can do it if we’re brave and honest.  Let’s be brave and honest.

[1] Step Up for Israel film series, Refugees.

RH 5777 Private Act Publically Done

Rosh Hashana 5777 day
Private Act Publically Done
Rabbi Larry Freedman
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

There’s a lot of preparation for Rosh Hashana that we, the staff and Board and volunteers and I do for you.  And every year, as part of my preparations I remember what you do for me.
When I am preparing, I know I am preparing for a big crowd and I’m very mindful of that.  I want to respect how everyone comes out for Rosh Hashana. I’m always astonished that while we have so many fun, uplifting things going on in the synagogue week in and week out that you miss, you’re always here for this week; you come out for the most serious week.  It always humbles me.  Because so many of you are here, I am always on the lookout to understand why and what motivates you.  I know that guilt motivates some people.  I think that is a terrible motivator but for some people it works.  But beyond guilt, what else is going on?
Let’s see if we can talk about what is happening here so that we can all understand better why we all attend and maybe we can encourage those folks who don’t to come back.  I’m going to offer a few ideas I’ve been learning.
First off, I’m thrilled and amazed that you’re here because this, gathering here, is a huge act of faith.  We arrive dressed up anticipating -what exactly?-  something.  Maybe spiritual uplift, nostalgic warmth, theological challenge, personal growth, personal ethical challenge or something else.  There are many reasons.  What an act of faith that is.  You come looking for something and you have no guarantee it will happen.  Yes, you’ve done this before but past performance can never be a guarantee of future returns so there is an act of faith here.  I’ve been reading a series of Talmudic lectures by Emmanuel Levinas.[1]  In one of them he speaks about prayer and Jewish life as similar to the artistic impulse.  Just as an artist doesn’t really know what the end product will be, he proceeds anyway.  Indeed, the artistic impulse, this desire to create something is simply that: a desire.  It is inchoate, unformed until the first sketches are made and then the work begins not on the finished product but what will become the final form for no artistic act ever comes out fully formed at the very first moment.  The final form is the artist’s play between the intangible idea and the concrete world.  So it is with us.
We come here looking for something, something different to each one of us, yes, but something.  We want something and we are brave enough to come here and create it.  It starts out as a vague idea and will become something by the end.  Just what, we don’t quite know but we are here to create it all the same.
As I mentioned last night, the new machzor is designed to allow you to have that creative space.  Different readings, different styles, different theologies all in one book in the effort to allow you to find the words that speak to you and your unique spirituality. 
Here’s another reason I suspect you’re here and a good example of the way our machzor works.  Turn to page three, if you will.  You’ll see that page three is in blue.  That is a sign that it is for personal reading, personal study.  As you’ve seen this morning there are times when you may prefer to linger on a page or skip ahead.  You may even find it more uplifting and rewarding to ignore the rabbi’s sermon and find passages that speak to you more.  I’m okay with that.
On page three you’ll see a text from the Roman era with commentary from around the 6th century followed by medieval commentary followed by words from the 20th century.  This is a conscious attempt to bring in a wide range of voices.  And what does this text say?  It begins with the quote from Mishna, “On Rosh Hashana all the inhabitants of the world pass before God like b’nai maron.”  I think we all understand that Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the ten days of repentance and that we appear before God but what are b’nai maron?  The Talmud helpfully tells us that in Babylonia it was pronounced “amarna” not “maron” and that someone said it was like the ascent of Beit Maron and somebody else said, no it means like soldiers in King David’s army. 
Okay, perfect.  Makes more sense.  Not really.  So we go to Rashi, a famous commentator from France who is actually helpful.  Amarna has something to do with sheep passing through a small gap to be counted one by one.  The ascent of Beit Maron was very narrow and so walkers went one by one.  And David’s army?  Here Maron means something to do with lordship and David’s soldiers passed one at a time to be counted.  Three metaphors.  You are sheep being cared for and counted lovingly, every last one.  You are hikers making your way on an arduous narrow path one by one, but determined.  You are soldiers, ready for battle, filled with responsibility and each single soldier important and accounted for.
Our final commentator points out that you can choose your metaphor but the bottom line is this: each one of us is important, each one of us is accountable.  As we pass through these days, there is no hiding.  We, each one of us, is seen and counted and judged and we alone are responsible for our actions.
Why are you here?  Because you are brave enough to be counted.  Because you who might tremble at your own honesty say, I have done good and I have done wrong and I am prepared to acknowledge that.  You will not hide.  You are willing to make that lonely journey on that arduous path.  You are ready to be acknowledged and prepared to fight the wrongs you have done.  You are ready to know that in the end, after 10 days, you will be cared for like an innocent little lamb.  That is why you are here.  Because you are strong and you are honorable and you will admit fault with a brave face and not be the coward who runs from this battle.
But wait, there’s more.  It turns out that you are not alone.  You are with us.  We are all here together.  In Torah study, we’ve been reading about King David and King Solomon.  One of our texts for study is Me’am Loez, an 18th c. commentary coming out of Turkey.  There is a comment appearing as Solomon dedicates the Temple in Jerusalem.[2]  In his dedication he asks God to listen to the prayers of the community.  That’s fine but the question is raised: what about the prayers of the individual?  Well, according to Me’am Loez, there is a hierarchy.  Prayers for the entire community have more merit before God than prayers for the individual.  In part, I suspect, because they are not selfish prayers but also, Meam Loez tells us, that when you pray for the whole community, you are including some very good, top notch people there.  You include many righteous people and the prayers that include the righteous are difficult for God to ignore.  And even if you did not have righteous people among you, surely you have some very good people among you and those people with their ordinary good deeds become a very powerful petition before God.  God cannot ignore so many good deeds among the community and therefore cannot ignore the prayers that arise from the people who have done those good deeds.  So, Meam Loez teaches, if you want to pray for health, pray for your health and the health of the community.  If you want to pray for strength, pray for your strength and the strength of the community.  Together, we are more powerful and God cannot resist our prayers.  Mind you we don’t always get them answered as we want but that’s another sermon.  For now we understand that God will listen to our prayers because God cannot ignore the community.  Just dwell on that teaching for a moment.  We, all of us together, determine God’s actions.  We insist God hear us; a Jewish notion that we are not powerless during these days.  Humble, yes, but not weak.
Why are we here?  Because together we are powerful.  While all of us have made mistakes, we have also done good deeds and God cannot ignore that.  Alone, you’re on your own.  Alone you take a chance but together?  We’ve got your back.  Together we have the strength to stand before God, confess our sins, beat our chests and yet know that we are not being left out to dry.  Together and only together, we get a fair hearing from God.  As for ourselves, as individuals, would we have the discipline, the strength of character to have a ten-day period of introspection?  Few of us would.  But together, together we agree to these days.  Together we accept our ancient practice.  Together we will make it through these days and what’s more we’ll celebrate them.  Together we sing the songs, read the prayers, reflect on the readings in our machzor.  Together we can get that done and only together and that’s why you are here.   
A pitch for one more thing we can do together, alone.  You all have cards promoting the 10 Q project.  This is something you sign up for online and each day you receive an email with a thought-provoking question.  As we enter in to these ten days of reflection, here is a chance to reflect privately, together.  You answer the questions privately and after Yom Kippur they are sealed away.  Next Rosh Hashana you’ll receive your answers back.  This is a wonderful chance to join in a communal effort of tens of thousands but in your own way.  
We come together to celebrate the new year in our own way together.  We have a machzor that has us all enjoying the same tefillot but in our own way reading what we want to read.  Why are you here?  Because you are an individual and part of a community and there is no better place to be than with your own thoughts amongst your people and your family and your friends.  Shana tova.  A very good year to you and to us all.  May we all be blessed to step out of this sanctuary feeling refreshed and renewed and strong ready to face these next days.

[1] Nine Talmudic Readings by Emmanuel Levinas, p. 42.
[2] Meam Loez, Book of Melachim 1 page 241.

RH 5777 New Machzor

New Machzor
Rosh Hashana 5777
Rabbi Larry Freedman
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

Shana tova!  A good year to you.  Shana tova metukah!  A sweet new year to you.  I hope you enjoy the honey to start us off on a sweet note.
One of the joys of Rosh Hashana is celebrating the new with the old.  That passed down brisket recipe.  Gathering with friends and catching up with family.  Opening up the good old red Gates of Repentance.  But not this year.  This year, along with the familiarity of the tried and true, we have a new machzor, Mishkan Ha-nefesh.  Let’s talk about it and let’s start with those two words:  new machzor.  First, a little history.
Because you can’t fit everything in one volume, synagogues always had two prayer books.  One would be the siddur with Shabbat and daily prayers in it.  The other would have all the prayers for the yearly cycle of annual holidays and that word, cycle, is translated as machzor.  At some point publishers changed it up.  The main siddur now has Shabbat, daily and holiday prayers and the machzor is the specialty item with just the High Holidays.  The “cycle” book –machzor- is now only used once a year.  Waddayagonnado?
New is the other word.  New is a word both beloved and feared.  Some people enjoy the novelty of new things and some people like things the way they’ve been.  I would guess this is especially true for those people who only come here once or twice a year: you’re looking for the tried and true, the comfortable and familiar.  And who can blame you?  We all love that the High Holidays repeat so many favorite foods and melodies and prayers and themes.  I know I look forward to that.  Still, sometimes, it’s good to have something new.
The red covered Gates of Repentance first came out in 1975.  Think about that.  1975.  Where were you in 1975?  Aside from family members or an original Born to Run concert t, what else is still in your life from 1975?
The innovation of that machzor was a break from the “thee and thou” style of the Union Prayer Book and brought Chaim Stern’s glorious poetry in prose that carried us on a dreamy journey through the days.  But, styles change, people change, the Jewish community changes.  Like haircuts from 1975, that machzor had fallen out of date.  What is never out of date is the fact that although we strive for the best, inevitability we will, from time to time, fail.
Now, one person sitting around for a couple hours thinking about personal failures is a psychological concern.  A couple hundred people doing it together, however, is a healthy expression of personal and communal accountability.  To do that, to have that personal and communal accountability, we need a guidebook that will help us.  This is our machzor.  More than our Gates of Repentance and UPB, this machzor is designed to highlight and encourage both the communal and personal experience.
Why don’t you pick it up while I’m talking?   The first thing you’ll notice is the two page layout on most of the pages.  The traditional prayers and a faithful translation are on the right.  Alternative expressions of the theme of that prayer are on the left.  You’ll also notice that there is often more than one interpretive expression on the left.  And perhaps you’ve noticed some interesting notes along the bottom.  In a few places you’ll find a page with a blue background.  This isn’t liturgy as much as background information for the section it precedes.
And now you’ve probably stopped listening to me because you are looking at all of the material.  And that is by design.  Gone are italics and instruction.  The rigor of when you speak and when you don’t speak are gone.  The editors actually hope that as we say our prayers, as the cantor sings the melodies, that you will feel free to explore the text, dwell on the text.  The goal is that you follow along but also drift away.  The goal is that you read those things that speak to you.  There is too much in this machzor and that is by design.  If we want to be mindful of the amount of time we gather for each service, and I am very mindful of that, then we can’t, we must not read everything from the bima.  That leaves you with the space to read it yourself, if you wish.  Read the blue pages; dwell on a poem we just read or on some prose we didn’t read.  We’ll all catch up together at some point.
You may also notice that some of the left side readings will be contradictory.  The editors call it integrated theology.  It is an attempt to bring in a variety of ideas and theologies to capture a sense of where Reform Jews are.  We don’t all understand our heritage the same way, we don’t all understand God the same way.  And a lot of Reform Jews, being the rationally educated people we are, have problems with the very idea of God.  There are a number of readings that speak to that.  Some I’ve chosen for us to read aloud, some are left for you to discover.
Bottom line, keep an eye out for the integrated theology and mull it over.  Do you appreciate the opposing ideas?  Do you find them helpful for your own sense of spirituality?  And, take note, there’s more science brought in than ever before in a Reform Movement machzor.  The Reform Movement has no conflict between religion and science and we tend to be baffled by the people who do.  Science tells you how, faith tells you why, religion is the attempt to figure out what to do with it.  No problem.  So if you know of someone who just can’t abide doing that religion stuff, have we got a machzor for you.  And let me also say, rational science minded people also make mistakes and hurt others.  The idea of taking some time off to reflect, admit error and plan for a better tomorrow is hardly in conflict with science.  Reflection isn’t all that empirical, I know, but then again, neither is hubris.  No one is beyond needing a little teshuva in his or her life.
Back to the machzor.  The biggest change is the shofar service.  The shofar service tomorrow has always been in three parts.  Mallchuyot speaks to the theme of God’s kingship, a primary theme for the day.  Zichronot is about God remembering and then Shofarot has the theme of the shofar itself.  These three were always together and are always a highlight.  Adults look forward to the sound.  Parents bring their children in to see it.  Because it’s a great moment, the editors of the machzor decided to break it up and spread the three sections throughout the morning.  Sounding the shofar at three different times allows the flow of the morning to have more peaks and valleys.  Pay close attention tomorrow and you’ll see that Malchuyot comes in after the declaration of God’s kingship, Zichronot after the Torah readings that feature God remembering and Shofarot coming towards the end as another aural and visual crescendo before the prayers resolve and we end our tefillot.
As I’ve tested pilot versions, participated in mock services, and sat in on feedback sessions, I’ve enjoyed the freeing aspect of the new machzor.  Secular culture prizes a more DIY approach and doesn’t care for one size fits all.  The internet has made freedom to follow one’s own path so second nature that it seems odd to me when I can’t rewind the radio.  We have grown accustomed to letting ideas lead us to wherever we wish to go.  This machzor reflects that by having us all be together but not always on the same page and I hope you’ll embrace that.
I’m hoping for a second benefit as well.  The old machzor, because it was strictly uniform, had turned in to a bit of a slog.  We read, we sang, we read, we sang.  Sometimes the glorious themes of a prayer were obvious, sometimes not so much.  I’m hoping the new machzor helps us feel more deeply the themes of the holiday.  One theme is just the exuberance for the start of the new year.  New school year, new fiscal year, new football season, autumn leaves, a joyful or not so joyful conclusion to the baseball season.  A new Jewish year celebrates coming together with friends and family and celebrating another year, another chance to do great things. 
Another theme is recognizing God’s kingship which is designed to bring humility.  If we accept the metaphor of God as the king and ourselves as the subjects, doesn’t a loyal subject want to please the king?  Doesn’t the simple man or woman want to present him or herself as best we can to the monarch?  Imagine the 90 year old Queen Elizabeth II.  Americans aren’t supposed to even like the concept of royalty but given the chance to meet the queen, we all get wobbly knees.  Don’t even get me started what we would do before William and Kate.  We want to dress up, present ourselves well.  Inform them of the best we can be, give them a tour of our town, our home which has been cleaned and polished to make a good presentation.  Do we think Queen Elizabeth doesn’t know that our kitchens can be messy, that our towns can have a bit of litter?  Of course she does.  It is not the perfection she seeks but rather that we aspire to be the best we can be, that we make a good showing, that we say, here are my goals and I work every day to make them real not just on this day but every day.  Thus it is before the very King of Kings on Rosh Hashana.
This machzor is designed to help us identify and embrace those themes and make them our own.
This new machzor wants to remind us that Rosh Hashana is joyful; it is a day captioned #goals.  It is not a sullen day to feel bad but a day of “inspo” as the kids say.  #be a better person.  #don’t be such a jerk.  #life is good.  #you got this.  #take the day off and focus.  This new machzor is a corrective to that feeling of laborious page turning.  The new machzor hopes to inspire you to find joy in the day beyond our time in this room.  The day is yours, a gift of our 4000 year-old heritage so take the day off.  Take control of your life and join your family and friends.  Come to Tashlich down at the river, make bubbie’s secret brisket recipe, join us on our hike tomorrow.  This year it’s very easy, a walk along the river.  But with us on the hike or not, just spend time with family and friends and embrace the energy of a new year.  If you haven’t figured out, I’m not big on guilt but I am big on you taking advantage of the best Jewish living has to offer you.  It’s there.  It’s at your feet.  Just pick it up.  It’s a new year.
A new year.  What will you do with it?  What will you accomplish?  What will you get done?  Just imagine the possibilities.  On Yom Kippur we’ll talk about the rough stuff of apologizing and feeling bad about mistakes we’ve made.  Can’t be avoided but for now we celebrate.  We have a new year ahead of us, an uplifting, bracing story told in our prayers and a new machzor to bring those ideas to you.  I hope you’ll be open to the change and embrace the vision of our new machzor and embrace the joy of this uplifting day.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shma Koleinu and pushy prayers Yom Kippur 5776

Shema koleinu
Pushy prayers
Yom Kippur morning
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

One of the great High Holidays pieces is Shema koleinu.  The arrangement is by Max Helfman, a very creative soul who taught for a time at our Reform Movement seminary and died in 1963.  The words we are about to read are on page 336:  “Hear our voice, Eternal God; have compassion upon us and with that compassion accept our prayer.  Help us to return to You, God, then truly shall we return.  Renew our days as in the past.”
Let’s look at this for a moment.  Perhaps just reading it, the tone seems calm, bland even.  In truth, however, the grammar is all in the imperative.  We are imploring, no actually, we are demanding of God what must be done.  “Hey,” we shout, “I took off from work.  I dressed up.  I’m here.  God!  Here our voice!  I did not come here to leave empty handed.  Have compassion upon us!”  It’s all very much a demand almost chutzpadik.  And the music adds to this urgency, this intensity.  It builds and builds and builds until the cantor comes out practically screaming for God to hear our voices.  It seems polite in the English but it’s all very demanding in the Hebrew.
Here’s how it sounds. 
What a strange experience this yelling at God, this notion that we say, “You have to do this.”  Let me just say, this is very Jewish, very much our way.  Our very name, Israel, means struggles-with-God.  Our Torah is filled with stories of loyalty to God and then ignoring God and then fighting with God.  We are not a passive people.  We are not just prostrating ourselves before the Lord on High without a good argument about it first. 
This dialogue with God speaks to the dynamic of Yom Kippur.  Coming from a staid, rational Reform Movement, we are very passive.  We sit.  We listen, we read.  We make our way through the liturgy well enough.  But the words themselves speak to grander drama.  There is shouting and demands.  There are also modest moments of humility where we lay ourselves bare, opening ourselves to the deepest criticism.  There are moments of apology so moving we are reduced to tears.  The liturgy of Yom Kippur is a script of a day long drama filled with anguish. This is why Yom Kippur for many is so exhausting.  It is hours and hours of arguing, discussion, bargaining, yelling, listening.
Again, the founders of Reform, in their quest to fit in and not be as emotional as our eastern European co-religionists, quieted the proceedings down but the storyline is still there.
I think that storyline can draw us in even if we have questions about God.  There are Jews who just don’t believe in God and there are many more Jews who have a difficult time with the anthropomorphized God we meet in the machzor.  To this I say, give yourselves over to the story and understand the drama.  Don’t worry too much about the way the characters are drawn.  Down in New York on Broadway, thousands of people each week are moved by the drama taking place amongst cholera and battlements in the streets of Paris and the story isn’t even true.  If they can give themselves over to that fiction because they understand the point of the tale is the point, we can give ourselves over to this drama as well.
This dialogue with God, this yelling at God is all part of the contortions we go through to make Yom Kippur not be passive, not to rely on the grace of some higher power.  Listen, we demand of that higher power, listen we demand of our inner psyches, have compassion upon us!  Accept my prayer!  Accept my sincere efforts!  Help us to return to You!  Some of us open ourselves up to God to care for us and some of us in the comfort of the therapist’s office implore our inner selves to be more kind to us, we struggle to give ourselves permission, to let ourselves off the hook, to force ourselves to acknowledge fault.  Who knows where these arguments really take place:  with God, with our psychological makeup, with some combination of the two?  Regardless, the battle is joined.  Let the drama commence.
What a curious thing shema koleinu is.  What a strange thing to ask and demand of God to be compassionate?  We are distant from God because we have erred; we have slipped from the right path.  By all rights God could say, you made the mistake, you fix it.  Yet, instead we –again- demand of God, “Help us return to You.”  Yes, it’s our fault but you can’t, you simply can’t abandon us.  Why not?  After all, it seems God can do anything God wants.  The answer is, You just can’t.  You simply can’t.  God, we have a brit and you cannot abandon us.
I love this approach to God because it works in so many ways.  For those who believe in a very personal God it contains an expectation of intimacy.  Yes, of course, one must be respectful of God but one must not be so awestruck as to lose one’s way, to lose the ability to speak and advocate and insist, demand, remind God that the brit, the covenant we share is a two-way street.  We will be your people and you will be our God but that has a few requirements, saith us.
For those who struggle with belief in such an immanent God, this insistence offers an intellectual understanding of how Jews over the ages have seen God and that viewpoint is not one of irrational and foolish fear; it is not a belief based in terror of an imaginary being.  It is a belief in a God who works with us, who listens to us, who does not expect silent submission.  It’s a more vigorous relationship than often imagined and dismissed.
For those who struggle with faith, fall upon the old chestnut that God is inside our selves and struggle with your soul to be both more repentant for and more forgiving of your actions.
After this struggle comes Ki Anu Amecha v’Atah malkeinu, which we will sing in just a moment.  “We are Your people, You are our ruler.”  You have a role, I have a role.  And your role is harder.  Leadership is hard, responsibility is hard.  Caring for so many is hard.  It is much harder, much more difficult to be the shepherd than it is to be the sheep.  But that is how it is.  You, God, offered this covenant.  You knew the terms of this agreement and you accepted it.  And now, as we gather here on this Day of Atonement, we are doing the hard work of trying to change and we hold you accountable to do your part.  We are doing our best so get ready to atone.  That is the brit, that is the covenant, that is your job.  And so we sing Ki Anu Amecha with a full voice just to add a little reminder.
And how does this play out for us?  What is the effect of Ki Anu Amecha on our psyches?  We remember we are not the center of the world.  We are not the ones in charge.  We are part of something larger than ourselves.  We are not the shepherd, we are not the vintner, we are not the creator.  We are just one of many sheep, one of many vines, one of many creations.  We are each infinitely valuable but also one among millions.  We are unique but then again, truly, just part of the masses.  Each one of us is but one grape amongst the rolling hills of the vineyard.  We are not the center of the world.
I’ve been wondering if we’ve forgotten that idea lately.  We’ve seen degradation in civility in what used to pass for reasoned conversations and political debate.  The Iran nuclear agreement is one area where Jews turned on Jews to a very concerning way.  Yes, the stakes are high but the screaming and accusations and name calling has found a new low.  I’m not a prude over a little political theater in the service of advocacy.  That’s nothing new.  But we saw not advocacy but anger, accusations and assumptions that we were right and anyone who disagrees is wrong and an idiot.  Everyone is either Neville Chamberlain or a warmonger. Everyone is a traitor.  Everyone is leading the Jewish people to destruction.  No one really listens to each other.  We yell at each other. 
It’s amazing how such a complicated agreement could be understood so intimately by so many, so quickly that they feel free to demonize –not just disagree or refute but demonize- the other. 
This happens when we are the center of the world.  This happens when we think that this grape is truly the better grape.  Gone is discussion, gone is learning, gone is reason and reasonable discourse. 
I love the Kol Yisrael project but one of the problems I see is that with imperfect knowledge, people feel free to trash some decision or mock some issue or grandstand about this or that.  It’s easy to do that.  Some people take pleasure in it, but it also means that the gossiper feels he is the center of the universe, that she doesn’t need to discover more info, that they don’t need to consider anyone else.  Gossip leads to half-knowledge, unnecessary drama, roiled feelings and distractions that keep us from making good, smart plans.  Gossip and half-truths get in the way of clear thinking.  They cause hurt feelings when none need to be hurt.  They drain us of the energy so many put into this project.
I know gossip is a worldwide phenomenon but can we try to control it at least in our small corner?  Yom Kippur doesn’t imagine a perfect world.  Indeed we recite merely some of the long list of sins that exist out there.  Yom Kippur knows the way of the world.  But Yom Kippur calls us to make ourselves better.  Maybe just this corner of the world could be better.  Maybe the rest of the world will be mean to each other but we, here, we will resist the trend and we will treat each other nicely, respectfully.
Maybe, as we have expectations as to how God must treat us, we should implore each other to treat us with more respect.
We are a pushy people.  We have been since Abraham talked back to God.  We don’t take things sitting down but we should come to that advocacy with some humility.  We can say:  I do have issues I need addressed, I do have things to discuss, I do have concerns and sometimes I am frustrated.  So who can I talk to about this?  That’s a better answer than a gossipy soapbox.
Shema Koleinu is about us demanding God to treat us with the respect we deserve as people who are trying our best.  Shouldn’t we demand that of each other, to demand that we knock off the mean-spiritedness and come to each other with respect and care and, dare I say, a basic love for another of God’s creations?  We should.  And soon enough, after we demand of God and we demand of each other, we will arrive at the vidui, the confession where we will own up to our own sins, our own gossiping, our own degradation of civility.  We’ll get there soon enough and we will beat our chest and feel the self-flagellation and know we can do better.  But for now, we need help so we turn to God demanding that God help us be the best we can be.

We are not the center of the world.  We need help.  We are merely the vines in a vineyard.  You are the vintner.  But with your help, what a thing we can create.  What a world we can make.

Yizkor and Candles erev Yom Kippur 5776

Yizkor and Candles
Yom Kippur 5775
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Ten days ago I spoke to you about our community spirit.  Rosh Hashana is, after all, a festive day, a happy day of us coming together to celebrate a new year.  Tonight, as we enter the more individually introspective Yom Kippur, I want to talk about something more individual. 
Let’s talk about… juice glasses.  When I was a kid, we had, more or less, two types of juice glasses: the ones we loved and the ones we wouldn’t touch.  The ones we loved were Welch’s grape jelly jars.  They had cartoon figures on the outside and as soon as we could finish the jelly the glass jar was ready for drinking.  The dishwasher slowly faded the colors but we didn’t care.  A jelly jar that was a juice glass.  That was so cool.
Then there were the other juice glasses that we did not like.  These were squat little things that held just a few ounces.  They, too, were repurposed but these had held not jelly but wax.  Specifically, a candle.  More specifically, a yartzeit candle.
Yartzeit is Yiddish for “year’s time.”  It is an anniversary.  In this case, the anniversary of a death.  Jews were never big on birthdays but we have a finely honed ritual for death dates.  There are five times one lights a candle.  On the yartzeit date itself, and then the four dates we have Yizkor services.  Those are today, Yom Kippur, the last day of Sukkot, the last day of Pesach and the day of Shavuot.  The candle is lit on the evening the day before as the Hebrew date begins.  That would be tonight.  The candle burns for 24 hours so it had to be big enough to hold all that wax and inside a flame proof container, hence the size of a juice glass.
There is no prayer said when lighting a yartzeit candle but it is a nice time for reflection, a moment of remembrance.  You light yartzeit candles for siblings, spouse, parents, child although many people light just for parents and spouses and when needed, children.  Some people have a candle for each person but many people have one candle to remember multiple people.  Either custom is fine.
Afterwards, the container can be thrown out or used for juice glasses.  Honestly, it’s just a glass.  It held a yartzeit candle, sure, but halachically, it’s just a glass.  You could do anything with them and that’s why people used them for drinking glasses.  But my brothers and I were having none of that.  We knew that something important had taken place over these glasses.  It wasn’t just that we were remembering dead people.  It wasn’t just that.  It was that these yartzeit juice glasses were present for a whole ritual.  It got taken out of the special cabinet where a half dozen sat at the ready.  It was set up on a plate in the middle of the stove-top as extra fire protection.  It was lit with intention and a serious pause.  A very serious pause.  In my Bubbie’s house, the candle was my great-grandmother and great-grandfather.  In my mother’s house it was my Bubbie and Zaide.  These juice glasses, handed down –nothing should go to waste- represented the lives of people and more importantly they represented remembering the lives of people.  Lighting the yartzeit candle meant that attention had been paid. Lighting the yartzeit candle meant that names were recalled, good times recalled, fondness recalled, love recalled.  For twenty-four hours anytime we walked into the kitchen, past the kitchen, through the kitchen we knew that remembrance was taking place.  Actually, it was nice.  It was nice to know remembrance was taking place.  It’s a bit sad but it’s nice.
Often, when I meet to discuss a funeral, families tell me, “We want it to be a celebration of life.”  One time at a different synagogue, the family told me they didn’t want the funeral to be sad.  I wasn’t sure how to have a funeral not be sad.  Then they explained they wanted a “celebration of life.”  I hear this idea not infrequently.  They want a “celebration of life.” 
First of all, what do they think a Jewish funeral is?  Do they think we just meditate on the nature of death?  Of course, not.  We share stories and tell tales and remember our loved ones as they lived.  We recall their triumphs and we acknowledge, with gentleness, their shortcomings.  We, dare I say, celebrate their life.  And that is what yartzeit candles are for as well.  They are not there to ruminate on death.  They are there to remind us to celebrate the person’s life.
Why has Judaism not developed a culture of celebrating birthdays but has a ritual for anniversaries of death?  Because another birthday is another challenge to make something of the next year.  A birthday is the understanding that a year of hard work is about to take place.  Work, study, relationships, growth, raising children, caring for parents.  The next year will be another challenge.  No child ever ruminated on the passing of age nine.  No!  They excitedly talk about being ten!  And should that not be the case?  The secular notion of a birthday is a celebration looking forward.  A parent may celebrate looking back at that crazy day of birth, birthdays ending in zeroes may cause a brief reflection but really, other than that, what does a birthday celebrate?  It celebrates passage of time but let’s be clear a birthday isn’t a celebration of life because you’re not yet done with that life.
The yartzeit is the true celebration of life.  The yartzeit is the moment to look back.  The person’s life is done.  How did he do?  Where did she succeed?  Did they make something of their life?  And most often the answer is yes and we celebrate that.  The yartzeit may take place on the date of death but its purpose is to gaze at the person’s life.  The yartzeit is the place to remember and recall with fondness all that our loved ones did with their lives.
And when we have yizkor on those four dates, yes, of course, it’s sad but what’s wrong with a little sadness?  What’s wrong with a little weeping for the people we loved?  It’s okay to be melancholy.  The point is to take a moment, give yourselves over to the ritual and just take a moment to remember.  In a busy world with our busy lives, our heritage, your heritage gives you a pause, a time out, a chance to breathe in, say a prayer and remember.  Four times a year, no, five even, we remember and we celebrate life.
There is a kabbalistic idea behind those candles and wannabe juice glasses.  The wax represents our bodies.  The flame, the best part of a candle, ever reaching upwards, is the soul.  The flame always reaches toward heaven, always tries to aim higher.  The flame wants nothing more than to go up and up and up but it is tied down here by the wax, the source of its energy.  Our bodies are wax, living for just a finite time but they give energy to our souls and they allow our souls to be seen and touched while here on Earth.  When the wax is gone, the flame goes out but the energy of that flame lives on forever.  The body fades, the body dies but the soul lives on in our hearts, in our actions and in the heavens forever.  When we light that candle, we remember that precious soul and we celebrate that life.  That is what the candle is for.  That is what our yizkor service is for.  It’s a lovely moment.
But you don’t come.  I don’t know how many light candles at home but our yizkor services are very poorly attended and even yizkor on Yom Kippur is not as full as it should be considering it is a lovely, poignant, quiet reflective moment.
I suspect I know why yizkor is poorly attended over the year.  Two reasons, really.  There was a tradition that children shouldn’t attend yizkor services even adult children.  Some say they wanted to spare the children the sight of parents crying.  Some say it would tempt the evil eye to cause the parents to die in the coming year.  Whatever reason, children didn’t grow up understanding what yizkor services were and so when it came time for them to go, it wasn’t something they were familiar with.
Another reason is that yizkor is part of the liturgy for the holiday and many people don’t liturgy.
What can I say?  I like liturgy.  It tells a story.  There is a mantra like effect in its repetition but perhaps I’ll try to convince you of that another day.  For now, let me meet you where you are.
Over the last year, Cantor Amy and I have experimented with highlighting the poignant aspect of yizkor and diminishing the surrounding tefillot.  We’re going to keep doing that to find out the best way to create a reflective moment that succeeds.  Come experience what we are putting together and let us know what you think.
The climax of yizkor is mourner’s kaddish.  That prayer runs interference for the deceased’s soul in heaven.  The root for prayer in Hebrew is  פלל.  It has the sense of interference.  Prayer interferes, as it were, with God.  When we say prayers we use them as intercessors, something to reach out to beseech and prod God.  There is a classic understanding that upon death, God judges the soul of the deceased and saying the kaddish prayer interferes with the judgment by softening the judgment.  Saying kaddish the first year after a death of a parent was crucial because for thousands of years, we’ve understood that power of prayer as literally having an impact upon God and many still believe that but for us in the rational tinged Reform Movement, we may have lost that understanding. 
Let me, then, bring in a different type of interference.  Perhaps we can reinvigorate a tradition that will interfere with your daily life, something that breaks up the months so that three times, in the fall, the spring, the summer at the end of Sukkot, the end of Pesach, the end of Shavuot, we can interrupt our rhythm and use it as a time to remember those who came before us.  We don’t often get that chance.  Let’s see if we can do that, together.  Let’s remember together.  Let’s come together as a community to support each other as we remember.  Let’s not let the years roll on without stopping to pause and remember.  Let’s mark our calendars and add a flow to our year and light a candle in our kitchens.  I know that people can and do remember all the time but there is something different about having special moments set aside where we all share the same experience together.
To help you do that, outside I have candles for you to take home.  I hope you’ll join me in remembering our loved ones and adding, perhaps, a new tradition to your home.  I know this will be hard for many of you.  Embracing an old tradition that is new to you is difficult.  It will feel foreign.  It will feel inauthentic.  To this I say, just give it a chance.  You are allowed to add to your repertoire of Jewish living at any age.  You are entitled to recapture the custom of your Bubbie and Zaide.  You are entitled to add something new to your Jewish home.  Rekindle the custom of yartzeit candles and start tonight. 
We have 200 candles outside, enough, I think, for a couple per household.  Light them tonight and take a moment to remember the best of the people you are remembering as you celebrate their lives.