Sunday, October 9, 2011

Yom Kippur Morning Power of the Day

Power of the Day

Yom Kippur 5772

Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

Last year, as you know, my father died erev Rosh Hashana. All sorts of people stepped in to take over for me during the next day because my family wanted to gather and begin making arrangements right away. Astonishingly, the Jewish funeral home was open on Rosh Hashana so off we went to the upper west side of Manhattan.

Now, I am fond of telling you to withdraw from the world when Shabbat or our holidays arrive. I try to get you to engage Rosh Hashana or whatever holiday it is. I like to tell you about what takes place in your soul when you engage your heritage and withdraw from the workaday world. I know it is refreshing because I taste that joy every week and I relax with family every Shabbat and I have a chance to tell the world it has no pull on me; I do what I want on Shabbat and holidays. But every now and then I am placed outside of that warm cocoon and I am put back in the real world. Not often but it happens. And so, as I travelled down to Manhattan, I left Rosh Hashana.

You leave the environment we create here and, of course, the whole rest of the world just keeps going on. No one out there cares that it is Rosh Hashana. The funeral home didn’t care. Manhattan didn’t care. It looked like any other day. There were a lot of fun things going on out there, interesting things, important things, entertaining things. Looked great, actually.

It is very easy to think that what we do, what goes on in here is really very lame. The world continues, emails fly, money is made, homework is assigned while we hunker down in here ignoring reality. Crazy, right? If your head is in the world out there, then the High Holidays in here are really just one big annoyance and not connected to anything real. This experience will not be meaningful and as soon as you can, you’ll race out of here immediately entering into the outside world with Yom Kippur a distant memory. Give a couple hours to it and you’re done; head back to school or work, catch up on emails from home. Plenty of Jews do just that. I am aware.

But at the same time, plenty of Jews want to get their head out of the world out there. They crave the quietness Yom Kippur brings and they want to luxuriate in the novelty of spending an entire day away from the world thinking deeply. A lot of Jews and, to be sure, quite a few non-Jews are finding meaning in an experience of the mind, an engagement of the soul. There is more to us than just work. There is our soul that we need to water, every now and then so we can better meet the world. That is what we do here. We take that moment and use it to involve a different part of our brain for a little while.

I think most people who have trouble getting into the spirit of Yom Kippur struggle because they don’t really understand the ideas behind it. Yom Kippur is often viewed as thrust upon us, something to be endured. But if we understood the ideas connected with it, it could be something we chase after and seek.

Shalom Ansky in 1914 wrote a play called the Dybbuk. In it he wrote a soliloquy for his character Rabbi Azrael. Rabbi Azrael describes the ancient Yom Kippur but he is speaking about more than just that. Ansky through his character empowered Yom Kippur and in effect empowered every Jew who showed up at synagogue on Yom Kippur. He took it from being one day of making an appearance to a beautifully captured portrait of the original symbolism of the day. I want to read you the soliloquy. Keep in mind that it carries words and phrases that are true to its time. I found sanitized versions out there but I wanted to read a faithful translation. The original was in Yiddish.

Ansky will write of the Holy of Holies, that chamber deep in the Temple in Jerusalem that held the Ten Commandments. He will speak of a number of languages and peoples which we know is not accurate but it is the traditional number that signifies many. Finally, some of you may notice that Ansky has his rabbi distinguish among holy and not. Rest assured that while Hebrew is considered the holiest language, that does not denigrate other languages but you can’t expect a Jew to think any less of our special tongue, now can you? But most importantly, look at what Ansky, a socialist, has his rabbi do with the power of this one day.

“The world of God is great and holy. In all the world, the holiest land is the land of Israel. In the land of Israel, the holiest city is Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, the holiest place is the Temple. And the holiest place in the Temple is the Holy of Holies

There are seventy nations in the world and among them the people of Israel is the holiest. And the tribe of Levi is the holiest of the twelve tribes of Israel and among the Levites the holiest are the cohanim, the priests. And among the cohanim, the holiest is the high priest, the Cohen Gadol.

There are 354 days in the Jewish year, and among them the holy days are sacred. And Shabbat is holier than the holy days. And the holiest of all the holy days, the Shabbat Shabbaton, is Yom Kippur.

There are seventy languages in the world and the holiest among them is Hebrew. And the holiest work in the Hebrew language is the Torah and its holiest part is the Ten Commandments and the holiest word in the Ten Commandments is the name of God.

Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the four holiest sanctities gather together precisely when the Cohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies in order to pronounce the ineffable name of God. And at this immeasurably holy and awesome moment the Cohen Gadol and the people of Israel are in the utmost peril for even a single sinful or wayward thought in the Cohen Gadol’s mind at that instant might, God forbid, destroy the entire world.

Every piece of ground on which a person stands when he raises his eyes to Heaven is a Holy of Holies; everyone created in the image of God is a Cohen Gadol; every day in a person’s life is Yom Kippur; and every world which a person speaks from his heart is God’s name. Therefore, every sin and every wrong committed by a man brings the world to destruction.”

This is the essence of what we do when we gather. We re-enact a moment when one special person in one unique place on only one day said just one word. The heart of Yom Kippur is this moment, imagining we are there in the Temple in Jerusalem watching as the Cohen Gadol goes in to say God’s name for our sake. And we tremble, that if anything goes wrong, if he faints, if he mispronounces, if he gets the jitters, the whole thing falls apart. It is like scaffolding being set up against a building. There is a moment, one brief moment between secure and not secure and in that moment, brief though it may be, that we hold our breaths.

This was the Cohen Gadol’s task, to intone God’s name in order to seek a good year of blessing for all the people. That is an amazing moment but it is even more amazing if you can put yourself there and feel that trepidation and remember that Ansky did not make up this story. It really happened. It happened for a thousand years until we lost the Temple during the time of Hanukah. Want to know why Hanukah is a big deal? Because until the Maccabees won, we couldn’t have that powerful Yom Kippur moment. But after the Hanukah rebellion, the Cohen Gadol again lived out this Yom Kippur moment until the Romans destroyed the Temple for the second time. We, the Jewish people, were dispersed without the Temple so we recreated the experience of that one day with one word at one place with one person with dramatic prayers and powerful music where we all gather together on one day to recite prayers that won’t be said for another year.

We recreated that nervousness with Kol Nidre, interminably standing while we carefully ask that our mistaken vows be forgiven so that we can enter the body of our nerve wracking day clean. We substituted the Cohen Gadol’s intoning of God’s name with our intoning prayers and acknowledgements of our mistakes and promises to be better. We don’t eat to mimic death that might come should this whole thing go badly and then we eat at the end of the day to proclaim: we have survived; all is right. We have another year to begin.

And this, all of this power and drama and tension is found in our day here at synagogue on Yom Kippur.

If you know that, this day is awesome. If you don’t know that, this day is boring.

Now you know.

And then look at what Ansky, the socialist and playwright does with the last bit of the Rabbi’s speech. He takes that power of one day with one person at one place with one word and recasts it for all of us, anywhere, anytime with every word: “Every piece of ground on which a person stands when he raises his eyes to Heaven is a Holy of Holies; everyone created in the image of God is a Cohen Gadol; every day in a person’s life is Yom Kippur; and every world which a person speaks from his heart is God’s name. Therefore, every sin and every wrong committed by a man brings the world to destruction.”

Be bad, and you, you, diminish the world and bring us that much closer to destruction but you, you behave well and positively and righteously and you bring us that much closer to a better world, to a peaceful world. And all this happens not miraculously but simply because you choose to live your life that way. It is not a miracle, it is an act of will and volition.

This is the secret of Jewish living. It is an act of will and volition. Here at the synagogue we will continue to find interesting activities and attractive approaches to our heritage. I will continue to try to make it engaging but ultimately, you have to step forward to be engaged. It comes down to will and a desire to be in the game, this game, our heritage.

That is what you should be doing here: engaging the day. Are you? Challenge yourself to think about something you don’t normally think about. Challenge yourself to give up eating and say my mind is in control of my body, not the other way around. Embrace the reality of what is in here. When you go home, don’t turn on the television because that is the gateway to out there. Can you do it? Make a list of what you hope to accomplish. Talk to a spouse about your dreams are for the next year. Call a friend to keep up a friendship. Yes, it may not be what you normally do but that is the point.

Shalom Ansky beautifully explained the thoughts and imaginations we should all have on this day. And then he offered his challenge to remember that we are in control of our lives and our destinies. If we want to experience the richness of Yom Kippur it is there for us. If we don’t, it will evaporate. If we want a meaningful day, it is up to us. How we act is up to us. How we think is up to us. What we experience is up to us. What we feel is up to us. No one can make you feel the awesomeness of this day. You have to make it happen. So many Jews ignore this day. They are out there and they have lost the power of this day. But you, you are here. You are well on your way to engaging the power of this day. Will you do it? Can you do it? Will you let yourself feel the awesomeness of this day?

Kol Nidre Sermon: Your Jewish name

Hebrew Names

Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

Yom Kippur 5772

Back in June, I went to summer camp for staff week. My assignment: explain Reform Judaism to Israelis. This is a challenging assignment because most Israelis think Reform Jews are just bizarre in their very strange habit of doing religious things non-religiously. For most Israelis either you are religious -meaning Orthodox- or you are not.

So my task was to explain liberal Judaism to this curious bunch who carried no understanding of why we weren’t Orthodox but still said motzie and birkat ha-mazon and had tefillot and all that. It was not a simple one.

Here’s how I started. I asked them, “What is the Jewish Question?”

A moment for some history.

The Jewish Question first was asked in 1750 in Great Britain. It asked, as the enlightenment was evolving, how Jews, a group always apart and separate from the rest of the population, would fit in to the larger society. As the Enlightenment took hold, could Jews ever be, for example, English or would they forever be Jews who lived in England? Could a Jew be a Frenchman or simply a Jew, foreign, apart, distinct, who happens to live in France?

I asked the Israelis if they ever heard of the Jewish Question. They had not which, honestly, really surprised me. So I framed the question for them. The Jewish Question is simply this: How can a Jew live in the modern world? That is the question. How can a Jew live in the modern world?

Many people have tried to answer the Jewish Question. The Communists had an answer. They said that Jews can certainly live in the modern world but Judaism cannot. There was to be no room for religion in the communist revolution.

The Nazis had an answer to the Jewish Question. They said, simply, Jews cannot live in the modern world. Jews as a group are sub-human and therefore the modern world must not have any Jews in it hence the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

The Zionists had an answer to the Jewish Question. The answer was, good luck. The world hates us, nobody loves us, anti-Semitism will rage forever so the only answer is to create our own sovereign territory where we can live out our own culture and defend ourselves when necessary. It’s a shame, said the Zionists, but that’s how it is. The only way to live in the modern world is on our own.

The Reform Movement was fast developing in 1750 and through the 18th and 19th centuries, we also tried to answer the Jewish Question. How can we live in the modern world? Our answer? Adapt. We have to adapt. The founders of Reform argued that everybody hates us because we don’t fit in and we don’t fit in because we are old fashioned, backward and insistent upon ignoring the modern world. The Reform Movement said we have to acculturate, to take on the best parts of the modern world and make them our own.

Quite famously in 1885, just forty years after the founding of this congregation, the Pittsburgh Platform boldly rejected and removed all sorts of things that put an impediment between us and our neighbors, things we thought might be too old fashioned. Yarmulkes, tallit and all that was abandoned as making us stand out too much, making us too provincial and just not allowing us to live in the modern world. We made changes. The main service Reform Jews attended was on Sunday with a proper long academic lecture so that you like your neighbors all would go to “church” on Sunday. We became Americans of the Jewish faith which was much more modern than the idea that we are part of the Jewish people, a people that lives all over the world connected by religion and custom and history and so on.

And how has that Reform Movement experiment worked out for us? Well, good and bad, I have to say.

It’s good when we shorten Yom Kippur tefillot by removing prayers we don’t believe, use English, enjoy a sense of Western decorum and so forth. Looking at our Yom Kippur experience and we see that our way really does speak to the modern Jew.

On the other hand, we have lost intensity. For every person who appreciates the thought behind the changes to the Yom Kippur liturgy, there’s ten others who are just grateful it’s shorter. Not to be insulting but I’m pretty sure I’ve only had one person ever ask me to extend Yom Kippur into actual nightfall. However, cutting it short, I’ve had plenty of requests.

Part of our lack of intensity comes from lack of knowledge. If Reform Jews knew more, had a deeper understanding of things, we would find Jewish life more moving and enriching. Okay, no problem. I’ll just have to keep teaching and you’ll have to keep learning so that we all understand why we do what we do. We can do better with Jewish knowledge.

But assimilation is another reason. We have done so well in assimilating that we have lost a sense of intense connection to the Jewish people. We are losing a sense of uniqueness. We should remember that the Jewish Question asks how can we be Jews in the modern world? We know very well how to be in the modern world. We are quite successful at living in the modern world. It’s the Jewish part we struggle with. We have to be careful that we don’t answer the Jewish Question by saying, “I won’t bother to be Jewish.” Lots of Jews do just that. They just walk away and that’s a shame but I’m not going to talk about them. They are not here. I want to talk to you and help you keep up our own intensity so we can live as Jews in the modern world.

There is a midrash, a rabbinic sermon from the 11th century writing Pesika Zutra that talks about what it means to be a nation and what it takes to stay unique as a nation. The rabbi was commenting on a very famous line. We read it every Pesach during the seder. We read: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.” (Deut. 26:5)

Never mind how you can be Jewish in the modern world. How exactly did they manage to stay distinct in ancient Egypt? The midrash offers this: the Israelites “became a nation - this teaches that they were distinct in that their clothes, food and language were different from the Egyptians.” Clothes, food and language. Notice, it doesn’t say faith or worship or holidays. Clothes, food and language. These are the hallmarks of culture. Those enslaved Israelites grew to be the Jewish people because they maintained their own culture: clothes, food, language.

In another place, the rabbis ask why, in any event, did God redeem the Israelites from Egypt. We know the Torah says that their cries grew loud and God responded but I suppose God could have heard the cries, looked down at the Israelites and decided, no, there really is no need to redeem them. They can stay where they are. Why did God think the Israelites were worthy of redemption?

The midrash from different rabbis over different centuries offers some ideas. Here they are:

Midrash Tehilim Rabba states: “R. Elazar Ha-kappara said: The Israelites were considered worthy to be redeemed from Egypt for four reasons: they did not change their names; they did not change their language; they did not reveal their secrets and they were not licentious in engaging in incest.”

Midrash Exodus Rabba states: “R. Huna said in the name of Bar-kappara: The Israelites were redeemed from Egypt for four reasons: They did not change their names and they did not change their language and they did not reveal their secret and they did not renounce their wives.”

Midrash Leviticus Rabba states: “R. Huna said in the name of Bar-kappara: The Israelites were redeemed from Egypt for four reasons: They did not change their names and they did not change their language and they did not engage in evil talk and no one could be found among them who committed incest.”

All of the midrashim reflect the rabbis asking: what was the secret of the Israelites in Egypt? How did they manage not to assimilate away while under difficult circumstances? The rabbis asked themselves that same question in the 8th century and 11th century and the 21st century. The answer seems to be: culture. Maintain your culture. How do you do that? How do you retain your culture?

The secrets referred to may have to do with sharing internal issues with outsiders something of a problem when the midrash was written. The issue with wives has to do with staying true even if they were tempted to renounce their wives in favor of Egyptian wives.

And the other answer to how they maintained their culture: they did not change their names. What does that mean?

Names are powerful. Names send a message. Names tell a story. They reflect culture. They reflect history. They reflect family when we name after a relative.

Ashkenazi Jews, Jews whose families come from Europe, customarily name after the deceased. Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, Jews from North Africa and Arab countries name after a living relative. Either way, it is a powerful moment to see a baby and remember a grandparent. It is powerful to be a grandparent and say, “one day, my name will be given to the next generation and I will live on.” It speaks of continuity and it reminds us that we are not alone but rather part of a larger continuum.

One time I was working with a family where a grandfather was dying as a new baby was born. The parents wanted to name the child after their father, the ailing grandfather of the baby but he had not died. They didn’t want to seem callous as though they needed him to die to name the baby. I suggested they ask the new grandfather what he thought. It was one of those moving moments where, with tears, the new grandfather got to see his grandchild and hear his own name conferred. The name passed on to him was passed on to the next generation. When we name after a relative, that name, in one form or another, has travelled for thousands of years through thousands of ancestors. Even if it is just the first consonant, it has been travelling.

We are not taking about the secular name, mind you. What kept the Israelites Israelite was their Jewish names, their Hebrew names. It is the Hebrew name that makes us unique and carries our culture. Our secular name doesn’t make us unique. Everyone has a secular name. What makes us unique is our Hebrew name, the name that proclaims our connection to the Jewish people. In fact some argue that our Hebrew name is our real name. Our secular name is the name we use for convenience and I believe that. Here, my name is Lawrence. In France it is Laurent. But in a synagogue around the world, it is Leib. In full it is Leib ben Kalman v’Pesiah. When Jews gather to celebrate our Judaism, for a birth, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a wedding or even mourn at a funeral, it is our Jewish name that is invoked. The joy of a babynaming is the joy of welcoming a child into the Jewish people and while we are pleased with the secular name, it is the Jewish name that is the highlight of the ceremony. Even El Al asks you if you know your Hebrew name as a signifier of Jewish connection. Hebrew Schools often use Hebrew names for the kids instead of secular names. We have to work on that. It certainly helps the kids remember their names.

How can we be Jews in the modern world? Fitting in to the modern world is no problem. Maintaining a sense of Jewishness is the challenge and having a Hebrew name is a big part of that. It says clearly, I have another name, another connection, another aspect to my life. I have a name that reflects an important part of my identity. I have a name that carries my culture.

So, what’s your Hebrew name? Many of you know your Hebrew name. You know who you were named after, you know the story of that person, what he or she was like. Many of you, however, do not know your Hebrew name. Sometimes people don’t know. Sometimes men ask their wives which is weird because why would she know better than him? Sometimes people have forgotten and that always seems a little sad. You’ve forgotten your name? You’ve forgotten this connection to your past?

We have to do something about this. We have to work to make sure that every Jew knows his or her name because what we really are talking about is remembering culture. We are remembering the link to our own family and we are remembering the link to our people.

Here are some suggestions.

If you have a new baby, have the babynaming and then put a photo of the namesake in the baby’s room. You’ll always remember the Hebrew name and the story behind it and soon enough the child will ask, “who is that?” and you will tell the story.

Don’t have a photo? There are any number of ways parents put their child’s name in the room. There are many gift items out there that celebrate a child’s name. Get one of those with the child’s Hebrew name on it either in Hebrew or English letters.

Use an initial to connect the Hebrew and secular name. People often ask me for the translation of a secular name so they can match it to the Hebrew name. Don’t do it. No one ever remembers etymology. Just use the first letter. So if you are naming after Pinchas, use a P or after Rivka, use an R. Using the first letter is the connector. People remember consonants easily. And by the way, your Hebrew name connects you to the Jewish people but today many children are named after non-Jewish grandparents. This is not a problem and a sign of the times and a moment of celebrating all of a child’s ancestors.

Not sure of your Hebrew name? Go find your Ketubah. Today, people have beautiful ketubot that they often hang on the wall. Earlier generations had standard ketubot the rabbi pulled out of the file cabinet and they often got shoved in dresser drawers or bank vaults. Go find it. If you can’t read the Hebrew, bring it in and I’ll give it a look.

Bar or Bat Mitzvah certificates usually have Hebrew names on them. For our kids I make sure the Jewish name is there in Hebrew and English transliteration. People call up all the time asking if we have a record of a Bar Mitzvah from the 1950s because the person wants to know his Hebrew name. We do not have those records. Save those certificates.

Don’t have a Hebrew name at all? Pick one. Maybe you never got a Hebrew name. Let’s look back to see who you were named after and adopt that name. Don’t know who you were named after? Then let’s choose a Hebrew name you will use among your people.

In your machzorim are cards asking for your Hebrew name. Fill out a card. Find your Hebrew name and the story that goes with it. Do it for your children, your grandchildren and yourself. Connect to your history. Protect your future. Put those cards in a good safe place and enjoy talking with your family as you learn about your own name and how you got it.

Your name is more than an honorific. It is more than a ritual device. Your name speaks to who you are in this world. You are many things. You present to the world in many ways. One of those ways is being the bearer of a 4000 year old heritage. Wear that proudly. How can we be Jewish in the modern world? It’s not always easy but one way to succeed is to have our Jewish name as a symbol of who we are and who we will always continue to be.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Rosh Hashana Sermons

Below are my Rosh Hashana sermons for those who wish to read them (or pass them on to others; I'm flattered).

I hope all our members enjoyed a wonderful experience. Sorry about the chair situation. We haven't had that many people in some time! We will have the doors open for YK, of course.

Chatima Tova. May you be inscribed for good. See you for Kol Nidre.

Rosh Hashana Morning: The Akeidah


Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

Rabbi Larry Freedman

Rosh Hashana 5772

There are no fundamentalist Jews. What that means is that we don’t like to read a text and just believe whatever is written there. We always go for commentaries. We always want to learn what others have said and thought. The most devout, indeed the most observant of observant Jews first goes to the commentaries to understand what the Torah really means.

Our Torah study group, which requires no prior knowledge and no Hebrew (a shameless plug) is becoming very familiar with Rashi, that is Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak born in France in 1040. He’s a first stop in trying to understand the deeper meaning of Torah. Rashi is thought to have memorized the entire Torah, which allows his text to bring in words and phrases from one part of the Torah to the next. He was also brilliant both in bringing in his own ideas as well as being an aggregator, bringing in ideas others had written before him. Reading Rashi you get a good introduction to Torah darshanut, that is the ability to create a drasha, a sermon out of the text because it is not enough for us to read Torah and say, you must believe. Rather, we read Torah and then ask, “but what does it mean?”

And we have to because we are not fundamentalists. The akeidah, that means binding, is the name of the mere 19 p’sukim (verses) that tell the story of the binding of Isaac, the horrifying story we read every Rosh Hashana. God tests Abraham, already a mean spirited choice, by asking him to kill his son. And to this grotesque request we get a meek response of acquiescence. But in the last moment we get God sending a ram and because of that we have a shofar and that’s why we read it. Really? Are you kidding me? We read this terrible story in order to justify a shofar?

Well, no. We don’t. We read this story for many other reasons.

Here’s one. It’s a fable in reverse. At the time of Abraham, there were idolatrous tribes who did, in fact, practice child sacrifice. The idea that you would give something precious to the gods was customary in order to curry favor or show dedication. Many scholars presume that Abraham did not speak out against child sacrifice because the request would not have been a surprising one. Indeed, one could imagine Abraham, who was still trying to understand what this new God was all about, sighing as he learned that this God was no different than all the other gods who wanted child sacrifice.

But here, the end of the story gives Abraham a clear lesson. This is NOT what you should do. This is not the way we will operate. Do not ever offer a child and make sure that no Israelite ever does. The story has accomplished that goal. We have eradicated the very notion of child sacrifice around 3000 years ago. I share that historical use of the Akeidah because it is one of the best ways to discover that the lesson in the Torah is extremely profound even as it is wrapped around a very distasteful example. Unfortunately, that means we hardly need to read this story anymore to learn that lesson.

Fortunately, and you had to know this was coming, there are more lessons in the Akeidah. I could spend the rest of my career speaking about the Akeidah on Rosh Hashana. I just might do that. We’ll have to see.

In the meantime, let’s start with a little Rashi who can’t get past the first phrase. And honestly, I almost wish he had because he brings in a real humdinger of a comment. The first phrase is: va’yehi achar ha-d’varim[1], and it was after these things... That is to say, okay, we just finished a story and now we begin another story. But of course, anyone who knows even a little Hebrew knows that d’varim means things and it means words. So the akeidah could easily be understood to begin with the phrase, “and it was after these words.” Now, no good commentator ever takes the easy way so Rashi quotes earlier sages who asked, “what words and who said them?”

What words and who said them indeed. Rashi says this: There are those among our rabbis who say this means after the words of the Satan.

Satan exists in Judaism, a surprise for many of us. There is a notion of Satan as an adversary, a foil, as it were, for God. It is the not the story of a fallen angel, Satan is not the source of evil in the world. Indeed, all angels are ultimately part of God so Satan for Jews could no more be an opposite of God than my finger is the opposite of me. Satan is part of God. It’s just that sometimes aspects of God peel off and stand alone so that God can have a conversation that we can read and discuss. This is one of those times. A part of God, we’ll name that part Satan, peels off God to challenge God. Here’s the whole Midrash, the rabbinic imaginative sermon:

Abraham and Sarah, well into their 90s have a child Isaac. On the day Isaac is weaned, Abraham makes a party that includes a feast including some of his animals. This is a completely innocuous event. Perfectly normal but Satan causes trouble, stirs the pot. “You know,” Satan says to God, “With all that food and those animals roasted, I noticed that not a single thing was offered in Your honor. Does Abraham honor only his son?” God seems peeved and answers back, “Never mind sacrificing an animal to me. If I were to say to Abraham, ‘sacrifice your son’ he would do it.” And from there Satan says, “Prove it.”

I just can’t get over this interpretation, that the terror placed upon Isaac, the grief placed upon Sarah, the horror placed upon Abraham not to mention the annual repetition of this difficult story every Rosh Hashana is all based on a metaphorically testosterone fueled competition to show up the other guy. It is boasting and using human beings as a tool to make a point by God.

Of course, this is not the only interpretation. Rashi follows this amazing interpretation with another idea that is the complete opposite where Isaac willingly takes on the role of the sacrifice to make a point but we’ll save that one for another year.

Back to our first interpretation, after I calmed down from the idea that God is suckered into the events of the Akeidah, I could begin to see something else. There is an idea that no one is going to keep God from making a point, the idea that God leaps to prove Abraham’s faith. In a strange way, God is rushing to show that Abraham’s faith is complete and God will not tolerate even a hint of a rumor of a thought that Abraham could be anything but loyal, ready to live out God’s request.

I have to say, it’s nice to have someone rushing to have your back like that. It seems a bit stressful but it’s nice to have the support.

Abraham, meanwhile, does not complain but rather also wastes no time in showing his loyalty. Assuming he knew that this sort of thing was common, he could have tarried, he could have delayed, he could have quit the new monotheistic experiment right there. He could have said, well, this faith is no better than faith in those idols so forget it; I would rather have my son. And who would fault him for that? But that is not what he does. He keeps the faith. He keeps his faith and then some.

The text says, “vayashkem Avraham,” Abraham arose early. The word used, vayashkem, has a root word that implies early. That is more than just getting up in the morning. Vayashkem means rising early. Another word with the same root, hashkama, is used to mean reveille in modern Hebrew. And why did Abraham rise early? Because he had zrizut, he had a desire to jump on the task, to move swiftly. If this is what God asks, then Abraham was not going to tarry but use his sense of zrizut, alacrity to get to the task even if it is odious. That one word is a signal of how Jews are supposed to act when given a chance to do a mitzvah. We are supposed to jump at the chance. There’s an entire sermon in that one word, in that one idea that we should not hesitate to do a mitzvah. Offered the mitzvah of an honor to come up to the bima? We should accept with zest. Have a chance to give Tzedakah? We give willingly. See injustice? Loudly speak up. When you see a wrong do you rush to make it right or let it go? The Torah has hundreds of ethical mitzvot so the answer should be; we rush to make it right.

God knows that God has to stand up to Satan and squelch even the beginning of a rumor. Abraham knows he has to leap to do a mitzvah because he looks forward to doing a mitzvah and he doesn’t want people to imagine he is anything but dedicated. And isn’t that a good lesson for us? When someone starts to spread a rumor, we should rush to squash it. I don’t recommend creating the same sort of drama God opts for but we all hear things that we know are false or certainly don’t sound plausible and we all ought to challenge the speaker. We are called to stand up to falsehood and libel. As we reflect on our lives this Rosh Hashana we should consider not just the actions we have taken that are bad but the inaction as well. When did we not stand up to correct false information? When did we not stand up to defend a demeaning bit of gossip? When did we choose to enjoy gossip even though we knew it was hurting people?

And we should be like Abraham, filled with zrizut, rushing to do a mitzvah. And this may be our biggest challenge.

On the High Holidays, everybody comes out. We are all here together. And most of you enjoy the experience. Many of you express the same surprise that you really enjoyed being here for the reflection and the fellowship. You think maybe you’ll come on some Shabbat. And then many of you don’t.

The cantor and I will work to create compelling, meaningful experiences. We have great things planned: interesting courses, and lovely social gatherings. We have prayerful moments of reflection, opportunities to honor ancestors and a system of holidays that teaches ethical lessons while offering texture and joy to our lives. We are always striving to make these things more engaging.

What else do we need? We just need you to act with a sense of zrizut, acting with a sense of desire to do a mitzvah. We have to do it together. When was the last time you danced with a Torah on Simchat Torah? Many of you will say, last year. Many of you will have to scratch your heads to remember. This is one of our great joyful moments but too many of us just shrug our shoulders. Parents of our children aren’t bringing their children and adult members are just letting it go by. The same can be said for Purim and Sukkot and even Hanukah. I’ve had conversations with parents who never lit candles during Hanukah of all things because they were too busy. How can you be too busy for Hanukah? A little zrizut will make sure you won’t be.

Now, I don’t mean to yell. Yelling isn’t the point and guilt is worthless. What we need is a sense of purpose, a sense of desire and a sense of value. We have lost, among the Jewish people, a sense of value. Purim comes and too many of us think it’s either for children or we just don’t think it is worth celebrating even though it’s great fun and a story of self-reliance. This year we are going to add a quieter megillah reading in the daytime for those adults who want to have fun without 50 screaming kids. A yartzeit comes and we just don’t have the time to say kaddish for a parent mostly because we have lost the reason why that is valuable. We lost the reason of connecting with their soul through kaddish. Hanukah comes and we can’t see the reason why we should celebrate. We pass on the beauty of the candles and the story of strength. And then, of course, there are many intermarried families where the non-Jew is intrigued and interested but the Jew lacks motivation. For you we have a Mother’s Circle Class at the JCC. Three sessions for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children.

Lack of connection is a problem everywhere in the Jewish world not just here but as we come together at a new campus, as we enjoy seeing our neighbors and friends in the hallways of our new home, we have a chance to capture some of the zrizut we’ve lost. And this is a chance for you to share with me what you are looking for, what you hope to gain out of your synagogue.

This year we will try a new approach to family Shabbat where we will have an art project for the young ones during tefillot and lean towards the more contemporary side of our musical repertoire as well as an age appropriate sermon and include the kids with parts for them to lead. We have our introduction to Judaism class which is part introduction and part refresher for those who want to learn about Judaism from an adult perspective and I’m scheduling an adult trip to Israel in February 2013. By going at a more off-season time, we’ll save a lot of money and it won’t be too hot.

We are going to have a series about marriage and family issues and a gala vow renewal wedding ceremony in the spring.

We have great moments of spirituality where we try to understand our place in this world. We have social moments where we can gather among friends who share our heritage. We have moments of prayer where we can struggle with God and offer our most deeply felt concerns. We have a heritage that can improve the quality of your life, a heritage that adds richness and meaning to your life. Nothing less. Will you act with zrizut to capture this? Will you act as Abraham acted to embrace a mitzvah even if you are not quite sure how it will all work out?

Will you fight off your own personal Satan, that thing that holds you back, that little voice that keeps you from showing off your fullest potential? Because what we’ve got going here is magnificent. It is lofty and grand and important and meaningful. Grab it with the stirrings of zrizut and you will find yourselves blessed as Abraham found himself blessed more than he ever could have imagined.

[1] ויהי אחר הדברים

Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon

Moving On

Rosh Hashana 5772

Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

Change, try, experiment. Say it with me: change; try; experiment.

George Silverman’s widow walked into the synagogue a couple of years ago, took a sharp breath and said, “It’s George.” It’s as if she saw a ghost of him right there in front of her.

Who is George Silverman? George Silverman was the architect of this building. When Mrs. Silverman walked in she saw his handiwork, his craft, his style literally in every corner. It was a lovely way for her to remember him and a poignant moment.

In just three years, I have met a lot of people who have had poignant moments. I’ve met untold numbers of visitors who became Bar or Bat Mitzvah here. I’ve met people married here. I have people stop in during the day because they are on vacation and want to see their Confirmation Class photos or who want to see their parent’s Confirmation Class photo or who want to see their grandparent’s Confirmation Class photo. There are a lot of people out there who have warm memories of this place.

And then there are all of you. All of you who have memories of this place. All of you who are not visitors but members, supporters, the reason we exist. You have celebrated weddings right here on this bima and you have watched a grandchild be blessed right here before the ark. You have sat next to a casket right there and you have danced with the Torah all around the room. You have sent your children to this school and you have celebrated untold numbers of simchas just there in the social hall and broke any number of Yom Kippur fasts over there as well.

And then there are the ones who are no longer here. Many of you hear the echoes of friends who were so important to keeping this place going and their voices still reverberate off these walls. Many of you see family members, children, spouses, parents lingering in these halls.

There are memories here. There are feelings here. This place, these walls carry memories. They carry the souls of those who came before. That is what makes moving from this place difficult. But just like the time arrived to move from South Street, the time has come that we need to leave this place and begin a new phase in our history. We’ve been a congregation since 1854 and we haven’t only been in this place. We have moved and prospered and we will move and prosper again.

Moving to 290 North brings all sorts of interesting issues. First of all, we need (and the members of Agudas Israel need) to wrap our heads around the idea that we are moving to 290 North Street and not to Agudas Israel. We will all have to understand that their walls are our walls and our walls are their walls. More on that in a moment. A new corporation is being created called Kol Yisrael at 290 North Street. The name is a small pun. It means the “voice of Israel,” that our new joint venture will be the voice of Jewish Newburgh and surrounding towns and it means “all of Israel,” that all of us will be in one location. Kol Yisrael will oversee the physical plant and be in charge of the operations of the building. Each organization will operate independently. For you, this means that your needs will be met by Temple Beth Jacob. For congregants, everything is the same. For the Board of Trustees, Kol Yisrael will be the place to turn to for issues like keeping the parking lot plowed and the bathrooms clean.

But before we talk more about the future, a little lesson from the rabbis of old because before we go there, we have to leave here.

The Talmud has a lot of discussions about selling a synagogue under the general heading of selling holy things. In brief, the rabbis in the Talmud discuss the difference between tashmishei mitzvah and tashmishai kedusha[1]. A tashmish is an accessory, something used for a purpose. Tashmishei mitzvah are those things used to do a mitzvah and can be, when the mitzvah is completed, thrown out. The Talmud gives as examples: a sukkah, lulav, tzizit on a tallit and surprisingly, a shofar. I would also add a kipah. These are things that are not really holy unto themselves but rather allow a mitzvah to take place. We use them for a purpose but they are not holy themselves. As we start to clean out closets, it will be to our advantage to identify what are tashmishei mitzvah and can therefore be tossed.

In contrast to this there are tashmishei kedusha, accessories used for holy objects. The lectern that the Torah sits on is one of those things. The ark holding the Torah scrolls is one of those things. A plain case or something boring and utilitarian isn’t a tashmish kedusha but something that raises the stature of the Torah is a tashmish kedusha. The other day I wrapped a Torah in my rain coat because I had to carry the Torah outside and it was threatening to rain. My raincoat didn’t become a tashmish kedusha but the decorated cover that is always protecting the Torah scroll definitely is.

What’s interesting here is that there seems to be a great deal of leeway in deciding what can be thrown out and what needs to be put in a geniza, that storage area for holy objects that eventually get buried in a Jewish cemetery. As we clean out our closets, we have a chance to not worry about some things and also very much show our love and respect for the holiness of other things. This may make life easier. If you’ve ever cleaned out your basement or attic you know how slow going it is. Everything has a story and a memory and we will be tempted to save it. Perhaps this will help us focus so we don’t worry too much about what needs to go.

At the same time, we have a chance to express our love of Judaism with a willingness to proclaim things holy. There is a dictum in the Talmud that one may elevate in holiness but not decrease meaning that you can’t take an item used on the Torah and reuse it for a regular book. It cannot go down in holiness. A lot of the things on this bima, since they are on the bima, can’t go down in holiness. The Torah holder, the ner Tamid, the two tablets. The nature of what they are suggests they cannot go down in holiness so we will have to find a suitable lateral if not elevated use for them. Chairs, to me are utilitarian and so have no such concern. The ark is a built-in but the lining may need to be removed as part of the process of deconsecrating the building. The doors should find a proper new home. They can not be disposed of.

In my opinion, the stain glass windows are tashmishei mitzvah, they help us fulfill the mitzvah of prayer but I don’t think they are tashmishei kedusha. By themselves they are not holy. But, we really, really like them so they will go with us. The plaques on the walls are emotional memories and their placement in this room is an aesthetic choice not a requirement. They are not tashmishei kedusha. They are not holy. However, they are very meaningful and so they will come along with us. Our design committee will work to find a proper location.

And so it goes on. There is a lot of work ahead of us and I suspect there will be no lack of volunteer hours needed to bring things from here to there so please be generous in your time.

Once we arrive at 290 North, we have all sorts of new questions. What art should go on the walls is just one. We need to express our liberal Reform Movement attitude and we need to walk into a space that reflects our values. Of course Agudas Israel and the JCC need to feel like it is home to them as well. There will be a lot of discussion on this as we decorate a building to reflect three points of view.

Another interesting issue will be customs. We act one way when in a synagogue. Members of Agudas Israel act another way. Can we create a space that is open and tolerant of all these customs? We better. There will be an ongoing challenge to find the graciousness inside all of us to abide by the ideal of “live and let live.”

There’s a joke about the guy stranded alone on an island for 10 years. When he’s finally rescued, he proudly shows his rescuers how he survived. Here was his water supply, here was a small garden, and here was his shelter. Then one rescuer asks him, “What are those three buildings?” And he says, “Oh, those are synagogues.” “You have three?” “Yes. That one I belong to, that one I don’t and that one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.”

The joke speaks to the unfortunate reality that while the Jewish people love to support each other, we also love to belittle and mock each other. We love to be on our very high horse and proclaim that we have the better approach while they are the fools. This is an attitude that too many Jews share and it is among our worst traits and one we need to get rid of. Instead of clucking our tongues at something we see them do, our attitude has to be one of utter disinterest. As Bart Simpson has offered to the modern lexicon, meh. If it doesn’t affect our experience, if it doesn’t conflict with our practice, what do we care? Live and let live.

Within the same walls, different minhagim, customs, will be seen. Meh. Different even opposite attitudes will be expressed. Meh. They do this, we do that. Meh. We need to find a way to have the sharing enthusiasm of a commune and the complete disinterest of New York City neighbors. We will be intimately connected sometimes and completely detached at other times. That will take some getting used to because we are creating a new culture. That takes time but that is what we will do. There will be moments when it is a Temple Beth Jacob program in the sanctuary with our siddurim, our customs, our music. And then the next day in the same space it will be an Agudas Israel program. And the day after that, the JCC will use the space.

It will be a little confusing when we deal with three different levels of kashrut. It may be confusing when we all are running programs at the same time. Attitudes, customs, traditions, issues, points of view will all be different depending upon which room you enter. But don’t forget, there will also be cross pollination and synergy and that impossible-to-plan-for creativity that happens in the hallway. It’s going to be like a college campus with amazing things happening wherever you turn.

Change, try, experiment.

There will be change and experiments. Lots of change and lots of experiments. We are going to try all sorts of things. We are going to try everything until we get it right. We may pray in one room one week and another room another week. We may put this class here but then move it there. We may have a joint program with Agudas Israel and it will be a highlight of the year and we may have a different joint program with Agudas Israel and it will be a colossal flop. Who knows? But we will try everything and bring in change everywhere. So if you don’t like change, get used to it because we have an opportunity to recreate ourselves, to shake off things that don’t work and strengthen what is best about us. This endeavor cannot be just about location. It has to be about reinvigoration and reimagining. It has to be about you and what you want, your needs. And how will we meet your needs?

Change, try, experiment.

As just a small hint of what can happen, this past year we had a request for a Classical Reform Shabbat. Honestly, I was not thrilled. Other people thought it would be a nice idea. Afterwards, I kind of enjoyed the experience as celebrating our heritage. Some of those who thought it would be nice, did not enjoy it. Good. We’re experimenting, we’re learning. We’re not afraid to try new things and we are willing to try ideas that you, the congregants, suggest. So, get ready for new ideas, your ideas, get ready for change and get ready for the thrill of reimagining. Eventually, things will shake out and we’ll have found a good rhythm but I hope that rhythm never loses the thrill of experimentation and new ideas. Say it with me now, change, try, experiment.

And get ready for the experiments and new ideas that will arise by being with Agudas Israel and the JCC. We already have had a joint Tisha b’Av service with Agudas Israel and a Shabbat luau with the JCC over the summer. They were great successes. People enjoyed seeing friends, a new experience, a novel approach. I should also tell you that there were a couple ideas that have been discussed and rejected. It doesn’t matter what they were but suffice to say that the limits of sharing are found at the edges of our integrity. I had a couple ideas offered. I worked them around in my head talked them through with Rabbi Weintraub and realized we would lose more than we could gain. There are some things we need to try in order to see if they will work. Others things are obviously destined for failure. At those moments, I’ve said no because sometimes you have to say no but on the whole, I look forward to change, trying and experimenting with new ideas.

All this experimenting means we are going to be influenced by the other two groups and they will be influenced by us and that is going to be great. We will learn from each other and we will come out on the other end a Reform Movement congregation more sure of ourselves and we will have the other two organizations to thank.

Or not. Or we could all walk around suspicious. We could be on the lookout for slights and insults and I-have-no-idea-what but I’m watching out for it.

One of the great ethical lessons in Judaism is avoiding lashon ha-rah, avoiding evil speech and that is hard. It is far too easy and tempting to speak badly of someone. It is practically entertainment for some people who want to hear the latest gossip. Not the latest news, not the latest updates, mind you. They want to hear the gossip. It could be true, it could be false as long as it’s gossip they want to hear it. Some people look forward to hearing anything that they can twist it into dirt. This is what we have to resist. We have to resist it every day but certainly when we join together we have to resist the temptation to speak with only partial knowledge and resist the temptation to find excuses for bad mouthing because if we want this to work, it will work but if we want it to fail, it will fail. If we look for every problem, every glitch, every issue, then we will find them and we will gloat and the whole thing will flop. But if we instead look for every solution, smooth over any glitch, address and correct every issue, then this will be an amazing success and a role model for others across North America. It all depends on us. It depends on you. It depends on each one of you. Your attitude, your words, your approach will make or break this new stage. If you want this to work, if you are excited to join together on a campus, it will work. Not we, the synagogue leadership. Not me, the rabbi. You. Each one of you. It is your approach to this that will make or break it. It is your attitude that will decide. It is your willingness to try new things, support and strengthen old things and embrace the future with eager anticipation.

The new year is 5772 and I’m pretty excited. Join me in that excitement. Let’s make this new venture an overwhelming success together as we change, try and experiment.

[1] Megilla 26b תשמישי מצוה and תשמישי קדושה