Friday, December 21, 2012

About the shootings in Newtown, CT

Shooting in Newtown
Temple Beth Jacob
December 21, 2012

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking about the shootings last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut.  It is a deeply sad event.  Unlike everyone else, it seems, I feel deeply cynical and without much recourse.  In a complicated situation I recoil from the simple pieties that people feel they must spout and I struggle to find some hope.

I’m afraid my deepest cynicism comes from the calls for us to learn this time.  This time we will do something, people say.  But that’s what we said last time and the time before that.  I fear that this time will be like the last time in that people who don’t understand guns and gun culture will call for their banishment, people who like guns will feel attacked, nobody will be willing to discuss or spend public money on mental health initiatives and the NRA has circled the wagons with a simple call for more weapons and armed security at every school every where.  People already have staked their positions firmly in concrete.  Some want to ban guns which will never happen.  Others see any regulation of anything having to do with firearms as an attack on nothing less than liberty and our way of life which is absurd and overwrought.  We’ll see if the murder of 20 children along with 6 teachers and one mother is enough to shock enough people to create political will.

The President seems motivated.  Despite fears and dread that once he became President he would seek to ban all sorts of firearms -the NRA openly said candidate Obama had a “secret plan”- this president has done almost nothing regarding gun control as he pretty much promised.  It is not his issue either because it isn’t or he doesn’t feel he has the political will do anything about it.  Before this past election I read similar fevered worries that now the President would ban all the guns because he doesn’t have to stand for re-election anymore.  My belief is that no such thing nor anything like it would have happened.  But now, maybe not.  The President is talking tough.  Sort of tough.  We’ll see what happens.

I’m also cynical at the outcry.  For the parents, for the friends, for those directly connected, there will never be enough tears.  I understand the terrible sadness and thinking of the young lives lost is awful.  There is a reason the Jewish tradition is to create headstones in the shape of a cut down tree for those who die young.  It is a symbol of a life never able to grow, never able to flourish.  We cry for those who cry but I can’t get past the idea that we cry for the unusual circumstance, for the terrible uniqueness of the situation and not for what is truly sad because where are our tears when children die in ones or twos?  Where is our outrage when an Oregon mall got shot up or when a movie theater is shot up?  Where are our tears for these people the President mentioned on Wednesday during his press conference?  He said:
Since Friday morning, a police officer was gunned down in Memphis, leaving four children without their mother.  Two officers were killed outside a grocery store in Topeka.  A woman was shot and killed inside a Las Vegas casino.  Three people were shot inside an Alabama hospital.  A four-year-old was caught in a drive-by in Missouri, and taken off life support just yesterday. Each one of these Americans was a victim of the everyday gun violence that takes the lives of more than 10,000 Americans every year -- violence that we cannot accept as routine.[1]

            And yet we do accept them as routine though we shouldn’t.  Aydan Perea was four years old and got caught in a drive by gang conflict shooting.  His death is, sadly, a local Missouri story because his death happened alone.  There is no moral distinction between Aydan and the 20 children in Newtown.  There is no difference between one child and 20 children being murdered aside from volume.  They are equally tragic, equally awful with no distinction other than we only seem to become emotional when the scale overcomes us.  We can, it seems horrifying to say, handle Aydan dying and any number of children dying if they don’t die all at once.

One study “by the US Center for Disease Control, and published in the American Journal of Pediatrics, studied injuries to persons 14 years of age and younger from 1993-2000. In that time period there were fatal gunshot injuries to 5,542 children, averaging 1.89 per day.”[2]  Another one from 2010[3] offered this:  “The researchers analyzed data on nearly 24,000 gun-related deaths among children 19 and younger from 1999 through 2006. That included about 15,000 homicides, about 7,000 suicides and about 1,400 accidental shootings for the eight-year period.”  Accounting just for the homicides, that’s an average of 1875 a year or 36 per week or five every day.  Yet we don’t weep.  We don’t even know.  But if you really want a good cry, if you really want to weep, imagine five parents you know having their children die by murder.  Then imagine the next day five more of your friends have their children murdered and then again the next day and then every single day.  How many days until you become outraged?

I am horrified by the murders in Newtown but outraged when people suggest as they always do that they didn’t think it could happen here.  It can happen here.  It is already happening here and everywhere in this country every single day.  Every single day.  And failing to know that or simply accepting that is truly grotesque.  But who knows, perhaps now, with such a volume of death, maybe now the political will can be found.  Maybe.

I’m cynical at the opinions some have been brazen enough to raise, that these deaths, terrible though they are, shouldn’t cause us to act emotionally and begin creating legislation and policies that regulate guns.  The usual argument that “guns don’t kill people” is out there and that “gun-free zones are useless” is out there and that “if only more people had weapons then a lone shooter wouldn’t have the freedom to wander the halls” is out there.  All of these are specious and either ignorant or intentionally missing the point to distract us.

I’m cynical at how the arrogant notion of American exceptionalism seeps into even cooler heads that allows to come up with all sorts of reasons for these shootings except the one that would let us look at our society as a whole and wonder if there is anything larger at play, something that might be embarrassing that we don’t want to look at because exceptional countries don’t have systemic problems.

I’m nauseated at the cruelty people toss when they divine that these deaths are the result of prayer not in the public schools as Mike Hukabee offered.  And I understand the need to comfort but I shake my head when pastors and our President say that these children have been called home.  No.  Their souls may live on with God but they were not called home as though playtime was over.  Indeed, they will never be called home again.  There will be sermons this week noting how Joseph consoled his brothers saying, do not worry and do not be sad; all my troubles were from God who wanted me to suffer so that I could arrive at this point.  The message is that God has a plan even with apparent cruelty.  The difference is that Joseph wasn’t murdered.  Whatever lesson he took from his trials didn’t require that he die to learn it.

But I’m hopeful that there is more talk than usual.  It remains to be seen if this outrage becomes just another story soon to be forgotten.  Time will tell.

I’m hopeful that even though it takes the deaths of 20 very young children, six teachers and one mother, a obscene requirement, people seem outraged over this more than usual.

I’m hopeful because I have no choice but to be that Vice President Biden will pull together some sort of policy agreement where all sides of the debate can find the strength to compromise.

In the meantime, we must do something.  Most importantly we need to talk to our elected officials particularly on a Federal level.  For this we must wait until January 3 when the new Congress is sworn in and our new Representative Sean Maloney assumes his office.  I worry that the moment will have passed but if we can maintain our outrage for just two more weeks, our first call January 3 should be to his office and demand that Congress work to create meaningful gun regulation that respects gun owners but limits accessibility and that mental health receive more research money and more street level clinics for people to turn to.  But we must tell them something else.  Wayne LaPierre of the NRA today gave his organization’s first response.[4]  He came out with passion and fire proclaiming the need to have more guns.  He called for every school in the entire country to have an armed guard at the entrance by the time school opens in January.  He avoided legal arguments and turned the tables on the emotional argument.  Instead of banning assault rifles to project children, why didn’t we have a weapon in the hand of a guard at the entrance?  Those children would be alive if they had.

Wayne LaPierre lives in a world where mass shootings will happen.  He lives in a world where the mentally ill will attack us.  He lives in a world that presumes criminals will open fire with assault rifles.  He begins his assumption that your child will come under fire.

When we call Congress, when we talk with our friends, we must reject that world.  I have a vision where assault rifles are not presumed to be available to all who want.  I have a vision of a world where an elementary school is not assumed to be under fire.  We do not have to buy into LaPierre’s world view.  Things can change.  Crime is down in this country.  Have you been to Times Square?  Where you there in the 70s?  I was.  It has changed.  Crime does not have to be a presumption.  We must reject the paranoid frame of mind that has given up on a peaceful society.  Wayne LaPierre has given up.  You do not have to.

We must stand up to and decry outrageous chatter and bluster and false premises.  We will never get anywhere with loud nonsense.  I fear the opposite will happen.  The strident will scream, the reasonable will tire and the issue will be forgotten until the next time and there will be a next time.

But we must hope because if we don’t believe we can make a change then we admit that we live in a world where mass shootings happen as an ordinary occurrence.  I don’t want to live in that world.  I’m cynical but I have hope.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Happy Holidays

Here's my essay in the Times Herald Record:

Dear Christians,
This week, Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah and so, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas.
Have a meaningful Christmas filled with whatever makes you merry. Whether it's joyful worship celebrating the birth of Jesus or simply gift-giving, I truly wish you the best.
You'll notice I didn't wish you a Happy Hanukkah. That wouldn't seem right, given that you are not celebrating Hanukkah. (Unless you are; in that case, Happy Hanukkah!)
And I didn't wish you "Happy Holidays" because, my Christian friends, I know that you celebrate Christmas. I also know that some of you have a problem with "Happy Holidays," and that's why I'm writing.
Every year there's a whole "Happy Holidays" kerfuffle because some Christians feel it degrades Christmas. Let me try to explain how I see it.
I believe "Happy Holidays" is an attempt to create a positive environment in stores.
Every marketer knows that a welcoming environment boosts sales, and I am grateful that capitalism welcomes all of us, regardless of heritage, to shop.
Human Resource directors took up "Happy Holidays" once they recognized that not all employees are uniform in belief and that "Christmas" wishes were alienating some of their workers. And let's remember Orthodox Christians who are disrespected when we forget they have a different date for Christmas. (It's coming up on Jan. 7.) If productivity requires different types of people to work together, why remind some of us we are on the outside? An office "Christmas" party sends a very clear message: we are not part of you.
And this is the heart of the matter.
If a store has only Christmas decorations, the message is it cares only for its Christian customers. If a public school celebrates only Christmas, then the message is very clear: Non-Christians are not truly part of the community. If my place of business can't be inclusive the message is that I am excluded.
We Jews are well practiced in being the minority. You, my Christian friends, have been in the majority for so long, I fear you may not understand so I respectfully ask you to trust me on this: When you insist that "Merry Christmas" be the only greeting allowed, you make it very clear that the rest of us are out, that we are not really part of America. That may not be your intention, but it is the result.
"Happy Holidays" is an American statement. It says that even though we all know which religion dominates, all Americans can partake in the feelings of good will at this time of year. "Happy Holidays" is kind and thoughtful and makes me feel like our place as a minority is valued by the majority. Some of you may grouse but we on the outside really do appreciate it.
Of course, let's not go overboard. My synagogue doesn't have a "holiday" party: We have a Hanukkah party. Likewise, it would be strange to have a "holiday" party in a church. (Exception made for and a respectful shout out to the Unitarian Universalists.)
To my Christian colleagues, neighbors and friends, have a very Merry Christmas. To all the rest of us, with respect, Happy Holidays.
Sincerely, Larry

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Yom Kippur 5773

What does it mean, this community?
Yom Kippur morning 5773
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman  
September 26, 2012

Have you ever tried to explain what Judaism is to someone who isn’t Jewish.  I’m talking about someone who really wants to understand Jews.  They know we’re a religion but then we tell them we’re not just a religion.  We explain that we are a culture except that there are Jews around the world who share neither language nor foods with us and even their holidays, our holidays, are celebrated a bit differently.  And that’s when your friend might venture, “so you’re a race, right?”  But, uh, now hold the phone there, let’s not go there.  We are not a race.  We got in a lot of trouble for that one.  We are a complicated thing.
We are very unique among the families of the world in that we identify as a people and within that people there are many expressions of connection to that people.  And among those many types of connections, there are mixtures with infinite combinations.  The life of any one Jew is almost never exactly like the life of any other Jew and yet, Jews we all are, Jews we all enjoy being. 
One classic way of understanding the palate Jews draw from is the triptych God, Torah, Israel.  I dare say that everything we do as Jews, every moment that means something, every good feeling we get is a reflection of one of those three: God, Torah, Israel.
Look at this moment.  Look at this gathering.  Some of the power of this moment has to do with God, with the religious experience.  We gather before God, invoke prayers, feel spiritual.  We come here out of a sense of religious obligation and we take seriously the images our machzor offers us.  We feel better having been here.
Then again, look at this gathering.  Some of the power of this moment has to do with Torah, with the intellectual experience.  The realm of Torah is the realm of thinking about the words and their meaning in our lives, and it is the realm of ethical demands that insist we figure out how to be better.  Torah moves us with attention to ritual so we can live out the words of the actual Torah. 
Then again, look at this gathering.  Some of the power of this moment has to do with Israel, the people of Israel, of coming together with family, of having the big dinner with the same foods, of sitting next to each other here in the same seat you’ve sat in forever.  Feeling the presence of friends and family no longer here. Knowing that at this moment around the globe, millions and millions of Jews are doing the same thing is very moving.  And let’s not forget the non-Jews who have joined us and also among the people of Israel having joined us each in his or her own way.
I have not adequately explained.  I do not think I can because each of you has your own experience.  Each one of us experiences Judaism and the joy of being Jewish through the lens of God or Torah or Israel.   Only you can identify how you experience your Jewish identity and where your experience comes from.  These three experiences of God, Torah and Israel are like overlapping circles, like a Venn diagram.  To be in one circle often means you are in two.  At times you may be in the center experiencing a moment of all three, a feeling of God, an awareness of Torah and ethnic warmth of the people of Israel.  And then you slide back into the corner of just one circle.  Our lives as Jews are very fluid.
Take a moment.  Look around.  Think deeply.  Why are you here?  At the very worst you are here because someone made you but still, it means you have been welcomed into the Israel circle.  And even then, you might be feeling other moments of connection.  Take a second.  Right now, right here, are you feeling a religious connection?   Then you are in the God circle.  Are you aware of customs and meaning and thought and ritual and find they move you?  Then you are in the Torah circle.  Are you moved to be back with people who share your culture?  Then you are in the Israel circle.  Think of how this experience speaks to you.  What is the emotion you feel or hope to feel on this day?  What helps you cultivate that emotion?  If you weren’t here, what would you miss? 
Last night we sang Kol Nidre.  The prayer Kol Nidre works on all these levels as well.  It’s a prayer of humility that starts off the tone of Yom Kippur, that we go before God to ask that we be forgiven of all the oaths and promises we made that we should have kept but just, after trying, couldn’t.  We have let ourselves down, we have let God down and we ask, before we go on, that God forgive us.
And, Kol Nidre is a moment of Torah where we actually had the Torah scrolls out as witnesses.  The ethics and morals contained in those books are displayed before us reminding us to try to uphold them.  Last year we failed in ways large and small and so we stand in front of that which we let down to apologize.  The image of Kol Nidre is that of a court and so we were all part of the beit din, the judges.  We wear our tallitot as judges robes and we stand for the solemnity of the proceedings. 
But even if you did not know the underlying message of the visuals of Kol Nidre, there is the sound of Kol Nidre, three times that haunting melody plays, a melody that rings through the minds of the people of Israel.  If nothing else, we want to hear that melody, that sound, because we hear it together and know that we are together amongst the Jewish people on a solemn day in our calendar and that feels right.
As we move through Yom Kippur, there will be moments of God, Torah and Israel.  Sometimes the moment is obvious.  Prayers are God centered.  The ideas in the liturgy, the customs, the actual study session this afternoon night is Torah centered and the social aspect of being together, sharing an experience together, not to mention break fast tonight is truly people centered, a moment of Israel.
But most of the time, every moment is a mixed moment of some of this, some of that.  That is the power of Yom Kippur and all of Jewish living.  It hits us on so many levels.  That is why it is sometimes hard to describe why we enjoy being Jewish, why we like being in this congregation.  Being part of Temple Beth Jacob is some mixture of God, Torah and Israel.  It connects us spiritually but then really it is about learning and customs but then really it is about shared experiences and community.  But then really it is about all three, in different combinations.
Temple Beth Jacob is a space where your Jewish identity in all its ways can be nurtured.  It is the place that allows you to revel in who you are.  The truth is, many of you wonder why you belong.  You question the need for such a place or at least you question your reason for engaging this place.  And if that is not you, we all  know people like that.  And the truth is, in the excitement and work to create our joint venture, some of you may not be feeling the love.  If you haven’t been over to 290 North Street, you may feel distant from your community right now.  I understand.  But the project has already proven successful in terms of community building and energy and, while it is a little early to close the books on it, it seems financially our goals are being met as well.
I can’t resist reminding you of amazing opportunities to come together.  October 7, at 11:30:  we will enjoy our sukkah and hear the latest on the Kol Yisrael project, what has been done, what needs to get done.  We’ll dispel rumors and answer questions.  October 19 and 20, Aaron Kintu Moses is coming to tell us about the Jews of Uganda, the Abayudaya and talk about a school he is building.  Then the weekend of November 16 the Motyl chamber orchestra is coming to play music that sprang from the Holocaust.  Amazing opportunities to learn, to be part of Israel past, present and future, to feel connected.  In November 2013, I’ll be leading a Federation trip to Israel which surely is a connection to God, Torah and Israel all rolled into one.  And Tot Shabbat is back monthly, open to anyone.  Anyone:  members or not.  Tell your friends and neighbors. 
All our holiday celebrations are fun and uplifting, Shabbat is a refreshing meaningful moment whether you join us every Friday night or just sometimes.  Torah study every Shabbat morning engages the mind and  soul.  And there is more and more and more.  So many reasons to support this institution.
Our Jewish identity wanders among the spiritual, the intellectual and the ethnic.  But it should not wander alone.  We have no ascetic tradition.  We feel more engaged when we are with others.  We feel more proud of our Judaism when we are in community.  We feel more uplifted when we rise among our fellows.  We can’t do that alone and we don’t want to.  But don’t just listen to me. 
In place of the customary Yom Kippur appeal, it’s my please to invite Gay Miller, temple president and Rachelle Harmer, treasurer to express their experience of community and what belonging means to them.

Gay Miller
I am honored to stand before you this morning as president of Temple Beth Jacob.  Clearly I am committed or ought to be.
Many who have stood here before me giving the high holiday appeal have talked about growing up Jewish and what it was like as a member of Temple Beth Jacob for many years.  I cannot do either, because I did not grow up here, have been a long time member, nor was I raised as a Jew.
I am a Jew-by-choice.  I have been a member of Temple Beth Jacob for about 8 years after moving back to Newburgh.  Before becoming a member here, I was a member of Monroe Temple for over 20 years and before that a member of congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, California.
As with many people who choose Judaism, I was introduced when I was married.  When I became pregnant we knew that our son was going to be raised Jewish and that was when we joined congregation Beth Israel, a reform congregation.  I went to many programs for interfaith families and that is where my real introduction and journey to Judaism began. 
This was not an instantaneous or simple journey.  With the exposure come increasing levels of commitment and a desire to be fully embraced by the Jewish experience.  Ultimately, after many years, I took the final step and converted.
If it were not for these well established and welcoming reform congregations, I might not have embarked on this journey.
If there were not Temple Beth Jacob with its many committed members representing a variety of perspectives this opportunity would not be available to others. 
I believe that there is a reason that all of us belong to this synagogue.
Whether we are here for the holidays or Friday nights, whether we are born Jewish, are a Jew by choice or a non-Jew, whether we agree with organized religion, we are all making a statement. 
We believe that being a Jew matters.
With that in mind, I am asking you to commit to making Temple Beth Jacob a viable reform congregation long into the future.

High Holy Day Appeal Speech    Rachelle Harmer        September 26, 2012

Two years ago, and some of you may remember that I was told I was doing the High Holy Day appeal and after much thought, I considered it to be an honor…this year I was told I would be giving part of the appeal and after much thought, I think it is an honor…but if they tell me I am doing appeal again next year, I am


So, once again I want to welcome all our congregants, families and friends.   

Like the Harmers, many of you probably joined initially to give your children a Jewish Education.  You may have been looking for something for yourselves, such as Torah study, Jewish culture and values…or maybe you joined to forge a stronger connection with the Jewish community or to find new friendships.  Temple Beth Jacob is here for you today and hopefully for many more years to come.

We at TBJ literally survive from day to day on what monies come in throughout the year.  Membership dues cover about half our budget. We rely on other avenues like fundraising, which includes our gift card-scrip program, donations and this annual appeal to balance our budget. We have no financial angel to shower us with unlimited funds.  

Your generous support is needed more than ever during these challenging economic times.  Unfortunately, some of our congregants have lost their jobs and are having difficulty making their mortgage payments and paying other household bills. 

Perhaps you can give a little more this year to cover for those who have no choice.  But always remember, and I’ve said this before….never give until it hurts….but give until you feel good!  Last year we raised a little over $25,000. at our annual appeal. Our goal this year is to increase that amount by at least $290.00 which symbolizes our new address..

Please help us keep Temple Beth Jacob alive and vibrant.  As a family we must work together.  Each and every one of us must assume the responsibility and obligation as well as take the pleasure and pride to ensure that Temple Beth Jacob is here for our children and our children’s children.  Give today, so that we can look forward to tomorrow so we will be here for the generations to come.                                                                                                                 

With your help, we look forward to Temple Beth Jacob’s future with hope and faith that the year 5773 will be one blessed with peace, prosperity and good deeds.  May we all be inscribed in the book of life and may the coming year be filled with good health, laughter and joy and with a renewed commitment to our Jewish Community.

Please take out your pledge cards, turn down what you can and hand them to one of our Officers who will now come around.

Thank you…

L’Shanah Tova

Kol Nidre 5773

The Torah uses three primary terms to define “sin”: Chet [חטא], Avon [עוון] and Pesha [פשע] (see Exodus 34:7). On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) the High Priest would pray for atonement for his people by admitting, “Your people Israel have erred (chet), deliberately disobeyed (avon), and obstinately violated (pesha).”
Types of Sin
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Kol Nidre, 5773
Rabbi Larry Freedman

On this day, the Day of Atonement, when so many of us are here gathered together, rabbis take the opportunity to talk about big ideas or comment on important issues.  We have a captive audience, only the most bold of you will sneak out before the sermon.  We know that you have to listen.  And what idea is bigger than the upcoming election?  Surely now is a chance to talk about democracy and justice and policies that will make this country ever moral, ever ethical, ever the shining beacon upon the hill.  And yet, try as I might, that sermon coming from me would probably be better delivered in New Paltz.
As I mentioned at Rosh Hashana, I’ve been drawn this year to look closely at the prayers so that we can better understand what we are doing during these hours.  Instead of looking at the big ideas out there, I wanted to look at the big ideas in here.  Back to basics, as it were.  I want to focus on what is happening in here and how it affects our souls.
So let’s go back to basics and ask, what are we doing here?  What we are doing is taking a journey.  We start with great anticipation.  We have dinner together, we dress up.  White is the preferred choice.  My kittel for example.  The white represents freshness, a new start to the year, a fresh start for our souls.  White is the color of the holiday.
We began with Kol Nidre and that famous, haunting melody.  Right from the start it sets the tone for our journey.  We recite:  for the promises we made and tried, honestly tried, to keep we are forgiven.  And since Kol Nidre comes right at the start of the liturgy, boom, we are off to a good start.  We begin with a win as we start to look at our souls.
And then.  And then we go home and we can’t have that little snack because we are fasting.  From the peak of Kol Nidre to the valley of self-denial. 
We use fasting as a way of denying the body in order to focus on the soul.  It's not just fasting, of course.  There are five things we deny the body in order to focus on the soul.  We don’t eat anything, we don’t drink anything, we don’t bathe which some take to mean luxuriating beyond the needs of hygiene.  We don’t anoint ourselves with oils.  Some people say that means perfume.  And we don’t wear leather, a symbol of luxury.  That is why I’ve got my Teva’s on.  Finally, we don’t engage in “marital relations” with its focus on the body, not so much the soul.
But we make it through the night and we come back.  I know some people won’t.  They’ve had enough of Yom Kippur.  But that's a shame because the story of the prayers has only just begun.
We start with all the usual prayers and then come to something unique for these days:  the vidui.
The vidui is the confession.
It starts on page 269.[1]  You can follow along if you like.  It starts with Tavo l’fanecha[2] which means, "Our prayers will come before you."   That is how it starts but when I was a child, it was the ending that always intrigued me.  To God we say, please don’t think us so arrogant that we don’t think we haven’t gone astray. We have.  We don’t like to admit it but we have: we have gone astray, we have sinned, we have transgressed.  The Hebrew is Chatanu avinu, pashanu.[3]  Before I could read the Hebrew, I could hear the Hebrew and something wasn’t quite right.  Chatanu sounds like the word from, “Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha” for the sins we have sinned before You.  I got that one.  The last word, pashanu, must be something bad as well but the middle word, avinu, must be the word avinu from avinu malkeinu.  Right?  Not right.  This time avinu spelled with an “ayin” instead of “alef,” means something different.  Indeed, each word of chatanu, avinu, pashanu means something different.
Chet[4], the sin found in chatanu is a simple mistake.  We have missed the mark.  We tried, we did our best, we messed up.  It wasn’t intentional, not the biggest deal but still, to be honest and come clean, it was wrong.  Intentional or not, it was wrong.  Easy.
The next category of sin is avon[5] found in the word avinu.  T his sin is harder to dismiss.  This is intentional sin.  You knew it was wrong but you did it.  Did you not care?  Could you not control yourself?  Did you let the pressure get to you?  Were you just being mean?  We knew it when we did it but we did it anyway.  And now we feel bad because, well, we should feel bad.  We did an avon.  So we think about avon this past year and plan to do better. 
And then comes pashanu and the category of pesha[6].  Pesha is worse than avon because not only did we know it was a bad thing, we did it on purpose.  It’s almost rebellious.  I know it’s wrong but too bad I’m doing it anyway.  I’m going to say that hurtful thing, I’m going to take what doesn’t belong to me.  I’m going to be mean.  I could hold back but you know what?  I don't want to. 
All together, chatanu, avinu, pashanu means we have erred, we have disobeyed, we have been obstinate in our wrongdoing.  Three words to say we have sinned.  It’s not just that we behaved badly.  There are qualifications to our bad behavior. Chatanu, avinu, pashanu.  Sometimes we have erred, sometimes we have disobeyed, sometimes we have been intentionally bad.  Three different sins that describe three different levels of mistake.  And if we are honest, we’ve all done all of them at least once last year.  We’ve all done bad things out of spite or out of some justification we barely believe ourselves.  Need help remembering?  The machzor gives us a list to think about on page 269:  ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu and on and on.  We did this, we did that.
 “Ashamnu Bagadnu”, that litany of sins, the list from A to Z, alef to tav, of bad things we have done.  Note how we all say this collectively not because we all did all those things but because someone in this room did at least one of those things and together we cover the list.  We say them together as a way of supporting each other.  It would be too cruel to have to recite our sins publicly saying, “For this sin I did, for that sin I did.”  It would be crushing to the spirit to be so alone at that moment and so we confess our sins together with friends and family to support us.  It’s easier for us when we can lean on the person next to us to help us get through it:  we’ve done this, we’ve done that.
We move to page 271:  Al chet shechatanu[7], for the sins we have sinned, we ask for atonement.  Our spirits sink low as we tap our chests, shaking us with each pound as we admit, yes, we did this, we did that.  And then, at the end we sing, “v’al kulam” asking that God forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.  And if we are sincere, if we really will try to be better, the Day of Atonement atones.  Some Jewish teachings say that the day itself, the very act of being here atones for you.  Imagine that!  Just for being here on this day you receive for your efforts kapara on Yom Kippur.  Being present, you receive atonement.  Except…
While, with sincerity, you may automatically receive kapara, that doesn’t automatically make you a good person.  A jerk with kapara is still a jerk.  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement cannot stop a person from being mean and nasty.  Yom Kippur cannot keep a hater from being a hater.  Only we can do that.  Inside the liturgy, on page after page, we implore God again and again and again to forgive us.  Outside the liturgy, we are taught to go through the process of teshuva[8], of turning, turning to a new way, turning over a new leaf, turning from being who we do not want to be and turning towards who we want to be.  The process of teshuva, of turning, takes serious thought and reflection.
Here, then, is why we gather for the whole day.  Without outside distractions, with good music to carry us, we have the chance to still our minds, allow our thoughts to wander and think, think, think about ourselves.  Yom Kippur is our most self-indulgent day because all we do is think about ourselves and be honest with ourselves and make plans for ourselves to improve.  And when we do that, we gain kapara and we engage teshuva and we rise better people.  That's what we will do.  And so we begin the process of moving from the depths of self-criticism upwards to a more hopeful, positive outlook.
Look at the next prayer, “Shema Koleinu” on page 278.  Written to lofty music, it is a musical highpoint that cannot be ignored and it will not be ignored because it is written in a demanding voice.  The whole prayer is written in the imperative, as a command.   “Hear our voice, Adonai, our God, have compassion on us, accept our prayer.”  There isn't a "please" to be found.  There isn't a question that is asked.  It does not say, "if you find us worthy" it says, "Hey.  We've admitted our sins.  We have done our part.  We will rise as better people.  Now You, God, have to hear us and have compassion on us.  You just have to."  Our liturgy is a seesaw of petition and demand.  It is a roller coaster of insisting and beseeching.  We admit we have sinned and we will accept responsibility and make a plan to change and become better but we demand God help us with that plan.
Of course, we aren’t done.  We arrive at a high point, confident with shema koleinu but the day will continue with its roller coaster liturgy until the very end.  Exhausted, hungry, impatient, we will arrive at the triumphant neilah service in the early evening as the gates of repentance close.  We will cross the finish line tired but victorious.
But until then, I hope you can engage the prayers and their message.  I hope, by going back to basics, you can better understand the flow and themes of the vidui, this confessional section as well as all of the sections of prayer as well.  Our goal is to enter this day humble, aware of our failings, and leave it proud of what we will do, proud of what we will accomplish, excited to be a better person filled with the spirit of teshuva, of turning our lives around for the better.  And we are so sure we will make that change that we demand of God to make it happen.  That is what we are doing here this day.  This is the story of our machzor on Yom Kippur.

[1] Gates of Repentance
[2] תבוא לפנך
[4] חט
[5] עון
[6] פשע
[7] על חט שחטנו
[8] תשובה

Motyl Chamber Ensemble

The Motýl Chamber Ensemble Will Perform At Temple Beth Jacob in Newburgh, NY. Please join me for this wonderful concert on November 17th., and call the Temple office to make reservations today!

Seventy-four years ago this November, Kristallnacht echoed throughout Nazi Germany and Austria. In the ensuing years, along with Jewish professionals from across the artistic spectrum, many of Europe’s finest composers would be imprisoned at the Terezin Concentration Camp in what is today the Czech Republic, before their eventual murders. Their music, written during that nightmarish period, has miraculously survived and has been preserved and nurtured by the Motýl Chamber Ensemble, led by the vision, scholarship, and musicianship of Dr. Aleeza Wadler. On Nov. 17th, at 7:30 p.m., this group of dynamic young artists, accompanied by the voice of Cantor Amy Goldstein of Newburgh’s Temple Beth Jacob, will bring the music of Terezin back to life in a multi-media presentation at Temple Beth Jacob, 290 North Street, Newburgh, NY.

The Ensemble will present a program open to the public of music written by composers who were victims of the Nazi regime. The Ensemble has performed all over the New York area. Their music includes a description of the musical and artistic life at Terezin. Photographs of daily life in Terezin, as well as original watercolors, drawings, and poems from children at the camp, are part of the program. This multimedia approach creates a connection with the history behind the music. The group comprises a string quartet, piano and voice. The composers include Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krasa, Egon Ledec, Felix Mendelssohn and Martin Roman.
Dr. Aleeza Wadler, a renowned violinist and founder of the Motýl Chamber Ensemble, will narrate the music and provide background about the lives of the composers and their music. Local vocalist Goldstein has been part of the group for several years.
For more information and reservations please contact Marsha Sobel at Temple Beth Jacob, 562-5516, or Tickets are $25 each. When purchased in advance, discounts are available for people over age 65 ($15 each) and students with a valid ID card ($10 each). All tickets are $25 at the door. Advanced reservations are recommended. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Refreshments will be available.
You will not want to miss these accomplished, talented musicians who will send chills up your spine as you listen to them perform in combinations of trios, quartets, and solos, along with their slide show about the history of this tragic era. It is wonderful to have these brilliant musicians in the Newburgh area for community enrichment.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rosh Hashana morning 5773

 Rosh Hashana Morning 5773
Avinu Malkeinu: a deeper meaning
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

There are always so many ideas, so many things to talk about for our High Holiday sermons.  When I was new at this I panicked that I wouldn’t have any idea what to speak on.  Now I find ideas throughout the year and jot them down.  I still have to compose the thing but at least I don’t panic.

This past year, however, I kept getting called back to the basics.  Over the year, as I spoke with people and taught various classes, it seemed that while everybody is confident in being Jewish, not everyone is confident in depth of knowledge.  It’s as though we all have a little shmear of Judaism in our lives.  It adds some flavor but we only know the surface.  We’re eating the cream cheese.  We’ve got no bagel.  So this year, I want to give you a bagel.  But not just any bagel.  Not those fluffy 500 calories offenses found in a supermarkets or  -shudder- Pepperidge Farm.  I’m talking about a bagel bagel.    The dough is allowed to ferment overnight, it’s boiled and then baked, it’s reasonable in size, it is almost crusty on the outside and soft on the inside and it tastes like Hester Street.  Frankly, so few of us have had a proper bagel we hardly would know it if we found one.  But a real bagel is rich and engaging with a bit of tang and something that can carry you through the day.  It connects you to your heritage and it transports you for a moment as you crunch through the top and enter into the mysteries of the center.

Shall I push this metaphor further?  No?  So let’s get on with it.  Let me offer you a real Jewish bagel and let me call it Avinu Malkeinu.

Avinu Malkeinu is a highlight of the High Holidays.  It would hardly seem like Rosh Hashana if we didn’t sing it.  The melody is anticipated and the waltz rhythm is comforting.  That’s the shmear.  But what do the words mean?  What is this poem saying?

We start with Avinu Malkeinu.  Our father, our king.  It starts with an intentional contrast of image.  We think of God as father.  Stern, perhaps, but loving. A father wants to see you succeed. Of course, our father-avinu- also tends to be more amenable when we behave better.  Our Father is always more giving and forgiving to God’s children when we are nice, when we are kind, when we do what we should do.  Be immature, act cruelly, flout reasonable rules and God has to punish.  I will be disinclined to do what YOU want, says God, when you show no interest in doing what I need.

Our king.  A king is something different.  A king can be concerned but aloof.  A king must worry about the needs of all the people, not just one.  A king must be strong and, at times, severe.  A king holds power and we must carefully and respectfully appeal to that power and hope. Total authority.  And if you do right then malkeinu will do right by you even beyond customary kingly protection.

What do we do when we appeal to our father, our king?  We engage all of these attitudes at once:  indulgent and aloof; worried about you and worried about everyone else.  Who will respond when we sing avinu malkeinu.  Will it be daddy who’s arms we run into?  Will it be the king who is busy with other things?  It is a crazy, scary moment filled with uncertainty.  Avinu malkeinu, hear our voice?  That’s a simple thing for a father to do but a king?  Avinu malkeinu we have sinned before you.  A father might -with love- forgive but are you sure you want to admit sin to a king?  Avinu malkeinu, make an end to sickness, war and famine.  Such a demand we make!  A father can comfort us when these things happen but a king has the power to decree change and we demand from our king to do so!

As you read Avinu Malkeinu, think of a father figure.  Imagine a king.  How would each respond to our petition? Think of a time you asked for something from your father.  How did that feel?  Think of a time you asked for something or even demanded something from someone who held power over you.  How did that feel?  Tap in to those feelings.  Remember those feelings and bring them to Avinu Malkeinu.  Put yourself in the imagery, sing it as if you really were in front of your father or your king.  It is a scary, loving, bold, submissive poem.  It is awash in emotion and contrasting feelings.  If you can truly give yourself over to the imagery, that will be quite a moment.

And what of changing the gender?  Having gender neutral God language is a major issue in Reform Judaism and a serious theological effort.  The reason for this is that by assigning God a gender we limit our imaginations of what God can be.  If we can remove gender from God then we open our minds to a myriad of other ideas about what God is.  We allow for more sophistication.  That’s why referring to God as a “she” is no more helpful than he and “he or she” is just silly and “it” also limits us.

Most of the time, most anywhere, I am careful about my gender neutrality.  I don’t want my ability to ponder God to be sidelined by grammar.  But here, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I do engage in imagery so powerful that to change it does injustice to the effect of the prayer.  In this case, an attempt to free my mind by changing the words would do serious damage to a larger theological point found in the specific poetic word choices.  To paraphrase a beer commercial, I don’t always think of God in male terms, but when I do, I do so with Avinu Malkeinu.

Avinu Malkeinu in its original form has 44 verses.  We tend to read nine or ten at a time.  We’ve removed the section where we demand God say yes to our prayers for the sake of our martyrs.  We’ve removed the line where we ask avinu malkeinu to take revenge on our enemies.  Clearly this prayer was developed during a rough period in our history.  We’ve taken out the parts that are close to repetitious. We’ve also taken out the more agrarian requests like asking for our storehouses to be filled and fill our hands with blessing with good crops and such.  Even with these edits, the repetitious plea after plea after plea, the grinding groveling, we understand the level to which we have lowered ourselves before our father, our king.

Where did it come from, this wildly popular poem?  It’s origin is found in the Talmud,[1] in a discussion about fast days in case of drought. 
Here’s the Talmud text. 
"Rabbi Eliezer once went before the ark [to conduct the service on a public fast day] and recited twenty-four blessings [of the prayer for rain] and was not answered. Rabbi Akiva went [before the ark] after him and said, 'Our Father, our King - we have no king other than You! Our Father, our King - for Your sake have compassion for us!' It then started raining.
"The rabbis started speaking unfavorably [about Rabbi Eliezer]. A Heavenly voice emerged and declared, 'Not because this one [Rabbi Akiva] is greater than this one [Rabbi Eliezer], but because this one ma’avir midotav and this one does not ma’avir midotav.'" (Ta'anit 25b)

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva offer dueling blessings to get God to give rain.  Eliezer is ignored.  Akiva’s prayers cause the rain.  The people naturally think Eliezer doesn’t have the stuff and they start talking him down but God’s voice corrects them.  It’s not that Rabbi Eliezer is bad.  It’s just that Rabbi Akiva is so good and what makes him good is that he ma’avir midotav.  And what does that mean?  It’s translated as having “forbearance” or “being humble” but it means more.

Ma’avir means to pass as in take a pass on, skip over.  A midah is a measure, a quantity, characteristic, a dimension, an attribute.  What did Akiva do that was so great?  He skipped over a characteristic, an attribute he has.  And what was that attribute?  It seems that Eliezer was very strict in his understand of Jewish law.  He demanded strict compliance.  Akiva was more easy going.  He was humble in that he didn’t assume he was absolutely, positively correct and that humility allowed him to be reasonable in his rulings.  He had forbearance in that he could tolerate things done right if just less strict.  Of course, Akiva knew how to be strict.  Maybe he even wanted to be strict.  Maybe he wanted to run around and yell at people and be full of himself and throw his weight around.  He was the great Akiva after all.  Maybe deep down inside, Akiva was an egomaniac.  But he passed on that characteristic.  He let it go.

Sometimes someone does something to you and you just want to answer with a sharp retort, you want to attack back.  Maybe you have an attribute that really is a part of you but it’s not the best attribute.  Having negative qualities isn’t a sin.  It’s acting on them that gets you in trouble.  But if you can ma’avir al midotav, if you can let it go, fail to indulge the negative, take a pass on responding with mean-spiritedness, that makes you a great person.  That makes you worthy of being emulated.

Avinu Malkeinu evolved from a story about a rabbi who was listened to because he was able to tamp down his less than stellar ways.  Rosh Hashana is a day not to ask God to forgive you just because.  Rosh Hashana is a day to start asking God to forgive you because you can show that you are taking a pass on the poorer characteristics you, me, we all have.  You know what you do that isn’t good.  You know when passion gets the better of you.  You know when you lose it.  If you can get a handle on that, if you can take a pass on it and choose a better way, that is something God pays attention to.  It’s not about being perfect.  It’s about working on being better than you were last year.  Turn the negative into a positive.

But wait there’s more.  The Chasidic rabbis amplified this attitude with their own story on the story.
A story is told of a certain chasid who each year would give his rebbe a portion of his income, and each year his business prospered. Once he came to see the rebbe and found that he had left. He heard that the rebbe had gone to meet with his own mentor, the Chozeh of Lublin. The chasid was startled to hear that his rebbe has his own rebbe. He therefore decided that rather than giving a portion of his earnings to his rebbe, the Chozeh's student, he would transfer the funds directly to the Chozeh himself. After all, as his rebbe's rebbe, wasn't the Chozeh more worthy?

From that point on, the chasid's earnings began to dwindle as his business deteriorated. He went to the Chozeh of Lublin and asked why this happened, to which the Chozeh responded, "So long as you weren't so fussy about whom you donated the money to, God wasn't so fussy about whether or not you deserved your earnings. The moment you started carefully considering to whom you would prefer to give, then the Almighty likewise began carefully examining if there are others more deserving of the money than you."[2]

An amazing story because, OMG, it’s a story by chasids that suggests a Jew shouldn’t be too uptight about things --- but that’s a different sermon.

For our purposes, the story teaches this:  Avinu Malkeinu, we ask for this and this and this and this.  Please, understand that we aren’t perfect, we make mistakes.  Can’t You just give us a little slack?  And God is saying, my children, my subjects, you are rude and uptight and strict and intense with your own friends and family.  You are so short tempered with other human beings just like you!  You know how hard it is to be perfect and yet tear down your fellow human beings at any chance when they don’t live up to a standard you yourself can’t attain.  You gossip and judge people just like you.  I’ll tell you what, God says, you start going easy on your own friends and family, and I’ll start to go easy on you.  You judge less harshly with them, I will judge less harshly with you.  Avinu Malkeinu can be a chance to show God how we have taken a pass on the less flattering characteristics we all have. It is a chance to say:  See how I have lightened up with those I care for? See how I don’t judge as much?  See how I am turning crabbiness into niceness, turning a short temper into patience, turning the bad into the good?  So you, God, please do the same for us.  Accept our prayers, forgive us.  Follow our lead, God.  As we don’t judge, please You don’t judge.  Avinu Malkeinu, our father, our king, we are learning to be good.  Won’t you be good in return?  One prayer.  Three approaches.  That’s some bagel. A As we add the melodic shmear, we’ll ponder the complexity of going before our father or a king.  We’ll acknowledge our participation in the list of sins and work to remove them from our selves by next year and we implore God to go easy on us since we are trying so hard.  A good and thoughtful new year to us all.

[1] tractate Ta’anit