Monday, September 16, 2013

Yom Kippur 5774

A little sacrifice every day.
Yom Kippur 5774
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

I usually decide what to speak about for High Holidays based on things that have intrigued me during the year.  I figure if I find it interesting, perhaps you’ll find it interesting.  That’s good for me and a roll of the dice for you.  No more so than this year than after reading Prof. Jonathan Klawan’s book, “Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple.”  Prof. Klawans has helped me understand better what motivated our ancestors to engage in sacrifice and, to my surprise, how their motivation has something to teach us modern folk.  I know.  I was surprised, too.
But first, a quick history lesson.
After the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, there was no place to offer sacrifices and the whole system was thrown in chaos.  Fortunately, there already were small buildings around the Land of Israel where Jews gathered to study or socialize and they, in short order, turned into places where the people started to use prayer to connect with God.  Jews started praying three times a day to mimic the sacrifices offered three times a day.  The prayers replaced the sacrifices.  And it worked. Where Jews once drew God down to Earth with offerings of grains or animals, now they drew God close through prayers.
Over time, our prayers grew longer and longer as generations added to the prayer book including prayers about the sacrificial system.  The Reform Movement from its inception wanted nothing to do with looking backward and set to work editing.  If you ever wonder why our prayers are shorter than the average Orthodox congregation it’s because we’ve removed the lengthy prayers that serve as a remembrance of the sacrificial system.  Also because we made some things shorter but mostly it’s because we removed prayers we no longer believed in and saying them just to say them wasn’t working for us.
However, Prof. Klawans has given me some insight and even better, a metaphor for how sacrifice can still be meaningful for us today.  We won’t be offering up goats next week but on this Yom Kippur, as we try to figure out how to be even better people, there may be something in how he looks at how they looked at their sacrifices.
To start we need to understand ritual defilement.  There were things that happened in the daily course of living that would, in the ancient days, make you ritually unfit.  Various bodily fluids would make you unfit, some skin diseases, contact with a dead body which isn’t as odd as it may seem when you remember we didn’t have funeral homes to take care of our loved ones.  Basically a bunch of things that you couldn’t avoid might make you ritually defiled.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, you could even spread the defilement if you mingled with others.  But all was not lost.  It wasn’t the end of the world.  There was a clear solution.  Offer a sacrifice, wash your clothes, and stay outside of the camp until nightfall.  These and some other things were the ritual cure.  After the sacrifice, after you washed up, after a little time away, you were welcomed back among the community.  Ritual defilement was easy to overcome.  And, by offering these sacrifices you created a sense of holiness and drew the Divine presence down nearer to all.  Your actions helped keep holiness in the land.
On the other hand, there were three things far more serious than the usual ritual defilements.  These were moral defilements.  Idolatry, sexual transgressions and bloodshed.  These were very serious things.  These were not things that a little washing and time could solve. These were things that polluted the land itself.  The very land upon which the whole tribe walked would be unfit, that’s how awful these moral failures were.  Do any of these three things and you ruin it for everyone.  Do these things and you chase away the Divine presence.  The very sanctuary where you would draw close to God would be threatened.  God would not stay in a place with such immorality, with such moral pollution.
So, to review: do your daily sacrifices and things will work out just fine.  Engage in immorality and you pollute the land.  Most scholars have assumed life during Temple days as a never ending game of catch up.  People did those terrible things.  Those three things spiritually polluted the land.  They drove away the Divine.  Then the people in response offered their daily sacrifices as a way of trying to get themselves and the land ritually fit again and entice the Divine to come back down from Heaven once again.  All those sacrifices were usually seen as an attempt to convince God that good people were doing the right thing so that God will remove the stain of permanent pollution and stay in the Temple.
But Prof. Klawans sees it the other way.   He is more optimistic.  He sees the world as basically good where Jews bring in their daily offerings, their sacrifices to draw them to God and bring the Divine presence to the Temple and the Land of Israel.  And life is good.  Good Jews offering nice, mundane sacrifices and all is well.  And then someone comes along and messes it up.  Someone comes along and does something horrible that upturns the whole thing and the goodness from those small sacrifices, the efforts of so many people are threatened, imperiled because of the grave sins of just a few, those idolaters, sexual transgressors, murderers.
Put in another way, people make sacrifices to keep things going and then some idiot comes and messes it up.  And then I understood how their sacrifices were very similar to our sacrifices.
Isn’t that the way it is in our families, in school, at work?  Wherever we gather with others, we do our part to keep things going smoothly.  We can’t have whatever we want at work.  We can’t get whatever we want with our families or at school.  We have to cooperate with others.  We have to give in a little bit.  We have to reach out to others a little bit.  We have to make small, wait for it, sacrifices every day.  We give in a little bit here and there.  We sacrifice a little bit here and there for the sake of creating a smooth running society.  We sacrifice a little bit to have peace in the home.  We give something to keep things drama free at school.  We compromise with workmates.  And when we do that we create a civil society or loving family or enjoyable work place.  Dare I say we bring shalom to those places?  When everyone sacrifices a little, we work well together.  We build trust and we start operating smoothly and effectively and successfully.  People in families take care of each other, work places become pleasant and productive, school becomes a place to grow and learn as students and teachers support each other.  There is holiness in these places.  Real live holiness is drawn down to these places when everyone gives a little to get along.
And then somebody comes in and behaves in such an egregious manner that the whole system is messed up.  All those sacrifices, all those little sacrifices people made for a greater good over weeks, months, years, have gone to waste because of the immoral behavior of a buffoon and it is so frustrating.  Families don’t trust, work is dreaded, school is filled with suspicion.
And then we have to go back and start over.  We have to try to rebuild what we had with small sacrifices once again.  We have to fight to reclaim the shalom that was in our homes and workplaces and schools.  We have to struggle to bring the holiness back into our lives.  We have to engage not in the grand gesture of a once a year sacrifice but the daily, weekly offerings to bring civility back.  That’s what it takes to overcome the fool who blunders in.
Can you see that fool?  Can you imagine that person who upsets so much careful planning? 
Usually I like the Hebrew word korban for our ancient offerings with its meaning of near or close.  When we offer a korban we draw near to God or perhaps we draw God near to us.  If God is the source of ethics and justice and righteousness, then indeed we do want to bring God near to us.  But sometimes the word sacrifice might be better.  Klawans reminds us that indeed we do sacrifice.  For the sake of a moral society, for the sake of civil relations, for the sake of family harmony we do sacrifice a little.  We give up a little status, a little money, perhaps, a little freedom.  Sometimes we give up the acknowledgement we want.  We make these little sacrifices for a greater good.  And it is a greater good when we all sacrifice just a little. Just think of that person who wants all the status, all the money, demands complete freedom and shares no acknowledgment or credit.  Think of what that person does and how he or she pollutes your family, your workplace, your school.

Don’t be that person.  That’s for sure.  You don’t want to be that person.  On this Yom Kippur, use the day to search your soul.  Use the drama of the day, this great annual moment to repair the damage you have done if you’ve been that guy, even a little bit.  By all means, do that.  That is what the day is for.  But then, tomorrow, the day after Yom Kippur, return to the daily sacrifices, the smaller, quieter, ordinary, routine sacrifices we make to cultivate a better society.  Give a little money, share a little credit, offer a little praise to others, so others have a chance.  Make those little sacrifices, every day, to create a decent society.  Every day sacrifice just a little.  And watch out for that fool who ruins it all.  Try to keep that fool far away.  But if one of those guys does get in and pollutes your group, with a little time and good work, you can rebuild a better community.

Kol Nidre Sermon 5774

Charles Ramsey and making the world better.
Kol Nidre 5774
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

May 7 2013
CLEVELAND – Cleveland police said missing teens Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and a third woman were found in a west side house on Monday. Hundreds of people gathered in the streets near 2207 Seymour Avenue in Cleveland, where the women were discovered. Cleveland police said Berry, DeJesus and Michelle Knight are alive, talking and appear to be OK. “I heard screaming… And I see this girl going nuts trying to get outside,” said Charles Ramsey, a neighbor who found the women. “I go on the porch and she said ‘Help me get out. I’ve been here a long time.’ I figure it was domestic violence dispute.” “She comes out with a little girl and says ‘Call 911, my name is Amanda Berry’… 

Being a decent person is not easy.  Being a decent person is really, really hard.  Sometimes, you have to realize that good people can be bad and you have to do something about that.  And sometimes you have to realize that bad people can be good and you have to do something about that.  Being a decent person means always trying to do the right thing and that can be very difficult but it has to be done.
The news story of the year, for my money, is the story of Charles Ramsey.  You may remember this news story out of Cleveland as the story of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight and a child.  These were the women who were held in captivity for up to a decade in a dungeon like basement.
They were rescued when Amanda Berry was able to break out, went running down the street and right into Charles Ramsey.
Charles Ramsey is a working class black man who told his tale with colorful details, inflection and rhythm in his own authentic, unvarnished way.  It was refreshing to hear someone speak on camera without worry.  If you haven’t heard his initial interview, done live, with a local TV reporter, you really should.  It’s brilliant.[1]  The best part of the interview for me was at the very end.  Here’s the set up.  Ramsey talks about how he was minding his own business eating McDonalds.  He talks about how he heard a scream and went to investigate.  He thought it might be a domestic disturbance that many, many people would just refuse to get involved with.
Now right there we have enough for a sermon.  Lots of us mind our own business and then, when hearing something, we ignore it.  Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are all about trying to dig deep to make ourselves better people.  Most of the time making ourselves better people involves stopping something.  Stop being rude.  Stop being impatient.  Stop being, in a word, mean.
And that’s fine.  That’s good.  But Charles Ramsey is a High Holiday hero because he didn’t just stop being bad.  He actively worked to be good.  He could have gone inside.  He could have just called 911 and left it at that.  But he didn’t.  On a day like any other day, he knew something wasn’t quite right and he investigated, helped get the door open and rescued from a violent hell, three women and a child. 
There are times when we really aren’t sure what to do.  There are times when decisions have to be made in a heartbeat based on impressions, feelings, a notion that something isn’t right.  Are you ready to do that?  Do you think you’re the kind of person who will stand up, stick out, speak out?  Charles Ramsey happens to live next to a national story of monstrous proportions.  Most of us never will.  But all of us have moments that call for action and bravery.  There are times we could stand up to bullies, speak out for social justice, call out the person who makes insensitive jokes.  Being a better person is not only about changing our bad behavior.  Sometimes it requires us to condemn and reject publicly the bad behavior of others.  And we don’t have to be Charles Ramsey to do that.  You all could think of a moment in the past 12 months where you could have said something but you didn’t.  Next time, do it.  From this Yom Kippur to the next, insist on good behavior from yourself and others.
But it gets better.  The best part of Charles Ramsey’s interview, live on the air, came at the very end.  Now, you have to understand that Ramsey knew the perpetrator.  They had ribs together, he told people. They weren’t best friends but he knew the guy to be nice enough, quiet and all that.  He had no reason to think badly of the guy.  That’s the context.  The white reporter kept his microphone in front of Ramsey scooping up all the quotes, all the little nuggets.  And then, Ramsey says this, “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Somethin’ is wrong here. Dead giveaway. DEAD GIVEAWAY. She’s either homeless or got problems. That’s the only reason why she run to a black man.”  And at this point the white reporter backed away and quickly did his usual, “And that’s the scene here…” closing.  Once Charles Ramsey acknowledged his reality, of the usual way it goes when he talks about black men and white women, once he mentioned how the behavior of a white girl convinced him he really had to help, well, that was just too much for the reporter.  He didn’t want to get into that issue.  But there it was for one shining moment, an honest, even nonjudgmental, acknowledgement of race in America.  For one brief moment before the reporter could sanitize anything, we had an unvarnished look at the way it is, at least in Ramsey’s neighborhood.  And that also makes him a High Holiday hero because he called it like he saw it.  No fault.  He wasn’t cursing America.  He was just calling it as he saw it and that’s the way he sees it every day.  And that reality, the reality of an undercurrent of racism that is pernicious and so difficult to get rid of is a moment of honesty.  We can’t step up and fight injustice if we won’t see it.  We can’t stand against prejudice if we ignore it.  There are a lot of people who want to say that racism and prejudice is fading away:  it’s 2013 and we have a black President and all that.  But there are problems in this country that will never go away if we won’t be honest and discuss not only the problem but the underlying issues.  We can’t solve our issues if we won’t discuss racism or sexism or prejudice.
Charles Ramsey could have backed off.  He could have said, “given the realities of racism in this country and the historical frustrations black men experience when interacting with white women, I will decline to get involved.”  He could have said that.  He could have thought that.  But he didn’t.  He acknowledged racist attitudes as reality, not as a barrier to doing the right thing.  He did the right thing.  We should all be so lucky when we find ourselves this coming year in a difficult situation to be like Charles Ramsey.  Acknowledge reality and make the world a better place anyway.
Becoming a decent person is not about the grand gesture.  It’s not about a massive step.  It’s just doing what is right.  No doubt Charles Ramsey has opinions about being a black man in America.  He just didn’t let those opinions interfere with his humanity at that moment.  Charles Ramsey sized up an unfolding situation on the fly and did what needed to be done.  He was going to be a decent person.
Our challenge is to break free of what we assume is right.  Break free of preconceived notions, break free of the way we insist the world is so that we can be open to seeing how it might be.  We will never be able to have teshuva, an honest, intense turning away from bad behavior if we justify our actions so strongly that we won’t be able to see our own error.  And we will never make the world a better place until we imagine it can be so.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rosh Hashana 5774 Sacrifice: Caring for your goat

Sacrifice: Caring for your goat
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rosh Hashana
Rabbi Larry Freedman

If you’ve never listened to This American Life, I recommend it.  It’s a National Public Radio program that tells beautifully written stories around a central theme about, as the title says, this American life.  One time the theme was about animals and the sacrifices they make and the first person to speak was Prof. Jonathan Klawans about animal sacrifice.
That piqued my curiosity of course.  The concept of animal sacrifice has always fascinated me because as a modern person, it’s hard to imagine how such a thing could hold such power over ancient people.  They had to really believe that their animal or grain would be dedicated to God in such a way that God would look down favorably upon them.  We can say that the people weren’t as educated.  We can say that modest, peasant farmers could be swept up in the pageantry and glory that was Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.  But we could also say that after a couple of years, a couple generations, they must have realized that the rains come when they come and the heat comes when it comes and illness comes when it comes and unless there was either actual Divine intervention or spectacular coincidence, sacrificial offerings might not have been responsible.
On the other hand, many of the sacrifices weren’t about simple cause and effect.  Many of them were offered after doing something wrong or out of thanks and some simply marked a holiday.  You weren’t asking for something so much as atoning or showing gratitude.
I know that the rules for an animal sacrifice insist that the animal have no blemish.  Not a nick, not a cut, not a bruise.  With this in mind, Prof. Klawan’s suggested something that I never thought of: imagine how hard it must have been to have a blemish free animal.  Just try to pick out an animal from your herd that hasn’t gotten a few thorn scratches.  How about an animal that never tripped or never was on the losing end of a head butt from another animal.  Find me an animal without a little blemish from sleeping on rocks. 
Professor Klawans suggests that the animals destined for offerings must have been carefully selected and tended to with an overly watchful eye.  They must have been segregated from the herd, offered extra soft bedding, guided gently away from thorns or hard rocks.  These animals must have been fretted over.  To bring that animal to Jerusalem for an offering must have been a very powerful gesture.  This wasn’t just some animal.  This was personal.  This animal represented years of preparation.  When you offered this animal up to God, you were offering a piece of yourself, your sweat and tears.
Judaism for many of us has long lost that level of effort.  For many today, we want Judaism to be a salve, a poultice that soothes our needs.  And it can be that.  It is that.  But it can be more.  If we bring ourselves, give of ourselves, put a little more effort, we get back even greater rewards.  But that is not the fashion these days.  Judaism is not a lifestyle, it is not an investment.  It is a thing to partake in when needed, as a consumer.
This brings us to a problem.  Our society is consumer oriented, fee for service. Reform synagogues, echo society.  Our synagogue structure is based on a membership model where we assume you’ll join, assume you’ll pay and assume you’ll be happy.  And if you’re not happy, you should show up more and you’ll be happy.
Now, I happen to believe that.  We have things here that will inspire the mind and lift the soul.  Unfortunately for me, that approach is not the way the world is anymore.
It is our job, the synagogue’s job, my job, to change and adapt and come up with a new model that doesn’t assume anything but positions itself as a place of value, that Temple Beth Jacob gives you something that enriches your life because in a consumer society, if it doesn’t bring benefit, if it doesn’t add value, why would you spend money on it?
I’m not saying that’s a great attitude but it is where we are at.  Synagogues are slow to adapt to this new reality and I’m behind the curve on this as much as anyone but adapt we must.  Adapt, I must.
So let me introduce a couple things to try and start turning things around.  First off, Kol Yisrael is going to be a value added experience.  We know that coming together has value.  For anyone who has joined any of our Kol Yisrael joint programs, you know the uplift in having the whole community together.  This will even be better once we get our building underway.  Plans are moving ahead though slower than we all wish but they are moving ahead. 
For us at Temple Beth Jacob, one of the best ways to build value in synagogue life is to improve the life of the synagogue.  Specifically, the social life.  We can’t assume people will show up.  We haven’t been able to assume that for 30 years but better late than never to recognize it.  We need to create reasons to gather on an ongoing basis.  Building relationships, making this place a place where you see your friends, where you can make new friends, that is the next wave of synagogue engagement.   It’s going to be about people to people engagement.  It used to be people to institution.  Now it’s people to people.
I have a program called Chai Mitzvah.  It will meet monthly and it involves three things:  communal study, a commitment to social action and investigation of ritual that will be personally meaningful.  I’m organizing a group of this year’s B’nai Mitzvah parents to be one gathering.  We’ll meet at people’s homes, have a little wine and cheese and engage the program.  I would also like to create a cohort of empty-nesters.  I would like to gather a group whose kids are off to college or beyond to do the same program.  The goal is social, personal, uplifting, spiritual. 
I’m ready to start.  I am asking you to bring your own well cared for goat and by goat I mean sacrifice.  I’m asking you to give up just a little of what is precious to you and these days what is most precious is time.  That’s my request.  You give the time, you get the value.
Through the JCC, we began monthly lunch-and-learn’s at a restaurant which started with three and blossomed to 11 people before summer arrived.  It’s lunch, it’s social, it’s personal, it’s interesting, it’s Jewish, it’s value added to your life.  We’ll keep that going all next year.  All you need to do is bring the sacrifice, your well cared for, carefully nurtured time.
Rabbi Weintraub and I are leading Tot Shabbat organized by Debbie Silverstein.  Open to all.  It’s 60 minutes.  Half is stories, songs and prayers.  The other half is snack and art project.  It’s spiritual, it’s educational, it’s social.  It’s great but you have to join us.  The sacrifice here is to get out of the house with a child from newborn to age 6 one Shabbat morning a month.  Getting out with a small child may be only slightly more difficult than caring for a small goat but the struggle is worth it.
I received a new book coming out by the people at Reboot.  This is a retelling of each weekly Torah parasha as imagined by artists.  It’s a fascinating take.  For this, I’m thinking five times a year, once for each book of the Torah when we can reflect on the artistic approach to understanding our sacred literature.  For this I need people who are interested in the arts, willing to engage the written word or the deeper meaning of visual representation.  I need an artistic or artistically open minded cohort for this.  It will be intellectual, eye opening, thought provoking and personal.
Personal is where it’s at.  Are you catching that?  On a Facebook conversation about this new approach, a number of rabbis explained the difference between a consumer and relationship model.  One said,[1] “in a consumer culture we are defined by what we have, but in a relationship culture what we have is defined by the moments we've shared with others, who we know and how we are known.”  It’s not about things.  It’s about connecting with others.
Another rabbi wrote this:  “Consumer culture: we use things up and throw things out.  Relationship culture: we fill one another up and build lasting memories.”[2]  And another take:  “In a consumer culture, we consider what products we offer that will bring people to us. In a relationship culture, we focus on building relationships with individuals, and then base our offerings on what comes out of those relationships.”[3]  And one more:  “In a consumer culture we focus on what we can get. In a relationship culture we focus on what we can give.”[4]
I have to take a moment and apologize.  I’m so sorry if I have failed you on that count.  I was trained to be a rabbi for a different era.  I wasn’t trained for this new personal, relationship approach.  It’s not my nature.  I’m a pleasant sort but I do not have the gift of gab that a relationship centered rabbi might need.  But what I’ve learned is very exciting.  What I’m seeing is very engaging.  I am willing to go a new direction.  It’s outside my comfort zone, for sure.  After organizing in one way for 20 years it will be a challenge to reorganize how I operate but I like the concept.  I can see how it will work and I know the old way is fading fast. 
So let’s try.  We all know that after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the vast majority of you just don’t want to come back for more prayers during Sukkot and then Simchat Torah.  At the same time, one of the constant comments I receive from many of you after Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur is this:  that was really lovely.  I’m always glad that I come to synagogue.  I wish I did it more.  So you like it when you are here but you don’t come back just five days later for Sukkot. 
Well, that leaves me with two choices.  I can either point my finger at you, comfortable role for rabbis.  Or, I can look at myself, an uncomfortable role for rabbis.  Maybe, just maybe, and I’m just spit-ballin’ here , you are not interested in more sit-down prayers in less than a week after Yom Kippur.  Well then, let’s try something new.  Five days after Yom Kippur, erev Sukkot will be a pot luck dinner.  We’ll provide soft drinks, you bring a dish.  And a bottle of wine or beer if you wish.  We’ll have dinner together in the Sukkah.  No liturgy in the sanctuary.  Maybe we’ll look at the prayers specific to Sukkot and we’ll shake the lulav, of course, but less formal, more social.  Let’s break the mold.  You know you like seeing each other.  Come have dinner with each other.
And a week after that, let’s shake up Simchat Torah.  Let’s skip the liturgy for a change.  We’ll let our youngest students start us off with their Consecration, we’ll go straight to dancing with the Torah.  We’ll read the end of Deuteronomy, restart Genesis and dance a bit more.  Very lively, very fun, very social.  Then, we’ll send the kids home and the rest of us will stay for Yizkor, the memorial prayers we say four times a year.  How does that sound?
I’m willing to change things up and I’m always open to ideas.  What can I do that will help you feel more connected.  What can I do, give me your wish list, to help you feel closer to Temple Beth Jacob and by that I mean the people of Temple Beth Jacob?
Your financial contribution to Temple Beth Jacob is a pretty precious goat that you bring year after year.  It’s a gift that deserves great respect. I’m willing to work hard to care for that goat.  I may have to learn new methods of animal husbandry, but I’m going to try.  But now I’m also asking for another goat, you, your time, your willingness to try some new things in the community.  I thank you for your trust and I hope you’ll join me.  I promise you’ll find personal joy in seeing how your sacrifice is put to good use.

[1] Greg Wolfe
[2] Lucy Dinner
[3] Elisa Koppel
[4] Jeffrey Kurt-Lendner

Rosh Hashana 5774 P'sukim you can use.

P’sukim you can use
Rosh Hashana 5774
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

People like to email me jokes.  Sometimes they are actually funny.  Fair warning, if you send me an internet joke that has been forwarded more than twice, I don’t read it.  If you send me an internet shaggy dog story with REALLY big font size and quadruple spacing between each line, I don’t read it.  If it involves rabbis, priests and walking into a bar, I don’t read it.  If you send me some urgent email decrying some horrific anti-semitic assault or proclaiming the end of civilization as we know it, I usually scan it, go to, confirm your email has been floating around the cybersphere for a few years and is completely bogus and then in as gentle a manner as possible, point out that things that are outrageous are usually untrue and ask that you forward a correction to all those people with whom you shared outrageous but altogether false gossip and slander.
But let’s get back to the jokes.  There is one joke in particular that people love to make and this one is not by email.  It’s in the real world.  It’s not a joke so much as a witticism.  Here’s the scenario.  You’re in a room.  There are windows.  Everything is fine.  You’re meeting, you’re talking.  Then, say, maybe an hour passes and the sun starts to set and you don’t notice but the room is getting dark.  Finally, someone notices and gets up and flips on the light switch.  And then someone, upon realizing how dim the room had become and how grateful they are for the light, will exclaim, “Let there be light!”  And everyone laughs.  I can’t BELIEVE everyone laughs because honestly it’s an old gag.  You’ve heard it before.  But laugh you do.
And to be sure, it’s good that you do because at the risk of analyzing this too much I would like to suggest that tossing a good old Biblical reference, this one is  יְהִי אוֹר Y’hi Or and it’s from Genesis 1:3, is a smart way to bring in your Jewish textual literacy to an otherwise common experience.
Indeed, to really push the point, I dare say you have made a mundane moment holy.  You have brought in the spiritual side via our holy text and elevated that moment of light switch flipping.  So, good for you light switch flipping Torah dropping quipsters.  You have forged a connection between your Jewish heritage and your secular life.  You have taken Torah out of holy ark lock-down and made it real in the world.
But, and here I don’t mean to quibble, but that’s like, the ONLY pasuk you quote.  Like that’s it.  Let there be light.  And we chuckle.  You’re bringing your 4000 year old heritage to modern experiences.  That’s great but… don’t you have another one?  4000 years, an entire Torah and all we’ve got is one gag?
Well, today, I’m here to help you out.  New year, new experiences, new p’sukim to drop in cocktail party chatter.  I’m going to offer you a few more that you can toss.  They won’t always get a laugh, but they will add a little holiness to your day.
Where to begin?  Where to begin?  How about we stay close to home.  After “let there be light” the very next pasuk, Genesis 1:4, is אֶת־הָאֹ֖ור כִּי־טֹ֑וב וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים    Vayar Elohim et ha-or ki tov.  “And God saw the light and it was good.”  Ki Tov is the phrase we are interested in.  Ki Tov.  Say it with me.  Ki Tov.  “It is good.”  God creates light and then sits back to admire and pronounces, It is good, ki tov.  Why would God need to sit back and take in such Divine handiwork?  Surely, if God made something it must be good.  Surely, it must be awesome.  Surely, we are wrong.  God is not quite the omnipotent being we think God should be.  The Torah clearly has God being more powerful than us but not always more confident.  God will often rethink, be convinced and even sometimes be wrong.  Here, God tosses out the magnificent light and then stops to look over such handiwork.  And you know what?  Ki Tov.  It’s good.  It is.  God stepped back and after some consideration declared, “it’s good.”
Sometimes you may find yourself in a spot where you try something new, where you put yourself out there, where you write something or create something or cook something or vote on something or decide something or buy something and you’re still not completely sure about it.  You have a slight concern. You’re pretty sure it’s good but still…
And then, hey, what do you know?  It worked.  Ki Tov.  Ki Tov!  It’s good, it’s successful.  I did it.  We did it.  Ki tov.  Well done, ki tov.
Staying in Genesis, here’s another one.  Not funny at all, if you must know.  It’s more profound.
This is from Genesis 4:9. Cain just murdered his brother for complicated reasons we’ll save for another day.  God is looking for Abel.  Again, I ask, God doesn’t know already?  Maybe not.  Here’s the pasuk:  And God said unto Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The key phrase for our purposes here is, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי  Try saying that one. הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי  Hashomer achi anochi.  We may need to stick with the English.
You might already imagine a use.  Say you’re at work getting it done when the boss asks you where Joe is.  You could mumble, “How should I know?” Or you could say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  You could drop this one in all sorts of useful spots.  It is the Biblical equivalent to, “not my job, man.”
Unfortunately, while that is really useful for getting people off your back, it is completely out of context.  The actual meaning of this pasuk is that, yes, actually, yes, you ARE your brother’s keeper.  You are responsible for other people.  That is the joy and glory of community and that is the implied message of the quote from Genesis.  Yes, you are.  You are called upon to look out for your brother, your sister, your fellow.  You are supposed to keep an eye out.  Sure, you can’t be expected to worry about everyone but when God spoke with Cain there wasn’t a lot of everyone.  There was Adam.  There was Eve.  There was Able.  That was it.  So yes, in that small circle, yes you are responsible, we are all responsible for the people in our lives.  We are responsible to help them out, to worry about their welfare, to help them be the best they can be.  So, dropping, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a very deft, Biblical move but be aware, it comes with sarcasm and an uncomfortable truth.
One more from Genesis.  It’s 1:27.
   וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמֹ֔ו בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹתֹ֑ו זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
Va yivra Elohim et ha-adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem elohim bara oto, zachar u’nekavah, bara otam.
That is a lot so I’ll shorten it down.  The whole thing means, “And God created the man in His image.  In the image of God, He created him, male and female He created them.”  For our purposes, the key line is “bara oto, zachar u’nekavah, bara otam.”  He created him, male and female, He created them.  This is the fundamental line that justifies the egalitarian nature of Reform Judaism and I would argue the egalitarian nature of Judaism.  Some Jews want to say that men and women have different roles to play.  It’s hard to argue with them on that point.  I will argue with anyone who begins to diminish women’s voices or women’s presence in the community.  There is a not so subtle move between valuing different roles and raising one over the other.  This line, “He created him, male and female, He created them” speaks to the very foundational notion of the equality between men and women.  When it says that God created Adam, it’s reasonable to translate Adam as mankind.  So we get the instruction that God created man as in mankind, all of it.  But just to make sure you get the point, it adds, “male and female, He created them.”  It’s almost as if God says, yes, I created man and by man I mean men and women.  Both are in my image.  Both fundamentally have the same worth. 
And if men and women have equal worth, we do need to remember to treat them well.  We jump ahead to Leviticus 19:18 where we read, וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמֹ֑וךָ “love your neighbor as yourself.”  This one is for you when you face difficult circumstances and tiresome people.  This is when you are frustrated with your neighbor or your boss or your friend even.  We all get frustrated sometimes.  Instead of lashing out, instead of returning anger with anger or attitude with attitude, just remember, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, take a deep breath and say, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  You have to find that inner strength to be kind instead of hostile, to be generous instead of stingy.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 
Here’s another one for work.  Say you are at work and there’s a shift at the top.  There’s a new boss and you start getting different requests and your work, which was fine, is now being questioned.  You could drop in,   וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יֹוסֵֽף׃ Vayakom melech chadash al Mitzraim asher lo yada et Yosef.  From Exodus 1:8, a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.  Joseph as we know, did right by the pharaoh of his day and saved Egypt.  He even enriched Egypt and the Hebrews.  Joseph’s people were held in esteem.  For a couple hundred years life in Egypt was good.  But then, one day, there was a new boss, a new king, a new pharaoh.  And he didn’t know about Joseph and didn’t care.  There was a new boss in town and all that good work done in the past was past.  So when you are feeling like somebody new comes into the picture and they don’t get what’s going on or worse they just skip over it and ignore the good that’s been done, you can drop in, “a new king arose who knew not Joseph.”
One more.  On beautiful days, when the temperature is perfect and the sky is beautiful and the humidity is right and the light is shimmering and you just are taking it all in, you have a moment to look up from your work, to look out from your home, to take in the world and see anew how wonderous everything is.  We can elevate that moment to holiness with a quick quote from Psalm 118: 24:   זֶה־הַ֭יֹּום עָשָׂ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֹֽו׃ Zeh yahom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nismecha vo.
“This is the day God has made, we will rejoice and find happiness in it.”  It’s a moment to tap our spiritual sides, to connect with something larger than ourselves.  Want to make it shorter?  “This is the day God has made.”  Sure, every day is a day that God has made but most of the time we grumble the weather isn’t exactly to our exacting standards.  Too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet.  Too something.  But every now and then, it all comes together and we are shaken from our whining and we remember to appreciate what is all around us.
That’s a good place to stop, on a nice uplift. 
Tossing in a few Bible quotes connects us to each other.  It connects us to our heritage.  And it inspires a deeper spirituality as ancient words are used for modern day issues and it reminds us that the things we feel were as important thousands of years ago as they are today and the words still resonate.  How wonderful we all can be here together to relearn that message.  How amazing we can share this day together.  How uplifting that we can begin the year together with a shared purpose.   זֶה־הַ֭יֹּום עָשָׂ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֹֽו׃  “This is the day God has made, we will rejoice and find happiness in it.” 
Bottom of FormPelfP