Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Yom Kippur sermon 5775

Better than a worm
Yom Kippur 5775
Temple Beth Jacob
Rabbi Larry Freedman

How do rabbis decide what to speak on for the High Holidays?  There are cute aphorisms like, rabbis really just have one sermon; they just deliver it a bunch of different ways.  Or this one:  rabbis aren’t talking to the congregation.  They’re really talking to themselves.  I usually build a list of topics over the year or I’m inspired by a question you ask.  This year, though, I keep coming back to community and the new ideas out there to help create that experience for everyone.
We are a small congregation in a small city that finds ourselves on the cutting edge of synagogue behavior.  Relational Judaism is all the rage among Jewish community professionals these days.  Radical Hospitality, it’s been called.  It is a call to be friendlier, more community minded.  It is a call to take a nice place and make it even more welcoming.  Shameless plug for erev Sukkot.  This Wednesday join us for a pot luck dinner in the sukkah.  This was wildly popular last year.  Same idea this year.  No services.  Food, fun, socializing and lulav and etrog in the sukkah.  You are all welcome to join a lovely social evening.
Our Kol Yisrael project is part of the endeavor to build community.  Yes, it saves money but money was never the only reason to form this partnership.  Community is the driving issue.  Being together even as we do our own thing is what this is all about.  It is already happening even while under construction.  Our community will be even stronger once the construction is complete.  The very idea that two congregations are under one roof is thrilling.  The idea that we can come together and respect each other enough to allow two different styles to flourish without judgment is amazing.  We will be a model for other communities across the country.
However, to be completely honest, I’m really ready for the construction to be done.  If you ask me what this experience is like, I’ll tell you it’s like re-doing your kitchen but much, much worse.  But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  We are getting close.  Every week that goes by, every course of brick that gets laid, every ceiling tile set it, there’s a new spirit, a revived spirit at TBJ.  Committees are being renewed, projects are getting spun up.  We have a vision.  All we need is you. Pitch in with a short term project or just attend; join in on anything that seems fun or interesting.  Doesn’t matter.  We just need you.  This is going to be great.  Hop on board.
And that’s my message about brick and mortar that I can’t resist giving since I have a large crowd.  But Yom Kippur calls for something more spiritual, yes?  Yom Kippur is a difficult day, a hard day but a rewarding day.  It’s not a day for guilt but it is a day for struggle.  It’s a day of honesty and that can be a challenge and it’s a day of celebration because if you can keep up your fast, if you can stay focused on your goal of teshuva, if you can talk to God and the person next to you to clear the air, the finish line is very rewarding.
            So let’s get spiritual and make our way.
Yom Kippur is about being honest, really honest and suffering through that honesty.  Yes suffering.  You thought fasting was hard?  Husbands and wives, children and parents, friends need to have serious talks and it hurts to have them.  It’s difficult to clear the air.  It’s difficult because the goal is teshuva, repentance, a sincere desire to fix the wrong, understand how it happened and never let it happen again.
And the good news is that suffering through that process leads to reward.  I’ll explain.
Why is there evil?  There just is.  If we want free will, there will be evil.  If you want the ability to make choices, then included among those choices will be bad choices.  If we want an idyllic garden of Eden where we are no different than the deer in our back yards, a world of instinct alone without free will, then we won’t have evil.  But we won’t be human, either.  To be fully human means we have to wrestle with evil.
The Tanya, the mystical book by the Alter Rebbe, revered by Chabad offers the Jewish mystical take on evil.  Evil is a gift.
You do something wrong and it’s wrong.  However, that’s not the end of the story.  You have free will.  You did the wrong but you now have a choice.  You can fix that wrong, you can make teshuva, and that’s a great blessing.  Every wrong you do gives you a chance not only to make up for it but even gain extra credit for turning evil to good.  I lied but I apologized and learned never to do that again.  One sin is countered by two good acts.  And God is happier.  The mystics teach that God is happier than if you had just been good.  Being good is good but turning an evil around through teshuva is even greater because the work to do so is so much harder.
When you have evil thoughts, bad thoughts, gossipy thoughts, that’s bad.  When you push them away, when you make the moral choice to ignore them, to suppress them, to choose to think positively, resist the evil impulse and choose the moral path, that is even better.  The good is a good far greater than the evil was evil.  You didn’t give in.  You were in control of your negative impulses.  That is the path  to righteous behavior.
Mae West said, “When I’m good, I’m very good.  But when I’m bad, I’m better.”  Who knew that Mae West was speaking in Jewish mystical terms.  When I’m good, I’m good.  But when I’m bad, I have a chance to flip the bad towards the good and then I’m even better.  I’m sure that’s what Mae West was talking about.
The mystics continue.  Who is greater, a worm or a man?  In Psalms 22:6 it says, I am a worm and not a man…despised by the people.  The psalmist was feeling low.  The mystics flip that around to suggest that the man saying this was happier to be a worm.  Strange because if I ask you who is greater, a worm or a human being you would say human.  But sometimes, the worm is greater.
How can that be?  How can a worm be greater than a person?  Here’s how.  A worm is a worm in the exact way God made the worm.  The worm does exactly what God intended for the worm.  God said, you are created to fulfill the best worminess that you can.  And the worm does exactly that.  The worm is perfect before God.  The worm lives up to a complete 100% of the wormy expectations God can expect.  Now the human.  Does the human being live up to 100% of its potential?  The human has free will and the ability to make the world a better place and make him or herself a better person.  That is our purpose.  We’ve even been given a Torah as a guideline to help us fulfill that goal.  That is what God intended for us.  And do we do that?  Do we fulfill the best that a human being can be?  Do we come even close to fulfilling 100% of human-ness?  The worm is doing great.  How’m I doing?
That is our challenge: to fulfill our potential.  And it’s a hard challenge. The worm is lucky not to have free will.  Alas, we are blessed and burdened with free will which leaves us striving to be the best person we can be while we struggle to stay away from bad choices.  The mystical tradition offers hope. 
We can take the sins we do and turn them around and that puts us well on the way to being the best we can be.  We can choose to be kind and caring.  We can choose to reach towards righteousness.  We can show that worm a thing or two.  That worm may be 100% fulfilling the mission God gave it but it can’t improve.  It can’t apologize, it can’t improve, mature, learn from its moral failings because it never has moral failings.  We have the ability to do all that.  We have the ability to be better tomorrow than we are today.  The worm  will be the same tomorrow as it is today.       
Don’t see a sin as a problem.  See it as a possibility.  See it as an opportunity.  That doesn’t mean you get to run around sinning.  The mystical tradition sees teshuva as fix for sins you regret and running around being bad for the express purpose of flipping those sins does not get you double credit.
I’ll tell you what does get extra credit.

We are about to see the conclusion of an extraordinary building for a project fairly unique in the entire country.  We have taken two congregations and the JCC that used to work apart from the other, a real missing of the mark, and brought them together to strengthen our entire community.  We are turning a negative into a positive and that’s worth double credit in God’s eyes.  May this building, this Kol Yisrael experience inspire us in our own lives to turn our negatives into positives and accrue extra credit in our lives.  And in that way, may you be inscribed in the book of life.  G’mar Chatimah Tova.

Erev Yom Kippur sermon 5775

Silly Goats and Real Community
Yom Kippur 5775
Temple Beth Jacob
Rabbi Larry Freedman

In another year or two, there will be a new machzor called Mishkan Hanefesh.  The title means “dwelling place of the soul” and it will be edited in a similar style to our regular Mishkan Tefilla siddur, the “dwelling place of prayer.”  We’re using an advance unproofed copy for our afternoon service this year again.  If you’re in the Orthodox world, the machzor doesn’t change all that much but over in the Reform Movement, with our use of English translation and poetic interpretation, the book can become routine and dated.  Our current machzor was published in 1978 so it really is due for a modernization.
Some of you may remember the machzor that came out before the one we are using.  That was the small UPB or Union Prayer Book.  That machzor had a relative sprinkling of Hebrew and the English was filled with “thee” and “thou” and other language we might find arcane.  It also had a section for a personal vidui, the personal confession.  It had, among others, a section for parents and a section for spouses and a section for children.  My mother, about whom I usually tell inspiring and instructive stories, would pull out the full blown guilt at this moment.  She would take her finger and start jabbing the page that had the vidui for children.  “Read this.  You have to read this.”
Grrrrr.  Even as a child, the majesty of Yom Kippur can sink in and between the grand melodies and the formality and the sitting there, you got a sense of something powerful going on.  You began to think about things larger than yourself, the very start of spirituality.  And then your mother starts jabbing your machzor hissing “read this”.  I am aware the attempt was to focus my attention on something written for my age bracket but it kind of came down like, “read this and repent you rotten child.”  That was not the way to go.
Yom Kippur is extremely personal.  It really is all about you, you, you.  But it is experienced communally.  It takes place best among us, us, us.  The best example of this in our liturgy is the al chet where we as a group acknowledge our sins as a group.  No one could face the crushing truth of reciting in front of a group his or her sins.  It’s easier if we all declare all our sins together while inwardly acknowledging which ones among the group’s list actually apply to you specifically.  Only you need to know and only you need to do something about that.  It’s nobody’s business.  And yet the process of teshuva seems to work better if we make it everyone’s business to share the experience.  You are not alone.  You with your sins are not alone.  We all have sins.  We all have things that are keeping us from being our best.  We all have issues we are struggling with.  Your sin may be unique but that you sin is not.  You are in good company.
And this brings me to the eScapegoat.  For those of you who don’t know because you ignored two postcards, haven’t visited our FaceBook site or stuffed cotton in your ears as I promote it endlessly, let me explain what it is.  EScapegoat is a website telling the story of the Biblical scapegoat.  This is a real thing.  As part of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual, when the Temple stood, two goats were selected.  One of them was sacrificed as a burnt offering. The other one received all the sins of the community.  The Cohen Gadol would lay his hands upon the goat to transfer the sins and then the goat would be taken off to the desert and sent off or, in some understandings, pushed off a cliff.  It’s rough, I know.  But the idea is that the goat would carry away your sins and you did not want those sins returning.
The eScapegoat website tells this story in less graphic detail.  Safe for kids.  After telling the story, it asks you to upload, anonymously, your sins.  After you do that, you can see what others have posted.  Again, it’s all anonymous.
Why did I sign us up?  First of all, it has goats, and in my family, we have a thing about goats.  Number two: the graphics are adorable.  How can you turn away from this face?
Number three: in its cartoonish way, the eScapegoat speaks to a very profound issue.  Can we articulate those things that are holding us back?   It’s a spiritual exercise.  Can we, using primary color graphics, quiet our minds enough to be honest with ourselves and allow dark thoughts to surface?  Because teshuva can’t happen until we’re honest with ourselves.   And judging by the list, we have been very honest. 
All of the responses to our own unique Temple Beth Jacob eScapegoat are important to the people who wrote them.  Some seem light, some seem heavy but all are issues keeping the writer from being the best person he or she can be.  At a time when we are called upon to declare that this year will be better, we have to face those things that have kept us from that goal last year.  As of my writing this we had 67 responses from members of our community.  The answers are anonymous but can be viewed by anyone on the website.  Listen and take seriously the issues your friends are facing:
I spend time on twitter at work. 
Four people regretted laziness.
Not being attentive enough to family was a recurrent theme:  “I'm sorry I didn't spend more time with my children.” “For my daughter not being able to know all her cousins” and “I often hurt the feelings of the people I care about and love the most” or “I have lied to family about my availability to attend certain functions.“ “Find the strength to listen with understanding to my children.”
Marriages came up often:  “I have felt resentment towards my husband who is a good man and doesn't deserve to be thought of badly.” “I did not support my husband during a hard time; I acted like a spoiled brat instead.”
Interpersonal relationships:  When a co-worker asked me to record his ice bucket challenge, I deliberately did not hit record.
There were a number of comments under this general heading of self-improvement like “I'm sorry I wasn't more humble. Too often I'm just a kind of snooty little smarty pants.” “I'm sorry that I am not as tolerant as I would like to be” and “I would like to be more forgiving...of others as well as myself” and “I complain too much about what is wrong and forget to say thank you for what is right.” “I'm sorry I can't do more for my Temple.  Perhaps next year will be better.
Issues with friends came up frequently: “I'm sorry for the miss understanding with a friend whose feelings were hurt. We have now corrected our errors.” “I lied to my friend for whom truth is everything.”
Our young people added in sins too: “I broke up with someone over text message.”  “I broke up with a girl because she was irritating me off and still had braces.”  “I've slacked and cheated in school to maintain my grades.” “I lied to my parents about going to the mall. I told them I brought x dollars, but really I brought xx dollars.” “I'm sorry for not listening to my mom when I know I should.”
And among others? 
I know I need to change my eating habits but I choose not to.
I made my daughter feel she is unworthy.  Mostly, I have lost my sense of spirituality and G-d and I want it back.
I made people feel guilty.
I got drunk in front of my college age daughter, bad example for her.
I'm sorry I sometimes go for the laugh rather than thinking before I speak.
I have guilt about not being able to let go of something I know I will NEVER be able to have again.
I can't give up an obsession that's harming me and making someone I love unhappy.
I am not living up to my dreams.
I don't have the courage to live my life and so I look for means of escape.
I am sometimes manipulative.

If we want to build community, and we do, we have to let our friends here at Temple Beth Jacob know that we care for them.  Because the responses are anonymous, we can’t reach out but know this.  To those of you in this room who posted, we hear you.  We feel for you. We are ready to help you in your struggles.  You are not alone.  You are part of a community where many, many people have their own struggles.  We all face struggles.  We all have burdens.  We all have regrets.  Together we can help each other.
This is why I love this goat.  The interface is juvenile but the meaning is extremely serious.  
The other great example of this interplay of communal and personal is the very fact that Yom Kippur draws a crowd.  The themes of the day, the introspection, seem to be most effective when we are together.  You could pick up a used machzor on Amazon and thumb through it at home but that’s no fun and I would think boring.  If we’re going to have a serious day of reflection, it’s more meaningful to do so all together.
We are all in this experience together.  We are all  partners in this day.  
I’ve been thinking of that word a lot in terms of how we organize our synagogue.  For decades the membership model for synagogues has been the only model.  It’s filled with words like dues and statements and member and non-member.  It has a fee-for-service connotation, it has an exclusivity connotation but perhaps worst of all is that it has a sense of you vs. us.  There is this institution, Temple Beth Jacob, and there is some group that runs it and you can join or not, you can be a member not.  But then what?  So you’re a member.  That entitles you to various services that you can demand from the powers that be.  You vs. them.
It doesn’t function quite so harshly on a day to day basis but that is how it can feel to a lot of people
What if we changed our language?  What if we looked at this as more of a partnership?  What if, instead of a member, you were a partner of Temple Beth Jacob?  What would that mean to you?  What would that look like?  What if we remove an us and them context and make it just us?  Right now, the synagogue is trying to serve its members.  What would it mean if the partners, all the partners, contributed ideas and energy towards the programming we have, the opportunities we can provide?
The membership model for synagogues had its day but now, we need something new.  We need something where all of us feel a responsibility towards the energy of the community and where all of us feel our contributions of time and energy and ideas whether large or small is received graciously.
One synagogue, Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA has a policy where they don’t say no.  If you have an idea, they synagogue will work to give you a space and dates to make it happen.  They will support the program as much as they can financially.  But, you, the person with the idea, have to make it happen.  You the member don’t tell the synagogue what you want.  You the partner propose an idea that is almost always approved and then you make it happen with staff and budgetary support.  That’s a partnership.
The notion of partnership with a synagogue is the idea that you don’t buy a product; you support your community.  As a partner, you have the right and duty to speak up so that the partnership meets your needs.  You become vested in the health of the community and you become empowered to think creatively so that the synagogue provides what you want at the stage of life you are in. 

We’re all in this together.  Whether it’s baring our souls via the eScapegoat or imagining a new relationship with this congregation, we’re all in it together and that is moving and uplifting and very inspiring.  On a serious day, I see a very happy future.

Rosh Hashana morning sermon 5775

About Israel
Rosh Hashana 5775
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Today, I need to talk about Israel.  It’s not a very unusual topic for a crowd such as this and, spoiler alert, I support Israel.  But with Operation Protective Edge over the summer and the more vitriolic than usual fallout, it’s worth discussing Israel.  We need to remember why we stand by Israel and there are things to wrestle with and acknowledge.  Second spoiler alert: you won’t like those.
Let’s begin at the beginning.  In 1894, Alfred Dreyfuss, a French army officer was accused of treason.  Turns out he was framed.  Eventually, the true turncoat was found and after 5 years on Devil’s Island Dreyfuss was released. Theodore Herzl was an Austrian reporter sent to cover the trial and he witnessed the French shouting not “death to Dreyfuss” but “death to the Jews.”  He understood that there would never be a safe haven for Jews in Europe.  Whether poor and religious like Eastern European Jews or rich and secular like Western European Jews, Europe would never accept Jews and never be safe for them.  Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897 creating the modern Zionist movement to find a homeland for Jews, someplace where they could be safe.
Little by little, money was raised, land was purchased and the Jewish population in the Land of Israel began to be built up.  Jews had always been there but now European Jews started to move in and develop agriculture and towns and infrastructure.
The true story of the founding of a Jewish state is a story of how only Jews were going to look out for Jews; if Jews wanted a safe haven, they would have to create it themselves.  The romantic and heroic story of Jews leaving permanent victim status and creating their own state is very much true.  It is important to understand that the Jewish people since our dispersal by the Romans in 70 CE were no longer players on the world stage.  We were guests in someone else’s country, guests in someone else’s story.  In the 19th century, nationalism became a popular and prized political philosophy but Jews had no nation and so we had no place in the world.  Zionism returned a nationalist narrative to the Jewish people and 1948 returned us to the world stage. 
Of course, around this time, the dream of an independent state wasn’t unique. Empires around the globe were crumbling and former colonies were becoming actual countries.  India was founded in 1947.  Jordan, as we know it today, was founded in May of 1946, two years before Israel. The difference for Jews is that we encouraged more Jews to come and live in this new country.  I don’t know if India and Pakistan had a worldwide campaign to encourage Indians and Pakistanis to come home after their founding.  If they did, nobody seems to mind.
We returned to the world stage.  We had a country that would speak for Jews and we didn’t have to scrape and grovel to our host countries.  We had diplomats who would argue for the State of Israel and by extension Jews.  We had representation at sports events and scientific conferences under the banner of the State of Israel offering pride to Jews everywhere.  It cannot be overstated what life was like for Jews after the declaration of the State of Israel.  You became somebody.  You walked prouder and quite frankly, you didn’t take the crap you used to take.  The State of Israel looks out for Jews wherever they are and raises the pride of Jews wherever they are.
But this true heroic, romantic story is taking a hit these days by the reality that followed.  In Israel, the promise of equality for all remains but the reality is not what we might want.  Arabs and Jews for the most part live separately and go to school separately.  Everyone meets and mixes in the courts and hospitals, shopping malls and universities but in many other parts of society, there is separation.  Yes, everyone will be treated fairly in the hospitals.  Yes, there is an Arab supreme court justice.  Yes, there was an Arab Miss Israel.  Yes, yes, yes.  And even with all that, day-to-day, there’s bigotry towards Israeli Arabs.  They face a lot of discrimination.  It’s not even close to apartheid but it’s not good either.  We need to understand that.
Since 1967, there has also been another issue that we haven’t wanted to deal with.  When Israel won the 6-Day war, a success beyond belief, a miracle from on high, that victory brought the west bank of the Jordan river under Israeli control.  It was occupied by the military and it continues to be occupied.  Perhaps it is occupied because Israel never had the vision to get out or it is occupied as a necessary military buffer zone to keep terrorists at bay or it is occupied because Biblical lands, the very towns mentioned in the Torah are under Jewish control and cannot be relinquished.  But in the end, it is occupied territory.
For a number of years, the occupation was benign as far as these things go but in the 1970s, settlements started.  Some of the settlements are right on the Green Line boundary, populated by Jews who want inexpensive housing.  Other settlements built farther in are populated by religious Zionists; real zealots and as a group, not very nice to the Palestinians.  While I’m sure there are kind settlers, the settlers who cause friction are bigots and harass the Palestinians where they can.  Currently there is a Price Tag phenomenon whereby settlers vandalize and destroy Arab property.  The occupation itself is rough and brutal and oppresses the Palestinian people.  That’s the honest truth.  Of course, we know why.  Without it, the West Bank would return to a cauldron of suicide bombers.  Without the oppression, terrorism would be unchained.  But that doesn’t change the facts of occupation or that the settlements are taking land, taking resources and carving up the topography.  Palestinians fear that the real purpose of the settlements is to disrupt any ability for a State to Palestine to even exist.  And gauging by the current government, they just may be right. 
I’m reading Ari Shavit’s book, “My Promised Land.”  It is a compelling narrative based on first person interviews and arduous archive searches.  He recounts a glorious story of Jews buying and developing land into farms, kibbutzim, schools, medical clinics; of Jews giving up everything to build a place where Jews would be safe.  And they did this with the help and aid and friendship of the local Arabs.  Before the British left, Palestine was a place of orange groves and Arab-Jewish cooperation.  Except when it wasn’t.  There were lynchings of Jews, bombings of Jews, murders of Jews.  And at times, murders of Arabs.  It bred suspicion.  Could these friends of the Jews be trusted if war broke out?  Whom would an Arab village support?  The Jews or the Jordanian army?
In 1948 when the Yishuv, the pre-State government, declared independence with its arm outstretched to neighboring Arab countries, it was, to no one’s surprise, smacked away.  War broke out and while some Arabs fled their villages those Arab villages in strategic areas were occupied and then emptied by Jews.  Israel itself was not cleansed of Arabs but this town here, that village there certainly was.  The Palestinian story of being kicked out of their homes is not just rhetoric.  It really happened and they really believe they are entitled to return.  We have to come to grips with that.  You may feel better knowing that Jews were expelled from any territory the Arab armies captured, most famously the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.  They were also attacked and expelled from Arab countries before and after 1948.  Babylonian Jews, a presence for 3000 years, were unceremoniously expelled from Iraq.  We are not speaking of polite times.  The ugly side of nationalism was alive and well all around the middle east.  War brings out the worst in everyone.
The Palestinians call the Israel War of Independence the Naqba, disaster.  From their point of view, it surely was. And I feel pretty bad about that. I really do feel for them if their grandparents and great-grandparents were forced out of their homes.  What kind of person would I be if I ignored suffering? I’m sorry if Palestinians feel like they are trapped in Gaza because of that Naqba.  A decent Jew should be willing to discuss that history.  But a decent Jew also has to live in the modern day and today they are shooting rockets at my people.  In word and deed they seek the destruction of the State of Israel and the death of as many Jews as possible.  So, honestly, I want to be sympathetic but first things first.  Stop trying to kill my family.  We have much to discuss.  We can look forward to reconciliation but first stop… killing…my … family.  Palestinians want to talk about a lost home from 1948.  I want to talk about rockets in 2014.  I think my issue has more urgency.
That’s why we defend Israel.  That’s why we stand by Israel.  The outcome if we don’t is too horrible to imagine. Jews who feel more for the plight of the Palestinians than Israelis are either ill informed or fools.  However, Jews who ignore the claims of the Palestinians are either ill informed or cruel.  I’m not a fool but I also don’t want to be cruel.  The issue isn’t that I don’t care.  It’s that I have to prioritize.  Multiple things are happening all at the same time and they can’t all be dealt with at the same time.  There are legitimate grievances of Palestinians.  Then there is the more pressing matter of rockets being fired to kill Jews.  My full defense of Israel’s self defense doesn’t presume I’ve forgotten about the suffering of the Palestinian populace.  My sympathy towards those who suffer war’s effects doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten why Israel went after Hamas in the first place:  to wipe out the State of Israel, slowly but surely.
And if that’s not reason enough to support Israel, the worldwide reaction to the war in Gaza offers more.
This past summer, out of anger at Israel, there was a near lynching of a Jew in Calgary.[1] A supermarket in England was attacked by a protest that yanked kosher foods off the shelves.  Following this, another supermarket in England pulled it’s kosher products of their shelves though they’ve since apologized.[2]  European protests called for gassing the Jews and shouts of Hitler was right.  In Paris, 200 Jews were besieged in a synagogue.  In Germany an orthodox Jewish 18 year old punched in the face and a Molotov cocktail thrown.  Why did so many protests include the cry “death to the Jews” and not “death to Israel”?
We’re back to the Dreyfus case.  We’ve returned to where we see people around the world feeling comfortable not just to criticize Israel but also to hate Jews.  That’s something new – and old – and new.  And this, too, needs our voices raised in protest.  This, too, is why we must support Israel because what happened around the world this summer is the very reason Israel came to be.  To support Israel means refusing to go backwards in time.
The history of the State of Israel is complicated and filled with uncomfortable truths of what we, in the name of self-preservation, did and what we continue to do to others.  And it’s a story of what others did to us: expulsions, lynchings, bombings, hatred.
Let’s acknowledge that but let’s not lose focus.  We have to support Israel during times of self-defense.  Decent people everywhere need to speak out in support of the only country interested in the national liberation aspirations of the Jewish people.  Israel remains a refuge for oppressed Jews.  Israel remains a source of Jewish culture and learning and a protector of Jewish heritage.  It is home to the largest population of Jews with very hostile terrorist groups all about. We have to speak up and defend Israel’s right to exist.  The rest of it is up for discussion but don’t let anyone confuse the issue.  There is disagreeing with the policies of a sovereign nation and then there is the desire to erase that sovereign nation.  One is fair, the other is pure hatred. 
In lightening speed, Jews from around the world turned a former Ottoman Empire backwater into an amazing economic, cultural, academic, tour de force.  Israel is simply, on so many levels amazing.  We should never let the headlines make us forget that.  That’s why it’s okay to celebrate Israel even as you remember the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people.  It’s not okay to let the world get away demonizing the State of Israel while ignoring the right of Israeli self-defense against thousands and thousands of rockets.  It’s okay to be torn over Israeli policy and proud that Israel remains strong.  There is no shame in being strong.  There is no shame in acknowledging mistakes.  One can make mistakes and be strong and on balance, be just.  That is a complicated position but it is the right position.  Welcome to the middle east.  Welcome to Israel.

[1] http://www.calgarysun.com/2014/07/21/family-recounts-attack-calgary-rally-organizers-to-apologize-for-violence
[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/sainsburys-condemned-for-taking-kosher-food-off-shelves-during-propalestinian-protest-9675242.html

Erev Rosh Hashana sermon 5775

Relational Judaism
Erev Rosh Hashana 5775
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

So who’s surprised to see me standing here tonight?  I can tell you I’m surprised to see me here.  I was sure my future was holding something else.  But I’m here and it’s all good.  Glad to have a stressful year behind me. 
I make a joke each year as we begin our tefillot that it seems a shame how just when everyone is at their chattiest and happiest, I call the crowd to order and begin services.  Don’t get me wrong.  Many of us like the liturgy and I look forward to hearing the grand melodies and I enjoy the themes of the day but I am aware that not everyone feels that way.  I suspect that everyone has his or her own favorite part of the day.  Avinu malkeinu is a big part.  The shofar is a big part. Food is a big part.  Family is a big part.  Friends are a big part.  The social aspect of Rosh Hashana is a big part of the allure of the day.  We like seeing each other.  We like being engaged with each other.  And that’s how it should be.
Last year Ron Wolfson wrote a book titled Relational Judaism and his basic thesis is that if we want Jewish communities and synagogues in particular to continue, we have to play to that strength.  It used to be that Jews would join synagogues just because that is what you would do.  You grow up, get married, join a synagogue.  Synagogues had to provide meaningful experiences but truth is, the Jews were joining no matter what.  That is no longer the case -- not for us.  It’s a new world, Golde.  It’s a world of gen x and millennials and multiple identities and multi-culturalism and despite the persistent scourge of anti-Semitism, unlimited opportunities for Jews.  You don’t need to be in a synagogue to find people with common interests.  You don’t need to be in a synagogue to find a social life.  If you have wifi, you don’t even need a synagogue for Rosh Hashana services- just stream them while sitting on the couch.
What?  I could have stayed home?
Yes, you could have streamed Rosh Hashana from any of a hundred synagogues out there.  But you didn’t and deep down you know that being here is better than being in front of a screen.
It’s the people.  It’s got to be the people.  Sitting on the couch streaming Rosh Hashana is fine if you can’t get out of the house but it’s lonely.  You’re watching an experience but you’re not sharing an experience.  There’s nothing quite like being with people who share 4000 years of history.
It’s got to be the people.  It’s the experience of what happens when we gather.  Do you know why Home Depot has craft days and DIY seminars?  It’s not just to get people to buy product.  It’s to get you interacting with them and with other people.  Why are the Apple Stores so successful with a product you can buy so easily over the internet?  It’s the experience of interacting with the machine and the people who are there to help you.  Have you been to an Apple Store lately?  As soon as you walk in, you have a new friend who is there to help you and talk to you and ultimately to buy from directly. There’s no cash register!  You are never abandoned.  You are always in community.  Nordstrom’s sells expensive goods like gangbusters. You know what they rely on?  Personal service.  You don’t buy shoes.  You buy an experience with another person.  Ever notice how some upscale retail stores pick up the shopping bag after you’ve paid and graciously hand it to you?  Why do they do that?  It’s on the counter!  I can pick it up.  Because they know they are creating a small but important relationship.  They hand you the bag.  They interact with you.
It’s all about the relations.  Relational Judaism.  It’s a new world and we’ve already begun.  The Kol Yisrael project is paying off.  More of us are interacting more of the time.  As the building finishes, I’m looking towards an exciting, active busy place where even as we go to our own events, we’re all together.
We’ve already begun.  This past summer as July 4 fell on a Friday night, Deborah and I hosted over 35 people for a cookout and tefillot at our home on a night that probably would have had six people show up if we were in the sanctuary.  Why?  Because it was fun and social.  Two of our three yizkor services last year had more people than usual as we left the standard liturgy to have a more discussion based experience that allowed people to talk with each other as they remembered their loved ones.  Just a month ago a dozen of our folks staffed a booth at New Windsor Community Day to reach out and begin the process of forming relationships.  And last year for erev Sukkot we had over 70 people come out for a Sukkot potluck dinner.  We’re surely doing that again.  No services.  Dinner, sukkah, shaking the lulav and etrog.  Talking with each other.  Sharing the experience of Sukkot.  It was a lovely way to welcome the holiday and it was social.  We need more and more of this.  That’s why you have nametags.  Not tickets.  This isn’t a show.  It’s your community and we want you all to get to know each other even better.  So, by the way, please help us build community by wearing your nametag.  Trust me.  Not everyone knows who you are.  It will feel odd at first but to build community, we each have to do our share.
The urgency for more relational Judaism is found in the simple data driven fact that hundreds of thousands of Reform Jews think of themselves as friendly while at the exact same time hundreds of thousands of Reform Jews think their synagogue is cold and unfriendly.  There is a disconnect.  Reform synagogues have huge attraction rates and huge loss rates most often right after Bar and Bat Mitzvah.  Why does this happen?  Research suggests two phenomenon.  One: They joined with a fee for service attitude.  Once they had the Bar and Bat Mitzvah they no longer saw a need to pay so they quit and left the synagogue.  Two:  They joined for a sense of community but a few years after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, they felt like the synagogue offered nothing for them, no sense of community.  So they left. 
I know that some of you will take offense.  You think you’re very friendly.  And, in truth, you are.  But the issue we are facing is not just about being friendly.  It’s about being friendly in a new way that makes people feel welcomed and engaged at every stage of life.  What I’m talking about is so novel that it’s got a name:  Radical Hospitality.  This is cutting edge stuff and we should be proud that we are in early.
Now, how else can we get to really know each other?  How else?  I bet we could bond if we all learned something about each other.  I thought about a slumber party but… If only there was some sort of media, social media where we could share some things.  Hmmmm…..
I hope you’ve brought your cell phones.  If you have them, pull them out, turn them on, and go to your text-messaging app.
This is a program from Poll Everywhere.  I will be asking you questions and you will text answers.  Your answers will be seen but your names will not.  I will have a monitor so if you send in dirty words, we’ll censor those so don’t even try.  You can text multiple times so if there is someone near you who doesn’t have a phone, please share.  We’re being social and friendly. Let’s do a test.
You will text your answer to this number XXXXX.  Once you text to it once, your phone will hold that number so you don’t need to retype it.  Okay, let’s try. Of these choices, what do you want first at break fast?  A.  Carbs!  B.  Coffee!  C. Water!  D.  Whatever I can grab first!
Okay.  Let’s go.  RH is about fresh starts but there’s some regret. We regret that this year we may not be with all the people we wish were here. Maybe they’re away in college or moved to a new state or maybe you’ve moved away from them.  Maybe they’ve died.  Who are you missing now?
Rosh Hashana is about being honest.  It’s about being open and present to the possibility of new discussions with the ones we care for.  So let’s be honest.  With whom do we need to build our relationships?
A. Friends.  B.  My neighbors.  C. My spouse/partner D. My children  E. My parents F. My family. 
What will you do to improve those relationships?
Do you feel you have a relationship with the synagogue community?
A. Yes.  B. A little.  C. No.
If you had only seven seconds to convince someone to be a partner in the growth of TBJ, what would you say?  Can you think of something that would help make our connections between each other stronger?  Maybe it could be an open art room evening or Temple Beth Jacob pick-up basketball night for adults.  Something you would like to study something or a movie club?  Text a suggestion.
The usual experience of a synagogue is a place for religious school, prayer, lifecycle events and adult education.  All of that is good.  All of that is great.  None of that reaches out to the mass of partners we have at TBJ.  We’ll continue to do what we’ve done but do the hard work to make each one of you feel like this really is your home, a place that has value for you throughout the year.  It’s a new world and it won’t happen over night but we’ve already begun.
Oh, one final question.  Nicely, constructively, if you please, send me your complaints.  You can use the same text number.  This will be in operation for another week.  Send in anything else you want me and the Board of Trustees to know about.  It’s confidential.
Shana Tova.  A good year to you.  Shana Metukah.  A sweet year to you.  Shana b’nuyah, a rebuilt year to you.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kedoshim Simcha trees
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
April 25, 2014
Rabbi Larry Freedman

If you have looked over tonight’s Torah reading, you might ask, what is the rabbi thinking?  Why are we reading this?  If you know that we are making our way through the entire Torah and that this year we focus on the sixth aliyah, you would know that the rules of adultery just happen to be what we are reading.  And if you come to Torah study tomorrow, you get to read the rest of the aliyah and delve into even more sordid and uncomfortable territory.
And then you might ask, on a night of celebration, why are we reading this difficult material?  So, I’ll tell you.
The Torah is a frank document.  It does not shy away from the holiness and vulgarity of the human condition.  Everything is discussed.  If you want only uplift, read Proverbs.  If you want real life, read the Torah.  That’s why in a parasha that includes the famous, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we also find rules forbidding every possible form of adultery.  The Torah addresses everything.  It tells us that there is a reality to humanity and sometimes it’s not good.  But, here I am, says the Torah, offering guidance and a path that can help.  We don’t turn away from the ugly.  We look at it straight in the eye and choose a better way.  The Torah tells us, don’t be upset because there is ugliness.  We miss the point if we shy away from the uncomfortable.
And we also will miss the opening words of our reading:  You shall faithfully observe my laws; I the Lord make you holy.
What an extraordinary concept that God makes us holy.  Nothing less than holy and for what?  For agreeing to live moral and ethical lives.  In a world with such ugliness, we can create holiness, we can bring holiness, we can be very models of holiness by simply agreeing to live ethical and moral lives.  Simple.  Simple and yet not so simple.  There is a lot of temptation, there is seduction, there is selfishness.  There are so many things that pull us away from the right path.  Moral and ethical living requires us to think of others and to consider the group as a whole.  Living a holy life and bringing holiness into the world can’t be accomplished by the selfish.  It can’t be accomplished by the gossip, the cheat, the mean-spirited.  It can’t be done by those easily seduced by the very tempting dark side.  Living an unholy life very often seems much more tempting than living a holy life.  The leather jacket bad boy gets more attention than the goodie two shoes.  Indeed, we often make fun of the “do-gooder.”  And that’s really weird.  Shouldn’t we all aspire to be a do-gooder?  Shouldn’t we all aspire to make the world a better place and make ourselves better people?
Our aliyah starts us off by saying, you can be holy.  You can be holy and bring holiness into the world but to do so, here’s a list of things to avoid.  What’s that you say?  You weren’t planning on doing any of that anyway?  Fantastic.  You’re well on your way and next week I’ll have a new list for you to discuss.
There is a beautiful mystical notion that comes out of this teaching.  There is a mystical idea that there are sparks of holiness that are waiting to be released.  A metaphor perhaps though some believe it to be literal.  Sparks of holiness waiting to be released by drawing near to God and by being mindful of what we do.  If we eat and just eat, we are like animals.  If we say a blessing beforehand, we elevate the act and release a spark of holiness.  And, if we eat just out of gluttony, well, that’s that.  But if we eat as part of a celebration, if we eat mindful that food gives us the fuel to get out there and make the world a better place, then eating is holy.   If we take a nap tomorrow, we take a nap but if we are mindful that it is Shabbat and we make an effort to rest on Shabbat we release a spark of holiness.  If we rest on Shabbat mindful that then we’ll be even more ready to face the world come Sunday, we release a spark of holiness.  Everything, if done for a higher purpose, can release a spark of holiness.
And that gets me to thinking about our Simcha Trees.  After much work and consideration, more than you might imagine, we have another part of our home in our home.  Our trees have made their trip and proudly tell the story of happy events and moments in the life of our congregation.  Looking over the leaves we are transported back in time to this wedding or that graduation or a Bar and Bat Mitzvah and we remember the people.  Those leaves remember people and events and the warmth of community when we see our friends on the wall.
And, those leaves are also a moment of holiness.  Sparks of holiness come from each leaf.  Do people make a donation just to see their name up there?  Are people so narcissistic that they must memorialize their wedding or anniversary?  I don’t think so.  I believe that those leaves are an opportunity for holiness.  It is not a pleasant topic but it must be said that keeping our congregation going since 1854 has required people’s time, energy, creativity and, let’s be honest, money.  The heating and air conditioning bills don’t get paid by themselves.  The lights don’t pay for themselves.  And there is the rabbi’s salary which is a large part of the budget, a responsibility I take quite seriously.  All these things take money. 
On the tree, we have a wide variety of simchas, happy events that already incurred some cost: a baby naming, an engagement.  There already were parties to plan or clothes to buy or caterers to hire.  There already was an expense and yet the people who bought those leaves knew that they had one more expense.  They knew that their simcha would never have been the same if Temple Beth Jacob had not been here; if the building didn’t provide a warm environment, if a rabbi hadn’t always been available to guide them.  And it wouldn’t have been the same without our musical leadership or administrative help.  And so those people who have purchased leaves released a spark of holiness.  They fulfilled the mitzvah of supporting their community.  They understood what this community means to them and they helped to ensure that the community would be there for the next family celebrating a joyful moment.  Since 1854, Jews and Jewish families in the Newburgh area have been mindful that their private joy is really our communal joy; that we all rejoice together, as a community.  That mindfulness makes the synagogue more than a catering hall and Temple Beth Jacob more than a club.  We are a holy community, a kehillah kedosha.  Right now, under construction, we may be tempted to forget that.  But look at the names on those trees, remember the events on those leaves and know that every family there made sure that a little something went to the congregation so that we can continue on.  Needless to say, I hope you will be inspired to make your next event or moment a holy one as well as you fulfill the mitzvah of supporting our community.

Everything in this Kol Yisrael project has taken longer than we would want which is why we must be doubly proud and excited as we reach each milestone.  Today is a good day as we re-dedicate the simcha trees in their new home and as we re-dedicate ourselves to our community.  May we continue to be mindful of our actions, may we continue to reject the easy temptations and may we always reach for spiritual heights.  May we continue to be worthy so that God can make us holy.