Saturday, September 30, 2017

As if we are dead Kol Nidre 5778

As if we are dead
Kol Nidre 5778
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Rosh Hashana is about celebration.  The nine days following are about thoughtfulness, thinking deeply about how we lead our life.  And now, with the gates of heaven that were swung wide open nine days ago we begin the slow but unstoppable closing that concludes with our final neila service tomorrow night.  Now as we enter the final laps of the final day, as a new year is about to take off, we enter into the tension of Yom Kippur. 
We are at a moment in time.  We are able to make amends for the past and able to make plans for the future.  Mortified about the past, motivated for the future we are in this amazing position of choice and decision.  With each passing hour of the next 24, our chances to make amends for the past become fewer and fewer and our plans for the future are about to be put into practice with less and less time to prepare.  The clock is ticking, the urgency is real.  This is a moment in time that should shake you.  Does it?  Do you need some help being shaken?  Then let’s pretend “as if.”
At our Pesach seder we pretend as if we are there in Egypt waiting for the word to get up and leave.  During Sukkot we eat in a sukkah pretending as if we are wandering in the desert.  At Shavuot we pretend as if we are there at Sinai, the very first to receive Torah.  And now, with a new year ahead and an old year behind we pretend “as if” once again.  What if you weren’t here?  What if you were dead?  On Yom Kippur, we pretend “as if” we are dead.
Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for death.  Have you ever seen those roadside billboards or bumper stickers evangelical Christians post that say, “if you died today, would you be right with God?”  Or Jesus.  They probably would say Jesus but the point is that we have the same challenge.  (And don’t forget, as I often remind you, we came first with the notion.)  We have the challenge to be honest with our lives because if it ended right now, what would people remember about you?
When we sing Who by Fire, Who by Water, we sing the truest words ever written in liturgy.  How many of our friends and family died last year?  How many died peacefully and how many died in pain?  Which of our friends or family died suddenly and which ones suffered so much that death was a blessing?  In our country, in our county, some died by fire, some by water.  Some are blessed with long life; some leave us tragically too soon.  We could not have predicted it even though we knew it would happen.
Now as we look forward, we are pulled up short and reminded that just as we could not predict last year, we cannot predict this year.  The sad reality for me as I look out over you all is that I will be officiating at a funeral for someone here or a family member of someone here.  I don’t mean to bum you out but that is a truth we must face. 
There are five things we do not do on Yom Kippur.  Why not?  To pretend as if we are dead.  We don’t eat and we don’t drink.  Neither do the dead.  We don’t wear leather or anoint with oils, signs of luxury that are limited to this world.  We don’t engage in sexual relations, a very earthly joy.  And this kittle I’m wearing in which I was married one day, please God it should be far in the future, I will be buried in.  I am dressed for a rehearsal for death.
Kol Nidre begins with the Torah scrolls taken out as witnesses in a court room and we wear our tallit at night, a once a year event, playing the parts of both members of the court and the defendant wondering how we shall be judged.  We are on trial as if at the end of our life.
If you died today, would you be okay with your life?  That is the bumper sticker question and I suggest to you that it doesn’t work because we can dismiss it as silly.  You see, I’m not dead so why do I need to think about it?  We can drive past the roadside billboard and not worry if we are right with God were we to die today because, well, because I’m driving somewhere and the radio is on and I’m very much not dead so leave me alone already!
The signs don’t catch me because while they are provocative they leave no lingering impact.  As soon as the light turns green.  I hit the gas and I’m gone.  Yom Kippur says, “I know I’m not dead.  You know you’re not dead.  But what if, what if we played a little game and pretended.  What if we took 24 hours and really tried to imagine it.  What if we leave our worries of the world outside and forget about eating and drinking and customary joys.  What if we gave ourselves the space and time to really think about this?  Let’s not do this at 55 miles per hour.  Let’s take a whole day.  What if I were dead?  I know I’m not and it’s really morbid but… what if I were dead?  How did I do?  Let’s not feel guilty, now.  No guilt allowed.  Just an honest question:  what did I leave on the table?  Do I have regrets?  Again, and this is important, no guilt.  Just ask yourself, honestly, if today were the day to tell the end of my story, how would my story turn out?   
Today is not the end of your story but let’s pretend it is.  I invite you to talk with your family, a good friend and ask them, “how ’m I doing?”  Ask them, if today were the end of my story, what would you say?  Brutal, I know but that is what this day is about.  And then make a plan to write another chapter.  Maybe you’ll write the next chapter just like the last chapter.  Maybe you’ll write the next chapter completely differently.  Maybe somewhere in between.  Just be honest with yourself.  This is rough stuff but it is what this day is made for.
The gates of repentance were swung wide open on Rosh Hashana, they begin to close now.  Little by little they inch a bit closer.  Tonight we reflect.  Tomorrow we reflect.  Read the prayers a little more closely.  Use the music to lift your thoughts to a place of introspection.  Use our new machzor and let your eye wander reading that which resonates with you, that which moves you.  Be here with the community as you have your individual moment as the gates close.
Tomorrow we gather again and the gates close some more.  We will struggle with hunger and our avoidance of earthly joy because our minds are elsewhere.  The day will go on and the gates will be closing and as the afternoon arrives you will stand before the ark and our Torah for a final private moment and the gates will shut and we will have made it.  We will have gotten through the day and we will eat!  We will break that fast not as a symbol of gluttony but as a statement:  I am alive, I am alive and the new year looms before me!  We eat that bagel with joy and we drink that juice having made a promise to write the next chapter well.  That break fast is not the conclusion of the day.  Dead people don’t eat, remember?  That break fast is the real start of the year.  Pretending is over.  You are alive!  You eat the whitefish to live and with the privilege to live another year comes the sacred challenge to write your next chapter.   The end of the story is not yet here.  I have more to write.  You have more to write.  For the next 24 hours, let’s think about what we’ll write.

Sitting on a Porch Yom Kippur 5778

Sitting on a Porch
Yom Kippur 5778
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

I’m sitting on the porch in a comfy wicker chair taking in some fresh air.  There’s a little stream below me and just enough woods where I can hear the cars passing on the road but I can’t see them.  It’s a lovely day where it feels like summer in the sunshine but autumn in the shade and it’s very, very relaxing.  I brought my shofar because my partner on the porch is too sick to come to Rosh Hashana so I thought she might enjoy hearing the sound one last time.  She’s pretty sure she’ll be dead by next Rosh Hashana.  She hopes so.  Getting old is no picnic.  Getting sick, I mean really sick, is terribly difficult.  It’s time, she tells me, you know?  It’s time.  This declaration doesn’t throw me.  I’ve learned you have to listen to people.  If someone tells me they want to die and they aren’t in their geriatric years and they don’t have a serious life ending disease, there is a very specific response to that.  When they are in their geriatric years and they do have a life ending illness, there is a very specific response to that as well. So I ask:  “What do you mean?”
She loves her children, her children-in-law, her grandchildren.  She has raised them well.  She feels good about it how they turned out and she feels good about how she and her husband raised them.  She’s not bragging.  She’s assessing.  She’s looking back and offering a pat on her own back.  The kids are okay.  And the children they had, oh my!  Her grandchildren are terrific, she says.  Each unique, each delightful, each getting ready to face the world.  She’ll never make it to a wedding.  That will not happen but she doesn’t worry for them.  She’s confident in her grandchildren.
She tells me, as she sits there, that she is ready to go.  The death of her beloved husband a few years back was so difficult but it’s even harder now as she’s less mobile.  She’s ready to join him.  And you know what else, she tells me?  She’s done everything she could and she’s done it well.  She was as good a child as she could have been, as good a wife as she could have been, as good a mother as she could have been, as good a grandmother as her health let her be.  It’s not to brag, you know?  It’s just sitting there in a wicker chair on a perfect wraparound porch on a perfect day she is satisfied, comfortable, at peace.  Even with mistakes, moments of regret, instances of sorrow, the usual foibles, failings, and shortcomings that a normal human being experiences through the course of life, all in all, on balance, she’s done it.  She has reached the finish line.  How do you know when you’ve made it?  I don’t know but she has made it.  And she is satisfied and she is ready to die.  It’s time.
How blessed, how fortunate, how lucky she is to be able to know that.  How blessed, how fortunate, how lucky she is to have the presence of mind not to bemoan but to consider and appreciate.  I hope I get to sit on a porch to reflect on how good life was to me and how well I used my life.
But I don’t get to sit on a porch, not for a long time.  Deborah and I have a long life together, the boys are starting careers and then there is this thing where I have to deal with Nazis.  I have to be the best man I can be, the best husband I can be, the best father I can, the best rabbi I can be and now deal with Nazis.  Honestly, I cannot believe I have to do that.  Nazis, these neo-Nazi and white supremacists are something the folks over at the Southern Poverty Law Center monitored.  They are something the Anti-Defamation League tracked.  Homeland Security and the FBI have always been up to speed on who these people are.  I never thought that I had to figure out what my personal response should be because these groups were too small and too underground and already watched.  And besides, nobody but the most hate filled of the hate filled wanted anything to do with them.
Now they are here and louder than ever with a wider reach than ever and I just don’t think I have the luxury of sitting on a porch and figuring they’ll go away on their own.  The alt-right, for those who don’t know, is a loose term for various white supremacists groups.  Some of them are your hate filled neo-Nazis, some are your suit and tie wearing spokesmen offering the reasonable sounding idea of identitarian politics.  Richard Spencer coined the phrase.  He swears he’s not into violence but he believes America is a white European style country founded by white Europeans for white European descendants.  He believes that multiculturalism is set out to diminish white people, to steal from white people what is theirs and to ruin the white culture of this country and he is going to do something about that.  If you’ve ever heard someone say that black people have some advantages over white people, he’s got their number.  Just that little bit, that tiny moment where a person wonders if they need to stick up for white people, that’s all the opening he needs to seduce folks into a well dressed version of white supremacy.  Can’t happen to you?  Maybe not but the goal of these people isn’t to have 51% of the population join the Klan.  The goal is to have just enough people be sympathetic to their cause.  The goal is to have people say, “I’m not a white supremacist but I do think they are on to something…”  The goal is to get you to say, “I’m no hater but there are an awful lot of brown people around here and I don’t like the changes.”  The goal is to get you to say, “I’m no racist but I heard those Muslims don’t follow our laws.”  That’s the goal.  And then comes the legislation.  Don’t think it can’t happen here?  It is already happening.  And now we have to figure out what to do about it.
And don’t think you are safe if you’re a Jew. Jews don’t count as white.  Jews are the source of so many problems and alt-right members are not afraid to say that.  We now have people chanting proudly that, “Jews will not replace us” and we have internet graphics that say, “Admit it; deep down you know Hitler was right.”
Can I go back to the porch?  Can I just focus tightly on family and friends?  I just want to reflect on a good life well lived.  But I can’t because it’s not my time.  And there are Nazis.
Am I an alarmist that I think we need to respond powerfully to this?  We’ve seen fascist movements in the past.  We know that the silence of good people allows it to blossom.  This has been proven again and again.  One day I’ll be in a wicker chair on a porch.  I really hope I’ll be able to look back with confidence that I did all I could to stop it.
A friend in Pittsburgh sent me an article after the marches and riots in Charlottesville.  The piece decried the violent antifa counter-protesters.  I was surprised.  There are Nazis and my Jewish friend could only see the anarchists.
I’m opposed to those violent anarchists.  Anyone who smashes windows ought to be arrested, tried and sent to prison.  I have no sympathy.  Protest, yes.  Vandalism, absolutely not.  When I try to read their anarchist ideas, I find them juvenile.  But you know what I don’t find when I read their ideas?  I don’t find the idea that black people are inferior, that brown people are inferior and that Jews ought to be dead.  I don’t find in their writings or their slogans or even in their smashing of windows a message of murdering Jews.
But the neo-Nazis would very much be quite happy if someone put a bullet in me.  And you.  And your children and grandchildren.  In case you don’t know, the non-Jews who are part of our community would be considered race traitors so you are not out of danger, either.
That porch is so inviting.  Just to sit and reflect and not have to worry anymore.  I don’t want to worry about Nazis.  I don’t want to worry about the fate of American democracy.   I don’t want to.  But I have to because it is not my turn to sit on the porch.  I can’t look back with so much ahead of me.
Anarchists.  Nazis. What year is this?  I have to talk about idiots who break windows and idiots who don’t want us around?  I guess I do.  Mark my words:  in just five years these alt-right people will either be shoved back underground or well on their way to political respectability winning local then state, then federal elections.  There is nothing in between. Don’t think it can’t happen?  It’s already happening.  How do I not speak to this?  How do you not speak to this?
One day I’ll be sitting on a porch looking back and I will wonder, did I do enough?  I pray that I can give the right answer.
I’m sitting in my office with a grieving family.  Most families I meet are there to discuss a funeral for someone elderly or sick.  It’s sad but it often turns just a little bit, just a little bit joyful because the families get a chance to remember.  I shouldn’t tell you too much about what goes on behind the scenes but it’s pretty common for people to think they’ll show up for a quick chat and then find themselves an hour or two later sniffling happy tears of memory.
People assume everyone says the same old clichés, that he was an amazing grandfather or that she was the best mom.  That’s true 80% of the time.  But that other 20%, my, oh my.  Sometimes there is very little positivity to be found.  I sit there with pen in hand writing down some notes when someone says, “maybe you should put the pen down” and all sorts of truths come out.  Nothing too scandalous.  Nothing felonious.  It’s just that we live our lives ensconced in our own minds and we don’t really know for certain how we come across.  We have an approach, an idea, a philosophy that makes sense to us and we express that in how we treat our friends or raise our children.  We live our lives in a certain way and rarely reflect to ask the question, “How’m I doing?”  When we die, when we cross the finish line, we leave it to others to comment on how we did.  We leave it to others to describe how our lives were lived.
I wonder what my family will say about me?  Each time I sit with a family I’m aware I sit before a tableau that will be recreated for me some day.  It forces me to think about my life and how I’m doing.  I wonder what Deborah will say or what the boys will say.  A lifetime of sibling interaction and what will come out of it?  What will my congregation say?  And did I do enough for my community or my country? 
This is a moment in time where we are watching the very serious beginnings of American fascism.  It is slick and organized and popular and it is happening right now, and we don’t know which way it’s going to go.  There is absolutely no reason to believe it will fade on its own.  Only my children and grandchildren will be around to understand what happened in 2017, at this moment.  They will know if it took over or if it was defeated.  Will they be proud of me that I did something about it?  That I tried?  Will they regret the world they live in and wished I had done more when there was a chance?
I’m sitting in my office with a pen and pad at the ready while across from me sits a couple very much in love and planning on getting married.  They’ve been together for a few years but something about getting married is inspiring them to look at each other anew.  They sit apart, nervous in front of the rabbi.  By the second meeting there is hand holding and long glances.  There is pride as each listens to the other.  There are dreams and dreams of dreams far into the future.  There is hope and there is optimism and there is everything glorious about getting out into the world with a partner.  There is a future.  This is the start of their story as a couple and often it is the start of their story as proper adults.  They realize that they get to figure out the Jewish life they want to create in their home.  They get to figure out the values by which they will live as a couple.  They get to figure out the way they want to raise their children.  They have to figure out how to organize their finances and they have to figure out what is important to spend money on.  The whole future is open to them.  It is the very beginning of the story.  Who knows how it will end?  Someone will know how it will end.  They have a lifetime to get it right. 
You have the remainder of your lifetime to get it right before you sit on that porch.  There’s a lot going on in your families.  There’s a lot going on in the world.  You still have time.
Ready?  Go.

After the sermon, people asked me what they can do.  First and foremost, I believe we have to return racism to be socially unacceptable.  Whether in social media or in person, if someone makes a racist crack or some such hatred, tell them it's racist and you don't like it.  Don't name call, don't insult, don't get distracted.  Just state the facts and then don't take the bait when they call you names in return.  Secondly, stay informed.  Read about what is happening from a variety of sources.  Third, there is so much more you can do but you have to do some research yourself.  You might want to read about Life After Hate ( and support it.  It is a group of former white supremacists who help others leave that life (it can be very hard to get out).


Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Whole World is Blessed by You Rosh Hashana 5778

The Whole World is Blessed by You
Rosh Hashana  Day 1
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

The story of the Akeidah is the most famous of Torah stories because it is read every Rosh Hashana and because the topic is child sacrifice.  For those who don’t know the story, Abraham is called by God.  He responds simply with “hineini, here I am” ready to accept whatever is to come.  God tells him to take his son to the spot God will show him and offer him up as a korban.  Without a word, he begins the process.   Along the way Isaac asks, “Father, I see you, I see me, I see the wood for burning, I see the knife; where is the ram for the korban?”  Abraham replies, God will provide it.  They arrive, Isaac is bound –the word akeida means binding- Abraham lifts the knife.  At that moment, at just that moment, God calls out to Abraham and again Abraham answers simply, “hineini, here I am” ready to accept whatever is to come.  And now God says, “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him.  For now I know you have not withheld your son, your favored son from me.”
Phew!  This is a crazy story, a maddening story.  It is praised as a test of faithfulness and condemned for its abhorrent cruelty.  It is seen as a dramatic break with the reality of child sacrifice; this new faith would never have it.  But couldn’t God have made that point more succinctly?  Did God have to sweat the old man?
There are many, many questions to this story.  Rabbis at Rosh Hashana have been mining it for a millennium finding something new.  For me, there is one more line that has always bothered me.  It is a moment that comes at the end of the story.  By now, at this dénouement, we are so relieved we barely care about anything else so the pasuk doesn’t get much attention.  It begins with God giving this promise in reward for Abraham’s fealty:  “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.”  It concludes, “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants because you have obeyed My command.”
What does it mean that the nations of the earth will be blessed by Abraham’s descendants?  I understand how we, the descendants of Abraham, might be blessed.  The merit of Abraham was so great it passes down to the Jewish people through the generations but how would the other peoples of the earth benefit?
Maybe the other nations are blessed because we ended child sacrifice.  This story was a massive break from what was commonplace. Or, perhaps we bring blessings to the world through the example of our practice and our values.  We Jews, committed to living with others in the modern world and mindful of being a minority aren’t prone to bragging but perhaps we should just take a moment and be proud of what we have brought to the world.    Let’s start first with the gift and novelty of Shabbat. 
We brought the Sabbath to the world and through that taught two ideas.  One, we are not slaves.  We are not slaves to a master, we are not slaves to a clock, we are slaves to no one.  We have this reminder, this insistence, this very commandment from God to remove ourselves from work so we can be appreciative of what our labor has given us, and share that with family and friends.  Secondly, we have taught the world that the spiritual, that which inspires the soul is just as important as the physical.  God did not create the world in six days with a day off.  God created the world in seven days.  The point of that story is that rest is not slacking off.  Rest, appreciation, inspiration, reflection is part of Creation, is part of what makes the world great.  A life without Shabbat, a life without a day to appreciate, to spend time, to indulge, to relax, is the life of the slave.  A life with Sabbath rest is the life of the fully living.
Perhaps we ought not to forget that we brought the idea of monotheism to the world.  In our own Jewish way we have multiple ideas of what God might be but if we believe, we believe in just one God.  And that seems to have worked well for Christians and Muslims who added their own approach to that idea.  Billions of believers are blessed in the type of faith that we began.
We brought a sense of justice and ethics as proof of loyalty to God in place of killing our children.  We taught the world that justice and ethics, the insistence that morality is what God wants.  Ritual, yes, but ritual only when it serves to teach and make manifest the justice and ethics God truly wants.  This idea surely has been a blessing to the world, although lost to those have gotten lost in their piety.
Not that the Jewish people were perfect.  We did have moments in our history of killing and violence.  And we still have segments of our people who are dismissive, even a little racist towards others.  We are not perfect.  But when we strayed, the prophets reminded us the end goal always was to live a life of ethics and justice.  You can argue we failed from time to time but you can’t argue it wasn’t the goal.  We brought to the world an aspirational approach to living.  The world is imperfect but we must make it perfect.  The world is filled with injustice.  We must bring justice.  We must live in such a way, witness in such a way, be a role model in such a way that the peoples of the world are inspired to bring justice to the world.  In that way we are a blessing.  Some of us fail in that goal.  But many, many Jews live each day with that very notion in the forefront of our minds.  Many of us do try to live a moral life because it is right and because our neighbors, our friends, our children are watching and we want to model right behavior and we want to be positive exemplars of the values of Torah.
These are all things we have brought to the world and we should all be proud of that.  There is one more thing we brought that is still fairly unique to us, the idea of belonging to a people, not just a faith.
In many other religions, you are in or you are out based on what you believe.  Jews developed a more open approach, an understanding of our selves grander than the specifics of faith; our approach is peoplehood.  We have Jews who have firm belief in God.  We have Jews with no belief and Jews with everything in between.  We have Jews who are proud because of our history or our commitment to study or our meaningful holidays or our passion for justice. We have Jews who love being part of the Jewish people for our culture.  And we have non-Jews who love being part of the Jewish people.  Some have converted, some are planning to convert, some are thinking of maybe converting and some are happy as they are, happy to be part of this big wide ranging tribe.  We have all these people tapping in to the vast repertoire of Jewish life and they, you, find meaning there.
We’ve used this idea, this open, expansive understanding of peoplehood to lead us towards the partnership model at Temple Beth Jacob and I want to say a few words about how it’s going.
This place here along the Hudson River has been blessed since 1854 to have Jews and Jewish families contribute their time, energy and money to keep it going.  We know that outside of Israel, if we want to be part of a Jewish community, we have to make that community real.  We need our institutions, our buildings, our staff to keep things going.  And you all have risen to that challenge.  You have accepted that you are partners in this ongoing adventure to keep Jewish life alive in the mid-Hudson Valley.  You have understood and accepted the challenge that stated plainly, if you want this place to exist, you have a personal stake in keeping it here.  And I want to tell you, our partnership program is working.  The idea that you can determine your support is working.  In an earlier day, some would have had to show a 1040 or have an embarrassing conversation or, truth be told, would have walked away because they didn’t want to be embarrassed.  And now these families, whoever they are, understand they are wanted.  That is the most important aspect of the partnership program.  Because you contribute whatever you can, big or small, you commit to keeping us going.
The biggest concern synagogues have when thinking about a partnership model is the fear that everyone will chip in $100 and be done with it.  For the most part, that didn’t happen because you, our partners, understand what Temple Beth Jacob means to you and your family.  But we do have some problems.  Some of problems are systemic.  We have had problems getting pledge cards out and making sure they come back in.  Some people don’t contribute because the synagogue no longer sends bills, as it were, so they don’t receive the expected prompt.  Some people put off deciding what they will contribute and then they just forget to do it.  And some people, a few, are assuming they can just contribute a minimal amount even though they could contribute more.  Now that’s fine but if those who can do more contribute a bare minimum, we will shut our doors.  The market will decide if there is value here.
Unlike the dues model, you can’t carry a balance.  If, for whatever reason you didn’t make a contribution for last year, we have to assume you are no longer interested in being a partner in our community.  Your support, whatever that is, means you support the idea of Temple Beth Jacob being here.  Now, we know that some people just forget so the Board members make phone calls to remind you but that is not the goal.  The goal is to build the habit and understanding that your contribution is just that, yours and we hope you will fill out your card promptly and follow through.  No one on the Board wishes to be a nudge.  As we get better with the partnership approach, we hope to eliminate the need for the nudgy calls.
As each year goes on, the Board will look at our budget and let you know what we need.  Don’t expect someone else to make sure Temple Beth Jacob continues.  Each household has the responsibility to contribute as best as it can.  You hold the future of us in your hands.  That is a powerful and sacred privilege.   
And by the way, you should know that I get a couple calls a year from other rabbis asking how we did it.  We are known out there as a model of success.  I hope you take pride in that.
Enough with business.  After a lovely summer, we come back together as a community, this corner of the Jewish people, for a whirlwind of holidays and celebration.
The partners have gathered for a partners meeting to discuss the future of ourselves.  How did we do?  No guilt, no shame; just a fair question.  How did we do?  Where did we succeed?  Where did we go wrong?  This afternoon we will glory in the astonishing beauty of the Hudson River and the Beacon hills as we cast our sins upon the water.  Tomorrow, we get out of this room, get up from a chair and get out into nature for a hike. We are taking a lovely stroll at Manitoga in Garrison.  Our hike is not just for the people in tefillot in the morning.  Everyone is welcome for a judgment free easy hike.
After the hike we are in the ten days of reflection.  Give yourself some time to really think about your life.  Talk to a spouse or child or friend.  Reconnect with a sibling.  Try, really try, do the work, to think about where you have gone right and where you have gone wrong.  Be a role model to your friends and family, to the whole world that we Jews have a way to break through stubbornness and a way to embrace contrition even if it is hard.  Engage the challenging questions of 10Q.
Next, take the fast of Yom Kippur seriously, spend your time in this room seriously.  Adopt a contrite attitude and you will soon feel contrite, you will soon feel repentant.  And then we get out of this room once more.  If Yom Kippur is about spending time inside the sanctuary, Sukkot is a demand to be outside.  We are commanded to set up a hut outside the sanctuary.  For seven days we are commanded to live in the sukkah so we are going to do our very best to do that.  October 4, erev Sukkot, our annual, wildly successful pot luck dinner in the sukkah.  And no complaining if it’s cold.  Sukkot is called the season of joy, not whining so wear warm shoes and be joyful to gather in our beautiful sukkah.  October 5, the first full day, come over to the sukkah with your own lunch.  If you don’t have your own sukkah, pack up dinner and come eat in ours.  The sukkah is open from the outside.  Unless it’s raining, there will be tables and chairs.  Plug the lights in and enjoy dinner outdoors with the family.  Bring dinner or order a pizza to be delivered.  Seriously.  No reservations.  Just bring your dinner. 
October 7 we are having our first Sukkot Dine Around.  Hors d'oeuvres in the sukkah, dinner in someone’s home, back to the sukkah for dessert.  This is going to be a very fun, very lively time.  October 8 Sisterhood has a tea in the sukkah and the Sunday school will be in their shaking the lulav.  October 9 the JCC has their lunch and learn in the Sukkah.  So many activities, so many chances to be joyful.
And then we wrap it up with Simchat Torah.  Once again, we are cleaning a Torah.  We had a big crowd last year grab erasers and go to work cleaning the actual parchment.  It was very moving and very joyful.  This year Nefesh Mountain, a Jewish bluegrass band, will help us celebrate.  The band will be playing as we dance the Torah scrolls out of the ark, into the social hall where we’ll stretch the scroll over long tables so everyone can get in and clean it.  You do not want to miss this. That which is most precious, most holy is turned over to you so that you can truly be a steward of Torah.  The protection and maintenance of Torah as our way of life is most literally in your hands.  Never more powerfully does the meaning of partnership become so clear.  We are partners, all of us, in protecting and promoting Torah. You do not want to be a silent partner.  In our hands is the thing we have died for and the thing we live for.  In your hands is the responsibility to clean the scroll so that you become like art conservators, protecting this for the next generation. 

And here, again, we become a blessing returning us to the promise of the end of the Akeidah.  We show the world that what is most precious is not to be kept behind glass but to be engaged, to be handled.  What is most precious should be challenged and should challenge us.  What is most precious may also be difficult but we do not shy away from difficulty.  We are here to live out our promise.  We are here to proclaim that the Jewish holidays have a claim on our souls that their message inspires us.  We are here to say, when the call comes, hineini, Here I am, ready to be a partner, ready to be a Jew.  And when we do that, each one of us in our own small way becomes a blessing to the world.

Sin More Erev Rosh Hashana 5778

Sin More
Erev Rosh Hashana 5778
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

We are back again.  It’s good to see everyone.  It’s great to see everyone.  Truly it is.  Everyone is back to get a little religion, get that spiritual tune up.  The music, the fellowship, the Akeidah.  The dinner with friends and family.  It’s all there.   And the rabbi’s sermons.  Let’s not forget that.  My sermons… I try to be eclectic.  I don’t want to be repetitive and drone on about the same old thing.  Of course, some themes can’t be avoided for example that Rosh Hashana is a chance for renewal, to take stock.  It is a time of celebrating another year’s fresh start and a chance to change our ways.  Then come the intermediate days of teshuva and finally Yom Kippur where we atone for sins, throw ourselves on the mercy of the Heavenly court and pray for forgiveness.  Spoiler alert:  we always get it but the exercise is still very worthwhile.  Putting ourselves through the paces is the important part.  Stretching our spiritual muscles remembering we are connected to others is the important part.
The themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are always the same and they never fail to inspire and uplift.  Community gathering to celebrate a fresh slate and meditate on how to be a better person?  Nothing better.  And it all comes with good music so, you know, it’s a win-win.
Over the summer I listened to a podcast, Radio Lab that offered a positive take on the infamous Seven Deadly Sins and as I listened, I thought, now that’s a Rosh Hashana theme![1]  Could we talk, on this eve of reflection, how we need to sin more?  Let’s try it.  Let’s talk about Pope Gregory’s list codified in the year 590.  Let’s see what we can do.
Gluttony.  Typically that speaks to eating, drinking more than you need.  It is about consuming more than your fair share.  It could be about finishing the whole bag of chips but gluttony could be more like blithely buying too much food in the supermarket and then after it goes a bit squishy tossing it out wasting money and all the resources it took to get the food.  It could be about leaving the AC on to keep the house cool while everyone is out for the day at work or school.  That’s gluttony; such a waste of resources for no reason other than that we don’t care to pay attention and can’t be bothered to adjust the thermostat. 
But gluttony could be passion as well, excitement for the things we consume, anticipation of the great taste, the good flavors.  That could be a good thing.  Let’s just add to that gluttony some awareness.  Perhaps we should indulge our gluttony with mindfulness.  Before we shove the pumpkin pie in our mouth, because we just can’t wait, we can say a little bracha, say a little blessing.  Motzie can do or the more particular borei minei mezonot, just something to acknowledge the food, the people who brought it to you, the wonder of the earth that produces food.  A brief pause to offer a blessing as we indulge is better than not paying attention at all and treating the food as simple fuel.  Gluttony isn’t so bad if we temper it with a blessing, if we temper it by knowing how blessed we are.
Wrath is anger leading towards fury.  Losing your cool is never good.  Going off the rails is never good but a little righteous fury we could use more of.  Why aren’t we furious at those who are working to limit access to the voting booth, a direct attack on our democracy?  Why aren’t we furious at our country’s lack of leadership to combat global warming?  We, all of us here, have experienced the effects of climate change.  We have all experienced a change in weather patterns up here.   The massive hurricanes we’ve seen down south are something new but also predicted.  We all know this.  There can be no issue farther from partisanship than working to bring the temperature down, or at least not to let it rise further.  One day, Miami, Venice and Wall Street will be under water.  Why are we not furious about that?  These are issues that affect us all, that hurt us all equally.  We need a bit more wrath to challenge the naysayers and the slow pace of doing something.
Envy is an easy one.  Too much envy is always a problem.  Too much envy and you forget how to count your blessings and be satisfied but lack of envy keeps us from working hard.  It leads us to settle.  A little envy is good if it motivates us to work hard towards the goal.  That’s especially good advice for kids.  Are you envious of that nice house, those nice vacations other people have?  Well then, do something about it.  Get good grades, use college to find your passion and use that passion to fuel you to a good paying job.  Envy can give us a goal.  Envy can show us a better way.  Envy can get us off the couch.  A warning:  too much envy can just make you depressed so watch the dosage.  You only need a little envy to keep you from settling and keep you leaning forward.
Lust.  Now, on Yom Kippur, there ought not to be any lust.  No eating, no drinking, no wearing leather since it was seen as a luxury, no anointing which today usually means perfumes, another sign of luxury, and no, well, you know, lust.  But today is not Yom Kippur, now is it?  A little lust is not the worst thing, now is it?  Here, perhaps I’ll leave the kids with their envy and speak to the adults in the room.  For those in long, long, so very long term commitments, sometimes, I’m not talking about you, of course, but sometimes the passion can seep from the physical aspects of a relationship.  When I was a kid, I remember seeing tv commercials for “beautiful Mt. Airy Lodge.”  Do you remember it?  That bit of jingle in still in my head.  I understood the allure of the tennis and the skiing and the hiking.  But why would anyone want a small swimming pool in their hotel room?  An actual mini pool that two people could get in right there in the room.  I kept imagining the room would smell like chlorine.  I did not understand.
But I grew to understand.  There is something that happens with the stress of raising kids, paying bills, getting work done that causes couples to start missing what is kindly called that “certain spark” but what I would call lust.  Healthy relationships require trust and kindness.  They require faith in one’s partner and a sense of humor to let things go.  And they require lust.  Lust is where we find the physical expression of the emotional intensity couples enjoy.  It’s never good to let that fade.  A little lust in a committed relationship can be a very good thing.
Greed has its place as well.  I’m not willing to go the full Gordon Gecko and tell you that greed is good but greed might have a role if it makes us demand what should rightfully be ours.  Over in Israel, at the Kotel, a plan was hatched and agreed upon to create a worship space along the Western Wall just south of the plaza in an area called Robinson’s Arch.  That was two years ago.  Design work was supposed to be done with construction starting as soon as possible.  Then the Netanyahu government cancelled it.  Now, on the one hand, the wonder of Israel is so great, the very idea of a place where Jews live as the majority creating an organic Jewish culture is so magnificent that a place to pray near a wall is hardly a major thing.  Indeed, the way the ultra-Orthodox venerate the wall, the way they are over the top about it turns off many Jews. It is a retaining wall of the grand square where the Temple once stood.  Given that we don’t want to rebuild the Temple and return to offering animals, most Jews have no interest in the wall with any messianic ferver.  We go for the history, for a personal spiritual moment, to see it for ourselves but we’re not that committed to the Wall as sacred.  There is so much Jewish creativity and moving spiritual moments away from the kotel, why should I even care?  Let’s just leave the Kotel to the ultra-Orthodox.
And yet, I’m greedy.  I’m greedy!  I want what I want.  Israel, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel make a claim on Jews worldwide.  We are all part of what happens there and I just refuse to let a small group of religious fanatics dictate how I and my community should pray.  I want what I want and I want the State of Israel to either acknowledge that the Kotel plaza is not supposed to be an ultra-Orthodox synagogue which it currently is or give me a space that is not an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, a place where I don’t have to be hassled and where I can gather and sing and pray as I wish with whomever I wish.  Yes, I’m greedy about that.  I want what I want.  I’m not interested in logic or counter arguments.  I’m not interested in parliamentary politics.  I want what I want.  I want the State of Israel to treat me and all non-Orthodox Jews with respect.  Well, I want the State of Israel to treat everyone who lives in Israel with respect but given the reason for Israel’s existence, I especially want my expression of Judaism respected.  That’s what I want.  I’m greedy about it.  End of story.
Pride is the next one.  How did pride ever get to be one of seven?  We teach school children to take pride in themselves lest their self-esteem suffer.  We take pride in our nation’s extensions of civil protection and liberty to the underserved, the minority, the oppressed.  We even have parades celebrating that word.   How did it become a sin?  Like all of the others, too much pride becomes a problem.  Another word for the sin of pride is vanity.  Vanity is pride run amuck.  To express pride as a statement of equality, as an insistence for respect, as a positive sense of self, these are all good because they point to us as proud members of a larger community.  Pride, overblown, becomes vanity, where self-regard comes at the expense of others, when our pride denigrates others, when our pride is used to put others down.  That is why we are talking about two very different things when we talk about gay pride and white pride.  Same word.  Two very different meanings.  One uplifts, the other demeans.
I think our community, our Jewish community at large and our Temple Beth Jacob community right here could use a little more pride.  We always could use the type of pride that causes us to stand tall.  We could always use a shot in the arm to bolster our self-image.  It’s hard being a small minority.  It can be tough being the only one.  One of the goals of Temple Beth Jacob is to support your Jewish sense of self, to help you feel good about being part of a 4000 year tradition and enable you to feel really good about keeping that going here in this little outpost of the Jewish people on the Hudson River.  And for those who have joined us via marriage, you get some pride, too, in this community you are part of.  You should take sustenance from the community as well. 
This is my tenth year here and while I’m proud of this place, I worry about getting too repetitive, too routine.  I worry that what we are doing here doesn’t really help in promoting your pride.  This is especially true for those with children off to college.  So much of our focus has been on the children.  What does Temple Beth Jacob offer you, the adults?  What does Judaism offer the adults?  A few months ago I heard Abigail Pogrebin speak.  She wrote a book called, plainly, “My Jewish Year:  18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.”  She spent a year deeply exploring every Jewish holiday, fast, and commemoration.  She wanted to see if there was any meaning in them.  Surprise!  There was.  Another surprise, she did indeed add to her Jewish repertoire but selectively.  She didn’t become Orthodox but she did find more pride and more understanding of who she is and how she lives her life.  I’m going to put together a chance for us to meet and read the book over the year to see if we can learn from her journey, to see if we can find meaning in our Jewish calendar in our own lives.  I want to see if we can build up even more pride, especially for those who aren’t sure, now that the children are grown.  Stay tuned.
I conclude with a plea for sloth.  We all could use just a wee bit of sloth in our lives.  We all live in a world where we complain how busy we are, how fast things go.  Not me, though.  I love the fast paced world.  You don’t like being texted about every little thing all the time?  Did you prefer when you had to wait for a letter to arrive with your response taking another week?  Not me.  I love the instantaneous.  I love that I was able to text people from Tanzania a few years back.  I love that I can send you a photo right away.  I love it all.  And I love it because I control it.  Six days a week I say bring it on.  One day a week, I’m a sloth.  “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see that email you sent.  When did you send it?  Saturday?  Yeah, then, no.”
There are things that need immediacy and there are things that don’t.  There are six days where it’s a mitzvah to work hard and then there is Shabbat where it’s a mitzvah to chill out.  No doubt, many of you are thinking that your life, the way you live can’t incorporate Shabbat.  That’s because some of you think of Shabbat as in the Orthodox world.  Some of you never had any sense of Shabbat growing up and you’re nervous about starting now.  And then some of you just have no imagination. 
Come on!  Imagine with me.  I’m not talking about being Orthodox.  When I was a student in Los Angeles, people asked me if I drove on Shabbat.  I answered, “How else would I get to the beach?”  Shabbat isn’t about “not doing” things.  Shabbat is about doing other things.  Indulge your inner sloth, slow down a little.  If you did the laundry on Sunday, if you paid the bills on Sunday, if you went to the supermarket on Sunday, what would you do on Shabbat?  I won’t be so forward as to suggest Shabbat morning tefillot although we do have that twice a month and it is refreshing…  I’m just saying…
No.  No distractions.  Let’s just stick to this question.  If you indulged your inner sloth, put off the chores until Sunday, what would you do on Shabbat?  Hang out with your kids?  Call your mother?  Read a book?  Sit on the porch and do nothing?  Organize your closet?  What?  Some people find that relaxing. 
If you were brave enough to control your life and take care of what must be done before or after Shabbat, imagine what could you do with those 24 hours.  Go to your daughter’s game?  Catch your son’s concert?  Walk around Storm King? Take a train to the city?  Take a nap?  Imagine, just imagine letting the inner sloth out and taking a nap.  Ooh, or binge watch that show you’ve been meaning to watch.  Sigh….
The gift of Shabbat is there for you if you want.  Dinner with family and friends.  Bake or buy a challah.  Candles set the mood and 24 glorious hours await you.   And it’s all there for you if and only if you are willing to take control of your life and engage in some holy, sacred slothfulness.
All of these sins aren’t truly sins, in the end.  Maybe the early Church saw them that way but Jews have a different take on sin.  We see these things more as seven facets of the human condition.  They are us and we can use those seven conditions to engage life in a profoundly positive way.  And, yes, if we are not careful, we can abuse those seven and do great damage with them so be sure to handle with care.  But you should handle them.  Indulge them.  With balance but indulge them.
As we enter in to these Ten Days of Repentance, as we enter in to these ten days of reflection, thinking about our lives, what has gone well, what has not, let’s think about where we indulged too much and also, which of these seven we might want to engage a bit more this year.
Shana Tova.  A very good and sweet and thoughtful year to us all.