Sermons

VOTING (FOR MERCAZ) IN THE WORLD ZIONIST CONGRESS ELECTIONS
By Rabbi Gordon Tucker

I’m speaking to you today wearing my hat as a member of the Executive Committee of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel. And its former Chairman. But there is a continuity between this talk and so many that you heard rom me during my 24 years as the Rabbi of this congregation. On occasion after occasion, I undertook to inform and educate this community about urgent matters concerning religious pluralism — indeed, religious freedom — in Israel. And why it should matter to us.

This is not really just a talk. It is an exhortation. Because we are in the midst of an extended, but still finite, election period for delegates to the next World Zionist Congress, to be held in October of this year. Yes, the very same World Zionist Congress that was convened for the first time by Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. Since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, it has been held approximately every 5 years, and this will be the 38th such gathering since Herzl.

To vote from the U.S. for one of slates running in this election, you must be a permanent resident of this country, have turned 18 by June 30 of this year, pay a $7.50 registration fee, and not be voting in the Israeli Knesset elections next month. Voting is by individuals, not by households, so spouses and adult children over 18 all have a right and a responsibility to vote.

Now why is it important to do so? And for whom are we urging you to vote?

Slate 6 is the slate known as the Mercaz slate of candidates. I remember well when Mercaz was first formed, in 1978, and the decision quickly made, by then Chancellor Gerson Cohen of JTS, to endorse and bless its founding. Although Mercaz is a Hebrew word that means “center”, the English consonants in its name were intended as an acronym for “Movement to Reaffirm Conservative Zionism”. This is important in itself. It was a re-affirmation, because Conservative Judaism has the proud history of being the only major movement in Jewish religious life in this country that never harbored a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist faction. Both Reform and Orthodoxy did in the past (and there are still anti-Zionists in parts of the ultra-Orthodox world). But Solomon Schechter threw in his lot with Zionism from the outset of his leadership of our movement, and Mordecai Kaplan, with his insistence on the primacy of Jewish peoplehood, did as well, repeatedly and pointedly. So Mercaz was indeed a re-affirmation of what was already in our DNA.

Why was a reaffirmation necessary? Well, that’s pretty much the essential story here. By the late 70s, it was clear that the bargain that Ben Gurion had made in 1948 with the Orthodox, and increasingly ultra-Orthodox, rabbinical authorities was creating an untenable situation in which Judaism in the Jewish state was being defined more and more monopolistically as Orthodox Judaism. And we are not speaking here of the open, modern Orthodoxy that we know among our friends and neighbors – but rather a rigid, unyielding, and intolerant religious establishment. An establishment that used the state power that they were granted over religious life to delegitimize, deny funding to, and more and more often denigrate in humiliating terms the Judaism that you and I practice and believe in. So Mercaz was born, a bit more than 4 decades ago, and it represents us in these periodic elections to the World Zionist Congress.

I was a Mercaz delegate at the 33rd Congress in 1997. And while I cannot tell you that the 3-4 days of that event were the most riveting and edifying days of my life, I can tell you that beyond all the inevitable bureaucratic procedures attending the Congress, it was clear that something quite substantive was at issue and at stake.

You see, the monopolistic religious structure that is still in place – incredible as that may seem – means that there is massive and direct government funding for the Orthodox institutions: synagogues, youth groups, even rabbinic salaries, and Orthodox-dominated religious councils that in turn fund such things as Mikvehs from which our people are generally excluded. And while the idea of government funding of religion is alien to us as Americans, it is the way things happen in Israel. Except. Except, of course, for our movement, and other non-Orthodox communities. Whereas competition with other religious groups is the last thing on our minds of people building a religious community, the government has created such a competition. But now, having been forced to compete, we are not doing so in an open, accessible market, but rather in a system that is loaded, like phony dice, against us.

What comes out of this skewed structure is a perverse twisting of what Zionism was always supposed to be about. Zionism was about allowing Jewish culture to flourish without the constraint of foreign domination, so that Jewish political life, intellectual life, moral development, and its religious expression could reflect the full range of what the Jewish people believe and aspire to. Alas, the last in this list – religious expression – has been hamstrung by invidious funding decisions that cut us out, and by offensive rules and insulting rhetoric that besmirch our reputation. Offensive rules include such things as declaring weddings done by Conservative rabbis not only to be invalid, but illegal. I myself officiated at the joyous wedding of my colleague Rabbi Adam Baldachin to our own Maital Friedman in Ramat Rahel in 2006. I was not detained by the police (though I suppose I could have been), but the wedding was only recognized in Israel because of a civil wedding that took place before a Justice of the Peace in the United States. How crazy is that? And the insulting rhetoric includes frequent salvos from the empowered rabbinic authorities that we are a cult, that we are bent on destroying the Jewish people by sullying true Torah religion, and slanders so much worse that should not be dignified with expression from this Bimah.

So where does the World Zionist Congress come in? Simply thus: the more delegates we elect to the Congress, the more seats we will have at the table in the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund, and other organs. Since they are not formally government organizations, through them we can obtain precious funding to nurture the religious culture that we offer daily to an Israeli population that wants and needs it. 2-3 million dollars can flow to our movement in Israel and throughout the world if we are represented well there. More, if we can up our election results. Last time around, in 2015, there were some 56,000 total votes from among all American Jews (A number that is itself embarrassingly low). Our movement accounted for under 10,000 of them. It got us to some important seats at the table, but it was not nearly enough. I should add here that in the last election the Reform Movement turned out nearly twice as many votes for their Arza slate. And we know what in part accounts for that. The Reform Movement, consistent with their own conscientious way of observing Shabbat, has always been able to use the times with the largest turnouts – Shabbat services – to have people literally sign up, pay registration fees, and complete the voting. We are unable to do the same. But it would be a horrible irony if the fact that we take a more traditional view of Shabbat observance in the synagogue were to work to our detriment in Israel, where we are slandered as being untraditional. It means that the urgency of getting out the vote is that much greater.

The overall American turnout is expected to be significantly larger this year, which means that, just to break even, we need to increase our absolute vote by a significant amount. This is by no means impossible. It shouldn’t even be hard. Think of it. We are but one synagogue, and with our 750 or so households, if each of those households were to produce votes from our members, and from the adult children in universities or working in the city, there is the potential of well over 1000 votes from this one single community. It takes about 5 minutes to do it. And $7.50. Are the ideals of Zionism important enough to you? Is the reform of Israel into a state that honors and helps flourish all forms of Jewish expression important enough to you? I know you well enough to know that they are. And thus your mandate is clear: Vote!

And just so it is crystal clear: the groundwork has been done by our heroic rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Israel. There are today more than 80 Masorti Kehillot throughout Israel. Some 2,000 of our teens are in the Noam Youth Movement, and more than 700 attend Camp Ramah-Noam in the summers. More than 800 B’nai Mtzvah are celebrated each year in our congregations, and because of that, more than 100,000 people have had direct experience of the intellectually and spiritually open, egalitarian Judaism that comports with the values of most Israelis. We have phenomenally talented young rabbis, and a clear majority of the congregants in our kehillot are native born Israelis.

Are Israelis ready for it? Of that, there is no question. The whole reason that there is a second “Mulligan” coming up for the Israeli elections is because following the previous two elections, coalition building foundered on the issue of breaking the Orthodox religious monopoly. Were there no insistence on the part of some potential coalition partners about breaking that monopoly, we’d have had an Israeli government in place 9 or 10 months ago.

There’s more. A survey by the respected Israeli pollster Rafi Smith after the September Knesset election revealed that 57 percent of the Jewish Israeli electorate did not want any incoming governing coalition to include or depend on parties that are Haredi (Ultra) Orthodox. That 57 percent majority also wanted any coalition that was formed to support religious freedom in Israel. And 69 percent said that support for religious freedom was a significant factor in their September vote.

Other surveys consistently show that 64 percent of respondents want there to be separation of religion and state in Israel. 64 percent do not want any religious body to have governmental authority in Israel. And 62 percent want Israel to recognize a range of Jewish conversion ceremonies — not just Orthodox ones blessed by the Chief Rabbinate.

In other words, when you vote, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are not only voting for what is good for us — you are voting for what is good for – and wanted by – a significant majority of Israelis.

At the recent rally against anti-semitism, one sign next to me read as follows: “We didn’t wander the wilderness for 40 years for this”. And surely, we did not cross the Sea together, eat the Manna together, thirst for water together, and fight the Amalekites together only to be made into second class Jews in the Jewish state.

There’s one more thing, which is perhaps more important that all I’ve already said. Failure to have our values and passions reflected in our votes and our proportional representation will fortify the lie that the Israeli government has put out in recent days. Namely, that the American Jewish community – outside the Orthodox world – needn’t be taken into account. They think we don’t really care about Israel and Zionism, and they smugly predict our demise in a generation or two. The strategic thinking is that the Christian Evangelical community is far more concerned about Israel than are Conservative and Reform Jews, and that they will be around longer and have more clout in America. So focus on them instead. This is no fantasy – this thinking is articulated and documented. God forbid that our failure to be heard will confirm this mischievous nonsense in the minds of some Israeli government officials.

I am certain that you believe that we are more interested in the success of the ideals of Zionism than are the Evangelicals. And so you know what to do right now, in this election period. You have until March 11. But please don’t wait until then. Because we want you not only to vote and to tell your partners and children to do so. We want you to tell your friends, share this information with them, and make sure we are there in the numbers that will truly reflect who we are, and the Zionism and State of Israel in which we believe.

 

Sermon – After Pittsburgh – Chaye Sarah
November 3, 2018 | 25 Cheshvan 5779
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Friends – What are we to do today?

What are we to do with the feelings we have in the wake of last Shabbat morning’s horrendous massacre of eleven beautiful and innocent souls in a Pittsburgh congregation?

What are we to do with the burning anger, the profound sadness and perhaps even the sense of vulnerability we now feel?

You and I have choices to make.

Our responses can be born of threat.

We can view those who are not like us as “the other,” who ought to be shunned and from whom we need protection…

…simply put, as one who scares us; as one who should not and cannot be among us.

We can reflect on the sobering data the Anti-Defamation League has shared with us this week – that the year 2017 saw an increase of 60% in anti-Semitic incidents over the previous year – and then reach a frightening conclusion.

With growing trepidation, we can reflect on such information, which ought to be a source of concern, and say, “We thought America was different; now, perhaps, we realize it is not different.”

We can hunker down in place and create Jewish institutional fortifications – complete with a military like security presence that some of us associate with European synagogues.

Ultimately, we can think and do everything possible, as a Jewish community, to insulate ourselves and protect our own.

From engagement in the world out there – engagement that now brings blessing to other communities beyond our own – we can turn inward in an attempt to shield our own.

There is another choice.

Some years back, Mary Oliver penned a brief poem – startling for certain, dissonant to the ear perhaps, maybe even offensive at first reading … but, ultimately, challenging.

I am grateful to my colleague and friend, Rabbi Eric Cytryn, for having drawn my attention to it.

The poem is entitled, “The Uses of Sorrow.”

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

Jarring, isn’t it? – Let me read it again.

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

Families in Pittsburgh are still in the midst of the shiva mourning period, a dark and bleak time that obscures hope – for them and for us.

Today darkness hardly feels like a gift.

This darkness will never feel like a “gift.”

And yet, amidst the darkness – a time of anger and unrelenting sadness – clarity can eventually begin to emerge; opportunity arises.

Similar to Mary Oliver, is it possible that we might eventually come to see our “box of darkness” as a moment of opportunity?

I think we must do so.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist.

He was also a Holocaust survivor.

Amidst untold degradation and with ample reason to recoil from life itself, Frankl recovered and shared incredibly uplifting insights with us.

Here is one of them.

He wrote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the   human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of   circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

What was taken away from eleven families last Shabbat morning in a Pittsburgh synagogue is incalculable.

What was taken away from what is apparently a tight-knit Pittsburgh Jewish community is absolutely heartbreaking.

And what was taken away from all of us in the Jewish community could lead to a terribly different kind of communal Jewish life if we choose to see only threat out there in the world and then withdraw from it.

Viktor Frankl reminds us – From the very depths, we are still free to choose our direction.

That direction is quite clear to me now – for our community and even more so for us as individuals.

I would suggest that our direction begins with teshuva, of sorts.

For our friends who are joining us today from outside the Jewish community, “teshuva” is a word that Jews associate with the High Holiday penitential season we concluded just over a month ago.

The word “teshuva” is usually translated as “repentance.”

But today I mean to use the word “teshuva” in its more literal sense, “turning…”

…turning, perhaps, from unhelpful directions toward better directions that will foster kedusha – that will encourage holy relationships with others inside and outside the Jewish community and with ourselves.

We must see a community – those of other faith traditions and those who do not identify with any faith tradition – that grieves with us now – that has repeatedly stood this week with Jewish communities throughout this country to offer words of comfort and consolation.

I am immeasurably grateful to that community – certainly to a number of people here today – for its healing presence.

On behalf of the members of Ahavath Achim Synagogue, I thank you for your expressions of concern and kindness.

They reassure us at a very uncertain time.

Next – Friends, we must see that we cannot rely on people in positions we have trusted in the past – elected officials among them – to lead us in reaffirming ways that foster healing and hope.

The unimaginable sentiments we hear; the images we see have assaulted our historic understanding of what it means to be a leader of the American people.

But we will rail against it to no avail.

Instead, we must rely on ourselves – not on others – to provide the healing and hope we so desperately need.

Then, friends, we must recognize a spiritual dimension that too many of us ignore.

If we look for it and open ourselves to it, we will recognize that a vision of the divine – of God’s caring presence – abides among us urging us to create the world we crave – a world where sentiments felt and words offered find constant expression in our actions.

One of our congregants, Jim Dricker, shared an extraordinary piece of wisdom with Rabbi Rosenthal and me earlier this week.

I am grateful to Jim both for the uplifting manner in which he expressed the need to constantly translate word into deed and for his permission to share his words with you now.

Jim’s note was a response to a friend who had reached out to him following the Pittsburgh murders.

Jim wrote the following:

“I say that deeds, not words, are the only consolation that make a difference, and words from those who put themselves out as leaders are empty without actions.”

“Some of us will react by making ourselves less visible, thinking there’s safety in that. Others will gather in groups to pray, sing, and express solidarity. That’s empowering and expansive … for a while.”

“There might be a memorial erected as a fitting tribute to the memory of the murdered. But for their memory to be a blessing we must bring more blessing to the earth.”

“Only deeds of goodness and kindness and light can overwhelm that evil and darkness.”

Jim continues – “For me, the best way to do this is to make a difference one person at a time. To welcome a refugee, to put food on someone’s table, to teach, to learn, to smile.”

“Evil wins when we do less. Resolving to do a bit more, and following that resolution with a deed, will transform the victim into victor and the evil into a blessing.”

I cannot possibly say it any better than Jim did.

Each of us can turn in a different direction, if necessary.

Each of us can do one thing that makes a difference one person at a time.

And we can do so today, tomorrow and the day after that.

We can and we must do so.

May the Holy One bless us as God blessed Abraham in our Torah Reading earlier this morning.

“V’Adonai bayrach et Avraham bakol” – God blessed Abraham in every way.

May the Holy One bless us bakol – in every way – so that we may transform an act of desecration of God’s name and presence last Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh into a sanctification of God’s name through acts of healing and hope here and elsewhere.

Amen

I ask, please, that we now rise to remember the victims of last Shabbat morning’s murders and join with Jewish communities today throughout the United States and the world in offering the Mourners Kaddish in their memory.

Today we remember:

Joyce Feinberg – Yiddis Bultcha bat Aba Menachem

Jerry Rabinowitz – Yehudah ben Yechezkel

David Rosenthal – David ben Eliezer

Cecil Rosenthal – Chaim ben Eliezer

Irving Younger – Yitzchak Chaim ben Menachem

Dan Stein – Daniel Avram ben Baruch

Rose Mallinger – Raizel bat Avraham

Richard Gottfried – Yosef ben Chaim

Bernice Simon – Beila Rachel bat Moshe

Sylvan Simon – Zalman Shachna ben Menachem Mendel

Mel Wax – Moshe Gadol ben Yosef

Zecher tzadikim l’vracha – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

Mourners’ Kaddish – page 184

 

Sermon – Kol Nidre
September 18, 2018 | 9 Tishrei 5779
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Ah, the old letters you sometimes discover…

Really something, aren’t they?

They can bring a smile, they can bring a tear…

… and they always awaken a memory from a distant past… especially because that is when people wrote letters and mailed them… in the distant past.

Susan was recently cleaning up the house and alleviating the clutter.

She came across a trove of those old letters.

Love letters? – Susan, did you find any of those?

(Not certain? – we’ll leave it at that!)

I do remember some of those letters that Susan found.

And some of them did make us laugh.

Let’s just say that I have changed over the course of forty years.

That’s a good thing.

Here’s another occasion that may lead to the discovery of letters from the distant past —

The death of an elderly parent.

Every now and then, during shiva, I visit with the children of an elderly parent who has just died.

“Rabbi, we were cleaning up the house and came across these love letters that Dad wrote to Mom.”

“They are absolutely precious!”

The sentiments expressed in those letters – often in fading ink on yellowed paper – bring smiles and tears of joy on the faces of those who are the greatest legacy of their parents’ love.

Elderly parents who became infirm – often with dementia that made them largely unrecognizable as the parents they had once been – are suddenly transformed.

They become young lovers again.

That is the power of those letters.

Perhaps we hold onto one or two of them, but we hardly have occasion to read those letters again.

There’s another kind of letter, one potentially filled with important content, that is quite different from those love letters.

And unlike those letters, this letter should be read over and over again.

As we read it, it may bring a smile to our lips or a tear to our eyes, but it should move us in other ways too.

It should encourage us to reflect on the life of the writer and on our own lives.

It should challenge us, perhaps, and encourage us to act.

You see, this letter reveals something very important about its writer and what is enduringly important to him or her.

It is meant to motivate us to reflect on the writer’s message and to act in certain worthy ways.

This letter now has a name.

It is called “The Forever Letter.”

That is the title of this book authored by Rabbi Elana Zaiman – The Forever Letter

So what is a “forever letter?”

I think I have already told you essentially what it is, but let me put it succinctly.

A forever letter is a letter written by an individual to be shared with loved ones.

Its purpose is to encourage its recipients to reflect on their own lives in light of the letter’s content.

From time to time, they should take it out and reread it.

For example, the forever letter of a parent to a child might best be looked at again on the child’s birthday.

A wedding anniversary would provide the perfect backdrop to reread a forever letter from one spouse to another …

And, of course, if forever letters are most naturally written by an aging parent to a child with the hope that his/her voice will remain a presence for many years, eventually a yahrzeit will provide the opportunity to look at that forever letter again.

What more valuable gift could a person give to loved ones than the continuing presence of a treasured voice?

What legacy could possibly be richer and more enduring than the words of a loved one that say – “This is what is important to me/

This is what I think really matters in life/

These values have been important in my life, and I hope they will always be important to you?”

Rabbi Zaiman has done all of us a tremendous service by writing this book.

“Tremendous service?”

That’s really an inadequate characterization of her work.

We have a tradition that prescribes how to live a holy life.

Some call that “halacha;” others call it “Jewish life.”

However, seldom are we shown personal and creative ways to add sanctity to our lives and to the lives of those who mean the most to us.

That is what Rabbi Zaiman does.

A forever letter enables us to share and, ultimately, leave something profound…an expression of enduring holiness… with people we deeply care about.

Many of us would find it difficult to write a forever letter.

Let’s be honest.

It’s alot easier to say something like, “My children know what’s important to me. They know my hopes and expectations for them.”

Maybe they do.

But maybe they are not as certain as you think they are.

Rabbi Zaiman offers a number of reasons why we ought to write forever letters.

She gives us a little push to do what, if we are honest with ourselves, we know we ought to do.

Here are a few of the reasons Rabbi Zaiman shares as to why we ought to write forever letters:

The most obvious one?

It’s a tangible, lasting gift.

Here is another reason – Sometimes we find it easier to share our innermost, deeply-held thoughts in writing rather than trying to verbalize them.

When we write, it’s much tougher to “beat around the bush” than when we are speaking to someone.

Writing encourages us to get to the point and to share our truth about what matters most to us.

Finally, writing a forever letter provides us with time to reflect before we actually frame a message for others.

It can often raise to the surface an important need – like the need to forgive someone who has wronged us or to ask forgiveness of someone we have hurt.

We sit here at the beginning of the day that to most us represents the climax of this penitential season, the day to seek and to offer forgiveness.

But we also know how infrequently any of that actually happens because it’s just too difficult, perhaps too embarrassing or too threatening to actually do so.

A forever letter can help us overcome those feelings in order to express remorse and ask for forgiveness…

or to forgive someone who hasn’t yet been able to approach us.

This High Holiday period only adds to the list of reasons Rabbi Zaiman provides for writing a forever letter.

Three times in the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah we offered familiar words – “Hayom harat olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world.”

Every year the world’s “birthday” brings its potential renewal, and each year we continue to live on this earth we, too, may be renewed.

We can see our lives as specks in the continuum of time or we can choose to see them as significant in this moment and, potentially, meaningful to our loved ones for years to come.

A forever letter can solidify that lasting significance.

On the High Holidays, we are reminded that our actions do matter.

Not only, as the High Holiday liturgy would have it, will our actions determine our fate and impact on how others will remember us when we are no longer here.

Our actions can also influence the choices our loved ones make.

A forever letter can only reinforce that influence.

Finally, in what is surely one of the most evocative moments of our Yom Kippur liturgy, we plead “Sh’ma Kolenu!” (“Hear our voice!”)

In that prayer, the object of our plea is God.

But the words – “Al tashleechaynu l’et ziknah” – “Don’t abandon us when we grow old” capture a human reality – fear of abandonment as the end of our lives approaches.

A forever letter can link us in powerful and redeeming ways with our loved ones at a time when we most need to feel their presence.

Many of us here this evening, probably most of us, lost our parents a number of years ago.

I still hear my mother, of blessed memory, sharing something of her goodness with me.

My father, thank God, is still alive, but no longer able to share the wisdom of his experience, Jewish and otherwise, with me as he did when I was a young rabbi.

I know what was important to my parents.

I know what they wanted for me and what they expected of me…and I wish I had it all in a letter in which each of their voices would be as clear to me now as they were when I stood next to each of them thirty or forty years ago.

My children know what my greatest priority is for each of them too.

It’s the same one my parents had for me – “Zai a mensch” – Be a good, caring person to the core and act accordingly.

But I can still write that letter, and with both Ariel and Aliza, God-willing, getting married in the next few months, I have this wonderful time of transition in their lives and our lives beckoning me to sit down and write each of them a forever letter.

So, friends, I know what my blessed task is.

What about you?

 

Sermon – Rosh Hashanah Day 2
September 11, 2018 | 2 Tishrei 5779
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

Anyone here recognize that name?

Amy was an author of childrens and adult books.

She made some short films and was also a radio host.

And she did some incredible, if somewhat quirky, things during her all-too-short lifetime.

Among the more extraordinary things Amy did just ten days before she died last March was to write a New York Times op-ed entitled, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.”

It was called a love letter to her husband, Jason, and it was a love letter.

But born of that love, Amy recognized that her husband deserved another partner with whom he could share life following her death.

That op-ed was a tough read.

Amy’s conclusion, written to Jason and to that eventual partner, was this:

I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins. I’ll leave this intentional empty space below as a way of giving you two the fresh start you deserve.

The op-ed ended with that empty space.

What an incredible and uniquely generous spirit.

Apparently that was Amy’s nature.

Amy often expressed her generous spirit in funny, even quirky ways that begged for attention and some reflection….

…. like the time she left Hostess Ding Dongs on random porches in her neighborhood….

… or the time she and two friends clipped one hundred $1 dollar bills to a few trees and waited to see what would happen….

… or the time she organized a group of people to stand outside an el station (the elevated train) in Chicago … to cheer commuters returning home after a long day of work.

The best known of Amy’s expressions of her generous spirit was a project she called “The Beckoning of Lovely.”

You can go on the web and learn a great deal about it.

But its culmination was this – At the end of the project ten years ago, Amy sent out a YouTube video inviting people to join her at a downtown Chicago park on an August afternoon.

Four hundred people showed up, and Amy threw a party.

Complete strangers danced, blew bubbles and handed out flowers to passers-by.

You can find a video of that day on Amy’s website including its conclusion when people flipped over individual sheets of paper to reveal one word each.

Here are the sheets – Let’s say each word together – “Make the most of your time here.”

“Make the most of your time here.”

I wish I had known Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

Back in that New York Times op-ed, Amy did reflect a bit on her life, but if someone had turned to her in her last months and asked,

“Amy, what do you want to say about your life?;”

“How do you reflect on all of it?”

“Did you make the most of your time here?” –

I wonder how she would have responded.

Another person, better known to most of us than Amy Krouse Rosenthal, also died this year, and we don’t have to wonder about how he would have answered those questions.

Charles Krauthammer, the extraordinary Washington Post op-ed writer, answered these questions in the final, brief public sentiments he shared in the newspaper only weeks prior to his death.

I don’t know that anyone actually asked those questions of him.

Probably not.

But I discern clear answers toward the end of his column.

This is what Dr. Krauthammer wrote:

I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny. I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life – full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.

“I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”

If someone had actually asked Charles Krauthammer, who many of you know faced life-changing trauma in his 20’s – What would you say about your life? Did you make the most of your time here?

You can hear what his answer would have been…

A resounding “Yes!”

“I played a small role in conversations that helped guide our nation’s destiny.”

“My life was full and complete with great loves and great endeavors.”

“I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”

Kathleen Parker, a colleague of Charles Krauthammer at The Washington Post, wrote a beautiful tribute to him after reading his final column.

Simple, but heartfelt words – “Anyone reading those words,” Parker wrote, “must be thinking the same; I hope I can say that someday.”

I doubt Ms. Parker meant to convey that each of us would like to be able to say we had helped guide our nation’s destiny.

But who among us would not wish to say, “I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended?”

If you knew your life was coming to an end, what would you want to say about it?

If that seems a little daunting, what would you say about your life today?

Is there a gap… a gap between what you would say today and what you would like to say?

Each of us here this morning, irrespective of age and health, ought to ask ourselves those questions… probably at this time every year.

If you are an older adult or have health concerns, you have obvious reasons to think about how you view the life you have lived and if there is a gap that can still be addressed between – “have done” and “can still do.”

Why should you think about such things and then act?

It’s called “time.”

It’s called “getting it right.”

It’s called “peace of mind.”

It’s called “living contentedly and without fear of death.”

And, as Charles Krauthammer shared with us, it is this: living…“with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”

What if you are younger?

Amy Krouse Rosenthal died at a much younger age than Charles Krauthammer.

Yet I strongly sense she could have said the same thing Dr. Krauthammer said – Amy surely lived the life that she intended!

Those of us who are Baby Boomers are still young enough to feel we have a number of good years ahead of us.

And if you are younger, all the more so!

Some of you may not even be “finished products” yet.

You’re still figuring out some things about yourself and your life.

If so, asking yourself the questions Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Charles Krauthammer effectively answered could become transformative!

A person who believes he or she has twenty, thirty, forty or more good and productive years ahead of him/her can answer the questions these two incredible individuals addressed, determine if there is a gap between “have done” and “can still do” and begin to narrow that gap now.

These High Holidays ought to be a time of self – confrontation no matter how old we are.

“Confrontation” is a word we don’t like to use, but it may be appropriate.

Most of us slide through our lives with very little attention to what we ought to do in order to live the lives that we intended – how we need to change ourselves or the dynamics of a troubled relationship with someone.

If we do honestly think about teshuva at this time of year and act on it, it usually pertains to someone we have wronged or who has wronged us.

That is good, of course.

It’s that other confrontation – with ourselves – that we tend to ignore.

Who am I?

Have I lived or am I living the life that I intended?

There’s only one person who can answer that question.

“Am I living the life that I intended?”

A day will come when we will no longer be able to ask.

No one – not even an older individual and surely not a young person – knows when.

That is why our tradition – both biblical and rabbinic – tells us that the amount of our time on this earth is not only unknown;

It urges us to use that time for the purpose we intended.

The Psalmist places this sage sentiment before us (Ps. 90:12):

Limnot yamaynu, kayn hoda; V’navee levav chochmah – Teach us to use all of our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.

In this New Year, I pray that we and our loved ones will be blessed in many ways;

  • Blessed with good health and well-being
  • Blessed with the Psalmist’s “heart of wisdom”
  • And blessed with insight and a forthright spirit so that we might ask ourselves, “Am I truly living the life that I intended?”

May our answers bring blessings.

Amen.

 

Sermon – Parshat Ki Tetze
August 25, 2018 | 14 Elul 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Last week in Rabbi Rosenthal’s sermon, he spoke briefly about the difference between calling yourself an “American Jew” and a “Jewish American.”

He suggested to us that the difference between the two is meaningful.

I want to give you one example that potentially reflects this difference and its meaning.

I am not certain it does; it might…at least in some instances.

Here’s the scenario.

Perhaps you have heard or even experienced a variation on it.

You have received solicitations for two very worthy causes.

One is Jewish; the other is not.

You might have said to yourself – “What should I do?”

“Should I give to one cause and, if so, which one?”

“Should I split my contribution between them and, if so, what should the split be – equal amounts to both…or not?

Are you an “American Jew” or a “Jewish American?”

The answer might influence your decision.

Here’s one variation on that scenario;

You shared your contribution dilemma and how you resolved it with a friend.

She was critical of your decision.

“Why did you give money to organization X in the general community?”

“Do you really think it makes much of a difference to them?”

“With far fewer people to support that Jewish organization, you would make a much bigger difference by contributing more money to it.”

Have you heard something like that?

If so, maybe you are a “Jewish American…” with an emphasis on “American.”

On the other hand, if you gave your entire charitable gift to a cause within the Jewish community, you might have heard this criticism –

“Aren’t you a citizen of the United States and the world?”

“Do you only care about Jews?”

Have you heard something like that?

If so, maybe you are an “American Jew…” with an emphasis on “Jew.”

If you have experienced something like one or both of these scenarios, know that you have joined in a dilemma that Jews have faced for 2000 years.

It just looks different now than it did until relatively recent times.

Once upon a time, when we lived as a minority outside the mainstream society, the Rabbis said we ought to take care of the needs of those who were not Jewish “mipnay darkay shalom” because those were the “ways of peace…”

Translation – It would not have gone well for Jewish communities dependent on the good will of others to have ignored the needs of those outside the Jewish community.

But most of us here today don’t know such a world.

We are no longer outside the mainstream.

Our society, our world is open to and welcoming of Jews in every way.

So, if you have heard or participated in one of the scenarios I mentioned – you stood in the midst of what is usually viewed as a conflict.

The particular (“the Jewish”) versus the universal (“everyone”).

Should we care only about our own or should we also care about others?

The truth is that reasonable arguments can be made in support of both directions.

But I want to suggest that while our Torah Portion today highlights the conflict in incredibly ambivalent ways, our impending celebration of Rosh Hashanah provides us with some wise direction.

First, the parasha – It is filled with laws.

Here is one set of those laws.

I hope it won’t cause you “Torah whiplash,” a particularly painful malady.

First, there is this – the Israelites should not let a single Ammonite or Moabite enter into the community.

(Don’t worry about exactly what that phrase “enter into the community” means. Just take it as face value as an expression of welcome or, here, just the opposite – exclusion.)

Wanna to know why?

Do you want to know why the Ammonites and Moabites were to be excluded?

Because when the Israelites were journeying in the wilderness toward the land of Israel and they went through the land of Ammon, the Ammonites weren’t good hosts.

They did not offer the Israelites food or drink.

And as for the Moabites? – When the king of Moab needlessly feared the Israelites and what they might do to his kingdom as they passed through it, he hired Bilaam to curse the Israelites.

Remember Bilaam? The talking donkey man?

For those two reasons apparently, no Ammonite or Moabite could become part of the Israelite community.

Got all of that?

But just a few verses later the Israelites are told not to abhor the Edomites or the Egyptians; in fact, they may be admitted into the Israelite community.

What?!?!

Lay aside the Edomites for a moment.

Everyone here knows the part that ancient Egypt played in our people’s past!

On the one hand, Egyptians, who enslaved our ancestors, could be welcomed into the Israelite community, and, on the other hand, Ammonites, who didn’t run to greet the Israelites in the wilderness with cookies and milk, could never be welcomed!

See what I mean by “Torah whiplash?!”

It doesn’t make much sense to include this group of people and exclude that group … until you see that one of the groups, those pesky Edomites, are referred to as “acheecha,” your kin.

So our Torah Portion heightens the ambivalence about who is part of us. –

Relatives and the descendants of Egyptian task masters are to be included, while everyone else is to be excluded.

But then Rosh Hashanah arrives and provides us with different direction regarding the choices we may make between us and them, between the particular and the universal.

On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah clearly embodies the particular.

It is our new year; to be celebrated in our unique, Jewish ways.

As we read Torah on Rosh Hashanah, we recognize that the Abraham/Sarah/Isaac narrative is the beginning of the story about our people’s continuity and relationship with the God of Israel.

Yet, at the very same time, we offer familiar words in our services on both days of Rosh Hashanah- “hayom harat olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world,” not of the Jewish people, but of the entire world …

In other words, Rosh Hashanah is also a celebration of the universal, of what all of humanity shares.

Friends – Today we live in a terribly divided, often polarized, world.

Just turn on one of the 24-hour news channels and the message is clear, if unspoken.

There is our way / There is their way… and their way is wrong; it is false; it is invalid.

Either/or… in other words, the triumph of the particular.

But Rosh Hashanah comes along, especially welcome in this regard this year, and says, No, it’s not “either/or.’”

It is “both/and.”

There is value in perpetuating commitment to the particular (to the world inside these four walls), and there is value in perpetuating commitment to the universal (to the world out there).

We can and must find ways to embrace and support both.

The beginning of the New Year quickly approaches.

The year 5778 will soon conclude.

May the year 5779 be a year in which we embrace and contribute to the well-being of our Jewish community and seek to make a difference in our larger community and world.

Amen.

 

Parshat Devarim | Shabbat Chazon
July 21, 2018 | 9 Av 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

I used to be a young rabbi.

(I know, for some of you, that because I am young enough to be your child, you still think of me as ‘young’. I am not.)

Thirty years ago I served a congregation in St. Louis under the direction of Rabbi Bernard Lipnick, now of blessed memory.

I learned some important things from Rabbi Lipnick.

I admired him for a number of reasons, but I knew I could never emulate him … not the least of which was for the reason I will share with you in a moment.

First, a little background.

Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis was the only congregation Rabbi Lipnick ever served.

He did so for forty years … and then a little bit longer when the congregation called him out of retirement.

But if you asked Rabbi Lipnick – “What congregation do you serve?,” he would respond – “I don’t serve a congregation, I serve God, Israel and Torah.”

Rabbi Lipnick had this deep, rich voice – “I serve God, Israel and Torah.”

I couldn’t say that.

I couldn’t be like him in that regard.

In my generation, rabbis didn’t and still don’t talk like that – I’m not referring to the deep, resonant voice.

We are committed to God, Israel and Torah, but we serve a community of people known as a congregation.

This week, I have been thinking about what Rabbi Lipnick used to say, especially in light of an excerpt from an essay I’d like to share with you in a moment.

A word about the use of the word “Israel” – both in Rabbi Lipnick’s parlance and in the excerpt.

The phrase “God, Israel and Torah” was a classical one used by many Jewish religious leaders in Rabbi Lipnick’s day and prior to it.

But in that phrase “Israel” was not a reference to the Israel you and I think about when we hear that word today.

“Israel” was a synonym for the “Jewish people,” the entire community.

With that in mind, as we sit here hours prior to the beginning of Tisha B’Av this evening, please listen to this excerpt from an essay written by Dr. Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Tishah B’Av – A Day of Many Meanings

“On January 12, 1933, my father acquired a slender Hebrew volume that contained the lamentations (seder ha-kinot) for Tishah B’Av according to the Ashkenazic rite. At the time, he was the young associate rabbi of one of the major Jewish communities in Germany. I know the date, because he had a lifelong habit of adorning every book that came his way with the date of purchase. Each year when I open this simple heirloom to recite its hoary dirges, I am overwhelmed by the startling fact that just eighteen days later Adolf Hitler came to power as the duly elected chancellor of Germany. Lamentations were to be the leitmotif of the next twelve years.

Toward the end of the Amidah (the silent devotion) of the afternoon service, the Ashkenazic rite of my father inserts a petition of artless literalism based on a graphic analogy between Temple practice and personal piety. The text reads:

Master of many worlds, it is surely known to you that when the Temple stood a sinning person would bring a sacrifice, offering up only its fat and blood, and You in Your great compassion would forgive. Now as I sit in fast with my own fat and blood diminishing, may it be Your will to regard them as if I were offering them before You on the alter and may You find me acceptable.

Dr. Schorsch continues –

But these words strike a discordant note, because Tishah B’Av has nothing to do with individual salvation. It is not a carbon copy of Yom Kippur, the other twenty-four hour fast of the Jewish calendar. If the intensity of the latter (Yom Kippur) is focused on the fate of the individual Jew, the concern of the former (Tisha B’av) is fixed on the fate of the nation. The two fast days are meant to balance and compliment, not replicate, each other. The Ninth of Av is a reaffirmation of the centrality of community, peoplehood and klal yisrael in Judaism. It promotes the supreme value of self-sacrifice for benefit of group survival and calls for loyalty to an ancient and divine cause that far transcends the significance of self.”

Wow! Listen again –

Referring to Tisha B’Av, Dr. Schorsch writes, “It promotes the supreme value of self-sacrifice for benefit of group survival and calls for loyalty to an ancient and divine cause that far transcends the significance of self.”

I love what Dr. Schorsch wrote.

“Self-sacrifice for the sake of the people Israel.”

“Transcending the significance of the self for the sake of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Lipnick practically speaks to us from the grave! God and Torah … and Israel!

There’s just one thing, though.

That Jewish community – the one that thinks, speaks and acts as if “We Are One” – the one where community reigns supreme and we en masse support it – that community doesn’t exist any longer.

Sometimes we’re fractured.

Sometimes we’re apathetic.

And most of the time, the Jewish community and the well-being of Jews outside the United States just don’t capture our attention.

We’re doing our own thing and focusing on our own lives and on the well-being of our families.

E-Jewish Philanthropy is a worldwide electronic newsletter that subscribers receive two or three times each week.

Our Federation Director, Eric Robbins, had an article in Monday’s newsletter.

It’s a very nice piece that revolves around a position that’s now open in our Federation – Director of Global Jewish Peoplehood.

“Global Jewish Peoplehood” – that’s gigantic in scope, isn’t it?

At the end of this nice article, Eric writes the following –

“So, if you know someone who is up to the task, please tell them to apply. It’s on my “must-do” list this summer. And I can guarantee all applicants that this is an exciting role and a good fit for anyone who wants to write the next chapter and map out new frontiers for the Jewish people.”

What more important work could a Jewish professional in this community do than support the commitment of Atlanta’s Jews to the people Israel?

Rabbi Lipnick would have loved it!

But I am wondering why Eric made such a direct appeal at the end of his column.

It sounds to me like there may be some difficulty in filling the position.

Yes, it sure is difficult to get Jews to focus today on “global Jewish peoplehood” or as Rabbi Lipnick and others simply called it “Israel”.

Most of us here this morning won’t fast on Tisha B’Av.

We may not even observe the day in any traditional way.

But on a day that Dr. Ismar Schorsch appropriately reminds us is about the Jewish people – for some, its survival, and for others, its well-being and flourishing future – I hope we will recommit ourselves to do whatever we can to contribute to our people’s well-being and rich future.

In his day, my mentor, Rabbi Bernard Lipnick, of blessed memory, did just that.

Zecher tsaddik l’vracha – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

Amen.

 

Parshat Mattot-Masei
July 14, 2018 | 2 Av 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

While most of us here are just a little too old to remember the specifics of any negotiations we had with our children while they were quite young, ALL of us can remember having had such conversations with them.

Right? Is there anyone here who didn’t have such negotiations with a child at least once?

I don’t believe you.

I think you have “conveniently” forgotten about such things… but you go right on believing that fantasy…

For the rest of us – though none of us can recall details, let me share with you my imagined reconstruction of such a negotiation in our family.

“Josh (that’s who it would have been in our family), your room is really a mess. Please clean it up before the Schwartz family arrives.”

“OK, I will.”

“No, Josh! Now! They’ll be here soon.”

The whining begins – “But I’m tired.” (That is a direct quote that I do remember from 25 years ago.)

“Josh!”

“But I’m tired.”

The negotiation would continue for a short time … and I would finally give up…sort of.

“OK, Josh – clean your room now, and I promise we’ll go out this evening for ice cream.”

Negotiation over; mission accomplished … and Josh, of course, was the victor.

But I also won, didn’t I? Just a little?

Did I correctly capture the dynamics of negotiation in your household when your children were young?

Again, say anything you like. But 30, 40, 50 or more years is a long time…a long time to remember such things.

So, say anything you like, but the answer to my question is – Yes, that’s pretty much the way it worked in your family too.

We were firm with our children … but within reason, they usually got what they wanted.

Friends – I have just described the essence of a story we read in Parshat Mattot this morning.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad made a terribly unreasonable request of Moses, but in the end, after some negotiation, the “kids” got what they wanted.

Nonetheless, though it may seem that the “parent” Moses lost the negotiation, he did succeed in getting the two tribes to act in a way that continues to share some important things for us to consider today.

As the final two parshiyot of Bemidbar open and the narrative of the Israelites’ desert wanderings is about to end, the people stand ready to enter the Promised Land …

But two tribes didn’t want to move forward.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad had lots of cattle, and the land east of the Jordan River, outside Cana’an, was fertile.

So they asked Moses for permission to stay there; they asked Moses to excuse them from entering the Promised Land!

Wow! The chutzpah!

After all that God had done for them; after all that Moses had done for them …they wanted to stop and stay right there on the other side of the Jordan River!

The Torah doesn’t describe the smoke that must have come out of Moses’ ears at that moment.

Instead, it depicts a calm Moses, a measured Moses, who appeals to reason.

Your absence, Moses tells the Reubenites and Gadites, will not just potentially harm the chances of the other Israelite tribes successfully entering the Land of Israel; it will totally deflate them.

No need for me to go into all the details of the negotiation; we read them earlier this morning.

In case you missed the Torah reading, this story has a happy ending.

Eventually, the tribes of Reuven and Gad, joined by the half-tribe of Menashe, get to stay outside the Land of Israel … and they all lived happily ever after.

(Not really; I just needed to bring the story to an end.)

So the tribes got what they wanted … and Moses largely got what he wanted too.

It became a situation that the Rabbis might have referred to as –

“Zeh ne’hene ……v’zeh ne’hene” – This one enjoyed and that one enjoyed.

In other words, both parties got most of what they wanted.

Moses got these tribes to promise they would enter the Land of Israel and help the rest of the Israelites settle there.

And these two and a half tribes eventually got to stay on the land they preferred just outside the Land of Israel.

Yes, it worked because they were able to compromise.

But it is the nature of the compromise – what Moses sought to emphasize to these tribes – that provides the lasting lesson.

25 years ago when our son, Josh, wouldn’t clean up his room, we got him to do so only because we met his personal desire – Ice cream!

But here in Parshat Mattot, Moses was successful because he was able to get the tribes to temporarily set aside their own desires and, instead, act on behalf of the community’s needs.

“Help the community,” Moses insisted; “Then you can satisfy your own desires.”

Some of us here today know what it means to sacrifice… temporarily or even permanently.

You gave up something …but that largely meant on behalf of someone – usually a spouse or maybe your children.

But a whole community?

Lay aside a desire in order to serve the community?!

Some among us did so in military service to our country.

But beyond that, the notion of even temporarily setting aside our desires in order to serve the community is really out of the ordinary … even more so today than in earlier years.

And yet, as we read the story of Moses and the two and a half tribes that remained just outside the Land of Israel, that story feels like it’s sharing a truth with us.

Sometimes we can discern something we might call “the common welfare” or “the greater good” within the Jewish community and outside it.

And sometimes we know we ought to act to support it, even if it leads us to delay satisfying our own desires or maybe ever doing so.

Yet seldom do we actually do so.

Seldom do we act counter to our desires or needs, even for a short time, in order to act on behalf of “the greater good.”

To be honest, I’m not certain this story provides us with unquestionable, singular direction as to how to live … but it sure does challenge us to think and perhaps act in some uplifting ways we hardly, if ever, consider.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Sermon – Parshat Chakat
June 23, 2018 | 10 Tammuz 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Many years ago I sat down with Rabbi Goodman after my first semester at the Seminary.

I wasn’t in rabbinical school at that time, but Rabbi Goodman convinced me that JTS’ rabbinical school was the way for me to go.

Boy, was that a mistake!

No, no. It wasn’t a mistake for me to become a rabbi.

After nearly 35 years in the pulpit, I have no regrets.

It’s just that I shouldn’t have gone to the seminary or to HUC or to YU or any other traditional rabbinical school.

Let me explain.

About 15 years ago when I started to read the Sunday wedding announcements in the New York Times, I began to notice that officiants didn’t necessarily have titles like “Rabbi” or “Reverend” or “Father” in front of their names.

I begin to see words like these – “The officiant, John Smith, a friend of the groom, was ordained for the occasion by the Church of The Holy Streetwashers.”

So I went online, found the website of the Church of The Holy Streetwashers … and discovered that ordination could be obtained for $39.95!

I immediately called my parents – “Mom/Dad, I’m sorry. It looks like you gave a whole lot more money to the Seminary for my rabbinical education than was necessary …”

Friends – I went to the Seminary because I was a Jew steeped in the Conservative movement.

It was the only place for me – and I learned there … lots and lots of text.

Some years later, after I had earned a Masters Degree in Social Work at Columbia University and had been in the pulpit rabbinate for a few years, I wondered if I hadn’t learned more about how to be a congregational rabbi in social work school than I did in rabbinical school.

Last Sunday, I emerged from the movie theater where I had paid a mere $12 – even less than I would have paid for ordination at The Church of The Holy Streetwashers – and wondered if I could have gotten by in the rabbinate had I just watched Mr. Rogers.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – the iconic song Fred Rogers, of blessed memory, would sing at the beginning of each episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is the title of a new documentary on his life.

Go see the movie.

You will be able to go to more exciting films this year.

But I don’t think you are likely to go to a more heart-warming film this year than this one.

And very likely, you will see no more important film than this one.

Go see the movie!

Fred Rogers grew up as a roly-poly child, and he became the butt of all of the insults of the bullies.

In response, he not only slimmed down; he became a champion of children… of all children.

Fred loved children .. all children.

Growing out of his own experience as a bullied child, Fred wanted every child to grow up with awareness of his uniqueness and inherent worth.

No child, in fact no one, should have to earn respect; it ought to be given to her because she deserves it.

Moreover, Fred Rogers valued diversity among people.

In his world of the 1960’s and 70’s, skin color still mattered to alot of people and divided them – whites and coloreds.

But to Fred, different skin colors were simply a mark of human diversity and nothing more.

Skin color was not to impact on the degree of respect afforded a person for a very simple reason –

Genesis 1:26 – “Na’aseh et ha’adam…” – “Let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness.”

That verse in the Creation story represented the basis and guidepost for Fred Rogers’ interactions with people …all people.

As a Christian, in fact an ordained Presbyterian minister, Fred respected everyone because he saw the divine image in everyone.

Respect was not earned; respect was to be shown and shown unconditionally to all because that was the way God had ordained the world and the human being’s placed within it.

I was too old to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Our son, Ariel, now 32, remembers watching some reruns, but I think Michael Jordan had more impact on him.

Neither Aliza nor Josh really saw the TV show.

But after watching the film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I have to tell you that I miss Fred Rogers.

We could use a popular, plain-spoken hero today; someone who shared worthy and timeless values with our children, grandchildren and with us.

Need I tell you how much our world, how much our own country fails to embody those values today?

I constantly need to remind myself that the world did not come into being so that we could fear others, seek to protect ourselves from them and demean those with whom we disagree.

You probably also need to remind yourself that we’re better than that.

Once upon a time, to our children, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was thirty minutes of enchantment that shaped minds and hearts.

Perhaps today those cinematically simple shows can no longer enchant anyone.

But they, along with the life of the one responsible for them, Fred Rogers, can and, I would say, must shape our minds and hearts and those of future generations.

HEBREW – So may it be!

 

Parshat Bechar/Bechukotai
May 12, 2018 | 27 Iyar 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Tomorrow is a special day, isn’t it? Do you know why?

Yes, of course, it’s Mother’s Day!

But at least in some portion of the Jewish world, there’s another reason that tomorrow will be a special day.

What’s that reason for celebration?

Tomorrow will be “Yom Yerushalayim” – “Jerusalem Day,” the 51st anniversary of the reunification of this unparalleled city to Jews.

“Shev’im panim la’Torah,” the Rabbis said. “The Torah has 70 faces.”

To our Rabbis, “70” was symbolic of totality, of all possibilities.

With that understanding in mind, each person could think of Torah; each person could understand Torah as he or she chose.

Well, “Shev’im panim l’yerushalayim…”

It occurs to me that, just like Torah, Jerusalem also has 70 faces!

It means different things to different people.

What does “Jerusalem” mean to you?

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Jerusalem?”

If you have been to Jerusalem, what does seeing it do to you?

What feelings does it evoke?

Our consciousness of Jerusalem is, in part, impacted by images common to a number, if not all, of us.

For example, the iconic Naomi Shemer song, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” tends to stir the hearts of those who are old enough to remember the Six Day War.

The Kotel is a potent image of Jerusalem.

For many, the Kotel is an image of the city’s unique spirituality, the place where God reigns supreme.

But for others, it is a place where it feels that Jewish peoplehood has been lost amidst Jewish communal strife.

“Shevim panim l’yerushalyim” – Jerusalem has so many faces, so many images that it conjures up for people.

What is that face; what is that image for you?

Is it rooted in romance or in reality?

Is it born of unique comfort or of concern?

What does Jerusalem mean to you?

For me, the faces of Jerusalem have become somewhat complex over the years.

I first went to Jerusalem when I was 14 years old.

My eyes were fixed on the beautiful young women of Jerusalem … and Tel Aviv …. and Haifa … and wherever else my parents and I went … and all I could think was, “They’re all Jewish!” … because when you’re an adolescent Jewish male, that’s what the face of Jerusalem and any other place in Israel is going to be!

At 16, after I arrived in Jerusalem following nearly two weeks behind the Iron Curtain, the face of Jerusalem became the face of hope and promise for Soviet Jewry.

And at 20, Jerusalem became the face of exhilarating romance … but not because of the beautiful Israeli women; no, it was because of the beautiful woman from New Orleans who was also attending Hebrew University that year …

And, yes, for Susan and me, the face of Jerusalem retains that image of romance and love forty-plus years later.

But during that year at Hebrew University and then throughout another year in Jerusalem four years later when I was in rabbinical school, the faces of Jerusalem multiplied and became more complex and even troubling to me.

With my longer periods of time in Israel, the face of Jerusalem was sometimes the face of contention – between religious Jews and non-religious Jews, between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews and, of course, between Jews and Palestinians…”Palestinians”…a term referring to people I was only beginning to learn about in the late ‘70’s.

Two weeks ago, only a few days after I had returned from a trip to Israel with twenty-some-odd rabbis and Protestant ministers, I told you about another face of Jerusalem.

It was the face of spiritual beauty associated with Christian holy sites I had not previously visited.

But I didn’t tell you about another face of Jerusalem that I saw on that trip.

That face wasn’t entirely new to me, but the image, even if a necessary one, was no less disturbing than the first time I saw it.

It was the face of forced separation – of walls, of barriers – between Israelis and Palestinians, a separation that has undeniably saved Israeli lives, but assaults the eye and troubles the spirit.

It is the face of 12-foot high walls that separate one East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood in Abu Dis from the neighborhood next to it in the very same Palestinian community.

It is the face of disparity – of a beautiful Jewish neighborhood, Arnona, on the left where the new U.S. Embassy will be located in Jerusalem and of a decrepit Palestinian neighborhood, Jabel Mukaber, on the right – both within Jerusalem.

And this coming week, the face of Jerusalem will become one of greater concern and worry.

On Monday, the United States will open its embassy in Jerusalem.

That is as it should be.

But can we just turn a blind eye and not care at all about the feelings that action stirs among a number of Palestinians?

And if you think we should just ignore the Palestinian reaction, will we be able to do so the very next day, on May 15th, when Palestinians across Israel will gather to remember what they call

Nakba Day – what was to them the catastrophe of the founding of the State of Israel 70 years ago?

What will happen at that time at the border fence with Gaza?!

Combine all of that with the growing military engagement between Israel and Iran and, for anyone who cares about Jerusalem, at least one of Jerusalem’s 70 faces must be the face of concern and worry.

Nonetheless, friends, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, the 51st anniversary of the reunification of this most holy city to the Jewish people is a time to celebrate.

For nearly 2000 years we could not see the full face of Jerusalem’s beauty.

We were not allowed to see all of it.

But 1967 changed all of that … for the good and for blessing, to be certain.

But 1967 also began to add layers of complexity and dissonance to the faces of Jerusalem ….

And now, at least for some of us, growing concern.

As I was writing these last words of my message (and I do mean actually writing – just ask my assistant, Jill) I glanced over at the email subject headings on my computer screen.

The last one said something like, “Last chance to register! Study with the Hartman Institute this summer!”

I think it was a sign from God.

The Hartman Institute is an incredible educational institution in the heart of Jerusalem.

I have been there for individual sessions, but I have long hoped to study in its annual summer program for rabbis.

Unfortunately, it won’t happen this summer.

But just seeing that subject heading reminded me – That is also one of Jerusalem’s 70 faces – the face of unique Jewish learning, of spiritual uplift and of hope.

Join with me, then, in praying for the peace and well-being of Jerusalem, especially in these challenging times.

I can think of no better way to do so than to conclude with the final verses of Psalm 122 ….

“Pray for the well – being of Jerusalem: May those who love you be at peace. May there be well – being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels. For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well – being; for the sake of the house of Lord our God, I seek your good.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Parshat Achare Mot – Kedoshim
April 28, 2018 | 13 Iyar 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Israel is a familiar place to me.

After having spent more than two years of my life there, I guess it should be.

Get off the plane, begin to speak Hebrew, hop in the sherut and anticipate the ascent to Jerusalem … a place I know very well.

But it was different this time.

I didn’t head to Jerusalem.

Instead our bus headed north from the airport.

We stopped in Caesarea.

Peter? The Roman centurion? The first non-Jew to become a Christian?

That was new to me!

The next day to Yardenit on the Jordan River…a place of baptisms today and symbolic of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry after he was baptized in the Jordan.

That was new to me, too!

Then to the Mount of Beatitudes … the Mount of what?

The place where Jesus offered the Sermon on the Mount and spoke what, for believers, is eight memorable aphorisms, for example, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Well, those particular words were not new to me, but I didn’t know anything about this place or anything else about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Then off to Capernaum and stories of Peter, the first “Pope.”

Guess what – I think I have been there…but those stories were new to me.
No, this trip to Israel began and continued like no other I had ever taken.

We were a group of rabbi and Protestant minister pairs from the eastern half of the United States, participants in a program called “Interfaith Partners for Peace.”

My “better half” was Dr. Dock Hollingsworth, Senior Pastor of Second Ponce Baptist Church on Peachtree.

During those first few days when we focused on holy Christian sites, I could see and feel the spiritual uplift of my Christian counterparts.

Somehow their uplift began to become my uplift.

Then I saw and heard their reactions and the insights they gained as we reached Jerusalem and toured Yad Vashem.

Obviously, the Holocaust was nothing new to my Christian colleagues.

But Yad Vashem had an impact on them. I could see it.

I think it created for them a greater understanding of why it is that anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric today penetrates the consciousness of many Jews in unsettling and sometimes, painful and infuriating, ways.

The next day I walked through a number of Christian holy places in East Jerusalem and the Old City largely with my Christian sisters and brothers.

It was an incredible learning opportunity for me!

And again, their spiritual uplift in these places contributed to my own.

I began to wonder – Why was I having this feeling of uplift at Christian holy sites?

In part, it was because some of those places were also holy to me and to my tradition.

But I realized that something else was happening.

That phrase I sometimes use – “Christian brothers and sisters” was becoming a reality.

We were really becoming Christian brothers and sisters!

We were forming a spiritual bond across religious lines that I had never previously felt.

I don’t know how many times I have used that phrase “Christian brothers and sisters” in invocations and speeches to Christian audiences.

Let’s be honest – Ordinarily it’s the nice thing to say, and it helps me to form a bond with my audience.

In other words, it’s largely a rhetorical device.

But over the course of a week together in Israel, I really came to mean it.

A single verse in the Torah, found in the second of our Torah Portions today, helped me to grasp what was happening on this mission.

That verse offers what is arguably the most challenging and potentially uplifting words in the entire Torah.

“Kedoshim th’yu kee kadosh anee Adonai Eloheichem” – “You shall be holy because I, Adonai, your God am holy.” (Lv. 19:2)

Whenever we do that which is kadosh, the Torah tells us that we are like God.

And what does it mean to do that which is kadosh?

Just look at Parshat Kedoshim – It means to be in relationship – in relationship with time, space, objects and, most obviously and frequently, with people and raise up those relationships … sanctify them.

Sanctify relationships – Seek to make them special, even extraordinary!

I might paraphrase Hillel at this moment as he spoke with that idolater nearly 2000 years ago…

“Transform ordinary relationships! – Sanctify them!”

“…That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Now, go do it.”

For a week in Israel, through shared experience, transformative insights and spiritual uplift – Christian and Jewish clergy became “Christian and Jewish sisters and brothers.”

Our relationships became “kadosh.”

They reflected holiness and the presence of the Holy One.

On this trip I learned about another way that ordinary relationships can be raised up to be imbued with sanctity of sorts.

As I said, our mission was called “Interfaith Partners for Peace.”

We had a good bit of contact with Palestinians and with their perceptions of their plight.

I didn’t know precisely how to react to the warm words of the Palestinian Christian leadership of the Nazareth Evangelical College in the Galilee.

I wanted to fully embrace them!

I know that I was quite uncomfortable as I listened to the harsh testimonials and views of Mahmoud Muna, an East Jerusalem bookseller, who was born there and whose family has long lived in the area.

To enter Bethlehem, an area fully administered by the Palestinian Authority and to be protected – not watched – but protected by Palestinian security and uniformed Palestinian police with rifles was simultaneously ironic and a little unnerving.

These experiences – in all their discomfort – forced me to try to see things from the perspective of the one – the Palestinian – who I have always seen as the other.

I had a choice as I listened to our Palestinian guests and looked at those who assured our safety in Bethlehem.

I could see them as I think many of us perceive of them – as the enemy who hates Jews and wishes only to push Israel into the sea, or I could see them as human beings who are entitled to view things differently than I and my people tend to see them.

I could see these Palestinians as threats to be controlled, or I could see them as human beings who have the ability, as all of us do, to reflect the presence of the divine.

To be honest, I don’t know which is correct – threat to be controlled or human beings at least to be respected – but I choose the latter, whenever possible.

In that choice, I recognize a kind of kedusha, as reflected in Parshat Kedoshim.

I feel like I am reflecting God’s presence.

If you are still listening to me, I know that you may be finding my message today to be a difficult one…maybe even a little troubling.

It’s probably not the way 62-year old rabbis who serve on AIPAC’s National Council usually speak.

But that’s OK.

I am a Conservative Jew and, as Rabbi Neil Gillman, of blessed memory, taught me many years ago, that means I embrace the tension I have shared with you here.

I don’t deny it.

I often reflect on a well-known statement in Pirkay Avot when I think about the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and become forlorn.

Let me share a portion of that mishna with you.

Hevay meetalmeedav shel Aharon – ohev shalom v’rodayf shalom…

“Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace…”

It’s not very difficult to love peace, is it?

But to pursue peace when it’s incredibly challenging to do so?

That’s really why I chose to participate in this Interfaith Partners for Peace mission …

Because I wanted to nurture my soul that yearns to be among the disciples of Aaron – not only loving peace, but contributing just a bit in pursuit of peace.

My friends – that is what I believe the Holy One asks of us – to be holy ones; to seek to establish relationships…even to raise them up and sanctify them…not just when it is easy to do, but when it feels difficult and challenging to do so.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Parshat Teruma Sermon
February 17, 2018 | 2 Adar 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Here is a thought exercise.

Follow along with me, please, and think about the question that will come at the end of this lead-up to it.

Until very recent weeks, as we again read the story of our people’s sojourn in Egypt – highlighting the progressive beating down of an oppressed people until its miraculous exodus – we saw sustained “big acts.”

Hollywood movies have portrayed them, but the text of the Torah itself is certainly sufficient.

Plague after plague, the God of Israel placed a chokehold on Pharaoh, a god of the Egyptians … until, finally, Pharaoh said, “Uncle.”

The Exodus ensued, but it succeeded only because of the Holy One’s most miraculous act of salvation – the parting of the sea and the drowning of the Egyptians.

But hold on, one last “big act” awaited the Israelites.

Even as God’s role within the community was beginning to change from miraculous savior to law-giver, one last “big act” remained – standing at Sinai amidst the frightening claps of thunder and bolts of lightning that signaled God’s revelation.

And then it was over …no more “big acts.”

Now it was about quasi-courts to adjudicate matters between people.

It was about the laws of the community.

Where was God amidst these scenes from Parshiyot Yitro and Mishpatim?

Perhaps at this point the Israelites had difficulty recognizing God in their midst.

So, as the desert journey continues this week, God, in a sense, does return to the community, but not through any “big act.”

Now, in Parshat Teruma, the people must act in order to sensitize themselves to God’s presence.

So they build a shrine – the mishkan, the Tabernacle – where sacrifices and other offerings to God will be made … all for the purpose of showing that God remained in their midst.

Our Israelite ancestors had no doubts about that even if God no longer appeared to be physically present.

Here comes the thought exercise question.

When Nikolas Cruz walked toward Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday afternoon and prepared to wreak untold havoc and misery on a community of 3,000 students plus faculty and other staff members, what if God, in a most miraculous fashion, had manifested God’s self in a recognizable way to this very troubled young man?

What do you think would have happened next?

Of course, my question is ridiculous and has no answer.

But I pose this thought exercise to highlight the potentially spiritual quality of the scene as Nikolas Cruz entered Stoneman Douglas High School and began his shooting spree.

“…spiritual quality of the scene…” Seems to be an awkward way to describe that place at that time.

However, make no mistake about it – As high school students and others at Stoneman Douglas were reaching the end of the school day, excitedly preparing perhaps for extracurricular activities and the like, the Holy One was very much in their presence.

Unlike our biblical stories, there were no visible signs of God’s presence and no one had acted to invoke it or remind the community that God was there.

But amidst vibrant life seemingly filled with the endless possibilities of adolescence and young adulthood, how could God not be present?

Then, in a matter of moments, it was as if the Holy One had disappeared, utterly exiled by an unspeakable act of gunning down God’s creations.

With senseless deaths and injuries, one person after the other, God’s name was surely profaned.

The Holy One’s presence and the beauty of a world entrusted to us as God’s stewards were obscured.

That, my friends, is why I believe the issue of gun violence in our country is, among other things, a spiritual matter.

And when a problem is understood as a spiritual matter, it is incumbent upon clergy and those they serve, among others, to address it.

Of course, our hearts have been seared once again by the deaths of seventeen innocent people, many of them young students.

We pray for the well-being of loved ones.

We pray for the recovery – in every possible way – of those who have been injured.

But I have to tell you – I’m tired of just praying.

I’ve had enough of “saying the right things at this time of tragedy.”

The numbers are staggering!

Every day in America, 93 people die from gun violence; 32 of them are murdered.

Every day, 222 people are shot and survive; 64 of them are injured in an attack.

Now, let’s talk about young people from birth to age 19.

In an average year, 2,647 young people die from gun violence; 1,565 of them are murdered.

14,365 young people are shot and survive; 11,321 of them are injured in an attack (source of statistics – The Brady Center).

Positively dizzying, isn’t it?

Maybe these numbers and others I could cite are too abstract, or too impersonal.

Well, then try this unspeakable horror – What if it was your child or your grandchild?

Your loved ones were fortunate not to be at Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday.

But what thoughts, what fears arose in your child or grandchild as he or she walked into school on Thursday morning or yesterday?

We simply can no longer shake our heads at this horror, pray for well-being and then move on until the next act of mass gun violence enters the news cycle.

So what can we do? Can we make a difference?

Here is an important distinction to make and fully understand.

The problem of gun violence is spiritual.

That is why we in this congregation must care about it and seek to address it.

But the potential solutions, though varied in nature, begin first and foremost in the political realm.

That is why we must focus our actions there.

In that regard, I want to propose a general direction for our actions and then turn to some of you perhaps, the NRA members among us and elsewhere, with a request.

But, first, I want to make something clear about me and my personal views concerning gun rights.

I am not a gun owner.

I have no interest in hunting, which itself is contrary to Jewish tradition.

I have no interest in target practice.

But I believe that people have the right to do both.

I also believe that people have the right to sensibly protect themselves, their loved ones and property.

I have no particular wisdom when it comes to the specifics of sensible gun control.

I trust those who are far more knowledgeable than me about such things and am prepared to follow their recommendations.

But we just can’t seem to get there…

We can’t seem to get anywhere positive even though large, in some case overwhelming, majorities of Americans favor specific, sensible safeguards against gun violence.

We know why that is the case.

So what do we do? What have we done up to this point?

Some of us, too few to be honest, write letters to those who represent us in the state legislature and in Washington; we call them.

Sometimes, in small groups, we even lobby them in person.

And we say to ourselves, “I’m doing my best,” and we feel good about our efforts.

And though we are doing our best, it all tends to be ineffective.

Today, seventeen families grieve the deaths of their loved ones in Parkland, Florida.

They join hundreds of others whose loved ones have died under similar circumstances in recent years.

And you know they will be joined by others in the months ahead!

Do you remember the quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, about the definition of insanity?

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Calls to write letters to officials urging them generally to “support sensible gun control measures” will likely fall on deaf ears because, absent the right kind of effort, the number of those letters will likely be insignificant.

Calls to gather at state capitols, again, to “support sensible gun control measures” may gain thirty seconds on the evening news … but likely not much else.

The only actions that have a chance of succeeding in today’s political climate in which the NRA reigns supreme are large, even massive, well-coordinated efforts.

Those are the only things that will speak to those who represent us.

On December 6, 1987, Susan and I joined with 250,000 people on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Some of you were also there.

You remember why we were there – It was Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry.

A massive outpouring demanded of then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev – “Let my people go” …. and it had an impact – on President Reagan, on members of Congress and, ultimately, on Soviet leaders.

By the early 90’s the gates of the former Soviet Union had opened…and Jews, en masse, flooded out.

That is what I am talking about … on a national level and on a commensurate state level – strategic and massive actions.

Rabbis and their congregations do not plan such gatherings and actions.

We don’t have the expertise.

But if the professional leadership of organizations whose missions are to lessen gun violence properly plans and organizes efforts, congregations, including our own I hope, will be among those who will help to implement the plans.

I hope that Rabbi Rosenthal and I will be able to share such plans with you in the near future.

Now, finally, let me address the members of the NRA who are among us and elsewhere.

There are specific potential legislative actions – among them obligating universal background checks and banning assault-style weapons – that are supported by large majorities of Americans.

You know that.

We know why legislative bodies never even vote on such issues.

NRA members – I believe there are two morally-defensible positions you can and should take today.

You have to choose one of them:

  1. Either, as a statement of protest, resign your membership in the NRA.
  2. Or, better, maintain your NRA membership and appeal to your leadership to act responsibly.
  3. By all means, protect freedoms and rights to have and use a gun, but not the types of guns that enable scenes like the one we saw this past Wednesday to unfold with heart-wrenching frequency.
  4. In the name of a God who we imagine weeps even as we weep at such moments – Demand of the NRA leadership that it act to heal.

Friends, I really do carry an image of the Holy One weeping on Wednesday as the world that God entrusted to us was shattered again.

But prayer for healing is insufficient.

The dangers are simply too high; the stakes are too great – for us, our children and our grandchildren … indeed for our country!

As I think about the potential consequences of our failure to address gun violence in America, a well-known midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabbah haunts me.

When the Holy One created the first human, God took Adam and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! All that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to repair it after you. (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

May we take the implications of this midrash to heart and join with others in our county to redeem our very broken world.

Amen

 

Parshat Chaye Sarah Sermon
November 11, 2017 | 22 Cheshvan 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

“Sixty is the new forty!” That’s what they say.

“Sixty is the new forty.”

Many of you have gracefully surpassed the tender age of 60.

You are hoping that 80 may be “the new 60” or that 90 is “the new 70”.

But let’s not kid ourselves.

60 is not the new 40 (boy, do I know that!); 80 is not the new 60 and 90 is not the new 70!

I hesitate to say this, but I wonder if Leon Abramson and Ralph Sacks, who just turned 100 yesterday, would agree with my hunch that 100 is not the new 80?

I won’t ask them because I don’t want to be told I am wrong.

Do you think this notion that we feel or look younger than our chronological age is new … a function of better medicine, better diet and exercise?

Quote of opening verse of Torah Reading.

At the outset of Parshat Chaye Sarah, our matriarch Sarah dies.

How old was she at the time of her death? 127 years old.

But the Torah elongates that answer.

“100 years and 20 years and 7 years….”

Here’s a popular midrash on the strange way the Torah expressed Sarah’s age.

When Sarah was 20 years old, she was as innocent as a 7 year old.

And when she was 100 years old, she was as beautiful as a 20 years old! (GR. 58:1)

Some 1500 years ago I don’t know what innocence and beauty meant to our Rabbis.

But this I do know … They could certainly distinguish between both of those qualities as they might be seen in a young person and in an old person.

Let’s talk about beauty.

Could the Rabbis really have literally meant that a 100 year old woman was as beautiful as a 20 year old woman?

In her own 100 year old way, perhaps, but not in a way akin to a 20 year old!

I suspect the Rabbis never intended for us to understand this statement about Sarah literally concerning physical beauty.

Still, they saw something beautiful in a 100 year old woman…a quality they may not have expected to recognize in her.

Presumably, without specific concern for diet, exercise or sound medical care, Sarah had a unique nature.

Only about her could it be said, “100 is the new 20”.

But in doing so, Sarah provides us with an example to consider … to be something other than the mere sum of our years on earth.

How do you perceive yourself?

How do you think others view you?

When I ask those questions, I know it is difficult to separate your answers from your physical condition.

We get older … and the aches and pains increase.

We get older … and our skin wrinkles.

We get older … and we likely move a bit slower.

All that and more are givens as we age.

But I ask you to set them aside in answering these questions.

How do you perceive yourself?

How do you think others view you?

Are you younger or older than your actual years?

What do you project within the circles of people you interact?

Does everything about you say, in effect, “I don’t have much energy. I’m pretty much done?”

Or, on the contrary, amidst the limitations that advancing age tends to impose, does your life reflect some of these qualities:

  1. You know, I have some wisdom to share.
  2. I’m still up for some challenges.
  3. I’d really like to continue to learn.
  4. I’m going to enjoy my life and bring some joy to others as long as I possibly can.

If you can answer any of those questions or similar ones with an unambiguous “Yes,” then your life already reflects the very special beauty our Rabbis recognized in the life of our matriarch, Sarah.

Yes, a healthy diet, appropriate levels of exercise and proper medical care may enable us to grow older.

But only nurturing a love for life – for its challenges, for the endless opportunities it provides and for the contributions we may make to others – will enable us, we pray, to grow older wisely and beautifully.

May each of us grow older wisely and reflect the very special beauty our Rabbis recognized in Sarah.

Amen.

 

Yom Kippur Yizkor Sermon
September 30, 2017 | 10 Tishrei 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Early morning Sunday, July 16th, Don Damond gladly grasped his phone to answer the call.

He thought it was his financé Justine calling to let him know that the disturbance she had heard outside their Minneapolis home, just a few blocks away from where I grew up, had settled down.

Everything was OK now.

Only … it wasn’t OK.

It wasn’t Don’s financé on the phone; it was a police officer.

A shooting had taken place, and a woman had died.

“We can’t give a positive ID,” the officer said, “but we think it’s Justine.”

Suddenly and unexpectedly, Don Damond’s world was shattered.

Hyperventilation gave way to uncontrollable sobbing.

Perhaps you recognize this story because it remained a national news story for several days this summer.

Here is another somewhat similar story that never made it into the news.

But you can still read about it whenever you want to do so.

It appears in the Torah in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 10.

Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offered what the text calls “aysh zarah”, “alien fire,” and in response presumably as punishment for this uninvited offering, God caused fire to consume these men.

“Vayeedom Aharon” – “Aaron was silent.”

The Torah makes no other explicit reference linking Aaron to what he had just witnessed.

Within three verses of Aaron’s stunned, likely overcome, dumbfoundedness, Moses is giving Kohen – related instructions to him.

Two verses later God is giving Aaron more instructions.

Only three verses later, Moses is speaking to Aaron as if the entire episode never even occurred!

All the while, we never hear Aaron’s voice; we only hear his silence.

Did Aaron simply suppress his reactions so that he could continue his task of spiritual leadership? – Maybe.

Did he mourn in a healthy manner so that he could emerge from this shattering moment in a way that let him continue his life? – Perhaps.

The Torah is sparse regarding such details.

Aaron somehow managed to move forward.

It’s too early to know about Don Damond. We certainly pray for his well-being and for the well-being of Justine’s loved ones.

But we do know about Sheryl Sandberg whose life was shattered in 2015, and who has now been able to share what she has learned with us.

Some of you know this story.

Sheryl and her husband, Dave Goldberg, went on a vacation to Mexico in May 2015. While working out in a gym, Dave collapsed and died almost instantly. He was 47 years old.

In addition to his wife, Sheryl, Dave left two young children.

Dave’s sudden death gained prominent mention in the media at the time because he was the Chief Executive Officer of Survey Monkey, and his wife was and still is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

But we did not feel the utter devastation that Dave’s death caused until Sheryl posted a long letter thirty days after his funeral.

In fact, Sheryl’s letter began with these words – “Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband.”

She went on to describe both shiva and sheloshim.

And then she described the devastation … the same devastation that Don Damond and Aaron undoubtedly felt.

“I have lived thirty years in these thirty days,” Sheryl wrote. “I am thirty years sadder.”

Yet, only a month after her beloved husband had died and Sheryl Sandberg was still enveloped by grief, she was learning how to move forward.

And she began to teach us.

Listen to what she wrote:

I was talking to one of those friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave. I want Option A.” He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the s**t out of Option B.”

That’s when the seeds of this book, Option B – Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy published earlier this year, were planted.

While Sheryl views things from the perspective of one whose world has been shattered by sudden and unexpected loss, her experience may not necessarily be all that different from one whose pain could have been anticipated.

I have seen how to some loved ones, the death of an elderly parent or spouse after a lengthy illness is just as devastating as if the person had died with absolutely no warning.

No matter what the circumstances, for all of us following a sudden death and for some of us, even after an expected death, the road to recovery may be difficult.

It is a road founded on human resilence and a belief in our capacity to recover, change and eventually flourish again.

Resilience is the incredible, God-given ability that helps us to move forward at difficult moments.

It gives us the capacity to persevere when it seems utterly impossible to do so.

Sheryl Sandberg recognized that resilience was the soil in which the possibility of a future that had been unalterably changed could take root.

When Dave Goldberg died, Sheryl Sandberg had absolutely no idea what to do.

She was completely overwhelmed.

She didn’t know how she was going to make it from one day to the next!

She had little sense of how she could provide a secure presence for her son and daughter.

But the renewing potential of resilience began to take hold, and Sheryl managed.

Option B contains a number of thoughts about how to move forward after a devastating loss and how to help others do so.

One of the cornerstones is to be found in the incident I already shared with you.

When Sheryl was overwhelmed by the thought of her husband’s absence from a father-child activity, a friend was there to put an arm around her and say, “We can’t do it that way, but we can do it this way.”

That is what a friend does.

That is what a community does.

It wraps its arms around that person and says, “I am with you, and I will help you to do it.”

Then it acts in reassuring ways to reinforce that message.
In a single sentence, Sheryl Sandberg captures the meaning and redemptive power of community for one who has been devastated by loss.

She writes, “We find our humanity – our will to live and our ability to love – in our connections to one another.” (p. 141)

That is the potential power, again a renewing power, of community, whether that community is a circle of friends, neighbors or a kehillah kedoshah, a genuinely caring congregation.

One of the most important traits that Sheryl writes about, one I have spoken about previously, is the potential for what she calls “post-traumatic growth.” (p. 78)

Sheryl tells the story of a physician, Joe Kasper, whose world was upended when his teenage son was diagnosed with an incurable disease.

Dr. Kasper was devastated, but he was determined to persevere.

He learned about how people recover from such trauma based on the studies of two university professors, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun.

He came across what he found to be a transformative quote as he read their research findings – “I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I ever imagined.” (p. 79)

Again – “I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I ever imagined.”

Those words could describe many of us here.

The death of a loved one, especially when unanticipated, has already or will utterly devastate many of us.

But we are stronger and more capable of recovery than many of us think.

If we have yet to learn that through personal experience, a time will likely come when we will do so.

Near the end of her book, Sheryl writes:

When we marry, we promise to love ‘till death do us part.’ Our images of love are active – we love by being there for a friend, taking care of a child, waking up next to someone – all of which depend upon the person being alive. One of the most important things I’ve learned is how deeply you can keep loving someone after they die. You may not be able to hold them or talk to them, and you may even date or love someone else, but you can still love them every bit as much. (Sheryl concludes) – Playwright Robert Woodruff Anderson captured it perfectly: “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.” (p. 168)

The deaths of those who mean the most to us – whether their deaths occurred unexpectedly in an instant or after a long life and over the course of sometime – may shatter our world.

I’m sure that Don Damond is still devastated today.

But as both our ancestor Aaron and much later, Sheryl Sandberg, learned, the limitless divine gift of resilience provides us with a means to begin to live again.
Loved ones, friends and a caring community can give us strength to move forward so that we can be stronger than we ever imagined.

When such a moment arises in our lives, may we be blessed with all these gifts and with the reassuring sense that God grieves with us and strengthens us.

“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.”

May we come to recognize the enduring and reassuring truth of Robert Woodruff Anderson’s realization and be comforted by it.

Amen

 

Sermon – Rosh Hashanah Day 2
September 22, 2017 | 2 Tishrei 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Around my house, when I was growing up, Yiddish was the language my parents used when they didn’t want my sister and me to understand what they were saying.

That was the point.

Yiddish was Mom and Dad’s personal language – somehow very Jewish, yet foreign to their children.

Baubie Sandler’s Yiddish sounded different to me than my parents’ Yiddish.

It matched her wet kisses.

It was loving.

I really had no idea what Baubie Sandler was ever saying, but whatever she said to me, it always sounded like it was said with kisses.

As a teenager, I began to pick up Yiddish words and phrases.

Some I used in conversation quite naturally.

Others I couldn’t quite translate, but I gained a sense of their meaning.

And others, well, others I just can’t talk about from the bimah or in polite company.

But some of those Yiddish phrases I understood shared important lessons.

Two phrases I can think of said, “You’re different; you’re Jewish; some people don’t like Jews.

Don’t do anything to give them a reason to dislike Jews.”

The first phrase was “Shanda fur die goyim.”

“If you do something wrong, especially something that lots of non-Jews will learn about, you will bring shame to all Jews because non – Jews will think that all Jews do whatever you did.”

“So, don’t do it!”

Honestly, I’m not certain anyone thinks like that today – that non-Jews attribute one Jew’s behavior to all Jews.

“Shanda fur die goyim?” – Not so much anymore.

The second Yiddish phrase is also becoming irrelevant, but not because the way Jews are perceived by their neighbors has changed.

Here it is – “Ess passt nicht” – “It’s not becoming.” “It’s not appropriate.”

Boy, if you heard that one from your Baubie or Zayde, your head sank in shame.

The implication was, “That’s not the way a Jew behaves. You let us down.”

Like the phrase “Shanda fur die goyim,” “ess passt nicht” said to the unlucky object of its biting quality – There are worthy values that are timeless. Anything that denigrates them is unbecoming.

But you know what?

Over the course of time, that assertion has changed.

First came moral relativism which said, in effect, there are no timeless values anymore.

Values change over time.

Then came the 60’s – “Do your own thing” triumphed … implying that whatever that thing was was just fine.

No amount of moral teaching in the past fifty years has changed that reality.

In the end, the notion of “ess passt nicht” has become …. Ess passt nicht!

“It’s not becoming” has become unbecoming!

It just doesn’t seem to be relevant today.

The expression has disappeared from Jewish households and the concept, along with its impact, has faded.

Each of us, it seems, gets to determine what is appropriate and what is not.

And you know what?

We’re not just talking about Jews and the Jewish community.

If the notion, if not exactly the phrase “ess passt nicht” was ever operative in American society in general, it has utterly disappeared in recent years.

The soul of our society has hardened.

The difference between truth and falsehood has been blurred.

The dignity of words and the uplifting power of thoughts have been diminished by harsh language…words that show disrespect and insensitivity and much, much worse.

We see such things at the highest levels of American life…and we may recognize it, at times, in our own interactions with others.

Far too often today, in public discourse and in our own lives, language is used as a weapon to cause harm.

Sometimes, it exhibits unimaginable moral equivalences that assault our sensibilities.

Again, we see such things in the highest places … and among us too.

Perhaps our memories fail.

But if we are honest with ourselves, most of us will be able to recall a time in the recent past when we said something we never should have said or hurled hurtful words at someone.

It’s not just the people we see on the news programs; it is us, too.

What he or she said? – Ess passt nicht! There’s no question!

It is unbecoming … but what can we do?

That’s the way it is today in a world that no longer sits in judgment of such things.

Really? Do we just have to resign ourselves to it?

Our tradition teaches us precisely the opposite, and these High Holidays urge us to recognize what we may have forgotten.

Our spiritual father, Abraham, was called “Avraham ha-Ivri” – The “Hebrew,” but “ivri” literally refers to one who crosss over.

To our Rabbis, that was Abraham’s nature and greatness.

He crossed over, the Rabbis said … to a place where he recognized the God of Israel, to a place of caring.

And the rest of the world just stayed where it was.

Perhaps today we need to cross over to where Abraham was, and let the rest of the world figure out where it will go.

If we have forgotten the power and uniqueness of being a human being, these High Holidays annually remind us – Change is possible, and we must seize the opportunities it brings.

Yes, our High Holiday liturgy tells us that we are sheep in the flock.

But it makes equally clear that we are God’s sheep, preciously tended to by the Holy One and therefore little less than divine.

Yes, the High Holiday liturgy often reminds us how small we are.

But the whole purpose of these Days of Awe is to remind us about how significant our lives may become.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of blessed memory, taught us many years ago that because we are created in God’s image, we are godly.

We must act with that recognition constantly in mind.

Our tradition reminds us of our responsibility every day.

In our daily prayer book we can read this midrash:

“Follow the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 13:5). What does this mean? Is it possible for a mortal to follow God? The verse means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One. As God clothes the naked, you should clothe the naked. As the Holy One visits the sick; you should visit the sick. As the Holy One comforts those who mourn; you should comfort those who mourn. As the Holy One buries the dead; you should bury the dead. (Sotah 14a).

The midrash views our spiritual task as imitating God’s actions.

To imitate God, to act godly in the world today means to act in caring ways.

But what about speech?

The midrash hints at speech too – “As the Holy One comforts those who mourn, you should comfort those who mourn.”

And how do we comfort mourners?

In large measure with words that reassure them of our presence at a difficult time in their lives and of the difference their loved one made and continues to make.

In other words, if we understood God to speak aloud just like I am speaking to you now, we comfort mourners, as the midrash suggests, with God’s words.

God’s words are sacred words.

And whether we share comforting words with mourners or other words with people in entirely different circumstances, we ought to strive as much as possible to speak in sacred ways.

I know. I get it.

“Sacred,” “Holy” – who speaks in those ways? – Men and women of God, of course.

You’re saying to yourself, “That’s not me!”

Really?

If none of us are women or men of God, why are we wasting our time here today?

Sacred speech is rooted in the Torah’s concept of kedushah, in recognizing that as human beings, little less than God, we alone have the ability to elevate how we relate to each other.

Sacred speech, therefore, is respectful and never hateful.

Sacred speech seeks to include and never to shun.

Sacred speech lifts up the spirit and never seeks to injure or humiliate.

Sacred speech encourages learning and openness and never discourages new opportunities.

Sacred speech encourages those who are in need and never seeks to isolate them or hold them up for ridicule.

Sacred speech heals brokenness and never exacerbates it.

In our world today, from leaders to all of us, too many people denigrate this understanding of sacred speech.

“Ess passt nicht” – “It is unbecoming.”

So much of what we hear – on the news and in our conversations – is unbecoming.

So much of it demeans our values and diminishes the recognition of God’s presence among us.

Today we must resolve, by our example and by the expectations we place on our leaders, loved ones and friends, to reclaim sacred speech as the fitting way of human interaction.

Now is the time to seize the moment – this moment – for our own sake and for the sake of our country.

May the year 5778 be a year of blessing as it reflects the presence of sacred speech and uplifting action.

Amen.

 

On Shabbat morning, August 19, Roben Smolar offered a fascinating and challenging Shabbat morning presentation in our service. I was so taken with it that I asked Roben if we could share it as widely as possible via our congregation’s electronic and print media. Roben is the Director of Communications for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, an AA member along with her family, a parent of two Ahava ELC students and Vice President of Ahava. In her professional efforts, Roben works extensively with young Jewish adults in support of their Jewish pursuits and lives. In her Shabbat morning presentation, Roben provided us with a clear view of young Jewish adults – what they care about and what motivates them to act. Most importantly, Roben helped us to understand that young Jewish adults do care deeply about Jewish life, but often express their interests and commitments differently than older generations. I believe that in her presentation, Roben offers our congregation not only important insights but also a path toward thinking about its mission and vision. I know you will find Roben’s thoughts very interesting!

– Rabbi Neil Sandler

In 2005, I took a phone call that changed the trajectory of my life. I was working as a journalist in Chicago when I had the opportunity to interview someone about her efforts to strengthen the Jewish community.

I always had a strong connection to my Jewish identity. I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago where most of my friends were Jewish. Our house was infused with a proud, warm embrace of Judaism. We went to Hebrew school, celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs and observed the holidays.

But while being Jewish was always present and something I was proud of, it never felt like mine. It belonged to someone else. To my parents. To the rabbis at our Hebrew school. To those more observant and Jewishly literate who I felt would always be a “better Jew” than me.

When I took the phone call that day, I heard a perspective on Jewish life I had never been exposed to before. She talked about meeting young people where they are. About the potential for Jewish life to be fully pluralistic and egalitarian. About engaging people through inspiration, not obligation.

The person on the other end of the line was Lynn Schusterman. When I had the opportunity a few years later to work for her and her daughter Stacy at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, I jumped at it, leaving Chicago for DC and ultimately Atlanta. I never saw myself as a Jewish professional, per se, but here I was going to work in the Jewish community.

The rest, as they say, is history. But it isn’t history. It is my story and still ongoing.

It is the story of finding my Jewish identity and making it my own. Of realizing that I didn’t have to keep kosher and be Shomer Shabbos to be a “good” Jew. That I could both honor the legacy I inherited and forge my own path.

And that is what I want to talk about today in the context of the work we do at the Schusterman Foundation: how we can empower more young people to own their Jewish journeys as part of a broader effort to ensure a vibrant Jewish future.

I recognize that our perspective and approach may not be your perspective and approach. But I hope that in sharing it, you will find themes and ideas you can draw on here as you continue to think about how best to engage young people in the AA and Atlanta Jewish communities.

Let me pause for a moment and ask: how many of you have heard of the Schusterman Foundation?

My guess is that all of you have heard of the organizations we support-everything from BBYO to Birthright, Hillel to Moishe House, Keshet to Repair the World, the Israel Institute, Israel on Campus Coalition, ROI Community, REALITY and much more.

The Foundation, which turns 30 this year, has three core focus areas: improving public education in the United States; strengthening the Jewish community and Israel; and enhancing the quality of life in the Schusterman family’s home town of Tulsa, OK.

For our purposes today, I am going to focus on the Jewish aspect of our work.

When Lynn and her late husband, Charles, started their Foundation three decades ago, they felt they could make the biggest impact by investing in keeping the next generation connected and engaged with Jewish life and Israel.

As the President of our Foundation, Sandy Cardin, recently put it: our work is grounded in helping young Jews all over the world realize three things:

  1. That Jewish identity is a point of strength and pride;
  2. That a strong relationship with Israel can play an incredibly meaningful role in their lives; and
  3. That Jewish people, wherever they live, have a responsibility to help make the world a better place.

It is apt that the Torah portion this week is Re’eh, literally translated as see-the ability to see things as they are. It is only in hindsight that I see how my call with Lynn shaped my perspective on what it means to engage Jewishly.

But the Schusterman family has long had the foresight to see what it takes to engage young people like me and my peers. It is critically important to have foresight in this work-to see, acknowledge and adapt to things as they are and as they will be.

With the benefit of both hindsight and foresight, it is clear to any keen observer of the Jewish community that there are seismic changes taking place.

Increasingly, our community is made up of diverse individuals who are gay, straight, Jews of color, immigrants, very affiliated and unaffiliated, living with disabilities and, notably, marrying people of other faiths and customs.

Beyond demographics, we are seeing shifts in identity as well. Even if someone does identify as Jewish, it is likely that “Jewish” is just one piece of how they see themselves and no longer necessarily the primary one.

At the Schusterman Foundation, we embrace these trends. We see our growing diversity as a strength. We work hard to ensure our community is welcoming and inclusive. And we want to help young people see Jewish values and Israel as relevant to the way they live, give, love and learn.

Because no matter how our demographics shift, we know one thing for certain: that young adults-like most people-want to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. And we believe the Jewish community can and should be among the places they turn to find purpose, meaning and grounding in a chaotic world.

We recognize for that to happen, we have to build-or rather empower young people to build-the kinds of communities they want to be part of:

  • Communities that are diverse and inclusive, reflective of their broader social networks;
  • That are welcoming and accepting of their partners and families;
  • That offer them a place to wrestle with complex issues, with Jewish and civic values, with ethics and moral responsibilities;
  • That do not force them into binary choices of for or against, pro or anti;
  • That offer them ways to engage through the lens of their needs and interests, whether that is music, arts and culture, Israel, spirituality, service or something else;
  • That allow them to create and customize how, when and where they engage;
  • That allow them to see how Jewish values can inform their world views and perspectives as a global citizen; an
  • That don’t just ask “how is this good for the Jews” but also how Jewish culture, values and traditions are good for the world.

At the Foundation, we also recognize that if we are going to help young people care about being Jewish, we need to develop a 21st century narrative that is both relevant and aspirational. We have seen that for too long, our community has used narratives of obligation rather than inspiration to “convince” young people that they owe it to someone or something to engage Jewishly.

Instead, we can build a narrative that answers their questions:

  • What is the value of being Jewish today?
  • How do Jewish values inform universal values?
  • What do we as Jews care deeply about and what do we stand for?
  • Why should I get involved?

We have talked about changing demographics and the implications for the communities and narratives we are building. So what? What does it all mean?

I want to offer you three thoughts I believe are relevant to what you are building here:

  1. Young people DO want to engage Jewishly. They want to live lives with Jewish intention and Jewish values. But they want to choose it and shape it themselves, in their own image and on their own terms. They want to do it through the lens of their needs and interests. And that’s okay. Better than okay – it’s great. It’s what makes it sticky. We must encourage and celebrate it.
  2. There are exciting initiatives growing in the Jewish community that are succeeding in engaging young Jews in this way. Jewish innovation is flourishing, fueled by networks like our ROI Community, with innovators and entrepreneurs who are reimagining Jewish life. Institutions like BBYO and Hillel have reinvented their approach to meeting the needs of young people today. Large-scale movements for peer-led engagement have emerged through organizations like Moishe House and others. Programs like our REALITY initiative are giving exciting young leaders a chance to experience Israel firsthand, and of course, Birthright continues to grow. There are new ways to learn and understand Jewish texts and access knowledge online. New initiatives are rising to engage people with spiritual communities, food justice, racial justice, gender equity, LGBTQ and so much more. It is exciting to see many of these organizations, like Repair the World, OneTable and Moishe House, among others, growing here in Atlanta.

Which brings me to my third point.

3. For these efforts and others to take root and to succeed at the scale at which we need them to succeed, we need to see-to really see-the ways in which our community has changed and will continue to change. We must have the foresight to see, acknowledge and adapt to our community as it evolves. If we fail to do so, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant and that would be a huge loss humanity. Because like it or not, we don’t live in a static world. Engaging young Jews today is a lot harder than it was 30 years ago. Today, Judaism competes for time and mindshare with social media, on-demand television, social change movements, a world of significant cultural and geopolitical shifts. In other words: in the age of Spotify and Netflix, we don’t want to be the AM/FM radio. Our offerings can remain relevant in a broader marketplace of ideas AND stay true to our millennia-old traditions and values. To do that, we must create a 21st century Jewish narrative that is rich in meaning, relevant to people’s lives, allows each generation to build the communities they want to be a part of and ensures they all are inextricably tied to the ongoing story of the Jewish people.

Before I close, I want to make two final points.

First, I want to take off my Schusterman hat and put on my Ahava hat. I am the proud mom of two kids who attend Ahava and am fortunate to serve on the board.

I am so grateful to AA for having the foresight to invest in the school, which is an incredible gift to both the AA and Atlanta communities.

My husband Gregg and I stand here today as members of this congregation because of the preschool.

The school is the vision and hard work of so many people-in particular, Elisa Ezor, Hannah Williams and all the teachers, staff and board members, who make the school the best environment possible for the kids and families that attend. We all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

For Gregg and me, it is everything we could want for our kids, and it has spurred the next phase of our Jewish journey. I hope you all will find a moment to the visit the school. It reflects so many qualities of the communities I spoke about before. You will see there a model of what the Jewish future could be: a diverse community, engaging in joyful Jewish experiences and collaborative learning.

I also hope you will welcome the families, hear their stories, share yours and understand what drew them to Ahava. You will find it inspiring and exciting.

Finally, I want to thank the Rabbis for having me. I was moved by the letter you all sent in the wake of the horrifying events in Charlottesville. I am proud that this congregation was part of our #TogetherAtTheTable initiative.

For those who don’t know, our Foundation-together with our partners at OneTable, Repair the World and more than 70 national and local organizations-created an initiative to encourage people to dedicate Shabbat this weekend to celebrating unity and diversity in the face of fear and division. In just four days, more than 700 people pledged to host Shabbat meals, including over 400 young adults.

We created this effort in the hopes that it would spark conversations about how we can move past hate and begin to heal.

It is my greatest hope as a mother, as a Jew and as an American, that we will find a way to strengthen civil discourse in this country. Where we are now, where the extremes hold the most space, scares me. It scares me for my children, and the children of my friends, and your children and grandchildren, and the children of other races, faiths and abilities.

As Nathan Englander wrote in the New York Times in the aftermath of Charlottesville: “Because the children who witness a day like that … will not forget the fear and disrespect tailored to the black child, the Muslim child, the Jewish child.”

Hatred, anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry, bullying and violence can have no place in our communities. We must embrace our Jewish legacy of being called upon to fix what is broken, to make right what is unjust, to improve what can be better.

Because that is what this week’s portion about sight teaches us: we must see how our actions impact others. We must see how every single person can make a difference.

So let’s start by listening to, learning from and hearing each other. Finding ways to engage in constructive dialogue, to disagree with civility, to share our stories, our hopes, our fears. To celebrate and mourn together. To build and re-build together.

That is the future I want for my kids and for all kids. A future in which our diversity and respect not for the other but FOR EACH OTHER is our greatest strength.

I look forward to being a part of community like AA that can be a model for that here in Atlanta and more broadly.

Thank you. Shabbat Shalom.

Roben Smolar is the Director of Communications for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a global organization that ignites the passion and unleashes the power in young people to create positive change. She also serves as Vice President of the board for Ahava Early Learning Center.

Portions of these remarks have been adapted from previous speeches.

Sermon and Post-Kiddush Beit Midrah – What Are We Doing When We Pray?
26 Nisan 5777 | April 22, 2017
Delivered by Scholar-in-Residence, Rabbi Bradley Artson

Sermon

Post-Kiddush Beit Midrash

 

Sermon – Acharei Mot / Kedoshim
10 Iyyar 5777  |  May 6, 2017
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

The High Holidays occurred earlier this week …. and most of us missed them.

Oh – oh!

The one time we’re all in shul… and most of us missed them.

Not those High Holidays!

You can still plan to attend services on those High Holidays beginning in mid-September.

But not the Israeli High Holidays.  They are over for another year.

That’s what Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Hartman Institute in Israel calls these days that began this past Sunday evening and concluded on Tuesday evening.

Every single Israeli citizen was aware of them and touched by them in some manner.

And many of us, perhaps even most of us, weren’t even aware of them.

The Israeli High Holidays – Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut.

Yom Hazikaron is Israel’s Memorial Day that honors the memory of the more than 23,000 thousand Israeli soldiers who gave their lives for the creation and well-being of the State of Israel, and Yom Haatzmaut is the anniversary of the founding of the state…this year the 69th anniversary.

I understand our lack of awareness.

The truth is that many of us here are proud Jews, but for some of us Israel plays a minor role in our Jewish identity…maybe none.

Studies show that the number of American Jews who attach any level of personal meaning and significance to Israel is diminishing.

Now, if your interest in the State of Israel and your sense of connection to it is no different than your interest in and connection to any other foreign country, you are entitled to those views and feelings – no question!

And if you haven’t done so already, let me suggest you close your eyes now and rest…

because I want to speak to the rest of us….

I want to speak to those of us who care about Israel, but who simply missed Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut because we were unaware of their occurrence.

I think that is probably many of us here.

I want to speak to those of us who care deeply about Israel and who may have taken note of these two days, but who are disgusted or pained by the rancorous expression of views about Israel that have made the Jewish State what some now call “the third rail” of the Jewish community… an issue so divisive and dangerous to talk about that many people avoid doing so.

To those who have no special connection with Israel today, I’m sorry if a lack of education or experience with the Land or maybe this issue of Jewish division over Israel has contributed to your feelings.

You are missing out on a relationship with a place that is often a source of pride, a unique place of natural, organic Jewish life … and yes, also a place that infuriates some number of us from time to time because we love Israel and are troubled and angered by the decisions its leadership sometimes takes.

Each year, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut provide us with a welcome respite – a time to set aside our uneasiness, our anger and our deep divisions – first to mourn as best we can with Israel’s bereaved families and then to revel in the wonder that is still the State of Israel.

But to those who deeply care about Israel and its well-being, the Israeli High Holidays earlier this week also provide us with an opportunity not unlike what we are supposed to do as those other High Holidays approach.

First – Chesbon Hanefesh – We are asked to take account of our words and actions vis-à-vis the State of Israel.

Then, if necessary, Teshuva – We are asked, upon reflection and realization of the need to change, to alter our behaviors.

If we could emerge from these recent special days with an understanding of our own wrongdoing – of how we sometimes insult those who view Israel and its leadership’s decisions different than we do, even to the point of outright rejection of any possible validity of their views – we would contribute mightily to Jewish communal life today.

And when it is not our own wrongdoing in that regard, but that of others; when we see others who belittle those whose views about Israel differ from their own – It is time to emerge from our disgusted or embarrassed silence.

Let’s begin with an understanding of Israel and its impact on world Jewry that all of us ought to grasp.

In a Times of Israel.com column this week, Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, made this simple, but true, statement:

“Israel taught me to imagine and build the Jewish future out of hope and pride rather than fear.”

If you are younger than me, you have probably given little thought to living in fear.

I’m sorry; I can’t speak to the Canadian experience.

However, for the past fifty years in the United States, incidents that would lead to real fear among Jews were unlikely … ironically until recent months.

It used to be different.

Talk to those who lived here in Atlanta when the Temple was bombed in 1958, and ask them about the fear factor for Jews.

Outside this country, specifically in the former Soviet Union well into the 60’s and beyond, life was dark for Jews who expressed Jewish identity.

But hope and pride arose.

In some places, they burst forth.

What changed this picture for Jews in the U.S., in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere?

It largely began with Israel’s smashing triumph in the Six Day War nearly fifty years ago.

The outcomes of that victory were far – reaching.

Nearly fifty years later some of them have become troubling.

The quickly – approaching 50th anniversary next month ought to be a time for serious reflection and discussion.

But let us not lose sight of what was the very first outcome outside Israel of that military victory.

Pride in Israel.

The new, strong Jew stood tall.

Kippot that were confined to the religious precincts of the synagogue now popped up on the streets of major American Jewish communities.

Self-confidence within the American Jewish community found growing political expression.

And in the former Soviet Union, even when days remained dark in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, hope diminished the darkness and ultimately triumphed.

Some of you, I imagine, remember the images of Soviet Jews dancing outside the synagogue in Moscow on Simchat Torah in the presence of then Israeli Ambassador Golda Meir, b”m.

It was a scene repeated on the holiday for a number of years.

All because of Israel – the founding of the state, the can-do attitude of the chalutzim pioneers and the triumphs against all odds on the battlefield and in the desert taught us to build Jewish futures rooted in hope; not fear.

I hope all of us can appreciate that and remember it in those times when Israel’s leadership disappoints or angers us.

As for those people who feel that their views on Israel and its leadership are the only valid views and belittle others who feel differently or who question other’s love for Israel because of those different views – we who care about Israel must call out these people and forthrightly reject their actions.

It is time to insist not upon agreement, but upon mutual respect and civility.

That is the very least that Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut ask of us today who live outside the Land – to have a relationship with the State of Israel that is rooted in respect for, if not agreement with, those whose views are not our own.

I hope you will agree that these “Israeli High Holidays” ask even more of us and, in turn, can enrich our lives as Jews.

All of us, whether we are Shabbat regulars or we are here to celebrate with Olivia and her family, have choices to make –

What part will the State of Israel play in our lives?

Will we share a relationship, one of love and caring, or will it be otherwise?

Next year, God-willing, Olivia and her Epstein School classmates will spend nearly three weeks in Israel.

I pray that time will help them to develop a strong connection with Israel – with the Land and its people.

And as for us who are a bit older than Olivia and her friends, I pray for a fuller recognition of how the State of Israel has enabled us in the United States, in Canada and elsewhere outside the Land to live in hope.

May we live in that appreciation, even when we are troubled.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Shemini Atzeret – Yizkor Sermon
October 24, 2016  |  22 Tishrei 5777
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

To everything, turn, turn, turn.
There is a season, turn, turn, turn,
And a time to every purpose under heaven ….

Some of you can name that tune along with the group that sang those lyrics, right?

But neither David Crosby nor Roger McGuinn nor any other member of the Byrds wrote them.

They didn’t even write the tune – Pete Seeger did that.

No, the author of those words was an individual who likely lived more than two thousand years ago.

To us, that individual is known as Ecclesiastes or Kohelet.

To many traditional Jews, he is known as King Solomon.

“Havel havahleem!”  “Hakol hevel!”  “Utter futility! All is futile!”

That is the usual way this phrase is translated in the Book of Ecclesiastes, a text traditionally read in the synagogue on Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot.

“What real value is there to a person’s efforts and his gains … All is futile!” – That is the message of Kohelet as we usually understand it.

But in a webinar in which I participated this week with Jewish Theological Seminary professor, Stephen Garfinkel, I learned that this word “hevel” means something very different than “futile.”

As a result this biblical book reminds us of an enduring truth, one that is especially relevant as we approach Yizkor.

Kohelet is traditionally viewed as seeking the answer to the ultimate question all of us have – What is the meaning of life?

He suggests several different answers to that question.

Yet none seem to satisfy him.

So at the end of the book, Kohelet throws up his hands in resignation and says, “When all is said and done, revere God and follow the mitzvot.” (12:13)

Dr. Garfinkel helped those of us who participated in this learning session to recognize that Ecclesiastes’ primary message is not about piety (Revere God!) but rather about the reality of life as he observed it.

Not “All is futile!”

But rather “All is fleeting!”

Kohelet meant to convey the transitory nature of life.

You and I know the truth of which he spoke.

Look around!

See the wisdom of the accumulated years of those who are here this morning.

As that wisdom grows so does our awareness of the fleeting nature of life.

Time speeds up.

It simply passes … and we wonder where it has gone.

So what are we to do?

Two weeks ago – I reminded you about the advice of the Psalmist – “Teach us to number all of our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Ps. 90)

Be aware of time and its passage, the Psalmist says.  Use it wisely.

I don’t know if Kohelet agrees with the Psalmist or not, but his advice about what to do sounds different.

“I realized,” Kohelet says, “that the only worthwhile thing is for people to enjoy themselves and do what is good in their lifetime; also that whenever a man does eat and drink and gets enjoyment out of all his wealth, it is a gift from God.” (3:12-13)

Kohelet’s realization and his implied advice to us seems to be rather base in comparison to the uplifting and challenging words of the Psalmist.

But Kohelet’s advice, especially delivered against the backdrop of Sukkot when we reflect on the bounty that is ours and express appreciation to God, is so very appropriate.

Yes, use your time wisely, the Psalmist says.

But be practical, Kohelet adds.

What is the ultimate answer to the question – What is the meaning of life?

There is no ultimate answer, Kohelet insists!

Life is fleeting.

So, at a time when we think about all that is ours and thank God, enjoy it!

When you are fortunate to live comfortably, appreciate it; it is a gift from God!

As Yizkor begins, we turn our thoughts and hearts to loved ones and friends who are no longer among the living.

Some of them lived to “a ripe old age” and enjoyed the fullness of life.

Others left our world and our daily lives long before they should have.

But in some ways, whether death occurred in old age or much earlier in life, we feel that these loved ones and friends left us too early.

We wanted them to be here.

We needed them to be here.

Yes, life is fleeting.

So, as the Psalmist reminds us – Number your days.

And Kohelet reinforces that message with his own – “Hakol hevel” – “All is fleeting …” so appreciate the goodness in life that God has enabled us to enjoy.

Chag Sameach!

 

Kol Nidre
October 11, 2016 | 10 Tishrei 5777
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Boy, I have been looking forward to this opportunity for quite a while!

Now it’s only a month and a half away!

Ever since our leadership said, “Yes” nearly a year and a half ago, I have been planning.

It’s not entirely set.  There are still some details to plan.

But I have purchased plane tickets for different trips during this period.

I have hotel reservations.

I have rented an apartment in Jerusalem for a month.

I have selected the classes I will take at the Conservative Yeshiva there.

Susan and I are planning our week in Italy.

I am getting my study curriculum for my prayer project in order, and I am lining up the synagogues I will visit for Shabbat services.

I have written my column for the next issue of Beineinu so you will gain a greater understanding of what I will be doing for four months and how we will support Rabbi Rosenthal while I am away.

About the only thing of any consequence I have left to plan is which Atlanta Braves exhibition games I will go to in Florida next March.

I am psyched!

At the same time, I have allowed some doubts to creep in.

“Should I be doing this now?”

“After all, we’ve got some big initiatives going on at the synagogue…chief among them the capital campaign.”

“I want to get this done.  I want to get that done.”

“Should I really be going now?”

Don’t misunderstand me.

I don’t lie awake at night pondering these things, but every now and then, I have some doubts … and then I realize this –

Those doubts are more a statement about me than they are about the life of our congregation.

Now, when I say “more a statement about me …” I know what you are thinking.

You’re thinking, “Oh, that Rabbi Sandler.  He is so selfless.  He’s always looking at what is best for us and not at what is best for him.”

If you are having that thought, I don’t want to discourage you.  I want to thank you for putting me on that pedestal.

I, however, will take myself off of it …

When I say “more a statement about me than about the congregation,” I am quite aware that it’s an ego-based statement.

“How are they going to manage without ME?”

But then my better self kicks into gear – “Neil, they’ll do just fine without you.”

Of course, I have exaggerated a bit.

I’m just going to be away for four months, and then I’ll be back.

But what about a person who contemplates a permanent change in career or in his/her life?!

The possibility of such change always creates a level of concern or anxiety.

“Should I do this?”

“What will it mean for me?”

“What will it mean for my family?”

And what about those of you who are retired or who are contemplating retirement?

The issues are different.

Unlike a sabbatical or a significant professional change, we’re not concerned with a “need for renewal.”

After all, retirement isn’t a time for personal growth ….

It’s not?!

Are you taking classes at one of the local colleges or in other senior adult programs?

If not, it’s likely that someone you know is doing so.

Retirees travel on Elderhostel trips and on other educational programs here and internationally in significant numbers.

It’s not just that they love to travel.

They choose these programs because they are still curious and want to learn about our endlessly intriguing world.

Retirees are seeking other potentially fascinating changes.

Recently I came across a New York Times op-ed with a title that surprised me – “Retire to Manhattan and Live Long.”

At age 67, the author moved to Manhattan from Dallas.

Obviously he wanted something very different in his life.

It appears he is not alone.

Census records reflect a movement of 60+ year olds to Manhattan.

Apparently these people who never lived in New York are finding Manhattan attractive as a place to spend their retirement years.

At least they are up for something new and want to give it a try.

What if you are still working?

If you are still professionally active, then the need for personal renewal is pressing … even when you don’t recognize it.

The cost of constantly working is often significant on those closest to us.

But at its core the cost of this grind is greatest on us.

In words we often bring to mind at this time of year, the Psalmist urges us to be mindful about what we, all too often, take for granted – time.

“Teach us to use all of our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom. (Ps. 90:12)

You have heard this sentiment – “No one ever dies, goes to heaven and says, ‘I wish I would have spent more time at the office!’”

When I was a young rabbi, I couldn’t spend enough time at the office.

I did Susan and my children no favors during their formative years as I worked hard and sought to please everyone else.

It took a toll on me too.

But today I hear the Psalmist.

He speaks directly to me.

He challenges me.

My days are still quite full.

But I am wiser now, more mature.

I know that by using this upcoming sabbatical wisely, to step back from my daily responsibilities and focus on just a couple of things, I will, God-willing, be more effective when I return.

So much for me.

What about you?

Most of you can’t do what I am about to do.

But you can still do some things that will enable you to pause, step back, reflect and, if necessary, reorient.

And it doesn’t matter how old you are!

I believe the way to do this entails three steps.

Do any one of the three, periodically if not regularly, and you will enjoy a break that refreshes and opens potential opportunities.

Do all three steps, and you will more than likely experience these benefits.

The first step is Shabbat, a pause in our week that can serve to refresh, reset and, if necessary, reorient.

Notice, please, what I am not saying.

I am not saying traditional Shabbat observance.

I am not saying every Shabbat.

Of course, Shabbat is most effective when celebrated in the way our tradition prescribes.

Nonetheless however you celebrate Shabbat and however often you celebrate it there is a very desirable purpose.

That purpose was best described years ago by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of blessed memory.

Rabbi Kaplan spoke of an oil painter at his canvas who steps away from the canvas in order to look at his work.

He does so to gain perspective.

So long as the painter remains at his canvas he can step no farther back than arm’s length.

But with that step back, he can see things differently and then return to his canvas with a renewed and richer perspective.

That is what Shabbat is supposed to be about for us, Kaplan said … a time to step back from the “canvas of our lives,” reflect and then return to whatever we do during the week refreshed and with some new perspectives.

Like a sabbatical, Shabbat is not just about physical rest.

It’s also about renewal.

And you can enjoy that possibility every single week.

The second step can be part of the Shabbat experience that I have just described or it can be done apart from it.

It’s called “reflection.”

I’m not referring to distinct, meditative practice, but you do have to do something that encourages a contemplative mood.

Maybe it’s reading inspirational literature.

Maybe it is consciously altering your environment to create a peaceful, soothing place.

Every one of us here has the ability to create a space that encourages reflection and stimulates new ways of thinking.

And when you find yourself able to engage in such reflection, be ready to do step #3 – Write.

Last year Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal wrote this book – Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit.

Let me read a paragraph from the back cover:

“Aging all too often … “

All of us, God-willing, will, if we are fortunate, age.

But how will we age?

Part of the answer to that question is out of our control.

But much of our aging process and elderly years is in our control.

Do we want to grow and share something special with others?

That’s what this book is about, and we will spend some time with it when I return from sabbatical.

Early in the book, Rachel and Linda write about the value of journaling.

Let me read you a sample. (page 20)

What are you curious about?

What do you want to explore?

Those are questions we ought to ask ourselves from time to time.

When we do so in honest ways irrespective of age, genuine renewal will be possible.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, of blessed memory, shared an inviting vision of life no matter what our age may be, but especially if we achieve length of years, as he was fortunate to do.

It is a wise vision born of much reflection, I’m sure.

Sometimes people ask me, Peres said, ‘What is the greatest achievement you have reached in your lifetime or that you will reach in the future?”  So I reply that there was a great painter named Mordecai Ardon who was asked which picture was the most beautiful he had ever painted.  Ardon replied, “The picture I will paint tomorrow.’ That, Peres said, is also my answer.”

What beautiful picture can you paint tomorrow?

A story is told about an immortal eagle.

How did it remain forever alive, not subject to the normal rules of nature?

Every thousand years or so it would fly upward toward the sun until the heat caused many of its feathers to drop off.

At that point, the eagle would glide to the earth and remain on the ground until it had regenerated a new coat of feathers.

Then, again, now in ways somewhat different from previously, it soared.

Friends – Unlike that eagle none of us will live for a thousand years.

Yet as we work, grow older and, God – willing, eventually retire, we too can replenish our feathers.

With God’s help, we can “soar” as we rest, reflect, refresh and write.

Thus renewed, may we continue to “soar.”

Amen

 

Rosh Hashana Day 1
October 3, 2016 | 1 Tishrei 5777
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Just over four years ago, Clint Eastwood famously stood up at the Republican National Convention and spoke to an empty chair, much like this one here.

The thing is … Clint Eastwood gave life to that empty chair.

Do you remember who, in an imaginary way, he was speaking to?

It was the President of the United States … quite a creative act that gained a lot of attention at the time.

Though Mr. Eastwood’s performance was criticized by some people it was effective for those who agreed with him.

Was that because he harshly criticized the President?

I don’t think so … at least not that factor alone.

No, Clint Eastwood’s effectiveness was bound up with how he delivered his indictment of the President.

Mr. Eastwood looked straight into the convention audience, leveled his criticism, turned toward the empty chair, paused and deadpanned, “What do you mean, ‘Shut up?’”

People – in the audience and watching at home who had a particular perspective – loved it!  They laughed and applauded.

That wasn’t the end of it.

Clint Eastwood went on to put other words into the President’s mouth played by that empty chair … and I can’t repeat them here.

Again, people laughed and applauded.

It wasn’t just Clint Eastwood’s criticism of the President that resonated with those who opposed his re-election in 2012.

It was Eastwood’s ingenious mocking of the President that struck a chord.

It was no longer a given that disagreement should be shared in a respectful manner.

Now, it seemed, it was OK to mock the President of the United States.

Sure, some people were critical of what Clint Eastwood did.

But his act resonated because a significant number of Americans had come to see such public use of coarsened language and images as acceptable.

Friends – The realm of elective politics is only the worst example of this tendency to speak in denigrating ways about others.

It is hardly the only example.

There is no better time than today, a sacred time of introspection, to realize our shortcomings in this regard and to address them.

If we are to give fuller meaning to the challenging spiritual notion of being created in God’s image – we must address this issue.

We must internalize the quality of “ahava” as our tradition understands it; not just as “love,” but as another value that must find constant expression in our lives.

Let’s take a longer look at what we are facing.

Four years after Clint Eastwood spoke at the Republican National Convention, we are in the midst of another presidential campaign.

…And it is not nearly as creative as four years ago.

Now it is quite simple.

In the television commercials we see there is little that separates the nature of the candidates’ appeals.

We hear in strong and sometimes demeaning language not only about why my opponent is unqualified, but why he or she is utterly unfit for office.

Agree or disagree with these characterizations – my point is that they are the primary ones we hear…which doesn’t bode particularly well for the eventual winner who has been demeaned and rejected by a significant portion of the American public.

But after all, we think, that’s them; not us.

That’s not me.

Well, think again.

It’s often said that with age, people mellow.

Is that true for you?

Pick a time frame – five years, maybe ten years.

Are you more or less tolerant of views that differ from your own?

Are you more or less able to find something worthwhile in those views with which you disagree?

Have you become more or less critical of those people with whom you disagree?

Finally, and most importantly, how do you express your criticism of their views?

I know my answers to those questions!

I don’t like those changes in me, but I recognize them.

If you don’t recognize yourself in what I am saying, chances are good that one of two things is true.

Either you are better than me …. I’ll let you think about that one for a bit …

Or you are fooling yourself.

You are not sufficiently self-aware ….

It’s possible that you don’t really mean to view people with whom you disagree as “the other” or to speak of them in demeaning ways.

That’s just the way much of society thinks and speaks today …

And you know what?

Today may not be so different from yesterday in that regard.

Rudyard Kipling, the 19th and 20th century writer, framed this memorable line:

“All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They.”

We? – Anyone who agrees with us is “we.”

They?  – Anyone who disagrees with us is “they…” and now that frequently means the “other” who is just plain wrong…and stupid.

This often unbridgeable divide between “us” and “them” and the demeaning language that reinforces it bodes poorly for all of us and the well-being of our community.

The antidote to such “communal illness” lies in giving expression to a God-given capacity – to “ahava …” not as commonly understood as “love,” but rather as profound, even radical, “respect.”

“V’ahavta l’ray’ah’cha kamochah” (Lv. 19:18) – One of the best known verses in the Torah that includes the verbal form of “ahava.”

It is usually translated as “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself” – does that seem plausible to you?

Only several verses later in the Torah (Lv. 19:34), we are instructed regarding the stranger – the ger– “V’ahavta low kamocha.”

Love him as you love yourself.  Does that make sense?

How can we love people who we do not view as an integral part of our community?

Here is even better proof that “ahava” doesn’t always mean “love.”

The Talmud describes a surreal situation that likely never actually occurred:

When you stone someone to death, it states, don’t humiliate him.  (Sanhedrin 45a)

Why? – “V’ahavta l’ray’ah’cha kamochah” – There’s that verse from Leviticus again.

What a paradox! – Even in carrying out capital punishment, the executioner must uphold the divine image within the criminal he will execute!

Out of love?  Of course not!

He must to do so because he continues to recognize the humanity of the condemned man.

He cannot demean him.

The Talmud is speaking about a condemned murderer and says that he is deserving of ahava!

What about the people with whom you and I interact?!

Rabbi Akiba put it this way when he referred to the obligation to respect others as one respects himself/herself:

“K’lal gadol baTorah” – “It is an exceedingly great mitzvah in the Torah…”

Why?

Precisely because our experiences challenge us sometimes, and it is so easy to see some people as the “other” and to demean them.

Think about it.

Our tradition has no reason to explicitly remind us to respect others when it is easy or natural to do so.

It reminds us to respect them when it is difficult to do so, when it is much easier to mock and demean them…especially when that seems to be acceptable today.

Friends – We are in the thick of it now … not just the High Holiday season, but also the presidential election season.

Frequently we hear sentiments similar to those of a man who was sitting next to Susan and me on a plane just over a month ago.

We were bemoaning the quality of this presidential campaign – “Yes,” he said, “Every day it seems like each of the candidates says to the other, ‘I disagree with you … and I think you’re an idiot!’”

There is hope.

Just over a month from now it will all end.

The newest or perhaps endlessly repeated broadside from candidate X that begins with the familiar words, “I am ____ , and I approve this commercial” will come to an end.

We will be at peace, and all will be right with our lives again.

Really, do you think so?

What about the terrible things we say about others within circles that readily accept our demeaning words?

What about the insulting things we directly say to people when we strongly disagree with them and they have “pressed” our “angry button?”

I shared this sermon with Susan last week.

I always find it helpful to share my High Holiday sermons with her.

But this time I bristled at her reaction.

“Neil,” she said.  “Your examples are negative.  You need to share some positive examples.”

“Are you crazy?!”  I thought.

“I need to give people examples of how to speak respectfully to each other when they disagree?!”

The truth is that Susan was right.  She always is…

If I was teaching a class now I would model positive ways to listen and speak when you disagree with someone.

But I am going to leave that for your therapist…or at least for another time.

In the meantime, what your parents taught you will steer you in positive directions.

When anger wells up and demeaning images come to mind and you are about to put them into words – Count to 10!

Even better, follow this simple rule you learned long ago – “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all!”

A pretty simple message, isn’t it?  And an obvious one at that!

But ask yourself – If it is so obvious, why do we and those who would lead us struggle so much to abide by it?

“Hayom harat olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world.”

The Holy One has placed us in this world to continue the sacred work of creating this incredible universe we inhabit.

You and I endlessly create with our words.

“Hayom harat Olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world.”

Today is a day when the potential for change is renewed.

Let us take hold of that potential, in part, by being mindful of the ways we speak about and speak to people when we disagree with them.

May the guiding value of ahava – genuine respect – always characterize the sentiments of our hearts and the words of our mouths so that we may truly be God’s worthy instruments in our world…little less than divine.

Amen.

 

Parshat Hukkat
July 16, 2016  |  10 Tammuz 5776
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

King Solomon – A pretty smart man, right?

In fact, when it comes to wisdom, our tradition teaches us that King Solomon was unparalleled.

No one was as wise as King Solomon.

And yet, when King Solomon went to shul on this particular Shabbat one time, he leaned over to the rabbi (who, of course, felt a bit intimidated by being in the presence of the world’s wisest man) and said, “Rabbi, I understand all of the mitzvot, all of the commandments in the Torah.”

“But this one at the opening of our parasha, Hukkat, this one I don’t understand.”

With a little poetic license and a complete and utter lack of history in mind, I have just quoted a fairly well-known midrash to you … more or less.

What was King Solomon talking about?

The beginning of our Torah reading describes the red heifer, the Parah Adumah, whose ashes were mixed with some other ingredients to create a liquid application that simultaneously purified an impure individual AND caused a person to become impure!

Let’s try that again.

This liquid application made the individual who prepared it impure.

He had to refrain from contact with other people the rest of the day.

However that very same liquid application was used to purify people who had become impure through their contact with the dead.

So here we had a liquid application that simultaneously made some people impure while it purified others.

No wonder that King Solomon just scratched his head when he read this part of today’s Torah Portion.

You understand why King Solomon was so perplexed, don’t you?

Because he saw this situation as an “either-or” situation.

Either this liquid concoction should purify or it should create impurity…not both!

It could not do both at least not simultaneously.

Yet there really was another way to look at this situation.

There had to be another way of looking at is so that this mixture would simultaneously maintain qualities at odds with each other!

That way was “both-and.”

This liquid application that began with the ashes of the red heifer could simultaneously create impurity and purity.

It wasn’t logical to think so, and it wasn’t comfortable to think so.

But in this moment, the Torah asked King Solomon and continues to ask us today to embrace the tension at times of “both – and.”

It’s not always “either-or,” “cut and dried.”

Sometimes it is “both-and,” an uncomfortable yet necessary place to be.

Over the course of recent days we have been reminded of the possibilities and opportunities of “both-and…”

And we have been reminded of the discomfort that can come with seeking to simultaneously take positions that don’t easily co-exist.

We are living in tumultuous times.

Against this backdrop, through today’s technology, we were brought almost instantaneously to Baton Rouge and to suburban St. Paul less than two weeks ago and to very disturbing images of police who had killed seemingly defenseless black men involved in minor offenses.

And then we were brought within moments of the crime, through that same technology, to Dallas and to the horrific murders of five police officers who were deployed to protect the people who were peacefully protesting the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Immediately people began to take sides especially with regard to what had occurred in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul.

We saw the protestors in our community and in others.

While many of these protestors want to address larger, troubling issues  in America, they began their participation in protests by picking a side.

They said, in effect, “The victims – two black men – are blameless; the perpetrators – the police officers who shot them – are guilty.”

“Either-or.”

While we did not see gatherings on behalf of the police following these two incidents, we heard their supporters in casual conversations.

“Those guys in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul probably had it coming to them.”

“The police officers did what they had to do when they felt threatened.”

The protestors were “idiots.”

The victims were wrong; the police officers were right.

“Either-or.”  One right.  The other wrong.

Now, in the days following these terrible incidents and what occurred in Dallas, all across our country people are stirring.

Some of them are clamoring for change.

We know that we are in this together.

We know that we are part of one country, the greatest democracy in the world.

But we’re beginning to realize that many Americans, especially people of color, do not experience America that way.

We want things to change.

We want to be part of a nation that really is devoted to “liberty and justice” for all.

And some of us are ready to be agents of change toward that goal.

But friends, as long as we remain tethered to the mentality of “either-or” – one side is right and the other is wrong –

We will fail!

If we are to succeed, we must begin to understand, accept and embrace the tension that comes with a “both-and” orientation, one in which we can truly empathize with others by seeing life and experiences from their perspective which may be very different from our own.

We must see the truths not only in our views, but also in theirs …. even when it makes us uncomfortable to do so.

Dr. Brian Williams, an African American man, is a trauma surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.  He treated many of the police officers who had been wounded.

Perhaps you saw him on the television news or on other news programs.

While I saw Dr. Williams on TV a couple of times, I thought that his interview with CNN’s Don Lemon earlier this week was extraordinary.

Listen to these excerpts from what Dr. Williams said, and you will hear elements of this “both-and” approach that begins with understanding and an ability to identify with both sides.

WILLIAMS: …I’m still thinking about the officers and the families and the men that were killed in Baton Rouge and in Minnesota last week. And I compare my situation to theirs. It’s hard for me to focus on myself right now…,

and my fear and some mild, inherent distrust of law enforcement that goes back to my own personal experiences that I’ve had over my entire life, as well as hearing the stories from friends and family that look like me, that have had similar experiences. Put that all together, and that will explain why I feel the way I do…

I’m certainly not the only African-American male in this country that feels the way I do toward law enforcement. But I work with them on a daily basis. They’re my colleagues. They’re my friends. And as I said, I’ll respect what they do.

But I also understand how men like me can fear and distrust officers in uniform. I get it. But that does not justify inciting violence against police officers. Does not justify trying to kill police officers.
WILLIAMS: I don’t understand why people think it’s OK to kill police officers. I don’t understand why black men die in custody and they’re forgotten the next day. I don’t know why this has to be us against them.

WILLIAMS: We are in this together, we are all connected. All this violence, all this hatred, all these disagreements, it impacts us all. Whether you realize it or not. This is not the kind of world we want to leave for our children. Something has to be done.

You can hear the “both-and” quality in Dr. Williams words, can’t you?

He is with the protesters, in a sense, because he still mildly distrusts the police…the product simply of having been born a black male in this country.

But Dr. Williams is also with the police.

They are now his colleagues and friends.

On Tuesday when President Barack Obama spoke at a memorial service for the five fallen Dallas police officers, he was even clearer about this “both-and” orientation.

But America – We know that bias remains. We know it, whether you are black, or white, or Hispanic, or Asian, or native American, or of Middle Eastern descent.  We have all seen this bigotry in our own lives at some point. We’ve heard it at times in our own homes. If we’re honest, perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts. We know that. And while some suffer far more under racism’s burden, some feel to a far greater extent discrimination’s stain.

Although most of us do our best to guard against it and teach our children better, none of us is entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune, and that includes our police departments. We know this.

(Then, after having mentioned the police in this unflattering way, the President shared the following:)

And then we tell the police, “You’re a social worker; you’re the parent; you’re the teacher; you’re the drug counselor.” We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience; don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind.

And then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over…

We know those things to be true. They’ve been true for a long time. We know it.

Police, you know it.

Protesters, you know it.

You know how dangerous some of the communities where these police officers serve are. And you pretend as if there’s no context.

These things we know to be true. And if we cannot even talk about these things, if we cannot talk honestly and openly, not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle.

(As President Obama concluded his speech, he reflected on what it would mean if we, not just police officers and protestors, but ALL of us, could see and admit these things.  He suggested that if we could recognize the troubles and the truths of the other, a breakthrough might be possible.)

(Listen to what he said…)

…Maybe the police officer (could) see his own son in that teenager with a hoodie, who’s kind of goofing off but not dangerous.

And the teenager — maybe the teenager (could) see in the police officer the same words, and values and authority of his parents.

My friends – What President Obama said – That represents the essence of being able to embrace “both-and” rather than “either-or.”

It is the starting point for real and potentially lasting change…to see the possible truth and, most importantly, the humanity in the other, one with whom you may disagree.

Perhaps it is unfortunate that King Solomon had such trouble in making sense of the Parah Adumahand liquid mixture described in today’s parasha.

But in the end, a person didn’t need to analyze and understand its seemingly contradictory qualities – simultaneously creating purity and impurity.

He just had to follow the instructions as we read them in the Torah today.

Today’s dilemmas are far more complex, and the poor choices we exercise are far more harmful in the moment and well beyond it.

So let us seek to gain the wisdom that the wise King Solomon lacked – to embrace the sometimes difficult and tension-filled choice of “both-and.”

May that choice and the actions we and our leaders will undertake as a result be for a blessing.

Amen.

 

Yizkor Sermon – Pesach
April 30, 2016  |  22 Nisan 5776
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Our good friend Eva Iteld died a week ago.

Many of us sitting here this morning have wonderful memories of Eva.

She made a difference to a number of people in various places throughout our Jewish community because that’s what Eva did – she served people.

She made a difference.

Some of our most beautiful memories in that regard took place right here in our shul – at morning minyan and at Seudah Shlisheet on Saturday afternoons.

It was Eva’s greatest pleasure to serve us … and we will remember her here for many years to come.

But as I told those who had gathered for Eva’s funeral, I will miss Eva for other reasons – one of which is the fact that as the quintessential Baubie in every manner that term conjures up – I think Eva was a last link to my Baubies, of blessed memory, women who were Baubies just like Eva.

There are some women here today whose grandchildren call them “Baubie”, but none of you are quite the Baubie that Sadie Sandler, Rose Doren and Eva Iteld were.

As thoughts of Eva brought me to recollections of my Baubie Sandler and Baubie Doren, I was transported back to the world in which all three of these baubies lived … not back to Eastern Europe, but back to their worlds in Minneapolis, in Milwaukee and here in Atlanta.

None of these women saw life in complex ways.

They didn’t question the meaning of their lives or their purpose on this earth.

They lived simple lives imbued with beauty reflected in acts of loving goodness and kindness they offered to their family, friends and communities.

My Baubie Doren passed those same qualities and values on to exactly one of her children – my mother, of blessed memory.

On Monday, at Eva’s funeral, I heard Baubie Doren’s Bashkele, my mother Betty, speak to me.

How so?

When Rachel, Eva’s eldest granddaughter, shared the beautiful words of her eulogy, she reflected on what her Baubie who used to call her, “Shainkeit!”

That’s when I heard my mother speaking to me!

Shainkeit” – That’s what she used to call me.

I haven’t heard that term of endearment in a long time.

I really am grateful to Eva, of blessed memory, and, yee’badale l’chaim, to Rachel, for helping me to make these cherished connections through time.

But as I reflect on what unexpectedly occurred to me at Eva’s funeral, I am troubled by a nagging question.

The four women I have named here this morning who no longer abide among the living lived in a different world than you and I inhabit today.

It was a world of simple and pure goodness which they and others like them created.

It was a world of “shainkeit” – of passionate love for us that only the Yiddish language could capture.

But today you and I recognize that that world – its simple goodness and its language that grabbed your kishkes – is gone.

I think I know what Eva Iteld gave to her daughters.

I think I know what she gave to her grandchildren.

I know what my baubies and my mother gave to me.

But neither Susan nor I can give that same thing to our children or, God-willing, to our grandchildren or perhaps even great grandchildren.

You can’t do so either because those beautiful gifts in their simplicity just don’t exist anymore in that fashion.

So now I think you know what the nagging question is – What can we give our children, grandchildren and possibly great grandchildren.

In this complex world that offers our succeeding generations myriad choices, what can we give our loved ones that will shape their nature and make a lasting difference?

What can we give them if we can’t give them the simple, loving goodness our baubies gave to us?

Yesterday, the seventh day of Pesach, is traditionally considered to be the day when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.

In the Israelites’ case, for very understandable reasons, fear gripped the people – fear of the Egyptians pursuing them from behind and fear of the unknown ahead of them.

It took one Israelite, Nachshon ben Aminadav, to wade into the sea, and then and only then, the waters parted.

First Nachshon and then Moses.  And then, on the other side of the sea, Miriam.

The Israelites had exemplars to reassure them that a journey rooted in faith was worth the effort.

At a very different time and place and under a very different set of circumstances, I think that is what we can give our children and especially our grandchildren, and God-willing, our great grandchildren.

We can give them the example of our spiritual journey – personally and collectively with the Jewish people.

We can tell then and, more importantly, show them why this journey is important in the 21st century.

The fear that seized our Israelite ancestors at the Red Sea no longer grips us.

It cannot motivate those who follow us.

Instead, in a world of so many choices that says, “Do whatever makes you happy” – we can still give our loved ones a sense of rootedness in a family and tradition that will encourage them to undertake the spiritual journey of our Jewish people.

We can buoy them as they inevitably reach some difficult moments on that journey.

In a few words, amidst a complex and sometimes confusing world, we can help to give our succeeding generations a sense of what ought to be their true, authentic selves.

That gift is not the same as the beautiful one our baubies gave us, but in today’s very different world it is an especially life – affirming one.

Today, as we approach this Yizkor portion of our service, I recognize the beautiful and sustaining gifts that Eva Iteld, my Baubies Sandler and Doren and my mother gave to me.

May God bless the memory of their good works.

Today all of us recognize the beautiful and sustaining gifts that our mothers and baubies no longer among the living gave to us.

May God bless the memory of their good works.

We may not be able to pass these same gifts on to succeeding generations in same form those who preceded us sought to pass them on to us.

But we can share life-affirming gifts with those who will follow us that will enable them to navigate life, enhance their own lives and the lives of their community and nurture the well-being of our people.

May we be mindful of our responsibility and carry out these ennobling tasks.

Amen.

Parshat Vayishlach
November 28, 2015 | 16 Kislev 5776

It is difficult to see the humanity in people we perceive as our enemies.

Syria has long been the enemy of Israel and, as a result, we consider its people to be our enemies, too.

That is why our visit with Riva Silverman of HIAS here on Shabbat morning four weeks ago felt a bit dissonant.

Riva asked us to contact President Obama and urge the United States to resettle 100,000 of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees.

More than a few of us probably wondered why we would encourage our government to welcome such large numbers of citizens of a country still technically at war with Israel.

Then, not long after the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris we learned a terribly disturbing fact – apparently one of the perpetrators had entered Europe with other Syrian refugees.

Fear in the homeland grew!

It could happen here, too, couldn’t it?!

According to recent polls, more than 80% of all Americans believe it will happen here…it is only a matter of time, they think, until a significant terrorist attack occurs in the United States.

Fear continues to grow … and so does anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric.

Governors, presidential candidates …for the past two weeks we have heard them offer messages ofrejection.

The voices of experts who calmly explain the refugee vetting process hardly gain anyone’s attention.

No, it’s sound bites that capture attention.

Stop Syrian refugees from entering the United States!

Register them!

Send them back!

Those sentiments sound eerily familiar in light of our people’s experience.

No, Syria today is not Germany in the 1930’s, but there is a common thread – flight from one’s homeland born of mortal fear.

Jews who sought to flee Germany knew their lives were imperiled.

Today millions of Syrians fear for their lives and want to protect their children.

They seek safety elsewhere.

Back in 1938, representatives of Allied countries met to determine what to do with the growing number of Jewish refugees.

When the Canadian representative was asked how many Jews Canada would accept, do you know what he said?

“One would be too many.”

At that time, inflamed rhetoric was matched by heartless action.

You know the story of the St. Louis – first to Cuba; then to the United States.

Our country would not take in Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

We sent them right back to him.

Syria is not Nazi Germany.

And yet, 200,000 civilians have died in Syria during the last four years of civil war… some of them as a result of President Bashar el Assad’s sarin gas.

As the Syrian refugee crisis mounts, despite understandable concerns about terrorists who might enter the United States, we as individual Jews and as a Jewish community, must struggle with our fears.

We must decide – When it comes to responding to the potential influx of Syrian refugees to what should we give expression – our fears or our compassion?

We must confront ourselves and answer these questions: “Who are we?” “What do we stand for?”

The paradigm for this confrontation and, I believe our answers, flow from our parasha today.

You know the story.

Jacob, now a wealthy man, is returning with his family to the land of Israel.

Yet he knows that Esau is coming toward him, likely to seek revenge for the wrongs Jacob has done him.

Jacob splits up his family so that no single attack can harm all of them.

With everyone at least temporarily safely on the other side of the Yabbok River, Jacob sets off to cross the river.

But he does not get very far.

A being engages him.

All night long the two of them wrestle.

Finally, as dawn breaks, Jacob obtains a blessing and a new name from his adversary, Yisrael – a God struggler.

Who was that adversary? Our commentators offer different options.

But one clear perspective is that Jacob struggled with himself.

Who was he going to be?

The manipulative trickster he had been up to that point in his life or one who confronts what he needs to face?

What was his true identity, and how would he give expression to it?

Jacob’s personal struggle is our collective Jewish struggle today.

But unlike Jacob, our struggle is not about self-identity and direction.

It is about our values and our expression of them.

We can listen to voices of fear – those we hear on television and may feel inside ourselves – and give into them.

We can look at Syrian refugees and see the word “terrorist” written on each of their faces…

We can “swim along with the rising tide” of rejection ….

Or …

We can, as our tradition often urges us to do, go against the tide.

We can, as the Torah implores us countless times, care for the “stranger” because we were once strangers in a foreign land where they came to hate us.

Simply put, we can ask ourselves, “How shall we view this Syrian refugee crisis through the prism of our Jewish tradition?”

Anne Roiphe, the writer, put it rather succinctly this week in a column that appeared in the Forward.

“We should not let terrorists estrange us from ourselves.”

Once upon a time, our patriarch Jacob was nearly consumed by fear.

He feared the wrath of his brother, Esau.

And he feared what he had become – a manipulative cheater.

Those fears and their sources had estranged Jacob from his better self, his true self.

So he confronted them…he wrestled with them and was successful.

Today we “stand at the river.”

We can follow Jacob’s example.

We can take hold of a tradition that urges compassion and caring for the stranger, even one who understandably makes us uncomfortable.

Or we can do otherwise.

We can allow other factors to drive our views.

Jacob’s struggle was difficult.

But when the encounter with Esau was over and the two men had gone their separate ways, the Torah tells us…

“Vayahvoh Ya’akov shalem ir Shechem” (Gen 33:18)

“Jacob arrived ‘shalem’ – safe – in the city of Shechem.”

In what sense was he now safe?

Of course, Esau was no longer a threat to him.

But “shalem” or “shelaymoot” implies something deeper that physical well – being.

The commentator Sefat Emet said that Jacob was now at peace with himself.

He had a sense of integrity he had not previously possessed.

As we confront the complex issue of Syrian refugees potentially entering the United States in large numbers, may we do so in a way that reflects the wisdom and compassion of our tradition.

Then I pray, we, like Jacob, will be “shalem.”

 

Parshat Toldot
November 14, 2015 | 2 Kislev 5776

“Palestinian” – What does that word conjure up in your mind… especially in recent days?  It’s not very difficult to imagine some of the words and descriptive phrases you and I would offer in response to that question.  If we focused on Palestinian leadership, we might use words that I can’t say from the pulpit on a Shabbat morning.

But in polite terms, we would probably express ourselves in these ways:  Palestinian leaders lack any worthy values and, as a result, they harm their own people;  Through both their silence in the face of violence at times and their explicit incitement of it at other times, they inflame Palestinians;  Through their failure to change an educational system that is overtly anti-Semitic, in both its classical ways and its newer anti-Israel forms, Palestinian leadership perpetuates conflict.

I could say more, but in a nutshell, that’s a polite way of describing thoughts that come to mind when the word “Palestinian” is associated with “Palestinian leadership.”  But what about the average Palestinian, the proverbial “man on the street”?  What images come to mind? We think we know him.  He’s a terrorist, a would-be killer of Jews. Do I exaggerate?

Think about it – You hear someone speaking Arabic. Immediately, your antenna shoots up.  Your fears may be aroused … and all those negative images come rushing in.  Why?  Why do we think “terrorist” when we see a person who looks like an Arab  or hear him speak Arabic?  Why do our hearts beat a little faster?  Quite frankly, why do Palestinians scare us?   Why don’t we trust them?  Why?  Because, amidst the undeniable kernels of truth that lie at the root of our concerns, there lies another ugly truth – We demonize Palestinians.

We have taken images we rightly have of irresponsible Palestinian leadership, combined them with sickening images of Palestinian terrorism and applied those images to all Palestinians.  The Torah cautions us this week.

“Vayeetrotzetzu ha’baneem b’kirbah …” (Gen 25:22)  When Rebecca became pregnant with twins, Jacob and Esau struggled inside their mother’swomb.  Their sibling rivalry began in utero!

The medieval commentator, Rashi, gives us a glimpse into how Jacob and Esau’s rivalry became much larger than brothers vying for family leadership.  He cites a midrash in Genesis Rabbah (63:6) that captures our tradition’s demonization of Esau and, by association, of the people it understands to be his descendants, the Arabs.

“Vayeetrotzetzu”  –  In that word, the Rabbis recognized the word “rahtz” – “to run.”  In a midrash, they said the following – Whenever Rebecca would pass by the entrance to the yeshiva of “Shem V’ever” Jacob would “run” – he would struggle to come out of his mother’s womb.  But whenever Rebecca would pass by an idolatrous temple, Esau would “run” – he would struggle to come out of his mother’s womb.

At first reading, it’s a cute story … a yeshiva in the Torah? Jacob, a would-be Torah scholar long before the Torah and yeshiva exist?!  But read the midrash again and reflect on it.  Read it with the knowledge that our tradition came to see Jacob, eventually renamed “Yisrael”, as the father of the Jews while it came to see Esau as the father of the Edomites, the Arabs.  Read it that way, and the midrash is no longer so amusing.  Read other rabbinic commentaries 1500 years ago and you will see an Esau who is portrayed as truly evil despite the fact that according to the Torah, Jacob cheats him out of the blessing of the first – born that is rightfully his!  And who initiates reconciliation between these two brothers?    Again the Torah is equally clear – Esau!

Nonetheless our rabbis repeatedly demonized Esau.  Those images never changed.  We have demonized his descendants, the Palestinians.

Today, amidst the very unsettling situation in Israel, to us, all Palestinians are potentially the next stabbers of Jews.  Let me be clear. Terrorist acts must be confronted harshly.  Whatever Israeli military personnel or police do to stop the perpetrator is justified … practically and morally.

But who is this knife-wielding Palestinian?  Is he evil?  If not, why did he do this terrible thing?  Isn’t it reasonable to ask how his circumstances – his home life, his education, his life experiences, among other factors – have impacted him?

Of course, circumstances never force a person to act in a particular way.  He has a choice.  But those circumstances can impact him in significant ways.  The Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, certainly thinks so.

Earlier this week, the Shin Bet released a report about the people who have perpetrated stabbings in recent weeks.  It found that many of those young perpetrators acted based on “national, economic and personal deprivation.”  To us, these perpetrators are “animals” and Palestinians are “terrorists.”

But here is a truth that too few of us consider, and the Shin Bet report only reinforces what we already know.  Palestinians suffer – They suffer at the hands of their irresponsible leadership, and they suffer because of what Israel must do to protect its citizens.

A young Palestinian is hopeless.  He has no job.  His freedom of movement is curtailed…and the situation never changes.  He has no reason to think it ever will change. That is the agonizing reality of Palestinians on the West Bank today.

Some fall prey to the anti-Semitic education they have received or to incitement and to glorification of terrorism in Palestinian society.  But are they really evil?  We cannot justify their actions, of course.   But we can understand them, and we can curse the Palestinian leadership that has educated its youth to hate.

Someday, God-willing, new Palestinian leadership will arise, and Israel will find a true partner for peace…difficult to imagine, of course, but a vision we must always lift up. In the meantime, however, let us recognize that our demonization of Palestinians will only get in the way of working toward the realization of that vision.

The midrash I cited earlier – Jacob and Esau still in the womb, Jacob struggling to get to the yeshiva and Esau struggling to get to the idolatrous temple – should be a cautionary tale for us today.

Demonization harms and only irreparably separates.  It precludes the possibility of any positive future.  Stereotypes, especially when events seem to reinforce them, are difficult to change.

So, even as we pray for the safety and well-being of our brothers and sisters in Israel, let us confront our demonized images of Palestinians. Then, I pray we will be able to address them.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

PARSHAT CHAYE SARAH
November 7, 2015 | 25 Cheshvan 5776

Hope, you look beautiful today! You are wearing a pretty dress.  Your hair is perfectly styled. And with the joy you are bringing to everyone here today and to yourself, you are positively RADIATING!

But I have a question for you. God-willing, when you turn 92-years-old, do you think you will look like you do today?  Do you think you will have long, dark hair and that beautiful smile?

With all of the anti-aging agents science has already created and will create during the next eighty years, Hope, I’m sorry to tell you, but you likely will not be as beautiful at age 92 as you are today…

Do we have any 20-year-olds here today – women or men?

It’s not exactly sharing something newsworthy with you to say that a person’s beauty at age 12 or 20 will be long gone by the time he/she hits 92 or 100-years-old. Yet our midrashic tradition tells us there was  a glaring exception to this fact – our matriarch, Sarah. At the beginning of our parasha today we learn that Sarah was 127-years-old when she died. or as the Torah shares with us in elongated fashion – “… meah shanah v’esrim shanah v’sheva shanim” – “100 years and 20 years and 7 years.”

Looking at that strange way of sharing Sarah’s age with us, a midrash in Bereisheet Rabbah tells us, in part, that at age 100 Sarah possessed the beauty she had at age 20.  Huh?!?!  How could that be possible? Why would a midrash assert such a ridiculous thing? Because, of course, it wasn’t so ridiculous. We’re told that beauty is skin deep.

But if we are old enough and have gained some wisdom along the way, there’s something we have discovered about the nature of beauty. It is not skin deep. It changes.  It develops, and it becomes more profound and meaningful.

A 100-year-old Sarah was hardly as physically attractive as she had been at 20-years-old. But the author of that midrash saw a different kind of beauty in Sarah. What was it?  We can only speculate.

After Sarah struggled with fertility issues and made a painful decision to give her maidservant to Abraham, the miraculous birth of Isaac changed her.

Sarah, an older mother, marveled at her good fortune.  She must have beamed at Isaac’s early accomplishments.  Nothing was more important to Sarah than her son’s well – being and future.  When she felt that Ishmael threatened Isaac’s well-being, she acted to protect him.

As Sarah aged and her physical beauty ebbed that protective, maternal quality became the source of her beauty.  So beauty adhered to childbirth, and a special measure of beauty adhered to this woman who was finally blessed with a child and did her utmost to protect him.

When the rabbis said that Sarah, at age 100, was as beautiful as she had been at age 20, they weren’t speaking about the same kind of beauty in both instances.

At 20, Sarah was attractive.  At 100, her beauty resided in her maternal experience and wisdom.  In speaking of Sarah’s beauty at age 100, our rabbis encouraged us, byway of association, to recognize the beauty of our elderly.

My mother, of blessed memory, didn’t live to 100.  She was 82 at the time of her death.  Of course, I didn’t know her when she was 20 years old, but I have seen my parents’ wedding pictures.  Mom was 21 years old then.  Dad had good taste.  My mother was a “head-turner.”

But the beauty of her older years was as clear to me as it was to my father from the time they first met until that last day of my mother’s life: The beauty of caring; The beauty of living simply and sincerely; The beauty of deeply loving those dearest to her…

All of that beauty was visible on my mother’s face.  My baubies, my grandmothers of blessed memory, were also beautiful as older women. Of course, to me, they were always old!

The beauty of my Baubie Sandler, who I knew only as a young child, was evident to me in those big, wet kisses she planted on me. I couldn’t understand her Yiddish or her broken English, but her beauty, reflected in those sloppy kisses, was clear to me.

Then there was my Baubie Doren who I used to see once or twice a year when we travelled to Milwaukee.  Baubie Doren was only slightly more acculturated to life in America than my Baubie Sandler.  And she was a beautiful woman … especially when she put in her dentures, a wonder to me when I was a little boy.

But Baubie Doren’s beauty was like my mother’s beauty …hardly surprising, of course. Her beauty also resided in her caring. When we were in Milwaukee nobody mattered more to my Baubie than my sister Debby and me.  “Oy shainkeit, shainkeit,” I heard it over and over again.

The loving character of both my Baubie Sandler, who died nearly fifty years ago, and my Baubie Doren, who died nearly forty years ago, remains with me today. The beauty of their elderly years endures in my memory.

Our parasha and its delightful midrash about Sarah’s beauty have provided me with a welcome opportunity to reflect on the beauty of some of the most important women in my life … especially as they reached their elderly years.

Take a moment… here right now or perhaps later today to reflect.  Don’t let the moment pass. A mother, an aunt, a grandmother; perhaps a wife or sister no longer among the living yet fortunate to have lived a full life.

Take some time to reflect on the beauty you recognized in her, especially in her later years. The beauty of loving passionately. The beauty of caring deeply. The beauty of having made a difference time and time again. May the memory of these special women in our lives and their beauty which endures be for a blessing.

Amen.

 

PASSOVER – YIZKOR SERMON
April 11, 2015 | 22 Nisan 5775

I know…

By now, you are tiring of this holiday.

For many of us, Passover began on a real high.

We devoted significant attention to the sedarim.

To be with family members and friends was wonderful!

But now it’s the last day of Passover, really the last hours, and the joy we associate with this holiday has worn off.

How ironic, then, that yesterday, the seventh day of the holiday, was such an important day.

We hosted our interfaith Hunger Seder on Thursday evening at the outset of the seventh day, and it was a high, quite successful!

Traditionally, the seventh day of Passover is an important day because that is the time, we are told, when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.

You’ve read about it in the Torah.

You have even seen it on television as recently as last Sunday evening courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille.

Both the Torah and the movie project this moment in similar fashion.

As the Israelites stand at the Sea, they see Pharaoh and his troops rapidly approaching them from behind.

In mortal fear they cry out to Moses who seeks to assure them.

Then the “Charleton Heston moment” arrives.

At God’s instruction, Moses raises his staff, the sea parts and the Israelites pass through the dry beds to safety on the other side.

But that isn’t the way our midrashic tradition understands it.

There, it seems, the Israelites feared the imposing waters of the Red Sea in front of them as much as they feared the approaching enemy behind them.

The waters had not yet parted.

According to the midrash (Mechilta Beshallah 5/Talmud Sota 37a) none of the tribes would budge.

So Nachshon ben Aminadav, a leader of the tribe of Judah, “took the bull by the horns,” jumped into the sea and continued to move forward until the waters reached his nostrils.

It was at that point that God rebuked Moses – “Why do you cry out to Me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward!” (Ex. 14:15).

At that point, Moses raised his staff, the waters parted and the Israelites moved forward through the dry beds of the Red Sea.

According to this midrash Nachshon’s bold move, a leap born of faith in God and in the future, was absolutely decisive.

It literally and figuratively enabled the Israelites to move forward.

The Israelites would experience many difficulties and challenges in the years that followed, but without Nachshon’s leap into the unknown, the life of this community would have ended right there at the Red Sea.

Many of us here this morning have stood where the Israelites stood, at our own Red Sea.

That “Red Sea” was caused by the death of a loved one who was particularly dear to us.

It may have been the death of a parent.

More likely, it was the death of a beloved spouse or precious child.

We viewed that upheaval and loss as a threat to our own lives.

In that sense, it became our own personal “Red Sea moment.”

Let me explain.

Like our Israelite ancestors, as we looked in front of us, we saw a vast and all-encompassing threat – the future.

“How will I live without him?”

“How will I manage without her by me?”

“I won’t ever be able to live normally again after this devastating loss!”

It was simply impossible to move forward (Maybe even literally for a time, just to put one foot in front of the other).

As we looked behind us, unlike the Israelites, we saw no fast-approaching enemy that would overwhelm us.

Nonetheless what we did see back there threatened to overwhelm…

For what was it that we saw?

We saw the glorious days of the past with that loved one…many years with a loving spouse; far fewer probably with a precious child.

Those memories filled us not with fear but with an aching  longing for what once was.

In front of us lay the vast sea of an uncertain future.

Behind us, wonderful memories of times we yearned to return to.

And what did you do if and when you faced such a “Red Sea moment?”

Well, if you are sitting here today, if you are going to join us at Kiddush following our service and talk with your friends there, if you get up every morning and get out of bed then just like Nachshon ben Aminadav you had the faith to “leap into the sea;” to move, haltingly perhaps at first and then more confidently, into a future without your loved one.

You did not allow fear of that future or longing for the past to paralyze you.

Instead, you reaffirmed the value of your own life.

Oh, yes, life was very different in the absence of your loved one, but like Nachshon you moved forward and succeeded.

Some of us here have not yet had such a “Red Sea moment.”

The word “yet” is probably the key word; we almost inevitably will face a time when we will lose an individual we call “our life” – a person with whom we have shared as with no other or a person in whom we saw our continuity after we would leave this earth and now that point of continuity is gone, and we are still here.

If and when that “Red Sea moment” arrives, may we have the strength, faith and vision of our ancestor, Nachshon ben Aminadav.

May we possess and exhibit the ability to move boldly into our uncertain future.

Amen.

PARSHAT MISHPATIM
February 14, 2015 | 25 Shevat 5775

Earlier this week a group of us took a hike up Stone Mountain.

We were in search of God.

And sure enough, we found God there.

God saw us, and we saw God – at least we saw God’s feet.

Wow!  Incredible!

The whole scene was unbelievable.  It’s hard for me to describe it now.

I just remember seeing a sapphire-paved road under God’s feet!

We were so blown away! We had a picnic there, right there on Stone Mountain, with God!

Then, well, then we went home.

You believe me, don’t you?  After all, some years ago, you believed me when I told you about my Norwegian relatives.

“Sure, Rabbi Sandler is from Minnesota.  He probably does have Scandinavian relatives.”

What?  You don’t believe me when I tell you that I saw God at Stone Mountain earlier this week?

Well, if you don’t believe me, then why do you think the version of that story that appears in today’s Torah Reading regarding the seventy elders who joined Moses and others on Mt. Sinai is anymore believable?!

Just because it appears in the Torah?

Take a look at that story in Exodus chapter 24, and you will realize that the notion of Israelites seeing God’s feet and then essentially having a party comes out of nowhere.

The narrative, I think, says more about those men and how they viewed their importance than it does about a vision of God.

Look at the story.

God placed bounds on these elders who seem to have gone beyond the limits that God had established for them.

And, in response, what does God do when these men supposedly see God?  Absolutely nothing.

It doesn’t add up…which is why I am inclined to think these men only imagined they saw God…they saw something that wasn’t there to be seen.

Regrettably, this reading of this unique story in today’s Torah reading provides me with a way to understand what is now unfolding as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to address a joint session of the United States Congress on March 3rd.

Speaker of the House Boehner and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are seeing things – opportunities they think – that aren’t really there.

As a result, their actions appear to be causing damage to the U.S. – Israel relationship at least in the short term.

That possibility ought to greatly concern us.

For those of you who may not know what I am talking about, here is the basic story:

Speaker of the House John Boehner invited the Prime Minister to address Congress on Iran, the threat it poses to the world if it gains nuclear weapons capability and what Congress must now do to help prevent that possibility.

Prime Minister Netanyahu accepted the invitation.

Neither the offer nor its acceptance occurred with the U.S. Administration’s knowledge.

Both the White House and the State Department have spoken out against this breach of normative diplomatic protocol.

President Obama has announced that he will not meet with the Prime Minister when he is here, a mere two weeks prior to the Israeli Knesset elections.

Vice-President Biden has announced that he will be out of the country, and a growing number of Democratic members of Congress have announced they will not attend Mr. Netanyahu’s address to Congress.

Do you remember Laurel and Hardy?

Oliver Hardy used to say to Stan Laurel, “Well, there’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

Well, there’s a “fine mess” in the making and, as March 3rd approaches, it will only become more difficult to clean it up.

Like the seventy elders who thought they saw something on Mt. Sinai that they could never glimpse, I believe the Speaker of the House and the Israeli Prime Minister think they see something – again, an opportunity – that really isn’t there.

Some people believe that both of these elected officials are motivated by political considerations—Mr. Boehner by a desire to assert the Republican majority in Congress and embarrass the President; Mr. Netanyahu by a need to appear strong as Israelis prepare to vote in Knesset elections on March 17th.

But let’s give both Speaker Boehner and Prime Minister Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt.

Let’s say that both of them genuinely believe the Prime Minister’s address to Congress could be decisive and play a role in convincing Congress to pass tough Iran sanctions legislation if negotiations with the Iranians fail.

Anyone who has followed this issue over the last two years must readily recognize that the Prime Minister’s words, no matter how accurate and convincing, are probably unnecessary because Congress has been favorably disposed not just once but twice toward passing such legislation…until President Obama announced he would veto it if it passed.

Nothing has changed, and if the Prime Minister thinks his congressional address will embolden Democrats to override a potential presidential veto, he is mistaken.

Both he and Speaker Boehner are seeing something that isn’t really there.

Unfortunately, the situation is worse than that; the mess gets messier.

Consider what Prime Minister Netanyahu stands poised to do:

  1. He intends to ignore U.S. diplomatic protocol and the President’s wishes.
  2. He plans, effectively if not in reality, to publicly lobby the U.S. Congress against the Administration’s position on Iran.
  3. And he intends to do all of this, again in the most public fashion, because, he has implied, he speaks for all American Jews.

Let me be clear.

I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s fears concerning a nuclear Iran are well-founded.

I believe that President Obama has badly mishandled this negotiation with Iran, and I fear that an agreement with Iran which is rooted in nuclear weapons containment and not nuclear weaponsprevention may fail.

I believe that Mr. Netanyahu can speak truth to power in the strongest terms…but only through proper diplomatic channels;

not in an address to Congress!

It never behooves Israel and the U.S. to air their differences in public, but now those differences are on full display.

And the mess gets even messier.

To date, Speaker Boehner’s and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s actions have contributed only to a situation that should never ever occur –

At least in the short term, the State of Israel has become a wedge issue in the halls of Congress as legislators publicly announce their intentions not to attend the Netanyahu address on March 3rd.

Within a legislative body that has been utterly divided by partisanship, Israel’s well-being has stood out in Congress as one of the very few issues that consistently receives overwhelming bipartisan support.

But now Americans who have little understanding of the subtleties here will look at Congressmen like our own John Lewis, a man who has consistently supported the State of Israel throughout his long and distinguished career, and when they see he is absent on March 3rd will ask, “Is he really pro-Israel?”

Listen to this statement from Matt Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition:

“This is, I think a critical visit by the Prime Minister.  If these Democrats would rather put partisan politics ahead of principle and walk out on the Prime Minister of Israel, then we have an obligation to make that known.”

It is understandable that the professional head of a politically-partisan organization would make such a statement.

But it troubles me that Mr. Brooks is prepared to use Israel as a wedge for partisan gain at the potential expense of the U.S. – Israel relationship.

Lest any of you think differently, I would say exactly the same thing if Matt Brooks was the head of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Our elected leaders in Washington, D.C. and Jerusalem need to stop seeing things that aren’t really there.

They need to reaffirm a transcendent value – namely, the unbreakable bonds of the U.S. – Israel relationship.

President Obama, Speaker of the House Boehner and Prime Minister Netanyahu need to be quickly guided back to the “same page.”

Publicly, they need to project understanding and, hopefully, mutual agreement even if, privately within appropriate diplomatic channels, they disagree.

And they need to do so now!

Ken Toltz is a former AIPAC professional.  Today he is a businessman living in Colorado.

Earlier this week he wrote a blog for the Times of Israel.com website as if he were speaking for AIPAC and sharing a press release.

In part, this is what Mr. Toltz wrote:

“We are calling upon the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader of the Senate and President Obama to put a stop to this perception (of negativity and potential damage to bipartisan support for Israel) by finding a mutually agreeable accommodation.  This is what the American people deserve, this is what the P5+1 negotiators deserve, and this is what the Government of Israel deserves.

It will never be acceptable if our relationship of support for Israel becomes cheapened and denigrated by partisanship or political point -scoring.  Now is the best time to end that perception by finding common ground.”

Ken Toltz’s words ring true.

They provide wise and necessary direction today.

I pray they will be heeded.

Friends—

This sermon is different than any other sermon I have delivered in nearly thirty-two years.

It was also one of the more difficult ones to write, and its content and my desire to assure that I shared it with you exactly as I wrote it is why I am standing here today and not in the center of the bimah without notes as I usually do.

It is unusual for me to speak on political or diplomatic issues in ways that aren’t rooted in my understanding of Jewish tradition.

I have never publicly criticized an Israeli prime minister…until today.

So why now?

Because I know that many passionate lovers of Israel, like me, are deeply troubled by what is unfolding as March 3rd approaches.

President Obama can barely disguise his antipathy toward Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Speaker Boehner seeks to deflect any responsibility for this diplomatic debacle.

And Prime Minister Netanyahu mistakenly feels obligated to repeatedly tell us why he must speak to Congress on March 3rd, implying that he speaks for all of us in doing so.

We can see that it is all heading in the wrong direction as concerns a strong U.S. – Israel relationship, even if only in the short term, and we feel compelled not to remain silent.

Friends – In the simple words of Psalm 122 – “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”

…to which I add – And pray for wisdom both there and in Washington D.C.

Shabbat Shalom.

PARSHAT LECH LECHA
November 1, 2014 | 8 Cheshvan 5775

“When did you know that you wanted to be a rabbi?”

“Have you always wanted to be a rabbi?”

Do you have any idea how many times I have been asked those two questions?

People often assume that God visited me at a young age and just like Charleton Heston….er, Moses, I had a “Burning Bush”–like moment when God visited me, and my path of service to God, Israel and Torah was set.

God didn’t visit me…and I didn’t know I wanted to be a rabbi…at least a pulpit rabbi…until after I had begun to serve in my first pulpit in 1983.

Most of you know that my story is very different from Rabbi Rosenthal’s story and his journey to the rabbinate.

In brief, I was a poster child for the Conservative movement…I did it all, and I was an example of our movement’s success in the 60’s and 70’s.

At shul, even through my teen years, I was the “perfect kid.”

I even wanted to get more involved in Jewish life as I entered my twenties.

I wanted to become a Jewish professional…a teacher, maybe even an educational administrator…but a rabbi?

Forget it!

…until I spoke with Rabbi Goodman, and he talked me into going to rabbinical school.

“But I don’t want to be a rabbi, Rabbi Goodman!”

“That’s okay, Neil.  Do what you want to do, but spend a couple more years at the Seminary (I was already studying there), get the education and the title, and it will open doors for you.”

That made sense to me.

So I went to rabbinical school and after I was ordained I finished a Master’s degree in social work.

“Maybe I’ll become a social worker…nah…”

Then I walked over to the Columbia Law School building and picked up an application for law school.

“Maybe I’ll become a lawyer.”

But by this time I was 26 years old, Susan and I were married, and I had to face reality.

Now, as I reflect on that moment more than thirty-two years ago, I don’t recall any specific reluctance or resistance to entering the pulpit rabbinate.

On the other hand I don’t recall any moment of enlightenment or even a particular desire that was attracting me to it either.

I simply said, “I think I’m going to give the pulpit a try…”

“Vayomer Adonai el Avram – Lech lecha mayartzecha umee’moladetcha u’meebayt aveecha el ha’aretz asher ar’eka.”

God instructs Abraham – Lech lecha – Go to the place I will show you, the Land of Israel, the land that will become your Promised Land.

The word “lecha” is never translated in any translation I have seen of our parasha’s opening line.

“Lecha” – “To you.”

“Go to you” — That just doesn’t make any sense in a proper English sentence…and the truth is that the word makes no more sense in that sentence in Hebrew.

That’s why our rabbis and commentators devote so much attention to this word, “lecha,” which is utterly superfluous to the literal understanding of the verse.

“Lecha” – “to you” – A popular midrashic strand suggests that this word is an indication of Abraham’s initial spiritual task.

“Go inside yourself, Abraham, deep inside yourself.”

“Take an introspective journey to your core, and you will know that you must follow Me and My direction.”

But Rashi suggests a very different interpretation.

“Lech lecha” – “Lehana’atcha uletovatcha.”

“Go for your own benefit and pleasure.”

“Go for your own good.”

From the remainder of Rashi’s commentary it appears that God, in effect, said to Abraham – “You have to leave this place.  This isn’t a good place for you to be.  Go there, and you will prosper.  You will find your place.”

That’s what I discovered when Susan and I moved to suburban Dallas more than thirty-one years ago.

Set aside the issue of the physical move at the time.

For me, that moment was the beginning of a spiritual journey I didn’t yet recognize.

Little did I understand that the place where I was – a place of no clear direction or commitment – was an unhelpful place to be.

Even less did I comprehend the possibility of what entering the pulpit rabbinate could become for me –

Lehana’atee ule’tovatee – for my benefit, for my pleasure and for my good.

But that’s the way it turned out.

I have given much to many people…and I have received an awful lot too…mostly what we call “seepook nefesh…” profound gratification.

…all because I was prepared to venture into very different territory.

What about you?

By the time we reach the age that many of us are today we know that while the journey of life continues, its paths have been set.

We’re not changing!

Sometimes though that path or place is not, as Rashi said, completely beneficial to us or our well – being.

It’s just the easy or well – known or comfortable place to be.

However it may also be a stifling place, a place where we do not strive or grow…

a place where we  cannot get to enjoy the realizations we reach when we challenge ourselves to go to that new place.

What is that potential “new place?”

Well, the possibilities are numerous and varied.

Maybe it is learning a new perspective, one that is very different from our own.

Perhaps it is entering a new relationship or renewing one that has gone awry.

Maybe it is doing volunteer work in a realm entirely new to us or one that challenges assumptions we have made about people.

The possibilities for this metaphorical “aretz asher ar’eka” – this ‘land’ we will see perhaps for the first time – are endless.

But like Abraham, we will have to risk our comfort with the status quo.

If we are fortunate, as Abraham discovered and as I learned many years ago, these “journeys to new places” can ultimately bring great personal pleasure and benefit.

“Lehana’atcha uletovatcha” – Like Abraham, may we be open to new possibilities and directions in our lives so that we may undertake journeys to new places.

And may those journeys bring us both meaningful pleasure and benefit.

Amen.

 

YOM KIPPUR – KOL NIDRE
October 3, 2014 | 10 Tishrei 5775

Earlier this summer we were horrified at the news that Palestinian terrorists had kidnapped three young Israeli men, Gilad Sha’ar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel, all of blessed memory.

Congregations added their names to special prayers for Israel’s well-being.

We prayed inside synagogues, sometimes in special services arranged expressly for that purpose.

We prayed outside synagogues too.

Whenever we heard mention of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali’s names, we offered a prayer.

We prayed for their well-being.

We prayed that they would soon be released to the loving care of their families.

As the days went by one after the other for eighteen days and we heard nothing about these young men, we suspected the outcome that was finally confirmed.

All the while, until we heard that final word, we prayed.

Did our prayers fail?  Did they fall on deaf ears?

What are we doing when we pray at such times?  Do we think our prayers may actually influence outcomes?

Those are especially good questions to consider as we begin this holiest day of the year…one that, according to our tradition, brings us into intimate contact with God.

“B’rosh Hashana yikatayvoon uv’yom tzom kippur yaychatemoon.”

Last week we repeatedly sang this refrain, and we will do so again tomorrow.

“On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

But that isn’t the final word!

“U’tshuvah u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avereen et ro’ah hagezerah.”

Tefillah – Prayer, along with repentance and just action, has an impact on our fate or on how we accept that outcome.

What exactly does prayer do?

Maybe, more accurately I should ask, “What are we doing when we pray?”

The answer most people give me is something like this, “When I pray, I talk to God.”

With that image in mind, do you have any idea how many people have said to me prior to a wedding, “Rabbi, pray for good weather!”

If I were to ask them, “Do you think my prayer for good weather will have any greater impact than your own prayer?” they would probably laugh.

Yes, people are joking…sort of…when they ask me to pray for good weather.

But the request comes from a place that assumes praying is talking to a God who may respond, and the rabbi is better at it than someone who isn’t a rabbi.

Often, the issues are far more serious than the weather.

A loved one is ill or in great pain.

We pray to God for our loved one’s well-being.

We believe that God may intervene.

“Surely if there is a God in the heavens God would do something about her pain!”

But what happens when God does not intervene?

In most circumstances, these heart – wrenching words are best understood as an expression of terrible pain.

But for one who utters these sentiments and really does believe that God intervenes in response to prayer, prayer of that sort inevitably fails.

It can leave the one who prays angry and, in the extreme, estranged from God.

So if God doesn’t necessarily intervene in our world in response to our personal prayers or the prayers in our machzor, is this book a lie?

When we acknowledge God, when we thank God or praise God with the words, “Baruch atah Adonai” are we just wasting our breath?

I don’t think so because many of us are addressing our spiritual need at that moment.

We are reaching beyond ourselves and beyond human support.

We are reaching out to God, but not necessarily for a direct response.

We are expressing the mystery that can serve as the answer to our petitionary prayers.

Let me explain what I mean.

When we pray for healing and our loved one or friend recovers, we know that medical interventions, human resilience and possibly time are largely responsible for this outcome.

But what is the source of those healing medical interventions, of human resilience and the ability of time to help with healing?

Our prayers in those moments represent our spiritual answer – God.

That is why we “talk to God” at such times.

At other times, apart from a need like healing, prayer gives us an opportunity to acknowledge the wonder of God’s world.

Haven’t you stood amidst the dazzling, take-your-breath-away grandeur of nature and uttered a prayer?

You weren’t asking God for anything – you were just saying, “Wow!”

No one understood the need for such a response and its meaning better than did Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory.

“Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living,” Dr. Heschel said.

He wasn’t referring just to a mountain top expression of awe.

He was referring to daily prayer.

Most of us possess neither the spiritual awareness that Dr. Heschel’s words reflect nor the daily commitment he had to prayer.

But we do have moments, often amidst the beauty of nature or other wondrous times in our lives, when we are fully open to the “inconceivable surprise of living.”

That is not only when we pray.  It’s also why we pray.

I believe we pray for other reasons that have little to do with God.

Sometimes we pray in order to be with others like us who join us in worship.

You know the story about Levine and Schwartz…

Levine was an atheist.  Yet he often came to shul with his friend, Schwartz, an observant man who fervently prayed to God.

Shul regulars, knowing that Levine didn’t believe in God, wondered why he came to shul so often.

Someone finally got up the nerve to ask him.

“Why do I come to shul?”  Levine said.  Well, my friend Schwartz comes to talk to God.  I come to talk to Schwartz!”

Communal prayer does bring us together…and sometimes the experience is quite moving.

Have you ever been in a shul where it seems everyone is davening in a traditional manner?

The sound of fervent prayer, the sound itself, is uniquely evocative.

If the sound of traditional davening doesn’t have that effect on you, what about the resonant sound of a congregation joining together in a prayer like the Shema?

Don’t you feel a powerful connection to others in such moments?

By the same token, sometimes when we pray we connect with others who are not physically present…often times with loved ones who are no longer among the living.

Ari Goldman shares this sentiment in his book Being Jewish:

“The tallit I wear is one that I inherited from my father.  It is a broad woolen blanket-like shawl with a silver brocade that falls on my shoulders.

Under the tallit, I feel my father’s presence and my mother’s presence.  They are no longer in this world, but under the tallit I feel connected to a different realm where I encounter my parents…”

Some of you feel like Ari Goldman when you enter this sanctuary.

You feel the presence of your parents and other loved ones.

When you step to the rear of the sanctuary and look at your loved one’s memorial plaque you feel that he or she is here in some manner.

Some of you even touch the plaque with your fingertip or a siddur and then kiss it…a loving connection made in a moment across time and space.

Yes, you do feel your loved one’s presence.

Finally and fundamentally, we pray because prayer provides us with a much-needed opportunity for self-reflection.

Many of us spend a good part of our day seeking to complete one task after the other.

And if we do slow down a bit, we fill up the time with the television or other recreational activities.

When do we stop and remain quiet for a time?

When do we reflect on our lives?

When do we think about our directions or if our priorities are the right ones?

When do we quietly ask ourselves the question that Mayor Ed Koch, of blessed memory, used to ask aloud – “How’m I doing?”

Prayer, especially communal worship, encouraged perhaps by the words of a particular prayer and by some quiet time, can provide all of us with something we desperately need – moments to reflect on our lives and on what we are doing with the precious time we have.

The Hebrew word “lehitpalel” means “to pray.”

Literally, though, it means “to judge oneself.”

Whether it is the prayer experience as a whole or just an individual prayer, prayer encourages us to take a look at ourselves and assess where we have been so that we might make good choices as we move forward.

At its best, prayer can help change us.

How much we wish our fervent prayers earlier this summer would have joined with the prayers of Jews around the world and with the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces to save Gilad, Eyal and Naftali.

That they did not do so wasn’t a statement of their failure or the failure of petitionary prayer.

Even if God could not intervene to change an outcome, our prayers united all of us—Jews from around the world—in reaching out to the Holy One in the same way at the same time.

Connection – connection with God, connection with the wonder of our world, connection with loved ones and friends here and throughout time and, most importantly, connections with ourselves – that is why we pray.

May this enabling understanding and ennobling possibility find regular expression in our lives throughout this New Year.

Amen.

 

ROSH HASHANA SERMON – DAY I
September 25, 2014 | 1 Tishrei 5775

Ever since my first visit to Israel in May of 1970 I have been fascinated with this place we call “the Jewish homeland.”

As a 14 year old I paid most attention to the beautiful young Israeli women.

But even on that first trip I began to develop a connection with Israel.

It was spiritually familiar to me…the place where my biblical ancestors had trodden and established Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.

Israel, the place my people had fervently yearned to be for nearly two thousand years…and now I was here.

That bond with this place several thousand miles away only grew as a result of a later adolescent pilgrimage to Israel, two academic years of study there and numerous trips over thirty plus years.

I read the morning newspaper and my eyes, like lasers, hone in on any article or op-ed concerning Israel.

I watch the television news and my internal antenna shoot up as I hear mention of Israel.

And so it was earlier this summer as Operation Protective Edge began when Israel could no longer tolerate the numerous Hamas missiles launched from Gaza.

Several times each day I would open up the website of the Times of Israel and read the live blog.

I read a variety of op-eds and analysis articles each day and did my best to participate in conference calls sponsored by different organizations.

I was invested in this one…

And so were many of you.

If my story isn’t precisely yours, many of you can share a similar story.

Whether it began with the blue box—the Jewish National Fund tzedakah box —as it did in my case or in some other fashion, for many of you, your abiding connection with the Jewish state began in your youth and grew stronger as you visited Israel and contributed to its well – being.

But a growing number of Jews, especially young ones, are not like me or those of you whose story is similar to mine.

They did not naturally invest significant time and emotional capital in this summer’s Middle East conflict.

That shouldn’t surprise us.

Seven years ago sociologist Steven Cohen studied American Jewish perceptions of Israel.

Take a look at Dr. Cohen’s 2007 study, and you will see a consistent pattern emerge.

As one moves in age from oldest to youngest, commitment to Israel tends to diminish.

Think about your children or grandchildren, and compare their views of Israel and commitments to your own.

Are their connections with the State of Israel stronger or weaker than yours?

Who acts more frequently on Israel’s behalf, you or them?

Please, before some of you say, “My children are very connected to Israel,” I know that is true for some of you.

But that likely is not the case for most of you.

To be honest, I don’t think the issue is entirely a generational one.

Irrespective of age, growing numbers of American Jews, especially those who have no personal history or relationship with Israel, are finding it difficult to relate to Israel.

They pay little attention to periodic wars and endless, unproductive peace negotiations.

They do not interact with Israel.

Instead, they see Mike Luckovich’s crass cartoon caricatures in the newspaper or similar depictions of Israel in the media or online.

“The problems in Israel are their problems,” they say.  Let them solve them.  We’ve got our own issues here.”

Us and them…one largely separate from the other.

For our sake and for Israel’s sake, it can’t be that way or become that.

I believe that we must care about Israel’s well – being because four thousand years of Jewish history tell me that despite our differences we are a single people.

I must therefore care about my fellow Jews wherever they live!

To do otherwise is to deny the bonds of Jewish peoplehood!

I further firmly believe that Israel’s well – being has an impact on the well – being of Jews around the world.

Many of us thought that Israel’s place as a safe haven for Jews in peril had come to an end.

This summer’s deeply disturbing anti – Semitic expressions that Jews experienced in parts of Europe must give us pause.

If you have not read Deborah Lipstadt’s August New York Times op-ed, “Why Jews Are Worried,” find it, read it and reflect on it.

Yes, even in 2014, the State of Israel must be a potential haven for Jews who need to know there is a place that will always welcome them.

But Israel as a safe haven is only one reason why Israel demands our attention.

There are other reasons.

First and foremost, we must care about Israel because our self-image as Jews and as a Jewish community is bound up with Israel.

Historically, the truth of that statement is in little doubt.

Consider the watershed date of June 1967 when Israel won an overwhelming victory in the Six Day War.

Before the creation of the State of Israel and continuing for nearly the next twenty years after its creation, the American Jewish community was largely powerless outside our own community.

But after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War this new image of a powerful Israel and of a self – assured Jew who assumed full responsibility for his destiny began to change our self-image, as individuals and as a community.

Here is one example to illustrate that change…the movement to free Soviet Jewry which gained momentum throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In 1973 when I was in USY I remember making several phone calls at our USY conventions to Soviet Jewish refuseniks.

Ten years earlier such calls would have been unimaginable.

And who can ever forget the massive display of public Jewish support for Soviet Jewry at that December 1987 Washington, D.C. gathering when a quarter of a million people chanted, “Let My People Go!”

We asserted ourselves on behalf of Jews in need on a grand scale, an assertiveness rooted in a transformed self – image based on “the new Israel.”

That spirit eventually energized American Jewish advocacy efforts on behalf of Israel in the halls of Congress.

In 2014 all of us recognize how tremendously significant and effective those efforts have become.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis juxtaposes two well-known pictures to symbolize American Jewry pre-1967 and post-1967.

They are extreme perhaps, but the juxtaposition of those pictures captures a truth.

The first picture is that terrified Jewish youth, Tzvi Nussbaum, with his hands up in the air in Warsaw in 1943.

That, according to Danny Gordis, was American Jewry before Israel’s 1967 victory transformed our self-image.

Exaggerated – Of course!  But it does capture something of our powerlessness prior to 1967.

And the second picture that came to symbolize American Jewry after 1967?

A picture from the Six Day War itself—the picture of those three young and handsome Israeli soldiers standing next to the liberated Wall, looking up with pride and awe.

Yes, that became our American Jewish self-image – proud, confident and assertive.

Pre – 1967 – Our American Jewish community had little influence.

Post – 1967 – We sought and gained greater influence with regard to issues that mattered to us.

Now, in 2014 and beyond, were things to change, were the world or we to perceive of Israel as other than strong, self-assured and exemplary – I worry about what the long-term effect would be on our self-image.

I worry about what would become of our efforts and their chances for success, both within and outside the Jewish community.

Israel continues to impact our self-image in other uplifting ways.

Think about it.  How do you respond when you learn that a group of Israelis is the first foreign delegation on the scene of a natural disaster?

Or what about when you hear that Israelis have taken Palestinians or Lebanese or Syrians into Israeli hospitals for treatment?!

Doesn’t it fill you with pride?

Every time I hear about these actions I say, “That is what it means for a Jewish state to live Jewishly.”

Only Israel can do that.

Yes, Israel inspires us, not always perhaps, but frequently.

Finally, Israel and its future must matter to us because the State of Israel engenders rich Jewish values and priorities.

Today the Jewish state is the single place in the world that can fully embrace Jewish values and apply them throughout society.

It is the only place where both religious and secular Jews live according to the rhythms of Jewish time.

It is the single place in the world where people can ponder what it means to be a Jewish state beyond the fact of a majority Jewish population.

Only a strong, self-assured, reflective and pluralistic Israel can consider that question in any meaningful sense.

Their answers ought not matter only to them;

They should matter to us if we are to maintain a meaningful connection with the only place our tradition calls “holy” and to which our people yearned to return for nearly two thousand years.

Personal presence, personal readiness to act is central to this day.

Earlier in our service this morning Cantor Lieberman chanted “Hineni.”

This prayer reflects the doubts of the Cantor who stands before God as the representative of our community.

Still he says, “Hineni” – “I am here.”  I will act.

Tomorrow morning we will read the Akedah story.

At the outset, God calls out…

“Avraham,” and Abraham responds, “Heenaynee” – “I am here.”

As Abraham and Isaac set out for Mt. Moriah, Isaac calls out to his father – “Avi” and again Abraham responds, “Heenaynee” – “I am here.”

And when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, God calls out to him “Avraham, Avraham” and Abraham does not hesitate, “Heenaynee” – “I am here.”  I am ready to act.

My friends, now is the time for each of us to pay attention – to see the tenuous place of Israel in the world today, to recognize Israel’s  abiding meaning to us and to our collective well-being, to celebrate the unique potential of the Jewish state and to resoundingly say – “Heenaynee.”

“I am here.”

I will devote time to Israel.

Even when I have concerns I will give of my resources to the State of Israel.

I will engage with the State of Israel and, in word and deed, I will ask my family members and friends to do similarly.

Now is the time to say as a community “Heenaynu” – “We are here,” and we will act.

For two-thousand years our ancestors dreamed and prayed “…lihyot am chofshi b’artzaynu…” to be a free and sovereign people in our Land.

Hatikvah – More than sixty-six years ago the abiding hope became a reality.

Today we must continue to nurture that dream and reality, our dream and reality.

Today the State of Israel needs us, and we need the State of Israel.

In the year ahead, may we, our families, our friends and community act boldly to support the Land, the sovereign state and the people that ought to mean so much to us.

Amen.