Wednesday, September 22, 2010

YK Morning 5771 Beyond the Façade: Seeking Goodness and Hope

Beyond the Façade: Seeking Goodness and Hope

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of chaos and creation, of how we need to make the most of what we have and how the Jewish Tradition may play a role in helping us through the most difficult times. The morning of Rosh Hashanah, I talked about Heshbon Nephesh, about trying to look at our lives from a perspective beyond ourselves and challenging our assumptions of the way things are. Last night, my sermon was about taking the next step, of expanding our thought processes beyond ourselves and then acting: not just thinking, not just speaking, not just singing, but dancing…doing.

How do we take chaos and make the best of it, move beyond our assumptions about ourselves and others, and having done that, act in such a way that we connect with God, with our people, with our community and with our world? It is not easy. Sometimes, it appears to be impossible. We are unsure even where to begin and feel a sense of hopelessness.

The spark of hope, the spark of holiness, is to be found if we look for it. Reb Dov Baer taught that there is even such a spark in sin:

This is a fundamental principle: in everything in creation there exist sparks of holiness. No thing, nothing is devoid of these sparks, even trees and stones. And, also in every human deed, even in a sin that one might commit there is a spark…

What is the spark in the sin? [What is the good to be found in a sin?] It is teshuvah (repentance). At the moment that we do teshuvah for a particular sin, we raise up the sparks that are in it to the supernal world.

This means that everyone can do some good. Everyone can repent. But what of the worst of the worst?

What about when we can see no hope? What if, when we think about someone, we can see only wickedness in them? In this vein, I wanted to share with you a teaching of Reb Nachman of Bratslav and to add a bit of my own commentary to his. This translation comes from Arthur Green. Reb Nachman taught that:

You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that a person is completely wicked, it’s your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he or she is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness and judge the person that way, you really may raise him or her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah.

This is why the Psalmist said: “Just a little bit more and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there” (Ps.37:6). He tells us to judge one and all so generously, so much on the good side, even if we think they’re as sinful as can be. By looking for that “little bit,” the place however small within them where there is no sin (and everyone, after all, has such a place)—and by telling them, showing them, that that’s who they are—we can help them change their lives.

The Psalmist, to put the original statement into context, was speaking of the Messianic Age, a time when God will make evildoers vanish from the face of the earth and only the righteous will remain. Nachman’s statement takes this particular verse out of that context and into ours, the context of life as we live it every day. There are bad people out there. Are they incorrigible? Should we just write them off? Or should we attempt to encourage them to be better people? Should we seek out the goodness that may be found instead of focusing on the façade, or even the true face, of wickedness? Should we give people the benefit of the doubt if we perceive them to be wicked, assuming them to be bad through and through? It is not necessarily easy, but Reb Nachman would urge us to try.

It is well known that how we are treated by others can have a significant impact on how we act. For example, a child who is regularly told that he or she is naughty is more likely to act in that fashion than one who is told that he or she is good. A child perceives himself or herself to no small extent according to the way in which others describe them. When we get older, we still perceive ourselves to at least some extent, if not to a significant extent, by how others see us. How much of those things that we buy and of the time that we spend is directed at our appearance? From clothing to athletic clubs, from dietary products to makeup and hair, we invest our time and money in altering our appearance. Advertising, Marketing, and Public Relations are vital to the success of businesses.

We join groups and clubs, sometimes not because we are interested in what we can do because we belong to them, but because of the image belonging to them gives us. We can be vain and shallow. We can and do, as I pointed out on Rosh Hashanah, make assumptions about others. Often, those assumptions are based primarily or solely on outward appearances. This day…this Day of Atonement, we are urged to look beyond the façade into the depths of our character and that of others. As we think of others, whether those whom we have wronged or who have wronged us, it is vital that we see them as they truly are.

How many of us interact with people whom perhaps we cannot stand, who infuriate us? How many of us interact or have interacted with people to whom we can ascribe few if any positive characteristics? In how many of those instances is that because we have not looked for them? Some of us, in our present or our past, have been treated terribly badly and abused, wronged to the core. We all know of people whose actions are so terrible that we cannot even imagine that in such people good is to be found! Reb Nachman spoke of them as well:

Even the person you think (and they agree!) is completely rotten – how is it possible that at some time in this person’s life he or she has not done some good deed, some mitzvah? Your job is just to help him or her look for it, to seek it out, and then to judge that way. Then indeed you will “look at his place” and find that the wicked one is no longer there – not because he or she has died or disappeared – but because, with your help, that person will no longer be where you first saw them. By seeking out that bit of goodness you allowed teshuvah to take its course.

The important thing here is not that somehow suddenly the wicked person disappears or that they cease to be wicked, cease to be a bad person. Our tradition does not begin to say that. It takes effort to atone. What Nachman is saying is that they are able to move in a positive direction, away from complete wickedness in your mind and perhaps their own, to a place wherein some sort of teshuvah, some sore of improvement of their soul may BEGIN. As Reb Nachman put it, “you will “look at his place,” to quote from the Psalm, “and find that the wicked one is no longer THERE.” “THERE” is the operative word.

I would put this in a different way. I would say that our perception of the wicked person will have changed. We will see that person differently.

This is also important because how we perceive others affects how we view ourselves. If others can be totally wicked and have no chance of changing, “no help for them,” we say, might this be true for us? This understanding can lead us to depression and overpowering feelings of guilt and shame. Some of us here today may be in that emotional place.

Realize for a moment that if there is a glimmer of hope for the truly wicked, surely there is hope for us. If the wicked in whom we have difficulty finding goodness can change, how much the more so may we? This understanding on the other hand may lead us to a place of hope, a place of teshuvah.

Reb Nachman taught:

I know what happens when you start examining yourself. “No goodness at all!” you find. “Just full of sin.”…[Yet] You, too, must have done some good for someone sometime… [And Reb Nachman addresses the one who responds]“Even the good things I did were all for the wrong reasons. Impure motives! Lousy deeds!” “Then keep digging!” I tell you, “Keep digging, because somewhere inside that now-tarnished mitzvah, somewhere in it there was indeed a little bit of good.” That’s all you need to find: just the smallest bit: a dot of goodness. That should be enough to give you life, to bring you back to joy.

Challenge your assumptions about yourself! As children, we heard, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” It is time you listened to those words as an adult and to these as well, “I think I’m good. I think I’m good. I think I’m good.” Self doubt, self criticism, can amount to self harm if we do too much of it. If instead, we focus on seeking out the good, the hope, even just a little spark, we can begin to change for the better. When we examine ourselves this day and show ourselves that we are people in whom there is good, in whom there is hope, in whom there is courage; we can change our whole lives and bring ourselves to teshuvah.

Nachman tells us that it is the first note of goodness that is the hardest to find. I would add that it is the first bit of courage, the first bit of hope, the first glimmer of light. Once we find that first one, that first spark, the ones that follow are easier to find. He concludes his teaching on Teshuvah:

These little notes of goodness in yourself – after a while you will find that you can sing them and they become your niggun, the niggun you fashion by not letting yourself be pushed down, and by rescuing your own good spirit from all that darkness and depression. The niggun brings you back to life and then you can start to pray…

Shiru L’Adonai Shir Chadash. Sing a new song. I spoke of this last night in the words of Rav Kook. Many of us on occasion, if not often, have difficulty even singing our own song, much less that of our people, our community, humanity and our world. We have difficulty entering prayer. We have difficulty, on occasion, facing others, leaving the safety of our cocoon, even if it is dark and dreary. We may be afraid of how others see us because a part of us does not like what we see in ourselves.

None of us is evil through and through. None of us is without merit to some extent, even if it is buried deep within. Some of us just have a bit more difficulty seeing goodness in ourselves and in others. Our good friend, Peter Pintus, whose memory is with us this day, was NOT one of those people. Peter always saw the goodness in everyone, was always ready to see the good in people and ready to forgive. I shared this at Peter’s funeral service, but think it appropriate to share this day as well.

On the wall of Peter’s office at home was the following sign:

Dear Lord,

So far today, I’ve done alright. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or indulgent. I’m thankful for that…

But in a few minutes, Lord, I’m going to get out of bed and from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot of help.


It is statement of humility, a statement of frailty, a statement of understanding. We connect with this humorous passage because we all, at times, feel this way, feel like the only reason that we have not done wrong is because we have not yet begun. In some ways, this evening we will be like the man laying awake in bed praying to God. This evening, sins hopefully forgiven, we will have a clean slate. We will not yet have sinned this year. There is hope for a new beginning even if admittedly it is one in which we need a bit of help to stay on the right path.

On this, day and any other day, when we have difficulty finding the words or when there are no words to find, we can sing a wordless song, a niggun, a song of notes of hope, notes of goodness. Then, perhaps, we can move on to words, to sing the song of our own life and even to add new verses in joy.

On this, the holiest day of the Jewish year, the gates are open. The gates of repentance are open wide for us to enter. These gates are also the gates of hope for a new beginning, for a better life. These gates are the gates of teshuvah, of repentance, yes, but also of return to hope-filled life. These are the gates that are the entry way to seek forgiveness from God and also forgiveness from ourselves. These are the gates through which we may seek Shalom, wholeness and completion; the gates through which we may reinvigorate our spirits and repair our souls.

“Su Shearim. Open up, O gates!” May we enter and be welcomed in forgiveness, wholeness, and joy!

Gamar Hatimah Tovah! Good Yom Tov!

Kol Nidrei 5771 Connections: Reaching Beyond The Self


Tonight, we recited the words of Kol Nidrei. Its haunting melody reaches into our souls. Many times before, I have spoken about the Kol Nidrei. It originated as a legal formula designed to help Jews who were regularly forced to swear oaths against their will and also to aid Jews who, perhaps overcome with emotions, made vows that they could not or should not keep. I have also spoken in the past about how the inclusion of this prayer during High Holiday services became problematic. It was taken by those critical of Jews to mean that Jews were seeking to be absolved of any vows that they would make over the coming year so that they could later violate agreements and oaths made in courts and in business dealings. This became so troubling that Reform Jews removed the prayer entirely from our Yom Kippur services. The MUSIC without the words, the haunting melody alone, returned first, after World War I. Then congregations brought the words back. Can you imagine Kol Nidrei services without the Kol Nidrei? It returned by popular demand.

Connections. Many of you have attended our new Connections Services. Some attended this past Friday night and heard the simply spectacular music performed by Laura, Ira, and Sam, during the service. They sounded like they should go on tour together. If you were not there, you really missed something special.

I designed the Connections Services in such as way that those who attend would find the content of the services relevant to their lives. To be more accurate, I designed the content of the service booklets from which those in attendance pray and read only those portions of interest to them that night at that moment. The musical selections and passages are ones that evoke spiritual, emotional, and intellectual connections, speaking to each individual’s heart and mind.

The Kol Nidrei prayer is like that service. It speaks to each of us differently. Some of us think of vows that we made, but should not have. Some of us think of vows that we failed to keep, perhaps feeling a sense of remorse and expressing in our minds a desire to do better in the future. Some of us think, “How does this sound to someone who isn’t Jewish?” Others think, “How can I as a Jew say this?” And wonder why Reform Jews put it back into the prayer book. Some among us think of those Jews of generations past who were forced to convert at the point of the sword or the threat of the noose, and for whom the Kol Nidrei was prayer that they felt saved their Jewish souls. Many of us listen as it is sung, not merely to the words, but to layer upon layer of recitations from years gone by, intertwining the present and the past: seeing images, experiencing feelings, remembering. We listen to the words and remember the touch of a loved one who once sat beside us. We hear the haunting melody and experience so much more than its notes flowing from start to finish, so much more than a prayer about vows.

No few of us think of the fact that tonight Jews from all around the world celebrate in similar fashion, reciting prayers and songs in the language of our people and in the spirit of our ancestors. Some among our number see the Kol Nidrei prayer much more personally, as our own prayer, a prayer said from a place of hurt, a place of helplessness. It is the prayer of those who meant “No,” but were forced to say, “Yes.”

Some are unable to pray at all.

Rabbi Meshullam Feibush Heller, an 18th century Hasidic master, taught:

Even if at that moment we are not able to pray with full reverence and love of God, our words of prayer can still rise up to the degree that we have fully connected ourselves to others saying, “I now take on myself to fulfill the positive commandment of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Connections. Connecting yourself to others matters. You need not be able to think about understanding or reaching into the divine realm. To return for a moment to our thoughts about the Kol Nidrei, you need not think of the prayer in its relation to your own life, helping you to seek forgiveness from God. Instead You may think about what the prayer means to people around you or even to others in the broader community. What might this melody and these words mean to someone who was forced against his or her will to do something that has caused them emotional pain? What might this prayer mean to someone fearful of being a Jew, perhaps rightfully so, who is forced to pretend that they are of another faith?

The Kol Nidrei takes on a new life, new meaning. If we think not only of ourselves, but of others, we gain a whole new perspective on our prayers, on our relationship to our tradition, and on our relationship to God. To that extent, Rabbi Heller continued:

In truth, I learned this from R. Yehiel Michel of Zlotzhov who said, “Before I pray I connect myself with all Jews, both great and small. The reason that I connect with those greater than I is so that, they can help raise me up. And I connect with those lesser than I so that I can raise them up.”

Those greater are those whom we wish to emulate, who set an example for us. Thinking of them, we strive to be better people. Those lesser are those whom would be happy to live our lives, whose challenges are great. They would gladly exchange what they have for what we have. Thinking of them helps us to realize the blessings that we have in our lives and to encourage us to help improve the lot of others. These are vital lessons for us as we perform Heshbon Nefesh, an accounting of our lives as they are today, as we stand before God. But, Rabbi Michel’s statement goes beyond that kind of thinking.

He implies that the very act of connecting ourselves to others in thought can not only help us to elevate ourselves but that it can help us to raise others up as well. One could consider this totally in the spiritual realm, imagining that our thoughts literally lift others. Or one could look upon it in a more practical way. Our thoughts impact how we see the world and therefore how we act in relation to it. If we see ourselves in relation to others, we are more likely to strive to be better and more likely to aid others in bettering themselves.

Rabbi Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, before the nation of Israel was created, offered a wonderful teaching about connecting oneself to others in the context of song. I would like to share his words with you today with the slight modification of making them egalitarian.

There is one who sings the song of his or her own life, and in it he or she finds everything, full spiritual satisfaction.

There is another who sings the song of the people. One who leaves the circle of the individual self, because it is without sufficient breadth, without an idealistic basis. One who aspires towards the heights, and attaches with a gentle love to the whole community of Israel. Together with the whole community one who sings the people’s songs, feels grieved by the people’s afflictions, and delights in the people’s hopes. One who contemplates noble and pure thoughts about the people’s future and probes with love and wisdom the people’s inner spiritual essence.

There is another who reaches toward more distant realms, and goes beyond the boundary of Israel to sing the song of humanity. This one’s spirit extends to the wider vistas of the majesty of humanity generally, and humankind’s noble essence. He or she aspires towards humanity’s general goal and looks forward to higher perfection. From this source of life this one draws the subjects of meditation and study, aspirations and visions.

Then there is one who rises toward wider horizons, until linking self with all existence, with all God's creatures, with all worlds. This one sings his or her song with all of them. It is of one such as this that tradition has said that whoever sings a portion of song each day is assured of having a share in the world to come.

And then there is one who rises with all these songs in one ensemble, and they all join voices. Together they sing their songs with beauty, each one lends vitality and life to the other. They are sounds of joy and gladness, sounds of jubilation and celebration, sounds of ecstasy and holiness.

The song of the self, the song of the people, the song of humanity, the song of the world all merge in this one at all times, in every hour.

And this full comprehension rises to become the song of holiness, the song of God, the song of Israel, in its full strength and beauty, in its full authenticity and greatness.

Rabbi Kook implies that for thoughts and prayers, for singing the songs, we will be rewarded in the world to come. While I believe that he is correct in his assertion that it is important for us to broaden our thinking beyond ourselves, I would also argue that actions speak louder than words. To pray and sing about helping others pales by comparison to actually helping others. If our thoughts and words remind us to consider others, that is good. But if they fail to motivate us to act, that is not good enough. Our thoughts, our prayers, our songs must inspire us to action.

One of the greatest orators in American history was a man of faith. He certainly sung the songs of his people and of humanity. Martin Luther King Jr. did more than simply urge people to thought, to prayer, and to song. He urged them to make the concepts of their faith and those found in the songs sung in freedom’s name real.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

New meaning. A new connection. It is important to connect thoughts and hopes to deeds, to put prayers into action. Even if we believe with the utmost devotion that our prayers will reach into the heavens and that God will respond, we cannot consider ourselves as having helped ourselves or those in need until we act to help. Martin Buber taught that:

When people come to you for help, do not turn them off with pious words, saying: ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God!’ Act instead as if there were no God, as though there were only one person in all-the-world who could help—only yourself.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I spoke of seeing the bigger picture, of looking beyond our own life, to the world around us. Now, our challenge is to connect to the broader world, to act with knowledge of our place in relation to that which is beyond the self. On this Erev Yom Kippur—this night in which Jews throughout the world and Jews throughout history are connected, this night on which we say the words of the Kol Nidrei prayer, seeking forgiveness from God for not fulfilling vows—let us utter new ones, ones that we intend to keep.

It is customary to sing Psalm 96 on Shabbat. The psalm directs us to praise God, to sing of God’s salvation and to remember God’s deeds. The first three verses of the psalm are:

1 Sing unto Adonai a new song;
sing unto Adonai, all the earth.

2 Sing unto Adonai, praise God’s name;
proclaim God’s salvation day after day.

3 Declare God’s glory among the nations,
God’s marvelous deeds among all peoples.

Shiru L’adonai, Shir Chadash.

In the coming year, may we sing a new song. In the context of Rav Kook’s words, may it be:

A song of others and not only of ourselves,

A song of our community and not only of our family,

A song of our people and not only of our community,

A song of our world and not only our people,

A song of how we can make this world a better place.

May we not simply return to this place next year having thought vain thoughts, spoken empty words, and uttered empty prayers, only to atone for failing to fulfill our promises.

May the songs we sing in our hearts be ones that inspires us to act and may next Kol Nidrei, as we hear the melody and the words of the prayer, as we recite it ourselves thinking of all of those promises we did not fulfill, let us smile just a bit on account of one that we did fulfill. A new promise, a new hope, a new song: one that inspires us to dance.

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health and happiness, of blessings and of sharing blessings.

Shabbat Shalom and Gamar Hatimah Tovah.

[Sing Shiru L’adonai Shir Chadash]

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Self Centered Thinking - Rabbi Kaufman Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

This sermon was delivered during the 11:30 am Rosh Hashanah morning service on September 9, 2010 at Temple B'nai Jeshurun. The text of the sermon is found in a separate posting on this blog.

Sorry about the poor quality of the video. It is blown up from the general service footage.

Monday, September 13, 2010

RH Morning Self Centered Thinking: Challenging Our Assumptions

Self Centered Thinking: Challenging Our Assumptions

There are many interpretations of the story of the Binding of Isaac. No few of those interpretations involve Abraham’s thought process. How could Abraham go through with the action demanded of him? What was he thinking as he went about his task?

I have spoken in previous years about my interpretation of the story, of my questioning whether or not Abraham was tested by God or simply proving himself a proper father in his time and culture, only to find that being different, not following the convention of sacrificing the firstborn, was his true path.

This morning I would like to offer another explanation of the story and a lesson or two, more in keeping with the traditional interpretation of the story. First, let me share another story with you, a poem by Valerie Cox, which will put my own drash into context. The story is called, “The Cookie Thief.”

The Cookie Thief – By Valerie Cox

A woman was waiting at an airport one night
With several long hours before her flight
She hunted for a book in the airport shop
Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop

She was engrossed in her book but happened to see
That the man beside her as bold as could be
Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag between
Which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene

She munched cookies and watched the clock
As this gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by
Thinking "If I wasn't so nice I'd blacken his eye"

With each cookie she took he took one too
And when only one was left she wondered what he'd do
With a smile on his face and a nervous laugh
He took the last cookie and broke it in half
He offered her half as he ate the other
She snatched it from him and thought "Oh brother
This guy has some nerve and he's also rude
Why he didn't even show any gratitude"

She had never known when she had been so galled
And sighed with relief when her flight was called
She gathered her belongings and headed for the gate
Refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate

She boarded the plane and sank in her seat
Then sought her book which was almost complete
As she reached in her baggage she gasped with surprise
There was her bag of cookies in front of her eyes

"If mine are here" she moaned with despair
"Then the others were his and he tried to share"
"Too late to apologize” she realized with grief
That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief

So why THIS story? First, it is a story to which all of us may connect. Have any of us never made a false assumption about another and been angry at them because of it? All of us have made false accusations even if only in our hearts. Perhaps, we have taken things a step or two beyond the theft of a few cookies. We may have spoken ill of another. We may have wrongly accused in public or even taken action against an innocent person. As parents, we may have punished an innocent child. Certainly, all children have felt unduly punished at some point in their lives.

How many of us have suspected innocent others, possibly even friends, of spreading gossip about us? We must make assumptions to live our lives effectively. Imagine having to treat every encounter without calling upon our past experiences and making assumptions about what is going on in the present? Yet sometimes we do not make correct assumptions in spite of our best efforts. We simply do not have all of the information.

Another reason why this story is good is because it demonstrates one of the themes of the High Holidays, right and wrong conduct. Until the end of the story, the woman assumes that the man’s conduct was wrong, that he was stealing HER cookies. Yet, angry though she was, she did share reluctantly and she did not act upon her anger. How much more embarrassed, how much more distressed would she have been, if she had spoken aloud of her distress? Imagine if she had yelled at this man? Perhaps, called security? So she was not entirely in the wrong. She did restrain herself. Her assumptions were wrong, her thought process was wrong. In many ways her conduct was not. But now, look at the man’s actions.

He sat beside a woman who greedily took his cookies without asking. Yet he shared willingly and even split the last cookie, laughing, enjoying the moment shared by the two. He seems to have seen her not as thief, but as fellow hungry traveler or perhaps as an overt flirt, taking her action totally out of its context. That is, perhaps, until she left without saying thanks or better yet, apologizing. Certainly, this last action caused some dismay and even hurt.

On this Rosh Hashanah, how do we atone for such actions? How do we atone for making false assumptions and acting upon them? This leads me to the third reason that this story is a good one for today.

It is a story about sin and atonement. The woman in the story commits two sins for which she would like to atone. As she felt that the man was stealing from her, surely later on she felt that she had stolen from HIM in spite of the fact that he seemed to enjoy sharing his cookies with her. Yet the second sin, that of making false assumptions trumped the first one. This is a good example of a time when there are greater sins than the violation of even one of the Ten Commandments. Taking the cookies, stealing, paled as a violation in comparison with her conduct at the end.

Her feelings, as well as his most likely, about the fact that she acted rudely and ungraciously when she left were strong. Clearly the man had not held HER to be a thief, not been upset about her taking some of his cookies, but perhaps even had been flirting with her: smiling, laughing, and sharing. The woman’s realization came too late for her to act as she knew she should have, as she would have wanted to act had she had the correct information. She may have caused pain to this nice man, a man who was willing to share what she was NOT willing to share. That thought brought her the most grief.

Next week, on Yom Kippur morning, we will read the words of the Al Heit prayer acknowledging our sins. Among the words we will say are these, “For passing judgment without knowledge of the facts and for distorting facts to fit our theories.” Al heit shehatanu. Perhaps we have not stolen cookies from a fellow traveler, but we have all assessed situations and actions incorrectly at times. So rabbi, why read this on Rosh Hashanah and not on Yom Kippur? That brings me to the final reason why I shared this story with you today.

It is a story that progresses from assumptions to awareness. Throughout the story, the woman was under a false set of assumptions that were altered suddenly. It is here that our Cookie Thief meets Avraham Avinu and why I feel that this story not only connects to the themes of the High Holidays, but to the story of the Binding of Isaac directly.

The story of the Binding of Isaac is full of assumptions that drive the action. At the start God asks Abraham to take his beloved son to Mount Moriah. Our story tells us and Abraham clearly hears, “Yaalehu sham,” “Offer him up.” Yet, there is a second theme running through the story in which God’s intention is clearly NOT for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but for him to sacrifice a ram. Interestingly, this is also Isaac’s assumption up until the point when Abraham binds him. Let’s look at the story.

Abraham assumes that he is supposed to sacrifice Isaac and throughout the story his thought process is directed at that goal, including misrepresenting the situation to his son and his servants. Isaac goes along with his father even inquiring about the ram for the sacrifice as they headed up the hill.

Isaac was like the man in the story, accommodating his father, while not understanding the nature of his thoughts and actions. He did not believe them to be malicious. Isaac assumed that his father was going to sacrifice a ram. Why would he assume otherwise?

Abraham even indicated to Isaac that they were sharing the same assumption, saying that “God will provide for the lamb, my son.” The two of them walked together. They shared.

Then on Mount Moriah, Abraham suddenly abandoned any attempt to maintain the shared assumption. He bound Isaac. It was suddenly revealed to Isaac that they did not hold the SAME assumptions. They were NOT sharing an effort to offer a sacrifice to God as Isaac had assumed. Just as the man, abandoned rudely by the woman abruptly leaving for her flight, realized that she did not hold the same assumptions about the sharing of the cookies that he held.

In the story of the Binding of Isaac, of course, an angel steps in and stays Abraham’s hand. Then Abraham looks up and sees a ram.

Think about this from Isaac’s point of view for a moment. He assumed throughout most of the story that the intention of his father was the same as his, to sacrifice an animal to God on Mount Moriah. Suddenly his father’s intentions were revealed as totally other, to sacrifice HIM! Then just as suddenly a ram appeared and the original assumption was proven correct.

I am not going to tell you that the story is a perfect fit. Most certainly, it is not. The character of the woman in The Cookie Thief does not align perfectly with either Abraham’s or Isaac’s characters. But the story might as a whole. It ends with the realization that the original assumption, the one guiding the narrative of the story is wrong. In the case of the Akeidah, it seems that God intended for Abraham ultimately to sacrifice a ram. Tradition certainly believes that God has a plan and God’s plan was not for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I am not about to tell you that this explanation touches on all of the concerns in the narrative or the rabbinical traditions about it. It is a modern drash, a modern interpretation, but it does connect. In both stories, at the conclusion, the characters are aware of truths that eluded them at the start but which proved vital to understanding the events as they unfolded.

What does this teach us?

Throughout most the Jewish year, it may be no problem for us to go about our way viewing our world as if the sun circled our earth, as if the planets and stars revolved around us to please us. No snickering at those who are sitting beside you this morning or standing upon this bimah, please! Okay, a little.

We all do this on occasion, or even frequently—but TODAY, this time of year, when we take an accounting of our souls, a Heshbon Nefesh, we need to look at ourselves from outside of ourselves as well as from within. We need to try to see the big picture, how we fit into the world that we affect and that affects us. We need to look around for rams in the thicket, to check to see if perhaps our bag of cookies was somewhere other than where we thought we had placed it. We need to question our assumptions. Not only should we be willing to find the ram should we stumble upon one, but we should look for it. We should look for those things that run contrary to what we think of ourselves and our world.

Bonnell Thornton, an 18th Century English essayist and critic, said, “Some often repent, yet never reform; they resemble a man traveling in a dangerous path, who frequently starts and stops, but never turns back.” Without Heshbon Nefesh, without looking at the paths we are on, seeing from where we have come and looking in the direction we are headed, we may make the wrong decisions blindly. We may not know that there are alternatives or that proceeding with our plans is worse than turning back. We may simply repeat our errors, our sins, having to atone again and again or we may amplify our errors and commit worse sins. Making atonement without having performed Heshbon Nefesh, we may well never change our ways because we do not truly understand where we are or to where we are going.

Heshbon Nefesh requires us to ask ourselves: Are we being the best spouse, partner, father, mother, son, daughter, friend that we can be? Are we being the best person for ourselves and for others that we can be? Is our perception of our world accurate? Are we holding ourselves or others in our lives accountable for what is truly going on? That is our first job during the High Holidays, one that must be accomplished before we can consider atonement. We must perform Heshbon Nefesh, taking a step back and trying to perceive our lives as they truly are.

Then, and only then, may we begin to talk of teshuvah, of repentance, of repairing what is wrong in our lives or perhaps choosing an entirely new path for our lives. Then, and only then, are we truly entitled to criticize, because only then, having seen ourselves from without, may we properly act from within. Then, and only then, when we are sure of where we are, will we have the ability to choose to change the direction of our lives.

Hopefully, we will not need an angel to descend from the heavens shouting our name, not once, but twice, to make us lift up our eyes and see what was hidden, to see the ram in the thicket. Shanah Tovah.

Erev RH 5771 Living with Change: Chaos and Creation

Living with Change: Chaos and Creation

Mason Cooley, an author well known for his witty statements, said of the process of Creation, “No chaos, no creation. Evidence: the kitchen at mealtime.”

There has certainly been no end of chaos and creation in our people’s history and it has not always been a pretty process, even if at the end of the day, we, like God in the creation story, can say, “It is good.” Many of our stories are full of chaos and change. The narrative of the Creation of the world which begins with “Tohu and Vohu,” the formless chaos, is only the first. Then Adam and Eve are expelled from Gan Eden, more chaos. Then, the flood story, a narrative of both chaos, the flood itself with its disorganized disintegration of the world, and order, Noah’s creation of an ark filled with an orderly array of animals who eventually help recreate the world. Even the stories of the Patriarchs are full of chaos that leads to creation.

Abraham is told “Lekh Lekha,” “Go forth,” to leave his well-ordered life for a new chaotic one. As someone, who along with his wife recently traveled across country with three children in a minivan and experienced the chaos that is a modern road trip, I can hardly imagine what the migration of Abraham’s entire household would have been like! Then there is the story of Joseph, our people’s eventual servitude in Egypt, and the Exodus.

Is there a story better suited to explaining the difficulties and chaos of change than the Exodus narrative? Three children complaining every few minutes about when we were to arrive on our journey cannot be compared with forty years of hearing the cries of tens of thousands.

Moshe, are we there yet? I’m thirsty!

I’m hungry! Manna again??? Don’t they have a McDavid’s in this Wilderness?

Which desert are we in now? Look children, we just crossed over a Wadi!

How many more years until we get there?

Why couldn’t God have given us a GPS at Sinai and granted us the Ten Commandments when we get to Jerusalem???

Over and over again, even in more modern times, beginning with the destruction of the Second Temple until the modern day, the number of times our people has faced radical changes is incalculable. We have faced difficult times, difficult circumstances filled with strong emotions, too many difficult journeys. Yet, creation always followed destruction and exile. Hope sprung forth from even the deepest despair.

There are more than a few jokes about the choice of the Jewish people as God’s chosen coming up for renewal! Oy, our aching backs! Standing up for principles and values that others do not share can be difficult and it has been difficult for our people throughout the ages. The burden has been great. Yet, because the Jews of old upheld them, the values and principles of Judaism were there when later generations needed them. The Torah, the Prophets, the Psalms, the prayers and the stories have served as anchors amid the stormiest of seas in our people’s history.

Concerning that point, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:

There ‘s a view—I hear it in the media almost every day—that in an age like ours, of unprecedented change, our values, too, must change. Forget marriage and the stable family; forget virtues like honour, fidelity, civility, restraint; above all, forget religion. They’re old; they’re past their sell-by date. For heaven’s sake, aren’t we living in the twenty-first century?

It’s a view that couldn’t be more wrong. It’s when the winds blow the hardest that you need the deepest roots. When you’re entering uncharted territory, it’s then that you need a compass to give you a sense of direction. What gives us the strength to cope with change are the things that don’t change—a loving family, a supportive community, and the religious texts that preserve the wisdom of the past.

Now, I must say that Rabbi Sacks is the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Britain and that I would demand that some changes occur because of our changed sensibilities. That is what Reform Judaism is all about, adapting to the modern world. For example, Reform Judaism removed most of the references to chosen-ness from our liturgy. Why? Because we believe that we have chosen to take on the commandments and the mitzvot, not that God has forced US to adhere to them because our ancestors were chosen. And we removed that chosen-ness language because we believe that people of other faiths are equally “chosen” if that term means that they are considered by God for their action and inaction, their good deeds and their misdeeds, for blessing. There are a multitude of other examples of how having changed sensibilities has affected the kind of Judaism that we practice compared with the Orthodox, including the role of women in Jewish religious life.

Yet, while we would certainly differ on the specific values and practices from ancient times that should be maintained in spite of modernity along with those changed sensibilities, we do agree that some things too easily abandoned in the modern age are essential when we face chaos and trouble in our lives. Among them are the importance of prayer and a faith community.

One of those times of chaos and trouble that is most memorable to us occurred nine years ago, this weekend. Shabbat Shuva, this Saturday, is September 11. September 11, 2001 brought chaos to our lives and to much of the world.

I remember how I felt that day, the profound lack of feeling at times, a sense of shock, of total disconnect from reality—followed swiftly by a sense of profound loss, of terrible sadness, of anger, of rage—of fear, of helplessness, of a desire to hide and yet a desire to be around others. I remembered praying and praying.

We organized a service that night for the community. Not all of the congregations participated. Some congregations closed their doors in fear. I felt, and others did as well, that people needed support. They needed open doors. So, along with a rabbi at one of the larger congregations, I planned a service for that evening. Hundreds of people attended. We hugged. We cried. We offered prayers of healing and prayers of mourning. We asked for peace, even as anger welled up within us. And we sang Oseh Shalom with tears in our eyes.

Religious leaders throughout the Western world noted a dramatic increase in attendance at services for weeks after the event. People turned to religion. They sought spiritual support. Jews found support in prayers and songs of peace, in the Mourner’s Kaddish and prayers for healing, but also in the action of coming together as a community in support of those in need in our congregations even as we offered prayers for those around the world. Within a few weeks, certainly within a few months in most places, as the intense emotions of the crisis lessened and lives returned to normal, so did attendance at religious services.

Often it is far easier to recognize that religion; that the practices of faith and spirituality can play a role when the entire world is in chaos than it is to recognize that they can be of help when our own personal world is turned upside down. It is even more difficult for those who have not already made use of spiritual practices and the support of a faith community to perceive the ways in which they may aid, not only in the aftermath of traumatic events in our lives, but in preparing for the possibility of their occurrence. The practices of faith and spirituality can help a great deal.

Chaos may arrive suddenly in our lives in our doctor’s office, on the phone, through the mail, by email or even by text message. We may find out that the way that our lives have been conducted will dramatically change. We or our loved ones become ill. We may find ourselves caring for an ill loved one in our midst, radically altering our daily routine. Those who have been the pillars upon which our lives have been constructed may die or perhaps choose to leave us through divorce. We may find ourselves or our partners without jobs or without healthcare. Even when changes are due to our own choices, they are not necessarily devoid of significant stress, such as a decision to change careers, go back to school, or move to a different city or even into a new house around the block.

This past year, brought with it some significant changes to our lives and the life of our congregation. As Laura and I worked in preparation for this year’s High Holiday services, no few times did we find notes reminding us of what Peter Pintus was to do in our services. No few times did those little reminders, those sticky notes bearing his name, trigger other memories, drawing a tear or two, or a smile as we remembered a bit of humor from days past.

Just as Peter is greatly missed, so are the many others whom we as a community and we as individuals have lost in the past year and in past years. If we close our eyes, we can imagine them sitting or standing beside us. They are still a part of our lives. Their memory lives on. The Greek philosopher Pericles (5th Century BCE) said long ago, words that ring true today, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Next week in the Memorial Service we will read the words of Herbert Louis Samuel:

If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others—could the answer be in doubt?

Life challenges us to take tohu and vohu, the stuff of formless chaos, and to make something of it, even from the darkest depths of chaos; to take that and to create. From there may arise new hopes, new ideas, new achievements. But also new loves, perhaps, new friends, new joys, a new and different kind of happiness.

The new may not be like the old at all. What brought chaos into our lives, may have brought with it sadness, anger, or darkness. Our world changes, our lives change, and those changes can shake us to the core. But life teaches us that with every Fall and Winter comes Spring and Summer. Life teaches us that every night is followed by dawn. No year, no season, no day is exactly the same as the last. Some are certainly worse than others. Yet every new year, every new season, every new day we have the opportunity to the rebirth of our souls, to elevate our spirits.

Every dawn brings the first day of the rest of our lives. Every High Holidays brings us the chance for Teshuva, turning, repentance, a new way. We always have the chance to change, to make ourselves better people, to brighten the lives of others as well as our own, but this time of year, the Jewish Tradition urges us to act with urgency.

I began this talk with a joke about creation and the kitchen, that creation and chaos go hand in hand. But I did not use that quote simply to make THAT point. When we make things in the kitchen, we must use what we have on hand. Sometimes, we have to compensate when we lack ingredients. Sometimes, we try new things because what we intended to make cannot be made with what we have. Sometimes, our substitutions do not work very well…or at all. Other times, we may discover something wonderful. Along this line, there is a joke about God’s creation of mankind. The following is my own family friendly version.

The angels asked God, “Almighty Master of the Universe, Architect of Creation, human beings are so problematic. They seem to have so many faults. Yet You, Master of Perfection, fashioned them with Your own hands! What happened?”

God replied, “Well—first, I took from the formless stuff of creation and made day and night, the heavens, sun, moon, stars and the earth. That took up a lot of the materials. The Then I made the plants and then the fish, the birds, the insects and the animals. That took almost all of the rest. For the platypus, I had to use spare parts! A duck’s bill and webbed feet, a beaver’s body… You’ve seen the platypus, right? So I was already stretching.

Now, there wasn’t much left of the good stuff to use, so I had to make do when I made human beings. I used what I had left and threw in a good bit of water to make it all hold together. But don’t tell the people, they all think they’re perfect!”

Our Tradition teaches us, and we are reminded during the High Holidays in particular, that though we are told the world was created for our sake, our origin is dust. We are not to think of ourselves as made of exceptional stuff.

Dust. We are of dust. Dust with a soul. Dust imbued with the breath of life. Dust, nonetheless. We are to be humble, to understand that we are not perfect, even though we are created in God’s image. But though we are to remember that we are of mere dust, we are to strive to be better, to change ourselves if we can, to strive toward holiness for ourselves and for others. When God, or life, calls us to change, when God says “Lekh Lekha,” “depart,” “change,” even though it may be very difficult, we must go. When chaos enters our lives, we must work with what we have to create anew. May Judaism—the Torah, the Prophets, the Psalms, the prayers, the songs and the stories, the teachings of the rabbis, the support of our congregation and community, faith in God and the elevation of spirit—help us along the way.

As we create, may we work to make our lives in the image we desire. And when we have finished, may we look back upon what we have created and say, “Y’hi Tov,” “It is good.”

L’shanah Tovah!