Friday, September 22, 2017

Hineni – Here, I am – Rosh Hashanah 5778 2017

In every generation, there are monumental events for which those aware of the events at the time can remember where we were, what we were doing, and whom we were with.

I remember where I was when the news broke about Ronald Reagan being shot in 1981. I was with my friend, Dan, at his house in his basement. We were playing with Star Wars toys.

I remember where I was when I heard that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Just leaving the barbershop. I can remember with clarity hearing the words repeated over and over again in the news, “Challenger, go at throttle up.”

I remember September 11, 2001 in vivid detail. I remember feeling like another attack could happen at any moment, perhaps right where I was, wherever I was at the time. And I can still hear Rabbi Robert Jacobs, the longtime rabbi of Washington University Hillel, at 93 years old, standing before the gathered crowd at a vigil that evening, saying in a defiant voice, “We are at war.”

We remember what we did during floods, hurricanes, snowfalls and tornados.

We also creatively remember, with a bit of embellishment as the years go by, our connection to other events. Some 400,000 people attended Woodstock in 1969. Some of them have no memory of being there… But many more tell stories about what might have been true. The same happens with sporting events.

When an event is momentous, it is not unlikely that people will seek to remember themselves being a part of it, for good or bad.

Sometimes, we only see ourselves as spectators, watching what is happening around us, seeing ourselves as apart from the entertainers, actors, or players. We’re just attendees or people who were impacted by events.

At other times, we feel like we’re a part of the events. We see ourselves not as watching a team, but as being a part of the team. We don’t say, our city’s players won or our university’s team won. We say, “We won,” even if we have nothing to do with what the team actually did during the event. To an extent, we realize that, as a fan, the team only represents the city or university, and not necessarily us as individuals, even if we’re connected to them, but we often feel like they do represent us.

Sometimes fans can be more heavily involved with what happens on the field than the players are. They players are playing a game. For some fans, it’s their life. When the team wins, the fans are happy. When they suffer a crushing defeat, the fans feel crushed themselves. There is a lengthy history of studies of how positive and negative results of sporting events affect the family dynamics of fans, from spikes in police reports of abusive behavior to significant increases in births about 40 weeks later.

This isn’t only the case when we’re watching sporting events. It can happen when we watch a good movie or TV show or read a well written book. We enter the world with which we’re interacting. It can feel like we’re really there and our laughter, our tears, our sighs of relief, our hopes and fears about events on the screen or in the pages may be as real as they would be if the events were happening around us in real life.

For the Jewish tradition, there isn’t a line between what we read about and what we experience and have experienced. Our tradition teaches us that when we talk about events in ages long past, that they happened to us and are happening to us.

Judaism believes in timelessness. In our prayers for Chanukah, we thank God for the miracles performed for us “Bayom hahu b’zman hazeh.” Sometimes translated, “At that time, in this season.” But the words could easily mean, “In those days, in this time.” Meaning, at all times, then and now.

In our Torah portion for Yom Kippur, we are told “Atem Nitzavim,” that we are standing before God. It isn’t that we read about what the Torah tells us happened in ancient times to our ancestors. The Tradition tells us that we, all of us, our souls, not only those of our ancestors, were in fact standing at Sinai. On Yom Kippur, we are reenacting the event, once again coming before God.
In other stories, we seem to be more like observers. This morning, we read the story of the Binding of Isaac. We are not Abraham, feeling called to sacrifice his child. We are not Isaac, going along with his father, questioning but never really challenging. We are not the angel who stayed Abraham’s hand, though in the sense that we’re rooting for a character like we do when we’re watching a movie or reading a book, we’re certainly on the side of the angel, wanting to reach out our hand to stay the knife.

It is somewhat difficult to see ourselves in many of the stories in the book of Genesis. I don’t mean that we can’t identify with aspects of the stories. We certainly can identify with sibling rivalry, with infertility issues, with fears and hopes. But we are not those characters.

Where we most closely identify, perhaps, is in a word, “Hineini.”

The rabbis present Hineini as if it is a response of enthusiasm. “Bring it on!” “Let’s go!” “I’m ready, able, and willing!”

But it may also be a term of inevitability, of acceptance.

When God calls, when the universe drops something into our lap, we cannot hide, we cannot escape. Hineini may be a response offered by someone called upon without the choice to respond other than by acceptance and giving it their best.

It’s the response of the people of St. Thomas, not even having remotely recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Irma, hearing that Hurricane Maria was on the way. “Hineini.”

In our Torah portion, divine beings call out to Abraham twice, once to announce the test and again when the angel wishes to stay his hand as Abraham was about to proceed. Abraham complies each time.

The first “Hineini” was perhaps an “I have to do what???”
The second, asked by Isaac where the lamb for the sacrifice was, this time, “Hin’ni, B’ni,” was perhaps a “Have faith.” And the final one, the one after the angel of God calls to stay his hand, might well have been a “What now???” Abraham did not yet know that he was being given a reprieve.

In regard to Jacob, in Genesis 46 that:

God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!”
“Hineini,” “Here I am,” he replied.
“I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”

And in regard to Moses, in Exodus 3:

When Adonai saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Hineini,” “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
Adonai said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

God calls, Jacob and Moses respond, “Hineini,” “Here, I am.” It seems to be an acknowledgement that a task that must be performed is forthcoming. MUST. That seems to be the real issue. “Hineini” seems to be the response offered by someone who realizes that though they may be afraid, though the task may be daunting, though he or she may feel unworthy to even make an attempt, they need to accept the challenge before them.

We see in the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, not only a man no doubt awed and frightened by the flames before him and the voice of God seemingly coming from within them, but faced with a tremendous task, going to speak to Pharaoh, and not feeling up to the challenge. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

We also have a story that we read on Yom Kippur in which the main character, the one to whom God reaches out, doesn’t respond “Hineini,” “Here, I am,” but instead runs away. The point of the story of Jonah, beyond the idea that God is willing to forgive those who seek forgiveness, the people of Ninevah, is that from certain responsibilities, when God calls upon you, when life drops something difficult or challenging that you must face into your life, you cannot run away. You choice is in how you say, “Hineini,” “Here, I am,” or perhaps, “I guess, I’m ready enough. I need to be.”

There is a prayer said by the leader, usually the rabbi, on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, called “Hin’ni.” The Rabbi comes before the open ark near the beginning of the service and confesses, “Here I am, so poor in deeds, I tremble in fear, overwhelmed and apprehensive before You, to whom Israel sings praise. Although unworthy, I rise to pray and seek favor for Your people Israel.”

The prayer is an acknowledgement that no leader, no rabbi, is good enough, has done well enough, has accomplished enough, to truly deserve the task of speaking on behalf of the community. We are all like Moses, trembling before the Burning Bush and asking, “Who am I to take on this task?” with the certainty, not the doubt, but the certainty, that we are flawed ourselves and the challenge is a daunting one.

And so today again, “Hineini.” Here I am. “Hineinu,” Here we are.

During the High Holidays, we are not spectators. Our souls are once again wandering through a wilderness. Before us is a burning bush with a directive to move forward in the direction that we must go for ourselves, for our families, for the broader Jewish community, for the Jewish people. But the message isn’t for the whole community, nor is it just for its leader. It is for each of us individually.

We each have our own journeys. We each have our own challenges.

Some of us woke up one morning and life called upon us to face a challenge, perhaps several of them, perhaps on several mornings. Some of those challenges may have been relatively minor. Others may seem impossible for us to meet or as with Abraham’s test, ones we are loathe to face.

There are times in our lives when we’re given a choice of whether to move on or to remain, to make a change or leave things as they are. Sometimes, we have only the choice of how to deal with new circumstances and challenges.

Today, the great shofar has been sounded.
We are called to awaken.
We are called to take on our tasks, to face our challenges, to return ourselves again to paths of righteousness.

May we be prepared to do the hard work, to go on the journey that lies ahead.
And may we find the strength and courage within us to keep going as best we can.

Today, may our response be “Hineini,” “Here, I am.”

L’shanah Tovah

The Three Advisers – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778 2017

This is a time of considering what should be our priorities in life and being mindful of how well we have been acting in relation to them.

What should fill our lives? What actually does fill them?
If we imagine our lives as a home, what would we like to fill it?

Let me begin with my version of a classic Jewish tale:

Once there was an old, wise, and prudent king who had no children. As the king grew older, he decided it was time to confer his kingdom upon one of his loyal advisors. So he called to them and said, “I am getting older my friends. Soon, I will pass away. But before I die, I will anoint one of you to be the next ruler. I know that all of you are good people, so I am going to give you a test: I will give each of you four gold coins to take to the market to bring back things that will fill my house with beauty and make it a nicer place to live.” He told them to come back the next day with what they had found.

The three advisers went to the marketplace. It was full of all kinds of things that were interesting and beautiful. The smells of delicious baked goods filled the air. You could find anything you needed or wanted.

The first advisor was a big fan of rugs. All he could think about when he received the assignment was finding the best ones. He glanced at the rugs in the market that day. He thought they were very beautiful and of how nice it would be to be able to stand on one of them instead of upon the cold stone floors of the castle. The rugs were useful and beautiful—but also expensive. He could only buy a couple at most. Yet, the task was to help to fill the house with beauty and make it a better place to live. The rugs would be a good start.

The second advisor slowly wandered through the market. He was becoming very discouraged. He thought about buying rugs too, to help with those cold castle floors, but saw another advisor doing that. Perhaps, some nice furniture? If he got a chair that was too small, it wouldn’t work. If he got one that was too big, the king might even be insulted. Could he find the Goldilocks chair?
He imagined an embarrassed and angry king stuck in his chair. Perhaps, I should not get something that would go on the floor? Then he saw a large and wonderfully beautiful tapestry that could be hung on one of the walls. It would not fill the whole house with beauty, but it would help.

The third advisor was contemplative. She walked around the marketplace all day, looking and looking. Once she stopped to help a lost little girl find her mother. Another time she helped an old woman load her donkey with bundles of firewood. She talked with the shoppers and laughed with the children playing games. But her search for something that could fill the King’s house with beauty and make it a nicer place to live seemed in vain. She had almost given up finding anything. It was getting dark and the market was closing.

And as she passed a small shop for the last time, she saw exactly what she needed! “Why didn’t I think of that before?” she said out loud.

The first advisor, arriving early the next morning, brought in the gorgeous rugs. They brought beauty to two of the rooms. “Those rugs are quite a nice addition to the castle,” said the king.

The second advisor, arrived shortly after lunch. He brought in the work of art, a tapestry of the setting sun that would hang on the wall of the entry hall. “Amazing details,” said the king. “Again a nice addition.”

Standing on the rugs helped to take a bit of the chill away. The tapestry of the setting sun brought a bit of color, when the light shone through the windows, but as the light was fading outside, it was becoming difficult to see.

Finally, as it was becoming dark, the third advisor came in. In each room of the house she set out candles which she lit. A soft, warm glow filled the corners and hallways. Everyone began chatting amiably as they busied themselves around the house, for the light had chased away the shadows. Now, you could see the tapestry and the rugs. She put wood into all of the fireplaces and heated the whole house. While she was going about her work, she sang a beautiful song. As she sang, other people came to the house and joined their voices with hers.

The king sighed a happy sigh and smiled with contentment. He knew that he had found his successor, the woman who had filled the castle with light, with warmth, with the beauty of song, and with friends and family members of the king who not only increased the beauty of the song they sang, but filled the home with the beauty of friendship and love as well.

Sometimes, we focus on our possessions. “The one with the most toys wins.”
Sometimes, we focus on what we lack. “If only I had a bigger house, a nicer car.”
Sometimes, we focus on what others have. “I wish I was like them.”
“$1,000 really isn’t THAT much for an IPhone X is it? It has facial recognition!”
Sometimes, we focus on what we perceive that others have,
“The grass must be greener on the other side of this fence.”
Sometimes, we go through our lives half asleep, not even aware of our surroundings.

Today, the great shofar has been sounded, waking us from our slumber, calling us to attention. The High Holidays are upon us.

Let us take time to turn our attention from the complexities of the world around us to the complexities of the world within us, to the needs and desires, the longings of our souls.

What do we want in our lives?
With what will we fill our homes?

We would begin with love, happiness, health, and warmth.
Some would say beauty, interesting and pleasing artwork, pleasant scents perhaps from flowers, though for allergy sufferers maybe not.
Some would say the smells of good food wafting from the kitchen and chocolate, lots of chocolate.
Some would add good music.
Some would say laughter, sounds of joy, and the voices of family and friends.
Some might say light, perhaps sunlight shining through the windows, perhaps, in the more abstract, rays of hope filling every room.
Some might add feelings of compassion toward others, of tolerance and welcoming, “let all who are hungry come and eat,” with that hunger perhaps being for food, perhaps being for companionship, compassion, or love.
Some would say, Shalom, an absence of violence, a sense of well-being, feelings of completion and wholeness.

For a moment, let’s consider a different ending to the story that I told. For a moment, let us consider this:

In the middle of the night, when the King awakened, he sat up in bed, swung his feet off of the side of the bed, and right into standing water up to his knees and rising.

Last month, when hurricane Harvey struck Houston, many people woke up to find that their homes were flooded by rapidly rising water. One of my rabbinical colleagues and his family found their home flooding rapidly and realized that their best hope for survival until a rescue boat could arrive was to break into the neighbor’s taller home and seek higher ground.

Rugs? Tapestries? Furniture? Candles? Cars? Family heirlooms? People were lucky to escape with their lives, a few of their most important possessions as long as they were small, hopefully their medications, and perhaps a change of clothes. That happened, in many cases, only because people came from long distances away with boats, kayak, and even giant rubber duckie pool floats to help with rescue.

We have a tendency to believe that disaster brings out the worst in people. In some people, perhaps. There have been plenty of reports of looting and no few of price gouging. Yet, for most people, studies have shown, disaster causes us to elevate communal good over personal good and saving lives over maintaining prejudices and seeking gain. We share our food, our clothing, our transportation, and our shelter.

Some people invited dozens of people seeking higher ground, electricity, or perhaps simply a roof over their heads into their homes. They picked up strangers in their cars or trucks. They dove into raging waters and formed human chains to save both people and animals. People like you and me. Not trained emergency responders. Not soldiers. People who happened to be at the right place at the right time. In many cases, people who went out of their way to try to be in the right place at the right time. Leaving the safety of their homes to seek what kind of help they could bring to those in need. One business owner, Mattress Mack, turned his Gallery Furniture store into a shelter.

In spite of the attitudes of some preachers who want to argue that hurricanes are punishment for sin, very few people affected by such events treat anyone they encounter as if they deserved to have their homes flooded, their possessions destroyed, their lives threatened by violent winds. We do not believe that anyone deserves that.

Amid the floodwaters, there are no arguments that someone is homeless or hungry because they’d rather not work or don’t have the fortitude to quit drugs or any of the other arguments that people often use to excuse an unwillingness to help. If everyone is endangered, nothing differentiates anyone from anyone else. The winds and floodwaters from hurricanes strike rich and poor, people of all colors and ethnicities.

Amid the floodwaters, someone being cold and wet and shivering and endangered isn’t the result of punishment for bad behavior. It’s as good as a commandment for us to enact Tsedek: to enact righteousness, to correct the wrongs that are going on around us, to respond to needs, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, house the homeless, lift up the fallen. And we tend to appreciate what is most important in our own lives.

If watching the news about all of the horrible things going on in our world, you ever find yourself wondering how humanity has survived to this point and wondering what hope there is for the future, the answer is that human beings rise in support of one another at times of true adversity. At times of disaster, we are more likely to see strangers as B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God, in our image. We are more likely to see commonalities instead of focusing on differences.

We are told that God created the world from Tohu and Vohu, a swirling mass of water and earth, and brought order to it all. Human beings standing in the midst of great floodwaters take on a similar task.

When our world is tohu va-vohu, a swirling mass of chaos, our task is to help bring order and a sense of shalom. Let us bring light and hope into places of darkness and despair.
May the New Year 5778 be a year of light and hope, of warmth and security, of health and prosperity. Should there be times of difficulty for us, may the coming year be a year wherein caring arms embrace us and lift us up. May the new year be a year in which joy and laughter, love and kindness, health and prosperity, fill our homes and our community.

Kein yehi ratson. May it be God’s will.
And let us say, Amen.

Shanah Tovah

Sunday, September 10, 2017

We Look On In Awe - A Dvar Torah on the Power of Nature

This weekend, Florida faces Hurricane Irma. It is striking as one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the US mainland and has already devastated a number of islands in the Caribbean. In Florida, millions of people have been asked to evacuate to more secure locations, hundreds of thousands more are joining them. Million more people will be impacted. This morning, the first ever tropical storm warning was issued for Atlanta, Georgia.

Hurricane Irma is hitting just after Hurricane Harvey brought extensive damage and extreme flooding to southern Texas, almost certainly causing the most damage of any weather event in the history of the United States, dwarfing the damage done by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It hasn’t been a good few weeks.

On Monday, people in Iowa woke up to a bizarre sky. It was as if the light spectrum had shifted. Everything was tinted orange. This strange situation was caused by the jet-stream carrying the vast quantity of smoke from wildfires in Montana and Canada eastward across the nation. The wildfires have been so substantial that one could easily see them from space.

Speaking of space, last month, we looked into the sky and saw the sun blotted out, a full solar eclipse. Day turned to night. It has been quite a month of special events, most, unlike the eclipse, ones that we would rather not have had.

Last night, one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Mexico, registering 8.1 on the Richter Scale. An unknown but substantial number of people were killed. Tsunami warnings were issued, fortunately, not coming to fruition.

In Southeast Asia, in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, at the same time that Harvey was inundating Texas, many thousands of people were killed by flooding.

In our modern world, we often feel like we have mastered nature. Indoors, our air is conditioned. We can keep it 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year round, if we’d like. We have weather forecasts that can tell us well in advance whether or not it would be a good idea to go camping over the coming weekend. We can see hurricanes coming from a thousand miles away and offer cones of probability of exactly where they might strike. We even have some ability to estimate when earthquakes might strike or volcanoes might erupt, though usually within a much longer period of time. We can institute flood control measures and build our buildings, bridges, and roads to adapt to wind, water, rain, and the shaking caused by significant earthquakes.

But for all of these things, the hurricanes, the great floods, the fires, and the earthquakes, the primary things that we can do are the same things we have always been able to do, namely get out of the way or hunker down before or during an event and deal with impact as best we can after it is over. Today, we simply have a much better ability to effectively do those things.

The power of the natural world is far beyond our own. In truth, we are not all that unlike our distant ancestors, looking on in awe. We see in Psalm 29:

Ascribe to Adonai, you heavenly beings,
    ascribe to Adonai glory and strength.
Ascribe to Adonai the glory due God’s name;
    worship Adonai in the splendor of God’s holiness.
The voice of Adonai is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    Adonai thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of Adonai is powerful;
    the voice of Adonai is majestic.
The voice of Adonai breaks the cedars;
    Adonai breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
God makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
    Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of Adonai strikes
    with flashes of lightning.
The voice of Adonai shakes the desert;
    Adonai shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of Adonai twists the oaks
    and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
10 Adonai sits enthroned over the flood;
    Adonai is enthroned as ruler forever.

Our tradition sees these powers of God as part of God’s nature. The nearer to God’s presence, the more powerful the natural wonders.

We find in 1 Kings 19, where Adonai is speaking to Elijah:

11 Adonai said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of Adonai, for Adonai is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before Adonai, but Adonai was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake, but Adonai was not in the earthquake.12 
After the earthquake came a fire, but Adonai was not in the fire.
And after the fire, a still small voice. 

God is in that voice, the feeling of compassion that we feel when we look upon all of those suffering in the aftermath of the great winds, the shattered rocks, the quaking, and the fires, [the flooding too, that’s not in the story of Elijah because it takes place on a mountain].

The powers of the natural world inspired awe, fear and trembling. We are mere mortals, as we are reminded this time of year. Life is so precious. Our blessings so fleeting. The winds and water, the fire and the quaking, can take all of them away. They can wipe entire cities from the face of the earth. As we see the images of the events ravaging our nation and our world, we are humbled.

We can see the hurricanes approaching on radar. In Texas, friends received text messages about the rising water and the evacuation. Several streamed video live on Facebook pages as the waters were rising. But in the end, when the real flooding came, for one friend, after he had been told to shelter in place and the waters rose above the first floor of his home, it was a boat that saved him and his family. It was as if he was living in an ancient story, rescued by a boat amid a flood. Indeed, the natural world humbles us as it did our ancestors.

Today, we think of all of those continuing to suffer from the aftereffects of Hurricane Harvey, whose homes and communities were devastated by flooding. We think of those whose communities were impacted by the earthquake in Mexico or which are affected with the wildfires that continue to burn in the western portion of our nation. Most of all today, our thoughts are with the people of Florida facing Hurricane Irma.

May our prayers for their safety be joined with theirs.

Right after Psalm 29 notes that God is enthroned above the flood, that God controls the awesome power of the waters, to use to concept from the creation narrative, the waters above and waters below the land upon which we live, the Psalm concludes with words with which we traditionally conclude the blessing after meals:

“Adonai oz l’amo yitein, Adonai yivarekh et amo va-shalom.”

11 Adonai gives strength to God’s people;
    Adonai blesses God’s people with peace.

God can manipulate the waters, even, according to our tradition, parting them and holding them at bay. God thunders. God can bring the winds. God can cause the world to shake. God is the one who controls the great floods being held back so that we might live and thrive in their midst. All of this is beyond us.

Yet God also helps to give us the strength to deal with the aftermath and bring peace into our lives. Tonight O God, we hope and pray that you’ll bring shalom into the lives of all of those whose homes and lives are endangered. May our prayers be as that still small voice for them, echoing across the vast expanse, helping those who suffer know that others care.

Kein Yehi Ratson, May it be God’s will.

And let us say, Amen. Shabbat Shalom