Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Lottery - A Sermon about Realizing our Blessings for Yom Kippur Morning

Lucy has all sorts of good things going on in her life, a loving husband and children, a comfortable apartment, a job she enjoys doing, but she focuses her attention on her financial accounts. She has enough to have a nice retirement already, just maybe not lounging around a pool in Hawaii for months on end each year or for annual exotic cruises with her whole family. Lucy’s not poor, but not rich either. What she is most is discontented.

She often prays that she will win a lottery and her problems will be solved. One night, she dreamed, as she had so often, of checking off all of the Powerball numbers. An angel appeared in her dreams. The angel said to her, “Lucy, I’ve come to grant your wish. You will win a lottery. All you have to do is help a person, to whom I will introduce you, figure out how to live without all that you have in your life. You will know of whom I speak when you see them.”

The next day, Lucie was excited. Who would this person be? Where would she meet him or her? When? Maybe at the coffee shop? She went first thing in the morning, ordered her favorite latte, and sat by the front window, looking out at the sidewalk of the downtown street as swarms of people walked by.

There were people walking dogs, some with two or three. There were people pushing strollers. Some people dressed smartly in expensive tailored suits or fur coats. Others wore uniforms. She wondered to or from what jobs they headed. Some people smiled. Many didn’t. More than a few talked on their phones or texted as they walked and almost ran right in to others doing the same. It was cold outside. You could see everyone’s breath.

Lucy came to enjoy watching the people outside, staring out the window, forgetting all about the people inside.

A woman sat down at the table next to Lucy. She wore several layers, two scarves and a woolen hat. She held a mug of coffee in both of her hands, warming them by its heat. She coughed. It was not the excuse me sort of cough, not a little cough to get your attention. It wasn’t a normal cough either. It was a deep raspy, this person is really sick, sort of cough, the kind of cough that gets people concerned about their own health and gets them to move away. A man on the other side did just that a few moments later.

Lucy noticed briefly and turned back to looking at the people walking down the street. The woman coughed again, then again and again in succession. That got Lucy’s attention.

“Are you alright?” Lucy asked. “Do you need some water?”

“No, thanks.” She paused, “need to go to the doctor I think.”

She coughed again, this time so loudly that everyone turned to stare.

“Do you have a doctor?” Lucy asked.

“No. Can’t afford a doctor. Can’t afford much, have to pay for food and a place for me and the kids to live. Nice man bought this coffee for me. Saw me sitting outside. I guess I was shivering.”

Lucy didn’t take long to realize that perhaps this woman was the one about whom the angel was speaking. “Okay,” she thought to herself, “I’m supposed to figure out how to help her live without all that I have.

“Have you tried going to a clinic or the ER to have them check out that cough? Maybe there is a free clinic, I could help you find one.”

The two talked for a while longer. The woman finished her coffee. Lucy gave her money to pay for a bus ride to the hospital. The woman wouldn’t accept anything more. Then she left.

That night, the same angel appeared to Lucy in a new dream.

“Did you see her?”

“That woman today, the one with the cough? I helped her go to the hospital.”

“No, Lucy. That was nice of you, but she’s not the one.”
In the days that followed, Lucy met several other people whom she was sure were “the one:”
·      There was the older man whom she helped with his groceries and
·      The construction worker with two broken wrists in casts who needed help fixing his coffee.
·      There was the homeless woman for whom she purchased a hot chocolate and talked about her life’s story.
·      There was the mother battling a debilitating illness who was tearing up while on the phone as she spoke to her sister about her children’s future.
·      There were the teenage boys talking about how people treated them differently because of the color of their skin.
·      Then there was the woman who was worried about losing her job and not being able to support her children and
·      The wealthy man who worried about losing his wife and children because he was constantly working.

Each night, she dreamed. Each night, the angel told her, “No, not the one.”

From each person, Lucy learned. She became better at talking with people and gained a better understanding what makes life meaningful. Lucy stopped praying to win the lottery.

One day, as Lucy looked out the window at the people passing by, she saw her face reflected in the window as she had every time. But this time, she stopped and looked at herself. She looked a bit more confident than she had, kind and welcoming.

Lucy thought about her own life. How lucky she was to have a loving family. How lucky she was to have health, to have worked for years at something she enjoyed, to have a comfortable place to live, to be able to come and have a warm coffee and watch people walking by. How lucky she was that she could help others.

Lucy smiled at herself in the window. It was then that she knew for sure she had seen “the one.” And at that moment, she also realized that she had already won the lottery.

Last night, as we recited the words of the Kol Nidrei prayer, we remembered our ancestors who were forced to say, “Yes,” when they meant, “No.” That is a simple statement, but implies so much more. How thankful are we not to live in such a time and place wherein we are threatened because we are Jews? How thankful are we that we have the opportunity to follow the path of our choosing, to not repeat the words of Moses, “Let my people go,” with a painful longing in our hearts.

This morning, we read in the Torah that the ability to follow the proper path is within our ability, not over the sea, but within us, like looking at our own reflection to find the solution to our problems. May we each turn ourselves in the best direction for us.

Today is a day for Heshbon Nefesh, an accounting of our souls. Most days, we look around us. We take note of others. We think of things beyond us. We look through windows at others, sometimes kindly, sometimes critically.

On Yom Kippur, we take the time to look at our own reflection, to appreciate what we have in our lives, to realize what we lack, and to look along the path that we have taken and the path that lies before us. Are we heading in the right direction? If not, where must we turn? How do we turn?

Again, it is not across the sea. Those answers are within each of us. We can turn. We can begin the process of T’shuvah. We can renew ourselves.

This day, we reflect and consider.
This day, we remember.
This day, we seek to understand the pain of others.
This day, we seek to understand our own pain.
This day, we are mindful of the blessings that we have in our lives instead of simply focusing on what we lack.
This day, we seek forgiveness for actions we should not have taken and for our inaction when we should have acted.
This day, we promise to do better.
This day, we reflect and consider the many times before that we have promised to do better.
This day, we renew our promise.
The Jewish Tradition tells us that when we look at our image, we’re seeing something else. Looking at our reflection, we’re seeing an image of God looking back at us. We see our parents and grandparents too, every one of our ancestors in some way. And are we that different from others, others whose image, like our own, is also the divine image?

This High Holiday period:
·      I spoke about priorities we would like to see in our lives, in our homes, and in our communities.
·      I spoke about how our tradition sees us as both being present now and present in the distant past. We were there and then, just as we are here and now facing challenges, going on journeys. Hineini, here I am. Hineinu, here we are.
·      I spoke about how we are all created in the image of God, how we are all like each other, how we can potentially see our reflection in others who make us very uncomfortable, and how all of us have the capacity to perform T’shuvah, to turn and move in a better direction. And today,
·      I spoke of seeing our own reflection, of Heshbon Nefesh, an accounting of our souls, of looking at ourselves and our lives, of realizing our blessings.

May we be mindful of our true priorities in life,
May we face our challenges with dignity and courage,
When we look upon others, even those who are difficult and problematic,
May we remember that we are tainted with some of the same faults for we are all B’tselem Elohim, created in the image of God. And
Whenever we look at the world around us,
May we not forget to consider the reflection that we see in the window, mindful of who we are and thankful for the blessings we have in our own lives.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good, sweet, and happy New Year.

Sermon on Teshuvah, Btselem Elohim for Kol Nidrei 5778 2017

225 years ago, in 1792, Moses Seixas [say-shuss], a Jewish congregational president in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote a letter to the first President of the United States checking to see if the new nation’s leadership would, using Seixas’ words, “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” President Washington responded, repeating those words, in one of the best statements of the nature of America. President Washington wrote:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Hearing those words, some of us cringe. Is our country still there? Was America ever truly there? We live in a time of great partisan divide. Today, discussions are often over the victories or losses of a party and not necessarily over the improvement of the lives of the people. Far too often in our real communities and in our digital ones, we see hatred put into words and action.

The Jewish people have seen that happen before. The flag and torch bearers, the hate filled marchers, too often have come for us. Whenever minorities have been persecuted or oppressed, if we have not been the initial target, historically, neither have we been far down the list.

We have seen some of humanity’s worst. We have seen inhuman hatred. Three thousand years ago, our people’s story already proclaimed our origin to be found in the words, “Let my people go!” Two thousand years ago, living under oppressive Roman rule, Hillel proclaimed, “In a place where there is no humanity, strive be to a human being.” We know that evil exists.

Yet, our tradition also loudly proclaims that we are all created, “B’tselem Elohim.” That is one of the most beautiful and, at times, also difficult teachings in the Jewish Tradition, the idea that we are all created in the image of God.
On the beautiful side of things, it is a teaching that reminds us of the inherent value of all people, that people should be treated equally. It is a directive to rise above concerns about difference, to overcome concerns about race, ethnicity, physical capability and beauty, or sexual orientation. B’tselem Elohim is an idea that helps us feel compassion for those who suffer, urging us to aid them. We should not be able to tolerate seeing people suffering. Everyone is like us. Each of us, in the image of God.

On the difficult side of things, that we are all created B’tselem Elohim is a teaching that reminds us that we have things in common with all people, including those with whom we’d much rather not, enemies, people whom we consider to be evil.

In the Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot, we find the statement: “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” Traditionally, this teaches that the wisest person can learn something from anyone and everyone, the most exalted can learn from the lowest. The teacher can learn from the student.

The Baal Shem Tov taught in regard to the statement:

When you look into a mirror you see your own blemishes. Think of other people as being your mirror. When you notice a defect or imperfection in someone else, that should tell you that you are tainted by the same shortcoming... Remember that Heaven shows you these sins in others in order that you search yourself and mend your ways.

It’s like a gut-punch. Our first response is “No way am I like….” “Not me! I could never act like that, feel like that, do something like that.” “I could never get so angry.” “I could never hate like that.”

How difficult is it to look at that image of those white supremacists and neo-Nazis standing with torches while shouting hateful slogans and say not only, “B’tselem Elohim,” this one too was created in the image of God, but perhaps, to use the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “I am tainted by the same shortcoming?” No, perhaps not exactly the same, not the same sort of hatred, not of the same things. But:

·      An ability to become enraged?
·      An ability to hate others?
·      A willingness and even desire to march along with others, to be part of a crowd, to rebel against authority, to want to fit in with a group?
·      An unwillingness to stand up to friends and family members even when we know that they are wrong, because we care about them?
·      A tendency to repeat hateful things about others whom we’ve never met?
·      A desire to see faults in others, to pass the blame to others?
·      A willfulness to see the worst in others who disagree with us.
·      A willingness or even eagerness to rise up from a place of frustration and hopelessness to take actions we might regret later.
·      An ability to look out at other people and easily say of them, “These are not B’tselem Elohim.” “I am likened to God, but them, those people, they’re nothing like God, they’re nothing like me. They’re evil.”
·      A blindness towards our commonality with those we do not like.

Remember that Heaven shows you these sins in others in order that you search yourself and mend your ways.

And how many of us would want to be defined by the worst picture taken of us, perhaps not one that was taken but one that could have been taken? Has there ever been a time when we acted in a way that would anger or embarrass us now?

We may not have ever considered the possibility of ourselves preaching hatred while holding a torch, but, and here is another difficult lesson, far too many otherwise good and even religious people participated in horrors in ages past and still in many places around the world do today. No few of those bearing and sharing their hatreds publicly will eventually repent and change their ways. There are a multitude of stories.

Father William Aitcheson, formerly the parochial vicar at St. Leo the Great parish in Fairfax City, Virginia recently wrote an editorial in The Arlington Catholic Herald acknowledging his past.

“My actions were despicable,” he wrote. “When I think back on burning crosses, a threatening letter, and so on, I feel as though I am speaking of somebody else. It’s hard to believe that was me. While 40 years have passed, I must say this: I’m sorry. To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry. I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me.”

There is Frankie Meeink, who was a prominent skinhead when he was younger and living in South Philadelphia. He spoke at Beth El congregation a couple of years ago about his story. On TV fairly regularly, he is now an outspoken critic of white supremacy and an advocate for overcoming their hate with love and caring. Today, he lives in Des Moines and coaches youth hockey.

There is the story of the teenagers who defaced our building. They went through a restorative justice process, a teshuva process of learning with Rabbi Fink and working for the Temple that resulted in them not only overcoming their hatred of Jews, but in later inviting Rabbi Fink and Jack Huff to attend their wedding.

And then there is the story of Larry Trapp, once Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska, which you can find in Chicken Soup of the Jewish Soul. Larry Trapp repeatedly called to harass and threaten Cantor Michael Weisser and his wife Julie after they moved to Lincoln. Trapp was known to be dangerous by the FBI. He was heavily armed and made explosives. Trapp spewed hatred in numerous ways. The Weissers were warned to avoid him.

Trapp evidently was responsible for firebombing several homes of African Americans and had been making plans to bomb Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Lincoln, Cantor Weisser’s congregation. Over time, the Weissers called in to his radio show to tie up the phone lines, then eventually to ask him why he hated them, why he hated Jews. Trapp never responded but he listened.

They found out things about him. He was isolated, lived in a small apartment. He was in a wheelchair.

Cantor Weisser once left a message reminding Larry Trap that the Nazis came for those with disabilities first. They kept reaching out. They offered to help him, to talk with him, to take him to the grocery store. Eventually, Larry Trapp realized that the Cantor and his wife were the only people who seemed to care about him at all.

When Trapp finally met the Weissers, he burst into tears. Trapp took the swastika rings off of his fingers and handed them to Cantor Weisser, telling him that he couldn’t wear them anymore, to take them away.

“On November 16, 1991, Trapp resigned from the Klan.” He went on to right apologies to many of those he had threatened or harmed over the years. Trapp said, “I wasted the first forty years of my life and caused harm to other people. Now, I’ve learned we’re one race and one race only.”

Only a little over a month later, Trapp learned that he had less than a year to live because of the progression of his illness. The Weissers invited Trapp to move into their home so that Julie could take care of him. It was disruptive to their lives. They had three teenage children.

On June 5, 1992, Larry Trapp, former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, converted to Judaism in a ceremony at B’nai Jeshurun in Lincoln, in the very building that he had planned at one point to bomb. Only a few months later, on September 6, Larry Trapp died in a hospital bed in the Weissers’ living room, Michael and Julie, holding his hands.

One doesn’t really atone for the acts committed by Larry Trapp over the course of his lifetime. But people can change their direction in life. We can perform T’shuvah, turning from paths that led us in bad directions to the path of righteousness. Sometimes, those who hate simply need to see that we are all created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. Sometimes, what the haters need is for others to see them in that way as well, not as other, as entirely different, or as inherently evil.

Cantor Michael Weisser, during the time he was interacting with Larry Trapp, offered a prayer for healing during services in his congregation, one that I will repeat here with the hope that it impacts not one specific person in our country, but many, all of those so afflicted:

            May those who are sick with the illness of bigotry and hatred be healed.


And in this time of political discord, when our passions are easily kindled, when we too often forget even among our family and friends that our commonalities are greater than our differences. May we recall the words spoken by President Abraham Lincoln as he closed his First Inaugural Address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.
Though passion may have strained,
It must not break our bonds of affection.
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and
Patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land,
Will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched,
As surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

May our better angels allow us to see the divine in those with whom we disagree and in all of God’s children.

This Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, this Day of T’shuvah, of turning and returning, let us remember the words of the Baal Shem Tov:

When you look into a mirror you see your own blemishes. Think of other people as being your mirror. When you notice a defect or imperfection in someone else, that should tell you that you are tainted by the same shortcoming... Remember that Heaven shows you these sins in others in order that you search yourself and mend your ways.

After all, we are imperfect human beings and all created in the image of God.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah tovah tikateivu v’teihateimu,
May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.

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

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Sermon on Charlottesville and Hatred

This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Re’eh. It begins with a warning:

11:26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— 27 the blessing if you obey the commands of Adonai your God that I am giving you today; 28 the curse if you disobey.

What follows is a directive to stop worshipping in other places, places that were holy to the people of the land, important to other religious traditions. Only worship in Jerusalem.

Seek the place that Adonai your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go.

We usually leave this part of the Torah portion at that. But this week, the details are a bit more relevant.

12 These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that Adonai, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.
You must not worship Adonai your God in their way. But you are to seek the place Adonai your God will choose from among all your tribes to put God’s name there for God’s dwelling. To that place you must go.
It’s a call for a purging, the destruction of the religious sites of others, the obliteration of the past. We usually read over it as if it is just a minor attachment to the command to worship in the place where Adonai chooses to place God’s name, which was understood already at the time to be Jerusalem.

We have generally assumed that directive to be about opposing other religious traditions. Then there were the events of this past weekend, centered on a protest against the removal by the City of Charlottesville, Virginia of a large statue of Robert E. Lee commissioned in 1917 and forged in 1924 that was placed in a city park named for the Confederate General, Lee Park. The entire sculpture, including its pedestal, is 26 feet high, 12 feet long, and 8 feet wide.

There are reasons that people argue in defense of historical markers and memorials. There is a value in remembering not only things that make us happy and proud, but things that remind us of what could have been and what was not good. If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past, it is important to remember the past. Yet, some reminders are painful, ones that poke open wounds or perhaps reopen healing ones. Rabbis have noted that one reason to argue for the removal of the pagan shrines was so that former idol worshippers would not be reminded of their old ways, perhaps made to feel inferior if they joined themselves to the Israelite people instead of being born an Israelite, nor tempted to follow harmful paths.

Some reminders, we might not want to have in places that we walk by every day or go to picnic with our children.

That is the discussion that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia over the past several years concerning the Robert E Lee statue, which the city council decided to remove from the site. But what actually happened in Charlottesville this weekend went far beyond protesting the removal of a statue.

First, there was what happened a week ago tonight. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am big fan of candlelight vigils. People sometimes hold candles and walk with them, often in support of peace. Such vigils can be quite beautiful. More than seven-hundred of us stood in solidarity in Cowles Commons on Monday evening. If there was no sound and no close up pictures of angry faces, the videos of the lights being carried through the University of Virgina Campus could have been part of another sort of demonstration… But there was sound and the close up images belied the lights amid the darkness.

The flames took on a different meaning and recalled memories of times that we would rather remain a part of the past.

As I noted at the vigil on Monday:

We Jews have seen those hate-filled faces before, marching with torches through many generations in many countries. Too often, historically, those torches have entered Jewish neighborhoods and set synagogues, businesses, and homes aflame. Most of the time, a small percentage of the local population was involved in the violence. The vast majority, including the local authorities, stood by and watched.

And so we come to what happened this past Shabbat morning.

In an article published by the Union for Reform Judaism on its website, Alan Zimmerman, the President of Beth Israel Synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia described the events:
For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.
Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There's the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn’t know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.
When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.
This is 2017 in the United States of America…
Local police faced an unprecedented problem that day, but make no mistake, Jews are a specific target of these groups, and despite nods of understanding from officials about our concerns – and despite the fact that the mayor himself is Jewish – we were left to our own devices. The fact that a calamity did not befall the Jewish community of Charlottesville on Saturday was not thanks to our politicians, our police, or even our own efforts, but to the grace of God.
The community’s leadership stood idly by. Most of the rest of the community stood idly by.

Then a man drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters. It certainly appeared to be a significant escalation of the hatred and violence, an act of terrorism. Someone died, Heather Heyer. Many were injured. Then later two police officers who had been monitoring the violence in a helicopter died when it crashed, Berke Bates and H Jay Cullen.

We cried out, along with other targets of the hatred expressed in Charlottesville, to our national leaders, to our President, seeking understanding, seeking action. At first, in the morning, there was generic condemnation of violence on “many sides.”

Some were immediately angered at the equivocation of the protesters and counter protesters. Others responded. “Violence is bad, no matter who does it. Yes. But what of the hateful ideology of these groups? The threats? Isn’t this terrorism? Isn’t one side maybe a bit worse? A bit more, perhaps a whole lot more, deserving of direct and specific condemnation here? How do you respond to their arguments that you support them?”

For a while on Saturday afternoon and then through Sunday, the response was mostly silence. We waited incredulously. Bit by bit, leaders issued statements condemning neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Finally, on Monday the President issued a statement which he read, condemning them. That was good. Of course, actions speak louder than words and unscripted words tend to be a more accurate representation of actual beliefs than are scripted ones.

The next day, in a press conference, the President, speaking about the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, stated that there were “fine people” on both sides. “Fine people?” Among Nazis and White Supremacists?

Leading white supremacist figures offered their thanks for the sentiments.
People across the normative political spectrum spoke out with incredulity and condemnation, Republicans and Democrats.

While he may well have been speaking without thinking of how his statement could be understood, there is no scenario in which it would be acceptable for him not to have clarified his statement--very, very clearly… believe me… that he in fact does not believe that there are “fine people” among Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It is a moral and ethical obligation to make certain that no one could possibly interpret his statement in that direction. As several Republican leaders have suggested strongly, it is well past time for moral clarity and this is not difficult. There is nothing easier to do as a politician than to say that Nazis and White Supremacists are bad people.

When people wave Nazi flags & proclaim racist & hateful ideas while engaging in intimidation & violence, they are not "fine people."

It is a statement that could be tweeted. Under 140 characters. I checked.

On Monday, I spoke at the vigil downtown. I said that:

We are all God’s children. Jewish tradition tells us that we are all created in God’s image. Sometimes, too often if you ask me, that image is reflected with more than a bit of distortion, emphasizing the worst aspects of our nature.

It is not only in expressions of hatred and anger. Sometimes, the most problematic characteristic that comes to the fore is a willingness to stand by.

We often cite Maurice Ogden’s poem called “The Hangman,” when talking about standing by. Ogden’s poem is about a Hangman who comes into a town and begins to single out people for hanging. He begins with the weakest minority and then keeps dividing and dividing, singling out and singling out, until the very last person is finally hung upon the gallows.

"For who has served more faithfully?
With your coward's hope." said He,
"And where are the others that might have stood
side by your side, in the common good?"
"Dead!" I answered, and amiably
"Murdered," the Hangman corrected me.
"First the alien ... then the Jew.
I did no more than you let me do."
Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
none before stood so alone as I.
The Hangman then strapped me...with no voice there
to cry "Stay!" ... for me in the empty square.
Who helped the most? The one who helped by not helping the others to avoid their fate, the one who stood aside as hatred was raised and the Hangman pursued the weak.
We will not be like the Hangman’s faithful servant. We will not watch silently and allow age old hatreds against Jews to rise again unchallenged. We will not simply look on as Mosques are threatened. We will not stand by and allow people to be attacked because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. We will not allow immigrants to be persecuted.
Let us declare that we will not allow ourselves to remain silent as hatred is offered. We will not be cowed into silence. We will not tolerate the torches of hatred marching through our campuses or our streets… even if, as Tiki Torches, they may keep away the mosquitoes.
This is our country. This is our home. May it always be truly both the land of the free and the home of the brave… and let us be brave.
Speak out. Stand up.

We will not stand idly by. No more. Never again. 
Shabbat Shalom