Monday, April 29, 2019

All Too Prophetic - The Night BEFORE Poway

I offered this sermon the night before a 19 year-old man entered a Chabad Congregation in Poway, California, killed an Eishet Chayil, Lori Kaye z"l, and injured Rabbi Goldstein and two others.

Dvar Torah on Sri Lanka Attacks
April 26, 2019

Last weekend, on Easter morning in Sri Lanka, a series of explosions at Churches and at upscale hotels sent the overwhelmingly Buddhist country into panic. Over 250 people were killed in the terrorist attacks carried out by a Muslim Ethno-Nationalist terrorist group that had affiliated itself with Da’esh, the Caliphatist Terrorist group often commonly called “ISIS.”

Da’esh claimed that this attack was carried out in response to the attacks against mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In that attack, of course, a Christian Ethno-Nationalist attacked worshippers at mosques. Following on the heels of a Christian Ethno-Nationalist attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we have been increasingly concerned about rising violence based in religious conflict.

Christians generally respond differently to these kinds of attacks than we Jews do. To an extent, this is based on collective memory. We know well that when hatred of Jews becomes violence against Jews, it can spread quickly if we do not assert ourselves and have allies join us. We cherish our allies. When we have lacked them or they have failed to stand with us in generations past, our meager number has been overwhelmed time and again. Jews represent 0.2% of the world’s population. Two-tenths of one percent.

And we respond as a people, not as a diverse faith community as Christians do. We connect to members of Jewish communities everywhere, no matter what kind of Judaism they practice or if they practice Judaism at all. We feel their joy and their pain. We know the struggles of persecuted minorities.

It has been our role in many nations, to lead the fight to defend minority rights, to not only stand at the forefront of the cause of immigrants, but to walk into the waters of hatred, like the midrash tells us that Nachshon did when the sea split, demonstrating faith and courage. We walk into the waters of hatred with faith and courage that we will make those waters split too. We will part the waters of hatred and march ever forward toward the promised land in which our house will be the house of all peoples, welcoming, embracing. Not all of our brethren, of course, are similarly welcoming, but the vast majority are, around the world.

Others do not share this vision. Ethno-nationalists who believe that people who are like them are the only ones who should be able to live among them and who are willing to engage in violence to make that happen are among the greatest of threats to peace wherever they are.

There are certainly very fine people who are devoutly religious Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We know that. But there are no fine Ethno-Nationalist advocates for violence against anyone not of their in-group. It is not acceptable to allow political correctness or concern about harm done to the image of the broader group to avoid both severe condemnation of and taking action against Ethno-Nationists.

We condemn Kahanists. Those who preach Meir Kahane’s hatred were banned from the K’nesset for decades. A party that is somewhat related to it rose up and was again condemned even though it did not take close to the same position. Israelis and American Jews alike are concerned to even have one representative of that political party in the Knesset, as a member of the United Right party, and attention will be paid not to allow hateful views to impact how Israel treats its minority populations. Just as we will all pay attention to how confrontational rhetoric that at times may have crossed the bounds into overt bigotry will or will not result in changes in policy.

We also perceive the threats coming against Jewish communities from Christians and from Muslims in different parts of the world. We cannot understand attacking innocents. The lone example that people can name, Baruch Goldstein, stands out in glaring uniqueness in our people’s long history.

Never have we as a people believed that sacrificing ourselves to harm others will benefit us in the world to come. We’ve never had a tradition in which Jews would willingly sacrifice their own lives to harm members of other religious or ethnic communities. It didn’t even happen before or during the Holocaust when such extreme action under duress may have made some sense. Instead, our tradition repeatedly stressed, even then, “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if they saved the entire world.”

So it is all the more difficult for us to look at what happened in Sri Lanka and understand, how wealthy and successful educated people could, based on their religious views, calmly walk into the midst of innocents and commit atrocities. How a pregnant mother could do so, ending the lives of her two children as well in order to harm police officers. In our tradition, there is no question that we would rather die ourselves. That much has been proven by our history.

We respond to that level of evil, evil that we have seen in generation after generation, so often affecting our community—we respond to that evil with a commitment to not follow it with our own hatred as pained as we have been at many of those times.

Having just come through the holiday of Passover, we easily recall the story to mind. “Let my people go,” we said. “We cried out time and again.” “We walked away.” “When horse and chariot came against us,” we did not turn. “We walked on.” “When Amalek attacked the weak and vulnerable,” we pledged to remember. Only once from the time we entered Egypt to the time we left and wandered the wilderness did any Israelite lift a hand, and Moses fled for having done so. God fought our battles for us.

This Wednesday is Yom HaShoah, the day on which we remember and mourn. We do not do so with pledges of retaliation and vengeance, nor with anger and hatred. We remember to remind ourselves that it is our duty to never let it happen again, to never again allow that kind of hatred that could result in the slaughter of innocents to occur. This year, we not only mark the day amid a time of rising Antisemitism, but at a time when the world mourns the effects of irrational hatred.

It reminds us, as we look back into the darkness of the past and out into the darkness of the world around us, that our mission as a people has long been, “To be a light unto the nations,” a beacon in the darkness. And as Hillel said, “At a time when there is no humanity around you, be a human being.” That is our challenge. Let us be lights of caring and love amid the darkness of indifference and hatred.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Dvar Torah for 80th Anniversary of Krystallnacht

Tonight marks the 80th anniversary of Krystallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass  a day on which the persecution of the Jews of Germany took a giant leap toward the Holocaust to come. 276 Synagogues and 7,500 businesses were set aflame, countless homes were destroyed, 91 people were killed and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and imprisoned in camps.

It was a night of mass intimidation and brutality. And whereas, many Jews had assumed that others would rise to their defense, if attacked, it was a night not just of shattered glass, but of shattered hopes and perceptions, a shattered sense of well-being; a loud awakening to a frightening reality. It was also a night that shattered the idea that in the modern Western world, the pogroms of the old world could not and would not happen. We heard similar sentiments expressed about the recent attack at Eitz Chayim Synagogue. “I never thought it would happen here.”

Yesterday, I found a video of Peter Pintus, former Assistant to the Rabbi at the Temple, who passed away some years ago now, speaking about his experiences during the Holocaust for a class at Iowa State. I heard him talk about his experiences numerous times and remember clearly what he said happened on Krystallnacht. They lived in Berlin. Peter’s father was a wealthy Jewish industrialist. His mother was a Christian.

That night, the NAZIs came to the family apartment for his father, “the Jew Pintus,” who had heard about what might happen, and spent the night riding the subway instead of returning home. The Nazis who showed up terrorized and intimidated Peter and his mother. They damaged the furniture and tossed the apartment, but didn’t harm them. When the NAZIs visited their elderly Jewish neighbor, a single woman whom Peter had recalled collected Hummel figurines, they shattered every single piece in her prized collection, gleeful at the destruction, and the emotional turmoil that it caused her.

Peter talked of walking the streets near their home, seeing what had been wrought that horrible night. There was a burning synagogue with firemen outside, not trying to put out the flames in the synagogue, but protecting the surrounding buildings from catching on fire. Perhaps, some were distressed by not being able to do their jobs. But they let the synagogues burn.

Peter talked of passing by Jewish businesses, the glass windows shattered into the streets, anti-Jewish slogans scrawled in yellow paint on the walls.

It’s hard to imagine the level of fear that Jews in Berlin would have felt that night and in the days, weeks, months, and later years to come. They were forced to come to the realization that all that they had built up could so easily be taken away and destroyed, that so many people who could have helped, who could have said or done something, instead said and did nothing, and that so many others joined against them.

“Zachor!” “Remember!” is one of the most important themes in the Jewish tradition. We remember our journey from Egypt, from slavery to freedom. We remember how Amalek came after those who were vulnerable and we celebrate a holiday to remember the events in the story of Esther. We remember our family members and our martyrs during Yizkor services multiple times a year. We are constantly urged to remember.

Our tradition doesn’t just believe that “He who forgets history is destined to repeat it.” Instead, our tradition believes that history often repeats and those who forget or ignore the lessons of history, how to cope with threats as they unfold, will not long survive when they do.

Having seen the truth of our errors, we are a people who nonetheless strives to see the best in others and often, having trusted in others to stand up to evil, find ourselves far too regularly disappointed. We are like Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus, a professor at Hebrew Union College, who wrote in 1935 of the Rise of the Nazis to power in Germany:

There is doubt, however, that the fear of widespread pogroms at the present is well-grounded. It is probable that the masses of the Party, if not some of the leaders, original envisaged a program which would wipe out the entire Jewish community. The response of the world to the atrocity reports made it clear, however, that such a policy could never be put into execution.

It was so clear to him that the world would rise up in condemnation and action.

Over the centuries, we’ve learned all too well that people who threaten to do us harm and have the means to do so must be taken at their word. The greatest sin of our age is not indifference to the suffering of others, it is indifference to threats that lead to the preventable suffering of others and even of ourselves. It is seeing rail lines on their way to camps and not bombing them. It is watching genocide unfold and forming committees to discuss the events while hoping that sanity will prevail in the interim. Failure to act against those who threaten has time and again led to a byproduct of that failure, to discussions of how we should not “stand idly by” as those future threats are put into action.

We strive to make true the words of Professor Yehuda Bauer in reference to the Shoah, “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a by-stander.”

We have both a justifiably paranoid tradition and a tradition that believes in miracles and preaches hope amid darkness. We too are like Anne Frank, a young woman hiding in an attic during some of the darkest days of our people’s history, saying, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart” and “I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I will be able to carry them out.”

Amid our fears and sadness over the past couple of weeks, we have seen great compassion and goodwill, outreach from across the religious spectrum. Perhaps, the strongest support we have received has come from the Muslim refugee community here, people who know persecution and oppression.

We saw perhaps 1,000 people gather for our community vigil, including dozens of members of the clergy and political leaders from both parties. It was a tremendous showing of love and concern and we appreciated it very much.

But as we seemingly face both rising antisemitism and an increased willingness to act upon hatred, our challenge is to go beyond thoughts and prayers to effective actions.

The darkness of the age old hatred of Jews yet endures. We cannot ever forget that it is there, neither because it regularly resurfaces, nor because we always must be mindful that it could flourish in the right conditions.

On this anniversary of the night of broken glass, we must remember that our Shalom, the peace in our lives, which our tradition likens to a Sukkah, is very much like crystal glass as well. The whole shatters when but a small piece is pierced. We have learned through the generations to sweep up, to make repairs, and to go on with life. But we go on remembering, ever mindful, ever aware.

Tonight, as we remember the events of 80 years ago and those in recent weeks, we also need to remember what has happened since, that we have survived the utter darkness and we once again thrive as a Jewish people.
·      We have made a difference and brought goodness into the world.
·      We re-established a Jewish nation a decade after Krystallnacht.
·      We have gathered threatened exiles from a myriad of nations and helped them create new homes with new hopes.
·      We danced Hava Nagilah on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within a few years of the last flames of the furnaces being extinguished.
·      Our culture thrives.
·      Our religious traditions are maintained and expanded.
·      Our contributions to science and the arts have been taken to yet new heights.
·      The Jewish state is strong and secure, as is the Jewish community in the United States of America.
·      There is a bright Jewish future.

But tonight, around the country, the Jewish community is fearful enough that security is a priority and armed guards are seen by many as an absolute necessity. In Europe, for many years now, that has been the case. I do not know that our community will always feel that necessity, but we feel it now. We feel a need for the extra security cameras and the locked doors as well.

This Shabbat, as we read of the story of two nations battling each other in Rebecca’s womb, of Jacob and Esau, each representing competing characteristics, let us choose to be joyful and idealistic instead of sad, angry, and fearful. Let us, like Ann Frank, go forward trusting in the goodness of those who show us caring and not allow ourselves to so easily succumb to cynicism.

There is indeed evil in the world. We don’t need to look too hard to find it.
Our challenge, today, as it has been time and again in our past,
Will be to not become lost to our fears,
But to maintain our commitment to our values:
To welcome with audacious hospitality rather than wariness,
To respond to hatred with Remember the stranger and Love thy neighbor,
Rather than to become haters ourselves,
To kindle light amid the darkness and
Even walking through the darkest valleys,
The valleys darkened by the shadow of death,
May we ever focus on that light.

We are Jews.
We remember.

Shabbat Shalom.

Words Offered at the Vigil for Tree of Life Synagogue

I stand before you, a descendant of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Warfare, economic hardship, and persecution forced them to leave lands where their ancestors had lived for generations. My 3 year old grandmother crossed borders guided by her 9 year old sister, smuggled out by beneath blankets by their mother in the back of wagon, under the cover of darkness, all afraid for their lives.

Eventually, they made it safely to America. America is a nation of immigrants, many of whom fled religious persecution in search of freedom. We are a nation who so prized our welcoming nature as to enshrine it on the Statue of Liberty in the words of Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus,” words that greeted my grandparents as they came to Ellis Island:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door

These words do not come from nowhere. They are based on the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 58 This is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free and break off every yoke. It is to share your food with the wretched and take the poor into your home; When you see the naked, clothe them and do not ignore your own kin. Then will your light burst through like the dawn and your healing will spring up quickly. [When] your higher-self leads you, the weight of God is behind you. Thus [now], when you call out, God will answer; When you call out, God will say: Hineni, here I am.

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.

We Jews have seen the hate-filled faces before, through many generations in many countries. Too often, historically, the torches of hatred have entered Jewish neighborhoods and set synagogues, businesses, and homes aflame.

We don’t knock down or abandon places where violence has happened. We mop up the blood. We patch the holes in the walls. And we live with the holes in our hearts. In synagogues, like the one in Pittsburgh and so many others through the ages, we have stood holding the Torah, our tree of life, in those now sanctified places where people died, Kedush HaShem, martyrs in sanctification of God’s name. And God is right there with us, as we return the next day, and offer the same words of prayer and song, of peace and love, and of thanksgiving, words that have inspired generations.

Most of the time, historically, it has only been a small percentage of the local population that was involved in the violence. The vast majority of people, good people, stood by and watched.

Maurice Ogden wrote a poem called “The Hangman.” It’s a bit long for me to read to you this evening, but its theme is very important. 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.

The one who did nothing to offend, nothing to get in the way, of the one promoting violence and hatred of the other, of the immigrants, of racial or political minorities, of Jews or of other faiths. We will not be like the Hangman’s faithful servant. We will not stand by and allow age old hatreds against Jews to rise again unchallenged. We will not allow hatreds of any kind to spread.

*It was wonderful and, oh so appreciated, to see so many people there, over 1,000, including at least 150 members of the clergy representing numerous faiths, to support us and to have heard from so many who reached out in care and concern. It is our nature to be there for others in times of need, and we value the caring and support of our friends in the interfaith community in return.

We are a people who care deeply about everyone else. Caring for those who are ill and otherwise in need is a big deal for us. We are a people who see ourselves in Henny Youngman’s brief joke.

“A Jewish woman had two chickens. One got sick, so the woman made chicken soup out of the other one to help the sick one get well.” That is us.

We Jews know that human beings can and too often do act cruelly and inhumanely toward one another. Our tradition tells us that when we find ourselves among those not acting humanely, even if no one else is, our job is to be a mensch, to be a human being. As Hillel taught, “Bamakom sh’ein anashim, hishtadeil li-hiyot ish.”

“In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a person.”
Jewish doctors and nurses treated the shooter when he was brought to the hospital. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

And we expect the best of this country and its leaders.

We are like Moses Seixas, a Jewish congregational president in Newport, Rhode Island, who wrote a letter to the first President of the United States, George Washington, checking to see if the new nation’s leadership would indeed “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And we expect that our government will live up to that ideal to this very day.

We are a people who look at a world filled with violence, a world filled with hatred, a world in which age old prejudices surface again and again, and believe, we can, with the help of our friends change it. We are a people who believe the words of Theodore Hirzl, “Im tirzu, ein zo aggadah,” “If you will it, it is no dream,” because we have seen our hopes amid the darkness become reality.

Confronted time and time again with opportunities to join the majority, to bring an end to difficulty, oppression, and great suffering, we have remained true to our beliefs.

Before Kings and Priests, before soldiers with swords or guns and mobs with torches, who all wanted us to say something else, believe something else, or simply to vanish from the face of the earth, we bravely uttered, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad!” “Here, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone!”

Tonight, we come together to declare that we will not allow ourselves to remain silent as hatred is offered. We will not be cowed into silence. 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.
We will not stand idly by. No more. Never again!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Rabbi Kaufman's Bulletin Article for December 2017

Last year at this time, in my bulletin article, I cited the exasperated question asked by an acquaintance, “Can anyone cite something good that happened in 2016?” No few people are asking the same thing about this past year. On the world stage, 2017 has been a year that has seen 2016’s problems deepen and new ones arise.

We enter the season of “peace on earth and good will toward humankind” as it is often described by our Christian friends with both seeming distant and even laughable concepts to expect. This year, the themes of Chanukah seem more appropriate than usual: a holiday of light amid the darkness, hope amid despair, courage at a time of fear, and standing up for one’s beliefs at a time of persecution. 60,000 nationalists marched in Poland recently, no few proclaiming anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments and calling for pure blood.

Closer to home, too many people spend their days in harmonious echo-chambers shunning dissonance, only willing to hear agreeable opinions, while seeing challenging ones as evil instead of simply different. Tolerance and respect for difference often only extends to those within our echo-chambers. We’re willing to tolerate hearing different notes as long as they maintain our desired harmony. And too often, staying with the musical analogy, rather than trying to help a dissonant note resolve, we simply exile the musician playing it.

For the good of our communities and for the good of our nation, we need to expand our tolerance and seek to understand those who do not agree with us. Only then can we have the necessary conversations about how address many of our community, state, or national challenges, much less to achieve functional and effective solutions.

May our doors be wide enough to admit those who do not think as we think.
May our ears be open enough to listen to words that we may not wish to hear.
May our eyes see not only difference, but commonality.
May our hearts allow us to be compassionate and tolerant.
May our minds put our wisdom to the work of understanding.

May we make our world a better place.

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