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Martin Luther King Day Speech

“At the first conference of religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1963. “Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the God that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know God, and moreover I will not let Israel go. The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began but it is far from having been completed.”[1]

Rabbi Heschel, a close friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., knew that freedom and equality did not happen overnight. It would be a long, winding road. At times it would feel as if we were moving backwards rather than forwards, meandering through a dessert of uncertainty. And yet, there was progress being made.

This past summer marked the 50th Anniversary of the Selma marches, in favor of allowing all US citizens of color the access to exercise their constitutional rights to vote, and in defiance of segregationist repression. As we know, these marches would prove to be influential in the government’s passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of these historic marches, the NAACP held the “Journey for Justice” this past summer, a 1002 mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC. I was blessed to be one of the thousands of participants. Just like in 1965, reverends, ministers, and rabbis walked hand in hand along activists and people of conscience.

We marched in honor of those who came before us.

We marched with understanding of how powerful our steps could be.

We marched in honor of how far we have come in pursuit of racial justice, and to acknowledge how far we have yet to go.

As a child growing up in New York City, we spoke of slavery, segregation, and lynching and Jim Crow laws. We celebrated in the moral courage of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. But only later would I learn of the racism that exists today.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

On the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, my heart broke open as I walked along route 1 in South Carolina, listening to the stories of my fellow marchers:

The father who described what it was like to “the talk” with his nine-year-old son about what he needed to do to stay safe. “You’re male. You’re black. That’s two strikes against you,” he said.

The Reverend who shared how her 13-year-old son was brutalized by police for riding a bike in the wrong lane, and who ran away from home, fearful that the police would come back and get him.

The mother who had tears in her eyes when she told me of the time her seven-year old daughter was suspended for a week, just for running out of class, away from a bully. “At seven years old, they were treating her like a criminal.” she said.

The bright capable college students who were fearful that the color of their skin might get in the way of their lofty career goals, yet filled with determination to not let it.

In their stories, I heard frustration and anger. I heard fear and uncertainty.

I looked into their eyes and all I could say is “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry that even after wandering through the desert for decades and decades we have not yet reached the promised land of freedom and equality.

I am sorry that it has taken so long for so many of us wake up.

I’m sorry that it has taken so many of us so long be present.

I’m sorry that some of my own people have forgotten the difficult places we have come from, and the Pharaohs we had to overcome to get us here. [2]

In Judaism, we there is a tradition of saying “I’m sorry,” acknowledging that only when we humble ourselves and admit our mistakes can we truly move forward. “Sorry” is a beginning, not an ending.

Rev. Martin Luther King once taught that the Pharaoh’s main technique for maintaining the Israelites’ status as slaves was to turn them against one another. When the slaves were fighting each other, they had no chance of overcoming Pharaoh’s army. It was only when they united together that they were able to leave land of Egypt, march through the parted sea, and towards the promised land.

It is my hope and prayer that we can continue to march together.

And that we will march, head held high like Middle Passage, a 68-year-old disabled veteran who despite having five open-heart surgeries, traveled 1300 miles on a bus from Colorado in order to participate in the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, determined to walk every step of the way. Decades earlier he had changed his name to honor the slaves who had been forced to journey through the Middle Passage from Africa to America. He recalled what a blessing it had been to honor their strength and perseverance every time he introduced himself, wrote down his name, or heard someone addressed him.

And yet he lived for the future, calling out to children along the march “We are doing this for you, because you deserve better.” They smiled in appreciation.

Each day Middle proudly held up an American flag, and set the pace for all the marchers who followed him. He looked out for each of us, alerting us to potholes and uneven surfaces on the road.

On the 922nd mile of the journey, sadly, Middle had a heart attack and died.

Just as Middle changed his name in honor of the people who came before him, it is our honor to continue the march in his name, to finish the journey that he could not.

During the three miles when Middle and I walked side by side he told me “I’m glad you’re here. We’re in this together.”

We’re all in this together.

And we will not be done marching until there are no more stories like those of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice.

We will not be done marching until trust can be rebuilt between people of color and police.

We will not be done marching until we are sure that every single child, regardless of his religion, ethnic background or the color of his skin is given the same education, the same job opportunities as any other child.

We will not be done marching until we overcome the profound problems of poverty, homelessness and hopelessness.

We will not be done marching until parents are longer worried about their children’s safety on the streets of Utica.

We will not be done marching until the leadership of the city of Utica, with all of its boards and its mass initiatives are as wonderfully diverse as its population.

We will not be done marching until everyone throughout our cities know that black lives matter. And brown lives matter. And Muslim lives matter. And Jewish lives matter.

We will not be done marching until my friends of color are comfortable driving in to North Utica New Hartford, or anywhere they choose. We will not be done marching until my white friends feel comfortable driving in West Utica.

We are not yet near the promised land, but we are marching every closer.

I have hope because of phenomenal initiatives going on here, from the Johnson Center to the Mohawk Valley Anti-Poverty Initiative, to the NAACP, to the great work of wonderful churches like this one, and the list goes on and on and on.

I have hope because of the presence in this room even despite the snow storm!

 

As a rabbi, I’d like to think I know a little something about prayer, but I learned more about prayer on the march than I could ever have imagined.

About the Selma marches, Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that he had been “praying with his feet.”

Until recently, I believed that Heschel’s words were about action. I thought he meant that he was praying with his feet because he was turning his frustrations and anger into positive, productive action.

Now I think that’s only part of it.

If Heschel had walked alone, I’m not sure his steps would have been the same form of prayer.

Instead, Heschel prayed by being in relationship to others.

He was praying because along the march he heard the stories of his fellow human beings.

He was praying because he marching alongside his friend, Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he spoke about theology and justice.

Martin Luther King Jr spent the occasional Shabbat Friday night dinner at Rabbi Heschel’s home. On occasion he also came over for a Passover Seder.

On Passover, Jews retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. During the Seder we are reminded that the story of the Exodus is not one of the past, but one of the present. What happened in Egypt did not happen at one time: it happens all the time, and is our collective responsibility to overcome the Pharaohs around us, and inside of us.

One of the most powerful symbols of the Passover Seder is wine. We drink not one, not two, not three, but four glasses of wine over the source of the Seder.

This wine is a symbol of the promises that God made to people Israel: “I will take you out of Egypt”, “I will save you,” “I will redeem you,” “I will take you as a nation.” Wine is a symbol of joy for the great strides we have made forward, and hope for the promises that lay before us.

Each time we drink a cup of wine, it is Jewish tradition to offer a prayer, called the Kiddish. The word “kiddish” comes from the Hebrew root קדש, which means “holiness.”

When we raise our cups together, full of gratitude and hope, we transform our space into a holy place, a sanctuary of God. It is holy because of our prayer—but more because of our bond. You see the kiddish prayer is never complete, unless there is someone present to say “Amen.” I believe.

Because we’re in this together.

Tonight I hold in my hand two cups. They are the very cups that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King once drank from. When they drank from these cups, they created a holy space, not just by virtue of the prayers they offered, but because of their shared commitment to creating a world in which all people could be judged not on the color of their skin, their ethnicity, or their religion, but on the content of their character.

Tonight, I would like to call up Reverend Bell to join me in raising a glass of wine.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam borei pri hagafen.

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

Together let us say:

Amen.

[1] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Religion and Race” (January 14 1963):  http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/heschel-religion-and-race-speech-text/

[2] Rabbi Michael Adam Latz in his invocation for the DNC summer meeting on August 28, 2015:  http://www.c-span.org/video/?c4549479/invocation

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Racial Justice Sermon: Yom Kippur morning 5776

20150823_093847As a child, growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I believed that racism was largely a problem of the past. My friends in school were from Poland, Trinidad, India, and Sri Lanka. They were immigrants, first, second and third generation Americans. They were Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, and Hindu. And they loved to tell me about their cultural backgrounds and religions as much as I loved hearing about them.

Last year, when I attended a seminar on race relations in Utica, I recounted how thankful I was to have grown up in Brooklyn, which helped me to appreciate the blessings of diversity. A woman of color soon replied “I grew up in Brooklyn too. Your Brooklyn was not the same as my Brooklyn.”

This summer I had an opportunity to understand what she meant.

I traveled to rural South Carolina to join the NAACP in just one small leg of their 1000 mile Journey for Justice from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC. Between August 1st and September 16th, thousands of people joined the march which celebrated how far our country has come in pursuit of racial justice, and to acknowledge how far we have yet to go.

When Rabbi Jonah Pesner, of the Religious Action Center, asked rabbis to participate in the march, he hoped to receive one volunteer for each day. Walking 20 miles a day, after all, was no small feat. It was his dream that each day another rabbi would proudly walk alongside NAACP leaders, holding a sacred Torah scroll. He was delighted when 200 rabbis signed up.  To my delight, I was blessed to share this experience with a member of our community: Cornelia Brown, and two other rabbis from different states.

As we walked down route 1, with fields on either side, most people responded positively to our group. There were smiles, thumbs up, honks of support, fist bumps and cheers. Each of them lifted me, and gave me hope.

Still, racism was very real. Along the road we encountered a man who made a point of circling around us again and again, with a Confederate flag hitched onto the back of his pick up truck. Another man became so agitated by the sight of the march that he stopped his car, shook his head, looked up, and then floored his car backwards, into a tree. Everyone was okay, thank God, but it was a wake-up call to see how intense racism could be.

I grasped the Torah scroll firmly in my hands, and recalled the words from our morning prayer:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam hameichin mitzadei gaver.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe who strengthens our steps.

My steps were strong because of the legacy of rabbis who marched before me. Just 50 years earlier Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in pursuit of civil rights.

But my steps were stronger because of the people I was blessed to walk alongside.

One of those people was Keisha. Keisha was surprisingly energetic for her 23rd day of the march. As soon as she heard about the Journey for Justice, she decided to quit her job so that she could walk all of the 1000 miles.

But this wasn’t her first time forwarding a message of racial justice.

In 1996, Keisha was an 18 year old high school senior in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One day the Ku Klux Klan began to rally in her city. Keisha, who is African American, was one of the protestors. Although the rally began peacefully, it quickly took a turn when a middle-aged man with a Nazi SS tattoo and a Confederate Flag t-shirt ended up amidst the protestors. The protestors began to beat him in anger. Keisha threw herself on top of the man to shield him from their blows. Mark Brunner was there that day. He remarked about Keisha, “She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her. Who does that in this world?” But for Keisha it was a knee jerk response. “I knew what it was like to be hurt,” she said. “The many times that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”

Months later, she would find herself in a coffee shop standing next to a white male who was thanking and praising her for what she had done. As it turns out, he was the son of the man with the Nazi tattoo. He was thanking her for saving her father’s life.[1]

I spent much of the march speaking with a white reverend who had three black children.

She recalled that she hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to race before they were born. Slowly, she realized that she and they lived in vastly different worlds.

One day they went as a family to get some ice cream. The boys were eating their ice cream, when she remembered she had forgotten the milk. She asked her oldest to get it for her. “Only if you hold my ice cream,” he said. “Why would I need to do that? We just bought it!” “Trust me,” he said. “If I go in there with this ice cream, they’ll call the cops on me for shoplifting.”

One day, she received a call from her 13 year old son. He had been arrested. As he recalls it, the police had pulled him over for riding his bike while black. He was in the correct lane, obeying the rules of the road. But they pulled him over anyway. When he asked them what he did wrong, they refused to answer, so he got up to walk away. They tackled him, arrested him and brought him to prison, on $5000 bail. His mother told me that when he got out of jail, he was different kid. He was fearful. He ran away from home, convinced that the police were coming for him. That is how deep his fear was. His white lawyer told him “Well, none of this would have ever happened if you did what you were told.” His words of hatred would later inspire this boy to become the public defender he never had, but wished he did.

The woman from Utica was right. We do live in vastly different worlds.

And I am ashamed that I just recently noticed.

Racism is so universal and so widespread that to me, it was nearly invisible.[2]

Studies show African Americans are more likely to be stopped by the police than whites. And when stopped, more likely to be frisked. And I didn’t notice.

In 2010, Justice Department filed and won a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the banks had shunted blacks in the predatory loans—subprime loans regardless of their creditworthiness. [3] It was not the only bank to maintain such unethical practices. And I didn’t notice.

I didn’t notice that people of color were less likely to be given loans, or to be awarded promotions. I didn’t notice the many poor black communities that fill the US, where students receive inferior educations, and are forced to lower their expectations. And I wasn’t the only one.

In her book Waking up White, Debby Irving recalls the childhood stories she’s swapped with people of color. “I’ve learned the ways in which many parents of color prepare their children for a hostile world,” she said. “Trying to protect children with a worry-free childhood is a privilege of the dominant class—a white privilege. Many parents of color teach their children to keep their hands in plain sight if a police officer is near and to avoid white neighborhoods in order to avoid being questioned for simply being there. In the same way I was trained to make myself visible and seek opportunity, many children of color are trained to stay under the radar.”[4]

When we think of racism we often think of men with Nazi tattoos, or confederate flags. We think of members of the Ku Klux Klan or ISIL or Al-Qaeda.

But most racism doesn’t come from extremists at all. It comes from the fabric of society itself. And since society sends us constant messages about the inferiority of people of color, and about how we should fear the black man, if we don’t go our way to combat these feelings, racism exists in each of us.

At one time slavery and Jim Crow laws offered tangible evidence of racism, but according to Debby Irving “today’s racism lives hidden beneath the surface, in individual hearts and minds. Today’s work to dismantle racism begins in the personal realm. Until I begin to examine how racism has shaped me, I had little to contribute to the movement of righting racial wrongs. My cultural markings, invisible to me, screamed “Caution!” to those outside my culture. It explains why, for so many years, my best efforts stagnated or backfired. Until I examined how racism shaped me, I had little hope that any person of color would want to engage with me around a problem I saw as theirs. Only when I began to explore and share my personal struggle to understand my racialized belief system did people of color start opening up to me, engaging with me in our common struggle.”[5]

Only when we share stories with one another—only when we see the fullness of one another’s struggles can any positive change come to fruition.

The Temple in Israel was a holy structure. It’s holiest component was the ark, because it contained the Ten Commandments. Above this ark there were two figures called Cherubim, facing one another.[6]  It was a great risk to showcase these figures so prominently. After all, the Israelites had been told not to make any idols, especially after the incident of the golden calf. These figures could very easily be mistaken for an idol. So why did God wish to introduce them?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that when God spoke to Moses, God did it between the two cherubim. “The message of this symbol was so significant that it was deemed by God himself to be sufficient to outweigh the risk of misunderstanding. God speaks where two persons turn their face to one another in love, embrace, generosity and care.”[7]

I went on the march because I wanted to do something about racial injustice, but I knew that first I needed to look into the faces of people who were suffering, so that we could come face to face one another in love, embrace, generosity, and care.

Each service we read the words of the V’ahavta which tell us to place the words of Torah upon our hearts. Our sages ask why we place them ON our hearts. Why not IN our hearts? And the answer: because sometimes our hearts are closed. We place the words on top of our hearts, and they stay there until one day our hearts break open and the words fall in.

Just like the Torah, stories of our fellow human beings lay upon our hearts. We must now crack our hearts open so that they can change us for the better.

We must see how our brothers and sisters of color are dying at alarming rates.

We must recognize that we have replaced Jim Crow laws with mass incarceration.

We must acknowledge that although our country is supposed to be the land of the free, until all people can vote, until people of all colors have the same access to education, and jobs, and security, we are not yet the home of the free.

Martin Luther King once said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”[8]

When we hear the pain of our fellow human being, we no longer have the privilege of standing on the sidelines. As Elie Wiesel taught us “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

So what do can you do?

  • This afternoon, at 1pm you are invited to reflect on this sermon, and to discuss racism with me, in the back of the social hall.
  • You can be an advocate. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in support of the voting rights act, which took away barriers people of color had to overcome in order to vote. Just two years ago, the Supreme Court undermined that bill, when it ruled that areas with disenfranchisement problems could make changes to election procedures without seeking clearance from the Department of Justice. Supreme Court Judges thought that in 2015, we didn’t need such provisions.

But they failed to see just how pervasive racism continues to be. Many communities have tested the limits of the their new power by introducing and sometimes passing restrictive voting laws which have limited citizen’s access to the voting box—especially citizens of color, who are poor, elderly or who are students. Today we are passing out postcards that can be mailed to Congress, in hopes that Voting rights can be reinstated. I encourage you to send them in.

  • We are blessed this year that a student from Hamilton, Lily Wasser, is serving as an intern for the Jewish community. In coordination with leaders in the area, she is helping me to foster productive dialogue between Jews and people of color, so that we face to face one another in love, embrace, generosity, and care. I hope we will have many exciting announcements, and opportunities to participate throughout the year 5776. In this way, we hope to follow the great legacy of Rabbi Bamberger, who worked tirelessly for racial equality in Utica, through the organization Bridge Builders.
  • October 21st is Utica’s Abolition History Day, to celebrate the 180th anniversary of the start of New York State Anti-slavery society. Speakers will include Rev. Robert Williams of Hope Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church, Dr. Kathryn Maria Silva, Assistant Professor of African and African-American History at Utica College, and our very own Mary Hayes Gordon, from the Oneida County Freedom Trail Commission. Flyers can be found the lobby, and you are encouraged to attend.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidim, taught “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to find each other find one another, their streams of light flow together and a single brighter light pours forth from their united being.”

Today we are separated by the color of our skin. We truly do live in different worlds from one another. But when we meet face to face, our worlds will collide, and all of us will be brighter for it.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.

[1] Catherine White, “The teenager who saved a man with an SS tattoo,” BBC News Magazine, Oct. 29, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24653643

[2] Shirley Chisholm in 1970 said “Racism is so universal in this country, so widespread and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.

[3] “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Neisi Coates, June 2014 Issue of the Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

In it, Coates points out that Affidavits later found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and their subprime products as “ghetto loans.” “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past, but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”

[4] Debby Irving, Waking Up White p.19

[5] Irving p.192

[6] Exodus 25:20

[7] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, to Heal a Fractured World, p. 54

[8] Martin Luther King Strength to Love, 1963.

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Kol Nidre Sermon

For the past month we’ve been self-reflecting, apologizing to people we have wronged, and working to accept the apologies of others. We have beat our chests with remorse, as we’ve considered how much more we’re capable of becoming. And then we began to make vows:

This year I will be less judgmental and more compassionate; less angry and more understanding.

This year I will spend more energy with those I love.

This year I will be more forgiving and more generous.

Just as we’re solidifying our vows we come to Kol Nidrei

Kol Nidrei veesare vacharomei v’konamei, v’chinuyei v’kinusei u’shvuot.

“All vows—resolves and commitments…

Sworn promises and oaths of dedication—

That we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves

From this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement…

Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone;

They are not valid and they are not binding….”[1]

If you’re puzzled by the words of Kol Nidrei you’re not alone. How can we nullify our commitments[2] before we even have a chance to put them into action? And why would we want to? The Kol Nidrei prayer—the very prayer for which tonight’s service is named—can feel confusing and even counter-intuitive.

For thousands of years rabbis have resisted the Kol Nidre. [3] In the 9th century, Rabbi Amram called the prayer foolish, but it was already too much a part of Judaism’s fabric to do away with. Quickly people became attached to the custom, and especially its stirring melody. By the time of Mordecai Kaplan, taking Kol Nidre out of Yom Kippur was sure to upset many people, who like us, are stirred every year by its powerful melody, so he left the melody and took out the words.

Other rabbis came up with a different solution: they changed the language of Kol Nidre, so that it no longer discussed annulling future vows, but rather vows from the past, which may have been made in good faith but proved too difficult to achieve.[4] In doing so, Kol Nidre would allow everyone to start the new year with a clean slate.

In many communities this change was accepted and proved meaningful, and yet many Ashkenazi prayer books—including ours—retain the original language of the prayer. How do we make sense of it?

At one time, historians thought that the Kol Nidrei “prayer” was created in the 7th century when the Visigoths forcefully converted Jews, or in the 14th or 15th century when Jews became Conversos—forced to “convert” and hide their true Jewish identity. We could understand in these circumstances why Jews would want to preemptively annul any vows they might be forced to take in order to survive.

These theories are romantic, but they as it turns out, they are inaccurate.

According to Baruch Levine[5] and Rabbi Dalia Marx,[6] Kol Nidre actually derived from the language of magical spells written on bowls between the 4th and 8th centuries, which were believed to protect against demonic powers, and other negative forces outside our control. The two scholars differ on one important point. While Baruch Levine suggests that Kol Nidre was written to ensure that demons didn’t interfere with the sanctity of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Dalia Marx believes that Kol Nidre prayers were meant in another context. Kol Nidre is legal as opposed to magical, oral as opposed to written, and communal as opposed to individualistic. “Kol Nidre does not deal with fear of demonic powers,” Rabbi Marx explains. It deals with “the fear of unfulfilled oaths and vows made by each worshipper.”

In other words we are so scared of not fulfilling our oaths that we begin Yom Kippur with a ritual to preemptively annul them. We are so scared about our imperfections that we are afraid to commit ourselves.

We worry what will happen if we don’t achieve our goals. What happens if we fail a test, make a mistake at work, lose our jobs, or if we occasionally lose patience with our child?

Most of us beat ourselves up about it with “could’ves” and “should’ves”—sometimes about factors entirely outside of our control—not being at the side of a parent who died without warning, not knowing immediately what was wrong with a screaming child, not being able to help a friend in need. We should’ve. We could’ve, if only we’d known. But we didn’t.

The fears that Rabbi Marx cites are real. They can be debilitating. When they are, Rabbi Kook urges us to stop: “When thoughts of fear and penitence occur to a person in a spirit of melancholy, let him distract his mind from them until his mind becomes more settled.”[7]

Being saddened by our past services no purpose, he explains. Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein agrees: “…when repentance [feelings of guilt and remorse] deepens and turns to grief, robbing of all quietude the heart in which it dwells, it ceases to serve its high function and becomes a destructive tool.”[8]

I believe that Kol Nidre gives us a powerful tool to overcome this melancholy and grief. That tool is self-compassion.

Self-compassion is extending compassion to ourselves in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. Self-compassion requires self-kindness, recognizing how much we have in common with others, and being mindful.

It starts with kindness.

We know what it is to be a good friend. When a friend makes a mistake and apologizes sincerely, we strive to forgive her. When a friend makes a mistake, we offer support and compassion, reminding him that his mistake doesn’t define him, or take away from what makes him so special. When a friend is down, we try to help.

But often we don’t treat ourselves with the same kindness. In fact, according recent research, people who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others don’t offer themselves the same self-compassion. They berate themselves for perceived failures, like being overweight.[9] One member of this congregation told me that she has trouble forgiving herself for mistakes she made when we was 6 or 7 years old. Another told me that when he was laid off, even though losing his job was due to the economy and not his failure, he saw his work status as evidence that he was not good enough.

We often criticize ourselves, explains Dr. Neff, because we believe we need that criticism to motivate us to succeed, when in actuality it strips us of our confidence and stalls us in our productivity. We perform far better when we feel supported and appreciated as opposed to when we feel berated and unappreciated. [10]

There is a debate in the Talmud in which rabbis disagree about the most important teaching in the Torah. Rabbi Akiva argues that the most important verse is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” a verse that inspires us to behave ethically. Except there is one challenge with the verse, explains Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman: “it’s relative. If we do not love ourselves then we will never learn to love our neighbor. And if we use that model, then how we treat others will be almost completely dependent on how we treat ourselves.”[11]

Another rabbi argues that the most important verse states that we are made in the image of God. We are sacred. Each of us as individuals, and all of us, as members of the human race.

Yom Kippur isn’t about tearing us down. It’s about building us up. Just as we show a friend compassion, we have the ability to do that for ourselves. When we fail, the goal is not to beat ourselves up but to understand what factors went into that perceived failure. We must recognize that we are made in the image of God, but we are also made of the dust of the earth.

We offer the words of Kol Nidre because we recognize that we are human. We are imperfect, and we will make mistakes. We don’t annul our vows to get out of them. We do it to forgive ourselves when we aren’t able to achieve them.

Self-compassion sometimes gets a bad reputation for leading to self-indulgence or lower standards. Dr. Kristen Neff explains that is anything but the truth.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner taught that it is easy to just say we made a few mistakes and promise to never do them again. We do this all the time. On the high holy days we do much more:  “We receive whatever evils we have intended and done, back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again. And thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t just hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.”

We hold ourselves when we recognize that everyone makes mistakes.

We hold ourselves when we recognize that every decision we made we made for a reason.

We hold ourselves when we recognize our capabilities and limitations.

We hold ourselves when we recognize where we excel and where we have room for growth.

And we hold ourselves when we remember that every action and every decision we have made have helped us to become the people we are today.

Rav Kook reminds us that it is important to partake in repentance and not penitence. Penitence focuses us entirely on past mistakes. It opens the door to “should’ves” and “could’ves.” As Rabbi Lichtenstein explains, When we permit repentance to bite too deeply into our soul, we are simply inviting… unhappiness in the name of atonement. We are, in reality, making atonement more distant by making ourselves miserable.”[12]

Repentance, however, focuses squarely on the future. We look back on the year with one purpose only: to ascertain where we are, and where we are going. When we make a mistake, adds Rabbi Lichtenstein, “We do not need to rebuke our past or punish ourselves for it, we have to transcend it, to live a better life in the present and aspire to an even better one in the future….” [13]

Now is the time when we consider not the mistakes we’ve made, but why we’ve made them. We work to overcome the root causes for our errors rather than the errors themselves. This is hard work, and we may be unsuccessful at first. Kol Nidre reminds us that it is okay to fail. Annulling our vows means that far more important than the outcome is the effort. All of a sudden making vows isn’t quite so scary. As long as we put our heart into them, succeed or not, we will prevail. Because 5776 will be a year of growth, of improvement, and of increased blessing by virtue of our effort.

“Yom Kippur begins by annulling our vows, but just as significant, it ends with us making a vow: L’maan nechdal meioshek yadeinu—“We vow to withdraw our hands from all that we have taken wrongfully.”

It is one thing to make a vow at the end of Yom Kippur, but our sages question why we end the Holy Day with this particular vow. Is stealing that prevalent of a problem? The Gerer Rebbe says no. The theft refers to that which we steal from God when we do not live up to our true potential.

When we stop trying, when we stop believing in ourselves, when we allow fear of failure to stop us from becoming the people we are capable of becoming, the Gerer Rebbe says we are stealing away our potential.

Alternatively, if we acknowledge our limitations, but try to do our best anyway we will uphold our sacred vow.

We begin Yom Kippur by giving ourselves permission to annul our vows. We end it by vowing to believe in ourselves anyway. That is the true nature of repentance.

[1] Mishkan HaNefesh p18

[2] Nedarim 23b teaches about an ancient custom allowing people to nullify vows they will make. It does spell out some ground rules, however: they need to have those specific vows they wish to break in mind as they say the prayer, and they cannot teach the rule publically, so that vows aren’t treated lightly.

[3] Jews were historically called disingenuous many time because of this prayer. Menasse ben Israel tried to convince Oliver Cromwell to readmit Jews to England in the 17th century, saying that Kol Nidre didn’t mean that Jews couldn’t be trusted. Similiarly, in 1910, the Berlin paper Staatzburger-Zeitung called Kol Nidre an insult to civilization: “Like the Talmud, it is a culpable deception of the Aryans by the Jews. A Jew can commit perjury in court; his religious convictions allow him to do it. He may brand truth a lie and ruin his fellow man. These moral dues of Judaism are a criminal assault on humanity and civilization.”

[4] Sephardic liturgy changed the language to say “from last Yom Kippur to this one.” Ashkenazi Jews, such as Rabbi Meir ben Rabbi Samuel (son in law of Rashi), tried to change the tenses as well. They were less successful because at that time everyone was attached to the music and the words.

[5] Levine, Baruch. “The Language of the Magical Bowls.” In A History of the Jews of Babylonia. Vol. 5 Ed. Jacob Neusner. Leiden, 1970.

[6] “Marx, Dalia. “What’s in a Bowl?” in All These Vows: Kol Nidre, Ed. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Jewish Lights Publishing. Woodstock, VT, 2011, p.26-30.

[7] Kook, Rabbi Abraham Isaac; Abraham Isaac Kook; Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, trans.; Paulist Press; p102 (“The Lights of Penitence/Orot HaTeshuva”).

[8] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; Society of Jewish Science; p 212.

[9] “Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges” by Tara Parker-Pope, NYTimes.com, February 28,2011. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/go-easy-on-yourself-a-new-wave-of-research-urges/?_r=0

[10] The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion: Kristin Neff at TEDxCentennialParkWomen

[11] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-geoffrey-a-mitelman/self-compassion_b_836448.html

[12] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; Society of Jewish Science; p 212.

[13] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; Society of Jewish Science; p 212.

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For the Sake of Heaven: Sermon for RH morning

The past several weeks I have debated whether or not to speak about the Iran nuclear deal[1] on Rosh Hashanah. On one hand, I am acutely aware that I am not an expert in international relations, nuclear physics, or national security. On the other hand, this is an issue of upmost importance for us, both as Jews and as Americans.

Several of us are deeply concerned about the deal. Some of us have lobbied on behalf of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC,) which expresses concern that it might “facilitate rather than prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would further entrench and empower the leading state sponsor of terror.”[2] Rabbi Rick Block, a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, explains:

“Under prior legislation, most sanctions on Iran were to sunset only when the president certified to Congress that Iran no longer provides support for acts of international terrorism and has ‘ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of, and verifiably dismantled, its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles and ballistic missile launch technology.’ The deal accomplishes none of these goals. Rather, Iran receives as much as $150 billion in frozen assets, will reap immense profits from post-sanctions commerce, and can spend as much as it will to promote terrorism. Much of its nuclear infrastructure remains intact and it can continue R&D in weaponization….Administration officials initially promised a deal would include “anytime, anywhere” inspections. This one does no such thing. Instead, a cumbersome, convoluted process to address Iranian violations provides ample time to conceal most kinds of evidence.”[3]

At the same time, just as many of us believe that while the deal is not perfect, it is the best viable option. Many of us have endorsed the Jewish organization, J-Street, which issued this statement:

“[This] agreement…is the best chance for keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon…. It creates the most rigorous, intrusive inspection regime in history. It opens Iran’s program to the light of day, keeping illicit military uses off the table. It protects the international sanctions regime, allowing them to snap back into place if Iran cheats. It puts a long-term, lasting end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And it cripples Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, blocking every pathway to a bomb.”[4]

“The agreement prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for 10-15 years,” said Eran Etzion, Former Deputy Head of the Israel National Security Council, “this agreement is not about trust, it’s about verification.” Former Mossad Director Efraim Halevy added, “Without an agreement, Iran will be free to act as it wishes, whereas the sanctions regime against it will crumble in any case…if the nuclear issue is of cardinal existential importance, what is the point of canceling an agreement that distances it from the bomb?” [5]

Both sizes of the debate have produced thoughtful arguments for their positions, neither having an exclusive claim to the Jewish communal voice. This morning, I do not wish to convince you that one side is more correct than the other. Rather, I’d like to speak to the nature of the debate itself: something about which our Jewish tradition has a lot to say.

I have been incredibly disheartened by the way in which this important discussion has progressed into an outlet of poisonous rhetoric, name-calling and fear-mongering.[6] Some supporters of the deal have made terrible accusations about opponents of the deal—particularly Jewish ones, even when their decisions weren’t primarily out of a concern with Israel. Such opponents have been called “Netanyahu’s marionettes,” “warmongers,” or “traitors.” New York Senator Charles Schumer was subjected to many of these accusations. When he came out against the deal, one website posted a cartoon of a news reporter calling a woodchuck version of Charles Schumer “traitor”, as the American flag in the frame was suddenly transformed into an Israeli flag.[7] Sadly, many others were also accused of dual-loyalty or of being traitors. A CNN reporter made a different and equally disturbing accusation: that Schumer’s motives were primarily economic. He said, “If [Schumer] were to support this deal, he knows it would create a firestorm of opposition, particularly among…. wealthy supporters.”[8] In other words, this reporter didn’t believe that Schumer’s stance on the issue was rooted in careful deliberation or a deep concern for the US, Israel and the world. Rather, he believed that the only possible reason that Schumer could have to oppose the deal is selfish financial gain. It is hard to recover from that accusation with any level of productive civil discourse.

The poisonous rhetoric of this debate has not been one sided, either. President Obama has been accused of effectively declaring war on Israel, or of leading Israel “to the door of the ovens,”[9] a startling allusion to the Holocaust. Others have slandered the Obama administration, saying that it had become “the leading financier of terrorism against America in the world,”[10] and that John Kerry was an agent of the Iranian government. As one of the 440 rabbis who signed a note in support of the proposal, I have personally been accused of not being a “real rabbi,” of being a traitor, an Israel-hater, an Arab-lover, and my personal favorite: a Nazi fascist.

This use of language is not just unfortunate. It is not just hateful rhetoric spewed without consideration for the people being attacked. It is not just polarizing. It is downright toxic. Whoever said “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” was absolutely wrong. And words don’t just hurt the person they’re used against: they hurt the very fabric of our community, more than we might even realize.

There is a verse in the Talmud—a Jewish book of wisdom, which explains that 24k disciples of Rabbi Akiva died at the same time. The reason? שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה

“because they did not behave with respect for one another.”[11]

Upon hearing this text we might wonder if this was some kind of divine retribution. Was God punishing them for not treating one another with respect?

Prolific writer, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin does not believe it was a punishment at all. Rather, it was a “natural outgrowth” of the mistrust that existed between them. When Rabbi Akiva’s disciples stopped having civil conversations, and stopped treating one another with a basic level of respect, they could no longer work in tandem. They lost the ability to cooperate with each-other even when cooperation was needed for their very survival.

Consider two Jewish communities during the start of World War II. The Nazis had invaded Poland and the Jews of the Lodz ghetto were terrified. Leo Baeck, the leading Reform rabbi in Germany sent Rabbi Frank Rosenthal on a special mission to meet with the Jewish leaders in Lodz. He wished to offer them suggestions as to how some Jews could be saved from the Nazis. To Rosenthal’s dismay, the Jewish leaders in Lodz refused to listen to anything he had to say. According to historian Leonard Baker, “Much of their distrust stemmed from him being a German Jew, not an eastern European Jew, as well as a representative of the leading Berlin Jews. The Lodz Jews could not forget the offensiveness that they and their fellow eastern European Jews had met years earlier when they came to Berlin. Rosenthal’s mission was a failure.”[12]

In other words, because the Jews from Lodz had once been treated with contempt by their fellow Jews from Berlin, they could not bring themselves to trust a German rabbi, even if doing so could save lives. They were so sure that they were right—so sure that they shouldn’t trust the German Jews—so fixated on what distinguished them from one another that they failed to see how much they had in common, something which feels so obvious to us today. They were all Jews, struggling to survive under the Nazi regime. If only they had seen past their differences, how many more lives could have been saved?

It is hard to believe that anyone could feel so hurt that they would be entirely unwilling to listen to suggestions of someone wishing to help, especially in these circumstances, but it goes to show how damaging rhetoric and polemics can be.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains how we naturally align ourselves with groups—be they political, religious, or something else. When we agree with our groups we actually receive a hit of dopamine, which can be addictive. We do this because it is so powerful to be surrounded by others who view the world the way that we do: so powerful in fact that we are sometimes willing to adjust our view of the world for the sake of the group. In some ways, this can be positive. We are not solely concerned about ourselves, but rather for the group as a whole. We work towards forwarding the same mission.

The downside to this, of course, is that we fail to see the merits of those who disagree with us. Researcher David Perkins brought people of various ages and levels of education to a lab, asking them to think about social issues, such as “Would giving more money to schools improve the quality of teaching and learning?” Students were asked to write down their initial judgement. Then they were asked to write down reasons in favor of their initial judgement and reasons why someone might be on “the other side” of the debate. Perkins found that the higher the IQ of the participant, the more reasons they came up with in favor of their initial judgment. The more intelligent, the better the lawyer. But then Perkin’s results become more disturbing. People with higher IQs were no more likely to come up with solid “other-side” arguments than people with lower IQs. Perkins concluded that “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”[13]

Even the most intelligent among us are unlikely to recognize that there are powerful, legitimate reasons for being on either side of many current debates, the Iran nuclear deal included.

Because we cannot see the world through one another’s eyes, there is a trend to avoid debate altogether—a trend which sparked the saying “In polite company, it’s not proper to talk about politics or religion.”

In order to remain “polite” almost every social justice issue on the Jewish scene now has an organized policy to avoid making any stance about Israel for fear of polarity. Congregations all over the country are fearful about engaging in conversation about Israel, Iran, gun violence, and so many issues which are plaguing our community not just on a political level, but on a human one.

Think of how much we’re losing by following suit: congregants with a point of view different from the majority, who become less active out of fear of uncivil discourse; people who choose not to engage with Jewish life because it’s not addressing the issues that matter to us the most; Opportunities for new initiatives and events.

Even the Stanley Theater refused to host an Israeli-Palestinian band for fear of it sparking outrage, from someone.

Friends, I understand why we might wish to avoid debate in a world in which debate can be uncivil and unfair. But avoiding debate altogether has never ever been the Jewish way. We are Jewish. “Two Jews, three opinions” is our motto. We can do better than this!

As you may know there were two competing rabbinic voices in the Talmud: Hillel and Shammai. One group said “The law is according to our position.” And the other said “The law is according our position.” God answered saying “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim– These words AND those words are the BOTH the words of the living God.”[14] Although they are competing beliefs, they are both right. They both contain wisdom. When will we look at two sides in a debate and realize that we can learn so much from one another?

Another Jewish text talks about the nature of controversy. It says “A controversy for the sake of Heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for the sake of Heaven? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for the sake of Heaven? The rebellion of Korach.[15]

Korach was a priest, but did not have the social standing he desired. Like a small child he asked “Why does Aaron get to head Priest?” and “Why is Moses our leader?” He sparked outrage amongst the Israelites in hopes of stripping Moses and Aaron of power and claiming it for himself.

Korach created a controversy out of his desire for power. Hillel and Shammai debated over a controversy that already existed, in pursuit of answers. Korach had no desire to debate: his mind was made up. Hillel and Shammai approached the debate wishing to learn from one another, and to grow. They debated for the sake of heaven. Korach did not.

Israeli writer Yehuda Amichai offers a poem entitled “The Place Where We Are Right.”:

From the place where we are right

flowers will never grow

in the Spring.

The place where we are right

is hard and trampled

like a yard.

But doubts and loves

dig up the world

like a mole, a plough.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

where the ruined

house once stood.

Amichai wrote this poem around the time of Israeli independence, in a world of great controversy and harsh words, even amidst the excitement of a new state.

The poem today can be found near the exit of the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, as if to demonstrate that the country’s foundation, and its road to peace rests on our abilities to see the humanity, even in our opponents.

Amichai underscores the commonalities we all share: the anxieties and concerns we hold, as well as the priorities and loves that matter to us most.

What if we approached the topic of the Iran Nuclear Deal with the acknowledgement that although we might come to different conclusions all of us are forming our opinions centered around our a love of Israel, a love of the United States, and a concern for overall safety? “How might things change if we began our political conversation not from our certainties but from our doubts and loves?”[16] How might that have changed our debate? How might that change future debates?

As of today, Congress and the Senate have not yet voted on the Iran nuclear deal, but we know the deal is an inevitability. The votes are there. Now is the time to focus on doubts and the loves we have in common, to ask the questions “What can we do to support our government in enforcing this deal?” and “How can we work to support the strongest possible US-Israel relationships going forward?” But those are not the only questions we must ask. The Iran Nuclear Deal is a huge controversy, but it is not the only controversy of import. We must also ask “How do we wish to participate in the debate next time?”

In the past several weeks I have been approached by a handful of people wishing to have civil discussions about the issues that so deeply affect our lives. I, myself, have been hesitant to say yes, for fear of an uncivil discourse.

And yet, we stand on the backs of giants, like Hillel and Shammai, and Yehuda Amichai. We come from a tradition that upholds the beauty of the individual. Ben Zoma taught “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.”[17] Looking out at all of you at this moment I am reminded of the Jewish blessing we say when in the presence of a crowd:

Blessed is the One who knows secrets—Blessed is the One who understands that this crowd is filled with individuals, each of whom have their own secrets, uniqueness and individual needs. Blessed is the one who sees these differences as a blessing. Blessed is the one who understands that truth, itself, is multifaceted.

We come from a tradition which upholds the beauty of civil debate.

And we, too, can choose to model the teachings of Hillel and Shammai, to debate for the sake of heaven.

In the coming weeks ahead, I will be meeting with members of the congregation who wish to build a strong foundation for civil, Jewish debate. If you are interested in joining this task force, please let me know; it would be an honor to include you.

Together we can create an environment in which we can share our views while inviting in curiosity, collaboration and constructive debate.

Let’s make it happen, for the sake of Heaven.

[1] The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

[2] http://www.aipac.org/learn/resources/aipac-publications/publication?pubpath=PolicyPolitics/Press/AIPAC%20Statements/2015/07/AIPAC%20Statement%20on%20Proposed%20Iran%20Nuclear%20Agreement

[3] http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/250950-deal-or-no-deal

[4] http://act.jstreet.org/sign/tell-congress-support-deal/?akid=

[5]http://www.jewishjournal.com/rabbijohnrosovesblog/item/many_israeli_experts_believe_the_iran_deal_is_a_supportable_deal_despite_it

[6] See Congressman Jerrome Nadler’s 5200 word essay about the rhetoric of this debate: https://medium.com/@RepJerryNadler/congressman-jerrold-nadler-statement-on-the-p5-1-joint-comprehensive-plan-of-action-f7ca527e3f50

[7] http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/08/08/1409827/-Cartoon-Animal-Nuz-263-Shame-on-Schumer-Edition#

[8] Fareed Zarakania on CNN

[9] Mike Huckabee made this delightful accusation.

[10] Ted Cruz

[11] Talmud Bavli Yevamot 62b

[12] From words by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin http://engage.jewishpublicaffairs.org/c/627/p/salsa/web/common/public/content?content_item_KEY=10440

[13] Perkins, Farady, and Buskey 1991, as quoted in The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, p. 94-5.

[14] Eruvin 13b

[15] Mishnah Avot 5:19

[16] Parker Palmer http://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-place-where-we-are-right/6630

[17] Mishnah Avot 4:1

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A Call to Justice, in memory of the victims in Charleston

God gave Aaron and his sons an important task: they were to protect the holy Tabernacle, and the sacred utensils within. They would be responsible to ensure that the temple remained holy, and the people who worshiped were safe and were inspired.

Ata uvanecha uveit avicha itach tisu et avon hamikdash. “You and your sons [the priests] shall bear any iniquity, any guilt connected with the sanctuary.”

You are responsible, God said, to make sure that immorality stays outside of its doors, and that this holy place remains holy.

Well, today, there is no Aaron. The priests of the Temple are long gone. So how do we keep our holy places holy?

In the past week, there was not one, but two acts of hatred and violence within holy places of the world. These are the places where people study and worship and console and comfort and celebrate one another. These are the places where people devote themselves to making this world a little better, and a little more inspired. This week they were violated.

Who is responsible when a band of Jewish extremists damages a church on the Sea of Galilee because they believe the church is engaging in idol worship?

Who is responsible when a 21 year old white man, with hatred in his heart walks into a historic black church, spends an hour studying the bible, and then opens fire, brutally murdering nine people inside, because he believes that “blacks were taking over the world,” and that “someone needed to do something about it for the white race.”[1]

Who is responsible? Surely the perpetrators are responsible; it was their actions. But the responsibility does not and cannot end there. It must also be ours.

The Israeli extremists were not just crazy people doing crazy things. Suspect Dylann Roof was not just “one of these whacked-out kids…[not] anything broader than that.”[2] It was something broader than that. Of course it was! Yes, Roof is a disturbed individual, but he is not one of a kind. In a community that proudly lifts up the confederate flag, and names its streets after confederate generals, Roof’s racist beliefs are condoned on a daily basis. This is not the first time a black church has been targeted. It has happened many times before. Roof didn’t enter the church at random. He admits that he walked in to a historic black church, wearing a sweatshirt with a Rhodesia on it, not just because he wanted to kill black people, but because he wanted to start a civil war within Charleston.

Tomorrow we’ll read about Korach, a priest who perceived Aaron and Moses as threats with too much power. He responds by trying to spark a civil war of his own, filling the minds and hearts of Israelites with feelings of anger and resentment. Korach’s followers bring their fire-pans and incense to a showdown, insisting God will accept their offerings over the ones from Moses and Aaron. God, who had given Aaron his role as a high priest, and who had made Korach a kind of priest as well, was none too pleased. Even after Korach and his followers lost their civil war, and even after people lost their lives, the Torah teaches something very interesting: The fire pans the rebels used against Aaron and Moses were declared holy, by God. They were not discarded. They were not hidden beneath fire and ash. They were saved, and were treated as holy vessels which the priests would be forced to see and use every single day. They would be constant reminders of the pain of the rebellion of the lives that were lost and of the insidious nature of hatred.

Now I know this may be uncomfortable. We don’t want to think about hatred, or the shame and guilt that goes along with the privilege of having lighter colored skin. We don’t want to think any more than we have to about the consequences of racism. We don’t want to want to think about these events too much because they make the world feel scary and painful. They can make peace feel unattainable.

But God declared the instruments holy. God declared that we may not forget. We may not put these events from our minds because racism does not stop simply because we stop seeing it. It isn’t enough to say “We’re sorry.” It isn’t enough to say “I’m not racist,” even if we aren’t. We are Jews, or we love Jews enough that we are here today. We know oppression. We know hatred. And we know what it feels like to be deafened by the silence of good people who chose to not raise their voices when they see injustice. We know too well.

We cannot discard this story of disgust and put it from our minds. Because if we do, it will happen again. And again. And again. And I don’t want to give this sermon again.

Let us instead have conversations about the racism that is such a pervasive force in our country. Let us instead think about what we can do to combat racism.

When we hear a racist slur, do we always explain how hateful those words can be?

When we fight for the education of our children, are we also fighting for the fair education for all people of all backgrounds throughout our great nation?

When we wish to hire someone for a job are we making sure that we are posting the job in places that all qualified people may have access to? Do we notice when we walk into store after store and find that every person in management is white?

Are we speaking to our senators and representatives about more racial equality within our justice system, knowing that people of color are far more likely to be put in prison than white people for the very same crimes? Knowing that people who have darker colored skin have a very different kind of relationship with police than those of us who are privileged to look white?

We must not be bystanders. We must take action, have a voice wherever we can, because we are responsible. Your voice matters far more than you may  even realize.

There was nothing holy about Korach’s actions to start a civil war. There was nothing holy about his hatred. But the instruments he used to demonstrate were transformed into instruments of holiness, so that the priests could have reminders of how important it is combat hatred.

There was nothing holy about Roof’s racist beliefs, or his violent actions. There was nothing holy about killing The honorable Rev. Pickney, Rev. Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Simmons Sr., Rev. Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson. There was nothing holy about that.

But perhaps if we remember them, if we do not turn away our eyes, and instead recognize and respond to the racism that exists so rampantly in the US—and yes, right here, in Utica—then maybe just maybe we can transform Roof’s hate into passion for justice, and for racial equality. Perhaps we can transform the memory of Roof’s nine victims, who did not choose to die for cause, into fuel to help us create a more holy and just community, both within these temple walls and outside of them.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.

[1] http://www.uticaod.com/article/20150619/NEWS/150619329/0/SEARCH

[2] As presidential hopeful Senator Lindsey Graham said

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Fast of the Firstborn

Today is for the innocents,

children who died in a world of cruelty

they were too young to create,

mothers and fathers, old ladies and men

swept away with tides of hatred and despair.

Today is for hospital workers,

And school teachers

Who couldn’t control from where bombs would emerge

Who were powerless in a world of fear.

Today we fast,

Because we know

that each life is another world

lost to us forever

Even when there is no other way,

Even in war,

We mourn

Because we must.

Today we fast

And we dream

Of a day when good people need not lose their lives

When waves of hatred will be but ripples

In a sea of comradely and love,

faith so strong it can divide waters,

paving for us the path to freedom.

Until that day we fast.

We fast and we dream.

Hopefully not for long.

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And so Elul begins

In upstate New York, leaves begin to change incredibly early. Weeks ago, we drove by a tree already beginning to display the vibrant oranges and reds of fall. Josh loves the fall: its cool breezes, the colors of nature, pumpkin lattes, and the bottle of single malt scotch I attempt to surprise him with as the temperatures drop. My reaction is somewhat different. “Shhhhh.” I tell him. “I’m not ready for summer to be over.”

In part my sentiments are family related. The summer offers me more freedom with my schedule, more time to explore through the wonder-filled eyes of my three and a half year old and almost 2 year old.

But it is also theological. I’m not ready for the start to a new year. No matter how far along I am with my sermons and High Holy Day plans, I am nowhere near ready. To misquote the name of a magnificent book by Alan Lew, “This is real and I am completely unprepared.”

The High Holy Day season is pregnant with emotions and possibilities: to forgive and be forgiven, and to find peace in a world that feels broken– this year more than most. To get in touch with myself and with God, and to let the past go. It also offers the opportunity to start again, to challenge myself to do better and to make this year the most inspired, meaningful and joyous year yet.

On the first of Elul, I can no longer ignore the slowly changing leaves. The time has come for this intensive but incredibly rewarding journey.

Fall doesn’t wait for us to be prepared. Few things in life do.

Ready or not, Elul is here. Bring it on.

 

 

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Rebuking Syria

Yom Kippur Morning 5774

 

We’ve seen the images on TV, in the newspapers and online. On August 21, opposition-controlled areas of Syria were barraged with rockets containing lethal sarin gas, leaving more than 1400 people dead, and thousands more suffering the ill effects of this poison.

 

We know this was not the first time Bashar al-Assad attacked his own people. In fact, in the past two years, fighting between the ruling Alawite Muslims and the Sunni rebel groups had led to 110,000 deaths, 1.6 million people forced to leave the county, over 4 million fleeing their homes, and a civilization in ruins.[1] The conflict stems from a centuries old hatred between the Sunnis and Alawites, who have a long history of being degraded and abused by the ruling Sunnis. Once the Alawites gained power, they—Assad included—wanted revenge on the Sunnis. The Sunni rebel groups—up to 50% of which are made up of Al Qaeda—want revenge of their own. In the crossfire, innocent civilians fear for their lives—from hunger, disease, shelling, and now chemical weapons.

 

***

 

This afternoon we will read the story of Jonah. In it, God asks Jonah to travel to Nineveh, to convince the sinning Ninevinians to change their evil ways or face the repercussions of their actions. If he failed to convince the Ninevinians to change their ways, he was a terrible prophet, but the Ninevinians would receive their rightful punishment for their misdeeds.

 

If he was successful, he would lose all credibility when the people never had to face the consequences of their actions. Sure, they would have repented—but essentially, they would get away with it. Shouldn’t they pay for their mistakes? Shouldn’t they suffer the way they made the others suffer?

 

Jonah despises both options. So he decides to pick option three: he tried to flee.

 

***

 

President Obama tried to act as the prophet when he declared a “red line,” hoping that his words would convince Assad to refrain from using chemical weapons. Now that has failed, leaving us with a choice. We can chose to act, no matter how unpopular this position might be—or we can choose option 3: we can walk away from the situation, minding our own business.

 

Perhaps it is so surprise, that like Jonah, the American people in staggering numbers are asking for option three: to flee, to stay out of it while we still can. This is a civil war that we don’t have the resources or position to solve.

 

To some extent these arguments are well founded. We have been fighting wars in the Middle East for the past decade and what exactly have they solved? Is it really wise to get involved in yet another out-of-control Middle Eastern county?

 

Furthermore, our country is in the midst of a painfully slow process of rebuilding from the recession. Perhaps now is the time to focus on issues within our own country before we solve all the ills of the world. After all, Hillel said “If I am not for myself, who will be?”[2]

 

I get it. We’ve been burned, and we’re hurting. But if we wait until our needs are met before we ever act on another’s behalf, will we ever act for anyone? What kind of a world would that be?

***

 

As the Jonah story continues, God finds Jonah on his boat. A storm tosses the boat from side to side, until Jonah realizes what is going on and jumps in the water in hopes that God will leave the sailors alone. A huge whale swallows Jonah and takes him towards Nineveh.

 

Jonah tried to run away, but as it turns out, fleeing wasn’t an option, after all.

***

 

In a world so tightly connected, where the suffering of people ripples like torrents throughout the globe, where growing evil is not just a threat to the “other” but to us, as well, we, like Jonah, may not have the luxury of running away—at least not without serious consequences.

 

 

Obama’s “red line” against chemical weapons was perhaps not his smartest move, but it was one made from a place of sincerity. Obama, like any decent human being was repulsed by the idea that a government could so callously gas its own people.[3] In a speech at the white house, he remarked “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”[4]

 

Our Torah portion this afternoon tells us “הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו—You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, so that you don’t bear sin because of him.” [5] We have a responsibility to speak up, or we too are culpable. Obama couldn’t live with that on his hands. And he was not alone.

 

Israeli President Shimon Peres went so far as to say, “The world cannot accept genocide and slaughter of children and women… Assad is not his people’s leader—he is a murderer of children,” while former writer for Haaretz, Ari Shavit, wrote: “If civilians can be gassed to death in 2013, we face the end of the world. It’s the end of the world that purports to be moral and enlightened. It’s the end of the world that sought to establish a reasonable international order of which the Middle East would be part.”

 

Neither Peres nor Shavit were willing to stand idly by as their neighbor bleeds. [6] Are we?

 

It wasn’t that long ago that the world stood by as our fellow Jews died in the concentration camps. Then, our nation and its citizens stood by, knowing some of the atrocities going on, and we did nothing. We did not so much as let a ship of Jews into the US when it had nowhere else to turn. Surely we have learned from our mistakes. Surely now we know not to be a bystander to the gruesome, repugnant use of chemical weapons!

 

We cannot undo past wrongs, but we can repent for them, and do all that we can to ensure they do not happen again.

 

 

 

 

 

This was holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel’s intention when he said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented… There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

 

Hokeach Tokiach—You shall surely rebuke your neighbor.

 

We want to rebuke Assad. We know what he did is revolting, unfathomable. We talk about it, we write about it, we create facebook posts and tweet about it. We may even pick up the phone and call our representatives about it.

 

Perhaps like, Jonah, we want such a sinner to suffer, to deal with the consequences—however great. He deserves it.

 

Perhaps we feel if we denounce his actions we have done our part—if we speak up, we are no longer bystanders.

 

But Rava has a different idea about Hokeach tokiach. He teaches that the verb “to rebuke” is repeated in Leviticus to teach us “Rebuke—even 100 times”[7] In other words, you must speak out and work in every way you can to bring about change. Airing one criticism is not enough. Doing one action is not enough. We are required to use whatever means to bring about change.

 

Rava is not interested, like Jonah, in retribution. He is interested in teshuva—change.

 

The verse about rebuking our neighbor is sandwiched between two powerful teachings:

 

The first:

בְּצֶדֶק, תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ. With justice you shall judge your neighbor.[8]

 

Do not judge your neighbor with an angry heart. Rather judge him with justice, with righteousness. Don’t seek vengeance and revenge—that has rarely done any good. Instead, seek righteousness.

 

 

The second:

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ You shall love your neighbor as yourself.[9]

 

Realize that people of Syria are people. This civil war is happening for a reason. A country run by a series of trigger happy military tribes has a different mindset than we can fully comprehend as 21st century Americans.

 

We must consider the words of Marc Gopin: “What was the engine that drove the Arab Spring in the first place? The yearning for freedom, empowerment and new civil societies.” The people of Syria are not evil—but they are willing to pay an awfully high price for what they see is their only path to freedom. Gopin continues, “At the end of the day, all social change that is lasting, and that dwarfs militarized chaos, is the change that happens inside hearts and minds, the change that happens in between human beings of great diversity and difference.”[10]

 

I, like you, have no idea what the future will bring. Although I am pleased that Syria is in the midst of diplomatic talks to hand over its stash of chemical weapons, I remain highly skeptical that the deal will move to fruition. I don’t know what we should do, militarily, if Russia is less than sincere or Syria does not fully comply with the negotiations.

 

But here is what I do know:

 

We have a responsibility to look out for the humanitarian needs of the millions of Syrian victims. We have a responsibility to rebuke 100 times—to at least try in the best ways we know how to end this cycle of hatred and violence.

 

Many countries and organizations are trying to do just that.

 

Recently, the UN World Food Programme broadcasted that it needs $2 billion per year just to keep Syrian people barely alive. The United Nations made an unprecedented appeal for $5 billion—a request Kuwait, the US and other states have begun to answer.

 

As Marc Gopin reminds us, “To be truly competitive with the unwinnable military options we must now inject not just food into the mouths of the innocent, but inject empowerment and preparation for a future into a dying and desperate people”[11]

 

It is not enough to give people food and hope for the best. Our obligations are far deeper.

 

This is why Israeli hospitals in the Golan Heights are treating trauma victims, even though the nations have no diplomatic relationship or open borders.[12] The North American Jewish community rallied to support the cause of Syrian refugees by opening a fund[13] through the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR).[14]

 

This is why countless projects are springing up to combat the hatred in the region. There are efforts to create summer camps bringing kids from desperate backgrounds in Syria together- people who would otherwise never have the opportunity to get to know the “other.”

 

“Every project, every engagement with every person in the region that models and empowers that basic reality is one small step toward a different future,” explains Gopin. “Civil society building is the one true way to save the face of the human community as they look on this monstrous Assad regime, a final product of Cold War rivalry, Gulf rivalry and a massive failure to bring Iran into the international community. Humanitarian missiles are the only ones that will ultimately smash the foundations of both brutal, corrupted regimes and corrupted jihadist enterprises jumping up and down for Gulf cash. All of them are illegitimate, but if you want to wipe them clean from history, try humanitarian missiles. They work.”[15]


[1] According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, between March 2011 and August 31, 2013,  110,371 people died—40,146 civilians including 4,000 women and 5,800 children; 21,850 rebels; 27,654 members of the regime’s army, 17,824 pro-regime militia; 171 people from Hezbolla; and 2,726 unidentified people.

[2] Pirkei Avot 1:14

[3] Jeffrey Goldberg “Obama is About to Undermine his Mideast Doctrine” in Bloomberg 8/29/13

[5] Leviticus 19:17

[6] Leviticus 19:16

[7] Bava Metzia 31a

[8] Leviticus 19:15

[9] Leviticus 19:18

[10] Marc Gopin “Humanitarian Missiles are Superior to Cruise Missiles” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-gopin/humanitarian-missiles-are_b_3831768.html 8/31/13

[11] Marc Gopin “Humanitarian Missiles are Superior to Cruise Missiles” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-gopin/humanitarian-missiles-are_b_3831768.html 8/31/13

[12] Isabel Kershner “Across Forbidden Border Doctors in Israel Quietly Tent to Syria’s Wounded” New York Times 8/5/13 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/06/world/middleeast/across-forbidden-border-doctors-in-israel-quietly-tend-to-syrias-wounded.html?pagewanted=1&_r=4&

[14] Isaac Nuell “Syrian Refugees” 8/16/13, RAC http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2013/08/16/syrian-refugees/

[15] Marc Gopin “Humanitarian Missiles are Superior to Cruise Missiles” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-gopin/humanitarian-missiles-are_b_3831768.html 8/31/13

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One deed leads to another

Kol Nidre sermon, 5774

 

Toby prided himself on having a good moral character. Respectful, honest and compassionate, he jumped up in fear when he saw his father slumped over in his garden, afraid he was having a heart attack. When he got to his father, he saw he had been reading the newspaper. There on the front page was the news that broke his heart—his brother had been convicted for fraud.

 Toby’s father asked him to promise that he would never, ever do anything this immoral. No problem, said Toby. And he meant it.

 Little did he know that 22 years later, the same judge would convict him of a 7 million dollar bank fraud driving several companies out of business, resulting in a hundred people being laid off!

 In prison, Toby wondered—“Was he a bad person? Was this genetic?”

How did this happen? How did such a good caring boy do something so awful?

 It all began when he created his own mortgage company. Toby had a reputation for being ethical and fair: to his employees and customers alike. But in 2004, Toby sorted his books to find several errors putting the company 240k in debt. He decided his best option was to get a loan—taking out a second mortgage on his house. Except the only way he could do that was to lie about his income.

 That was the first lie. “There wasn’t much of a thought process,” he says. “I felt like, at that point, that was a small price to pay and almost like a cost of doing business. You know, things are going to happen, and I just needed to do whatever I needed to do to fix that. It wasn’t like … I didn’t think that I was going to be losing money forever or anything like that.”

 But weeks later, Toby discovered more substantial losses at the company. He didn’t have more money, and he had already mortgaged his house. He desperately wanted to save his company, and save the jobs of people he employed.

 He felt that the only way to get through this temporary slump was to get more loans. So he decided to take out a series of false loans on houses that didn’t exist. And he solicited the help of others until he found himself guilty of a seven million dollar fraud.[1]

 When I think of fraud—especially fraud on this scale, I equate it with greed. I assume that the people involved absolutely knew what they were doing, and chose to act immorally. But what if I am wrong?

 Researcher of unethical behavior, Ann Tenbrunsel, explains that our mindset when we make a decision can blind us to the big picture—to the ethical ramifications of our actions. Psychologists call this “bounded ethicality.”

 For example, in a recent experiment Tenbrunsel formed 2 groups of people. One group was asked to think about business decisions, while the other of ethical decisions. She had them do an unrelated task, to distract them, and then gave them an opportunity to cheat. Those who had been previously thinking about business decisions were far more likely to cheat than those who had been considering ethics. Tenbrunsel believes that viewing the world through the lens of business, we activate goals of success and competency, while viewing the world through the lens of ethics activates goals of fairness and justice.

 Toby was not committing fraud to be immoral. He was doing so because he was so focused on being successful that he lost track of the big picture. Only later did he realize how wrong his actions were.

 It is not right to cheat or steal and Toby has no excuse. His actions do shed some light on morality: that right and wrong are not as black and white as I would like to believe.

 Toby was asleep—was blind to his actions. And he is not alone..

 In his book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely gave people tests with 20 puzzles, offering monetary reward for each correct answer. When they handed in their answer sheet, they averaged 4 correct answers. When they self-corrected and self-reported their success, they averaged 6 correct answers.

 Ariely explains that just about everyone cheats—but usually just a little.

 “That’s because most of us think we are pretty wonderful,” explains David Brooks. “We can cheat a little and still keep that “good person” identity. Most people won’t cheat so much that it makes it harder to feel good about themselves.”[2]

 David Brooks describes moral living as dieting. “I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person….Obviously, though, there’s a measurement problem. You can buy a weight scale to get an objective measure of your diet. But you can’t buy a scale of virtues to put on the bathroom floor. And given our awesome capacities for rationalization and self-deception, most of us are going to measure ourselves leniently: I was honest with that blind passenger because I’m a wonderful person. I cheated the person who COULD see because she probably has too much money anyway.”[3]

Like Toby, it is easy to justify our ethical actions. It is all too easy to make mistakes, and convince ourselves we acted in the right.

As physicist Richard Feynman said at a 1974 Cal Tech commencement speech, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

So, what’s the big deal if we do something slightly immoral once in a while?

There is a Jewish story about two sinners who went to their rabbi, asking for forgiveness. One committed a grave sin, and the other several little sins.

The rabbi instructed the two men to gather stones proportionately big for each of their sins. One man struggled to push a huge boulder to the rabbi; the carried little stones with ease, thinking “At least I didn’t commit a sin as bad as that guy!”

They returned to the rabbi, who smiled at them and said “Good. Now return your stones exactly to the spot you took them from.” The man with the boulder struggled to move his stone, but was soon done. The man with the several small stones ran around town, desperately trying to complete this task. Finally he gave up. He went to the rabbi, saying “It is impossible to return all of the stones to the right spot.” The rabbi said. “And so too with our sins. We do them with ease, but it is impossible to take them back.”

Our tradition teaches “One sin leads to another”[4] and “At first sin is like a spider’s web; in the end it becomes as thick as a ship’s cable. At first it is a visitor; in the end it becomes the master of the house.”[5]

Quickly our sins can add up, get out of control. Quickly we can find that we are “pulling the wool over our eyes”[6]

In his 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog), Jerome J. Jerome wrote “I knew a young man once, he was a most conscientious fellow and, when he took to fly-fishing, he determined never to exaggerate his hauls by more than twenty-five percent. ‘When I have caught forty fish,’ said he, ‘then I will tell people that I have caught fifty, and so on. But I will not lie any more than that because it is sinful to lie.”

This young man believed, like Oscar Wilde, that “Morality, like art, means drawing the line somewhere.”

Where do we draw the line?

***

One sin leads to another.

It can be difficult to deter them from getting out on control, until we find to our disbelief that we acted in ways of which we never thought we were capable.

But it is possible.

Ariely suggests that the best way to make moral, ethical actions is to “reset our moral gauge” now and again. We can get so stuck in patterns of self-destruction that we can fail to see them. We need time to take a step back and try to objectively look at our actions, breaking destructive patterns.

This is why we confess on Yom Kippur[7], why we study Torah, why the mitzvot dictate that we connect with one another, offering help in times of need and joy. It is why we take a day off from work on Shabbat to pray and study Torah, to reflect and spend time with the ones we love most.

One sin may lead to another, but one mitzvah leads to another as well.[8]

The kabbalists taught that every single action we take has cosmic ramifications. We may not see the repercussions before our eyes, but they are there, forever changing the world. When we look at the world with such seriousness, we are reminded that letting even one small action slip is a far bigger deal than we at times lead ourselves to believe.

There is a story of a religious man who hires a prostitute. Just as he was about to make a decision he would later regret, he brushes his hand against his tzitzit. Tzitzit, the fringes of the tallit, are reminders of the mitzvot—the commandments God asks of us. As he feels the bush of these strings, he realized what he was doing was wrong. He explains to the prostitute that he was wrong to hire her. He will pay her, and she can be on her way.

Sometimes we need reminders to keep us on the right track—to stir us from our slumber.

If we are honest with ourselves, we learn that we are all a single step away from sinning or doing real good in the world. We can hurt people, and the world without even knowing or acknowledging it. BUT, we can also do more good, and truly partake in tikkun olam—fixing the world one act at a time.

Perhaps Claude G Montifore said it best: “We do not ask that our past sins may be forgiven in the sense that their effects may be cancelled, for that is impossible. All we can ask and do ask for is better insight, purer faith, fuller strength. We want to grow in holiness of life and in the love of God. For this we ask God’s help, for this we try by earnest prayer to realize better the true vileness of sin, how it separates us from God, and weans and defiles us; for this only we make repentance and seek atonement.”

As a Chassidic saying goes: “You have done wrong? Then balance it by doing right.”

As we hear the final blast of the Shofar tomorrow, may it pierce into our very soul, unsettle us from our complacency and inspire us to a year of more ethical actions—a year in one which mitzvah leads to another and another and another.


[1] All Things Considered on NPR with Chana Joffe-Walt and Alix Spiegel “Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things,” May 1, 2012 at 3:20PM http://www.npr.org/2012/05/01/151764534/psychology-of-fraud-why-good-people-do-bad-things

[2] “The Moral Diet” by David Brooks, in the New York Times on June 8, 2012 on page A27. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/08/opinion/brooks-the-moral-diet.html?_r=3&smid=fb-share&#commentsContainer

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pirkei Avot 4:2

[5] Genesis Rabbah 22:6

[6] Dan Ariely The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

[7] “The Moral Diet”

[8] Pirkei Avot 4:2

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Turning, Turning, Turning

A Sermon for Shabbat Shuva

A woman proudly hung her needle work art, Displaying the words “Prayer Changes Things.” A few days later, the plaque went missing. The woman asked her husband if he had seen it. “I took it down; I didn’t like it,” her husband replied. 

“But why?” the woman asked. “Don’t you believe that prayer changes things?”

“Yes, I honestly do,” her husband answered. “But it just so happens that I don’t like change, so I threw it away.”[1]

 Who among us likes change? Even when we crave innovation, change is uncomfortable, unknown.

 And yet we spend these High Holy Days uttering words of thanks for the opportunities of renewal, words of contrition, and promises for a life better lived.

 On Shabbat Shuva, this first Shabbat of the year, we are called to do real Shuva—turning. Even if we are yearning, searching, even if we are lonely, even if we have made mistakes. we—in theory, at least—want to learn from, do we have the courage to turn? Do we have the courage to change?

 

Imperfect beings, we are taught that each of us must always be in a process of change, of working to create a better life, a better world.

 Our favorite rabbinic Sage, Oprah says, “The whole point of being alive is to evolve into the complete person you were intended to be.”

 When we stop, we are no longer living life to its fullest.

 You have, perhaps, heard many times before the story of Moses, who despite his many years of leadership, despite his desire to reach the Promised Land, only made it to Israel’s border. God tells him that he may watch the Israelites reach their destination, but he will die just outside her gates.[2]

 Many of our sages view this as a cruel punishment for not following God’s orders in the desert. God explicitly asked him to wave a stick over a rock; he struck it, giving in to his anger for the ever-complaining Israelites.

 But Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, points out what we often forget in reading this story: That this was not the first time God asked Moses to bring water from a rock. Shortly after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, God told Moses:

“I will stand before you… and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel”[3]

 This time, Moses merely did what he had done before. Rabbi Sacks writes, “We can imagine his thoughts: ‘God said, “Take a stick.” Last time that meant “Hit the rock,” so this time too I will hit the rock.’”[4]

 This was not Moses’ nature. Moses was a man who had undergone huge transformations—

From Egyptian royalty To a warrior for the Israelite people, from refugee to leader of the Israelite people, a man who helped the Israelite people on the biggest transformation of them all: from slavery to freedom, from being nomads to being a people on the verge of having their own land.

Moses knew how to live. So why didn’t he recognize at this moment that he needed to treat the people differently than he had 40 years ago, that change must be constant, consistent?

Because after nearly 120 years of sacred work he was reaching the end of his days. He was no longer able to change along with his people. Moses wasn’t acting out of anger, but complacency. Not of intentionality, but habit. Intentional or not, he was giving God and the people a message: He was ready to hand over the torch, that he was no longer able to lead the people in the kind of metamorphosis they would soon experience.

Although he wouldn’t step foot in Israel, Rabbi Charles Kroloff argues that in a way, “Moses really did reach the Promised Land. Perhaps he did not actually enter Canaan, but he brought his people right to the edge, and despite his shortcomings, he led a remarkable life.

Moses became the person he was intended to be. And when he left this world, he did so with a satisfied smile on his face.

During the High Holy Days we are asked repeatedly to confront our own mortality. When we die, will we be content? Will we leave this world knowing our labors are soon to fruit? That we allowed ourselves to change to rise to the occasion time and time again? That we helped fill this world with meaning?

One day, perhaps in the distant future, we will begin our ascent up mount Nebo.

As we look down on the next generations, can we raise our voices as Martin Luther King Jr. did, on the last day of his life, saying “I’ve been to the mountain-top…And I’ve looked over.

And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.’

Will we be lucky enough to rejoice in knowing that we helped lead the people there? Will we leave this world knowing that we did all we could, that although there is much still to be done, our part has been fulfilled?

Even if we are compelled to throw away reminders that “Prayer changes things,” the High Holy Days are here to remind us to live is to be constantly evolving. They remind us that our time is short and precious. And if we let them, they can inspire us to live with such vigor that when we finally breath our last breath, we, like Moses, will be filled with peace.


[1] Rabbi Eric M Lankin

[2] Our Torah portion says: “You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor, and was gathered to his people.” (Deuteronomy 32:50).

[3] Exodus 17:6; In this week’s Torah portion God said “You broke faith with Me… by failing to uphold my sanctity among the Israelite people.” How did he break faith? Coming from the root mem-ayin-lamed, this word can mean to misuse, steal or defraud. Moses was no longer able to adapt or change. He was weary and tired. But by remaining the leader of the people he would be stealing from them the opportunity to be constantly changing and adapting—the opportunity for repentance, and for growth.

[4] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the Twenty-First Century 

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