G-d Hiding from Us[1]

Have there ever been times in your life when you do not believe in G-d? When you think there’s no possible way G-d can exist? While our tradition does not assert this, it certainly does claim that there are times that G-d has abandoned us or has not been there for us. One example is from this week’s Torah portion, Moses’ swan song to the people of Israel, in which he states, ויאמר אסתירה פני מהם אראה מה אחריתם “G-d said ‘I will hide my face from them, and see how they fare in the end.” [2] By hiding G-d’s face and not supporting Israel, He is giving Israel into the hands of their enemies. The theology behind this is that when Israel loses a battle it is because G-d has taken the side of its enemies.

This view, present throughout Deuteronomy, is indicative of a theology that I find to be anathema and repugnant to Judaism: that G-d aides our enemies in order to teach us a lesson. I cannot believe in a G-d who would “sell us out” in order to help Nebuchadnezzar, Titus and (G-d forbid) Hitler. Yet this is a core part of the theology of the Deuteronomist. The covenant which was reaffirmed in Parshat Nitzavim, is only held as long as Israel holds its end of the bargain: the second that Israel strays from following the commandments, G-d will give Israel to the hands of our enemies.

When atrocities have befallen our people, it is easy to rationalize that it must be because we did something wrong. However, this too often leads to what has become classically known as “Jewish guilt;” that if we are suffering it must be because of something we did. In the Bible, however, there’s a contrary view to this. When we look at the Book of Job, Job’s “friends” (with friends like those, who needs enemies?) who blame his misfortune on some defect of his behavior are castigated. At the end, we are left with G-d appearing in the whirlwind, proclaiming to Eliphaz, חרה אפי בך ובשני רעך כי לא דברתם אלי נכונה כעבדי איוב, “I am incensed with you and with your two friends for you did not speak about me correctly as did my servant Job.”[3] It is clear that Job is suffering not because of something he did but for another reason. Little does he know it is because of a bet made by G-d against השטן, the adversary!

One can go a step further, however, and (at the risk of sounding sacrilegious) shift the blame to G-d. Psalm 44 reads כל זאת באתנו ולא שכחנוך ולא שקרנו בבריתך, “All this has befallen us, yet we have not forgotten you or been false to your covenant.”[4] The Psalmist castigates G-d: עורה, למה תישן אדני הקיצה אל-תזנח לנצח! “Rouse yourself: why do you sleep O LORD? Awaken, do not reject us forever!”[5] Then we get the response affirming this week’s parsha: למה-פניך תסתיר תשכח ענינו ולחצנו, “Why have you hidden your face, ignoring our affliction and distress?”[6] The psalm ends with a charge to G-d קומה עזרתה לנו ופדנו למען חסדך, “Rise up and help us; redeem us as befits Your faithfulness.”[7] The psalmist sees Israel as keeping its end of the bargain and G-d as the one who is not being faithful to the covenant. This “pious irreverence”[8] is, I would argue, as much a part of our theology as Deuteronomy.

Questioning G-d is not something relegated to the biblical period. In the Talmud there is the famous story of the Oven of Akhnai,[9] where Rabbi Joshua disregards a voice from heaven itself, proclaiming that the law is not in heaven. G-d replies to this challenge נצחוני בני, “My children have defeated me!” indicating that He enjoys being challenged and being taken to task. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, as our nation’s two greatest leaders, Abraham and Moses, both took G-d to task at pivotal moments: whether Sodom and Gamorrah or the attempt to destroy all of Israel after the sin of the spies.

The Hasidic masters frequently challenged G-d, the most famous being Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who proclaimed one Rosh Hashanah: “Lord of the Universe, you said let it be a day of shofar-blowing, and in honor of that one commandment we blow the shofar 100 times. Multitudes of Jews have been blowing the shofar for thousands of years, and we multitudes of Jews have been shouting and praying and begging you for centuries: Sound just one great blast of the shofar and set us free – and still you have not done so!”[10]

In his book The Trial of God,[11] Elie Wiesel tells a story about himself, along with two other inmates of Auschwitz, forming a Beit Din to put G-d on trial. The verdict of the Beit Din was that G-d is חייב, or guilty, and that He owes the inmates something for abandoning them. Wiesel was certainly not the only one who found G-d to be guilty. The Piaseczno Rebbe, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, in his book Esh Kodesh, writes that just as Sarah could not tolerate the suffering and almost sacrifice of her son, so too could Jews in Europe not tolerate the torturous Nazi regime.[12]

The next time our suffering feels unwarranted, undeserved or too much to bear, let us not think (G-d forbid) that it is a result of G-d punishing us. As one of my teachers said, “Let religion not be part of the problem but rather part of the solution.”[13] May we help those who are suffering rather than admonishing them or laying guilt on them that it is because of their sins. Let us remain in dialogue with the Almighty and not be afraid to call Him to task as the Psalmist and the Hasidic rebbes do. May we only have goodness, blessing and prosperity in 5779 and may we do all we can to alleviate suffering experienced both by us and by our fellow human beings.

[1] This sermon was generated from online learning by Rabbi Avital Hochstein of Mechon Hadar entitled Parashat Ha’Azinu: Human Existence in an Age of Divine Concealment.”

[2]  Deuteronomy 32:20

[3] Job 42:7

[4] Psalm 44:18. Thank you to Rabbi Shai Held for introducing me to this psalm.

[5] Psalm 44:24

[6] Psalm 44:25

[7] Psalm 44:27

[8] Term taken from the title of a book by Rabbi Dov Weiss

[9] Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59b

[10] As seen on https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/1.4706935

[11] You can also view it in the movie God on Trial

[12] אש קדש פרדת חיי שרה “אפ”ל שגם שרה אמנו עצמה שנתנה כ”כ אל לבה מעשה העדדה עש שפרשה נשמתה, לטובת ישראל עשתה, להראות להשם איל א”א לישראל לסבול יסורים יותר מדי, ואפילו מי שבחמלת השם נשאר חי גם אחר יסורין מ”מ חלקי כחו ומוחו ורוחו נשברו ונאדבו ממנו, מה לי קטילה כלו ומה לי קלטיה פלגא.

[13] Learned at a rabbinical school mock interview from Rabbi Jacob Herber.

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What Characterizes a Life Well-Lived?

       G’mar Hatima Tova, may each of us have a signature in the Book of Life with a blessed new year. It’s so wonderful to see families together today, on the holiest day of the year. Part of what makes the holidays so special and so meaningful is your presence here. Please know you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center.

You may have noticed that we have new Yizkor Books, donated by Barbara and Dennis Smiler in memory of Dennis’ parents. We are using them for every Yizkor. Each one has on it a sticker saying “Property of the Jericho Jewish Center.” Please keep them in the Jericho Jewish Center. The Book of Life, on the other hand, is yours to take.

Please bring in food to the Manhattan Drive entrance for Project Replenish for the Mid Island Y Food Bank, as well as shampoo, conditioner, soap and cleaning supplies for the STEM Preschool Project Replenish, also going to the Mid Island Y Food Bank.

Please see the two sheets printed on resume paper about Mitzvah 613, donation opportunities for our new Torah, and our Torah Kickoff next month. Please also go to your bank to get $20 worth of rolled pennies and bring them to the office so the Religious School can get closer to reaching 304,805 pennies.

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One last time
Relax, have a drink with me
One last time
Let’s take a break tonight
And then we’ll teach them how to say goodbye
To say goodbye
You and I[1]

How do you want people to look back on how you lived your life? What to you would constitute a life well-lived? What are the attributes of someone who you admire at the end of their life?

Whatever your political views, we all have something to admire in what Charles Krauthammer on June 8. “I have been uncharacteristically silent these past ten months. I had thought that silence would soon be coming to an end, but I’m afraid I must tell you now that fate has decided on a different course for me.

       In August of last year, I underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in my abdomen. That operation was thought to have been a success, but it caused a cascade of secondary complications — which I have been fighting in hospital ever since. It was a long and hard fight with many setbacks, but I was steadily, if slowly, overcoming each obstacle along the way and gradually making my way back to health.

         However, recent tests have revealed that the cancer has returned. There was no sign of it as recently as a month ago, which means it is aggressive and spreading rapidly. My doctors tell me their best estimate is that I have only a few weeks left to live. This is the final verdict. My fight is over.

        I wish to thank my doctors and caregivers, whose efforts have been magnificent. My dear friends, who have given me a lifetime of memories and whose support has sustained me through these difficult months. And all of my partners at The Washington Post, Fox News, and Crown Publishing.

        Lastly, I thank my colleagues, my readers, and my viewers, who have made my career possible and given consequence to my life’s work. I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.

         I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life — full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”[2]

If that’s not teaching how to say goodbye, I don’t know what is. If only we could all feel this way, ending life without regrets and only seeing the beauty in the gift of life that we’ve been given. A more recent example was in my former Senator John McCain’s final words to us, read by his former presidential campaign manager Rick Davis at the Arizona State Capitol:

My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for sixty years, and especially my fellow Arizonans,

         Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.

         I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I have loved my life, all of it. I have had experiences, adventures and friendships enough for ten satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else’s.

         I owe that satisfaction to the love of my family. No man ever had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America. To be connected to America’s causes – liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people – brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.

       ‘Fellow Americans’ – that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process.

         We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.

        We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.

       Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with the heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening.

        I feel it powerfully still.

       Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”[3]

Two farewell statements written by two powerful men whose thought processes could have very easily gone different directions. Krauthammer had a diving board accident in his first year of medical school, fracturing his cervical spine and leaving him a quadriplegic and paralyzed from the waist down. This could have left him embittered at life, feeling “why me?” never recovering from such a brutal injury. McCain’s plane was taken down, and he was tortured for five-and-a-half years in Vietnam. He could not lift his arms above his shoulders to dress himself after the gruesome torture he endured. He could have easily exclaimed, “Enough of this!” and lived his life in bitterness because of his lot.

Despite this, both of these men made the most of the life they had been given. Krauthammer graduated near the top of his class at Harvard Medical School with residency at Mass General, went into Psychiatry and then Journalism. While not religious in his later years, he knew Yiddish and Hebrew and one of his philanthropic contributions was to start a fund for Jewish Music. When McCain was released from captivity-waiting until those who had been captured before him were released-he entered politics, becoming a Congressman and then a five-term US Senator for the State of Arizona. Both men died from cancer: Krauthammer from liver, McCain from brain, yet there is no bitterness or scorn in either’s remarks.

While both men were Republicans, they were beloved by people who both agreed and disagreed with them. They went across the aisle to befriend people who disagreed with them. Krauthammer received accolades from both liberal and conservative commentators. Russ Feingold and Barak Obama spoke at McCain’s funeral. McCain and Krauthammer’s personalities, having respect for those with whom they strongly disagreed, as well as the fact that neither was an ideologue led to them receiving respect from both sides of the aisle.

One might say, ‘Yes but this is easier said than done.’ After all, Krauthammer and McCain were famous public figures. However, I would argue that each of us can maintain the example of a life well lived and I’m going to turn to an atypical third example: Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the first child of Steve Jobs. Steve had an on-off relationship with Lisa’s mother Chrisann Brennan for five years yet when Chrisann became pregnant, he wanted nothing to do with her. Chrisann moved to a farm where she gave birth to Lisa, and Steve only came up to visit three days later at the farm owner’s behest. Steve did not acknowledge Lisa as his daughter, claiming that he was unable to father children. Even after a paternity test verified that Lisa was his daughter, Steve continued to deny it until a court case required him to pay $385 per month in child support. When Apple went public and Steve became a multimillionaire, the payment went up to $500 per month. Allegedly, Steve did not want a relationship with his daughter and was described by her in her memoir Small Fry as being “far away, glinting like a shard of mirror.”[4] Chrisann asserts that “when he failed at work, when he lost something in the public sphere, he remembered us, started dropping by, wanted a relationship.”[5]  Lisa writes, “Growing up I’d been very poor, very rich, and sometimes in the middle.”[6] It honestly depended on her father’s mood and streak of vengeance at that period of time. At age 19, when Lisa had a summertime feud with her father, he refused to pay for her college tuition at Harvard-it needed to be paid by a married couple down the street.

With all of this baggage, Lisa Brennan-Jobs could have held a grudge against her father (Steve Jobs) long after his passing.  She chooses however not to do so. Linda Nielsen, a journalist for The New York Times, uses it as the backdrop for an article about father-daughter relationships. She writes, “Adults who love their children and whose children love them can be lousy parents. To be clear, ‘lousy’ parenting does not mean being physically or sexually abusive, or having serious mental health or substance abuse problems that endanger the children. It means that a father who loves his daughter can be self-absorbed, insensitive, hot-tempered, and inept in communicating with her. Parenting is a learned skill that some parents never master. This is not to excuse poor parenting. It is simply a reminder that, as they both age, a father and daughter can acknowledge their love for one another without ignoring or denying his failures as a parent.

        Research also teaches us that we cannot always know the motives or intentions behind another person’s behavior. We know when someone’s behavior or comments hurt, belittle or embarrass us. But we don’t necessarily know if that was the person’s intent…”[7]

       Nielsen concludes as follows: “Forgiving her father is a gift a daughter gives, not just to her father, but to herself. In choosing not to allow her bitterness about his failings as a father to consume her, a daughter is choosing not to deprive herself of whatever pleasure she can still derive from their relationship. She does not deny the past. But she does not dwell in it. Forgiving does not mean forgetting.

       Ms. Brennan-Jobs’s memoir may provide a comforting message for parents who fear that their mistakes and missteps inevitably will lead to irreparable damage — and for daughters who are grappling with their father’s failures as a parent. Adult children can choose to focus on the dearness or the darkness of their childhood relationships with their parents. Ms. Brennan-Jobs chose dearness. Will we?”[8]

This deep psychology can be applied to any relationship, not just father and daughter-although that is one I am particularly interested in having one daughter and G-d willing soon to be having another. We don’t always get to choose the hand we’re dealt, or how others treat or have treated us, but we DO get to choose how we respond to it. To have a life well-lived, we must try to acknowledge the baggage of our past, for at times each of us has been a “victim,” yet at the same time to be able to move past it, not because we have to but because we WANT to. Like McCain, Krauthammer and Brennan-Jobs, each of us must recognize what the message is we want to convey-hopefully a positive one-and work hard to convey it.

As the song continues: “Why do you have to say goodbye? If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.”[9]

As we prepare to say Yizkor, let us think of the loved ones who are no longer physically present in our lives, of the example they set for us and of the people they have helped us become. May we also be aware that whatever hand life deals us in 5779 that we try to take it with grace, serenity and inner peace rather than with bitterness, anger, anxiety or fear. In so doing, may we inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life for the coming year, living with no regrets and with confidence, inner strength and well-being.

We continue with our Yizkor Service in our new Yizkor Booklets. You do not need to leave for Yizkor unless it is your custom to leave if your parents are still alive.

[1] George Washington, “One Last Time” in Hamilton, Book and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

[2] Charles Krautthamer The Washington Post Opinion June 8, 2018.

[3] John McCain Farewell Statement, printed in The Associated Press, August 27, 2018.

[4] https://www.newsday.com/entertainment/books/lisa-brennan-jobs-small-fry-review-1.20740633

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Linda Nielsen, “Fatherhood Through the Lens of Steve Jobs,” New York Times, August 28, 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, “One Last Time” in Hamilton, Book and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Forgiveness

G’mar Hatima Tova. You may have noticed that we have new Yizkor Books, donated by Barbara and Dennis Smiler in memory of Dennis’ parents. We are using them for every Yizkor. Each one has on it a sticker saying “Property of the Jericho Jewish Center.” Please keep them in the Jericho Jewish Center. The Book of Life, on the other hand, is yours to take.

Please bring in food to the Manhattan Drive entrance for Project Replenish for the Mid Island Y Food Bank, as well as shampoo, conditioner, soap and cleaning supplies for the STEM Preschool Project Replenish, also going to the Mid Island Y Food Bank.

Please see the two sheets printed on resume paper about Mitzvah 613, donation opportunities for our new Torah, and our Torah Kickoff next month. Please also go to your bank to get $20 worth of rolled pennies and bring them to the office so the Religious School can get closer to reaching 304,805 pennies.

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Forgiveness-can you imagine?

Forgiveness-can you imagine?[1]

 

When I came to the Jericho Jewish Center, Cantors Goldstein and Black sang the song zog shel kumen im geluah, about the coming of the Messiah. I think it’s become clear (if it wasn’t already) that I’m not the Messiah-I’m just a person doing his best and striving to grow each and every day.  Besides, I wasn’t born on Tisha B’Av so I cannot be the Messiah.

Though I have tried very hard not to make any mistakes, I am certain that I have made many. I would like to take this opportunity on the holiest day of the year to ask for forgiveness. As “Our Rabbis taught: The obligation of confession of sins comes on the eve of the Day of Atonement, as it grows dark.”[2]

For the traditionalists who were angered by my making ultimatums as the rabbi (such as saying that no one could say the blessing “Praised are you G-d for not making me a woman,”) please forgive me. I continue to find those words repugnant and choose not to say them but respect the right of those who wish to say them.

For the progressives who felt I did not go far enough in (for example) putting up a rainbow flag outside of the Jericho Jewish Center, please forgive me. I still feel with every fiber of my being that we need to be radically welcoming to LGBT and interfaith families and am on the liberal end of our movement in this regard, yet I strongly believe that the only flags that should be put up outside a synagogue (if any) are of the United States and of Israel.

For the politically active who were upset that I didn’t talk enough about the political issues of the day, please forgive me. I continue to assert that the place for politics and the pulpit is as part of a discussion rather than a sermon, not because I am afraid of alienating others but so that people of differing political views can respond to one another and to me rather than my using a “bully pulpit.”

For the Zionists who felt Israel was not enough of a part of our conversation, please forgive me. I feel a strong connection to Israel and wish I could be part of the Congregational Trip to Israel this November-but at least I have a good reason for not going with the anticipated arrival of a little one. I have not discussed Israel from the pulpit as much as some would like not because I fear offending others but because I do not want to sound like a political pundit, who are far better trained in that field than I am. I have left my discussions to Israel for either historic events, such as the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, or to sharing Israel’s technological innovations during my Israel Update before the Prayer for Israel at Shabbat services.

Lastly and most importantly, for those who feel I was not there for them during a time of need, please forgive me. I have tried to be responsive to everyone but I am certain that I unintentionally neglected people during times when they were counting on me. As I’m sure has become clear to you by now, I’m a human being, not the Messiah, and human beings make mistakes. The first President of our country said, “Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors,”[3] and if the founder of our country can say it and genuinely mean it, all the more so can I.

Such a public confession does not absolve going to people directly and asking for forgiveness, and I have tried to do so, just as I hope each of you has tried to do so since the beginning of Elul. The public confessionals that we recite on Yom Kippur, the Ashamnus and Al Chets, only absolve sins that we have done towards G-d, not towards our fellow men. The question is how to respond to someone asking you for forgiveness. The right thing is to accept it and move on, but often that is easier said than done. Unfortunately, when we hold onto anger, or hold a grudge, we most often hurt ourselves and make no impact on the other. On the other hand, when we let go of the pain, as difficult as that may be, we release ourselves from suffering further.

Furthermore, it is challenging not to forgive others but to expect that we will be forgiven. Such words come from the prophet Ben Sira, absent in our Bible but actively quotes by rabbis in the Talmud:  “Forgive your neighbor his wrongdoing; then, when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. If a man harbors a grudge against another, is he to expect healing from the Lord? If he has no mercy on his fellow-man is he still to ask forgiveness for his own sins? If a mere mortal cherishes rage, where is he to look for pardon? Think of the end that awaits you, and be done with hate; think of mortality and death, and be true to the commandments; think of the commandments, and do not be enraged at your neighbor; think of the Covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults.”[4]

This does not mean that one should forgive or “turn the other cheek” at any cost. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat in “The Velveteen Rabbi” writes “If someone has harmed you — whether in body, heart, mind, or spirit — and they come to you seeking forgiveness, you’re allowed to take the time you need to discern 1) whether their apology is genuine, and 2) whether they have done all that they could to remedy the damage, and 3) whether they have done the internal work of becoming a person who would no longer harm you in that same way given the opportunity to do so again. If the answer to any of those questions is no — and kal v’chomer (all the more so) if they don’t apologize in the first place — then you are not obligated to forgive them for harming you.”[5] If, however, one is genuinely sorry and (more importantly) demonstrates changed behavior, then forgiveness is in order.

On this holiest day of the year, may we try to be like The Merciful One, the one who prays not that sinners cease from this world but rather sins. May we strive to forgive past wrongdoings of others, transitioning from feeling like victims to becoming the authors of our own lives. May we work on controlling how we react to bad news, ill treatment or difficult situations, acting assertively and appropriately, with confidence and thoughtful reactions, as well as proactively whenever possible. Let us we accept one another’s flaws as well as our own and let us seek to forgive others as well as to be forgiven for past wrongdoings. Most importantly, let us recognize היום, the moment in which we currently find ourselves, and let us make the most out of it, being emissaries for good and striving to make ourselves and the world in which we live a better place. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

We continue with the start of Selichot, the prayer for forgiveness, turning to the reverse acrostic Yaaleh on Page 227. Please rise as the ark is opened.

[1] Company in Hamilton “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Book and Lyrics by Lin Manuel-Miranda.

[2] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 87a

[3] President George Washington’s Farewell Address

[4] Ben Sira 28:2-7

[5] Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, “When Not to Forgive,” in blog “Velveteen Rabbi,” September 17, 2018. http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2018/09/when-not-to-forgive.html

Praying with Criminals (Sinners)

בישיבה של מעלה ובישיבה של מתה

על דעת המקום ועל דעת הקהל

אנו מתפללים להתפלל עם העברינים[1]

On Tuesday evening, the Cantor will sing this prayer 3 times before beginning Kol Nidre. Why it is said and what it means might give us some insight into repentance, the theme of Shabbat Shuvah, this Sabbath of Returning. First, the prayer says in the heavenly Tribunal and in the Court below-the court, or בית דין, which we are establishing right now. The reason Kol Nidrei must be completed before shkiah (nightfall) is because we are assembling a court, and all business must be completed before Yom Tov begins. Everything in the earthly tribunal is said to be mirrored by what happens in Heaven. Just as we will gather to form a court of law, so too will the angels in heaven do so.

The next part is particularly troubling: על דעת המקום, translated in our Mahzor as “with Divine sanction.” As Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer said, “Who decides that G-d gives us permission?”[2] We can give ourselves permission to gather but who’s to say that G-d gives us permission to engage in Kol Nidrei, a process of retroactively annulling vows between man and G-d that will be made during the coming year but will be unfulfilled? If your head isn’t spinning yet, then read the last phrase, אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העברינים, “We declare it lawful to pray with those who have transgressed (committed עבירות, the general term used for “sins”). What gives us permission to have sinners as part of our בית דין, and to claim that such permission comes from G-d nonetheless!

I went a step further than Dr. Kurtzer, entitling my remarks Praying with Criminals. The word עברין can mean criminal. Criminals are a caste of sinners, some of whom have done minor wrongdoings, others quite major ones. They very well may constitute our בית דין on Kol Nidre evening.

Why does such permission need to be given? If we do not make direct mention of it, one might think that there are some meant to be excluded from Kol Nidre-and by extension not have any shot at all for repentance. That is precisely the opposite of what our tradition teaches. As a learned Jewish man (but not the MessiahJ) once said “Let him who is without sin caste the first stone.”[3] To focus on Jewish sources, however, we see that the value is place not on avoiding sin but rather on repenting from one’s sins. As Rav Abbahu stated, “Where Baalei Teshuvah stand, Tzadikim[4] cannot stand!”[5] This implies that it is better to be tempted by sin, perhaps from one’s upbringing, but to turn away from it than it is to never sin in the first place. Furthermore, “Rabbi Bar-Chanina Sava said in the name of Rav, ‘Anyone who does a sin, and is ashamed of it, all his sins are forgiven!”[6] Of course the rabbis are talking about genuine shame leading to changed behavior rather than merely ephemeral shame.

          Let us turn back to the idea of criminals in our midst. In our country, once one has a felony conviction is it on his/her record permanently. It impairs his/her ability to get another job, vote and conduct many aspects of daily life. Our tradition, however, believes that nothing is permanent: that everyone has the ability to be a true baal teshuva regardless of what s/he has done. With that being said, it is human nature to look down on or disparage someone who has a checkered past. That’s one of many reasons why Kohanim cover their faces with a tallit before reciting the Priestly Blessing-so that no one will say (G-d forbid) “You mean this guy is the one who is blessing me?!”

          Our tradition gives permission to pray alongside everyone who enters our Sanctuary. It does not matter what sin s/he has done, the magnitude of it or the quantity of sins comparatively. What matters is that each of us gives permission to pray alongside one’s fellow Jews, to say the Ashamnu and Al Chet Sh’Hatanu, believeing wholeheartedly that they apply to us as a community. As is the case with these words which I strive to live by, not always succeeding-“To be humble is not to make comparisons.”[7]

On this Sabbath of Returning and subsequent Day of Atonement, let us strive to pray with full integrity and heart with all those who are around us. Let us put past judgments about others being us, viewing each person as an אדם חדש, a new person with a tabula rasa (clean slate). Always remember the importance of the baal teshuva, the truly repentant person, and strive to be him/her.

Let us conclude with a prayer by Rabbi Leo Baeck written for the High Holy Days: At this hour the whole House of Israel stands before its God, the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. We shall examine our ways before Him. We shall examine what we have done and what we have failed to do; we shall examine where we have gone and where we have failed to go. Wherever we have sinned we will confess it: We will say “we have sinned” and will pray with the will to repentance before the Lord and we will pray: “Lord forgive us!”[8]

[1] Phrase said three times before recitation of Kol Nidre

[2] Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic High Holiday Webinar Praying with Sinners: Religious Pluralism, Revisited, August 27, 2018.

[3] John 8:7

[4] Meaning in this context people who have never sinned

[5] Babylonian Talmud B’rachot 34b

[6] Babylonian Talmud B’rachot 12b

[7] Ernest Kurst and Catherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (US, Bantam Books, 1992), p. 187.

[8] In German Jewish Reform Prayerbook of 1935

The Future of Judaism

Thank you for joining us for another morning of spiritual prayer. It is so great to see multiple generations of families together, both new members and those who have been here for decades, joining together as a spiritual community. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Jericho Jewish Center.

For those not here yesterday, I want to briefly mention the excitement of the creation and dedication of our new Torah. During the 2018-19 synagogue year, each of us will have the opportunity to fulfill the Mitzvah, of taking part in the creation of a new Torah, thanks to the generosity of Neil and Sherry Cohen. Neil’s parents, Norman and Harriet z”l were members of the Jericho Jewish Center for almost 60 years. When Norman z”l passed away last year, Neil and Sherry sought to honor him through a gift to his spiritual home, the Jericho Jewish Center. Their generosity enables us to acquire a new Torah at JJC, a welcome addition, as the vast majority of our Torot are very heavy and four of them are pasul (unfit for ritual use).

My goal is for this to be a FUN-Raiser in addition to a Fundraiser and to have 100% participation from the Jericho Jewish Center. Please see the sheets on printed resume paper in the Cocktail Lounge about the writing of the Torah as well as available donation opportunities. All donors will receive a certificate of appreciation and a special kippah in honor of this occasion. Donors will also get to write a letter in the Torah with the Sofer and will have a photo taken with him as this is done. Please also join us on Sunday October 21 from 1-3 pm for our Torah Kickoff. Lastly, please bring in your pennies, as the Religious School is trying to collect 304,805 pennies-corresponding to the number of letters in the Torah. Check out the “Torah thermometer” downstairs to see how far they’ve gotten.

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What is the future of Judaism? If you were to ask Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon, whose book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my all-time favorites, it’s not too rosy. This past May, Chabon gave the commencement address at Hebrew Union College, where he was honored with an honorary doctorate.[1]

In his HUC speech, Chabon said, “An endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two; as the traditional Jewish wedding ritual makes explicit, it draws a circle around the married couple, inscribes them—and any eventual children who come along—within a figurative wall of tradition, custom, shared history, and a common inheritance of chromosomes and culture.” Regardless of how people feel about interfaith marriage, and I am on the liberal end of our movement in this regard, to refer to an in-marriage as a “ghetto of two” is repulsive and offensive. Claiming that a shared history and tradition are bad things in and of themselves, instead of  commonalities that can give a marriage a shared language is completely off-base. I’m not claiming that people cannot find commonalities with those who practice different religions-I certainly have. However, to view an inmarriage as a prison with a figurative wall of separation is abhorrent- a  תועבה in its truest sense.

Chabon continued on this theme with his statement, “We tend to draw a distinction between walls that protect and walls that imprison, but that is only the same dark logic again, justifying itself, as always, in the name of security. Security is an invention of humanity’s jailers. Anywhere you look it is—and has always been—the hand of power drawing the boundaries, putting up separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of the people on the other side.” To claim that boundaries in and of themselves are a form of imprisonment and that they lead to hating those who are outside the boundaries is myopic. There are ways to put up boundaries, to stand for something, while concurrently being accepting and embracing of those who are different or who see things differently. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Is Chabon’s Judaism the future? I certainly hope not. In jumping to his conclusion, we see that his charge to the Reform Rabbis class of 2018 is as follows as to how they should showcase their Judaism: “Knock down the walls. Abolish the checkpoints. Find room in the Jewish community for all those who want to share in our traditions. Inscribe the protective circle of your teachings around all those people whose very otherness demands that we honor our avowed commitments to peace and justice and lovingkindness. Seize every opportunity to strengthen and enrich our cultural genome by embracing the inevitable variation and change that result from increased diversity. And if—no, let’s say when—the Jews of the future find that, under your leadership, they can no longer tolerate the occupation being undertaken in their name, when they have repudiated the purity tests and the separation barriers and all the rhetoric and instrumentalities of dehumanization, let it be because you have taught them to throw open the sanctuary gates of their own best idea of themselves, and to make room at their tables, and in their families, and in their lands, for all who are truly hungry—like the book says—to come and partake.”

He certainly said a mouthful. A couple of the statements, like “find room in the Jewish community for those who want to share in our traditions” I can even stand behind. However, when combined with caricature and incendiary language, comparing the Jewish leadership to “occupiers” who engage in “purity tests,” we reach ground which is offensive and untrue. I imagine that his argument to intermarry in order to “enrich our cultural genome by embracing the inevitable variation and change that result from increased diversity” is offensive to everyone, whether one has inmarried, intermarried or converted to Judaism. I don’t know too many people looking for a mate who say ‘let me find someone completely different racially or ethnically from me so as to improve the human genome.’

          Why bring up Chabon on Rosh Hashanah? My purpose is not to refute his arguments per se or to denigrate him but rather to ask what do we do with this challenge? One approach was taken by three Conservative sociologists who wrote a piece entitled “Michael Chabon’s views on intermarriage are increasingly mainstream. They are also morally abhorrent.”[2] These scholars claim that “Promoting intermarriage was the opening shot in a drive to dismantle Judaism and put an end to the ostensibly inherent and inevitable injustices he insists religion perpetuates.” They offer inaccuracies in his argumentation from a sociological perspective. What is the most telling for me, however, is how they end the article, which I’d like us to explore: “We urge the proponents of welcoming and inclusion – many of whom we count as dear friends and colleagues — to think anew about where they stand in regard to Chabon’s challenge. Where would you draw boundaries? Where do you stand on maintaining some distinctions between Jews and others? Is Jewish group survival a force for good or for ill, not only for individual Jews but for humanity? Should we teach the next generation that all Jews —both those born Jewish and converts — are in a kinship relationship with one another as heirs of a unique, rich and valuable cultural heritage?

          Where do we draw the line? I’ve often been critiqued for wanting to be welcoming and inclusive at the expense of having standards. Which standards do I think serve a purpose? Here are three standards that we should strive towards in the 21st century. My first standard is for us to continue to learn about Judaism, especially the Hebrew language. Without Hebrew, one cannot fully immerse in the wisdom and power of our tradition. Even the most faithful and thoughtful of translations will not do justice to the core texts of our people. Hebrew language is essential-and it is never too late to learn. I am now working with my fifth conversion student on Hebrew, and I started with each one from the Alef-Bet. It’s amazing what adults can pick up through diligent study. Rena Klein and Hanit Gluck teach Hebrew at our synagogue on Tuesday evenings and are always looking for new students, and I welcome the opportunity to teach anyone Hebrew: one-on-one or in small groups.

       My next standard is a commitment to Jewish ritual and traditions, growing in one’s observance step-by-step. Don’t get me wrong-I would love if everyone kept all 613 commandments-or at least those applicable for us to keep outside of Israel and at a time without a centralized Temple in Jerusalem J. What is clear to me, however, is that while Jewish pride and identity are important, they are insufficient. To be a “cultural Jew,” a “member of the tribe,” eating latkes on Hanukkah and matzah on Passover, misses the richness of our tradition in all its beauty and all its complexity. One can of course do this through a process of evolution, the paradigm of the Conservative Movement. Start slowly, coming to our Sukkot Service and Dinner on Sunday September 23rd beginning at 6:00 pm, our Simhat Torah Extravaganza on Monday October 1st at 6:15 pm, dancing with the Torah, and perhaps coming back on Tuesday October 2nd at 9:00-or at the latest-10:00 am to receive an Aliyah (be called up) to the Torah. Come on Purim to hear the Megillah and dress in costume. Take Shabbat, one day a week where you turn off your phone and focus on family and friends. What’s important is not which step one takes first but that a step be taken. In every other aspect of life we grow and evolve, so why should our Judaism remain at the place it was when we were a kid?

My last standard, but certainly not least, is to be part of the Jewish community, seeking something greater than just oneself. Rabbi Dr. Danny Gordis has bemoaned that in the modern world we have shifted our Judaism from centering on communal events to focusing on life-cycle events, involving ‘me, myself and I.’ He wrote: “Jewish tradition has long understood that for Judaism to play the significant, emotional role in our lives that many Jews want it to, Jewish life cannot be relegated to a few important days a year or major life-cycle events.”[3] Living, organic Judaism requires being part of a community, coming to daily minyan to join those mourning who are saying Kaddish, trying to seek out G-d (or if you don’t believing in G-d, appreciating something greater than oneself), showing gratitude through reciting 100 blessings per day. Most people I encounter, whatever their religious background or faith, have told me that in life they aspire to something greater than just themselves. Judaism offers that, as it is meant to be lived not monastically or ascetically but rather communally. Judaism is NOT primarily a set of dogmas, or beliefs, but rather a this-worldly religion focused on connecting with those around you. The reason most synagogues here are called ‘centers’ is because they were designed to be community centers-places for Jews to congregate together. This does not mean being in the shtetl, or ghetto as Chabon says, but rather positive, meaningful interactions with G-d and with one’s fellow human beings. If you do not feel this connection with your neighbor, that s/he is someone to learn from and grow with, then there is the danger of being stuck in a ghetto.

Please turn to your neighbor today ‘in the pews’ and introduce yourself to him/her. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”

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          Today is the 17th anniversary of the atrocity known as September 11th when two airplanes with terrorist hijackers crashed into the World Trade Center (just over 31 miles away), a third crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth, set to hit the US Capitol, had patriots who revolted against the hijackers, leading to the plane crashing in Pennsylvania. We don’t do enough to commemorate this day-one in which Glenn Jonathan Winuk, the son of a congregant, was murdered as he worked in the World Trade Center. Some rabbis will choose to connect 9/11 with the Akedah; only instead of a near aversion of human sacrifice, there were 2,996 people murdered on 9/11. I have chosen instead to focus on how 9/11 unified the American spirit, making so many of us show our pride as Americans and our love for our country. Even now, when we appear to be more divided than ever, it is beautiful to see the spirit, determination, and excitement that people exude in striving to make a difference. We see the record number 309 women running for Congress, the Parkland High School students (and others) fighting for increased gun control and the 18-year low of 3.8% unemployment (as well as record highs in the stock market). For Israel we have seen the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of that Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as well as the cutting off of aid to Israel’s neighbors who support terrorism. We have much to be proud of in showcasing the United States’ democracy and in fighting the terrorist regimes who seek to undermine it.

          The way to respond to Chabon and those like him is not merely by criticizing, ignoring or dismissing them but rather by becoming more committed Jewishly as well as to Israel. If we truly believe that endogamy is of value and that Israel is central to our lives, we need to show it not merely by paying “lip service” or making strong statements but rather through our actions. Every fiber of our being needs to stand for Jewish pride: to learning more about our traditions and customs, coming to synagogue more, exploring keeping Kashrut and Shabbat. Playing off a prayer we said this morning: כל עצמותנו לגאות יהודית: every fiber of our being to be used for Jewish pride. Too often we know people who follow the self-defeating pedagogy of “Do as I say-not as I do.” If the future of Judaism is exclusively pediatric, sending the kids and grandkids to Religious School but keeping ourselves on the level of a 7th grade education, then we will fail. Actions speak louder than words and if we feel a certain way strongly or believe that something is of crucial importance, we need to show it through every fiber of our being. Integrity means תכו כברו, that our inside is exactly the same as our outside. If we don’t demonstrate this, speaking but not acting, saying “what a shonda” but not vigilantly standing up for what we believe in, than Chabon and those who think like him will win. Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy like 9/11 to make us recognize that our values are in danger, rather than mindfully and proactively living each day to the fullest as proud Americans and proud Jews.

          With this in mind, I will read aloud the poem “One” by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins and ask that you turn with me to Page 115 as we will read together aloud the Prayer for Our Country.

          READ “ONE” DO PRAYER FOR COUNTRY FOLLOWED BY HINENI INTRO

[1] Michael Chabon attacks Jewish inmarriage and Israel’s occupation in speech to rabbinical students By Ben Sales JTA May 25, 2018

 

[2] Sylvia Barack FishmanSteven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, JTA, June 8, 2018.

[3] Rabbi Daniel Gordis, God was Not in the Fire: The Search for a Spiritual Judaism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 110.

Jumping Into the Pool

It is so wonderful to see so many people gathered together today to join us in worship. Parents are united with children, grandparents with grandchildren, uncles and aunts with nephews and nieces. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center. The program sheet that we provide is just the tip of the iceberg of what we are offering during this year. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Jericho Jewish Center.

What I consider to be the most exciting initiative at the Jericho Jewish Center this year is the creation and dedication of a new Torah.[1] The 613th Commandment is that each person writes his/her own Torah Scroll. According to Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema), this commandment is fulfilled by each individual writing at least one letter in the Torah.[2]

During the 2018-19 synagogue year, each of us will have the opportunity to fulfill this Mitzvah, thanks to the generosity of Neil and Sherry Cohen. Neil’s parents, Norman and Harriet z”l were members of the Jericho Jewish Center for almost 60 years. When Norman z”l passed away last year, Neil and Sherry sought to honor him through a gift to his spiritual home, the Jericho Jewish Center. Their generosity enables us to acquire a new Torah at JJC, a welcome addition, as the vast majority of our Torot are very heavy, and four of them are pasul (unfit for ritual use).

Each of us will have the opportunity to fulfill this commandment by donating a letter, a word or a more substantial gift to be given in memory of a loved one or in honor of a simcha. All donors will receive a certificate of appreciation for their donation and a special kippah marking this momentous occasion. Donors will also get to write a letter in the Torah with the Sofer (scribe) and will have a photo taken with the scribe as this is done.

My goal is for this to be a FUN-Raiser in addition to a Fundraiser and to have 100% participation from the Jericho Jewish Center. Please see the sheets printed on resume paper in the Cocktail Lounge about the writing of the Torah as well as available donation opportunities. Please also join us on Sunday October 21 from 1-3 pm for our Torah Kickoff. Lastly, please bring in your pennies, as the Religious School is trying to collect 304,805 pennies-corresponding to the number of letters in the Torah. Check out the “Torah thermometer” downstairs to see how far they’ve gotten.

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“COME TO THE EDGE”

“No we will fall.”

“COME TO THE EDGE.”

“No we will fall”

They came to the edge.

He pushed them, and they flew.-Apollonaire[3]

 

How often have we wanted to do something so badly it terrifies us? One of the most profound spiritual truths is “so long as we cling, we are bound.”[4] We want to jump, to pursue greater heights, yet at the same time we are afraid of the unknown. We long to be released yet we also feel security in the status quo. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in life-with every action there’s an equal, opposite reaction.

In her book Hope Will Find You, Rabbi Naomi Levy writes about her daughter Nomi being diagnosed with A-T.[5] This was a devastating diagnosis for both mother and child, and Rabbi Levy took time off of the rabbinate in order to care for her daughter. She writes that as the worries about her daughter eased up, as her faith grew, she began to think about returning to the rabbinate, saying “I just didn’t quite have the courage to take the plunge. Sometimes you think you want something, but you don’t want it badly enough to risk discomfort for it. As the Yiddish proverb goes, ‘The cat likes fish, but she doesn’t want to wet her paws.’ And sometimes you want something badly, but still there are forces preventing you from taking action. Forces that keep you standing on the dock when you so want to jump in the water and start swimming. Sometimes, every once in a while, you get lucky and somebody gives you a push just at that moment when you need it the most. You’re standing there hesitating on the dock and someone just pushes you into the water-not in a cruel way, but in a way of caring.”[6]

Rabbi Levy includes another Yiddish proverb: “If you lie on the ground, you can’t fall.”[7] If we just stay where we are, as comfortable as that might be, we will not grow or mature. We paint a perfect picture in our head, hiding certain details or “fudging” them to fit our depiction of our lives. We resist change because we find it threatening or because it brings us out of our comfort zone. Things become a ‘kishke issue’ and we draw lines rather than facing reality.

One of our regular minyanaires has shared many comments about his father Irving z”l. One that stuck with me because of its jarring nature is ‘If you want security, go to jail.’ We long for a sense of security and permanence, thinking that we are in control; that our fate is in our hands. We hold onto physical possessions never touched in years, as what if we will need them tomorrow. We hold onto emotions, both good and bad, clinging to our past and what we know. Yet ultimately what security is there? Life takes twists and turns we couldn’t have possibly envisioned. We think we are in control and then all of a sudden something happens that makes us realize we have no idea what the heck we are doing. We make plans as if our lives will be a certain way forever and yet ultimately everyone’s physical body leaves this world.

Too often we think nostalgically about our past, longing to return to “the good old days.” That line of thinking applies directly to what we just did: we returned the Torah and said the words חדש ימינו כקדם, renew our lives as in the days of old. A colleague of mine, Rabbi Rob Schienberg of Hoboken, New Jersey, wrote the following in a sermon: Hadesh yameinu ke-kedem’ is of course a paradox.  If our days are to be ‘renewed,’ then they will not be ‘as of old.’  And if they are restored to be ‘as of old,’ then they will not be ‘new’ as the word ‘hadesh‘ implies.

Eikhah Rabbah, not surprisingly, associates this verse with the Garden of Eden – because the word ‘kedem‘ occurs twice in the opening chapters of Genesis.
But curiously, Eikhah Rabbah declines the opportunity to quote the verse that would make an association between ‘kedem‘ and the Garden of Eden explicit:  ‘va-yita adonai elohim gan be-eden mi-kedem.’[8]

What does Eikhah Rabbah do instead?
כאדם הראשון כמד”א (כל מה דאמר) (בראשית ג’:כד) ויגרש את האדם וישכן מקדם לגן עדן-חדש ימינו כקדם[9]

 

The word ‘kedem‘ in Genesis 3:24 – ‘va-yigaresh et ha-adam, va-yashken mi-kedem le-gan eden et ha-k’ruvim, ve’et lahat ha-herev ha-mit’hapekhet…‘ – is not a word associated with the Garden of Eden itself, but a word associated with the EXILE from the Garden.

The decision to quote the word ‘kedem‘ from this verse, rather than from the creation story, indicates that, from the perspective of Eikhah Rabbah, “hadesh yameinu ke-kedem’ does NOT mean “renew our lives as they were in the Garden of Eden.” Rather, it means, “Renew our lives, as you renewed our lives after we were exiled from the Garden of Eden.”

Hadesh yameinu ke-kedem” is then not a plea for restoration of a formerly perfect condition, but rather it is a plea for resilience, a plea for the ability to renew ourselves after future crises and dislocations, just as our lives have been renewed before. As Elie Wiesel said, “God gave Adam a secret – and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.”[10]

Too often in life we are afraid to begin again. Yet that is precisely what G-d does each and every day. We read every morning in the liturgy המחדש בטובו בכל-יום תמיד מעשה בראשית, G-d renews in His kindness the works of creation EVERY DAY. Our G-d is not a Deist, setting the world into motion and then stepping away, but rather one who is actively involved in creation at every moment of every day. So too are we involved in creative acts of reinventing ourselves at every moment of every day as we are בצלם אלקים, made in the image of G-d.

Rabbi Naomi Levy, whose first book is called To Begin Again, writes, “An ordinary day is filled with all sorts of setbacks and challenges and confrontations and disappointments. We can let these setbacks stop us in our tracks. We can allow them to shake us. Or we can see them as opportunities for living a holy life.”[11] She offers the following prayer to those who feel shook up, either by news they have heard or by the current condition of an aspect of their lives: “When I panic, God, teach me patience. When I fear, teach me faith. When I doubt myself, teach me confidences. When I despair, teach me hope. When I lose perspective, show me the way-back to love, back to life, back to You. Amen.[12]

Spirituality is ultimately about surrender, a letting go, a letting be.[13] After all, we are human beings not human “doings.” Our ultimate success is not measured by what we did but rather by who we are. Soon after the death of Rabbi Moshe, Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk asked one of his disciples: ‘What was most important to your teacher?’ The disciple thought and then replied ‘Whatever he happened to be doing at the moment.’[14] It wasn’t his success with Daf Yomi (the daily study of Talmud), his devekut (clinging) in closely reaching G-d while at prayer or his Divrei Torah (sermons) but rather whatever he was doing, moment-by-moment and breath-by-breath.

Too often we focus on the “bottom line outcome” rather than the reality of the present. As someone who has transitioned from being outcome-oriented to being process-oriented, I have noticed this more and more and have had to let go of the desire to know the final outcome of everything. It has helped me recognize that there is indeed a spirituality to imperfection, to seeing that there is no one perfect answer to everything and that by virtue of our being humans we are imperfect beings.

As we begin the New Year 5779, let us take an honest reflection as to where our lives are currently at. May we appreciate the level we have reached in year 5778 in terms of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth and may we aspire to reach an even higher מדריגה (level) in the coming year. For those who feel that they have taken a step back, I offer the following aphorism: “Spirituality involves continually falling down and getting back up again.”[15] For those who feel that they still have too far to go and that it is insurmountable, I offer the following prayer, also from Rabbi Naomi Levy:

Please, God, help me to recognize my frailty. May I always remember that no matter how far I have fallen, no matter how bleak my life may seem, no matter how lost I may feel, I can always begin again. Amen.[16]

Wherever we find ourselves at the present moment, let us close our eyes and take a deep breath in…and a deep breath out…

I invite us all to stay in the room together and continue with Hineni, a prayer lead by our Hazzan, acknowledging that no matter where we are at in terms of inner peace, intellectual aspirations or emotional well-being, we are present at this very moment. The word הנני means “here I am.” It means ‘I am present, just as I am, at this given moment, ready to engage in a dialogue with my Creator. The Cantor is saying, ‘Even if I do not feel worthy to do so, that I am insignificant among all of G-d’s creations, nevertheless will I, a mere human being, step before G-d to intercede on behalf of my קהל, my congregation, just as my ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, did. In so doing, may my prayer be accepted before you, שומע תפילה, The One who Hears Prayer.’

We continue with Hineni on Page 124.

[1] This is based off Deuteronomy 31:19 “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” Nedarim 38a takes this as the command for each person to write his/her own Torah Scroll.

[2] Rema on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah Siman 270 Seif 1; This is based off Babylonian Talmud Menachot 30a.

[3] Guillaume Apollinaire was a French poet who lived at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. I found this poem in Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (US, Bantam Books, 1992), p. 163.

[4] Ibid, p. 164.

[5] A-T, or ataxia-telangiectasia syndrome or Louis–Bar syndrome, is a rare, neurodegenerative, autosomal recessive disease causing severe disability.

[6] Rabbi Naomi Levy, Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living, (New York: Harmony Books, 2010), pgs. 161.

[7] Ibid, p. 160.

[8] Genesis 2:8

[9] Eicha Rabba Parsha 5

[10] Sermon by Rabbi Rob Schienberg

[11] Rabbi Naomi Levy, Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living, pgs. 192-93.

[12] Rabbi Naomi Levy, To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), p. 180.

[13] The Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 168.

[14] The Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 151.

[15] Ibid, p. 192.

[16] To Begin Again, p. 112.

Praying to G-d Each and Every Day

When I read the questionnaire put out by the Rabbinic Search Committee at the Jericho Jewish Center, one item that struck me was the answer to “What Are You Most Proud Of?” The first out of three answers was having two daily minyanim. This is indeed something to be proud of: synagogues which are much larger in size than JJC cannot claim the feat of both morning and evening minyanim to pray together as a community and for mourners to say Kaddish. In addition, people from all over come to the Jericho Jewish Center for daily minyan, most recently an Orthodox Sephardi man on Labor Day Weekend.

One of the challenges with any minyan is it can become easy to pray by rote. Traditionally the same people, those who are in a year of mourning, are the ones who daven, as they have a hiyuv (religious obligation). Over the years I’ve seen that each one has his[1] unique style. At the same time, he is saying the same words morning after morning and night after night. How can one continue to have inspiration to pray to G-d, the Ruler of Rulers, in a way which is spiritually moving and filled with kavana (proper intention) when the service is the same? This is a question we must also ask now, at the beginning of New Year 5779, when we are about to have two days in a row[2] with the same, elongated Musaf Amidah, as well as on Yom Kippur, when we say the Ashamnu 10 times and the Al Chet 8 times, continuing to enumerate the same list of sins.

One attempt at an answer can be derived from a story told by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, a rabbi from the Bovover Hasidic line who, like me, had his roots in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In his book Living Each Day, one of his series of books in which he tries to instill each day with deeper spirituality and meaning, Rabbi Twerski writes the following: “At the Western Wall in Jerusalem I saw a blind man being led to the wall. He felt the stones with his fingertips, applied a gentle kiss to the sacred stones, and began speaking to G-d. Although he spoke very rapidly, I could catch some of the words. He was relating to G-d various things that had happened to him, and some of his requests.

At one point he stopped abruptly. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I already told You that yesterday.’ The sincerity of the man’s prayer was electrifying. He had no doubt whatever that what he said yesterday had been heard.”[3]

This story might strike us as surprising: why would this man not say the same thing to G-d day after day? After all, that’s what we do in daily minyan, save personal additions that we can add to our Silent Amidah. Rabbi Twerski, however is getting at a deeper truth-prayer is a conversation we are having with G-d. Just as in a conversation with a person we do not want to belabor or repeat points ad nauseum, so too must we avoid doing so with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, G-d almighty. The conversation must have new elements each and every day; otherwise it loses its import.

This brings us to a conundrum: we live in an age with a standardized Siddur, or prayerbook, with a list of prayers we are required to say. How can we turn these prayers from being a ‘laundry list’ to becoming something which inspires and touches the soul? In order to begin this process, it would be wise to follow Sherwin’s example, to ‘understand what we are reading.’ If we do not know Hebrew, now would be a good time to start taking a class on Tuesday evenings at the Jericho Jewish Center or to take me up on my offer-which still stands-of learning 1-on-1 until a point is reached when you can become an Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah. With that being said, how does that help us now when we are already at High Holidays 5779? For that I would argue that in order to have meaningful High Holy Days (days which are instilled in holiness), we should view our prayers, whether they are on or off the page-as part of a conversation with G-d. These services are opportunities to communicate with a Higher Power, not only to make pleas and requests but also to converse as one would with a longtime friend or as the old man did in the vignette Rabbi Twerski shared. While this might be a more prescient time to do connect with G-d, our tradition teaches that we must do so each and every day. Like in sports, we need to practice before we reach the game: we must be continually mindful of where our relationship with G-d is at. If we do not, if we do not strive to engage with G-d between Yom Kippur and the following Rosh Hashanah, than it should be no surprise to us if we are unable to obtain the deep, meaningful connection for which we strive.

Therein lies the importance of our daily minyan-the Jericho Jewish Center provides twice daily opportunity to have a conversation with G-d. Sometimes the conversation might be praying by rote in English or Hebrew and might not be spiritually inspiring. However, by making the effort, we will get closer to achieving that connection for which we strive. It’s why I believe Rabbi Richardson’s z”l innovation of personal prayer before the Ark at Neilah became so powerful here: it’s the moment when it’s just you and G-d conversing with one another. That “spiritual high” does not need to be reserved for once a year: there’s the opportunity to aspire for it each and every day at minyan at the Jericho Jewish Center. I’ve seen people elongate their prayer and come before the ark after the service formally concludes to speak to G-d. That is something that each and every one of us has the opportunity to do, regardless of our knowledge of Hebrew or of the fixed liturgy.

As we officially enter New Year 5779, let us each strive to be like the old man who had the conversation with G-d in front of the Kotel. When we feel lost in the service, unsure of what to do during a long Hebrew recitative by our Hazzan or a choral piece by the choir, may we take a deep breath, close our eyes and enter into a conversation with our Creator. In so doing, may we find that this years’ service has an even greater level of spiritual integrity than those of the past as we strive to reach לעלא לעלא, a higher and higher relationship with G-d. May that spirit also transcend the High Holy Days and reach into the coming year, as we strive to converse with G-d at daily minyanim and at Shabbat services.

We continue with a responsive reading on Page 20 in the Mahzor, “How to Number Our Days.”

[1] I say his because women are not allowed to lead services at the Jericho Jewish Center minyan.

[2] Or one long day, יומא אריכתא

[3] Abraham Twerski, Living Each Day (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1992), p. 70 (9 Kislev).