Don’t Lose Sight of Who You Are

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 everyone being here. Please know you always have a place here at Bet Shira Congregation.

Where were you the morning of October 27, 2018? I will never forget that date, just like I will never forget September 11, 2001, and just like many here will never forget November 22, 1963.

On October 27, I was in California, interviewing for a position. I was with Karina, 30 weeks pregnant, and our daughter Ariela. I drove into the synagogue parking lot at 9:45 am PST, or 12:45 pm EST. I was greeted by the Search Committee Chair and three committee members. The Search Chair asked me, “Did you hear what happened in Pittsburgh?” “No,” was my reply. I had been to Pittsburgh once, for the Forensics Nationals in Student Congress. I loved exploring the city via light rail with one of my best friends but did not know it other than that sole experience.

The Search Chair said, “Let’s go into another room.” I was brought into a separate room and told that someone had gone into Etz Chaim, Tree of Life Synagogue, and shot what at that time was known to be 8 people.

I had 5 minutes to come up with an address to the congregation, to a Past President from Pittsburgh who did not know if his friends from Tree of Life were alive. It was Rabbi Alan Lew’s This is Real and You Are Completely Prepared. Words Fail, Words Fail, There is Nothing I Can Say.[1] On one foot, I did the best I could to respond to this unprecedented event at the start of services. I was in shock, unable to believe that such an atrocity had occurred. I was told that my words were well-received but to be honest I have forgotten what I said. I only reviewed the livestream record once since, 6 months later. What I will never forget is what I felt: anger. How dare someone come into a house of worship and murder people! My daughter Ariela loves the synagogue and can’t wait to come up and say Eyn Keloheinu. How dare someone, who if I wasn’t in synagogue, I’d have some choice words for, violate this sacred space!

Later on I learned that I knew the Rabbi/Cantor of the synagogue from a professional development course I took. I also learned that my rabbinical school roommate had grown up at New Light Synagogue, one of the three synagogues which had space in the Tree of Life complex, as his father was the rabbi there.

Six months later my mother-in-law is visiting from San Diego at the end of Passover. My phone is on in part because I have a panic button app that when pressed would put this call at the top of the list. We are enjoying lunch when I see a news alert about a shooting at Chabad of Poway-25 minutes away from where my mother-in-law lives. At afternoon services to conclude Passover I go up to a congregant who has a home in Poway and ask, “Did you hear what happened in Poway?” “No,” was her response. I go with her into a separate room and tell her. I make the mistake of not having her sit and she falls forward, my hands helping prevent her from hitting the ground. With tears in her eyes, she tells me about a friend who goes to Chabad of Poway-what if she was the one shot?

This past year we have witnessed a shooting at the Young Israel of Bal Harbour, a short drive from here. We saw graffiti on a synagogue in Racine, 45 minutes from where I grew up. We saw a synagogue in Duluth burnt to the ground and antisemitic attacks in Brooklyn. We also saw an abhorrent cartoon of Netanyahu and Trump printed in the international edition of the New York Times, a hooked-nose Jew sign at a university in Belgium as well as hearing a US representative make the comments “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” and “Israel has hypnotized the world.” These incidents reveal an inconvenient truth: antisemitism is rearing its ugly head stronger and stronger within the public sphere.

At Bet Shira we offered two active shooter workshops, one for the Board and leaders, the other for the entire congregation, so that we can be prepared if G-d forbid an attack strikes us.

I want to read you a poem I wrote after the shooting at Tree of Life, published in the book Holding Fast edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor. This poem is entitled “A Tree of Life.”

As I look in my newborn daughter’s eyes

I recognize the preciousness of her life.

She did not arrive when we planned

That only intensified the light she brought us.

 

We are a people who value life

Life is always stronger than death.

Life is not an accident to be squandered

Rather it is G-d’s most precious gift.

 

Those who take the lives of others

Will not see their designs bear fruit.

Our Torah is a Tree of Life

Bringing vitality to all who hold fast to it.

 

As I look into my newborn daughter’s eyes

I see the gift of new life

She has already brought so much light and vitality

A Hanukkah blessing for our entire family.

 

I know that while her body is fragile

She has an inner strength.

We are fragile after Pittsburgh

Yet we have an inner strength.

 

Our love for Judaism only deepens

After someone tries to scare us.

My love for my daughter only increased

After being scared by her early birth.

 

Let us always remember

Love is stronger than hate.

Those who seek to destroy who we are

Will only make us stronger.[2]

 

Conclusion Similar to What I Said Wednesday: How do we fight antisemitism? Bari Weiss has an excellent book with this title. I encourage you to read it. For today I want to end the High Holy Days where I started: with my grandmother, Lucille Frenkel z”l. My grandmother never knew a word of Hebrew, ironic since she was married to an Israeli. She always came to Shabbat morning services 15 minutes early, at 8:45 am, a habit I am still working on emulating. She read word by word in the English, often not finishing the Preliminary Service. I would tell her, “Grandma, there’s more parts of the service” yet she would only read from the beginning word by word, the essence of Kavanah.

My grandmother and I were talking one day. I was either comparing myself to another, or kvetching/complaining. She turned to me and said, “You don’t know who you are.” Harsh but in retrospect true. I did not know who I was and have since worked hard to figure out the person I am meant to be.

That’s the lesson I want each of us to take from the antisemitism occurring. They are trying to scare us, to get us to abandon our way of life, to make us afraid to go into a synagogue. As Elphaba in Wicked said, “Don’t lose sight of who you are.” Don’t let them win by changing who you are. Be proud to be Jewish, however you personally demonstrate that in your life. We fight antisemitism by being steadfast and unyielding in who we are.

         

Conclusion Written Before Wednesday: What can we do in the face of rising antisemitism? Bari Weiss, in her book How to Fight Antisemitism, writes “we are living in an era in which the lunatic fringe has gone mainstream,”[3] and she means it for both those on the left and on the right. She gives over 20 ways in which to fight antisemitism. I am just going to just mention 9 of them. First Weiss says to Tell the truth. Rather than looking for rationalizations to explain away the hatred, we need to call a spade a spade. As Weiss says, we need to “call it out, especially when it’s hard.”[4] When things are difficult, when those around us spew hateful rhetoric, that’s when we need to be sure to call it out rather than ignoring it. We need to respond directly and in the moment. Antisemitism is not some abstract concept ‘out there’; it is in the here-and-now and must be addressed.

The second test of Weiss’ is to Trust Your Discomfort. If something does not seem right, we need to ask questions. This occurred to me a few weeks ago when a gentleman with a backpack was on the balcony. While it turned out to be the A/C guy, I did not know and so it behooved me to ask questions rather than assume that everything was alright. Weiss writes “most of us actually underplay the discomfort we deal with, eager to put on a good face, to blend in with our neighbors, keen not to play the victim. This rule is a simple one: Don’t wait.”[5]

A third principle of Weiss’ that I chose to discuss is Don’t trust people who seek to divide Jews. Even if they are Jews.[6] When Jews are accused of being disloyal for being affiliated with a particular political party, this comes into question.  We always need to be wary of trusting people, in particular trying to assess their motivations, or if there are ‘strings attached.’

This would not be a Yom Kippur sermon if we did not end on a positive note. Weiss has three positive precepts I want to mention: Allow for the possibility of change (“teshuvah”); Notice your enemies, but more importantly notice your friends; Praise those who do the right thing (what we call positive-reinforcement); Expect solidarity; Stop blaming yourself; and Choose life.

Rabbi Angela Buchdal of Central Synagogue, said the following in her Rosh Hashanah sermon last year:

Journalist Yair Rosenberg, recently said to me, “Fight antisemitism

where you are. Not just when it’s politically expedient. It’s more credible– and more effective.”
To fight antisemitism, we must also resist our understandable desire to leave when we feel we are not wanted. It is not easy to sit at the table or engage when we feel under attack–
but we must stay in it

So let us stand up for ourselves, let us stand against hatred of all kinds, and let us stand for the human capacity to change. This is who we are.[7]

The word Yizkor from the word “Zachor” means to remember. We need to remember those who came before us, their lives and their legacies, and internalize in some way their life’s teachings. Many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as many people in this very room, endured pogroms and that shonda known as the Shoah, the Holocaust. Many here have endured antisemitic attacks at the workplace or on the streets. I’ll never forget the handful of times antisemitic comments were made to me in Milwaukee as well as the thinly veiled antisemitism I encountered in New York. Yet those who came before us had an unabashed pride in who they are. They did not let the bullies and the haters change them. They remained proud members of our people.

Yom Kippur, the day on which we focus on the spiritual, is the perfect day to connect with those who are no longer physically present; remembering their touch, their words and actions of kindness, all that they sought to achieve in life. We seek to observe our lives in the way that they taught us: with integrity, honesty, kindness, confidence, pride in who we are, perseverance through life’s challenges and having the strength of our convictions. Through reconnecting with our loved ones today, we set the stage for living life to the fullest, giving our all to make our parents, our grandparents, our spouses, our siblings proud of our accomplishments.

 

As we prepare for another Yizkor, I pray that each of us takes a moment to deeply connect with those who are no longer physically present in our lives, to remember their touch, their smile, their words of inspiration, the memories shared over the years. I hope that more than anything we will internalize the pride in who they were and for what they did for us in order to enable us to reach this day, and that we will pass the pride we feel in our heritage onto the next generation. Through Yizkor on this holiest day of the year, we rekindle their spirit and reunite with them-keeping their presence with us. This is not meant to be easy to achieve-there may be tears, frustration or sadness upon recalling one taken before his/her time or when we hoped for so many more special moments together. However, on Yom Kippur we have an opportunity to get as close as possible to the ones who came before us, who taught us values and ethics, who modeled for us how to live our lives. Let’s take a moment during Yizkor to close our eyes, taking a deep breath, letting our thoughts go, and deeply connect with our loved ones. I encourage everyone to stay in for Yizkor, even if you have not lost a parent, so that we

I will conclude with Bari Weiss’ words at the end of an article she wrote for the New York Times.

Our neighbors understood that an attack on the Jewish community was an attack on them, too. That the entire community recited the Mourners Kaddish — and that The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran the words in Hebrew on the front page — was further evidence that what was being protected by our fellow Americans, wasn’t simply our right to exist. It was our right to lead unashamed, full Jewish lives. Which meant that they could do the same.[8]

[1] Dear Evan Hansen, “Words Fail”

[2] Holding Fast

[3] Bari Weiss, How To Fight Antisemitism (New York: Crown, 2019), pg. 23.

[4] Ibid, 171.

[5] Ibid, 170.

[6] Weiss, 174.

[7] Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdal, “Yom Teruah: Sounding the Alarm for Antisemitism,” Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018, Central Synagogue

 

[8] Bari Weiss, “To Fight Anti-Semitism, Be a Proud Jew,” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/opinion/sunday/anti-semitism.html?searchResultPosition=1

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Letting Go

It is so wonderful to see people gathered together on the holiest day of the year. What is significant to me is not only Yom Kippur, the day of at-one-ment with G-d, but also how we feel and what we do the day after Yom Kippur. Please remember this and please know that you are always welcome here at Bet Shira Congregation.

Today and tomorrow are when we bring back the Isaiah Bags, filled to the brim to be returned to Jewish Community Services of South Florida. JCS has been serving the Jewish and non-Jewish community, providing exemplary social services through compassionate and comprehensive programs that help people stay healthy and productive. JCS is a beacon of help, healing and hope as it addresses current needs.  They provides a vast array of services and programs for Seniors, Holocaust Survivors, Children, Youth and Families, and Jewish Victims of Domestic Abuse through their Shalom Bayit Program.  The Kosher Food Bank, as many of you know, serves Jewish families in our community that suffer from food insufficiency.  Bet Shira has been a constant supporter of the Kosher Food Bank for many years, donating canned foods, gift cards and holiday gift baskets to JCS for these needy families. Thank you for your support of JCS.

 

I’m Never Going Back, The Past Is In the Past[1]

An old maxim is “forgive and forget.” We will read tomorrow afternoon in the Torah “Do not bear a grudge.”[2] Yet we know that this is much easier said than done. How do you let go of past slights, rather than holding onto them? Do you have thick enough skin that things roll off your back?

There’s a story I will never forget that I learned at a Hebrew High School orientation. While I may have said it before, it bears repeating today:

A father was driving along with his adult son. The son was complaining about someone who had slighted him a decade ago when he was in high school. The father stops the car and then says to his son, “How much rent are you paying him?” Perplexed, the son says, “He does not live with me!” The father replies, “He seems like it: he’s been living in your head this entire time.”

When we hold onto slights or injustices, we are the ones who suffer. The other person has forgotten about them quite some time ago, yet they are in our head. As we learn both from mindfulness and from Dan Millman, the way of the peaceful warrior is in the here-and-now.

We cannot control what happens to us, only how we react to it. Are we going to react in a way that lets go of the hurt or in a way that enables the other to “live in our head”? I certainly prefer the latter to the former.

The following parable illustrates how we let go.

 

Once there were two friends traveling together in the desert. At some point in the trip, the two began to argue. Then the first friend slapped his partner. The victim did not defend himself, but instead wrote in the sand: “Today my best friend gave me a slap.”

         The days passed and the two friends continued on their journey. They came to an oasis and decided to bath in the spring. The man who had been slapped began to drown, but his friend threw himself into the water and rescued him. The man was grateful, and he took his knife and began to carve into a stone, “today my best friend saved my life.”

         Now the first friend was really intrigued, so he asked his friend, “Why did you write in the sand when I slapped you, but now that I rescued you, you carved it into a stone?”

         The second friend answered with a smile, “When someone offends me, I try to write it in the sand, where the marks are easily erased by the winds of forgiveness. When someone does something good for me, I prefer to leave it engraved in stone so that I never forget, so memory will remind me that I should be grateful.”[3]

Letting go is very difficult, whether it be of words said, slights done to us or pain that we feel. We feel we benefit by holding onto the anguish and the hurt; yet it does us no good. We do better by forgiving and forgetting, moving on to what’s here for us now.

It is true that there are some things we cannot, we must not let go of-the most important of which is the topic I will be speaking about tomorrow. However, I pray that we let go of the individual slights that we feel whenever possible, forgiving others; as well as being able to forgive ourselves. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

Before continuing with our service, I want to share this cute little poem “Time to Pray.”

 

“Time to Pray”

 

I got up early one morning

and rushed right into the day;

I had so much to accomplish
that I didn’t have time to pray.

Problems just tumbled about me,

and heavier came each task.

“Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered.
He answered, “You didn’t ask.”
I wanted to see joy and beauty,

but the day toiled on, gray and bleak;

I wondered why God didn’t show me.
He said, “But you didn’t seek.”
I tried to come into God’s presence;

I used all my keys at the lock.

God gently and lovingly chided,
“My child, you didn’t knock.”

I woke up early this morning,

and paused before entering the day;

I had so much to accomplish

that I had to take time to pray.[4]

 

[1] Elsa in Frozen, “Let It Go”

[2] Leviticus 19:18

[3] Júlio César de Mello e Souza, writing as Malba Tahan

[4] http://kubik.org/lighter/praytime.htm. Thank you to Steve Mann for introducing me to this lighthearted poem.

Having the Courage of One’s Convictions

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 Bet Shira Congregation. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at Bet Shira.

 

Sound of the Shofar-by Lucille Frenkel

Call of the past and out of the past,

You rouse us to face to the future.

Sound of the ram’s horn, its meaning precise,

Reminds us to recall the sacrifice

Of a past which begot us so we may beget

Finer future.[1]

 

What do David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon all have in common besides each being an early leader of the State of Israel? Certainly not their politics. According to Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, the answer is that each of them had to make high-stakes decisions, with the existence of the State of Israel being on the line. This is higher stakes than I or the majority of people will ever have to make in their lives.

One of those high-stakes decisions was made by Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion, born David Gruen in Poland, had a clear agenda: he believed “stateless Jews were defenseless Jews”[2] and sought with an unparalleled urgency to bring about a Jewish state. He had foreseen that the rise of Hitler meant immense trouble for his people, and in the aftermath of the Shoah (Holocaust) he fought for a Jewish State at all costs. Ben-Gurion founded the Haganah, Israel’s defense agency which at first worked in collaboration with the British. Ben-Gurion had supported the Peel Commission of 1936, a small Jewish state of islands surrounded by a Palestinian state. He figured a small state was better than no state. Yet Ben-Gurion knew when too much compromise was deadly, breaking with the British in 1939 following the White Paper phasing out immigration. The first decision Ben-Gurion made after the UN partition plan vote in 1947 was to allow for unrestricted Jewish immigration into Israel.[3] What made Ben-Gurion such a great leader was his “single-minded determination to sustain and grow the Zionist project.”[4]

At times Ben-Gurion came into conflict with other Zionist leaders, one of whom was his rival Menachem Begin. Begin founded the Irgun, at times attacking British soldiers, including the famous bombing of the King David Hotel. He felt the British could not be trusted, moving too slowly to secure a Jewish homeland. Yet Begin’s greatest claim to fame as a leader was not in creating terror but rather in showing restraint. In 1948 a ship called the Altalena with armed supplies for the Irgun was approaching the Tel Aviv shore. Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah to fire on it, and it sunk. My grandfather, Abraham Frenkel z”l, watched from the Tel Aviv coastline. Begin jumped from the Altalena and then gave an announcement onshore. There was a stillness, as people expected him to order an attack on Ben-Gurion and his Haganah, prompting a civil war. Instead, Begin announced that the Irgun would be disbanded as a separate organization and be under the auspices of Ben-Gurion and the Haganah. Begin did not let his ideology cloud his shared objective with Ben-Gurion of creating  a Jewish state. Similarly, Israel’s first peace deal was created not by a left-wing leader but by Begin, with Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Begin demonstrated that he was not an ideologue and would do whatever the moment required. That’s a decisive leader.

Another example of a leader going against the grain was Ariel Sharon, known as Arik. Sharon was the father of the Settlement movement, promoting homes in Judea and Samaria after 1967. He also ordered the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. The very people Sharon encouraged to move into Gaza were the same people he unilaterally ordered out for what he believed to be the security of Israel. I was in Israel in 2005 and remember seeing the blue (pro-disengagement) ribbons in Tel Aviv and the orange (anti-disengagement) ribbons in Jerusalem. It was quite a trying time for Israel indeed, yet Sharon did what he felt was best in spite of considerable opposition.

Rabin was the same way, able to take risks. Above all else, he wanted peace for Israel. He met with Yasser Arafat after the first Intifada and the two of them along with President Clinton formed the Oslo Accords. He also secured peace with King Abdullah of Jordan. Rabin came from the same background as the others, fighting in the War for Independence in 1948. He knew his agenda, to be a peacemaker to ensure a secure future for Israel, and he fought to make it a reality. The words Shir L’Shalom, a song of peace, were on his lips the evening he was murdered.

What Ross and Makovsky write in their book is a concern that modern leaders of Israel do not have the ability to be as decisive in high-stakes decisions. In writing, they are not speaking specifically about any one leader, not Bibi, Benny, Ayelet or Yair. Rather they are speaking about a modern Israel Prime Minister who is more of a strategic politician than a decisive leader.

In describing leadership let me first say what a leader is not. A leader is not a savior. At my installation at a previous congregation, the cantor sang Zog Shel Kumen in Geulah, the Messiah has come. While I believe he did this tongue-in-cheek, the truth is that congregations often expect their new leaders to be “the answer” for all of the balms of the congregation. All the more so, there’s a power in saying no.  If one always says yes it is meaningless; being able to say no makes one’s yes all the more meaningful.

My mom, Laurie Herman, a long time librarian and Jewish professional in Milwaukee, who I am so happy is here today, said she was concerned about me becoming a rabbi. After all, it’s not a job for a nice Jewish boy. The best way I look at being a rabbi is through the following story told by Ruth Gruber z”l:

According to Chaim Weizmann, one of the juiciest storytellers I have ever met, President Truman, congratulating him on the establishment of the new state, said: “I am the President of a country of 140,000,000 people. And you, Dr. Weizmann, have become the President of a country of a million people.” Dr. Weizmann shook his head. “Ah, you are wrong, sir.  I have become the President of a million presidents.”[5]

As a rabbi, with every congregant as your boss, one must be political and strategic. At the same time, one must be decisive, at times “going against the grain” of what others think. A rabbi needs to recognize that one cannot please all of the people all of the time but rather that s/he can please some of the people all of the time. At the critical moments, when told “Rabbi, if you make this decision I’m leaving and taking 20 families with me” or “Rabbi, if you make this decision you’re fired” the rabbi needs to have the strength of inner being to honor the courage of his/her convictions rather than just going where the wind blows. This is much easier said than done, of course, yet it is what makes a rabbi a leader.

It is my hope and my prayer that the next Prime Minister of Israel, whether Bibi, Benny, or a “dark horse,” will have the courage of his convictions to lead Israel at this most critical time.

I feel most fortunate to be living in a state with two Pro-Israel Senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, as well as Pro-Israel representative Donna Shalala, who I had the privilege of hearing speak last month at our local AIPAC event. As I mentioned at that event, I support AIPAC precisely because it is bipartisan: regardless of one’s political affiliation, or lack thereof, what truly matters is support of Israel. As in the old adage of the Israel on Campus Coalition of Hillel: “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.”[6]  My father, Dr. Bruce Herman, taught me to have independent views, for which I am most grateful. Both my parents demonstrated for me the importance of supporting Israel, as did my uncle Dan, who founded Betar Milwaukee, and my Grandpa Abe, a sabra who fought in the War for Independence and was a message boy for the Stern Gang.

There are multiple ways that you can help Bet Shira Congregation stand unified with Israel. One is by supporting Israel Bonds, making a personal investment in the State of Israel. As in the words written by Rabbi Martin Pasternak, National Director of Israel Bonds: “Every dollar of every investment-no matter the sum-is a dollar invested in strengthening the achievement of the dreamers, founders and builders of Israel to create a state, a home, a life and a future for the Jewish people.”[7] I hope that in this season of increased Tzedakah, charitable giving, that you will consider an investment in Israel Bonds.

 Another way you can connect is by visiting Israel, making your own personal connection to the Land of Milk and Honey. Join Bet Shira Congregation in our mission to Israel June 14-25, an experience of a lifetime for the entire family, or join the Jewish Federation, one of the staunchest supports of synagogues as well as of Israel, in its mission June 7-14. These trips are open to all, whether you have been to Israel 50 times or are going for the first time.

A third way for us to all stand together is to continue to educate ourselves about the situation in Israel. Whether you are a member of AIPAC, JStreet, ZOA or another organization, there are numerous programs and resources devoted towards education about Israel’s political situation. We will also be learning about the Masorti movement and the World Zionist Congress elections to be held in fall 2020. I do not care if you are right-wing, left-wing or in the center: what I DO care about is that you care about our community and the worldwide Jewish community. As Elie Wiesel said, “The peril facing mankind today is indifference.”[8] There are numerous speakers about Israel at the JCC and at the many congregations in Miami, as well as a plethora of media sources that you can use to educate yourself about Israel. I was privileged to attend the AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium this August and am excited for Bet Shira’s delegation to the AIPAC Policy Conference this March.

I pray that the coming year will present numerous opportunities for us to come together as one people. Let us not lose sight of the biblical precept that though few in number, we are a strong and mighty nation, prepared to encounter the challenges that face us. May this truly be a year of renewed peoplehood, of being empowered to act together for a better future. AM YISRAEL CHAI! The People of Israel live!

Rabbi Rami Shapiro, founder of Temple Beth Or here in Miami, wrote a poem entitled A Different Kind of a Hineni in hopes that this gives us some additional insight into this important prayer:

Hineni. Here I am.

A little bit nervous, a bit self-conscious.

After all, who am I talking to?

And what have I done?

Am I a sinner in search of grace

Or a saint seeking salvation?

Am I so evil

Or so good

As to warrant this season of introspection?

And yet here it is, and here I am:

This time of change and correction,

This heart of confusion and contrition.

Oh, if I could change!

If I could be so sure of myself

That I no longer had to imagine the slights of others;

To be so loving of myself

That I no longer had to ration my loving of others;

To be so bold with myself

That I no longer had to fear the bravery of other.

Oh, if I could change

There is so much I would change.

Maybe I will, but it scares me so.

Maybe I won’t and that should scare me more.

But it doesn’t.

So let me pray just this:

Let no one be put to shame because of me.

Wouldn’t that make this a wonderful year?

Hineni-Here I am![9]

 

Shana Tova U’metuka, a happy, sweet and healthy new year to all.

 

[1] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), page 130.

[2] Ross and Makovsky Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny (New York: Public Affairs, 2019), pg. 71.

[3] Ross and Makovsky, pg. 72.

[4] Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Zionist Project, in Ross and Makovsky, pg. 72.

[5] Ruth Gruber, Israel Without Tears, 1950, pg. 14

[6] Israel on Campus Coalition began in 2002 in response to the Second Intifada

[7] Israel Bonds 5780 High Holiday Guide

[8] Elie Wiesel 1999 White House Speech “The Perils of Indifference”

[9] From The World of the High Holy Days Volume II, edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer, Pages 103-104.

Who By Fire, Who By Water?

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling[1]?

Who by fire? Just look at Paradise, California, burnt to a crisp, 40 people dead from the Camp Fire. Who by water? Look at the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian to the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama, with at least 50 people killed.

Look at the rising temperatures on land and by the sea, and we see the evidence of Al Gore’s inconvenient truth. Look at the Amazon Rainforest on fire, Hurricane Lorenzo setting a record for being the furthest east a hurricane made Category 5. I am not going to preach about climate change and what to do about it. It would be hypocritical, as I personally could be more environmentally friendly: we use paper towels, plastic bags, and I do not drive an electric car. However, one person who is qualified to preach about it is Greta Thunberg, who said to world leaders at the UN “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…we are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth-how dare you!”[2]

I’ve spent a lot of time speaking about mindfulness, the importance of focusing on the here-and-now. However, at times one must take steps for future generations. There’s a famous story about Honi HaMaagel (the circle drawer) who saw an old man planting carobs. “Fool!” he said to him. “Who are you planting those carobs for?” The man replied “Just as my grandparents planted carob trees for me, so too will I plant them for my grandchildren.”[3]

We need to think about what we are doing to plant the seeds for generations yet to come. It was quipped to me that my generation won’t have to worry about retirement because of global warming. I prefer to think much more optimistically-that we WILL take the steps collectively to make a difference and where we cannot we will adapt as best we can.

There are two brief stories I want to share about people who respond to natural disasters when they occur. The first is the Saks family. Belinda Saks, a former United Synagogue Board Member, fled her home with the oncoming Woolsey Fire, not knowing if when they returned it would be still standing. She was driving with her husband Jeremy when she saw a yeshiva where the students were stranded. They arranged to get all the students out and rescue the Torah scrolls in the yeshiva. A great mitzvah and a heroic act indeed.

The other story concerns Hurricane Dorian. When many of us saw the devastation and destruction that befell the Bahamas, we sprang into action. In the span of a few days, our Tikkun Olam Committee collected over two minivans full of diapers, canned foods, bottled water and many other goods which they brought to the United Way to send to the Bahamas. Our Greater Miami Jewish Federation sent out an email the next day requesting funds for The Bahamas to rebuild, and raised $270,000. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation with its CEO, Jacob Solomon, a member of our very own congregation, is always at the forefront of being there for those in need. They should be lauded for springing into action so quickly, and they should be supported by our entire congregation.

I do not have answers as to how to stop Who By Fire and Who By Water. There are certainly more qualified environmental protectors than me who also put their money where their mouth is. However, I believe 100% that when natural disasters strike, as unfortunately they will continue to do, we will band together to support each other and truly be a community of caring and a congregational family.

 

[1] Leonard Cohen Who By Fire

[2] Greta Thunberg Speech, September 23, 2019.

[3] Adapted from Babylonian Talmud Taanit 23a

Honesty and How to Change a Bad Habit

It is so wonderful to see so many people gathered together today to join us in worship. Parents are reunited with children (including my parents, Bruce and Laurie Herman), 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 Bet Shira Congregation. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Bet Shira Congregation.

For those who do not know, we have a sister congregation, Kehillat Netzach Yisrael in Ashkelon. I sent a more detailed update by email but here is a synopsis of what they are doing. They operate five afternoon day care programs with over 140 children including a hot lunch and activities.  They also opened a nursery from three months old to three years old last year.  They added another room to the nursery this year and now have thirty children in that program.

Their rabbi, Gustavo Surazski, has been running mini lectures series in member’s homes. Their Youth Movement started two weeks ago from third grade to the army (ages 9-18).

After the holidays we will begin working on B’nai Mitzvah twinning with our sister congregation. Each Bnei Mitzvah student will be twinned with someone in our sister congregation who is also becoming a Bar Mitzvah, kind of like a pen pal. The students will write to one another-I will translate the Hebrew into English-and they will learn about their Israeli counterpart. There will also be the option of B’nai Mitzvah families giving to Kehillat Netzach Yisrael (as well as anyone else who wants to give) in order to support the good work of our sister congregation.

 

Lucille Frenkel, “New Year Prayer 5734-1973”

Another New Year

Marking passing of time,

A fresh chance to reflect

And to question how I am

Passing my days

In my journey through time-

Do I value each moment

God sends to be mine?

Do I criticize much

Which I do not approve,

Instead of attempting

Myself to improve?

Another New Year

Marking passing of time

Holds the need to reflect

On my whole life design.[1]

I couldn’t get it done. Those words from presidential candidate Pete Buttigeg speak volumes.  Mayor Pete who served in South Bend, Indiana, where I was privileged to have a pulpit internship, was asked why he did not further desegregate the South Bend police force and why race relations have worsened during his tenure as Mayor. ‘I couldn’t get it done’ was his response. No excuses, no further explanation.

Regardless of where we stand politically, I think we can learn from Mayor Pete’s words. So often in life we are afraid of our shortcomings so we build artifice around them. When taken to task for something we did, we develop an excuse or a rationalization. Believe me I understand: I’m a Maimonidean at heart. However, what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about are looking ourselves in the mirror. We are honest, admitting that we are human and that we make mistakes.

After Mayor Pete’s statement, David Suissa of the Fort Lauderdale based Jewish Journal wrote the following: “It was a shocking moment. In the middle of all the bluster at the Democratic primary debate Thursday night, with one candidate after another promising they would fix all of our problems, one candidate, Pete Buttigieg, decided to go in another direction. He decided he would tell us the truth and admit failure. In so doing, he exposed a deeper truth: There’s just so much a politician can do to make our lives better. All too often, they fail. The problem is, they never admit it. They’re afraid that if they do, they will lose our vote. And maybe they’re right. Maybe we’re just suckers for hucksters who promise us the moon. We want to believe that someone, somewhere, can make our lives better. The alternative— that the solution to most of our problems is inside each one of us — is too burdensome.[2]

Rather than do the best we can and admit failure when it occurs, it is far easier to blame someone else or to put on blinders or a mask, pretending we did no wrongdoing. After all, Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage[3]-and some of us are rather good actors. The High Holy Days, however, is the time at which we take off the masks, the blinders, and expose ourselves for who we truly are.

Let us illustrate that with a comparison between our upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur and Purim. The Vilna Gaon, an 18th century Lithuanian rabbi, reminds us that Yom Kippur’s full name is Yom HaKippurim, meaning “the day which is like Purim.”[4] Does that surprise everyone? According to the Talmud, every holiday has a partner, and Yom Kippur’s is Purim.[5] Purim is a foil for Yom Kippur, a day where we relish in the physical; food, drink and merriment. Yom Kippur is the day when we focus on the spiritual; being like angels who do not require and food or drink. Purim is the day when we read the Megillah, where G-d’s name is not even mentioned once. Yom Kippur is the day totally devoted to G-d, a day of atonement or “at one ment” where we become one with G-d.

The greatest opposite, however, is not in what we do but rather in how we are supposed to feel. On Purim we put on masks, hiding our true identities. We do this to mimic G-d, who says “I will surely hide my face from them.” [6]וְאָנֹכִ֗י הַסְתֵּ֨ר אַסְתִּ֤יר פָּנַי֙  The name Esther means hidden and she is the perfect example of an assimilated Jew, hiding her identity-from her husband no less! Yom Kippur is the opposite of Purim: we take off the masks, revealing our true inner natures as we stand before the Ark, just us and the Master of the Universe.

Our new year goes one step further than the secular one. Rather than making resolutions, we look ourselves in the mirror, saying not only that we are going to change but more importantly how we are going to change.  We acknowledge where we fell short and how we are going to do better in the coming year.

In a podcast by the Mussar Institute, Ronit Ziv-Krieger gave six steps for habit change. The first is to have a sense of purpose as to what one wants to change. Second is to have awareness of what one is doing at all times, being focused on the present moment. Third is self-restraint, specifically to define the point at which you struggle. Fourth is to create a trigger or visual stimulus to help you in the process. We often think of triggers as negative yet they can also be turning points for positive change. Fifth is to choose something small to work on. There is a rabbinic maxim תפסת מרובה לא תפסת, if you try to grab too much at once you grab onto nothing.[7] Sixth is to appreciate what you’ve done and to be compassionate for yourself when you fail, evaluating yourself honestly. The rabbinic principle is ברחמים תשוב, that we have compassion for ourselves and try again. We do not put on a mask, making an excuse or blaming others: we accept things as they are for now, admitting failure when appropriate, and then we try again.

Every year we gather together here at Bet Shira Congregation, saying the same prayers, atoning for our sins and then returning to our regular routines . As we engage in this process of repentance תשובה, let each of us ponder the question: How have you changed in the past year? What are you doing differently than when we gathered together last September? How are you becoming a better person, taking more time for your family, putting more effort into your work, eliminating bad habits and strengthening good ones? Our service may not have changed much but you have certainly changed. You’re one year older and wiser with more life experience, the wisdom to guide each of us on our path.

I strongly believe in besheret, that none of us is here by accident. Each of us has a specific path to walk down, a mission to follow, a destiny to embrace. During these holy days, we take our personal heshbon hanefesh, our accounting of what we are doing, how we are progressing on our journey through life. It is too easy to go through the prayers by rote, saying hello to our neighbors and then walking out the door until next year. It’s far more difficult, though crucial, to sit back and ponder who we are and in which direction we are heading. We need to follow Ronit Ziv-Krieger’s six steps, in particular recognizing the turning points for us to make effective change as well as celebrating our successes, yet when we relapse or go down the same rabbit hole, we must have compassion for ourselves and admit to our current reality. At this time of introspection, it’s just us and G-d.

Rosh Hashanah’s significance is that it is the birthday of the world. In the Musaf service, we will say three times היום הרת עולם-this is the day on which the world was created. There is a creative interpretation by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs by “The Velveteen Rabbi.” She writes that היום הרת עולם means “today is pregnant with eternity.”[8] In other words, anything’s possible on any given day. We are not bound by the same old but rather we must open ourselves up to new possibilities. Rosh Hashanah provides a lightning rod for doing so, for reflecting on how we want the coming year to go and what type of person we want to be this year. I think about what type of rabbi, husband, father, son, teacher and leader I want to be in 5780, how I want to get rid of bad habits and refine myself for the better. Thank G-d Rosh Hashanah comes around every year and enables us to be introspective and reflective…as long as it is followed by acting in a constructive and proactive manner.

Think of the moments that have inspired you to change. It could be a wakeup call of some kind, a matter needing urgent attention, or it could be a characteristic you noticed in someone else that you wanted to emulate. We hope for more of the latter as opposed to the former, as too often we wait too long to make the constructive, beneficial changes that would greatly aide us. Now is the time to do so-for Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה) can also be thought of as Rosh HaShinui (ראש השינוי), the time for making changes.
When we return to daven (pray) together next year, I imagine that the prayerbook will still be the same. You might be sitting in the same seats next to the same people. However, you will have changed over the course of the coming year. Perhaps you will take those Krav Maga lessons or learned how to sail (a good skill in Florida). Maybe you will find a way to be better connected with friends and family who live far away or to be more patient, kind and gentle to those who are in your midst. Perchance you will gain the skills necessary for a job promotion. Perhaps you’ll go to Africa to help at an orphanage. Maybe you’ll even win at Fortnite-or maybe the Dolphins will win a game! Whatever this new year brings, think about what you can do to grow as a person so that when we meet again you will be able to say, “I certainly have changed for the better, and it was well worth the effort.” Similarly, when we digress into the habits of yesteryear, let us not put on blinders but rather say “This is where I am at present; I’ll try again to get better.” היום הרת עולם-Today is pregnant with eternity.

Lucille Frenkel, “New Year Prayer 5732-1971”

At the approaching of each New Year

One must really pause and ask oneself

What one has accomplished in the past year,

What one has envisioned of the New Year.

For time is not guaranteed progressive,

And living can advance or be regressive.

Thus, at the approach of every New Year,

One must really pause to reassess

What one has accomplished in the past year

To assist the new year to progress.[9]

 

Shana Tova U’metuka, a happy, sweet and healthy new year to all.

[1] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 133.

[2] David Suissa, June 28, 2019, The Most Powerful Line of the Year: ‘I Couldn’t Get it Done’ https://jewishjournal.com/columnist-2/editors-note/300775/the-most-powerful-line-of-the-year-i-couldnt-get-it-done/

[3] William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

[4] Vilna Gaon, Yahel Or-Likkutim Yekarim V’Niflaim

[5] Talmud Bavli Pesachim 68b

[6] Deuteronomy 31:18

[7] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 80a

[8] Blog posting in The Velveteen Rabbi, “Being Change” on September 17, 2012.

[9] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 132.