Yom Kippur-How We Can Change

          This summer, I was officiating at a funeral for a member of “the greatest generation.” In speaking with his family, I came to appreciate those whose lives have changed so much in one instance. In one fell swoop, this man left Germany at age 16 with nothing but the clothes on his back, barely escaping the Nazis. He journeyed to New York, a place with a different language, a different culture, and different customs, with no financial resources. Yet he was resolved to make a life for himself, and he did so in the women’s clothing business.

          Many of us have been blessed. We have not had our world changed overnight in such a drastic manner. Even with our struggles from COVID and even if we lost our job, moved cross country, or had a bad divorce, we still live somewhere with the same language and similar customs. While Florida is different from New York or California, or even from Mississippi, Vermont or Kansas, it pales in comparison with the differences between Germany and the United States. Yet when there is resolve to survive and to make a difference, what is not possible?

          Many of us, myself included, can get stuck in a rut. We get complacent with our lives as they are and do not exert the energy and effort to make meaningful changes. We are comfortable with what we have and struggle to make the changes that would be beneficial for us. Daily habits are so strong and so powerful, so even when we take the first baby steps, we get pulled back into life as it was.

          In a sermon seminar for the Miami Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Shai Held taught Maimonides Hilchot Deot indicating that Judaism is neither pollyannish nor naïve. One cannot just say “I give up” out of anger. Rather, as I was discussing last night, spiritual life is the place between what is difficult and what is impossible.

          Rabbi Held brought in four points that apply to us today. First the idea of a fixed, immutable I, that “we are who we are” is a heresy in Judaism. While we might have natural proclivities in certain ways, being influenced is not the same as being determined. It is difficult but not impossible to overcome natural character traits.

          Rabbi Held also stated that we are too married to our “fixed” identities. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t; we would rather be at peace with what we know about ourselves than open a Pandora’s Box to the unknown. How often do we say “I’m just the kind of person who…” or “This always happens to me”; in other words, I’m always the victim/culprit rather than the author of my own life. Rather than embracing a problematic identity, we must embrace our evolving identity, even if that means being uncertain about who we are at any given moment in time. This allows us to properly respond to an issue at hand rather than habitually react to it.

          In addition, we need to be mindful of how difficult it is to change. Through doing the weight-loss program Noom and reading the book The Elephant in the Brain, I have become more mindful of the fact that most of our choices are unconscious or subconscious. We need to recognize the courage and determination it takes to change ourselves for the better. Sometimes life thrusts us into a situation where we need to change, to adapt out of necessity; more often it is a choice between remaining comfortably where we are at or recognizing that we need to do the hard work of Heshbon Hanefesh, soul searching, to become the people we want to be in our lives.

          Finally, we recognize the importance of going in deep rather than remaining on the surface. The Netivot Shalom, Slonimer Rebbe, teaches us that spirituality is about going in deep into our areas of discomfort, as opposed to, in Rabbi Held’s words, playing “spiritual whack-a-mole.” It is about working on the foundations of our spiritual house with utmost gentleness, rather than ripping apart the foundation and building it from scratch. While we might believe that today, Yom Kippur, brings about a tabula rasa, (clean slate) we recognize that we are never starting from scratch but rather are influenced by all that we have learned up to this point. It takes great courage to enter our greatest vulnerabilities and fears in a deep, nonjudgmental way, being aware that what is true for us and what might be in our heads but does not reflect the reality in which we live or in which we want to live. As Gersonides (Ralbag) teaches, “We need to register our fears but make sure they do not have the last word.”

          As we prepare for Yizkor this afternoon, I want us to think about the story I began with, the “rags to riches” approach of those who began with nothing but who made a life for themselves and to whom we owe a great degree of gratitude. We need to understand that while for the most part we do not make widespread, systemic changes in our day-to-day lives, we can adapt to almost any circumstance. If those who came before could quickly learn new languages, new trades and adapt to new customs and traditions, what stops us from doing it? I hope and pray in the year 5781 we will go deep into ourselves, getting a greater understanding of what makes us the unique people that we are. In so doing, let us do what we can to change ourselves for the better rather than getting stuck in a rut, and let us move one step at a time.

It would be a mistake not to acknowledge the over 200,000 people who have perished from COVID-19, all those who are in intensive care in hospitals, those who were victims of the fires in the West Coast and the Hurricanes in the Gulf. We need to be mindful of the fact that so many are suffering from this plague and from the consequences of global warming, which I had discussed last week. We mourn all the Israeli soldiers who were killed in battle, defending the Jewish State each and every day. We also mourn Yitl Ruhel bat Natan v’Tzirel Leah, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

At the same time, as people of the greatest generation persevered despite the Nazis (Yemach Shemam) the greatest evil of the 20th century, how much more so should we persevere. Let us mourn those great souls who have been taken before their times yet let us also be grateful for all the blessings life has bestowed upon us. This afternoon we will remember our congregants who died this year as well as all the great people in the world who died. May we remember them for good and strive to live in accordance with the example they have set us-Anachnu Maaminim-we will believe in ourselves and in our futures.

Kol Nidre-The Bet Shira We Need

          On this, the holiest night of the year, we need to look at where we came from and to where we are headed. We continue to live in an age of COVID-19, which I addressed of Day 1 of Rosh Hashanah from the perspective of how to respond as individuals. Tonight, I am addressing it from the perspective of how to respond as a community.

          In April 2020, one month into the pandemic, the NY Times Opinion section produced a piece titled “The America We Need.”[1] The premise was “this pandemic has shown Americans how far apart they are. But out of this crisis there’s a chance to build a better nation.” Rather than go through the opinion piece, which you can read on your own, I want to highlight the central message of building a better nation from the perspective of Bet Shira-how we as a congregation can build a stronger community.

          Let us start by examining some highlights of these past months since the pandemic began. In May we witnessed NASA SpaceX perform a successful space shuttle launch, the first one in a decade. This led to other successive, successful launches. We witnessed the Israeli Air Force flying into German air space for the first time ever, with homage to those Israeli athletes who were murdered in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. We saw the first Israeli peace deal in over 25 years between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and a second one between Israel and Bahrain. If these things are possible, what is impossible? If we can make history multiple times in a matter of months, why can’t we continue to do it?!

          There are so many famous quotations about achieving the impossible, but I want to share one less well-known from Francois de La Rochefoucauld (pardon my French): “Nothing is impossible; there are ways that lead to everything, and if we had sufficient will we should always have sufficient means. It is often merely for an excuse that we say things are impossible.” It is my hope and my prayer that 5781 will be a year for each of us and for Bet Shira Congregation as a whole to “achieve the impossible” to, in Don Quixote’s words “dream the impossible dream” and as Jean Lu Picard said, to “boldly goal where no one has gone before.”

          In life, one needs to first dream something in order to make it into a reality. Anything that we dream we can establish-but the dream has to come first. Before SpaceX, the Israeli flight over German airspace, and peace between Israel and two new Arab countries someone had to have a dream and to fight for it, even in the face of resistance. The impossible only comes to pass when we believe in it and fight for it, having the courage of our convictions and the willpower to carry on.

What is our dream at Bet Shira Congregation that is going to be so strong and powerful that it is going to come to pass? By the entire South Dade Conservative community uniting together around one dream, not merely to be “the only Conservative synagogue in South Dade” but rather “to become a dynamic center for daily Jewish living,” a community where we look out for one another and work together to build on one another’s vision. I yearn to move to a Judaism without walls, where the Bet Shira campus will be a central hub but where we can do services and classes in one another’s homes, to create new Havurot to bolster the ones we currently have, to be a Big Tent to bring people together from all over the county and beyond-whether for virtual cooking demonstrations or concerts, a Peloton FUNRAISER for a Jewish charity and more! I long for us to invite our family members from around the country and around the world on Zoom for family education-along with members of our sister congregation Kehilat Netzach Israel in Ashkelon. If you are a member of Bet Shira, your extended family is also a member-whether they are in St. Louis, Mexico City, Seattle, or Bogota, Columbia.

          What we need is for our “I” as members of Bet Shira Congregation, to come together with others to make a “we,” a sense of oneness, recognizing that the “I” does not diminish when this occurs but rather compounds. What we need to avoid is the sinat hinam, or baseless hatred, of the Second Temple, when “Jew vs Jew” led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. May we find a way as congregants of Bet Shira to come together in loving connection, while also recognizing what makes us unique. In so doing, Bet Shira Congregation will be a united “we” of loving people not limited to South Dade but open to everyone in the world. May we value our relationship with one another much more so than any issue or outcome at hand. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] “The America We Need,” NY Times Opinion, April 9, 2020.

RH Day 2-The Art of the Apology

          What makes a person a mensch? It is more than being a good person. It requires being there for the other in his/her time of need, even dropping everything you are doing to be fully present for the other. This is extremely difficult with the myriad tasks we must do in any given day. It can be challenging to always be present and one is more likely to sin (“miss the mark”) by having a quick reply to a situation that requires further discussion or listening. Alternatively, one is likely to convey judgment in body language as well as tuning others out precisely when they need a listening ear. In such cases teshuva (repentance) is needed through an apology. As we know, apologizing is not always as easy as meets the eye.

In her piece in the NY Times,[1] Jane Brody writes “Most people say ‘I’m sorry’ many times a day for a host of trivial affronts – accidentally bumping into someone or failing to hold open a door. These apologies are easy and usually readily accepted, often with a response like, ‘No problem.’

However, when ‘I’m sorry’ are the words needed to right truly hurtful words, acts, or inaction, they can be the hardest ones to utter. And even when an apology is offered with the best of intentions, it can be seriously undermined by the way in which it is worded-especially if it laden with defensiveness or excuses. Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism and undermine an important relationship.”

I want to add to Brody’s comments that there are also times when sorry does not cut it, when it is something that easily rolls off our tongues without any effort or heartache. The art of the apology involves also knowing when something more is needed than an apology or when an email apology is insufficient and one needs to pick up the phone or (harder in an age of COVID-19) get together for coffee to look the other in the eyes.

Brody continues, “I admit to a lifetime of challenges when it comes to apologizing, especially when I thought I was right or misunderstood or that the offended party was being overly sensitive. But I recently discovered that the need for an apology is less about me than the person who, for whatever reason, is offended by something I said or did or failed to do, regardless of my intentions. I also learned that a sincere apology can be powerful medicine with surprising value for the giver as well as the recipient.”

If you would like to read more of Brody’s article it is from the New York Times on January 30, 2017. However, I would like to take a moment to discuss the implications of this for where we are at in the Jewish calendar. We just had the entire month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah where we were commanded to do Heshbon HaNefesh (soul searching), delving deep into our souls and seeing where we fell short and the unfinished business which remains. Turning inward and admitting one’s faults is most difficult work. After today, we have 1 week of repentance to apologize to those we have wronged and ask for forgiveness-not in a trite, generic way but for specific things we have done wrong through our own ‘soul searching.’ In an age of COVID-19 I believe this is harder to do because we do not physically see one another. It is true that we can meet via FaceTime or Zoom but that is not the same as a face-to-face conversation. This year we must be especially mindful of the need not only to apologize but also to find the best medium, as face-to-face is not available for many of us.

How do we find the best words-especially when loose lips might have gotten us into trouble? Only through thoughtful introspection can we hope to do so. We also need to hope that those whom we offended are gracious enough to ‘hit the reset button,’ to acknowledge that what was done, though hurtful, is in the past and that we both need to move on to create a new beginning together. I have come to learn that things are often not as bad as we make them out to be, that very few times are the bridges between ourselves and others actually burnt to the ground.

          As we continue to embrace New Year 5781 in these 10 days of repentance, I hope that we will keep this in mind when we look at what we wish we could have done better in our pasts and look forward to how we can strive to improve. Let us not forget to live in the present, to be mindful of where we are at now. We cannot change our pasts nor is our future set to occur in exactly the way we anticipate. I hope that when we apologize, we will genuinely mean it rather than giving a habitual reaction of “lip service”-in such cases it might be better to say nothing at all. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to strive to improve in our responses to these challenging situations. Let us enter into the new year with an open heart rather than a closed off spirit, believing that we can make the differences we need to in interpersonal relationships with others, and in so doing may we need to apologize far less in the year 5781.

[1] Jane Brody, “The Right Way to Say I’m Sorry,” NY Times, January 30, 2017.

RH Day 1-Faith in an Age of COVID-19

       I don’t like uncertainty. My natural orientation is to prefer that things be clear-cut, black-and-white. We know that our world is one of shades of gray. We do not know why G-d brought COVID-19 to us, when there will be a vaccine, why so many are dying. We could go crazy trying to answer every permutation that these questions raise.

          I have learned a lot from working with Rabbi Mitch Chefitz as my Hevruta. He taught me early on in our studies that the goal is transformation rather than information. I have been blessed with an excellent memory and the ability to quickly learn and process information, yet he raised the question of how well that serves me/how useful is it? He has been teaching me through mystical literature how to become transformed by a text in a life-changing way. In one of our conversations he shared something that will stick with me forever: anxiety is the opposite of faith. In my words, if one is so worried about possible outcomes or catastrophizes worst-case scenarios, s/he will not have the faith necessary to sustain him/herself through the most difficult of times.

          When our world is turned upside down, as it was with the onset of COVID-19 becoming a pandemic in March, many of us were like deer in the headlights. In a matter of days our entire calendar for months was erased, every event cancelled. Some of us did not know when or how to close-up shop, or we did it (like me) thinking we would be back in business as normal by Pesach. Without knowing if/when there will be a successful vaccine/vaccination, we have learned to live in an age of COVID-19, taking precautions such as limiting our travels, not frequenting public places, and wearing face masks. Some of us have not hugged grandchildren who were recently born or seen family members or friends in months, and we recognize that it could last for a year or two.  We are frightened and vulnerable, not knowing what the future has in store for us.

          One prayer that can help us access our feelings of uncertainty is Unetaneh Tokef. In the beautiful rendition that Cantor Levy will recite, we learn the following: מי יחיה ומי ימות, מי בקצו ומי לא בקצו, “Who shall live and who shall die: who in his/her proper time and who not in his/her proper time.” These words should cause us to quake in our boots (appropriate feelings for TODAY, the Day of Judgment) as many of us know people taken well before their time from COVID-19. I just buried someone taken by COVID-19. How do we respond to this time of darkness, a time which can easily give way to depression, to throwing up our hands and feeling ‘Why does it matter: there’s nothing we can do?’

          Rabbi Fred Klein taught in his class “Pandemics: Practical, Emotional and Spiritual Responses from the Jewish Tradition” that the Jewish response comes from a Talmudic phrase later inserted into the end of Unetaneh Tokef: ותשובה, ותפילה, וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה, repentance, prayer and justice can alter the severity of the decree. Repentance/return, the idea that we can control ourselves and our responses to any given situation, is huge. Prayer, the concept that we can connect with a force greater than ourselves in a full relationship, whether having gratitude for our bounty or lashing out in anger, is also ours to do. Justice, how we treat others in the proper way, is also a form of purposeful action for us to take. While we do not know our fate, all these actions are in our control. Similarly taking heed to the sound of the Shofar, which we will do tomorrow afternoon, that’s in our power. Does the Shofar arouse us to action or is it just a nice musical touch that comes and fades? Our response in these avenues is completely in our hands.

          Let us pray on this Rosh Hashanah each of us will strive to live a life filled with meaning and growth. I hope we will appreciate how despite not being able to congregate in person, we have new ways of connecting with one another in this virtual age. As Rabbi Chefitz said at my installation, we are now in 5G Judaism, and it is still in the process of formation. Our Judaism is no longer centered on a building, on gathering in person in a community or even on a Rabbi or Cantor. With our ability to see livestreamed services in Brazil, Uganda, Israel or Los Angeles, to have our souls transformed by a cantor in Wichita or to take a class from a rabbi in Salem or to watch either 3 days later on YouTube, our Judaism metamorphosizes from what we knew before into something in formation. While we will never know how the world works and will have to live with uncertainty, one thing which is guaranteed to be in our control is how we respond to any given situation. Let us consider all the options and strive to always make a wise, thoughtful, well-formulated response rather than one which is impulsive or erratic. In so doing, may we gain strength to help ourselves through this time of plague and darkness and to give ourselves the resolve to continue, one step at a time.

In just a short while, we will be reciting Unetaneh Tokef, prescribed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. As Rabbi Fred Klein taught me, Amnon means faith, Emunah. Amnon, who might not have written Unetaneh Tokef but who certainly lived its message, was the epitome of faith, looking at a world of antisemitism and spitting in its face, saying “I will continue on!” We need to do the same, to ensure that no matter what befalls us in 5781, and how unfair it might be, we will continue on with devotion and with faith in a better future for ourselves and for our community. We CANNOT, MUST NOT throw in the towel and give up. Faith is dependent on being at peace with whatever comes our way, striving to feel גם זה לטובה, this is also for the good, perhaps only to learn from it and to strive to do better next time. כן יהי רצון, may it be our will to strive to engage in this endeavor to the best of our abilities.

Erev Rosh Hashanah-Heroes in the World

          My, what a year it has been. Who would have thought last September we would be at over 200,000 Americans dead from COVID? Who would have thought we would be in a recession with millions of people out of work? Who would have thought we would have an election whose legitimacy is already being questioned over a month before it occurs? Who would have thought that Israel would be shut down a second time, just before the Hagim?

          We cannot change these realities and we ignore them at our peril. However, we can acknowledge the heroes who shape our world. We are always in awe of our Health Care First Responders, who daily put their lives at risk to care for the most vulnerably ill. Thank you. We also need to be in awe of parents of young children who in addition to working, now serve as their children’s teachers, tech gurus and all-around helpers 24/7 without in person school. We need to be grateful for older siblings who have even more responsibility in taking care of their younger brothers and sisters. We need to be mindful of people in the sandwich generation who while taking care of their teenage children are also the caretakers for their aging parents who increasingly have needs that must be met. We need to be thankful for grocery workers who put their lives at work for very little (if any) hazard pay. The mail men and women who deliver with far less funding and resources to do so. The retail shop owners or restaurant workers who work just as hard-if not harder-for fewer customers and who struggle every day to stay in business. The sanitary engineers who have a growing amount of trash that they need to collect. These people are heroes too. If anyone feels left out, let me reassure you that each of us is a hero during this unprecedented, crazy time.

          What should we as heroes do to enter 5781 in the best way possible? First, we should recognize all the extra things we have taken on to adapt to COVID-19. As human beings, each of us has a limited bandwidth-we cannot exceed it, or we risk burnout. While we might feel we are “not doing enough,” many of us are working as hard as we ever have, and we must maintain balance and stability. Second if we feel overwhelmed or at risk of burnout, we need to slow down so that we can be there for those we care about most: our loved ones and our family members. A congregant told me last week that he plays “multi-dimensional chess” and can juggle all the balls in the air. That is great; I cannot do that. When I try to respond to an insurmountable amount of emails in record time, someone gets hurt. Either it is my daughter who I am supposed to be watching during that time or it is a congregant whose email I rushed through without a second thought, moving on to the next. Each of us needs to be aware of our limits and with Gevurah (wise boundaries) we need to know when to slow down and take a step back. Third and most importantly, we need to find time to be “human beings” rather than “human doings.” Many of us (myself included) have an abundant Zerizut, energetic response, or “urge to get things done.” That is great but when our urge to accomplish greatly supersedes our ability to be present with whatever is going on, it is problematic. We need Hodayah, gratitude for what is our reality currently is in the world, even if we wish it were otherwise. Without acceptance for what is and recognition of what is not in our control, we cannot succeed with what we must do on a given day.

          How does this connect to our heroes? Our heroes, who I am gracious for every day, have limits as to what they can do. They had to adapt to homeschooling their children, talking to elderly parents on the phone rather than through daily or weekly visits, making ends meet on far less income, working from Zoom with all its wonder and all its technical difficulties, being called in to an emergency response at a moment’s notice much more frequently than they were in the past. Our heroes, each and every one of us, did this with serenity and grace. Each of us has been there for one another at this time when the thing we value most, coming together as a community and a congregational family, has been taken away from us. We need to appreciate one another, how our lives have been drastically transformed in these 6 plus months, and how while we are struggling, we have not thrown in the towel and given up.

          What we should learn as we begin New Year 5781 is that we should never take the people around us for granted. We need to be mindful and grateful for who they are and all that they do for us. Let us understand that no matter what we do, we need to recognize its importance. Those things we take for granted, as “our responsibility” but are extra strains on ourselves and our families are things for which we need to give ourselves a pat on the back. I hope that everyone listening in recognizes how complicated our lives have become but also understand all that we have done to adapt to a COVID-filled world. Let us not be hard on ourselves for the times we have fallen short but instead recognize that we are heroes to our families and to our communities. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so. Shabbat Shalom v’Shana Tova.

September 11

         I will never forget September 11, 2001. I was leaving first period at  Nicolet High School, my senior year, when I saw televisions in the hallway of B-wing. “That’s odd,” I thought. I turned to watch along with many others as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I froze-I had never been to New York at that stage of my life but I knew something terrible had occurred.

         Since that time I lived in New York for 10 years out of a 13 year period, 5 on the Upper West Side and 5 in Jericho, Long Island. I’ve often considered myself a good luck charm: barely missing the devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy, and devastating Tropical Storm Isaias in New York; the shooting of Gabi Giffords in Tucson; Hurricane Irma and the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Miami and Parkland. However, one’s luck eventually runs out-what does not run out is people being there for one another. No matter what natural or man-made disasters come our way, we stand together, tall and strong. Jericho lost Glenn Winuck, who went into work on September 11, 2001. He was one of the 2,977 who were murdered on that day. I know so many who were “near misses,” coming in late that day, and have heard of others who were in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

         My first year in Jericho I asked that Craig Taubman’s “Holy Ground” be played for Friday Night Live, our musical Shabbat service, and we ran out of time. We have enough time this evening for this powerful piece. Just as Moses was on holy ground at the site of the burning bush, so too is each one of us on holy ground here at Bet Shira Congregation. So many of you lived through Hurricane Andrew, whose 28th anniversary was just over 2 weeks ago. You remember what happened those High Holy Days and with the Bat Mitzvah and wedding scheduled that weekend. Yet you didn’t give up and get out of dodge; you stayed and rebuilt this holy congregation. As we approach High Holy Days 5781, let us remember that each of us stands on holy ground and that each of us is holy-a force of good with the power to make a difference in our congregational family, our community and the world.