Judah’s Rise to Excellence

A picture is worth a thousand words. Look at the cartoon by Charles Schultz, זכרונו לברכה, between Lucy and Charlie Brown.

How does one get an “upper up” to use Lucy’s words, in Judaism? Life is not only about ups: Chris Daughtry sings “Everyone knows life has its ups and downs.”[1] Getting an up requires being willing to embrace the downs, learn from them and try again. This is why we are called Jews, descendants of Judah. When Jacob blesses Judah, he calls himגור אריה, a lion’s cub, continues מטרף בני עלית, you have ascended from amidst the prey,[2] and concludes לא יסור שבט מיהודה, the scepter shall not depart from Judah.[3]  The French biblical commentor par excellence, Rashi, states that this means that the line of Jewish leaders will never depart from the tribe of Judah. Wherever Jews live, the leader, and eventually the Messiah, will descend from Judah.[4]

          Why did Judah merit this ascent? Let’s review the cliff notes version of the story of Judah. Picture the scene with Joseph in the pit, his brothers’ desiring to kill him. Then off in a distance, there is a caravan of traders. Judah craftily says, “What benefit is there if we kill our brother and hide his blood?[5] Let’s go instead and sell him to the Ishmaelites for he is our brother, our flesh.”[6]       What cruel words disguised within compassion: we won’t receive any money from killing Joseph, so let’s sell him and let him rot away in Egypt.[7]

          Let’s descend even further into Judah’s story, where he separates from his brothers and takes a Canaanite wife.[8] He also had intimate relations with his daughter-in-law (albeit unknowingly) and when he found out she is with child he proclaimed הוציאוה ותשרף, “take her out and burn her!”[9] He’s quickly ready to dispatch a relative again. When he realizes that Tamar is pregnant with his child, he says צדקה ממני, she is more righteous than me.[10] This is the defining moment of our story: Judah begins to ascend through doing תשובה, repentance, recognizing that past actions were wrong and it’s time to change course.

          Fast forward to Joseph accusing the brothers of being spies. Judah tells Father Jacob “I will function as Benjamin’s guarantor when he goes into Egypt.”[11] When Joseph accuses Benjamin of thievery, Judah finds himself at a crossroads: let another brother go into slavery or speak up and save him. This time he chooses the latter, begging Joseph to spare his brother. He proclaims, “let your servant remain as a slave instead of the boy.”[12] Judah has gone from devaluation and degradation of human life, treating a brother as an object off which to profit or a daughter-in-law as one to be burnt, to pledging his life on behalf of a younger, innocent brother. He took a roundabout, circuitous way to get there, but the fact that he changed and evolved is why he is the ones we need to emulate. G-d looked at Judah’s תשובה and said, ‘I want that to be what leads the Jewish people forward.’

We might think the most righteous are those who have yichus, pedigree, or are “Frum from birth.” That’s not true in our tradition. The Talmud teaches that in the place of a baal teshuva (one who has undergone repentance) a tsadik cannot stand.[13] There is also the story of a Jew asking his rabbi about who is more holy, who is higher on the ladder in God’s judgment: A person beginning to observe the commandments or a person who had been observant who is now moving away from observance? The rabbi replied that God’s judgment is not based on how high they are on the ladder of observance, but on whether one is ascending or descending the ladder. Let’s return to the Peanuts comic. What Lucy failed to recognize is the embodiment of what it means to be a Jew, a descendant of Judah. To be Jewish means to take on the ebb and flow of the roller-coaster we call life, to find the willpower to move forward even when one feels discouraged or in despair over where his/her life is at currently. In addition, being Jewish means to be able to admit when one made a mistake, as Judah did to Tamar, and more importantly, to take a different path in those moments where one is on the verge of making the same mistake again. It requires the one who sold a brother into slavery to, at a latter point in his life, say ‘No-take me instead.’ What makes Judah great is he learns from his past, changes course and, in one of the downward moments of his family’s history, can atone for past behavior. This is a vital lesson for each of us as we conclude the Book of Genesis. My prayer on this Shabbat is to take this to heart-to look at our lives and see the opportunities for personal growth and the lessons to learn at this moment in time. If we are at a “down” period, one of “descent” may we recognize that it might be for the sake of a great “ascent” in days to come. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so as descendants of Judah.

[1] Daughtry, “The Start of Something Good”

[2] Genesis 49:9

[3] Genesis 49:10

[4] Rashi on Genesis 49:10 ד”ה לא-יסור שבט מיהודה

[5] Genesis 37:26

[6] Genesis 37:27

[7] See Rashi on Genesis 37:26 ד”ה מה בצע, ד”ה וכסינו

[8] Genesis 38:1-2

[9] Genesis 38:24

[10] Genesis 38:26

[11] Genesis 43:9

[12] Genesis 44:32, 33

[13] Talmud Berachot 38b

What Is Your Spiritual Legacy?

Have you been the recipient of a spiritual legacy? Perhaps it is making haroset with a parent or grandparent before Passover. Maybe it is lighting Hanukkah candles as a family. For me one of the core parts of my spiritual legacy was having a family Passover Seder where everyone at the table got the opportunity to have a role. Picture me reclining on my Green Bay Packers pillow while drinking sparkling grape juice (Bartenura wine when I was of age), following the Afghani custom of lightly hitting my brother with scallions as we sang Dayenu. One year I wore a Where’s Waldo mask and went outside just before it was time to open the door for Elijah. You can imagine my family’s surprise as I entered the room.

          It is December and many of us are thinking about our financial legacy: which charities are deserving of our end of year financial contributions. That is holy work: it demonstrates what we value and care most deeply about. It is equally holy to look at this week’s Torah portion, where Jacob bequeathed on his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh a spiritual legacy. He says, “The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm bless these kids and call them by my name.”[1] Jacob’s blessing presupposes that there is a guardian angel sent to us when we are in trouble.[2] God’s actions are performed by intermediaries-it might feel like a chance encounter or feel like a coincidence, but each of us has guardian angels or messengers (מלאכים).[3]

          Jacob here is imparting on his grandchildren his spiritual legacy-that they will truly be בני ישראל, guided by the example that he, Israel, has set. As the secular year nears its end, in addition to thinking about our financial legacies my hope is that we take the time to think about our spiritual legacies: how we will encourage our children and grandchildren to follow in our footsteps, valuing Judaism in all its beauty. At Generations Day at Bet Shira Congregation, I worked with grandparents of preschool students on writing their spiritual legacies, both in the forms of a spiritual autobiography and an ethical will. To those of us who do not have children, there is still the opportunity for us to create a spiritual legacy-how do we want our fellow congregants at Mosaic Law Congregation to remember us and what do we want our students or those we work with to understand in terms of our core beliefs. That is holy work for us to engage in both this Shabbat and beyond.

[1] Genesis 48:16

[2] Rashi on Genesis 48:16 ד”ה המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע

[3] Radak on Genesis 49:16 ד”ה ויקרא בהם שמי

Divine Providence

         How often in life have we questioned where we are at only later to realize “I’m exactly where I need to be at this given moment?” Hindsight is always 20/20 and while some are critical of the Monday Morning Quarterback, it is human nature to look back at what was and try to connect the dots-whether one can do so or not.

         In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. Afterwards he says ועתה אל-תעצבנו ואל-יחר בעיניכם כי-מכרתם אותי הנה כי למחיה שלחני אלהים לפניהם. “Do not distress and do not be angry with yourselves, that you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.”[1] Rashbam, an 11th century French commentator, says “The Holy One arranged this for your own good.”[2] How could this be 3030for their own good? After all, the brothers went down to Egypt famished, they were accused of being spies, brother Shimon was taken into slavery and brother Benjamin was accused of thievery.

In Hasidic writings, there is a concept of Yeridah L’Tzorech Aliyah, descent for the sake of ascent. Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, in his book Meor Eynaim, writes, “Why does a person have to fall? The meaning of this contains secrets of Torah. One of these is the possibility of attaining a yet higher rung than one had previously reached. Every act of being is preceded by an absence of being. When you want to proceed to a higher rung, you need to lack for something first. Therefore, you have to fall from your prior rung.”[3] We cannot stay constantly in one place. The prophet Ezekiel teaches us “the life-force ebbs and flows.”[4]  We are either in a state of rising (Aliyah) or falling (Yeridah). If the latter, it is up to us to reflect on what we can do to rise again. The life force does not go in a straight line but takes a zigzag or circuitous route. Yet somehow, as Joseph intuits, we end up where we need to be in that given moment.            It is our challenge and our opportunity, when things aren’t going the way, we would like or had originally planned, to find the Holy One in those moments. In those states of descent, when we feel frustrated or depressed, may we find a way to learn from our situation and chart a course of ascent. This is not to ignore tragedies that happen, situations for which there is no rationalization or explanation. It entails, in the ebb and flow of the roller-coaster we call life, finding ways to connect to God during difficulty and challenges. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may each of us have the willpower to engage in this holy work

[1] Genesis 45:5

[2] Rashbam on Genesis 45:5 ד”ה כי למחיה שלחני

[3] Meor Eynaim Yitro

[4] Ezekiel 1:14

Isaac and Mincha

          Of the three patriarchs, Isaac gets the short stick. He is passive and manipulated by others. Similarly, of the three prayer services of the day, Mincha gets the short stick. It is often a rushed prayer service in the middle of the afternoon, without the time and attention given to it of Shacharit when we wake up and Maariv before we go to sleep.
          At the same time there is something significant about the Mincha prayer. In our Torah portion it says that Isaac went out לשוח בשדה, to walk/meditate in the field.[1] Rashi says this means he prayed, pointing out that the same root is used in the psalm תפילה לעני: “a poor man when he is faint and pours forth his plea before God.”[2]

          Isaac poured forth his plea in the field. Perhaps he was brimming with anticipation, filled with both excitement and anxiety, about the woman coming who he was going to marry. His prayer was so powerful that when Rebecca glimpsed him from a distance she fell from her camel.[3] She then veiled herself,[4] the origin of the bride’s bedeken for Ashkenazi Jews before a wedding. The sources used for Abraham creating Shacharit and Jacob creating Maariv, that Abraham “arose early in the morning”[5] and Jacob “arrived at the place and stayed the night”[6] pale in comparison to the one for Isaac. Here is someone calling out to God before meeting his wife.

          Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav began the practice of hitbodedut. It is like a walking meditation, only during it one is conversing with God, saying whatever comes to his/her mind without filter. The first time I did this I thought it was strange but afterwards I enjoyed being able to speak with the Holy One without a filter; that in that moment it was just me and God. I also found that verbalizing my thoughts cleared my mind and had a freeing effect. I imagine Isaac doing the same thing, pouring out his soul to God at a pivotal afternoon in his life.

          For those of us who do not pray Mincha on a regular basis, I challenge us to, whether through the traditional liturgy or pouring out one’s heart to God. In the midst of the afternoon, when we can often feel a lull or just a desire to finish what we are doing, it is pivotal to set time to take a break and have time just to commune with the Holy One. If we do so, we might even lose track of time, getting engrossed in our hitbodedut, our solitary conversation with God. I hope that we will take time out of our busy schedules, not only on Shabbat but also during the week, לשוח בשדה, to meditate in the fields as we strengthen our connection with the Holy One.

[1] Genesis 24:63

[2] Rashi on Genesis 24:63 ד”ה לשוח בשדה based off Psalm 102:1.

[3] Genesis 24:64

[4] Genesis 24:65

[5] Genesis 19:27 Abraham arose early the day Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.

[6] Genesis 27:11

Arranged Marriages Versus Love

        This week we read about the first arranged marriage in Judaism. Abraham makes his servant swear to find a wife for Isaac, and we find out that Rebecca is the ideal candidate. Not only does she give the servant water but also gives to his camels.[1]

          In contrast, next week Jacob chooses his own wife: Rachel. He did obey his parents’ wishes by going to the land of Haran rather than marrying a Hittite, yet he chose the woman he wanted to marry, even kissing her.[2]

          Which is better: arranged marriages or marriages based on love? I suppose it depends what one’s cultural background is. Interestingly, Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l cites Rabbi Joseph Kolon the Maharik, who comments “The command to love your neighbor overrides the command to obey your parents. Since the love of husband and wife3030 is a supreme example of love of neighbor, it too takes priority over a parents’ wishes.”[3] The word for neighbor, רע, is the same word used in the שבע ברכות, the seven marital blessings, where spouses are referred to as רעים האהובים.

          The lesson for us today is sometimes we as parents want things for our children that they do not want for themselves. We might have increased vision as a result of our experiences. Yet, as Rabbi Sacks writes, “to be a Jewish parent is to make space for your child, as God makes space for us, His children.”[4] May we work on making space for our children, especially when they make choices we’d rather they not make. Let us have the confidence in how we raised them that they will do fine and if they make a mistake, they will learn and grow from it.

[1] Genesis 23:19

[2] Genesis 26:11

[3] Rabbi Joseph Kolon, Responsa 164:3. In Jonathan Sacks Covenant & Conversation Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2009), pg. 137.

[4] Sacks, pg. 140.

Yom Kippur-Encountering Death

As the musical Hamilton teaches us, “You have no control who lives who dies who tells your story.” Death is one of the most difficult topics. Yet it is one we are reminded of every Yizkor. As former Miamian Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes, “Reality shows you time and again that you have no control.”[1] He continues, “Every landing gives you the illusion of liberation, but every landing is followed by another tumble.”[2]

We have had so many tumbles this year as a Bet Shira community. We have lost many prominent members, including David Mermelstein z” l, whose El Malei Rahamim for the 6 million will be seen via a video recording from last year. Many congregants have lost friends from the Champlain Towers South collapse. Others are mourning losses from COVID-19.

         The Institute of Jewish Spirituality has taught me that the best way to deal with death is to honor and befriend it and the feelings that come with it, rather than throwing them under the rug or pretending that they don’t exist.  As Rebbe Nahman teaches, “There is no happiness without sadness; no pleasure without pain; no fullness without loss. They are inseparable.”[3] We recognize that feelings, like so much of life, are messy and complicated and that they are not easy to decipher. Rabbi Irwin Kula writes, “In the Jewish tradition there are no sayings like ‘passed away’ or ‘final resting place.’ We are to call death by its real name-feel the blow, sink into the loss, let it subsume us-and we’re to do it in the first twenty-four hours after someone dies. We need to deepen, rather than minimize, our sorrow and express our anger. Only then can we hope for reconciliation and return.”[4]

         Yom Kippur is the day on which we acknowledge our mortality and rehearse our own death. Not literally as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi did, lying in a casket with the Hevra Kadisha doing a tahara on him while alive, but spiritually. We do not eat or drink, engage in sexual relations, wash, wear perfumes or oils. We wear a kittel, the plain white robe in which we will be buried, saying that no one is better than anyone else-we all came from the same origin, and we will all pass away. Rabbi Irwin Kula puts it as follows: “The opening practice of Yom Kippur frees us from all our promises and obligations. We imagine ourselves as no longer married, a parent, holding a job that we’re responsible for. These parts of ourselves die, and we’re left alone to contemplate what life would be like without its usual trappings and delights. Who are we without them? The next evening, we are, in a sense, born again. We accept our obligations back, hopefully at a higher or deeper level of appreciation and meaning. Or we recognise that we need to let go of obligations that have distorted or confined us. It’s like when I go on a spiritual retreat, time just to reflect and contemplate, and then return thinking, ‘How can I be a better husband, a better father, a better son?’”[5] Mitch Albom writes in The Five People You Meet in Heaven, “The most painful events have a meaning we never could have understood at the time. There’s also a sense that we can have heaven right here. Heaven is the moments when we can hold it all together, even when it’s almost too much to bear.”[6]

         In a class on resilience for rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Mychal Springer, my former Assistant Dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary and currently the Director of Clinical Pastoral Education at New York Presbyterian Hospital, talked about her early experiences with COVID patients.[7] She was speaking about March 2020, immediately after COVID had been labelled a pandemic and before the CDC had come out with recommending masking for the common person. Rabbi Springer recalled walking to work at New York Presbyterian and seeing refrigerator trucks outside of the hospital because the morgue was full. One day she was working with a nurse when a code blue came over the loudspeaker. The nurse jumped up, rushed over, and said, “I was just with that patient yesterday.” Mychal said she recognized that “even though we were swimming in death, she had to go to her patient.” That is precisely what Yom Kippur is about-the preciousness of every life and not taking any moment in life for granted. We put on our kittels, and we draw close to death. It reminds us to take seriously our “one wild and precious life.”[8]

Rabbi Springer was on my interview committee when I applied for rabbinical school at JTS. In the interview, she asked me “Do you have any doubts?” and when I said “No,” she followed up with “What would you do if you developed doubts?” This time it was my turn to ask her a question. I asked how she personally stayed sane and remained resilient when encountering death so palpably each day. She responded that she walked to the hospital through crossing Central Park and made sure to intentionally walk each day hearing the birds, as well as using that time to call friends and others she cared about. The people on the other line would often remark in surprise, “Is that a bird?” By taking the time to connect with nature and with loved ones, she was able to maintain some semblance of normalcy in an unprecedented time.

The lesson Rabbi Springer taught me as I encounter death is to acknowledge the brokenness of life. Out of the brokenness comes the agency that is resilience. We must make choices in the limited time we have to be present and continue forward. While there is much we cannot do, yet we must do the best we can to be present where we need to be at any given moment. In so doing, we reinforce the message that every life is precious to us, and each moment is sacred.

         As we approach Yizkor, we acknowledge that we don’t know why things happen. We don’t know why we are sometimes in the right place at the right time and others are in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t answer why Theresa Velasquez, who had just flown in from LAX to see her parents, perished in the Champlain Towers, whereas Sharon Schechter was able to survive by climbing through the rubble with her dog. Similar questions were asked during 9/11 and the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue Complex: why were some late to work or to shul that day or didn’t come in at all, whereas others came earlier than they were accustomed and perished? It is not for us to ask Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die. Instead, what we need to do is to recognize that life is messy and that we should view each moment as a gift rather than taking it for granted. In doing this work, however, we must acknowledge our own mortality rather than denying it. Rabbi Jack Riemer writes, “No one can claim to be wise about life whose wisdom does not include a relationship with death.”[9]

         What we must do when encountering death is twofold: first, we need to recognize that our feelings about death and those who have passed on change over time. It is human to have “moments of acceptance and moments of resistance; moments of fighting and moments of softening.”[10] Second, we must understand that when one’s life has been completely shattered, there’s no way to imagine wholeness, and trying to do so can short-circuit one’s grief. As SY Agnon writes, “Kaddish is not to God but for God; it’s a way to reconstruct God, to rebuild reality after it’s been torn asunder. God has been diminished by this death, and so needs to be magnified. It’s a practice for building back a sense of meaning in the face of devastation.”[11]

         This is an especially difficult year to find meaning in life, with so many deaths of loved ones, those who have passed from COVID, hurricanes, flooding, fires and the collapse of Champlain Towers South. Yet what we can do is choose how to respond. Either we can be saddened and angry and stop there, or we can use these encounters with death to remind us of the importance of making every moment count. As we remember our loved ones who have perished, may we choose to do exactly that-to make the most out of each precious moment that God gives us to strive to make a difference for ourselves and for our community. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

         Sharon will sing for us Cry No More Yerushalayim by Yaakov Shwekey.

[1] Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Surrendered-the Sacred Art: Shattering the Illusion of Control and Falling into Grace with Twelve-Step Spirituality (Nashville: Turner Publishing Company, 2019), pg. xvi

[2] Ibid, xviii

[3] In [3] Rabbi Irwin Kula, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life (New York: Hachette Books, 2006), pg. 252.

[4] Ibid, 275.

[5] Ibid, pg. 280.

[6] Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven in Kula, p. 280.

[7] Rabbi Mychal Springer, Class on Resilience Through Jewish Theological Seminary and Rabbinical Assembly, July 28, 2021.

[8] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day.”

[9] In Kula, 266.

[10] Ibid, Pg. 269.

[11] In Kula, pg. 277.

Kol Nidre-Reinventing Ourselves

Learning Never Ends. This was the line that Adon Morgan, my middle school Judaics teacher, wrote in my yearbook. It is so true. The minute we stop learning we become terminal. The rabbinate is one of the few fields with no mandatory continuing education, yet I have made a point of studying every week with two different hevrutot (study partners) to refine my knowledge and grow in my skills. I rarely use what I have learned in those sessions for sermons or classes. Rather it is Torah lishma, Torah study for its own sake.

One of the fun things I do, which perhaps I shouldn’t, is asking Bar/Bat Mitzvah kids what do you want to be when you grow up, knowing they’ll likely change their minds numerous times. “I think it’s one of the most pointless questions we ask children,” Michelle Obama writes. “What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. At some point you will become something and that’s the end.” As comedian Chris Rock asserts, “You can be anything you wanna be?!” “Tell the kids the truth…You can be anything you’re good at…as long as they’re hiring.” [1]

This reminds me of one the first conversations I had with a therapist. He asked me, “What will you be when you retire?” I looked at him incredulously and said, “I’m not retiring for decades.” He replied, “That’s the point-your identity has become so tied up in being Rabbi and not in being Ben Herman.”

Often, we think that our identities are fixed, whether professionally (the lawyer, accountant, engineer), personally (the cool guy, the nerd, the social butterfly) or by status (rich, poor, middle class). The truth is that very little is set in stone. Some of our personal makeup is genetic but other aspects are learned behavior based on grit, perseverance, and willpower, or lack thereof. Our roles as spouse, parent, child, and sibling are fixed, but we determine how we want to play those roles.

Yom Kippur reminds us that our story is not finished being written, and neither is our identity finished being formed. This is countercultural and powerful. It goes against the studies that our personalities become fixed and immutable by age 7, that by then we are magically hard-wired exactly as we are in that moment. Instead, we should ask ourselves the following: “Where did you form the aspirations you are currently pursuing, and how have you changed since then?”[2]

My teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Ben-David, formerly of the PARDES Institute and founder of Ayeka,[3] taught me that just as we have physical check-ups, so do we need identity check-ups (creating a personal mission statement which we re-examine and see if it’s still true or if our aspirations have changed), spiritual check-ups (how is our relationship with God right now?) and career check-ups (is my career still giving me satisfaction or is it time to pivot?). Bet Shira NetWORKS can help with the latter.

There’s a story by Israeli Nobel Laureate SY Agnon called “The Tallit.” A man is deciding which of two tallitot he should wear for Shabbat. The first tallit is from the old world, celebrating his European heritage. The second tallit is from the new world, honoring his new identity as an Israeli. He deliberates and deliberates, unable to make a choice, and in the end, he misses synagogue.

We relate to this story. How often have we been paralyzed, uncertain what to do or which path to follow? How many times have we been indecisive, missing out on opportunities? We need to recognize that while there are endless moments to reinvent ourselves over the course of the year, to try something new or make a difference, we must take a step forward to do so, jumping into the pool even without certainty as to what will follow. As the rock band Rush teaches, “if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”[4] We can examine this from so many angles: the political gridlock, the inability to move beyond our past into our present, the difficulty in making communal decisions. In the end, tension, uncertainty, and internal conflict are integral parts of reinventing ourselves. We will never have complete knowledge if a decision we make was the best possibility-all we can do is examine the situation at hand to determine where we are at and how we want to move forward. It’s ok to recognize that we don’t have the answer to the big questions of our lives, but that should not stop us from trying to reinvent ourselves when the moment is right.

Rabbi Irwin Kula writes in his book Yearnings, “Certainty is seductive; our culture rewards knowing and makes not-knowing a liability; but about the important things in life, it may well be the opposite. Certainty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be-it can lead to arrogance, boredom, complacency and dullness.”[5] We often adopt the adage ‘better the devil we know than the devil we don’t.’ Yet Estelle Frankel teaches us, “Fear of the unknown and unfamiliar is rooted in our uniquely human awareness of mortality. Our ability to remember and learn from the past is useful in many situations, but it can also be problematic, especially when fears rooted in the past prevent us from seeing clearly in the moment. Our tendency is to foreclose on the present moment by coloring it with fearful overlays from the past. It seems that the ancient mind would rather imagine the worst than wait and be surprised by what life actually presents.” [6]

This Yom Kippur, let us be open to trying new things in the journey of life. May we not be afraid to reinvent ourselves even when it means venturing into the unknown, for there is nothing certain about what the next day will bring. If we have fears from past failures, let us not let those define us but rather recognize the person we’ve grown into and are becoming (for we are always in the process of becoming) at this present moment. At times in life, one needs the courage not only to change but also to reinvent oneself to adapt to new situations. It might sound scary, but it’s part of the adventure of finding our mission and true purpose in life.

Sharon will sing When You Believe from The Prince of Egypt.

[1] Adam Grant Think Again (New York: Viking, 2021), p. 230.

[2] Ibid, 233.

[3] Hebrew word meaning “Where are you?”

[4] Song “Freewill” by Rush

[5] Rabbi Irwin Kula, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life (New York: Hachette Books, 2006), pgs. 87-88.

[6] Estelle Frankel, The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder and Embracing Uncertainty (Boulder: Shambhala, 2017), pg. 9.

Rosh Hashanah Day 1-Search and Rescue

In Tucson I had a congregant who was a pilot and was going to take me out on a Wednesday flight. He called me Tuesday evening to cancel because it was too windy. Impulsively, I thought, “What a great day for me to climb The Window,” a 4,200-foot elevation change climb in Ventana Canyon. I was trail running and made it up to the window (7.2 miles) in record time. I stopped to take pictures of the gorgeous view and then made my way back down. Upon commencing the descent, I realized I was heading down Esperero towards Sabino Canyon rather than the way I came. I turned around but could not find the window and became completely lost. I tried using a hiking GPS, but as someone who is spatially challenged, all it did was kill my phone battery. With 5 percent battery remaining, I phoned my friend Marty and said I needed help. Then I called 911 and attempted to give my coordinates as my phone died.

I waited by a ledge overlooking the mountain, realizing I was completely underdressed, up in the mountains wearing just running clothes, with cold wind permeating every bone in my body. Finally, I saw a helicopter patrolling the area. Excited, I began waving a stick in the air like that scene in The Life of Pi. The chopper didn’t see me and kept on going. The winds picked up, and I became colder and colder. My water and energy bars began running out.

The wind subsided and I did what one is not supposed to do: bushwhacking through brush to a clearing to become more visible. As soon as I reached it, a second helicopter came. I waved frantically, and it saw me. The chopper couldn’t get close enough to me and I heard someone radio in “the Blackhawk.” Half an hour later a Blackhawk helicopter arrived. What noise it made! What dust it kicked up! A rescuer hung down from the helicopter with a rope, reached me, put his legs around mine and then we were pulled up by the rope. We were brought to a base where my vitals were taken. I was told, “You were only 100 yards from the trail.” Go figure. That evening I went to see the play Clybourne Park, as if nothing had happened.

I learned two lessons from this story. One is to never hike alone. The other is that I can never complain again about paying state income taxes (which thankfully I don’t need to do here in Florida). Between three helicopters, one of which cost $1,300 an hour, and two groups of hiker rescuers, one going up Ventana Canyon, the other ascending Sabino Canyon, my rescue attempt must have cost over $10,000 in taxpayer money.

Thankfully our technology has improved since the days when I was search and rescued.

On April 15th, a hiker missing in Los Angeles was rescued after a man cross-referenced a grainy photo of the mountaineer’s foot with satellite images.  Renee Compean, 46 years old, sent a photo to a friend of his legs hanging over a rocky cliff face in the Angeles National Forest to say he was lost, and his cell phone was dying. The friend passed on the photograph to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who posted it to Twitter asking for help locating the missing man.

Using Google Earth and his knowledge of the hiking trails around California, GPS obsessive Ben Kuo was able to narrow down the location of the missing hiker to within a few kilometers. Kuo posted GPS coordinates of a possible location to grateful local search and rescue teams, who located Compean three quarters of a mile away. 

Compean and Kuo met virtually, at which point the hiker expressed his gratitude. ‘I crazy appreciate what you did…I really don’t know if I could make it there another day. It was just so cold,’ Compean told Kuo.[1]

Each of us has been rescued at some point in our life. We have felt that we are on the edge of a cliff, unable to continue forward. In those situations, someone has come to our aid. Perhaps it was a friend with words of wisdom. Maybe it was a stranger who was in the right place at the right time.

Having brought Bar Reuven, a leader in Israel’s elite Search and Rescue unit 669, to speak at Bet Shira, I was very familiar with advanced search and rescue techniques utilized in emergencies. Yet Search and Rescue took on new meaning for me on Thursday June 24th with the collapse of the Champlain Towers South Building at 1:30 am. I still can’t get out of my head the image of Cassie Stratton calling her husband and saying, “Honey, the pool’s caving in!”[2] only to have the line become disconnected immediately after. I saw search and rescue workers doing grueling 12 hour shifts in the heat and rain, as well as putting out fires, and I personally got to meet some of them. These are true heroes-determined not to give up until the last body was found.

I was proud that Israel sent in a team right away along with Mexico, yet of course saddened that only one child was able to be rescued from so many trapped under the rubble of the pancaked building. Having visited the memorial and learned the stories of many of the victims, including the family of Arielle Penias, wife of Extreme Productions CEO Adam Penias, my heart has been broken. More recently we feel bereft by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Haiti seeing over 2200 people killed and watching search and rescue crews from Fairfax County, Virginia, and the country of and Columbia, amongst other places, sifting through the rubble looking for survivors. This past week brought Hurricane Ida, knocking out power to over 1 million in the greater New Orleans area, as well as a levee, with 25,000 clean up crews from over 30 states picking up the wreckage. Its remnants killed dozens in the greater New York City area.

How do we connect to the darkness of Surfside and these other tragic events and disasters, recognizing the truly unprecedented devastation caused by the collapse of a high rise building in the United States? We certainly don’t rationalize it. However, we gather together, spiritually and virtually, as a community, comforting one another. The High Holy Days are times when those of us who have felt lost are able to feel found. While we feel bereft at the tragic loss of life, from COVID, from Surfside, from Haiti and from so many prominent congregants who have passed away, we recognize that we are ultimately here to comfort one another.

 There is hope. Maybe we have doubts that have only grown since our lives were upended in March 2020 and with the proliferation of the Delta Variant, with a number of those hospitalized having been vaccinated. Yet perhaps we have reevaluated our purpose in this moment. Maybe we just need to be patient, calm and steadfast, seeing where 5782 will take us.

 As I reflect on the time when I was rescued by a Blackhawk helicopter, I question what are the Blackhawk helicopters in each of our lives? What are those things that have rescued us from making a bad mistake or those people who have come to our aid? I also think about situations like Surfside, or September 11th, where people ended up being in the wrong place in the wrong time and had no chance whatsoever of being rescued. I’ll never have an answer for why those people were taken before their time. All I can do is thank the first responders, those search and rescue crews, who worked tirelessly day after day in brutal conditions to try to hear a knocking on the rebar or to find a void within the structure. Those who put their lives at risk, like those who go out to battle wildfires such as the Caldor and Dixie Fires, respond to hurricanes like Ida, and earthquakes like that in Haiti, leaving their families at a moment’s notice not knowing if or when they will return. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for all that they do. However, each of us can also be involved in aspects of search and rescue. It might not be sifting through concrete or putting out a fire, yet let us not shortchange when we sit and listen to a friend or a child who is in crisis, using the wisdom of our life experience to help guide them on a good path. We never know when we are a malach, an angel or messenger of God, in the right place at the right time to help a troubled soul. Let us be grateful for those who have been there to rescue us during our times of need, and may we be mindful to be there for others who need us.

Sharon will sing Shema Yisrael by Sarit Hadad. God, please hear our prayers on this holy day and especially at times in our lives when we are broken and bereft.

[1] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-04-15/lasd-finds-hiker-found-safe-in-angeles-national-forest-gps-expert

[2] https://www.insideedition.com/missing-model-called-to-tell-husband-the-pool-was-caving-in-before-miami-building-collapse-67996

Rosh Hashanah Day 2-The Power of I Don’t Know

At a meditation retreat with the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell taught me a profound teaching based on a Zen koan. It is to meditate on the following saying: “Where am I going? Don’t know.” On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we admit all the times that we made mistakes. We are saying we were wrong and yet, in our imperfection, God will forgive us for the mistakes we’ve made. We also recognize that we often don’t know where we are headed in the rollercoaster of life and that’s ok. Uncertainty is a powerful force. Only in hindsight can we see when we’ve gone down a less than desirable path and make changes to steer us towards a more favorable course.

If COVID taught us one thing it’s that the world is completely unpredictable and that we need not mourn change but rather celebrate it. As I settled into Elul and extensive High Holy Day preparations, this is what came to mind. Often, we are so fixated on what we know that change frightens us into keeping the status quo-even when it is at our own peril. When something in the present just isn’t working for us anymore, rather than getting depressed and giving up or pushing ahead with tunnel vision, we need to recognize that we are going in the wrong direction and take steps towards making meaningful and significant change.

In his book Think Again, Adam Grant writes, “attachment. That’s what keeps us from recognizing when our opinions are off the mark and rethinking them. To unlock the joy of being wrong, we need to detach. I’ve learned that two types of detachment are particularly useful: detaching your present from your past and detaching your opinions from your identity.”[1]

Grant writes that the majority of people when proven wrong immediately become defensive. We can most certainly think of examples of this! That was not the case for Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist. When proven wrong by Adam Grant, Kahneman said, “That’s wonderful-I was wrong.”[2] He went on to say, “Being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything.”

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we recognize what we did wrong and strive to learn from it. We also see that we’re not the same person we were last year, let alone 5 or 10 years ago. Each of us always can learn new techniques for difficult situations or to unlearn mistaken assumptions that we have made. What’s wonderful about Judaism is that we not only recognize this, but we celebrate it. We rejoice in having the opportunity to begin again with a fresh mindset. We also celebrate the idea that God renews the works of creation each day. Every moment is a new opportunity for spiritual, personal, and intellectual growth, as well as for flexibility in how we view the world. They say only kids have flexibility whereas adults have rigidity. That is not true; we are able to change our worldview and even if we choose not to, “who we are should be a question of what we value, not what we believe.”[3]

               A goal in life is to celebrate our successes, while evaluating what went wrong and what we can learn from it. Rather than being emotionally invested in outcomes, we need to be “passionately dispassionate”[4]-able to divest our personal views and see what we can learn from where we are at right now. “When you’re wrong it’s not something to be depressed about. Say “hey I discovered something!”[5]

         This is a core teaching of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh HaShanah is also known as Rosh HaShinui, the beginning of change. So many Jewish sources reinforce the creative power of uncertainty and the positivity of change. Rabbi Hanina teaches us, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues and most from students.”[6] If Rabbi Hanina was anti-change, he wouldn’t say he learns most from the next generation, his students. Those of us who took Mahloket Matters last winter from the PARDES Institute learned that the goal is to have 49-49 conversations, where one can see the other’s position through 49 prisms and one’s own position through 49 prisms.[7] Too often we see the world through binary lenses, right and wrong. Not only is this counterproductive but it also leads to developing the rigidity of our adversary, Pharaoh. Furthermore, we learn from Midrash that there are 70 faces to Torah,[8] meaning 70 diverse interpretations for any point. Ben Bag teaches us that we need to “turn it (Torah) over and turn it over, for everything is inside it.[9] In other words, there is always more to learn, and it is our job not to be an ideologue or inflexible in our beliefs and opinions but rather to be open to new interpretations.

Jeff Bezos points out that “people who are right a lot listen a lot and they change their minds a lot.”[10] We know that “changing your mind doesn’t make you a flip-flopper or a hypocrite. It means you were open to learning.”[11] Bezos is not describing a constant flip flopper; a hallmark of a credible leader is one who can invoke an opinion and stay the course amidst resistance. Rather, he is talking about one who holds a steadfast opinion only to have new information come out which changes one’s viewpoint. In life, “quality means rethinking, reworking and polishing. (People) need to feel they will be celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board.”[12] We must be able to “fail fast”[13]; to try new things, learn from them and move forward based on what we’ve learned.

This famous quotation from Michael Jordan was said at a Bar Mitzvah speech in May. “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”[14] Very few mistakes in life are irreparable; on the contrary, most of them can make us stronger, if we take the time to evaluate what we did wrong and how to learn from them. There can be a joy in being wrong, in welcoming disagreement and debate. Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to recognize that by virtue of being human, we are imperfect. We don’t have all the answers-not even close! The goal is to try our best each and every day, having the courage to admit our mistakes as they occur and learn from them how to act otherwise. Being wrong need not be an embarrassment but rather can be a source of joy as it involves learning something new about ourselves. In a rewriting of Descartes, “I err; therefore, I learn.”[15] In 5782 I hope each of us will evaluate our actions, celebrate what we are doing right, learn from what we are doing wrong and utilize it to make us better, stronger people. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

Sharon will lead us in Bring Him Home from Les Miserables, featuring a beautiful Hebrew verse which she wrote and added to the song.

[1] Adam Grant Think Again (New York: Viking, 2021), p. 62.

[2] Ibid, 60-61.

[3] Ibid, pg. 63.

[4] Ibid, pg. 64.

[5] Ibid, pg. 70.

[6] Babylonian Talmud Taanit 7a

[7] Midrash Tehilim 12

[8] Numbers Rabbah Naso 13:15

[9] Pirkei Avot 5:24

[10] Ibid, pg. 72.

[11] Ibid, pg. 101.

[12] Ibid, pg. 199-200.

[13] See Fail Fast and Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz

[14] Michael Jordan in Nike Commercial, 1997.

[15] Ibid, pg. 233.

Erev Rosh Hashanah-Where Were We and Where We Are Now

Think back to where we were last Erev Rosh Hashanah. I was in an empty Sanctuary with Chelsea Rego in the back and Eddie from Extreme Productions doing video. It was overwhelming-Eddie had 200 videos to put in order. We didn’t have audio for me for half the service. I didn’t have anyone to look to for gauging reactions. After services, I learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Since I was live as opposed to prerecorded, I was able to address it on Rosh Hashanah Day 1. Little did I know we’d be in a similar situation the following year, with the onset of Delta. I miss seeing each and every one of you in person-your handshakes, embraces and warm smiles.

I was hoping this year would be an emergence from the cave like that of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son.[1] However, that is not a realistic look at where we are now. A few of us are in the Sanctuary, most of us are at home. Each of us has been changed radically by the events of the past year. In any given year, if we are the same people, we were last Rosh Hashanah, it’s a tremendous loss of potential. We see that life is not to be taken for granted: just look at the over 600,000 Americans killed by COVID or the almost 100 killed by the collapse of the Champlain Towers, which I will address more tomorrow, the 2,200 killed in the earthquake in Haiti. We need to recognize that this year is not the same as last year, that some are gone forever, and that what is most important are people, as things can always be replaced.

There’s a great story by Elie Wiesel entitled “The Watch.” After the Holocaust, Elie snuck back into the garden at the home where he used to live to find his most treasured possession: a watch buried in the ground. He departed with the watch but soon after leaving the garden, he paused, returned, and put the watch back. Elie recognized that all he30 wanted was his family back and that this prized possession did not truly matter. Who he was and what he valued had changed dramatically.

Let us examine where we intend to be next year. We always must keep moving forward on this rollercoaster we call life. Many times, I’ve heard the phrase “get back to normal” reminding me of former President Warren Harding’s “Return to Normalcy” at the end of WWI. Every time I hear that, I ask two questions: 1.) What is normal? 2.) Is it really something we want to get back to? We’re in an age when many people feel more alone and isolated than ever before.[2] Community relationships have frayed, there is increased economic injustice, and mental illness is on the rise. I think of how Harding’s “return to normalcy” and the roaring 20’s was quickly followed by the Great Depression.

To move forward, there is a text from our tradition that we might find helpful.[3] Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were ascending to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple. When they arrived at Mount Scopus and saw the site of the Temple, they rent their garments in mourning. Upon arrival at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the site of the Holy of Holies. They began weeping, yet Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: For what reason are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva replied: For what reason are you weeping? They answered: This is the place concerning which it is written: “And the non-priest who approaches shall die”[4]; now foxes walk in it; and shall we not weep?

Rabbi Akiva said to them: That is why I am laughing, as it is written: “And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to attest: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah.”[5] Uriah prophesied during the First Temple period, and Zechariah during the Second Temple period. Fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on fulfillment of the prophecy of Uriah.

In the prophecy of Uriah, it is written: “Therefore, for your sake Zion shall be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become rubble, and the Temple Mount as the high places of a forest,”[6] where foxes are found. In the prophecy of Zechariah, it is written: “There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem.”[7] Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled, as the two prophecies are linked. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah remains valid. The Sages said to him: “Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.”

We need to remember that where there’s destruction there’s also a new beginning, or as is often said, “When one door closes, another opens.” The past that we had doesn’t exist anymore. All that exists are new possibilities. We must be resilient like Rabbi Akiva and no matter how bleak things might look at times in our lives, we need to have optimism and hope in the creation of a “new normal.” We need to ask ourselves what society we wish to be creating and what role do we have to play in its formulation? If we are stuck in the past, whether it is mourning for the Temple or pining for the Jewish life of February 2020, we cannot write the next chapter in Jewish history. May God give us the strength and the tools to do our part these High Holy Days to reflect on our past, acknowledge where we are at in the present and determine what we need to do to move forward into a successful future.

Sharon will lead us in a song called Grateful by Beth Styles.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b

[2] See Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone

[3] Babylonian Talmud Makkot 24b

[4] Numbers 1:51

[5] Isaiah 8:2

[6] Micah 3:12

[7] Zechariah 8:4