Happiness Comes From Within

As a rabbi I have learned that you can never please all of the people all of the time; however you can please all of the people some of the time. The question is when the right thing to do is one which will cause the displeasure of others. Moses, our people’s greatest leader, had numerous periods in which he lost the confidence of the Israelite nation, when they complained and wanted to return to Egypt. If even our people’s greatest leader could not make the people happy, how can we hope to do so?!

Happiness comes from within a person. It’s not something that we can find through materialism or through external circumstances. We often feel ‘if only _______ happened, I’d be happy’. We sometimes look to leaders, be they politicians, social workers, teachers or clergy, to fix our problems rather than reflectively looking inside ourselves. However, a leader is not a savior. A leader’s job is not to try to make others happy; that is each individual’s job. A leader’s task is to act out of the courage of his/her convictions to try to make the world we live in better, but that is not by solving every problem that comes our way. Moses could lead Israel towards the Promised Land but he could not change their mentality, making them excited to leave slavery for freedom and to enter a land of milk and honey. The hard, individualistic work of a positive mindset in spite of whatever is going on is left up to each and every one of us.

It is my hope that each of us will find the inner spirit to meet head-on any challenge we face with positivity, serenity and grace and that we are able to appreciate all that we have rather than taking it for granted. We are blessed to live in the mecca of South Florida with beautiful winter weather and with so much to offer people of all ages. When we recognize that we might not have everything we want, may we take the time to turn inward and see what we can do to better our situation rather than outward to blame others. Let each of us work hard to take ownership of and become the authors of our own lives, and in so doing may we find wholeness and happiness rather than resentment and bitterness. As Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) teaches “Who is strong? One who conquers his/her impulses. Who is rich? One who is happy with what s/he has.” Our leaders can lead us to the path; may we do our part so that we can reach the Promised Land.

The Young with the Old

In this week’s portion, Moses demonstrates that he is a leader for the entire community. After the plague of locusts, Pharaoh gave in and says “Go and worship your G-d in the desert; who will be the ones to go?” Moses replied, “Our young and our old will go.” This angered Pharaoh who would only allow the men to go. Pharaoh knew that if everyone left they would not return, so he wanted to hold some of the people back. Moses, however, said that either all the Israelites would go or none of them would.

Why did Moses argue for the children to come? The medieval commentator Chizkuni states that “the way of children is to celebrate.” Rabbi Harold Kushner brings two alternative interpretations in The Etz Hayim Humash: that “no celebration is complete without children” and that “a child without parents is an orphan but a nation without children is an orphan people.” The last point is especially poignant, without the children there is no future.

The commentaries are great at emphasizing the children but I believe it is equally important that Moses said the elderly must go as well. Elders bring wisdom to the community through their past lived experiences. They also provide a sense of historical precedent as to why things are as they are. Moses knew that just as the children are necessary so too are the older individuals. As we must look towards the future, so must we also remember the past and what brought us to this present day.

Moses felt it was important that everyone be able to leave Egypt, regardless of their age. This has a lot to say for how the Jewish community works: that everyone is a valued member of our community. The way of a successful synagogue is to leave no one behind, showing each person that he or she has a valued, integral place in our community.

At Bet Shira Congregation, we have brought together people from multiple congregations, whether Temple Zion, Samuel Or Olam, Bet Breirah or others. As your rabbi, I value each and every one of you exactly as you are. Our identity is not determined by where we came from but by who we are. As we move forward towards a future yet unknown but with exciting possibilities, let us remember that we are stronger together. Like Moses who went forth with the young and the old, we too must go forth united in our goal to perpetuate Conservative Judaism in South Dade. When we are together, what is not possible to achieve?

When we feel torn in life, may we us remember the excitement we shared as children, curious, with wonder and open towards the possibilities of the unknown. If we do that, we will transcend the experience of מצרים, those narrow places which constrict us and harden our hearts. Many of us, myself included, struggle with uncertainty, yet as I learned from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, nothing is permanent and everything is ever changing. Let us keep mind of this lesson today and every day.

I’m Wrong You’re Right

Why do we break a glass at the wedding? Remembering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is one reason given but I’m going to give you another. Sorry Howard but when you break the glass in 2 week it’s the last time you’ll be able to put your foot down. After that Danielle will always be right. The defense rests its case (for those who don’t know, Danielle’s a Defense Lawyer, and Howard’s a Plaintiff).

All joking aside, being able to admit when you are wrong and another is right is extremely difficult to do. We think ‘if I only rationalize the situation, she’ll see it my way.’ After all, we understand why we act the way we do. To truly take a step back and say ‘I did wrong here’ when that is the case is truly a mark of bravery and courage.

Even the hardheaded, stubborn Pharaoh admits wrongdoing at the end of Parshat VaEra. He says to Moses חטאתי הפעם: ה הוא הצדיק ואני ועמי הרשעים. After the plague of hail, Pharaoh said, ‘I have sinned this time: G-d is in the right, and my nation and I are the wicked ones.’[1] This is a startling statement: Pharaoh, who believes that he himself is god, admits wrongdoing. For a split second he gets off his high horse and says to Moses and Aaron, ‘You know that G-d, you believe in? He’s right and I’m wrong.” If Pharaoh can do it, all the more so must we when the situation calls for it.

Admitting we are wrong is challenging. It is far easier to harden our hearts, continuing in the same direction we began. However, our greatest leaders each admitted their mistakes. When the Prophet Nathan exposed King David’s sin with Batsheva, our greatest king ever, David, saidלה  חטאתי “I have sinned against G-d.”[2] When Judah, who our people is named after, realized he sinned against Tamar by withholding his youngest son from her, he said צדקה ממני, “she is more righteous than me.”[3] Admitting wrongdoing when exposed is the hallmark of a leader, as well as a sign of a good partner in a relationship.

Danielle and Howard-we are so honored to be here today as you celebrate your upcoming marriage. As lawyers, both of you understand how to argue from the perspective of your client-and you do this on opposite sides of the aisle. However, as a couple you are on the same team. We know that through communication and working together you will conquer any challenges that you face in this roller-coaster and obstacle course that we call life. Always remember the love you share and the way you care about one another, letting that shine through. Howard-it doesn’t hurt to keep in the back of your head the following mantra: My wife is always right.

Mazal Tov on your aufruf and upcoming wedding. To crystallize the joy we feel about this celebratory event, please turn to the handout in your Shabbat sheet which we will read responsively.

[1] Exodus 9:27

[2] 2 Samuel 12:13

[3] Genesis 38:26

Joseph The Tzadik

What makes Joseph a tzadik? Certainly it is not being a braggadocio or a tattletale. Even Nehama Leibowitz writes such “overweening pride and self-importance [seems] remote indeed from the conception of righteousness implicit in the title.”

According to most sources, Joseph becomes a tzadik when he refused to sleep with Potiphar’s wife. Yet is this really the low bar we set for a tzadik, that he refuses to commit adultery? After all, he doesn’t know that Potiphar’s wife will fabricate a lie leading him to Egyptian prison!

Rather, Joseph is described as a tzadik because he sees G-d (אלהים) in every fabric of his life. Before he is sold into Egyptian slavery, G-d has no part in Joseph’s narrative. It is all “You bow down to me.” The first time G-d appears is when Joseph resists Potiphar’s wife, as he says “How could I do this most wicked thing and sin before G-d?”[1]  G-d next is mentioned when Joseph is imprisoned with the butler and the baker, when Joseph says “Surely G-d can interpret! Tell me your dreams.”[2] The third time is in next week’s reading (Miketz) with Pharaoh, when Joseph says, “Not I! G-d will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”[3] In fact, G-d is mentioned by Joseph five times in that story as the source of Joseph’s power in dream telling. The fourth time is when Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt, accused of being spies, and Joseph says “Do this and you shall live. For I am a G-d fearing man. If you are honest men, let one of your brothers be held in your place in detention while the rest of you go and take home rations for your starving households; but you must bring me your youngest brother, that your words may be verified and that you may not die.”[4] It is only after this that any of the other brothers mentions the name of G-d. The final time G-d is mentioned by Joseph is two weeks from today (VaYigash) when he says “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that G-d sent me ahead of you.”[5] He repeats similar words twice in the next three verses.

Elie Wiesel sees Joseph is crowned tzadik because he ultimately forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery and compassionately helps his family move to Egypt during a time of famine in Canaan. Joseph succeeds in vanquishing his bitterness and turns it into love. What does all this mean?” Wiesel asks. “That one is not born a Tzadik; one must strive to become one. And having become a Tzadik, one must strive to remain one.”

Recently I was on a panel for teens at Temple Beth Am, representing the Conservative Movement. To the left of me sat a Reform colleague and to the right a Chabad rabbi. The Chabad rabbi began his remarks by talking about how everything is predetermined and happens for a reason. A Reform colleague there said at the end of the remarks that she does not believe that. I generally side closer to my Chabad colleague but not this week. As I prepare to do a funeral for a baby who passed away at 2 days old, I think why did G-d allow this to happen? And then I think there is no lesson to be learned in the death of one so young, so helpless, so full of the potential for a full life of goodness and blessing. Joseph’s dreams might have come true but what about the dreams of these parents? He might be a Tzadik in seeing G-d’s hand in everything, in (as the Hasidim teach) bringing the heavens down towards the earth. I am no such Tzadik-I can’t see G-d’s hand in this and it would be Hutzpah to even try. Perhaps Joseph has a gift of intuition that I do not and probably will never possess, or perhaps he is too sure of himself for his own good.

Early this week I gave my secretary “The Birth of Joseph” by my grandmother, Lucille Frenkel z”l. I will conclude with another of her poems, “The Weeping.”

Joseph stands, with past unspoken,

Recalling how he lived heartbroken

Through long years of misery,

Through the years of slavery,

Wherein his sufferings were great,

Wherein he fought the thoughts of hate,

But where he learned to understand

The mood and modes of differing men.

Though many times he tasted shame,

The shame, the pain of slavery,

Joseph was conscious should he blame

Others for their treachery,

So would his soul turn bitterly

Away from God.

 

And Joseph, he had faith in God.

And Joseph, he believed in prayer.

Young Joseph, Jacob’s most loved son,

This Joseph, he believed in God.

Thus Joseph strongly clung to faith,

And through God’s mercy and God’s grace

He did survive from depths of pit,

He did survive and stay alive

To thrive, to prosper, and grow wise,

And rise to status where

He was now Pharaoh’s governor

Who held decision and command

Of all the grain of Egypt’s land.

 

Now, mighty Joseph stands and hears

His long-lost brothers’ plea for food

In Hebrew tongue well understood.

A cool aloofness masks his tears.

He hides those tears which well his eyes,

And speaks to brethren no replies,

But turns, departs with no word spoken-

His paining and his ache unspoken,

His yearning and his love unspoken.

And in a room of solitude,

A flood a tears flows from his eyes.

There, only, is the silence broken

By soft sob, as Joseph cries.[6]

[1] Genesis 39:9

[2] Genesis 40:8

[3] Genesis 41:16

[4] Genesis 42:18-20

[5] Genesis 45:5

[6] Lucille Frenkel, “The Weeping: Comment on Genesis XLII Lines 1 Thru 24 (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1980).

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

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.