Monthly Archives: September 2015

Cluttered Desks

sermon text from Yom Kippur 5776 (2015)

If you’ve ever been to my office over the years you probably know that I keep a cluttered desk. This is not something I’m proud of, it is just the way I do business, and for as long as I can remember, going all the way back to my boyhood, any desk of mine was filled with piles of papers, often books, pens, coffee mugs, and all of the things you would expect to see on someone’s desk – just more so. And I will confess that I am always a bit envious of those whose desks are totally clear – maybe one sheet of paper, perfectly centered, with pens tucked safely away in a drawer, and not a single item to be seen anywhere in the desk’s bare landscape.

When I open my office door every day that cluttered desk is the first thing I see, and it reminds me – as Becky will affirm – that I have a tendency to procrastinate. Things languish on that desk until the very last moment, and sometimes beyond that. Old letters that I should have responded to. Books I meant to look through. Old ‘to do’ lists, where often the first item is ‘clean your desk!’ I came to terms with my procrastinating tendencies many years ago, and have managed to adjust my life accordingly. And I’ve also learned over the years that I am in pretty good company, because everyone procrastinates to one extent or another, even those of us with clean desks – waiting and waiting to complete the tasks of our lives.

My complicated relationship with my desk always takes a turn around the High Holy Days. As Rosh Hashanah creeps closer I feel a sudden urge to try to straighten the piles, answer the letters, return the books. It may in part simply be another sign of my procrastinating tendencies – after all, if I am spending time cleaning my desk, I am not spending time working on sermons! But I also believe it has something to do with a sense of urgency I suspect we all feel in our kishkas when the holidays arrive. Just like blinking our eyes another year has come and gone! And it is really that sense of urgency, that stirring in our stomachs, that fluttering in our minds and souls, that voice quietly whispering in our ear – that I would like to speak about on this Yom Kippur Day.

I suspect you all know that the liturgy for the High Holy Days is unique. There are prayers we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that we do not say on any other day of the year. And the amidah – the central, standing prayer, is an example of that. The core section of our holiday amidah contains three paragraphs only said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that all begin with the same word – the word ובכן. That word is hard to translate, in fact in our Mahzor you will not find it translated at all, and instead they begin the English paragraphs with a transliteration of the word, just writing out ‘uvechein’ in English letters. If we wanted to translate it, we would say it means something like ‘and therefore’ or ‘and so,’ but what it really is is a phrase of emphasis, almost like a wake up call, and it clearly carries a sense of urgency.

The phrase itself – ובכן- comes from the Bible, and somewhat surprisingly, it is from the Book of Esther. The Megillah that we read on Purim, the story that we all know so well, about Esther and Mordecai, King Ahashveirosh and Queen Vashti, and the villain Haman. Not exactly the text that you would expect the Sages to reference in the core section of the amidah for RH and YK. It is a quote of what Esther says just after Mordecai asks her to go in to see the King, to plead for the Jewish people. And you might remember that Esther knows that to go in to the King without being invited is dangerous, possibly even life threatening. But she says ובכן – And so! אבוא אל המלך – I will go in to do what you ask. I will go in to the King.

I have always suspected that at that moment Esther might have felt the urge to procrastinate. Were I Esther, I might have said to my uncle “You know Uncle Mordecai, I am busy today. The whole King thing, I will get to it first thing tomorrow, I promise you!” And then tomorrow would have come, and I would have found myself busy with some other, probably less important task. The going in to see the King I would have put on my desk, and there it would sit.

And maybe that is why our Sages chose a phrase from the Book of Esther for the core of the High Holy Day liturgy. Because that phrase reminds us that we should have a sense of urgency about our lives. That another year HAS come and gone. That time is fleeting. That despite our best intentions, here we sit, tasks that we promised to take care of last year still unfulfilled. Phone calls we needed to make, conversations we should have had, people we wanted to connect with, emails we needed to answer, the list could go on and on.

But of course there are larger issues we grapple with today. And the uvecheins of the Mahzor remind us of urgent tasks we should all be engaged in, not only in our own lives, but in the world around us. The first is to live our lives in such a way that God’s presence will be more visible in this world. To me that means living with kindness and grace. It means being a forgiving and patient person. It means being sensitive to the needs of others, and living daily remembering that our Torah teaches us that all human beings are created in the image of God – and that includes me! ובכן – and so! I will determine to make the world a more Godly place because I am in it.

The second uvechein reminds us that we are part of a larger community, of Am Israel, and that that should also carry a sense of urgent responsibility. To raise Jewish children and grandchildren. To stay involved with community institutions – the Associated, the synagogue, the JCCs, Israel bonds, to visit Israel, to read Jewish books and take Jewish classes and visit Jewish neighborhoods when we travel. And so! I will determine to make the Jewish people stronger, more connected, and more sacred because I am a part of it.

And the last uvechein is a reminder that as we look outward, at the world, at the Jewish people, so we must also look inward on this day. To search our own hearts and souls, to see our own faults and frailties, to come to terms with our own limitations, to acknowledge the clutter in our own lives, to be aware that our own hearts in the course of a year or a life might become hardened, and homes to jealousy and festering anger, racism and intolerance, cynicism and deceit, violence and stubbornness. ובכן – and so! I will make myself more the way I know I should be, and more the way God intends me to be, in this new year.

The question, of course, is how do we get from here to there. How did Esther find the courage, the sense of urgency that she needed, to open that door and walk in to see the King. How do we stand today before the מלך המלכים – the King of Kings – and find the courage to do the things we need to do so that this year will truly be a sweet one for us and our families?

And to try to answer that question, let me turn to another area of clutter in my life. As you may imagine, I get quite a bit of email, so much so that it is virtually impossible to keep up with it. So I am keenly interested in any article I see that offers suggestions in terms of coping with ‘inbox overload.’ And recently I read an article written by a young woman who at one point had over 30,000 unread emails in her inbox. 30,000! But she figured out a way to take care of it. She deleted all of them! In one fell swoop, her inbox was empty. And I suppose I could clean my desk the same way. Bring a large box, set it at the edge of my desk, and sweep my arms over the top. Just imagine – all of the papers, the books, the notes, the reminders – they would drop gently into the box, I could close it up, tape it shut, and simply put it away. And for a day, or at least a few hours, my desk would actually be clean!

But of course life doesn’t work like that. You can’t sweep your arms over the clutter of your life, magically making it disappear. You can’t press a delete key to suddenly find a clear conscience, or to remove bitter memories or sadness. But there is another way to clean a desk, which might help us more in the real world, in our real lives. So allow me to take you to just one other place of clutter, this the closet in my childhood bedroom.

That closet was filled with all kinds of interesting things. My father’s old army jacket was in there. Seashells that I had collected during summer trips to the beach were in a worn bag. My baseball glove hung in the inside of the door. Old models I had made were tucked in the back. But at a certain point, when I was 7 or 8 years old, I became convinced that the closet had something else in it – a monster. And I remember for a time that after my parents would shut off the lights, I was terrified that if I moved – even slightly, the littlest bit – the monster would come out of the closet, and that was not something I wanted to happen! So each night I lay in bed, barely daring to breath, for fear of that closet and what it contained.

And then one night I determined, regardless of what would happen to me, I was going to open that door and look inside of it. To see for my own eyes what my mind was imagining. The lights went out, my parents said goodnight. As my eyes adjusted to the dark I could see the outlines of the closet door, just across the room, barely 10 feet from where I lay. I mustered all of the courage I had, and I moved, sitting up in my bed. And that very instant my fear vanished. I didn’t even have to open the door – I just had to take one step.

And it is always that way. The first step is the most difficult by far. Once Esther began to walk to the King’s door there was no doubt in her mind she was going through. Once you pick up the phone, chances are you’ll make the call. If you can just get yourself to walk into the hospital you’ll make the visit. And of course that is the second way to clean a cluttered desk. The piles are impossible. But that one piece of paper, that I think I can manage. But I have to pick it up.

Our desks may remain cluttered in the year to come, but our lives do not have to. The High Holy Days remind us that there are things we need to do, things we’ve waited too long to attend to. But the holidays also remind us that we can do those things, and that the time to take the first step is now! May our steps be firm, our minds clear, and our hands ready to do the work of this new year –

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, sermon, Yom Kippur

Sometimes the Light

this the text of my Kol Nidre sermon (5776/2015)

It was the evening of the 5th of July, now some two and a half months ago, when Becky and I found ourselves amongst the 75 thousand or so Grateful Dead fans who packed into Soldiers Field football stadium for the band’s last concert.  It was a great night, one I will remember for the rest of my life.  Great friends, great music, and an even greater spirit of celebration.  If you know any Deadheads you probably know that we have a terrible habit of standing around and talking about the band’s concerts ad nauseam, and although I am tempted, I will spare you a full review of that evening’s music.  But I would like to describe for you one particular moment.

It was at the beginning of the second set when the Dead went into probably the best known and most beloved song of their 50 year career, a song called Truckin’.  It is about both the freedom and difficulty of being on the road and traveling from place to place for music, whether you are the band or a fan.  The tagline of the song is ‘sometimes the light is all shining on me, other times I can barely see,’ not a bad line for a rabbi, but also perhaps a general description of how we make our way through life.  And for years when the Dead played that song in concert, when the band sang those words – sometimes the light is all shining on me – the house lights of the venue would come on, and suddenly a place of darkness – a concert hall – was flooded with light.  And so it was at Soldiers Field on July 5th this past summer.  Suddenly every corner of the stadium was illuminated – 75 thousand faces were visible, and for a few moments, every thing seemed clear as day.

The light that bathed us on that warm July night in Chicago was physical, an actual light that enabled us to see, but there was another kind of light in the stadium, an invisible, inner light that warmed our souls and touched our hearts.  It is a very different atmosphere here in the Rubin tonight, let me assure you!  But at the same time there is something about the Kol Nidre ritual that we enact this evening, so familiar to us. The removal of the Torahs, the solemn procession, and then the chanting of Kol Nidre.  As the Torahs make their way through the congregation the Cantor sings over and over again a single Hebrew phrase – אור זרוע לצדיק ולישרי לב שמחה – light is sown for the righteous, and for the pure-hearted, joy.  It is a verse from the 97th Psalm, and it captures the sense of awe we feel at the beginning of Yom Kippur.  Outside the sun is setting, darkness is falling.  But inside the synagogue on KN eve there is a sense of light, not physical light, but a spiritual light that Yom Kippur can bring into our souls.  This is a light that can illuminate our lives and our world, enabling us to see things that we didn’t see before, to have a sense of clarity and understanding about who we want to be and how we should live.

And it is that sense of light that I think we come to shul looking for tonight.  There are many reasons why Jews come to shul on a Kol Nidre eve.  Community, a sense of responsibility, guilt, family, tradition – the list could go on and on, and the reasons may be different for each of us.  But we all come here hoping to feel something genuine, hoping to be touched by the ancient prayers we recite and rituals we enact, hoping that by sharing this experience with one another and with God we will emerge from it feeling a greater sense of light and life and hope and healing in our hearts.  And that is the possibility that Kol Nidre extends to us.

This past summer while on the plane to Chicago I read a fascinating article about a man named Jacob Riis.  Riis was a Danish newspaper reporter who lived and worked in New York City in the late 1800s.   Because he was an immigrant he had a special interest in those who came to these shores looking for a better life, and he began in his work to focus on stories about the squalid conditions in the tenements on the lower east side.  He wrote story after story describing the jam packed rooms, the unsanitary conditions that people lived in, and the difficulty that these new Americans had in finding even the most basic services for themselves.  He wrote for the local papers.  He wrote for national magazines like Scribners and Harper’s Weekly.  But despite the thousands of words that he wrote, nothing was changing, and no one seemed to care.

Riis knew the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ and he hired artists to make drawings that were published with his stories.  But he knew what he really needed were actual photographs.  His problem was the tenements were totally dark – even in the day time!  There were no windows, and electric lights were virtually non-existent.  How can you take a photograph in the darkness?  But in 1887 someone had come up with a rudimentary technology called Blitzlicht that created a bright flash just at the moment a picture was being taken.  The first ever flash photography.  And so Riis went into the tenements with photographers, and they snapped pictures as the flashes were going off, and those pictures captured what life in the tenements was truly like.  Riis put the pictures together in a book he called How the Other Half Lives.  It became a best seller.  And in 1901 – in large part due to Riis’ photographs – the New York State Tenement House act was passed, and it would be followed by a series of progressive reforms that included factory safety, work hour limitations, and school access, that made America a different – and a more just and kind – country.

I’ve thought about why those photos had such a dramatic impact.  Part of it must have been that for the very first time many Americans were actually seeing the immigrant experience fully illuminated, and they could scarcely believe the suffering and the inhumane conditions that existed right under their noses, in the cities they worked and lived in. But I think it was more than that.  It wasn’t just seeing the conditions.  It was seeing what those conditions did to actual men and women and children, it was seeing their haunted faces and hopeless eyes, it was seeing that something inside of those people had been lost, that their inner light had been extinguished.

It is possible that some of us in the room tonight may have had relatives in those tenements.  Our ancestors who came to these shores, just 2 generations ago, lived in a state of poverty and need that we can barely imagine.  They built their lives literally from the ground up, creating the foundation that we all stand on today.  And one of the things we admire most about them, one of the things that stays in our minds when we think of them, is how they managed – despite their hardship – to keep their spiritual light alive.  I think often of a passage in Jonathan Sarna’s book on the history of American Jewry.  At one point he contrasts the shuls of our parents and grandparents with the shuls of today.  75 years ago our ancestors sat on Kol Nidre evening in modest buildings and rented movie theaters, with borrowed chairs and make shift arks that contained a single Torah, and they could not have even imagined the beauty and grandeur and size of a building like this, or the power and wealth of a community like ours.  But their Kol Nidre services were filled with passion and emotion, with tears and a heartfelt attempt to reconcile with their loved ones and with God.  Their spiritual lives were vibrant and were filled with an inner light that illuminated their days.

Do our lives still reflect that kind of inner light?  If there were a photographer in our homes, taking pictures of our daily lives, what would our own faces look like?  Not in the planned poses of today’s selfie culture, but in the unguarded moments.  Sitting at the dinner table wondering how to communicate with someone we love.  Or at our desks concerned about the future of our jobs.  Or in a quiet moment when we are reflecting on the achievements and characters of our children.  The inner light that guided our parents and grandparents did not come from wealth or material things.  It did not come from prestigious job titles or fancy homes.  Instead it came from family and faith.  From a sense of God’s presence in their lives, from their belief that they were connected to something eternal, to the Jewish people, to a sacred tradition and culture that could nourish and sustain them.

And what I would like to suggest to you tonight is that that very same light is still there for us.  It calls to us through the haunting melody of Kol Nidre, it tugs at our hearts and gently beckons to our souls.  It is something that we can bring into our own lives, something that can nourish and sustain us as individuals, as families, as partners in Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, and as members of the human family.  It is a light that can illuminate our lives, helping us to turn off the noise and glitter and distraction and to see what really matters.  That light shines for the righteous and the pure of heart, and it can shine for us too.

So let us open our hearts tonight to that ancient light.  Let it warm us and connect us, to one another, to our tradition and our people, and to God.  And let it shine, let it shine, let it shine – in a new year of hope, health, and peace –

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Filed under American Jewry, High Holy Days, sermon

Looking and Seeing

IMG_3131This striking view of the sky and its roiling clouds, streaked with red, greeted me as I took the dog out for a walk just at dusk.  A simple reminder of the beauty that is in our world, just outside the door, at any moment.  One of the things the High Holy Days reminds us of is to look for this beauty.  The sense in the Torah is that others walked by the Burning Bush, but Moses stopped to look, sensing the miraculous in the everyday.  It was then that God spoke to him.  When we look, what do we see?

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We Remember

this a text of comments made this morning (9/20) at my congregation’s annual Memorial Service –

It is a long standing practice to visit the graves of loved ones during the holiday season.  In part this speaks to the memories we have of shared sacred time.  On Rosh Hashanah the family dinners and lunches, on Yom Kippur the break fasts, the time sitting together in shul, the conversations and dynamics and interactions that marked our family gatherings.  It is only natural at this time of year to think of the people we shared that time with.  But also the reflective mood of the holiday season, the impulse to look inward and think about our own lives and characters, reminds us that so much of who and what we are is formed through our relationships with others.  Parents who raised us, imparting their values and giving whatever they could give so our lives could be better.  Spouses we shared decades with, raised children with, made a home and a life with.  Children who brought joy to our hearts.  Siblings with whom we shared common bonds that connected us.  Friends who helped us, cared for us, guided us, supported us, laughed and cried with us.  In our season of memory, we remember them all, and we come today to acknowledge again the pain of their loss, but also the continuing joy of their lives.

One of my favorite metaphors for understanding loss is the image of a ship that leaves from the port.  Those of us on this shore watch the ship gently sail out to sea, its sails billowing in the wind.  It takes a turn or two, but ultimately heads for the horizon, that point in the far distance where water and sky meet as one.  She grows tinier and tinier, and then the moment comes when she reaches that distant blending, and suddenly she is gone, no longer visible to our eyes.  “She is gone,” we say, as we stand together on this shore, looking out into the distance.

But tradition teaches us that there is another shore, the farthest shore, beyond our vision, beyond our horizon.  And on that shore, at the very instant that the great ship disappears from our view, she can be seen by those who are already there.  On their horizon she appears first as a tiny dot, moving in the waves, slowly but surely coming ever closer.  At the very moment when we say ‘she is gone’ those on that distant shore exclaim ‘here she comes.  Let us welcome her in peace.’  And those who travel on the ship know they will be welcomed home.  As the shore comes into their view they see its white beaches, and beyond that a far green country under a swift sunrise.

And there are moments when we are blessed with a clearer vision of that other shore, when we can look out to the horizon and see just a bit further, when the shore we stand on and the shore they’ve gone to come just a bit closer to one another.  At those moments we feel a stronger presence, and in that presence a keener sense of absence.

And today is one of those moments.  The holidays, the coming of fall, the turning of the leaves, the deep sense of moving time, the presence of our loved ones here in this hallowed space.  We remember today, and in doing so we honor their lives in the beginning of a new year –

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Filed under grief, High Holy Days, loss

Making Young Sports Fans, Making Young Jews

this the text of my sermon from Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776 (2015)

It was just about 10 days ago when people began to realize that today’s opening Ravens game was going to conflict with this evening’s RH service, and the phone calls began to come in. One particular call was from a member I’ve known for many years, a devout – Ravens fan – who said to me: “Rabbi, the Ravens open the season in Denver, and the game won’t be starting Sunday until almost 4:30!” “Yes,” I replied, “I know that.” “And Rosh Hashanah services begin at 6!” “ I know that as well,” I calmly said. “But rabbi,” my congregant continued, “that means the second half of the game will directly conflict with erev Rosh Hashanah services! What should I do?” “Why don’t you just use your DVR and record it?” I suggested. “Rabbi,” my astonished congregant replied, “You mean you can DVR Rosh Hashanah services?”

That is a tried and true joke – and an old one. But like with any joke that has staying power, there is a kernel of truth in it. I think many of you know that I myself am a sports fan, albeit a largely star crossed one. This year my beloved Mets are actually being talked about in mid-September, but for the most part my teams are unsuccessful, the kind of teams only a true fan could love. But love them I do, regardless. And the disappointment I feel when they lose, or the joy when they win, is undiminished by their years of wandering in the proverbial sports wilderness of mediocrity.

That being said, I learned a hard lesson from my parents about how sports should rank on the priority list many years ago, a lesson that has stuck with me to this very day, and I learned it on Rosh Hashanah. I was a soccer player in high school, and my senior year I was the captain of my team. There was nothing in my life more important than soccer. That year the game against our biggest rival was scheduled for the late afternoon of Rosh Hashanah day. And I went to my parents and I said ‘The game starts at 4. Services will be over, we’ll be home already, so I can play, right?” And I was shocked – dumbfounded – flabbergasted – when my parents said to me ‘You are not playing in the game. It is Rosh Hashanah.’

And I mustered every argument I could think of but my parents would not budge. They had given me a clear message that I only truly understood over time. Rosh Hashanah is more important than a soccer game – even a big game. And by extension, I learned that Judaism is more important than sports. Sports is entertainment – it is fun, often family centric (not to be underestimated), and filled with passion, and maybe even a few life lessons. But Judaism is life – it is about our history and peoplehood, our culture and language, a system of values by which we raise our children. These are matters of the heart and soul, core pieces of our identity, sometimes literally our life and our death. As I always say, very few of our children and grandchildren will play sports after they are 20, but all of them will be Jewish the rest of their lives. Are we giving them enough ‘Jewish’ when they are young to sustain them as they get older?

A couple of months ago I gave a sermon on Shabbat morning where I talked about how successful we’ve become at making young sports fans. Think of the young people that you know – your children and grandchildren, and maybe great-grandchildren. My guess is that many of them – a very high percentage – are committed sports fans. Sports is a huge part of the lives of young people today – hours and hours – and dollars and dollars – are spent playing sports, watching sports, going to games, buying gear, and playing in fantasy leagues. And I suggested in that sermon that there is a formula that turns a young person into a young sports fan – you start them young, you share with them the knowledge they need to understand and appreciate the game, and most importantly of all, you let them know how passionate you are about the team. And by doing that, and being consistent about it, we turn out young sports fans with a very high rate of success.

And I wondered if we applied that same formula to our young people in a Jewish way, if we would more successfully make young Jews. Starting them young with a baby naming or a bris, and Jewish pre-school. Bringing them to synagogue as they grow up, for holidays and programs so the shul is a natural and familiar part of their lives. Then giving them the knowledge. A fundamental understanding of our sacred stories, of the flow of Jewish history, the ability to read Hebrew, familiarity with the service. But most importantly of all, to let our children and grandchildren know how important Judaism is to us, how passionate we feel about it and how much we care about it.

I guess the problem with that idea, and maybe it is a question we can wrestle with this High Holy Day season, is this: are WE as passionate about our faith as we would like our children and grandchildren to be? Are we living Jewish lives with the kind of commitment and belief – with the kind of passion – that can be an example for the generations of our families? When the children in our lives look to us, when they watch us, they know we love our sports teams – our Ravens and Orioles, or for a poor New Yorker like me my Mets and Knicks. But can they look at us and know that we love our Judaism even more?

The next two days in shul we’ll be reading from the Torah stories about Abraham, the very first human being chosen by God to live a Jewish life. In the entire Torah – all of those verses, all of those chapters, all of those words, there is only one verse that tells us why Abraham was chosen for that task – “I have singled him out אשר יצוה את בניו ואת ביתו אחריו so that he may teach his children and grandchildren the way of the Lord.” (Genesis 18:19) It is not a mistake that the rabbinic tradition calls Abraham אברהם אבינו – Abraham our Father. It is what we talk about when we recite the ‘vahavta’ paragraph, that so many of us know by heart, just after the Shema – ושננתם לבניך ודברת בם – you shall teach these words of the tradition to your children, and speak of them in all things that you do. In the Hebrew it is not ‘you’ second person plural, not you in a generic, communal sense. It is you, second person singular, you – the parent or grandparent of that child.

Because at the end of the day it is not a synagogue that makes a child Jewish. It is not something a rabbi can do. Or a cantor. Or a Hebrew school teacher. Of course we can help. We can give them some of the tools they’ll need. We can provide programs that will give them the chance to immerse in Jewish life, to learn about their heritage and history. But their sense of the importance of being Jewish has to come from you, their parents and grandparents. A child’s Jewish identity isn’t formed in a synagogue, it is formed in a home, in the context of a family. Your homes. Your families. So lets make our homes the kinds of places that foster Jewish life and identity, lets make our families families that live Judaism every day, and lets make our lives models for the kinds of Jewish lives we hope our children and grandchildren will one day live themselves. If we can do that, then one day – 10, or 15, or 20 years from now, our children and grandchildren will realize we’ve given them a great gift. And by the way – in doing it – in giving that gift – our own lives, homes, and families will be better, stronger, and holier in the New Year that is beginning. May it be a year of health, happiness, and hope for us all.

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Diminishing Distances – Rosh Hashanah sermon text from the New Year 5776 day 1

It’s is just human nature at the beginning of any new year to look back on the year gone by, and wonder if the year that’s beginning will be worse or better than what we’ve just lived through!  You all remember the old joke about the Jewish mother who sends the telegram with 5 words: ‘start worrying, details to follow.’ And as Jews we know that it isn’t a matter of if there will be something to worry about, it is simply a matter of what it will be, and of how much worry it will entail. Last year we sat in shul on Rosh Hashanah and worried about Israel and the Gaza War, about the unsettled Middle East, and about rising anti-semitism world wide. Thankfully those issues have settled down somewhat in the course of the year, but we still come to shul today concerned about Israel and her safety, which we probably will next year, and the year after that as well.  The good news is that Israel had a year of strength, security, and growth, with one of the strongest economies in the world, the most powerful military in the Middle East, and the support of the world wide Jewish community.  Lets hope and pray this year as every year that Israel will only go from strength to strength.

But as we sat last year on RH and worried about Israel, we did not foresee the turbulence and trouble that would strike at our own country, and even right here in our own city.  The death of Freddie Gray in the spring and the riots that followed struck home and thrust Baltimore into the national news spotlight, but we also have come to understand that this was not a unique event in a single city.  In Missouri and Michigan, in New York and Texas and Florida, in Connecticut and California, unarmed black men were killed by police officers, and the hashtag #blacklivesmatter became a nationally known phrase.  The deaths and the riots and protests and then the reaction, both politically and in the national media, reminded us all that there are deep and difficult racial divides in this country that have been swept under the rug for too long.  

And it is that sense of division – of separation and distance – that in my mind marks the year that is ending, and will I think in many ways define the year that is about to begin. There are a series of divisions in our society that are pulling us apart, driving us in different directions, making it more difficult for us to solve the problems that confront us and that concern us all.  The racial divide is the most obvious of them, but we can certainly add to that the economic divisions that mark this country, between the haves and the have nots, that rapidly growing gap between those of means and those without. Religious divisions are growing as well, between a fundamentalist approach to religious life and a moderate and rational sense of what religion’s role should be in our country. And we all live with the fiery and difficult divisions that mark our political discourse, the Red states and Blue states, people for or against gay marriage or abortion or gun control, tax policy or health care, and the list could go on and on.  

In Israel there are growing gaps between the Dati and Hiloni, between the religious and the secular, between left and right, Doves and Hawks, the Ashkenzic and Sephardic communities. In the Jewish community both here and in Israel, we have seen the strident divisiveness over the Iran deal, or the speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Congress. We’ve seen the all too public war of words waged between AIPAC and JStreet, or between Obama’s administration and Netanyahu’s government.

And if that weren’t enough to keep us occupied, I suspect many of us come here today worried about personal divisions that we struggle with in our own lives.  In the course of any year distance can grow between us and the people that we love, our spouses and our children, our parents and our siblings, our friends, and between us and God as well. We may arrive at the new year feeling these gaps are too great, the divides too bitter, the dynamics too complex, for anything to change in the year that is about to begin and for us to repair the relationships in our lives.

And yet when a new year comes our tradition tells us that we have an opportunity for teshuva, and I want to spend a few moments thinking with you about what that word really means.  When we hear the Hebrew the first English word that probably comes to our minds is ‘repentance,’ and that’s the most common English translation.  When we say ‘we need to do תשובה’ what we are thinking is that we have to repent, to show regret, to change our ways, to do better the next time.  But the root of the word שוב – – actually means something quite different – it means to return.  To go back to something – or someone – from whom you’ve grown distant.  So the word תשובה carries a context of closing gaps, of diminishing distances, of opening channels and of standing in someone else’s shoes.  It means saying to someone else ‘you might be right,’ and it means admitting ‘I might be wrong.’  It means understanding that another person’s life experience, or belief, or place in life might be so different from yours that they may see the world with different eyes, in a different way.  And when you do תשובה you return to them, you get a little bit closer to where they stand, to the world they live in, to the way that they feel.

Usually when we think of תשובה we understand it in an individual sense, as an individual process.  But did you ever notice that the language of the Mahzor is plural, that almost every prayer says we, even the lists of sins we’ll read on YK – we never say “I sinned’ – we say “we sinned.”  And maybe this year that is the way we need to think of teshuvah.  To understand it in a communal, as well as an individual sense.  To return not only to particular people in our lives, but to think about how communities might return to one another, how groups of people can grow closer and more united, more understanding and tolerant of one another, better able to see the perspective of the other, more trustful and civil, more respectful.  

There is a well known book about the Holocaust called the Boy in the Stripped Pajamas. It tells the story of two 8 year old boys, Bruno and Shmuel.  Bruno is the son of the Nazi commandant of a concentration camp, and Shmuel is a prisoner in the camp.  Through a series of circumstances the two boys meet and strike up a friendship, arranging to meet every day at an isolated spot along the camp’s fence, Bruno sitting on one side of the fence, free, Shmuel sitting on the inside, in a stripped prison uniform, yellow star upon his arm.

By all rights, the distance between those boys should have been impossible to traverse. One, the son of a German soldier running a concentration camp, the other the son of a poor Jew and a prisoner.  One exposed to the daily propaganda of the Third Reich, the perverse and twisted messages about Jews and Jewish life, the other bearing the brunt of that hateful message, watching the Germans destroy his family and his people.   And yet somehow the enormous distance between them began to diminish.  Through a process of teshuvah – of return, of turning to one another and coming closer – they were able to see the common humanity that they shared, the common cares and concerns that connected them.  And their return, one to the other, time and again in the story, created a sense of hope and life in a place of despair and death.

There are some today who would have us believe that what divides us is greater than what unites us, that the divisions between us and those who are different can never be repaired.  But in fact the opposite is true.  With the black community we share our common humanity and the struggle for civil rights in the 50s and 60s, and memories of what it means to be alienated and marginalized. With our fellow Jews we share history and memory, the values that have guided us and the faith that has sustained us, and the covenant that has united us with God now for more than 3000 years. And with our family and friends it is our shared years, the joys we have celebrated together, the sadnesses we have faced and supported one another through, and what we have created together – families and homes, children and grandchildren, laughter and love –

Tradition teaches us that today is the birthday of the world, when the first human beings, Adam and Eve, walked in the Garden of Eden. They are the common ancestors of all people. They weren’t Jewish or Christian or Muslim, they weren’t black or white or yellow, they weren’t rich or poor, but they were the ancestors of us all. And that idea – simple yet profound – that we all come from the same place – captures the meaning of the remarkable prayer from the amidah that we recite throughout these holy days:, veyeasu kulam aguda ahkat la’asot retzonkha b’lievav shalem – “You God will make us all a single ‘aguda’ to do your will with a full heart.” An “aguda” is a bundle of distinct and different objects. We need not all be the same to strive for a world united for humane ideals.  

And to help us imagine what that world might look like I would like to close this morning with a prayer composed by Pope Francis for all people, published just this past summer – his beautiful vision of what a God inspired world will look like when we determine to build it together:

All-powerful God,
you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
Help us to rescue
the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not destruction.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for צדק justice, for אהבה love and for שלום peace.

May we, in the new year, through our own actions, in our families, in our communities, make that world come a little bit closer, and make God’s light shine a bit brighter in our homes, in our cities, in our world

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Charlie Brown’s Football

this a sermon text from the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015

Let me first this morning wish each and every one of you a שנה טובה, a sweet and healthy New Year.  As I get older the years seem to go by more and more quickly, and believe it or not this is the 18th time that I have had the honor of conducting High Holy Day services here at Beth El.  I did a little bit of calculating, and I figured in those 18 years I’ve given some 65 or so sermons during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Some of theme were well received, others not so much, some were memorable, some forgettable.  A few of them brought a tear to your eye, while a few others simply closed your eyes.  I’ve told stories, I’ve cited texts, I’ve referred to movies and TV shows and books, superheroes, the Rolling Stones, Jerry Garcia, and yes, the Grateful Dead.  But as far as I can remember I have never on the HHDs talked about one of my favorite characters in all of literature, a character you also are familiar with, a creation of the comic strip artist Charles Schultz, his hard luck hero Charlie Brown.

You all remember Charlie Brown.  The yellow shirt with the one black zig zag stripe on it.  The single curled hair on the top of his head.  To follow Charlie Brown’s escapades was to immerse yourself in the life of a lovable loser, a good natured and loyal person, a trusting and kind soul who tried to do the right thing, but who never seemed to be able to find the success he was searching for.  His homework assignments were somehow always soaked and ruined by the time he got to school.  He was the pitcher of his baseball team, but they never won a game.  He waited for the Great Pumpkin, but fell asleep before it arrived.

Perhaps most memorably of all, every fall, just at this time of year, just at the beginning of football season, Charlie Brown would trudge out to the football field with his football, and his friend, or perhaps better in today’s parlance to say ‘frenemy’ Lucy.  She would set the ball on the ground, and Charlie Brown would run towards the ball, excited to kick it, symbolically beginning a new year, a new season, and for Charlie Brown a new beginning.  And every year, year in and year out, exactly the same thing happened – just as he reached the ball, just as he swung his leg, Lucy would yank the ball away, and he would whiff, fly into the air, and land on his back, and cry out in frustration, utterly humiliated. You could count on that failure of Charlie Brown’s like you could count on the sun coming up in the morning or the High Holy Days coming in the fall.  And it is precisely that – the inevitability of failure – that I would like to talk about this morning.

You may have seen about 6 weeks ago the comments made by James Harrison, a line backer who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  His sons had participated in a youth league football program, and at the end of the season they were given participation trophies.  These trophies have become popular over recent years – they are given to children on the teams that don’t win, as a way of rewarding the players for the fact that they played.  But Harrison was outraged, and he returned the participation trophies his boys had been given.  When asked why he did it he said ‘they didn’t earn them, because they didn’t win, and you shouldn’t get a trophy for losing, for failing.’

And when his comments became public they restarted a conversation that has been going on for a number of years now, at the heart of which is this question:  are we sheltering our children from failure?  Are we giving every child a trophy because we don’t want a child to think that he or she didn’t succeed?   Are we arguing with the teachers in our children’s schools to make sure that every child gets an A or a B?  Is a C or D never acceptable, even if it is deserved? Let alone an F?  Are we telling our children that everything they do is OK, and that if they don’t do well, it is not their fault, it is someone else’s fault – the teacher’s, or the coach’s, or maybe even ours?

And what James Harrison was arguing – perhaps not elegantly, but his point – was that it is as important to acknowledge failure as it is to acknowledge success.  That failure is something that happens to everyone, at one point or another, and if you don’t learn to deal with it, if you don’t figure out a way to live with it and grow from it, then in the long run, you’ll be less successful at life.  Failure is an important part – maybe even a crucial part – of being human.

And I know it is dangerous in this room to be citing the words of a Pittsburgh Steeler, but the truth is there is something to what he says.  Failure is something that happens to every one.  Stick with sports for a moment – in baseball, the very best batters – the very, very best – fail to hit the ball 70% of the time!  Johnny Unitas, commonly understood to be one of the, if not the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL, failed to complete 46% of the passes he threw.  Now shift to politics – if I asked you today who was the greatest president of all time, many of you would say Abraham Lincoln.  But did you ever read Lincoln’s political track record?   In 1832 he ran for the Illinois State Legislature and lost.  In 1838 he ran for speaker of the Illinois House, and he lost.  In 1843 he wanted to run for Congress, but his nomination was defeated.  In 1854 he ran for the US Senate  – and he lost.  In 1856 he hoped to be vice-president, but his nomination was defeated.  In 1858 he again lost a Senate race.  And then you know what happened in 1860?  Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States.  And my guess would be he was a much better president because of all the defeats he had suffered along the way.  His failures made him wiser and stronger, a better leader, a greater president, and a better human being.  To go back to Charlie Brown for a moment, Lincoln had to whiff at the football, he had to fly into the air and fall flat on his back to know that he could get up again.  But when he got up, he was stronger than he had been before.

It is not so different for our children and for ourselves.  Failure in life is inevitable.  And that is not something to hide from.  The High Holy Days certainly remind us of that.  There is no point in the year when we spend so much of our time focusing on our failures.  The words of the Mahzor confront us with lists of sins, with the image of God as a judge reviewing our lives, with constant reminders of our own fragility, mortality, and weakness.  But here is the strange thing.  In some way, for some reason, all of that honest self-reflection, all of that remembering of our own limitations and failures – all of that pounding on the chest and reciting of sins – leaves us feeling better.  We emerge from these sacred days feeling more optimistic, believing more deeply in God, trusting others more, feeling more hopeful about the year that is beginning.  And trusting – and respecting ourselves – even more than we did before.

In part this is because the holidays help us to recognize the humanity in our failures. If we’ve failed in the past year we are in good company because my guess would be that everyone in this room, at one point or another, has felt like Charlie Brown lying flat on his back in that muddy field.  In every year there is regret and remorse, there is failure and frustration, disappointment, and sometimes even despair.  But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur help us live with those regrets, reminding us that mistakes can be corrected, that missed opportunities can be reclaimed, that disappointments can be overcome, and that failures can be forgiven – even if that sometimes means we have to forgive ourselves.  And that when we are able to do that we emerge stronger from the experience, with a greater sense of gratitude for the blessings in our lives.

When I was a kid, I always thought Charlie Brown was going to kick that ball.  And I still believe that the day will come when he’ll charge down that field, swing his leg, and his foot will smack into that football, sending it into the air.  And it will fly a little bit further, and sail a little bit higher into the blue sky, because of all the times that he missed.  And when that day finally comes Charlie Brown will stand there, and I imagine he’ll smile as he watches that ball, ready to face a new year, whatever it will bring.

May we today do the same.  Growing stronger and wiser from our mistakes, more grateful for our blessings, and more whole from the work we will do in the days ahead.

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Filed under Bible, High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah, sermon