Tag Archives: Kol Nidre

Mirror Images


    When our children were growing up we had an imaginary friend who lived in the house with us, whose name was AILAT – spelled A I L A T.  Ailat used to turn up in all kinds of places and situations, but mostly appeared when something had gone wrong.  If, for example, a glass of water spilled during dinner, it was often Ailat’s fault.  One time when someone had taken a pair of scissors and given a teddy bear a haircut, when we went to talk to Talia about it she told us that actually Ailat had done it.  And after a while it seemed that pretty much every time something went wrong, every time the children did something they knew they were not supposed to do, it was actually Ailat’s fault, and not theirs.  Ailat, you see, had essentially become the scapegoat in the Schwartz household.  

     The scapegoat is of course a central symbol of the most sacred day of our year, Yom Kippur.  Tomorrow morning we’ll read about the ritual the High Priest enacted on Yom Kippur day in ancient times at the Temple in Jerusalem.  One of the crucial moments of that ritual was the designation of a scapegoat, and once that goat was identified, the sins of the people were transferred onto it, and it was sent away into the wilderness.  Once the goat was banished, it was as if the sins of the Israelites were instantaneously taken away, never to return.

     That was essentially the function that our imaginary friend Ailat was playing in our home.  The children took whatever sin they had committed, whatever wrong they had done, and they conveniently placed it on Ailat’s shoulders.  And once you did that, like the scapegoat, Ailat was gone.  After all, you couldn’t find her to punish her, because she didn’t really exist in the first place.  

     The truth is, we don’t even need an imaginary friend to blame our faults and failings on.  If you are a parent you are certainly familiar with the following scenario.  You are driving somewhere, a long trip, and your children are in the backseat.  Things begin to get a bit unruly back there, and when you turn around to calm things down, the response is inevitably, ‘he did it first’ or ‘she started it!’  So forget about the imaginary friend – we are just as happy to blame our mistakes and wrongdoings on another person, who does exist!  Even if that person is our sibling!  Maybe especially if that person is our sibling!

     The thing about it is it doesn’t stop with that back seat bickering we are all so familiar with.  The blame game gets more complicated and sophisticated as we get older, but it continues, and we never stop looking for scapegoats.  It might be the student in high school who blames her English teacher because of the bad grade she got on her paper.  Maybe it is the worker who feels he is being held back by his boss, and if only he had a different supervisor, he would be VP by now.  And I’ve had more than one conversation with parents of students in our Hebrew school who have blamed our teachers and our bar/bat mitzvah program for the fact that their child didn’t do as much as they hoped the morning of their special day.  The blame game is played all the time in the business world.  When the VW diesel admissions scandal first broke the higher ups initially blamed it on the engineers who changed the software.  Or what about politics?  Politicians play the blame game as well as anyone, maybe better, blaming the media, or each other, or embracing bizarre conspiracy theories as a way of explaining why something went wrong. 

     What folks often don’t consider is that, as Cassius so wisely said to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julies Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”  The fault is in ourselves.  You see it might be the high school student didn’t put the time in that she needed to do well on her paper.  Maybe the worker who thinks his boss is holding him back forgets that he shows up 10 minutes late every day, or the bat mitzvah girl’s parents don’t realize they never asked their daughter to practice at home.  Wouldn’t it be refreshing one day to see a politician step up to a podium and say ‘this is on me?’  But it is so much easier to blame someone, or something, else, than it is to look in the mirror and see the fault in ourselves.  

     Of course this is a natural human tendency.  No one likes to get caught doing something they know they are not supposed to be doing, and no one likes to be confronted with their mistakes, their faults, and their frailties.  The Torah makes this clear with the story of the very first humans, Adam and Eve.  You’ll remember for sure that they committed a sin – what was it?  They ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, a tree from which God had specifically told them not to eat.  

     But what you may not remember is the conversation between God, Adam, and Eve after the critical mistake had been made.  It goes something like this:  God asks Adam, “Did you eat of the fruit of the tree?”  Adam responds:  “Eve made me do it!  She gave me the fruit, and I ate it!”  God then turns to Eve, and says “What have you done?”  Eve quickly responds, “It is not my fault, the snake tricked me!”  The Torah seems to be telling us that our tendency to blame others for our problems and mistakes is as old as humanity itself.

     Now of course sometimes there are other factors that cause us to fail, despite our best efforts.  Both nature and nurture do play a role in who we are and what we can achieve.  A rough path early in life can create huge obstacles that a young person might struggle to overcome.  Our genetic makeup can work against us, confronting us with physical and emotional challenges that others don’t face.  And there are people out there who can hold us back, teachers who genuinely don’t like us, or a boss who is jealous of our talent and sets us up to fail. 

     But I worry that we’ve become too comfortable, even too eager, to find someone or something else to blame for our own troubles.  Judaism insists that we have free will, and that we can use that gift wisely or poorly.  When we use it wisely, when we choose well, we’ll tend to do better, to be better, and to be blessed more often and more deeply in our lives.  It is true, we don’t control everything!  But some things we certainly do control.  Most importantly of all, how we react to the difficult circumstances that life tends to put in our way.  In an age when we commonly flee from responsibility, Yom Kippur comes along and reminds us that we should actually embrace it.

     I think that is why the tradition asks us to recite the Al Cheit list so many times in the next 24 hours.  In a traditional service, that list of sins is recited twice tonight, twice tomorrow morning during Shaharit, twice more during musaf, and just to top it all off two more times during the minhah service.  Eight times!!  Why all the repetition?  Have we really sinned that much in the year that has just ended?  

     I think that almost constant repetition of the Al Cheit list is intended to remind us of two things.  The first is that we often have a hard time admitting we were wrong.  And the second thing is, if we do admit we’ve made a mistake, we tend to blame it on someone else.  Just like Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake.  And so we say, again and again, Al Cheit she’chatanu – On the sin that we sinned.  That reminds us, you see, that we have done things that are wrong.  It also reminds we might have chosen to do otherwise, so the blame, as Cassius said to Brutus, is in ourselves.   

     Let me just for one moment return to my children’s imaginary friend.  Anyone happen to remember her name?  Ailat.  Spelled?  AILAT.  I am sure you all know the trick of holding letters up to a mirror.  What happens?  The letters appear in the mirror in reverse order.  So if you were to take Ailat, write it on a piece of paper, and hold it up to the mirror, you would have T A L I A – which spells?  Talia.  The name of our oldest child.  She was quite surprised when she one day realized her imaginary friend was a reflection of herself.

     Yom Kippur reminds us of how important it is to look honestly into that mirror.  To see who we truly are, what mistakes we have made, and to let go of our scapegoats.  We don’t do this to feel shame or sadness.  We do it instead to embrace both responsibility and possibility.  Responsibility for what we have done, and the possibility that we can make amends and do better in a new year. 

    That is the message of this sacred day.  May we take it to heart tonight, and enter this new year with confidence and faith.  

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Darkness and Light

Here is a text version of my sermon from day one of Rosh Hashanah, 5780:

     It was on Rosh Hashanah, 75 years ago today, 1944, that a small group of Jews, prisoners at Auschwitz, were sent on a work detail to a remote area in the woods on the edge of the camp.  The details of that day are lost in the mists of time, but somehow they had arranged, whether by trickery or bribery, to conduct a short Rosh Hashanah service.  By memory they chanted the Shema and other passages from the Mahzor.  At one point a prisoner produced a small object wrapped in dirty rags.  It was a shofar that had somehow made its way into the camp, and had been successfully hidden from the guards.  A member of the group called out the ancient calls – tekia, shevarim, teruah –  and there, 75 years ago, on the edges of Auschwitz, the shofar was sounded.

     The story of that shofar has resurfaced in recent days.  Within a year of that Rosh Hashanah the war had ended and the camps had been liberated.  One of the prisoners, Chaskel Tydor, secretly kept the shofar and took it with him when he was freed.  It was preserved by his family, even used over the years on the holidays.  A week ago that shofar was installed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, as part of an exhibit entitled “Auschwitz, Not Long Ago, Not Far Away.”  Today that shofar is being taken to a number of different synagogues in New York City where it will be sounded again, as Jews gather, 75 years after the events of the Holocaust, to welcome in a new year, in the Jewish calendar 5780.

     In terms of time’s passage it is astonishing to me that this is the 26th time I am conducting High Holy Day services, 22 years here at Beth El, and four years when I was a rabbinical student.  Many of those holidays were wonderful, but the most memorable of them all was the first, and I’ve been thinking about it even more lately because of the story of the shofar.  Becky and I were living in LA at the time, and I was hired by an old world European Cantor to fill the rabbi role at the Yom Tov services he ran.  My job was to give the sermons, call the pages, to make a few remarks about the Torah readings, and to read Torah.

     I did not know it when he hired me, but most of the people who came to that service were either survivors of the Holocaust, or family members of survivors.  As I got to know the old Cantor better I learned that he himself had been a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I don’t think he was part of that group that sounded the shofar at Auschwitz 75 years ago, at least he never told me about it.  But he did tell me that on Yom Kippur eve that year –  again, 1944 – he had, from memory, chanted the Kol Nidre prayer in the concentration camp barracks.  A watchman was set at the door, and the Jews gathered around the young Cantor at one end of the long wooden room. 

     When the Cantor told me that story it moved me deeply, but I confess I didn’t understand it.  I wondered how could those Jews, in that place, with its horrors, surrounded by evil and the Malech HaMavet, the Angel of Death, how could those Jews have had the spiritual strength and courage to acknowledge Yom Kippur, let alone to come together in prayer.  That Kol Nidre was 75 years ago.  The Cantor told me that story 26 years ago.  And now, 26 years later, I think I am beginning to understand.

     Many of you know that a large Beth El group of close to 60 people traveled to Eastern Europe this past summer.  In the span of 10 days we visited Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and finally Berlin.   The trip was powerful, moving, and emotional.  Each day we wrestled with difficult and often painful moments from the history of our people.  We were faced with questions that were often unanswerable.  And day after day we traveled to places that had once been thriving centers of Jewish life, and were now entirely bereft of Jews.  

     Just one example.  Before the war Warsaw had the second largest Jewish community in the world, second only to New York City – 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, close to 30% of the city’s population.  Today there are fewer than 2,000 Jews there.  And that is a story told in one way or another in every major eastern European city.   Town by town, community by community, city by city, the Jews of Eastern Europe were swallowed up by Nazi Germany.  And our group struggled with that pervasive sense of loss.  We said kaddish near a barbed wire fence in Birkenau.  We walked through a crematorium in Auschwitz, our heads low and our eyes cast to the ground.  We stood at the platform of track 17 just outside of Berlin, where the Germans had deported Jews, sending them from their homes to the camps, never to return.  And we walked through the sumptuous halls and gardens of the villa where the Wannsee conference was held and the details of the so called Final Solution were meticulously discussed and recorded.  These are experiences that can not be summed up in a sermon, experiences that I think we will all be pondering for a long time.

     But it was not all darkness, and there were moments of light and life.  In Krakow we had dinner at the vibrant JCC, the center of Jewish life in that area.  Johnathan Ornstein, the charismatic director, spoke with us about his mission of revitalizing Jewish life in Poland.  He told us the story of a young woman who went to see her dying grandmother.  She entered the grandmother’s bedroom, and her grandmother told her to close the door and come to the bedside.  She then took out a small box from a bedside table and handed it to the young woman, not saying a word.  The young woman opened the box and inside it was a Star of David on a silver necklace.  For the first time in her life she realized her grandmother was Jewish, her mother was Jewish, and so was she.  The next day she showed up at that JCC to begin to explore what it will mean to her to live a Jewish life.  When we left the building that evening the courtyard was filled with young people dancing and singing, drinking and eating, many of them also having discovered that they have Jewish roots and Jewish family members, and we couldn’t help but feel the energy and the sense of hope that Jewish life could continue to grow there.   

     But it was at Birkenau, standing by that barbed wire fence and praying with our group, that I began to understand the story the Cantor told me 26 years ago about chanting KN in those barracks.  After we said the kaddish we chanted the Shema, as if to say despite what we’ve seen we still have faith, despite what happened here Judaism survives and thrives, despite the sadness we might feel we still hope.  That is what Jews have learned to do over the long years, even in the darkest times.  Even standing by a barbed wire fence at Birkenau there is hope, even 75 years ago in a dark barracks in Auschwitz there was hope, even in a forest at the edge of the camps, the shofar can be sounded and hope can grow in the human heart. Hope beats so powerfully in the Jewish heart, and עם ישראל חי – and the Jewish people continue to live! 

     One last vignette.  Our farewell dinner took place at an elegant restaurant in Berlin.  Towards the end Dr. Bor played a few songs on his clarinet, with the Cantor singing along.  Suddenly he played the opening notes of Hatikvah, and we all stood up, singing together Israel’s national anthem, a song entitled the Hope that is a symbol of Jewish freedom and the Jewish future.  The lyrics of the song were written by an Eastern European Jew named Naftali Herz Imber in the late 1880s.  It was a striking moment, and a striking way to conclude our trip – a group of Jews from Baltimore, singing the lyrics composed by a Jew who lived his life in the lands through which we had just traveled, lyrics that became the national anthem of the homeland of the Jewish people, and singing those words together, publicly, in the heart of Berlin.  

     This is a translation of the words you know so well in the Hebrew – As long as within our hearts the Jewish soul sings, as long as towards the east, towards Zion, looks the eye – our hope is not yet lost.  It is 2000 years old – to be a free people, in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

     That hope existed 75 years ago at Aushwitz, on that Rosh Hashanah day when the shofar was sounded and on that Kol Nidre eve when a group of Jews huddled together to hear the ancient words of our tradition.  That hope exists today in the JCC in Krakow.  It exists in Israel, where Jewish life is thriving.  It exists here in the United States, wherever Jews gather, it exists here at Beth El, as we welcome in this new year in community and fellowship, with gratitude for the blessings in our lives, hearing once again the clarion call of the shofar.  

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The following will appear as the Torah column in this week’s Jewish Times:

     There is a favorite photograph of mine, dated from 1980, in black and white, that depicts Rabbi Mark Loeb z’’l standing on the bima of Beth El, dressed in his High Holy Day robes.  He holds a long and elegant shofar to his lips, its twists resting in his extended hand.  He is surrounded by a large group of children, probably four or five years old.  The young faces are turned upward towards the Rabbi expectantly, and I’ve always imagined that he is just about to sound the tekiah, the ancient clarion call of Jewish ritual and lore.

     There are certain symbols and sounds in Jewish life that speak straight to the heart.  The sight of the ark opening, revealing the Torah resting in austere dignity.  The sound of the opening notes of Kol Nidre.  The melody of the Mah Nishtana.  And, without question, the sound of the shofar. These are touchstone Jewish experiences, sights and sounds that we feel in our souls as much as see or hear.  They connect us to our ancient history and  also to shared family moments.  They remind us of parents and grandparents, of family seders and new years begun with promise and hope.  

     In our tradition, with its thousands of years of accumulated wisdom, the shofar is one of the oldest of all rituals.  As the Israelites wandered in the wilderness they used the shofar’s tekiah as a mustering call, but also as a source of inspiration, an untapped well of strength and hope during difficult times.  It is sounded during the most dramatic moments of Jewish history.  The Torah teaches that when Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to commune with God the people could hear the sound of the shofar growing louder and louder.  And in 1967, when Israeli paratroopers fought their way to the Western Wall and regained control of the Old City of Jerusalem, one of the first things they did after touching their hands to the stones was to sound the shofar.

     And of course we sense in the shofar the story of the first Jew, Avraham Avinu, Abraham our ancestor, as told in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera.  In a desperate moment of his life, as he struggles with understanding how to fulfill God’s will, it is the ram, with its symbolic horns caught in a thicket, that becomes the sacrifice instead of Abraham’s son Isaac.  The shofar still calls to us today, reminding us of Abraham’s struggle and our own, lived through the lens of Jewish history and within the structure of Jewish life.IMG_0059

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Of Baseball Gloves and Tallitot

A text version of my sermon from Kol Nidre eve –

     Those of you who have been coming to High Holy Day services at Beth El for many years know that a wide variety of topics have been addressed from the pulpit during the holiday season.  From climate change to 9/11, from Israel to the American Jewish community, our rabbis have used the holidays to do their best to let you know what they think about the issues of the day.  

     But if there is one topic that has been talked about more than any other over the years, it just might be baseball.  I hesitate to bring baseball up tonight, after the season the Orioles have had.  But, as baseball fans will tell you, the game of baseball is a metaphor for life, with its ups and downs, its twists and turns, and its winning and losing.  It is filled with sermonic lessons – sacrifice, contributing to a team, being part of something greater than you are, how one deals with defeat and disappointment.  Many of you may still remember the wonderful sermon Rabbi Loeb gave the fall that Cal Ripken retired from the Orioles about Baltimore’s Iron Man.  You’ve heard from the pulpit sermons about Mo’ne Davis, the first young woman to ever win a game in the Little League World Series, and also about the famous base running mistake of Fred Merkel.  

     And tonight I would also like to talk with you for a few minutes about baseball, not a particular player or event in baseball history, but rather about a baseball glove.  You all know what a baseball glove is?  The large and padded leather glove worn by players when they are fielding.  Protects the hand against that hard ball.  Just out of curiosity, how many of you have owned a baseball glove at one point or another?  And how many of you know now where that glove is?  Well I would like to tell you tonight the story of a baseball glove that was lost for many years, and was only recently – and entirely unexpectedly – found.

     The story begins almost exactly 40 years ago in Willoughby OH, on a fall evening in September of 1978, when the Little League baseball season all star game was being played.  The very best players from the Little League teams in the area had been selected, and it was a close game that evening.  The difference maker was a young man named Christopher Lisi, who hit two home runs.  When the game ended and his team had won, Christopher was mobbed by his teammates and then carried off the field.

     The next morning, still in a celebratory mood, Christopher woke up early, and he realized his baseball glove was not in its normal spot in his room.  He looked for it and couldn’t find it anywhere, and just as the sun was coming up he got on his bike and raced back to the field where the game had been played.  There was no baseball glove in sight.  Despite his euphoria about the big win he felt the sting of disappointment for losing an object which had been an important part of his life for many years.

     Now you have to shift into the present day.  Forty years have gone by since that night.  Christopher is now a math teacher and a coach, a husband and a father, and still lives in Ohio.  His parents – Julie Anne and Mike – retired many years ago, and now make their home in Jupiter Florida.  The Florida-Lisis have a ritual they enact every Wednesday.  They go to a local good will store, schmei around for a while, and then go to an evening service at their church.  Been doing it for years.

     Ten days ago they were in that goodwill store, looking through the various and sundry items on the shelves when Julie Anne’s eyes rested on an old baseball glove, dull brown and scuffed, a classic Wilson mitt.  For whatever reason she picked up the glove, and then she saw it – written on the side in permanent marker, her son’s name – Christopher Lisi.  Her jaw nearly dropped to the floor, and she took a picture of the glove and immediately texted it to her son.  Christopher called back on the spot and said ‘buy it!’  She and her husband took it up to the counter and paid $1.49 for the old glove.  They both had tears in their eyes.  How it traveled the 1000 miles from Willoughby to Jupiter, and what happened to it during that forty years, they’ll never know.  But the baseball glove is back with their son, and Christopher, now in his mid 50s, once again considers it to be one of his most prized possessions.  Even for Orioles fans, that is a feel good baseball story.

     I would also like to tell you tonight about another prized object, also first owned by a teenager 40 years ago – actually 41 years if we are being accurate.  It is the tallit that I wore to my bar mitzvah.  I never lost my bar mitzvah tallis and later found it in a good will store, but it did travel many miles with me.  From Binghamton to Boston, to LA, to Jerusalem, to New York, to Baltimore, wherever I’ve lived I’ve taken that old tallit.  It is worn and frayed now, with holes developing along some of the creases that have been folded over and over again.  That tallis was used more than anybody could have expected at my bar mitzvah, because when I became a daily davener – in my mid 20s, now thirty years ago, that was the tallit that I put on each morning. 

     A few weeks ago I published a blog post in which I wrote that as well as my bar mitzvah tallis has served me, I have finally decided to ‘retire’ it.  I have other beautiful tallitot, and with the fraying getting worse and the holes getting bigger, it was just time.  I used it one last time and carefully set it on a shelf in our closet, and it has been resting quietly there ever since.  I don’t know exactly why, but something about that blog post and the story of my old tallit struck a chord.  Many of you emailed me about it, or called or said something to me at kiddish.  And I’ve been thinking about why people responded to a story about my old bar mitzvah tallis.  And since I heard about Christopher Lisi’s baseball glove, I’ve been wondering why I responded to that – and maybe you did too.

     And I think the answer has something to do with sacred objects, and the role they play in our lives.  I know many of you have sacred objects at home.  It might be a tallit, that was owned and worn by a grandfather or great-grandfather.  It might be a kiddish cup that has been passed down through the generations of your family, or a bris suit that babies have worn, or a special kippah, or a wedding ring that belonged to someone you love, that maybe you now wear on a chain around your neck.  Or it might be a baseball glove.  Whatever it is, that sacred object is precious to you in a way few other things are.

     Those sacred objects in our lives bear witness to two things.  On the one hand, they remind us of what once was.  Family seders when our grandparents were still there.  A bedroom we slept in as a child.  A neighborhood where we lived, filled with friends and colorful characters.  What we felt like when we stood under our huppah, or when we were 13 years old reading from the Torah at our bar mitzvah, or in the case of Christopher Lisi and his ball glove, how he felt the night he hit two home runs and his team won that all-star game.  Those objects remind us of hopes and dreams we once had, of relationships we cherished, of the memorable moments of our lives, and probably in many cases of a simpler time when everything seemed right in the world.

     But the other thing a sacred object bears witness to is how much time has gone by, how much has changed in our lives.  I decided to wear my old bar mitzvah tallit one last time, and what better time than Kol Nidre eve, the only evening of the entire year when we are asked to put on a tallis.  Wearing it tonight reminds me of how much has happened in the 41 years since I first put it on.  High school and college.  Had my first real job.  Becky and I were married.  I became a father – three times!  I lost two of my closest friends.  Went through rabbinical school and was ordained as a rabbi.  Our kids have grown and gone off to college and beyond.  And this old tallit has seen all of it.

     The holidays are like that too.  Not sacred objects, but there is no question they form sacred time.  Kol Nidre eve, like that baseball mitt, or my old tallit, is also a witness.  A witness to the hopes and dreams we recall tonight, to time gone by, and to the inevitable ways in which each of us has been transformed by the years.  But unlike a tallit or baseball mitt, this sacred moment transcends us as individuals in the here and now.  It accompanied our parents, and our grandparents too, in their darkest and most difficult moments, in all of their achievements and joys, during their journeys on earth.  And also all Jews, in every age, in every land, where we built our homes, our communities and synagogues, the thriving culture of which we are so proud.

     So this evening, in the brief time we spend together, let the words we speak and the melodies we hear link our lives to all the generations before us, and to the eternal rhythms of our people’s experience.  May the beauty and wisdom of our heritage accompany each of us on our journey in this new year, always a source of strength, comfort, hope and faith for us and those we love.

May it be a year of peace, meaning, and hope – 

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Problems of Prayer

This text of my Kol Nidre sermon from 9/29/17 –

One week ago tomorrow, on Shabbat afternoon, I took our dog for a long walk around the neighborhood with our niece Lily.  Lily is the daughter of my brother and sister in law and just starting second grade, and as we walked we talked about various things – school, a strange bug we saw, the dog, cracks in the sidewalk – I guess pretty typical conversation with a seven year old.  That morning she had come to Shabbat services, so I figured I would ask her what she thought about shul.  ‘How did you like services?’ I asked.  ‘It was pretty boring,’ she said. ‘What was boring about it?’ I asked.  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you just sit around and say all those prayers.’

And I don’t know if Lily’s comments reflect your experience of shul, but I can tell you they brought back memories of my own childhood, and sitting in services next to my father, particularly on the High Holy Days.  I had a general sense of what page the service ended on, and I would keep my finger in that place of the prayer book, counting the number of pages we had left to go.  It was always exciting when the rabbi skipped a bunch of pages – for example, we’d go from page 60 to page 70!  That was great!  We were that much closer to the aleinu!

But if the prayers were challenging for me, what I did enjoy about shul were the various scriptural readings of the holidays.  I liked hearing about Abraham and Sarah, I enjoyed the dramatic narrative of the High Priest and the YK day ritual that we read tomorrow morning.  And I particularly liked the story of the prophet Jonah, that we will read at Minha tomorrow afternoon.

I am sure you all remember the story of Jonah.  He is asked by God to deliver a message to the city of Nineveh and its residents, to tell them they have sinned but that if they repent they will be spared.  As a child I didn’t know much about sin and repentance and all of that business, but I did love the part of the story where Jonah is swallowed up by a ? big fish!  In my mind I tried to imagine how Jonah could have survived for three days and nights in the fish’s belly.  I thought about how big the fish must have been to swallow a man whole.  I wondered at how dark it was, Jonah all by himself, deep under the water, with no light and no source of comfort or hope.

And my favorite part of the story came at that moment – that low and dark moment in Jonah’s life – when the text tells us he prayed to God from the belly of the fish.  קראתי מצרה לי אל ה׳ ויענני – In my trouble I called out to God, and God answered me.  מבטן שאול שועתי שמעת קולי – from the darkest place I called, and You heard my voice.  I don’t know how my niece Lily would feel about that prayer, but for me it has always had a distinctive power, and it has grown even more compelling as I’ve aged, and certainly as I’ve worked in the rabbinate over the last two decades.

There is a simple reason for that – in my eyes, Jonah’s prayer reflects the human experience, that at the difficult and dark moments of our lives, the moments of doubt and pain, the moments of loss, the moments of fear, the moments when we feel hopeless – at those moments we turn to God, we call out for help, and we seek God’s presence.  But over the last few years I’ve become worried that we do that less and less today.  I am concerned that our faith in prayer is waning, and that it has become more and more difficult for us to find in the experience of prayer meaning and value.

Many years ago Alvin Book, a long time member of Beth El, came to see me.  When he walked into my office, in his hands, he held this little abridged Bible.  These were standard issue, given to the Jewish soldiers in the Army during the Second World War.  Alvin told me that he had landed on the Normandy beaches, on June 7, 1944, the day after D Day.  The beaches were still not secure, and the troops were being heavily shelled.  He ran to the closest fox hole he could find, a shallow ditch in the sand.  And he huddled there, and he was terrified, paralyzed with no idea of what to do or how to move forward.  As the shells were exploding he was saying ‘God please help me.’  And he told me he reached to his heart, because it was beating so heavily, and his hand hit the pocket of his uniform, and in that pocket was this Bible.  And for some reason, just really looking for something to help him, he took this Bible out of his pocket, and with shaking hands opened it.  And this is the passage he opened it to –

Out of the depths I call to You, O Lord.  Listen to my cry, let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy…

I look to the Lord, I look to God, I await God’s word.  I wait for God like watchmen wait for the dawn…  (Psalm 130)

Alvin told me the moment he read that passage he felt a sense of calm, he felt that God was there with him, he felt he was going to be OK.

Notice that nothing external changed in his situation.  The shells didn’t stop falling.  He was still lying in a fox hole.  He was still in grave mortal danger.  None of that changed.  God did not make a miracle, create a protective shield, or move him out of harm’s way.  His circumstances were exactly the same as before he reached for that Bible.  But there was a transformation that occurred at that moment.  An internal transformation.  Something changed inside of Alvin, something that helped him feel a sense of courage and hope and strength that he didn’t have before.

And you know what?  Rabbis also struggle with prayer.  And Alvin’s story has helped me to understand prayer, how prayer works, and how it can be meaningful in my life, and maybe it can do the same for you.  I think my niece Lily was on to something last Shabbat afternoon – prayer can be enormously difficult for us.  As Lily said, it can be boring at times, after all we sit here for hours on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reciting prayer after prayer, and if you are one of those who mark the end of the service with your finger in the Mahzor, you know we still have a long ways to go.  (In fact tonight, 40 more pages to be exact!)  And there are additional challenges – Hebrew not the least of them!  How many of us can read Hebrew well, let alone understand what we are reading?  And even if we go to the English side of the page we struggle with the meaning of many of the prayers, some of them close to 2000 years old, and it can be difficult to understand how they can connect to us and our lives.

But I think the biggest challenge to prayer today is that we have lost faith in its power.  We don’t believe that prayer can be a transformational experience, that it can make a difference in how we live, or who we are.  One of the primary reasons for that is that we’ve come to think of prayer as a process of asking God for something.  And once we ask, our request is either granted or not.  In the simplest of terms, we ask God for a new bike.  If we get the bike, we believe our prayer has been answered.  If we don’t, we feel that either God said ‘no,’ or that God never heard our prayer in the first place.  And if that is the way we think of prayer then we very well may sit here for hours on RH and YK and wonder whether it is even worthwhile opening our Mahzorim.

But what if we think about prayer differently?  What if prayer is supposed to be what happened to Alvin Book on that beach 73 years ago?  That the power of prayer is NOT about making external changes in the world.  God does not miraculously produce the bike!  Instead the power of prayer is about making internal changes, in our own hearts and minds.  And then maybe, when we are transformed internally, we will go out into the world and make it a better place because of our presence in it.

Ten years ago tomorrow, on Yom Kippur afternoon, 2007, the Jewish year 5768, Rabbi Mark Loeb of blessed memory gave his last High Holy Day sermon to our congregation.  Many of you will remember that in those days we recited Yizkor in the afternoon, and Rabbi Loeb spoke just before that Yizkor service.  The Berman Rubin sanctuary was packed, fuller than I have ever seen it, before or since – my guess would be close to 2000 people were in the room.  Rabbi Loeb was in a reflective mood that Yom Kippur, sensing the power of that moment in his life magnified by the most powerful day of the Jewish year, and he delivered his remarks with a characteristic brilliance, but with an uncharacteristic depth of emotion.

At the very end of that sermon he told the following story in the name of Rabbi Israel Salantar:  “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.  I went out, and worked, and tried, but I found it was very difficult to change the world.  Then I thought I might change my nation, but I found I couldn’t change my nation.  When I realized that, I thought to change my community, but even that was too difficult for me.  Now that I am an older man, I’ve realized the only thing I can change is myself.  And if I can do that, then one day maybe I will be able to change the world.”

Had you asked Rabbi Loeb if he thought that the prayers we recite during these holy days are heard by God, I think he would have said “I don’t really know.”  Were you to ask me the same question, I would say the same thing.  I don’t honestly know if my prayers today will somehow reach God’s presence, in some distant heavenly throne room, or even in any way, shape, or form.  But I do believe with all of my heart and soul that the prayers of my mouth and the meditations of my heart can make a real difference in how I understand my role in this world, in how I live my life, and in how I relate to the people that I love.  And I also know that if those things happen through my prayers during these holy days, then my prayers will have truly been answered.  So may all our prayers on this Yom Kippur arrive at their proper destination, transforming our lives for the good, enabling us all to enter this new year with faith, courage, and hope.IMG_4981

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Your Choice

This a text version of my Kol Nidre sermon from 5777 –

Our cool fall weather is reminding me very much of the HHDs of my youth in upstate New York, and going to services at the small Reform synagogue where my family belonged.  Kol Nidre night was a special night for me.  My mother would stay home with my little sister and brother, and my dad and I would walk to shul, just a few short blocks from where we lived.  When the service was over we would walk home together along the quiet streets, able to see our breath in the crisp air and truly feel the beginning of a new year.

Just this past Shabbat I marked the 39th anniversary of my bar mitzvah, celebrated at that Temple which was the focal point of my family’s Jewish life.  A small synagogue bar mitzvah is very different than it is at Beth El.  I studied one on one with my rabbi to prepare, meeting with him weekly in his office.  My synagogue had an unusual tradition in terms of how the Torah was read.  We did not learn to chant the text, we just read the Hebrew word by word.  But we were required as we read to translate into English.  From the Torah itself!  This meant that I understood every word that I read from the Torah 39 years ago at my bar mitzvah, and still to this day many of those phrases stand out in my mind.

The most memorable of them all comes from the end of the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy.  It is a well known verse, and you may recognize it.  I’ll read it the way I did 39 years ago at my bar mitzvah:  העידותי בכם היום – I call to witness against  you this day –   את השמים ואת הארץ – the Heavens and the Earth – החיים והמות – life and death – …- ובחרת בחיים – and you shall choose life!  I can assure you that 39 years ago when I read those words from the Torah I had no idea I would one day be a rabbi, but those are the words – particularly that last phrase – ובחרת בחיים – choose life!  that I would like to talk about with you this sacred Kol Nidre eve.

Certainly the idea of choosing is something we encounter every single day as we are constantly surrounded and confronted by choices.  Have you been down the aisles at Wegmans? They’re just endless. Paper or plastic for your groceries? But bring your own if you’re an environmentalist. Been to Starbucks lately? There are at least 20 different ways to order a cup of coffee. Walk into a liquor store and it seems you can find a single malt from every town and village in Scotland. If you want to order new sneakers on Nike’s website, there’s an almost infinite  – and I mean that literally – infinite number of combinations from which you can choose.  And if you’ve tried surfing to watch something on TV, you’ve had the experience of navigating hundreds and hundreds of available channels.

But while we may find all those material choices either liberating or frustrating, they are nothing like the Torah’s call to choose life. Why would the Torah need to tell us that in the first place?  It seems obvious – almost everyone is going to choose life!  And what exactly does that mean, to choose life, how do we do that?  I think there’s a vital message or two in the Torah’s words not normally on our minds, but worthy of consideration this KN eve.

Think, for a moment of the ancient Greeks, contemporaries of that Deuteronomy text.  Their idea was that every facet of our lives is predetermined, that the gods or blind fate controlled the destiny of each person, and that regardless of how hard you try, regardless of the choices you make, there’s nothing you can do about it.  Remember the story of Oedipus – he did everything in his power to prevent himself from killing his father, but in the end it happened anyway, because it had been decreed by fate.  This idea of the inevitability of life’s direction can also be seen in  Freud’s belief that our inner drives and urges control us.  In modern times the same argument continues, with geneticists who claim that our destiny is determined exclusively by our genes, that every decision we make and action we take is predetermined by our DNA, by our genetic code.

But Judaism says no.  In fact, precisely the opposite is true.  We have freewill.  We can choose our course of action, and when we do, we can control our own destiny.  That’s precisely the point of the Book of Jonah that we’ll read tomorrow afternoon. And I think that’s why the Sages chose it as the very last scriptural text we encounter, as the sun sets on yet another HHD season we’ve been granted.  The people of Nineveh are examples of the power of human freewill to change an apparently predetermined destiny.  When the book begins the Ninevites are doomed.  God has decreed that the entire city will be destroyed, in fact, Jonah’s mission is to tell them that they are about to die – עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת – in forty days time Nineveh will be destroyed! That they as individuals and the society and culture they’ve created are doomed.

But the people of Nineveh choose a different path. They fast. They turn aside from their sins. They cry out to God, weep in the streets, d0 everything in their power to repent.  And the choices they make, change the decree.  Some of you remember the Santana hit song from 1969 – “You’ve got to change your evil ways!”  That’s what the Ninevites did  – and they chose well, because it worked, and they and the animals in their care were spared.

It’s exactly that challenge – and that opportunity – that the tradition puts before us each year on the HHDs.  It reminds us that we can choose, that we do have power, and that the choices we make can have a real impact on our lives, on the lives of those we love, and on the world beyond.  Just as we can undo inappropriate vows on YK eve, we can correct unworthy actions each day of our lives.  And that’s one of the ways I understand the phrase from my bar mitzvah portion – choose life means that we can determine the kind of life we want to live, that we have a measure of control over who we are and what we do, and if we are not yet who we want to be, we can choose to be better.

But when the Torah says “choose life,” there’s an inherent question bound up in those words – what kind of life shall we choose?  If we have that power, if our choices do make a difference, what kind of life should we prefer, what choices should we make?  And what I would like to suggest this evening is that our options are not just about choosing a good life, doing the right thing, being a good person, kind and caring.  It’s more than that.  It’s choosing a particular kind of life.  It’s choosing a Jewish life.

I know that it’s not so simple to choose a Jewish life today.  We live in a  secular world, with all its demands, opportunities, temptations, challenges and yes, its attractive choices.  And often – more and more often, in fact – our secular lives come into conflict with our Jewish lives, presenting us with difficult challenges.  When Hebrew school conflicts with soccer practice, where should a parent choose to bring a child?  It is a choice.  When a yom tov day and a work day conflict, will it be work, or celebrating the holiday with family?  Should we engage in Jewish life, by choosing Jewish books to read, studying Jewish texts, celebrating Jewish holidays, contributing to Jewish charities, living by Jewish values?  Shall we make the  synagogue our spiritual home?

ובחרת בחיים – “and you shall choose life” means that also is our choice, and it is up to us to acknowledge the struggle in which we are engaged and to know when the choice for faith and tradition, for culture and values is the one we should be making. And we should not allow the onslaught of secularism to unravel the spiritual and cultural texture of our Jewish lives.  And maybe the beginning of a new year, maybe on a Yom Kippur, maybe on a cold Kol Nidre night, we can decide that in the year to come we’ll choose Jewishly more often.

Kol Nidre is a night of annulling vows and promises, but I want to make one promise tonight I think I can keep.  In all the choices that are ahead of us in the year to come, each time we choose Jewishly our lives will be enriched, our connection to our history and tradition will be strengthened, and we will grow in spirit and in soul.

May we do that together – as family, as friends, as a sacred community, in a sweet new year –

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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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