Monday, September 21, 2020

Look Out the Other Window - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781


Shana Tova!  I’d like to begin this High Holy Day season with a story as told by Rabbi Leora Kaye from the Union for Reform Judaism.  I urge you to sit back, take in a deep breath, and relax!

There[i] once was a young girl who lived in Baltimore City.  She loved our city.  She loved seeing her neighbors, watching the dogs as they walked by, hearing the car horns, and riding her bike to and fro down our streets.  Yet, each year, the girl looked forward to leaving Baltimore for her annual trip to visit her savta, her grandmother.

Now, the girl’s savta did not live any place like Baltimore.  Her grandmother lived far away, an hours long car drive, deep in the country.  The girl loved being with her savta because her home was so different from Baltimore.  The sounds were different, the sights were different, even the smells were different.  There were so many things to do, so many places to explore, and so many people to meet.

Most special of all, the thing that the girl most looked forward to, was an annual tradition, a train ride.  Each year, her grandmother would come up with an excuse for just the two of them to ride the train together.  The girl and her savta loved these train rides.

Year after year, they’d board the same train that always left the station promptly at 2:36pm.  They’d sit in the same seats: left side of the train, second row from the back.  They’d look out the same window and her savta would share stories about the places they passed.  She would reminisce about the farms, the buildings, the people, and the community.  Her savta would remind her of what had changed during her lifetime and what still stayed the same.  It was an annual pilgrimage, a time to hold each other tight, to remember the past, and to focus on the present.  It was truly the highlight of their visit together.

One year, as the girl arrived, her savta saw that the train schedule had changed.   Instead of the 2:36pm train that they always took, they’d need to board a different train which left an hour later.  “Savta, we always take the 2:36pm train!  How could we not take our train?!”  “Don’t worry bubbele, we’ll catch the other train train instead!” 

But, as they boarded the new train, they saw that an older couple was sitting in their seats!  The couple was moving quite slowly and had just gotten settled.  “Savta, that’s our seats!  We always sit on the left side, second row from the back!”  “Don’t worry bubbele, we’ll sit in these seats instead!” 

 But, as the train began to leave the station, they saw that directly next to them, on the parallel track, was a very, very long freight train.  As they looked out the window, all they could see was the cars of that train!

The girl became dismayed.  “Savta, how can you tell me all of our stories if the train is blocking our view?”  Even though the girl knew these stories by heart, she wanted to hear them from her grandmother and to look out at the farms and the trees and the people that she loved to see.

With a wisdom that only comes from being a grandmother, her savta gently touched her shoulder and turned her granddaughter’s face in the opposite direction.  “Don’t worry bubbele, there is another side of the train!  We haven’t even looked out this window, in this direction!  I have so many new stories to tell you!”  And so, grandmother and granddaughter turned their view, and saw a whole new world.

This evening, as we gather to welcome the New Year 5781, we know that our train is cancelled, our seats are taken, and a freight train blocks our view.  We can’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah as we did in the past.  We can’t gather in our meadow with our picnic dinners.  We can’t hear the moving music led by Shir Chadash.  Tomorrow morning, we won’t be able to fill our beautiful sanctuary, to kiss each other, hug each other, feel the majesty that only comes when hundreds of us gather in the same space together.

The stories, rituals, and traditions that have been a hallmark for generations of Jews and a staple of our Bolton Street Synagogue community are just not going to be the same this year. 

Like the girl, we too can’t take all of these disruptions!  We too are a bit dismayed, more than a tad saddened that this year’s Rosh Hashanah will be different.  Although we can’t experience things as we did in the past, we do have the stories and memories.  Rosh Hashanah is called Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Memory.  Today, we are urged to remember the past and remember what’s been taken from us.  We are permitted to mourn everything that we’ve lost, but we must not allow ourselves to become fixated on the past.

For our view is blocked.  It’s time for us, at this moment, to change perspective.  I’m not saying it’s easy.  I’m not saying it won’t be a little bittersweet, but there is power and strength when we shift our perspective. 

With that change of perspective, we can gain a new sense of creativity and learn about old traditions that haven’t been at the forefront of our own experience.

Tonight’s Erev Rosh Hashanah was not the same, but we would have never celebrated a Rosh Hashanah Seder prior to covid.  Over the holidays, we’ll have other new rituals, new voices sharing their stories, new approaches to transform the customs of the past and make them meaningful to our life experience during covid.  Tonight, we also recognize that because of the power of zoom, we can gather in community with friends and family from across the globe.

As we begin another new year, as we mark another notch in our Jewish calendar, may we not forget that many of the generations that came before us also faced struggle and challenge.  They did not remain unmoved.  Their change in perspective pushed them to transform our religion and our world.  We possess the rituals and the traditions of today because they needed to create them.  And so, we must do the same. 

We can and must mourn that our view is blocked.  We can and must focus on the memories of Rosh Hashanah past, but at this moment we must change perspective.  For our future depends on it.  We must plant new seeds that will uplift our Jewish community and allow it to flourish far into the future.  It’s time to create new memories, new rituals, new stories for the covid and post covid world.  It’s time to change perspective and recognize the blessings of our family, our community, and our world.  It’s not easy, but it’s time to look out the other window.

Joy, the Source of Our Strength - Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5781

On this Rosh Hashanah, I am sad.  I can’t help it.  Today, I am in mourning.  It has been an excruciatingly difficult couple of months.  I never imagined that we wouldn’t be together to welcome in another New Year.  And now, as Rosh Hashanah began, we hear of RBG’s death, it’s brought me to a state of despair.  How did we get here?  How do we get out of this nightmare?

I feel a little bit guilty sharing these thoughts with you.  However, I take solace that the New Year wasn’t always a day of celebration.  Take for example, a Rosh Hashanah, some 2,500 year ago. Ezra the Scribe convened the people by the water gate in Jerusalem.  On top of a large wooden platform, Ezra gathered the men, women, and entire community.  From dawn until midday, he taught words of Torah.  As the people listened to Ezra, they began to cry and mourn. 

For life was hard.  Our people had been exiled to Babylonia.  For generations, they were separated from their homeland and they pined to return to Israel, to return to normality.

Even after arriving home, life didn’t improve.  In Israel, our ancestors were harassed by locals.  The walls of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple were in disrepair.  Many of the returnees had adopted pagan customs and moved away from Jewish observance.

On that Rosh Hashanah, the people recognized how far they had drifted as a community and as a country.  They felt powerless to make a change.  And so, they did what they could: they cried and mourned the state of their world.


I know that many of you are in mourning too.  Covid has ravaged our country.  Almost 200,000 people dead from this virus.  Many loved ones have gotten sick; others terrified that they got covid or passed it on inadvertently.    Many of our children can’t go to school.  Our economy is shuttered, our synagogue closed, and there is no end in sight.

And it’s not just covid.  Our president and his enablers are making a mockery of our constitution and our democracy.  We worry about the ballot box and if every vote will count.  We hear about another police shooting of an unarmed black person and are reminded once again, of our country’s original sin, racism.  We too feel powerless to make a change.  We like our ancestors, mourn the state of our world.

At the water gate, Ezra had a choice. He could have overlooked the sadness or gotten angry at the people.  Instead, Ezra did not allow the people to mourn or wallow in their misery any longer.

“This day is holy to the Eternal your God.  Neither mourn nor weep… Go, eat and drink things that are sweet and delicious, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, since this day is holy to our Eternal One.  And do not be sad, for your joy in the Eternal is the source of your strength.”[i]

Ezra changed Rosh Hashanah to the holiday we know today.  The New Year became a joyous day of food and drink and celebration.  “Do not be sad, for your joy, is the source of your strength.”

At this moment, we too, more than ever, need joy!  And we have a lot to be joyous about.  There have been so many hidden miracles during this pandemic.  You’ve shared some of these blessings with me:

Like the blessing of slowing down and stopping literally to smell the roses.  The afternoon walks with friends, time outside on our decks or balconies, gardening, and a new appreciation for nature. 

It’s the meals we’ve consumed.  Those of us lucky enough to have family around can have lunches and dinners together each day.  And others of us have taken up baking: challah, sourdough, and new sweet treats.

It’s the miracle of zoom.  We all get zoom fatigue, but being together for services, family reunions, drinks with friends, and even shiva minyans, that’s a blessing.

It’s time together at Bolton Street Synagogue: services, boker tov, Torah study, religious school, and our gathering remotely in celebration.

And there is a new appreciation for the nurses, doctors, and medical professionals; the firefighters, police officers and postal carriers; the teachers and babysitters; the cleaning people and the barbers.  We possess much gratitude for the hard work of those who help keep our society afloat.

There is so much pain and sadness in our world.  We need joy more than ever.  These blessings and miracle shine a small amount of happiness on our darkened world.  Joy provides us with the strength to get up each day, to repair our own lives, and provide a flicker of optimism that tomorrow will be better than today. 

Ezra also believed in an optimistic vision.  That Rosh Hashanah, some 2,500 years ago, became a clarion call, a rededication[ii] for a stronger community.  Ezra recognized that mourning and deep attachment to the past provided a pathway to nowhere.

Ezra’s joyful call was centered around Torah; a vision that we would live and breathe Torah: learn and teach Torah; gather in community to study Torah; act and follow the ethical and religious commandments of Torah.

At that moment, Ezra’s vision seemed preposterous.  The people had veered so far off the path, that they didn’t even understand a word of Hebrew.  There was no connection to Judaism or Jewish belief.  Their country was in shambles, lawlessness, fighting with neighbors, and a lack of morality. 

Over the course of months, years, even decades, that vision centered around Torah slowly became a reality.  The kernels planted on that Rosh Hashanah grew into the Judaism that we know and love today.  Teachers taught Torah and students learned; joyous celebration; the pursuit of mitzvot and acts of loving kindness became the heart of Judaism.  

This was not an easy change or a quick one.  There was no superman or superwoman or super person who changed society on a dime.  It took diligence and patience, it took collective action, it took everyone in the community to bring this vision into reality.  It was the long haul that brought us the Judaism of today.

Our holiday of Rosh Hashanah is a little bit muddled.  The New Year is a day of contrasts: of sadness and celebration, of memory and sweetness, of repentance and creation.  Today, we take a few moments to mourn; to be sad at all that we’ve lost and to cry at the state of our world.

But we must not wallow in our misery for much longer.  Our mourning and sadness can only bring us so far.  It is joy that is the source of our strength.  We must get to work, to bring to fruition the optimistic vision, that tomorrow will be better than today.  For we envision a society where democracy prevails, racism is extinguished, climate change averted, where Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy is preserved.  A world where covid no longer impacts every moment of every day, where our Jewish community flourishes, and where all people, no matter who we are, are treated as the children of God. 

We must be in it for the long haul, for change does not come quickly or easily.  It takes patience and diligence and requires each of us to step up and build the world as it should be.  Believe me, we want change now; we want the quick win, the revolution.  But, sustaining a revolution takes hard work and energy and time.  I believe, no I am confident, that this vision will prevail, there is no doubt of it.  It just needs us to make it so.

[i] Nehemiah 8:9-10

[ii] See the Introduction to “The Koren Rosh Hashanah Machzor,” commentary by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, p. xx – xxii.  I’m also in gratitude to Rabbi Leon Morris for sharing his thoughts at a CCAR High Holy Day Call – July 2020

Friday, October 11, 2019

Yom Kippur Sermon: Restoring the Gate of Compassion

Long ago,[i] in the Old City of Jerusalem, there was once a small gate that faced towards the East.  This gate was called Sha’ar HaRachamim, the Gate of Compassion, and it was the main entrance to the Holy Temple.  Many centuries ago, the Gate of Compassion was buzzing with people.  Wedding Couples and Mourners would meet there and the entire community would congregate around them, to celebrate and comfort, to provide solace and compassion.

Sha’ar HaRachamim was so important, that tradition teaches that the Messiah, the Moshiach, the bringer of Redemption, would one day enter through this gate to herald the Messianic Age – a utopia filled with justice, peace, and compassion for us all.

That thought terrified Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.  The last thing he wanted was a Messianic entering the Old City!  And so, in the year 1541, the Ottoman Sultan filled the gate with stones, barricading the entrance. A fence was constructed, and a cemetery placed in front, preventing the Messiah from entering Jerusalem to bring about Redemption..  For hundreds of years, the Gate of Compassion has been sealed shut. 

That image resonates deeply with me.  There too many walls, fences, and even locked doors in our world today.  We need more gates, more bridges, more pathways to see and understand one another.  To bring about the Messianic Age – to build a world of love, acceptance, and peace, we must unlock the doors of suspicion, hatred, and animosity.  We must restore the Gate of Compassion.

For there is a severe lack of compassion in our world these days.  We see this problem globally, with the rise of refugees, authoritarianism, world conflicts, and of course Climate Change.  Just weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the streets for worldwide climate march.  It was Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swedish environmental activist who became a worldwide sensation when she addressed the UN Climate Action Summit in New York:[ii]   

“This is all wrong!  I shouldn’t be up here.,” she said.  “I should be back at school on the other side of the ocean.  Yet you come to us young people for hope.  How dare you!  You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words and yet I’m one of the lucky ones.  People are suffering, people are dying; entire ecosystems are collapsing.  We are at the beginning of mass extinction and all you can talk about is the money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.  How dare you!” 

Greta vividly described the major obstacle of solving Climate Change!  As a society, we have the resources, we comprehend the problem, and we know what to do, yet nothing ever changes.  Our politicians and leaders refuse to act, focusing their efforts on economic growth, rather than making the tough choices of curbing emissions.  There is a lack of compassion by our leaders, for the biggest impact of Climate Change will be on the most vulnerable.

Most of us in this room will be fine, even if the climate continues to change dramatically.  We have the resources to rebuild our lives.  It is those who are the poorest, who are most in harm’s way.  The floods, droughts, and severe climate weirdness will affect the most defenseless, as well as animals, and biodiversity.  Our lack of action points to a lack of compassion.

Earlier this morning, we read the famous words: “I have put before you, life and death, blessing and curse – choose life – if you and your offspring would live.”  Rabbi Eliezer Davidovits asks the obvious question: “Is there really a person who would choose death?  Wouldn’t everyone prefer life to death, blessing to curse?”  

As Rabbi Josh Zweibach teaches, there are in fact two ways to “choose life.”  One approach is to focus on ourselves first, considering our needs and desires, and only afterwards the wishes of others.  But there is another way to “choose life.”  Before we act, we can think about how our behaviors will affect others as well as future generations.  A real choice is offered to us: “Will we live in a way that supports life in the broadest sense, or will we live in a way that serves only ourselves?”[iii]

Although it may mean less economic growth and giving up on certain behaviors that we cherish, I believe the choice is obvious.  We must choose compassion over self.    We must recognize that our actions affect those around the world including those who will follow in our footsteps.  We must choose life for all. 

Yet, often, it seems difficult to choose which issue to put our full energy behind.  Each day, there seems to be more and more problems in our country: from immigration to racism; LGBTQ rights to anti-Semitism; Reproductive Rights to Gun Violence prevention, and on and on and on.  There are so many challenges in the world, it seems overwhelming to even try and fix one problem.  So, what do we do?

There is no right answer.  Every single issue seems to be a moral imperative.  Yet, if we wish to restore the Gate of Compassion, we must first begin by seeing every single person in this world as a human being, as a person created B’tzelem Elohim “in the image of God.”  Compassion means seeing each other not as an It, but as a person worthy of respect and dignity.

After the constant news of the inhumane treatment of refugees at the border, three of our own members, Elisabeth Liebow, Leslie Margolis, and Joyce Moskovits, decided that they needed to do something.  With help from HIAS, they traveled down to Tijuana, to volunteer with an organization, Al Otro Lado, which assists refugees in Mexico who are seeking asylum in the United States.

Why did they drop everything to head down to the border?  As Leslie Margolis shares:

“Because sending money to immigration organizations is good but is no longer enough.  Because attending vigils and protests is good, but no longer enough.  Because what is happening at the border is eerily reminiscent of 1930s Germany, and it is imperative that we bear witness.  Because this massive overwhelming crisis feels intensely personal, and I felt compelled to do something – anything – to make whatever difference I could.”

We’re living in a time where we must do more than we’ve ever done before – because this is personal – because our ancestors navigated these troubled waters – because “Never Again!” does not mean “Never Again for just the Jews!”  it means “Never Again for us all!”

The world’s problems are so severe.  And we are limited to fix them.  We can’t all travel to the border.  We can’t take in every homeless person.  We can’t feed every hungry person.  So, what can we do? 

We marshal our resources.  We join together as a congregation to fulfill the responsibility of Tikkun Olam because we know that we can make a bigger impact when we do this work together.  We partner with organizations who are leading the charge, like: BUILD, Jews United for Justice, HIAS, Strong Schools Maryland, and so many others.  We can’t do this alone.  By ourselves, change is slow.  Together, as one community, with those across this country, we can begin to restore compassion and dignity to our world. 

For there is much work to do.  Whether it’s around the world, at our nation’s border, or here in our own city of Baltimore.  We can and must make a difference.  Each and every day, we have the ability to restore the Gate of Compassion. 

Why did our ancestors call this gate: the Gate of Compassion?[iv]  Tradition teaches that were actually two small gates, side by side.  Everyone would enter the Temple through the right gate and exit through the left.   Unless, you were a mourner, or excommunicated from the community.  These individuals would enter the opposite way, through the left gate and exit through the right. People would ask them: “Why are you entering the opposite way?”  They would reply: “I am a mourner.  I feel isolated.”  And so the community would look them in the eye and share these words of blessing: “May the One who dwells in this House comfort you.  May the One who dwells in this House open your hearts and the hearts of those close to you.”

The Gate was a meeting place to provide each other with solace and comfort, blessing and compassion.  We too regularly meet strangers and neighbors in our City, who look to us for sustained kindness and compassion.

It’s the barista at the local coffee shop.  The custodian who cleans your building.  It’s the neighbor whose name you don’t remember.  The homeless person standing on the street corner.  It’s the squeegee boy who waits for the light to turn red. 

It’s easy to ignore them.  To roll up the window.  To walk on by.  But instead of thinking: “How can I get rid of the squeegee boy?  How about moving a little more towards compassion?”  Maybe it’s providing a dollar, or at the very least, it’s treating him with a little bit more respect, dignity and humanity.

As the poet Danny Siegel teaches:
If you always assume
the man sitting next to you is the Messiah
Waiting for some simple human kindness –
You will soon come to weigh your words
And watch your hands.
And if he so chooses
Not to reveal himself
In your time –
It will not matter.[v]

For the Messiah is waiting.  Waiting for us to restore the Gate of Compassion.

Long ago,[vi] Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asked Elijah the prophet. “When will the Messiah come?”  Elijah replied: “Go and ask him yourself!  He’s sitting at the entrance of the city.”  “How will I recognize him?”  “He sits among the poor who suffer from illness and helps them tie and untie their bandages.”  Rabbi Joshua went to meet the Messiah.  “Greetings to you, my rabbi, my teacher.”  “Greetings to you, Joshua ben Levi,” came the reply.  “Oh Messiah, when will you come?  We’ve been waiting so patiently for you!”  The Messiah answered: “Today!”  “Today!”  Rabbi Joshua was overwhelmed!  Yet, just a short time later, he returned to Elijah visibly upset.  “The Messiah lied to me.  The Messiah didn’t come!  Elijah replied, “That was no lie.  The Messiah said: “I will come today, if you only hear God’s voice” (Psalm 95:7). 

The Messiah has been here all along.  The Messiah walks among us, caring for the sick, looking out for the most vulnerable, welcoming the refugee, searching for peace.  Yet, the Messiah waits.  Waiting for us to act.  Waiting for us to bring kindness and compassion into our world!

Long ago, there was a Gate of Compassion.  A meeting place where Wedding Couples and Mourners gathered.  Where the community celebrated and provided each other with solace and comfort.  Centuries ago, the Gate of Compassion was filed with stones, the entrance barricaded.  A fence constructed, and a cemetery placed in front.  The Messiah is waiting there, unable to enter, waiting for us to restore the Gate of Compassion, for the Gate of Compassion is sealed shut.

In these dark times, when more and more fences, and walls, and locked doors are being constructed, it is our responsibility, our obligation, to do the opposite: to build bridges, to create new pathways, and to restore the Gate of Compassion.  We must chip away at the animosity, the suspicion, and the hatred.  We must tear down the fence and put others wellbeing before our own.  We must create a new path forward by reaching out to allies and neighbors and working together to change our society.  We must open the gates and restore compassion and humanity to our world.

For only, when we join together and open the Gate of Compassion, can the Messiah enter and bring about that Utopia that we yearn for, a world of justice, a world of peace, and most importantly, a world of compassion.

[i] In gratitude to Rabbi Karyn Kedar for sharing the story of Sha’ar HaRachamim (Gate of Compassion) with me
[iii] Rabbi Josh Zweibach, p. 265 Mishkan HaNefesh Yom Kippur
[iv] Mishnah, Middot 2:2 and Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 17. 
[v] Danny Siegel “And God Braided Eve’s Hair”
[vi] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhendrin 98a

Kol Nidre Sermon: Check the Box

Long ago,[i] in a land far away, there once lived a water carrier.  Each day, as the sun began to rise, the water carrier would leave home and travel down a long path to the riverbank.  Upon the water carrier’s broad shoulders, was a long pole, and on either side of the pole, were two buckets.  When the water carrier reached the river, the buckets were filled with cool refreshing water and placed back upon the pole.  The buckets and the pole were balanced on the water carrier’s shoulders for the long walk back home.

Now, there’s one thing you should know.  When the water carrier arrived back home, one bucket was full of water, while the other bucket was only half full.  This second bucket had a crack in it. Yet, the water carrier never changed the routine.  For days, weeks, years, the cracked bucket would arrive home half full.

As you might expect, the cracked bucket became ashamed and saddened by all of this.  “Excuse me” said the cracked bucket.  “I want to apologize and beg forgiveness.” 

“Why?” said the water carrier.  “What are you ashamed of?” 

“I haven’t done my full share!  You work so hard to bring water to town, yet because of my crack, you don’t arrive with the full amount of water.  Your job is harder because of me and my crack!”

The water carrier replied: “Tomorrow, when we begin our walk back home, I want you to look out at the right side of the path.”

The bucket agreed.  The next day, after the water carrier filled the buckets with water and began the slow climb back home, the cracked bucket looked out at the right side of the path, just as instructed.  And what was there was truly breathtaking: an incredible number of beautiful flowers.

The water carrier stopped in the middle of the walk home.  “Do you see all of these gorgeous flowers?  Did you notice that the flowers are only on your side of the path?  I have always known about your crack, and so I planted seeds there.  Every day as we walked back home, you watered these seeds, helping to bring forth those beautiful flowers.  It was your crack that allowed these flowers to flourish.  I need to thank you!  Thank you for being a cracked bucket!”

As the sun sets and Yom Kippur is upon us, we begin this annual day long feat of self-chastisement.  Over the next twenty-four hours, we will apologize, dozens of times, for our mistakes, transgressions, and sins.   We will beat ourselves up by pounding on our chests.  We will express remorse for all the times we missed the mark.  Let our Jewish guilt go into overdrive!

We are our harshest critics.  Most of us have unrealistically high standards for ourselves.  Either, we spend way too much time focusing on the cracks: the seeming flaws  or we attempt to emulate those that surround us, wishing away the cracks in order to become someone else.  It’s difficult when there are so many “perfect buckets” out there.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the famous Hasidic Master, once taught, that we often give up hope because we look around and see our contemporaries, and imagine them to be far worthier than they in fact are.[ii]  That was true during the 18th century when the rebbe lived and even more so in our day, especially with the advent of Social Media.  We see pictures of perfection online: perfect smiles, perfectly dressed children, delicious meals, the incredible backdrop of an exotic location.  Everything online looks to be magical, fun, and easy.

Yet, no one, and I mean no one shares the pictures of the messy house, the lonely nights, the microwave dinners, or the latest arguments.  Very few of us share the battles with addiction, depression, sickness, abuse, or fear.  The worries, the challenges, the difficulties, are hidden away from public view.

We only see pictures of perfection.  The Social Justice pioneer, who can march at every rally, volunteer each night, work a full-time job, and be the perfect parent at home.  Reality is, as we know, quite different.  You might be the Social Justice Warrior, helping to change the world, but are barely keeping up at home.  You might be the perfect parent but are searching for sustenance that can only be found outside of family life.  It’s impossible to do everything.  No one is the “perfect bucket,” even if they appear so on Facebook.

On Yom Kippur, we must recognize the good we accomplished.  Too often, we focus on our failures and inadequacies, instead of our strengths.  Too often, we imagine that we are that much worse than everyone else.  Each of us, possesses great blessings alongside our cracks; it’s these blessings that often go unnoticed.  The cracked bucket couldn’t recognize its goodness without the help of a kind friend.  Alongside our water carriers, we too must shine a light on our entire being, the bad and the good.  On this Kol Nidre Night, we ask: Am I being my true self?

There’s the story of Rabbi Zusya, the Hasdidic teacher, who knew that he was about to die.  As his students gathered around his bed, the rabbi broke down into tears.  “Reb Zusya,” asked his students, “What’s wrong?”

“I had a dream,” he said, “where I learned of the question that would be asked of me when I die.”

The students were puzzled, “Reb Zusya, you are pious, a scholar, and so humble.  You have helped so many of us.  What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be scared to answer?”

The rabbi replied, “I learned that I will NOT be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Moses leading your people out of slavery?’  For I am not Moses.  And I won’t be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Esther standing up to evil, to save your community.’  For I am not Esther.  And I won’t be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Abraham and Sarah willing to make a difficult journey?’  For I am not Abraham or Sarah.”

“No, the question that will be asked of me, the question that terrifies me is: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”[iii]

Reb Zusya was a great rabbi.  Caring, kind, a good teacher.  He was beloved by his students and his community, yet something was missing.  Reb Zusya hid a part of himself from those that surrounded him.  He tried to be the perfect rabbi.  It was only on his death bed that he realized who he needed to be: himself.  It was in these final moments of life that he was able to share with his students who he truly was, his perceived imperfections and cracks.  Reb Zusya’s final lesson, is one of the only stories that we know about him today; it was his greatest teaching: Be yourself!  Recognize the good and the bad, the warts and the blessings.  But, most importantly. Be yourself!

As hard as it is to recognize our blessings, it’s even harder to accept our imperfections.  As Rabbi Ellen Lewis teaches: “Not perfect, but fully human: this is what God asks of us.  And, in response, this may be the best we can do: forgive ourselves for our yearnings and failings for being human [and] not God; [to] accept the imperfections, satisfactions, of being a person.”[iv]

On Yom Kippur, we aren’t ask to be perfect.  We aren’t ask to be God.  We are asked only to be human: to accept our entire selves, including the cracks, the challenges, and the perceived imperfections.  To be human, is to recognize our entire being, it’s to be us!

One person who recognized his humanity is Jason Kander.  You might have heard of Jason, who almost unseated Senator Roy Blunt in the 2016 election.  Jason is a rising political star, who served two terms in the Missouri state legislature and as Secretary of State all before the age of 36.  He is an Afghanistan Veteran; a progressive in a very conservative state. When President Obama was asked who he saw as the future of the Democratic Party, the first name out of his mouth was Jason Kander.  By all objective measure, things were going great for Jason.  His first book was a New York Times Bestseller, his non-profit “Let America Vote” was incredibly effective, and he was in the homestretch of a mayoral run for his hometown of Kansas City. 

To everyone outside his intimate circle, Jason’s life looked perfect.[v]  Yet, the truth was different.  It had been eleven years since he left Afghanistan as an Army Intelligence Officer and things just weren’t right.  He had uncharacteristic anger, paralyzing nightmares, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, and severe depression.  Jason went online to fill out the VA forms, but left the boxes unchecked – to scared to acknowledge his true symptoms.  Afraid of the stigma and what it could mean for his political career.

As Jason shares, “Instead of celebrating [these many] accomplishment[s], I found myself on the phone with the Veterans Crisis Line, tearfully conceding that, yes, I have had suicidal thoughts.  And it wasn’t the first time.  I’m done hiding this from myself and from the world.”[vi]

Jason’s campaign manager asked him: “Are you sure this is how you want to be remembered?”

Many politicians have grappled with the wounds of war, but Jason was one of the first to do so publicly, to share his PTSD and his depression openly.   By sharing his struggle with us all, by checking the box, Jason helped change the conversation around trauma and healing.  His story opened the door for veterans and many others get the help they need.  As Jason shares: “It’s not like it’s cured or ever goes away.  But you learn how to treat it and you make sure it’s no longer disruptive in your life.”

Jason Kander had a crack in his bucket.  He tried to run away.  He tried to pretend the crack wasn’t there, but it was.  He was terrified to share his PTSD because of the implied implications on his career.  Yet, Jason decided to check the box.  It took him years to do so, years of struggle and challenge to get the help he needed.  Yet, Jason recognized the crack for what it was, a piece of him.

Jason reminds us that some cracks travel with us our entire lifetime.  Some cracks can’t be fixed.  Some cracks continue to torment us years later.  But, we can acknowledge these cracks and get the help we need.  We can gain strength from each other.  We can feel a sense of healing.

During these High Holy Days, we pursue Cheshbon HaNefesh.  We take stock in ourselves and pursue a self-assessment of our souls.  We look closely at our blessings and our cracks.  We do our best, to be open and honest with ourselves, to pursue the support we need, and to live each day as only one person: as ourselves.

The cracked bucket was blind to its entire being.  Reb Zusya waited until his dying day to share his entire self.  It was Jason Kander, who, after years of challenge and struggle, was finally able to check the box. 

What boxes do you need to check?  What help and support do you need?  Are you being your true self?  Are you being YOU?

Today, on Yom Kippur we vow to live openly, honestly, and unabashedly as ourselves.  Today, on Yom Kippur we vow to live life to the fullest.   Today, on Yom Kippur we vow to check the box.  Shana Tova! 

[i] The Cracked Pot, based upon the telling of Rabbi Francine Green Roston in Three Times Chai: 54 Rabbis Tell Their Favorite Stories” ed. Laney Katz Becker 
[ii] Yom Kippur Readings ed. Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, p. 252
[iii] Based upon the telling found in Tales of Hasidim by Martin Buber
[iv] Mishakn HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, xxvii

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon: Double Down on Judaism

Welcome home!  I love the High Holy Days because it feels like a big family reunion.  I am heartened when I look out into the pews and see all of your beautiful smiling faces.  It is my favorite moment of the year!  Normally, I’d joke that the last time we had this many people in the building was last High Holy Days, but sadly, that is not the case this year.    It was just days after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue that hundreds of us gathered on Solidarity Shabbat to mourn the loss of eleven precious souls. 

Our community was in a cloud, our world upended; there was real fear for our fellow Jews and our own congregation.  Pittsburgh was the first mass shooting at a synagogue in our nation’s history.  And sadly, it was not the last.  Since then, our Jewish community has endured a second shooting at the Poway Chabad Center.  The ADL[i] recorded a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic attacks over the last couple of years.  In 2018, there were 1,879 attacks in our country, a staggering 99% higher than 2015.

For 16 years, I have been privileged to preach on the High Holy Days.   Not once in 16 years have I spoken about anti-Semitism.  This Rosh Hashanah will be the first time.  What does this say about our country?  What does this say about the state of Judaism today?

For some of us, anti-Semitism is an old wound that continues to threaten our lives and our families.  Many in this room remember a time when we were prohibited from attending specific colleges or couldn’t buy a home in certain neighborhoods, including Roland Park, solely because we were Jewish.  For others of us, the rise of anti-Semitism seems to have come out of nowhere.  In either case, there is a new reality that has bubbled up to the surface. 

I am not here to fear monger.  I’m not here to scare you.  Yet, it is time to speak frankly and openly about our changing country; to ask the difficult questions and search our hearts for answers.

One of the major changes has been the rise of White Nationalism.  White Nationalism uses anti-Semitism as the fuel to power its anti-Black racism. Eric Ward, one of the foremost thinkers on anti-Semitism today lays this out in a recent article: “Skin in the Game: How Anti-Semitism Animates White Nationalism.”  As Ward shares: The successes of the Civil Rights Movement created a terrible problem for White Supremacist Ideology.  Jim Crow had been the de facto law of the land, yet a Black led Social Movement toppled the political order.   As Ward writes, the White Supremacists were thinking: “How could a race of political inferiors have unseated this power structure through organizing alone? … Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes.  This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C…. What is this archnemesis of the White race…?  It is, of course the Jews?” [ii]

White Nationalism differs from White Supremacy because it wants to create a Whites Only Nation with anti-Semitism at its core.  If we care about combatting racism, the mistreatment of immigrants, islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, if we care about a just world for all, then we must end the fuel of White Nationalism, and work tirelessly to end anti-Semitism. 

For anti-Semitism occurs most prevalently in a binary world and plays out best when White Nationalists feel empowered and when democratic systems such as the judiciary and free press are weakened and unable to fight back.  When the President of the United States says that “There were good people on both sides” after the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, we speak up.  When our Jewish loyalty is questioned, we speak up.  When anti-Semitic tropes are heard on the right, the left, or the center, we speak up.  Just as we fight to protect our neighbors and the democratic institutions that are the bedrock of our country, so too must we fight to protect ourselves

So, what should we do?  What should be our personal and also our communal response to anti-Semitism?  Bari Weiss Op-Ed Staff Editor and Writer at the New York Times believes that the Jewish people have had two responses throughout our history, I’d like to call them: “Accommodation” and “Separation.”

With Accommodation, if we only show that we are perfect Greeks, Spaniards, or Germans than that country will love us.  If we wish to become more and more American and shed our Jewish identity, than why even be here?  Let’s close up shop and go home.

Separation is the opposite, it believes that lasting security for the Jews comes when we turn inward.  From the Maccabees to the Bar Kochba Revolt to Ultra-Orthodoxy, we can only be saved if we rely on our Jewish leaders and our Jewish movements.  Separation often believes that building ever greater walls and circling the wagons will protect us and our own.

There is a third approach, as Bari Weiss writes, "In these trying times, our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming.  A Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul - and in the souls of everyone who throws in his or her lot with ours." [iii]

When our loyalty is questioned, when we fear the rising tide of anti-Semitism, when we are scared about our future, we double down on Judaism.  We double down on our Jewish community; we double down on our Jewish values; we double down on our Jewish commitments, to each other and to the world around us.

How do we double down on Judaism?  We Live Proudly as Jews
Judaism is lived outwardly, through dress, action, and expression.  But, throughout our history, from the Greeks to the Conversos to the modern day, many have been scared to live openly as a Jew.

Our exemplar is Esther, the Persian Queen, and hero of the Purim Story.  Esther hid her Jewish identity from King Ahasuerus and from the entire nation.  At the opportune moment, when things were dire for the Jewish people, Esther “came out of the closet as a Jew,” saved her people, and lived her Judaism proudly. 

Like Esther, we often feel scared.  Is it safe to go to synagogue?  Should we tell the stranger that we are Jewish?  Do we speak up when we hear an anti-Semitic joke?  Esther reminds us that there is no better way to combat anti-Semitism than by sharing why Judaism matters to us.  When we express our Judaism outside our homes and synagogues, we can change hearts and minds, including our own.

Yet, for students on college campuses and for those of us who are more liberal in our thinking, it can often be a little more challenging.  With the rise of intersectionality, Jews and Israel are often seen as colonizers.  When we are working on issues such as racism, LGBTQ rights, or Immigration, must we choose between Social Justice and Israel?  Can’t we do both?

It’s not easy, but we must share our entire selves, including our Jewish selves.  We look to our tradition and the prophets of old for comfort and guidance.  We reach out to our allies and our neighbors to listen, to learn, and to teach.  We speak up when we see anti-Semitism or any acts of hatred.  For is it not better to work together when we can, than to not be part of the conversation at all?

How do we double down on Judaism? 
We Celebrate Our Jewish Tradition

We aren’t the first generation to discover the challenges of anti-Semitism.  The prior generations created rituals to provide us with strength during tough times.  Playing dreidel at Hanukkah (served as a ploy to study Torah); eating Matzah during Passover (reminds us of our suffering and the suffering of others); affixing a mezuzah on our door (proclaims that this is a Jewish home).

And then there’s the story told by the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn.  Many years before becoming a rabbi, young Hugo lived through the Holocaust and was a child of Auschwitz.  One year during his time in the Camps, Hanukkah arrived.  His father created a small menorah and used their margarine rations as the oil to light the wicks.  Young Hugo protested to his father that this was a foolish act.  Every ounce of food was needed in order for them to survive.  How could they waste this precious resource in order to light the Menorah for Hanukkah?
Rabbi Gryn never forgot the words his father shared with him that day.  “My child, we know that you can live three days without water.  You can live three weeks without food.  But you cannot live three minutes without hope.”[iv]  Our Jewish tradition is filled with rituals, holiday celebrations, prayers, and foods.  Each ritual provides us with the strength and more importantly the hope we need to carry on day after day. 

How do we double down on Judaism? 
We Live Our Jewish Values
For our Judaism is based upon the values of treating each other with respect, compassion, and dignity.  In the Babylonian Talmud, we are taught that if a non-Jew is interested in becoming a member of our community, we are required to ask them these difficult questions: “Why do you want to become a Jew?  Do you not know that Jewish people at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by affliction?”  If the reply is: “I know and yet I am unworthy,” than we open our doors and we teach some minor and major commandments.  The Talmud then asks: What commandments should we teach?  The mitzvah of gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, the corner, and the poor persons’ tithe.”[v]

When someone wishes to become a Jew-by-choice, what do we do?  We welcome with open arms and first teach the ethical commandments of providing food for the poor, as well as the mitzvot centered on justice and compassion.

Take that a step further… when we are the ones feeling oppression and fear, we double down on our Jewish values, the values of treating all in our world with dignity and respect.  As individuals and as a congregation, our Jewish values provide us with the strength to go out into the world and repair the shards of brokenness.

How do we double down on Judaism?  We Join Together.
It can be lonely to be a Jew.  Especially when many of us don’t live in the Jewish neighborhood or when some of us don’t have Jewish family nearby.  Our rabbis teach us that we need 10 people for a minyan, 10 people in order to pray.  Why?  Because to be a Jew means to be part of community.

I felt this most prevalently during the hours prior to Solidarity Shabbat, just days after the Tree of Life Shooting.  I had a pit in my stomach and one question on my mind: “Do we open up the wall at the back of the sanctuary?”  I was fixated on the wall.  It seems silly now, but I was terrified that no one would show up, that they’d be too scared or wouldn’t care to be with us that evening.

Forty-five minutes prior to the service our parking lot was already full and dozens of people were flooding into the synagogue.  I realized that I didn’t recognize many of the faces.  These were neighbors, our Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and Secular neighbors.  With tears in my eyes, I nodded to Johnny, our Custodian, and the wall was open, the chairs placed.  We ran out of prayer books that evening; it was standing room only, more people than at the High Holy Days

Our then President, Melissa Zieve, looked at me and said, “I feel safer with our doors open.”
We doubled down on Judaism that night.  We doubled down on being proudly and unapologetically Jewish.  We doubled down on celebrating, singing, praying, and eating the most delicious veggie potluck ever to feed 300.  We doubled down on our Jewish values by opening our doors to our neighbors.  We doubled down by joining together, hundreds of us gathered in our sanctuary and social hall.

We were safer that night because we doubled down on Judaism.  We will fight anti-Semitism and will make our community stronger and our world safer when we double down on Judaism.

[iv] Adapted from a retelling by Rabbi David Wolpe, “This is the True Lesson of Hanukkah” – Time Magazine, December 6, 2015
[v] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47a (my own translation/interpretation)