Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shacharit l'Yom Kippur 5776

Message for Yom Kippur Morning
Social Justice and Ritual

High Holy Days is a time to think about where we have been in our lives. Throughout the year a reading, a conversation, a lecture, or even an opera or a concert suggests to me a new interpretation or approach to a Jewish text or idea. This past summer, I spent some rewarding time studying with colleagues in Jerusalem. The topic for this year’s seminar was tzedek umishpat, which means “righteousness and justice.” These two words usually appear together in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.

In one of the classes, a new insight into this morning’s haftarah reading came to me. Finally, I can share it with you. First of all, let me remind you that the haftarah reading that we just heard is recognized and hailed by many as the paradigm of social justice. The words tzedek umishpat appear in Is. 58:2 where we read “as if they were a nation that does what is right, tzedakkah, and that has not abandoned God’s law mishpat.”

Until this past summer, when I studied this text with Prof. Michah Goodman, I thought that the meaning of this passage was clear: Social justice is the essence of prophetic Judaism, and prophetic Judaism is the essence of Judaism, therefore, ritual is not central to Judaism. I would guess that many of you would agree with me.

Are we supposed to believe that the Talmud prescribed the read these verses on Yom Kippur believing that Judaism was about social justice? Let me remind you that the Talmud dedicates the majority of their time discussing Halachah, Jewish law. Jewish observance is central, so social justice is not a substitute for keeping kosher and Shabbat or fasting on Yom Kippur. So, why did they include this text our liturgy for Yom Kippur?

The answer I discovered this summer helps me understand better what Isaiah is saying, and why we read this text on Yom Kippur. In order to understand Isaiah and what he means, we first need to look at another prophet, Jeremiah.

According to the Hebrew Bible, God asked Jeremiah to stand in by the gate of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and proclaim the following:

“Hear the word of Adonai, all you […] who enter these gates to worship Adonai! Thus said Adonai of Hosts, the God of Israel: if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice (mishpat) between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow […] [Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place.] […].” (Jer. 7:1 ff)

I agree with Jeremiah. The Temple in Jerusalem lacks meaning to me, I mean, what is left of it, the kotel, the Western Wall. I must confess that I have very little personal appreciation for the Western Wall. For me, the kotel is not a spiritual place. It does not help that the kotel is not a welcoming place for women, LGBT people, and other “strangers” either. But even if it were, it is just a building, just stones; granted, old stones, but nothing else.

The error of the Jews in times of Jeremiah and Isaiah was to think that God would not destroy Jerusalem. Why would God destroy his own house? Their mistake was to keep the Temple hostage, so that God would protect them. Jeremiah thinks this is a false theology –I agree.

In 1968, a year after Israel regained access to the kotel, the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, ever fond of controversies, said in an interview:

“The rites at this Western Wall are revolting. This lighting of candles, the notes... It is a farce that they go up there and blow shofars.”

As you can imagine, he was hardly criticized for doubting the “holiness” of the kotel, but I find myself agreeing with him now. Leibowitz was part of the prophetic tradition that started with Isaiah and Jeremiah: We should not put our trust in a building, but in God. Unfortunately, like in times of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the kotel is an illusion, and those who wish to turn Israel into a religiously fanatic place at the expense of justice and righteous are a great danger to us all. Tzedek umishpat, justice and righteousness must be central to what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state, because those are the values God requires from us. It is simple: There will be no peace without Justice for everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike. The kotel will not save us.

Jeremiah calls the services at the Temple in Jerusalem divre sheker, illusions, literally “lies.” So, what’s the alternative? True Judaism is to be found in the pursuing of social justice. In other words: Pursuing social justice would work as well as attending shul. But wait, what did just happen? Did I just say that you should pursue social justice instead of coming to services? That can’t be right …

It is a misunderstanding to suggest that the ancient prophets proposed substituting the cult, the rituals of the ancient Temple, and by extension, all rituals, with acts of social justice. I take issue with that too.

Neither the prophets of Israel nor I, as your rabbi, want you to hear the haftarah reading and walk away from our service thinking, “Well, as long as I work for social justice, then I don’t need Judaism, or this congregation.” I know that many of you grew up with the idea that the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism represents the essence of Judaism. While it has great value, and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the new director is a friend, I cannot agree with that. I believe that the rituals we perform, the prayers we say, the melodies we sing are essential to being Jewish, Reform or not. Synagogues are not just another non-profit agency.

Now we can answer the question: Why is this chapter from Isaiah read on Yom Kippur? Because it provides a counter balance to the many prayers and rituals we observe during the High Holy Days. On the holiest day of the year, we must hear that being holy, kadosh, is something we must also do outside this sanctuary. We need to embrace the holiness of this day, and carry holiness into the world with us as we leave this sanctuary.

I try to learn from everyone, so last week, I was listening to an interview with Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor at House of All Sinner and Saints, in Denver, Colorado. She was being interviewed by NPR’s Terry Gross. Terry asked about her church’s involvement with social justice. Rev. Bolz-Weber explained that although it is true that her congregants are highly involved in the care of the poor, the homeless and victims of abuse. Indeed, she noted, many of them have been victims themselves. The fact of the matter is that their congregants live social justice daily, and come to church to take part in the holiness of coming together to partake the rituals of the Eucharist and other sacraments. This is exactly the other pole of what Isaiah is saying. All social justice and no ritual is also not what God “desires.” Social justice is not a substitute for feeling forgiven, for feeling loved, or cared for by God. It is never a matter of “either or,” that is the mistake that Isaiah is highlighting.

Our traditional includes both: A heritage of social justice AND a rich and complex ritual and observance life. So, a life dedicated to the values of our tradition necessitates constant care of both aspects. Yom Kippur is not about the piety we show in here alone, but also about how these rituals and readings from the Torah and the prophets affect our lives. I cannot tell you or be responsible for how these rituals and values speak to you. This I can say: Judaism is not empty prayers and void rituals. It is not merely showing up weekly, or annually, and reciting the proper prayers, but also acknowledging that the God of Israel is the God of the oppressed, of the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, at all times.

Today, and everyday, we have a choice to make: How to live our life as a Jew? What aspect of Judaism are we going to stress? What part of Judaism speaks to us most? Judaism, like life, is a balancing act, and our Sages summed it all up beautifully when they teach:

“There is no limits to the fulfillment of these mitzvot: leaving the corners of your fields for the needy; giving to God the first fruits of your harvest; gathering with the community for festivals; acting with kindness and loyalty. And striving for knowledge of Torah.” (Pei’ah 1:1).

As we begin a new year, let us hear the cal of our prophets and sages. May we all find our very own balance between social justice and ritual; between caring for others and taking time to nature our souls. May we do so with the realization that our balance depends on talmud Torah, on Jewish wisdom. G’mar hatimah tovah, may you be inscribed, and sealed, for a good year!

Shacharit l'Rosh Hashanah 5776

Message for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776
Israel: Three Things on which We All Agree

Under normal circumstances, I don’t take my cues from taxi drivers, but my driver to the Tel Aviv airport this past July surprised me. He is a mizrahi Jew, probably Iraqi, who when he found out I was coming to the States, wanted me to be sure that I tell you that the people of Israel respect and appreciate the president of the U. S., period., and that “Bibi” had no place in trying to impose his views on America. He concluded by saying Israel has very few true friends in the world and that they should treat them well. Like many of us, he thought that a rift between the U. S. government, and the government of Israel could not be beneficial for Israel.

If you have been following the news, and it would be hard to miss, you know that the Obama administration, along with other nations, has negotiated an agreement with Iran concerning Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It now appears that the president has mustered enough support among Democratic senators to avoid outright rejection of the agreement. Also, you have heard that the Prime Minister of Israel, B. Netaniyahu has expressed his total opposition to the agreement. So, what’s one to do?

A few weeks ago, the leaders of the Reform movement, representing the URJ, CCAR, and ARZA, issued a statement concerning the Iran Deal. Let me tell you that they basically said that, given how controversial the issue is, they could not agree to support or reject the deal . This has proven to be a wise course of action, because being “for” or “against” the deal is not what matters most anyway.

Many people: Jews, non-Jews, legislators, pundits, you name it… have expressed opinions, sanctimonious judgments, and harsh criticism against those with whom -eacdisagrees. The supporters of the deal have been called appeasers, “Kapos;” those opposing the deal have been accused of being warmongers and irrational, or worse… As for myself, I have been reluctant to come done on one side of the issue, because I think the arguments over the Iran nuclear agreement have the potential of damaging the American Jewish community and, by extension, Israel.

I trust that the Reform movement took time to learn and debate the agreement; the statement released by our leaders concludes that:

"there is simply no clarity that would support taking a position 'for' or 'against' the [deal] itself." Rather, the statement emphasizes, "[…] how can we work to support the strongest possible U.S.-Israel relationship going forward?"

I’m glad they didn’t come out in support of the deal, -or against it. Many of us can see that the Iran deal is both good and bad at some level for both the U. S. and Israel. My concern is that the rhetoric on both sides has escalated to such a degree that we may see an unwelcome rift between the U. S. and Israel. 

Our Reform leaders continue,

“The U.S.-Israel relationship is of historic and strategic importance. It is based on shared values and common concerns. The health of that relationship must never be jeopardized or allowed to become a partisan political issue. Now, more than ever, it is critical to solidify the unique relationship between the U.S. and Israel.”

In sum, the arguments about the Iran deal have potential unwanted consequences for the U. S.-Israel relations, which will have to be mended and rebuilt. If that weren’t enough, the controversy over the Iran deal has created conflict among American Jews, and that should concern us all. We are not here to talk Israeli politics or international diplomacy; but I want you to consider the risk of fracturing the unity of the Jewish community over one particular issue –no matter how important it might seem to be to either side.

The statement of the Reform Movement acknowledges our commitment to pluralism when it comes to Israel and the policies of its government. It reads,

“The Reform Movement is large and diverse. Within the Movement, reasonable people –patriotic Americans and passionate Zionists - have expressed different and valid positions on this agreement, articulating the many arguments made by others as well.”
I am sure that many of us could articulate concerns and issues we find in the current agreement. These are all valid concerns held by people who may disagree about the current agreement, but we are all of one mind that there are many other issues with Iran, that for our safety and that of Israel should be resolved.
I know that it’s hard to focus on the future and what this deal or no-deal means for Israel, but we must not be swayed by the news media outlets, who, in their search for a “good fight,” love to exploit disagreements between Israeli and American government officials.

As a synagogue, as a religious institution, we are called to learn and to pray together, with those who agree with us, as well as with those who don’t. We must find areas in which we agree about Israel, and join our voices in prayer. The issue of Iran is not over, nor is the continuous de-legitimization of Israel occurring on college campuses across North America as well as at many international forums. In this New Year, more than ever, we must find common ground among our people and show our unyielding support for a Jewish and democratic State of Israel. There is hope, because we should be able to agree on at least three points about Israel, if not more.
Firstly, and you all know it because you live it, we, American Jews, care deeply about Israel. The 2013 Pew Research Center poll concludes that 69% of us say that we are “emotionally very attached” (30%) or “somewhat attached” (39%) to Israel. These findings closely resemble results from the last National Jewish Population Survey, conducted in 2000-2001. Yet,it is hard to ascertain from a survey what each individual means when they say that they are “emotionally very attached.”
It is hard to explain because it’s emotional! I learned Hebrew in Argentina and was fluent before I ever set foot in Israel. Learning Hebrew in a foreign land had been the experience of most Jews until the 20th century. I arrived in Israel for my first year of rabbinical school in August 1994. The feeling of arriving in Israel and having signs in Hebrew everywhere I looked was overwhelming. Those letters that I had only seen in books, were now a living language. It may seem like a simple fact: of course there are signs in Hebrew in Israel, but it is not. The most mundane Hebrew sign signifies to me that am yisrael chai, the Jewish people is alive. That realization is my attachment, what is yours? You need to be able to articulate it, so you can be an advocate of Israel in your family and among your friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Expressing your emotional connection to Israel helps Israel and her people.

Secondly, we all believe that American Jews and Israeli Jews should share common values about the centrality of democracy and civil rights. In Israel, just like in America, a fair democratic process and civil rights for every inhabitant are still more a goal, an objective, than a reality. This past summer saw violence against LGBT supporters in Jerusalem as well as plain ugliness against Israeli women who wished to freely pray at the kotel, at the Western Wall, on Rosh Hodesh. Reform and Conservative Jewish women in Israel are not treated equally by the government. I am not a rabbi in the eyes of the State of Israel; that must change. In addition, the Arab minorities as well as African refugees and Bedouins do not enjoy the same civil rights that Jews do. However, all these issues are not unique to Israel, we share our struggles with civil rights here in America: Fergusson, Baltimore, and many others.

We must agree that the same value placed on civil rights by American Jews, in our own country, must be expected from Israelis as well. Our early Reformers saw the mission of the Jewish people as being “a light unto the Nations.” That message is still valid. We pray that our brothers and sisters in Israel never lose track of that mission and that Israelis will join us in demanding civil rights for all. Standing up for civil rights for everyone in Israel helps Israel and its people be the best they can be.
Finally, we need to be seekers of peace. We read in Pirke Avot, the famous Ethics of the Fathers,

“Hillel says: Be of the disciples of Aaron, ohev shalom, loving peace and rodef shalom, pursuing peace, loving the creatures and bringing them closer to Torah.”

Ohev shalom, loving peace, is what our Sages teach, but does not stand on its own. We must also be a rodef shalom, a seeker of peace; we must actively do something to bring peace about. I know we all like to disagree on Jewish matters, and it is healthy to do so at some level. Yet, our Sages knew very well that there is such a thing as “too much dissent,” especially among our own people. The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, “gratuitous hatred,” among Jews. The historical reality might have been different –the Temple was destroyed because the Romans decided to make the Jews an example of what happens when you defy the Empire. But our Sages found a deeper meaning in the tragedy: We must never let internal struggles and hatred divide us, not then, not now. 

Each in our position in life and within the Jewish community must be a rodef shalom, a bringer of peace and harmony among people. I know that there are mean-spirited people out there who will not listen, but if each one of us tries our best to be that true disciple of Aaron by sowing harmony and not discord among our people, I know good things will happen in this New Year.

Although we can control how we act, we cannot do the same with others, so, as we gather together in synagogues around the world, we do what we came here to do, we pray. On this first of a New Year, when everything is possible again, we echo the ancient words the prophet Isaiah and pray:
“May they beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. May no nation take up sword against nation, nor may they train for war anymore.”

At the beginning of a New Year, we are called to be open to compassion and forgiveness, so we pray for peace and understanding. We pray that 5776 and the years to follow will be a time of peace for ALL people, but especially for our beloved State of Israel.

So we offer a prayer for Israel, which you can follow in Hebrew in our prayer book on page 274. This beautiful musical rendition was written by Cantor Meir Finkelstein, who was kind enough to send it to me, so that I could share it with you in this New Year.

Kol Nidre 5776

Message for Kol Nidre
Teshuvah: On the Road to Recovery

This past year, we had our first Yiddish class. It was well attended, and as a result we have Yiddish scholars sitting in the congregation tonight. I’d like to acknowledge them by beginning my message with a Yiddish proverb: A noyer meylekh mit naye gzeyres, a nay yor mit naye aveyres … Do I need to translate? “A new king with new decrees, a new year with new misdeeds.”

So, here we are, at the beginning of another year, confessing our transgressions and announcing our intentions to stay away from new misdeeds. If it were that simple! Yiddish poems are not only amusing, they are also wise … “a noy yor mit noye aveyres,” a new year brings its own challenges. None of us is perfect, and our imperfections will surely let down someone at one point or another. Yet, we need to strive to instill in our hearts the meaning of true teshuvah, of sincere repentance.

I will not translate the Hebrew word teshuvah moving forward. Being Jewish is a unique, wonderful way of seeing the world. If teshuvah could be simply translated into English or Spanish, with one word, then it would not be teshuvah any longer. The word Hebrew teshuvah suggests ideas of repentance, return, rehabilitation, of coming back to ourselves and to God.

The Talmud, a great source of Jewish wisdom, teaches: “Great is teshuvah for it transforms one’s deliberate transgressions into merits.”

What an odd thing to say!? I would have expected something like “Great is teshuvah, because it cleans us of transgressions.” No, our Sages teach that teshuvah can turn our imperfections into a positive. The focus of teshuvah is not on changing the past, but on defining a new direction for the future.

Teshuvah is about changing ourselves, so that we can no longer see ourselves behaving in old patterns. Teshuvah implies that we can always change, and that our wrongdoings do not define us forever. Teshuvah implies a different and unique approach to our misdeeds and transgressions, or as some might say, our “sins.”

The word “sin” is a loaded word; a word loaded with Christian meaning about the nature of human beings and how we behave. How many times have we heard notable Christian preachers, who after some financial debacle or sexual misconduct, would say “I am a sinner” or “In a moment of weakness I sinned against God, or my family, etc.” It is very hard for all of us to use the word “sin” and not be influenced by how our American culture uses the word. The Hebrew words used in our machzor to denote our understanding of “sin” are cheit and averah. The word cheit means to “miss the mark,” as in Archery. Averah means to transgress, to pass over or break a rule. Both words refer to actions, not to a condition of the individual. It might be impossible for us not to use the word sin, especially on Yom Kippur, but know that we mean something quite different.

So, just for one day, forget about “sin.” Even if you find the word “sin” in our new machzor, ignore it. They meant chet and averah; they meant the unique way Judaism looks at the world. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches,

“Judaism is the world’s greatest example of a guilt-and-repentance culture, as opposed to the shame-and-honor culture of the ancient Greeks.” (p. lxvi).

In other words, Jewish culture is the opposite of a culture of vendettas and tribal codes of revenge. Judaism is unlike the world of tragic operas or the mafia.

“In shame-and-honor culture, evil attaches to the person. There is no way back for one who has done the shameful deed,” teaches Rabbi Sacks, “In a guilt-and-repentance culture, like that of Judaism […] Repentance, rehabilitation and return are always possible.”

So here is the first insight into teshuvah. Teshuvah is about dealing with guilt, not with sin. Popular psychologist, author and TV host John Bradshaw writes,

“Abuse creates toxic shame –that feeling of being flawed and diminished and never measuring up. Toxic shame feels much worse than guilt. With guilt you’ve done something wrong but you can repair that –you can do something about it […].”

By no means do I mean to suggest that the shame caused by abusive relationships can be addressed just with attending synagogue once a year, on Yom Kippur. Religion is not the answer to everything. Some people may need professional help to deal with shame; at the same time, Jewish wisdom can help us navigate through the labyrinth of guilt where many of us find ourselves.

So, you see, as it turns out, Jewish guilt is a great thing! Guilt, but not shame. So first thing to remember about teshuvah: We CAN “do something” about our feelings of guilt.

Ready for more Yiddish? “Ver filt zikh, der meynt zikh.” Still need translation? “Whoever feels guilty, feels responsible.” The feeling of guilt leads to responsibility. Responsibility means that we do not blame anyone else for the wrong we have done. As the story of Adam and Eve shows, it is always tempting to blame others –it wasn’t me, it was Eve; it wasn’t me! It was the serpent. You can make the appropriate substitutions.

Teshuvah helps us work through our guilt, and take some responsibility for our wrongdoing. In this sense, teshuvah allows us to grow. At the heart of teshuvah is the belief that we can change. This is the second thing to remember about teshuvah: We are not destined to be forever what we were.

Learning about teshuvah or reciting this or that prayer will not magically change us; that would be too na├»ve. It would be too simplistic: We transgress all year long, and then, comes Yom Kippur, we repent and that’s that. No, teshuvah requires more involvement on our part.

As we reflect in the year that past, it comes to mind what I did last December. Last winter, I spent quite some time preparing a paper for a local organization to which I belong, “Quest Club.” I was asked to address the issue of how recent wars have affected our troops. I chose to concentrate on PTSD issues that veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars experienced.

As a rabbi and as a human being, whatever affects people’s souls so powerfully should be something of which I must be aware. I gained a new understanding of human suffering, and how to overcome failure and disappointment. All the lessons I learned from the stories of veterans I will carry on with me forever. One lesson I want to share with you tonight because it applies to teshuvah.

As part of my readings for the paper, I became familiar with the current treatment for PTSD. The two main psychiatric treatments available are Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE). They are both based on the idea that trauma causes our brains to learn some unconscious reactions to the experience, a kind of evolutionary defense mechanism, and that it cannot be unlearned. What can be done is to show the brain a way around it. It gives the brain other possible outcomes, which helps the individual cope with their symptoms. CPT is mostly based on writing it all down, “cognitive” as in “knowledge,” whereas PE is more about exposing the brain to situations, “triggers,” which heighten the symptoms initially.

For instance, if a veteran cannot tolerate crowds because they remind her of the terrible suicide bombing she witnessed in the market place in Ramadi, then, PE will consist on visiting a crowded mall or supermarket and staying as long a possible. The result would be that a veteran is able to see the world in a different way and live a better life.

PTSD is related to how resilient a person is. Life and the conditions under which we live allow us to be more or less resilient to what happens to us, each of us in our own way. We need to move away from the idea of “sin” when we think about teshuvah and concentrate on changing our behavior. Teshuvah is more akin to a form of therapy for our souls, than to a form of religious purification.

Learning about the treatment for PTSD suggested to me what our sages have taught about teshuvah for centuries. For instance, the great Medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides famously wrote:

“What is perfect repentance? It is when an opportunity presents itself to repeat the same behavior, and, while being physically able to do so, you nonetheless refrain, because you have had a change of heart and resolve not to behave this way.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot T’shuvah 2:1)

I know it might a stretch, but Maimonides could have been talking about how to recover from PTSD, or for that matter, from any other mental illness. According to Maimonides, teshuvah is not something that happens during the High Holidays alone, but an ongoing process. Yom Kippur is a ancient form of rehab, a spiritual retreat: Jews come to synagogue this one time a year, and learn self-improving tools, which we are supposed to use throughout the year. Our machzor is more than a self-help manual. It is a spiritual map to help us do teshuvah as a life-long pursuit. Teshuvah is a road to recovery for our moral self.

We all know that life is never easy. Although we may not develop full-blown PTSD, it surely feels that way sometimes. Think about a family feud, a divorce, a death, a terrible illness, you name it. In the past year, all of us have personally been affected by any of these difficulties; and if not we personally, someone close to us has: a family member, a friend, one of our fellow congregants. We all hold grievances against someone, and against God. Indeed, our souls are in need of some spiritual therapy.

The third and last teaching to remember is that teshuvah is about living a better life within our own limitations, and within the confines of our life experiences. Teshuvah is a road to a better life for ourselves. When we change the way we think, we change the way we feel. And when we feel differently, we live differently; what we believe can shape what we become. And what we become is inseparably linked to the fate of every other human being who shares our journey through life –everyone, Jewish or not, family or not, friend or not.

For my paper I read a wonderful, yet difficult book, Redeployment, by Phil Klay. It is a series of short stories about the Iraq war written by a Marine. As a rabbi, I was drawn to the chaplain character in the book. At one point, the chaplain, who happened to be a Catholic priest, also stressed by deployment, tries to reach out to very soul of the marines, by delivering a moving sermon during the Sunday service, with these words:

“We are part of a long tradition of suffering. We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie. […] Do not suffer alone. Offer suffering up to God, respect your fellow man, and perhaps the sheer awfulness of this place will become a little more tolerable.”

The chaplain was speaking to marines stationed at some God-forsaken outpost in Iraq to remind them what many of us forget when we are in the middle of dealing with life’s difficulties: That as human beings, we all deal with the same issues, and sharing the journey with each other ease our burdens. Every Jew has a place among us tonight. Every wandering individual has a home here tonight. As we gather in synagogues around the world, we join in sharing our suffering, our disappointments, our mistakes, our shortcomings, but also our tremendous strength.

We gather and we pray for teshuvah for each one of us. We pray that teshuvah may turn our difficulties into merits. We pray that teshuvah will cleanse our guilt. We pray that through teshuvah we may become the best we know we can be. We join in sharing our hopes, our dreams, and our firm faith that teshuvah will continue to bring us all to a better place in our lives, that teshuvah will bring healing to our souls, to our relationships, to our communities.

Eloheinu … Eternal God of all generations may Your presence in our lives this New Year renew our spirits and renew our strength. Chatimah tovah, inscribe us and seal us in the book of live for a good year, for a sweet year.

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776

Message for Erev Rosh Hashanah
We Greet the New Year with L’chayyim.

L’shanah tovah! We are pleased to be sharing this erev Rosh Hashanah with a new prayer book! In recent years, every stream of Judaism has produced new machzorim, so this time it was our turn.

There are many beautiful prayer books for Rosh Hashanah. One of my favorite machzorim is published by Koren. It is a nice study edition, in Hebrew and English, with extensive commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Britain’s Orthodox union. In the introduction to the commentary, Rabbi Sacks mentions that in Judaism, the number seven, when applied to time, always denotes k’dushah, holiness.

As any student in our religious school knows, we recognize this significance each week as we celebrate the ‘pause’ from creation that is Shabbat, the seventh day; we also remember sh’mitah, the Sabbatical year, is the 7th year, and Shavuot, that celebrates the giving of the Torah, falls 7 weeks after Passover. Less known is the fact that, in the Torah, Rosh Hashanah is the 1st day of ... not the 1st month of the year, but the SEVENTH month.

The seventh month is holy, and its holiness is directly connected to the idea of creation. Rabbi Sacks concludes:

“the holiness of (the) seventh […] is marked by a cessation of work. It marks a period during which we cease creating and remember that we are creations. We stop making, and remember that we are made. We, the universe, and time itself are the work of a hand greater than merely human.” (Sacks, p. xiii)

The central prayers of Rosh Hashanah stress the idea that God is the creator and sovereign of the universe. Our new machzor uses many metaphors in the English translations to express the central ideal of God as melech al kol haolam, literally “King of the Universe.” We may not believe the creation story literally; however, the story of creation and Divine providence are metaphors, ways of communicating a deeper message. The deeper message is the answer to why the universe was created. The important question is, “what is the purpose of creation.” In other words, what does it mean for us that the world was created? What life lessons does Judaism teach us by means of these ancient stories? And for us tonight, what are the implications of seeing Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of creation?

I would suggest three main teachings from which we can learn that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the universe.

1. The first lesson is that we are created free to choose our own destiny. Judaism is the religion of the free human being responding to the God of freedom. As you know, the Torah teaches that we are created “in the image of God,” b’tzelem elohim, meaning that, like God, we also CREATE. Human beings express their creativity in the material culture, in paintings, sculptures and music –opera, in particular, where all the arts come together, if I may say.

But really, the essence of our Divine image is best expressed in what we make of our own life. In this sense, our choices create our life, and those in turn impact the lives of those around us.

Rabbi Sacks teaches “Our life is the single greatest work of art we will ever make. ” The process that we call teshuvah, “repentance,” is how we go about putting our life together, bit by bit. In one of his musicals, Stephen Sondheim once wrote

Every moment makes a contribution,
Every little detail plays a part.
Having just a vision's no solution,
Everything depends on execution:
Putting it together-
That's what counts!
Art isn’t easy.

Well, neither is life. Teshuvah is choosing the act of re-making ourselves –not entirely new, but a bit closer to our own ideal, closer to our best self. Judaism teaches that we can do this at any time but especially at this time of the year, together with our fellow Jews, in community.

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” So it is with our lives: One day, when we pass on, we will simply abandon it -unfinished. On Rosh Hashanah, we step back from our life like an artist stepping back from her canvas, and we try to see what needs changing, improving, for the painting to be complete. We must know, however, that no matter where we might be in our life’s journey, it will never be complete –as long as we live, year after year, we have work to do. We are free to choose how to proceed, but our greatest work of art is never complete, and as long as we live it must NEVER be complete.

2. The second lesson we learn from the idea that the world was created is that time has boundaries: our time is limited. There is nothing new in saying that life is short, but Judaism stresses that life ON THIS EARTH is all we have. Judaism seeks God in the here and now. I cannot tell you how many times non-Jewish visitors ask me the question: “what do Jews believe happens after we die”. The short answer is “we do not know;” but what I often want to tell them is, “what difference does it make?” Life is lived in the here and now. The great Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder once taught, im lo achshav, eimatai, "if not now, when?” We don’t have the luxury of waiting until some distant future when people will behave as they are supposed to. It is up to us to make life happen while we are alive, beginning with ourselves. The urgency of Rosh Hashanah’s message is that we choose our future within a limited number of years. Let not another year pass without learning that this life is all we have, and that our striving to be better human beings needs to be done here, now.

So, we are free to choose in which way we want to take the work of art that is our life, always aware that we DO NOT have all the time in the world. These two lessons take us to our third lesson, the most Jewish of them all.

3. The third and final lesson learned from the idea that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world is that every breath we take is a gift from God which we call life, chayyim.

“Life is not something we may take for granted,” Rabbi Sacks teaches, “If we do, we will fail to celebrate it.” The special addition to our Amidah, the standing prayer, stressed this fundamental Jewish idea,

“Zochrenu lechayyim …, remember us for life, O Ruler who delights in life, vechotvenu ... and write us in the book of life for Your sake, Oh Living God, elohim chayyim.”

There is no doubt in my mind that chayyim, life, is at the center of our tradition. Judaism is a tradition that celebrates life. You may say that we are TRULY pro-life –pun intended. We drink to l’chayyim!

You all know it (sing): To life, to life, l'chayyim …

Obviously, in the show, “Fiddler on the Roof,” the characters went through some tough times, yet celebrating life was not new to them. It’s TRADITION! It is in our nature. The Jewish people should have the right to be pessimistic about the future, yet we have always perservered-. (stuck isn’t grammatically correct, but I’m not remembering how to fix)

Celebrating life is also one of the great contributions that Judaism has given to the world. It is our contribution to what it means to be human being. Life may present us with hardship and disappointment, yet the Jewish people have showed the world that being human means being resilient, and always trying to see the positive aspects of life. Our tradition encourages us to live with hope in our hearts, and to say l’chayyim as often as possible.

As we begin a new year, let us remember that we have choices and that our days are counted. Join me as I say: “To all the good times and the not-so-good, may we say” l’chayyim.

Let us acknowledge to God how thankful, how lucky, how happy, and most of all, how humble we are to be alive one more year. To all this and more, may we say l’chayyim.

As we begin a new year, may we have many opportunities to enrich both our own lives and the lives of those around us, and may we say l’chayyim.

At the very beginning of 5776, may we face the New Year with the hope and courage, with the strength and resolution of knowing that we may always answer with a loud, cheerful, resounding, l’chayyim.

Shanah tovah, happy and healthy New Year!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Future of Music

We are moving in a new musical direction within the congregation and are inviting you to participate in our musical future. Two decades ago, our congregation went through a music transition. We went from a professional quartet and organist at every Shabbat service, to a compromise that included different musicians on different Erev Shabbat services. There are some practical aspects to consider. First, we lost two of the regular musical offerings (Charlene and Hazemir). Secondly, the dwindling membership we have experienced during the last 15 years, and the consequent drop in Friday night attendance, has made the large sanctuary an unfitting worship space for small groups. The Goldstine Chapel has proved to be more suitable for the congregation we are now, yet a professional choir with organ is no longer fitting for such smaller worship space. In sum, over the last few years, the compromise model has broken down and its usefulness vanished.
In considering any changes, it was important for me to know where our music taste will be in the next ten years –and not only where it has been. During the last four years as your rabbi, I have had several opportunities to talk to congregants, to discuss it at the Ritual Committee meetings, and to assess the preferences of those who attend Shabbat services regularly. All the evidence has told me that a collaborative, participatory, and integrated model of music and tefillah (prayer) is one that will inspire those who join us on Shabbat and holidays. That is our goal.
To find the right individual to achieve that goal, the Ritual Committee and I, in consultation with the entire Board, developed a new pilot position to help us move forward. From September of this year, until May of next year, Suellen Kipp will fill the position of Music Specialist. The Music Specialist will serve as an integral member of our synagogue team and will be responsible for supporting the liturgical music needs for our congregation. Suellen will be our Erev Shabbat keyboardist on a regular basis. Suellen is a talented musician who comes to us with experience in working with non-professional singers and musicians, both at churches and schools. In addition to Suellen, we will still have our beloved “Greenbergs” as well as the occasional visiting musicians local and regional.
Having a regular music specialist on staff, will help us expand our congregants’ own role in creating music. This is a formal invitation to anyone with a love for music and a gift for creating it - vocal or instrumental - to join us in bringing joy and meaning to our weekly Shabbat tefillah experience. If you play an instrument - if you sing - we invite you to volunteer and join with us in the coming months, to discover what "sound" CAV might create to lift our Shabbat celebrations even higher (just contact me directly, and we’ll get together with Suellen).
For the rest of you who might not be performance-oriented, you have an equally important role during this pilot year: be present! Come with enthusiasm to our Shabbat services, join in all of the musical elements of our tefillah, and let us know what you experience.

I look forward to the music we share, the tefillah that inspires, and the moments of holiness we create when we join together in creative, joyful prayer.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Remembering the Promise With Its Obligation

Shacharit L'yom Kippur 5775
Most of you have heard this beautiful song by Naomi Shemer, z’l. The song was Shemer’s entry at the 1967 Israel Song Festival, and it won! If you listen to it carefully, it is a song about Jerusalem written at a time when Jews did not have access to the Old City. It is a song of longing; a song filled with memories
The last stanza ends with "If I forget thee Jerusalem", asher kula zahav, “which is entirely of gold,” a beautiful juxtaposition of a quote from Ps. 137 (“By the Rivers of Babylon …), combined with the main image of the song, that Jerusalem is the crown jewel of our people. The song was so popular that it soon became the unofficial National anthem of the State of Israel. But, why?
I’d venture to say that it is because remembering, NOT forgetting, is at its core, just as remembering our historical ties to the land of Israel is at the core of Zionism. Zionism is the idea that we can take a common memory, the longing to the return to Zion/Jerusalem, and turn it into a Modern political movement. Zionism is an interpretation of Jewish memory, and as such, it is an interpretation of what Judaism is.
The origins of our longing for Zion are found in the Torah. In the Book of Genesis, Bereshit, our ancestors were promised the land of Canaan by God. Although Zionism is largely a secular political movement, the idea of a “Promised Land,” plays an important role in how we see the Jewish past. Our Jewish memory is that we were given the Land of Israel, l’rishtah, as our inheritance, apparently without any conditions … at least until we get to the last book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, D’varim, when everything changes….
The Torah portion, which Bruce just read beautifully, and translated for us, begins with one of the most famous “covenants” between God and the Jewish people. First, the Torah makes clear that this covenant, brit, is incumbent upon those present at Mount Nebo, Jews and “resident aliens” alike, as well as upon all generations to come. Secondly, if we follow the Torah, God may “bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess.” The opposite, of course, if we don’t.
This covenant introduces a new idea: Keeping the “promised land” is dependent on us living up to the teachings of the Torah. The difficulty of living up to the ethical values of the Torah have come to the forefront in recent decades. Some critics of Israel have equated Israel to South Africa during the Apartheid era, and point out that Israel cannot be a “Jewish” state, and also remain a democracy, at the same time.
In a recent paper from the Israel Action Network, a project of The Jewish Federations of North America titled “Israel: Jewish and Democratic,” the authors address the issues that Israel, as a liberal democracy, must resolve when it comes to the treatment of its minorities. Given the climate of violence in the area, the relationships between the Jewish state and its mostly Arab non-Jews creates tensions.
The Israel Action Network paper cites the example of a case brought to Israeli Supreme in 2000. The case was about an Arab citizen who was denied the right to buy State-owned land after it had been transferred to the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund. The Court ruled in favor of the Arab citizen, and stated that that these Zionist institutions, which are geared toward development of Jewish settlement in Israel, cannot be used to get around the fundamental obligation to treat all citizens equally. The ISC concluded:
“True, a special key to enter the house is given to the members of the Jewish people [Law of Return]. But once somebody is in the house as a citizen under the law, he enjoys equal rights, just like all the other members of the household… Hence there is no contradiction whatsoever between the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and complete equality between all of its citizens.”
The point is that in any democracy, there will be accommodations that need to be made to respect and expand the rights of minorities. This is why, we in America, still need a Civil Rights Movement, for instance. The problem, however, is that Israel is usually singled out as not doing the right thing. Many critics point to “the fact” that a true democracy must be cultural or religiously neutral. Israel, therefore, could not remain Jewish and democratic. 
I don’t know enough about constitutions around the world, but Alexander Yacobson does. Yacobson is a former Meretz activist and Peace Now member who supports of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yakobson wrote an article for Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper titled, “Israel can be both Jewish and democratic. Here's how.” He cites these examples:
“The Irish constitution, for example, starts with “in the Name of the Holy Trinity.” According to the constitution of Denmark, the Evangelical Lutheran Church “shall be the Established Church of Denmark.” Under a 2012 constitutional amendment in Norway […], “The Norwegian Church, an Evangelical-Lutheran Church, remains Norway’s Church; Specific provisions on the organization thereof are laid down by law,” […]. In both Denmark and Norway, the monarch must belong to the Lutheran Church.”
So, it can be done, so how is it possible that what is good for Norway or Denmark, is not good for Israel? That Israel is a Jewish state does not mean Israel is a theocracy. What this indicates is that, in the public sphere, Israel may reflect its core mission of serving as the nation state of the Jewish people. I am confident that Jewish values and ideals are compassionate and considerate towards non-Jews. The Torah is clear that we must treat the strangers, the resident aliens, with decency.
The fact that the non-Jews may experience discrimination is Israel is a reality. The Israel Action Network concludes:
“Living as a national or ethnic minority within a majority culture is never easy. The situation of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens is especially challenging, both ideologically and practically. They do face de facto discrimination in the workplace and in allocation of state resources and Israel’s government should be expected to do much more to address this issue.”
We could not agree more. We should be the first to hold Israeli leaders accountable but not because the constitutions of Ireland or Noeway say so, but rather because the ethical and moral teachings of the Torah compel us. Our common Jewish memory includes both the promise to settle the land and the obligation to live up to the ethical teachings of our Torah.
As Jews who live outside of Israel, in the Diaspora, our job is to continue our support for a Jewish and democratic state by insisting that Israel be treated fairly in the concert of the nations AND that Israeli leaders keep in mind the highest ethical teachings of our tradition. It is a work in progress, my friends, but we cannot despair or give up.
For two thousand years, our people read Parashat Nitzavim at our synagogues and listened to the phrase, “the land that you enter to possess;” and it meant nothing concrete to them, only an annual utterance of longing for a promised land. Im eshkachech yerushalayim, “If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem,” echoed a distant land. The words of the covenant we read today could not be applied. We had no way to undertake our part in this covenant, in “the land that we were about to enter.”
But we are not those Jews. We are blessed to live in a time when we can again put into practice the conditions of that covenant. As Jews living in this time of national renewal, we must again also remember how we commanded to act in the land that we were given. If we turn away from compassion and turn to nationalism as if it were a cult, then, Israel will embark on a very difficult path. If, on the other hand, we walk in God’s way and grant others the rights we claim for ourselves, then, Israel will be a thriving Jewish democracy.

In the year that has just began, may we always remember our common past, its promises and demands, so that we can look into the future with hope and with the certainty that our people has a brighter future for us all. 

If We Forget Thee, Oh Shabbat

Kol Nidre 5775
A man was lying in bed on a Saturday morning. His wife said to him, “Get out of bed and go to shul”…….  “I don’t want to go to shul”, he said, “and there are three good reasons for that. First, I am tired. Second, I don’t like the service or  the sermons. Third, people there don’t even like me.” So his wife said, “Those excuses are no good. Get out of bed and go to shul- and I’ll give YOU three reasons: First, a decent Jewish family goes to shul together. Second, God will never forgive you, if you don’t come to shul. And third, you ARE the rabbi, after all.”
Certainly, not any rabbi I know … But it’s true, sometimes even rabbis have a hard time getting to services……, for different reasons than congregants, of course. Yet, here we are again, talking about the importance of attending shul, of coming to services. We all have different reasons why we are here tonight, but we all understand and value the relationship we build with God, with others and with our community when we are fully present.
We belong. Our connection to each other is based on a relationship. On this special night of Kol Nidre, we are called to remember, zakhor, that we belong to a sacred community.
Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism writes:
“We North American Jews are not only citizens of two great countries; we are also citizens of a people called b’nei Yisrael, “the children of Israel”—the descendants of Jacob, the descendants of Moses, the descendants of those who stood at Sinai and accepted a covenantal relationship with the God of Abraham and Sarah.”
Judaism is a tradition that values our relationship with our ancestors, with the generations that preceded us, as well as with those living in our time. Some of you may recall that on Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the need for us to revive the tradition of saying Kaddish for our loved ones, family and friends. In addition to being our religious obligation, saying Kaddish builds community. Saying Kaddish is about building relationships with each other and with our congregation. Our tradition expresses this idea by teaching that we need a miniyan to say Kaddish.
In more traditional circles, they mean 10 Jewish men. The number 10 has never been questioned. I accept the traditional number; yet, it’s not a magic number.
We need a minyan for regular services at the synagogue, but also for a funeral, a bris and a wedding. To me, the rabbis of the Talmud set a number as a way to promote relationships that build community. IF we are to have a working congregation, we need to have some basic rule; one such rule is the need for a miniyan.
On this unique Shabbat, we are reminded of what the teaches: Zakhor et yom hashabbat, “remember Shabbat,” and we are to mark Shabbat as a special day. When we come to say Kaddish on Shabbat, it also marks Shabbat as a day when we make it possible for others to remember.
A few times this past year, we did not have a miniyan on Shabbat. One of our congregants, who had come to say Kaddish, almost broke into tears when I mentioned that we needed a miniyan to say Kaddish. It broke my heart that we could not provide for a basic Jewish need, and promised myself right then and there that I was going to share that experience with all of you on Kol Nidre. It is simple: When we forget Shabbat we fail to make it possible for others to remember.
For our congregation, having a miniyan on every Shabbat would be easy. Let’s do the numbers. If we divide our directory in four, about 6 letters per group, we would cover 4 Shabbatot a month. I’d need your active participation now, for an experiment. If your last name begins with the letter A, B, C, D, E, F, please, stand up (if you are able). OK, this year you will come on the first Shabbat of the month. You may be seated … now if your last name begins with G, H, I … well …  you get the idea? Obviously, everyone is welcome to come to every Shabbat, BUT if each one of you were to commit to attend ONE Shabbat a month, we would be set. We can do this! It is mathematically possible!
Yet, it is not that simple, because the source of the issue is not mathematical, but relational. For too many of us, our relationship with our community could be improved and deepened. I’m sure we all have our reasons.
Let me give you another example. Thanks to the leadership of our board and a few dedicated volunteers, the Rifkin Campus @ 5200 project is moving ahead. Yet, to date, only 40% of our members have contributed to this unique project. This project will make this location a home for the Jewish community for Northeast Indiana, and will insure our building is up to date. Kris and I have made a commitment to this project and will double our contribution. And, I should note, from now until December 31st, your gift will triple.
Some of you may think 40% is pretty good, yet, a project of this kind necessitates 100% participation. This project is about doing all we can so that we have a beautiful, safe and sustainable space for all the programs, services, and events that we all enjoy and wish to continue and improve. It is about our future in a very tangible way.  
The 40% is a sign that we need and can do better. Each one of us should look inward and ask what we can do to develop a deeper relationship with our congregation. In other words, what can we do to build a sacred community?
Before we continue, I want to make a distinction between community and friendship. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Friendship, as
“[…] a distinctively personal relationship that is grounded in a concern on the part of each friend for the welfare of the other […] and that involves some degree of intimacy.”
It is great if we develop friendships among us, but friendship should be neither our goal nor our basis for action as a congregation. We act in accordance with our values, as our congregational by-laws say:
“[…] this Congregation exists to serve God, to assist and enhance the lives of Jews in the Fort Wayne and surrounding area according to Judaism’s highest values and to bring those values into the lives of all people.”
We are a community, not a “friends club.” Social scientists tell us that a community consists of people from all walks of life: differing ages, genders, and that they may seem to have no relationship at all before joining a community. Communities are held together by common interest, something the community members are passionate about, a common goal, a common heritage. Sometimes I wonder if we remember what our common goal is and why it is important to be an ACTIVE member of the Jewish community.
Assimilation is perhaps the great culprit here. So many Jews today have little or no Jewish education, that it is difficult for them to see the value of Jewish institutions. Lacking a sense of “belonging” can be the root cause of what we experience. Dr. Ron Wolfson teaches:
“To my mind, virtually everything a person could possibly want or need Jewishly is readily available at much less cost and trouble via Internet and rent-a-professional … except deep and lasting relationships, face-to-face relationships with people, both lay and professional, who care about you and care about connecting you to others, and work to help you build relationships with the Jewish experience […]”
I want those deep and lasting relationships for myself, but that I long for them is not enough, you have to want them too. Relationships are a two-way street. If, as an example, I call you or send you a card for your birthday,  and you never do, soon enough I’d give up on that relationship, and move on. We do not have to all be friends to be part of the same community, but we do need to CARE about each other, and provide to each other that which cannot be found anywhere else.
Sometimes I feel as if am missing a relationship piece. After more than 4 years, I still don’t know your personal stories, your struggles or accomplishments. The time we may spend together at the oneg is not enough. If we do not break bread together on Shabbat, for instance, how will I, or anyone for that matter, get you hear your story. By objective standards, we are a small congregation. We have about 140 family units who live in town, and many of them are on individual. It is doable to listen to each other’s life stories. Given our demographics, it is MOST important that we work on developing our relationships. We need to make time to hear our personal stories, our life-journeys.
We have some bright spots in our congregation; great examples of things that build community. Some of our members are actively involved in great projects and programs. One such program is our “Thoughtful Thursday,” a Nationally recognized tzedakkah project. One of the ideas behind TT is that every congregant can participate at whichever level they feel comfortable. I know it is very rewarding for those who volunteer. Our corn beef fundraiser also bring out our members, and it’s great to see so many of you, but that’s once a year. No, we cannot have “Corn Beef” once a month, or even twice a year. TT and Corn Beef are a lot of work and we cannot ask the few volunteers behind those successful programs to do more. Yet, the fact remains: We NEED more opportunities to create community that do NOT require such great investment of time and resources.
Many of the things that create and nurture lasting relationships have been part of the traditional Jewish way of life for millennia. So, what Jewish things will strengthen our relationship to our community? They are all those things that strengthen our common memory and develop new memories.
On this night of Kol Nidre, I would suggest to concentrate on three areas on which we strengthen our community. Three areas to learn about and then DO.
First, clearly, we need to be present in times of sorrow. It is our Jewish duty to comfort the bereaved and accompany the dead for burial. There are several ways to do this mitzvah: You may choose to be counted in the Shabbat miniyan; or attend a public funeral or unveiling. We can also do this mitzvah through food. Please, be open and generous when asked to be part of our congregation’s effort to provide shivah meals after a funeral or for the house of mourning. Most congregations our size DO provide these kind of meals on a regular basis.
Secondly, when our families choose to share the simchah with us all by having their life cycle event here, we need to be present as well. Whether it is a baby naming, a Bat Mitzvah celebration, or confirmation, we need to have a congregation, not merely ONE miniyan. No, we do not have to be FRIENDS with that family or have children who are friends with theirs, in order to attend their simchah. Perhaps that’s how you used to do it, but for a small congregation like ours, staying away from simchas DOES NOT work anymore. When one of our youngsters becomes a bar mitzvah, it is a reason for ALL Jews to celebrate. It is a community event, and being here will strengthen our relationships beyond belief!
Thirdly, be creative. If none of the things I mentioned above speak to you, let us know what would. Hod, our president, as well as the many committee chairs will be glad to hear your input and ideas at any time. I want to challenge you to engange in your community in meaningful and enriching ways. How do you envision your contribution to strengthening our relationships and our community? I’m not saying this lightly: My door is always open. Also, we have a new Starbucks down the street from our house, I’ll ve happy to sit down with everyone of you at Starbucks, and listen, but please, DO NOT ignore the urgency of this matter nor my plea. Like Hillel once taught, im lo achshav, if not now, eimatai, then when?
Having deep relationships with your religious and ethnic group is actually more than just a nice thing to have. Many recent studies have shown that being part of a religious community is good for our health. It does something good for each of us. We know this from surveys of people who LEFT religion and had some dire consequences to their health.
Let me share with you what one such study concludes:
“Any negative experiences after leaving religion, from depression to social isolation, can take a toll on your physical health. Isolation, according to a six-year study out of the University of Chicago, can cause health problems such as disrupted sleep, elevated blood pressure, and a 14 percent greater risk of premature death.”
Need I need to explain more? Are you sure you don’t want to attend services more often? We often take for granted some relationships, but they are soon missed, once we leave the community where those relationships were created and nurtured. The reason why people who left a religious community saw their health declined was not because they missed the sermon, but because they left behind valuable relationships. Having a relationship with a sacred community is part of being human, and a necessary part of it.
Dr. Wolfson concludes:
“Call it what you will—a religion, a civilization, a way of life—Judaism is built on relationships. Born of a relationship between God and Abraham and Sarah, a pact literally marked in the flesh of males and symbolically celebrated in the hearts of females on the eighth day of life in a ceremony called brit, “covenant,” we Jews are a relational people.”
On this holiest night of the year, we must remember this covenant and commit ourselves to continue living it and reshaping it. May we all be blessed with a year of new challenges and opportunities. May we reach deep-inside and reach out to others in community so that our relationships will flourish and enrich each and everyone of us.