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Sermons

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

The Plague of Gun Violence - Gun control and Jewish Law

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Gun Control and the basis in Jewish Law

Shabbat Shalom,

One of the greatest challenges of living a life of spirituality and reflection is to remain engaged in the world.  It is easy with all the talk of spirituality to turn inward; to focus on the spirit, the soul, individual wellbeing.  The temptation is great to disconnect from the real world and work on the individual self.  Working on improving the self is important work and in Jewish tradition the study of the mussar literature is all about improving the self through Torah.  It is all about developing our divine nature. 

But Judaism isn't only focused on the life of the internal spirit. Judaism is concerned with the life of the spirit in relationship to the world, to our fellow human beings.  Judaism is both particularistic and universal in its application.  Judaism that is relevant today must give meaning to our lives lived now.  Judaism today is a way to take our spirits and live out our ethics in the real world!

Some have said our Reform Judaism has placed too much emphasis on the world around us, upon the universal.  In the early years of Reform Judaism of the 1800's this was true. Rituals and customs were tossed aside so Jews could fit in to a largely Protestant America.

And the critique of Traditional/orthodox Judaism is that it is too particularistic, and too inward focused. 

But I contend that a progressive and Reform Judaism of the 21st century must have a balance of both.  Our spiritual life must be linked with our work in the world, our work of Tikkun Olam.  It is not political work although some would try and frame it that way-rather it is our spiritual work in the world.  It is religious work.  Spiritual work both the internal and the external is not bound by political labels.

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Bo, shares the story of the last three plagues that descend upon Egypt.  Each of the plagues are a response to the refusal of the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free. The last three plagues of locust, darkness and the death of the first born affect everyone in Egypt-Israelites and Egyptians alike.  The east wind brings in the locusts and the west wind takes them away once Pharaoh pleads and acknowledges God.  But darkness descends as Pharaoh stubbornly changes his mind.  He refuses to let the Israelites go free once the darkness is gone.  And so the last plague the death of the first born-will send a ripple effect that will upend Egypt.  The only protection the Israelites have is to paint the blood of the Passover sacrifice around the doorposts of the house.  Literally God passes over the houses of the Israelites protecting their first born; the blood acting as a symbol and sign and amulet of protection.

Today we hang the mezzuzah on our homes as a reminder to ourselves that we dedicate our home space to the spiritual and for God to bless us on our way and arrival home.  It is a reminder that we take our spiritual selves seriously internally and externally.  That we as Jews should not separate the two but our lives at home and our lives in the world are dedicated to the way of our ancestors, the way of Jewish ethics and teaching.  And these ought to inform us each and every day. The mezzuzah which is a reminder of this week’s Torah portion is a synthesizer of our internal spirituality and our external spirituality!

     And this we must apply in all we do. But the mezzuzah doesn’t always protect us from one of the most serious plagues of modern times. The plague of gun violence.

     On Wednesday, our President upon the recommendation of the Vice President has suggested a legislative agenda that would reinstate the assault weapons ban, strengthen background checks for gun owners and give law enforcement additional tools to prosecute gun crime as well as strengthen mental health services and help provide greater safety at our schools.  I do not believe that protecting our society from gun violence is partisan issue but we Jews who value life, whose spirituality demands that we be involved in the world and for those like me who work closely with law enforcement, the time has come become a strong voice for this legislation.  Each and every day our Sheriff’s department here in West Hollywood and the LAPD is on the line from the flood of guns in our society.

The children of our county are the most frequent of targets. According to the Los Angeles County Coroner, 75 percent of all deaths in Los Angeles County in 2009 were caused by use of a firearm, a trend that is mirrored nationally. In addition, a 2010 report by the Department of Public Health identified homicide as the leading cause of death for 15-44-year-olds. Latino and African – Americans in our county at the top of the victims of gun violence.

Our Congregation has a long history of social justice involvement. And this issue and our Reform movement urges us have a role to play in the coming weeks to help save lives and urge our legislators on both sides of the aisle in Congress that the plague of such violence needs to end.  The plagues of Egypt are over.  The plague of gun violence is still foaming in our midst.   

Jews have always had an ambivalent relationship with guns.  Jewish law prohibits the selling of weapons that might fall into criminal hands (Avodah Zarah 15b) and hunting for sport was frowned upon by the sages: (Orech Chayim 316:2).  One Mishnah Shabbat 63b teaches that Rabbi Eliezer permitted the carrying of a weapon on Shabbat because it was seen as ornaments to the one who bears them.  But the Sages over ruled him saying, "They are shameful," quoting the prophet Isaiah, "They shall beat their swords into plow shares,"   That being said gun ownership is not forbidden but we are taught to be extra careful with access to dangerous situations and our Talmudic teachings reinforce that we ought to stay far away from dangerous situations.  Using this rationale as a basis,In contemporary times, both the Conservative movement and Reform movement are on record as favoring the assault weapons ban and limiting access to guns by complete and full licensing and registry.  No gunshow exemptions and no transfer exceptions.

I hope that in the days and weeks ahead we can work together urge Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban-that expired in 2004. I hope our Temple Board will take up a resolution in support of the assault weapons ban and send it to our legislators.  I hope you will call your Congress person and our Senators, Feinstein and Boxer to register your personal, spiritual support of such an assault weapons ban and to advocate for stronger mental health services and to strengthen our Sheriff’s Department and LAPD's ability to prosecute gun violence.  All of this is in the legislative proposal made by the President.  In the Foyer is a sheet with the Congressional Switchboard number and information about how to call your elected officials   on this issue.

In the face of the children of Newtown, and the victims of Aurora Colorada, the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, Virgina Tech, Columbine, and so many others can we continue to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor? We cannot be naive enough to think that the mezzuzah on our own doors will keep this plague far from us.

Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro, The Koretzer Rebbe, once sat and struggled with a passage from the prophet Isaiah: It is written in Isaiah 58:1, "Lift up your voice as a shofar." He wondered, "What could it mean?  "How can a voice become like a shofar?"  He wrote after pondering the verse further, "The voice of the shofar gives warning even as it invites us to prayer."  "We can lift our voices like a shofar to warn those around us to do as Isaiah said, "They shall beat their swords into plow shares, their spears into pruning hooks." We must sound the alarm.

If we don’t speak up who will?  I would hope that our congregation can come  together to voice our common belief that our children must be protected and that the common sense legislation proposed must not be derailed by the National Rifle Association.

This weekend we observer the National Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday holiday. This weekend people everywhere will join in a National Day of Service to honor Dr. King’s memory – his life cut too short by gun violence.  A fitting tribute would be that we could stand up to the NRA and to the flow of guns in this country and in particular assault weapons and clips that have multiple shooting capacities. We must say enough.  We won’t stand for our children being attacked, our schools made unsafe, and our police forces hampered when they try to help end gun violence.  We can play a major role.  I hope we will not shy away from our responsibility. May Dr. King’s memory inspire us to do more than is required and to create a beloved community –safe from gun violence.

            Leonard Bernstein, the famous conductor and musician taught “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”  So let us sing together- We join with Cantor Saltzman:

Like a Bridge Over Trouble Waters - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773

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   Shana Tova u metukah.  I wish you each a sweet and happy New Year. 

Welcome home --- A feeling of home Is important in Judaism because hospitality is one of the essential Jewish responsibilities.  Hospitality is making guests and friends feel comfortable in your home.  We learn this value from our Patriarchs and Matriarchs; from Abraham and Sarah who welcomed friends and strangers into their tents.   They made them feel welcome, rushed to greet them, washed their feet, provided food and shelter from the hot day’s sun.  We aren’t having feet washing ceremony tonight…but I do hope you will feel at home.  For some of you Kol Ami is your once a year stop.  You are not strangers but family.  Others of you are regulars- and some of you are brand new tonight to Kol Ami.  Welcome-Welcome home to each of you. Cantor Saltzman and I, our board of Trustees want to say: Welcome home for the holy days. 

As the great Jewish teacher and hostess Dolly Levi said: “It’s good to have you back where you belong”. 

            Tonight you are home where you belong.  Even if you have never celebrated with Kol Ami before. You are home among the Jewish people.  Your tribe is here.  Your extended family is here.   Your people are here. Your God is here.  Judaism believes Home is the anchor, the root of our being that allows us the strength to explore and then return home in safety and in love.

       No wonder the Wizard of OZ is such a powerful story… it isn’t just those sparkly ruby slippers or Judy Garland’s singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.   It is the knowledge-that
“There’s no place like home”.

On Rosh Hashanah and these ten days of Awe through the holiday of Sukkot, the Jewish people return each year to the home of the Jewish people...the synagogue.   The synagogue has been the central address of the Jewish people since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.  The synagogue is our home.

Here is where we, the Jewish people encounter one another.  Here is where we the Jewish people encounter our tradition, our Torah, our values, our ethics.  Here is where we encounter God through prayer and meditation.  Here is where we have a dialogue with God.  We pray to God and God speaks to us through the Torah and Haftarah reading and if we are earnest enough God speaks to us in the still and quiet of our prayers.

In the Middle Ages the Synagogue was also a home away from home! It would shelter Jewish travelers.   People would often sleep in the shul, in wealthier communities there would be Shabbat meals.  But this is where the custom of lighting candles and reciting the kiddish in Temple began!  The synagogue is our home. And yes, a reminder of the presence of God in our midst.  The place the Shekinah dwells. 

 Like the ancient Beit Mikdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, the Temple was the physical home of God on earth.  And the synagogue is the heir to that holy place.  And so our congregation and other holy congregation seek to be places of holiness and places of Jewish life.

            Like that famous Simon and Garfunkel Song, “Like a bridge over troubled waters”.  The synagogue is the bridge that keeps us safe and dry from the tumult around us.  When chaos reigns, the synagogue is the place of tradition, and safety and home.  When troubles get you down, the synagogue is the safe place that embraces you; when you mourn, the synagogue is the place that can help renew you and when we have joys we yearn to share, the synagogue is that kehilah kedosha, that sacred community where we can do all of that-cry and laugh, question and seek answers, play as well as pray, and we do this all in the encounter of self, and community and yes, of God.

            And yet the synagogue-the home of the Jewish people has been a makom kodesh, a holy place for refuge from the choppy waters of these difficult times.  And a holy place to find others of similar values and ethics. The synagogue as place of learning and living is a bridge that helps us get from here to there on the journey of life across the vast expanse of a chaotic world. The synagogue remains as the central hope and home of the Jewish people –providing a respite and a path toward resilience in these difficult times.

But sadly the synagogue is under attack these days.  It is not a physical attack here in North America as it has been in France.  But the synagogue is under spiritual attack from the inside.  The moorings of the bridge are rusty and cables on the suspension bridge are worn thin.  Neglect has undermined the foundations of our sturdy bridge, the synagogue and we risk falling into the troubled waters ourselves.

This summer while on sabbatical I studied extensively about the sustainability of the synagogue.  According to demographer Steven Cohen we are losing the battle, synagogue attendance among Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews is the lowest ever! Liberal Jews are least institutionally tied to the synagogue.  We are more intermarried, and our financial charitable giving goes to a broader range of activities and less to Jewish concerns.

 In generations past the synagogue was our primary recipient of charitable giving.  But not today.  I want you to think about how many fellow Jews you know that will not even be in any synagogue during the High Holy Days, let alone the rest of the year. I am sure we all can name a few!

            Rosh Hashanah is a time for renewal. A new year begins tonight.  It needs to be a spiritual time to renew the holy places in ourselves and in our synagogue. Rather than just a one-time stop-we Jews have to take time to refresh, and secure the future of the synagogue that is that bridge for us and future generations.  Yes the synagogue will have to adapt to new technologies alongside ancient traditions.  But to help us reinforce the holy space inside of us –we need to have models of holy places around us and that we can enter into.—The Synagogue is that place for Jews and those who are part of our families.  As the prophet Isaiah teaches. My House shall be a house of prayer for all people!

     And let’s be brutally honest with each other.  Synagogues cannot do what you want them to do without the funds to do so.  God is free, synagogues are not.   When you want the rabbi there for you, when you need a place to say kaddish.  You want the synagogue around when you have a crisis in your relationship or meet the woman of your dreams and want to marry then you need the synagogue and the rabbi and the cantor around.  When you want to study more spirituality in Judaism or celebrate a Bar Mitzvah. You want the synagogue around.  When you want moral guidance and you want to know how to navigate those choppy waters that crash against us-you want the synagogue around.  When you are grieving and you need a place to say Kaddish-you want the synagogue around.

 But if you ignore it, get angry or annoyed because the synagogue asks for support then you are contributing to its demise.  But synagogues can’t endure without something else….PEOPLE! If no one is here. If it is a relic of times gone by, if it is just a museum. Then the synagogue and The Jewish people will be weakened to the point of extinction.

So what can we do to ensure the wellbeing of the synagogue.  To ensure the future of the places of Jewish gathering.  To ensure the sustainability of Kol Ami?  I know you are thinking that right now I am going to ask you all to make a pledge of money.   I will do that… or someone will later.  But I believe there is more to it than money.

I believe strongly the key to renewing the centrality of the synagogue and ensuring the strong stable future of the synagogue is the confrontation with  and rekindling of our faith.

            I am not only talking about faith in God.  I am talking about faith in our People! I am talking about trust in one another.  I am talking about the hope that the Jewish civilization that was passed down to us from our ancestors and shaped now by our take in the contemporary world as our ancestor shaped Judaism in theirs, will be strong enough and resilient enough to pass to our children and future generations.  But if we let the cynicism of our times creep into our shuls and into our hearts, then the synagogue is not long for this world and the bridge that has sustained us as a people will succumb to the same choppy seas. 

Faith has been harder for those of us that need proof.  Faith in something larger than ourselves, faith in one another, all seem to have been dashed into those troubled waters as well.  It is as if we wait for disappointment and then say, “I told you so.”  We assume the worst. 

Rosh Hashanah is here to help us assume the best.  The best in ourselves and in our community.  The Shofar is calling you to examine your faith, and renew your Jewish spirit.  The shofar is calling you to awaken to the resilience that faith gives us.  The shofar is calling on you to strengthen the synagogue as the home of our people.  The shofar is calling you to have faith in God, faith in the goodness of humanity and your fellow Jews, faith in one’s self. 

                 And so tonight I want to share with you three ideas about faith that I also believe will help shore up the synagogue in North Amercia, our synagogue, Kol Ami,  in addition to helping shore up our own personal spiritual journeys through this High Holy Day Season and throughout the year

            There is a huge debate in Jewish philosophy the centers around the idea: Do you have to believe in God to be a good Jew?  I tell you from experience it isn’t only the philosophers like Maimonides who ask this question, its many of you!  I constantly get –Hey, Rabbi I am not religious, I am a bad Jew? Or “I don’t believe in God am I still Jewish?”  I don’t believe in God of the Bible does that make me not Jewish?  Let me say I don’t believe in the God described in the bible either—and I know I am still Jewish.

        The tradition teaches variations on this idea.  For some belief in the idea of One God it is essential to being a good Jew for others it is about doing not believing. It is about acting. Do you act in Jewish ways?  Do you perform mitzvoth?  Are you ethical in your dealings?   These are the essentials of Jewish life.  For many of our sages the doing precedes the faith. 

 As Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa  taught in Pirke Avot: When deeds exceed learning, learning endures, but  when learning exceeds deeds, learning does not endure. (3:12).

In other words Judaism has a bias on responsible action that we call mitzvoth! 

            Faith is borne out of the experiential in Judaism, not the miraculous the splitting of seas, or the burning bushes that don’t burn, but the deep and abiding experience of comforting the sick, walking with the mourner, teaching Torah to our children.  Faith in something greater than ourselves is built on a foundation of right and just action, caring and loving kindness.

            But this is not the only idea when we couple just action with the teachings of the great Maimonides, Rambam advocates for belief.  You must believe in the idea of the One God he teaches.  But of course for Maimonides God is not some other being sitting on the throne of judgment.  God is the essence of the universe, pure intellect. And thus belief in God and the oneness of God is the idea that the entire faith venture is predicated on the philosophical basis of the great mind which unifies the universe.   The project of faith building then is not waiting for God to PROVE God’s existence but faith is about the unification of the self with what we call God. The Unification and development of the intellect while performing acts of kindness and responsibility in the world. This is the touchstone of a mature Jewish faith.  Faith in God. Not a separate entity –not a capricious, omnipotent Being. But the creative spark and breath of the Universe that we are a part of. And were created in the image of!

As Rabbi Jack Reimer writes; “The first kind of faith you need to bring with you for the holidays. Is faith in God. I know how hard that can be to have”; he writes, “But unless you have some conviction that there is an order and a structure to the universe that the world is not hefker, (which mean ownerless property that can be possessed by the  one who claims it), that morality is not just a matter of opinion, in short that there is a God; the service tonight and every night will be an empty show; a boring performance. Bring faith in God with you and Aleynu will be a majestic moment, the Amidah will be an intimate conversation….” 

I know that when you recite the Shema prayer you will seek that Union with the godliness in all humanity and in the deep historical connections to the past and the historical connection that reach beyond in the future.   You can experience through that a sense of faith-the eternality that we pray for.

            One way to think about the Divine Idea we call God—is that it is the extra push within us to persevere. Just when you think you have run out of gas, God is the reserve that gets you to the next exit.

If you can open yourself up to faith in this Jewish idea of God then you will help shore up the foundation of the synagogue as the holy place of faithful encounter with God and learning about this God.  Since this is God’s house.

The second kind of faith that will shore up our synagogue is the faith in our Jewish People.  We are scruffy sort.  We have endured so many attempts to suppress us, to murder the Jews, to isolate us.  We have a heritage of standing strong with Jews in crisis around the world and with all who suffer and are oppressed.

It is not just the explosion and rebirth of the Jewish people after the Shoa- including the birth of Israel.  But in our own lifetimes-the rescue of Soviet Jewry, and the Ethiopian Jews, and the rebirth of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.  The flourishing of Jewish life here in North America that attests to our resilience as a People.  We need to have faith in our fellow Jews that at the end of the day they will come through.  Even when we disagree about halachah, or that some Jews claim superiority over others Jews- we must have faith in the ideal of Klal Yisrael-the overarching connection and ties of the People Israel to one another.

Once there was a bookkeeper of synagogue.  She told the rabbi she wasn’t going to her Temple’s High Holy Day services anymore and she was thinking of quitting her congregation. The Rabbi concerned that something was deeply wrong pressed her a bit further.  “What could have possibly happened is something wrong with your health? “The bookkeeper replied, no I am fine –I just know too much about our Temple members who I would have to pray with and the rude behaviors they expressed.  I can’t pray with those kind of people around me. “

            I think she is wrong.  There are always hypocrites.  There are always people who don’t live up to common courtesies or people who grow up without manners.  But at the High Holy Days especially we need find the room to forgive each other’s’ shortcomings.  And restore our faith in one another.  Teshuvah, repentance and forgiveness is the major theme of this time of year.  Cut each other a break. And cut yourself a break.  Because God does that for you. 

That faith in one another will strengthen the Jewish people and when we gather together, like tonight we strengthen the synagogue by our presence. Even if we doubt our faith in God, we need to restore our faith in each other. We need to reach out to each other-in good times and yes, in difficult times too.  We aren’t just temple members at a temple function.  We are members of this community when we are out and about.  A hello at a restaurant or event an acknowledgement of your people. That will strengthen the synagogue, our synagogue.  Our sacred community

            The third kind of faith that I believe will strengthen the bridge; the synagogue, and perhaps the most important… is faith in yourself.   In a world where we are assaulted by a daily barrage of information, of impossible airbrushed perfection, of the television show that resolves in 22 minutes, we are surrounded by the easy way.  But life isn’t easy.  It is filled with ups and downs and difficult moments.  To strengthen the bridge is to look fear in the face. And to know we can.  When you have faith in yourself, supported by faith in God and faith in your Tribe-you can breathe deeply as you step into the unknown. 

Faith in yourself is not that you are already perfect-faith is that you can grow and change and be the person that you want to be.  That it is never too late to become who you dream of becoming.  That is faith in yourself.  THE POWER OF THE UNIVERSE

An ancient midrash tells of God who was trying to decide where to hide the power of the universe so that humanity would not find it and use it destructively.

One angel said, "let us hide it on top of the highest mountain"... But they decided that humanity would eventually scale the highest mountain and find this power.

Another angel said, "let us hide this power at the bottom of the sea." ... Again it was decided that humanity would eventually explore the depths of the sea.

Still a third angel suggested, "let us hide the great power of the universe in middle of the earth." ... But they realized that humanity would someday conquer that region, too.

Finally God said, "I know what to do. Let us hide the great power of the universe within the human being . They will never think to look for it there." According to the midrash, they did hide the power of the universe within humanity, and it is still there.

Moral: Few people have ever realized that the great power of the universe lies within themselves .. that's right ... YOUR SUCCESS LIES WITHIN YOURSELF

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the New Year and has the potential to be the beginning of a new you.   Our tradition teaches us that the whole word is a narrow bridge-but the main principle is not to be afraid… don’t face it with fear… face it with intellect, reason, strength and heart.  Faith in yourself is necessary to make the changes that will propel your spiritual journey, For the next 3 weeks  until we dance with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah-we have a season of Reinvinention and a season of Resiliance.  We are here to regain faith in ourselves that we can let go of past hurts that we caused or were done to us.  That we resilient human beings can believe in ourselves once again to rebuild our inner lives and affect our outer world.  

These 3 kinds of renewed faith are the keys to helping us strengthen the bridge over troubled water.  These 3 kinds of faith connect in the synagogue to help us walk into a better future.  The synagogue is the home of the Jewish people.  But if you don’t have faith in God or your people or yourself- why would you support the very institution that is the nexus of all these?  My friends we need you to support this synagogue. Many of you because of your own situations, your own doubts, your own fears have left it to a few to nurture it and yes, fund it.  But as I said earlier, the attack on the synagogue is not from without it is from within.  And if we ignore the synagogue, and we ignore the questions of our own deep spiritual explorations of faith I can assure you the struggles of synagogues in N. America will continue the downward slide. 

“C’mon, I’ve got an idea.” George said to Sam.

“What is it this time? “Sam complained as the two men walked down the street. Since they retired George was always coming up with ideas to keep their days filled with activities. “Whatcha got in that bag?”

“You’ll see, “George said as he tightened his grip on the grocery bag in his arms.

“Well can you at least tell me where we’re going? Sam asked.

“We’re going to the park, “

“Count me out,” Sam said and abruptly stopped. “That park looks like a wasteland. There’s trash everywhere. Somebody needs to clean it up before anyone can think about spending any time there.”

“You’re somebody,” said George. “And I’m somebody. And I’ve got some garbage bags and gloves right here. I’ve even got some of that no-rinse hand wash stuff and snacks for later.”

“Oh great, “Sam replied sarcastically, “And why are we doing this?”
“Because this is the park in our neighborhood and if we don’t take care of it, no one else will.” Explained George, “And besides, it where we’re going to start doing Tai Chi in the mornings, stay in shape, get some fresh air.” George puffed up his chest and gave Sam a wink. 

George and Sam continued on. When they arrived at the park, George pulled out the two garbage bags and handed one to Sam.

“I used to love bringing my kids here when they were young.” Said Sam. “What’s happened to this place?  He looked around at the unhinged see-saw, overturned benches, and broken swings. 

“We just forgot it was here for us to enjoy.” said George.

“Here’s to reclaiming some of that old splendor,” said Sam as he opened his bag and started picking up the debris.

It is a season of renewal and reinvention.  As we join together to reinvent ourselves. Let’s join together to reinvent the synagogue-the hope of the Jewish future. Let’s return the synagogue, the bridge over troubled water to the splendor our ancestors, our grandparents; our parents knew it to be.  Let it be the hope of sustenance for you and for me. 


Push a Button - Kol Nidre 5773

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 Happy New Year.   Shana Tova.   

      As we begin this Kol Nidre evening our thoughts turn to the contemplation of our lives. For the last ten days since Rosh Hashanah we should have been engaged in a conversation with God to plead our case for atonement.  If you haven’t yet had that conversation with God I welcome you to do so tonight.  So let me wish you all the traditional greeting for Yom Kippur:

In Hebrew:” Gmar Chatimah Tovah “which is translated: “May the Odds Ever be in your favor.”

Tonight begins the Jewish version of the Hunger Games. It is one of the most popular book series and movies of all time.

If you are not familiar with the Hunger Games—it centers on the story of the brave young woman Katniss Everdeen.  The stories take place in a post-apocalyptic America now named Panem.  There are now 12 districts rather than 50 states and each year the districts must provide two teenage competitors for the annual Hunger Games.  This fight to the death for the amusement of the bourgeois Capitol district is a semi-controlled pageant and death Olympics that brings so called “honor” and much needed food to the sole winner and his or her district.  All the districts serve the Capitol and its outlandish inhabitants in this dystopian view of the world. 

They fight hard to rebel against this end of the world scenario of slavery and death in the Hunger Games.  Yom Kippur is our time to fight hard for our souls and ourselves.  . It is our time to right those bad habits that have enslaved us.  So that we can claim once again the image of God that each of us possesses Kol Nidre is the first step in renewing our Godliness and our helping us focus on our goodness! Tonight is a rebellion of sorts against the sins of our past, and a push toward creating a new liberated path for ourselves.

            By the end of Yom Kippur if you are fasting you may be physically hungry but the idea is to be spiritually full. Even though we refrain from eating physically, we are replenishing our spiritual fuel.  It’s like detoxing and rebalancing our spiritual selves all at once. When we fast we create a physical void and allow ourselves tonight to feast on spirituality. The High Holy Days and fasting are spiritual disciplines that will let our spirits soar higher and our inner divine light to shine forth once again. The rituals of Yom Kippur, fasting, refraining from sex, from being concerned with our physical appearance- allows our souls to reach higher.

     Hearing the ancient Kol Nidre melody helps our souls go higher. It frees us from our past our vows that we failed to keep this time last year and helps us enter this sacred space.

Unlike the “Hunger Games “this is not a fight to the death physically.  But it is the death of the old you.  It is a time to annihilate the old tattered self-and emerge tomorrow evening with a fresh new you; a fresh new soul that is free from shame and free from guilt, free from sins large and small.  We are taught during Yom Kippur to keep what is good within but this is our chance to toss out that which damages the essence of our humanity. Tonight we remind ourselves that we are made in the image of God

    On Yom Kippur –we say in our prayers:  s’lach lanu, machal lanu , kaper lanu,

Forgive us, wipe the slate clean and grant us atonement. 

      Forgive us, God, from our sins and errors and trespasses, wipe out our shame and guilt and restore our relationships with you Divine One and help us do so with others.  That is atonement-when we restore our relationships with God and with others and with ourselves

      If only it were easy!  If only we could make those changes in a snap or a seek forgiveness in an instance. But I am not sure it would be as effective.  Imagine If only we could apologize for our errors and sins, and our trespasses done to God and others and ourselves and be done with it quickly! Imagine we could make it all right with just a push of a button. 

In fact Tom and Ray Magilozzi who write a column for Cars.com wrote about this very idea.  They wrote a column about “Features We'd Really Like to See in All Cars”.   Along with improvements in tires and brakes  and suspension systems they imagined this:

 10. 'Sorry!' Button

Is there anything that we need more on the roads today than a "Sorry!" button? We often do bad or dumb things when we drive, and we have no way to communicate remorse. It might just lead to a little more civility.

As it stands now, when you tick off another driver, he or she has little choice but to remind you that you're a moron. Then you have to retaliate with a clever retort like, "Oh, yeah? Well, you're a moron, too!" Say you're sorry, though, and you break the cycle. A "Sorry!" button could defuse a lot of otherwise explosive situations — not to mention, it would generate a good deal of karma.

While we're at it, we'd like to have two buttons, "Sorry!" and "You jerk!" Except when you press the "Jerk" button ... your car still says, "I'm sorry!" Nice, huh? We thought so.

(http://www.cars.com/go/advice/Story.jsp?section=top&story=car-talk-car-features&subject=more&aff=cartalk)

But Repentance doesn’t come with a push of the button.  It won’t come at all unless you push yourself.  It only comes from actually confronting what You did to screw up and committing not to do it again and repairing the damage if you can and finally by making amends to the person and to God.

     Tonight I want to you to think about three things in your year that you regret.  That you shouldn’t have done but did anyway.  The words you said that you shouldn’t have.  The shading of the truth that gave you an unfair advantage.  The charity that asked you for money but you lied a bit and claimed you didn’t have it.  The way you avoided someone at the grocery store.  The promises to call that you never made. The way you rejected your spouse to punish them for some slight real or imagined. The harsh judgments you made on a co-worker not really understanding what was happening to them.  The way you felt entitled to special treatment and demanded it but you know you really didn’t. The valet you treated as less than human by not even looking him in the eyes when he handed you the key and the checker at the grocery store with whom you got impatient.  That you were rude to your neighbor. The way you critiqued someone under the guise of humor but you knew it was true. The fight you had with your sibling that caused you not to speak any more. The cousin who asked you for money for the thousandth time that is annoying. When you lost your temper needlessly, snapped at your children or an elderly parent. Or your addictions got the best of you including being too tied to your phone?

     I want you to reflect on your reactions, your behaviors in response to all these situations.  What could you have done differently?  How you might have responded with caring?

       Whether any of these are on your personal list or not-the beauty of Judaism is that no matter our trespasses we come here to seek to improve ourselves.  The Al Cheyt prayer enumerates exactly these sins we have just mentioned. We seek forgiveness from the small things and the big things.  And we mention them all whether we have actually done them or not because we confess together as a community recognizing we all have the capacity to sin. 

That’s a harsh word sin.  We Jews all too often associate it with Evangelicals preachers we see on television.  But sin is our original word.  Sins are real.  I always tried to side step this word trying not to be too judgmental but the truth is there are sins. If we assert there is a Jewish system of living, ethics and rules and order that is Judaism. Then there is sin.  Sometimes we sin against God and sometimes we sin against other people and sometimes we sin against ourselves. 

In fact we have several words for sinning in Hebrew.  Like the Inuit –the Indigenous tribes of the Alaska and Canada that have many names for snow -we have at least six different words in the Tanach that refer to sin. And we have many more in the Ashamnu prayer we just sang. Our words for sin have multi-valent meanings.

Chet, Pesha, Avone are Sin, transgression and moral failing. In the most general terms here are some definitions. Chet means going astray… you have wandered off from the Halacha (the Jewish path, the Jewish legal path. It is an unintentional sin. You have missed the mark.  Pesha is a transgression it means an intentional sin going against God. That you willingly chose to do. An Aveirah-is an iniquity-a sin of passion or lust- a sin not meant to deny God but a sin never the less.

   But the truth is that to atone for these sins this takes work.  It is more than a quick push of the button, saying “I’m sorry. “

  In Jewish tradition the face to face ask is one of the hardest.    Near the end of tractate Yoma, the Mishnah limits the scope of the Day of Atonement:

For sins between humanity and God, Yom Kippur atones. But for sins between people Yom Kippur does not atone until the injured party is appeased.  

 Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur are here to help us be free from those sins that which diluted our spiritual strength since last year. That caused a problem in our relationship with God.   But the sins you committed against others –the time has come for a face to face encounter.  That is the hardest amend to make.  Hardest to admit and hardest to do.  And a general statement on Facebook doesn’t count. 

has the possibility of being a day of reconciliation with those we have hurt.

Our ancient ancestors they had it easy.  They went to the Temple which stood in Jerusalem.   On Yom Kippur they brought the Proper sacrificial offering, they fasted and prayed and were absolved.   The High Priest would send out a goat to Azazel – out into the wilderness with all of our sins transferred to it.  Banishing our sins for another year.  But what about after the temple’s destruction?  What about for us now?

Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan states the following:

One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the Temple now stood in ruins. "Woe to us" cried Rabbi Yehosua, "for this house where atonement was made for Israel's sins now lies in ruins!" Answered Rabban Yochanan, "We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim ("loving kindness"), as the prophet Hosea  stated "I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).

And not just Hosea-but all of our prophets.  Tomorrow morning we will read the Haftarah from Isaiah.  Isaiah will remind us that God doesn’t want empty rituals, and empty prayers.  God wants from us is action.  Apologies to the person, Caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked.   Isaiah wants to remind us that God demands our caring for our fellow human beings above empty rituals and sacrifice. 

And so along with the prayers tonight, and along with actually making amends to those you have hurt intentionally or unintentionally and making amends there is a third piece to atonement .   A Third pillar of this soul-polishing is chesed-acts of lovingkindness

This third pillar the act of kindness is no different now than in time of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.  There are real people who are suffering in our midst.   We see in it the Congo.  And our work with Jewish World Watch has helped our community focus on Darfur, and the problems in the Congo.

 But right here in our own congregation there is suffering. There are still plenty who have no jobs. Or are only able to find part time jobs and so they have no health care. There are many who have no one to care for them in their senior years.  There are many of us who suffer such great sadnesses, depression, health problems and grief.  There is real suffering in our midst. But if we ignore it, if we pass by the mourner without offering words of comfort then we have sinned against God, and other people, and ourselves. Gemilut Chassadim- acts of lovingkindness not only helps redeem us from our own sins, transgressions and errors but helps us build our own spiritual lives as well. Acts of Chesed help us transform our souls and those of other people.   

As my good friend and one of the first women Orthodox rabbis, Dina Najman wrote, “Tzedakah is sparked by the demands of compassion. One cannot bear to see a person suffering, so one is compelled by a sense of sympathy to help the other. If that present need did not exist, there would be no compassion necessary and no charity given.

Chesed requires a broader, more sensitive heart and a generosity of spirit to be integrated into one’s personality.  Chesed then, will not be a reaction forthcoming only in response to sadness.  It will be an ever-present quality which will anticipate needs, understand other’s limitations, search for solutions and initiate acts of benevolence, even when unstated or un-noticed by the recipient.”

Acts of chesed are considered the realm of our Ancestor Abraham. When we act with Chesed towards those around us…  When we reach out in kindness to the person who is depressed or mourning or alone we change the worlds’ reality and we change our own reality.  When we let the quality of Chesed flow from God through us into the world then we will begin to heal the deep holes left in our soul from sin or our own grief and heal those we help.

Abraham is the representative of Chesed-lovingkindess.  If only we could match his Chesed – his lovingkindness, teach our sages.

As a result his acts of love and kindness, Chesed is built into our entire Jewish way of life.  We don’t just have random acts of kindness-but in Judaism our chesed should overflow from our being and not just be random but it ought to be our state of mind.

In the Mishnah and in the Morning worship service we read Eilu divarim she ayn la hem shiur : these are the obligations without measure whose reward too is without measure.  One of the items on the list of ten is: To perform acts of love and kindness-even though this quality should flow freely from us-it is also a responsibility as Jews. 

Chesed Lovingkindness –is the mark of caring for others.  It is the way of gentleness.  It is the idea of radical hospitality.

     A IL Peretz story retold by British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks 

Every Friday morning before dawn, the Rebbe of Nemirov would disappear. 

He could be found in none of the town’s synagogues or houses of study.  The doors of his house were open but he was not there.  Once a Lithuanian scholar came to Nemirov.  Puzzled by the Rebbe’s disappearance he asked his followers. ‘Where is he?’ ‘Where is the Rebbe?’ they replied. ‘Where else but in heaven? The people of the town need peace, sustenance, health.  The Rebbe is a holy man and therefore he is

surely in heaven, pleading our cause.’

   The Lithuanian, amused by the credulity, determined to find out for himself. 

One Thursday night he hid himself in the Rebbe’s house.  The next morning before dawn he heard the Rebbe weep and sigh.  Then he saw him go to the cupboard, take out a parcel of clothes and begin to put them on.  They were the clothes, not of a holy man, but of a peasant.  The Rebbe then reached into a drawer, pulled out an axe, and went out into the still dark night.  Stealthily, the Lithuanian followed him as he walked through the town and beyond, into the forest.  There he began chopping down a tree, hewing it into logs, and splitting it into firewood.  These he gathered into a bundle and walked back into the town.

   In one of the back streets, he stopped outside a run-down cottage and

knocked on the door.  An old woman, poor and ill, opened the door. ‘Who are you?’ she said.

 ‘I am Vassily’, the Rebbe replied. ‘I have wood to sell, very cheap, next to

nothing.’

‘I have no money’, replied the woman.

‘I will give it to you on credit’, he said. 

‘How will I be able to pay you?’ she said. ‘I trust you – and do you not trust God He will find a way of seeing that I am repaid.’

 ‘But who will light the fire? I am too ill.’

 ‘I will light the fire’, the Rebbe replied, and he did so, reciting under his

breath the morning prayers.  Then he returned home.  The Lithuanian scholar, seeing this, stayed on in the town and became one of the Rebbe’s disciples.  After that day, when he heard the people of the town tell visitors that the Rebbe ascended to heaven, he no longer laughed, but added: ‘And maybe even higher.’

Judaism gently teaches us through the stories of the Torah that true goodness is not carried out in a blaze of glory.

True goodness and giving that we call Chesed often involves nurturing and caring in little ways that go unseen.  Often when it’s hard. Often when it hurts. Often when it’s not really “my job.” Impacting this world is not reserved for the knight in shining armor, for the airbrushed faces of Hollywood.  It is the responsibility and right of every one of us—with all of our talents and strengths, and yes, with all of our weaknesses. We, and our loved ones, are immortalized long after we are gone, through the kind acts on this earth—the comforting whisper to a frightened child, the mending of a broken heart, the giving of charity when we need to dig deep, the patience and forbearance to a cantankerous relative, the nourishing home-cooked meal delivered with love . . .

It is through this goodness and giving that we touch the divine, ascending higher than heaven.”

    Tonight I am asking you to each go Higher this year. I am asking you to help wipe your sins away through acts of chesed. Acts of lovingkindness.  I am asking you to hear the call of our Ancestors- like Abraham and Sarah who brought chesed into the core values of our Tradition. I am asking you to stop focusing only on yourself and focus your chesed-your kindness on others.

For a number of years our Chesed Committee has remained moribund.  With few to take on the responsibilities and joys of bringing kindness to those who are homebound, who are ill, who are in mourning.  This is the year to rejuvenate this important group within the life of our congregation- I am looking for people who will want to dedicate some of their time and energy this year to bringing Chesed to others, to calling on the sick and homebound and comfort the mourner and to make the guest feel welcomed.  Chesed –lovingkindess in all we do-is the theme of the year and we will feel the redemptive power of acting with chesed.

For those of you who are not yet members along with those who are members I am also asking you to remember that these times are still tough for so many.  1 out of six Angelenos are hungry.  Sova, our Jewish food pantry that serves everyone regardless of religion moved a couple of doors away from Kol Ami on La Brea two years ago. Each morning the line to get food snakes past the temple and wraps around the block.  At holidays, Thanksgiving, Pesach, especially the line is triple. They used to serve approximately 7000 a month. Since the 2008 recession those numbers are now more than double.  These are the real Hunger Games.

And hunger is to get worse since the Farm Bill which reauthorizes Food Assistance formerly known as Food Stamps was not acted upon by the House.  The present 5 year law expires on September 30 and many programs that affect our farmers who are facing the worst drought since the dustbowl in the early part of the 20th century will be affected. 

     The biggest impact of the proposed bill though would be in America’s anti-hunger safety net, SNAP (still known by most folks as the Food Stamp program, and CalFresh here in California.) SNAP accounts for 80% of Farm Bill funding and is currently helping 46 million Americans survive during this extended recession, most of who are unemployed or work at low wage jobs, or who have disabilities and can’t work, and of whom a huge number are children.

      In the bill that was proposed, some $16 billion is cut out of the SNAP program over ten years, particularly affecting seniors and others with high utility bills in certain states, possibly affecting thousands of people locally in California who’ve been able to get benefits under new rules that allow people to keep more assets, and putting immigrant families with fully qualified members under added scrutiny.

     But With no Farm bill passed and congress gone home…. Things will get worse right here in California and around our nation for those who depend upon Food Assistance to simply survive.   This is a time for Chesed because the Hunger Games are about to get worse.

This is the time that we as a community must step up as never before.   Chesed is one of the ways we work through our sins and make atonement.  One way to do this is to help bring food to those who need it.  I am asking you to make a commitment to bring canned food with you to temple tomorrow as never before.  And I am asking you to do that every time you come to synagogue.  I am asking you to volunteer with our Team Sova-that goes to help.  I am asking you to get involved in our Game night once a month on Thursday and our Thanksgiving program for the seniors of Triangle Square I am asking you if you have fruit trees on your property to let us arrange a fruit pick so that the fruit doesn’t get wasted and can go to food banks around town.  I am asking you to let Chesed flow through you into the world to help change the world and yes, change you.

There are other ways Chesed can be expressed. Tonight I have given you several easy examples of how you can let chesed-lovingkindess become part of your everyday life.  Maybe it’s not as easy as a Push of the button but all of these will help you do the work of atonement.  And help redeem you from your sins.

       All we have comes from God—yes-Judaism believes we have a responsibility to share it with others.

       On this holy night the time of atonement-is here.  The time to confront our sins and ask for forgiveness has arrived.  It’s time to reach higher than you did last year. 

I know you can.

 

The Empty Chair - Yom Kippur Morning 5773

 Permanent link

    I wish you a Gmar Chatima Tovah—a good inscription in the Book of Life.  

      One of the images of the High Holy Days is God’s heavenly throne.  In fact the Ark of the Covenant… that was held in the Holy of Holies was God’s footstool for the Heavenly Throne! The ancient Temple was the place that helped us reach toward the heavens and the place where God was thought to reach down to us.  On this holy day-that place of direct communication is open to us.  We are actually here in our sanctuary space before the Throne of Glory.  That last thing you want to see is an empty chair!  Or empty Throne.

       But it seems like Empty chairs are getting a lot of publicity these days!

       It seemed to have worked well for Clint Eastwood depending on your political view. But his ad-libbed conversation with President Obama told us that the chair wasn’t really empty- we were to use our imagination to fill that chair. 

         And we too have to use our imagination to fill the empty Throne of God.  We come here seeking atonement and repentance for our sins.  We must use our imaginations in order to seek the union with God that complete forgiveness and atonement is. This is ours to seek on this day.  We are challenged on the High Holy Days to imagine God is here with us sitting on that Heavenly Throne because we are in that space between Heaven and Earth.  We have been admitted to the holy realm for these few hours. And I hope we use this time well.

       We have lots of chairs in Judaism filled and empty. Just like in this sanctuary today.  There are many seats filled. But there are also many seats empty. There are Jews who ought to be here with us communing with their tribe, communing with God.  But they claim they are “not religious” Jews. And so have no need of being here on Yom Kippur or any day. But I beg to differ. Religious or not the synagogue is the home to the Jewish people—it isn’t just about prayer or rituals. It is about being a mensch. And whether you believe or not being a mensch is what we learn together.

         Today I want to share a bit with you about Jewish tradition and chairs and being a mensch and particularly the role of the chair and why it is important especially on Yom Kippur. And why even if one isn’t so called a “religious” Jew that you need to fill the empty chairs.

      First one of the most important images of the chair in Judaism is the uplifted chair of the wedding.  Traditionally brides and grooms are raised high on the shoulders of the community as they dance together.  This tradition came about because at an Orthodox wedding men and women are separated by a mechitza. The sex segregated celebration has lots of dancing and the only time the bride and groom dance together is by holding a napkin or handkerchief between them.  Chairs in these cases are lifted high. In this case a filled chair is full of joy, but can be deadly if emptied.  More than one groom and bride have fallen out of the chairs and sustained injury at their own wedding!

This is a case when an empty chair is not a good thing at all. And the filled chair a blessing.

Seemingly under the heading of a Jewish custom transforming itself by the ignorant-now often the bar or bat mitzvah is lifted in a chair at their party.   Although this is mostly a mistake by DJ’s who know little of Jewish tradition.

But these are filled chairs…what about the empty chair in Judaism?

The first real empty chair in a person’s life is at the brit milah or brit banot—the covenantal ceremony welcoming our sons and daughters into the Jewish people.  There is an empty chair for Elijah the prophet at every ceremony.   One of the finest examples of the Elijah chair is in the synagogue in Cavillion, France, in Provence.  It is a decoration on the wall and was used by the community at each brit milah.  You can see it still to this day.

Elijah, Eliyahu HaTishbi, he same Elijah we sing to at the end of Shabbat and we welcome at the Seder during Pesach, was a miracle worker in the Bible.  He brings good things and blessings everywhere he goes.  He is the herald of the Messiah.  And at each brit ceremony we briefly place the child in the empty chair-imagining that this new life might be the Messiah.  They have the potential to change the world for good. To defeat evil and to bring a sense of all that is good and holy to their family and the world. 

This is an empty chair-momentarily filled-  and it brings joy to all.   This empty chair is symbolic of the promise and hope that the Messiah will come and bring about a time of peace and prosperity and health and well- being for all. 

The hope of a messiah as an individual who will come and achieve these things has been in Judaism since before the time of the Prophets.  Jeremiah and Isaiah both make reference to him and the prophet Micha (4:4) teaches us that everyone will sit under their vine and fig tree and Isaiah teaches us nations will not lift up sword against nation any more.

The Messiah a word that comes from the Hebrew Mashach, to  Annoit would not only be a redeemer, God’s messenger but a king who would renew the monarchy of Davidic times. The Messiah of Jewish tradition would sit literally on the throne of David and re-energize the Kingdom of Israel and Judea. The Messiah, a descendent of the line of David would be a king.  The Messianic/Davidic throne is empty. It ended after King Solomon and was divided into two kingdoms and then finally dismantled when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Thus the empty throne of King David-would not have a King Messiah as the Talmud writes about. And this is precisely why Jesus didn’t fulfill the Jewish criteria for the Messiah.   Nor other rulers like Herod.

Instead the throne sits and remains empty.  And we wait for the Messiah. Rambam, Maimonides wrote that the Messiah was part of the essential beliefs in Judaism.

           Reform Judaism rejected the idea of an individual messiah-a person who would be descended of the line of King David and sent to change the world.  But rather Reform Jewish ideals took the notion of a Messianic time that would be brought about by our working toward a vision of that kind of day.  Instead Reform Judaism committed to working toward a utopian society that we created by our progressive ideals-the equality of men and women, a time when poverty is no more and together that we Jews along with our fellow men and women of all races and creeds share in the protection and welfare of our planet and are concerned with one another.  We believe in a true time of peace and friendship and fellowship across tribal lines and international borders. This is the vision I still hold to in my work today.

     There is a poignant Biblical story in the Book of Samuel.  Saul, King of Judah, the first Jewish king, invites the young David to a banquet in celebration of the New Moon, Rosh Chodesh.  David is cautious, for he fears that Saul means to set a trap for him.  Saul feared that David would become King and usurp the throne. David decides not to attend.  Jonathan, Saul's son, the beloved friend of David, conspires with David to protect him.  In doing so, Jonathan knows that they may never see each other again. Jonathan says:  “Your chair will be empty.  You will be missed.” When someone is missing from our table that empty chair indeed indicates that someone is gone from our family circle.

        In Judaism we have empty chairs in times of grief and mourning. Traditional Jewish custom says that at the shiva home, the mourner is to sit on cushions or low stools, since it is not permitted to sit on a regular chair during this time. The mourner is dis comforted-by loss and by the hard low stool or floor. This extends to national days of mourning such as Tisha B’Av when we are also to sit on the floor and mourn for the loss of the ancient temple.

      And there is a Monument in Krakow, Poland of empty chairs. It is a public art installation. These empty chairs represents the over 65,000 Jews of Krakow who did not return from the Holocaust

      The Empty Chair is a metaphor for loss, a symbol of grief. The holidays are often a time to realize that there is a place at the family table that is empty.  Sitting in a sanctuary today on Yom Kippur we might well recall parents, grandparents, children, teachers, family members who are no longer alive, yet their presence is felt.  It is as if there were an empty chair or place next to us where they should be.   There is some consolation and comfort to be found in the awareness that we continue to feel the presence of those who have influenced and touched our lives. And this afternoon at our Yizkor service we will remember and pay tribute to them.

            During the years of Soviet refusal to let the Russian Jews emigrate to Israel-many of our Passover Seder’s included an empty chair for the Refusniks, and later the Ethiopian Jews who couldn’t get out of Ethiopia until Israel airlifted them out, and most recently until a year ago Gilad Shalit-the Israeli soldier that was held captive for 5 years by Hamas who was released in exchange for over 1000 terrorists prisioners. The empty chair is symbolic of those who can’t be at our holiday observances.

        Another Empty Chair is that of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.  He was a famous 19th century Rabbi-known for his amazing observations about life.  Rebbe Nahman, as he is known, was the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the charismatic founder of the Hasidic movement who lived and taught in the 18th century.  Rebbe Nahman, was known as a tzaddik, that is, a Hasidic religious leader who possessed a special understanding of the links between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm. He was truly a righteous and incredible teacher. 

      In his brief 38 years of life he served his loyal followers (who became known as Bratzlover Hasidim) with incredible passion, he traveled to the Holy Land of Israel, and he spread his teachings, and the ecstatic approach of Hasidut all over Eastern Europe and the Ukraine.  But when he died, he died without naming an heir, leaving his followers lost and forlorn. 

      They were ridiculed by members of other sects, who called them the Dead Hasidim, because their rebbe had passed away and left them without a connection to heaven.  Rabbi Nachman struggled all his life with depression.  His infant son died and after was never the same- perhaps that inner sadness, that he felt and struggled with brought his teachings down from heaven and made them more real.

    He still has many followers world -wide. Perhaps on a trip to Israel you have seen the stickers all over—Na nach Nachma Nachman MeUman.  The chair of his dynasty has never been filled. And thus Rabbi Nachman’s empty chair.  

     But they did have something that would keep them going as a sect.  They had that chair, an empty chair. 

     A few years before Rebbe Nachman died, a devoted follower gave the rebbe a gift – an exquisitely-crafted wooden chair, a throne of sorts for the great rabbi to sit upon. The man that handcrafted it had worked a few hours every day on it for more than six months.  When Rebbe Nachman died in 1810, his followers left that chair empty, sitting silently in the congregation for over one hundred years, in order that it should remind them of the irreplaceable loss of their leader.

      During the Cossack uprisings against the Ukrainian Jews in the 1920’s the chair was cut into pieces, smuggled to safety and later brought to Israel in 1926 by a Bratzlover family fleeing the impending Holocaust. It was brought to Jerusalem, reassembled with help from the Israel Museum, and was in the Bratslaver synagogue in Jerusalem for many years.  (taken from Excerpts of the Introduction of “The Empty Chair”, Jewish Lights Publishing).

     This summer I saw Nachman’s empty chair in the Israel museum in a wonderful exhibit about the inner life of the Chasidic community.

 His empty ornate chair with the beautiful maroon velvet cushion continues to inspire so many people around the world. Many of you know some of the important words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. And Cantor Saltzman has even sung them on Rosh Hashanah eve-Kol Haolam Kulo-gesher tzar m’od. V’haikar lo lifached.   All the world is a narrow bridge, but the main principal is not to be afraid.

      And in part those words have brought comfort to me each day of my rabbinate. They have kept me strong and moving forward despite my fears.

     But Nachman actually wrote during his lifetime about an empty chair that has important implications or the High Holy Days.  When one sits in a chair and the person is empty then indeed you are sitting on an empty chair. Your body may be on it. But you are empty inside, Rabbi Nachman wrote.  He recognized the quality of emptiness comes from inside of us.

 This describes so many people I meet. Perhaps it describes some of you.  You may be sitting now in the chair but if you are empty inside then that chair is empty too. 
      Oh you may be full of so many things: Bravado, ego, material goods.  But we all know that those don’t really fill us up in the end.  We can be lonely and still surrounded by so many people and things. We can be sitting on empty chairs because the emptiness is inside of us.

         As Mark Twain said, “"You can't depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus."

     And so we are called to use our imagination this day to fill the empty chairs. We are called to use our imagination on this Yom Kippur morning to fill the emptiness inside of us.  We are called to dream.  Even if we don’t know how. Even if we have been moving from one thing or person to another.  Yom Kippur helps us to start over, start fresh, by opening us up to the possibility that we can change. We can be different than before. We can dream on this Yom Kippur day of how we might change and be the person we imagine.

     Rebbe Nachaman also taught that when a mensch sits on the chair it is full.  A mensch is that integrated person who does good, integrates spirit and the material worlds.  Looks out for herself, her family and her friends.  A mensch is a person who tries to do the right thing.  A mensch gives tzedakah and practices gemilut chasadim.  A mensch is what Jewish life tries to create in all of us. 

Today, Yom Kippur is about trying to be a mensch.  Yom Kippur tries to remind us not fill up  with things, but to strip down to the basic simplicity of faith, hope, loyalty, charity, study and putting our Jewish values to work in the world every day.

These are not always the values of the world around us. In fact I have to say that these Jewish valuesoften run counter to the world around us.  Instead we see greed and gluttony, individualism and worship of money and things and an emphasis on the superficial.  We Liberal Jews most of us who left Judaism at 13 years of age still hold on to that 13 year old views of Jewish life and God and Torah.

But a sophisticated and adult view understands that Judaism reminds us that what matters is family, a balance and an emphasis on community, a reminder that all we have is not ours alone but must be shared with others.

These are the things that help us shape our menschlikite.

     Today, on Yom Kippur you should be asking yourself-How can I in the year ahead be a mensch.  How can I live my life more in tune and in balance with the Divine Principals of Jewish life?  How can I incorporate these teaching into my life every day?  How can I imagine , how can I dream of a different, more meaningful reality for myself and the world? How can I sit on the chair and not feel so empty?

   Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov also taught it was through the idea of faith:  He taught the pathway to filling up the emptiness begins with this:

First:  Affirm your faith in yourself:  (repeat after me)

Make sure you say pray daily these words: 

I believe I am important in God’s eyes

I believe I can return no matter how far I’ve strayed

I believe that I have the inner strength to change

I believe that I can become truly devoted and close to God.

This is the essence of moving forward to a life that is full. Because one you become committed to faith in yourself and faith in God-you will see there will be a fullness and a contentment that will begin to shape your reality-a fullness that will come with meaningful living- a fullness that will come with intentional living, a fullness that will come with the study of Torah and using it as your guide post to navigate the world of empty chairs and empty people.  Judaism is that guide. If you have felt empty-if you have been drained by the world, the rough economy, the frustrations of simply getting from here to there on any day in Los Angeles, if you have been lonely, Yom Kippur is here to remind you the way out of that emptiness and into a life of fullness and fulfillment is something you have had at your disposal all along-living a full Jewish life. Living an intentional Jewish life. 

I have been privileged for 25 years to hold the chair as the first openly gay rabbi in this community.  5 years at BCC and 20 at Kol Ami.  My whole rabbinate-has been dedicated to the liberation of this community of Jews;  I have seen plenty in these  years.  I have buried more than my share of people and visited hospitals more than I care to because of the devastation of AIDS that hit our community.  I was 28 when I began in the heights of the crisis as your rabbi.   We have had plenty just in those losses alone to feel the emptiness inside.

I have been with you as we let our anger fill us trying to get the government and the larger community help us deal with the devastation that was and I remind you still is HIV/AIDS .  I have worked alongside you trying to create an environment of acceptance and welcome for LGBT Jews and for our civil rights. Working hard to change the environment in the religious worlds and making great headway on many fronts.  Where there were empty chairs in Temples and synagogues –we now fill them including on the bima as Conservative Judaism ordains Rabbis and Cantors as well.  I consulted with the Conservative movement and have consulted with the next realm of openness and that is in the Orthodox world.  It is slowly changing. And the conversation is being had in places it never was before from Yeshiva University, to Agudath Yisrael and Chabad.

I have been sitting in the chair beside you all these years-in times of joy at the birth of our children and grandchildren and at the dedication of our Temple, at your weddings even before it was legally recognized. And soon God-Willing it will be again.

      I have been sitting beside you all these years as we have buried our parents and bedside as many of us age and deal with the intricacies of health. 

But to do that and to not feel the emptiness my self-I have kept one verse in mind.  And that is the verse I use as my own mission statement.  Written on the wall in my office, and on this tallit and several others I own, is a verse from the prophet Micah. (6:8). It keeps me grounded. It reminds me to be a mentsch.  It keeps me directed on the right path.  It keeps me filled so that I don’t have an empty chair that Nachman spoke about but a verse that keeps me filled and ready to do the work God calls me to do:

     O Humanity, What does God require of you? Only to do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with   your God. 

This has been my guidepost to serving as your rabbi. This has been my guidepost in serving the Jewish people. This has been my mission as a rabbi and continues to be. It fills me when emptiness creeps in.

      And I believe this verse from Micah can also be the pathway to a better you. And help you flll the emptiness that is the signature of our times. 

            Yom Kippur urges us onward to cleanse ourselves of everything that got in our way. The errors, ommissions, sins of commission.  The times when we got in our own way of living a holy life-the life of a mentsch.   And the promise of this day is that we can use our imagination to see ourselves as the person we dream of becoming.  Beloved by God, belonging to a people so I am never lonely, and no matter how far afield I have gone-there is no place like home.  Yom Kippur urges us Homeward Bound- so we can fill up all the empty chairs –and focus on doing together-justice, loving compassion and walking humbly with God.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Yizkor 5773 - This is the Time to Remember

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Death is ever present in our lives. Even when we would rather not face it.  Death is always there. Hovering just beyond and we pray hopefully far away. Sadly, death snatches our friends and family members from our presence and our reality.  Whether they were ready or not—or we were ready or not.    Death is that final call of no return. Except through the gift of memory and story.

And so at this Yizkor service we stand ready to invoke their memories. We are ready to take a stand against the losses we have endured by championing life and memory and love.  We defeat death even if only for an hour; this hour, by choosing to remember. We choose to face death and our losses at Yizkor. That is why we Jews have this dedicated time for remembering.  Once a year on a Yarzeit – on the anniversary of our ancestors’ death and four times a year at the Yizkor memorial service like today;  Yom Kippur, at the end of Sukkot, at the End of Pesach and at Shavuot.  Each of these three is the festivals of the Jewish people.  We overcome our busy schedules and lives to stare down death and say we won’t go into the future without invoking the memory of our loved ones.  We defeat death when we carry our loved ones with us wherever we go. We defeat death when we stubbornly won’t enter this New Year without honoring the memory of those who died both in years past and in recent months.  We defeat death when at the most important holidays-we make sure our ancestors are with us.  We Jews state proudly and certainly—the past—those who shaped us, formed us and gave us life are honored for the role they continue to play in our lives despite the fact that they have died.

Today we remember at this holy day season and at each of the three most important times of the Jewish year we invoke the memory of our ancestors who have died.  What holiday is complete without recalling the family circle?  Parents and grandparents. Spouses and aunt and uncles. Perhaps even our children. This Yizkor service pays homage to our dead. That at the holiest time of year –we recall and remember and pray for their souls and our souls

This all through the gift of memories. This all through the gift of the stories we share about their influences upon us.

But the truth is such that our memories are with us more than just at these holy day moments.  I don’t know about you-but I look at the photo of my parents taken at a synagogue dance in the 1960’s and see a young couple who I hardly knew.  It is a far cry from the old people they were when they died.  A black and white photo with my mother in her dress and matching shoes cigarette in hand. My father with his slick-backed hair and skinny tie and pinstripe suit. But the photograph of them keeps them near to me in a different way.  They are still present in my every -day life.  Silent witnesses even as I wish I could call and speak with them.

We who live in an era of photographs and video and film have the luxury of having our memories preserved. Snapshots and video clips are downloadable to our phones and IPADS to carry with us wherever we travel in the world so long as our batteries are charged.  But not so long ago –the memories of our loved ones were only preserved through stories, family tales and lore and the private pictures preserved in our minds. The Yizkor service helped us focus in on a regular basis of keeping those memories alive.   Today will you recall a story about your aunt?  A family tale about your grandparents?  This holy day time of Yizkor can help you weave that story into the fabric of your existence.

One aspect of the Yizkor service that hasn’t changed at all it is a way to pay tribute to their contributions to our lives in shaping who we have become.  As we prepare to chant the El Maleh Rachamim prayer and recite the Kaddish prayer for our loved ones who have died,   I invite you this year to think about the lessons that you learned-the good lessons, the bad lessons and the ugly lessons from those whose names you will recite out loud today.  How did your mother shape who you have become?  How did your grandparents convey their values to you?   And in turn how are you conveying your values to the next generation?

Our ancestors and friends have helped to create us. Form us. Influence us. Give our lives meaning.  And by recalling them on this Yom Kippur holy day when we pledge to create ourselves anew, helps us bring them along into our new reality of the New Year.

Soon this holy day will be gone and we will return to our homes and our busy work-a-day lives.  We will get caught up in the day to day pressures of our lives.  But we will have been enriched and anchored in the bosom of our family circle and the many memories of those who no longer walk this earth. By recalling them today, the gift of the heart and mind that shaped us and transmitted values and traditions to us, remain with us.  We bond more closely with them as we affirm their memory.  
May their memories live for a blessing in our lives.

 

Ken Yehi Ratzon.  So may it be God’s will

 

 

 

From Despair to Hope-Degradation to Praise- A Sermon for Kol Nidre

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Shanah Tovah Happy New Year and Gmar Chatimah Tovah I wish you a good inscription of your story in the Book of Life.

Tonight is Kol Nidre.  We like Jews around the world are gathering with solemn thoughts of the wrongs we did and the wrongs that others did to us during the past year.  We are gathering with a country that seems to teeter on the edge of incivility and insolvency as the Washington elites of both parties pander and posture for re-election rather than take a serious look at the despair of the American people.

Despair is the word of our time.  I see it in the faces of those in our own community who are unemployed for now multiple years.  I see a growing anger and hopelessness in those who are underemployed stringing together minimal part time jobs so their employers can avoid paying costly benefits.

I hear despair in the voices of retirees on fixed incomes who worry whether they will have enough to maintain their way of life.  And those on disability who are one budget veto away from homelessness.
I hear despair and worry in the stories of those who have had to sell their condos and houses for great losses.
I hear despair in the voices of parents who cannot provide for their children the same kind of education or summer camp that they went to. I see despair in the voices of recent college graduates who cannot repay their school loans because there are no jobs in their field.
I see despair on the streets of Los Angeles as there are more homeless than ever.
It is not a happy time in America.  It is not a happy time in the world.  Where did the pursuit of happiness go?  

But this is not just an American despair. It is a difficult time all over the world.  Europe’s financial system is in turmoil led by great debt in Greece and Spain.  The Arab Spring is quickly turned into the Arab Morass-as Syrian President Bashir Assad mows down his citizens with little condemnation from the world.  Libyan revolutionary forces have caused Ghaddafi to flee but the country is still in chaos.  And the great country of Egypt is at an economic stand still.  It is still controlled by military council—and even as elections looms- there is not a single emerging political party that supports the more than 30 year old peace treaty with Israel. Egyptians just recently stormed the Israeli Embassy and attacked the diplomats there. The security and safety of the border with Israel is now more in question that ever before.  The last terror attack in Eilat-all the terrorists were Egyptians.

Turkey once Israel’s great ally has turned against her- and Europe looking more toward its fellow Islamic countries.   Lebanon once a country with an active Christian population is now dominated in it Parliament by Hezbollah-a front for the real cause of much of the Middle East turmoil-Iran.  

Iran marches toward nuclear capabilities each and every day that passes in spite of severe economic sanctions.  But the Chinese continue to buy Iranian Oil to feed its burgeoning population.  Iran already has nuclear power on line and also has developed long range missiles capable of carrying warheads more than 900 miles to downtown Tel Aviv.

And of course the Palestinian bid for statehood that would bypass direct negotiations and that wants to build on the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel.  As Mahmoud Abbas came to the UN this past month talking about the holy land –mentioning the history of Islam and Christianity and conveniently ignoring the more than 3000 years of Jewish history in the land.  There is despair in the Palestinian people as well as their leaders posture and prepare the youth for hating Israel rather than trying to make peace and live side by side with the Jewish State.  The Palestinian people want peace with Israel-their leadership want the land Judenrein-free of Jews.

There is despair in the Israeli population as dissatisfaction with the government led more than 400,000 Israelis to march in peaceful protest of the increasing gap between the wealthiest and the middle class and the poor. Not to mention those that are on the streets of London and now the US as the Occupy Wall Street movement grows from city to city.

And we haven’t even discussed the effects of Global warming yet; of rising sea levels, changed weather patterns of drought and rainfall or the clear cutting of rainforests in South America or the militia violence in the Congo or drought and famine in Somalia.  Yes there is much to despair this Kol Nidre eve.  

And these are just the global issues.  Each of us has tzoris-as we say in Yiddish. Personal pains and sadnesses.  For some of us –it is our health. For others of us it is loneliness.  For some of it is loss of our dreams-never being able to attain that which we had hoped. For some of it is grief at the death of loved ones.

We can look at the world through these bitter pills. Through the lens of bitter darkness. And we would be right to do so.

Despair is tricky.  It is close to depression.  Real depression.  For some of us it goes hand in hand.  Deep depression is a deep seated feeling of utter hopelessness and overwhelming fear.  The inability to make a decision. To focus.  To feel as if you can have an impact on the world.   The despair of our neighbors can be contagious as a flu.   According to government statistics, everyone is affected by depression. You are either one of three women, one in six men, or are close to someone who is clinically depressed [1]( “National Health Priority Areas Mental Health: A Report Focusing on Depression from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare”, 1998.) Depressive disorders affect approximately 18.8 million American adults or about 9.5% of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year.

Despair often comes from a deep sense of loss. And it has at least four dimensions to it: Physical, Emotional, Intellectual and Spiritual.  And yet all are intertwined.  As Rabbi Elie Spitz describes in his book, “Healing from Despair”:  

Despair is a whirlwind, a spiraling downward that we enter at the point of a diagnosis, a crisis, or a tragedy, and the cumulative impact is greater than the total weight of the individual burdens we carry. The spiral creates a momentum, so that we find our thoughts racing toward gloom and we can no longer sleep or eat or meet our needs. (p.36, Healing from Despair, Jewish Lights).

With the world so overwhelming at a global scale and for many of us at a personal level it is a wonder that we can get out of bed at all.  The truth is many of us cannot.  Many of us are deeply depressed, deeply and existentially sad, very lonely and feel hopeless to regain our footing.
We can cry with the Psalmist who said it best:  O God, God of my deliverance. By day, I cried; at night, I stood before You. Let my prayers reach You. Incline your ear to my song. For my soul is filled with troubles and my life is at the brink of the grave. I am numbered with those who go down to the pit, I have become like a person without strength. I am considered among the dead who are free as the slain that lie in the grave, those You are no longer mindful of and who are cut off by Your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, into the darkest places into shadows. (Ps 88, 2-5)

The words of the Psalmist echo our individual and collective despair.  The Psalmist
understood deep loneliness and pain.  The Psalmist understands our feelings of
abandonment.  The deep welling up of our melancholy.

But it is precisely out of this sense of darkness and deep discontent with the world and ourselves that Yom Kippur comes to lift us and purify us for the year ahead.  Tonight on Kol Nidre we begin the process of purification. Of removing the dark bitter points within our souls and washing them clean. Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur can help us move that bitterness from our kishkes, from our psyches and renew us, help us atone and forgive ourselves and others.  

It is often our own failures or perceived failures either spiritual or physical that lead us toward the gloom of despair.  We feel utterly hopeless to overcome those flaws and those fears.  And yet, what we do here tonight and tomorrow is a process of forgiveness.  And this starts with forgiving not only others but first and foremost forgiving yourself.  

Robert Karen writes in his book “The Forgiving Self” that when we are caught up in the negativity of regret and guilt “we deny ourselves the space to be. There is no right to explore, to struggle, to make mistakes, to not know. There is no forgiving voice that says, you were being you, and that was all you could be at the time. There is only bitterness and grudge. Obsessive regret is how we submit and get defeated. Often, it is little more than revenge against the self.” (p. 117-118)

On this Yom Kippur and this Kol Nidre eve our tradition teaches us that we must begin our souls rehabilitation with asking God to forgive our sins and freeing us from the regret, guilt and hopelessness that we blame ourselves for.  

As our Tradition teaches in the commentary Shnei Luchot Habrit and the Talmud Yoma 20b (as quoted in Handbook of Jewish Thought, volume by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, ed by Abraham Sutton, 1992, Moznaim Press, p.244)

Yom Kippur is a day when the power of evil is diminished and God’s light shines into every soul….the power of holiness on Yom Kippur is required to cleanse it and restore it to its pristine purity.

Tonight your soul is in the process of taking out the gloom and sadness and let God’s holy light illuminate the recesses of your being and grant you atonement.  Forgive yourself as you forgive others.  
Judaism recognizes that in order to lift the despair and move toward a sense of hope and healing we have to engage in the process of repair.  Of Tikkun.  One of the steps of this tikkun and repair is to pick up the shards.  

As many of you know I have explained time and again the mystics, the Lurianic, the Kabbalistic version of creation.  The light of God came from a small point outward to be contained in seven sacred vessels, but the light was so powerful that it shattered the vessels sending the shards lined with the divine sparks through the heavens to the earth. Our task is to seek out the shards, the broken pieces, collect them and restore them.  

This is the same with us.  We must collect the broken pieces of ourselves, and restore our souls to wholeness.  This was done at Mt. Sinai as well.

When Moses came down the Mountain with the first set of God written commandments and saw the great sin of idolatry as the Israelites danced and worshipped the Golden Calf, he smashed the stone covenant against the rocks-sending the Ten Commandments in shards of stone.  According to tradition Yom Kippur is the commemoration of the day Moses came back with the second set of Tablets. The day God forgave the Israelites as they repented in love.  Those tablets were placed in the Holy Ark of the covenant and carried through the wilderness to eventually generations later reside in the Holy of Holies in the ancient temple.

But what happened to the first set of commandments. Where did the shattered pieces of holy rock inscribed by the finger of God go? Were they left as debris on Mt. Sinai?  According to tradition (Talmud Baba Batra 14b) the shards were picked up and placed alongside the second set in the Holy Ark.  The shattered pieces exist side by side with those that are whole.  Out of the shattering both of the original vessels of creation and the original tablets of the Covenant comes a renewed opportunity for healing and hope- a pathway to releasing the Divine light within.  An opening for healing from the deepest despair whether collectively as the Jewish people did at Sinai or on an individual basis.  

Tonight on this Kol Nidre eve out of your brokenness, out of your despair, let the light of community, the light of forgiveness, the light of atonement, the light of Shabbat, the light of healing, the light of God heal your gloom. Begin the process of lifting you out of the deep despair of our time toward a sense of gratitude for your life and gratitude at a second chance.

And this soul healing or soul repair work is the work of this Yom Kippur.

We need the vision of wholeness beside us, near us just as the whole tablets resided next to the shattered ones.  
And for this we give thanks.  Real gratitude to know that even the Commandments written by God, were given a second time.  We were given a second chance at Sinai.  And today we give thanks that we too will be given a second chance in forgiveness.  
Gratitude is one of the ways we lift ourselves out of the despair and the gloom.  At Passover the Talmud (Pesachim 10:4) teaches us “matchil b’ganut v’sayem b’shevach”  -“ begin with degradation and end in praise.”  We begin the story with our oppression and end the Seder with praise of God.  This is a formula not only for spring time.  It is for this season as well. We begin our stories with our tzoris, our despair, our sins, our errors, and move toward atonement and praise of God and life.  

Gratitude helps lift us from the jaws of hopelessness when we can begin to see that there is still much to be thankful for.  Gratitude even in the midst of such deep feelings of despair and self-ridicule can help reverse the tidal waves of regret within.

Hope builds through gratitude for our lives. And Hope in the future-your future comes when we face the past and move beyond it in forgiveness.  .  And Yom Kippur helps us focus on moving towards hope and praise from the depths of our disillusionments in ourselves and in others and in the world.  

Our liturgy over the next day echos this idea as well.  We begin with the Kol Nidre, asking God to forgive us, we recite the ashamnu, and the great al cheyt, the listing of the sins and transgressions and at the end of tomorrow, at Neilah we will recite the Viddui prayer that ends in praise.

The great Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov suffered from deep depression in his poverty stricken life in the Ukraine.  He wrote the following as guidance for perceiving the light within:

When a person finds that he is utterly unable to pray or even to open his mouth on account of the greatness of his sadness and the bitterness of the darkness, he may perceive himself to be at an unfathomable distance from the Holy One. Even in this hopelessness he should search and seek within himself a point of merit. He should revive and rejoice through this because surely every person is worthy to grow in joy very greatly from each and every good point within himself. When we are in despair, we look at ourselves and see only unworthiness, but if we search within ourselves for one small point of light, that is good, that is worthy, we will find the one point and then we must search and find another, and then another. (Likutei Moharan 1 p.282)

Those connecting points of light within come directly from the Holy Sparks of Creation.  They reside in you. And if nothing else give thanks for the holiness that still lives in you despite the sins, errors, or despair that also exists side by side. Give thanks for the light that emanates from your soul. This Yom Kippur raise up the sparks and combine your light with that of others. Into one shining force for transformation.  For Healing and for Hope.  Yom Kippur is here to help your inner light shine brighter and for this we give thanks now and for the future light.

Our hope comes from the assurance of God’s ultimate gifts bestowed upon us-the gift of spiritual renewal and healing that is the hallmark of Yom Kippur.  The gift of forgiveness. We can heal from despair when we imagine a future free from the chains of gloom, freed from the enslavements of our transgressions.  We can heal when we give thanks for our very lives. As the Psalmist says(34:19): “God is close to the broken hearted and those crushed in spirit God delivers.”  We can heal from despair when we find the point of light within and fan the spark, the ember of hope into a full fledge-light of love, and peace.

Each night, Jewish Tradition teaches us that along with the Shema prayer we pray for a peaceful night.  In Birchat Lishon is also this idea that God’s Divine light illumine our nights and our day. It says,

Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the universe, who closes my eyes in sleep, my eyelids in slumber.

May it be Your will, Adonai, My God and the God of my ancestors,

to lie me down in peace and then to raise me up in peace.

Let no disturbing thoughts upset me, no evil dreams nor troubling fantasies.

May my bed be complete and whole in Your sight.

Grant me light so that I do not sleep the sleep of death,

for it is You who illumines and enlightens.

Praised are You, Adonai, whose majesty gives light to the universe.




Tonight on the Kol Nidre eve let the light of the Divine radiate down upon you. Lift you from the despair of these times and help you find the divine light within yourself-that will allow you to forgive others and forgive yourself.  

For God’s majesty illumines the universe and will illumine your soul.

Ken Yehi Ratzon  So May it be God’s will.  

Rosh Hashanah- The Case for Jewish People Hood? Can we be One?(2)

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Shanah Tovah

Happy New Year Everyone!

For the last three years I have had a unique view of the Jewish People.  First, as President of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis, the Western Region and largest Region of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  I led more than 450 Reform rabbis from Vancouver to El Paso, from Utah to New Zealand.  And for the past two years as President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, sponsored by The Los Angeles Jewish Federation but serving rabbis of all denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, from San Luis Obisbo to the Mexican Border. It was unique in that I was the first woman ever to do so.  And it allowed a type of conversation that hasn’t happened before.

 I have had a chance to visit congregations, talk with rabbis serving in schools and Hillels on college campuses. I talked with rabbis who serve in our federal prisons and chaplains in hospitals and young rabbis who are chaplains in the military and have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have communicated regularly with the senior rabbis of the largest congregations with large rabbinic staffs and rabbis of small solo pulpits, rabbis who work in Jewish education, rabbis who are counselors or work in Jewish organizational life, with retired colleagues, with rabbis who teach in day schools and university, rabbis who are unemployed because of the changing nature of the economy and its impact on the Jewish institutional world.  I have had a chance to talk with them about their lives and the life and state of the Jewish People.  
            One of the continuing conversations among rabbis of all stripes from the most liberal to the most stringent is a conversation that I would like to share with you this morning.   “What is the State of the Jewish People? Can the Jewish People Survive? And can the Jewish People be One?”

During my term as President of the Board of Rabbis the continuing theme that I believed that was symbolic of my tenure as the first woman and first lesbian to ascend to be chair of the board was the idea of Klal Yisrael—the universal principle of the People Israel.  That despite our differences in the way we sing or pray that there is more that connects us than divides us. We can argue over Torah interpretation.  This is what our ancestors did and this is what is recorded in the pages of Talmud.  But most importantly the principle of Klal Yisrael means first and foremost that we are one People. We must care for one another for our fellow Jews even as we are concerned about the fate of all humanity; That we Jews have a responsibility to one another.   Kol Yisrael arvaim ze bazeh- That to survive in this fast paced contemporary setting that is the 21st century we have to opt in –to one another. 

But there are those who disagree. 

Many believe that the Jewish world like the larger world is more fractious, more divided and less connected than ever before despite technology.  Many believe the gap between the haredim, our Orthodox religious fundamentalists and those of us on the progressive wing of Judaism is insurmountable. Many in the Jewish world including sociologist Steven Bayme believe the divisiveness we see over the role of the modern state of Israel and our beliefs about how to bring peace to that troubled spot is emblematic of the vast divide.  His contention is  that we cannot speak civilly with one another shows that we are not one. And therefore we cannot care for one another. 

The divided nature of the Jewish people and Jewish community is further disconnected along generational lines according to research. Young Millennial Jews want no part of established institutions instead preferring to create their own connections but then find that they are unsustainable financially and fleeting at best. In an article this summer in the Jewish Daily Forward, “Funding Jewish Peoplehood, Misha Galperin the new CEO and President of Jewish Agency International Development writes:  :

(Read more: http://forward.com/articles/139464/#ixzz1Yu5sMU00)

 “Having been raised in a world of pluralism and tolerance, Jews younger than 45 do not necessarily privilege their Jewish brothers and sisters above others when it comes to friendship, marriage, volunteerism and charitable giving."  

Increasingly we then must ask Can the Jewish People be one?  And Is there even a Case for Jewish Peoplehood?

For millennia we have referred to our group-as the Jewish Nation  Am Yisrael.  The Nation of Israel-not Israelis-citizens of the modern state of Israel although the Jewish ones are too part of Am Yisrael.  But beyond the idea that Judaism-is a religion-we Jews  have believed that we have a connection that goes deeper.  That is yes, in part biological but not exclusively biological because we welcome those who choose Judaism.  We are a group with a shared ancient history and myths and legends collected in the narratives of our group-in the Torah, and the Bible, in our Talmud and Midrash.  We are a group that has core values and ideals that have been passed l’dor vador-from generation to generation, even as each generation has made its own mark to shape those values and ideals.

We have a sacred language – Hebrew- even as we spoke the other languages of the world.  And we have had a tie to a sacred place – Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. The land of Zion – a place in our history which was real and from which we were forcibly exiled time and again-finally to return in recent memory of the 20th century. 

     But for most of our history we were a nation without borders.  We were a nation, a group , an ethnicity, that went beyond geographical considerations because of the exile of the Jews. That is how we can lovingly play that important Jewish parlor game---Jewish geography! I know you have all done it…Do you know so and so? Their family came from…. Not even six degrees of separation when we are talking about Jews. 
       In Hebrew the word Peoplehood is ammiyut…. And this idea has struck a deep chord among us –that somehow, beyond a religion or faith (as is sometimes used by Christians) beyond nationality or ethnicity (since we also hold passports from the modern nations of the world), beyond clan or tribe since ten of them where carried off in exile by the Assyrians, somehow we the Jewish people with our shared stories, values, and in previous generations mission if you will; survived despite the pogroms, and attacks, exiles, and holocausts.  We the Jewish People, a nation within a nation, are still here.

            Alan Hoffman, director of education for the Jewish Agency of Israel offered an explanation of Jewish Peoplehood in an interview in Shma magazine:

The unique character of Judaism, the combination of religion and ethnicity was shaped by the formative experience of living in Diaspora unconnected to soil and boundaries so typical of most other nations.  We are therefore a spiritual community, a sociological entity, a series of ethnic islands, a conglomeration that is difficult to pry apart.

The notion of a Jewish “People” in relationship – something larger than individual existence gives many Jews a sense of connectedness to a bigger something which is especially important as collective bonds weaken in the general society and also among Jews.  But a danger lurks if this becomes a diluted lowest common denominator concept, not nearly as powerful or robust as Jewish religious identity or national identity.” (As quoted in the “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood, Can we be One?” Brown and Galperin, Jewish Lights, 2009 originally in Shma 37,2006 “Challenging Peoplehood” Berrins and Hoffman, http://www.shma.com/2006/10/challenging-peoplehood/)

The worries of the rabbis I talk to echo Hoffman’s questions.   The rabbis ask – are we at that point… that our robust identity as the Jewish People is fading as our shared mission, values and ideals and facility with our shared language hold less sway.

Robert Putnam in his famous book, “Bowling Alone” recognized that we are often less socially connected than ever before.  From research of over half a million interviews Putnam concluded that we are more disconnected from family and institutions that ever before.  If we believe Putnam, and Jewish demongraphers like Steven Cohen, the old structures, like Peoplehood, are falling. There are simply less Jews.  We don’t reproduce. We don’t raise our children Jewishly.  We move in and out of the larger cultural so freely that when we can make decision about identity, when we have the individual autonomy to choose Judaism and identification we often don’t choose at all. We say we don’t “believe in God” so why engage in acts of belonging.  We fall in love with someone who isn’t Jewish and so we see ourselves outside the tent or we are pulled outside because we don’t want to rock the boat.   

As political scientist Daniel Elazar describes, “The Jewish community is a “unique blend of kinship and consent.”  (p. 41,The Case for Jewish Peoplehood)

As Erica Brown and Misha Galperin write  in their book “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood “Jews no longer share a common language of ritual practice and Jewish law nor are we joined by a shared insecurity of oppression or persecution.   In the absences of these historical markers, the Jewish community of the 21st century is struggling for a shred language of anything.”

  In other words, when you have the choice to opt in or easily opt out and when we no longer can speak to one another across the great divide of Jewish texts and literacy what will be the future of the Jewish People?   Are we merely left to some gustatory sense of Jewish life—bagels, corned beef and hummus? Or is there something deeper that ought to connect us?

My contention is and was that we hunger for more than a shared recipe.  We hunger for deep and meaningful connections and spirit.  But this doesn’t just come wafting down from heaven… rather it comes from a sense of mutual responsibility and mutual concern.  It comes from an attitude of commitment and connection and inspiring one another to build bonds of profound strength even when the world is in turmoil.  And perhaps because the world and the economy is in such turmoil we need the safety and sacred space of the Jewish People more than ever before.   I believe the bonds of Jewish Peoplehood are not just passive but must be actively nurtured and we once again as a sacred community we must find a shared language of mission and values and yes, faith in the enduring principles of Judaism.

This is the challenge I place before as this New Year begins.  How will we bridge the great divide between our concerns and our our actions?  How can we as a Jewish people gathered at the New Year here with our loved ones take one step to strengthen our own personal connection to the Jewish people and therefore uplift the Jewish project?  What are you willing to do to learn and speak this shared language of the Jewish spirit?

On the one hand I hear so often “Rabbi I want spirituality. I want connection.  I want to live a life of meaning.”  But I see so few of you willing to engage in the process that can provide the depth and breadth of that platform to stand on.   Ironically, the pathways to building that deeper sense of order, meaning and spirit are exactly the things that will bolster and help the Jewish people endure!  They actually go hand in hand!

And so in this respect I propose the following and challenge every member of this congregation to engage in three acts this coming year that will deepen your connection to the Jewish People.  I challenge you to take one of the myriad of Adult Education opportunities before you.   At Kol Ami we are offering more adult learning than ever before.   There will be text study in the form of monthly Bible encounters, Jewish current events, Torah chanting classes, author presentations and even a trip to Israel.  There is monthly family learning with our children.  In the busyness of our lives I challenge you to go deeper to learn at an adult level something more about your Jewish life, challenge your mind and challenge your soul with learning about who you are amongst this people.

The second challenge to you this New Year’s Day is to engage in acts of religious life.  Whether that is come to some of our holy day celebrations like Sukkot or Simchat Torah, Chanukah or Yom Ha-aztmaut or light candles in your home each Shabbat.  Do something affirmative that connects you ritually to the ancient life of the Jewish people. 

Ritual is hard.  It is harder still when we are single or don’t have traditional families.   But the disconnect builds when we lazily give in to a rhythm of secular life.  I challenge this community and congregation to do more than just the High Holy Days but to explore your Jewish spirituality through affirming Jewish timeless acts. 

The third and final challenge I make to you on this New Year’s Day in the name of preserving Jewish peoplehood is to engage in the call of the Prophets:  To Do justice-to engage in acts of Tikkun Olam consciously as a Jewish Act.  Fill up those brown bags that our ushers give out for Sova.  Walk with Team Kol Ami in the AIDS Walk.   Help us donate solar cookers in Africa with Jewish World Watch.  Work with other people of faith to stop the political initiative that would nullify the Fair ACT signed this summer by Governor Brown that would keep gay people invisible in the discussion of history.

Many of you serve on non-profit boards or volunteer your time with great organizations.   But how many of you do this as a conscious Jewish act?  How many of you do this as a true Mitzvah-a command to heal our world?  How many of you place your service-sacred service in the context of your Jewish values and ideals rather than just a sense of noblesse oblige.

What are you willing to do to ensure that this eternal people-the Jewish people survives?  What are you willing to do in this New Year to deepen your connections and deepen your spirituality?  What ways are you willing to opt in to help build the case for the Jewish people as an eternal people?  The more we engage; the more opportunities to create shared conversations among the various groups within Jewish life today.  We have made great strides. We sit at tables where once we did not.  But we risk something greater if it is only rabbis having this conversation-this is a shared enterprise-the life of the Jewish people.  And we need you in not only the conversation but in the effort to shape the future!

On one of our Torah covers is a phrase from Pirke Avot:  Marbeh Torah; Marbeh Chayim-the more Torah the more Life.  Engaging in Torah, in Study, in practice, in song and prayer, in acts of justice enriches our individual lives and it enriches and sustains the life of the Jewish people.

So hear the call of the Shofar this year as a call home to the Jewish People. Hear its blast enticing you to help the eternal values and principles of Jewish life and identity be brought into our daily consciousness and daily actions.  Hear the Shofar awakening you to the urgency of the task and urgency of the hour.

Eli Eli Shelo yigamer L’olam…. O God, My God I pray that these things never end- the sand and the sea, the rush of the water, the life of the Jewish People. 

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

So may it be God’s will.

Rosh Hashanah- The Case for Jewish People Hood? Can we be One?

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Shanah Tovah

Happy New Year Everyone!

For the last three years I have had a unique view of the Jewish People.  First, as President of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis, the Western Region and largest Region of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  I led more than 450 Reform rabbis from Vancouver to El Paso, from Utah to New Zealand.  And for the past two years as President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, sponsored by The Los Angeles Jewish Federation but serving rabbis of all denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, from San Luis Obisbo to the Mexican Border. It was unique in that I was the first woman ever to do so.  And it allowed a type of conversation that hasn’t happened before.

 I have had a chance to visit congregations, talk with rabbis serving in schools and Hillels on college campuses. I talked with rabbis who serve in our federal prisons and chaplains in hospitals and young rabbis who are chaplains in the military and have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have communicated regularly with the senior rabbis of the largest congregations with large rabbinic staffs and rabbis of small solo pulpits, rabbis who work in Jewish education, rabbis who are counselors or work in Jewish organizational life, with retired colleagues, with rabbis who teach in day schools and university, rabbis who are unemployed because of the changing nature of the economy and its impact on the Jewish institutional world.  I have had a chance to talk with them about their lives and the life and state of the Jewish People.  
            One of the continuing conversations among rabbis of all stripes from the most liberal to the most stringent is a conversation that I would like to share with you this morning.   “What is the State of the Jewish People? Can the Jewish People Survive? And can the Jewish People be One?”

During my term as President of the Board of Rabbis the continuing theme that I believed that was symbolic of my tenure as the first woman and first lesbian to ascend to be chair of the board was the idea of Klal Yisrael—the universal principle of the People Israel.  That despite our differences in the way we sing or pray that there is more that connects us than divides us. We can argue over Torah interpretation.  This is what our ancestors did and this is what is recorded in the pages of Talmud.  But most importantly the principle of Klal Yisrael means first and foremost that we are one People. We must care for one another for our fellow Jews even as we are concerned about the fate of all humanity; That we Jews have a responsibility to one another.   Kol Yisrael arvaim ze bazeh- That to survive in this fast paced contemporary setting that is the 21st century we have to opt in –to one another. 

But there are those who disagree. 

Many believe that the Jewish world like the larger world is more fractious, more divided and less connected than ever before despite technology.  Many believe the gap between the haredim, our Orthodox religious fundamentalists and those of us on the progressive wing of Judaism is insurmountable. Many in the Jewish world including sociologist Steven Bayme believe the divisiveness we see over the role of the modern state of Israel and our beliefs about how to bring peace to that troubled spot is emblematic of the vast divide.  His contention is  that we cannot speak civilly with one another shows that we are not one. And therefore we cannot care for one another. 

The divided nature of the Jewish people and Jewish community is further disconnected along generational lines according to research. Young Millennial Jews want no part of established institutions instead preferring to create their own connections but then find that they are unsustainable financially and fleeting at best. In an article this summer in the Jewish Daily Forward, “Funding Jewish Peoplehood, Misha Galperin the new CEO and President of Jewish Agency International Development writes:  :

(Read more: http://forward.com/articles/139464/#ixzz1Yu5sMU00)

 “Having been raised in a world of pluralism and tolerance, Jews younger than 45 do not necessarily privilege their Jewish brothers and sisters above others when it comes to friendship, marriage, volunteerism and charitable giving."  

Increasingly we then must ask Can the Jewish People be one?  And Is there even a Case for Jewish Peoplehood?

For millennia we have referred to our group-as the Jewish Nation  Am Yisrael.  The Nation of Israel-not Israelis-citizens of the modern state of Israel although the Jewish ones are too part of Am Yisrael.  But beyond the idea that Judaism-is a religion-we Jews  have believed that we have a connection that goes deeper.  That is yes, in part biological but not exclusively biological because we welcome those who choose Judaism.  We are a group with a shared ancient history and myths and legends collected in the narratives of our group-in the Torah, and the Bible, in our Talmud and Midrash.  We are a group that has core values and ideals that have been passed l’dor vador-from generation to generation, even as each generation has made its own mark to shape those values and ideals.

We have a sacred language – Hebrew- even as we spoke the other languages of the world.  And we have had a tie to a sacred place – Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. The land of Zion – a place in our history which was real and from which we were forcibly exiled time and again-finally to return in recent memory of the 20th century. 

     But for most of our history we were a nation without borders.  We were a nation, a group , an ethnicity, that went beyond geographical considerations because of the exile of the Jews. That is how we can lovingly play that important Jewish parlor game---Jewish geography! I know you have all done it…Do you know so and so? Their family came from…. Not even six degrees of separation when we are talking about Jews. 
       In Hebrew the word Peoplehood is ammiyut…. And this idea has struck a deep chord among us –that somehow, beyond a religion or faith (as is sometimes used by Christians) beyond nationality or ethnicity (since we also hold passports from the modern nations of the world), beyond clan or tribe since ten of them where carried off in exile by the Assyrians, somehow we the Jewish people with our shared stories, values, and in previous generations mission if you will; survived despite the pogroms, and attacks, exiles, and holocausts.  We the Jewish People, a nation within a nation, are still here.

            Alan Hoffman, director of education for the Jewish Agency of Israel offered an explanation of Jewish Peoplehood in an interview in Shma magazine:

The unique character of Judaism, the combination of religion and ethnicity was shaped by the formative experience of living in Diaspora unconnected to soil and boundaries so typical of most other nations.  We are therefore a spiritual community, a sociological entity, a series of ethnic islands, a conglomeration that is difficult to pry apart.

The notion of a Jewish “People” in relationship – something larger than individual existence gives many Jews a sense of connectedness to a bigger something which is especially important as collective bonds weaken in the general society and also among Jews.  But a danger lurks if this becomes a diluted lowest common denominator concept, not nearly as powerful or robust as Jewish religious identity or national identity.” (As quoted in the “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood, Can we be One?” Brown and Galperin, Jewish Lights, 2009 originally in Shma 37,2006 “Challenging Peoplehood” Berrins and Hoffman, http://www.shma.com/2006/10/challenging-peoplehood/)

The worries of the rabbis I talk to echo Hoffman’s questions.   The rabbis ask – are we at that point… that our robust identity as the Jewish People is fading as our shared mission, values and ideals and facility with our shared language hold less sway.

Robert Putnam in his famous book, “Bowling Alone” recognized that we are often less socially connected than ever before.  From research of over half a million interviews Putnam concluded that we are more disconnected from family and institutions that ever before.  If we believe Putnam, and Jewish demongraphers like Steven Cohen, the old structures, like Peoplehood, are falling. There are simply less Jews.  We don’t reproduce. We don’t raise our children Jewishly.  We move in and out of the larger cultural so freely that when we can make decision about identity, when we have the individual autonomy to choose Judaism and identification we often don’t choose at all. We say we don’t “believe in God” so why engage in acts of belonging.  We fall in love with someone who isn’t Jewish and so we see ourselves outside the tent or we are pulled outside because we don’t want to rock the boat.   

As political scientist Daniel Elazar describes, “The Jewish community is a “unique blend of kinship and consent.”  (p. 41,The Case for Jewish Peoplehood)

As Erica Brown and Misha Galperin write  in their book “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood “Jews no longer share a common language of ritual practice and Jewish law nor are we joined by a shared insecurity of oppression or persecution.   In the absences of these historical markers, the Jewish community of the 21st century is struggling for a shred language of anything.”

  In other words, when you have the choice to opt in or easily opt out and when we no longer can speak to one another across the great divide of Jewish texts and literacy what will be the future of the Jewish People?   Are we merely left to some gustatory sense of Jewish life—bagels, corned beef and hummus? Or is there something deeper that ought to connect us?

My contention is and was that we hunger for more than a shared recipe.  We hunger for deep and meaningful connections and spirit.  But this doesn’t just come wafting down from heaven… rather it comes from a sense of mutual responsibility and mutual concern.  It comes from an attitude of commitment and connection and inspiring one another to build bonds of profound strength even when the world is in turmoil.  And perhaps because the world and the economy is in such turmoil we need the safety and sacred space of the Jewish People more than ever before.   I believe the bonds of Jewish Peoplehood are not just passive but must be actively nurtured and we once again as a sacred community we must find a shared language of mission and values and yes, faith in the enduring principles of Judaism.

This is the challenge I place before as this New Year begins.  How will we bridge the great divide between our concerns and our our actions?  How can we as a Jewish people gathered at the New Year here with our loved ones take one step to strengthen our own personal connection to the Jewish people and therefore uplift the Jewish project?  What are you willing to do to learn and speak this shared language of the Jewish spirit?

On the one hand I hear so often “Rabbi I want spirituality. I want connection.  I want to live a life of meaning.”  But I see so few of you willing to engage in the process that can provide the depth and breadth of that platform to stand on.   Ironically, the pathways to building that deeper sense of order, meaning and spirit are exactly the things that will bolster and help the Jewish people endure!  They actually go hand in hand!

And so in this respect I propose the following and challenge every member of this congregation to engage in three acts this coming year that will deepen your connection to the Jewish People.  I challenge you to take one of the myriad of Adult Education opportunities before you.   At Kol Ami we are offering more adult learning than ever before.   There will be text study in the form of monthly Bible encounters, Jewish current events, Torah chanting classes, author presentations and even a trip to Israel.  There is monthly family learning with our children.  In the busyness of our lives I challenge you to go deeper to learn at an adult level something more about your Jewish life, challenge your mind and challenge your soul with learning about who you are amongst this people.

The second challenge to you this New Year’s Day is to engage in acts of religious life.  Whether that is come to some of our holy day celebrations like Sukkot or Simchat Torah, Chanukah or Yom Ha-aztmaut or light candles in your home each Shabbat.  Do something affirmative that connects you ritually to the ancient life of the Jewish people. 

Ritual is hard.  It is harder still when we are single or don’t have traditional families.   But the disconnect builds when we lazily give in to a rhythm of secular life.  I challenge this community and congregation to do more than just the High Holy Days but to explore your Jewish spirituality through affirming Jewish timeless acts. 

The third and final challenge I make to you on this New Year’s Day in the name of preserving Jewish peoplehood is to engage in the call of the Prophets:  To Do justice-to engage in acts of Tikkun Olam consciously as a Jewish Act.  Fill up those brown bags that our ushers give out for Sova.  Walk with Team Kol Ami in the AIDS Walk.   Help us donate solar cookers in Africa with Jewish World Watch.  Work with other people of faith to stop the political initiative that would nullify the Fair ACT signed this summer by Governor Brown that would keep gay people invisible in the discussion of history.

Many of you serve on non-profit boards or volunteer your time with great organizations.   But how many of you do this as a conscious Jewish act?  How many of you do this as a true Mitzvah-a command to heal our world?  How many of you place your service-sacred service in the context of your Jewish values and ideals rather than just a sense of noblesse oblige.

What are you willing to do to ensure that this eternal people-the Jewish people survives?  What are you willing to do in this New Year to deepen your connections and deepen your spirituality?  What ways are you willing to opt in to help build the case for the Jewish people as an eternal people?  The more we engage; the more opportunities to create shared conversations among the various groups within Jewish life today.  We have made great strides. We sit at tables where once we did not.  But we risk something greater if it is only rabbis having this conversation-this is a shared enterprise-the life of the Jewish people.  And we need you in not only the conversation but in the effort to shape the future!

On one of our Torah covers is a phrase from Pirke Avot:  Marbeh Torah; Marbeh Chayim-the more Torah the more Life.  Engaging in Torah, in Study, in practice, in song and prayer, in acts of justice enriches our individual lives and it enriches and sustains the life of the Jewish people.

So hear the call of the Shofar this year as a call home to the Jewish People. Hear its blast enticing you to help the eternal values and principles of Jewish life and identity be brought into our daily consciousness and daily actions.  Hear the Shofar awakening you to the urgency of the task and urgency of the hour.

Eli Eli Shelo yigamer L’olam…. O God, My God I pray that these things never end- the sand and the sea, the rush of the water, the life of the Jewish People. 

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

So may it be God’s will.

Erev Rosh Hashanah- Inscribe the Sacred Story in the Book of Life(2)

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Shanah Tovah.  Happy New Year.  It is good to see you all again.

It is hard to believe that a New Year has arrived.  Where did the old one go?  Were we not just here together in this place?  I don’t only mean the physical space of Immanuel Presbyterian : but in this spiritual place-of reviewing and examining our deeds. Reviewing and examining who we’ve become and imagining who we would like to be.  It seems we just were doing this very task not a few months ago.

That is what this holy day period is about—Imagination and creativity.  Beginning today and for the next ten days you have a chance to make yourself over; to re-imagine yourself; to create yourself anew.  You have Divine permission to rid yourself of that which holds you back, or that which you see as personal flaws.  Most of us work out physically trying to re-shape our bodies or keep our health at optimum levels.  But during this season we are encouraged to  re-shape your character and the inner you during the Ten Days of Awe.  You have permission and holy encouragement to become the person that you can imagine!

Several weeks after a young man had been hired he was called into the personnel director’s office. “What is the meaning of this?” the director asked, “When you applied for this job, you told us you had five years’ experience. Now we’ve discovered this is the first job you’ve ever held.’

“Well,” the young man replied. “In your advertisement you said you wanted somebody with imagination.”

Today God wants you to use your imagination and your creativity. Rosh Hashanah calls out to you to be a person with imagination!

 In other words: Imagineering is not just for Walt Disney.  Perhaps you are not familiar with the Imagineers.  But this is a creative group within the Walt Disney Company. It is the design and development arm of the company and is responsible for much of the Walt Disney theme parks, everything from layout to rides.  The term imagineers however was not coined by Disney. Rather it came from ALCOA, the Aluminum Company of American in the 1940’s to describe engineering and imagination. This term was adopted by Disney a decade later.

But this term describes exactly what we are to do during this holy day time.  We are to re-engineer ourselves.  We are about to take out the flaws and the errors and the mistakes and work out a new formula for success.  We are to imagine how we ought to be in the world and how we ought to get there.

Thus think of yourself beginning tonight –as an Imagineer.  You hold the key to your future in your hands by the introspection that you do. It is time to redraw the lay-out and improve yourself.  Rosh Hashanah is about renewing the commitment to overcoming character flaws, correcting mistakes and sins, tossing out bad habits and the dedication to imagine a new life, a life that is more just and ethical.  It is time in this New Year for a new you.

We Jews do this remembering on Rosh Hashanah because this is the celebration of the creation of the Universe. Just as God created the world on Rosh Hashanah we are now creating our world anew!  Just as God imagined and engineered the universe with a Bang! We imagineer our lives for the coming year. 

We Jews say this is Yom Harat Olam-the Day the World was conceived.  And today I am asking each of you to reconceive your world.  How might you live a more holy life? How might you re-think troubled relationships? How might you stop those bad habits that detract from the quality of your daily life? How might you reinvigorate your life with direction, heart and Jewish ideals?

          But to reimagine ourselves we first must encounter our own story: As Muriel Rukeyser says: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms” 

We have to tell the story of ourselves.  Our Bible does that.  It tells stories: stories about people’s lives. Your ancestors’ lives.  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, King David, Queen Esther, The Torah tells the story of the Jewish People.  It doesn’t sugar coat the story.  Our ancestors lives are on display flaws and all.  Abraham defends strangers but not his own son to God.  Sarah is jealous of Hagar. Rebekkah urges her son Jacob to deceive his father, King David commits adultery with Queen Bathsheba and has her husband killed.  And yet he is still known as the greatest king of Israel for his other achievements.  Our stories, Jewish stories tell it like it is, successes and achievements and trouble spots as well.  Stories are the heart of our lives.

     Our holidays do the same. At Passover we sit down to a Seder meal and retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt and we act out that story through traditional questions, foods and songs. 

But on Rosh Hashanah if you don’t tell your story, if you don’t really know your own story-how can you imagine your future?  What is the story of you? Tonight on Rosh Hashanah I want to urge you to think about your own narrative.  The story of the last year as well as the story you want to unfold in the New Year.

According to a “Story Based Strategy for Change by Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsbouorgh (http://smartmeme.org/downloads/smartMeme.ReImaginingChange.pdf)”

A Harvard University evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues that stories are essential to human learning and building relationships in social groups. There is growing consensus in the scientific community that the neurological roots of both storytelling and enjoyment of stories are tied to our social cognition.

.         In one widely cited 1944 experiment, psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel showed subjects “an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square,” and asked what was happening. The subjects’ responses (i.e. “The circle is chasing the triangles.”) revealed how they mapped a narrative onto the shapes. Numerous subsequent studies have reiterated how humans, as social creatures, see stories everywhere.  

                   In other words we make up stories to explain our world, to synthesize it, to make sense and order of our lives.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are here to help us explain our story –to ourselves and others.  We are to try and figure out why we became who we did in the last year, fix it, edit our behaviors, and change our story. We have the power to re-write our story.

         

          Is it any wonder that one of the important images for the High Holy Day Season is “Sefer HaChayim?” The Book of Life?  We know that we are supposed to place our story and inscribe our name in the Book of Life. In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) we learn

R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Yohanan:  On Rosh HaShanah, three books are opened-- one with the names of the completely wicked, one with the names of the completely righteous, and one with the names of those who are neither completely righteous nor completely wicked.  The completely righteous:  their verdict—life—is written down and sealed at once.  Those neither completely righteous nor completely wicked:  their verdict is suspended between New Year's Day and the Day of Atonement.  (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur)

If they are deemed to deserve it [by resolving to repent], they are inscribed for life; if [they fail to repent] and therefore deemed not to deserve life, they are inscribed for death.

This tradition is there to teach us that we have the power to change the story, change that inscription, change the outcome!  We have to engineer that change through our intentions and our deeds and sincere repentance.  This idea that it rests with us-is reinforced in our liturgy—We say Teshuvah, tefillah utzedakah—Repentance, prayer and charity avert the decree.  We have tools on our Jewish tool belt to assist us in this process of changing, and of reimagining our lives, and re-writing our story in the Sefer HaChayim- the B ook of Life.

          The Rabbis understood that this was a metaphor-to help us re-imagine who we were to be in the coming year.   The Sages understood that human beings, created in the image of the Divine One had creative powers herself-to create our realities, our path ways. 
          But to do so we had to visit the past, know our story, and then re-write its plot!

So if you have veered from the good during the past year. If you have hurt with words or deeds others or yourself, over the course of the next Ten Days-you have the ability to change the story-change your story in the Book of Life. 

You can create a good outcome –when you see the good in your story, in yourself and in others.

For it is that Good—The deeds of a righteous and good life that will transform not just our own lives but the life of the world.

The Talmud shares this tale:

One day Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai gathered his disciples around him and said to them, “I have a very important task for you. I want you to go out into the world and search out

the ways of men to see what is truly good in humanity. Then return to me and tell me what you have found.”
     As always, the disciples did as their teacher asked. They walked among people of every class and occupation, every background and lot in life. After a time, when each believed that he had found what was truly good in people, they returned to the rabbi to report what they had learned.

“So tell me,” said Rabbi Yochanan, first addressing Rabbi Eliezeer. “What have you found to be truly good?”

“A good eye,” Eliezer replied. “For those who have a good eye have an eye for the suffering of others. So they are led to be generous.”
“Well said,” the teacher nodded.

“And you, Rabbi Yehoshua, what have you found to be truly good?” 

“A good friend,” he answered. “A man should not only cultivate a good friend but should himself be a good friend. That is how life takes on value. For a friend has no price and is more precious than gold.’
“You too have spoken well.” The rabbi answered. Then, turning to Rabbi Yose, he asked, “What have you learned?”

“I have learned, “said Yose, “that a good neighbor is truly good. A person cannot live in isolation from others but needs company in order to be truly good. It is from a good neighbor that we learn how to be a good neighbor.”

“We all may learn from what you have learned,” Rabbi Yochanan commented. “But I wonder what Rabbi Shimon has found to be truly good.”

“I have found that the person who looks ahead and attends to the consequences of her actions is truly good,” said Rabbi Shimon. “Our deeds create angels for good or for evil, and the angels we create go out into the world to do good or evil. Thus our every move, our every thought, disturbs the entire universe and affects human lives.’
“What you say is profound,” said Rabbi Yochanan. “Listen well all of you, to Rabbi Shimon. 

But we have not yet heard from Rabbi Eleazar.”

The disciples and their teacher turned to Rabbi Eleazar, prepared to listen to his discourse on what is truly good in humanity. But all he said was: “A good heart is truly good.”

At this their teacher smiled and declared, “I prefer the worlds of Eleazar ben Arach to all of your words combined. In his words are contained your words. A good heart sees rightly, and seeks out other human beings, loving our neighbor, as the Torah commands us; And a good heart looks not only ahead but also above, loving God as the Torah commands us as well. Yes, Rabbi Eleazar has spoken well.”  

A Good heart is the goal of this Holy Day season-to bring out your sacred story and uncover your good heart.  A heart that is open to the possibility of love and faith and kindness even in a world that is tough and angry and cruel.   A faith-filled life, a life where the Source of all Breath is honored and recognized has at its core a good heart. 

When we share our own narrative, and tell our story we bring out from the edge of darkness the good that lives in us. Sharing the narrative helps us reflect on making the changes that will help us reinstate that good heart towards all people. 

          When our stories are suppressed, when we can’t tell the truth of our lives, then the dark shadows of shame take hold.  The dark shadows keep us in its grip and keeps us from full participation in the world. It keeps us from wholeness, keeps us held down.  That is why we must reach out to the person sitting in the back row who is alone.  We have to acknowledge their humanity and their story. We can’t just look past people because then we ignore their story.  The homeless person on the street, do not avert your eyes because she has a story too.  The Jewish thing is to acknowledge the story and in the process we acknowledge their humanity. For we are all created in the Divine image.  You are as well. You have a story too.

Because when our stories are quashed the world is diminished and our worlds are diminished.  When our sacred stories are covered up, hidden then we cannot know what it means to come close to God and others.  But when our own sacred stories are brought to light, shared, told, and retold, and even re-written then that honesty and hopefulness allows us to let out our good hearts. 

          That is the beauty of of the sacred narrative-because it will transcend time.  It will be shared lador vador—from generation to generation as part of the collective memory of our people, of your family, of this community.  So write your story, share it, shape it in these holy days-erase that bad habits, correct the traits that have marred your soul.

Rosh Hashanah and these Ten Days of Awe and the process of Teshuvah-of turning our lives around is about bringing to light our story of self and working to bring our good heart back!

          So at this season of turning, at this season of re-imagining and rewriting, seek out the good heart at the kernel of your existence and bring that heart to the foreground.  Let the light of your good heart shine into the New Year and help change the direction- from sin to wholeness; from fear to courage; from weakness to strength; from despair to hope once again.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

MailBits.com as quoted in “Bits and Pieces”  Ragan Commuications, July 2011, p. 8

1. From “The Secrets of Storytelling: Why we love a good yarn,” Scientific

American, September 18, 2008. We got this link from our friends at the Pop-Anthropology blog (http://www.thirsty-fish.com/popanthroblog/).

Ibid

The Greatest Jewish Stories Ever Told, David Patterson, based on Avot  2:9 pp 137-138

The Power of Minyan - April 15, 2011

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    Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover.

    This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol the great Sabbath.  Always the Sabbath before Pesach-this Shabbat is supposed to be dedicated to reminding the community about all the laws of Passover. 

    There are lots of details for this holiday: What to eat and not to eat.  How to search for Chametz and how to nullify the Chametz that you might not have cleaned out and missed in a corner behind the sofa.  

   There are other details of the Passover holiday—including details of observing the seder meal: How much matzah satisfies the requirement of eating matzah.  All of this could make your head spin.

     But one important mitzvah of this holiday is to have the entire household eat the paschal offering before midnight together.  The lamb offering was done in the ancient temple and most often a quorum-or minyan of 10 was required.  But for the Passover offering a super minyan was required of 30 for the sacrifice to be counted.  This notion of a super minyan—3 times the size of a regular quorum is known as an Assembly of the People Israe:  Kahal Adat Yisrael.

Even women and children counted in this super minyan.

The idea of a quorum to conduct certain rituals is one of the most important ideas in Jewish life.

     Typically a minyan –or quorum is made up of ten Jews over the age of 13.  In a traditional synagogue women are excluded from counting in a minyan.  The concept of a quorum to recite certain prayers and conduct certain rituals might seem cumbersome in our world where the individual reigns supreme.  But we post-modern Jews have much to learn from this ancient idea.

The minyan dates back to the time of Abraham. Abraham negotiated with God to save the city of Sodom if 10 righteous people could be found there.  And from that number—a minimum threshold of righteousness has held ever since.  The Babylonian Talmud in Megillah 23 b tells us that sanctification should occur in the midst of a congregation.  Similarly in the Jerusalem Talmud in Megillah 4:4 concludes that a congregation is ten souls.

    What does the minyan represent?

    The minyan represents community.  It represents the idea that holiness, kedusha, and God’s Divine Presence exists best in community.  This is a very powerful theological ideal that teaches us that the indwelling presence of God is made more real with people.  Not hidden away-not out of reach but God comes alive in the presence of human beings and in our interdependence.

You and I need each other to bring about the reality of God.

    Yes there are certain prayers that require a minyan.: the Kaddish, barechu, the kedusha and Amidah, Torah readings, the sheva brachot-7 wedding blessings offered during the first week of a wedding for the wedding couple.  Each of these are moments that invoke God’s holiness and God’s presence made real in our lives.

    And soon we will sit down to our Seder meal—not a solo dining experience—but one that requires others.  It is a festive banquet with family and friends that tells the story of becoming a people where God Dwells.   Like the Korban Pesach—the Paschal Offering—our Passover Seder meals require an assembly—women and men and children gathered together as one people—connected by the holy and the divine energy we Jews call God

  

  All too often we speed by our lives. We speed by the reflection of God in another’s eyes. All too often we think we can do it alone without help but there in another’s hands is God’s help for you.  The Presence of God is found with other human beings and in other human beings.

   

     This is the oldest teaching of Judaism.   This is the teaching of the minyan

 

Here is a story told by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen that teaches us this very idea: (Chicken Soup for the Soul, Canfield/Elkins/Hansen:  HCI, p. 295)

My grandfather and I had many discussions about the teachings and principles of Judaism, but I can remember only one disagreement. It had to do with the nature of the minyan. The idea of the nimyan is central to the spiritual life of the Jewish people. While anyone can pray at any time, before an official prayer service can be held there must be at least ten Jewish men present. This group of ten is called a minyan.

“Why, Grandpa? I asked, puzzled. Patiently he explained the law to me. It is believed that whenever ten adult men are gathered together in the name of God, God Himself is actually present in the room with the.  Immanent, my grandfather said. Any room then became consecrated ground, a holy place where the sacraments of the religion could be performed. After five thousand years of persecution and homelessness, nothing could be taken for granted. Holy ground had to be portable.

Naomi continues:  I was fascinated by this. My grandfather told me that this law was so important that often men were called from their homes to come to the synagogue because there were fewer than ten men present to pray for the dead, inscribe a baby into the book of life, or conduct one of the many rituals that acknowledged that life is holy and bound people to God. Once or twice in Prussia, he had even gone out into the strets and collared a passing Jew, a total stranger, to complete the circle of ten. One did not refuse such an invitation, said my grandfather. It was considered to be a duty.

“But why, only men, Grandpa? I asked. He hesitated. “The law says ten men,’ he responded slowly. I waited for a further explanation, but he said nothing.
“Isn’t God present when ten women gather together?” I asked. Thinkng back on it, I imagine this to have been a difficult moment for him.

“The law says nothing about this, Neshume-le. It has always been ten men, since the beginning. I was astounded. “If something is old, does it have to be true?”

    “Certainly, not.” He responded.

    “Well, then I think that God is there in the room when ten women gather too, “I stated flatly.

     He nodded. “This is not what the law says,” he told me.   We had never disagreed about      anything before and I was shaken, but my grandfather seemed quite comfortable with the    distance between our beliefs. We never discussed the matter again, and I thought that he had forgotten it. A few years later, he became very sick. In the months before he died, I was allowed to visit with him only briefly so as not to tire him. I was almost seven years old and terribly proud of my reading, and so I would read to him form one of his books or we would simply sit quietly together. Sometimes I would hold his hand while he slept.  Once after a nap he opened his eyes and looked at me lovingly for a long while, “You are a minyan, all by yourself,  Neshume-le” he told me.

     Naomi made God’s presence real to her grandfather.  That is our challenge even in this day and time when God seems far away.  Or we have our doubts.  The mitzvot we do are to bring God’s presence into our lives. 
            Just as the opportunity to make a minyan brings us all into the Divine Dwelling Place-Holy Ground.

     As we begin this most sacred Festival of Passover may you find God’s presence made real for you in the eyes and hearts of your loved ones gathered around the Seder table. And may you help make God’s presence real for others by showing up and being counted on.  At home and temple and in the world.

    Shabbat Shalom  and Happy Passover.