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The God We Imagine

Rabbi Max Chaiken

Given Yom Kippur Morning 5779 - Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Shanah tovah. Do you remember how old you were when you first learned anything about God? If you’d like, you can close your eyes for a moment, because I want you to try to imagine God the way you did when you were a child. Do you remember where you were? Do you remember who it was that first taught you, or how it came up? Do you remember what you thought about God, or how you imagined God at that time?
For many, these kind of details may be fuzzy. Yet I’m willing to bet that for some of you, that God of your childhood looked something like an old-man in the sky.
It wasn’t quite the same for me. I remember having an early idea about God, maybe when I was about 4 or 5, maybe just barely in kindergarten, and this is what imagined when I would hear the term “God”.
Yes, that’s right. Instead of a bearded, old, man in the sky, for me it was a handsome, clean-shaven, green giant who protected his vegetables, and encouraged you to eat more of them on the television.
Another year or two older, and my image grew a little bit as well.
Yes, laugh away. My first kindergarten image of God as the Jolly Green Giant gave way to my second-grade image of God as “Mr. Clean.”
I know they say cleanliness is next to Godliness, but somehow I don’t think that’s what they mean. So I feel lucky that eventually I realized the tricks my imagination was playing. Still, in many ways, my imagination failed to grow with me. Sure, I may have left the Jolly Green Giant and Mr. Clean behind, but despite active participation in Jewish life throughout high school and college, I was never truly challenged to explore, imagine, and articulate the kind of God I do believe in until I went to Rabbinical school.
And I don’t think my experience is all that unique. Many adults aren’t asked to use our imagination about anything, let alone about God. But by sparking our imagination about the Divine, we can cultivate understandings that will help us cope with life’s challenges, and direct us to be Holy as we imagine God to be. Finding new ways to imagine the Divine should enable us to better understand the type of holiness that we are trying to bring into our own lives and into the world we inhabit. (imagine word cloud)
So how do we re-engage our imagination in the task of describing the Indescribable?
Judaism offers various tools for this task, but this morning I’m going to focus on the tools of language: on words, on stories, and on poetry.
From the first act creation in our Torah, we learn that words themselves have creative power. God said “let there be light,” and there was light. As being created in God’s image, moreover, we can understand ourselves to share at least some fraction of that creative power with our words. We know this to be true when it comes to our words towards one another. A single word can be shot like a bullet to wound, or used as a band-aid to heal. And the creative power of each and every word also applies when we are talking about God. The names we use for God—the very words we use—each convey different aspects. By carefully choosing different names for God, we are literally creating the possibility for us to imagine God in different ways.
And our tradition has myriad names for God: Holy One of Blessing, Almighty One, Creator, Merciful One, God of our Ancestors, Breath of Life, Spirit of the Universe—each name offers a different aspect, and igniting our imagination in new ways.
Take the four-letter name for God—yud-hay-vuv-hay. We most often use the euphemism Adonai to speak this name, because we do not actually know how it may have once been pronounced. But Adonai does not convey the meaning of those four letters in Hebrew. You see, Adonai literally means “my master.” It refers to the element of sovereignty that we often ascribe to The Almighty, especially at this time of year, in the term Melech or Malkeinu, our Ruler or our King. Yet those four letters, yud-hay-vav-hay, actually constitute a verb—they refer to that which was, hayah, which is, hoveh, and which is yet to be, yihyeh. In other words, Being itself, Existence, is another one of God’s very names.
Now imagine how this understanding of just one word—one of God’s names—might adjust the meaning of some of our deepest prayers.
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is Our God, Adonai is One” becomes a statement about God’s Existence and the Unity of All Existence—“Hear, O Israel, Our God Exists, and All Being is One.”
What a change! Instead now of imagining a singular entity like that “old-man-in-the-sky” image, or my own childish spin of the Jolly Green Giant, by adjusting my understanding of just one word I can now imagine God-self as a Process—as a Life-Force present through all space and time. Jewish thinkers, and those of other faiths, have come to call this type of theology “Process Theology,” in part because it insists that God can be understood as a Process, rather than as an unchanging entity. What appeals to me most about this type of theology is that I do not need to assume that God is all-knowing, or all-powerful. Instead, God can be that Life-Force that pervades all space and time, guiding me to make the best choice I can in any give circumstance.
When we move from one word to many, we invite stories and poetry to help spur our theological imagination. And especially here in Hollywood, we know better than to underestimate the power of good stories.
As individuals, we are constantly in the process of telling and retelling our own stories. Sometimes we engage in this process consciously—crafting a resume to highlight the relevant experience for the job; sharing a special meal on social media. Sometimes this process takes place sub-consciously: we recall things differently as time goes on; the sting of a hurtful moment gives way to the importance of the apology.
As a people we do the same with our Great Story; learning and re-learning Torah year after year. And Even God uses stories to help us understand God. My favorite example of this can be seen in the story of Moses at the burning bush. Moses noticed that this bush was burning and not consumed, and when Moses approaches, God reveals Godself as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6). Of all the ways that God could have introduced Godself to Moses, our Torah suggests that God chooses the mode of storytelling. God places Godself into Moses’ story! The God who “appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and established a covenant with them” (Ex. 6:3-4) is the same God who promises to “be with” Moses to give him strength to speak truth to Pharoah’s power.
As a tool for provoking our theological imagination, we can use narrative too. We can share from our own experience of the Divine Presence, and from our own struggles with Divine Absence. This works for our personal stories too. When we tell stories about our triumphs and our tragedies, and when we listen to others share their stories, we are engaging in a process of revealing ever-more Torah. If each one of us contains spark of the Divine, sharing our experiences, and being present with one another as we do so, helps to release that light of goodness into an often dark world.
One story I like to share about experiencing the Divine Presence took place during my summers at camp. One of Camp Harlam’s iconic prayer spaces is our “Chapel in the Woods” where we pray each Shabbat morning.
Before the Torah service we would sing the opening liturgy to Debbie Friedman’s S’eu Sharim… The melody would repeat and grow to a climax where some 700 people would sing at the top of their lungs “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai eloheinu.”
In that moment, week after week and summer after summer, I felt God’s presence in two ways. First, I felt it within, in the form of the tingles down my spine, a sort of electricity pulsing through me. Yet simultaneously there was also something beyond me. An awareness of that Force, that Process far greater than myself, and greater even than the sum of the souls praying sh’ma in the woods of Pennsylvania.
Sharing that memory helps me share one of the most basic elements of my belief in God: that God is both within us and beyond us; within our world and beyond it. Both aspects are now central to my understanding of the Divine, but I don’t think I could have ever come to appreciate that without recalling a memory, and turning it into part of my story.
Poetry also helps open the gates of discourse on the Divine. Writing and reading poems draws our attention to the aesthetic, the beautiful, the artistic elements of language.
And when it comes to imagining God in new ways, metaphor represents one of poetry’s greatest gifts. Comparisons between things challenge us to think about the ways that the comparison works, and the ways it does not. One particular prayer at this season reminds me of the importance of metaphor. Ki Anu Amecha begins with the phrase “for we are your people, and you are our God”—straightforward enough. But it continues with what can be described as a list of metaphors: “we are your children, You are our Parent; we are your servants, and You are our master … flock, and Shepherd; vineyard, and Vintnor.” And so when I return to this prayer, year after year, I cannot help but think of whoever it was that first set it down on paper. I imagine the person leaning over a page on a candle-lit desk, late at night, just making a list of all the things that they imagined God to be sort-of like! “Oh, maybe God is like the Shepherd, and we’re the flock” and then immediately saying “well, you know, that’s not quite right. Maybe its more like a nation and its King…” But the resulting prayer then remains effectively a list of metaphors, all of them working in some ways, at some times, for some of us, and all of them still somewhat incomplete.
One metaphor that really works for me is that of God as breath, or air. We breathe in air—this invisible substance all around us. That air quite literally transforms us, providing our cells with oxygen and sustaining our bodies. And in never-ending cycle, we exhale. We send that breath back into the universe. In this way we are continuously linked with all creation, as the very air we breathe flows both within us and beyond us at all time. As the Breath of the Universe, then, God too is at once within us all and far greater than us.
The creative power of language may be one of the most fundamental ways that we find ourselves created in the Divine Image, and our words, stories, and poems can help us prod our theological imaginations to catch up to our rational faculties. This year, I hope to use poetry and storytelling as a community to explore what God has been throughout our lives, and to dive into the things we don’t yet know about the Divine. Because poetry helps us use words to create beauty, and telling our stories—both the sacred, and the more mundane—helps us do the same. When we use these tools, we can activate our imaginations to think about God in new ways, and this, I pray, will propel us to think differently about ourselves, about the world around us, and about the work that we must do to leave this world better off than we found it.
Yom Kippur calls our attention to Avinu Malkeinu, a name for God that brings together the image of a parent and of a ruler. But as we enter the new year, I challenge you to imagine and experiment with a new name for God. Find a story to tell about a moment when you felt God’s presence; or a moment when you wish you had. Write a poem, or even just find one metaphor that helps describe an aspect of your faith. And once you’ve done even one of these, go out and share it with others. This year, may our words, and particularly our words about God continue create worlds of meaning.

You Shall Be Purified

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Given Kol Nidrei 5779 * Tuesday, September 18, 2018

There was the story of the man who was driving through the Sinai desert on his way to Eilat. Much to his chagrin the car broke down in the middle of his journey, so he decided to walk off the road and look for help. Before long he came upon a remote monastery. He asked the good monks if they happened to have a vehicle he could borrow. The monks explained that they did not own any motorized vehicles, but they would be happy to let the man borrow one of their mules. 
Eager to find help, the man jumped on the animal, kicked his legs, and bellowed “Giddy Up!” the mule refused to move. The monks quickly explained that if he wanted the animal to move forward he needed to say, “Thank you, Lord”, and if he wanted the mule to stop he should say “Amen.!”
So the man immediately exclaimed “Thank you Lord. Thank you, Lord, thank you Lord!” and the mule took off running for his life! The rider held on for dear life and he soon realized the animal was heading toward the edge of a cliff. Just a few feet before they reached the precipice, the rider screamed “Amen” and the mule stopped inches from the overhang! Wiping his brow, the man looked up to heaven and said (Loud enough for the mule to hear) “Thank you Lord!”
Sometimes we all go over the cliff.  We didn’t mean to… but we cause ourselves to fall over the edge. And we fall. Not by someone else’s doing. But by our own words. Our own actions.  And sometimes because of what we feel about ourselves.  Sometimes our sense that we aren’t good enough, aren’t strong enough, that we aren‘t desirable enough, aren’t pretty enough, thin enough, beautiful enough, attractive, rich, powerful, smart, you fill in the blank… we fall over the cliff sometimes bringing others with us because we believe deep down inside—we aren’t enough. We care more for others than ourselves because we feel unworthy or unlovable.  Who could possibly like the real me? So instead I will be someone else that others will like. Sometimes we rage against others to protect ourselves; or maybe we withdraw and isolate because someone might really see the real me, the bad me; we complain and start fights and pick on others and bully them because deep down inside we feel badly about who we are; we have a secret-that we hold on to.  But that deep inner secret—is what brings us over the edge.
My friends, when we feel badly about ourselves—that is shame that is usually talking. 
The son of a rabbi went to worship on the Sabbath in a nearby town.  On his return his family asked,” Well, did you learn anything different from what we do here?”  “Yes”, replied the son, “I learned to love the enemy as I love myself.”  The parents responded, “That’s the same as we do here.  So how is that you learned something new?”  He replied, “They taught me to love the enemy within myself.” 
This story tells the same thing that the great Carl Jung) tells us in in “Memories, Dreams and Reflections: “That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy…these are undoubtedly great virtues… But what if I should discover that the poorest of beggars and the most impudent of offenders are all within me, and that I stand in need of my own kindness; that I myself am the enemy who must be loved? What then?”
What is that enemy within?  It is shame. That feeling that you are not enough, and that everyone, including God will see the real you.  The lesser you.
At its core, Dr. Brene Brown says, shame “is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. She explains expertly:
“We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring.”
Dr. Brown is a Social Worker, professor, researcher and storyteller at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has become well known for her research on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and particularly for her research on shame and how we might build shame resilience.
She is the author of several bestsellers. Including, Rising Strong, The Gifts of Imperfection and most recently Braving the Wilderness. These books are on shame and overcoming its effects and living in authenticity. She has a widely read blog, appeared numerous times with Oprah and given several Ted Talks of which one is in the top 5 viewed around the world!
Shame stays inside of us and can control our thoughts and behaviors and cause us and others great damage.   When you are ashamed of yourself, for who you are in the world, (or rather who you imagine yourself to be in the world) it can destroy you bit by bit and it can eat away at your relationships and skew your mind.
Brown states simply “Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.” [i]And when that feeling happens we become flushed, sometimes sweat, tunnel vision can be what we see, and the negative self -talk starts yammering in our heads and won’t let go.  Brown describes the moment when shame take hold of us as a shame spiral.
A shame spiral (maze) is a condition. -It is a term that was coined originally by clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman, who described it as “A triggering event occurs. … a person is suddenly enmeshed in shame, the eyes turn inward, and the experience becomes totally internal, … The shame feelings flow in a circle, endlessly triggering each other … causing the sense of shame to deepen … until finally the self is engulfed.” 
Out that those feelings of self-loathing we can drown in our own self–hatred. We isolate. Cut our selves off because who could ever want to be our friend, our partner.  The shame lives and thrives in “secrecy, silence and judgement” says Brown. Our shame thrives when we fear the judgement of others.  How we will compare?  And if our secret will be found out we will die.  The Jews had a term for it—a Shanda- shame — an embarrassment, that we don’t measure up, will never fit in, be a pariah.  When a shanda happens it brings embarrassment to all who know.
Shame doesn’t appear from nowhere. It’s a form of conditioning that inhabits your mind, heart, body, and spirit. Maybe you were somehow made to feel ashamed of yourself when you were young – ashamed of who you are, your level of intelligence, your body. Maybe you feel shame because you violated your ethical standards.
If we turn to the Torah the classic story of shame-comes in the opening chapters of Genesis. There we see that shame has plagued us since Adam and Eve bit into the fruit and realized they were naked. Their first instinct was to hide from each other and God (Gen 3:7-11).  That is what shame does.  Isolate us from ourselves and our God.  We just want to hide.  They had one commandment in the Garden of Eden.  Not to eat the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  And yet they ate from it.  They violated the one rule, the one commandment they had to guard against.  And once they ate of the fruit of the tree, they became embarrassed and aware of their own nakedness (which is a metaphor that they had the awareness that they did something wrong. They felt bad about it. And no wonder. They now stood guilty before God and were vulnerable to each other.  They believed that they were bad.  Not just that they did something bad.  And that is different between shame and guilt.  Guilt is what happens when you violate a commandment, a sin or you are found guilty because of crime in court.  But shame is how you feel about yourself.  There is a distinction between being culpable because of your behavior and the way you feel inside in your inner being.
While the first couple’s punishment for their guilt is to leave the Garden of Eden, leave paradise, the Jewish interpretation is vastly different from that of Christianity.  In Christianity, Adam and Eve’s sin taints humanity forever and human being are bathed in that original sin.  Humanity is bad from the start.  Human beings can only become good when they are saved in Christianity. To be human is to be bathed in shame in Christian thought.
Judaism rejects that.  Human beings aren’t bad intrinsically. Rather we are created in the divine image, B’tzelem Elohim. We have the capacity to think and we have free will according to Jewish thought. We can do good or we can do wrong.  But we are not stained from birth from some original sin.
And in fact, we give each other permission to pray with those who have sinned.  We try to take away the stigma. A kind of shame reducer. Just before the chanting of Kol Nidre.  We said that we consent to pray and be in community with one another even though we have sinned.  Judaism is much more concerned with ensuring your right action, living up to our values, teaching and mitzvoth than shaming you for who you are. Or who you think you are.
Tonight, is the night of discovering and loving ourselves enough ourselves to banish the enemy within.  On this day of Yom Kippur, we will get rid of guilt for our trespasses; our failures of our actions, words and deeds to live up to our standards of behavior. But for our teshuvah to be complete we must seek forgiveness from those we harmed to try and repair relationships.  
But how to banish shame?  “The victim of our crime or sin may have forgiven us, but inside we still feel defiled by the knowledge that our name has been disgraced, our reputation harmed, our standing damaged. We still feel the stigma, the dishonor, the degradation,” said Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi of England[ii].    This is the link between guilt and shame---we may have done things that make us feel badly about ourselves. And we may be ashamed of our behavior.  And sometimes when we are ashamed of our actions, it helps us remember not to do it again. While guilt and shame are very different they often have a complex connection to one another.  It is part of the process of repentance, to feel ashamed for who we became in the process of committing those acts.  Our Teshuvah, is only complete when we can acknowledge what we have become through our actions, and express true remorse, through confession, prayer and charity and asking for that forgiveness, and then resisting the next time we are tempted to repeat that act.
So while this holy season is for confessing our guilt- and being forgiven from our trespasses Yom Kippur also has another role to play in our lives. These holy days are also here to purify and renew you-by washing you clean of shame.
Yom Kippur is for cracking open your heart to help you heal. To banish the secrets and self-judgements, the feelings of shame that eat at you and control your thoughts and actions.
The antidote to shame is uncovering the truth of who you are.  Being your authentic self and letting it shine is the only way to overcome shame. 
You see that is why we come out about being gay or lesbian.  When we share who we really are—there is no shame even if others try to shame us.  When we admit we were powerless over drugs or alcohol, it is the first step to removing the dark secrets that dwell in our hearts, the pain that has accumulated through the years.  When we speak about what we are ashamed of we begin to reshape our world.  That has been part of the power of the #MeToo movement.  Those of us who are victims of sexual abuse, rape, molestation- have been sharing openly that for which we have been made to feel ashamed. 
And coming out about the secret is the antidote and part of developing shame resilience. The stories strengthen us. You see Healing from shame invites radical honesty.  And when we share our true stories we build empathy in ourselves and others.  And that empathy is the key to overcoming the sickening brew that is shame.  When others acknowledge our story and are empathetic to us, it takes the shame away bit by bit.  And it is then that we realize we are not alone at all.  This is why confession matters—because we must be honest about what happened to us and what we caused in others.  This, this is how we banish the shame from inside us. 
A word about perpetrators—if you shame others or embarrass them our tradition sees this as a great sin.  Our tradition is very critical of those who bully or embarrass others. In fact, this is seen as a murder. Murder of a reputation.  Some of our commentators even say it more heinous than murder. With murder you destroy a life once but with shaming you destroy a life repeatedly.  Our Sages teaches us that if the humiliation took place in the presence of others, make your apology in their presence, as well as in private. Otherwise the victim has the right to say, “You shamed me in front of others, and now you want to apologize in private. Bring me all the people who heard you embarrass me, and then I will accept your apology. [iii]
We can and should hold people accountable for their behavior, but we also ought to remember the line between acknowledging guilt and shaming people for who they are.  And so it is important to be careful in our language.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, teaches this:
Judaism is a religion of hope, and its great rituals of repentance and atonement are part of that hope. …. Hence the elaborate ritual of the scapegoat that seemed to carry away the tumah, the defilement that is the mark of shame. It could only be done on Yom Kippur because that was the one day of the year in which everyone shared at least vicariously in the process of confession, repentance, atonement and purification. When a whole society confesses its guilt, individuals can be redeemed from shame.[iv]
On Yom Kippur afternoon-the High Priest would in ancient days send the scape goat-to Azazel.  That poor goat was sent forth with our shame, our busha, in the wilderness so we could purify our hearts and souls.  This act-didn’t just take our sins to the wilderness, in truth this was to take our shame away and purify the people.  That is why the High priest would immerse in the mikveh many times before this sacrifice and entering the Holy of Holies.  The uncleanliness wasn’t physical at all—these rituals of immersion were to wash away the shame in the recesses of the soul.  Purity, spiritual purity, was the way to restore the heart and open it to God and being in relationship with others.
And when the Kohen Gadol the High Priest, was done, and he would emerge from reciting God’s holy Name in the Holy of Holies he would bless the People. And he would say that the people would be “lifnei Adonai titharu” – you are purified before Adonai [v]
There is no High Priest to send the goat away, no Holy of Holies from which to emerge and receive the blessing of purity in our time. But the prophet Ezekiel taught:  And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. [vi]. This is the essence of this day.  A day for giving you a new heart-without shame.
The purity we seek is here. In the words and rituals and melodies of Yom Kippur.  Let them wash over us and open our hearts to receive the healing and purification.  As our prayers say: V’taher libenu L’avdecha  b’emet—Purify our hearts that we may serve You in truth. Let the shame be banished, our guilt atoned. And forgiveness requested from God and all those we have harmed. Let us make complete teshuva, repentance, turning around.
On this complex Atonement Day, Yom Kippur which we have begun tonight calls us to recognize our guilt, our culpability for our sins.  But this holy day also comes to purify and help us overcome and rid us of our shame. Our tradition developed these deep spiritual and psychological rituals to help us know we can be forgiven from our sins and errors and be purified from any shame so that we can go back to our daily lives in this new year and live lives of contentment and wholeness and yes, goodness.  The fasting isn’t punishment-it’s a spiritual technique for purification of your soul.  The notion that you must go to individuals and seek forgiveness and meet eye to eye (not just blanket apologies on Facebook) means that you must have a human encounter of accepting responsibility and also restoration of your standing in the community.
The liturgy- the prayers of this day point us to being in communion with God and each other in a way that is supposed to lift us to worthiness once again.  And when we hear the last blast of the  shofar-at the close of Neilah tomorrow-with that final tekiah gedolah-we will know that God has heard our confessions and prayers, and we will know that we have been purified and cleansed and our teshuvah, our repentance accepted. And our guilt washed away, and we will have our hearts made whole.  We will have kept ourselves through this holy days, from going over the edge. We will know inside that indeed we are enough.
[i] Brown Brene “The Gifts of Imperfection”
[iii] Yalkout Shimoni, Hosea 14
[iv] ibid.
[v] Rabbi Robert Wolkoff, Yom Kippur sermon 2003
[vi] Ez 36:26

A World of Imagination

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Given Rosh HaShanah Morning 5779 * Monday, September 10, 2018


Shana Tova Happy New Year to you all. Welcome home to the annual meeting of the Jewish people.  There are no proxies accepted! Showing up matters here. The High Holy days is the time we Jews around the world gather together to connect to our past and our history, to feel the connection to one another in our present time and to imagine the future together.  Our collective future and our individual futures. On Rosh Hashanah we imagine the world we want. We begin to imagine who we want to be and work toward becoming the person we want to be. We even write that vision down in Sefer HaChayim, the Book of Life!
Imagination is a wonderful thing. It can provide inspiration for us, help us dream big dreams and unlock the mysteries of our minds.  When we use our imagination, we free ourselves from the strictures that keep us imprisoned in the same old routine. The same old habits. Albert Einstein even said “I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
For it is our imagination that unleashes a power of creativity and insight in our minds.  And often allows and opens us up to invention!  And that is what we do here, today. This holy season. We are to open ourselves through the process of teshuva to re-invent yourself, the way you do things. We are to re-invent the world through our imagination. Rosh Hashanah marks the birth of the world, Yom Harat Olam—but in truth, the Rebirth of your world!
When we use our imagination, we see in our minds eye-the possibilities.  Imagination as Einstein meant it isn’t fantasizing or mindless day dreaming.  Imagination is literally visualizing what we hope to see, feel, and be.  When we use our imagination, we can visualize in our mind what is yet to happen in reality.  An original virtual reality if you will. 
Some may call this day dreaming but there is a difference in imagination and day dreaming.  Too often day dreams are used as an escape from our problems or come from our woundedness.  Dreams of course are symbolic in nature. Dreams are a way to vent our anxieties or fears and our desires that often come from our deep sub conscious minds.  We have no control of our dreams. And our day dreams are typically about the feelings and often are stimulated from within seemingly without cause. But imagination is a conscious effort to encounter new ideas, a method of experimentation and to visualize the world or ourselves as we hope to become.  Daydreaming allows your mind to wander at will, but when you visualize and focus on something specific you are putting intention behind the idea or entity.  Visualization is about seeing yourself in the new situation or new place.
And using our imagination to visualize new places and people help us prepare our mind and our being for new experiences in real life.
Another great scientist, Nikola Tesla, like Einstein, understood the power and importance of using his power of imagination.  He used visualization to help him imagine new things, new places and new people.  Tesla writes in his autobiography “My Inventions”:
“Every night (and sometimes during the day), when alone, I would start out on my journeys - see new places, cities and countries - live there, meet people and make friendships and acquaintances and, however unbelievable, it is a fact that they were just as dear to me as those in actual life and not a bit less intense in their manifestations.
“This I did constantly until I was about seventeen when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind.”
Tesla was a prolific and unparalleled genius, giving us AC electricity and the electric car. He developed the underlying technology for wireless communication over long distances. He spoke eight languages and held over 300 patents.
 Now we all aren’t scientific geniuses like Einstein and Tesla.  But we each are born with this capacity to imagine. As Gloria Steinman said: Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities.
It’s part of what makes us human. Our capacity to see a different world, a different alternative, to use our creativity, to be excited to build new inventions, hear and compose new music, paint new vistas; all of this comes from our ability to use our complex human brains and imagination.
Dr. Naomi Lavelle writes about this brain development in relationship to using our imagination:
Our early ancestors, the hominids, showed basic levels of imagination in their tool making abilities, cooperative hunting skills and social interaction and colonization.
As modern humans evolved, scientists have reported an increase in brain size, advances in technical skills and creativity, and a development in social complexities. Farming, sophisticated tool making, complex language development, the performance of rituals and the development of art and crafting all required a complex development of thought and mental interaction… Imagination!
A more developed neural network within the brain, connecting the different areas of brain function, must have had some part to play in all this. In other words, our beautiful big brains, and the way the right side and left side talk to each other, builds our imaginative skills.
For many years scientist thought the right side of the brain was the creative side, and the left side of the brain the base of logic. But now in several studies our imagination and creativity have been shown to come from multiple parts of our brains working together in harmony. 
As Christopher Bergland shared in Psychology Today:
Researchers at Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences were curious to discover “what makes humans able to create art, invent tools, think scientifically and perform other incredibly diverse behaviors?” They found that imagination stems from a widespread network of brain areas that collectively manipulate ideas, images and symbols. This (is called the) "mental workspace."
Creativity and imagination requires a widespread neural network in the brain.
Working with amazing symmetry, 11 different brain areas within the four hemispheres are able to consciously manipulate images, deconstruct symbols, come up with new ideas and theories and give humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems.     
The imagination-uses our whole brain.  Not just some small part of it. And what we are learning is that in the whole brain is a whole world! The limitless world of creativity, invention, artistry, expression, wonder, and awe. Our imagination has the power –the brain power to transform our lives.
One dramatic example of the power of vivid imagination is that of  Air Force Colonel George Hall. He was a POW locked in the dark box of a North Vietnamese prison for seven grueling years. Every day Hall played a full game of golf in his imagination. One week after he was released from his POW camp he entered the Greater New Orleans Open and shot a 76.
He visualized his game. Everything from getting dressed, to the course, wind conditions and each hole.  He imagined himself playing on his imagined course that he called Pebble Beach. Yes, it provided structure, discipline and an escape from the grueling and horrifying circumstances he was in at the Hanoi Hilton.   But it also strengthened his mind and heart and soul.
Colonel Hall trapped in that small horrid cell of limited space and cruel conditions, through his imagination, escaped the boundaries of his prison.  Our imaginations can help us escape the limitations that we have placed upon ourselves. Our imagination that we use today on Rosh Hashanah and through Yom Kippur and atonement we can transform our errors, sins, and transgressions that have limited our lives and relationships and help us begin to imagine a different way of being in the world.
On Rosh Hashanah we begin the process of imagining our new selves for the New Year.  But to do that we have to honestly look at who we have become since last we gathered together.  We must examine our hearts and mine our souls for the ways in which we censored our hopes and dreams, foiled our attempts at self-healing, and sometimes really screwed up. Rosh Hashanah invites us, in this time of examination and reflection, to a use our imagination—to imagine our best selves.  The self we strive to be.   
Today on Rosh Hashana let us begin to visualize, to use our imagination to imagine the world we want to live in.  Today let us begin to visualize and use our imagination to imagine the person we can yet be.  That is what our prayers help us do.  
Jewish prayer is a form of meditation, and visualization.  When we pray for a world at peace—we are imagining the world at peace.  When we pray for health of body and spirit for those who are ill, we are imagining their wellbeing and health. When we pray to atone for our sins and alleviate our guilt for the damage we may have caused in relationships, we are confessing and confronting the errors and sins we have committed as a way to imagine a new reality-free from those situations that trapped us.  If you can say I am sorry then you can imagine that you can be different, relieved from the burden of the negativity you help create. And our prayers lift our imagination higher that we might become and stand fully open to receiving love.  Imagination helps us diminish and eliminate the perception of obstacles. That is what we are doing here together.
At Rosh Hashanah we are trying to diminish the obstacles to become a better a you. At Rosh Hashanah we are trying to diminish the obstacle to create a better, more whole, and peaceful world.  This is the power that God endowed us with.  The spirit of the Holy One that moves inside of you. 
In the words of that great wizard, JK Rowling… “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”   That empathy is the connective tissue that binds us together as the human family.
That is why on this holy Day of Rosh Hashanah when we recite the Avinu Malkeinu Prayer- it begins with a plea to God to hear our voice—Shma Koleinu… To be heard, to be acknowledged, and in truth we use our imagination as we stand before the Holy One to imagine and give voice to a world filled with compassion for us and our family.  We use our prayers and our voice and our imagination to the see the end of sickness, war, famine and anguish.  We use our imagination to see the world and the new year as one of goodness!  You see that is what our prayers really our—visualization of how we hope the world to be—and how we hope ourselves to be. The best self we can be.  Not a perfect self.  We recognize our imperfection—but a becoming self.  And we admit to our errors, in confession, so we can start afresh and become the person you visualize. Today we begin this process of imagining a new you, becoming a better you!       
One such story is that of Vera Fryling, M.D.  She was a Jewish teenager on the run from the Gestapo, she lived undercover in Berlin during the Holocaust. During this time, she imagined that she was a doctor, a psychiatrist in a free land.  She used her imagination to keep her hope alive which in turn helped her stay alive. Overcoming the Nazis, the Soviet army and a bout with cancer, Fryling ended up on the faculty of the San Francisco Medical School.
“Imagination,” she said, “can help one transcend the insults life has dealt us."
Imagination in Jewish tradition had a rich legacy.  The Rabbis of the Talmud utilized their imagination on every single page.  They lived long after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Most lived far from the land of Israel. Nor had never set foot in the land of Israel and had no idea what the temple, the Beit HaMikdash looked like other than a few meager descriptions in the Tanakh, the bible or in the Mishnah.  But they used their imaginations to travel to the lands of our ancestors. They used their imaginations to develop the stories of our people.  The visualized the ancient temple and saw themselves there. They saw a rebuilt Temple and the priests practicing the ancient rituals.  Why did they do this? They did so because they wanted it to rise again from the ashes.  They imagined the Temple rebuilt and renewed.  A land of the Jewish people.  And that longing, that imagining fueled our people.
So much so that we never gave up imaging and visualizing and praying:  Next year in Jerusalem.  We could see ourselves there whether in our shtetl in Poland or Brooklyn or right here in Los Angeles.  Pure imagination. 
But yet that imagination, those visualizations gave way to building a new Zionism that led to the creation of the State of Israel 70 years ago.
Our Sages used Midrash to imagine all kinds of things, what God believes and feels and thinks. They used Midrash to explain Moses actions and motivations. They use Midrash and aggadah, story, to fill in the blanks when the Torah is silent. They used imagination and visualization to write a different outcome than what the Torah says.   
As the great modern Talmud Teacher and former MK (Ruth at podium) Ruth Calderon writes in the introduction to her amazing book A Bride for One Night:
The aggadic landscape at first seems very different from the world we know. It is wild and topsy-turvy, frightening and funny. It is a world in which the impossible happens: God asks to be blessed by a human being; the head of a talmudic academy marries a woman for one night in a strange city; a mortal steals the knife of the Angel of Death; the wife of a Torah scholar dresses up as the most famous prostitute in Babylonia; and a kindergarten teacher causes rain to fall. These stories are the Arabian Nights of the Jewish people. The reader is drawn from story to story by the promise of pleasure and the lure of longing. From image to image and from vista to vista, the view becomes increasingly familiar. It soon becomes apparent that for many of us this wonderland is in fact the homeland we never knew. (intro xiv)
The Rabbis of the Talmud weren’t afraid of imagining a different Judaism for different circumstances. They weren’t afraid of imagining God asking for a blessing from us.  They used their imaginations to change their worlds.
Why am I talking to you about imagination this year?  It is because I want you to imagine a new way of being. I want you today to visualize a new world. A new way for our world.  Part of resisting the Violence, racism, misogyny hatred and bigotry of our day is to imagine a different reality.  Oh make no mistake, we have to work for it.  It isn’t just going to be handed to us on a silver platter. But the world we want to see with the values we articulate is possible.  A world of equality; a world of liberty and freedom and justice. Whether in Israel or here at home –we have to imagine it first. Visualize it.  See it in your mind’s eye. People living in peace. Loving their neighbor. Even if that is not the reality around us. YET! 
The first step to resist the irrational, sicknesses of our time, the first step to resisting the bullying that is coming at us from politics.The first step to resisting the moral decay that infects our world, the first step to stemming the corruption around us is to imagine the world we want.  Imagine the world and the people in it. People who listen to one another, respect one another.  We have to visualize THAT world.  And then…. We have to let that vision, that imagination inspire us to create it in reality.  And we have to do it together.  It is not something that can be done alone.   It must be done collectively. 
Because the vision is so big. And the forces of evil so strong—because you see they are imagining too—a world of hate. A world where the rich get richer and the poor and the brown and black folks, and the Jew-and the lesbian, and trans and gay person and the immigrant, the Muslim, the Buddhist, anyone who isn’t like them…. They are imagining a world with a different set of values.  A world built on fear.
And so we come together on the Rosh Hashanah to imagine the world we want. And to assert it in our prayers and our actions.  Through our civic engagement efforts---there is a table in the foyer—register to vote… Did you move recently? Not voted in a while? Let Kol Ami’s Tzedek Council, our justice team help you register to vote. Are you going to be sure to vote in November or are you simply saying well it doesn’t matter we live in California?  Fill out a pledge card that you will vote this year.  And help our team by phone banking and canvassing with us to create the world of our imagination.  I am looking for a minyan of people-ten more volunteers that will help the efforts of our Justice Council and the Religious Action Center through our phone banking, canvassing and lobbying to get our neighbors to register. Won’t you consider being part of of this effort?
We imagine the world we want by strengthening and protecting our Jewish heritage—a noble heritage of valuing life against the forces that promote death.  We imagine the world we want by deepening our engagement as a Jewish community.  As a temple family.
Now more than ever is the time for us to imagine the strength of our Jewish people, and yes, our very own synagogue. Now is the time to imagine for yourself and your family and friends, the world we want. And now with the call of the Shofar, let its sounds help us visualize the world we want, and then stir us into action as we bring about this new you, this new world, in this the New Year. A new Year of peace for all the world.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. 

Why Be Jewish?

Rabbi Max Chaiken

Given Erev Rosh HaShanah 5779 * Sunday, September 9, 2018

 “Why be Jewish?” Three words and a question mark startle and surprise me. My classmate had just asked our entire community of rabbinic students and faculty this shocking question. At first, I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. “Why be Jewish? Aren’t we in rabbinical school? What kind of question is that?” I had never been asked so directly why I was Jewish. And to be fair, it may seem like a bizarre question to many of you too. But this year, it is the question that the shofar calls us allto answer with vigor, creativity, and imagination.
Some of you might argue that you didn’t choose to be Jewish. “I was born Jewish. There was no choice involved.” You respond that you’re Jewish because your parents were Jewish, and your grandparents before them. Being Jewish is just a part of you—the religious and cultural heritage that you never chose, much like you never chose your eye color, or your place of birth. 
If you became Jewish through conversion, of course, you might have a different answer. After all, converting to Judaism typically requires a lengthy process of learning and self-discovery, before you ever set foot in the immersive waters of the mikveh. You observed holidays and tried out new rituals. You spoke with many people, possibly including bewildered family members, and definitely including long-winded rabbis. And after all that, you still decided to commit yourself to Judaism; to cast your lot with the Jewish people. So I imagine you could articulate why.
And regardless of whether you have Jewish ancestry, you might respond to the question  “Why be Jewish?” by sharing that you want to ensure the survival of Jews and Judaism. You root for us Jews as an underdog of history, the perpetual survivors of persecution! That response is what Emil Fackenheim calls the 614th commandment: not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory,[1] and it may resonate with many of you.
But my friends, as true as any of these answers may be, our sacred tradition will not survive in the 21st century if we cannot clearly articulate why it should. Whatever Jewish journey has led you to this room tonight, make no mistake about it: we are all Jews-by-choice. Think about it: instead of tonight being any ordinary Sunday night, you chose to bring in the Jewish New Year. You chose to reconnect with community, and with the Spirit of the Universe. But I’m guessing that many of you didn’t stop to ask yourselves: “Why be Jewish?” 
My classmate suggested that answering this question requires us to state the “value-proposition” for being Jewish.The business world uses “value-propositions” to describe the valuethat customers get when from purchasing a good or service. Applied to Judaism, it refers to the value that being Jewish and doing Jewish can bring to our lives. And while I don’t usually like to think of Judaism as something to be consumed, or transacted in, the fact of the matter is that our communities and institutions have a lot of competition in American society today. So we must be able to advocate for and demonstrate the meaning and value that Judaism brings to us, and to the world. 
Don’t worry. In a few moments, I am going to share with you three of my answers to the question, because the stakes are too high to obfuscate, or engage in that classic rabbinic pastime of answering a question with another question. But before I do, I want to recognize that some of you still may not quite agree that you have a choice.
“Jews haven’t always had a choice about being Jewish,” you think, “we’ve always been a persecuted minority, kicked out of nearly every country we’ve ever lived in. Who would choose such a thing?” Sadly, you can read our history this way. We need look no further than the horrors of the 20th century! The Nazis did not care how one defined herself. Anybody with a Jewish grandparent was a Jew, whether they practiced Judaism or not! Our people were the targets of hatred and violence merely because of their heritage. And I acknowledge that today in the United States, this argument may even deserve new scrutiny, as we have seen a resurgence in anti-Semitism casting a long, dark shadow on our ability to “choose” our Jewishness. 
But there’s another way to read our history, too. Because being Jewish—doing Judaism, and using it to bring meaning to our lives—has always required a choice. In the times of the Maccabees, many Israelites took Greek names and customs as their own, effectively converting out. In the middle ages, and later during the Spanish Inquisition, many chose conversion out of Judaism, rather than risking their lives to maintain their Jewish practices. So those who maintained their customs most certainly chose Judaism.
Our sacred texts also insist on our need to choose, even when it comes to choosing Torah—our very covenant with God! You see, the logic goes that if we hadn’t chosen the covenant, we would have no incentive to keep it! Why stay in a relationship that you didn’t want in the first place?! One Talmudic tale suggests the Israelites were coerced, b. Shabbat 88a, but the rabbis’ response reveals just how highly they valued our freedom to choose.
Newly freed from Egypt, we wandered through the desert to our first stop: Sinai. But the revelation at Sinai describes a terrifying scene! Our leader has to ascend the mountain, which itself was surround by lightning and thunder, clouds and even the sound of the shofar. And the text also states, Ex 19:17, that when Moses led us from the camp towards God’s presence at the mountain, we stood “b’tahtit hahar” – literally underneath the mountain. With all of these frightening images, one rabbi taught that this phrase, “underneath the mountain” meant that God held the Mount Sinai itself literally held over our heads, coercing us to accept the covenant, or accept the grave. Sounds like an offer we couldn’t refuse!
But even the appearance of coercion leads the very same narrative to continue, that in the time of Esther, the Jews willingly and freely accepted the covenant once again. We once again chose to be Jewish.
And today in the United States of America we have more choice than ever in history! We live in a time and place of unprecedented fluidity and flexibility in religious identity. Five years ago, when the Pew Research Center published its landmark survey of Jewish American identity, it found that among American Jews born after 1980, some 30% of them identified as “Jews-of-no-religion.”[2] And the very same study reminds us that “this shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation.” These Jews-of-no-religion might identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” or they might embrace merely their cultural Jewish heritage, which leads them to crave Matzah Ball soup on Passover, and Chinese food on Christmas.  But effectively, they are not choosing Judaism.
So for us Jews-by-choice—who believe that Judaism should not only survive, but can thrive in the 21st century, we must return to the question, however uncomfortable it may be: Why be Jewish? What IS the “value proposition” for Judaism in the contemporary world? Only by answering this question for ourselves will we be able to advocate for the survival of Judaism, or any given Jewish institution—including our very own Congregation Kol Ami. 
So without further delay, here are three of my personal teshuvot, or responses, to the question.
First, “Judaism helps me create holiness in time.” 
From the very first chapter of Torah, our sacred text gives meaning and order to time. Our creation myth describes an order of “days,” really epochs, of creation, which lead to God blessing time itself, and resting—the first Shabbat. In turn, our practice of Shabbat, and our cycle of holidays reflect this process. Our holy times and seasons offer us the chance to appreciate the spark of divinity in our creating, our making, and our doing, and they remind us to pause and focus our time also on being. 
Compare this with American culture today. We work and work and work, rarely resting. We take fewer vacation days than most other developed nations of the world.[3] We are continuously pushed to produce deliverables and quantify every minute we’ve put into the job. We are so busy with doing and making and producing that we all-too-often forget to focus on being. So Judaism offers a powerful antidote: make time holy. Recognize its finite nature, and refuse to take it for granted. Our time on this earth is limited, but do not despair. We can celebrate and choose life by marking holiness in the passage of our precious time on this planet. 
In his classic work The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it this way: “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time… There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique… and endlessly precious.” We don’t need to feel lonely or rudderless as we navigate the waves of life in search of purpose and direction. Our sacred times and seasons offer us a compass, helping us actively create meaning as we sail the ocean of our lives. 
So “why be Jewish?”  Because Judaism helps me create holiness in time. 
The second value-proposition I offer for being Jewish is that “Judaism insists that we question and interpret.” Our struggles and questioning of God are even built into one of our names, Yisrael. In a moment of solitude and fear, Jacob found himself alone, wrestling with a strange figure, who blesses him with the name Yisrael, because he has “struggled with God and with people.”
But questioning God is just the beginning. We’re the people of the Talmud—a text that’s more interested in good questions than good answers. Our tradition has long wondered about the gaps in our holy texts, and those musings led to interpretations and the development of new texts and traditions. Our most cherished historical figures—from Maimonides to Einstein—propelled questions and critical thinking as ways to improve ourselves and the world around us.
But the culture we live in prides itself on knowledge; on always being “right.” We are often afraid to ask questions if we think we ought to know the answer already. We seclude ourselves in ideological silos--bubbles that reinforce our pre-existingbiases and ideas. It has become rare to interact with, let alone have a meaningful conversation, with people that think differently than we do. But our sacred tradition calls to question what we know; to challenge our assumptions and sharpen our minds to help improve the world around us.
So,  “Why be Jewish?” Because Judaism insists that I question and interpret. 
My third answer may be the most fundamental of all. “Judaism requires strong relationships.” Our tradition cannot be practiced alone. Of course, we value each and every human being, each one created in the Divine image, each one infinitely precious, each one an entire world. Yet Judaism insists that when we build relationships with one another, we bring with us the Divine presence itself. We become something greater.
But sadly, this value is also lacking in American society today. Everything caters to the individual, everything becomes a customizable commodity, delivered at the precise time and in the precise quantity you need. Pretty convenient, but also pretty isolating. Social media is perhaps the biggest culprit. The culture of social media teaches us to express ourselves, to brand ourselves, to hope we go viral. It does not teach us to listen to others; to look into the face of the person next to you, to hear their story, and to love your neighbor.
So for a third time,  “Why be Jewish?” “Because Judaism requires strong relationships.” In a society where we are often tempted to go it alone, Judaism reminds us to double down on relationships and community. 
Those are three of my value-propositions for Judaism, boiled down to a sweet, simple syrup. 
1. Judaism helps me create holiness in time. 
2. Judaism insists that I question and interpret.
3. Judaism requires strong relationships. 
Our tradition offers a unique approach to each of these, and throughout the generations our ancestors propelled Judaism to survive not just for survival’s sake, but because they knew that our sacred tradition contained such powerful ideas.
This year, I imagine a world where we take these values, along with our own answer, and recommit to choosing Judaism. I imagine a community built from these foundations, in which all of us are able to answer “Why be Jewish?” with confidence, and pride. 
These very values have already guided me in my work with The Open Yad Project. As many of you know, one of my roles as your Assistant Rabbi has been helping to launch The Open Yad Project—our program for building community amongst folks in our 20s, 30s and 40s here in West Hollywood, Hollywood and the East Side. 
From the beginning of my rabbinic internship two years ago, when Rabbi Eger first charged me with focusing on young adult engagement, we knew that creating strong relationships had to come first. We knew that in order to build something meaningful and sustainable, it had to start with the most basic building block of community: friendship. That process takes time. It takes attention to the rhythms of our own lives, and concern for the various seasons in the lives of others. 
What’s more, over the past several months, as we’ve organized and officially launched our efforts as The Open Yad Project, we’ve used these the values of marking holiness in time and the importance of questioning to guide the development of our programs. 
In August, for instance, we hosted our first Havdalah event in what we hope will become a monthly spiritual experience. The only purpose of Havdalah is to mark the passage from one moment to the next. Havdalah literally means separation in Hebrew because separates between two moments in time. It’s a ritual to mark the passage from a Shabbat of rest, or of being, to a week of doing and making. So in choosing to use Havdalah as our signature ritual program, we are trying to role model the uniquely powerful way that Judaism marks holiness in time. 
Similarly with the importance of questioning, we are planning to launch a series of pop-up learning events. While these programs will aim to extend an open hand, literally an open “yad” to new prospective participants, the concept grows naturally from our Jewish cycle of questioning and interpreting. 
The further I go along this path of building community, and developing The Open Yad Project, the more grateful I am that I have stopped to ask myself “Why be Jewish?” Because when we ask ourselves that question, we give ourselves permission to imagine new answers, and to imagine ourselves and our world transformed by the beauty and wisdom of our sacred tradition. As we usher in this New Year, I pray that you too will ask yourself “Why be Jewish?” I hope that you will explore your own answers to this vital question, and that your presence here tonight will be the first choice in recommitting to choose Judaism, and use our sacred tradition to bring meaning to your life.
Yes, I hope that Judaism, and the Jewish people, survive, and I believe that we work towards that vision when we remind ourselves and our loved ones whywe oughtto survive. As we bring in the new year 5779, let us recommit to passing our tradition l’dor vador, from one generation to the next, and let us do that by responding with certainty, love, patience, and imagination when we are asked, “Why be Jewish?”
Sun, September 15 2019 15 Elul 5779