Tuesday, December 24, 2019

It's Not the Oil - Hanukkah

Just the other day someone wanted to know why we would teach in the religious school that the miracle of Hanukkah might not actually be the oil that lasts for eight days.  Isn’t that the most important part?  What else could be the reason if not that for having the holiday? 
I hate to break it to you, and this might not be what you get into with your kids who are younger than 10 or 11 or so, but I don’t think there was a miracle with the oil last eight days.  Nevertheless, I do believe Hanukkah is an important holiday to celebrate with an important message to learn.
Now why do I think what I do?  First, if you read through I and II Maccabees (books in the Apocrypha, a collection of biblical style books written after the canon of the Hebrew Bible was already closed but still religiously significant and included in the Catholic Bible), which were written during the time when the Maccabees were rulers of Israel, there is no mention of the miracle with the oil.  That is to say, in accounts that were written either right during the time of the Hanukkah story or not long after, they don’t know anything about “super oil.” 
Furthermore, when we say the addition to the Amidah prayer for Hanukkah Al ha-Nissim, or when we read the passage Ha-Nerot Hallalu recited after lighting the menorah candles, neither of these prayers mention magic oil either. 
It is not until the Talmud, edited together around 450CE that we encounter the story of the lights.  The events of Hanukkah happened around 150BCE and so we are talking about six hundred years between the two events.  And even those early parts of the Talmud are still separated from the time of the Maccabean Revolt by more than hundred years.  A nice story to be sure, but not one that rings with the note of historical accuracy. 
So why then do we a light a menorah at all?  I suspect it is because the Maccabees really did restore the Holy Temple after they defeated the Seleucid Greeks, and the menorah was a key symbol of the Temple, so incorporating it into the celebrations the held for their victory made sense.   And I think they made Hanukkah an eight-day holiday (the Temple menorah has six branches plus one central light) because that fit better with other important holidays like Sukkot and Passover, and the Maccabees felt their victory worthy of a similarly long celebration.
The miracle of Hanukkah then, the one we read about in the Books of Maccabees, the one we mention in our additional prayers including the candle blessings, the one even the Talmud acknowledges, is the faith of the Maccabees that their dedication to Judaism could help them prevail of the Greeks.  And despite their smaller numbers, despite even the fact that even some of the Maccabees were themselves Hellenized Jews, their commitment to Jewish tradition, their hope and bravery, that is what we truly celebrate.
When you light the candles this year, make sure that lesson is a part of what you celebrate and remember.  And after we put the menorah away, remember that just as the light of Hanukkah grows stronger every night of the holiday, so too, can our faith and courage during difficult times, helping us to prevail against those who might seek our harm, and see Jewish life and relevance survive and thrive.    

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Towards Hanukkah

Parshat Vayeshev, Looking Towards Hanukkah: On Hanukkah, we are required to light candles, and the rabbis are very specific that it not be a torch, that they not be all over but lined up, that basically, each candle be uniquely its own contribution to the menorah, and to pirsumei nissah, to the command to “advertise the miracle” of Hanukkah.
And when you think about it, that is what Hanukkah itself is about. It’s about the Jews saying, “no, we won’t assimilate and disappear – we have something unique to us to contribute to the tapestry of humanity. We have a special job to play in God’s world, and we aren’t going to go away or become just like everyone else.”
The lesson of Hanukkah is a lesson to teach you to be uniquely you. To embrace the things that make you who you are. As it is taught, a human king will stamp coins and they all come out with the same image stamped on them. God however, stamps the “coins” of each human being with God’s Spirit and in so doing, each coin comes out unique. You are, by being yourself an important part of God’s plan for creation.
This is a lesson for the family and our community – that there are some people who are blessed with the skills of leadership, with a talent for building up the community, and if you’re one of those people then you are called upon to contribute your unique blessing to the betterment of the community.
Finally, Hanukkah reminds us of another lesson involving light, which is also the lesson of being a Jew in the greater world – that we have a job, to be an ohr l’goyim, a light to the world, of how to live in a holy, godly way. Do your part in lighting the way of Judaism in our world.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Parshat VaYishlach, Deceiving Yourself

Parshat VaYishlach, Deceiving Yourself - Is your view of reality accurate?  Today we talk about “fake news” and how the unique experiences of people may make it hard to understand them and their challenges.  But what happens when you have the wrong picture of things? Can that be?
The Prophet Obadiah in the haftarah addresses this.  Speaking about the Edomites a related tribe to the Jews who failed to aide them in their time of need he says:
Z’don libcha hishi-echa, “your heart has deceived you [to do bad things]”
Later, in talking about how the Edomites are “going to get it” he says, hi’shi’ucha yachlu lecha anshe sh’lomecha, “they’ve deceived you, your supporters [and now you’ll be defeated without them]”
Through the use of “deceiving” in both places, the Prophet Obadiah tells us something, and not just about the Edomites, but for us now.
What Obadiah wants to tell us is don’t deceive yourself about what’s right and about doing the right thing.
Surround yourself by the wrong people, let their words and actions deceive you as to the right things, as to the nature of reality itself, and you will face the repercussions.  
And how do we know what is “right?”  Obadiah’s criticism of Edom in a moment of crisis, they ignored those in need, those who should have been important to them.  
We must constantly ask ourselves if our views and perceptions are leading us to shun and ignore those we should help.  If we find ourselves increasingly seeing people as “other” and unworthy of our concern, we may just be deceiving ourselves.  
Shabbat Shalom 
Rabbi Benson

Thursday, December 5, 2019

VaYetze, Holy Self Criticism

VaYetzeHoly Self Criticism:
Leah was mistreated by Jacob. And more than that, by Jewish tradition. And even by our own Conservative Movement who in the official version of the imahot addition includes her after Rachel even though she married Jacob first and the order is seemingly first to last.

And while we’re at it, I believe Laban and Jacob treated each other poorly. Laban more so than Jacob, but all the same, neither man comes away looking all that great.

And fundamentally I take issue with the fact that Jacob could be the husband, or master, really, to four women – two wives and two concubines. And I believe that the Takkannah of Rebbenu Gershom in 1000 CE was correct to ban the reprehensible practice in Judaism though the Torah most clearly allows it.

And it’s my belief that just about all of you will agree with me that Jacob has his warts showing in the Torah’s depiction of him, that Leah did likely have a sad existence and that polygamy is bad.

All things that we can all agree are wrong with our religion, or at least wrong with our religious texts. None of us would deny that there are issues with Judaism when it comes to these things.

And when Jews have committed crimes here in the States or anywhere for that matter, we should speak out strongly against such attacks and criticize ourselves that such hatred or evil, such wrongdoing could exist in our midst.

It might be the subject of jokes – such “Jewish guilt” but it is also a source of great strength within Judaism as well. We are even taught in Leviticus 19:17 to chastise our fellow Jews who seeks to do wrong.

For we are a family, a team, as it were, and that the whole team helps or hurts in the success or failure of the greater whole.

It is perhaps in this way that we are meant to be an or lagoyim, “a light unto the nations.” Not by having the most Nobel Prize winners or best comedians but rather because we have lifted up self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-criticism to be religious ideals.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Synagogue Reading: The Sabbath, #2

Synagogue Reading:  The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshual Heschel
All this Jewish year, Rabbi Benson will read and discuss with congregants The Sabbath by A. J. Heschel following minchah services every Saturday.  For those unable to make it then, the rabbi's weekly article will be a brief summary of the pages we covered.  To order the book for yourself, buy it in our gift shop, or else click this link - PURCHASE THE SABBATH

Prologue, Pages 5-6:  "We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is a moment that lends significance to things."  In these pages, Heschel continues to lay out the two worlds in which humans operate, space and time. 

Neither space nor time is "bad" in Heschel's thinking.  But when we think of reality as only be the world of space, then "reality to us is thinghood" and "the result of our thinginess is our blindness to all reality that fails to identify itself as a thing."  Stop and think about whether or not this is true in the way you live. 

Those things that are often most important to us are not "things" in the sense we can touch or see or smell them.  It is true about love, about happiness or contentment, or even something like family.  Yet our lives are often built around the tangible things of the world, even other people, who we all to often interact with as "things" and nothing more.  When we do this, Heschel is saying, we are missing out on an important dimension to our relationships and an important dimension to reality itself. 

We are ready, at the bottom of page seven where left off, to begin a new topic in the book, the way the Bible thinks of time and space.  Join us this Saturday following kiddush (about 12:30pm) for minchah and our study session.

Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Lech Lecha, The Covenant and the Crazies

Parshat Lech Lecha, The Covenant and the Crazies:  
“All the crazies are obsessed with the Jews and all the Jews are obsessed with the crazies obsessed with the Jews.”

That was probably the best comment on an article I read noting the latent and not so latent antisemitism on the part of many Americans. 

It is a challenging comment to encounter as we read about the birth of the Jewish People in this week’s parshah and God’s commands to Abraham (Abram) to “go forth” and become the Jewish people, to become or-lagoyim, a “light to the nations” to become, “a blessing to all peoples.”

What do we do when people are obsessed with us in wrong and dangerous and violent ways?  My answer is simple.  We continue to do what Jews have been asked to do since the very beginning of our history, as we read about this week.  To live within the covenant, the Torah, that God has given us, as he said to Abraham:
And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”
וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ, וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ לְדֹרֹתָם--לִבְרִית עוֹלָם:  לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים, וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ.
God doesn’t promise us that things will go well all the time – sure God says God will curse those who curse us, but God doesn’t promise there won’t be any cursing.

And God does promise us the Land of Israel, but from the start God admits that there will be times when the Jews do not possess it, and in fact there will be times when we are slaves.

Knowing this will be true, we need to remain faithful to the covenant, to the Jewish people, to our own conscience, which guides us to be good people – NOT because it will make the “bad people” go away – but precisely because there will always be the bad people.

Remember this, as God promises to remember the covenant with us, we’ll be ready for whatever the statistics and life, brings our way.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Synagogue Reading: The Sabbath, #1

Synagogue Reading:  The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshual Heschel
All this Jewish year, Rabbi Benson will read and discuss with congregants The Sabbath by A. J. Heschel following minchah services every Saturday.  For those unable to make it then, the rabbi's weekly article will be a brief summary of the pages we covered.  To order the book for yourself, go to PURCHASE THE SABBATH:

"The Architecture of Time," the Prologue, pages 3-5.  "There is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean His presence in space rather than in time, in nature rather than in history; as if He were a thing, not a spirit."  
Forgiving Heschel's use of masculine pronouns when referring to God in the book he wrote in 1951, the idea that we missing the point about God when we make God a "thing" in "space" even a really big thing, is key to Heschel's goals in the opening pages of The Sabbath.

Heschel sets up the idea for us that human beings live both in the "world of space" - of things and technology and controling and owning, but also in "the world of time" - of being, of sharing, of giving.   We need both but Heschel feels we lose something vital when we live only in the world of space.  

We love something of our humanity when we strive only to want more and more from the world of space, but this isn't even the worst.  We also lose a true sense of what it is to be alive, of what really matters.  This is no more apparent in Heschel's introduction to us, even in these first few pages, to the notion that the world of space leads us to consider God as merely one more "thing" that we can choose to control or throw away, like so many other things we tirelessly pursue only to tire of.

Come find out more this Saturday.  Minchah services will be at 5:35 and our discussion will follow at about 5:50.  Rabbi Benson

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019 - What Lincoln Talked Schechter

L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu.  There is an important story for us to remember tonight – about a Jewish leader betrayed by other Jews while at a meal attended by twelve people. 
You are probably thinking of a different supper with twelve, or I guess thirteen people in attendance.  This one happened about 610 years before that one, thus nearly 2600 years ago – in the year 582 BCE and tradition tells us it happened on Rosh Hashanah.  It is a meal, an event, whose lesson touches on a chapter of American history, on our Conservative Movement’s birth, and demands our attention today.  For as much as it is a story of hope smashed and peace that never came to be – it is still a vital reminder and warning to us to fight for such things, to risk it all even.
The meal was held in the holy city of Mitzpeh, and during it, Gedaliah, the Jewish governor of Babylonian controlled Judah, was assassinated.  This event, just four years following the destruction of the First Temple and conquest of Judah by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, who had left Gedaliah as his governor, would end any semblance of Jewish autonomy in Israel for a lifetime.    
The story appears in 2 Kings and in Jeremiah and in great detail in the writings of Josephus.  We learn that Ishmael ben Netaniah, a member of the Jewish royal family, with backing of the king of Ammonites, was given an audience with Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor who, while appointed by the Babylonians sought to maintain Jewish life in the region (he for example was an ally and the guardian of the prophet Jeremiah).  Gedaliah had been told Ishmael had nefarious designs but refused to believe it.  Once the party got going, Ishmael struck, killed the governor, the Jews and even Babylonians with him and then fled to his allies in Ammon, across the Jordan River. 
Now some would argue that Ishmael was a Jewish patriot killing a collaborator, though it is far more likely he was a tool of the Ammonites seeking their own power.  Further, Jeremiah the prophet vouches for Gedaliah as being loyal to the Jewish cause and working under highly compromised circumstances for the best of Jewish People.  Even the fact Gedaliah refused to believe a fellow Jew would try to kill him, and that he would not act preemptively against Ishmael, tell us his values. 
The Jews, at least all the remaining leadership, fled to Egypt, the Babylonians rival for regional dominance.  They rightly feared the Babylonian reprisals which did come for the murder of the Babylonian appointed governor.  And ignoring his insistence to remain in the Holy Land, they took Jeremiah with them.    
Writing much later, Maimonides wrote, “the day on which Gedaliah ben Achikam was slain, the ember of Israel that remained was extinguished, causing their exile to become complete” (Mishneh Torah, Fasts 5:2).
To this day, we mark the day following Rosh Hashanah as Tzom Gedaliah, the Fast of Gedaliah.  An important day not because we care about Egypto-Babylonian politics, but because while exile did become complete for Gedaliah’s generation, the memory of men like Gedaliah, would serve to inspire others to not give up hope and bring together the Jewish People. 
It is a needed lesson today for Israel, where not so long ago, the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a fellow Jew tragically, tore from the great tome of Jewish history, the promise of a chapter that might have contained peace for Israel but remains unwritten to this day.  Let us pray tonight such a chapter is eventually written.
And a vital lesson for us sadly today in America.  And one that also has parallels to the American past.  Booth’s assassination of Lincoln following the Civil War occurred at a time like that following the destruction of the First Temple, or Israel in the 1990s – a fragile and perilous time where the possibility of restoration and peace was dim at best and through Lincoln’s murder, that hope was dashed, changing American history forever.
Lincoln was a hero to Solomon Schechter, founder of Conservative Judaism in America.  Schechter spoke of reading about Lincoln in Romania as a youth (he was 18 when Lincoln was shot) and the American President remained a source of inspiration for the red-haired rabbi.   Speaking about Lincoln to the Seminary’s graduates over a hundred years ago, Schechter quoted words attributed to Lincoln’s Inaugural in 1861 he said they “rise to the heights of a mystical hymn,” and I think Schechter was right. 
Lincoln said: ‘we are not enemies but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely, they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’  With Lincoln, as with Rabin and Gedaliah, we see another time when that flame was extinguished.
It should be meaningful to us that the founder of our own Movement, Schechter, thought so highly of Lincoln.  Schechter understood the drive leaders such as these had, even if they were unable to achieve their goals in their lifetimes.  He understood the severe damage disunity could have.  Schechter lived this ideal.  He never sought to found a Movement – his name for what we are (arguably an even worse name than “Conservative Judaism”) was “Catholic Israel” –because he felt that all Israel, all Jews, from very liberal to very traditional, should all see and think of each other as “friends not enemies” and relate to each other guided by “our better angels.”
He would approve of the lesson we learn from the Talmud that on Rosh Hashanah, a person who has already heard the shofar can nevertheless blow it for another Jew who has yet to hear it, because, “every Jew is responsible for every other” kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh (Shev. 39a).
Even though generally if you’ve performed a mitzvah you can’t “do it again” for someone else, we nevertheless make an important distinction when it comes to the shofar, it is a mitzvah that “isn’t done” until everyone has heard it. 
It makes Rosh Hashanah a Day of Unity, then.  For what else is a day on which we ask for forgiveness and give it in return, and work to mend relationships, but a Day of Unity after all?  Showing us in fact the ingredients necessary for Unity – to forgive and to be humble.
For us as Jews as well as for us as Americans, remembering this is critical.  Remembering the lesson of today Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Unity, contrasted with Wednesday, Tzom Gedaliah, the Day of Disunity – is a lesson to carry into this new year and every new year.
Maimonides also wrote, “Notwithstanding that the blowing of the ram's horn trumpet on Rosh ha-Shanah is a Torah statute, its blast is symbolic, as if saying: "Ye that sleep, stir yourselves and examine your conduct, turn in repentance to your Creator! …It is necessary for everyone to imagine throughout the whole year that you are evenly balanced between innocence and guilt, and that the entire world is evenly balanced between innocence and guilt;  and thus, if you commit one sin, you will tip over, and the whole world will tip over to the side of guilt, and be destroyed.  But that the opposite will be true should you do one good deed and thus save the world, for as Proverbs say, ‘The righteous are an everlasting foundation’" (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4).
Let this be a year in which the spirit of Rosh Hashanah prevails over the spirit of Tzom Gedaliah.  The spirit of Schechter continues to guide us, Schechter’s spiritual children.  To be motivated by unity.  To see in every interaction the opportunity to bring people together with the power of forgiveness and an attitude of humility, to make friends out of enemies, to remember those, like Gedaliah and Rabin and Lincoln, who risked even their lives to achieve unity and peace in times of trouble and strife, and see to it their spirits live on.
Shanah Tovah

Rosh Hashanah 2019/5780 - Three Pillars Everything Rests On

There’s a joke about the rabbi who at the end of his career gets up and says, “you all either know what I’m going to say, don’t care what I’m going to say, or think you could say it better, so I’m just going to skip it.  Shanah Tovah.”  And then there’s the sermon that at least at some point every rabbi must consider giving (and hopefully not give) saying what you really think of everyone and everything. 
I’m not doing the first, and I hope I’m not quite doing the second.  But I do feel today will be a little bit of a risk, and so stay with me.  Today I’m addressing climate change, antisemitism, guns, drugs and politics… Yes, I think that’s everything.  And how Judaism suggests you might be wrong in what you think about all of them.  Judaism’s answers aren’t at least primarily, and I truly believe this, the types of things we so often here.  The answers aren’t about tikkun olam or the coming of the messiah.  Jewish concepts to be sure, just not the main ones, the proper ones, for considering such weighty world issues. 
For not only are those the wrong “first concepts,” but in laboring under the notion they are, we do damage to Judaism and to religion, and worst, to real living people - making their lives worse and not better because of our errors. 
Because, and I stake my reputation on this --- if religion, if God, is positioned as being the solution to some issue and then doesn’t address that issue – well what good is it?  And if, as I deeply believe, there are issues in your life and in the world that are not being addressed – issues religion could help with, but is failing to do so, even when the pain and emptiness of those in need is profoundly apparent – then we are radically failing to meet people where they are!
Judaism’s answers to all these dilemmas are the same.  And they can be summed up as Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim – the three things we are taught upon which the world stands.  Torah here means Jewish thinking and belief and striving to flesh out and fill in how the teachings of our ancient path guide us today.  Avodah is practice of Jewish rituals and observance in our lives.  And I’ll be a heretic and say not necessarily even in a halachic way but in a “full” way.  That is to say – Jewish customs and practices imbue one’s daily life.  Maybe inconsistently and incoherently, but fill it up, nonetheless. 
And finally, Gemilut Chasadim – means “acts of lovingkindness” but that kind of language is too malleable to wrong impressions.  Judaism’s concern has always been anchored in what the individual can do for another individual.  And what the community can do within its reach.  That’s not to say funds didn’t exist even in ancient times to ransom captives carried over the sea by pirates, for such things were known and did exist, but unlike how tikkun olam is often used as a Jewish call to save all the world,  the tradition is actually very thin on setting that as a goal, while it is brimming with examples and calls to do gemilut chasadim, and I think there is a reason why. 
Because while it is a call to help those in our own group, those like us, to be sure, it is even more the call to see the person across from us, even our enemy who we despise, as still being a human being who deserves a very basic level of respect.  And what is that basic amount of respect?  That if we saw they were in need of help with something difficult that we would help them!  That we must help them!  Despite how different, how repulsive they might be to us – we would help them lift their burden.  Could you do that today?  Could you help the pro-choice person?  The Trump supporter?  The gun-owner?  The progressive, the conservative?  Now the truly “evil” person – for there are such in the world, while we are called upon to fight evil, even here, we mustn’t relish, we mustn’t delight, in defeating or even when necessary, destroying the evil.  But all too often in our lives – our “enemies” aren’t “evil” they are people we don’t like, and that is who I address your attention to.   
“Healing the world” is noble to be sure.  But as used today, it is not often presented as including helping the despicable, the forgotten - but gemilut chasadim is, and that is why I encourage its consideration today.
So far, you may not disagree much with me.  You might be thinking, yeah, those things are all important.  But I hope you will have questions, disagreement, argument, with my suggestion that they are the answers to all of our current contemporary issues.  Let me now spend some time saying why. 
Let’s jump right in with climate change.  Judaism’s feelings on climate change are old.  Because even before people could cause climate change,  the story in the Torah of Noah’s Ark is a warning from the very beginning that our ancient ancestors knew people would ruin the environment around them, would, through their violence, through their very nature, bring about the destruction of the world:
קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם
While that is the key for the rest, that’s not it about climate change.  Because climate change is old, too.  And I mean anthropogenic climate change – climate change caused by people – has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.  
And in response to even those changes, we can see in the record of Judaism over the history of anthropogenic climate change, going back as far as 700 years ago, that Judaism’s original message about human violence has remained at the core of what it teaches to us today. 
What do I mean?  There is a rather convincing set of arguments that the world experienced what we call the Little Ice Age, a time of cooling around, back in the Middle Ages, in part due to the massive loss of population caused by the Black Death, which itself came about as a result of increased human populations their interactions and density of settlements.  The world’s population decreased from around say 500 million to around 300 million.  Around 100 to 200 million people died in the course of the Plague’s major outbreak between 1347 and 1351!   Can you imagine?!  As many as a fifth of people alive were killed.  It must have felt like the end of world - because it was.
The result was the reforestation of great swaths of previously cleared land allowing for the capture of more carbon and a cooling of the earth leading to the “Little Ice Age” – “Man-Made Climate Change.”
Some suggest the impact was continued by the European arrival in the Americas causing the further deaths of some 10 to 100 million people, something like 80 or 90% of the indigenous populations of the Americas.  Again, a massive and relatively quick depopulation which also caused reforestation and temperatures to cool., etc. 
Now scientists do argue whether or not human actions contributed to the Little Ice Age and even quite how to categorize what that climate event was.  But our lesson, Judaism’s lesson, is the same.
For myself, I do believe in the negative impact of human behavior on the environment.  But what I believe in even more, based on the dismal numbers I just shared, is that the “solution” humans are likely to offer to climate change has at least as much chance of looking like it did during the LIA than anything “happy” - and probably more likely than less. 
Just think about it – from the 1340s to the 1540s as many as 300 million people, something possibly approaching a half of humans, died from human spread diseases and violence?  Not promising. 
And what was Judaism’s response?  Much the same as it had been before such things happened.  The historian Susan Einbinder wrote about just this in her book, After the Black Death and notes the “great diversity in Jewish experiences of the plague… Most critically, the continuity of faith, language, and meaning through the years of the plague and its aftermath. Both before and after the Black Death, Jewish texts that deal with tragedy privilege the communal over the personal and affirm resilience over victimhood.”
How did Jews respond?  They rallied together and relied on their traditions and beliefs for comfort and meaning in the face of a violent and cruel world and never gave up on helping others even if it couldn’t turn back such violence. 
Jews were murdered for causing the Black Death.  And for bad winters.  And droughts and everything else – and their response was to say their prayers and stay loyal to their heritage.  They relied on Torah and Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim, to endure the literally unendurable. 
I’ve no doubt shared before with you and likely will again how a congregant of mine from the Former Soviet Union once, in speaking about some current event commented, “you Americans always think things will turn out okay.” 
It’s another way of saying what Genesis said to us about people in Noah’s time.
Understand me – my point is that we need to take the Jewish tradition’s point of view.  A point of view of reality, the long view, of the all too often bleak nature of humanity.  We do nothing to prepare ourselves for the world as it is when we willfully ignore this. 
We do everything when we face the world as it is - change what we can, by embracing Torah, the scope of Jewish beliefs, Avodah, Jewish practice, and Gemilut Hasadim, the Jewish emphasis on helping locally and those difficult to help.
What about antisemitism, my next topic?  After what I’ve said, do I really need to go into great lengths explaining this to you?  Has not an entire history of Judaism been replete with people who hate us for who we are and even continue to hate us when we try to stop being who we are, still wanting to kill us? 
While we yet live in one of, if not the most welcoming non-Jewish country in human history for Jews, we also see how right there, close at hand, ready to reach out and grab us, antisemitism is even here. 
Again, we see the wickedness in human hearts fully on display with antisemitism.  And again, and again we know – now first-hand, the response of the Jewish community to it.  When Tree of Life Synagogue was attacked on Shabbat, the next morning we had over 100 people here for a special service – one of many held in our larger community in response.  And while I believe I do in fact do a lot to fight antisemitism, I also know that in 2000 years this is not going away, yet my will to fight goes on.
You may have seen the article just recently of the Holocaust survivor who hid a shofar with him in Auschwitz.  That!   That is what I want you to take away from the fight against antisemitism.  Exactly that level of commitment to Jewish Practice, Jewish Belief and Jewish Helping.  We fight such hatred best by proudly, even defiantly, relying on our tradition and what it offers us. 
Over the summer I had recommended to me a book which I read called White Fragility.  It argues the inherent racist nature of white society in America.  It was a challenging book to the say the least, but what did it make me think about?  That pressing moral issues of our day, like gun control, like opioid drug addiction, issues that have become national issues -  that they’ve become so only at this time because now, they are impacting white communities, with whom, let’s face it, we Jews tend to have way more in common when it comes to things like this. 
Even though the majority of people killed with a gun are not killed in a mass shooting or even by homicide – but rather through suicide.  And even among homicides you are far, far more likely to be killed by a gun if you are a non-white American than even a Jew sitting in synagogue. 
And yet it is now that we are “up in arms” about this.  I mean, I guess better late than never. 
Hearing that, don’t you feel just a little ashamed that you didn’t think to be upset by any of the gun violence before it was white people and white kids getting shot?  I mean, maybe you were, but I feel like probably not. 
Or as the comedian Dave Chappelle observes, white opioid addiction is considered an emergency of health in America now, while black crack addiction in the 80s was about crime and the helpful advice of, “just say no.”  Seems like maybe we are failing our fellow human beings, let alone our fellow Americans.
So when I express, brazenly, on behalf of Judaism, that Judaism probably wasn’t really helping you figure out how to help people who were suffering anyway, because if it were, you would have been outraged long before now, I think that’s appropriately brazen. 
And when I further suggest that a deepening of our attachments to Judaism, to life punctuated by moments of holiness so we are keen to notice the holiness of the world around us and of the people around us, to a Judaism that recognizes the image of God in all others - To a Judaism that recognizes the suffering that all people carry and endure in a world - as I feel I have taken great pains to demonstrate is too often a terrible place given what we do to each other – that is what we need more of. 
We need a world where you light Shabbat candles every Friday and just as regularly put money in your pushke, your tzedakah box, as our ancestors did.  We need to see our Rebbe’s Tisch revitalized to feed the needy who have never gone away in our community.  Do you know Long Island has a problem with human trafficking?  I did not until I attended a meeting of the Sherriff’s Chaplains Council, but in fact many people, many women and children, are treated like slaves right where we live!  That is outrageous and shameful.  And furthermore, I think that is something if we worked together, we could actually do something to significantly address. 
We need to act passionately in the right ways.  And we must recognize sometimes we will try and not be able to help – and yet still try.   
And that brings me, finally, to politics.  Carrying on from where I was – just like my summer reading was making the case that being a white person and not ever seeing, or interacting with, or having friends, or even caring at all about people of color isn’t so far of a jump from actually just being racist against people of color for whites – I would imagine that not knowing or talking to or being friends with or caring about people who are really, really, really different from you on political issues is probably not making it any better for you to be able to work with those people to solve things. 
Now, if you want to take my bleak assessment of people and say, “well there’s no point because bad people are bad” I really think that’s disingenuous when it comes to people of opposing political views.
And here’s why.  Judaism teaches beyond a doubt the following:
1.  People are full of pain and hurt and fears and burdens just like you.  They have lost, they have had dreams completely crushed, they have been hurt in ways they may not even realize by people who should have never hurt them.
2.  They are also creatures of God like you.  None of us asked to be created.  And none of us is better than any other.  And as we are praying about today, none of us is free of “sin” (you know I know that you love it when I talk about you all being sinners).
And so, if those things are true, and we have them in common, couldn’t we be just a little more thoughtful and kinder towards each other?
What do we do in the face of a violent world?  A changing world?  A world full of so many hurt and broken people?  We can acknowledge that we don’t have nearly the answers and nearly the influence necessary to address all issues, perhaps not even to understand those issues.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  We are taught “not to abandon the work even if we cannot finish it.”  I don’t want you not to care, not to try – just to realize that may be all you can do, and that’s okay. 
Because ours is not the mission of only one life.  Ours must be a mission that embraces the history of humanity of which we are only a part.  On that scale we can only hope to nudge things a little this way or that.  And for such a mission Judaism is perfectly fit.  Teaching us gemilut chasadim, seeking to lift up the burdens of others, Torah and Avodah, of study of Jewish belief and practice of Jewish ritual. 
In this year ahead that I suspect will be challenging and hard for us as a nation, for us as the Jewish People, for us as the world, and most likely for us – let our lives be enriched and inspired by the mystery and majesty of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim and recognize in them – in Jewish Thought, Jeiwsh Practice, and Jewish Helping, the tools for meeting all life’s challenges.     

Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019 - The Machzor Takes a Selfie

Please rise.  You may be seated.  Now take a deep breath and focus – on my sermon, obviously, but on where we are and what we’re doing right now.  About hungering to live the special moments God puts into your lives, what we can gain when we encounter the record others, even ourselves from the past, leave to us of such moments they’ve had, and the great sin of failing to treasure both.   
A lot of what I do is what I just did – give stage instructions.  And if you’ve been here for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah on Shabbat, you’ll know I have a sort of routine for giving to the expanded congregation of non-regular attendants some of the choreography, some of the rules and regulations to follow while with us, for the simchah, for the event.  My goal is always to be welcoming and non-judgmental, while still trying to get the major points across.  And one of those is always about not using cell phones and other devices, in particular, to take pictures. 
From a halachic perspective of course doing anything with your phone is a problem, not just taking pictures.  But not only does that not help get the point across for many of the guests, it’s also because the biggest problem, as I see it, is with the need to take pictures at a time like that - you are stealing from yourself and probably from others in trying to do so.    
So, what do I usually point out?  I ask why would you want to spend this whole special event trying to take pictures instead of participating in it firsthand?  That actually does catch the attention of a few people and invest them in experiencing and not just recording.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade there’s a line where Indiana complains to his father for not remembering something but rather having written it down in his now stolen journal. “But I wrote it down so I wouldn’t have to remember it!” is the father’s answer. 
That is why we take such pictures, to remember, and in remembering, to “live again.”  Recording should be an aid to memory.  It is vitally important to remember the lessons of the past and to experience them again.  To connect, in a second-hand yet direct way, with those who loved us and cared for us who we can only know in such ways.  It can be very powerful even, to have that sort of interaction with a picture.  That in itself can be, a sort of first-hand experience if we let it. 
But what happens when recording doesn’t work?  When it distracts?  We suffer today because of this.  Because we are still programmed, innately I think, to want a picture to speak directly to a momentous occasion.  For those of you in the know about such things – this is, I would contend, the attraction of Instagram.  To elevate the average picture to something more like art – because that’s what we want these captured moments to be. 
But if you’ve ever scrolled through endless pictures on your phone wondering what you are looking at, you recognize that this isn’t what we’re getting when we snap everything we see.    
Not only did we probably miss the original experience by doing that, which is pretty awful to admit, we now have worthless pictures that we can’t even have a meaningful connection to. 
But think of this scenario instead.  What happens when you stumble upon old pictures of your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, kept safe over decades and now brought again to light – at least for me, it’s fascinating.  It’s hard to think today that once, taking pictures or movies had to be done somewhat judiciously, making even “casual” pictures more significant.  Coming from a time when the ability to “half-experience” and “half-record” and do neither well was less developed and thus less a problem.
Those sorts of pictures – sure, in part because they’re old, but I think because they were, just a little more curated, just a little more thoughtfully taken, are the sorts of pictures that one can have a real “first-second-hand” experience with.  You might not have been born, but your Zayde’s smile at 12 is still the same one you knew at that age, however long ago that was, when he showed it to you, too. 
Rosh Hashanah, the Head of the Year, is also known Yom Zichron Truah, the Day for Remembering the Shofar, and even simply, Yom HaZikaron, the day of memory – “living” memory if we are lucky.
And shortly in the Mussaf service, we will recite the Zichronot section, recalling how our past as Jews is made up of countless moments in which God remembered us and was there to guide and strengthen us.   
And that tension between experiences, recording and remembering and living – it’s here with us in our liturgy as well.  Because, while if I’ve done my job right, you have your phone off – if you’re looking to have that first-hand experience – something spiritual, something transcending, something moving – the way we feel at say a wedding or a funeral perhaps – I wonder if that’s happening.  I really do.  No doubt for some it does happen.  And I bet for many - here and there - as we hear the Cantor chanting some melody that is full of yearning and pathos, we are moved.  That it happens as we share with our children or grandchildren the holiday. 
But I also bet that for many of you, for much of our service, you may be struggling.  And that struggle may not be limited to just the High Holidays.  It’s probably true about much of the rest of what I’ll call “organized” Jewish life. 
I find that so frustrating.  I want so desperately for Jewish learning and Jewish observance to be deeply part of all your lives.  For you all to want to put down whatever else might distract you so as to be immersed in this time we share together, and in Jewish life all year long.  But I recognize that it can seem silly, impossible for that to happen. 
That’s why I want you to consider the types of pictures I mentioned before.  Today, during those moments that might not feel transcendent, that aren’t of the sort where you’re in awe -- today as we pray from the machzor, the prayer book, and you find yourself wandering, consider this. 
The machzor, and all our rituals, are like leafing through an old family album.  We are looking at this picture with something written with a fountain pen, in Yiddish, inscribed on the back, of a stern man and a strong woman, staring out at us.  The picture is captivating, it draws us in.  I’m connected to these people!  What they did in their lives led to me being here in mine. 
And then we keep looking.  We find older images still – sketches, paintings.  Ancestors who seem ever more and more different from us, but still our ancestors, still part of our story.  And now we find the oldest artifacts – carved on stone, made in mosaic.  Would you reject these?  Would you put them in a shoe box with the pictures of you in a powder-blue tux or with tremendously teased up hair? 
No!  You would display that stele, that sculpture, that scroll, that manuscript as your most prized possession.  “This was painted by one of my ancestors 200, 400, 700 years ago!”  People would be in awe of that.  You would be in of awe that! 
That is what we encounter in the machzor today, in the Torah reading today.  Perhaps you’re the family genealogist and you recognize many of these pictures and can read Aunt Sylvia’s handwriting on the back of the picture – then these prayers and readings may certainly speak to you in a deep and broad and powerful way. 
But even if you’re just looking at these pictures for the first time, knowing that some how you’re connected to them – that is still a powerful experience to be had. 
That is the way to approach our Jewish heritage and our Jewish observances.  Think of them as the box of very old photos, as the precious heirloom, as the museum piece made by someone with your same last name – alive with memory!
Now for me, that speaks to my dedication and devotion to stay true to the prayers and traditions as we have inherited them.  Because to overly rely on contemporary updates in place of the traditional ones, even the difficult traditional ones, and some are even for me – is to slot that teased bangs and mullet prom picture into the frame in place of the sepia-toned photograph of my great-grandparents at their wedding – why would I ever do that? 
Yet that isn’t to say that every so often I do manage to take a really special picture that is worth keeping.  I think we can all agree that many of the readings we say in American English today might feel stilted and dated in just a decade or two - there are prayers that must, and have, and do, make the cut.  Even in English. 
The prayer for our country, is an example.  A country that even with all its problems has treated Jews like human beings, deserves it. 
A prayer for Israel – a true miracle worthy of something new added. 
A prayer to call a woman to the Torah.  Yes, that must be there. 
A prayer for that same woman to remember her deceased wife at Yizkor, yes, how could we not have that?
Yet as much as I value these old prayers and old rituals and old readings just the way I would rightly value ancient evidence of my family’s long history.  I still yearn most for an experience now and today. 
The machzor is addressing exactly this, too.  At those points you can freely and fully interact with the service directly and first-hand, go for it. 
But for those times you might not be able to, try considering that you aren’t looking through a thousand bad shots of someone’s floor accidently taken with their phone.  Rather, that what we hold is the carefully collected and curated, well-staged and well-lit record of the prayers our people have come to feel are the best, most representative, most comforting, challenging, endearing, enduring, for us on this day.  Arrived at over countless generations, and the experiences of countless Jews – and here they are, distilled into this one book. 
That’s a reminder to live life not showing up to the Bat Mitzvah taking pictures before anything even happens - or taking pictures straight through the touching speech by the grandparents and thus missing it entirely. 
Our tradition encourages us often to “turn off” and just experience the world – on Shabbat and on Holidays.  And other aspects of our rituals foster a similar worldview of thoughtfulness and even constraint.  The concept of kavannah, “intention” is meant to make us focus on the mitzvah, the prayer at hand. 
We should take from the High Holidays a lesson for living – looking not to snap a photo of everything, every day but rather to experience as richly and deeply and directly the momentous and mundane of life – for living is the greatest gift of all and to not embrace it is to reject what our tradition teaches is why God created us in the first place. 
Yet we should also learn that there are certain moments that really are going to stand the test of time.  And that those timeless moments call out to us even when they aren’t our own direct experiences.  They nevertheless speak to us of universal, timeless experiences.  Our machzor is one example Judaism gifts to us with its collection of such treasures.  We should make our encounter with the services today one of wonder and awe and curiosity at the treasure box we hold in our hands, for in it, we will see ourselves in the mirror of the past, and a pathway towards meaningful and holy moments in our future. 
L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu & Gut Yontif