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

Yom Kippur 2019/5780 Lessons of a Retiree Rabbi

Now retired after a long career, the newly ordained rabbi said, “on one hand, you are at a stage of life where you have already raised your kids.  When I finish my rabbinical degree, I do expect to find work.  I’d like to earn money to spoil my grandkids.  Basically, this is a point in my life where I am lucky to get the chance to do things I have always wanted to do.”
These words were not spoken by our own Rabbi Margie Cella, no, these words were spoken by David Goodman, a retired journalist who was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College after having been a life-long synagogue goer and prayer leader. 
But the fact that his story meant there were at least two people out there who had taken on the great challenge to enter rabbinical school at a later stage in life struck me when I learned of Goodman’s story in a Forward article about how many Jewish Baby Boomers are “Rewiring” and not “Retiring” through a reconnection to Jewish life and in particular to synagogue life. 
The fact that we had our own parallel to that story, and that our congregation has many other examples of related stories, really spoke to me, and I though it might speak to you. 
Because we see, here and across America, that ever since “60 became the new 30” (mark my words in another 30 years it will be “90 is the new 30” as the Boomers hit that milestone), the elders on the Jewish family tree are finding unique and creative ways to be the keepers of the faith, the person sitting at the head of the Passover Seder table, the one who shares with the grandkids the lighting of the menorah.  The ones who continue to join and stay members of synagogues – finding meaning that through a willingness to be the elders in new and fresh ways will benefit and inspire the rest of us, too. 
After the holiday, look up the Jewish Grandparent Network.  It has found that with relatively high annual incomes, with relatively high synagogue affiliation rates, today’s young Jews will definitely share fond and loving memories of their childhoods now, being taken to synagogue by today’s grandparents.  And they will share how when they got there, they learned that their Poppa, Grandma, Bubbie, Zayde, was an important person – a person who taught in the Hebrew School, gave Bar Mitzvah lessons, studied Hebrew, read Torah.  Think about what that is going to do for today’s kids to see today’s grandparents doing all that.  Heck – I already see it and I’m consistently impressed by it!
Why should we all not be impressed and inspired, and even perhaps relieved by it?  I’m not giving away secrets to you all to say that American Jew under 50 don’t affiliate with synagogues the same way that members of that age cohort did fifty years ago.  But that study and my own experiences with all of you tell me that the kids of today’s unaffiliated “young” Jews are still getting their Jewish education, their Jewish pride, their Jewish experiences – because their hip, happening, and Jewishly-connected grandparents are giving it to them and making it possible for them. 
And that synagogues, including our own, are being re-energized by new members – new members who are Baby Boomer Jews now looking for social, communal, educational, and spiritual Jewish connections and coming back to synagogue.  We have had a very successful Gift of the Heart campaign, encouraging current members to bestow the gift of a free membership on a friend.  Our five-year, long-range plan from 2015-6 anticipated that at the current rates, we would have only 360 member units.  Today we have more like 400.  That is not just stability, that is growth – at a time when synagogues generally and Conservative synagogues in particular, aren’t growing.  Now, not all those people are Baby Boomers, and not all those people are Gift of the Heart members, but a lot of them, I know, are the friends or relatives of our “BB” members who’ve come to join their peers in synagogue life – and we all benefit from it. 
We benefit from it through the involvement and enthusiasm of these members, and we benefit because many of these members want to give back financially, too.  I find it highly worthy of praise that anyone, that all of you, choose to support the synagogue, and I’m not shy to talk about it.  And that after living good lives, full lives, Baby Boomer Jews want to show it through support of institutions like ours.  It is again, I think, no surprise that our Kol Nidrei campaign in recent years has exceeded annual expectations and I fully expect it to do so again.  Not because I’m being crass or greedy, but because financial donations to the synagogue aren’t grubby money matters – they represent someone whose life is being lit up by what the synagogue does and by someone who wants to see that light shine a little brighter for the next person who enters it.  I thank everyone of whatever age who lights up our synagogue in that way.
As I said, the example being set by today’s grandparents, today’s cool Zaydes and Bubbes, today’s Baby Boomers is not just for them.  It is for all of us.  For what, after all, is the meaning of teshuvah, of “repentance?”  In Lamentations we encounter a verse that shows up elsewhere in our tradition and liturgy:
הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old.
What we are trying to do over the holiday season, the spirit with which we are to enter the new year – is that we seek to “recalibrate” we “turn the dial” to where it should be pointed, from wherever it had gotten to – maybe not necessarily a bad place, but get it pointed now towards an even better direction.  A direction, that, as the verse says, can make us, even if years have gone by “like new.”  As NSJC seems to be a fine example of a trend across American Judaism in which a new generation, the Baby Boomer generation, reinvents itself, and in so doing, finds creates new meaning suited to today, for today, for themselves and their families, in organized Jewish life, - enriching, educating and inspiring them and others – that is a chapter in the Book of Life being written right now that we should be hopeful could make the future for Generation X, Millenials, Gen Z and beyond, be similarly “like new” when it comes to their Jewish experiences in this new year ahead and for many years to come.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May you all be sealed in the book of life for good!

Yom Kippur 5780/2019 - The Yeshiva of Five Students

Fall, 1942 – the Germans were at the gates of Moscow in a push east that seemed unstoppable.  Their drive across North Africa while slowed in Egypt equally showed no signs of being foiled.  The fateful battles of El Alamein and Stalingrad were still yet to come.  Jews were being murdered all across Europe and even Mandatory Palestine was not safe – the city of Tel Aviv had even been bombed by the Italians and some 130 people killed.
In Tel Aviv at that time was the young Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky.  A Slonimer chasid of great promise, he had been the choizer, the one appointed to memorize the teachings given on Shabbat by the Slonimer Rebbe, so they could be transcribed later.  In the mid-1930s the Rebbe had sent his student to the land of Israel where Rabbi Berezovsky was chosen because of his talent to head the Chabad yeshiva in Tel Aviv – the only yeshiva in the city at that time. 
As news of destruction and hopelessness arrived in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Berezovsky would write (and I owe the scholar Tzipora Weinberg for her translations of these quotations), “all was bleaker than bleak, collapsing under oppressive sorrow and anguish, overwhelmed by the feeling that you are alive in a world that is sinking to the depths, everything falling apart. In these days I could find no peace. Slonim is being destroyed, all those close to me, my parents and teachers, brothers and friends led to the slaughter, day in and day out. The entire world is enveloped in pain, and I? Where am I to go? I felt then that I was enduring my own demise, unable to continue.”
Then, Rabbi Berezovsky made a bold decision, he quit the prominent position he held, moved to Jerusalem and opened a new yeshiva dedicated to the teachings of Slonim, his sect.  He had five students.  If we cannot save the lives; we must save the spirit; we will continue to do what they can do no longer, so that their teachings will not disappear from this earth This was an effort born of unadulterated emunah [faith], since there was no possible chance that we could succeed under the circumstances that prevailed at the time.
If Catholicism is a religion of “sacraments,” Protestantism one of “faith,” Islam of “submission” and Buddhism “serenity,” then Judaism is one of “action.”  But just acting cannot be enough.  How should one act?  And why should one act?  The actions must be guided by a story, a cause, and work towards a purpose, a goal.   
And that in Judaism is the cause to of holiness in world, of bringing God’s will, our story, into the world through the sanctification of time, of space, and of our relationships.  We do all three through our reliance on Judaism’s conviction that:
1) All human beings require a Story, and ours is the Torah – in the broadest sense – all of God’s Revelation, all of Jewish Wisdom, from Leviticus to Larry David, capturing what holiness, what our cause, looks like.   
2) That a Story demands Action– for us, yes through the mitzvot specifically, whose wonder and mystery needn’t reveal any practical benefit to us or worldly delight other than their merely being the poetic expressions of our story come to be.  But they alone are not even the limit of our actions.  For more broadly through a Jewish spirit motivating how and why we do in all things we must also act. 
3) And finally that those Actions and that Story are rooted in the fundamental necessity that human beings act from a place of gratitude, of wonder and awe, of respect and love towards their fellow human beings and the world that we should, at all times, be surprised and shocked to find exists and ourselves existing in at all.  That is our Cause, our Goal – that is Holiness.
Rabbi Berezovsky’s case adds one more piece to our lesson as well.  The commitment to the Cause – to the Actions that will invite our Story of Holiness into being – like him, we do not act predicated on “victory” on “finishing.”  Judaism knows of none.  We do a mitzvah so we can do another mitzvah.  We celebrate Yom Kippur now; we celebrate it next year even better.  We are taught that the understanding that comes from studying a passage 100 times cannot be matched by the understanding that comes from studying it for the 101st time.   Founding a yeshiva then, when the fate of World Jewry was itself in question, what else should one do? 
Hence Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us “Judaism requires not a leap of faith but a leap of action.”  No wonder he marched alongside Martin Luther King and felt his “feet were praying” as he did so.  No wonder he spoke against atomic warfare.  Did he believe that his one voice would turn the tide?  Did he think the world was bound to get better?  Perhaps, I don’t know.  But I am certain in saying he felt that ours is a history and tradition that insists you speak, you march, you protest, for what is right regardless. 
I pause to mention that this rubric, this plan, is not limited in its application merely to our religious lives.  It applies to how we approach family, work, politics.  It applies to all these because for us as Jews there should be no distinction between what is religious and what is secular.  Could you really run your business in a way antithetical to Jewish law and ethics?  Could you really operate in a political manner with hatred burning in your heart for “the other” as you seek to show him how he himself is wrong for feeling the exact same way?  Our call to bring the Story of Holiness into the world remains our call and our cause throughout all these.
Now it is always easy to look backwards and see when the Call of the Cause was clear and the Need to Act immediate.  But in our own lives, it can be far from obvious.  Rabbi Berezovsky can teach us about this, too.  He was known, both before the founding of the yeshiva and after it, as a very deliberative man and rabbi.  He always sought the guidance of great sages and other rabbis when he was planning to do something, in his rabbinic career as well as in his personal life.  It was, uniquely in his lifetime, the founding of the yeshiva when he acted boldly and independently.  In this it seems to me we learn a lesson, but of all my remarks today, which I believe are the truest things I can say to you at this time, this one observation I will allow may not be.  It seems to me that we should be like Rabbi Shalom Noah, generally being thoughtful, because much of life does allow for us to be thoughtful when it comes to acting in accordance with our cause – but that when we come upon those handful of moments in life when it really is time to make a bold step, like Rabbi Berezovsky, like Nachson ben Amminadab at the Red Sea, like Heschel and King, you just do it. 
And if your life has many such moments in it?  Then I hope you know when and how to act if you are given so many chances to do so?  And if you aren’t?  Then act you must still, but with calm and consideration as you add to the beauty of holiness in the world. 
About the Holocaust, Rabbi Berezovsky would write, “this chapter is a mystery within mysteries; utterly ineffable. Any attempt to approach it, our minds, our hearts will fail to grasp it- in effect they fall short in want of capacity to decipher what has befallen us.
What then happened to Rabbi Berezovsky?  The yeshiva succeeded beyond all expectations and is now housed in a large and imposing building, sort of north of Zion Square at the end of Ben Yehuda where it hits Jaffa, past the ORT College…  And Rabbi Berezovsky?  His father-in-law was to become the Slonimer Rebbe and upon his death Rabbi Berezovsky became Slonimer Rebbe in his own right.  And while today, many years after his death, the Slonimer Chasidim are split into competing B’nei Brak and Jerusalem sects, outside of their world when one speaks of “The Slonimer Rebbe” our Rabbi Berezovsky is meant.  His magnum opus, Netivot Shalom, is a favorite of Chassidic thought across the Jewish world, imbued with a thoughtfulness and openness that speaks even to the non-religious who seek spiritual enrichment.
But of course, the Slonimer Rebbe didn’t know he’d be the Slonimer Rebbe or famous across the 21st century Jewish world or that there would even be a 21st century Jewish world when he Acted in accordance with our Story of Holiness during his day.  All the more reason his example is one for us to follow as we face the universal human challenges of life.  Let us end with one final passage of his, “At the apex of our deepest loss, there dawns the moment of our rejuvenation. We are but emissaries for those who came before us, dedicating ourselves to carry out what they began. Their light will shine the way for us as we follow in their footsteps.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah