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Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Evening: Parenting Us?

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Evening

September 29, 2019 – 1 Tishri, 5780

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

Rabbi Daniel Levin

In 2011, psychologists Richard Eibach and Steven Mock from the University of Waterloo published an odd study in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science. They gathered eighty fathers and mothers with at least one child under the age of 18 and studied whether parents honestly derive real satisfaction and joy from the process of parenting.

What did they find?  When presented with the economic costs of raising children and the inherent sacrifices that come from parenting, they discovered something extraordinary – that the claim of parental happiness is actually a psychological defense. “In other words,” they wrote, “we parents have collectively created the myth of parental joy because otherwise we would have a hard time justifying the huge investment that kids require.”[1]

It was just as fascinating to read the comments from readers at the end of the article.  I was shocked by how many people resonated with the researchers. Many said they chose not to have children and were glad they didn’t become parents. Others talked about how incredibly difficult parenting was – some even expressing regret for having children at all.

At the same time, there were others who talked about how parenthood was the most meaningful thing they ever did. Sure it was “the hardest job you will ever do,” but the satisfaction and joy that came from sharing love with children brought a fulfillment they could never replace.

Can we be real for a moment?  Parenting is hard. Really hard. It’s incredibly demanding to be a parent. From the moment of conception the physical demands of motherhood are literally and figuratively gut-wrenching. Then they give you this amazing, holy, and precious child – and it immediately begins vomiting on you. They shriek at all hours of the day and night. They poop in the tub. You offer them healthy food – they won’t eat it. You ask them to go to sleep, they run around and scream. You ask them to do their homework, to help with the dishes, to pick up their clothes or their toys – they ignore you. You bring them on vacation, they whine that they’re tired or they want ice-cream.

I remember when my kids were very small I was talking with the father of a bat mitzvah girl. “Dan,” he said. “You know how your kids are so cute and delicious you feel like you could just eat them? And then they get to be my kid’s age and you wish you had.”

It can be so frustrating sometimes as a parent. We’ve been around the block a few times and we’ve seen a few things. We know the mistakes we made, and we remember the mistakes our parents made too.  If they would just do what we tell them, if they would just heed our advice, we know they would be so much happier. Why won’t they just listen?!?

Our celebration of Rosh HaShanah asks us to think about parenthood, but in a very different way. Among the most familiar features of the liturgy is the litany we just recited – Avinu Malkeinu. It begins with a story in the Talmud, where the people were suffering a terrible drought. Rabbi Eliezer stood before the open ark on a fast day and recited twenty-four blessings, but he was not answered. Rabbi Akiva then came before the ark after him and said: Avinu Malkeinu, Ayn Lanu Melech Ela Ata – Our Father, our King, we have no king other than You. Avinu Malkeinu, L’Ma-ancha Rachem Aleinu – Our Father, our King, for Your sake, have mercy on us. And rain immediately fell.”[2]

Why refer to God as Avinu Malkeinu – a father and a ruler? The land of Israel was not like Egypt, the rabbis teach, where water flowed easily from the Nile. Instead, the Israelites were like children, completely dependent on their parent for sustenance. Thus Akiva called out to God as a child calls out to a parent – “Hey I’m thirsty. I need you to get me something to drink.”

For some, Avinu Malkeinu can be an alienating construct. Some of us grew up without fathers, or had relationships with our fathers that were traumatic and abusive. For many, the image of God expressed in the masculine amplifies the sense of marginalization for women.  Today we live in a modern democracy, far removed from the experience of a monarch – tyrannical or benevolent.

Imagine, however, what it must be like to be the Holy One. Imagine what it must be like to parent us.

The mystic Isaac Luria taught that at the beginning of time, God’s presence spread from one end of the universe to the other. But then God was overwhelmed with love and decided to create a world. In order for the world to come into being, God had to perform a cosmic act of self-contraction – Tzimtzum – in order to make space for the world. Into the darkness of the vacuum created by God’s receding presence was born the world. But then God was overwhelmed with love a second time and God decided to restore God’s light to the darkened world. The light returned through a ladder of holy vessels filled with God’s essence – first through wisdom, then through understanding, then through compassion, then through strict justice, and further down into the world. The lower vessels could not contain the power of God’s light, and in a massive cataclysm, the vessels shattered, sending shards of broken holiness into the world.

And then God was overwhelmed with love again, and God said: “Let us create humanity in our image after our likeness…” And in creating us, God asked us to be God’s partners in lifting up the broken shards and doing the work of Tikkun – repair of the broken world.

We who are blessed to have become parents know something of the Divine Joy the Holy One experienced in bringing the world into being. Like Hannah, whose story we tell tomorrow, we know what it is to be completely consumed with love and desire to bring a child into the world. Many know the agony and frustration from having that dream thwarted. We know what it is to perform Tzimtzum – sacrificing our own wants and needs to make room for a child. We know the sublime, transcendent, exultant ecstasy that comes from the spiritual bonds we share with our children, and in helping them discover the holiness in our world and the holiness in themselves.

We want to ensure our children have everything – to protect them from pain, to keep them on the right path, to plant them in a Garden of Eden in which they know no want but only tranquility and peace.

But we can’t. And that’s the most difficult part. Our children will wander off. They will know disappointment. They will suffer injuries and pain. They will push us away, reject what we offer, come crying back for reassurance, and drift away again. The world we give our children is shattered and broken. It is filled with opportunity for untold blessing, but also replete with potential for disaster.

How can we teach them to protect themselves from harm, how can we teach them to build a moral core and the spiritual strength to lift up those broken shards and do the work of repair?

So it was that in another extraordinary act of love, God gave us the gift of Torah – the blueprints for the creation of the world.

Our very existence is a product of Divine love. We have been given so many extraordinary gifts – life is an embarrassment of blessings. We are each given the gift of life, the astonishing opportunity to simply live and experience the wonder of being. We are given intellects that can consider and reason, that can invent and innovate – we are given souls that can wonder and adore, that can remember and can dream. And we were given the gift of Torah, a Divine gift of wisdom that can lead us to experience the profound depths of holy experience, to to resolve the inequities and injustices of human life, and to channel the holy gift of love to restore and heal this shattered world.

And like petulant children – we take it all for granted. We say to the Holy One – “What do you know anyways? You think you can tell me what to do? I don’t need you. We live in the 21st century. Fifty years ago we landed a man on the moon. We mapped the human genome. We created artificial intelligence. We have air conditioning and impact glass. We have thousands of channels, cellular phones, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. We are modern autonomous, liberated, independent, sovereign selves – completely in control of our lives and our destinies. Avinu Malkeinu? – Feh.

The Holy One tells us, “Do not bow down to idols or worship the work of your hands.”  Then we spend our lives in pursuit of material gain and wonder why we still feel empty no matter how much we buy.

The Holy One tells us, “keep Shabbat and make it holy.” Then we spend our lives on the run with our heads in our screens seven days a week and wonder why we feel burned out and why we seem disconnected from the people that matter most to us and why we never seem to have a moment just to stop and think.

The Holy One tells us, “do not steal or deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.” And American businesses lose $652 billion in fraud each and every year, causing enormous suffering for individuals and families.

The Holy One tells us “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” And then we tolerate systems that trap the poor in poverty, that insulate glass ceilings and institutionalize inequality, and then exude surprise when oppressed groups cry out in resentment over the injustices they suffer.

And then, on the flipside, there are other times when we ask God to be a helicopter parent. We ask God to ensure our prosperity, we entreat God to protect us from sickness, from violence, and hunger, and we beseech God to come down and fix it for us when things go wrong. How often have you closed your eyes in prayer and said: “Oh God, let it be okay…”? And when we don’t get the outcome we wanted, we blame God for all our anguish and misfortune.

Can we imagine what it must be like for the Holy One, Avinu Malkeinu – our Divine parent and ruler – to parent us?

Sure we can – because we know what it is to be overwhelmed with love. We see our children make mistakes and poor decisions, behave in ways that self-sabotage and appear self-destructive, and languish in confusion, alienation, and dissatisfaction. And our hearts break for them.

Our hearts break for them not because their behavior is a reflection on us as parents. Our hearts break for them not because they may not achieve whatever society and we have imagined to qualify as success. Our hearts break for them because there is nothing we can do to alleviate their suffering.  We hold our arms open wide, waiting to embrace them, to comfort them, to reassure them and support them. We wait and we wonder … will they come?

A friend of mine has a daughter who became addicted to drugs. While she was in high school he sent her to program after program to help her find recovery. Still she could not become clean. In college, her addiction grew worse, and she eventually dropped out of school. Each successive effort at detox and rehab would eventually result in relapse. Finally, he realized he could not love her out of her addiction. He could not want recovery for her. It had to be her choice. He accepted that the best way to love her was to let her go – to let her figure it out on her own. “I never knew there could be pain like this,” he said. “But my love alone is not enough.”

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches that when we sin, we don’t just do injury to ourselves – we do injury to God. Just as when our children harm themselves they inflict injury to our souls, so too do we harm the Holy One when we fail to live up to our potential.

But it is when our children find themselves that we realize our mission as parents.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote: “The primary role of penitence … is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul. Then he will at once return to God, to the Soul of all souls … It is only through the great truth of returning to oneself that the person and the people, the world and all the worlds, the whole of existence, will return to their Creator, to be illumined by the light of life.”

There is no greater joy for a parent than when our children embrace that sense of their own worth, when they realize the best version of themselves, when they find a path in life that gives them meaning and purpose and a sense of fulfillment and peace.

Recently my friend shared with me an amazing call he received from his daughter. After her last stint in rehab she moved up north and started a new life. She got a job, attends her recovery meeting every day, and was living in a halfway house. He hadn’t spoken to her in several months, when the phone rang with a number he didn’t recognize. It was his daughter. “Daddy,” she said. “I’m calling you from my own phone which I just bought this week. I bought it with my own money that I earned from my job. It’s mine. I’m so proud of myself.”

In tears, he told me he had never been more proud of his daughter in her life. After all the years of pain and anguish, the tears this time were tears of sheer joy and happiness.

Tradition teaches throughout the centuries that God too is waiting for us to find ourselves. God too is waiting for us to call. And when we return, we will find love, only love.

So in this New Year, we ought each of us to do what we can to provide that sense of joy to God as our parent.

Avinu Malkeinu, let this be the year when we finally decided to listen to the Divine guidance your Torah and tradition have to offer.

Avinu Malkeinu, let this be the when we cultivate in ourselves a sense of humility and realize that maybe we don’t have all the answers.

Avinu Malkeinu, let this be the year when we turn away from our own selfish cares and concerns and instead embrace the mission to live with gratitude and in service to others.

Avinu Malkeinu, let this be the year when we finally decided to honor our parents, mortal and Divine.

As the legendary prophet of children Fred Rogers once said: “Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and weave their own bright patterns as they go.”

Avinu Malkeinu, our holy, nurturing, loving parent, we give thanks for the tapestry of Torah and tradition you have helped our parents and our parents’ parents to weave for us. May we, in this New Year 5780, gather the threads of the future and weave them into a fabric that expresses our gratitude for the gift of life we are given, that represents the very best version of ourselves, and that helps us return to You, embraced by your love for us, our love for each other, and an honest love for ourselves. Inscribe us for blessing in the Book of Life – and give us peace.

[1] https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/were-only-human/the-myth-of-joyful-parenthood.html

[2] Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 25b

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Seeing In The Dark

Last summer, I participated in an extraordinary workshop called Na-Laga’at. It literally means – “please touch.”

We were led into a room which was pitch dark – so dark that you could not see your hand in front of your face. We found our way to our seats with our hands on the shoulders of the person ahead of us. It was only the voices across and next to us that told us with whom we sat, and only their touch that revealed their presence.

In the darkness, we were tasked to collaborate on project made from clay. The only way to complete the project was to listen carefully, to explore our imaginations, and to summon the patience and perseverance to work together.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, describes the last of the Ten Plagues the Holy One sent to wrest the Israelites free from Egyptian slavery. For the second-to-last plague, God plunges Egypt into thick darkness.

“Then YHVH said to Moses: ‘Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’ Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)”

Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir, reflected on this verse by teaching that “People have eyes, yet they do not see … they are too busy justifying their own ways, whether good or ill. … This is the great darkness in all the Land of Egypt.”

Darkness seems to render us alone. Blinded, we see nothing and no one. And without the awareness of the presence of others, we may choose to focus solely on ourselves.

This is what the darkness taught the Egyptians – That if they focus only on themselves, and refuse to see each other, then in that darkness they will become paralyzed – they will never get up and move from where they are.

The Zhitomir Rebbe explained that because they could not “see” they didn’t consider anyone but themselves … they didn’t take to heart how much they could learn from the goodness of the people around them. … They kept finding fault and lack in others, glorifying their own deeds. This led them to walk about in darkness and to see no light. People like that cannot progress from one rung to the next; no person could rise from where he was.”

In this horrible week, our nation continues to drown in darkness. Our leaders refuse to see. They insist that theirs is the only path. They refuse to collaborate or compromise. And their stubborn arrogance is visiting unwarranted and unnecessary hardship on the most vulnerable in our country.

And yet this week, I also found some rays of light in the midst of the darkness. We began our Civil Discourse Issues Series, learning the techniques to break down the barriers that keep us from truly knowing each other and how we can enter into safe and productive dialogue with those with whom we do not see eye to eye.

Temple Beth El and Boca Raton Synagogue, along with several community partners welcomed a platoon of Israeli soldiers who experienced untold trauma in the midst of their service to the State of Israel and the IDF. In the embrace of our community, they will engage in intensive group therapy, and enjoy some welcome pampering and fun with our host families. They seek to banish the darkness of their service, and learn to truly see each other and themselves.

Each of these initiatives teaches us an extraordinary truth. We have the power to banish darkness from our world. If we are willing to listen to each other with humility and respect, if we are willing to reach out and touch each other irrespective of our difference, if we are willing to collaborate even though we differ, we can move beyond the darkness into a radiant and holy light.

The Zhitomir Rebbe teaches us that we liberate ourselves from darkness by always striving to learn from each other.

We become enlightened when we embrace the light of truth shining from within the Other.

We only move forward when, even in the midst of the deepest darkness, we grasp the hands of those around us, and find our way together.

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Thanksgiving and Interdependence

In 1621, after a brutal winter in which nearly a third of their band succumbed to the harshness of life on new shores, the European pilgrims sat for a three-day feast with their Native neighbors to celebrate a successful harvest. The two different peoples, we are taught, understood their growing interdependence, and how together they could forge a life in which they could dwell together in harmony and peace.

The story of Thanksgiving is one of gratitude for interdependence. It is a celebration of how the cultivation of humility helps us to realize the value of difference, how much we need to rely on the wisdom and experience of the Other.

Jewish tradition teaches us to give thanks throughout every single day. In the very moment of waking each morning, we are taught to say: “Modeh Ani L’Fanecha – I am grateful before You … that you have returned my soul to me.” Our first words of the day express our gratitude for life. Three times a day in prayer we are taught to offer thanks. We don’t need to wait for the fourth Thursday in November.

Each day I give thanks for the blessings of my life – for my good health and the health of my wife, children, and family. I give thanks for our prosperity – for the fact that we have a strong roof over our heads, that we have plenty of food to eat, clothing to wear, safety and security. I give thanks for all the personal blessings I am so fortunate to enjoy. Especially this year, when so many are missing loved ones taken by the scourge of illness and violence, I hold my family close.

But Thanksgiving reminds us to be grateful for the United States of America.

I am grateful for the ideals on which this country was founded – the idea that all are created equal, the idea that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I am grateful for the freedoms that America made sacrosanct – the freedom to say what I choose, to worship how I choose, to print what I choose, and to gather with whomever I choose.

I am grateful that the American dream rejects autocracy and tyranny, and that our founders fought to ensure that no one person should possess power that cannot be checked. I am grateful that America’s experiment with democracy continues to empower every citizen with the rights and responsibility to elect a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. I am grateful that no matter how contentious our politics, we still transfer power from one party to another without firing a single shot.

But on this Thanksgiving, I give thanks for those who fight for those American ideals. I give thanks for the valor and courage of those who serve our country in uniform, many of whom will spend this Thanksgiving in harm’s way far from home. I give thanks for those who give their lives for public service, who resist the cynicism of selfish gratification to work for a better society for all. I give thanks for those who work to open and grow the minds of our children, who give them the tools they need to understand themselves, to build a moral core, and to find paths to lives of personal meaning and larger purpose. I give thanks for those who fight for justice, who work to protect the vulnerable, the needy, and the weak.

To secure the virtues of the American ideal, we must embrace our collective interdependence with those who are different than we.

No matter whether we are indigenous to this land, came here for new opportunities, fled here from persecution or were brought here in chains – we are interdependent.

No matter what religious faith we embrace, or even if we embrace no religious faith – we are interdependent.

No matter our gender – male or female or somewhere in between – we are interdependent.

No matter whether we are rich or poor – we are interdependent.

No matter whether our skin is dark or light – we are interdependent.

No matter how we build our families or whom we are drawn to love – we are interdependent.

No matter our political philosophy or which party we choose to support – we are interdependent.

That interdependence demands that we harness our collective American spirit to look out for each other, to lift up each other, to work as hard as we can to ensure that the ideals of America become the reality of America. May this Thanksgiving inspire us to gratitude for our individual blessings, and inspire in us a collective resolve to stand up for the values of the American ideal.

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Words

Words. We grasp for words. What words can be found to express what has happened? What words can be found to express the meaning of what is happening? Words fail us.

In the beginning the Holy One fashioned a tool for the creation of the world. And that tool was words. “Baruch SheAmar V’Hayah HaOlam – Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be.”

Of all that God could have employed to bring the world into being, God chose words. And having formed and shaped our world, in the last act of Creation, the Holy One gave that tool to us. By giving us words, God made us holy, a little lower than the angels, a partner to complete the work of creation.

From the beginning we knew not what we were given. We first used language to come together to build a tower at Babel. Instead of using words to become all we could be as human beings, we sought instead to use words to try to overthrow the Holy One. And so God confounded our language, and scattered us over the face of the globe.

We speak so many different languages. And in each of those languages are different dialects. Language is how we express who we are, what we believe, what we feel and experience. All language is interpretation. Words express what we think we know and what we choose to believe.

Words carry the power of Creation. And the words we utter have the power to transform our world. Words can inspire and motivate. Words can hurt and denigrate. Words can unite hearts in love and understanding. Words can divide in hatred and fear.

Words can bring about death and destruction. Words can bring healing and peace.

We were given such a powerful tool – and we are so careless in how we use it.

We write and speak without thinking. We compose messages for immediate gratification without considering their long-term impact. We deal in calumny and half-truths, we channel conspiracy theories and cheap lies. We turn language into profanity, for we employ it solely for our selfish, gluttonous craving for power.

God used the power of words to create the world. And we are using the power of words to destroy it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as every time we open our mouths we can choose what comes out, so can we decide, today, that we will use the holy power of words for good.

We can choose to stop using language that insults, demeans, and divides, and instead use language that elevates, uplifts, and heals.

We can choose to stop using language that hides and confuses and twists the truth, and instead use language that clarifies, that illuminates, and that is honest.

We can choose to stop using language that enrages and riles us to hatred, and instead use language that soothes and inspires us to love.

It is time. It is well past time. It is far past the time to be more humane in our language. It far past the time for us to be more humane.

Dear God, don’t let words fail us now. Put the words in our mouths and our hearts that we may do what we must to redeem our hate-filled and broken world. Give us the courage to say what You need us to hear. Give us the wisdom to know when we should say nothing at all.

May God shelter the souls of those slaughtered this Shabbat. May God comfort those who have been made to suffer from the hand of wickedness.

May God help us to find the words to repair the brokenness, and teach us how to speak a message of consolation. May God inspire us to compose the words of a new song – a song of love, of holiness, and peace.

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Sermon For Rosh HaShanah Morning – “The Boundaries We Must Defend”

This past summer, my son Ari worked as a broadcaster for the Duluth Huskies – a minor-league baseball team.  There were lots of reasons to love the Huskies.  First, our beloved Rabbi Emeritus Merle Singer grew up in Duluth, and I’ve always had a soft spot through him for Minnesota.  Second, the team is part of a college development league, and it’s fun to watch these young talented players grow.  And … they did well!  When they made the playoffs, I flew to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove seven hours to Bismarck, North Dakota to watch their first playoff game.  They won, so we drove another six hours to Willmar, Minnesota where they beat the Stingers too.  I flew home, and Ari jumped on the bus for the seven hour ride to Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin where they faced the Dock Spiders in the Championship series.

They split the first two games, and we anxiously listened to Ari and his partner Mitch call the final game.  It was a tight game, and I hung on every pitch.  I had become a really passionate Huskies fan.  In the later innings, the Huskies fell behind 4-3.  They had a chance to score, but one of the players made a base-running error and got a needless out.  I was SO angry!  I pounded my fist on the table in frustration – my daughters looked at me like I had lost my mind.  They lost the game and I was crushed.

It’s amazing to see how passionate we get for sports teams. They become like family.  We exult when they win, and anguish when they lose.  They evoke deep connections – the city where we grew up, the school we attended, the place we make our home. They represent the tribes to which we belong.

From the very beginning of time, human life and experience was tribal.  Before the dawn of civilization, for thousands of years humanity roamed the land as tribes, working together to eke out an existence.  We learned that if you pull down the branch I can pull off the fruit and we can share the food together.  We learned that if we surround an animal we will be more successful at the hunt and can share in the meal.[1]

As tribes evolved, they began to create symbolic markers to rally group membership. We embraced physical markings, we made standards and flags, we invented songs, we told and retold our stories.  Tribes make for the source of our identity.  They tell us who we are, where we come from, what matters to us, who we need to care about, and who we can trust.[2]

Jonathan Haidt in his monumental work: The Righteous Mind teaches that being part of a tribe makes you feel bigger.  You are not simply one lonely individual but you are part of a group and that group makes you larger. Because other people depend on you, you develop a sense of importance.  Because what you contribute to the group matters, you have a purpose.  Because other people care about you, you are loved.  A veteran of World War II spoke about his experience this way.

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle … has been the high point of their lives … Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance…  I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self-sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy … I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.[3]

Tomorrow is September 11 – a date that has taken on so much resonant meaning. Seventeen years ago, our nation was attacked in dramatic and vicious fashion, killing nearly 3000 people and injuring more than 6000.  In the aftermath of that attack, we felt an inexorable need to come together.  We called everyone we knew to make sure those closest to us were okay.  We came together in civic gatherings and in synagogue to pray and remember.  We flew our flags on our homes, on our cars, and on ourselves.  We sang national hymns at school and at baseball games.  Thousands joined the military.  Peoples from around the world expressed their care and concern.

Our congregation began the tradition of leaving empty chairs on our bima, draped in the American and Israeli flag. This tradition was formed to remind us that there were those from our people who were spending holy time in harm’s way, to defend and protect the United States of America and the State of Israel.  Even though we who are sitting here are not serving in harm’s way, we care for those who are.  Like a tribe or a sports team, we may not be on the field of battle or play, but we are fully invested – their success is our success, their loss is our loss, their pain is our pain.  Because we share a kinship, be it a fan-base or nationality, they sacrifice for us.  And in turn we honor them because it is for us that they sacrifice.

As Jews part of the power of this ritual of the New Year derives from coming together as a community to reconnect to each other, to our ancestry, to our people and our tradition.  There is a reason that coming together is so powerful.  It is because God is found in that web of relation.  God is found when we come together as one.

In the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel gather together at Mt. Sinai.  The Torah teaches that “A mixed-multitude went up out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:38).  When they lacked for food and water, they turned on each other and on Moses their leader, but now, they came to Mt. Sinai and it was there that God chose to commune with them.  The Torah teaches that the people made camp at the mountain, using the singular verb VaYichan to show the unity they had fashioned.  When Moses gives them instructions, they all answer together as one.  By becoming one with each other, they were able to be one with God as well.

So, if the way we draw nearer to God is to be more one with each other, then perhaps the goal is to erase the tribal divisions we create for ourselves?

That is the goal that novelist Michael Chabon proposed earlier this year in his controversial graduation address at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Chabon finds the idea of barriers repugnant: “I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders.”[4] He explains that boundaries and borders are what separates people.  The purpose of walls is to define those on the opposite side as “Other.”  To Chabon, there is no difference between a wall to imprison and a wall to protect. “Security for some,” he said, “means imprisonment for all.”[5]

In some ways, I understand his criticism.  Our country and our world are growing ever more tribal.  The natural impulse to associate with people who are like us and to define everyone else as “other” is growing.  Over the last several decades, Bill Bishop writes in his book The Big Sort that Americans have migrated, moved, and organized themselves into ever more homogeneous groups. College-educated whites move to different cities than the non-college educated.  Different ethnic groups sort into communities where people like them live. Gay individuals and couples move to certain zip codes. More and more our kids go to schools with kids who are mostly just like them, and we congregate with people who are mostly just like us.[6]

Meanwhile, he writes, national institutions have splintered.  “In this new world, there will be greater differences nationally among communities but fewer differences within the smaller groups … missing will be any sense of the whole…. We have created, and are creating, new institutions distinguished by their isolation and single-mindedness.”[7]

Jonah Goldberg writes that “For most of human history, meaning was confined to a very small zone: “us.” Us could be a tribe, a faith, a city-state, or denizens of a specific class.  The rules for us were different from the rules for them, and there was nothing wrong with using force … to arbitrarily enforce the rules in your favor.”  When all of your identity is bound up in a single group or cause, your concern for institutions and people outside your group diminishes or vanishes.”[8]  In essence, your total concern is for your tribe, and everyone else becomes your enemy.

This sense of obsessive self-concern is spreading.  A young woman lamented to me this summer that on her college campus, the drama group she loves has become so preoccupied with promoting identities of color that her own identity as Jewish woman is demeaned and ignored. Campus speech codes and intolerance have rendered her voice meaningless. At a political rally, two men proudly showed off their T-shirts which read: “I would rather be Russian than a Democrat.”  As Israel too becomes more tribal, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem pronounced that Reform leaders and other “quarrel-mongers [should] examine themselves” after a stone spontaneously fell from the Western Wall onto the egalitarian prayer platform.  The President of Israel, after the passage of the Nation-State law, declared: “This law is part of a broader trend, a global one perhaps, that … strives for a reality in which there are two options: Either you are with me, or you are against me. Either you are with me, or you are a traitor, an enemy.”

So maybe Chabon is right. Maybe the key to building a better world is to eradicate boundaries and erase difference, to embrace a radical universalism that says all things are one.

But what Chabon misses is that boundaries and borders matter.  There is enormous value in one’s distinctiveness, and in distinguishing difference.

The Torah begins by describing the world as Tohu VaVohu – messed up and mixed up.  God begins the work of creation by bringing a sense of order to that chaos.  And to do that God needed to make separations, borders, and boundaries.  God separated light from darkness and day from night.  God separated the sky from the earth and land from sea.

But then God made other distinctions.  Humanity was not like other creatures – we were created differently, in God’s image, and with that power and privilege came responsibility and duty.  Not only were we given the earth to conquer and subdue, but also to till and to tend.

God also made distinctions in time – six days are for work, but the seventh day is for holiness.

But then, the Torah introduces us to Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of a very particular people.  That particular people is asked to make a particular covenant and to become a tribe.  But that tribe is not created simply for tribal sake.  That tribe is created to introduce the world to an idea – and that idea is the pursuit of holiness in human life.  From Abraham and Sarah comes Isaac and Rebecca; and from them come Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and from them come twelve separate tribes.

It is those tribes that God brought together at Mount Sinai.  It is those tribes, separate and distinct, that God sought to fashion into one nation.  God brought those tribes together at that mountain to fashion a nation where moral truths and ethical concerns were more important than tribe.

This is the essence of what makes us Jewish.  As a tribe we celebrate our distinctive culture.  We celebrate holidays with our special foods, we sing our special songs, we don our special garments, we tell our people’s stories.  We welcome children into life with rituals that celebrate their entrance into peoplehood and covenant. We celebrate their coming of age by making sure they can tell and interpret our stories; we wed in accordance with custom and tradition, and look to that tradition in moments of anguish and loss. What makes Judaism so valuable is that it is tribal but not simply for the sake of tribe.  What makes Judaism so valuable is that every facet of its particularity is for a purpose; our ritual, cultural, and textual tradition all serve to fashion a world of holiness in which tribes can dwell together as one.

Elli Fischer responds to Chabon by reminding us of a Mishna in tractate Bava Batra of a beekeeper and a mustard farmer who must keep the bees and plants away from each other.[9] “Honey mustard,” he writes, “is a great flavor, but if you turn the bees loose on the mustard plant you ruin both, because they have to develop independently with their own integrity. Chabon forgets that ‘mashups, pastiche and collage’ require difference.”[10]

We are Americans and we are Jews.  Our identities are formed from what we learn from multiple allegiances to sacred institutions.  We feel a belonging to many tribes. We are loyal to Torah and loyal to the constitution. We are loyal to honor codes of teams and bands and orchestras and studios and schools and neighborhood covenants.  It is these multiple loyalties that remind us that opponents are not enemies.[11]  A football team can fight with all its might to win a game, but they play within the rules and when its over, win or lose, you walk across the field to greet and congratulate your opponent – and in some cases take a knee and pray together.

But among all our allegiances there are principles we all share.  As Americans and Jews we believe and teach that human life is of ultimate value.  If we allow someone to take another person’s life or to trample the dignity of another person’s life our society becomes profane.  We believe in love and that care and compassion are of ultimate value.  If we allow people to act callously toward each other, or to take advantage of those who are weak or vulnerable, our society becomes profane.  We believe that justice and fairness are of ultimate value.  If we allow people to cheat and lie and steal, if we do not apply the law equally, if we allow people in positions of power to take advantage at the expense of those with less, our society becomes profane.

These are the borders and boundaries we must defend.  These are the moral principles we must champion and from which we cannot waver.  These principles, lie at the core of who we are as a people. They come from our tribe but are more important than tribe.  It is to these principles, and not simply to our tribe, that we must pledge our fidelity.

The sounding of the Shofar is a tribal call. It is sounded from the bima, from the top of city walls, the Temple mount, and from Mount Sinai itself. It is our sound – a distinctly Jewish sound.  In some fashion the sounding of the shofar today calls us to return to our tribal roots, its echo reverberates today throughout the entirety of the Jewish world.  But the Shofar must call us to something larger than our trial selves or our identity as Jews.

In ancient times the Shofar called us to defend our walls.  In our time, the Shofar calls us to defend different walls.

The shofar does not call us to embrace chauvinistic pride but instead to celebrate the boundaries that define what is right and good and holy.  We must stand at the boundary of decency, honesty, integrity, kindness and compassion and say these are the borders we will not allow to be breached.  We must stand at the border and banish hatred and greed, oppression and violence, poverty and hunger from our realm.

At Mount Sinai, as we gathered, a mixed multitude of different tribes bound together as one community, Moses admonished the people to set boundaries around them, to keep everyone together as one.  And when the Shofar sounded God told us what a holy society is to look like.  It is to that call that we must return, to fortify the walls of holiness for our people and peoples everywhere.

[1] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012, p. 203.

[2] Ibid., p. 210.

[3] Ibid., p. 222.

[4] “Those People, Over There” by Michael Chabon. Graudation address at HUC-JIR Los Angeles – May 13, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort. Boston: Mariner Books, 2008, pp. 7-8.

[7] Ibid., p. 302.

[8] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West. New York: Crown Forum, 2018, pp. 60-62.

[9] Talmud Bava Batra 25a

[10] “Michael Chabon’s Sacred and Profane Cliché Machine”, by Elli Fischer in Jewish Review of Books, June 13, 2018

[11] Op. Cit. Goldberg, p. 62.

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Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Evening 5779 – “Time Is A Terrible Thing To Waste…”

In my senior year of college, toward the end of January, I was sitting in my room looking down at a pile of papers. On the top was the application for the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. A professor had recommended that I look into the Fellowship: “I think they have some money,” he had said.

He was right. The Fellowship would pay my full tuition, pay me a generous living stipend, cover my health-care expenses, and provide me with an extraordinary program of leadership training. I had written away for the materials, and, like so many important things, I put it on the pile next to my desk.

I looked at the application again. It was Thursday. The application was due the following Wednesday. I had less than a week. So I called: “I was wondering if I could have an extension on the application?” “Sorry … no you can’t,” came the reply.

So – I went to work. I called one of my professors: “Would you be willing to write me a letter for that fellowship?” “It would be my pleasure,” he said. “Would you be willing to Fed-Ex it?” I asked timidly. “It’s due Wednesday.” I cancelled my weekend plans and buried myself in front of the computer to complete the required essays and then I saw the last piece.

I needed to submit the application in triplicate – with passport photos. It was Sunday afternoon. The only place that did passport photos in Hamilton, New York was the bike shop. I called – “Bob’s out fishing,” came the reply. “When’s he getting back?” I asked. Thankfully, Bob opened the shop for me at 10:00 p.m. and I was able to Fed-Ex my application out the next day.

Jewish tradition teaches that to truly perform Teshuva you have to admit your failings out loud. So, I will say it here with you: I procrastinate. It’s gotten better over the years, but it’s still a terrible vice. I procrastinated on working on that application until the last minute. It inconvenienced my teachers, who had to produce recommendations at the last minute. My friends were mad I cancelled on them. And had Bob been out fishing for one more day, I would have missed the deadline.

Thankfully, I got a call in May early on a Friday morning that I had been selected for the Fellowship. I was up – I had just pulled an all-nighter finishing my thesis.

When I told my family I was going to talk about procrastination on Rosh HaShanah, I got a lot of the predictable jokes. “Written your sermon on procrastination yet?” Haha. But procrastination is a really serious problem. Procrastination increases our stress, jeopardizes our capacity for success, and inconveniences the lives of those around us. Procrastination is the most potent form of self-sabotage that keeps us from living the lives we want, the lives we ought to live.

Why do we procrastinate? For most of us, procrastination is simple. There is something we know we have to do, but we really don’t want to do it. Ask any student with homework to do why they are sitting watching television or playing video games and they will tell you – I hate homework. It’s not fun. It’s boring. We put off the things we don’t want to do, even though we know we need to get them done. Who wants to clean out a closet? Who wants to do their tax forms? It’s fine. It can wait. It’s not urgent. It will get done … eventually. Come on – no one’s going to die.

But sometimes it’s bigger than that. Dr. Jane Burka and Dr. Lenora Yuen in their studies of procrastination found that one of the major reasons people procrastinate is fear. Primary among those fears is a fear of failure. “Many people who procrastinate,” Burka and Yuen write, “are apprehensive about being judged by others or by the critic who dwells within.” Deep down, we worry: what if I do my best, and it’s not enough? What if I’m not enough? Internally, so much is riding on what we accomplish that we can’t finish or even start a project – we literally become paralyzed with fear.

It’s worse for perfectionists. A perfectionist sets extremely high standards, sometimes impossibly high standards, and believes you can only be successful if you meet them. You become so concerned with making mistakes, or that your finished product won’t measure up to your expectations that you feel a sense of shame and disappointment in yourself. That fear of failure makes it so you cannot begin or see your way through to the end – you procrastinate.

We see this fear of failure everywhere. Someone decides they want to write a book, but can’t get past the first few pages because they think their writing stinks and that their ideas aren’t smart enough. Someone decides to start exercising, but gets quickly frustrated when they can’t perform at the level they did in high school. Someone decides to take up a hobby, but drops it when they can’t paint like Picasso or hit a golf ball like Tiger Woods.

A second reason people procrastinate ironically comes from a second kind of fear: a fear of success. How can you be afraid to succeed? Sometimes people fear being criticized for being ambitious. Other times people are afraid to compete for a promotion because if they win, someone loses, and you might hurt someone’s feelings, lose a friend, or people won’t like you. A woman was working in a terrible job in an abusive work environment, but kept putting off applying for a better job because she didn’t want to abandon her co-workers.

A third reason people procrastinate is a fear of losing control. No one likes being told what to do, so we put off what others expect or require so we can prove to ourselves that they can’t control us. We use procrastination like a weapon – “This is a ridiculous assignment! Why do we have to do it her way?” If my self-worth comes a sense of autonomy or independence, from feeling like I’m the master of my own destiny, then I procrastinate in order to resist letting someone else have control.

But no matter why we procrastinate, we suffer similar consequences. We miss deadlines and antagonize co-workers or partners or family members who were counting on us. We carry anxiety and dread knowing we are falling behind in our responsibilities and commitments. We feel lousy about ourselves because of the things we leave to the last minute or leave undone forever. And worse – we wasted time.

One of the greatest gifts Judaism gave to the world was the concept that time itself is sacred. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time… There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique … exclusive and endlessly precious.”

There is nothing holier or more precious than time. The Holy One has loaned us something incredibly holy and precious – the gift of life. The High Holy days remind us how incredibly fragile and fleeting is that gift. We are loaned something so precious – and when we procrastinate or waste time, we defile the holiness of that gift.

The consequences of wasting time can be catastrophic. We procrastinate too often at our work commitments and we lose a job. We procrastinate too often in our commitments to our families and we lose our marriages. We procrastinate too often in taking care of our well-being that we lose our health – or worse. We procrastinate too long in taking care of our world, and we may lose life as we know it.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has warmed more than one degree Celsius. The Paris Climate Accord from which the United States announced its intent to depart sought to limit warming to two degrees – the odds of its success is about five percent. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that at this stage, three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that will produce catastrophic consequences around the globe – the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters, the loss of most coastal cities, the advance of desertification and severe weather disasters.

And as Nathaniel Rich has reported, “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels.

In the late 1970s, the CIA and other governmental agencies formed a group of scientists called the Jasons to devise scientific solutions to national security problems. They began to study the effects of carbon dioxide on the earth’s atmosphere. “The Jasons’ report to the Department of Energy, titled ‘The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate,’ was written in an understated tone that only enhanced its nightmarish findings. Even a minimal warming “could lead to rapid melting” of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The ice sheet contained enough water to raise the level of the oceans 16 feet.”

In response, a lobbyist and organizer named Rafe Pomerance and a master geophysicist named Gordon MacDonald circled Washington and Capitol Hill to raise awareness among power-brokers and policy-makers. Over the ensuing decade, a growing consensus was built among scientists, leaders in the fossil fuel industry, politicians and policy-makers that something profound needed to be done on a global scale. In 1988, George H.W. Bush campaigned for president and took up the challenge. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect,” he said, “are forgetting about the White House effect.”

But during that first year of his administration, the consensus around meaningful action toward lowering carbon emissions began to unravel. From inside and outside the administration came voices challenging the science, questioning the economic impacts, and looking to postpone an agreement. At an international conference convened in November 1981, in the end no agreement was reached to curb carbon emissions. And in the years since, we have continued to procrastinate, and now the world is beginning to see the horrific effects we have known were coming for forty years.

So why haven’t we acted? Because we’re collectively afraid. We’re afraid of changing our way of life, especially if it costs more. We’re afraid of inconvenience. We’re afraid of giving over control to the science and policy makers to change how we power our lives and transport ourselves, and policy makers in turn are afraid to ask us to change for fear of losing their positions and power. Fear is what leads to procrastination, but procrastination is what leads to self – destruction.

What if we could work this year to overcome our fears – to name them and acknowledge them, but not let them dictate how we live? What if we could realize that our self-worth is defined by our courage to face the challenges and opportunities of our time?

Tomorrow we will return to the central theme of our liturgy – Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat HaYom – Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day. In the midst of this day of reflection and judgment, we are reminded of how fragile is that precious gift of life. “Who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not…”

For everyone – there comes that day. One day, you will visit the doctor who will tell you, “You have …” One day you will find you can’t do what you used to do. You can’t remember as well as you once did. The abstract idea that life is short suddenly becomes very real.

We don’t want to arrive at that place and discover, as Henry David Thoreau feared: “that I had not lived.” We can, instead, live deliberately, and be more careful and conscious about how we make best use of the precious time allotted to us.

The Talmud relates a story: “Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said A king once invited his servants to a feast and did not set a time for them to come. The wise among them adorned themselves and sat at the entrance to the king’s house. They said: Is the king’s house missing anything necessary for the feast? Certainly the king could invite them at any moment. The fools among them went about their work and said: While the feast is being prepared, we will attend to other matters.

“Suddenly, the king requested that his servants come to the feast. The wise among them entered before him adorned in their finest clothes, and the fools entered before him unprepared. The king said: These wise servants who prepared themselves for the feast shall sit and eat and drink, but these fools who did not prepare will not participate.”
None of us knows what time is left to us. So we must endeavor to use our time most wisely. We need to stop putting off the choices we know we need to make, the tasks we know we need to fulfill. We need to make it known to our elected leaders that we demand they stop procrastinating and come together to confront the pressing issues of our time – the soaring national debt, our failing infrastructure, our broken immigration policies, and the challenge of greenhouse emissions, climate change, and sea rise.

In the Mishna in Pirke Avot, Rabbi Eliezer teaches us that we ought repent one day before our death. Since none of us knows when that day will come, we need to always be prepared. Like wise guests, we do not know when we will be summoned to the feast, so we need to live our lives ready to answer that call.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, the workers feel sluggish, but the reward is great, and the Master of the House is pressing.

In this New Year, let us resolve to make best deliberate use of the precious gift of life we are so blessed to enjoy. It’s not easy. It’s scary. But if we can overcome our fears and face the challenge of this moment, then this moment can be truly blessed, our lives can be truly blessed, and our world can be truly blessed, for us, for our children and the generations to come.

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Almost Home

The last morning in Jerusalem – I awaken early. I’ve been doing that a lot in Jerusalem. The light is brighter here, and it floods the apartment. I leave the shades open at night so it will draw me into the day.

I lie in bed contemplating a run. I’ve been doing that a lot in Jerusalem. Some mornings I lace up my shoes and head out into the street. Other mornings I lie in bed and let my mind do the running. This morning I throw on the shoes and down the steps.

My route takes me down a familiar avenue to an intersection where the old Jerusalem rail line once descended from Jerusalem. The municipality has filled the old tracks to make a boardwalk and lined the area as a long public park. It is often filled with runners, walkers, bikers, strollers. There are young fit Jewish men and middle-aged Arab women trying to stay fit. I turn left to take a long climb to the old train station.

For twenty-nine years I have come to Jerusalem to learn. I came for university, for rabbinical school, for seminars, with my congregation, and for the past three years, for intensive study at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The Prophet Isaiah said: Ki Mitzion Tetzei Torah – Torah will go forth from Zion. He was right. It does.

I live on a street called Malal – it’s the acronym for Moshe Leib Lilienblum. He was born in Kovno in 1843. He became enamored with the writings of Jewish enlightenment thinkers and began rejecting his traditional orthodox upbringing and education. He was one of the early organizers of the first Zionist movements, and though he worked most of his life to lay the foundations for building a Jewish state, he lived his life in Odessa where he died in 1910.

Like him I have spent my life wrestling with how to blend the wisdom of our tradition with the insights of modern understanding. I struggle with how to fit that blend into my membership in the Jewish people. Like him I love the Jewish state and work as hard as I can to help build the Jewish homeland. Like him my heart is here but my home is far away.

Running uphill in Jerusalem requires some concentration. As I run I go deeper into myself: I think, I meditate, I write, I learn.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the Jewish people started to run. We ran from persecution and pogrom. We ran from the shtetl into the city. We ran from Europe to North America and to Palestine.  We ran to Jerusalem. It was an uphill climb. We were forced to adapt to new ways and places to live. We had to build homes where we were often unwelcome and unwanted. But as we ran, we thought, we meditated, we wrote, we learned.

At the top of the rise I reach the old Jerusalem train station. It has been renovated and is now a cool public plaza with restaurants, carnival games, shops, and a public theater where there are nightly performances. Many nights there is Israeli dancing. Often on Friday nights there is a public Shabbat Evening service. Last night was an Israeli Beatles cover band – you can only imagine.  Like so much in this city – it is old and new.

Theodor Herzl imagined this place in a novel he called Altneuland – Old/New Land.  My days in Jerusalem are like that.  I start and end my days in the modern city of Jerusalem. The texts I study bring me back to walk the streets with King David, with the priests and zealots who fought with Rome and each other, with sages and mystics and modern Zionists.  I am in dialogue with them all.  They are all my teachers.  I walk and run in their footsteps.

I reach what was the end of the line and turn to head back. Each step brings me closer to home. It’s downhill from here. I think about what I’ve learned these last three weeks. I’ve struggled with how text and tradition guide my individual journey in life, how I can be a better husband and father, brother, and son, what God requires of me as a Jew and as a human being.  I’ve struggled with Jerusalem herself, where I feel at home and yet am often told I am not really welcome. Twenty-four days of wrestling knead me like dough – I am softer and am ready to rise.

I return to my apartment – I live on the fourth floor. Each rise has 18 steps – there are no accidents in Torah or Jerusalem. I ascend. I am tired, but energized. In the apartment my bags are almost packed. My last morning in Jerusalem … I am almost home.

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