The Light Within

Sermon For Rosh HaShanah Evening

October 2, 2016 – 1 Tishri, 5777

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

By Rabbi Dan Levin


There once was a man who visited a winery.  He had been told that it was perhaps the most beautiful winery in the world. As he drove in, he passed by breathtaking rows of grape vines in the vineyard, and then to the stunning winery.  As he drove in he was amazed to see the parking lot empty. The tasting room was exquisite – and yet also … empty.  The vintner greeted him and offered him a tour.  He showed him the vineyards, his pristine operation, and took him into the cellar, where he saw row after row of the most beautiful, finely crafted barrels he had ever seen.

They returned to the tasting room and the vintner thanked him for the visit and turned to leave.  “Aren’t we going to have a tasting?” asked the man.

“Oh, we don’t have any wine,” said the vintner.

“How is that possible?” asked the man.

“Well,” he said, “You see, I wanted to make the most beautiful winery in the world.  I wanted it to be perfectly magnificent, so I spent all my time and energy in building our welcome center, designing our interiors, and crafting our cellar and our barrels.  But I never learned how to make wine, so I have none to offer you.”

This little parable seems absurd.  Why go through the effort to build a winery if you have no intention of making wine?  We might agree that what the winery looks like from the outside isn’t really what’s important.

Rabbi Weisman, our resident wine expert, told me that one of his favorite wineries in Santa Barbara is called Carhartt.  The facility is unremarkable – it’s a shack really.  But the wine they have there is delicious – it’s one of his favorites.  The wine is made in an industrial facility – stainless steel, concrete, rubber hoses, not particularly attractive, but the vintner, whose name is Brooke Carhartt, doesn’t care.  Her interest is in making the best wine she possibly can, and she doesn’t spend much energy thinking about the beauty of the vessels that will carry it.

Wine has a long history of symbolic value in Jewish tradition.  The rabbis in the Talmud thought of wine as a symbol of wisdom.  In the Pirke Avot, we read:

Rabbi Yossi bar Yehuda of Kefar HaBavli said: To what shall we compare someone who learns wisdom from the young? To someone who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from his vat; and to what shall we compare someone who learns wisdom from the old? To someone who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine.

But then, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi tells us something important:

Do not look at the flask, but at what it contains.  A new flask may contain old wine, but an old flask may not even contain new wine. (Avot 4:20)

To Rabbi Yehuda, it wasn’t the vessel that was important, but what it contained.  But is Rabbi Yossi wrong?  Can we ignore the vessel in which that wine matures?

Last spring, I celebrated the 20th anniversary of my ordination as a rabbi and my 25th college reunion.  As I watch my children mature and make their way into their own lives, I am conscious of the fact that I am no longer a new flask.  My body doesn’t recover as quickly as it once did from the bumps and bruises of a normal game of soccer, and I find myself reaching for names and for words that get lost in the jumble of my mind.

And so, I am proud to share with you, that I actually fulfilled one of my New Year’s resolutions from last year: I started working out with a trainer – Joel. Joel is fantastic. He calls me “Mr. Dan Sir.”  He pushes me hard.  He is the only person in the course of a week who will say: “Come on Mr. Dan Sir, be a warrior!”  He has inspired me to take better care of my physical self, to eat better, to exercise more, and to get more fit and strong.

Krista Tippett, the well-known host of the NPR Radio program On Being, recently published a book titled Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into The Mystery and Art of Living. There she writes, “We are matter, kindred with ocean and tree and sky. We are flesh and blood and bone … I taste, touch, smell, see, and hear, and my mind entwines with my senses and experiences. I live and move and have my being … therein I become.”[1]

Watching the Olympic games this summer was like visiting a museum of the fine art of physical prowess.  It’s so inspiring to see these athletes perform at such a high level, to see how they have trained and honed their bodies to jump and twirl and run and swim higher and further and faster than anyone in the history of the world. But what’s so interesting is that all of these athletes will tell you how their performance is so much more than the physical act we see.  The grit and drive, concentration and determination to push oneself so far beyond the limits of what we imagine a person can do comes from a deeper place, a spiritual place, a place rooted deep within that drives us throughout the course of our lives to accomplish and to conquer all that we might aspire to achieve.

Too often, however, in our efforts to take ever better care of our bodies, we make fewer and fewer efforts to take care of our spirits.  We as a society have become obsessed with the vessel.  We spend an extraordinary amount of our time and our resources focused on building and maintaining our bodies.  We spend enormous amounts of money making sure we look right – hair, body, skin, clothing.  We kvetch constantly about how we look, obsessing over every pound we gain or lose, keeping up with the latest fashions and trends.

And without question, it’s important.  But at the same time we are out of balance.  We spend much more time and energy taking care of our bodies than we do in taking care of our spirituality.  There are times when it seems we are like vintners who are trying to build ever more beautiful wineries without focusing on the wine we make.

And the wine matters.  What lies within matters.  Our spirits and our souls require the same dedication and care as do the vessels that carry them.

But why do we neglect our spirits?  Why do we refuse to take time to nurture our spirituality?  Most of us take very little time to appreciate the arts, to learn wisdom, to be quiet and meditate and pray.  We as a people grow further and further away from font of spiritual wisdom and energy that flows from Jewish tradition and Jewish practice.  Many of us make it our priority to get to the gym a few days a week, but we come to services just a few times a year, and we take a class or come to Torah study … well almost never.

We are blessed beyond measure – not simply because we have these wondrous bodies that give us so much capacity to navigate and experience our world; not simply because we have minds that can comprehend and analyze and judge and remember; and not even simply that we are blessed with a spirit that can love and feel and yearn.  We are blessed because we have been given the gift of Torah – a gift that we, in our hubris and our arrogance, leave to collect dust tucked away on a bookshelf.

I want to take a moment to share with you a little Kabbalah – some wisdom from Jewish mystical tradition.  It may seem a little deep, but let’s go there together.  In the Zohar, the central book of Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Shimon said, “Woe to the human being who says that the Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words!”[2]  The Zohar teaches that the Torah comes from a place deep within the Holy One, from the root of the source of love and energy in the Universe, and thus is too powerful and precious to be revealed in its pure essence.  To protect it, God covers it with garments, layers of protective corporeality so that it can exist for us in this world.

Think of a Torah scroll, like the ones we just saw in the ark moments ago.  Each is covered with an exquisite garment, carefully crafted and suited to the individual scroll that lies within.  But the garment, as beautiful as it is, is not the real Torah.  There is more to find underneath that garment.

Underneath we find the panels of parchment, carefully sewn together and attached to the wooden spools, the Atzei Chayim, the trees of life that hold it together.  But that is not the real Torah.  Laid upon that parchment are the droplets of ink, meticulously drawn into 304,805 individual letters.  Those letters represent yet another garment the Torah wears, the garment of human syntax and semantics, Hebrew, the holy language which captures those letters into 79,976 individual words.

Those words, like a bouquet of flowers, tell the stories of the five books of Moses.  But these stories too, are but another garment, another layer covering what lies beneath.

“Come and see,” says the Zohar.  “the essence of the garment is the body that lies beneath, and the essence of the body is the soul.”

The body of Torah, beneath the cover of stories and language, parchment, ink, and fabric, is the corpus of ideals, teachings, values and lessons, the commandments we are asked to follow.  But within the body of Torah is a soul – the essential meaning that is found at the core of human experience, the awe and wonder, our competing compulsion for justice and compassion, our drive for knowledge and wisdom.  And there, deep, deep within, is where we find that essential core of truth and love and holiness.

And this is true for each one of us.  Sitting here tonight each of us is covered with beautiful garments.  But beneath those garments is our body, more essential than the garments it wears.  And deep within is our soul, which truly makes us who we are.

I want you to think very carefully about yourself and think hard about who you really are.  As important is the vessel that carries us, the real essence of who we are is not the vessel.

Who are you?  In some sense, we are the physical beings seated together this evening.  We are men and women, tall and short, large and small, old and not so old. Some of us have dark skin and some have light skin.  Some of us have dark hair, some have light hair, some don’t have any hair at all.  But we are more than what we appear to be to each other.

Who are you?  In some sense we are our talents and our abilities, our professional acumens and our hobbies and skills.  We are teachers and nurses, lawyers and businesspeople, homemakers and breadwinners and students. We are athletes and card, knitters and crafts people, artists and musicians, talkers and readers.

Who are you? In some sense we are our ideas and our ideals, our thoughts and our opinions.  We are democrats and republicans, libertarians and socialists and independents. We are rugged individualists and we are community-oriented collectivists.  We value justice and fairness, compassion and kindness, knowledge and wisdom, freedom and peace.  We think we should be prudent and conservative, save for the future and plan for “what if…”  We scream “Carpe-Diem – seize the day!” and we explore our world and try new things.

Who are you?  In some sense we are our personalities and ourselves.  We are strong and we are soft.  We are loud and we are quiet.  We are extroverted and introverted.  And deeper still.  We are scared and we are confident.  We doubt and we have faith.  We have wounds and insecurities and fears.  We have scars where we have healed, and we have pride in what we believe.  We love, in some ways very deeply.  We regret, and we feel shame.  We yearn to be more whole, to be more secure, to be safe and serene.

Deep, deep, down.  In the essence of who we are.  When we peel away all the layers, all the garments that cover our truest selves … what do we find?  It’s simple.  We find beauty.  We find a radiant, glorious, holy and blessed light that is so beautiful to behold that it reduces us to tears.

We don’t often get to see that light.  It takes so much effort to dig down deep inside and really try to use our minds to explore our spiritual essence.  It takes enormous courage and faith and humanity to allow that light within us to be exposed to the world.  And it takes an investment of time and energy to look for the light that shines inside those we love, with whom we share life’s journey.

What would it look like if we could discover that inner being, and allow that light to shine in our outer selves? You know it when you see it – a person whose light is right there on the surface.

Years ago, a young man named Josh Marcus was Temple Beth El’s star Ba’al Tekiah – our shofar blower.  He was not much taller than the shofar, but from that small frame came a powerful sound.  As Josh grew older, he never got very tall, but he did get very strong.

One day, after his first semester of law school, Josh was out with his brother in the ocean on a jet ski. They were towing a raft when suddenly they hit a wave.  Josh fell into the water and felt a sharp pain in his left arm.  When he looked down to see what was wrong, he saw that his left arm was missing.  The rope from the raft had amputated his arm just below the shoulder.

His brother got him back to the jet ski and a nearby boat radioed in for help and they got Josh to the Trauma center.  I will never forget seeing Josh the next day in the ICU – he looked up at me, and with the same twinkle in his eye that I had seen when he was a little boy said, “Well Rabbi Dan, I’m going to be the best one-armed lawyer they have ever seen.”

Despite his catastrophic injury, Josh didn’t miss a day of law school.  From the love of family, friends, and community, he found an inner strength that far surpassed his muscular frame. He graduated law school, married Ms. Deborah Bogdanoff who grew up at Temple Beth El, and they just bought a home together a few minutes from here.

Josh’s accident may have diminished his body, but his spirit is stronger than ever.  To spend time with him is to see the light of his soul plastered all over his face.

When Moses returns from Mount Sinai, having spent so many hours in study with the Holy One, the book of Exodus relates that “Moses was not aware that his face was radiant from speaking with God.”  We too may find that if we invest ourselves in studying Torah, if we take the time to seek out the light that is found in our text and tradition, if we devote ourselves to building our spiritual core, we will build the inner strength we need to meet the challenges we face in our own lives, and we will find the wisdom and energy to make our spirits strong.

In the New Year, let us devote ourselves to exercising our spirituality in addition to our bodies.  Let us apply more of our time, our energy, and our resources to building our spirits and nurturing our souls.  Go to a concert, visit a museum, take time to sit and meditate and pray.  Make a resolution to keep Shabbat, to allow some time each week for sacred rest and quiet, prayer and meditation.  And take some time for Torah.  Hillel said, “Do not say I will study when I have leisure; you may never have that leisure.”  Make learning and study a priority – seek out the wisdom and energy of our sacred texts and tradition, for that wisdom, like good wine, will make this year a celebration of light and life.  L’Chayim.

[1] Krista Tippett. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. New York: Penguin, 2016, pp. 57-58.

[2] Zohar 3:152a

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The Mosaic of Unity


On June 12, 2014 three teenage boys were standing at a junction near their yeshiva in the Gush Etzion block, looking for a ride home.  They were abducted by men affiliated with Hamas, and for 18 days, the families of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel waited for news of their sons.

They were not alone.  While hundreds of soldiers combed the West Bank to find the boys, the entire Jewish world came together.  There was a sense that these three boys were our boys, that their families were our family.  And when their murdered bodies were found, their grief was our grief.

What was even more amazing was how these three families managed to find meaning in their loss.  They sought to capture the holy energy they felt from how the entire Jewish world came together for them.  They believed that the best way to honor the memory of their murdered sons was to see if that energy could be captured.  And so was created Jewish Unity Day.

For the second year in a row, the Jewish community of South Palm Beach County has pulled together our community to join with communities all over the world to consecrate the sense of unity we work so hard to create to the memories of Eyal, Gil-ad, and Naftali.  Under the leadership of Rabbi Josh Broide, the event this year drew nearly 2,000 people to embrace the idea that we can have “unity, not uniformity.”

I was blessed to be asked to share words on the theme of peace at this year’s event. Following are the words I shared with our community.

Feel the energy in this room – the energy that lives deep within us, that we share between us, that connects all together tonight to be one with each other here in our community, and that unites our people here with peoples everywhere, in lands close and distant, but that seem as near as the air we breathe.

In the midrash, we find a debate on high concerning whether the Holy One should create humanity.  Love said: “Let him be created, for he will perform acts of love.”  Truth said: “Let him not be created, for he is compounded of falsehood.”  Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds.”  Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.”  What did the Holy One do?  God took Truth and cast it to the ground. (Bereishit Rabbah 8:5)”

Centuries later, the Kotzker Rebbe asks: “What good would it do to only banish Truth, leaving Peace, which had also argued against the creation of humanity?”  The answer was that in banishing Truth, Peace could be ultimately be realized.

What never ceases to amaze me is the overwhelming diversity of life.  In just this small world of ours, we find a nearly unlimited explosion of life – from plants of every size, shape, color, and variety to the smallest insect to the largest of mammals.

And among us as human beings there seems an infinite number of ways in which we express ourselves, a limitless potential to create and refine new ideas, perspectives, or understandings.

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (4:5) reminds us that when the Holy One created the world, God created swarms of fish, and ferrets, and falcons, but just one human being.  This was to teach us that whoever destroys a single human life is as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a single human life it is as if she saved an entire world.

The horror of the world in which we live lies in how many worlds are destroyed in the name of some or other truth every single day. Two years ago, I was sitting at a Shabbat table of my dear friend Rabbi Nir Barkin in Modiin. His son Omri serves in an elite unit.  He had just come home that afternoon for Shabbat, but was packing his bag to return to the base, so that his unit could deploy to find Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Sha-er – all of blessed memory.  I remember as we sat together feeling like the glass of our Shabbat peace had been shattered. We all offered prayers for the safe return of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad … and Omri too.

I think about how three holy worlds were destroyed. I cannot imagine the anguish of these three families to have these singular, precious, holy souls ripped so hideously from their arms and this world. I think of all they might have accomplished, all the love they would have shared, all the good they would have done, all the wisdom they would have learned, and then passed on to children and grandchildren that now will exist only in our imaginations.

We are taught that each of us is created in the image of the Holy One.  We each have implanted within us a piece of the Divine that animates us, captures us, and makes us individuals – unique, and special, and different. My teacher Rabbi Lawrence Kushner taught me that the closer you get to a true paradox, the closer you get to the Holy One, for two things that are diametrically opposed can only both be true in the Oneness of God.  The paradox and challenge of Jewish life is to simultaneously celebrate what makes each of us precious, unique, and holy while we also embrace a covenantal responsibility to grow to be one.

Jewish life is a mosaic – made up of millions of individual stones of many different shapes, sizes, and colors. If a mosaic has just one color stone, it expresses nothing.  But when those different stones are set down by a thoughtful artist, the image they create together is divine. I thank God every day for the infinite beauty of the mosaic of life, and for the privilege of playing the smallest part in that grand design.

In a few short days on Shavuot, we will gather in our homes and our shuls and together return to Sinai.  It was there at Mount Sinai that every Israelite – every single, different, precious, special, unique, and holy Israelite – came together to be one with each other.  For it is only when we are one with each other that we can be truly one with the Holy One. And it is only when we are truly one with each other that real peace will descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world. Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Ya’aseh Shalom, Aleinu V’Al Kol Yisrael V’Imru, Amen.  May the One who makes peace in the high heavens, grant peace to us, to all Israel, and to all the world.

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A New Pair of Shoes – Passover 5776

My father died eight years ago just 10 days before Passover.  The day before, as we were packing to go up for what we thought was just another visit, my wife asked, “Are you packing a suit?”

“What for?” I asked.  I guess denial is more than just a river in Egypt.

Part of Jewish custom when you commemorate the loss of a parent is to tear your shirt over your heart, a ritual called Kriah in Hebrew.  The Ba’al Shem Tov, the great Hasidic sage, teaches that when you tear Kriah for a parent, it is like opening your heart to express all the love you carry inside.  Problem for me was, I didn’t have a shirt.

So the next day, I went to the store to buy a shirt.  Anyone from the Washington, DC area knows a store called “Syms,” where you could buy dress clothes for reasonable prices: “An educated consumer is our best customer…” went the slogan.

As a kid, my father introduced me to the stock market.  One of the stocks he carried in his portfolio was “Hart, Schaffner, and Marx” – a clothing company.  I used to joke that it was an imaginary stock, since I never saw a Hart, Schaffner, and Marx label on anyone I knew.

So as looked through the rack for a white shirt my size, I had to stop and catch my breath.  There was a white shirt, hanging on the rack – Hart, Schaffner, and Marx.  I decided to buy two.  One I would destroy with Kriah at the funeral; the other I would keep to remember my father.

As I was walking through the store, I happened to look down at the dress shoes.  My father had taught me to buy dress shoes where the sole was sewn to the main body of the shoe: “The glue-on soles fall apart too quickly,” my father counseled.  A pair of black Cole-Hahn’s caught my eye – $64.99.  That was an amazing price for such good shoes.  So though I wasn’t shopping for dress shoes, I knew my father would approve.

I have worn those Cole-Hahn’s for the last eight years.  My father was a big believer in repairing good shoes, so every time over the years the heels or soles would wear out, I would have them repaired.  There was something about those shoes.  Like the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx shirt or the small collection of my father’s ties I wear for special occasions, those shoes were a connection I didn’t want to lose to my father.

Losing a parent goes in stages.  There are many steps in letting go.  Beyond the immediate experience of death and loss, the funeral and the shiva, there are little lettings go along the way.  Changing the voice-mail message; cleaning out belongings; changing a residence – each is another letting go.  The celebration of annual holidays or milestone occasions – a Bar Mitzvah, a graduation, a wedding – these occasions are other little pieces of letting go.

Each year on my father’s yahrtzeit we gather to tell stories of my father before lighting the candle.  My children were very young when their grandfather died, and their memories of him, like mine, no longer continue to grow.  They rely on me to tell the story of his journey, of my journey with him, so that his journey can be part of their journey.  Their memories of him grow by making my stories their stories.  And my memories of him grow as I carry him in my heart day after day, year after year, along the journey of my own life.

The Passover Seder works the same way.  By telling and retelling the story, we make the experience of our ancestors who journeyed from slavery to freedom our experience and our story.  By keeping the memory of their journey fresh in our minds, we keep ourselves from fully letting go of them.  Matzah, Maror, and Charoset, like shirts, ties, and shoes, each are symbols we hold onto so that we do not lose our connection to our past, or lose our way in the wilderness.

Despite my best efforts, my Cole-Hahns have worn out beyond repair.  And yet I wasn’t able to replace them.  I wasn’t ready to let go.

But then, one day just before my father’s yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing, I was walking through Costco.  There, on display, were boxes and boxes of Cole-Hahn’s.  I saw a box in my size – black with sewn soles.  I looked up at the price – $64.99.  I smiled.  It was time to let go.

It will be hard to break in those new shoes, and hard to let go of my old Cole-Hahns.  But memory is stronger than leather, and my father and I can keep walking forward together, even in a new pair of shoes.

Happy Passover.


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Hatred Leads Us To Be The Enemy We Despise

In Jerusalem, two Palestinian teenagers slashed an Arab man from Bethlehem, mistakenly thinking he was a Jew.  In Haifa, a Jewish man stabbed a Jewish pedestrian, mistakenly thinking he was an Arab.

The irony of these individual hate crimes felt like a stab wound in my increasingly broken heart.  We hate with no real knowledge of the other.  We paint “those people” with a broad bush of pernicious stereotype to justify our hatred and our anger.

What we see in our world today rightly provokes our revulsion and anger.  The hideous acts of evil we see perpetrated by radical Islamists make our blood boil.  Today’s attack on a police officer in Philadelphia by someone claiming to kill for “Allah” was simply hideous, and I am so grateful for the valor of that officer that, even after being wounded, still did all he could to incapacitate his attacker, who was eventually captured.

The beheadings of innocent captives, guilty only of the crime of wanting to make a compassionate difference in a war-torn land, the rampaging murder of scores of innocents whose only crime was sitting in a Parisian café, or enjoying a rock concert, and the slaughter of innocent men and women gathering for a holiday party all rightly evoke in me, and I suspect in all of us, overwhelming anger and anguish.

Terrorism makes us feel vulnerable and scared.  The threat of random attack makes us all wonder if we are safe, no matter how unlikely it may be that we will be affected.  Electronic media and the 24 hour news cycle amplifies the evil acts of a very few to seem much larger and more pernicious than they are.

Feeling threatened, we want to feel safe.  Feeling vulnerable, we want to feel secure.  Feeling powerless, we want to feel powerful.

The problem is that our natural responses only make the problem worse.  The narrative of the Islamist organizations declares that America hates Islam and wants to destroy it.  Thus they teach they are justified to attack the West.

So to feel safe, we fall into the trap of stereotype.  When we say, “let’s ban Muslims from our shores”, or declare that all Muslims are suspected of evil motives until they prove otherwise, we ratify their awful narrative.  When Mosques and Islamic community centers get vandalized and attacked, we validate the warped thinking Islamists purvey.

But worse, when we tolerate our own bigotry and hatred, we fall even further into a place where we can look just like them.

For decades Israel has suffered nearly unrelenting terrorist attacks.  It’s understandable how we can become hardened when scores of people are murdered in restaurants and city buses by suicide murderers, and now daily attempts to stab innocent pedestrians or to ram a car into a bus stop.  But in our resentment and our anger, we cannot turn a blind eye to the acts of terrorism spawned in response.

Dozens of so-called “price tag” acts of vandalism and terror have been committed by members of extremist Jewish organizations of the past years.  Beginning with acts of slashing tires of scores of cars, spray painting hate-filled messages anti-Christian or anti-Muslim messages like “Death to Arabs” or “Arabs Out!” or “Jesus was a Monkey and Mary a Cow” have grown to include acts of arson against churches and mosques and homes.

Finally on July 31, 2015 the home of the Dawabsha family in the village of Duma near Nablus was set on fire, killing an 18 month old boy, Ali Dawabsha, and eventually claiming the lives of three others, including his four year old brother and his mother, who had rescued her older son, and ran back into the fire to try to rescue Ali.

Even though there was nearly universal condemnation of the attack, still at a wedding last week, dozens of young men celebrated with guns and knives and stabbed a picture of baby Ali.

Incredulously, the rabbi who officiated at the wedding claimed that it was the Israeli Shin-Bet intelligence service that had committed the act of arson, in order to blame it on the settler movement.

Listening to the deranged comments of the extremist rabbi sounded shockingly like the claims of Islamist leaders that it was the CIA and the Mossad who committed the terror acts of 9/11 just to make war against Islam.

We must guard against the rise of hatred in our community, else we will be drawn to become the enemy we detest.  The answer to terrorism cannot be found in asking the TSA to implement the inquisition.  We will not defeat terrorism through bigotry, stereotype, xenophobia, or anti-Muslim hatred.  While we may feel insecure, labels will not protect us.  While we may feel disempowered, the dark power of hatred will not make us stronger.

What will protect us from terrorism is a combination of constant vigilance and an unwavering commitment to the ideals of understanding, justice, compassion, and love.  The more we can break down pernicious stereotypes, the more we resist the temptation to paint people with a broad brush, the more we stand up and say “NO!” to bigotry, violence, and hatred, in all its forms, the stronger and safer we will ultimately be.

We, of all people, know how dangerous bigoted propaganda, misinformation, and stereotype can be.  We, of all people, know how important it is for good people to stand up together and say “NO!”  The Torah teaches that we cannot remain indifferent to the plight of our neighbor, and we cannot remain indifferent when we see the rise in hatred and bigotry among our own people.

The strength of our society is found in the admonition our tradition has taught for centuries: to love the stranger and to love our neighbors as ourselves, for as Gandhi taught: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”


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Yom Kippur 5776 – Utopia In The Real World

Tradition teaches that we are not supposed to wait until Yom Kippur to atone for our sins; Teshuva and repentance is supposed to be an ongoing process that takes place each and every day throughout the year.  So, we took it very seriously when our eleven year old informed us last year that we were bad parents.  What was our sin?  We had never taken our daughter to Disneyworld.

And so, because we want to be good parents and because, at times we are more than willing to purchase the love and affection of our youngest child, we planned a trip to Disney World this past summer.

It was expensive, but it was wonderful.  Aside from one or two little squabbles, we had a truly fantastic time.  How can you not have a great time at Disney?  It’s designed to be perfect.

When Walt Disney built Disneyland, his vision was to build a utopia.  In dedicating the opening of Disneyland in California on July 17, 1955, Disney said: “To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.

Walt Disney grew up during a difficult time.  His father Elias Disney, was a stern, severe man who despite several attempts throughout his life to achieve significant success, never was able to realize his dreams. When Walt was a young boy, Elias Disney moved the family to Marceline, Missouri, a remote farming town that captured for young Walt a sense of dreamy perfection.  It was not simply the conventional features of small-town America that captivated Disney’s soul – the earnest and honest simple businesses lining Kansas Avenue, the town’s mainstreet, or the carefree simple life of a young boy with freedom to grow.  It was the spirit of the community. In Marceline people cared for one another and were tolerant of one another, collaborating to help each other and support one another.  For Walt, Marceline was a vision of utopia, the template of what life was supposed to possess – a sense of well-being, freedom, and community – beautiful and free.[1]

Walt knew, as do we, that the world is not like Marceline.  Coming through the Great Depression and the second world war, he knew that the world is full of painful struggle – poverty, disease, hatred, and strife, dishonesty, and discord.  Walt wanted to heal that, to help people to escape from that to a better world, whether for a few hours in a movie theater or a day in his park.  Leaving behind the world you know, you enter Disneyland with a walk down Main Street, and then choose either fantasy, adventure, the frontier, or the future – a trip through the park is a metaphor for possibility.

But more than an hour or a day, Disney wanted to change the world.  When the acreage was quietly purchased in Orlando for what would become Walt Disney World, Walt himself had little interest in recreating the amusement park that was his oasis in California.  “The appeal of Disney World to Walt – its only real appeal to him – was that he would finally have a chance to build a utopian city…”[2]  He called it an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow or EPCOT.

Originally, EPCOT was to be a “living, breathing community” of 20,000, and Walt imagined that it would eventually grow to 60 or even 100,000.  He imagined that it would worry about pre-school education, home environment, employment, with a teen center, and a facility for senior citizens.  It would have recreational zones, and houses of worship.  He imagined houses that would be completely self-sufficient, with their own power plants, electricity, and waste systems that would make this town the “first accident free, noise free, pollution free city center in America.”  But Walt would not live to see his utopian vision come to fruition. The EPCOT we visited was in some ways a testimony to his vision – a celebration of idealism where human cultures and human ingenuity together can transform our world.

There is something about utopia.  It’s magnetic.  In 2014, the Magic Kingdom welcomed over 19 million visitors, EPCOT 11 and a half.  We will pay $105 per person just to experience utopia for a day.  Dreaming of a better world is transformative; it revitalizes the soul.

We gather here on Yom Kippur, and it seems an awkward time to be talking about utopia.  After all, we come here expecting to spend the day focused on what’s wrong with our lives, what isn’t working in our world, and in ourselves.

But I think there is a reason we start this day with the recitation of Kol Nidrei.  More than the haunting chant that penetrates our souls in ways no words can hope to achieve, the words themselves atone for all we might fail to accomplish next year. We’re clear from the start.  “Vayomer Adonai, Salachti Kidvarecha – And God said, I have pardoned in response to your plea. (Numbers 14:20)”

So what do we have left to do today (and tomorrow)?  Well, I think we have a choice.  We can either spend our time mired in cynicism about the way things are, or we can spend our time dreaming about the way things could be.

There are times in our life when we afford ourselves the chance to dream and dream big.  When I was a kid, I would spend hours pitching baseballs against the back wall of my house, imagining it was game 7 of the World Series, bottom of the ninth inning, our team nursing a one-run lead.  Ask a kid what she wants to be when she grows up, and she will be glad to share with you her perfectly logical plans for Broadway or the Oval Office.

But at some point, someone says: “Grow up.  Welcome to the real world!” and we turn out the light on our idealism. The real world is … real.  We all have to come to grips with the fact that there are certain questions we need to learn how to answer: How are you going to do that?  How long is that going to take? How much is that going to cost?  How are you going to get people to do that?  Can you prove that’s worth doing?  Anybody else ever do that before? The fact is, in order to live in the real world, we have to answer those questions, and we have to teach our children to answer them too.

But as noted thinker and management consultant Peter Block explains, the problem is that too often those are the only questions we ask.  In his book The Answer To How Is Yes, Block suggests that we live in a culture that lavishes rewards on “what works more than it values what matters.”[3]

Living in the real world demands accountability, value, and results that can be quantified and measured.  And in so many ways, that is how we seem to measure our business and personal success in life.  How much did we produce?  How many clients did we serve?  What was our earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization?  What was our GPA?  How much do we have in the bank?

The problem is that the imperative to be practical often quashes our need to be idealistic.  We spend so much time asking ourselves “What works?” that we forget to ask the fundamental question “What matters?”  “The goal is to balance a life that works with a life that counts.  The challenge is to acknowledge that just because something works, it doesn’t mean that it matters.”[4]

What I want us to consider is that to truly live in the real world, we cannot sacrifice our idealism.  “What is lost in a materialistic and pragmatic culture is idealism.” And it is idealism, Block asserts, “that has the potential to bring together our larger purpose with our day to day doing.”[5]

In 1894, two young Jewish men were intently following the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who was accused of passing secrets to the Germans.  It became apparent that the charges were fabricated and the trial simply an anti-Semitic charade. The first was a thirty-four year old writer named Theodor Herzl and the other was a twenty-two year old writer named Leon Blum.

Following the trial, in which the crowds were chanting, “Death to the Jews,” each man chose a remarkably idealistic but different path.  Herzl came to the realization that Jews would never be secure in Europe, and that the time had come to pursue Jewish nationalism.  Herzl locked himself in his room, and wrote his ideas in what would become his book The Jewish State. He began his work to convince Jewish leaders and the political leaders of his time that the time had come for the world to embrace Zionism as the nationalistic aspirations of the Jewish people.  Herzl devoted the next ten years of his life to building the State of Israel – convening six Zionist Congress meetings in Basel, Switzerland which brought together delegates from all over Europe and the world, traveling throughout the continent to build support for the Jewish state.  In the last years of his life, Herzl wrote Altneuland, “Old-New land” in which he dreamed of the utopia that would be built in a Jewish homeland, combining the best of European culture with the best of Jewish heritage, a country in which Jew and non-Jew would work together in brotherly collaboration, where there would be peace, prosperity, and justice for all.

Unlike Herzl, Leon Blum chose to build his utopia in France.  Growing up in an assimilated French home, Leon learned early from his mother the importance of fairness and a passion for justice.  After studying law, he began his life’s work to build his vision of a better France, a society where humanity concerned itself with those who are, as he said, “bruised by life, ignored by society.  … [where] pity and anger … is aroused in every honest heart by the intolerable spectacle of poverty, unemployment, cold, and hunger… The life of each individual,” he said, “should be protected by all other human beings.”

Soon he became active in politics, leaving his law practice to serve in parliament and became a leader of France’s left-wing republicans.

In the aftermath of the Depression, Leon Blum unified the various parties on the left in a broad movement to improve the lives of France’s working class called the Popular Front.  As fascism and totalitarianism grew in Italy and Germany, Blum believed it was imperative to speak out and to rally the people to stay true to the principles of freedom, justice, and democracy.

Despite an assassination attempt in February 1936 by right wing groups who sought to dismantle French democracy, still he would not back down.  In June of that year, Leon Blum was elected Prime Minister – the first Jewish person ever to hold that post.  During his tenure he instituted the 40 hour work week, paid vacation, and other reforms that would later be embraced throughout the world.  A champion of women’s rights, he also included three women in his cabinet even before women had the right to vote.

With his wife Thérèse dying of cancer, the economy still languishing, and the rise of fascist opposition, Blum resigned in June of 1937.  Still he never stopped fighting for what he knew was right and good for France.  In June of 1940, when Marshall Pétain became leader of the fascist Vichy government, Blum was encouraged to leave France, but he chose to remain, and was arrested and imprisoned.  During the years of his imprisonment, Blum wrote his masterwork For All Mankind.  Even from his cell in the Fort du Portalet, and while defending charges of treason, Blum remained true to his idealism and the causes that had animated him his entire life.  Writing his book as a letter to the youth of France, even as France seemed to betray him, he still dreamed of a future French utopia: “Like all other peoples,” he wrote, “the French people will … build the world of their ideals – only if they show themselves able to cultivate and cherish in themselves … the virtues of courage, generosity of heart, righteousness of mind and conscience, [and] abnegation of self in favor of the good of all.”[6]

During his trial, despite the danger to himself, Blum used his platform to attack the Vichy government, and was so successful, that the Nazi’s demanded the trial be abandoned.  Blum was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he was kept in a special section for VIP prisoners.  He survived the war, and chose to return to his beloved France, becoming Prime Minister again for a short time in the provisional government, helping to negotiate American aid for the postwar rebuilding of France.

Herzl and Blum never stopped living in the real world, but they never abandoned their idealism.  On the contrary, it was their idealism that filled their real-world existence with purpose and meaning.

“Idealism is the pursuit of the way we think things should be… past the point of practicality,”[7] Block tells us. “Choosing to act on ‘what matters’ is the choice to live a passionate existence.”  It is not an existence that is always safe and secure.  “Giving priority to what matters is the path of risk and adventure.”  But perhaps the greatest risk in life is never to risk at all.

I think Peter Block is right when he tells us that “Idealism is hard to defend, for data and history seem to be on the side of realism and practicality … Cynicism is a defense against idealism, and cynicism is so powerful because it has experience on its side.  We each have our wounds.  We each have our story of idealism unrewarded or even punished.”[8]  Just ask Elias Disney what happens to your idealism when your best laid plans don’t come to fruition.

There are times when it would seem ridiculous to hold onto our ideals.  How ridiculous it must have seemed in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 to see the delegates to the first Zionist Congress, dressed in their formal attire, discuss the possibilities of building a homeland for the Jewish people.  But Herzl wrote in his own diary, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.”

How ridiculous it must have seemed in 1941 for Leon Blum to spend hours in his prison cell writing an epistle celebrating French democracy and predicting the end of German fascism?  And yet he not only wrote that the Axis would suffer an overwhelming defeat, but that France needed to reconstitute itself on the basis of that which would lead to the utopia Blum always imagined France could become, a free country in which the people built a social democracy rooted in an international order that secured peace and justice for all.

Like Herzl, like Blum, like Disney, we too need to take upon ourselves the responsibilities of citizens, not consumers.  We are not simply players in the marketplace of our society, seeing what we can amass simply for ourselves, but we must be responsible stewards of our society, working together to build our world into the utopia the eternal values we celebrate this Yom Kippur will guide us to create.

At the end of Altneuland, Herzl writes: “Dreams … are a fulfillment of the days of our sojourn on Earth. Dreams are not so different from Deeds as some may think. All the Deeds of men are only Dreams at first.  And in the end, their Deeds dissolve into Dreams…”  Let us in this new year commit ourselves to build the world of our dreams, to shake off the cynicism that keeps us from contributing to a better world, for that better world, that utopia, is there for us inhabit – Im Tirzu, Ayn Zo Agadah – if you will it, then it is no dream.

[1] Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: the Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 2006, pp. 10-18.

[2] Ibid., p. 608.

[3] Peter Block, The Answer To How Is Yes. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2002, p. 4.

[4] Ibid., p. 27.

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Leon Blum, For All Mankind, trans. by William Pickles. New York: Viking Press, 1946, p. 174.

[7] Op Cit. Block, pp. 53-56.

[8] Op Cit. Block, p. 54.

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Rosh HaShanah Morning 5776 – A Call To The Covenant

Ever since I was a young boy, I was enthralled with the shofar.  I remember fidgeting through services, until that moment when the Ba’al Tekiah, the shofar sounder stood in the middle of the bima and then I stood rock solid still while those distinctive sounds echoed throughout the sanctuary.  The sound of the shofar stirred something inside, even in the soul of a little boy.

After learning French Horn in 8th grade, I asked the rabbi if I could be the Ba’al Tekia.  He listened to me play, and then gave me a large shofar to practice with.  Thanks, I said, but I have a question:  “can you strap this thing to my bicycle?”

I was our congregation’s ba’al tekiah for many years.  I remember the butterflies in my stomach churning as I stood preparing to hear the calls, licking my lips to keep them moist. At a time when I was unsure of my feelings for Judaism and our synagogue, the shofar was the root that kept calling me back.

When I got to college, I brought my shofar with me, and got asked to sound the shofar that first semester at school.  That shofar got me involved in Jewish life on campus, and in many ways, it was the sound of the shofar that drew me to Jewish life and ultimately to my rabbinate.

There is something about the sound of the shofar.  Hearing that sound is the primary obligation we are asked to fulfill for Rosh HaShanah, and it’s the one I think deep down we look forward to the most.

The shofar calls out to us with alarm:  “Awake you slumberers from your sleep! Examine your deeds, turn away from the silliness of the times and do not waste your years on foolishness and emptiness. Look to your souls and improve your ways and mistakes.”

But the shofar does more than wake us up.  It calls us to turn around and return.  Just as it called to me as a boy, the shofar calls us to return.  It says: Return to the root of your being. Return to the wellspring of your identity.  Return to your people, and the covenant that defines us and binds us together as Jews.

Jewish tradition calls marriage Kiddushin, holy things, because the establishment of a household and the commitment to a covenant are the most holy acts a person can perform.

The Jewish people are a household of sorts.  We descend from the household created by Abraham and Sarah.  But their household was transformed when they entered into a covenant with the Holy One.  In addition to their responsibilities to each other, they now bore responsibilities to God as well.

But just as Abraham and Sarah brought God into their household when they began the journey of our people, so too did we as a nation invite God into our collective household.  Having liberated us from slavery in Egypt, God brought us to a mountain in the wilderness to forge with us a covenant.  It was a covenant that demanded we build a society of based on sacred relationships with each other and a sacred relationship with the Divine, a covenant that demanded we love ourselves, that we love each other, and that we love God with all our heart, soul, and might.

As in any relationship, those bonds of connection fray and tear when we hurt one another. And this season asks us to think about how we respond when our mistakes and misdeeds loosen the bonds that weave us together.

I recently read an article by noted scholar Dr. Louis Newman[1] in which he asks if there is an empirical moral obligation to forgive.  Let’s say I do something, perhaps inadvertently, that hurts you.  The wrong I have done creates a moral debt that fractures our relationship.  Then we each have a choice.  I can seek to heal that fracture by resolving that debt, by making amends, apologizing, and seeking your forgiveness.  You can accept my contrition and relinquish your resentment, forgiving me and the moral debt I owe you.  Or … either of us can walk away.

But as Jews we are forbidden to walk away. In the 12th century Maimonides wrote that if we hurt or trespass against someone, it is our obligation to make restitution and to seek forgiveness.  If the other person refuses to grant forgiveness, we must return with a group of three people and ask again.  If the other still refuses, then we must return a second or a third time. But if the person then still will not grant forgiveness, then we are cleared of our responsibility; it is the other person who becomes guilty of the sin.  Our tradition teaches that we have a fundamental moral obligation not only to seek forgiveness but also to grant forgiveness.[2]

As Jews, we don’t get to opt out of our relationship with each other.  The covenant demands that we never give up on that relationship, and that we do what it takes to heal our fractures.  Our tradition teaches that it is in the web of that relationship that we draw nearer not simply to each other but more importantly to God, and if we separate from each other and disengage, ultimately we lose everything that matters.

Two thousand years ago, the oppression of the Roman empire was proving too difficult to bear, and our people was divided against itself in choosing how to respond.  The elite establishment believed in cooperating with the Roman government in order to avoid conflict.  The Zealots believed that the people of Judea should rise up against the Romans in revolt.  The differences were nasty and divisive, and led ultimately to our national defeat and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Years later, the rabbis in the Talmud taught “The first Temple was destroyed because of the [three cardinal] sins of idolatry, harlotry, and murder.  The second fell because … of Sinat Chinam, senseless hatred, and this teaches us that senseless hatred is a sin that weighs as heavily as idolatry, harlotry, and murder.”[3]

The history of our people is one of divisions and schisms, punctuated with senseless hatred. Sinat Chinam – senseless hatred is the enemy of our covenant.  It is the toxin that poisons our relationships and dissolves the bonds that make us one.

In 1920, Jewish settlers in Palestine organized a defensive militia called the Haganah to defend Jewish settlements from attacks by armed Arab groups.  By 1931, a second group spun off that was called Irgun Bet, or second division, later just called the Irgun.  The chief difference between the groups was that the Haganah believed in a policy of Havlagah – restraint, while the Irgun urged retaliation for Arab terror attacks on Jews.  The Haganah was loyal to the Labor Zionists, led by David Ben Gurion, while the Irgun was loyal to the Revisionists, led by Menachem Begin.[4]

For years, the two factions profoundly disagreed as to how best to defend the Jews of Palestine.  Begin believed the British had essentially declared war on the Jews by barring entry to Palestine for Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  The Irgun conducted a campaign of retaliatory attacks against the British, most notably the famous attack on the King David hotel that killed nearly 100 people.  Ben Gurion however believed that the violent provocations employed by the Irgun made Jews not only vulnerable to Arab attacks, but to British reprisals.[5]

When Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, as Israel’s new Prime Minister Ben Gurion ordered that for the new state to survive the existential threat posed by its Arab neighbors, the fighting forces had to come together as one army.

On June 11, 1948, less than a month after the creation of the State of Israel, a landing tank ship named the Altalena set sail from France for the newly created Jewish state.  The ship carried hundreds of volunteer fighters trained by the Irgun, and more than 150 million francs worth of French weaponry and military materiel.

The arms and weapons on board would prove vital to the defense of the Jewish state in the face of the coming Arab attack.  But Ben Gurion believed those same arms would provide for the retrenchment of the Irgun as a separate Jewish militia, and that was something he refused to accept.

When Irgun volunteers began to unload the Altalena’s cargo at Kfar Vitkin in northern Israel, Ben Gurion ordered the Haganah to fire on the ship.  Begin himself was aboard the Altalena, and the ship began to head toward Tel Aviv.  As the ship landed just yards off the crowded Tel Aviv shore, gunfire erupted and a mortar set fire to the Altalena.  The heat of the fire caused the munitions on board to begin to explode and eventually, Begin and the crew had to abandon ship.

Sixteen Irgun fighters were killed in the confrontation, along with three IDF soldiers.  But the most amazing thing came in the form of Begin’s response.  On the Irgun radio channel that night, Begin said:  “Raise not your hand against your brother… Not even today.  We shall continue to love Israel, the good and the bad, the misled and the mistaken.  We shall continue to love Israel and to fight for it.”  Later in life, Begin would write: “After my death, I hope that I will be remembered, above all, as someone who prevented civil war.”

How difficult must it have been for Ben Gurion to give the order, in the shadow of the Holocaust and on the precipice of war, for the Haganah to fire on Jewish soldiers aboard a desperately needed Jewish supply ship?  How difficult must it have been for Begin to order his troops to stand down and not retaliate?  But both men came to realize a truth that we today need not to forget: that we can only meet the existential threats we face as a people when we remember our covenant with each other and sacrifice whatever is necessary to come together as one.

For many years, America and Israel’s most vocal enemy in the world is the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Iran refers to the United States as “the Great Satan” and repeatedly calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, most recently last week when Iran’s Supreme Leader declared that Israel will not exist in 25 years.  We have watched with fear and deep-seated concern as Iran over the past two decades has worked to build a nuclear infrastructure despite crushing international sanctions and covert operations to thwart their ambitions.

We learned last week that the congress will not prevent the so called “deal” with Iran from going through.  Many people I respect support the deal because they think despite its weaknesses and flaws, it’s better than no deal at all, and while it fails to address so many of our concerns, it certainly is a step in the right direction.

Others whom I respect reject the deal because they believe that whatever benefits the deal achieves are far outweighed by the deal’s long-term cost. It legitimates the Iranian regime as a nuclear threshold state, it eventually removes the arms embargo that keeps Iran from developing the full conventional threat it might amass, it relieves the sanctions that have created havoc with the Iranian economy, and restores billions of dollars in frozen assets.  Iran which possesses the fourth largest proven oil reserves in the world sees a failed Shi’a state to its west, with the fifth largest proven oil reserves in the world.  To the west of Iraq is Syria, whose murderous and nefarious regime Iran arms, funds, and essentially controls, and to the west of Syria is Lebanon, which Iran has controlled through its Hizbullah proxy for decades.  Add that together and you have a large and powerful Persian empire whose depth and breadth we have not seen since the Sasanian empire of 621 CE.

This is an enemy which we should rightly fear, but we can only resist this enemy if we come together as one.  Vitriolic declarations that supporters of this deal hate the State of Israel and are somehow complicit in doing Hitler’s work, or pronouncements that people who reject the deal are warmongers, whose loyalties and patriotism should be called into question creates an environment too eerily similar to that which brought about our people’s destruction two thousand years ago.

We need to do everything in our power to ensure that support for Israel is not a Democratic objective, or a Republican objective, a liberal objective or a conservative objective but an American objective. Israel is America’s most important ally in one of the most dangerous parts of our world, and while there can be honest and civil disagreement between America and Israel’s leaders, we must reweave the fraying fabric that binds America and Israel together.

But even with the challenges we face as a people externally, I wonder if the challenges we face internally are not more profound. The same senseless hatred that threatened us in ancient times still tears us apart today.  What does it mean when the Minister for Religious Services of the Jewish State declares that we as Reform Jews cannot be considered Jewish?  What does it mean when an ultra-orthodox Jew stabs six people at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, and the response by some in the Ultra-Orthodox community is, “that’s terrible, but…”  Can we blame young non-orthodox Jews for feeling alienated from Israel when Israel so publicly denigrates the Judaism they practice?

And here in our community, an ever growing number of Jewish men and women are abandoning the covenant.  More and more non-orthodox Jews are leaving Jews and Judaism behind, rapidly divesting themselves and their families of any sense of connection or commitment to Judaism, the Jewish community and the Jewish people.  Despite what our tradition has taught for centuries, we are using the extraordinary freedom American society affords us to walk away from the covenant of Israel.  Studies of non-orthodox Jews show that we practice fewer rituals, we ignore Shabbat, we worship less and less frequently, we belittle the value of Jewish education and condemn ourselves and our children to ignorance and illiteracy, we give less tzedakah to Jewish charitable causes, and we share a growing disillusionment and lack of connection to the State of Israel and our fellow Jews around the world.  Not only have we abandoned our covenant that links us together as Jews, we have abandoned any meaningful pursuit of Jewish spirituality.[6]

That apathy towards Jewish life we see in the massive majority of non-orthodox Jews has the potential to wipe us off the map as surely as any of our enemy’s armies.

We are drawn here today because we are part of a covenant, a covenant that not only binds us individually to God, but that binds us collectively one to another as Jews.  We must in this New Year come back together and recommit ourselves to the project of Judaism and the Jewish people.  On this Rosh HaShanah we let us heed the Shofar’s call to return.  Let us reject the politics of demonization and division, and come together to counter the existential threats we face as a people.  Let us come together to face the threats that are posed to us externally by our enemies and anti-Semitism, and let us come together to counter the threats that are posed to us internally by senseless hatred, divisiveness, and apathy.

Let us resolve to return to our covenant and recommit to investing ourselves in the richness of Jewish life.  Let us promise to be more engaged, more educated, more committed to actively seek the inspiration that Torah and tradition can ignite.

We turn to page 282 and we rise for the sounding of the Shofar.  And as we rise, let us rise up together to thwart those enemies that would seek our destruction, and rise up together against the senseless hatreds and apathy that threaten us from within. Let the sound of the shofar harken us back to Sinai, so that soon in our own day, we will find our people one with each other, and one with our God who is one.

[1] “The Quality of Mercy: On The Duty To Forgive in the Judaic Tradition” by Dr. Louis E. Newman in The Journal of Religious Ethics Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall, 1987), pp. 155-172.

[2] Maimonides Hilchot Teshuva 2:9-10

[3] Yoma 9b

[4] Menachem Begin: The Battle For Israel’s Soul, by Daniel Gordis.  New York: Nextbook, 2014, chapter 7 pp. 79-97.

[5] Ben-Gurion: The Biography of an extraordinary man, by Robert St. John. Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1959, pp. 158-163.


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Rosh HaShanah Evening 5776 – The Holiness of Regret

When our kids were little, we as parents often had to make decisions that were unpopular for our children.  They would whine and complain – why can’t we do it our way?  And we would with same wise words our parents used to say:  “Because we said so.” But they would argue and say, “We live in America – we should all get to vote.”

And I would say: “Fine.  But here’s how it works:  Everyone gets one vote for every year you’ve been alive. Now, let’s see – Ari gets 10 votes, Meredith gets 8 votes, and Eliana gets 3 votes: 21.  Now I say you need to go to bed, and I get … well a lot more votes than you.  I win – Now go to bed.”

But our little kids aren’t so little anymore.  My son just left for college, my older daughter is in her junior year of high school, and we are planning for our youngest daughter’s bat mitzvah in just over a year.  Recently, a new acquaintance asked how old my children are.  18, 16, and 11, I responded.  Wow.  Those are some pretty big numbers.  After a recent family vote the kids shared with me that by the end of 2015, they will be old enough to out-vote me.

We all have the same reaction when we pass these kind of milestones.  Wow – where did the time go?  It seems like yesterday we were gathered here in this very sanctuary to celebrate that boy’s bris, and in what seemed like a blink of an eye, he’s grown and gone.

Of course there’s been so much that’s happened in those years.  We went out to dinner the night before Ari left and sat around reminiscing our favorite stories.  We shared a lot of wonderful memories of times we spent together, on special trips, special occasions, and just funny, silly times on random evenings.

I can’t help thinking that we get one shot at this parenthood thing, and I secretly wonder if I didn’t mess up too badly.  I think about lots of times I didn’t get it right as a parent.  I think about times I pushed too hard, and others when I didn’t push hard enough.  I think about the times I got too angry, and times where perhaps I was too lenient.  I think about the things I should have taught, and the things I tried so hard to impart that probably don’t really matter.

This holy day has many names in our tradition. Rosh HaShanah, the head of the year, is also called Yom Teruah – the day of the shofar blast, and Yom Harat HaOlam, the day of the world’s formation.  But it is also called, Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance.  And for so many of us, the walk down memory lane these holy days ask us to take can be a very difficult journey.

I’ve often spoken with people who when they talk about their lives will profess: “I have no regrets.”  I am never going to be one of those people.  Frankly I have lots of regrets.  There are so many times in the course of my life’s journey where I look back with a reasonable measure of embarrassment, regret, and shame.  I think of times as a child when I was deceitful and dishonest.  I think of times as a teenager when I was a striver, and said and did things that were disingenuous, but I thought would make me popular.  I think of times as a young adult when I arrogantly pretended to know more than I really did.  I think of times when I made snap judgments without really knowing the facts, when I made assumptions before understanding the full picture, when I dismissed people because of stereotypes, when I lost control of my emotions or lashed out at those I love.

On this Yom HaZikaron, this day of remembrance, I look back at my life filled with mistakes, and I wonder how it is that with my amazing resume of flaws and imperfections that I am even here this evening – that you are here this evening with me.

But the fact is that regret is good.  In his book How Good Do We Have To Be, Rabbi Harold Kushner remembers that when Charles Darwin shocked the world with his theory that human beings and apes had a common ancestry, someone asked him whether there was still anything unique about the human being.  Darwin thought for a moment and then answered, “Man is the only animal that blushes.”[1]

Almost three years ago on Mitzvah Day, we got our first dog.  We have a joke in our house.  “What did the dog do all day?  He dogged.”  That’s what dogs do.  They dog.  Included in dogging is barking, eating, sleeping, walking around the neighborhood, peeing (sometimes on the carpet), pooping (hopefully not on the carpet), and lots of cuddling.  He’s small, he’s tan, and he’s exactly what a dog is supposed to be.

I was remembering this recently with two b’nai mitzvah students who are celebrating their big day when we read the story of creation.  There’s a very interesting facet to that story.  Each day, after God brings something into being, God stands back and judges it:  “And God saw that it was good.”  This is true for light and land, sun and moon, plants and birds and fish and animals.  But when God creates humanity there are two key differences.  First, God creates us in God’s own image.  More about that in a minute.  But second, God does not declare us to be good.  The quality of our goodness is not predetermined.

Charlie the Wonderdog is created exactly as he is meant to be. There is no expectation that he grows.  Sure we hope he doesn’t pee on the carpet, and yes we wish he wouldn’t bark so much when people come to the door, but ultimately, that’s who he’s supposed to be.  He’s already good.

But there’s a big difference between us and our dogs.  Created in God’s image, we carry with us the ability to contemplate the meaning of our own existence.  We can organize our world not simply by instinct but on the basis of values and moral truths that we can use to modify our behaviors.  We may desire material gain, but we can master that desire by refusing for ourselves that which was not acquired through honest gain.  We may desire love and acceptance, but we can master that desire by refusing for ourselves simple lust and infidelity.  We can set for ourselves a bar based on a sense of what is compassionate and just, on what is generous and fair, on what links us to others in bonds of love and understanding.  And when we fail to meet that bar, we can blush from that sense that we didn’t hit our mark, that we didn’t fulfill our expectations, that we failed, or that we sinned.

If, as we leaf in the book of our lives, we feel no measure of regret, If we can look back through the pages of our memories and see no faults, no flaws, no moments for embarrassment or regret, then we have to wonder if we asked enough of ourselves or did we set the bar too low?  Shouldn’t we expect enough of ourselves that perfection is not easily achieved?

We may choose to set the bar wherever we like, but I believe the Holy One sets the bar higher.  I believe that in creating each of us in the image of the Divine that we are as the Psalmist said: “a little lower than the angels. (Psalm 8:5)”  And we ought to try to act like it.  But when we are not all that we can be, when we do not live as we know we should, should we not feel some measure of regret?

It makes us wonder what does God ultimately want us to be?  The Torah answers us very clearly in the book of Leviticus:  “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am Holy. (Leviticus 19:1)” It seems that what is asked of us is to strive to be like God, to reach ever higher in how we seek to live.

If God wanted us to be perfect, there would be no need for us to gather here tonight, to compile our חשבון הנפש – our resume of regret, our accounting of fallibility and imperfection before which we, in the fullness of our humanity, naturally blush.

No, ultimately what God wants us to be is not perfect, but holy.  Imagine that each of us is a clay jar or vessel.  All year long, every day, we try to fill that vessel with a collection of acts and deeds that will help us realize that vision of perfection we imagine it is our obligation to pursue.  But it seems that no matter how hard we try, we never are able to fill that jar.  It’s as if our failings create that empty space between our lives as they are, and the rim of that vessel.

But that empty space is not failure.  That empty space is holiness.  Judaism is a tradition that teaches from the beginning that we ought never to worship idols, that God is not something we can see or touch.  God is not the work of our hands, our accomplishments or achievements.  God is not something.  God is no-thing.  Holiness is that empty space between what we are and what we ought to be. And what God wants is for us to embrace not simply what we were able to achieve, but also what we weren’t.

I look back on the moments of my deepest regrets.  I think about how because of my personal failings and imperfections there were times that I not only let down the people I care about the most, I let myself down.  In reflecting on those moments, I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and anguish.  I wish I could go back and relive those moments, make different choices, somehow undo the damage I caused and fix the pain that I never meant to inflict.  But I can’t.  And I finally realized, as I reflected on my regrets, what that spirit squeezing pain in my chest is truly called:  a broken heart.

When we sit with a broken heart we feel so embarrassed and ashamed.  We often refuse to talk about it, even with those we love and trust the most.  It hurts too much.  We feel too much shame and embarrassment.  We wonder if admitting to what we did that left us so brokenhearted will cause even more separation from those we love and cherish.

But it is when we are most broken-hearted that God is nearest to us.  Tomorrow we will read the famous story of the binding of Isaac.  Abraham in his fervor to show God how perfect is his faith, takes his son, his only son, whom he loves, Isaac, and brings him to the summit of Mount Moriah and prepares to offer him up as a burnt offering.  With his son bound tight on top of the altar he built to perfection, Abraham lifts the knife, when the angel tells him that’s not at all what God wants.  God doesn’t want Abraham’s offering to perfection.  God wants Abraham to be holy. Imagine Abraham’s shame when he finally looks down and sees what he has done.  His heart broken, Abraham names that place Adonai Yireh – God sees, for it is when we are most broken hearted that Adonai Yeraeh – God is seen.

From the horn of the ram that Abraham sacrifices there instead of his son comes the shofar we sound to bring in the new year.  The Shofar’s blasts are not the triumphant sounds of perfection, but the mournful cries of the broken-hearted.

The story is told that the great Hasidic sage the Ba’al Shem Tov would hold auditions each year before Rosh HaShanah to select the Ba’al Tekiah, the one to sound the 100 blasts of the Shofar.  More than being able to make the ram’s horn sound the proper notes, the Ba’al Tekiah had to master the 100 special prayers or Kavanot, so that the Ba’al Tekiah could fill each sound with complete spiritual power to lift our prayers to the Holy One on high.  There was a man who dreamed of serving as the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Ba’al Tekiah, so he studied for two years to master the Kavanot and to perfect his technique.  The day arrived for his audition, and he stood before the Holy Ba’al Shem Tov.  And he froze.  He was so overwhelmed with his need to be perfect that he could not remember a single one of the holy prayers, and could hardly sound a single note.  He was devastated.  He stood before the Ba’al Shem Tov, crestfallen and heart-broken, and lost himself in tears of grief.

“I select you,” the Ba’al Shem Tov said.  “But I completely failed,” the man said. “I could remember none of the kavanot, and I could hardly make a sound.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov explained with a parable:  In the palace of the King, there are many secret chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax.  The King is the Holy One, the Ba’al Shem Tov explained.  The palace is the spiritual world of God’s domain.  The secret chambers are those essences of God that lead us closer and closer to who we ultimately should strive to be, and the secret keys are the kavanot and mitzvot and holy acts we perform that open those spiritual portals.  But the ax, the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the Divine Presence is the broken heart.  It is your broken heart, the Ba’al Shem Tov explained, that will carry all our petitions into the presence of the Most High.  For as Psalm 34 reminds us: “God is close to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

God doesn’t need us to be perfect.  God needs us to be human.  Fully, profoundly, flawed, and human.

When Moses descends from Mt. Sinai, carrying the tablets of the Ten Commandments he encounters his people celebrating a failure of epic proportion.  Not 40 days removed from their collective encounter with God, the Israelites built themselves a Golden Calf, and in full throated celebration proclaim their fidelity to the God they have fashioned for themselves.  And it breaks Moses’ heart.  And in his broken-heartedness, Moses shatters the tablets and seeks to restore order among the people.  But what happens next is what is most extraordinary.  Moses with his broken heart, is summoned again to the summit of Mount Sinai, and fashions a second set of tablets.

And when he descends with the second set of tablets, he declares words we echo throughout the celebration of these High Holy Days:  “Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum V’Chanun, Erech Apayim, V’Rav Chesed V’Emet – Adonai, a God of compassion and graciousness, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6)”  The midrash teaches that Moses took his new tablets and placed them into the holy ark, right next to the broken tablets.  What is most holy to God, and to us, is both perfection and brokenness.

If we are to be holy like God, then we need to be forgiving like God, not simply forgiving of others but forgiving of ourselves.  God is gracious, accepting, and patient, and so should we be as well. God loves our broken hearts, because it is only when we feel the fullness of regret that we may be inspired to grow, to change, to improve, to be a little closer to a vision of what we could ultimately choose to be.

These are the High Holy Days because these are the days that we embrace our regrets, that empty space inside that makes each one of us a complete and holy vessel. These days are the High Holy Days because when we inhabit our brokenness, we hope that our repentance, our prayer, and our resolve to learn and grow will inspire us to transcend the morass of our embarrassment and our shame.

Henry David Thoreau said:  “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret,” he said, “is to live afresh.”

As we reflect this Rosh HaShanah on the year and years that have passed, let us indeed make the most of our regrets.  May our broken hearts open the gates to a new year where God will inspire us to find forgiveness, healing, love, and peace.

[1] Harold Kushner, How Good Do We Have To Be?: New York: Little, Brown, & Co., 1996, p. 35.


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