Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mother and Child Reunion

Mother and Child Reunion

Sermon Saturday Morning

Parshat Vayiggash


Shabbat Shalom

Commentators on the Bible look at the reunion of Joseph and his brothers and they raise an interesting point to ponder. Joseph was away from home for 21 years before he was reconciled with his family. Why is it that he never sent a message home to his father telling him what had happened and where he was? You would think that a young boy far from home would want to get in touch with his worried father. But for 21 years, Joseph makes no attempt to contact his family. Why?

To be fair, when he was a slave in Potifer’s house, he probably did not have the freedom to send a message home. Why would his master allow him to contact his family? And for the years he was in prison, it certainly was impossible to send a message to anyone. But for eight years, he has been the second most powerful man in Egypt. Why would he not send a message to his family through one of the many servants he had in his household?

Rambam and many other commentators are puzzled by this failure of Joseph. Joseph knew that his father loved him and must have been heartbroken when Joseph disappeared. Joseph must have surely missed his father and he would want to be reunited with his father as soon as possible. And yet, this is clearly not the case. Joseph seems to not care at all about his father, his family and the life he left behind.

Suddenly, in this week’s parsha, Joseph breaks down crying and finally admits his real identity to his brothers. What happened that suddenly he has such strong feelings for the family he has cut out of his life? Clearly it is something that Judah says, in his long speech to save the little Benjamin from the accusations of theft at the end of last week’s parsha. It is interesting to note that Judah mentions the word “Father” 14 times in 17 verses; all intended to invoke pity and compassion in the heart of this cruel Egyptian viceroy. I don’t think any of this worked at all on Joseph. It was something else Judah said, that triggered Joseph’s tears.

Why did Joseph forget his family? I think that from the moment he was sold into slavery, he expected his father would do what any father would be expected to do. Come looking for him. Interviewing travelers, sending word to distant cities, riding across trackless deserts to find his missing son. But the years went by and nobody came looking for Joseph. What could be going through Joseph’s mind? How many years did he watch the horizon thinking that any moment his family would arrive and save him from his slavery. How long did he wait for the father who never came? Finally Joseph came to the only possible conclusion; his father was in on the plot. Jacob had sent Joseph to find his brothers. Jacob must have known and approved Joseph’s sale into slavery!

For 21 years he believed that his family had thrown him out. Joseph had no need to contact his family. They didn’t love him or care for him at all. We, the readers know the full story but Joseph only knows that nobody at all came looking for him. Nobody cared.

Suddenly, in Judah’s speech, Joseph hears, for the first time, that Jacob believed that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Suddenly the whole picture changes. Of course Jacob loved Joseph. Of course he would have turned over every possible stone to find his lost son. But Jacob thought Joseph was torn apart by a lion or a bear. Jacob had buried what he thought was the remains of his son, so he never thought to go looking in Egypt or anywhere else. Joseph had jumped to a conclusion that was plain wrong, and quickly the tears well up in his eyes. “I am not dead, I am Joseph, does our father really still live?” In just a few sentences the family is reconciled and the hurts of the past are all forgotten. Jacob will die with ALL his sons around him. All is forgiven and all turns out to be a blessing.

I sometimes wish I could teach this lesson to everyone who comes to see me with a tale of a family broken by perceived slights and dishonor. Sometimes it is a parent who “dares” to remarry after the death of a spouse and the kids are unforgiving. Sometimes it is a parent who feels that the children don’t sufficiently honor the very parent who gave them life and raised them from an infant into the ungrateful adults they are today. Sometimes it is words spoken in anger that hurt so much, a family is torn asunder. Sometimes brothers and sisters just drift apart, neither one prepared to call the other to find out what went wrong.

I know, I really know. Family divisions run deep and are hard to heal. It is not for me to judge at all why there is a wedge between members of a family. I have heard the stories of the pain, the hurt, and the ungrateful slights. It is not for me to say that one side or the other is “really” at fault. Many times parents have said to me that if I had ungrateful kids like their children, I would write them out of my family too.

I also know, however, that families can be reconciled. And when they do reconcile, they often discover that, like Joseph, much of what they remember as painful, was not really true at all. And if it was, at one time, very hurtful, time can heal that wound and the love that draws us together seeks to reunite us with those who are estranged. When families are reconciled, they cry over the love that has returned, and they cry over the lost years, when they could have been close had they not wasted the time in what has turned out to be a petty feud.

Please don’t be mad at me if I ask you, as we rapidly approach the end of one secular year and the beginning of another, to try once more at reconciliation. It may not make a difference. There still may be too much pain and hurt to be reunited. I can’t promise that it will make everything better, but I feel that it is always worth it to try. Don’t think that I don’t understand what it means to extend a hand and have someone turn their back on you. I know that heartbreak. I know that hurt. But I also know that reconciliation often does not come easily but it is, in the end, always worth the time and effort. It may take a while to reunite a family, it may take years. It may take us to our dying day. We can’t and shouldn’t make ourselves crazy chasing after something impossible. In spite of all of this, I believe that it is important to remember, every day is a new day, and life is a long time. Reconciliation can come in a moment, in the blink of an eye. It is important that we should always be ready, to open our eyes, open our hearts and open our arms to the love we long for.

If Joseph can forgive his brothers, and he does forgive them for all that happened, we too must find our way to restore our family ties. Maybe something we will say in 2010 will be the key to unlocking the love that seems so far away and we too can be reconciled with parents, siblings and children.

My prayer, as we see the light of day once again push back the darkness of night, that we too will find our way through the darkness of anger and pain, and try once more to restore light to our lives and to the life of our family. May God bless us in the New Year with light, life and love as we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Stand By Me

Stand By Me
Sermon Saturday Morning
Parshat Miketz

Shabbat Shalom

This is the final day of Hanukah. While we still say Hallel, and Al HaNissim, we realize that the gifts are all given and the latkes and sufganiot are all eaten and tonight we will just put our Hanukiyot away for another year.

Hanukah is the festival of dedication. The time we remember how the Maccabees fought so hard to be able to live in their land, free to worship God as they pleased. They did not stop when they rededicated the Temple; they did not stop their war with the Syrian Greeks until they had liberated all of the cities of Israel.

We live in a different time. We live in a time when we have a State of Israel, a State that has been the center of our faith for over 60 years. I am sure that there are many people here who remember a time when there was no State of Israel. Israel is our modern miracle. There is now a special Al HaNissim, a special prayer that we recite on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, that is parallel to the Al HaNissim we say on Hanukah. The two miracles are thus linked through our modern commitment to a free Jewish State.

But how are we to show our dedication to Israel today? We may live in the United States but we understand that all Jews, all over the world, must stand with Israel. Israel is there for us and we must be there for her. Certainly there is no shortage of people in the world who would like nothing else but to see the Jewish State fail. So far, these enemies remain disappointed. Israel, even with all her problems, is an active democracy in a neighborhood of dictators and oppression.

So what must a Jew in Delray Beach; on Long Island, New York, or in Boston Mass. do to show our support for Israel? I think that there are five ways we can support Israel. In a perfect world, we would be responsible for all five equally, but given our different economic and personal health issues, we should at least try and do as many of these five as we can.

Far and away, the number one, most important thing we can do to support Israel and to show Israel that we stand by her side, is to go and visit Israel. I say this not only because we are offering a trip to Israel in April, but because I want everyone to know why I think such trips are important. During the first Intifada, when it seemed that every other day a bus was bombed in Jerusalem, a 48 hour trip to Israel was put together and I and many other rabbis from around the country went directly to Israel to show our support in those trying days. Many people asked me then why I would go to such a dangerous place like Israel. I would answer simply that for 2000 years other people told Jews that they were forbidden to visit Israel. Now that we have the freedom to visit, why should I let anyone scare me away? My ancestors would have risked their lives for just the possibility of visiting Israel. For them and for those who live in Israel, I visit as often as I can and encourage others to visit as well.

If we are not standing IN Israel, we should be standing up FOR Israel. Israel needs the support of the entire Jewish people. This is a political decision and we must not waver in our political support for our Jewish state. Our work for the United Jewish Communities, both the money we give and the rallies we attend show that wherever we stand, we stand with Israel. It is not a small thing. Notice when you attend such a rally, how local politicians take the time to come out and attend. The size of the crowd is important and our presence makes a statement about our support for Israel.

AIPAC is another organization that continually stands up for Israel. If you have never lobbied a Representative or a Senator in Congress, you can not know how important it is to let our Congressmen and women know, in person, that we care enough about Israel to walk the halls of the nation’s capital to speak up for the State of Israel. Between appropriation bills, bills that support the military and immigration to Israel, and those bills that condemn Israel’s enemies, lobbying Congress is a meaningful way to help our Representatives know the importance of a good national relationship between the United States and Israel. If you have never been to an AIPAC Policy Conference, I encourage you to attend. You will meet high level experts in foreign relations, have dinner with members of Congress and the diplomatic corp. and you will have the chance to visit our representatives in their own offices to speak to the issues that are important to the American/Israel relations. UJC and AIPAC are eight letters of the alphabet that spell important support for Israel.

The third way we can support Israel is to stand up for Pluralism in the Jewish State. I believe that if there is a danger to Israel, it will come from those religious fanatics who do not understand either the politics of living in the world today, or who are willing to send others into war to protect their own self interest. There are many Zionist organizations that work to make Israel a better society. I prefer over the secular or the religious parties, the party of pluralism and Conservative Judaism, Mercaz. I don’t know if you realize that in our synagogue lobby are the forms to become a member of this unique Jewish institution. Funds donated to Israel go through the Jewish Agency. The Jewish Agency is made up of representatives of all the official Zionist parties. Mercaz is one of these parties and the more representatives we have, the more money goes to projects promoting religious freedom and pluralism. Mercaz makes sure that all monies that go to Israel are distributed fairly to all Israelis, not just those in favored parties.

The Masorti Movement does the daily work to provide Masorti/Traditional Judaism to the citizens of Israel. Masorti is the Conservative Movement in Israel. It operates Masorti synagogues and institutions. It pays for rabbis the State refuses to pay; it provides care for Russian immigrants, food and clothing for the poor, Jewish education for children that is fair and balanced and egalitarian. It also provides a Jewish education for Jewish children with learning disabilities and physical disabilities. To see one of these children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a joy that bring tears to the eyes of all who understand the meaning of what religion is all about. When we travel to Israel, we will have the chance to see these Masorti institutions in action.

The next level of support for Israel is to support the growth of Israel. We need to help Israel invest in her future. That is role of Israel Bonds. Israel Bonds allows us to participate in the massive public works programs that bring electricity and roads to every part of the country. Along side of Israel Bonds is JNF, the Jewish National Fund. For almost 100 years JNF has developed the natural resources in Israel, especially the forests and the water supply. JNF not only plants the trees that have helped Israel push back the desert, the first country to ever reverse desertification, but it also provides the water used by almost every segment of Israeli society. Little wonder that here at Temple Emeth; we have special events to help raise money for both Israel Bonds and JNF where we also honor those who have helped Israel during the last six decades of growth.

The final level of support we can give to Israel is to support the People of Israel We can do this through our support of the Magen David Adom, the Red Magen David, and our support for the many universities of Israel. ARMDI supplies not only ambulances for Israel, but critical care clinics and they operate the country’s blood banks. Support for ARMDI is support for the health care of Israel.

Hebrew University, Haifa University, Bar Ilan University, Ben Gurion University and the Schechter Institute are important schools that provide the best education to the young men and women after they have finished their military service to the country. I know that there are many yeshivot in Israel that also ask us for money but I choose not to support those who do not support a pluralistic society in Israel. These large universities and the Schechter Institute, the Masorti Rabbinical School in Israel, reach out to all segments of Israeli society to provide the science, technology and the humanities that are the basis of modern civilization. They also all provide intense Jewish learning, with some of the greatest scholars of Bible, Talmud and Jewish History. When we support Israel’s great universities, we are supporting the future of Israel.

There is much we can do to show our support for Israel. With our money certainly, but with our time and with our hands and feet as well. While every dollar we give to Israel makes a difference, we make an even bigger difference when we put our whole selves into our support for Israel. I can only ask that you join me and the many other members of Temple Emeth to visit Israel this spring. The information is out in the lobby, read it, and if you are ready to go, ask in the office for a registration form and send it back with your deposit. Reserve your place on this mission of support for the land and people of Israel. If you can’t join us, then use one of these other paths; political support, support for a pluralistic society, support for Israel’s infrastructure and support for the people of Israel, to let our Jewish State know that we all stand by her side, in good times and in bad; so that Israel will be the light of our faith and of the faith of our children and grandchildren even to the fourth and fifth generation.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Part of the Plan

Sermon Saturday Morning

Parshat Vayeshev


Shabbat Shalom

Man Plans and God Laughs – It is a proverb that we think about almost every day. We plan our day, our time, so carefully and then God comes along and upsets all of our plans.

There is a famous story of the Baron Rothschild, before he became a Baron, when he was friends with the Archduke, the ruler of Austria. Rothschild was walking down the street when the carriage of the Archduke pulled up right next to him. The Archduke was thrilled to see his friend and asked him, “Rothschild, where are you going?” Rothschild thought for a moment and answered, “I don’t know”. The Archduke suddenly grew very angry, “I was going to offer you a ride in my carriage but for being so insolent, I am going to have my officers arrest you and throw you in jail!”

The next day, the Archduke cooled down and brought his friend up from the prison. “Rothschild” he said, “You really can’t talk to me like that. I know you are my friend, but if I ask you where you are going, you have to give me an answer.” Rothschild replied, “But, Your Highness, I gave you the most honest answer I could give. It is true that when I set out from my home I was planning on going to the market, but the moment your carriage pulled up beside me, I had no idea where I was going to end up. In fact, instead of the market, I ended up in jail! I gave you the only answer I could honestly give!”

In our Parsha, It seems that Joseph cannot open his mouth without saying something that will infuriate his brothers. From just a simple reading of the text we get a picture of a young boy who is acting like a spoiled brat. Tattling on his brothers, parading around in the coat their father gave him, and spouting off dreams of his family bowing before him. This is not a child looking for approval from his family. He is a spoiled brat, and because his father will not punish him, the brothers hate him even more.

Jacob had to know that Joseph was despised by his brothers. Joseph certainly knew that they hated him. That is why it is so surprising that Jacob sends Joseph off to check up on the brothers who are out tending to the sheep. We know right away that no good is going to come from this mission. In fact, we need only look back on what happened when two other brothers, one who hated the other, went out into the fields. It was there, far from home, that Cain killed his brother Abel. This is going to be a doomed mission.

There is a moment of relief, when Joseph goes to the appointed meeting place and his brothers are not there. Joseph spends some time searching the surrounding area but cannot find any trace of his brothers. A stranger finds Joseph wandering in the fields and asks him, “What are you looking for?” Joseph replies, “I am looking for my brothers.” The unnamed stranger then tells Joseph that he overheard the brothers discussing taking the flocks to Dotan. Joseph goes off to Dotan, to find his brothers and, we know, to meet his destiny.

Who is this stranger who meets Joseph in the field and sends him off to his brothers, to be sold into slavery and, eventually to be appointed to the second most powerful position in Egypt? Without this stranger, Joseph would go home, and say to his father, “Sorry dad, I looked for them but they were nowhere to be found.” And then Joseph would go and play with his baby brother. There would be no pit, no coat stained with blood, no slavery, no dreams and no Passover.

Later Rabbis, would look at this story and the stranger in the field, and realize, that this man must have been an angel, sent by God to nudge Joseph in the right direction so that the great plan of God would be fulfilled. After all, the Angels who visit Abraham were called “men” in the Torah. This “man” too must be on a divine mission to make sure that all of God’s plans were fulfilled.

Joseph himself says as much when he confronts his brothers in Egypt saying, “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” It was not you, my brothers who sent me to Egypt, it was God who sent me here to save Egypt and my family from the ravages of the famine. We plan, God laughs, and in the end, one way or another, we fulfill our part of God’s plan.

There is only one problem. If all of life is shaped by destiny, where does the element of Free Will come from? If my whole life is planed out by God, why then am I responsible for my actions? God determines if I will end up a leader or if I will end up in jail and nothing I can do will stop it. It is my destiny to be all that I am today.

Judaism, if anything, insists that we are all responsible for our actions. Our life is not predetermined. We get to choose what kind of a person we will be. If we are good, then we get the rewards that come from righteous living. If we are bad, we must suffer the consequences of our actions. But here too, it seems there is a bit of destiny. If we do evil deeds, we will eventually have to pay the price of those deeds. Even if I want to change, the consequences of my previous actions have already been set into motion.

It always amazes me that politicians and athletes seem to think that they can do whatever they want and the consequences of their actions will never catch up with them. They can take bribes, gamble on their own games, cheat on their spouse, spread rumors and lies about their opponents and they believe that nobody will ever catch on to what they are doing. In fact, all those around them are well aware of these illicit actions and it is only a matter of time until the entire web of lies comes crashing down. Nobody is really “too big to fail” and we are all just a decision away from the terrible consequences that come from this kind of foolish pride.

Is it really destiny that gets Joseph sold into slavery? Or is it his own prideful and boastful actions that insure his future will be as a slave in Egypt? Isaac was more loved than Ishmael and Ishmael got to the point where his playing with his younger brother became a problem, and Ishmael and his mother had to be sent away. Jacob and Esau have such a rivalry with their parents that it finally erupted into an almost murderous rage that forced Jacob to leave home to avoid the wrath of his brother. Joseph is only the latest in a long line of brothers who could not get along with his siblings to the point where his life was in danger. Given the way Joseph addressed his brothers, one can only imagine how long the brothers must have suffered until they decided that fateful day to attack Joseph.

And yet, it seems that Joseph has already grown up some and is seeing his brothers in a different way. If he had no need for them, why did he spend so much time searching for them? Why does he respond to the question of the stranger “I am looking for my brothers.”?

Perhaps this signals a change in his attitude towards his brothers. Perhaps, had he been given the chance to speak with them, he would have reconciled with them. But it is too late. The anger explodes before he can even get a word out. He is thrown into the pit and sold into slavery. The rest of the story is history. Maybe, if things were different, the story would have ended up the same. Perhaps the stranger in the field was a slave trader, who was ready to kidnap Joseph until he mentioned his brothers, and the stranger realized that there could be a lot of trouble if he kidnapped this boy. Maybe, if the stranger had not appeared and Joseph started off for home, the Midianite caravan would have found the young boy far from home and captured him and sold him to the Ishmaelites and Joseph would have ended up in Egypt anyway. Maybe he didn’t have to be a slave in Potifer’s household, perhaps Mrs. Potifer would have seen him in the market and made a pass at him, incurring the wrath of this officer in Egypt and he would have ended up in jail anyway. It is hard to know if there is only one path to a destiny.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter. The story of Joseph has the same ending; the saving of life, the migration of Jacob and family to Egypt, the slavery, Moses and the great redemption. Jacob and Joseph die at peace with the world, never knowing the even larger destiny that they were fulfilling.

We too cannot comprehend the mysterious circles that life has us travel. Each life is like a jigsaw puzzle that has to be assembled to see the full picture. Each day we have to give our best to this life. We need to make good choices, make good friends and extend our hand to those in need. Where it will all lead is a great mystery and we only know that by living a good life, we can, at least, enjoy the rewards of righteous living. The late songwriter Dan Fogelberg wrote these lyric in his song, “Part of the Plan”:

Love when you can
Cry when you have to...
Be who you must
That's a part of the plan
Await your arrival
With simple survival
And one day we'll all understand...(2X)

Today, we can only give the best that is in our hearts and souls. Who knows where tomorrow will take us. So we plan for our future and try hard to avoid the pitfalls of life. And yet, we face our future with confidence that everything, in the end will work out. That is our hope and that is our prayer, that is the foundation of our faith. But in the background of our mind, we remember, Man Plans and God Laughs.

We pray that our plans and God’s plans should always be as one and that we be blessed with faith, enough to help us get by when our plans diverge. As we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I’m Gonna Wait ‘till the Midnight Hour

Parshat Vayishlach


Shabbat Shalom

Last week, when Jacob left home, unsure what the future would bring, he had a restless night and dreamed of a ladder, a staircase to heaven, with Angels going up and down and he dreamed of a promise that God would be with him, watching over him and protecting him, from whatever the future might bring. It was that promise that propelled Jacob for the 21 years that he was exiled from his home. It helped him marry, raise up a family and amass a large fortune in sheep and goats. He has prospered at every turn and even his deceitful uncle Lavan, could not prevent Jacob’s success.

This week we find Jacob in a very different position. He is no longer alone and destitute. He has a large family and much wealth. He is coming home from exile. In fact, the very next day he will enter, for the first time in over two decades, the land promised to his grandfather Abraham, to his father Isaac and through the blessing of his father, the land that was divinely promised to Jacob. He should be happy. He should be feeling how good it is to be home. He should be anticipating seeing all the old familiar places.

He is not happy at all. The biggest stain in his life, the way he treated his brother, stands before him. Esau knows Jacob is returning. Esau is coming to see his brother after 21 years. Esau once promised to kill his brother on sight. Esau is traveling with 400 armed men. Jacob is terrified. He has no one to blame for this predicament but himself. He has grown so much, matured, become responsible; he has given up his deceptive ways. Unlike the way he left home, he is no longer alone. Will Esau slaughter Jacob’s family, his wives and sons? Will he steal all his flocks and herds? Once again, there will be no sleep for Jacob this night.

There will be no stairway to heaven; there will be no dream of angels. Tomorrow he will have to fight his stronger older brother. Clearly one of them will die. He divides his camp to save his family. He prays to God to deliver him from his brother’s hand. Jacob sends extravagant gifts to placate Esau. Is it enough? How can he know for sure?

So Jacob wrestles with an angel; a mysterious being that catches Jacob when he is alone in the night. It is a hard fought contest but Jacob prevails. He pins his opponent to the ground. The angel touches Jacob’s hip and the entire leg is wrenched from its socket. Jacob is in excruciating pain but hangs on. Desperate to be gone before the sun rises, the angel begs to be let go. And Jacob only lets him go after he gets a blessing from the angel and a new name. No longer “Jacob/the trickster”; he is now Israel, the man of God.

I think we clearly understand the emotions of Jacob that night so long ago. But what are we to learn from his struggle that night? What lesson is there for us in this wrestling match at midnight? I think that there are three lessons that we need to see in this story. They are the three lessons that Jacob limps away with in the morning light.

Our first lesson is that faith always comes with a struggle. Life is never easy. Motivational speaker, Brian Tracy tells a story about when he was first starting out in business. He traces his success at his first real job to the fact that he was constantly asking his boss to give him harder and harder tasks to perform. Each time he was successful in solving the problem, he came back to his boss and asked for a more difficult assignment. Eventually he was assigned to complete a rather complicated real estate transaction. He went to close the sale, but then discovered that the seller had failed to disclose important information. The land being sold had no access to water. None at all. Brian Tracy refused to close the sale and went back to his boss and returned the check to the company. From that moment on, he began to advance up the corporate ladder. It was the struggle to do the impossible that made Brian Tracy a success.

We think of problems as things that hold us back. For Jacob, he could not flee his past, he could only see the trouble that would come with the dawn. But his sojourn with Lavan had not only made him smarter and wiser, but he was physically stronger and more agile than he was when he only stayed home with his mother. The years in the fields, protecting the flocks from lions and wolves were not wasted years; they had made him a formidable match for his brother. The wrestling match proved it. He was stronger than he realized. Jacob was no longer the momma’s boy he once was so long ago. He is now a grown man, mature in body and mind. His reasons to fear his brother are out of date, a remnant of a different time in his life. He can face the dawn with confidence because Jacob is no longer the scrawny younger brother of Esau

Our second lesson is that we should not cry over what we have lost. If we have become wounded in our struggles in life, these wounds will not prevent us from rising again. Mitch Alboom, is his book, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” tells about how the main character, Eddie, was wounded in Vietnam escaping with some fellow prisoners from a prison camp. His wounded leg prevents him from going back to school, from getting a good job and the pain makes him miserable. After Eddie dies and on his way to heaven, Eddie meets his old commanding officer who tells him that Eddie was not wounded by the enemy, but that he was shot by the officer himself. If they would have delayed any longer, the escapees would have certainly all been captured and killed. Eddie had become distracted and unwilling to leave until he was sure there were no civilian casualties. The commander shot Eddie in the leg, put him on the truck and, with the other escapees, they fled the camp.

At the gate of the camp, however, their truck could not get past the closed gate. The officer goes to open it, steps on a landmine and dies. The officer gave his life so that Eddie and the others could escape. All these years Eddie was bitter over his wound never realizing that his commander gave his life so that they all could be saved. In spite of his wound, Eddie had fallen in love, raised a family and earned an honest living. All this had become possible because Eddie’s commander gave his life. We should not be bitter over the way we are wounded by life, but we should walk on thankful for the many blessings in our life. Jacob limps away from his struggle in the night, but he carries a new name, and we never hear another word about Jacob’s broken hip.

Finally, we learn from Jacob that we should never fear the dawn. Many times people come to see me weighed down by a mountain of problems that seem insurmountable. They just don’t see how they can ever move on. How can they climb the mountain alone? How can they move on in life when they are stuck in the dark, unable to get to the light beyond? They feel defeated and abandoned; alone and afraid. Every escape has been closed to them. The only thing to do is give up.

I often can’t solve their problem, but I do tell them that 1. They are not alone. There are friends who can help and God who is always present in their lives. And I tell them 2. That what looks like a mountain of trouble today, will, when they look back on it, see that it was an optical illusion. It was not a mountain of trouble; it was only a speed bump in life. If we face our troubles, like Jacob did, we find that things are almost never as bad as we think they are. Esau came with 400 armed men. Why? I just don’t know. When the two brothers meet, Esau is forgiving and kind. The fights of the past were long ago forgotten. It doesn’t matter anymore. Both brothers are successful and blessed. There no longer is any reason for them to be angry with each other. They go their own way in peace and will see each other again when the gather to bury their father in the family plot.

These three lessons: that the struggle in life is not a curse but a blessing; that we should not mourn what we have lost but be thankful for what we have; and that no matter how dark the night, the dawn always arrives and things turn out never to be as bad as we fear; are lessons we can take away from the story of our patriarch Jacob. I ask you all to reflect on your life history. How many times can we see how true these three lessons have been in the course of our lives?

Faith, Gratitude and Hope are the three lessons we learn from the story of Jacob’s life. They need to be the foundation of our lives as well. Where the winds of life will take us, only God knows. But how we handle our problems along the way, we have this story to help us through the dark stormy nights. We should not fear the darkness, but wait with faith, gratitude and hope for the dawn that will always come.

May these three blessings be the foundation of our life, may they be as important to us as they were to our patriarch Jacob. And may we emerge from our struggles in the night, stronger at the dawn of each new day.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Monday, November 23, 2009

I Am I Said

Sermon Saturday Morning
Parshat Toldot – 2009
Shabbat Shalom

“Who are you?” – The moment of truth. Jacob stands before his father and the dreaded question is asked. “Who are you?” It is a rare moment of high drama for the Bible. Isaac has stated his intention to give his blessing to his eldest son, Esau, but Rivka, Jacob’s wife, is determined that the blessing go to her favorite son, Jacob. After all, God promised her before the boys were born that “the elder will serve the younger”; now was the time to act. To Rivka, if Esau gets the blessing, then the oracle will not come true. She has to move quickly. She insists that Jacob impersonate his brother and get the blessing by deceiving his blind father. Jacob is reluctant. He is unsure what to do. He certainly feels he deserves the blessing and not Esau, but he hesitates. He can trick his brother and he can fool the neighbors, but should he play the trickster on his own father? Rivka, his mother, pleads with Jacob to impersonate Esau and finally Jacob goes along, perhaps hoping he will not be asked to lie to his father.

But it all comes down to this moment. The blind Isaac is unsure which son stands before him. Is it Esau or is Jacob playing another trick? So he asks the dreaded question. “Who are you?” It is, for Jacob, the pivotal moment; lie to his father or admit the ruse. The question cuts to the core of Jacob. Is he a liar or an honest man? Does he love his father or does he love the power of the blessing more? Is he his own man or does he blindly follow what his mother says? “Who are you?” Isaac demands. It is now all or nothing. Jacob decides…

“I am Esau, your first born”. He lies. He deceives his father, he insures the wrath of his older, stronger brother. He secures the blessing but the cost is far higher than he can know. He has identified himself as a con man, a deceiver, a trickster. One who will do anything to get his way. He will pay dearly for the deception. He will be exiled from his home, forced into exile without a penny to his name. He will be forced to confront his uncle, a man even more of a con artist than Jacob, and he will depend on Laban the deceiver for his every need. Jacob’s food, shelter and even the love of his life will depend on Jacob trusting his uncle; a confirmed liar and thief.

Later Rabbis will try and exonerate Jacob. They will say he really didn’t lie. That a righteous man like Jacob would never lie to his father. But the Text teaches us the truth. Even the great ancestor of the People of Israel had a moment of truth and he failed the test. For the rest of his life, Jacob will wrestle, literally at times, with the ghosts that will haunt him because of the question of his father, “Who are you?”

“Who are you?” That is not only a question to our patriarch Jacob. It is the question that all of us have to answer. More often than not, we will have to answer it many times. Are you an honest student or will you cheat on the test? Does your business follow ethical standards or will you cheat the unsuspecting customer? Will you be faithful to your spouse or will you let your desires rule your life? It often boils down to that first decision; how will we, like Jacob, act in the moment. “Who are you?” is the question, and almost every day we have to decide who we are and how we will answer that question.

We might think that something as simple as a name could help us identify ourselves, but according to our tradition, even a name is a complicated. The Torah teaches us that Adam, the first human being, was responsible for all the names of all the animals in the world. From that time on, names have never been easy. Jacob was given his name because from birth, he seemed to be trying to push ahead of his twin brother. It seems that Jacob is living up to his name; he is the trickster that his parents identified from birth.

There is a Midrash that teaches us, that every person has three names. There are three different ways that we are known in the world. First, there is the name that we are given at birth by our parents. It reflects the hopes and dreams they have for us at the moment we come into the world. It is likely that we were named after someone in the family that was very special to our parents. Our Ashkenazic tradition is that we are named after a deceased relative who had qualities that our parents wanted to instill in our lives. Sephardim honor living relatives by naming children after them in their lifetime. This name, however, tells us more about our parents than it says about us. If we are pondering the question “Who are you?” this name is not really very helpful. Understanding our parents is important and perhaps some of who we are can be traced to the way our parents raised us, but in the end, we are more than just the dreams of our parents.

The second name is the secret name that only God knows. It is the name that holds the essence of our soul. Many of you may know the story of how the soul comes to be placed in our body. According to the Sages, a soul is picked and is first sent to school to learn about what will happen in his or her life. We learn what work we will do and who we will fall in love with and marry. After this the Angel in charge teaches us the entire Torah, with all the commentaries, so that we will understand the importance of wisdom in our life. Then, in the moment before we are born, the Angel in charge strikes us on the lip and causes us to forget all that we have learned. The story says that this is why we have the indentation above our lip; it is the scar from where the Angel strikes us, and that the reason we are born crying, is because we are heartbroken to have forgotten all that we have learned.

We spend the rest our lives trying to restore all that we have forgotten. It is only the distant memory of what we once learned, the direction of our life, our love and our wisdom that keeps us striving for what we feel must be a deep truth about life. Just as an eraser cleans the page of its writing, but leaves behind the shadow of what was written, so too there is a faint memory of what we once knew before we were born; or as we might say in this age of computers, what was deleted, still leaves traces of what was once there in the computer’s memory. Unfortunately, we also forget the name that we have been assigned by God so if we are trying to answer the question, “Who are you?” this name will not be of much help to us.

The third name that we have is the name that we are known by to those who we meet along the path of our lives. Each time we touch the life of another, we leave a name behind. If we show that we are kind and caring, we will become known as one who is kind and caring. If we choose instead to be hard and cruel, that too will be the reputation that we leave behind. Some people spend their whole lives leaving in their wake only the memory that a selfish and self centered person was here. We can choose to make a difference; we can choose to give of our self, our time or of our resources to those whom we pass in life. If we do, then people will remember us when we are gone saying that once a generous and loving person was here. It is always our choice, we can be known as one who only loves his or her self, or one that is a mentch, a lover of all humanity. This is the name that we give ourselves. And it is the name we are remembered by long after we are gone.

One day, a mother of a young child had a visitor. An elderly woman came to talk about many different topics and told stories of her life. The young child listened in and was spellbound by the conversation between these two women. When the visitor left, the child said to her mother; “What a kind and gentle woman that was who visited us. If that is what it means to grow old, I will not mind growing old at all.” The mother smiled and watched as the visitor walked down the path, then she replied to the child, “If you want to be just like her, then I guess you had better get started. She does not impress me as someone who got that way overnight.”

We should, like our Patriarch Jacob, think about the question, “Who are you?” constantly. If we are unhappy with who we are, then it is important that we begin to change right away. A good name is not something that can be created in a moment. If we feel that we have not lived up to our potential, it is never too late to begin to change. Jacob made all the wrong choices early in his life, but as he grew, he learned that it is never too late to change. One night he wrestled with a divine being. Who that being was, we will never know, but Jacob emerged a changed man. He was wounded but he could walk proudly that he had overcome his past. He emerged with a new name, no longer “Jacob the trickster” but “Israel, the man of God”. His life was still hard and full of pain, but he would now be remembered as the father of a nation, and he would be surrounded by several generations of his family when he dies.

It is never too late to start working on a good name. Every time we find ourselves facing a difficult decision: we need to think of what our Parents would expect us to do; we must ask ourselves if we are living up to our Divine mandate; and we need to consider how it will affect our reputation, for better or for worse. We should, in every moment of decision, hear the words of our Patriarch Isaac, asking us over and over again, “Who are you?”

May we be blessed with good choices, good deeds and good friends, as we say….
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, November 22, 2009

You Are So Beautiful

Parshat Hayye Sarah
יב וַיֹּאמַר ה אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם הַקְרֵה-נָא לְפָנַי הַיּוֹם וַעֲשֵׂה-חֶסֶד עִם אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם. יג הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי נִצָּב עַל-עֵין הַמָּיִם וּבְנוֹת אַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר יֹצְאֹת לִשְׁאֹב מָיִם. יד וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי-נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה וְגַם-גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה אֹתָהּ הֹכַחְתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיִצְחָק וּבָהּ אֵדַע כִּי-עָשִׂיתָ חֶסֶד עִם-אֲדֹנִי.
And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘please, lower your jar that I may drink.’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ let her be the one whom You have decreed for your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that you have dealt graciously with my master.”

A. Then Yonatan said, “behold we will pass over to these men, and we will reveal ourselves to them. If they say to us; ‘tarry until we come to you’ then we will stand still in this place and not go up to them. But if they say ‘Come up to us’ then we will go up for the Lord has delivered them into our hand. And this will be a sign for us. [I Samuel 14:8-10]

B. The plea of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant poses a problem. There is surely a self-contradiction in him praying to God to engineer a coincidence. This is the literal rendering of his plea which may be translated as “cause to chance before me today.” [N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit/Genesis p.239]

C. He did not make this a sign whereby he might recognize Isaac’s destined wife, because that would be divination, rather he prayed that it might fall out so; and so it was with Jonathan the son of Saul …If the individual says it not as a prayer, but as divination, i.e. “If thus and thus happens then I shall do this” then he is guilty of divination. [Sforno on Gen. 24:14]

D. The Servant prays for success in his mission, thanks God when success seems imminent, but the motif-word that recurs rather strangely in his prayers is the word “hesed” (love). … The importance of what Rebecca will mean to the family is intimated here. For there is, after all, a tragic residue of the Akedah in Abraham’s family. The darkening of Sarah’s light is one manifestation. But even in Abraham’s case – what can it have meant to him to undergo the test, and then, simply, silently, have Isaac restored to him? … God says not a word to Abraham after the command to sacrifice his son. He restores his son but Abraham never knows the reason for his experience. … Implicit in the servant’s prayers is the need to see a manifest indication of God’s hesed to Abraham. His main criterion for the rightness of Rebecca’s election is that he will sense in her the hesed that, since the Akedah, has been lacking from his master’s experience. [A Zornberg, Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, p.140]

E. The test to determine what girl is the right one for Isaac was recognized by the rabbis long ago as being ghastly inappropriate. “What if the woman who watered the servant’s camels had been a slave or a prostitute?” they ask in horror. Yet the foolish servant blithely goes his merry way and is guarded by God against error. Further, the servant dangles images of riches before the eyes of the girl’s family, rather than the sterling qualities of character one might have hoped for. It makes me wonder about Isaac. [B. Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics p.126]

1. This is one of the longest narratives of the Torah. What are we being taught to do when faced with an important decision?

2. Is Rebecca chosen by character, fate, luck or divine will?

3. Is this story high drama or comedy? Why?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Teach your Children

Teach your Children
Sermon Parshat Vayera

Shabbat Shalom

The singers, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, sing a song with these lyrics

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well,Their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
Can't know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.
Teach your parents well,
Their children's hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

The struggle between Parents and Children is as old as the history of human beings. When our children are born we have such high hopes about who they will be and what they will accomplish. We want our children to have all that we did not have and to become all that we could not be. We want them to have the benefit of the wisdom we gained throughout our lives, from the trial and error and the hard won lessons we learned in life. This will be our legacy to our children.

But I don’t have to tell you that it doesn’t work that way. We find we can’t prevent our children from repeating the mistakes we made in our lives. The hard won lessons we discover they have to also learn for themselves. As they grow we discover that they don’t want the same things we want for them. They have a path to travel and we have to sometimes, stand aside and let them travel it alone. It is very hard to raise children; it is a task that never ends.

Abraham and Isaac set out on a similar journey. Abraham will take Isaac to the place that God has shown the father. And there, the son will become a sacrifice. Isaac carries the wood and the firestone. And, in what will turn out to be the last time the two of them have a conversation, Isaac asks where the lamb for the offering is. Abraham only gives him the vague answer, “God will provide the lamb”.

Modern commentators of the Bible can’t stand this story of the Binding of Isaac. How can a father raise a knife to his son? What was Abraham thinking? Why doesn’t he protest the command of God as he protested the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? What must Isaac be thinking, silent Isaac, as he draws near to the place of sacrifice and begins to realize that he, Isaac will be the lamb?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, as a young man cried when he read this story. His teacher asked, “Why are you crying? You know the angel will come and save Isaac.” The young scholar replied, “but what if the Angel had arrived a second too late? What would have happened to poor Isaac?” The rabbi comforted him and calmed him by telling him that an angel cannot come late.” Heschel replied, “An angel cannot be late, but a human, made of flesh and blood, may be.”

This story can only have a bad ending. Isaac may survive God’s test of Abraham, but both father and son must leave with an unsettled soul. Abraham shaking that he could have raised a knife to his son. Isaac doomed never to forget the image of his father raising the knife. Abraham comes down off the mountain. There is no mention of Isaac. Perhaps Isaac needed some time alone. Perhaps Isaac realized that he would now have to go his own way.

What is it we are supposed to learn from this story? That God does not want us to sacrifice our children? If so, then just tell the patriarch, don’t have him destroy his relationship with his son by raising the knife. We can even make the case that this not only causes a breach between Isaac and Abraham, but it will bring about the death of Sarah as well. To make a point, the entire family will be destroyed? Abraham will lose his son and his wife. No, there must be a different lesson for us here.

Abraham and Isaac have much that they must still teach each other. Abraham will have to go on in life, without his beloved Sarah, but will still have meaningful relationships and will play with his twin grandchildren. Isaac will teach his father that reconciliation is always possible and in the end, Abraham’s two children, Isaac and Ishmael, will mend the rift in the family and both will be there to bury their father.

We too sometimes carry our resentments about our children with us, letting them drive a wedge in our relationship. Our children don’t often seem to understand the sacrifices we make on their behalf. Just when we think they will appreciate all that we have done for them, they go off on their own, make, what we think are terrible mistakes in their lives and they never really understand who we are. We had dreams for them and they just don’t seem to care. We were prepared to sacrifice everything for them and they will not sacrifice one small part of their lives for us. Such ingratitude. In our anger and frustration we wall them out of our hearts.

If I were to ask the children, the story would be a different path to the same ending. It is not that they don’t appreciate parents, but that parents just can’t let them go so they can find their own way in the world. Everything they do is not enough for the parents. The child grows up but, then realizes that in his parent’s eyes, he will always be a little boy, in need of a parent to help him navigate the world. The child has dreams but the parent does not really seem to care. They work so hard so that parents will appreciate their accomplishments and be proud of the child. But there is only disappointment. “You could have done better, you could have chosen better, you could have been better if only you would have listened to me.” So in anger and frustration they wall their parents out of their hearts.

I stood at the grave of an elderly woman, whose three grown sons gave her just the bare minimum honor a child must do for a parent. The pain between mother and sons was just too great. They did only what a son should do for his mother and no more. They had nothing left in their hearts for her. But the grandson was different. He stayed behind after the funeral and talked to me. He was angry. How could his father be so cruel to a grandmother who was always there for her grandson? How could his father not love this wonderful woman? How could he not see how loving, caring and kind she was? It is not fair Rabbi, it is not fair!

I looked at this angry grandson and said. “ I do not know what pain divided your father from his mother. I don’t know what turned his heart cold to her. But this I do know. You need to have a talk with your father. You need to ask him why he and his brothers were so estranged from their mother. You need to know the answer and you need to know it now. Because if you don’t, someday you will do for your father what he did for his mother, and your children will stand by the grave after you leave and say to the Rabbi “It is not fair!!”

At the end of Abraham’s life, he sees his son married. He finds some happiness with another wife, who takes care of him in his old age. And he lives to see Isaac pass on the spiritual heritage that Abraham has worked so hard to build. Isaac will repeat some of the mistakes of his father. But, in next week’s parsha, when Isaac digs again the wells that Abraham first dug, Isaac will come to understand his father better, and he will forgive him.

We must never give up on our children. We must work hard not to close our hearts to them out of anger and frustration. Their path in life will be as hard and difficult as our path has been. From time to time they will come and ask us how we navigated some of the trickiest parts of life. Sometimes they will follow our advice and sometimes they will make their own mistakes, and learn about life the hard way. I often tell children to at least get advice from their parents as part of their decision making process. But I tell the parents that while we may give advice, we must not be angry if they choose a different path. It is not a rejection of the parent, but just another attempt to find their way through a rough spot in their lives.

So don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry. So just look at them and sigh. And just know that they love you.

May we always find room in our hearts to love our children no matter how they live their lives, and may they always find room in their hearts to know how much we love them. As we say….. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 6, 2009

You are Everything and Everything is You

You are Everything and Everything is You
Parshat Noach

Shabbat Shalom

While the narrative of Noah and the flood takes up the larger part of our Parsha this week, there are another nine pasukim/verses that also get a fair amount of play in Judaism. The story of the Tower of Babel may be short, but it has long been the source of much interest. Not because it tries to explain why people speak different languages. Rather because of the way the people of Babel relate to God.

The story tells us that the reason the tower is to be built up to heaven is so the rest of the world will know just how great the people of Babel are. The Midrash goes on to tell us that they wanted to make their name great by using the tower to attack God in heaven. I think most of us are not surprised by this. We know all about this kind of thinking even today. The project starts out with a good intentions, but is co-opted by those who bring to the table their own personal agenda. Perhaps the people of Babel only wanted to build the tower to feel closer to God. But as the tower grows, so grows their pride and their egos. They come to believe that they don’t only want to be near God, they want to conquer God, they want to “BE” God.

Isn’t it just like human beings. We start off with lofty goals but soon our “human nature” takes over and we let our good intentions get hijacked by what is easier, and what makes us look better to others.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, Tells a story of a King who is a master of illusions. He loves his people very much and he wants them to love him as well. So he builds a great castle illusion. It is filled will illusory walls and room, with illusory doors and halls. The illusory castle is set up like a giant maze in which the people can wander for days. Then, in front of every door and in every corridor, the kind places illusory bags of treasure. Treasure like gold and money, Hawaiian vacations and beautiful bodies. Then the King declares in a proclamation that the people should come to the castle and seek to find the King.

The people all flock to the castle and begin to search high and low for the King. But the longer they search, the more they get distracted by the treasure. One by one the people take the illusory treasure and stop looking for the King. Finally the King’s daughter arrives and sees that it is all an illusion and the King is, in reality, sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty field.

This story sounds a little like the Tower of Babel story. All the good intentions are derailed by the illusory treasure. I like to think that the metaphor of both stories is the same. The Castle and the Tower are the world in which we live, The King is God who wants us to discover how close to us the divine can be. And we, the people get distracted by the illusory treasure of the world and fail to see what is real and right in front of our eyes. Is it any wonder God confuses the language of people to help them see how illusory their desires really are?

I don’t know, maybe the idea that the world is really just an illusion is unsettling to many people. We like to think that we know what is “really real” and what is just an illusion. Judaism teaches us that the world is not always what we think it is. In our faith a strong man is not one with bulging muscles, but one who can control his evil impulses. In our faith a rich woman is not one with lots of money, but the woman who is content with what she already has. In our religion, if you want to be honored, you make sure you honor everyone else and if you want to be wise, you have to learn from everyone else. Things in this world are not always what they seem.

But the real essence of the illusion is not that we chase after what is not real but in the fact that we can’t see what is real, that God is not far away, but close by, perhaps right in front of our face. We are created in the image of God. We are not separate from God, but we are filled with God. The only things that separate us from the divine are our own wants and desires. If we can channel what we want to reflect the divine within us, we can make the presence of God more real in the world.

The Tower of Babel teaches us that when we go out to fight against God, when we live our lives with the idea that every person acts only out of his or her own self interest, then we will create a babel of a society and do nothing to bring God into the world. On the other hand, if we act to make life better for others, to help unify humanity and promote peace between people and nations, we reveal the presence of God in the world.

This is why the story of the Tower of Babel is followed immediately by the genealogy that leads us to the birth of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is the son of the King in our story. The first Jew stands in for all Jews. We all have the potential to be the son of the King and see through the illusion. Abraham did it when he lived his life, not as he wanted to, but as God directed him. By following God’s directions we will see Abraham will win three great blessings. His family will be protected from Danger. He will become wealthy and he will be the founder of a great nation. By not fighting God, by following God’s call, Abraham gets all he wants and more.

And so can we. On Yom Kippur I put out a call for what I am calling the Heneni Initiative. That we need to rise above the illusions that surround us and see clearly how we can make a difference in the world. In this manner we can bring into focus the fact that God is in plain view, in all our daily actions. When we become a part of people helping other people in need. When we join other people in making a difference in the world. When we stand up with others for what is right and just. We are making visible the presence of God in the world.

We are hoping to initiate the Heneni Initiative with three important causes. First of all we are forming a group to advocate for Israel, our homeland and the center of Jewish life. God knows there seem to be an endless supply of people who are Israel detractors, and I am not referring to Jews who lovingly criticize Israel, but those who question Israel’s basic right to exist. When other nations of the world condemn Israel, we need to speak up on her behalf; to the American public, to American politicians and to the world. It is important work and we are looking for those who think that this will be their cause, and help us get the word out, to our community and to reasonable people everywhere.

The second group we are forming is on behalf of Darfur. The human cost of the war that keeps the people of Darfur hungry and the killing by terror and famine are a cause that should move all of us to end humanities latest example of Genocide. Small actions on our part can make a huge difference in easing the suffering of the people of the Darful region of Sudan. We are talking about medicine, solar stoves and basic supplies. A little bit can go a long way and much suffering can be eased, all we are looking for are a few caring souls to help us all find our way to honor God through our work with those who suffer.

And the third group we would like to organize is to help feed the hungry right here at home. That one of the richest, strongest nations in the world has people who go to bed hungry at night is one of the great stains on democracy. We already collect food for the hungry in our Lobby every day. Every time we place a sandwich into the hand of a hungry man or woman, we can see the face of God. It is really that simple. We are looking for people who will help us feed others and who will guide our community in this holy work.

These three projects are just the first that will make up this Heneni Initiative. What other projects can there be? That depends on each of us and what will motivate us to see beyond the illusions in our life and what will help us discover our connection to God. I can’t call everyone up and make a personal plea to get involved. We all have to take the initiative and be like Abraham who followed God’s call and like Isaiah, who said “Heneni”, “Here I am, send me!”

Life can seem like just a noisy babble when we all just go our own way and ignore the presence of God before us. But when we act together to strengthen each other and bring order to the world, we can sanctify our lives and build a more holy world. Abraham and Sarah did it and they changed the course of human history. We can too, and through our actions bring God into our lives.

May we find God, in our hearts, in our deeds and in a folding chair right in front of our eyes.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yump a Dum

Parshat Berayshit
א( בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.
When God began to create the Heaven and the Earth

A. For the passage does not come to teach us the order of the acts of creation, to say that heaven and earth came first... You must admit (based on his extensive language comparison of similar texts) that Scripture does not teach us anything about the order of the earlier or later acts of creation. [Rashi on Gen. 1:1 ]

B. Why are et and v’et needed? Nachum Ish Gamzu expounded: “If shemayim v’aretz alone were stated I might have said that shamayim and v’aretz were the names of the Holy One blessed be He, but et hashamayim v’et haaretz indicates that each is a created entity in itself. [Torah Temimah on Gen. 1:1]

C. The opening chapters of Genesis are not a scientific account of the origins of the universe. The Torah is a book of morality not cosmology. Its overriding concern, from the first verse to the last is our relationship to God, truth about life rather than scientific truths. It describes the world God fashioned as “good,” a statement no scientific account can make. [Harold Kushner, commentary on Genesis in Etz Hayim p.3]

D. As Rambam notes, even after reading how the world and its central character, Man, came into being, we still do not understand the secret or even the process of Creation. Rather, the work of Creation is a deep mystery that can be comprehended only through the tradition transmitted by God to Moses, and those who are privileged to be entrusted with this hidden knowledge are not permitted to reveal it. [The Humash, The Stone Edition, commentary on Genesis Chapter 1 p.2]

E. Smoothly, powerfully, and seamlessly, the text … produces several theological meanings: that Elohim alone, “at the beginning” created a good ordered world; that He “separated” and hierarchically ordered the primordial mass into a “good” pattern; that the created world of nature is, as a result, a harmony; and that Elohim is omnipotent and without rival. The clarity of this account … seems to leave no room for the existential sense of “mystery in general” … and yet, Rashi, … begins … with the words, “This text is nothing if not mysterious” … what emerges from Rashi’s provocative statement is a sense of the gaps, the unexplained, the need to examine and reexamine the apparently lucid text, with its account of a harmonious, coherent cosmology. There is a tension between the benevolent clarity and power of the narrative and the acknowledgment of mystery that inheres in the very first word and that develops as the implications of the beginning are realized. [Aviva Zornberg, Genesis, the Beginning of Desire p.3]

1. Is the Torah’s account of Creation true?

2. Why does the Torah begin with the account of creation? Where else could it have started? What is the creation text trying to teach us?

3. Some say that we should translate all that God creates as proper nouns, names, not of things in nature, but the names of Pagan gods. How would this change the way we understand this text? What would be the reason for the creation story?

4. What does the text teach us about evolution and the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe? Is there a literal translation of this text that really does contradict science, or are the “creationists” misreading the text? Is this a deliberate misreading or is there some other reason for their interpretation?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Only The Beginning

Installation speech
I do want to begin by thanking some very special people. I first of all, want to thank Bernie Morwitz and the installation committee, as well as the hospitality committee for making this day so special. I also need to thank the officers, board members and staff of Temple Emeth for their warm welcome and their ongoing advice and support. And most of all I want to thank all of you, the members of Temple Emeth for allowing me to be a part of this wonderful family.

It is necessary to mention how interconnected we all are to the larger Jewish World. The road that brought me here began with two very special teachers, Rabbi Mark Loeb of Baltimore, who passed away suddenly just last week, and Professor Richard Freedman of the University of GA in Athens. They took the time to teach a group of USYers at Camp Blue Star and I was honored to be in that group. That week of learning with them began a line of thinking that led me to Rabbinical School and ultimately to this congregation. I am proud to be an alumnus of Florida Atlantic University as well as the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) and the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York. My teachers and Rabbis at these institutions gave me the tools that I use every day as a Conservative Rabbi. I want to thank also those congregations where I have served in the past. Beth Torah of North Miami Beach, Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens, The Sunrise Jewish Center, Temple Sinai in Hollywood, Florida and Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, MN. I was their teacher, but they also taught me valuable lessons that helped my Rabbinate mature. I also thank my colleagues at the Rabbinical Assembly for helping me each day as a Rabbi, for connecting me to my colleagues all over the world, and for their assistance in the search that brought me to Delray Beach.

We are beginning a new era in the history of Temple Emeth. As we all know, beginnings are hard. According to the laws of Physics, things at rest tend to remain at rest until acted on by another force. There are those who say that Conservative Judaism has been at rest for far too long. We were once the largest Jewish denomination in this country, now, the demographers tell us we are shrinking and aging. If this is true, then it is not because we no longer have anything important to say to the American Jewish community. There is a great deal that is important in our Movement and though it may seem to require a great force to get us moving, together, we can create a meaningful religious experience that will have a profound effect on each of us, our community, our country and on the Jewish People.

I have to tell you, it has been most impressive to me what Temple Emeth accomplishes every day. Our building is a hub of activity from early in the morning until late in the afternoon. The planning of events, classes, and activities is only exceeded by those who are working hard to make these programs happen. We cook, set up, advertise, sell tickets and arrange seating before the event even begins. Our parking lot is often full with members and guests arriving for programs and seminars, dances and shows. We truly are one of the important centers here in Delray Beach.

But the Sun Sentinel, just a couple of weeks ago, in a front page story, reveals how our community is changing. Jews, who once came to South Florida to live in the vast condominium complexes here, now choose to live in single family homes in large gated communities. Jews who once came to synagogue for social and communal events now center their social activities around a vast array of entertainment centers. At any given moment there are hundreds of restaurants, dozens of movies and a variety of shows all over South Palm Beach County. But why leave home? The internet brings us movies, education and information with the click of a mouse. Cable Television has hundreds of channels addressing every imaginable interest a person may have. All of us remember when Jews were excluded from communal life. Today, there is hardly a place that would turn any paying customer away.

That leaves us, Temple Emeth, and all synagogues, as quaint vestiges of a past life, when shul was the place to meet friends, make business contacts, and learn about the many facets of Jewish life. I know that there are many here at Temple Emeth who are put off by computers and the internet. But I suspect that there are far more technologically savvy seniors in our congregation who use the internet to stay in touch with children and grandchildren, reading their email, seeing their faces on Skype and sharing pictures on Facebook. Like it or not, computers and instant messages are the way the world communicates.

My grandparents lived in a small apartment where we grandchildren could visit and enjoy the best Jewish cooking and hear stories of how they came to this country. Most of my friends here at Temple Emeth prefer to eat out for dinner, work out at the clubhouse gym and go out bargain hunting at the Flea Market and Mall. It is a very active life my grandparents would not recognize. But today’s new seniors are even more active. Forget golf and tennis, they go skiing in Colorado, they fly to New York to visit their grandchildren, book their own travel on their computers and stay in touch with the family with cell phones and Facebook. When they go on a cruise, it is not to sit on the deck and watch the scenery; they are kayaking down rivers, climbing through mountain caves and diving on tropical coral reefs. I have yet to see a Synagogue sponsor a dive trip either to the Florida Keys or to the magnificent coral reefs of Israel and the Red Sea.

And that tells us how far we have to go. We need a strong presence on the Internet, both with a website to show how much fun we have here at Temple Emeth, and on Facebook where we can stay in touch with our members and reach out to the larger community. I know, there is a lot of garbage on the Internet, but we need to have a presence that stands up and above the rest of the noise. As my daughter often says, “If we don’t have a web presence, we don’t really exist.” Last week our IT committee met and we began to chart a new course in the frontier of cyberspace.

Our programming is top notch when it comes to seniors over the age of 70. Our activities are the envy of synagogues across the country. But when it comes to those under 70, the newly retired and the empty nesters, our calendar of activities are all but empty. We hardly address their concerns about retirement investing, finding spiritual meaning in life and providing entrances into serious Jewish learning. At a time when their life is changing rapidly, their children have moved out, they have a successful business and are at the top of their field; we find them asking questions about the meaning of their life and how they can make a difference in the world. Many 50 and 60 year olds today have spiritual questions and they look to their Judaism to help them find the answers. We will need to address these needs.

Behind them are the 40 year olds. They are not looking forward yet to retirement. Believe it or not, they are the parents of pre-school children! They will not be empty nesters when they are in their 50’s. They will be taking their teenagers to football practice and to driving lessons. They will be paying for College and Graduate school in their 60’s and only thinking about retirement as they approach 70! Temple Emeth has many seniors over 70 who have been retired now 20 years. Imagine if you were just starting retirement now! For a synagogue, looking to its future, the next 30 years are going to be unlike anything we have ever seen.

In just 30 years, Judaism will enter the year 5800. What will life be like 30 years from now? If I knew, I would be telling you which stocks to pick to make yourself rich. I only know for sure that the world is still changing, and that Judaism, as an island of tradition and a force for meaning, will still be here. I know that because we at Temple Emeth will enter that future prepared to give it our best.

It has been the long range vision of the leadership here at Temple Emeth that has brought these issues forward to debate and to ponder the future of our congregation. It is also the vision that has brought me to this community. To reinforce the extraordinary programs we continue to offer, and to create new ways to reach the next generation of Jews. I don’t know if the future will be easy or difficult, I only know that together we will face that future so that the Judaism that we know and love will be the faith that future generations will know and love as well. We enjoy this building, our services and our classes because those who came before us built Temple Emeth on a sure foundation of Jewish tradition and modern sensibilities. It will be here for future generations if we take the time to build for them as our ancestors built for us. Synagogues should not be dying, Jews should be clamoring to join. The future should not be about or fear of change, but we should look to the future as a place where our accomplishments will be the foundation upon which the next generation will build a Judaism for the 21st century and beyond.

So let me conclude with one final thank you. I want to make sure that before this program ends, I thank God, who has kept me in this life, educated and sustained me, and brought me to this extraordinary community called Temple Emeth. Shehechiyanu, Amen

Monday, October 12, 2009

School Days

Shemini Atzeret 2009

Hag Sameach

Do you know what a “master class” is? It is not a college course for an advanced degree. It is a seminar, or a series of seminars that are designed for those who are already at the top of their field; artists or musicians, doctors or lawyers, teachers or businessmen and women. A master class is for all those who have excelled in their field and want to expand their knowledge beyond the conventional.

Teachers from the pinnacle of the field, the most innovative and respected; offer these master classes to those who would wish to follow in their footsteps. The assumption of the class is that all the students have already mastered the basics of their field. They have already succeeded in the normal sense of the word. A master class will not go over the basics, proficiency in the topic is assumed by all who are in the class. The teacher will show the students how to raise their skills even higher; to become artists in one’s chosen field, with all the creative and innovative talent implied.

Rabbi Bradley Artson, the Dean of the Rabbinical School at American Jewish University, recently wrote that we all should think about our life as a master class. This does not mean that we are exempt from the basics. In Judaism, this means we need to learn Torah and History, Hebrew and philosophy, Prayer and Mitzvot. These are the basics that are assumed in our master class. If we need work in these basic areas, we should not let the year go by without finding the proper seminars to help us gain proficiency in the areas that make up the foundation of our religion and our faith.

But if we are already beyond the basics, there are still important lessons to be learned. The first lesson is that real learning comes not from just reading or hearing the words of a teacher, but in encountering and engaging our teacher. To hear the passion in the voice, the authenticity in the lessons and to open our hearts to the truth that underlies the lessons. The deepest lessons in life do not come from following in the footsteps of a master teacher, but in creating new lessons from the experiences in your own life. What is it that we can bring into our life that no one else can bring? We can not be clones of our teacher, but we use their wisdom to make our lives a life without precedent. My teachers would constantly remind us that we should not despair that the great teachers of Torah and Talmud lived in previous generations. We should not be concerned that compared to their genius, they were giants and we are but dwarfs. My teachers in rabbinical school taught us that there is a way for a dwarf to see beyond the vision of a giant. The dwarf need only stand on the giant’s shoulders. So too we who do not see ourselves as intellectual equals of the Sages of long ago, we can see beyond their horizon if we but stand on their shoulders and build our vision upon theirs.

The next level, in the master class of life, teaches us that with learning and living comes great responsibility. We can’t live our lives only for ourselves; we need to open our hearts to others. Will we stand in prayer and only pray that God forgives our sins? Or will we also pray fervently for God to forgive the sins of others who are in need of forgiveness? There is a story of Rabbi Meir who was being harassed by a gang of hoodlums. He prayed that they should die. It didn’t help. His wife, who was so much wiser said, “Pray instead that they should repent.” Rabbi Meir did pray on their behalf and they did repent. We need to rise beyond our own needs and pray for the welfare of others. Our future is always tied to the future of others. We don’t label the “others” in life; we do all we can do to help to bring their lives to a higher level with us.

Finally, we live in an age where it seems that religious people are being asked to submit to the will of God. We are told that true religious people negate their own needs and submit to what they think God is asking of them. Every detail of the law is exceedingly important. Anyone who violates a single precept is an infidel, an apostate or worse. Obedience is the prime directive. But those who aspire to a deeper understanding of life know that life is fluid and opportunity is everywhere. We use our Judaism to paint with a multicolored pallet so that all the majesty and splendor of life will become apparent. There are passages in the Torah and in the Bible that do not make us proud. We like to think of the Torah as a document of love and understanding. Sometimes, however, Torah is not so loving. It has passages that tell us to hate people, and to kill those who do not agree with us. Are we required to teach such verses because they are in the Torah or are we prepared to refuse to teach them, to refuse to further spread their message of hate and intolerance? We must not justify what is hateful just because we think this is the word of God. We must use every tool we can find to turn that hatred into new ways to love each other.

The theory of life as a Master Class is beautiful and inspiring. But who will be the teacher who can give us such gifts? I would venture to say that we already know such teachers in our lives. They are the ones who came before us and gave us, through their words and deeds the very essence of who we are today. These are the people who we remember this day, at this hour of Yizkor.

Perhaps some of us here today are here out of a sense of duty. That after all, these were our parents, our loved ones, and we carry the Jewish obligation to pray at Yizkor in their memory. I understand that sense of duty and I share with you your devotion to the performance of this sacred responsibility. But there are other important reasons to be here this morning, at this hour of memory. This day can be our testimony, our monument, to the faith and meaning our loved ones brought into our lives. Through the lessons we learned at their sides, as well as the lessons we learned when we examined their lives, our lives are richer, deeper and better.

We have a choice at this junction in our lives. We can remember what we have lost and be sad, or we can recall what we have learned and be grateful and maybe even a little happy that the ones we remember today passed through this life and were our mentors and master teachers.

Poet David Harkins in his poem “Remember Me” penned these words:
You can shed tears that he is gone, or you can smile because he has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back, or you can open our eyes and see all that she has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see him, or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live for yesterday, or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she’s gone, or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back, or you can do what he’d want, smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

Life is a Master Class and some of our greatest teachers were those who shared with us precious time from the short number of years we are all allotted. Maybe we now have new teachers who continue to guide us through the many shoals of life. But it is those we remember today who are the teachers that first took us beyond the level of basics and fundamentals. They showed us how to really use the sacred time of life so that we could not only live a life of blessing but showed us how we can pass those blessings on to those who will remain when it is our time to go.

This is the ultimate honor we can give our beloved dead. Not to merely pass on the lessons we learned at their side, but to take those lessons and, with an artist’s loving hand, embellish it, color it and beautify it through our own life experiences so that our lives too will testify to a life lived with love of self, love of others and love of God.

May the examples of those we remember today be a blessing to us. May their lives serve as an example in our own lives. May our examination of their lives help us to examine and refine our own lives. And may their teachings serve as the foundation to the Torah that we are writing with the deeds we perform each day. May the memories we honor today help lead us to serve, as they served, our God with faith and with Love.

Amen and Hag Sameach.