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b'shalom rav - rabbi ron shulman's sermons 2021-22 | 5782

Rabbi Ron Shulman's High Holy Day Sermons from 2021 are posted below his more recent sermons.

moral sickness

Shabbat Beha’alotekha | May 28, 2022
 

 

 
Our country is morally sick. Our society ailing.
 
The symptoms are all too evident and widespread. We are numbed by violence and murder, incivility and lying, division and derision, hatred and racism, illness and inequity.
 
Too often our political leaders seem unable to act responsibly and where necessary to discuss, debate, and decide to do anything at all about almost everything. Which we seemingly accept by re-electing most of them over and over. Partisans on all sides mouth the same stale and empty talking points after every next tragedy. It’s all so predictable and pointless.
 
Our country is morally sick. Our society ailing.
 
As a religious community, we demand moral accountability. Our role is to motivate the goodness and ethics our society needs most because young children enjoying a day at school can’t be victims. They’re too innocent, too sweet, and too pure.
 
In response to the horrible event in Uvalde, Texas, the latest horror for which we all grieve, we scream. This? Again? The mayhem, weapons, and emotional instability are too much. The grief is too profound.
 
Disillusioned, even despairing, we recite the Psalm. “Out of the depths, we call You, Eternal God. Listen to us cry.”
 
Our hearts ache for the victims, for their community, and for our society. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi teaches. “If one does not have a broken and contrite heart, one cannot be said to have a heart at all.”
 
It’s senseless as it’s so sad. We hope this is the last time. We know it is not. We hope there can be comfort. We know it won’t come easily. We hope we are better than this. We know we have to be. The violence is too much. The sorrow too painful.
 
We must respond. Of soul and conscience, you and I can counter evil when we encounter it. We can be good when others are not. We can model decency where it is lacking.
 
If our country is morally sick, the remedy is personal resolve. Care and compassion. Honesty and integrity. Generosity and activity on behalf of others, by whatever means we can. And spiritually. By living the ideals of our personal ethics. By embracing moments of mitzvah, of connection, of faith, of hope, and of love. We have to live the values we believe in, and let those ideals be more important to us, and to the world, then all that may hurt us.
 
Parents ask me how to respond. What should we tell our children? My first answer is hug your children close. Assure them they are safe. Tell them how much they are loved; how truly precious they are. Embrace your children with a love of life and goodness, a love of learning and light, a love of right and meaning.
 
I would also acknowledge that all of us are sad. We feel so deeply for the victims and their families. Help your children express those feelings, too. Let them say what they are thinking. Hear them, comfort them, and assure them. It may be useful to make a card or write a note or a prayer with your children to send to Robb Elementary School. It depends on what you sense your kids need.
 
I always believe in telling children the truth, but also sharing only what seems directly relevant to what they are asking or saying. Consider their ages and their interests. Less information can be more, as long as it is honest and coming from a place of caring for them.
 
Moral healing comes through personal resolve. Responding to this sorrow, we must raise ourselves up, healing the moral morass around us where we can, and lifting ourselves and our children up out of the depths.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

our mutual responsibility

Shabbat Kedoshim | May 7, 2022
 

 

 
This past Tuesday evening, at the San Diego communal commemoration of Yom HaZikaron, it was my sad and undeserved privilege to recite Yizkor. I soberly read the prayer for all of the fallen soldiers and civilian victims in the wars Israel has had to fight, and in memory of the Jewish victims of antisemitic terror worldwide.
 
Yizkor Am Yisrael, may the Jewish people remember our sons and daughters, the trustworthy and brave soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces…and everyone murdered at the hands of terrorist groups inside and beyond Israel’s borders…may they all be inscribed in the hearts of Israel from generation to generation.”
 
I felt undeserving of this role in the ceremony because it has not been my life circumstance to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Like all Diaspora Jewish teens, I did not – nor did my children - face conscription into the IDF upon turning 18 as did our Israeli peers. I asked myself. Who am I to memorialize those who lost their lives in defense of the State of Israel?
 
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a 20th century rabbi and scholar born in Poland and raised in New York, was a noted Diaspora Zionist thinker. Here’s how he once answered this question on my mind.
 
“I am a Zionist not because I may carry an Israeli passport, but because I am a citizen of world Jewry, of Am Yisrael. The task of Zionism in our time is to educate our children for that pervasive citizenship, and to create the modes of joint endeavor, with Israel as the center, which will create and retain that citizenship.” A task, I suggest, more pressing and more challenging today than when Rabbi Hertzberg first wrote these words in 1977.
 
In celebration of Israel’s 74th year of Independence, we can strive to revive this idea. If we who live outside of Israel are citizens of world Jewry, then like every Israeli citizen, we too have to give of ourselves for the defense and vitality of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
 
We have to give our voices in public support. We have to give others information and explanation where they don’t know - and glean it for ourselves if we don’t know. We have to give our focus to the culture and celebrations of a Jewish heritage we share with our Israeli family and friends. We have to give our time to learn some Hebrew or history. We have to give our children and grandchildren, through our example, encouragement and opportunity to explore what it means to be Jewish here and in Israel.
 
These aren’t particularly profound suggestions. They’re worthwhile and significant each one in its own way. To honor the memories of those whose lives built and defended Israel, and to celebrate the fulfilled destiny and growing dignity of a Jewish homeland among the nations of the world, I think there is also something more difficult we need to do.
 
Though there is a universal reality to the experience of being human, meaning and significance come from our particular identities and experiences. If we are not each unique, the world has no need for our personal gifts and talents. If we are not distinctive as a group, if we have no lived history or sacred story to tell, then we have no wisdom or vision to share with the larger world. Our Diaspora lives, especially here in America, must serve as a quest for particular Jewish significance in a uniquely pluralistic and multi-cultural world.
 
We need to read one of the most famous and familiar of all Torah verses for what it actually says. “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal…You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people. You shall not hate your siblings in your heart. Reprove your people but incur no guilt on their behalf. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellow citizens. Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Eternal God.”
 
In its Biblical context, this is not a universal command to love others. This is an instruction to love our own. Yet, the love described here is not a feeling. In this text, to love means to act responsibly toward your own. Ours is a particular love of mutual responsibility. A love which later evolved into the more commonly held aphorism sometimes called the “Golden Rule.”
 
Ours is a particular love of mutual responsibility. Too often too many American Jews condition their feelings for Israel. They wrongly think the way to disagree is to disavow. No. The mutually responsible way to disagree is first to care and then to engage. Just like they do in Israel.
 
At 74 years young, what we really need to do is to celebrate. Israel is the only sovereign and independent Jewish homeland the world has ever known. Our role in the Diaspora is to rejoice and give voice to the historic right and moral good of Israel’s place in the world. To join with Israelis in striving for the fulfillment of Israel’s promise and destiny.
 
In this way, on this Yom HaAtzmaut, it is truly our happy and deserved privilege to recite in prayer that, “the State of Israel may be the beginning of our redemption.”
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

saying kaddish is giving thanks

Pesah Yizkor | April 23, 2022
 
 
 
 
Yitgadal v’yitkadash Sh’mei rabba. The Mourner’s Kaddish echoes in my ear. It’s words too familiar. It’s meaning not truly clear. I’m sensitive to these precious words and their cadence every time I hear a new mourner recite them - like a new and unsure member of a select club. A group to which, unwillingly, he or she, and ultimately, we all gain admittance.
 
Gathered for Yizkor and present at every synagogue service and minyan, we are that sacred cohort. Children and spouses, parents and siblings, relatives and friends, we recite ancient words in the heart felt hope they may comfort us. In God’s name, we affirm the lives and loves whom we each remember.
 
Actually, that kaddish is the prayer we recite in grief and memory is strange. More often, at least in our liturgy, kaddish is utilitarian. It divides the sections of a prayer service with its familiar Aramaic phrases and refrain. “Y’hei Shmei rabba mevorakh…May God’s great name be blessed forever and ever.”
 
Kaddish praises God. Its words do not honor our dead. Our emotions do that. We say the words of kaddish oblivious to what they mean. Instead, we know what we mean by saying them. We think of our loved ones. Their memories inspire us. Their absence upsets us. Their presence in our minds’ eyes comfort us.
 
Praise of God is not usually our first instinct when we confront death. Consider our shared experience these past years. Around the world, we now count more than six million COVID victims, a resonant number.  Each life precious. Every death significant.
 
In our country, COVID is now the third most common cause of death. More than one million people lost to the pandemic. Each individual leaving an average of nine close relatives or friends bereaved. One million minyanim. Each cluster like all of us.
 
Gathered here, we remember a beloved parent, child, sibling, grandparent, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousin, loving partner, colleague, or dear friend. In our distinct and shared sadness, we utter no praise.
 
Yet, the kaddish became our people’s spiritual expression of personal loss and remembrance precisely because vast numbers of deaths are so overwhelming.
 
Kaddish was most likely composed in the first century as a liturgical response to Roman persecution. It seeks of God moral sovereignty, redemption, and peace. After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, every ancient rabbinic sermon or study session ended with kaddish as words of consolation and hope.
 
Talmudic sages ask, with so much death and destruction, why does the world continue to exist? “Because of the sanctification of God’s name,” they answer referring to the kaddish recited after study. Ideas and ideals comfort. Another’s presence comforts. Memories of shared experiences and discoveries comfort. We respond to death by looking forward to renewal in our lives.
 
It is possible that the kaddish was originally written and recited in Hebrew, not Aramaic. Since everyone in the first century communities of Jews did not understand Hebrew, the rabbis rewrote the prayer in Aramaic, a language the people understood and spoke in their daily lives.
 
We see a vestige of this toward the end of kaddish, when the text switches from Aramaic back to Hebrew. Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya. Aramaic meaning, “May God grant us abundant peace.” V’hayim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael. Hebrew stating, “and life upon all Israel.” Oseh shalom, “make peace.”
 
The peace we seek is yet to be. The comfort we need is ever present. That’s why we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Not to comprehend our loss but to accept it. Not to explain our grief but to express it. Saying kaddish is giving thanks: for a life in which we shared, for a love in which we rejoiced, and for a legacy we’ll always cherish.
 
At the conclusion of their studies, students of Talmudic sages praised God’s name for their teachers and their wisdom by reciting kaddish. They also recited kaddish in memory of their rabbis and the lessons they taught. Though it took centuries, eventually, this custom extended to all mourners.
 
The kaddish became our people’s spiritual expression of personal loss and remembrance after the crusades devasted Jewish life in 11th century Europe. Like in the times of Roman persecution, and this time to honor each and every murdered soul, in 1096 Rabbi Elazar of Worms first spoke words of kaddish as a mourner.
 
Sadly, like every generation before us, we are overwhelmed by vast numbers of deaths. Amidst COVID, and in confronting the deaths of our loved ones in the natural course of life, we discover a smaller, more personal truth our ancestors realized first.
 
We all learn from those who love us and guide us into the world. We can each teach others from the experiences and insights of our lives. When we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, we affirm and appreciate the life lessons we learned from those we think of and miss.
 
I have a hunch. It was a choice to change from Aramaic to Hebrew with the world hayim, life. The change of language is a change of intent. An everyday declaration becomes a heart-felt and sacred prayer. As mourners we must learn to transform sorrow into renewal. We best find comfort after our loved ones’ deaths in the goodness and blessings of life.
 
Kaddish does not honor the dead. We do. Kaddish praises God. In genuine grief and loving memory, because we know pain and loss, because we are not alone in the reality of those feelings, by reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish we sincerely seek the peace of God’s healing within our hearts and for our world.
 
We are all familiar with the precious words and cadence of kaddish. Today let’s realize that saying kaddish is giving thanks. Thanks for the lives in which we shared. Thanks for the loves in which we rejoiced. Thanks for the life wisdom we gleaned, and thanks for the legacies we cherish in life today and always.
 
Y’hei Sh’mei rabba m’varakh l’alam u-l’almei almaya.
Y’hi shem Adonai m’vorakh mei-atah v’ad olam.
 
May God’s name, through our memories and the goodness of our loved ones’ lives, be blessed forever and ever.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

the urgent essence of passover - SD Union Tribune essay

The essence of Passover seems urgent right now. Based on the Biblical narrative of ancient Israel’s redemption from Egyptian bondage, Passover celebrates freedom. That exodus event is the foundation of the master story of the Jewish people. This makes Passover the essential holiday of the Jewish year.
 
Ask the citizens of Ukraine. Ask everyone else who ever lived or continues to live under repressive regimes around the world. Ask our ancestors of every generation. Ask yourself by reflecting back on the necessary limitations imposed by pandemic disruptions to life and society. Ask anyone who has not been able to take the blessings of freedom for granted in the experiences of his or her life. Ask them all. They will tell you. Freedom is a big deal!
 
Just as freedom is a big deal, a seder on Passover is unlike any other dinner gathering of the year for many Jewish individuals and families. Through symbolic foods and rituals, a seder sensitizes us to the grandeur of freedom as we retell the memory of our ancestors’ liberation.
 
At a seder we call matzah, the unleavened bread we eat on Passover, the “bread of affliction.” We declare, “all who are hungry, come and eat.” We act on the meaning of those words by giving of our foods and resources to those in need during Passover and, along with all caring people, throughout the year.
 
Early in the seder proceedings a sheet of matzah is broken in two. The larger of the two portions is wrapped and put away or hidden until the end of dinner. It’s a poignant gesture. Though we may feast and celebrate, we must always be aware that those who live in poverty don’t know when they’ll eat next. Like slaves must do, people in poverty ration what they have for later, thinking about how to sustain their lives and their loved ones.
 
A Passover seder reminds us of the still unfulfilled promise of human dignity as we discuss themes of redemption, equality, and justice. An evening around a seder table can spark moral imagination and motivate us to act on its message.
 
Against the backdrop of war’s horrors in Ukraine and disturbed by persistent physical and verbal violence, terror, and hatred plaguing our world, the essence of Passover seems urgent this year. Events abroad and at home show us it is much easier to discuss freedom around a seder table than it is to defend and maintain freedom in a society.
 
The Passover Haggadah instructs each one of us to see ourselves as among those who actually left Egypt: “In each generation, every individual should see himself or herself as though he or she had actually been redeemed from Egypt.” In other words, try to internalize the pain of oppression and the joy of redemption.
 
This needs to be a goal of our seder conversations: to turn the urgency of our feelings toward all that challenges freedom into a renewed commitment to the urgent essence of Passover, defending and maintaining the imperative and meaning of freedom for all.
 
 

the urgent essence of passover - sermon

Shabbat HaGadol 5782 | April 9, 2022
 
The essence of Passover seems urgent right now. Based on the Biblical narrative of ancient Israel’s redemption from Egyptian bondage, Passover celebrates freedom. That exodus event is the foundation of the master story of the Jewish people. This makes Passover the essential holiday of the Jewish year.
 
Ask the citizens of Ukraine. Ask everyone else who ever lived or continues to live under repressive regimes around the world. Ask our ancestors of every generation. Ask yourself by reflecting back on the necessary limitations imposed by pandemic disruptions to life and society. Ask anyone who has not been able not take the blessings of freedom for granted in the experiences of his or her life. Ask them all. They will tell you. Freedom is a big deal!
 
Just as freedom is a big deal, so too is a seder on Passover unlike any other dinner gathering of the year. A seder sensitizes us to the grandeur of freedom as we retell the memory of our ancestors’ liberation. A seder is a majestic expression of moral imagination. A seder reminds us of the still unfulfilled promise of human dignity as we discuss the themes of redemption, equality, and justice around our tables.
 
Against the backdrop of war’s horrors in Ukraine and disturbed by persistent physical and verbal violence, terror in Israel, and the hatred plaguing our world, we will observe a third pandemic Passover. Even so, this year feels more customary and comfortable than did the previous two. Like the Biblical Israelites who during a time of plagues waited in the safety of their homes before their exodus from Egypt, we are emerging and carefully reclaiming our personal liberties.
 
The essence of Passover seems urgent this year because of what events abroad and at home show us. It is much easier to discuss freedom around a seder table than it is to defend and maintain freedom in a society.
 
We are far from the first to understand this. In fact, the first generation of rabbis, those who lived from 70 to 200 C.E. those who codified and organized the form and structure of the Seder celebrations we are familiar with, they too learned from personal experience how much easier it is to discuss freedom than to maintain it.
 
These rabbis, among them Yohanan ben Zakkai, the initiator of rabbinic Judaism, Rabbi Akiva, the famous scholar, Judah HaNasi, the editor of the Mishnah, were witnesses to one of Judaism’s most turbulent and tragic eras.
 
The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and oppressed the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea. In 135 C.E., under the leadership of a sage named Bar Kokhba, the Jews revolted against Rome and were summarily defeated. Hundreds of thousands died while towns and villages were razed.
 
Contained in texts associated with two particular rabbis, Ishmael ben Elisha, a rationalist, and Shimon bar Yohai, a mystic, we find midrash, legend and interpretation expressing intense loyalty to Jewish identity and destiny and a sense of distress, verging on anger, at Jews who left the fold, who defected from Judaism to the pagan world and safety of Rome, or even became part of a new emerging Christian sect.
 
Reflect on how they reacted in this famous midrash they taught. “There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.” Remember, a midrash is an interpretation of a Biblical text. In this case, the rabbis create a reason why four times in the Torah children of the future are imagined asking about the Exodus.
 
This is the background and historical context for the description of the Four Sons, or Four Children, contained in the Haggadah. Yes, it is there to remind the seder leader to engage each individual directly and personally in telling the Exodus story, but it’s also about something else.
 
Consider two of the four verses and identify which is which. Here’s a hint. One of these is the basis for the wise child, and one the basis of the wicked child.
 
“And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Eternal God because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt…’” (Exodus 12:26-27)
 
“When, in time to come, your children ask you, ‘What means the decrees, laws, and rules that the Eternal our God has enjoined upon you?’ you shall say to your children, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Eternal God freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.’” (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)
 
Notice how the authors of the midrash change the pronoun in the original Torah verse from you to us. “What does the wise son say? ‘What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Eternal our God has enjoined upon us?’ Open to him in the details and meanings of Pesah.”
 
Notice how the authors of the midrash leave the original question in the Torah to set up the distinction between the wise and wicked sons. “What does the wicked son say? ‘What do you mean by this rite?’” To you’ and not ‘to him or her. This child is portrayed as disassociating from family, community, and people. “Had you been there,” this child is told, “you would not have been redeemed.”
 
Why did those first century rabbis make this change? Because they weren’t speaking only of Passover and children, but about Jews who seeing the fall of Jerusalem changed sides and allied themselves to Rome. Members of their community who switched from us to you. For that first generation of rabbis, this was a kind of betrayal. It is not easy to defend and maintain freedom. It never has been.
 
At our seder tables let’s also ask. To whom and what do our thoughts turn as we try to make sense of the world and connect to the meanings, themes, and message of Passover?
 
“In each generation, every individual should see himself or herself as though he or she had actually been redeemed from Egypt.” The Passover Haggadah instructs each one of us to see ourselves as among those who actually left Egypt. In other words, to internalize the pain of oppression and the joy of redemption.
 
Let’s make this a goal of our seder conversations this year. Like the rabbis of old, may we turn the urgency of our feelings to all that challenges freedom today into a renewed commitment to the urgent essence of Passover. Defending and maintaining the imperative and meaning of freedom for all.
 

© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

transform the world: covid and a visceral response to the ukraine war

Shabbat Pekudei | March 5, 2022
 
When we read this Torah portion two years ago, it was the very first time Rabbi Libman, David Lipsitz and I stood alone in this sanctuary speaking to a camera instead of a congregation. At the time, all of us imagined this strange new world would last a few weeks, or months at most, and things would return to some sort of “new normal,” as we called it then.
 
Two years later, I don’t know what normal is. And for all that’s new we might embrace as the unintended consequences and discoveries of the pandemic, many of us long for what’s old. We want to gather with loved ones and friends comfortably and naturally. We want to do as we might choose wherever we might be.
 
Slowly, perhaps we’re on that road home. We’ve all learned not to predict how COVID may or may not next impact or disrupt us. We’ll each make our own decisions. I hope we’ll each do for ourselves in a manner that is COVID careful, still sensitive toward the different choices and concerns of others.
 
Sensitive, too, to the emotional needs we all have. Our needs to assimilate and find meaning in the massive losses of life about which we cannot ever grow callous. The afflictions of illness, time, schooling, socialization, insecurity, and relationships endured by us and everyone world-wide. We’re simply older now, too. Each one of us. We’re tired. It’s been much too much for much too long.
 
Two years ago, I mused. “All over our country, and around the world, people are expending incredible efforts to do what they must and can to sustain and redesign businesses, schools, and organizations, to care for loved ones and friends, and to rebuild the structures of normalcy and routine upon which we and our society depend. Imagine what all of this human capital could do if we were actually solving the problems confronting us not during a pandemic. This collective determination inspires us. We human beings have remarkable capacities to cope and abilities to care.”
 
Was I hopeful, naive, or both? For two years I have taught of Torah and yearned of humanity that our better instincts prevail and guide us forward out of this pandemic. Lead us into a world transformed by a universal experience of distress and distance. Sadly, it was not to be. Tragic on top of all people have suffered during the pandemic is the loss of what could have been a transformative moment in human history. How sad to waste in division and derision the healing and creative possibility accidentally presented by this pandemic plague.
 
We will soon recall a different set of ten plagues. Jewish history records and remembers many. One particularly gruesome plague memory is in the news. It took place in 1941 in a ravine known as Babyn Yar outside of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. 33,000 Jews were massacred by the Nazis and left in mass graves.
 
Last week, the Russians bombed the city of Uman, Ukraine in the vicinity of Babyn Yar. Though the Babyn Yar Memorial was not damaged, there were civilian casualties. The Russian target was the Ukrainian state broadcasting television tower. In the aftermath, Ukrainian President Zelensky made a very rare address to world Jewry.
 
“Addressing all the Jews of the world: Don’t you see why this happening? That is why it is very important that millions of Jews around the world do not remain silent right now. Nazism is born in silence,” Zelensky said. “So, shout about the killings of civilians. Shout about the killings of Ukrainians.”
 
We must and we do add our voices to the outrage and opposition in response to Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine. In our own community, we embrace members, friends, and acquaintances born in Ukraine, with family and friends in Ukraine, now deeply worried.
 
I am having a visceral response to what we’re seeing. What really can we do?
 
I can’t be comfortable, I hope we are all uncomfortable, as once again in response to human evil and the atrocities of Russia toward Ukraine all it seems we can do is watch. We are proud of the courage and patriotism of Ukrainians in the face of this Russian onslaught. Just the same, we’re here not there.
 
We, at least I, feel unsettled and upset that there isn’t something more we – or more accurately – something more the nations of the world can do. I understand it is complicated at a geo-political level and that for the most part most countries are doing a great deal with the tools and methods available to them.
 
But geo-political dynamics are not my focus in synagogue. In here, we think about morality. At a moral level, the strong response of the world in defense of Ukraine is necessary and right. It is also inadequate, to say the least.
 
At least, and it is the least we can do, let’s do what we can.
 
We can donate funds to help provide humanitarian relief and assistance to the innocent victims of this war, in support of the hundreds of thousands of new refugees, and in compassion for all who suffer.
 
We can speak out to our friends and neighbors repudiating this aggression and reminding those who may not understand for themselves what the lessons of history teach us about not standing up for freedom, democracy, and human dignity.
 
We can answer the call of Rabbi Refael Kruskal, the Vice President of the Jewish community in Odessa, who responsible for evacuating children and caring for the elderly asks of us: “Many Jews from Odessa have had to be on the road during Shabbat to evacuate to a more secure place. I ask our Jewish brethren who do not keep Shabbat to keep Shabbat for us.” We can be present in our lives on behalf of those for whom we cannot be present during this crisis in their lives.
 
We can also do what we didn’t do during the pandemic. We can come together in our community, in our country, and around the world, in common determination to create a better world for our children and grandchildren.
 
Famously, the Talmud teaches “whoever saves a single life saves an entire world.” Person by person, compassionate act by compassionate act, respectful conversation by respectful conversation, one by one, day by day, we can each save the world.
 
Even after a two-year pandemic, I still believe we human beings have the remarkable capacity to cope and the ability to care. Let’s not waste the message of Ukraine’s tragedy.
 
As we pray for the peace and security of Ukraine and its citizens, we can demand and defend what is just and what is right in every next unusual or routine circumstance of our lives. We can transform the world.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

unique in the world

Shabbat Terumah | February 5, 2022
 

 

 
Whoopi Goldberg was wrong. You may have heard the noise. I mean the news. On Monday this week she said on a television program, “The View,” that “the Holocaust isn’t about race.” She blamed the Shoah on “man’s inhumanity to man” and suggested it was a problem of white supremacy not racism.
 
Later in the day, Whoopi Goldberg was on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and reiterated her statement. “The Nazis were white people, and most of the people they were attacking were white people.”
 
The response came swift and loudly. Whoopi Goldberg apologized. “I should have said it is about both” because, as she was reminded, the Nazis viewed the Jews to be an inferior race. “I stand corrected.” She also stands suspended from the show for two weeks “to take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments.”
 
Remember the history, which is of course part of the problem. People don’t know the history. The Nazis were obsessed with race and defined Jews as their racial inferiors. Through the Nuremburg Race Laws, they sought to preserve their Aryan racial purity. That’s why they targeted all people with any kind of Jewish lineage rather than only self-identifying or practicing Jews.
 
Professor Daniel Goldhagen instructs us. “Modern antisemitism’s most developed and horrifying form being at Nazism’s heart, fundamentally conceived of Jews as a race apart, biologically programmed to dominate, harm or enslave humanity.” This racial screed supplanted the medieval religious paradigm for antisemitism first codified by the Catholic Church.
 
So, to be clear, Whoopi Goldberg was wrong.
 
On the other hand, we Jews are not defined by the perceptions and proclivities of others. We are not a race, superior, inferior, or anything else. We are a people. Unique in the world.
 
We define ourselves as a group who share a sense of kinship with one another. Honestly, it’s complicated. We Jews come from all of humanity’s imposed categories: race, nationality, ethnicity, and individual identity.
 
As such, we share a collective myth of common origins and history, common values and culture, challenges and relationships, and a common destiny. We have our own language, mores, customs, homeland and Diaspora. As members of a people, we care about each other's welfare and well-being.
 
This real Jewish identity doesn’t conform to the categories people most commonly use to define themselves or others they know. We all know proud Jews who are not religious, disconnected and non-identifying Jews, and practicing Jews by Choice who with no biological Jewish family.
 
So, let’s not get too exercised over this noise. It made headlines and stirred emotions. But too often these days we get distracted by the arguing and don’t focus on the thinking. Better, in my view, to turn this episode into a “teachable moment,” which many are doing.
 
Let’s define our being Jewish by the eternal values of our people’s heritage rather than by the external perceptions of those who do not know us. To my mind, a Jew is someone who can tell the story of the Jewish people as his or her own. A person affirming the Jewish narrative by expressing love for his or her people in spite of others’ hate. A person who embraces Jewish ethics in the face of human evil.
 
More than what any one of us, or all of us together believe, Jews are a group bound by covenants of history and fate, collective memories and cherished faith. We know others don’t fully understand this about us. Through the ages, they never have.
 
Judaism doesn’t really distinguish between what is religious and what is secular. Judaism is more holistic. Different modes guide us at different moments in our lives. It is Jews who make these distinctions, not Judaism.
 
We the Jewish people have a religion, for those of us who may believe. We are an ethnicity for those of us by birth or choice who say we belong. We are an extended family for those of us who behave with care and concern toward other Jews and Jewish concerns.
 
Ashreinu, ma tov helkeinu – How good is our portion.
U’mah na’im goraleinu – How delightful our lot.
U’mah yafah y’rushateinu – How beautiful our inheritance.
 
Words of thankful prayer we recited earlier this morning, before most of you were here. I cite them because of their history.
 
Rooted in an ancient midrash, the Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu compiled as early as the 3rd century, more than 1,800 years ago, these poetic phrases were written and first recited in the face of great antisemitism.
 
Listen to the original text, which led a liturgical poet to answer. “Master of the Universe, see our suffering and how we are persecuted. Alleviate our burden. Remember how many individuals are without means and work, see how many are without sustenance, see how many young children and how many elderly men and women, see the whole of the Jewish people, day after day, enter synagogues and schools to be busy with Torah.”
 
Ashreinu, ma tov helkeinu – How good is our portion.
U’mah na’im goraleinu – How delightful our lot.
U’mah yafah y’rushateinu – How beautiful our inheritance.
 
Never do Jews allow others to define who we are and what matters to us. Always do Jews define our people’s character and purpose by affirming the story our lives tell and the hopes our hearts feel.
 
Whoopi Goldberg was wrong. But let us be clear. We Jews are not defined by the perceptions and proclivities of others. We are not a race, superior, inferior, or anything else. We are a people. Unique in the world.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

unite

Shabbat Mishpatim | January 29, 2022
 

 

 
Josh Wardle is a software engineer in Brooklyn. He knew his partner loved word games, so he created a guessing game for just the two of them. As a play on his last name, he named it Wordle. As word spread, it became an internet hit.
 
Wordle is housed on a low-frills website Josh Wardle built. It that has no ads or flashing banners. There is just the game to play.
 
How many of you are among the hundreds of thousands who play Wordle every day? Robin and I play and then compare our scores with our daughters. It’s a fun and simple daily diversion.
 
The game invites players to guess a five-letter word. After each guess the game shows whether any of your letters are in the daily secret word and whether they are in the correct place. You have six tries to get it right. Yesterday I got there in 4 tries. I’ll play again tonight.
 
Everyone worldwide who plays Wordle is linked when discovering the correct answer. Everybody walks their own path and makes their own choices in order to get there. At the end of the game, we unite. No one makes up their own answer. Everyone arrives at the same conclusion.
 
I describe this to you as a metaphor for each of us as individuals and our relationships in community, or as a Jewish people, or citizens of a nation. My long-lost hope was that the universal human experience of enduring a deadly and difficult pandemic would bring us together.
 
Rather, as individuals, to varying degrees, we’ve grown stressed and distressed. We are “Covidians” – individuals for whom COVID defines our daily routines, or “Novidians,” – individuals for whom there are few or no COVID constraints. In so many ways, different choices and behaviors, different attitudes and beliefs, push us apart. Fewer common choices hold us together.
 
Jewish tradition and values challenge us to think differently. Judaism teaches that we lose our coherence as a community, as a people, or as a nation, not when we disagree, but when we don’t act together in concert. When we don’t see our behaviors connected or our choices intertwined.
 
A famous and enduring scene of Torah inspires us. As the Jewish people camps around Mt. Sinai, God calls to Moses, who ascends unto God’s presence. Moses later returns to the people and establishes an altar for worship and celebration. A ceremony marks this wondrous moment of revelation. Our people’s covenant with God is a mutual pact of ethics and history.
 
We read. Moses “took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, ‘Na’aseh v’nishmah! All that the Eternal God has spoken we will do, and we will hear!’”
 
Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Gur asks. “Why did they say, ‘We will do and we will hear’ in the plural? Each could have spoken for himself or herself, in which case it would have been ‘I will do and I will hear.’”
 
Rabbi Meir answers his question by explaining more than individual obedience or consent is expressed here. What’s really happening is that the people undertook responsibility for each other. By their collective assent they enter into covenant with one another and with God.
 
It’s an important, and I believe pressing idea for us to consider. We are bound together by what we do, not by what we think. Though it is nice to agree, it can be more stimulating and thought provoking when we disagree. Different perspectives are not our problem. Different commitments are.
 
What’s important for our lives has rules, laws, and codes of behavior. To be part of a family, to be part of a community, to be part of a people, or even to be a citizen in a nation means to accept that there are opportunities, limits, standards, and expectations placed on us by others.
 
Because we love our children, we make demands of them. Because God loves us, Judaism makes demands of us. Because we love our country, we ought to make demands of ourselves.
 
In every group setting of our lives, in every place we express our individuality, in every quest for answers, at some point, the individual paths we walk must converge. The more consistent and shared our responses, the more significant and enduring the results.
 
184 years ago this week, addressing a young men’s assembly on January 27, 1838, in Springfield, IL, a young and rising political leader named Abraham Lincoln made this same point. “Let reverence for the laws…become the political religion of the nation…Although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.”
 
Religious observance is the Jewish way. Humbly we admit that whatever may be the full reality of God, God’s truth, or any ultimate truth, is larger and greater than the capacity of any one human being, or even one group of human beings, to know completely. Our common laws and ethics, religious mitzvot and secular regulations, focus on what it means to belong, to transcend ourselves, to care about others, a greater good, and even our destiny.
 
Maybe today’s secret 5-letter Wordle word is: UNITE.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

our response

Shabbat Yitro | January 22, 2022
 

 

 
Listening to Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker describe his ordeal as a hostage in his own sanctuary, hearing him recount his and the other hostages’ escape to freedom last Saturday night, tears welled up in my eyes. It was my most visceral reaction to last Shabbat’s horrible event.
 
Today in the comfort of our own sanctuary, we offer our prayers of thanksgiving for the safety and wellbeing of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his entire community at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX. As they move on to brighter days, may they be the last who must suffer such pain and trauma at a synagogue or other address of Jewish community.
 
We all react as we become aware of things that frighten and upset us. It’s natural. We express our feelings, our concerns, our pain. When, where, and if we can, we want to merge what we are experiencing with the reactions of others who share our angst.
 
I get that. We all do. Yet more enduring, I think, is not how we first react but how we ultimately respond.
 
Why did I cry at the end of last Shabbat? I imagine part of me wondered and worried. Could that be you and me some day? Another part of me felt relief for Rabbi Cytron-Walker and the others. I also felt gratitude to him, and pride in him. Sadly though, I think my tears really reflected my despair. Look what has been done to us. Look what has become of us.
 
Hatred and terror directed against Jews and synagogues violate our spirit and vision of being an open and accessible community. Now we must first be secure and prepared. It is critical that we protect and defend. My soul cries that it has come to this today.
 
Deborah Lipstadt, whom I greatly admire, wrote this week in the New York Times about some people’s fears about attending synagogues or openly demonstrating their Jewish identity. She reflects sadly, “Increasingly I hear: Jews are contemplating going underground.”
 
Respectfully, no! This may be our reaction. This cannot be our response.
 
Synagogues are where Jews gather. Synagogues are symbolic centers representing Jews and Judaism to the larger world. Like last Shabbat, we are upset when the sacred space of a synagogue is violated. That’s why on this and every next Shabbat we reclaim in our sanctuary and for our community the love and peace Shabbat is really about.
 
“You shall not swear falsely, or take in vain, the Eternal God’s name,” states the third of the Ten Commandments. Superficially, it refers to our language, to speaking respectfully when speaking of the divine. More deeply, it refers to our posture and our words. Speak and act in such a way that best represents who you are in the world and best symbolizes God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
 
Let me tell you about another rabbi. Hayim ben Attar was 9 years old when he fled home with his family in 1705. Due to a wave of antisemitic attacks, the ben Attar family left Sale and resettled in Meknes, Morocco. There Hayim grew, married, and eventually became an important Torah scholar and rabbi. In 1739 he published his most famous work. It is called, as is Rabbi Hayim ben Attar, Or HaHayim, the Light of Life.”
 
On the Third Commandment, the Or HaHayim teaches. A person who violates the honor of God’s name through lies loses the tzelem Elohim, the Divine Image within him or her. Such a person becomes vain, false, worthless. The proper way to understand this commandment not to take God’s name in vain is not to associate yourself with God’s name in pursuit of something that is baseless, worthless, dishonest, or worse, evil.
 
God’s name ought to only be associated with truth. I live the truth of my values, responsibilities, and hopes. I do not fear going to synagogue or anywhere else. I fear the impact on our society and our souls when lies, antisemitism, hatred, and incivility, seem to be routine. My despair sadly stirs here. How much of the Divine Image is slipping out of our collective humanity person by person, act by act, day by day?
 
Even so, we cannot walk around as if there are targets on our backs. It is not through difficulty but by transcending the difficult moments of our lives truthfully that we live best and well.
 
From whatever circumstance, upset, or sadness we each start - however we first react, that is not where we end up. We move beyond and properly honor our memories, our pains or hurts, and our fears by overcoming them. Our response is to be who we need to be and to live how we need to live.
 
I am more afraid of not living, of not being true to myself, to my people, and to my God than I am about the risk of going to synagogue. After 9/11, I still traveled by airplane. Amidst COVID, I still pursue my daily purpose. After a terrorist’s grenade disrupted a wedding Robin and I attended in Jerusalem many years ago, we still went to the huppah. Responsibly. Prudently. Safely.
 
A synagogue facility tells a story about the community that calls it home. A well-designed synagogue facility reflects the purpose and values of the community gathering there. Look around this sacred space. Words of Torah envelope us. Memories of earlier Jewish generations inspire us. We sit facing one another and together focus on what we are here to do. We bring the outside world in and go out to a plaza reminiscent of Israel right here in La Jolla.
 
These days we are aware. We are not afraid. We are determined. Our response is to speak and to act in such ways that best represent who we are in the world and best symbolize our God who brought us out of the land of Egypt. May we always congregate, consecrate, and celebrate our lives and our Jewish heritage on our beautiful synagogue campus together.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

being on guard

Shabbat Bo | January 8, 2022
 

 

 
It was exactly a year ago, on the Shabbat when we read this week's Torah portion, Bo, that I said, “we sense we are at the beginning of a very long end to this pandemic. At least we all hope so. Many months of separation and precaution await us still. We hope not many more deaths or much more illness lie ahead.”
 
I was right and I was wrong. Since then, until now, let’s be honest. Through brighter and darker days overall, these have not been happy times. This Shabbat we find we are still living through a plague, still hoping the end is in sight.
 
We didn’t expect it to be this way. Relatives and guests, congregants and friends not able to attend s’mahot. First postponed and now rescheduled celebrations impacted more or less like they might have been earlier in the pandemic.
 
Beyond our foremost concerns about illness and health, we’re all confused. All of us know family members and friends who are infected, we hope with the mildest of possible symptoms. All of our plans seem somewhat tentative these days.
 
Despite the best efforts of so many, messages about testing, quarantine, and gathering with others are confusing. We struggle to honor routine or not, to go out or not, to keep our distance or not. I don’t have to describe it. Each and every one of us is living it.
 
Since the very beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been intrigued – and thus far disappointed – by the potential power and promise of a universally shared human experience. Everywhere on earth people have expended incredible efforts to do what they must and can to sustain and redesign businesses, schools, and organizations, to care for loved ones and friends, and to rebuild the structures of normalcy and routine upon which we and society depend.
 
Imagine what all of this human capital could do if we were actually solving the problems confronting us not during a pandemic. This collective determination ought to inspire us. We human beings have remarkable capacities to cope and abilities to care.
 
More particularly, our people’s history has some experience with living through plagues. Maybe we can learn something for our circumstances from the opening scene we read this morning.
 
The children of Israel endure the darkness and fear of God’s final plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt. As the horror of the tenth plague subsides and the people hastily begin their departure, we read in the Torah, “That was for the Eternal God, leil shimurim, a night of being on guard to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Eternal God’s, one of being on guard for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.”
 
Leil shimurim, a night of being on guard. What does it mean? Here are three possibilities from our tradition.
 
Rashi interprets the phrase to mean, “The night for which God waited and watched in order to fulfill God’s promise of redemption.” Rashi imagines no harm could befall the children of Israel that night after the 10th plague because the God had been preparing and planning for this Exodus moment during all the tough times.
 
Talmudic Rabbi Eliezer interprets the phrase differently. “A night which is under constant protection against threat.” We are living our days and our nights as leil shimurim, times when we are on guard, seeking to protect ourselves from what threatens us.
 
Seforno, the Italian Biblical commentator says it “was God’s desire to take the children of Israel out of Egypt, but it wasn’t until this very night that God found them prepared and ready for redemption.”
 
In other words, freedom is not given but taken by those who imagine a better life and a better world. We make our freedom possible by how we manage, endure, and support one another while the plague is present.
 
Stymied and frustrated as we may be these days, whatever choices we face have to be made with our eyes on the future, not only the present situation. We won’t come through the plague of these pandemic months and years with our minds, hearts, and souls intact unless we plan and prepare, as Rashi teaches; unless we protect and preserve, as Rabbi Eliezer suggests; and unless we get ready for living anew and renewed, and Seforno states.
 
I recommend this approach for your consideration. Stay informed but stay calm. Monitor half as much COVID news as you currently do. Plan how and prepare to live your life during these worrisome days of Omicron. Protect yourself. Preserve your health. But don’t completely withdraw from all that gives your daily life its purpose and focus. Live not in fear but with a vision of the future that motivates your choices today.
 
This phase of the pandemic is our Leil Shimurim, our night of being on guard. We live on guard, preparing for what may come to be. We live on guard, protecting ourselves from what is, sadly. We live on guard, with a confident vision of what we may yet be able to achieve.
 
Next year, and certainly sooner, when we read today’s Torah portion, Bo, I hope to say: Our days and nights of being on guard are over. We have reached the other side of terrible times. We have restored our routines and renewed our lives. In fact, from the uncertainty we felt during the pandemic we found true inspiration for making our next days better and good. I pray I am right.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

days of our lives

Shabbat Vayigash | December 11, 2021
 
December 7th is a day that lives in infamy, as President Franklin Roosevelt defined it 80 years ago. Fortunately, we don’t remember most days that way. Though, I can think of more than a few others. November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, a night of pogroms and broken glass throughout Nazi Germany. September 11, 2001. January 6, 2021. Yom Kippur 1973. The 9th of Av.
 
Throughout our lives we collect better and worse days. Days of loss, sadness, failures or disappointment. Days of achievement, victory, and celebration. Our birthdays and the birthdates of our children, grandchildren, and loved ones. Anniversaries, graduations, the days we get the job or the grant. The days we make a difference in someone else’s life.
 
May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day. 5 Iyar 1948, Israel Independence Day. July 4, 1776, American Independence Day. Bright days that perhaps balance the darker days of history.
 
Truth is, for better or worse, every day is a surprise. Every day is a challenge. Every day is complicated. Every day is a gift. Every new day is a chance to begin again. To apologize for what went wrong. To anticipate what will be right.
 
Each day can be meaningful in its unique way. This is what it means to be alive. Each precious day comes to us only once, and then it is gone. That’s why we want our lives to be full today. Not in our memories of yesterday. Not in our hopes for tomorrow. We want our lives to be full today.
 
In Torah this morning, Jacob stands before Pharaoh, having arrived in Egypt for an unexpected reunion with his beloved son Joseph. Joseph introduces his elderly father to the Pharaoh, who asks Jacob, “Kama y’mei sh’nei hayekha? How many are the days of the years of your life?” t’s a beautiful question. As a measure of our lives, it is not the quantity of our years but the quality of our days that matter.
 
They say, whoever they are, the average person lives 27,375 days. Obviously, everyone is different. We all hope to be blessed with more. We are all sad for those gifted less. Yet, by counting our days we feel their urgency. Don’t try this. But if you were to calculate how many days you’ve now lived, and were to imagine, therefore, how many, on average, remain, I suspect you’d truly want each one to be a vibrant and full one.
 
Consider that we feel the rush of time more as we grow older. Our sense of time’s speed comes from having experienced more with every passing year. Time seems to pass more quickly closer to the end rather than the beginning of what we are doing. As a result, each day we live becomes more precious than the one before it. All that we do becomes more pressing and significant. Everything we hope for becomes more heartfelt and sincere.
 
Voices in Jewish tradition appreciate the wording of Pharaoh’s question. “This is typical of the righteous. They consider themselves as merely transients in this world,” our sages explain. You see, the length of our years is fulfilled only by the character of our 27,375 days, more or less.
 
Jacob answers Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my life are 130. Few and hard have been the days of the years of my life, nor do they equal the days of the years of my fathers during their lifetimes.”
 
Jacob imagines his father Isaac, who lived 180 Biblical years, and his grandfather Abraham, who lived 175 Biblical years, were happier in their lives. Is he correct? I doubt it. Bad days diminish us all. Good days raise each of us up. We all live through both.
 
Traditional commentators explain Jacob’s answer. Though he has lived many years, he feels as if his days are a collection of better and worse memories. Dealing with his parents Isaac and Rebekah, his brother Esau, and his uncle Laban, Jacob knew deception and displacement. He lost the love of his life, Rachel. Jacob saw his sons’ quarrels and rivalry. He spent many years grieving the loss of Joseph before their reunion.
 
Looking back on it all his mood reflects the realities and pains that remain with him. Yet, Jacob holds the blessing of a patriarch. He sees in his children and grandchildren the fulfillment of God’s promises in his life and the purposes he has sought to pass along to each of them. Jacob strives to bring together all that has happened on the many and varied days of his life and to see in them his legacy.
 
We can learn from Jacob’s answer to Pharaoh’s question to ask ourselves. Through the collection of our days, what is the sum total of our lives and their meaning?
 
Meaning in life results from usage. How we use, for ourselves and in our relationships with others, our words and thoughts. How we use our bodies and strength. How we use our power and position. How we use our talents and traits. How we use our emotions and frailties. How we use our beliefs and values.
 
Albert Einstein wrote. “The person who regards his (or her) own life and that of his (or her) fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy, but hardly fit for life.”
 
Filled with joy or struggle, each day, as we care for others, relate to others, meet people and experiences with determination and hope, each day and its promise form the content and significance of our lives.
 
Neither you nor I have enough days ahead of us to let any one of them come and go without striving to fill them with purpose, contentment and, for better or worse, our best responses to the surprises they may bring. Remember Pharaoh’s question. How many are the days of the years of your life?
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

culture conflicts

Shabbat Hanukkah | December 4, 2021
 
I hope this week of Hanukkah has been filled with happiness and light, brightness and precious reflection. Lots of fun, too.
 
As Adam Sandler encouraged us in 1994:
“Put on your yarmulke
Here comes Hanukkah
So much funukah
To celebrate Hanukkah”
 
Every year when I think about what we celebrate, I’m always aware that our fun, simple Hanukkah is different from the complicated mystery of Hanukkah’s history. Every year on Shabbat Hanukkah, I explore one aspect of Hanukkah’s origin, wishing I had the time to recount all of it with you.
 
Think about what we celebrate. Recalling how in 164 B.C.E. the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem and purified the Temple grounds and altar so they could worship God according to their particular customs, on Hanukkah we celebrate dedication to Jewish religious tradition and identity.
 
As I have previously explained, the Maccabees reclaimed their Jewish religious practices, they sustained their particular Jewish identity within the larger Hellenistic society, and they left a legacy of monotheism to the world. The deeper meaning of Hanukkah is to affirm who we are. To remain distinctive while acculturating to the world around us.
 
Honoring the rekindling of the ancient Second Temple menorah in Jerusalem, and the legend of a bit of oil that lasted for eight days which was first told a few hundred years later, we kindle lights to proclaim the miracle of God’s light. We rejoice as that light illuminates our lives and our hopes. Of course, we also eat latkes and spin dreidels.
 
Eating fried pancakes, latkes, to celebrate Hanukkah has its roots in a 14th century Italian Jewish custom. Only back then, the latkes were made of cheese not potatoes. The dreidel game, too, had nothing to do with Hanukkah originally.
 
A 16th century English spinning top game called totem, which means “all,” became a German game called trundle, or dreidel in Yiddish. It was our Eastern European ancestors who changed the English or German letters on the spinning top to the Hebrew nun, gimmel, hey, and shin.
 
My point. We celebrate Hanukkah by adopting to and adapting within the larger cultures in which Jews live. The latke and the dreidel are examples of our people’s cultural acculturation through the generations.
 
Thinking about the meaning of Hanukkah this year, I find myself focusing more on culture than I do religion.
 
Ancient Jewish attitudes to Greek culture were ambivalent. They wanted to adopt and borrow from Greek culture whatever they liked while despising the Greeks. Greek culture highly valued educating children to be literate and worldly. Arts, athletics, and philosophy attracted the Jews of 2nd century Judea to Hellenistic culture.
 
Jews who lived among the Greeks participated fully in the culture of their society. In their Judean neighborhoods they spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Consider these few Greek words in our Jewish vocabulary: Synagogue, Bimah, and Afikomen.
 
As Professor Shay Cohen points out, “Sometimes it is hard to determine whether a phenomenon that appears in both Judaism and other forms of Hellenistic culture is to be attributed to the ‘influence’ of the one upon the other or to parallel development. As a participant group in Hellenistic culture, the Jews gave and received.”
 
Politics were more problematic, as they often seem to be. A political alliance with the Greeks is what brought the Greco-Syrian governor of Jerusalem, Antiochus IV, to prohibit Jewish religious practice and desecrate the Temple. The reasons why are unclear, though it was mostly likely to quell internal Jewish divisiveness that made Judea an uneasy area in the king’s realm.
 
Back in second century B.C.E. Judea, there were cosmopolitan Jews with means and access seeking to become part of the larger Hellenistic host culture. There were provincial Jews who were less comfortable within Hellenistic society. Throughout Judea there were also pious Jews, truly uncomfortable with Hellenism and devoted to God and Torah above all else.
 
And though we celebrate the Maccabees, those pious Jews, for their tenacity and victory, they too are not without controversy. Whether they were seen as zealots or freedom fighters depends on which side of the cultural divide defines them.
 
Given all of this, I wonder if we can learn from the history of Hanukkah insights into persevering amidst current debates about western and American culture that enrage our media and society and divide us by the same variety of demographics and worldviews our Hellenistic ancestors knew.
 
Because our society includes people of different backgrounds and outlooks, social discourse has to be about more than slogans and talking points. It has to respect everyone. If few listen for understanding or with empathy then unlike the debates in ancient Judea, our culture conflicts cannot be genuine intellectual or philosophical disagreements. Our debate won’t reflect facts and truths. It will devolve into provocative distractions from any real matters that may actually need attention, discussion, consensus, and response.
 
From the history of Hanukkah, therefore, I suggest these insights. Yes, be true to yourself. Yes, honor your values. No, don’t seek to impose your beliefs on others. That’s what turns culture conflict into actual war. Instead, highlight the aspects of culture you share with others. Try to find common ground. When you can’t, of course, point out your perspectives. Absolutely without hesitation or pause, defend yourself and your people. But also, try to understand what others see differently. In the end, don’t fight until you really have to, unless your existential survival depends on it.
 
In contemporary terms, these rules teach us not to be woke but aware. Not to cancel but consider. It’s important to debate and hear different ideas and for each one to affirm personal beliefs. It’s also important to be humble. We can defend who we are and our convictions without debasing who others are and their opinions. Because when we can’t or don’t, social order breaks down.
 
Before Antiochus IV prohibited Jewish religious practice and desecrated the Temple, II Maccabees talks about the failures of the Temple priesthood. They “were no longer earnest about the services of the altar but disdaining the sanctuary…thinking Greek standards the finest. As a result, they found themselves in a trying situation, for those whose mode of life they cultivated, and whom they wished to imitate exactly, became their enemies and punished them.”
 
On Hanukkah, our celebration is about adopting to and adapting within the larger culture in which we live. Not giving in to it or overtaking it but comfortably and confidently living in it. Living beside others as exemplars of what we believe to be true and enduring, and encouraging such distinction and respect for everyone else.
 
Each and every year Hanukkah asks us to be the Jews we are. As Jews, we live best when we acculturate to the world around us while we uphold and publicly celebrate our cherished Jewish culture and traditions. A heritage that has evolved through the ages.
 
In different times and places throughout history, as latkes fry and dreidels spin, Hanukkah lights shine bright so that everyone may see us and what we believe. I hope this week of Hanukkah has been filled with happiness and light, brightness and precious reflection, lots of fun, and the joys of Jewish life and lore.
 
Hag Urim Sameah! Happy Festival of Lights!
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

celebrate what's different - hanukkah 2021

San Diego Union Tribune Essay
November 28, 2021
 
I appreciate the desire at this time of year to bring people together. In our intensely polarized society, I understand the appeal of harmony, of overcoming our divides. Alternatively, I suggest the winter holiday season in America is an opportunity to come together by respecting our differences.
 
Rather than overlooking what is different about us and our holidays, let’s use these days of light and happiness to learn more about each other. Let’s each enjoy our respective holidays. Let’s share with our families and friends as appropriate. But let’s not pretend we are honoring the same religious memories.
 
Hanukkah and Christmas have nothing to do with each other. Except for one possible result of history and the winter solstice. Without the events Jews celebrate on Hanukkah, Christmas might not have come to be.
 
Hanukkah commemorates how in 164 B.C.E. a group of pious Jews led by Judah Maccabee liberated and rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem from the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV who had prohibited Jewish rites and observances and defiled the Temple precincts.
 
Replicating previous Biblical ceremonies for ancient Temple dedications, “Judas and his brothers and the whole community of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication of the altar should be observed in their season, every year, for eight days,” we read in the First Book of Maccabees.
 
At first, on Hanukkah the Maccabees celebrated the restoration of ritual in the Temple precincts, a renewal of their relationship with God. Over time, the legacy of Hanukkah became about navigating identity, upholding monotheism, and sustaining a way of life.
 
In 2nd century B.C.E. Hellenistic Jerusalem, internal Jewish social, religious, and political conflicts about how to live as Jews among the Greeks were rife. Through the ages, those challenges remain. In hospitable and foreboding environments, when and how does a group of people stand apart, or adapt, or adopt.
 
This Hanukkah we who are Jewish celebrate the particular identity we share through our people’s religious heritage. We kindle lights for eight nights to display God’s light in our world and the light of Jewish principles in our lives. We affirm our bond with the Jewish people of past centuries and generations and those yet to be.
 
The span of events leading up to and following the rededication of the Temple altar in Jerusalem is complicated. It encompasses hundreds of years during which ancient Jews lived in association with and under the control of great civilizations: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. It was through both separation from and acculturation within those civilizations that our ancestors created the traditions, culture, and lore we who are Jewish treasure today.
 
In actuality, the Hanukkah event is a brief incident of significant historical consequence. It is a bridge from an ancient past to a then unknowable future. Some historians believe that if the Maccabees had not reclaimed their Jewish religious practices, if they had not sustained their particular Jewish identity within the larger Hellenistic society, if they had left no legacy of monotheism to the world, then perhaps Christianity and Islam might not have come to be.
 
The deeper meaning of Hanukkah is to affirm who we are. To remain distinctive while acculturating to the world around us. To stand apart by participating in the life of the Jewish people and to join in by contributing to society. It’s a difficult and compelling balance many Jewish individuals and families seek to achieve and many of our neighbors do not really understand about us.
 
This winter holiday season when Hanukkah and Christmas do not overlap is an opportunity to come together by celebrating what we don’t have in common, not overlooking it. The beauty of this season lies in people celebrating different holidays for particular meanings and respectfully honoring what others hold as sacred.
 

how to believe

Shabbat Vayetzei | November 13, 2021
 
To my delight, last Sunday as I made my way from class to class at our Viterbi Torah School, I met happy, smiling students with really good questions on their minds. It’s usually the case that when I or Rabbi Libman enter a classroom unannounced. Our children light up with questions related to whatever they are learning with their teacher and classmates. It’s fun. It’s encouraging. It’s challenging.
 
Two of the questions I was asked stayed with me this week. They were both about God. The first came from a 5th grade student who wanted to know why the Torah has different names for God. The second came from a 3rd grade student who, in a different classroom, asked why people in the world have different beliefs about God.
 
Important questions about our religious tradition and others’. Precious spiritual curiosity, so natural and honest in children. Questions too often dismissed without intelligent and respectful answers as our children grow and explore the world.
 
Like our Torah School students, this morning let’s ask about God.
 
As we read about Jacob’s hasty departure from his uncle Laban’s home and property, as Jacob rushes to take his wives and children away from their father and grandfather, an interesting subtext appears. When referring to God everyone speaks not of themselves but of their fathers.
 
It begins when Rachel and Leah wonder about their future relationship with their father and his estate. “Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely he regards us as outsiders…”
 
At that moment their father Laban is out with his flocks. We read, “Rachel stole her father’s household idols.” Why? Does she believe in her father’s idols and want to keep them with her as she leaves home? Does she believe in these idols and wants to take them away from Laban so he can’t pray to them against Jacob? Is she a monotheist like Jacob her husband, and so wants to wean her father off of his idolatry? Or is this just a personal memento, something of home to take with her as she moves on?
 
Well, when he discovers his family has left, Laban chases after Jacob and everyone. He also seeks to reclaim his idols. Jacob and Laban confront each other.
 
Jacob declares. “Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed.”
 
Note that Jacob refers to God as of his father and grandfather, of Abraham and Isaac. In some sense he acts like some of us. Jacob does not speak of himself and God, only about others. As he reflects on the God of his father as “the Fear of Isaac,” traditional voices ask if he is remembering a terrifying encounter bound on an altar or simply uncertain about what to believe.
 
Finally acknowledging Jacob, Rachel, and Leah are leaving Laban seeks to protect his daughters. Laban calls on God. “May Adonai, the Eternal God watch between you and me, when we are out of sight of each other.” To which Jacob responds, “May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us.” Again, Jacob refers to their grandfathers. Nahor is Laban’s grandfather. Was he an idolator like his brother, Abraham’s father Terah?
 
It’s almost as if it’s a contest. Whose belief is true? Whose God is real? With Laban calling on Adonai, the Eternal God of Israel, and Rachel stealing her father’s idols, we also have to ask who in this story believes what?
 
These questions are curiosities. We read the text and speculate as to what it means or seeks to convey. The deeper questions are much more personal. Not about Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, not about Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel or Leah, but about each one of us.
 
The Torah refers to God with different names because people perceive and talk about God in a variety of ways. Anything we say about God is symbolic. We name or describe God in order to capture some aspect of life in this world that’s important to us. When we speak about God, we’re actually talking about ourselves. We impose on God the images and concepts we need or deny in our search for significance and purpose.
 
When Moses stands before the Burning Bush at the beginning of the Exodus narrative, God proclaims, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” We do not know much about Moses’ father, except that he was an Israelite slave in Egypt. What about God did he teach Moses? We can only imagine.
 
For Torah and tradition, however, God is about continuity. From parent to child over and again, each one of us grows to ask, to think, and to believe or not. The challenge I read in these texts is how. How do we decide what to believe?
 
When we stand for moments of communal and personal prayer, we begin the Amidah with that same Exodus phrase, “the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham (and Sarah), the God of Isaac (and Rebekah) the God of Jacob (and Rachel and Leah).”
 
Just as the Torah depicts Moses first meeting God, so too do we at each fresh and new moment of prayer. Each of our ancestors, and each of us, have our own unique understandings of whatever we conceive God to be. Our conceptions may be rooted in memory or heritage, but personal religious belief only lives in the reality of what we each come to understand, experience, and therefore, choose to believe.
 
So, how do we decide what to believe?
 
We may glean insights about God from our people’s religious history, from our parents and their perspectives, or from others we meet in life. Still, it is only through our own experiences, from what makes sense to us, from what inspires us, that God becomes real to us.
 
Belief in God emerges out of personal experience, not professed philosophy. Other insights we may come to are concepts we imagine or hope, but as faith are not fact. Thinking about God is confronting that which is unknowable but from our individual vantage points believable. Seeking sources of meaning in ideas and ideals as we each make our way through the challenges and complexities of life.
 
The experiences we each collect in life are different. And whatever truths or values our experiences may teach us or lead us to, we are each privileged to glimpse but a small aspect of any greater truth.
 
Our different ancestors’ memories and beliefs through the ages, the insights and wisdom of their experiences we grow to respect help us to seek the same from our own. We recognize that every individual, every family, every community, and every group, nation, or people carries their own particular and unique memories. That’s why different people around the world have different beliefs about God.
 
That is also why we share our beliefs in congregation and community. Together we can hold to some common beliefs as Jews and have a forum for asking our many questions. Our history and our tradition provide us with both the vocabulary and the responsibility for defining and discussing what we believe.
 
To be honest, religious belief also has its limits. Ethics, conscience, history, common sense, human decency, science, these are all checks on the purposes and meanings we ascribe to what we believe. We each ought to require such intellectual and religious integrity.
 
Our beliefs about God are grounded idealism. They elevate our spirits and touch our hearts even as what we believe informs our minds. How do we decide what to believe? We each decide what to believe about God in the courage we muster to live according to what we ascertain to be right and true.
 
Let’s reclaim spiritual curiosity from our children and grandchildren. In the future when they speak of the God of their mothers and fathers, when they come to us asking questions about God, let’s respect the intelligence and importance of their questions. Let’s speak with them about how we came to answer those questions for ourselves. And then, let’s encourage them to find the courage to live according to what each one of them will grow to decide is right and true.
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

high holy day sermons 2021 | 5782

In my High Holy Day sermons this year, I thought about who we are and the circumstances in which we live. I’m gratified by the responses to my thoughts and look forward to on-going conversations. My sermons follow below in this order.
 
On Yom Kippur, I discussed "Jewish Peoplehood & Purpose."
On Kol Nidre Eve, I reflected on our "COVID Exhaustion."
On the First Day of Rosh HaShanah, I described this year as a "Sad New Year.”
On the Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, I reflected that “It Takes a Long Time to Become Young.”
On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I urged that we “Can't Be Over It.”
 

jewish peoplehood & Purpose

Yom Kippur Sermon 2021 | 5782
 

 

 
When I next get the opportunity to be in Israel, I’m looking forward to returning to a favorite old museum. After a $100 million renovation it’s now new. The former Beit Hatfusot, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, is now ANU, the Museum of the Jewish People. One recent visitor describes it as “a cheery, inclusive vision of Jewish Peoplehood.”
 
The old museum told the story of the Jewish People outside of Israel. Honoring our religious heritage. Teaching our history. Paying homage to victims of antisemitism, and exploring varieties of Jewish identity, culture, and ethnicity.
 
This new museum is the only museum in the world that attempts to tell the Jewish story in its entirety. About it I read, “One has the unmistakable sense that the designers and visitors have a shared understanding of what Judaism is, even if they might not agree on all its meanings and implications.”
 
Catches your imagination, doesn’t it. Jews in agreement about Judaism? That’s something I’ll have to see to believe.
 
I know in our synagogue and greater Jewish community some of you are supporters and donors to this unique venture. Perhaps you agree, as some observe, that this new museum is more lighthearted than the original Diaspora Museum.
 
For example, in addition to permanent exhibitions about “Trailblazers of the Jewish People,” and “Synagogues Past and Present,” the first temporary exhibit is entitled, “Jewish Humor Around the World.” Among its features I understand there are Seinfeld memorabilia from America and routines from Israeli stand-up comics.
 
I look forward to visiting. Until then, I can’t comment on the museum’s merits or impact. Still, knowing about the existence of a world class Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv raises a few questions. Among them, this.
 
Is Jewish Peoplehood, the idea that you and I belong to a distinctive people, a group with whom we each have an affinity for and identify with, is Jewish Peoplehood something most Jews, or even we here, acknowledge today?
 
I also have a more personal question. If you were asked to select an item to display in this new Museum of the Jewish People, if you were asked to choose something from your life experiences, your memories, or your home that represents your Jewish identity or belonging to the Jewish People, what would you choose? What is your connection? Even deeper, what is your contribution to the story of the Jewish People?
 
Upon entering the Museum of the Jewish People, a visitor meets life-size projections of individual Jews describing what Judaism means to them. The effect is to create a conversation about the purpose and significance of being Jewish. My last question, for now. How do you explain your personal understanding of Jewish purpose and meaning?
 
At the outset of the pandemic we continue to endure, I did not imagine these to be among my questions or concerns when we would emerge from seclusion and slowly return to being with one another. Yet, coincidental to our necessary separation, and perhaps because of it, many people began asking questions of Jewish identity.
 
The absence of physical community. Lost opportunities to gather with family and friends for Jewish occasions and celebrations. We turned within. We asked ourselves about our Jewish interests, habits, and beliefs.
 
Then came last spring’s conflict between Hamas and Israel which also raised questions of Jewish identity. When Israel came under attack by enemies sworn to her destruction, as riots erupted in Israeli cities and synagogues burned, from a safe distance, some American Jews expressed their personal discomfort with Israeli politics and policies before expressing their personal connection to and concern for Israel. I said at the time, our compassion is for all who are innocent and all who suffer, but our bond with Israel is unique.
 
A word about Israel.
 
Israel is the fulfillment of Jewish Peoplehood. Israel enables complete consciousness of Jewish being, identity, and purpose. No other land and no other place allow Jews this wholeness. That’s why our bond is so very emotional and compelling. Why many of us feel it so personally.
 
Last spring many of us saw in Israel a nation under siege. Others saw in Israel a vitality and strength that overwhelms the region, especially in Gaza where we all see poverty, suffering, and pain. We all genuinely grieve the loss, pain, and human suffering. We feel it for each IDF soldier and Israeli citizen when they are killed or wounded, for his or her family. We feel it for all innocent Palestinian families who mourn their losses of children and loved ones.
 
Through the lens of our people’s story and moral memory, however, we see cause and effect, goodness and hatred. We see narratives and context for an intractable conflict. Apparently, many don’t. Former AP Middle East reporter Matti Friedman describes it clearly. “The Jews of Israel are the screen onto which it has become socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself and your country.”
 
As a result, last spring defending Israel and celebrating Zionism became controversial. Yet far away from the Middle East, here in America, 222 reported antisemitic incidents took place during those two weeks when Hamas terrorists reigned missile attacks against Israel.
 
A word about antisemitism.
 
In the context of our discussion today, the historian of antisemitism Daniel Goldhagen explains. “From the beginning, the notion existed that Jews formed a people, an identifiable ethnic group, like a large family, and not merely a freely come together collection of believers.”
 
About which Rabbi Judah Loew, the 16th century Maharal of Prague explains. “Since we Jews are separated and scattered among all the nations of the world a person will think that this is the Jewish people’s greatest deficiency.”
 
In other words, not worthy of our own nation as Jews, the nations of the world don’t need to tolerate our presence mixed in among them. Which, thinking again about Israel, is why Israel is a fulfillment of Jewish Peoplehood even for those of us who do not live there.
 
In my view, the antisemite is a coward. Afraid of himself or herself. Fearful of the burdens of freedom and free moral choice. Nervous about changes in society and around the world, the antisemite seeks an escape from personal responsibility by hating the unknown other.
 
A word about us.
 
In addition to whatever engaged, entertained, and challenged us at home these past months, many of us were alone with our thoughts during a more reflective and quiet time in our lives. We come to Yom Kippur, this sacred day of introspection, with lots of practice.
 
We say of God on Yom Kippur, “You know the mysteries of the universe, the deepest secrets of everyone alive. You probe our innermost depths. You examine our thoughts and feelings.” Ourselves aware of what only we and God may know, we seek forgiveness and atonement.
 
We are here to reconcile our thoughts with our deeds, our self-awareness with our personal visions for being in life. In other words, over the past many months we’ve gotten good at contemplating the nature of our lives. We have actual experience outside of a synagogue service considering how we hope to carry ourselves back into the world.
 
Maybe you’ve thought about your appearance. Perhaps you’ve considered what new ventures to pursue and to which former activities you will or won’t return. Beyond how we look or what we do to keep busy, on Yom Kippur we focus on character, vision, and purpose. Have we considered how we might present ourselves and interact when back among others? Kinder? Respectful? Tolerant? Forgiving? More grateful for what is than upset for what isn’t?
 
In a city of 1.4 million, in a state of 39.7 million, in a country of 333 million, and a world of 7.9 billion human beings, we 14 million Jews each ask who am I? Where do I belong? With whom do I identify in this vast, mysterious, and diverse human world? What am I about? What binds me to others? What sets me apart?
 
It’s complicated. We each function in several subgroups of people simultaneously. Jewish Peoplehood is one such historic and enduring address and association. A personal place to belong while living as one among millions and billions. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes. “Judaism is primarily the living in the spiritual order of the Jewish People, the living in Jews of the past and with the Jews of the present.”
 
A most familiar prayer of Jewish tradition is Aleinu. We all know the prayer signifies the end of a service. But do we know why? The origin of Aleinu is a matter of debate, though we know it is ancient and was first used formally on Rosh HaShanah in the 2nd or 3rd century. Aleinu expresses the essence of Jewish Peoplehood in 10 compound sentences.
 
It begins with the particular. Aleinu l’shabeah la’Adon hakol. We praise the Sovereign of all existence. We acclaim God for the special role of the Jewish People in history. Shelo sam helkeinu kahem. Our destiny is different.
 
We then look forward to the day when differences between peoples will not matter. It concludes with the universal. God embraces all of humanity. Bayom hahu yihiyeh Adonai ehad u’shemo ehad. On that day the Eternal God shall be one and the name of God, one.”
 
In the middle, the transition from distinguishing the Jewish People to celebrating all people, is this phrase. L’taken olam b’malkhut Shaddai. To repair the world, or possibly instead of repair, to establish the world, under God’s Sovereignty.
 
This is a statement of Jewish purpose. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan describes it as our two duties. Our first duty is to the Jewish people’s covenant with God. Our second duty is to seek covenant with everyone else.
 
Quoting Rabbi Heschel again. “Judaism is an attempt to prove that in order to be a human, you have to be more than a human; that in order to be a people, we have to be more than a people. It is our destiny to live for what is more than ourselves.”
 
Let’s learn from COVID. There is a universal reality to the experience of being human. Yet a person does not find his or her life’s meaning in their universal existence. Meaning and significance come from our particular identities and experiences.
 
If we are not each unique, the world has no need for our personal gifts and talents. If we are not distinctive as a group, if we have no lived history or sacred story to tell, then we have no wisdom or vision to share with the larger world. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes, “Judaism believes in one God but not in one religion, one culture, one truth. The role of Jews and Judaism is to teach humanity the dignity of difference.”
 
This is what Aleinu means every time we recite it. That we do not allow our universal sensitivities to become a rejection of Jewish Peoplehood. Our liberal values must serve as a quest for particular Jewish significance in a uniquely pluralistic and multi-cultural society. We need to reclaim Jewish particularism as a foundational expression of Jewish identity and values in an open society.
 
I began, a long time ago, by asking what you might display in the Museum of the Jewish People as your individual contribution to our collective story? How might you explain your personal understanding of Jewish purpose and meaning? I hope you’ll give this some thought. I hope we’ll find opportunities to talk about this alone and together in the year ahead.
 
I might choose to answer with ideas I have taught. Textual interpretations I have shared. Moments in the lives of Jewish individuals and families at which I have officiated. What I might choose is an unfair measure for you. My career choice is to serve the Jewish People. I hope I have contributed in some small way.
 
For our purpose today, I’ll level the playing field. Not as Rabbi Shulman but as Ron Shulman, I ask myself as I am asking you. What represents my Jewish identity and belonging? What is my personal contribution to the story of the Jewish People?
 
My contribution is not mine alone. It is the promise inscribed on Robin’s and my wedding rings. The rings Robin and I designed and wear contain the Hebrew words, “Ani v'atah, neshaneh et ha'olam.” It is the name and refrain of our favorite Israeli love ballad composed by Arik Einstein. “You and I will change the world.” Easier said, easier sung, then done!
 
We give to each other our personal and unconditional love and loyalty. We also give our love and loyalty to the ideas, traditions, and dreams of Judaism and the Jewish People. To make Jewish a personal priority and a family lifestyle. To believe that the purpose of Judaism is to seek ought over is. To imagine what can be even when it is not. And if not yet true in the world at large, to find within the celebrations and ideas of the Jewish People a community where it can be true for me, for us.
 
The love and loyalty I’m speaking about is of purpose. No current challenge of Jewish life, no concern about Jewish identity and demographics, no personal spiritual or religious curiosity, no fears of antisemitism or discussions about Israel will be met effectively unless and until we find purpose in belonging to the Jewish People.
 
Va’anahnu korim u’mishtahavim u’modim. Lifne Melekh Malkehi haM’lakhim, haKadosh Baruch Hu. We humbly bow before God’s sovereignty and holiness. We accept our privilege to be members of the Jewish People. For that distinctive, precious, cherished, unique, and only ours privilege, we give thanks.
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

covid exhaustion

Kol Nidre Sermon 2021 | 5782
 
 
 
 
I recently asked a physician I know about COVID exhaustion. He looked at me sympathetically and started listing off symptoms like fatigue, headache, and shortness of breath. Just as he was about to ask me if I had any such symptoms, I stopped him. No, not physical illness or exhaustion, I explained. I’m thinking about COVID emotional exhaustion.
 
On this sacred night, with sensitivity and compassion, I know we are all exhausted. In my soul is a revision of the Kol Nidre phrase we recited earlier. From last Yom Kippur until this one, who could have possibly imagined how emotionally challenging and debilitating the last year, the past eighteen months, would be?
 
We are all COVID exhausted.
 
Parents trying to maintain balance in their families while juggling work or underemployment, their children’s schooling and various needs. All the while also striving for self-maintenance and healthy personal relationships.
 
Still other parents, grandparents, and teachers creatively and vigorously doing all they can in response to our youngest children, maybe even for all of our children. Children who are developing emotionally and physically, learning language, social and life skills, more slowly and more isolated than is typical.
 
Those of us whose employment is still not secure. Possibly our income is diminished. Those among and around us for whom even running errands has been difficult. We all have felt occasional bouts of loneliness. Many of us coping with illnesses, grieving loved ones, or just feeling disheartened.
 
Adults fretting over families and friends, each day sensing a bit more of their lives quietly slipping away. Individuals, at every life stage, alone and aging, afraid and unsure. All of us asking, is it safe to go out? With whom and where?
 
Medical personnel, first responders, essential workers, educators, organizational and communal leaders, researchers, journalists, people from all walks of life and all segments of society trying to keep apace, working tirelessly to sustain, maintain, and create anew the structures, activities, and support systems some require and so many others desire.
 
Many of us feel a palpable sense of disappointment. We were on the path out of the pandemic, and suddenly it seems like this virus isn’t going away, which it probably isn’t I’m told. We have postponed things we hoped to return to. It’s emotionally draining continuously to be “COVID Careful.” Assessing risk, making choices, living as fully, “normally,” and responsibly as we can.
 
We are all COVID exhausted.
 
Months after their Exodus from Egypt, after enduring a long period of disruption and difficult circumstances, Torah reports that a very tired and weary group of Israelites were attacked while on their journey to the Land of Israel. On this sacred night, at this sacred season, this Biblical memory resonates. Torah recounts both a physical and emotional impact.
 
The Coronavirus attacks us physically, to be sure. Tonight, we focus on its other effect. Emotionally, we are a tired and weary group of people. Tonight, we acknowledge this and seek a spiritual response for coping and restoration.
 
On Yom Kippur we are present to ourselves, to one another, and to God. Not only for forgiveness, but also for rejuvenation. “If you see within me cause for sadness,” we recite in the Mahzor, “guide me in ways everlasting.”
 
In Torah we first learn about this purpose of Yom Kippur. “It is a Sabbath of Sabbaths for you…” A Shabbat of complete rest. Shabbat Shabbaton, a double Shabbat. Rest not only for our bodies but also rest for our souls. “…and you shall answer your souls, this is a decree for all times.”
 
It’s our first small step. To rest. As we take a break from our normal routines, let’s use this night, and tomorrow, to exhale. (Go ahead, exhale!) Then to be honest about what we are feeling. We fast to deny our physical needs so we can answer our souls with a degree of emotional and spiritual refreshment.
 
The Biblical prophet Elijah once placed his emotional exhaustion before God. Elijah felt the burdens of his people’s pain and aimlessness. Elijah witnessed their worries and understood their apprehensions. Distraught himself, Elijah withdrew from his routine.
 
“Enough,” he cried. “Take my soul.” Next we read, “He lay down and fell asleep.” Maybe save the actual sleep for a bit later. For now, in these evening hours of Yom Kippur, as did Elijah, express what you are feeling.
 
It is among the Bible’s most powerful spiritual scenes. As I read it to you, don’t think about Elijah’s circumstances. Think about your own. Remember, our first step is to rest. Our second step is to express ourselves. To others, if we are able and comfortable. To ourselves, and to God, as private reflection and personal prayer.
 
“God said to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He replied, “I am moved by zeal for the Eternal God, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and I fear for my life.”
 
“Come out,” God called, “and stand on the mountain before the Eternal God.” And the Eternal God passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal God; but God was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a soft murmuring sound.
 
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his cloak about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered, “I am moved by zeal for the Eternal God. I alone am left, and I fear for my life. The Eternal God said to him, “Go back by the way you came…”
 
In quiet and calm we recover our equilibrium. Returning to all we must do and manage, as God sends Elijah back by the way he came, we need a different emotional response. We won’t gain emotional health from life’s mighty winds and shattering rocks. We instead, will find what we seek by looking out at the world with a more forgiving and uplifting attitude.
 
This is the third step. After we rest, after we reflect about ourselves and our circumstances, we reorient ourselves. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains. Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. To get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. Everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
 
Heschel writes, “Spiritually we cannot live by merely reiterating borrowed or inherited knowledge. Inquire of your soul what does it know, what does it take for granted. It will tell you only no-thing is taken for granted; each thing is a surprise, being is unbelievable. We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.”
 
Yes, for the past eighteen months it has been incredibly hard for parents to balance all they and their children need and do. Yes, for longer than we’re accustomed to we are monitoring our children as they grow and mature.
 
And yet, as parents we are providing our children with the best possible environments we can. Our children are learning. Our children are playing. Our children are thriving in our embrace and our love.
 
Yes, day in and day out some of us worry about our finances and our daily capacities. Yes, too many of us have been dealing with illness, grief, and dismay. Yes, we fret over the passing of time.
 
And yet, here we are through our own means and with the assistance of others who care. When we have known illness, we have also experienced healing. When grief has touched us, comfort has supported us. When we were disappointed and worried, we regrouped and changed our plans as possible. We have lived on to see the next day and what it might bring.
 
Yes, we are all stressed by the demands of responding to a global pandemic. Yes, we worry about how best to move forward. Yes, we are tired.
 
And yet, we have discovered how resilient and creative we are. How determined and optimistic we remain. How anticipating a post-pandemic future keeps us looking ahead, not back, hopeful not hopeless.
 
We are all COVID exhausted.
 
And yet, we welcome a New Year with expectation and resolve to live at our best as best we can.
 
“Standing eye to eye with being as being,” writes Rabbi Heschel, “we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties, with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.”
 
On this sacred night, with sensitivity and compassion, we pause to rest. We turn within and to others. We express all we may be feeling. We calmly and quietly adapt ourselves to the world as it is so that we may regain our composure. I pray we continue to rest, to reflect, and to adapt from this Yom Kippur until the next. On this sacred night, and through every next day, may we choose to see all around us wonder not worry.
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

sad new year

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2021 | 5782
 

 

 
Shanah Tovah! I greet you this morning with the fervent hope that this New Year will be a good one for you, for us, for the Jewish people, and for all of humanity. Our greeting, as you know, is for a good new year, a Shanah Tovah. Not a Happy New Year. We leave the happy for January 1st.
 
At this liminal moment, a holy transition from what ends to what begins, from the old to the new, today our hope is for what our lives require. We seek goodness, meaning, health, and contentment whether the coming days are happy or sad.
 
Honestly, if emotions are to be our measure right now as time moves forward, I feel this to be a sad New Year. I am sad that COVID’s lingering threat prevents more of us from being here together in this room. I am sad that we were on a path out of the pandemic and had to backtrack. I am sad that COVID is morphing into an endemic and that “COVID Careful” is going to be the path we must learn to walk.
 
Sadly, I wonder if this is what it felt like to live in Biblical times. People all over the world suffer from nature’s wrath. Blazing fires. Devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, and flooding. Illness afflicting millions. People suffer the results of humanity’s failings, too: widespread poverty and despair, insecurity and indignity.
 
It’s Rosh HaShanah. This is not the holiday when we spill wine from our Seder Kiddush Cups to symbolize sadness at the plagues afflicting humanity. Though these troubles are ever present around the globe, at this moment, amidst all the disruption the COVID pandemic continues to cause, I feel a deep sadness about all that is and should not be.
 
I am sad that more pushes us apart than pulls us together as Americans and as Jews. I am sad that groups we may associate with, and some of our families too, divide rather than come together. I am sad that we emphasize our differences more than we appreciate our similarities. In other words, I am sad that all too often we can’t agreeably disagree.
 
I am sad that the darker side of human nature is openly, wantonly, and all too comfortably on display throughout our toxic and intoxicating social media culture, our public discourse, and our society at large.
 
I am sad that too often a lack of honesty and integrity, the undermining of truth and trust, diminish allegiance to country and community. I am sad when selfish preferences masquerade as rights, when responsibility toward others is not seen as civic duty.
 
I am sad that antisemitism is rampant and the hypocrites who spew it so animated. I am sad that misrepresenting Zionism and questioning Israel’s right to exist are the in vogue politically correct posture.
 
If emotions are to be our measure, I feel an inner sadness as this New Year begins. To describe my mood, I teach this comment on a verse in today’s Rosh HaShanah Torah reading. It is an insight of the 19th Century Polish Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vorki.
 
After Abraham sends away Hagar and her son Ishmael because Sarah is jealous of them, we learn that without enough water, Hagar worries for her son’s life. Then we read, “God heard the cry of the boy…” Rabbi Mendel explains the verse this way. “Nothing in the preceding verses indicates that Ishmael cried out. No, it was a soundless cry,” what I call inner sadness, “and God heard it.”

On another occasion Rabbi Mendel discussed the verse in the Torah which tells about Pharaoh's daughter when she rescues Moses from the river. In that scene we read, “When she opened the basket, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying.”

“What we should expect to be told,” says Rabbi Mendel, “is that she heard the child Moses crying, not that she saw him crying. But the child was crying inside himself.” Another example of inner sadness, “which is why later Pharaoh’s daughter declares, ‘This is one of the Hebrews' children.’” Moses’ cry reflects his inner sadness. “‘It was the Jewish kind of crying,’” concludes Rabbi Mendel.
 
The Jewish kind of crying. We are an introspective and reflective people. Throughout history, we take in what the world foists upon us. With enduring strength, we give back to the world the moral lessons of our experience and the wisdom of our ideas. This describes my mood as the New Year begins. So, don’t worry.
 
It is not my intention to depress you this morning, if I haven’t already. I do want to think out loud with you about human nature, about the nature of this moment in time, and about our vision and ability to transform inner sadness into goodness.
 
Let me begin with this insight of the Talmud. In establishing the patterns of Jewish prayer and ritual, the rabbis teach. “One recites a blessing for the bad just as one does for the good.” At a time of distress, we don’t give up hope. As well, “One recites a blessing for the good just as one does for the bad.” At a time of contentment, we seek perspective.
 
Making such bold statements, the rabbis offer examples. If one’s land floods, though at the time a bad circumstance to confront, perhaps benefit will come from the sediment enhancing the quality of the soil. Bad for now. Hopefully better later.
 
Or perhaps you find a valuable object. At the time, a good situation to be in. But if the original owner claims his lost item, you will have to give it back. Good for now. Possibly not good for long. A metaphor for many of our lives’ experiences.
 
Bad times give way to better days. Good times are fleeting, to be savored while they last. In life it is our blessing, it is our burden, and it is our goal to seek significance. We want to find meaning in the brevity, variety, and mystery of everything we experience.
 
These past 18 months were no exception. Consider everything we did. Remember everything you did. Reflect on all you still may be doing. To cope. To help. To make something good for yourself and for others during this most unusual time in our lives.
 
Unsure and unsettled, we found new and imaginative ways to fill our days with purpose and productivity. We made use, as we are making use, of God’s gifts, the gifts of human ingenuity and resilience. We responded to a unique challenge with our best virtues. Compassion and caring as we confronted loss and distress. Creativity and conviction as we worked, celebrated, and gathered. When lonely we appreciated hearing from others. When worried we sought hope. When wearied we tried new things.
 
“What are human beings,” asks the Psalms of God, “that You have been mindful of them, humanity that You take note of them? You have made human beings a little less than divine, adorned them with glory and majesty. You have made human beings master of Your handiwork, laying the world at their feet.”
 
The author of this Psalm is overcome with the world’s beauty. Yet, of all the magnificent things in the world, for this poet nothing compares to the wonder of human beings. Masters of God’s handiwork, blessed with intelligence, emotion, and conscience, we can reach down to raise up our circumstances out of most any abyss.
 
Or, in alphabetical order (because in the religious poetry of the High Holy Days alphabetic lists symbolize the totality of our good or bad capacities) we can abuse, berate, cheat, destroy, exploit, fool, gloat, hate, insult, justify, knock, lie, mock, negate, offend, persecute, quarrel, ruin, steal, troll, undermine, violate, wreck, [be] xenophobic, yell, and [be] zealots.
 
Each of these acts, all together and all too often, reveal the dark side of human nature. All too often they overwhelm our better instincts and the potential of our humanity. They always have. In every generation. All too much on display currently, the nastiness of these negative traits when displayed between people and groups contributes to my inner sadness. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
 
Let me tell you about three of many things that happened 18 months ago on March 13, 2020. It was a Friday, but we’ll put aside all the Friday the 13th superstitions. Although that date means it was “National Blame Someone Else Day.” Not quite a Hallmark holiday, but a day established in 1982 to encourage individuals to pawn off their mistakes or mishaps on someone or something else. A tempting theme, but I’ll put that aside for now, too.
 
18 months ago, on March 13, 2020, here at Beth El we gathered for our last Shabbat evening service before we closed. No one knew what lie ahead. In fits and starts, around the country folks headed home and into seclusion.
 
Meanwhile in Washington DC, all 16 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display at the Museum of the Bible were declared, “cunning forgeries.” Considered some of the museum’s most valuable items, described as “the oldest known surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible,” they were fakes. Copies made of aged leather and modern ink. The quality of these forgeries was so good, some of the world’s leading scroll scholars were duped.
 
All the while, north from here in Berkeley, CA a scientist named Jennifer Doudna couldn’t sleep. It was 2 a.m. in the pre-dawn hours of March 13. She sensed her world, our world, was about to change.
 
Walter Isaacson tells the story. Dr. Doudna led a March 13 meeting of her colleagues. She stood in front of the room and also via Zoom to rally 50 researchers with an intensity she usually kept masked by a calm façade. “This is not something that academics typically do,’ she told her peers. ‘We need to step up.” Jennifer Doudna is recognized for her lead role in the genetic research that ultimately produced the two mRNA COVID vaccines.
 
Living amidst a pandemic as we and everyone closed the two sides of human nature were present on that March 13, as they are every day. In a museum, thieves were found to have perpetrated a scam. In a laboratory, scientists started a journey toward healing. In our homes, with our relatives and friends, and by ourselves, you and I looked at our unexpected reality and had to decide what to do.
 
While there will always be bad actors among us and weak moments for us all, I refuse to live in the darkness of humanity’s baser inclinations. In the world I inhabit, I choose to emphasize possibility, potential, and the promise present in people’s best efforts.
 
Talmudic sage Rabbi Elazar reflects this choice. Knowing there would be bad acts among human beings in the world, God chose to see and promote the good of creation. “Even one righteous person would justify the creation of the entire world,” Rabbi Elazar teaches. In the mythology and wonder of God’s creation, wherever possible in life and in the world, our purpose is to see and do the good.
 
But I also know the saddest verse in the Torah. It comes after humanity’s creation in Genesis. There has been murder, corruption, and hurt. After which we read, “And the Eternal God regretted making human beings on earth, and God’s heart was sad.” We recognize the source of God’s inner sadness. People exhibiting their inclination to evil, their Yetzer haRa, rather than their inclination to good, their Yetzer haTov.
 
Yet, we need to know this. For God’s image in Genesis, and for so many voices in Jewish tradition, sadness is a pause on the way to compassion. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi teaches. “If one does not have a broken and contrite heart, one cannot be said to have a heart at all.”
 
The remedy for my inner sadness, and any you may also feel, lies in this truth. If I don’t want my inner sadness to endure, I must turn it into compassion and kind-heartedness.
 
I need to create an alternate reality, not of facts but of ideals, of hopes, and of personal ethics. A way to manage my existence in the real world with a vision of a better world. A source of inspiration, motivation, and retort to all I see that troubles me. For all that crowds my heart and soul with painful images and disturbing information I must know but am somewhat helpless to fix.
 
I need to care for my soul in order to care about my world. I need to withdraw in order to engage. I need to search for meaning in order to contribute something meaningful to others. As individuals and a community, we know we are blessed in the condition of our lives. Aware of our people’s history, aware of all that plagues people around the world today, we live as the fortunate few.
 
I wonder if our relative comfort separates us from the deeper experiences of humanity. Human history, including life around the globe today, finds people searching for understanding, for security, for personal purpose, or just for simple survival. Life’s depth comes from standing vulnerable to the natural and human made ill winds that blow around the world.
 
We need a way to take hold of our humanity. To connect us to others’ realities. To allow life’s precariousness to motivate joy and gratitude, compassion and kindness. What I seek is to grow through my comfort toward a recognition of the true earnestness and intensity of life.
 
I propose something unusual. An additional reason for doing mitzvot, for consciously choosing acts of Jewish celebration and rites of ritual demonstration.
 
The choices we make to observe Jewish life according to its patterns and customs, to celebrate Rosh HaShanah as we do today, to be thoughtful and ethical about our interactions with all that lives, is to give over some personal autonomy to be larger than I am alone and greater in vision than I can imagine.
 
Doing mitzvot may just be a way to bring into our lives a depth of purpose. To focus on what it means to care for ourselves and others. To focus on the patterns and needs of our lives. To connect us to realities of human experience within our group and beyond our own. In Jewish observance we act out the dramas and quests of human striving. We glean wisdom of the ages urgently necessary today.
 
We may not always be able to control our moods. Emotions well within us. We can decide how to respond to what we feel. When sad we can find motivation in the memory of better days. Of soul and conscience, you and I can counter meanness when we encounter it. We can be good when others are not. We can model decency where it is lacking.
 
Remember we are but a little lower than the divine, as the Psalm imagines we each exist in life. It’s up to us. There are those who will use their ingenuity to perpetrate fraud. To hurt. There are also those who will use their talents to make things better. To assist. Each of us can do the same. We can harm or we can help.
 
We can refuse to give credence to public personalities whose efforts and belligerence are unworthy of our attention. We can refuse to make space in our minds for people whose words and intentions are rude. In this New Year, we can shine the light of our ideals onto the dark places of human experience.
 
The remedy for my inner sadness is personal resolve. Care and compassion. Honesty and integrity. Generosity and activity on behalf of others, by whatever means we can. And spiritually. By living in sacred time and doing sacred deeds. Establishing an alternate reality of ideals and of personal ethics. By embracing daily, weekly, or periodic moments of mitzvah, of connection, of faith, of hope, and of love.
 
Shanah Tovah! May we rejoice and reflect as we begin a new phase of living and striving. May we return to God by improving the quality and character of our deeds. It is all ours to see and ours to do. To transform inner sadness into goodness, and in the end, in an alternate reality, to declare 5782 to be a good and happy New Year!
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

it takes a long time to become young

Rosh HaShanah Day Two Sermon 2021 | 5782
 

 

 
Author and playwright, Garson Kanin tells this story. It is 1966 in Cannes, France. A retrospective of Pablo Picasso’s art works is on display. Hundreds of canvasses arranged in chronological order. The viewers are visibly impressed by the breadth and beauty of the exhibit.
 
Through it all, Picasso himself is moved, enjoying the show more than anyone. He is 85 years old, surrounded by many younger admirers. A woman approaches Picasso. She compliments him on the presentation. “It is stupendous!” she gushes. “But I do not understand the grouping, not at all,” she comments. “How so?” asks the artist.
 
“Well,” she replies, “the beginning pictures are so mature, so serious. The later ones more and more different and wild. It is almost as if the dates should be reversed. Starting here with your new works and ending there with the first. How do you explain it?”
 
“Easily,” Pablo Picasso answers, his eyes sparkling. “It takes a long time to become young!”
 
That’s why we’re here today!
 
It takes a long time to renew our spirits, our souls, and our sense of self at the start of a New Year. When we’re young, we rush to grow up. As we age, we strive to stay young. On this Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, we actually stop time. We don’t age, nor are we getting any younger. I’ll explain in a moment.
 
Picasso’s insight, “it takes a long time to become young” is true. It takes a lifetime for each of us to grow comfortable with who we are. It takes years of experience to fully embrace our strengths and weaknesses. It takes the misplaced confidence of youth to measure in our older years the attainments and disappointments of our days.
 
Most of all, it takes the skills we develop and the efforts we expend over time to become really good at whatever we have set out to do. That’s how I understand what Picasso said. It takes a long time for us to achieve our goals in life. Whatever we may seek, we work hard at it until we’re proficient. Until our maturity expresses itself like a youthful vitality. It takes a long time to become young.
 
We are here today, at the synagogue and at home, because Jewish tradition understands Rosh HaShanah to be one very long day. Yoma Arikhta, a long day blending two sacred days into one. There is no yesterday, only today for the 48 hours of Rosh HaShanah.
 
Centuries ago, the imperative of celebrating a New Year wasn’t only to gather, to pray and reflect, to share greetings and good wishes with family and friends. The ancient rabbis had to set the communal calendar. They and their peers could not check a digital or printed calendar. They had to gaze up into the night sky, look for the new moon, verify its sighting for accuracy and, as a result, set the sacred dates for each month of the year.
 
There were Jews who lived a distance from the Beit Din in Jerusalem when holy days were declared. They lived in areas where the news of which date to celebrate might be late. News which might be delayed by opponents of rabbinic law who wanted to confuse the people in distant communities.
 
Those who lived far away and were unsure if they should mark today or tomorrow celebrated both. They observed two holy days to avoid violating a Torah command for honoring a precise sacred date. More on than off, this has been the practice inside and outside of Israel through the generations.
 
We are all familiar with this tradition still today. Two days of festival in our Diaspora for every one day in Israel. Second Seder celebrations and the like. We’re also aware of the change in circumstances. We know with a precision unimaginable to our ancestors what time it is here and everywhere else. Therefore, we find additional reasons to honor Second Day Yom Tovim – or not.
 
Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu – the custom of our ancestors is in our hands.” In the Diaspora, taking more time to focus intentionally on our Jewish lives, identities, and heritage balances the necessary cultural assimilation that is Jewish life outside of Israel. In our added celebration, we strive to be united with Jews worldwide. We are also aware of rabbinic law which understands. “The sanctity of Second Day Yom Tov is lighter.”
 
Except when it comes to Rosh HaShanah! We are not celebrating today because we aren’t sure it was Rosh HaShanah yesterday. We know that it was. We’re here today because it takes a long time to become young.
 
It is taking a long time to become free of the Coronavirus pandemic, too. As if last year’s High Holy Days weren’t unusual enough, here we are in a mode of holiday celebration that may change us well into the future. In person and online, when able to gather again safely and comfortably, will we choose to when we can? I’ll leave the future until then.
 
Here and now, we are aging as we are enduring, not only physically but emotionally. Averages for human life expectancy have shortened. Many of us feel overwhelmed and weary. If it takes a long time to become young, in the moment it seems to be taking longer than ever before!
 
We learn, “Anyone who tries to push off the moment,” in other words avoid what is, “will be pushed off by the moment,” in other words struggle. “Anyone who is pushed off by the moment,” in other words confront what is, “the moment will be pushed off for him,” in other words succeed.
 
Success takes time. Success requires work. Success results from an honest appraisal of what is, what must be done, and how. To achieve my best self, to become a better version this year of who I was last year, even if I was pretty good - we don’t have to be glum to be contrite – to do teshuvah as we are called to do on Rosh HaShanah, is to pause, turn within, and try to recreate or renew something about ourselves.
 
Let’s not regret or resent what we are living through. Instead, let’s confront the challenge of our lingering pandemic days. This year, teshuvah means we ought to plan for our return to all we miss and desire.
 
We want health, security, and the full renewal of our life routines. We want to make improvements where we see shortcomings and offer help where we see need. We want to change ourselves just enough to discover what we are capable of and maybe just a little more than we thought possible before.
 
Teshuvah is our quest for growth of soul and character as we age in both years and accumulated experience. It takes a long time to become young. It certainly takes more than one day. This is our task every day. This is also why Rosh HaShanah is described as one long day, not two distinct days. Yoma Arikhta, a long day modelling the time and endurance it truly takes to achieve worthwhile goals.
 
On this Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, we have stopped time, at least spiritually and morally. We are not aging, nor are we getting any younger. Instead, we are pausing the clock to decide in our hearts and heads if what we want and need is more important to us than whatever may prevent us from accomplishing it. We can use the gift of this expanded sacred time, at synagogue and at home, to motivate our consideration and decision.
 
Last night those of us who sat down for a holiday meal, we raised our cups to recite Kiddush. Monday night, on Erev Rosh HaShanah, our recitation of Kiddush concluded with the b’rakhah Sheheheyanu, expressing thanks for our being in life, for all that sustains us, and for us reaching this new moment and year.
 
A simple and familiar ritual moment, except for last night about which we ask this question. If Rosh HaShanah is one long day, and not two separate days, should we say Sheheheyanu on the “second night” or not? If so, what we are celebrating as new?
 
Maybe it’s not the most profound question we Jews ask. It does have, however, a sweet answer. Find something new for this special occasion. Wear a new garment. Choose a new fruit to eat. If and when COVID safe, gather with a new group of family or friends for this meal. Seek awareness. Celebrate the new amidst the familiar.
 
An admirer of Pablo Picasso’s art once wondered why his paintings appeared to be more youthful, fresh, and new as the famed artist grew older. Picasso’s answer is useful to us today.
 
Teshuvah, as we are called to do on Rosh HaShanah, is to pause, turn within, and try to recreate or renew something about ourselves. Using the wisdom of our years and learning from life’s various tests, each of us has this capacity. To refresh our approach to all that engages us. To vigorously, or should I say youthfully, put forward our best efforts for all to admire.
 
Afterall, as this Second Day of Rosh HaShanah represents, “It takes a long time to become young.”
 
That’s why we’re here today!
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

can't be over it

Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2021 | 5782
 

 

 
I’m a Twitter tourist. I don’t post or comment. I monitor a bit to see what’s going on out there in the “Twitterverse.” If you tweet or want to recommend who I might follow, please let me know.
 
A cute Twitter handle I follow calls itself, “My Shul Called Life.” It seems to be a group of synagogue staffers very familiar with the flows and idiosyncrasies of synagogue life. No matter the synagogue, its religious style, or communal culture synagogue norms and patterns are largely familiar from one community to the next. Those of you who have belonged to different synagogues through the years surely recognize this.
 
A recent tweet from “My Shul Called Life” asked, “Is it too much to ask for 24/7 coverage on the state of synagogue changes in High Holy Day plans by Steve Kornacki?” This one is also cute. “A congregant has left a significant gift to the synagogue in her will. She notes in her estate that it is only to be used ‘to hire someone who can actually proofread.’”
 
However, here’s my favorite recent tweet of theirs. “We regret to inform you we will be cancelling the High Holy Days this year. Not because of Delta, we’re just over it.”
 
For some of us, it has been difficult anticipating this moment we now celebrate. It’s still summer and these are our fall festivals. It was just Labor Day weekend. This is the “earliest” the High Holy Days can come in the overlap of our Jewish and civil calendars. More impactful, we were looking to be past the pandemic and safely all together this evening, tomorrow, and through the sacred days ahead.
 
Whatever the early inconvenience or situational disappointment we feel, I think our mood is also affected by the totality of what we’re living through. These are not the hardest days in human history, nor the most challenging in Jewish history. Still, these are our days here and now. We feel the burden of so much continuously pressing down upon us. COVID, conflict, nature, and whatever else you want to list.
 
I will address these feelings tomorrow. This evening, I want to help you, me, all of us set the mood for these days we observe.
 
After I laughed at that tweet about being over the High Holy Days, I thought no. We can’t be over it. What we share on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is too important to gloss over. If not this year, then when? We need to grab on to these few hours of holy time and grasp their message.
 
“The genius of Judaism,” writes the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “was to take eternal truths and translate them into time, into lived experiences. Other cultures have constructed philosophies and theologies, elaborate systems of abstract thought. Judaism prefers truth lived to truth merely thought. Ancient Greece produced the logical imagination. Judaism produced the chronological imagination, truth transposed into the calendar. Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of humanity, invites us to live and feel the human condition in graphic ways.”
 
What truths about the human condition will we live in the next days? Let’s consider our holiday symbols to discover a few of them.
 
Perhaps yours is a custom to wear a new outfit or eat a new food on Rosh HaShanah. Yes or no, I hope tonight and tomorrow we all recite the b’rakhah Sheheheyanu, expressing thanks for our being in life, for all that sustains us, and for us reaching this new moment and year.
 
Life is a gift. We are born. We may give birth and enable the lives of others, but we each receive our own life through no effort of our own. Life is the most precious gift any one of us ever receives, followed only by the gift of love others give us, if we are so fortunate. HaYom Harat Olam. On Rosh HaShanah we celebrate the miracle and renewal of life, the world’s and our own.
 
Life is also sweet, and potentially good. The apples we dip into honey symbolize the continuous mahzor, cycle of experience, day to day, year to year. Life is sweet in the wonder of all that exists, in the beauty of all that is, and in the challenges we face to make our days and our world good.
 
Life is not always easy. In fact, it can be very difficult. Yet even a hard life contains a few simple moments of kindness, help, and pleasure. More or less, life is sweet and can be made good.
 
The sound of the Shofar calls us to this task of being good and seeking goodness. The call of the Shofar is a demand. Life demands much of us. God demands much of us. We demand much of each other, and of ourselves. It is only with great expectations that incredible things are possible. Hear the Shofar and urge yourself to settle for no less than your very best.
 
Teshuvah, Repentance, Tefillah, Prayer, and Tzedakah, Righteousness avert the severity of the decree.” Tomorrow morning when we recite this phrase asking of our fate, will it be a year of life and health or not, we understand.
 
There is much about life we do not control. Much will surprise us in the days ahead. And yet, we are endowed with incredible power. We are free as human beings. We are free to choose how to be. We are free to decide what to do. We are free to figure out how to respond. When and where there is joy, we can enjoy sharing in it. When and where there is sadness, we can humbly bring comfort and support.
 
Life is a gift. Life is sweet. Life, and in life we, can be good. It is ours to choose and to seek. What we do, who we do it with, and how we live our days are what matter.
 
I hope our mood this High Holy Day season will be one of gratitude for all that blesses us, sweetness for all that inspires us, goodness in all we can imagine, and freedom to pause, reflect, and sincerely imagine how to make a difference in this New Year.
 
We can’t be over it. What we share on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is too important to gloss over. Let us grab on to these few hours of holy time and grasp their message.
 
Shanah Tovah!
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

Sun, August 14 2022 17 Av 5782