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b'shalom rav - rabbi ron shulman's sermons 2022-23 | 5783

Rabbi Shulman's High Holy Day Sermons from 2022
are posted below his more recent sermons.

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Torah lesson of social ethics

Shabbat Korah | June 24, 2023


I’m continually struck by how many people in our nation and around the world have trouble with “the other.” The other one who looks different than I do. The other one who believes differently than I do. The other one who comes from a different place than I do. The other one whose life circumstance is so different from my own. Or, whoever the other one may be.
This morning, I want to think about social ethics.
Social ethics refers to the moral principles, values, and standards that guide individuals and society as a whole in their interactions. Social ethics is based on the recognition that we human beings are social creatures. We live and interact with others. Our individual and collective actions impact others.
Social ethics is the public purpose of Jewish values and Torah study. Social ethics is about making choices.
You can sew dissension, or you can bring comfort. The choice is entirely up to you.
You can dismiss someone with whom you disagree as wrong or you can listen to them, respect them, and express a different point of view.
You can declare the circumstances of other people’s lives as a threat to your own lifestyle, or you can quietly understand you don’t know what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
You can jump on someone else’s misfortune or misdeed to take competitive advantage, or you can offer them compassion and the decency of privacy while they work through whatever they confront for themselves and those involved.
You can hate others and the very fact of their existence, or you can embrace the gift of human diversity that fills our world.
Understand. No person is immune from seeing and being influenced by the extraordinary diversity that is humanity.
You can hold yourself separate or aloof from everyone else, or you can take advantage of the richness of other cultures to enlarge your own worldview and understandings of the gift of life we’ve all received.
This choice is fundamental to the values and aspirations of our Jewish tradition.
In Torah this morning we read and thought about Korah. A man whose temperament, as we meet him, understands the social ethic that every individual is sacred, and every person has a place and opportunity to contribute to society.
“For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal God is in their midst,” he tells Moses.
Korah is man who seeks to use the ethical ideal of human merit and equality for his own advantage. He challenges Moses, “Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”
Korah stands on this truth of social ethics. However, he doesn’t seek the establishment of this truth, but rather his own aggrandizement. Korah seeks the self-serving status of clout and a higher station rather than a more egalitarian system for governing the Israelite community.
As Moses responds, “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you direct access, to perform the duties of the Eternal’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them?
Korah’s choice is to negate and replace rather than to support and collaborate. Torah portrays this as an affront to God. Not Pharoah as a taskmaster, not Korah as a Levite, not even Moses as God’s prophet, is allowed to parade himself as superior to others.
As Moses explains, “…it was the Eternal God who sent me to do all these things; they are not of my own devising.”
Then we read about a very Biblical end to Korah. “Scarcely had Moses finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions.”
For Biblical history and Jewish tradition, this mythic end of Korah is not the end of the story. A few chapters after of this narrative, reviewing the lineage of people impacted by the dramatic end to Korah’s rebellion we read this interesting tidbit. “The sons of Korah, however, did not die.”
Voices in Jewish tradition wonder, imagine, and explain. The sons of Korah did not concur with their father. They aligned with Moses whose humility and humanity inspired them. They made a different choice. Korah left behind no enduring, and certainly no endearing legacy. About his descendants, the Bible offers a different end.
There are 150 psalms in the Hebrew Bible. Thirteen of them are ascribed to B’nei Korah, the descendants of Korah. Not quite 10% of the psalms are said to have been composed by these in a later generation who stood for community and not self. Among these poems is Psalm 49, which reminds us all.
“A Psalm of Korah’s Descendants:
People who trust in their riches, who glory in their great status?  
Wealth and power cannot redeem a person, or pay what’s due to God.
the price of life is too high; and so one ceases to be, forever.”
Life is about the character of our relationships with others. Honor and status are not the goals of life. Those who live for themselves satisfy only themselves.
Korah is a symbol of rebellion and conflict. His descendants are symbols of hope. Korah brought dissension and tension into the world. His descendants chose comfort.
Our tradition through the story of Korah and his descendants makes clear. You can sew dissension, or you can bring comfort. The choice is entirely up to you.
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

israel independence day - paying close attention

Yom Ha’Atzmaut 5783 | April 26, 2023
Hag Sameah! Today we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s 75th Independence Day. Yom Ha’Atzmaut is a holy day in the modern history of the Jewish people.
On Yom Ha’Atzmaut we focus on the meaning of Israel, not on what challenges her. We celebrate what and why about Israel, not what if and why not. We rejoice in the promise and purpose of Israel, not the politics or policies that too often animate controversy and conversation. Even so as we age, we reflect.
It’s been almost 50 years since I followed the news from Israel as closely and constantly as I do these days. Missile barrages and terror attacks certainly get full my attention and genuine concern. Debates about Jewish life in the Jewish state and Diaspora-Israel relations always engage me. But since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, I haven’t monitored the news from Israel hour by hour to focus on the wellbeing of the country and its citizens like I do now.
The debate over judicial reform in Israel is a serious matter. It reflects the continuing development of law and governance in a Jewish state just 75 years young. We monitor the ongoing discussions and the possibility of compromise as Israelis of all perspectives and backgrounds vigorously and democratically express their points of view.
Why do I, why do we, pay such close attention? As outside observers, is our attention drawn to the news about protests and legislative proposals? To the power of sincere and peaceful protest? To the responsibility of an electoral majority to govern those in the electoral minority? Probably to all of that, though I think something more has our attention.
This moment in Israel feels consequential. Whatever our personal points of view, the questions being debated unintentionally tear at the already wide fissures in Israel’s pluralistic and dynamic society. To care about Israel is to understand who Israelis are and how their social and cultural differences both enrich and test a state meant to be a home for all Jews.
Historically, we Jews have been a minority population in the countries and lands of the globe. Now as a governing majority in our own land, in a Jewish and democratic political context, we ask.
Do elected majorities in a Jewish nation understand their responsibility to their voters and to the political and cultural minorities who disagree with them? Do those who govern hear the peaceful protesting voices of citizens who, pro and con, exercise their rights to hold their elected government officials accountable? How do they balance all the voices speaking to them? How do leaders measure their political self-interests against some concept of a greater national good for all?
American history echoes these questions and the travail of creating a constitution. In his 10th Federalist Paper, published on November 22, 1787, James Madison writes, “As long as the reason of man is fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”
Madison explains that zeal for the power of our individual opinions is intrinsic to human nature. Which is why, he suggests, a majority will sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.
The purpose of a constitution, James Madison argues in the early days of American independence, is to create balance. On the one hand, “to secure the public good and private rights” against the danger of a majority faction. And “at the same time preserve the spirit and form of popular government” elected by that same majority.
Israel is not America. I am not an Israeli. Of a different time and place, my Diaspora perspective wonders if Madison’s insights might read as relevant for Israelis today as they debate how the Jewish people in the Jewish state choose to govern themselves and the others who live with them. They read as still relevant here in America, too.
In our Diaspora lives governance is about how we organize our Jewish community. How our communal organizations and institutions function. How we respond to the myriad of opportunities and challenges before us. How, as citizens of this land, we interface with the larger population and national government.
We are not present like Israelis may just be to the birth pangs of a governing constitution that could strengthen the Jewish state. Or, if the moment is missed, weaken Israel’s social fabric and strategic deterrence. That is why this moment in Israel feels consequential. That’s why you and I are paying close attention.
We live at a time when the life of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel is more prosperous and thriving than ever before in our history. We focus on Israel as the dynamic center in which, and around which, we the Jewish people live.
Israel enables complete consciousness of Jewish being, identity, and purpose. No other land and no other place allow Jews this wholeness. In no other country do Jews debate how best to govern their national affairs and society. That’s why our bond is so very emotional and compelling. That’s also why you and I celebrate the wonder and meaning of the State of Israel at 75 years of independence as we continue to pay close attention.
Hag Sameah!
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

freedom is about attitude

Shabbat HaGadol | April 1, 2023
Freedom is about attitude not only circumstance. When Jewish families and our guests sit down to celebrate the Passover Seder, the message of the story we tell includes this awareness. Freedom is a spiritual, not only a physical, condition.
Our seder story begins with this recollection. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Expanding on this collective memory, around our tables we read ancient lore and discuss contemporary concerns. We rejoice in our freedom by asking questions. We wonder about the still unfulfilled promise of universal human dignity and equality. We and our children are curious about the ritual foods we eat.
One of the more unusual flavors at a seder meal are bitter herbs. Horseradish is commonly used for this purpose. On the eve of their liberation, we read in the Biblical Book of Exodus, the Israelite slaves are told to eat the meat of their Passover lamb offering with unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs (maror).
At our seder we eat the bitter herb to symbolize the bitterness of slavery. The symbolic foods of our seder help us and our children to ingest a memory from long ago and give it significance today. But why do about to be free slaves need such a reminder of their plight at that moment?
The first century Jewish thinker Philo, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt at a time when people were developing the rituals of the Passover Seder we continue to follow, has a compelling answer.
Former slaves eat bitter herbs “to become bitter to their former way of life,” Philo explains. Not only to recall the harshness of their experience but also to have the bitter taste of their personal memory serve as motivation for opposing oppression anywhere toward anyone.
Anticipating their exodus from Egypt, slaves ate unleavened bread because it was made in haste and because, to this day, matzah symbolizes the personal humility necessary to respect other people as our equals. Cruelty leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Caring about others, to extend the metaphor, is delicious.
This is the spiritual feast we seek this Passover season. A freedom of attitude countering so much that enslaves our hearts and minds. The culture in which we live is spiritually weak and morally sick. The symptoms are all too evident and widespread.
Our souls grow weary from hatred, antisemitism, and racism. We seem numb to violence and the murder of innocents. We tolerate incivility and lying. Division, derision, distrust, and deception diminish us all. We worry about economic instability and social inequity while we monitor the dark side of human nature all too comfortably on display in our toxic and intoxicating social media and public discourse.
Many people do good and much human goodness surrounds us. Still, the daily bitterness we taste is not yet strong enough as a shared and motivating memory encouraging us to be better. Like those ancient Israelite slaves about to be free, we too need to be reminded of the personal and societal redemption we crave.
Perhaps this insight of Victor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist who survived four different Nazi concentration and labor camps, including Auschwitz, can be a reminder to us.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
On Passover and every day, we are all free to choose. Our enslaved hearts and minds, and the society of which we are each a precious part, yearn for us to reclaim human dignity, equality, and mutual respect. Freedom is about attitude not only circumstance.
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

a rabbi, a congregation, and israel

Shabbat Parah | March 11, 2023


Recently, you may have seen in the press that some of my rabbinic colleagues don’t believe they can speak about issues in Israel without creating a schism in their communities. I have a different perspective. You may have also seen commentaries describing what needs to be different as American Jews think about our relationship with Israel. This sermon is my response.
In a Shabbat community, in a community devoted to God by caring for one another and the destiny of the Jewish people, in a community of Jews gathered at synagogue, this is where we best consider all we confront and take comfort in all we cherish. Not only here, but especially here, the ideas and ideals of Judaism inform our cares and frame our questions.
It is important for us to talk about what’s happening here at home, in the world at large, and in Israel. We ought to express our passions and priorities. Our discussions need to be honest, safe, and respectful.
If we can’t speak constructively with the people we love, with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and the people with whom we pray and celebrate on Shabbat, we won’t discover or honor what binds us together as families, communities, as a people or a nation. We won’t recognize the values we do share and hope to promote. We won’t help to repair our breach. We’ll just drift farther apart.
This is precisely what’s happening both in Israel and in America. Increasingly over the years, and for a variety of reasons rooted in their lived experiences, people view themselves as members of groups within society who are in competition with other segments of the nation. Motivated by grievance, resentment, ideology, and/or visions of the future, winning for my group is more important than seeking consensus where we differ for the good of our country.
It is our necessary role as a synagogue community to help bridge this gap. Synagogue life is about creating community. We may disagree with one another. We may never disparage each other. The message sent out from this sanctuary and this campus must counter the competitive culture of me over we.
Here we must be to each other more than another closed-minded echo chamber of uniform thinking. Here we must honor the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives we claim to celebrate. And here we must be clear about what we value and believe.
My role as your rabbi is first and foremost to work for the welfare and vitality of the Jewish people within our community and beyond. My role is to elucidate, elaborate, and educate for thoughtful and informed debate and discussion.
When I advocate a point of view, the moral values or vision I derive, what I teach, must come from my understanding of our sacred texts and the historical experiences of the Jewish people. If I am successful as a teacher I get you to think - even if you disagree with what I’m arguing for. My role is to foster dialogue among and between us and to respect the context in which we exist as a synagogue community.
My privilege is to lead this congregation through Torah and Jewish values to help create the community and society we want to live in. Making politically partisan and polarizing statements is not an inclusive act. It does not embrace the diversity present in a community and does not serve our mission.
Let me be clear, however. Kindness is not a partisan idea. Neither are compassion, human dignity, and the pursuit of justice. Demanding honesty and transparency from leaders and institutions - and from one another – these are not partisan political positions. These are moral issues.
Judaism teaches us to use words carefully and to act with integrity. Standing against bigotry and standing for the oppressed are core Jewish principles. Judaism’s primary religious value, as a reflection of what we believe about God, is that all human beings are to be treated with dignity and are expected to behave ethically. Shema Yisrael! We call it Ethical Monotheism.
So, when it comes to the current debate about judicial reform in Israel, and a whole host of accompanying policies the Israeli government does or will seek to implement, I must measure my words to you through the prism of the Torah it is my privilege to teach and interpret.
Personally, I oppose the overreach I see in the current proposals about Judicial reform in Israel. Because they have the potential to undermine safeguards which protect minorities subject to the will of a majority. Because I celebrate the voices of so many Israeli citizens who are exercising their rights to protest and hold their government accountable. Professionally, I must also oppose the tearing apart of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.
We need each other. The half of us who live outside of Israel and the half of us who are Israelis. We need each other to strengthen our relationship as the 14 million Jews who live on earth. We need each other to be safe and secure in a not universally hospitable world. Ultimately, when we know the results of this current debate and its accompanying tensions, it will fall to you and me to repair the breach here at home.
We don’t disavow America when we don’t like election results. We remain engaged and in relationship as we work to further inculcate and achieve our respective visions of what’s best for us as a nation.
In that same manner, for those of us who don’t share in and are in fact worried about the current Israeli government’s vision, we won’t disavow Israel. Instead, we will remain engaged and in relationship to bring change.
We do not condone individual politicians, in America or from Israel, whose ideas are an anathema to our own. Our loyalty is to a nation and to a people and to the power of the ideas each represents.
Which is why we continue to recite the Prayer for Israel as printed in our Siddur, which you may have heard some congregations are changing or omitting. “Bless the State of Israel, the beginning of our redemption.” It’s not about a government. “Guide its leaders and advisors with Your light and Your truth.” It’s not a partisan prayer. It's an expression of our hopes and ideals. “Bless the land with peace and its inhabitants with lasting joy.” It’s about our people and all who live in our historic homeland.
A strong Diaspora Judaism is vital for the security and spiritual concerns of the State of Israel, even if Israelis don’t fully appreciate that. Judaism is what keeps Jews Jewish in the Diaspora. A strong Diaspora Judaism is vital for the future of the Jewish people, and more importantly for the purposes and visions of goodness and justice we are to represent in the world.
No. It doesn’t feel good when we debate in public those times we fall short. Yes. I will always advocate for the character and quality of who we are as Jews, irrespective of current events in Israel or elsewhere.
As I say to you often, we believe in a Judaism taught in God’s name through which decency and goodness thrive. A Judaism in which Torah and tradition are read and studied from a place of intellectual honesty, historical perspective, and religious meaning. A Judaism of moral vision that makes space for all of us.
Ours is a vibrant and dynamic Diaspora Judaism which understands Israel to be an historic fulfillment of Jewish peoplehood and the restoration of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. No other land and no other place allow Jews the complete consciousness of Jewish being, identity, and purpose. That’s what binds us here to there.
And that’s why sometimes, in this sanctuary or elsewhere, you and I will contend with the moral and spiritual challenges confronting the whole of the Jewish people. At all times, however, I will demand of us honest, safe, constructive, and respectful discussions as a community of people who pray and celebrate Shabbat together. This is my response, and I pray yours. The message we strive to send out from this sanctuary and this synagogue community.
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

make noise

Shabbat Zakhor | March 4, 2023
Why do we make noise on Purim so that we won’t hear Haman’s name? Why do we shake and rattle our noisemakers and groggers? Why do we shout, hiss, and boo when we read Haman’s name in Megillat Esther?
It’s an extension of a Torah memory. To blot from our consciousness the name of Haman’s Biblical ancestor Amalek, a representation of evil.
“The name of the righteous is invoked in blessing, but the fame of the wicked rots,” states an ancient wish recorded in the Biblical Book of Proverbs. On Purim, we symbolically fulfill this wish by distinguishing between “Blessed is Mordecai” and “Cursed is Haman.”
We’re told the great Torah commentator Rashi observed people stamping their feet or banging stones together whenever they heard Haman’s name recited.
Beyond Purim merriment, this act speaks to an important social ethic. When bad acts occur, we should focus on those who are hurt rather than the bad actors. We ought to give attention to those who need our support, to that which is redemptive and helpful rather than to those who do harm. One Jewish vision of justice in the afterlife imagines the names and souls of those who wrought evil in their lives vanquished to oblivion for eternity.
I hear an echo of this ethic in a sermon given on this very Shabbat 90 years ago. It was Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat before Purim, March 11, 1933. It was a Shabbat when Parashat Tetzaveh was read from the Torah, just as we read today.
At his synagogue in New York City, Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein, the first Eastern European born individual to be ordained a reform rabbi in America said, “We have our Haman today in the Nazi leader of Germany and his accusations against the Jews are no different from those of the other Hamans of our history.”
Notice. Rabbi Lichtenstein does not use the evil leader’s name. His reference is to Haman’s famous accusation in the Book of Esther. “There is a certain people…whose laws are different from those of any other people…”
Consider the context from 90 years ago. On March 5, 1933, the Nazi’s completed their takeover of the German government and began to set their antisemitism and oppression into law. At this same time, the persecution of German Jews ceased to be front-page news in America except in the Jewish press, which lacked any influence outside of the Jewish community.
Reacting to all of this, Rabbi Lichtenstein observes, “The great contributions which the Jew has brought to civilization were made possible through the fact that the Jew has been different from other peoples.”
On Purim we celebrate being different. We wear costumes to appear different than we truly are. We hide our true identities. Esther’s name means hidden, which part of her was until she revealed to King Ahasuerus that she was a Jew.
We conceal something about ourselves like Haman hid his plot to kill Mordecai. We disguise ourselves as is God in the Purim story, the only Biblical book in which God’s name is not explicitly mentioned.
Wearing masks on Purim once allowed those in need to maintain their dignity. Masks kept their identities secret as they received matanot l’evyonim, gifts for the poor.
We disrupt the mention of Haman’s name because we stand up for ourselves. We cannot be quiet when others make noise.
I’m very aware of how conscious our children are about the antisemitism in our society. They are seeing it and asking about it. They are reacting to it and looking to us, their parents, grandparents, and teachers for guidance. Purim, a holiday about being Jewish in the Diaspora, can help us.
Wearing our costumes for fun, let’s reveal more about ourselves than we hide. Let’s help our children learn about and celebrate the values we cherish for ourselves and proudly represent our beliefs to others.
It is only from what makes us different that we have anything of value to give to everyone else. What distinguishes us makes us strong. What’s unique about us makes us proud. What’s noble about us makes us care about others, too.
In the face of unspeakable fear and antisemitism in March 1933, Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein and many others reminded their communities that being true to themselves was a first response to those who hated them, as it always has been.
We learn from personal memories and the historical record that was tragically insufficient and insignificant for the Jews of Europe. We have to be more effective. Like Esther before Ahasuerus and Mordecai in the king’s court, we must speak out. Report any and every incident we witness or experience. We must point out. Other people need to know what is happening. We must stand out proud to be Jews, reminding ourselves and teaching our children why, in response to the antisemites who harass us.
That’s why we make noise so that we won’t hear Haman’s name. He’s not important. Like all who hate, he’s small, weak, and sad. Instead, we focus our attention on what really matters. Redeeming the world from hatred. Bringing into the world goodness. Joyously celebrating our Jewish heritage and the meaning of our lives.
From Megillat Esther we discover. If who we are as Jews and what we value as Jews bothers other people, then we represent something truly important and enduring. Let’s tell each other that and joyously celebrate Purim this year as they did once upon a time in Shushan. “For the Jews there was light and gladness, happiness and honor, a feast and a holiday.” "Ken tiyeh lanu," we recite after these words at Havdalah each week. "So may it be for us."
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

they hate. we love.

Shabbat Terumah | February 25, 2023
Two weeks out from Purim, I’m not in a very silly mood. As our annual holiday of fun and merriment approaches, I am acutely aware that on so many fronts we are living at a very serious moment.
That’s why I am grateful that all of you are here this morning. Though communal trends may suggest otherwise, this is the right place for Jews to gather, to connect, and to converse with each other.
In a Shabbat community, in a community devoted to God by caring about one another and the destiny of the Jewish people, in a community of Jews gathered at synagogue, this is where we best consider all we confront and take comfort in all we cherish. Not only here, but especially here, the ideas and ideals of Judaism inform our cares and frame our questions.
These days, it seems our fate and future occupy some space in the public’s consciousness. Made even more complicated by what may or may not stoke the all too prevalent antisemitism we also confront.
I am now going to violate a rule of mine and talk about something that should get no attention. It is my own personal rule that when there is a victim of a crime, the perpetrator of the crime is not the one whose name should be bandied about. We ought to focus our attention on the victim. We should give attention to those who need our support, to that which is redemptive and helpful in response to bad acts. We should not focus on those who hurt through their bad acts. I am now going to make an exception to my rule.
You may be aware that a white supremacist group has declared today to be a “National Day of Hate.” Their goal is to encourage antisemites to vandalize and deface Jewish institutions. We have taken appropriate precautions and are not aware of any specific threat. Behind this despicable initiative is a group known as Crew-319. According to reports they are a “tiny Iowa-based neo-Nazi crew that distributes propaganda and engages in antisemitic stunts.”
Most of you probably received emails from Jewish organizations wanting you to know about this so-called day of hate. In my view, this was a mistake. The last thing we in the Jewish community should do is public relations for this hate group. The last thing we should do is allow their day of hate to become something we publicly pay attention to. Quietly, of course, we need to take responsible security precautions. Doing the publicity for them? Absolutely not.
The better way, the only way, we respond to this stupidity is to declare this Shabbat within our community, and if we had such reach for the whole of the Jewish people, a Day of Love. We are not Jewish because they hate us. We are Jewish because we love the values and ideals of our people’s historic and enduring heritage. “With all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might.”
Sometimes because we love, we quarrel. I have in mind the very serious and acrimonious debate over judicial reform in Israel. This isn’t the first and it will not be the last time Jews debate our fate and our destiny. It’s understandable that some of us are uncomfortable when issues impacting who we are and how we feel as Jews are so public and prominent.
Whatever your personal perspective, consider this alternative attitude. Be proud that Jews are engaged in debating the meanings and methods of national sovereignty. A responsibility not ever before our opportunity. In addition to our opinions, let’s advocate for debate l’shem shamayim, from a place of love, not hate. Our enemies and the ignorant hate. We love.
Most important for us, since all we can really do is watch how Israelis engage in this debate as we express our opinions, is to derive our perspectives from the values of Judaism that speak to us. If we are to be present to the debate, if we are concerned for about the nature of Israel’s democracy, if we do feel a bond with all Jews, then we must represent the kind of Jews we are and the substance of Judaism we cherish.
We present ourselves to the world imagining a future in which human decency and goodness thrive, in which Torah and tradition are read and studied from a place of intellectual honesty, historical perspective, religious meaning, and a moral vision that makes space for all of us. We do this because we respect Jewish lifestyles different from our own aware that we aren’t often recipients of that same mutual regard.
Remember this Talmudic lesson. Why was Jewish law most often decided according to the view of Beit Hillel rather than Beit Shammai? Because they were kind and modest and showed restraint when affronted. When they taught the law, they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. When they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements.
As I said, on this Shabbat, if we could reach the whole of the Jewish people we would declare today one of love. If they hate us from outside we cannot hate each other from within. We can agree to disagree without disparaging one another.
The debate over judicial reform in Israel is a serious matter. It reflects the continuing development of law and governance in a Jewish state just 75 years young. Perhaps the debate should also include this question. How will Israelis and Diaspora Jews measure the impact, monitor the consequences, and support or protest the results of this dispute while striving to demonstrate solidarity and mutual responsibility?
Our Shabbat community can be a spiritual and learning community. We can be a group of people who bring something qualitatively different to the public square. Remember. Our enemies and the ignorant hate. We love.
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

disquiet within

Shabbat Shemot | January 14, 2023


I sense some disquiet within, or even about, our Jewish community. I don’t mean just among some of us. There is a larger American Jewish conversation taking place between us and about us.
Recently, the New York Times published an expose about Haredi, ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva education in New York City. Accusations toward some of the schools include inadequate time and materials devoted to basic language and math literacy beyond religious studies, corporal punishment, and falsifying special needs requests to secure additional state funding.
Some read the newspaper stories and from their guts immediately accused the Times of being antisemitic. Others read the same stories and from their guts dismissed the Jews being described as others with whom they don’t want to be connected.
I read the stories differently.
Whatever may or may not be the New York Time’s slant, and however we each relate to Jews with lifestyles different from our own, if true the issues raised by those articles are disturbing and must be addressed. This is not the proper Jewish way to educate or behave, nor should it be allowed to be seen as such. Rabbinic tradition prizes literacy and learning along with Torah learning in order to produce productive, socially adept people. I believe we need to say so among ourselves and to others.
Another source of disquiet within reflects the recent election held in Israel. Voices inside and outside of Israel are curious if the extremist views of some in the new government will hold sway over policy and legislation. If you’re following, you’ve read nervousness about religious coercion, minority rights, land status, and legal accountability for both ministers and government acts.
Again, I monitor the news differently.
Our relationships with Israel must transcend politics. We don’t vote there. Our thoughts about Israel’s government matter less than the thoughts of Israelis who are engaged in a vigorous and relevant debate.
Remember this civics lesson. Pluralism does not mean the system only works when we agree with electoral outcomes in America or in Israel. Loyalty to a freely elected government, even as we express passionate disagreements with some who may serve in that government and some of what they may propose to do, is how democracy functions.
Yet, I actually have deeper concerns that link both of these situations.
Think about the larger environment in which we live. Among all that challenges society and human welfare today is fundamentalism. Religious or political, a fundamentalist world view, a life philosophy that recognizes no legitimacy beyond its own limited and literal understandings, leaves no room for the lives and realities of others.
We cannot allow religious fundamentalism to become the mainstream portrayal of Jews and the spiritual message of Judaism to the world.
This is my discomfort with stories about Haredi education and debates about the new Israeli government. Our transcendent love for the Jewish people cannot blind us from fundamentalism’s potential dangers. When we see them, we must call them out.
We’ve just begun to read the Exodus story in which we discover there was no way our ancestors could leave Egypt individually. It was only as a people that they gained their freedom.
The Biblical Egypt’s new Pharaoh asks for the first time what has become a classic question. Who are the Jewish people and what is their purpose?
As we read, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people, Am B’nei Yisrael, are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”
How is it, we and voices in Jewish tradition ask, that a new Pharoah wouldn’t know of Joseph the successful viceroy and persona in the Biblical account of Egypt? How would a new ruler not know about a previous Pharoah’s relationship with Joseph, his father Jacob, and his family who migrated from Canaan to Egypt?
Commenting on the phrase, “A new king arose,” Biblical historian Nahum Sarna points out that the Hebrew verb arose in this verse represents the inauguration of a new era not just a change in monarch.
The classical Torah commentaries of Hizkuni in the 13th century and Kli Yakar in the 17th century disagree. Since the death of the previous king is not mentioned in the Torah, this must be the same Pharoah but of a different heart. “A new king arose,” based in similar Torah uses of this verb, means the king arose like Cain arose against Abel, or a murderer arises upon a victim, to cause harm.
A Talmudic insight agrees by interpreting the phrase, “who did not know Joseph,” as showing the change of heart. The Pharoah knew Joseph and his accomplishments but acted as if Joseph was now a stranger whom he could oppress.
Out of curiosity, or as we read in the narrative out of fear, the new king, or a newly cruel current king, asks who are the Jewish people and what is their purpose?
From ancient to modern times, we who are Jews seem to be central characters in the ongoing drama of human history. How else do we explain all of the positive and negative attention people focus on us throughout the ages?
Why is the story of Haredi education front page news in the New York Times? Why does so much of the rest of the world monitor and debate a small nation like Israel’s politics and policies?
Because what Jews do matters, and not only to us. History is replete with perspectives. Some say Jews and Judaism are quintessential outsiders who by our very survival and creativity represent freedom and human dignity. Others suggest it is the originality of Judaism’s ethical monotheism that carries influence or calls attention.
I believe as Jews we represent that first memory and message of the Exodus for all of humanity. Judaism is a religious humanism which measures the fullness of human life and deeds by criteria of moral good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood.
Our very presence and persistence in the world advocates for a religious humanism celebrating the dignity of all human beings created in the image of God. That’s why we sense some disquiet within, or even about, our Jewish community at the moment. It is also why in synagogue, school, and society we must model these demands and put forward these expectations of what Jews and Judaism are all about.
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

nature's wrath

Shabbat Shemot | January 13, 2023
Nature’s force gets our attention these days. Torrential rains and flooding, atmospheric rivers, snow, strong winds, tornadoes, thunder and lightning, impact so many lives, devastating property, possessions, and most significantly families and communities.
Our first response to nature’s wrath must be compassion and caring. Wherever and whenever we are able, we must give or help as we can so that those impacted by weather events beyond their control can regroup and rebuild, recover and heal. We all know that in our warming global environment, these are most certainly and unfortunately not the last natural tragedies we will witness or experience.
Our second response is to find meaning out of the chaos. Judaism views nature as testimony to God’s creation. The chaos onto which God imposes order, creating the elements and environment we live in. It is that very order we seek to restore when natural disasters come upon us.
A dramatic way to describe the scenes of devastation before us, and the only way to imagine the fears and discomfort of all affected, is to depict these massive weather events being of “Biblical proportions.”
Think about the narrative of Noah’s flood. Generations after a flood event in the ancient world, a memory lingers. People begin sharing what they believe about life and how the world works. They attach those ideas to their memory. As the telling evolves, the Biblical text is born. We inherit that narrative to ponder, study, and root ourselves in as we consider our own beliefs and values.
And so it goes in every generation. Except, Biblical stories of destruction don’t have videotape testimony showing their ferocity. We have that. We can see for ourselves the “tragedies of Biblical proportion” people endure.
We are vulnerable to so much. We live aware that so many things are beyond our ability or position to control. Living in sync with our Jewish heritage we learn. Judaism teaches meaning and purpose in life are ours to control and protect every day, in response to whatever surprises us or scares us. Confronting what we can’t control, it’s important good to remember what we can.
Someday, when these recent weather events are distant bad memories, the victims and survivors will need something more. They’ll need us to know what they and their children discovered from their experiences so their memories serve good purpose.
Most of us live our routines comfortably, or by accommodating to them, in circumstances we make or find ourselves in. But those circumstances, however fortunate or impoverished, generally assume some basic things. They assume we live within a structure and order, somewhere in a chain of supply and demand, of means and resources, of have and have not. They assume access to the basics of survival, so much so that we take our basic needs for water, sustenance, and shelter for granted.
Even in the worst of circumstances, someone can know where the hospital, synagogue, church, mosque, soup kitchen, or charity is offering help. In the best of circumstances, we took the time to plan, save, and prepare.
As witnesses to the natural disasters currently on our minds, these are religious and spiritual questions for us to consider. What does it mean to live when the assumed structures that enable my life to proceed suddenly disappear? Who are we in our vulnerability to the impersonal and overwhelming force of events beyond our control?
On a routine weather day, a bright or brisk day of sun or clouds, we are capable of rejoicing in the natural world sustaining who we are and all we do. On days when the weather is harsh, we can respect this fact. Nature is amoral. In other words, natural disasters are not Divine acts. They are natural occurrences with no evil agenda. They become "natural evil" only as a result of the intersection of human strivings and nature's pattern.
We are moral beings vulnerable and at risk when natural disasters strike. Our responsibility is to bring order where it isn’t, compassion where it needs to be, and assistance everywhere we can.
This is our Jewish vision for life. We respond to nature’s wrath or beauty, to humanity’s goodness or evil, from a tradition of ethics and hope. Our vision, and our caring response, grows out of what our ancestors encountered and we experience every day.
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

our festival of lights

Hanukkah 5783 | December 2022
It’s part of the ritual. Each night we have to decide. Which color candles do we light in our Hanukkah Menorah? From the box of 44 brightly colored candles, which ones do we choose?
When our daughters were young, Robin and I remember it was quite a family discussion. Do we make a pattern of alternating colors or groups of colors? Do we sometimes pick candles that are all the same color? Are there favorite colors to save for the nights with more lights? Should the Shamash fit into the pattern or stand out?
Whatever our different family customs may be, once the candles are placed and ready, all of us celebrate each Hanukkah night by kindling its symbolic light. We can’t imagine celebrating Hanukkah in any other way.
Except it didn’t start out that way. We read in the Book of Maccabees that in 164 B.C.E. when the Maccabees reclaimed, restored, and rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem defiled by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, they “celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days and offered burnt offerings with joy, and offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise.”
To prepare for their celebration, the Maccabees “lit the lights that were on the Menorah, that they might give light in the Temple.” When the festivities concluded, “Judas and his brothers and all the congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication of the altar should be observed at their season, every year, for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev, with gladness and joy.”
The Book of Maccabees does not describe a lighting ceremony. It makes no mention of oil wicks or candles being kindled to celebrate and offer praise. Neither does the ancient historian Josephus, a witness to Rome’s destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E., 234 years after the Maccabee rededication.
Josephus writes in his Antiquities of the Jews, “The Maccabees were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their Temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival and call it ‘Lights.’ I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and therefore, that was the name given to the festival.”
Josephus may have been concerned about upsetting the ruling Roman authorities of his day by describing Hanukkah as anything more than a return to ancient worship, or truly it may be that he wasn’t aware of any light kindling ceremonies associated with Hanukkah.
We do find a clear reference to the practice of lighting lights on Hanukkah in the Mishnah, edited in 220 C.E, 384 years after the Hanukkah event and 150 years after the destruction by Rome of the very Second Temple in Jerusalem the Maccabees rededicated.
If the Maccabees rededicated the Temple in 164 B.C.E. and then 234 years later the Romans destroyed that same Second Temple in the year 70 C.E., we have to ask. How does a people celebrate the rededication of their destroyed Temple? Some historians believe the Jews stopped celebrating Hanukkah. Others maintain some form of Hanukkah continued through the ages as a festival of lights.
We learn in the Mishnah. Individuals are liable for fires kindled by a spark from their candle. “Rabbi Judah says, ‘However, if it was a Hanukkah light, an individual is exempt.” From Rabbi Judah’s statement we realize that his contemporaries lit candles to mark Hanukkah.
From this we can conclude that for at least the last 1,800 years, our ancestors, like we do today, celebrated Hanukkah with light. It was the 3rd century sage Rav who composed the b’rakhah we recite before lighting the candles in our Hanukkiyot, elevating what must have been a popular custom to a mitzvah, an act of religious duty and meaning.
The Maccabees didn’t celebrate Hanukkah as a Festival of Lights. Perhaps earlier generations of our ancestors did not, either. We do. The Jewish people through the ages have made Hanukkah into days of light and joy, brightness and uplift. Today, we take it for granted. Hanukkah is about light.
That’s why our children care about which candles they choose from the box of 44 brightly colored candles. They’re pretty. It’s fun to gather around the Hanukkah Menorah and celebrate. I think there’s something more, too.
Light is a potent symbol. We use light to mark religious and personal occasions. Light signifies life and goodness. Light represents our hopes. Light reflects our ideals. Light displays life’s energy.
In the meanings of our lights are the meanings of our lives. The wax or oil and the wicks that burn are all consumed and fade away. But we can transfer the light from one candle to another. The light of our spirits and dreams, the light of our beings and ideas, never need to go out. We can pass them along one person to another.
Looking to make a dark world brighter and honoring the memory of the Second Temple, the Jewish people re-made Hanukkah into a spectacle of light. Speaking of God’s presence and our pride in being Jewish, through ritual and light, Hanukkah celebrates the miracles of Jewish history and our Jewish heritage.
How do I know this? Because at first lighting Hanukkah lights was a custom, not a mitzvah. And, because that once new mitzvah for kindling light on Hanukkah is complete with just one light per household each night.
Yet, the Talmud tells us in order to enhance our celebration we can choose to kindle one light for each member of our family. Even better, we are taught that we can follow the custom of Rabbi Hillel and kindle one light on the first night and increase the number of lights each night – which is what we all do.
On Hanukkah’s eighth night, our Hanukkiyot shine their brightest. Each previous night hinting at the full vision of light we anticipate. On each night of Hanukkah there can be more light and greater holiness.
Tomorrow evening and every Hanukkah night, sit around the Hanukkiyah as the lights shine bright and talk about your values and ideals. Tell your family and friends what’s important to you and what being Jewish means to you. Each night, reflect on the meaning you see in the light.
May our Hanukkah lights shine brightly inspiring us to live by our values and ideals. May our Hanukkah lights symbolize the comfort and healing so many in our world need. In the glow of our Hanukkiyot, may we see the hope of renewal for our lives and our world, the strength to sustain and strengthen the Jewish people, and in the kaleidoscope of our selected candles and colors a vision of harmony and peace.
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

a jewish conversation about where and why

Shabbat Vayetzei | December 2-3, 2022
I have a sense that many of us don’t follow the deliberations about Jewish life carried out in Jewish media – websites, podcasts, and publications. That’s among the reasons I invited journalist Matti Friedman to be with us this Shabbat. There’s a large and dynamic Jewish conversation taking place and I want us to enter into it.
One of the current trends in this conversation reflects the recent election held in Israel. Voices inside and outside of Israel are curious if the extremist views of some will hold sway over government policy and legislation. As always in political debate there are voices pro and con.
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog, appointed by the outgoing government but expected to remain in his position, said on Wednesday,“I don't want to say anything before we see what policies it adopts. But I think we have to judge the government ultimately, not by what some people say, but what ultimately the government does.”
In my view, our relationships with Israel have to transcend politics. We don’t live there and we don’t vote there. We may all have thoughts about the election’s outcome. But more important than our thoughts right now are what we’ll come to see and understand about the thoughts of Israelis as they react to and hold their government accountable.
Our relationship with Israel is about much more than any given political moment. Our relationship with Israel is rooted in the values and lessons derived from Jewish history, our people’s story in many lands over many eras, and from our agreed upon or different interpretations of our tradition’s sacred texts. That conversation and those debates animate our bond regardless of which political party governs or which politicians hold office.
That bond is also what entitles us to have our thoughts about events in and around Israel and sustains us in any public dialogue or conversation we, Diaspora Jews, want to have with Israeli Jews.
As our guest Matti Friedman described on a podcast last July, “You can only access Israel if you’re willing to put aside the idea that Israel should serve your own narrative purpose. American Jews want a story that seems like an extension of their own concerns. You have to be very careful when projecting your concerns on Israel because you end up with an imaginary version of the country that has almost nothing to do with the real country.”
In this week’s Torah portion, God informs Jacob, “You shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.” The Jewish conversation about this verse wonders if Israel’s spread is limited to the boundaries of the land or throughout the world at large. You can imagine answers from both perspectives.
“Even in exile, the Diaspora,” comments Don Isaac Abarbanel, a prominent Torah scholar from 16th century Italy. “Just like you Jacob will emigrate to Egypt and in the future your descendants will spread out from there, so too will the Jewish people spread to all the corners of the world.” Reflecting on this comment, I ask. Are we a people of one land or many?
The answer of both history and today, is that we are a people rooted in one land, a homeland, a physical and spiritual center, even a holy land, and we are a people of many lands.
Ours is a rich and varied history influenced by the cultures, languages, peoples, challenges and opportunities of every place where Jews have and do live, be it in Israel or in the Diaspora.
This reality defines us. The richness of our heritage and both the pleasures and tensions in our bonds as Jews emerge from the multiplicity of experiences, perspectives, and sub-identities that comprise the whole of who we are as the Jewish people.
In his book “Who By Fire,” our guest Matti Friedman shares a vignette about Leonard Cohen’s perspective on what produces a people’s culture. He writes, “Cohen thought the only culture worth anything came from loyalty to a language, a group, a place, and that a world without those differences would be unbearable. Only nationalism produces art, he said.” It is from examining our identities and embracing the differences among us that we discover or create meanings that endure.
As Jacob learns he and his descendants are to spread themselves throughout the Land of Israel and the larger world, God makes this promise. “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.”
One creative interpretation of this verse suggests, “Just as dust serves no purpose until it is mixed with water so that vegetation may grow to sustain life, so too the Jewish people will only find their purpose Torah, which like water also sustains life.” Reflecting on this Midrash, I ask. Are we Jews a people of presence or purpose?
It cannot be sufficient for Jews simply to exist. Like dust that simply fills the earth and fulfills its basic natural function. We Jews can only be a presence among humanity, we can only fulfill our covenantal vision of being a source of blessing for all, if there is a purpose to our being Jews.
Perhaps our variety will suggest a variety of purposes. Perhaps the emphasis will differ between Israel and the Diaspora, between one country, one community, and another. Just the same, 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.
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 us.
Again, I quote from Matti Friedman’s book about Leonard Cohen in the Sinai during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “In 1964, when he was still just a Canadian poet, Cohen enraged listeners in Montreal with a speech dismissing the tidy edifice of the Jewish community’s life as a hollow perversion of their divine mission. ‘We have lost our genius for the vertical…from that great vertical seizure we had four thousand years ago…we turn toward ourselves.’ He called for ‘a moratorium on all religious services until someone reports a vision or breaks his mind on the infinite.’”
There’s a Jewish purpose wherever we may live. To continue seeking visions of the Divine and breaking our minds on the infinite.
These ideas lead me to this insight of Rashi as he interprets the text we read. It’s not just that Jacob’s descendants will spread themselves out geographically. It is, teaches Rashi, that they will also overcome the challenges of every time and place in order to secure their bonds as one people.
In other words, the Jewish conversations in which we engage, locally and with the whole of our people in Israel and elsewhere, the Jewish conversations in which we engage create our bond as a whole and holy people irrespective of our agreements, different opinions, or personal perspectives.
Though we’ll always care about what’s going on here and in Israel, and no doubt we’ll react to it, our larger commitment to Jewish peoplehood and Jewish purpose must transcend the noise and news of any particular moment.
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

responding to antisemitism

November 2022 | Heshvan 5783
I won’t amplify any recent and vile examples of antisemitic hate, except to say that rising demonstrations of antisemitism need to be every American’s concern. Not only those of us who are Jews.
Historically and experientially, from so many corners of the world, we know that when verbal and physical assaults against Jews go unchallenged and are normalized, they lead to even more such attacks on us and on others.
I won’t amplify but neither will I ignore what passes for humor on late night television or acceptable public discourse. Too many people lacking context, relationships, or understanding about who Jews are and what Judaism is are susceptible to antisemitic tropes and stereotypes.
That’s why, in addition to its being hateful, we call out the antisemitic statements of celebrities and others who garner public attention when they cross, what for us if not everyone, is a real and not imaginary line of propriety.
A society that values free speech must hold hate speech accountable. Free speech does not mean immunity from rebuke. We must always respond to someone’s bad ideas and harmful thoughts with better ones.
We need to speak positively and affirmatively about Jews and Jewish identity in order to negate stereotypes of “the Jews.” The Jews exist in an historical sense. But, when people talk about “the Jews” outside of any particular historical narrative, they are creating an imagined and, in their minds, nefarious group.
Yes, Jews are involved in all sorts of industries. Yes, Jews are present in society and culture. “The Jews” suggests a caricature of antisemitic images. Some people may speak in these terms without having any meaningful relationships with Jewish individuals. Other people may base their perceptions on a bad interaction with someone who is Jewish.
We all have positive and negative experiences with all sorts of people. Any generalizations made about a group from any one individual or experience are always inaccurate and must be pointed out and corrected.
Let’s also consider among ourselves. If and when we hold someone who speaks hate accountable for their words and the repugnant nature of their ideas, do we do so with an accountability that's only punitive or is there also an accountability that can be educational?
I recently met a public-school educator who asked most sincerely. “If or when I say or do something hurtful to you, a hurt I certainly do not intend to inflict, can you allow me the ‘grace and space’ to correct myself?”
This is also why we have to pay attention within our own community. How many of our young people, themselves not particularly well versed in the experiences and history of antisemitism, unable to know what they haven’t seen, and unclear about the nasty ideas they hear from public personalities they think they admire, how many of our young people know how to respond, react, or make sense out of the cultural void and media noise that surrounds them?
We need to support them and what they may be feeling. More so, we have to help them understand how to discern what they are hearing, what it means, and how to respond or process it. We need to and will do that here at Congregation Beth El and you need to do that at home. We need to support and learn how to do this together.
Our children, teens, students, and young adults need to know that we respond to others’ ignorant and hideous hatred for us from a posture of confidence, conviction, and pride. We are not Jewish because they hate us. We are Jewish because we love the values and ideals of our people’s historic and enduring heritage.
Beyond all necessary and appropriate security and physical defense efforts, which we take with profound regret and great responsibility, we must positively stand up for who we are and most of all actively live and keep alive our unique privilege to be Jews.
Religious scholar and author James Carroll wrote, “Antisemitism is the bug in the software of the West.” An insidious glitch in society making Jews unworthy of moral concern.
Yet, it is precisely this moral concern for humanity that animates the fullness and essence of our Jewish heritage and historical experience. What we know is that blatant antisemitism is an indication of an unsettled and ailing society.
We can never let the bias and banality of those who hate set the standards of belonging and behaving in this or any society. Our society depends on the sincere consideration of and for every individual. No person loses their own stature by acknowledging the humanity of another person. This is the social standard we demand and strive to represent.
In response to and not only in defense against antisemitism, it is our role to motivate and model the conscience and ethics our society needs to regain its ethical equilibrium. That is why I won’t amplify any recent and vile examples of antisemitic hate, except to say that rising demonstrations of antisemitism need to be every American’s concern.
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

cultivate life

 Shabbat Bereshit | October 22, 2022
This morning I take a few moments to speak about something you might not expect me to discuss. Though our holiday season is now behind us, for many – though not all - of us, the next High Holiday on our civic calendar is Halloween.
I’m not going to speak against candy or costumes, parties or fun. I was always happy taking my children out “trick or treating” when they were young and I delight opening the door of my home to share smiles and candy with the children in my neighborhood. It’s especially funny when children who recognize me when I open the door ask if I recognize them, as if I can see faces through their masks.
After my father took me and my sisters out to “trick or treat” when we were young, he asked us to join him in opening the door for the older children who came to our house for candy. We would open the door and they would all scream, “trick or treat.”
My father would pause, try to get a sense of the group, and answer, “trick.” They looked at him quizzically. “Don’t’ you have any candy for us?” “You gave me a choice,” he would reply. “I chose trick instead of treat.” Once sure by the confused look on their faces that they did not understand the implied meanness or “threat” in their request, he gave everyone candy.
Still reminiscing. Many years ago, my good friend Rabbi Ed Feinstein and I used to conduct Jewish educational point-counterpoint conversations with the middle and high school students we taught. Ed would say, “only on Halloween do we pretend we are a neighborhood again. Families from disparate backgrounds share common civic values and trust one another enough to open their doors to strangers.”
I liked Rabbi Feinstein’s nostalgia for the neighborhood of his youth, but retorted, “for too many people, Halloween is about making people afraid, tricking and scaring people, and celebrating death.” That was what my father was trying to point out in his awkward Dad way.
Ours is a cynically violent society. We live with more than enough that frightens us for real. We don’t need make believe to reinforce the horrors of any given days’ news.
I know there’s such a thing as the “joy of fear.” I know Haunted Houses are fun, roller coasters are a thrill, and horror movies a classic genre. We just have to be clear about which fear is of fantasy and which dread is too much a part of our reality.
Respecting the different religious and cultural traditions of other groups, aware of the ancient Pagan and old-world church origins of Halloween and looking out at the world through a different lens, the point I make is about Jewish values. We cultivate life. We don’t venerate death.
וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי׃ 
“And God saw all that had been made and found it very good.” Human beings live, created as God’s moral image of goodness in the world. Present to cultivate life for all that exists. “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”
Rabbinic tradition teaches that when God beholds the fullness of the created world as we read in the Genesis creation myth this morning, God declares it very good, tov me’od. But some commentators translate me’od as mostly, not very. Suggesting even what is evil can be used for good purposes.
Years ago, I sympathized with Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s point when we taught our students about being good neighbors. I still do. He understood my counterpoint, as well. All of us worry when cruelty is normalized and making people afraid is a goal too many pursue.
Years ago, Ed reflected. “So, we canvassed the neighborhood, and dragged home bags full of candies. And after three or four candy bars the kids went to bed, to dream of a warm and loving community, where homes are open, kids are cared for, and everyone dresses up to have a good time. When they finally fell asleep, my wife and I dumped out all the candy on the kitchen table, to inspect each and every piece for needle marks and razor blades and the pernicious, poisonous tampering of some sick mind. God help us.”
This is my point. Let’s be sure we inoculate our children before they go out to have fun on Halloween. Let’s speak of confidence not fear. Let’s speak of helping not harming. Let’s speak of giving not only receiving. Let’s speak of make believe and of what we don’t and actually do believe. Let’s help everyone to feel and be safe not insecure.
The Torah teaches us that life is born out of light, that darkness gives way to light, and that being created in God’s image our lives and our world have the potential to be tov me’od, mostly good or even very good.
Let’s seek the promise of life’s goodness every day so that after the costumes come off and the candy is eaten our and our children’s spirits remain hopeful and all of our souls cultivate life.
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

high holy day sermons 2022 | 5783

In my High Holy Day sermons this year, I sought inspiration and understanding for 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 sought to put our lives and Zionism in “Context.”
On Kol Nidre Eve, I thought about what we believe, declaring, "Faith is Not Fact."
On the First Day of Rosh HaShanah, I encouraged us toward "Inspired (Jewish) Living.”
On the Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, I reflected about “Giving Time Meaning.”
On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I urged us to “Take the High Road.”


Yom Kippur Sermon 2022 | 5783
Izzy is a modest, simple man. Going to sleep after Yom Kippur one fateful year, Izzy has a dream. In his dream God says to him, “Izzy, yours is a modest and good life. Be proud of who you are and how you live. In this New Year, I want you to have one thing new. What would you like?”
(Now remember, this is a story. Do not approach God as if a genie granting wishes. Do not imagine God hurts you, either. That’s neither what Judaism believes nor how the world works! I just want to be clear on this point before I continue the story.)
In his dream, Izzy hears himself answer God. “You know what I would like God? I would like to buy something expensive that I can’t normally afford, especially before the cold of winter.”
As Izzy wakes up from his dream, it seems it was just a dream. God doesn’t answer such requests. Just as Izzy is about to go about his day, an Amazon delivery truck pulls up to his house and drops off a large box. He opens the box and finds inside a cashmere overcoat, hat, and designer sunglasses. “Wow,” he exclaims.
Anxious to show off his new apparel, Izzy puts on the coat, the hat, and the glasses and heads for the door. He walks out of his house and starts to cross the street. Suddenly, as it was turning around, that same Amazon truck speeds up and knocks Izzy down. Lying on the street bruised but okay, Izzy calls out to God. “How could you let this happen? Didn’t you just send me this new coat, hat and sunglasses?”
Izzy hears a voice from on high, a sound just like the voice of God he heard in his dream. “Izzy, that was you? I didn’t recognize you!”
We get that. A change in someone’s more familiar appearance surprises us. Sometimes we don’t recognize people we associate with one place when we meet them in another. More than once I’ve received a quizzical glance in the grocery store or out and about. Occasionally, we pass quiet judgment or express curious surprise. “What are they doing here?” Or worse, “Why are they here?”
Honestly, most of us recognize very little about the people we are here with today. Outside of family and genuine friends, in this space we are a community of acquaintances, familiar faces, volunteers who work together on various pursuits, new participants, welcome visitors, and folks we haven’t met yet.
In personal reality, we are each about much more than whatever small aspects of our personalities, interests, capacities, appearances, and life routines we display here. Outside of observing Yom Kippur together, which is our bond this sacred day, another time we need to find the opportunities to grow closer and better known to one another.
The same is true about our relationships with Judaism and our precious Jewish heritage. On Yom Kippur Judaism appears to be about atonement, forgiveness, spiritual, personal, and moral growth. The Mahzor presents us images of a judging, forgiving, loving, and compassionate God.
Adonai, Adonai, El rahum v’hanun…Eternal God, Eternal God, merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.”
Taken out of context these Torah words we recite comfort and assure us. They symbolize the Divine promise of kindness and forgiveness on this day of atonement and introspection. Let me remind you. It is always dangerous to take words, people, or memories out of context. When the Torah portrays God describing these Divine attributes to Moses, this is how the full text reads.
“Moses carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning he went up on Mt. Sinai. The Eternal God passed before him and proclaimed: Eternal God, Eternal God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin and granting pardon; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children upon the third and fourth generations.
More difficult and challenging images from ancient days than what the rabbis wanted us to read in the Mahzor today. They pulled the image they preferred out of its original context. We recognize the promise of love and forgiveness. We’re put off by the words of retribution in the original text.
The Prophet Ezekiel was too. He declares a different belief, the one the Talmudic rabbis use to explain their theological editing. “As I live, declares the Eternal God, this proverb shall no longer be current among Israel. The person who sins, only he is responsible.”
Judaism is a full, varied, and multi-faceted religious history and tradition. An inheritance we each receive while appreciating, understanding, or even believing only some or much of a larger, dynamic whole. Each of us interpreting, determining, and exploring. All of us welcome to be part of the evolving, enduring, and ever fascinating Jewish conversation that gives context, content, and consequence to our lives.
Some of us entered into today with an instinct for and an understanding about what we are here to do. Others of us entered into today sincerely to participate and be present, but with less comfort in or feel for the larger context of our Jewish ritual and religious tradition.
It’s only natural. We each live in the circumstances and influences of our lives. Our personal contexts evolve or broaden slowly, over time, as we discover more, respond to situations, fulfill curiosities and interests, decide to leave things, or even people, behind, or act on a personal desire to change.
Like a child leaving home, off to college or elsewhere, poised, excited, yet nervous about living in their newfound independence, opportunities, and responsibilities.
Like all of us grieving the loss of a cherished love and precious personality in our lives who somehow over time find resilience in our memories and the renewal of our days.
Like a couple who start to build their life together.
Like an individual who decides to make a change in his or her position or location.
Like someone who breaks a bad habit, makes a healthier choice, or honestly improves on a personal weakness.
Like anyone who starts out again, starts over again, or strives to alter aspects of his or her life again.
Like the person who picks up a new hobby, masters a new skill, learns a new subject, or thinks about a new idea.
Like all of us who at one time or another have to react to a thrilling prospect or a devasting incident.
Like receiving an unwanted diagnosis or being relieved by a desired outcome.
Like all that fills our days with purpose, activity, relationships, and yearnings.
We live our lives in the contexts of who and what we know, all that we may choose, and in response to what we cannot control.
Which is why living out of context is not natural and being honest about the contexts in which we live is so vital. When we understand ourselves and our environments, we see even more promise and possibility for being and becoming who we truly are, our authentic selves.
This is our personal quest and goal on Yom Kippur. To grow toward the fullest dignity of our real and authentic place and purpose in life. “U’t-kableinu bi’teshuvah shelmah…Accept us fully when we turn,” we ask of God among our prayers today.
This is also our people’s quest and goal in the world. To exist in the fullest dignity of our real and authentic place and purpose. “U’vkhen tein kavod l’amekha…Bestow honor among Your people,” we ask of God many times today.
Like Abraham heeding God’s command to journey from everything familiar to a new, unknown land and life. Like Moses leading the Children of Israel out from the painful realities of their enslavement toward a new vision of freedom in that new land promised to them, Abraham’s descendants.
It’s all about context. 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.
Out of context we are inauthentic. We have no wisdom or vision to share with the larger world. We have less with which to build relationships with a variety of people. If we are not distinctive as a group, we don’t have a story to tell out of our particular historical context.
Which is why it can be difficult to be a Zionist in an environment where so many others do not understand the context of Zionism, Israel, and the Jewish religious and historical experience. Yet, in this joyous 75th year of Israel’s independence we must understand that past in order to represent Zionism effectively and celebrate Israel proudly now.
Zionism, though always a religious tenant of Judaism, became a political and cultural expression of Jewish identity when the 19th century emancipation of western European Jews brought them social acculturation and intellectual exploration along with spreading assimilation and antisemitic humiliation.
As Theodor Herzl wrote in 1896, “We have honestly endeavored everywhere to merge ourselves into the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so. In countries where we have lived for centuries we are still denounced as strangers. ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ is our old phrase. It is now a question of showing that the dream can be converted into a living reality.”
Today Israel is more than a living reality. It is a reality in which, and around which, we the Jewish people live. The Jewish State of Israel is our place of fulfillment and destiny, not only an address of care or concern.
Too often, however, 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 if you must is first to care and then to engage. Just like they do in Israel. Just like we do here as American citizens who debate the dilemmas of our American nation. We disagree. We don’t disavow. Though we have to remember and remind others. America’s and Israel’s social and demographic contexts are very different.
Fifty years ago, as a teenager, I learned that to be a Zionist is to be an idealist and a realist. It is to be thoughtful, educated, and aware of where Israel achieves, where Israel may fall short, and most of all why Israel matters.
I learned this from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding Prime Minister, whom I had the privilege to meet in his Tel Aviv home. He urged me to finish high school and come back to Israel to live. I promised him I would consider it, which through the years I did. What else could I do?
As Ben-Gurion taught, Israel is more than a country, more than our people’s historic homeland. Israel’s independence requires no one’s permission. We who are the people of Israel have given of our vision and experience to all of humanity and in return have earned our secure and historic place within the community of nations. A place we have made because it has never been given. A place we secure because no one else will.
Our children and grandchildren, especially our college students, need our support in understanding Ben-Gurion’s message. The more contemporary context of their lives cannot know what we witnessed, what we know to be true, what history itself confirms. In so many ways, it’s on us to teach and inspire the next generation from our different life contexts.
Many college campuses today are rife with anti-Zionist and antisemitic campaigns and hate filled rhetoric and images that demonize and delegitimize Israel, often coordinated internationally by Israel’s enemies. Is it not morally ironic, and completely hypocritical, that those who denigrate Israel about human rights themselves discriminate against Jews, Israel, and our rights?
Such bias misunderstands the complicated political issues of nationality and sovereignty in the Middle East. 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 and 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, we see cause and effect, goodness and hatred. We see narratives and context for an intractable conflict. Apparently, many others don’t.
Our Jewish college students who do understand this, themselves sensitive to injustice in our society and throughout the world, find it challenging to contextualize and vocalize support for Israel. Living our Jewish identities on or off campus requires knowledge, passion, and confidence. It should not require our students’ or our courage in this land at this time.
That’s why you and I work to create the context for a vibrant, living Judaism here where we live. To be a Zionist today also means to be an advocate for a community of engaged and educated American Jews.
Taken as a whole, our synagogue community is a microcosm of the Jewish people. Our synagogue campus is our Israel, our spiritual center, our Jewish address. In this context we share in the fullness of Jewish authenticity and the evolving, enduring, and ever fascinating Jewish conversation that sets out a vision for our world and imparts significance to our lives.
In the unique context and personal places of your life, what is your private conversation about the authentic you? What promise and possibility for being and becoming who you truly are is on your mind this sacred day?
Izzy may have changed his appearance, but when he did, did he change himself? Ezekiel and the rabbis may have changed the way we perceive God’s attributes, but when they did, did they change the mystery of God’s nature? We may, and at times we should, change aspects of our lives’ contexts. But when we do so, are we sustaining or discovering our authentic selves?
At all times and in every context, as individuals, as Zionists, and as Jews we are unique. Striving to grow, to refine, and to improve to be sure, but always content and confident being who we are.
In this New Year, may God recognize and accept you for who you are. May all who know you recognize and accept you for who you are. May you, too, recognize and accept who you are, realizing in the context of everyday meaning, purpose, and the blessings of life.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah.
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

faith is not fact

 Kol Nidre Sermon 2022|5783
It is beautifully precious that we are here this evening. Truly. We feel called by our tradition. We honor our memories. We live out our Jewish lifestyles. We demonstrate our religious or spiritual feelings being present tonight in a community of our people.
Here in our synagogue community, we manifest God’s presence through the ritual we enact together and in the prayerful thoughts we each know in our hearts. Like few other places in our lives, this is a space in which we take seriously the ideas of Judaism. We explore. We engage.
We immerse ourselves in the on-going philosophical and theological conversation that is Jewish interpretation. Here we don’t simplify. Rather, we amplify. Our desire is understanding. Our goal is meaning.
Here we are resolved that even more of life’s blessings, goodness, and purpose may be ours to discover as we observe the unique sanctity of Yom Kippur. It is beautifully precious that we are here this evening. Thank you.
I wonder, though, if there isn’t another reason some of us choose to be here. Our faith. Or more precisely stated in Hebrew, emunah. We are here because we trust in the religious beliefs and ideals, visions and dreams of Judaism. Concepts cherished by the Jewish people through the ages and taught in the name of God.
We translate emunah as faith. But faith is an English term. It’s not really a Jewish concept. The word faith comes to us from Christian translations of the Bible. In Greek or Latin faith meant loyalty. Translated into English, loyalty became belief.
The Hebrew term means trust. Emunah is the conviction we demonstrate by being here tonight. We express belief in God less by what we imagine and more by what we come to know. Less by what we profess and more by what we do.
This emunah, this religious trust in what we know, allows us to hold to some common beliefs because of shared experiences and memories. When we speak of faith in God, this is what we mean. Not things we imagine, but experienced individual and collective truths on which we depend. Emunah is trust.
The first time the word emunah appears in the Torah, it describes Moses’ hands as trustworthy or steady, “vayehi yadav emunah,” as Moses raises them up to lead Israel.
We develop such emunah, such trust, through communication. As Moses signals to Israel their direction, so must we hear each other and talk with one another at home and in community. We trust when we understand.
At the Torah’s end, Moses describes God as, “El emunah,” a trustworthy God, “v’ein avel,” never false, but truly reliable.
We develop such emunah, such trust, through relationships. As Moses teaches Israel to see God as a dependable source for inspiration on their journey, so do we have to be present for each other. We trust the people we like, whom we know.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks about people who do justice and are m’vakesh emunah, those who seek integrity.
We develop such emunah, such trust, through integrity. As Jeremiah demands that people hold themselves up to a high and proper standard, so do we have to be trustworthy and honest with ourselves and all of the people in our lives.
Finally, in rabbinic usage, a person who was amanah was someone upon whose word or signature you could rely.
Trust develops in relationships. It grows out of situations we’ve been in. It reflects memories we hold, perceptions we carry, and the gut instincts we rely on. As a result, it’s only natural, in some we trust more than others. In us some trust more or less.
Here are four words for you to remember all of this by. These words are for me a religious refrain. You may have heard them before. You’ll definitely hear them again.
Faith Is Not Fact.
Faith is the measure of my ideals. It is the way I believe things ought to be. Quite often the facts with which I live demonstrate a different reality. The essential purpose of my faith is to bring its truths to bear on the facts I know. The goal of my faith is to draw those facts I know closer to the ideal vision of God's presence in which I believe.
Naturally, we speculate about what we don’t know for sure. Our curiosities and sense of wonder or worry take over. Our powers of imagination are significant. How often do we conjure up things not in evidence because we need to fill the information void?
When we don’t know what someone said about us, when we are in an uncomfortable situation, we guess. We tell ourselves what others are thinking. We convince ourselves that things will be all right, or worse, that there’s a problem. We analyze why someone said or did what they did. We suggest what an author or artist intended. We try to figure out why the coach called that play.
Some of our beliefs are rooted in experience. Other beliefs are ideas we imagine or hope. Faith isn’t about the known or the unknown knowable. Faith is about that which is unknowable but believed.
Many years ago, I was the guest teacher in a high school comparative religions course. Each semester the teacher asked me to answer questions about Judaism. He also asked me to present one particular idea about all religion that matters to me. So, every semester I would explain to the students that faith is not fact.
We spoke about the Bible, how it is not a record of what actually occurred, but rather a religious memory of meaning not facts. What matters, for example, is not how Israel left Egypt but what that narrative means for our lives and our world.
We spoke 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.
We discussed the vocabulary of human characteristics we apply to God. We ascribe to God sensations we know. It is the only foundation for faith we have. Yet, in attempting to describe the eternal in temporal terms we create the ultimate paradox. We forget that our words are symbols bearing no resemblance in life to the mystery of God’s reality. God’s realm is the intangible, of soul and spirit, not the corporeal of body and matter with which we live.
We also spoke about faith having 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.
As the Orthodox scholar Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz explained many years ago, “I cannot overlook the fact that, no matter how strongly I believe it, it is still only my personal belief.”
We wondered how many conflicts between individuals, within families or between peoples and nations would be more easily resolved if this humility attached to what everyone believes. Whatever truths or values our experiences may teach us, we are each privileged to glimpse but a small aspect of the whole truth. Faith is the confidence to live our ideals. Faith is not fact.
At the end of every semester the students had to take a final exam that included this question. “Who said, ‘Faith is not fact?’ Answer choices were Moses, Jesus, Buddha, or Rabbi Shulman. My mother was so proud!
This sacred evening, I want you to understand. Faith is a grounded idealism. Faith lifts us up. Faith inspires us. It touches our hearts because it informs our minds. Faith is the courage to live according to the right in which we believe.
If tomorrow we discover a fact or situation contradictory to the tradition as we have it, our beliefs will endure while our understanding of their origin may grow and change. This emunah, this religious trust in what we know and hope for keeps us engaged and involved in the on-going discovery of what it means to be Jewish and the reality of being human.
Our religious beliefs cannot be used to justify either our prejudices or our preferences. Belief in God is a challenge to our baser instincts. Faith enlightens our conscience. Reflecting about God ought to inspire us, or possibly perplex us. But it shouldn’t diminish our character or our sensitivity toward others, even those others with whom we differ profoundly.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, “Intellectual honesty is one of the supreme goals of philosophy of religion…Hypocrisy rather than heresy is the cause of spiritual decay.”
I’m arguing for faith’s limits, that beyond the Bible’s stories God is reflected in what ought to be, in how we can do better or different, not only when we want to confirm for ourselves what has come to be, or what we think.
So, how do we decide what to believe, in what we trust?
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.
Faith is not fact. I’ve been thinking about and teaching this idea for many years. If more people in the world, and certainly in the world of religion, could make this same assertion about what they believe, I believe the result would be a shared vision for more human dignity and goodness in the world.
Take this to heart. Every time you celebrate a sacred moment, light a candle for Shabbat or a holiday, every time you make Kiddush over wine, every act of tzedakah, every gesture of kindness and compassion, every time you enter the synagogue to pray, to learn, and to connect, every conscious expression of your Jewish self is a demonstration of hope and emunah, an act that celebrates human dignity and goodness.
Says the Psalm for these Days of Awe: “Mine is the faith, mine is the trust, lulei he’e-manti lir-ot b’tuv Adonai, that I surely shall see the Eternal God’s goodness in the land of the living.”
Faith is not fact. Faith leads us to the truths that matter most in life. Faith is not fact. Faith is trust, emunah, and the confidence to live our ideals.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah!
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

inspired (jewish) Living


 Rosh HaShanah I Sermon 2022 | 5783
Talmudic wisdom suggests a rabbi should be in a joyful mood before he begins his sermon but overcome with awe once he begins to speak. It seems that the ancient sage Rabbah would attempt to say something humorous before teaching so those listening to him would share in both his happy and reverent moods.
So, here goes! Many years ago, my wife Robin and I had the occasion to travel to a family wedding. Robin was having trouble on the airline’s website so she called the airline to speak with an operator in order to make reservations. Over the phone she explained to the clerk that she would be traveling ahead on Thursday and, because of my work, I would be joining her late Saturday evening. “My husband needs to travel on Saturday night, after the sun has set,” Robin explained. “Why?” inquired the operator. “Is he a vampire?” “No,” replied Robin in an upbeat voice, “Just a rabbi.”
My mood is upbeat today. I hope yours is, too. As we begin the new Jewish year, what could possibly upset us? This is my message today. We cannot let what’s wrong deter us from pursuing what’s right.
Jewish lore imagines God and Abraham in conversation just as Abraham looks up and sees a ram stuck in the bushes nearby to replace his son Isaac whom he has infamously bound on a sacrificial altar. “The Holy One, blessed be God, said to Abraham, ‘In the future your descendants will also be entangled in troubles and they too will be redeemed by the horn of a ram.’”
After we sound that ram’s horn, the shofar, we declare our redemption. HaYom harat olam! Today our world is created anew!
Though so much may disturb and distress us in the worlds of our nation, our people, and nature, or upset and challenge us in the worlds of our personal lives, families, and friends, all of which matters and none of which do I dismiss or disregard, on this day which symbolically marks the world’s re-creation it is the awesome gift and wonder of our lives, the profound and meaningful purposes of our days that must inspire us.
We re-create the worlds of our experience by raising ourselves up to imagine rather than despair, to hope not to worry, to reach for more not settle for less. This is our greatest challenge and need. I know some of what upsets you and me. My quest now is to discover what inspires us.
Jewish tradition imagines we are to answer this question at the end of our days. I want to answer it today. “Tzapita l’yeshua - Did you hope for better days? For redemption?” Did you dream and imagine what could be or merely complain about and accept what is?
Ours is not just to watch, wallow, and wait for things to get better. Rather it is up to us to elevate our sights, raise our expectations, and live in the world that is as we believe it ought to be. To live on every day we are blessed to greet with hope, determination, and moral clarity.
That’s what we do during this sacred season. We strive to go higher and higher. For our sake, and for the sake of our society, we must live inspired lives.
Indeed, raising our sights, looking upward, above the Ark in every synagogue hangs an Eternal Light, a Ner Tamid. We derive this symbol from words of Torah directed to Aaron, the Ancient Israelite High Priest. He was to kindle and elevate an Eternal Light, l’ha’a lot ner tamid, a lamp in front of the curtain hiding the tablets of the covenant in the Mishkan.
About this symbol, Jewish tradition understands the light of God’s presence to be a light of inspiration and holiness, shining into our hearts and our souls the enduring values of goodness, of love, and of hope. It is among our most inspiring symbols. The lights of sanctuary, of Shabbat and festival, the lights of memory and mourning all touch us deeply, and move us to remember, to honor, to celebrate, and to rejoice.
Light reflecting God’s presence illuminates our way and brightens the darkness of any personal or emotional night. We need such light, such inspiration in our lives.
We know what amuses us. We know what makes us sad. We see and hear so much that is crass, vulgar, or disheartening. But what elevates us? What motivates us? What inspires us?
Most often, I’m inspired by other people. People who challenge themselves, who rise above and overcome, who reach out to others, who live by their principles, who do what is right, and who accept responsibility for what they did wrong.
I can think of role models who encouraged my own life’s path. I can bring to mind the impressive, compassionate, and brave acts of others. A person’s goodness, kindness, and love compel my own.
Ideas also elevate our hearts and our minds. They are a potent source of motivation and meaning. Simple or profound, various thoughts move us and cause us to reflect. Memories, sacred texts, music and art, exploration, curiosity, and even athletics; there is much to inspire us if we seek it out. We thrill in nature’s wonders and humanity’s creativity. Family and community, too, become sources of inspiration, especially as we derive some of our values from our association with others.
Our goal is to find sources of inspiration for our lives. That’s why we’re here.
We seek this inspiration because in our more somber mood, you and I are wary. Weary too. The culture in which we live is morally sick. Our society is ailing. The symptoms are all too evident and widespread. We are numbed by violence and the murder of school children, incivility and lying, division and derision, distrust and deception, hatred and racism, economic instability and social inequity.
From our aspirational place of higher hopes, we look down at these realities. We’re not alone. Journalist Elizabeth Bruenig describes our moral decline this way. “American life isn’t about what is good but is rather about nothing at all.”
If life is about nothing, if no sense of purpose or meaning inspires, people despair. They make excuses. They lose trust. They deny reality. They cast blame.
Earlier I said, we cannot let what’s wrong deter us from pursuing what’s right. My focus today is on the sources of our inspiration not our frustration. In the what’s wrong category, however, I make this one exception because of its special resonance with us in synagogue and its larger relevance to so much else upsetting us.
Over the summer, two men were sitting outside on the patio of True Foods at the UTC Mall waiting for their lunch order. Apparently these two friends were Jewish because while sitting there they were subjected to a hateful and bizarre antisemitic tirade.
A man cast blame. Recording his own vile attack he screamed among other ugly things, “The Goyim are starting to wake up. You guys have your own ethnostate. You guys are trying to dismantle our civilization.” After they threatened to call the police, he told them “Call your Shabbos Goys.” Then he stopped filming and posted his hatred to Twitter.
No one was physically hurt. Recently there have been many more and worse antisemitic incidents in this country and around the world. Even so, watching this video was disturbing. Didn’t recognize either of the men. I assume they’re not here with us. Also, not sure how their attacker knew they were Jewish. I showed the video to Robin who asked what I would do in that situation. A question I’ll come back to in a moment.
Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, Walter Russell Mead explains the larger significance of this and every other antisemitic episode. “The rise of antisemitism is a sign of widespread social and cultural failure. It is a leading indicator of a loss of faith in liberal values and of a diminished capacity to understand the modern world and to thrive in it. Societies that tolerate antisemitism take a fateful step toward the loss of both freedom and prosperity.”
If so, then we Jews represent the exact opposite of an antisemite’s screed. How we present ourselves to the world must imagine a future bigots can’t see. A future in which human decency and goodness thrive. A future in which Jewish life is dynamic and engaging, a demonstration of personal meaning and common purpose. We must respond to hatred with pride.
If I were the target of that man’s disgusting words at UTC, assuming I felt safe and before or after calling the police, I hope I would have said to him something like this. “Thanks for the reminder. I’m always proud to be a Jew. I only wish you knew what the hell you were talking about so you could be proud to be you, too.”
We respond to others’ ignorant and hideous hatred for us from a posture of confidence, conviction, and pride. We are not Jewish because they hate us. We are Jewish because we love the values and ideals of our people’s historic and enduring heritage. Beyond all necessary and appropriate security and physical defense efforts, which we take with profound regret and great responsibility, we must positively stand up for who we are and most of all actively live and keep alive our unique privilege to be Jews.
We Jews endure because belonging to a people, transcendent of borders, boundaries, races, and nations provides us with our optimistic outlook. A worldview of hope and visions of daily, weekly, seasonal meaning. For our sake, and for the sake of our people, we must live inspired Jewish lives.
Which means it’s time to come home, to renew and rebuild our communal bond as a synagogue family. We cannot live truly inspired Jewish lives alone. Together we inspire each other with our presence and our caring.
As it has always been. “I make this covenant not with you alone,” God’s voice through Moses’ words tells our ancient Israelite ancestors standing at Mt Sinai. “I make this covenant not with you alone, but with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”
It is of us, later generations unknowable once upon a time, that this verse speaks. We Jews are a group bound by covenants of history and fate, collective memories and cherished faith. The Jewish people’s covenant with each other and God is a transcendent, imperceptible, inspirational pull we feel at those moments in our lives when connecting to Jews and Jewish tradition is important to us.
The Jewish people’s covenant must be more compelling and inspiring to us than our proper concerns about antisemitism. As the late Rabbi David Hartman said about the Holocaust and Zionism, “We will mourn forever because of the memory of Auschwitz. We will build a healthy new society because of the memory of Sinai.”
As you and I emerge from the shadows of pandemic darkness and disruption, we step up into a new year’s light of hope and resolve, climbing higher and higher toward the visions and ideals in which we believe and by which we must live.
Here’s what I encourage you to do this year, more than hope for better days. For our sake, and for the sake of our society, we must live inspired lives.
We must step up and into the light of God’s inspiration. Living inspired lives means living with personal resolve. Easier said than done, as we all understand.
Begin by paying attention to the people who represent the decency and honesty you value instead of those whose noise and news diverts your attention from what’s right to what’s wrong. Step up higher by consciously speaking honestly yourself and acting with personal integrity. Step up still higher by caring. Be kind and be good. Expect kindness and decency. Don’t settle for less than the highest possible demonstration of your character and values.
Here’s what I else encourage you to do this year. I know it’s cliché for a rabbi to ask a congregation to be present and involved, which is not really my style. But, after 31 pandemic months thus far, we all need the meaning and connections at the heart of synagogue and Jewish life.
It’s time to come home, to renew and rebuild our communal bond as a synagogue family. I encourage you to commit yourself anew to honoring our people’s eternal covenant. For our sake, and for the sake of our people, we must live inspired Jewish lives.
Begin by becoming part of our volunteer community. We need your talent and your insights to imagine and create our shared future. Step up higher by becoming part of our caring community. We are devoted to God by caring for one another other through ailments and anxiousness and being present to one another at happy and sad times.
Step up still higher by becoming part of our learning community. Find inspiration in Jewish texts and ideas, in questions and exploration, through discussion and debate. Step up even higher by becoming part of our Shabbat community. The most sacred and inspiring symbol our people’s historic covenant is Shabbat. A day of light and gladness we set aside each week to reconnect with our Jewish community, to rejoice in our Jewish identities, to root our days in the wisdom and meanings of Torah and Jewish tradition, and to renew in shared Jewish celebration.
I conclude with an abridged version of Y. L Peretz’ famous Yiddish folk tale. Early every Friday morning during the weeks before the High Holy Days, the rabbi of Nemirov would vanish. He was nowhere to be seen, neither in the synagogue nor in the study house, nor at a minyan. And he was certainly not at home. Where could the rabbi be? The towns folk believed the rabbi of Nemirov ascended to heaven during the days before Rosh HaShanah. Afterall, a rabbi has plenty of business to take care of just before the Days of Awe.
One week a man from another town came to visit. When asked where he thought the missing rabbi was, he laughed. “That’s not my business,” he said shrugging. Yet all the while he was scheming to find out. One Thursday night, right after the evening prayers, the visitor steals into the rabbi’s room, slides under the rabbi’s bed, and waits.
Early the next morning the rabbi arises. He dresses in peasant clothes. From his coat pocket dangles the end of a heavy peasant rope. The rabbi leaves and his unseen visitor follows him. On the way the rabbi stops to make a bundle of the wood and ties it with the rope in his pocket.
Next the rabbi stops at a back street besides a small, broken-down shack and knocks at the window. "Who is there?" asks the frightened voice of a sick woman. "Vassil," the rabbi answers. “I see you are cold. "I’ll kindle a fire," explains the rabbi as he enters.
As the rabbi puts the wood into the oven he recites, in a groan, the first portion of the morning prayers. As he kindles the fire and the wood burned brightly, he recites, a bit more joyously, the second portion of the prayers. When the fire was set, he recites the third portion, and shuts the stove.
The man from out of town who saw all this became a disciple of the rabbi. And ever after, when another disciple tells how the rabbi of Nemirov ascends to heaven during the days before Rosh HaShanah, the man does not laugh. He only adds quietly, "If not higher."
That’s what we all can do during and after this sacred season. Realize this. As our children and grandchildren grow, as we ourselves continue to age and engage, as we put ourselves out into the world every New Year and each new day, we hope and pray that people are decent and kind, honest and good.
Which is why my message today is the challenge of our times. We must strive to go higher and higher, bringing warmth where there is cold, light where there is dark, and inspiration where it’s needed most. In this New Year, let each one of us step up even more than we have before, if not higher.
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

giving time meaning

 Rosh HaShanah II Study Sermon 2022 | 5783
I note at the start of this New Year that I have now served here at Congregation Beth El for five years, this being our sixth High Holy Day season together. Funny though, it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. Time flies when you’re having fun! Two and one-half years in our previously normal world followed by two and one-half years in our new normal COVID world.
Above and beyond COVID, we live in tough times, at least so it seems. Yet, for all that worries and concerns us, let’s not lose perspective. When in human history have people not lived in tough times? Through the ages, wars and persecution, disease and suffering, financial ruin and political unrest are sadly more constants than exceptions. And, for all that challenges us now, we live in relative comfort as a measure of human experience. Though, we certainly understand this is not universally true neither at home nor abroad.
Still, on this second day of a New Year, a new moment, a new beginning, a new opportunity to hope and to strive, let’s not focus on whatever may be the difficulty of our days. Instead, against the backdrop of all that is challenging, let’s focus on the purpose and meaning toward which we live our days.
In his book, The Chosen, Chaim Potok puts these words into the mouth of Dr. David Malter who explains to his son Reuven: “Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So, we may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?”
Dr. Malter continues. “I learned a long time ago, that the blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. The span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so that its quality is immeasurable, though its quantity may be insignificant. A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest I want to be worthy of rest, when I am no longer here.”
Let me ask you a simple question. What time is it? You can answer in different ways. It’s time to listen to the rabbi’s sermon. Or simply, it’s 11:15 a.m. Now let me ask, what day is it? Again, you can answer me in different ways. It’s September 27, 2022, or 2 Tishrei 5783, or it’s the second day of Rosh HaShanah, or it’s Tuesday, or it’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s birthday.
Why do I ask? Why do we care? Well, basically because we have things to do, places to be, and people to see so we want to know when and where we and they are. Reflectively, maybe we want to think about our fleeting relationship with time. Afterall, time can be wasted, kept, spent, saved, killed, lost, and longed for.
Only a Minute: I have only just a minute. Only sixty seconds in it. Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it. But it’s up to me to use it. Give account if I abuse it. Answer for it if I lose it. Just a tiny little minute. But eternity is in it!”
Today, I want to add a spiritual dimension to our awareness of time. We mark and measure time because we are mortal, finite and physical human beings. 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.
Judaism is a religion of time. Teaches Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “There is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean God’s presence in space rather than time, in nature rather than in history; as if God were a thing, not a spirit.”
Judaism teaches that we meet God in time. We do not find God wherever we may be. We sense God’s presence whenever we are living out our days with intention, moral vision, and ritual celebration.
The four Hebrew letters Yud hey vav hey, represent God in time and existence, was (hayah), is (hoveh), and will be (yihiyeh). We best translate Adonai, “My Lord” as we symbolically pronounce those four Hebrew letters as “Eternal God.”
Norma, a woman I knew who helped prepare food for Jewish events and celebrations came to me one day after the food was prepared and ready to be served. Norma had one very important question. What time should she put out the meal? Typically, the answer came back, “Be ready to eat at noon-ish, or two-ish, or six-ish.” Unhappy with these imprecise times, Norma once asked, “Is this how you tell time because you’re Jewish?”
Actually, for we who are Jewish, it is the calendar’s pattern and sacred dates through which we tell time daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, and annually. The Jewish calendar reminds us to prioritize who and what are vital to our sense of meaning and fulfillment. It directs our attention to our intentions, and not toward whatever the larger world imposes on us.
Even as we endured a pandemic, we celebrated Shabbat and holidays up to and including this third “not yet fully normal” Rosh HaShanah. At all times, the Jewish calendar is a celebration of history, a vision of destiny, and an expression of identity.
The courage and dedication to Jewish identity we frivolously celebrate on Purim is a set up for Passover. Then we get serious about what it means to believe in God and to represent God in the world. Freedom, human equality and dignity along with social justice are the ethical demands of our monotheistic religious tradition.
Gratitude for all that sustains our lives in God’s world is the reason for our daily counting of the Omer. Tempered by the sadness of mourning the generation of the Shoah and enhanced as we rejoice in the creation of the State of Israel, our Omer season of blessing and history anticipates Shavuot. We receive Torah, the revelation of God’s presence in our lives. The substance of Jewish purpose. The wisdom of Judaism.
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur celebrate the moral me. You and I measure the character of our lives and the merit of our choices in order to earn the gift of our lives. Sukkot brings us back to Passover and Shavuot. Dwelling in our Sukkot, we celebrate life as a journey from beginning to arrival, from slavery to freedom, from personal constraint to moral responsibility. We strive to care for one another and our natural environment. Hanukkah is a partner holiday to Purim. Courage, dedication to Jewish identity, and devotion to the light of God’s presence in our lives through ritual and learning. Last but not least, Shabbat, our weekly respite for joy and renewal celebrating God’s creative and redemptive presence in the world.
Mishnah Rosh HaShanah teaches us there are four overlapping calendars by which we organize our social lives: one for kings and festivals, one for tithes, one for the years, and one for the trees.
Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1 declares: “There are four New Years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and for Festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of animals - Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Simon° say, On the first of Tishri is the New Year for the years, for Sabbatical Years, for Jubilee Years, for planting, and for vegetables; and on the first of Shevat is the New Year for Trees, according to the view of the School of Shammai, but the School of Hillel say, On the fifteen the thereof.”
We live in concentric cycles of time. Our personal, professional, family, national, religious, academic, sports, and family calendars overlap. Each season and every time frame beg us to divide our attention, to choose our priorities. Which calendar has ultimate authority over our days, over our time?
What are your markers of time and moment? What occasions of celebration, attainment, memory, or change do you mark and remember? Are they yours alone? If not, with whom do you share them?
Jewish tradition contrasts the routine and ordinary experiences of our lives with those occasions that are profound, unique, or sacred. In order to enter into the sacred seasons of the Jewish calendar we must first discover the personal milestones and memories of our own lives. Even then, the decision to celebrate or consecrate the times of our lives remains ours.
Talmud Yerushalmi observes: “When the earthly court decrees that today is Rosh HaShanah, God says to the ministering angels, ‘Prepare the trial platform. Ready the defenders and the clerks. The earthly court has declared today to be Rosh HaShanah.’ If the witnesses to the new month tarried, so Tishrei could not be declared, or if the court added a day to the month of Elul, God announces to the angels: ‘Remove the platform. Dismiss the defenders and the clerks. The earthly court has decreed that Rosh HaShanah is not until tomorrow.’”
The rabbis are teaching what they believed. It is Rosh HaShanah when we say so. If we’re not set, God waits!  (Which given all that we confront this year may explain why our holiday is “late.” Who had time to prepare?) Our ancient sages did not believe that humanity controls fate or nature. They most certainly saw their authority and our opportunity in controlling and establishing the calendar, designing and determining the purpose of our days.
Rosh HaShanah is not sacred because of some Divine decree, but because of our own decision to pause, break from routine, and live these days as days of awe, gratitude, perspective, and value.
There is so much about the world and our lives over which we are not able to exercise authority or control. So much that we might make different if only we could. For all of our strength and ability, for all of our achievement and prowess, so much that lies beyond the grasp of our prayer and our efforts. We cannot control what happens to us. That is why we must control the calendar. What we do with our days, how we respond and react to what may occur, how we mark and define the significance of our lives is absolutely ours to determine.
The days, weeks, months, years, and seasons of our lives are not significant by themselves. What we do, who we do it with, and how we live our days are what give time its meaning. Marking the holidays and values of the Jewish calendar leads us to recurring and enduring moments and memories of meaning.
When the Hasidic master, Reb Yitzchak Ya’akov, the Seer of Lublin, died, his disciples divided his worldly goods. One got his books, one his Kiddush cup, another his tallit. There remained one humble Hasid. To him was given the Rebbe’s clock.
On his way home, the Hasid stopped at an inn. When he discovered he had no money to pay the innkeeper, he offered the Rebbe’s clock as payment. The innkeeper installed the clock in one of the rooms.
A year later, another of the Rebbe’s Hasidim passed by and stayed at the inn. All night, he could not sleep. All night, the innkeeper heard the restless footsteps of the Hasid pacing the floor.
In the morning, the Hasid confronted the innkeeper: “The clock, where did you get the clock?” The innkeeper related the story.
“I knew it!” responded the Hasid. “This clock belonged to the Seer. It is a holy clock. All other clocks in the world mark time from the past; they measure us from where we’ve come. This clocks ticks toward the future. Every time I lay down to rest, the clock reminded me how much more there is to do before redemption can be realized.”
Judaism is a religion of time. The days, weeks, months, years, and seasons of our lives are not significant by themselves. What we do, who we do it with, and how we live our days are what give time, and therefore our lives, meaning.
We best get to it. The clock is ticking.
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Take the high road

Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2022 | 5783
I miss sending and receiving Jewish New Year cards. Remember those ancient days before email when it was somewhat customary to send greeting cards to family and friends in honor of the New Year?
The cards I recall were often colorful, thoughtful, and helped to set a mood of personal connections and warm feelings before the holidays. They were also quite a project, at least in our house. Each one hand addressed and personalized with a note inside. Since no one can read my handwriting, l acknowledge Robin may not agree with me!
The card Avi, Michael, and I sent all of you offered wishes for this New Year.
May you find inspiration, hope, and happiness in this New Year. 
May you be able to share life’s blessings with others.
May you demonstrate pride in being Jewish and joy in celebrating Jewish life.
May it be for you and yours, and for our Congregation Beth El synagogue family,
a sweet and good New Year. L’Shanah Tovah!
As we gather this evening to begin our holiday, our hopes run even deeper. We pray this New Year may bring us goodness and gladness, strength for what challenges us, stamina for what we must still endure, success in our strivings, and peace for our lives and our world.
These annual greetings reflect rather lofty goals. I’m not sure we expect them to come true as much as we wish they could. Which is why gathering together to welcome a New Year, we seek to raise our sights higher and higher, L’eyla u’l’eyla. Let our purpose this year be inspiration. May we elevate our spirits and renew our souls. May we lift ourselves up as we begin a New Year for our lives and our experience of this world.
A simple custom and ritual practice mark our goal. During the year, whenever we recite a version of Kaddish, we say: “Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh, May God’s name be acknowledged and praised, l’eyla, higher above all that is praised.”
Whenever we recite a version of Kaddish during the High Holy Day season, we say: “Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh, May God’s name be acknowledged and praised, l’eyla u’l’eyla, higher and higher above all that is praised.”
We strive to reach even higher heights of spiritual wonder and gratitude. We want to mean our lofty goals for goodness in a New Year and commit ourselves to striving ever up toward achieving them.
Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh, l'alam u-l'almei 'almaya… Yitbarakh v'yishtabah, v'yitpa'ar v'yitromam v'yitnasei v'yit-hadar v'yit'aleh v'yit-halal sh'mei d'kudsha, b'rikh hu, l'eyla (u’l’eyla mikol) min kol birkhata v'shirata, tushb'hata v'nehemata, da-amiran b'alma, (v'imru, Amen.)   
Doubling the word l’eyla, higher, to read l’eyla u’l’eyla, higher and higher, poses a quaint but meaningful challenge to the construction of the Kaddish prayer. You see, the poetic and imaginative students of our liturgy imagine that the 28 words in this second paragraph of the Kaddish correspond to the 28 experiences that fulfill a person’s lifetime according to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes or Kohelet.
You’ll recognize the poetry. “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. (1) A time to for being born, (2) and a time for dying; (3) A time for planting, (4) and a time for reaping; (5) A time for killing, (6) and a time to healing; (7) A time for tearing down, (8) and a time for building up; (9) A time for crying, (10) and a time for laughing; (11) A time for mourning, (12) and a time for dancing; (13) A time for scattering stones, (14) and a time for gathering stones; (15) A time for embracing, (16) a time for shunning embraces; (17) A time for seeking, (18) and a time for losing; (19) A time for keeping, (20) and a time for sending away; (21) A time for ripping, (22) and a time for sewing; (23) A time for silence, (24) and a time for speaking; (25) A time for loving, (26) a time for hating; (27) a time of war, (28) and a time of peace.”
By adding the second l’eyla, we are out of sync with the poem. We now have an Aramaic paragraph of 29 words. What to do? We subtract another word, of course. Instead of saying l’eyla min kol, higher above all, we grammatically contract min kol into mikol - l’eyla u’l’eyla mikol, and we’re back at 28 words.
More than balancing the symbolism of our words, praising God in the words of Kaddish we’re actually making a significant statement about the experiences of our lives. In the circumstances and experiences of our days, and in this New Year, we can always strive to be better, to become more, to transcend ourselves as we make connections, strengthen relationships, and seek meaning. In God’s name, we can reach up and rise up.
Especially when it’s easier or even more natural not to. Famous tales about the 19th century Lithuanian teacher of musar, ethics, Rabbi Israel Salanter reflect this spirit.
One Erev Rosh HaShanah, a group of congregants were out looking for their rabbi because in a crowded synagogue they noticed he was not with them. After a long search, they found Rabbi Salanter in a small, dimly lit house.
The rabbi was rocking a baby to sleep as he recited the Ma’ariv prayers. The congregants were utterly puzzled and asked him, “What are you doing here?”
The rabbi responded, “I was on my way to the synagogue when I passed this house and heard a baby’s cries. I supposed the family had gone to pray and had left the baby alone. So, I went in to take care of the child.”
Another tale reflects a different form of compassion. When asked why the rabbi used so little water to ritually wash his hands before a meal when the custom was to use as much water as possible, he explained. “I know that it is a mitzvah to use a lot of water, but the poor attendant has to bring in the water from the well outside, even in the bitter cold. I do not desire to be so pious at the expense of the poor attendant’s hard work.”
Be it musar – ethics, or morality or conscience, there’s a way I always tell people to carry themselves in life. It’s the path of sensitivity and dignity. It’s the journey of self-respect and regard for others. It’s the way of compassion and understanding. Whatever may be the difficulties you confront in your relationships with others or in your efforts to contribute, take the high road.
Life is complicated. We confront tensions and challenges in our relationships and efforts every day. It’s how we respond to our problems that demands our attention.
“Take the high road,” is always my response. Never let someone else’s behavior bring down your own. Be the one more gracious and compassionate. Be the one who takes every extra step you can. Don’t wait for someone else to do what you ought to do now.
Mark Twain once remarked that to act morally is noble, but to talk about acting morally is also noble - and a lot less trouble. Funny, yes, but misleading. What good is it to be right and alone? What purpose is achieved by standing your ground all by yourself?
Does it sound so complicated? “Take the high road?” I’m always sad that it seems to be easier said than done. Remember this each time you hear the Kaddish refrain, l’eyla u’l’eyla, higher and higher. It’s not just a liturgical formula.
It’s the road to take in life. It’s the road to dignity and character. It’s the road to self-respect and regard for others. It’s the road to compassion and understanding.  It’s the road to inspiration and hope. Whatever may be the detours you confront traveling your way through these busy and challenging days, to get where you’re going take the high road.
As we welcome a New Year this evening, let us begin to raise our sights higher and higher, l’eyla u’leyla. Let’s make our purpose this year inspiration. May we elevate our spirits and renew our souls. May we lift ourselves up as we begin a New Year for our lives and our experience of this world.
And if you find this message printed on a Jewish New Year greeting card, please send it my way! L’Shanah Tovah!
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sun, September 24 2023 9 Tishrei 5784