Sign In Forgot Password

Jerusalem, History, & Hanukkah

 

 

Shabbat Vayeshev 5778 | December 9, 2017

I don’t want this to be a political moment for the Jewish community. No one needs to tell us where Israel’s capital city is located. It is a fact of history and our Jewish religious heritage that Jerusalem is the national capital of Israel and the spiritual center of the Jewish people. Through the centuries until today, other nations and peoples may also make claims on the city. Today’s demographic realities also matter. Nonetheless, sustained denial of Jerusalem’s central role in Jewish political and religious life is, as it always has been, dishonest and deceptive.
 
Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since King David established the first Jewish commonwealth and his son King Solomon built the First Temple. It was Israel’s capital again when the Maccabees reclaimed the Second Temple and established the second Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel, as we commemorate next week on Hanukkah. And it became so for the third time after Jewish sovereignty returned to the Land of Israel in 1948 and the State of Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital city in 1950.
 
In 1995, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly enacted “The Jerusalem Embassy Act” establishing bipartisan American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The law states as a matter of U.S. policy that America should recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and our embassy should be located there. So, when the President of the United States declares this week that our nation now does recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he affirms and fulfills a fact of policy and history we know to be correct.
 
Let’s focus on the significance of this recognition in the on-going story of Israel’s, and the Jewish people’s, history. Let’s try not to focus on the political turmoil or necessary policy debates this acknowledgment naturally stirs up.
 
Is it a strategic shift as part of a larger vision for the Middle East, as some observers suggest? Is the timing of this announcement a desire to change the subject and continue sewing political chaos, as other pundits believe? Time will tell, as will the short-lived or intense reactions we’ll see from others, including the Palestinians.
 
While all of this plays out and we corroborate the rightful place of Jerusalem in the life of our Jewish nation and identities, I don’t want this to be a political moment for the Jewish community. Let’s use our emotional energy for a different purpose.
 
Celebrating Jewish identity and Jewish memories in the larger world today is our most important challenge. It always has been. Assuring the historic place of Jerusalem in the hearts and minds of Jews, and not only in the political realm, is our real task. Which brings me to Hanukkah.
 
I learn something new about the complex history of Hanukkah every year. I find the events surrounding Hanukkah to be a fascinating study of the dynamics of Jewish identity and the posture Jews take in response to the larger world.
 
Think about what we celebrate. Recalling how in 164 B.C.E. the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem and purified the Temple so they could worship God according to their priestly customs, on Hanukkah we celebrate Jewish religious identity.
 
The Books of Maccabees tell us that Hanukkah begins as a civil war among the Jews who are trying to define their identities as Greeks and Jews. A political alliance with the Greeks brings the Greco-Syrian governor of Jerusalem, Antiochus, to prohibit Jewish religious practice and desecrate the Temple.
 
After their victory, the Hasmonean priests, who sought to limit their assimilation into Greek culture and fought to defend Torah, become the rulers in Jerusalem. They establish the Second Jewish commonwealth, the only Jewish government in the land of Israel from the days of King David until the modern State of Israel.
 
The First Book of Maccabees was composed perhaps a generation after the events it describes. In it we read, “Judah and his brothers, and the whole congregation of Israel decreed that the rededication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness at the same season each year, for eight days, beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev.”
 
Next, we read the Greek population around them who “heard that the altar had been rebuilt and the Temple rededicated,” grew angry and “determined to wipe out all those descendants of Jacob who lived among them.”
 
War ensued for twenty years. Fighting to save his life and his family’s rule, Judah appealed to Rome, an enemy of the Greeks. Rome recognized Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem for a time, took on the battle against the Greek leaders, known as Seleucids. This was a difficult period during which Judah lost his life and Jerusalem fell. Eventually, the Hasmonean descendants of Judah came to power with Rome’s assistance. Gradually, the Seleucid state broke up.
 
In the context of this history, here’s my new awareness for this year. As historian Martin Goodman explains, the Maccabees, the family of Hasmonean priests at the center of the Hanukkah story, “saw themselves as the righteous champions” of Jewish tradition as they practiced it in their day. Over time, however, their descendants were not without opponents among Jews who had reasons to doubt the authenticity of their authority.
 
Hanukkah began as a celebration of the Maccabee’s rededication of the Second Temple in 164 B.C.E. Decades later, Hanukkah “also provided an opportunity for all citizens of the Jewish state to demonstrate their loyalty in public” by kindling and publicly displaying lights for all to see.
 
It seems that as the memory of the Temple re-dedication event waned among the population, marking the days of Hanukkah became a celebration of national independence and allegiance to the Hasmonean state. For me, this is useful information to help answer a question about Hanukkah I ask every year.
 
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 do we celebrate the rededication of a 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. I think that’s probably true for those Jews who saw Hanukkah as a holiday of hope and memory. Remembering the Hasmonean’s victories and defeats while hoping for the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Through the generations, Hanukkah honors less the memory of a destroyed Temple and more sustains loyalty to the memory of a Jewish state ruled from Jerusalem.
 
From 164 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. we move forward to 220 C.E to learn this rule in the Mishnah. Individuals are liable for fires kindled by a spark from their candle. “Rabbi Yehudah says, ‘If it was a Hanukkah light, an individual is exempt.” Rabbi Yehudah believes that the danger of naked flames on the street is outweighed by the religious duty to shine publicly a light of hope in God.
 
In a span of 385 years, Hanukkah morphs from a Temple rededication event to a celebration of Jewish loyalty and spiritual longing.
 
By the way, Jewish tradition rules against Rabbi Yehudah. Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura, a 15th-century Italian rabbi comments, “a person is obligated to sit and protect the light of Hanukkah while it is burning.”
 
I don’t want the President’s decision about Jerusalem to be a political moment for the Jewish community. As symbolically and historically important as the location of Israel’s capital is, protecting the light of Hanukkah, which means sustaining a community of people who appreciate the Jewish meanings symbolized by the City of Jerusalem, a community loyal to Jewish history and inspired by Jewish hopes, is what must command our attention today.
 
Commemorating Hanukkah we honor the memory and reality of independent Jewish sovereignty and we honor our Jewish religious identities in the larger world. These are our reasons for joyous celebration at this season.
 
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Finding Our Voice

 

 
 
Shabbat Toldot 5778 | November 18, 2017
 
I have to admit. Preparing to speak with you on Shabbat each week, sometimes I feel like a local broadcast news anchor. I often refer to the too numerous calamities and tragedies we monitor from the comfort of our homes and synagogue seats. I do so not to upset us but to learn from Torah Jewish values to guide our responses and understandings. That was not my plan for this week, until I read the following in the Times of Israel.
 
Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed by videoconference the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Los Angeles this week. Something he said touched me.
 
“I just saw the pictures of the destruction in Iran and Iraq from this week’s earthquake. And I saw these heartbreaking images of men and women and children buried under the rubble. So, I am proud to announce tonight that a few hours ago I directed that we offer the Red Cross medical assistance for the Iraqi and Iranian victims of this disaster.”
 
The Prime Minister continues. “I’ve said many times that we have no quarrel with the people of Iran. Our quarrel is only with the tyrannical regime that holds them hostage and threatens our destruction. But our humanity is greater than their hatred. Israel continues to be a light unto the nations and this is what I am proud of. And all of you can be proud of Israel’s morals, and Israel’s might.”
 
The ethics of the Prime Minister’s statement reflects proper regard for all human beings. It may be necessary to oppose a neighbor who seeks to harm you. It is never right to disavow yourself of another person’s humanity. Isn’t this often our complaint when enemies deny the basic fact of our humanity as Jews and Israelis?
 
I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government of Israel for this just act. I also regret letting you know Israel’s offer of aid to the earthquake victims was immediately turned down by the Iranian regime.
 
Inside Israel, however, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement received praise. Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party noted, “Netanyahu did well to offer assistance for those affected by the earthquake in Iran and Iraq. The Jewish people are among the leaders in human morality and compassion.”
 
While we take a moment to pat ourselves on our collective backs, let’s look into the source of our moral values for deeper insight into human nature. This morning we read of Jacob, who disguised as his brother Esau, comes forward before their father Isaac to receive blessing as if he were the first-born son. Esau, who earlier in our portion sells Jacob this very birthright, then comes before their father to receive a blessing and leaves angry with Jacob for his deceit.
 
At this ultimate moment, Isaac, whose eyes are dim, invites his son forward. “So, Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered, ‘the voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.’” This poignant phrase catches our attention. Does Isaac know he is being fooled? What, if any, are his suspicions?
 
Guided by Midrash, I am struck by the conflict between Jacob’s voice and Esau’s hands. What Prime Minister Netanyahu called Israel’s morals and Israel’s might. I imagine that Jacob’s voice is one of compassion and caring. Jacob is said to be the more mature, more learned, more sensitive of the two. Esau’s hands are quite skilled and tough. They have known the hunt of the field, the scratches of battle.
 
The Midrash declares: “Jacob wields power only by his voice; Esau wields dominion only by his hands.” Another view states: “when the voice of Jacob withdraws within itself then the hands are the hands of Esau. One beckons to him, and he comes.” Finally, a third perspective: “when Jacob speaks wrathfully with his voice, the hands of Esau have dominion; when his voice rings out clearly, the hands of Esau have no dominion.”
 
It’s an accurate portrayal of human nature. We are torn between our morals and our might. We are torn between our voices, which speak our thoughts and values, and our hands, with which we react more instinctively and physically. Jacob’s disguise before his father reveals our choice. We all have acted on emotion, out of anger, or immediately before our inner voice calmed or controlled us. We have all done with our might over another what was expedient, even when we knew it to be wrong, or even immoral.
 
Israel relates to Iran and her proxies in Lebanon and Gaza most frequently with Esau’s hands, with mighty military responses to acts of terror and the firing of rockets. This week, Israel spoke through Jacob’s voice rather than Esau’s hands. Through Israel’s moral voice of compassion and kindness.
 
There is a lesson in this event for all of us. Whenever we get the chance, while shopping in a store, speaking or texting on our phones, meeting someone for a discussion, or balancing the geo-political challenges of keeping a country secure and its citizens safe, responding to people with our caring moral voices, and not with our mighty hands, responding to people with kindness rather than out of anger or frustration, responding to other people’s needs and not only needing to defend ourselves, protects and renews our shared humanity.
 
Life’s most difficult choices are usually pretty complicated. Our choices are not always simple or clear. Remember Isaac’s confusion. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” We often confront this conflict between Jacob’s voice and Esau’s hands. Precisely at such times, whenever possible and not dangerous, we need to try finding our voice, choosing Jacob’s voice of conscience and ethics within us. As Prime Minister Netanyahu stated and we must strive to make true, “our humanity is greater than their hatred.”
 
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Determining Our Prayers

 

 
 
Shabbat Haye Sarah 5778 | November 11, 2107
 
This Shabbat in our sanctuary, our sacred space for prayer and celebration, we humbly pause as our hearts ache for the victims, for their families and friends, for their community and our society after what happened at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. This disturbed act of violence hurts all of us deeply.
The assault on Sunday morning church goers, the deaths of 26 innocent people ranging in age from 18 months to 77 years is senseless as it is so sad. You and I do not live in this world to grieve and to suffer, though we do both too often. We are here to love, to nurture, and to fulfill the purposes of our creation. That’s precisely the meaning and vision of our prayer and gathering this and every Shabbat morning.
 
Each time we witness one of these tragic events, in reaction, we hear lots of noise and opining. Rarely, though, do we see any activity to prevent the next one.
 
David French, a Harvard Law School graduate, an Iraq war veteran, a best-selling author and opinion writer comments on last week’s church shooting in his piece at the National Review. David French calls prayer, “the most rational and effective response in the face of evil as manifested in mass shootings.” Among other things, he claims, prayer “includes the clear mind to consider and enact policies that might make a difference.”
 
I deeply appreciate the reflective and introspective value of prayer. I do hope prayer motivates us to consider our choices and direct our actions. I don’t appreciate turning to prayer as a substitute for taking personal or collective responsibility. If we want things to come out a certain way, whether or not we choose to pray, we have to behave accordingly.
 
Abraham’s servant Eliezer understands this. Sent by Abraham to find a suitable wife for Isaac, Eliezer defines the woman he is looking for and then asks God to confirm his decision. His prayer to God is not for guidance or that God fulfill his quest, but rather that God’s blessing be a confirmation of Eliezer’s will. It is a powerful way to understand the meaning of our own destinies and our relationship with God.
 
My own view is that things don’t happen to us because of some external controlling force or fate. No mass shooting or other tragedy is God’s will. Neither are our achievements. Rather, God is present through us, through our responses to life’s challenges and joys, and through the world’s wonder.
 
God's reality is not that of a genie granting our personal wishes. Instead, through our plans, and as a result of our reactions to every day’s surprises, we make progress. My faith is a trust that God grants our world and each one of us the resources, talents, and gifts to succeed. My prayer is for inspiration and encouragement. It is an exercise in evaluation, and a moral check on my purpose.
 
Listen to Eliezer’s words. “Eternal, God of my master Abraham…let the maiden whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.”
 
In other words, Eliezer determines that Isaac’s wife must demonstrate character traits of kindness and compassion. He knows what he wants and how he will attain it. His prayer is for God to affirm his choice.
 
Eliezer’s demeanor troubles some voices in Jewish tradition. Who is he, rather than God, to decide who is right for Isaac to marry? What if the woman who next approaches the well is less than everything a Biblical matriarch should be? His request of God is inappropriate, even though God’s graciousness extends to him and Rebekah is the one to appear first.
 
Yet from another perspective we are taught to see “that the servant does not ask for a miraculous divine intervention or for a revelation that would designate Isaac’s bride to be. He prays, rather, that the rational criteria of suitability that he himself determines might be in accordance with God’s will and be effective.”
 
These two interpretations are our life options. We can leave it up to others, feeling that we’re not qualified to guide our own futures; worried that we won’t be resilient enough to overcome any unintended consequences of our choices.
 
Or, we can see in our lives the blessing of God’s trust in us, a convergence of our best instincts and life’s greatest opportunities. Aware that we can’t know the future, we can still imagine its promise and potential.
 
Let’s pray in memory of the victims who lost their lives last Sunday in church. Let’s pray for all those injured and grieving to heal as they are treated, embraced, and helped to reclaim their lives.
 
Prayer is not a substitute for responsible debate and determination to figure out how to minimize or even prevent these tragedies that plague our society. Through what we actually do to make right what’s wrong, we pray.
 
May the memories of those who died direct their loved ones toward comfort and goodness. May those who ail know healing. May all of us be safe and secure whenever and wherever we gather. Like Eliezer did, may we see in our prayers confirmation of our decisions and blessing for our behaviors.
 
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Prominent Indiscretions

 

 
Shabbat Vayera 5778 | November 4, 2017
 
It seems like a rare day when we don’t learn of some prominent person’s indiscretions. Our culture is awash with the news of those who mistreat others, who believe it is their place to harass women or subordinates, or abuse their power through inappropriate authority, financial scheming, or arrogant disregard for law and decency.
 
I am pained for the victims, their family members and friends. I am embarrassed for so many public figures who destroy their own dignity as they cause others pain. The good news is we’re now starting to pay attention. The bad news is this is nothing new.
 
“While he was sojourning in Gerar, Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘she is my sister.’ So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him.” Abraham puts our matriarch Sarah in a compromising position because he’s worried for his safety. Abraham doubts the people of Gerar’s integrity and social values. In response to Abimelech’s anger, Abraham explains he gave Sarah to him because, “‘I thought,’ said Abraham, ‘surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’”
 
Abraham seems to think he is entitled to save himself, his prosperity, and his monotheistic project by putting Sarah and her dignity at risk. God takes a very different view. “But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said, ‘You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman.’” Protecting Sarah while she is with the king, God prevents any harm from resulting from Abraham’s act.
 
Finally, to justify his bad act, Abraham exclaims, “And besides she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s; and she became my wife.” Voices in Jewish tradition want nothing to do with Abraham’s claim. I’m particularly struck by Nahmanides’ point of view.
 
“I don’t know the reason for this subterfuge. For even if it were true that she was his wife and his sister, and seeing their desire for her he said she was his sister to delude them in this matter, he still committed a sin toward her and brought upon them a grave wrong. In this matter, we cannot separate the truth from the lie.”
 
I accept that the Torah narrative is a story. I accept that we turn to a character like Abraham and his relationship with God as portrayed in the Torah for personal meaning, spiritual identity, and faith. I believe we must also glean ethics for our lives from what we read in Torah.
 
If our rabbinic tradition can call out Abraham for acting inappropriately toward Sarah, Abraham who himself called out God while trying to save any righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah. As he hears God’s plans to destroy the cities, Abraham chastises God. “Shame on You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice? Then we must be able to find a way in our relationships, in our society, in our work places and businesses, in our homes and communities, in the culture of celebrity, entertainment, media, and sports to call out those who act beyond proper boundaries of personal space and individual dignity.
 
We must also be sensitive. Why do various individuals presume the right to impose themselves or their desires on others? How arrogant and shallow is their self-awareness? I don’t ask these questions in search of answers. I ask them in order for us to consider our own interpersonal relationships and behaviors.
 
It really isn’t all that complicated. The rule is simple. Every gesture toward another person conveys what we think of him or her. Each overture we make toward someone suggests who we think we are in relation to him or her.
 
We relate to some people because of our, or their, position of authority. We come to know other people through personal experiences. Emotions and memories connect each of us to others. Let’s recognize this. When anyone looks at anyone else through an illusory lens of power and entitlement they see an object or a target, not a person worthy of their respect.
 
I learned this from my children and their friends many years ago when they were young. They taught me that I do not have the right to enter their personal space or touch their bodies with a friendly pat or tickle without permission. Permission is always required. This is true for someone who is 5 years old, 25 years old, 55 years old, 75 years old, or 95 years old. Our bodies and the spaces around us are private places. No one has access without our permission.
 
This even applies every time we greet one another. We have a decision to make. How do we invite each other into our personal place? How do we initiate contact? Should we? If we’re not familiar or comfortable with each other, we share an unsure moment or pause.
 
Do we shake hands? Do we embrace? Do we offer a social kiss? Do we share a bro hug? Quickly, instinctively, we ask ourselves which gesture is right for this moment? Understand, our answer depends on how we each see the nature of our relationship.
 
The rule is simple. Every gesture toward another person conveys what I think of him or her. Each overture I make toward someone suggests who I think I am in relation to him or her.
 
Every person I meet deserves a comfortable and appropriate physical interaction. Let’s be open, warm, and sincere with each other. Let’s hug, let’s kiss, let’s shake hands, let’s do whatever is right for our relationships. Let’s also be sure, everywhere we go, our relationships demonstrate mutual respect and regard.
 
As individuals, we can model in our behaviors our expectations for and toward others. We can all honor the character of our relationships and the invitations we choose to make and accept with propriety and dignity. We can do this with caring. We can do this as a statement to the society around us. Without permission, no one has a right to any part of who I am.
 

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Feeling Jew-ish or Jew-like

 

 

Shabbat Lekh Lekha 5778 | October 28, 2017

The title of a recently published book got my attention. Feeling Jewish – A Book for Just About Anyone, written by Dr. Devorah Baum, a lecturer in English literature at the University of Southampton.
 
The book title reminds me of Norma, a woman who helped prepare food for Jewish events and celebrations. 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?”
 
Dr. Baum argues feeling Jewish is no longer only about being Jewish. It is now a universal sensation, a feeling of angst most anyone can experience. To set out her notion, Dr. Baum points out what most of us understand. Whether or not someone considers him or herself religious, being Jewish is a condition of life.
 
The great German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote in a similar vein in the early 20th Century. Except, he was addressing being Jewish as an identity, not feeling Jewish as an emotion. “Just as Jewishness does not know limitations inside the Jewish individual, so does it not limit that individual himself when he faces the outside world. On the contrary, it makes for his humanity… Jewishness is only lived, and perhaps not even that. One is it.”
 
As I read and understand it, this is Professor Baum’s working definition of feeling Jewish. Feeling Jewish is the “sensibility of whoever feels a bit unsure of who they are – a bit peculiar or out of place, a bit funny.”
 
Does that describe you? Not me! By her definition, I don’t feel Jewish at all. And that feels strange! I am not an ethnic Jew. I’m quite sure of and comfortable with my place in the world as a person and as a Jew. Cultural Jewish neurotic stereotypes like guilt and inadequacy don’t animate me. Jewish kitsch is cute and familiar but I’m not a person who identifies primarily through culture and association.
 
In response to Devorah Baum, I want to argue that while feelings of insecurity are one consequence of the Jewish people’s historical experience, they are not our best feature to offer others. The world doesn’t need more angst. How about a bit of self-understanding and wisdom to help us move forward these days?
 
I find a compelling sense of purpose results from our people’s journey through the ages. I am an ideational Jew, a person who identifies with Jewish ideas. Jewish meanings inspire me. An optimistic Jewish worldview engages me. A Jewish sense of ethics and compassion motivates me.
 
Never the less, I find Dr. Baum’s book to be thoughtful and poignant. She writes, “While modernity promised Jews and other minorities that they could move from the margins to the center, it’s the reverse that may have actually occurred. In the era of radical globalization and the internet, it doesn’t matter who you are – even if you’re male, white, straight, middle class – you’re probably feeling that your group or identity has been, if not existentially threatened, then at the very least marginalized.”
 
She arrives at this understanding by reflecting on Jewish culture through the ages. So much Jewish humor and so much Jewish angst comes from those before us who lived on society’s edges, who were marginalized and not welcome. Throughout history, Jews have been reviled and persecuted, both emulated and envied for their successes.
 
“When it comes to feeling panicky, weak, outnumbered, and existentially threatened,” she explains, “Jews are by no means all alone. Indeed, the sense of dispossession that might be said to underpin resurgent ‘nationalist’ feelings could hardly have more in common with the feelings of those rootless cosmopolitans accused of aggravating them.”
 
Essentially, Dr. Baum seems to argue, the Jew-ish condition is a feeling of unease, of not knowing who we are as a collective in an increasingly globalized world. Anyone who feels disoriented or dislocated is feeling Jew-ish.
 
Interestingly, though I don’t fully resonate with what Dr. Baum writes, I find a hint of her thesis in how the Torah describes Abram. As we come upon him, Abram (as Abraham is first known) has left his native home for a land that God will show him; a land in which his descendants will live as fulfillment of God’s covenantal promise. After Abram tours this Promised Land he settles in Hebron with his wife Sarai. We learn that his nephew Lot resides to the east.
 
Suddenly, it seems, war surrounds Abram. Lot is captured. We read, “A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, ha-Ivri.” Abram goes into battle to rescue Lot and protect his new home. I’m interested in how Abram is described. What does it mean that he is called, “Abram the Hebrew, ha-Ivri?”
 
“Rabbi Judah said: “The Hebrew, ha-Ivri, signifies that the whole world was on one side (ivri is derived from the Hebrew word ever, which means “over there, across”) while he was on the other side.” In this view, Abram feels dislocated. Separated from the larger society in which he lives. We might even say that Abram ha-Ivri feels Jewish!
 
Rabbi Judah’s interpretation isn’t really about identity, however. It’s about belief. Among all of humanity only Abram was a monotheist, the first person we meet who believes in One God. The label describing Abram reflects his belief, perhaps his values, not his ethnic identity.
 
We who are Jewish are spiritual descendants of Abraham. Avram haIvri, Abram the Hebrew, also means Abram the Nomad. Our historical experience was as a people who wandered and migrated from place to place. We have indeed been among the outcast and insecure throughout our history. Thankfully, this is no longer our reality.
 
While it is true that feelings of insecurity are one consequence of the Jewish people’s historical experience, at this moment I believe the larger world needs to hear something else from who we are Jewish.
 
To be Jewish is to access one of the world’s great wisdom traditions. If we’re looking for some truth that all people can sense in their particular circumstance today this is it.
 
Every one of us is different from every other one of us. While we share much in common, we are each unique in essence and personal identity. Let’s talk about feeling unique rather than feeling estranged. Let’s talk about feeling Jew-like rather than feeling Jew-ish.
 
The best life lesson of Jewish history for the world at this moment is to respect what’s different about each of us. Let’s build a society that celebrates each person’s unique and precious place among us. Too much emotional and ideological energy is pushing us apart. Too many want to live and associate only with people similar to themselves. Making room for one another, and opening ourselves up to what’s different about us rather than what’s the same, is our great need today.
 
Abram, our spiritual father, stood across on the other side. He found his purpose in his different belief system. Yet, Abram brought his different perspective out into the world to live with it among his neighbors, not to separate from them. To feel Jew-like is to celebrate what’s different about you and me, to take care of ourselves, and to give our unique gifts and talents to the world. To give the world who we each are is to be Jew-like and to build the society in which we want to live.
 
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Rejection's Value

 

 

Shabbat Bereshit Sermon 5778 | October 14, 2017
 
We begin again our people’s sacred book. This is what Torah is about. Torah is about us, and our lives. Torah points us to awareness of God as it urges us to find meaning, purpose, beauty, and responsibility in life.
 
The Torah’s story of humanity begins as a reflection of human instinct and emotion. Our moods and passions may be the most complex part of being human. Our reactions and moods vary, often surprise us, and are not always ours to control.
 
The first portrayals of human personality in Torah reflect universal human truths. Adam is lonely. Seeking a companion, Adam represents our social desire. We crave being together with others. Eve is curious. Her appetite presents our drive to explore and discover. Cain is jealous of his brother Abel. He has trouble co-existing in relationship with someone else. Abel’s shorter life span demonstrates gratitude. Among our finest and healthiest traits.
 
When we meet Cain, he is a farmer. Abel, his brother whom we also meet, is a shepherd. According to some scholars, these brothers represent a tension between two original human settings. One, Abel, lives a nomadic existence. The other, Cain, is a settler. Both make necessary contributions to culture and economy. Cain is a “tiller of the soil,” just like his father. Abel raises livestock, “a keeper of sheep,” branching out from the family’s home.
 
“In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Eternal God from the fruit of the soil; and Abel for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.”
 
I’m curious. What is the purpose of Cain and Abel’s offering? Are they worshipping God? Is prayer instinctive to our nature? Why do people, including many of us, give something of ourselves or our possessions as an expression of caring, thanks, or praise? What do we, and Cain and Abel, seek? What internal feelings or personal sensations motivate us?
 
Jealousy is one, according to the Midrash. Adam, Cain and Abel’s father, sees the brothers’ rivalry and sends them to “pacify their Creator by offering to God from their strivings.” In part, prayer is expression of our emotions. A release of all we carry and feel within.
 
Submerged in this Torah text we find a deeper question. Notice what occurs. “The Eternal paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering God paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.” The question is obvious and uncomfortable. Why was Cain’s offering rejected?
 
The deeper question to learn from asks about that rejection. Why is it not okay to be rejected sometimes? We can ask a few more questions. Why does Cain assume that what he offered had to be acceptable to God? Why do any of us assume that something we do, or something we produce, must be accepted by others? Why can’t we be rejected?
 
Candidates seek our votes. Some of them are rejected in every election. Different choices, colors or flavors are presented to us all of the time. We like some of them. We reject others. Employers interview numerous candidates for a position. Most of them are rejected in favor of the person selected.
The Latin term for our human species is homosapien. The root of meaning is judicious and discerning. Of course, we accept and reject according to our preferences. By definition, it’s human nature. What needs to engage us are the criteria, good or bad, by which we make those decisions.
 
Again, from the Midrash we gain one insight. Abel’s offering reflected his humility. “Who am I to draw near to God?” the rabbis imagine him wondering. Cain, on the other hand, assumed everything he did every time he did it was worthy of acceptance. Which just isn’t true.
 
Rejection is a necessary, even a valuable, experience in our lives. Not all of the time, of course. No teenager finds pleasure in being told “no” when asking someone out on a date. Being accepted is crucial to forming our identities and supporting our personal feelings of self-worth. Even so, we ought to be mature enough and wise enough to understand the value in rejection.
 
Over the coming months students will be accepted or rejected by schools or programs they hope to attend. Their applications will be rejected based on statistics, demographics, and very selective, subjective, criteria. True, not everyone is qualified or a good fit for every slot. But, it is never personal. No admissions officer or evaluation committee actually knows the students they evaluate.
 
Life’s most enduring lessons challenge us. They don’t always make us happy. We learn from them to evaluate what we are doing. If we like what we are presenting, we gain confidence to continue. We look for the right place to offer what we can, to be who we are. How many members of the baseball teams currently in the playoffs were released by other teams only to find themselves now playing to get to the World Series?
 
We do not have to like, agree with, or accept everything people bring to us. Other individuals are entitled to our respect, not our automatic acquiescence. Think about your own opinions. You can’t agree with everybody. Unless you simply don’t care enough to have a view of your own. I agree and disagree with many good friends on this issue or that. I never feel dejected when a friend rejects my point of view. Isn’t it enough that my perspective was considered at all?
 
I reject the idea that we cannot balance gun ownership and gun safety. I reject the view that suggests there is nothing we can do as a society to keep people safe from those who should not have easy access to weapons.
 
I reject the behaviors of those who disrespect another person’s dignity, body, or opportunity. I reject efforts to confuse people by denying what is true or promoting what is not.
In Torah God asks Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely if you do right there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door.” Torah rejects the false choice between doing what is expedient or doing what is right.
 
Cain murdered his brother Abel because he didn’t understand the possibilities present in God’s rejection of his offering. We can discover this potential. Not all expressions are equal even though all people are. Our efforts bring value even when the results of our efforts fall short.
 
We’ve begun reading our sacred text again for a New Year. Striving to help us be aware of God, Torah urges us to find meaning, purpose, and responsibility in life. Let’s reject the notion that life is void of meaning. Torah is about us, and the purpose of our lives.
 
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

My Rabbinic Letter

 

 

Yom Kippur Sermon 2017 | 5778

It was the night before my Bar Mitzvah and all through the house, not a creature was stirring…except for my father. As I was getting ready for bed, a bit nervous about the next morning, Dad came in and sat down. He was a sensitive, emotional man. In his misty eyes, I saw his pride and excitement. As I recall the moment, he didn’t say much. Instead, my father handed me an envelope and asked me to read the letter inside before going to sleep. Which, being curious of course, I did.

In an era long before parents gave speeches to their B’nei Mitzvah children during synagogue services, my father wished to impart a personal message to me. I believe he intuited from his own experience that every parent’s life is incomplete. Children can be their parents’ legacies to the world. Parents can ask their children to carry on. To build upon and extend their parents’ visions and values. Some will. Others won’t. Some can. Others can’t.

Still, every parent hopes. As Rabbi Richard Israel wrote while waiting for the birth of his first child, “I want you to be happy, caring, and Jewish. How I am going to get you to be any of them – ah, now the anxiety begins.” Or as the great Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem wrote in his will, “My children and children’s children can have whatever beliefs or convictions they will. But I beg of them to guard their Jewish heritage.”

In his Bar Mitzvah letter to me, in part Dad wrote, “There are times in a person’s life when it becomes very hard to say to another person exactly what is on their mind. This is especially true in the case of parents to their children. The thing that is hard to explain to you is the fact that as you become a Bar Mitzvah you demonstrate in everything you do that you are prepared to meet the challenges in life ahead of you. You have a genuine understanding and love for Judaism, Torah, the synagogue, and everything they stand for. Your mother and I know that you will live the right kind of life, in the right way, and this knowledge is the main source of our happiness and pleasure. Thank you. Dad”

It made a lasting impression. It became part of my self-understanding. And, I did the same when it was my turn as a father to enter my daughters’ bedrooms on the nights before they each became a Bat Mitzvah. As did my father before me, I also continued this letter writing practice at a few other significant milestone moments.

Today I speak with you not as your father or son. I speak with you as your rabbi. Throughout history, in every time and place of Jewish life, rabbis wrote letters to their communities expressing and recording matters of belief, practice, moral and communal concern. Each Iggeret, each one of these rabbinic letters, is unique in style and subject matter.

In 1858 Rabbi Israel Salanter wrote an Iggeret about Musar, ethics. Reflecting on the mood and meaning of this very day, Yom Kippur, Rabbi Salanter describes our false sense of invincibility as the greatest obstacle to Teshuvah, repentance, return, and growth in life. In response, he offers wisdom.

“Who is wise?” ask the Talmudic rabbis. “One who foresees the future.” What does Rabbi Salanter mean by this quote? If a person can visualize and analyze the consequences of his choices before making them, “if he will do this and his heart will understand – he will repent, and it will heal him.”

Rabbi Salanter goes on in his letter to offer his prescription for a life of ethical consideration and awareness, including etiquette for Yom Kippur in a crowded, small prayer space. “Even while you are absorbed in prayer on the Day of Atonement, you are not free to violate the prohibition against stepping on another person’s toes.” (I suppose today our version would be you are not free to glance over to gaze at another person’s screen!)

Nahmanides, the 13th century Spanish scholar Rabbi Moses ben Nahman Girondi, begins his Iggeret with a quote from Proverbs. “’My child, heed the moral instruction (Musar) of your father and do not forsake your mother’s teaching (Torah).’ Get into the habit of always speaking calmly to everyone. This will prevent you from anger, a serious character flaw which causes people to sin.”

The 18th century Vilna Gaon opens his letter with a different instruction. “I came to ask you to refrain from becoming sad, do not worry.” Interesting message to a Jewish audience!

In line with this long-standing tradition, on this Yom Kippur I deliver my Iggeret, my letter, to you.

Dear Beth El Friends,

On this sacred day of introspection and concentration, I hope you are comfortable enough to endure and uncomfortable enough to find significance in your observance. I also hope you are well. Well of body and spirit. Well of temperament and emotion. Well of circumstance and situation. If not, I hope you will find what wellness and well-being you can in this New Year.

I am passionate about being a Jew. My bond to the Jewish people is personal and emotional. I am not an ethnic Jew, a person who identifies primarily through culture and association. I am an ideational Jew, a person who identifies with Jewish ideas. Jewish meanings inspire me. A Jewish world view engages me. Because I am passionate about Judaism I am passionate about being a Jew.

I write you this letter to explain what I mean. In this letter I seek to answer a question. Though it is my question, perhaps it’s also your question. You see, there really is only one question for a rabbi to answer. “Why?”

“Why?” is the question of ideas and meaning, reason or purpose. “Why?” is the reality of every one of our lives’ experiences. Why me? Why this? Why now? Why not?

“Why?” may just be the toughest of all questions to answer. Ask me how, I can instruct you. Ask me when, I can tell you. Ask me where, I can show you. Ask me why, I’m not sure what to say. Because?

It’s not that I don’t know answers. I do. I know my answers. I know some of Judaism’s answers. What I don’t know are your answers. I don’t know your answers to the why questions of life’s meaning and purpose. I don’t know your reasons for being who you are, for identifying as a Jew, and living as you do. Do you?

As Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” My prayer is that this letter may inspire your thoughts and responses as I offer you my answers to three questions of why.

Why does my life matter? Why does my life as a Jew matter? Why do I choose to celebrate and adhere to the Jewish traditions that I do?

Here are the “sound bite” answers to my three why questions. After which I will elaborate.

Why does my life matter? Because: I want the gift of my life to be a present to the world.

Why does my life as a Jew matter? Because: I want the privilege of my identity to connect me to something beyond myself, to something historic and enduring.

Why do I choose to celebrate and adhere to the Jewish traditions that I do? Because: I want God to be present in the world through my choices and behaviors.

Here are the longer answers to my three why questions.

I. Why does my life matter? Because: I want the gift of my life to be a present to the world.

We each get only a few years, some of us less than others. Our goal ought to be to live fully and intensely each day and every moment. We need to be aware that every day as it ends becomes a memory of how we lived.

We are born, and typically we die, against our will. Through no conscious acts of our own. Who we are physically, emotionally, the circumstances we meet, all of these we do not choose. Our tradition reminds us what we can do. “Whether to be righteous or wicked, this choice is completely in every person’s hand to decide.”

We each have something valuable to offer everyone else. We each see the world through our unique lenses. No one of us sees it all and no one of us can do it all. We need each other’s individual understandings to succeed and live well. As our rabbis teach, “Even as peoples’ faces are not all alike, so too what they understand about the world is not alike. Each person understands the world on his or her own terms.”

Life is the most precious gift we ever receive. What we do with this gift makes us worthy of life’s beauty and mystery. Let’s each make something of this gift. Our lives are about more than our desires. Our lives are about our destiny. We should not collect experiences and enjoyments just for ourselves. Drawing on all we encounter, we should give something of ourselves to others.

I give the world my children. I give the world my efforts. I give the world my insights. Too many people give the world their anger, pain and hate. I want to give the world my kindness, empathy, and love. I want the gift of my life to be a present to the world. That’s why my life matters.

II. Why does my life as a Jew matter? Because: I want the privilege of my identity to connect me to something beyond myself, to something historic and enduring.

From the affirmation of being Jewish we each get an historic and enduring address and worldview for ourselves, a personal place from which to derive our values while living as one among millions and billions.

There was no way our ancestors could leave Egypt individually. It was only as a people that they gained their freedom. As members of this people you and I represent that first memory and message for humanity, advocating for freedom, justice, and dignity. As the most fortunate Jews to ever live, we are bearers of a sacred and sad, of a glorious and brilliant history of light and hope for the world.

We are in relationship with generations of Jews, some who we’ll know and others whom we could never meet, whose experiences, memories and dreams can help us to be true to ourselves. Fortunate to be thriving in and challenged by opportunities and acceptance our ancestors could never imagine, earned for us by their stamina and survival, in this present moment we have to choose.

Are we or are we not bound to our peoples’ past and responsible for its future? Do we want the ideas, experiences, and purposes of the Jewish people to form and inform us? Does Jewish identity enrich our personal existence and connect us to grand visions and enduring memories far more significant than ours do by themselves?

My answer is yes. I am proud to be part of the Jewish people. A people who cherish life’s gifts and blessings. A people who inherit a tradition that stands for human dignity and equality, freedom and goodness. We are heirs to standards of personal ethics and celebrations marking the seasons and milestones of our lives. That’s who we are - and that’s what I believe we must represent to the world at large.

At our core, we the Jewish people profess a rational religion intellectually rooted in sacred history. Our people’s wisdom for life cultivates conscience and common sense. We Jews are openly and honestly encouraged by our heritage and our history to express wonder and worry. We ask probing questions and seek relevant answers. We cherish hope and dignity.

It is a privilege to be a Jew. Precious few of us walk through life so honored. Affirming the privilege of our places as responsible members of the Jewish people we walk together on a path toward meaning, community, and life promise.

Only Jews can be Jewish. Only Jews represent to the world our history which is the source of so much that lies at the core of society and western civilization. I want the privilege of my identity to connect me to something beyond myself, to something historic and enduring. That’s why my life as a Jew matters.

III. Why do I choose to celebrate and adhere to the Jewish traditions that I do? Because: I want God to be present in the world through my choices and behaviors.

I will often tell you. I believe life’s mystery is God’s reality. A spiritual essence found within the workings of the world. God is present through us when we experience life, through us when we respond to life. God is present through us when we meet, through us when we respond to one another. When we are loving, healing, and giving. When we strive to redeem others from the struggles of their lives. By transcending ourselves, by moving beyond ourselves, by thinking about something more than ourselves, we bring God into the world.

God speaks within us the voice of conscience. God lifts us up and draws us upward to be better. God draws us outward to be caring. God draws us forward to be gentle and gracious. God protects us from hopelessness, helplessness, and despair. God’s image within each of us motivates us not to allow ourselves to sink into small thinking or timidity, to be self-absorbed or callous.

Listen to this remarkable teaching. It comes from the 18th century Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, a leading Hasidic teacher who moved his community of adherents out of Belarus in the Russian empire to Israel in 1777. (Think of that, a different yearning for freedom one year after our American founders declared independence.)

Menachem Mendel said, “All my life I have struggled in vain to know what man is. Now I know. Man is the language of God.” It is not God but we human beings who let God be present or force God to be absent in the activities of our lives. How we act, how we treat one another, how we speak, justly or unjustly, is precisely how we experience God. We are the language of God.

I describe Judaism as a symbolic system. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel goes so far to teach that the actual symbol of God is man, each and every human being. Each precious moment of celebration at the Torah, every ritual item we cherish at home, the foods we do and don’t eat, the holidays we observe, the Shabbat we celebrate, the social justice we work for as a result of Jewish values, and the concepts we articulate all symbolize who we are, what we care about, and how we carry ourselves into the world.

The power of symbols is the significance we attach to them. Symbols represent our loyalties and identities, our memories and hopes, our values and beliefs. Jewish tradition and Jewish ethics offer us many symbols, objects and practices that represent who we are, what we care about, and how we carry ourselves into the world. I want God to be present in the world through my choices and behaviors. That’s why I choose to celebrate and adhere to the Jewish traditions that I do.

Why does my life matter? Because: I want the gift of my life to be a present to the world.

Why does my life as a Jew matter? Because: I want the privilege of my identity to connect me to something beyond myself, to something historic and enduring.

Why do I choose to celebrate and adhere to the Jewish traditions that I do? Because: I want God to be present in the world through my choices and behaviors.

This Midrash best answers my why questions. “The Mitzvot-the commandments were given in order to refine human beings.”

My dear new friends,

I believe to be Jewish is to inherit from our ancestors, and to interpret and pass along to our descendants, the ethics and moral insights, celebrations and rituals, ideals and life wisdom, stories and symbols of Jewish tradition, all taught in the name of God. I believe Judaism’s goal is the refinement and goodness of every human being created in the image of God.

Jewish ideas give us our values and vocabulary for life. Jewish meanings comfort us when life is difficult, challenge us when life is comfortable, and inspire us when life is demanding. To live our lives as Jews passionate about Judaism elevates our humanity and validates our individuality.

In this New Year, I wish you refinement and growth. Don’t let too much of life’s noise disturb you from life’s nice. Life is complicated, to be sure. Living doesn’t have to be.

To lead a good, meaningful, and content life, due to or in spite of every circumstance you confront, answer your why questions of life’s meaning and purpose. Offer yourself as a present to others. Connect yourself to something more. Make God and goodness present in what you choose to do.

In this New Year, may you know all the goodness of life – health, happiness, and peace.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah,

Rabbi Ron Shulman

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Renewal

 

 

Kol Nidre Sermon 2017 | 5778

In the week since we joined together on Rosh HaShanah, I’ve enjoyed hearing some of your personal stories. I appreciate your openness to entering into a new rabbinic relationship. I admire the backgrounds and perspectives, attainments and struggles, values and visions your stories describe to me. Based in the reality of your lives, and sustained by all of our dreams, I pray we find meaning together on this day of repentance and renewal.

Among the stories I heard, this one is the cutest. A kind and thoughtful man tells me on Rosh HaShanah he slipped a note into the Mahzor on the seat next to him. It was a love note to his wife for the New Year. Isn’t that sweet? The problem is before she got here, and while folks were crowding into their row of seats, he saw another woman pick up the book and read the note. He felt a bit embarrassed. This evening I need to announce: if you are the woman who picked up that Mahzor and read his note, he apologizes for any confusion. He is not in love with you. Sorry!

Speaking of love, listen to what happened to two families celebrating their children’s marriage. As happens before many Jewish weddings, these families planned to spend the entire weekend together. They arranged a Kabbalat Shabbat Service and Shabbat Dinner Friday evening. They hoped to enjoy an Auf-Ruf at the synagogue Shabbat morning, followed by Shabbat lunch. Saturday night they planned a fun rehearsal dinner, and scheduled a brunch for Sunday morning. And of course, the wedding ceremony itself and the reception were all set for Sunday evening.

Very excited about all of this, the bride and groom looked forward to their special weekend with family and friends. They only had one concern. Other than their parents, no members of their families had ever met. So, while they hoped for a fun filled weekend of family bonding, they couldn’t really guess how everyone was going to get along.

The big weekend arrived, and after everyone settled into their hotel rooms, it was time to make introductions. The bride’s family and the groom’s family each huddled with their own relatives. There’s a lot to catch up on when your extended family gets together.

As everyone was enjoying their reunions, the excited but nervous bride and groom invited their loved ones to introduce themselves to each other. It was great. Siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles from both families started to meet their counterparts. Everyone was happy. Everyone felt a joyous chemistry. The weekend was off to a great beginning.

But two special people hadn’t yet met - her grandmother and his grandfather, their respective families’ matriarch and patriarch. They were joining up with everyone at the synagogue for services and dinner. The plan was to seat them next to each other.

That evening, it happened just as planned. Her grandmother sat beside his grandfather. They immediately hit it off and began sharing the stories of their lives. They discovered that they were both Holocaust survivors, both over 90 years of age. They were so proud of their children and grandchildren. Delighted to be present at this beautiful occasion. Happy to meet each other. They established a genuine rapport.

After a while, their conversation turned back to the war years. They spoke about their hometowns. What they did as young adults. How they were sent to Auschwitz where they suffered. Somehow surviving until the camp’s liberation. As they spoke, so much was the same. They were both from the same Polish town. They both found love while trying to survive during the war. They both got married. Arriving at Auschwitz, the Nazis separated them from their spouses. Both of them were left to await their own fate grieving the assumed deaths of their lovers.

Suddenly in a moment of stunned, frozen silence, oblivious to all of the joy and celebration happening around them, they both rolled up their sleeves. The numbers tattooed on their arms were but one apart. They clutched each other very tightly.

“Anna, is this you, my Polish bride taken from me at Auschwitz? My wife whom I imagined had been murdered all those years ago?” he asked. With tears streaming down her face, Anna replied softly, “Yes, Sam, it’s me. I lost you at Auschwitz. Through the years unable to find out anything about you, assuming you were dead, I made my way toward a different life.”

“Anna,” Sam said, “this is beyond incredible. After such suffering, we both made new lives. Thankfully, we met new mates. We brought beautiful children into the world. Anna, my grandson is marrying your granddaughter. Somehow, decades later, we are reunited through our grandchildren. Our family is now whole.”

Anna and Sam. Widow and widower. Survivors of Auschwitz. Proud and loving grandparents. Reunited they remarried. Anna and Sam, with the blessings of their children, are together for the remaining years of their lives. Their bond redeemed and their love renewed.

An unimaginable resurrection. A chance reunion as miraculous as any meeting could be. Barukh Atah Adonai, Mehayei haMetim. When we haven’t seen someone for over a year, let alone a lifetime, we say: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who restores the dead to life.

This Kol Nidre night, like Anna and Sam, there is some part of our past we can each redeem. There is some sentiment of our hearts we can each renew. Our renewal may not be quite as dramatic. It can be just as important.

Perhaps we’re less attuned to the most precious people in our lives. Maybe our habits are too fixed. Possibly our minds are closed. Let’s remember how we once felt. Let’s recall what we used to do. Let’s recollect our previous thoughts. Though we may not reconnect with someone lost from our pasts, we are able to renew for ourselves something lost in our past we yearn to reclaim.

Were you once more optimistic and hopeful than you are today? Did you once dream of achievement and contentment more fully than you do today? Back when, weren’t you kind and considerate? Back then, didn’t you promise that you would? Was there once a time you paid more attention to your loved ones, or to your health, or to your values, or to your soul then you do now?

Once in my rabbinic career a congregant accosted me. He was a big, burly man filled with anger. His name was Frank, and as his family grew, they grew more and more distant from him. Bright and successful, Frank was a bitter man. His wife lamented the loss of his charm and sensitivity. His two sons and daughter were afraid to confide in him. He was argumentative and stubborn. I knew deep down that wasn’t Frank. I just didn’t know what had happened to change him.

Well, there we sat in my study reviewing plans for his youngest son’s Bar Mitzvah celebration. Frank didn’t like something I said about the ritual practices of the congregation. He rose from his chair, leaned over my desk, grabbed my collar and pulled me closer to him. His eyes were enraged.

“Frank,” I said calmly. “Take your hands off of me.” Dazed, he let go, sat back in his chair, and started to cry. “Rabbi, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what possessed me to do that. Please forgive me.”

I did forgive him. Then I asked him what was wrong. Why was he acting so out of character? “I don’t know,” he answered quietly. “I’m unhappy. I feel alone, misunderstood, and not always appreciated.” I told Frank I suspected the slights he felt were more circumstantial than intentional. “Frank,” I reminded him, “you’re a proud man, and you used to be a happy one.”

Tomorrow, Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the story of Jonah. God commands Jonah to travel to Nineveh and demand that the people turn from their wickedness, Jonah flees from his assignment. He journeys to the sea and boards a ship. The waters are extremely rough. Jonah asks the nervous sailors to toss him overboard. They all realize that God demands better behavior from Jonah. Jonah survives his ordeal in the belly of a fish, praying to God, “They who cling to empty folly forsake their own welfare.”

Finally, Jonah arrives in Nineveh, proclaims God’s call for repentance, and witnesses God cancel the intended punishment because the people change their ways. God’s compassionate forgiveness upsets Jonah. “Please Lord, take my life,” demands Jonah, “for I would rather die than live.”

In the Biblical story, God despairs over Jonah’s statement. God knows that Jonah is capable of greater compassion, more love, and a better attitude toward others. God proves it with a plant. It appears suddenly and provides Jonah with shade. The next day the plant withers away. Just as suddenly it is gone. Upset about the plant, Jonah repeats himself, “I would rather die than live.”

Jonah is free to do as he wishes, yet he remains stuck, unable to move. He blames it on God, who in Midrash rejects Jonah’s despair. The rabbis imagine God’s words. “You were mindful of My honor, not wanting to appear a liar if Nineveh were spared. That’s why you fled to the sea. I forgive you. Now forgive yourself.”

One of our hard tasks on Yom Kippur is to forgive ourselves. There is some part of our past we can each redeem. There is some sentiment of our hearts we can each renew. Where we have fallen short, we can stand tall again. Who we imagine ourselves to be can still be true.

Judaism teaches that to move into the future we must honor the past, and remember our hopes from years gone by. The Hebrew word for new, asj - hadash, also means renewed, hadesh. No new moment is truly pure. Everything results from what came before.

This promise of renewal is something we Jews attribute to God, who we describe as asjn - Mehadesh, the source of renewal. As the Mahzor declares, “Day after day in God’s goodness, God renews creation.”

In each of us there is a spark of this Divine image. We, too, have the power to renew ourselves. God endows each of us with the capacity to renew for ourselves the life we need to live. The life we hope to live. The life others deserve us to live. Our renewal may not be as miraculous as Anna’s and Sam’s reunion. Our need for renewal may not be as desperate as Frank’s. I hope our despair is not as deep as Jonah’s. Still, there is something about each of us we can renew.

There is some habit you want to break. Some craving you want to relieve. Some character trait you want to improve. Some emotion you want to control. Some relationship you want to heal. Some learning you want to do. Some ritual you want to practice. Some caring you want to express. Some help you want to receive. Some assistance you want to give. Some love you want to share. Some good you want to do.

This Kol Nidre night, there is some part of our past we can each redeem. There is some sentiment of our hearts we can each renew. What lost in our pasts do we yearn to reclaim? On Yom Kippur, gathered as a sacred community in God’s presence, what is it about ourselves we need to renew?

T.S. Elliot wrote of the journey of self-renewal: “We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

Based in the reality of your lives, and sustained by all of our dreams, I pray hadseh aleinu shanah tovah, may this be a year of goodness and renewal.

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

Storytellers

 

 

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2017 | 5778

A rabbi gave the same sermon every year on the High Holy Days. He was particularly beloved in his congregation so no one ever questioned him about this. But, after several years of hearing the same sermon, some members worked up the courage to approach their dear rabbi and ask him to prepare a new sermon for the New Year.

“Rabbi, you know how much we love you. Our only problem is that you’ve been giving the same sermon on Rosh HaShanah for 15 years. Don’t you think it’s time for a new one?”

The rabbi thought for a moment. Then he said, “Of course, I’ll be glad to deliver a new sermon if you can tell me what I spoke about last year.” There was a long embarrassed pause. Then the rabbi said, “You seem to have forgotten. I’ll tell you what. I’ll give that sermon one more time so you remember it, and then I’ll prepare a new one!”

I have a couple hundred High Holy Day sermons in my files, and I can’t give any of them over again, even here in a new congregation! Though I may revisit a theme here or there, my words have to come from my head and heart as I think and feel them now. My words have to speak to me, and to you, for this moment we are living and in this community we share.

I’m delighted to be here with you and to greet you as we begin another year of telling our story, the story of the Jewish people. L’Shanah Tovah! In this New Year, may you know all the blessings of life – health, happiness, and peace.

May this be a year in which we renew our people’s story of 5778 years, reclaim our country’s story of 242 years, rejoice in Israel’s story of 70 years, enrich our congregation’s story of 60 years, and share our personal stories through all of our years. Stories are on my mind today.

Before he died, the founder of Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, gathered together his disciples to distribute his worldly possessions. He distributed his belongings giving something unique to each one of his students. He divided among them his books, his various ritual objects, and some of his personal items.

After he gave away all of his property, there was one faithful Hasid waiting to receive something of value from his teacher. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like there was anything left. Seeing his student’s disappointment, the Ba’al Shem Tov paused, turned, and spoke to his one remaining and waiting student. “To you I give my most valuable possession. I give you my stories. Travel around. Tell my stories to everyone you meet.”

There’s actually much more to this story about the Ba’al Shem Tov, which I’ll save for another time. His gift, however, is ours to understand right now.

Our ability to tell stories makes us unique among all living creatures. Only we human beings tell stories about ourselves. Only we gossip about each other. In our stories we come together or remain distant. Our stories guide our behavior and our beliefs.

In his thought-provoking book Sapiens, Historian Yuval Harari describes our stories as “imagined reality.” Professor Harari teaches objective reality exists only in the physical world. Imagined reality exists when we believe our stories. Laws, justice, human rights “none of these things exist,” he writes, “outside the stories that people invent and tell one another.” As he elaborates and challenges, “There are…no nations, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

In other words, Congregation Beth El exists only because we want it to, because our allegiance is to the idea of being a synagogue community. Beth El is a reality we imagine together. Change our story, change our commonly held beliefs – we are different or gone. Our community in and of itself has no objective reality.

Here’s why this matters, and why I find it fascinating. Imagined reality, our stories are the key to living a meaningful life. Storytelling is a human impulse. We organize the events of our lives into narratives of meaning. Human history results not from biology but from the ideas we debate, the relationships we form, and the social cultures we build.

The fictions we tell about ourselves bind us together. Our tales motivate our ingenuity and creativity. Our myths inspire us to live toward something more, something deeper or greater than our mere physical existence. Our stories point us toward belief in God, goodness, identity, and purpose.

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s student who carried his stories into the world represents a precious Jewish tradition. The Maggid, the Storyteller, traveled among Medieval Jewry bringing them stories of hope and purpose. Inspiring them not with Jewish law but with Jewish lore.

Ours is a history rooted in a story and a heritage developed through lore, the many stories we tell about our story. Telling our Jewish story, and the many other stories that define our collective and individual identities, needs to be our goal in this New Year. My invitation to you on this first holy day we spend together is to join me in being Maggidim, tellers of our stories.

We’re all in synagogue for different reasons, as Harry Golden once heard his atheist father explain. “My friend Garfinkle goes to synagogue to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle.”

Each one of us sitting here has a story explaining why. Each one of our stories, with positive and negative elements, is a vital part of our whole community’s story. When we tell our stories we are telling the story of the Jewish people.

Individuals indifferent to Jewish life, or younger people complacent about their own Jewish identities, may hear in our stories rich and complex tales about our struggles and hopes, accounts of our dreams and achievements, and enduring messages of meaning and purpose all rooted in the Jewish experience. Our stories can be to those who hear them gifts of inspiration and texture, possibility and promise.

Raise your hands if you were born in America. Now raise your hand if you came to the United States from Europe, or Asia, or Russia and the Former Soviet Union, or South Africa, or Mexico, or Canada, or South America, or Israel, or Egypt, or Iran, or elsewhere in the Middle East, Australia, or elsewhere in the world. In your raised hands, in each of your lives and backgrounds, I see the incredible breadth and depth of the Jewish story, a story we must tell better than we have so far.

Telling our stories is for the sake of the Jewish people in America, in Israel, and around the world. Telling our stories connects us as a whole and holy synagogue community here at Congregation Beth El. Telling our stories is our best response to this current moment in American history.

Here in America, we live at a time of disruption and cynicism. Natural disasters and terror attacks bring us together for brief periods of time. More often than not these days, our national discourse pushes us apart.

“America has always been a divided, sprawling country,” writes David Brooks, “but for most of its history it was held together by a unifying national story.” Our national narrative gives us an overarching sense of meaning and purpose.

Last spring in Olathe, Kansas a hate filled intruder confronted an Indian-born engineer, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, about his immigration status at a bar. Though Mr. Kuchibotla lived in America legally, his crazed attacker fatally shot him. His widow, Sunayana, recently recounted that terrible day.

After peppering the couple with questions and ethnic slurs, the soon to be murderer briefly walked away from the couple to get his handgun. At that moment, other patrons in the bar approached Srinivas and Sunayana apologizing and assuring them they were welcome.

“This is not what we represent, you guys belong here.” One guy picked up their tab, and others asked to know more about them. They had begun to tell one another their stories until they were tragically interrupted by gunshot.

When we tell each other our stories we stop being strangers to one another. We begin to understand each other. We overcome fears, ignorance, and hate. We begin to see something of ourselves in other people.

In America we need to reclaim our country’s story in order to overcome the resurgent fears, ignorance, and hate disturbing us. In our story live the ideas binding us together as a nation. Our national narrative can guide the path to a better future. Hamilton and Jefferson had different visions. So do many of today’s thought leaders. Underlying any philosophical differences are common ideals and goals.

On July 4, 1776 Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson became a committee of three tasked with designing a Great Seal for a new nation. Franklin’s design included Moses outstretched hands over a split sea as he led the Israelites to their freedom. America’s founders saw themselves and their cause in our story, the Torah story of the Exodus.

This Rosh HaShanah my intent is not to offer you a lesson in American history. My intent is to talk about the need for our Jewish story at this moment in America, and in the larger world. A world in desperate need of our story’s ethics: compassion, goodness, justice, and healing.

In today’s world, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, identifies, religion can do one of three things. It can attempt to conquer society, as Radical Islam seeks to do. It can withdraw from society, as fundamentalists in all religious traditions desire. Or, religion can attempt to inspire society, as we must choose to do.

We must become Maggidim, Storytellers. Through the choices we make, the words we speak, the responsibilities we honor, and the stories we tell, as Jews who represent so much of our people’s historic experience, in this New Year let’s inspire and elevate.

“Until Abraham made his way into the larger world, the Holy One was, if one dare say such a thing, Sovereign only in heaven. After Abraham made his way into the wider world, he was able to declare God Sovereign over both heaven and earth.”

In vocabulary for today, the message is this. At a time of disruption and cynicism we need to bring the wisdom of our lives’ experiences, refined as they are by our ability to tell the Jewish people’s story as our own, into the public square.

Affirm it with me. Our society needs our inspiration, our story, our values, our ethics, and our presence. We must work to counter the crass culture surrounding us. We can’t be present, however, if we don’t tell the world we’re here. We have to tell our story.

The most inspiring part of our modern Jewish story is that this year we will celebrate Israel’s 70th year of independence. Israel’s existence is the great accomplishment of modern Jewish history. In a world filled with nations and people who deny Israel’s legitimacy, if Israel’s story inspires you, you need to tell it confidently and proudly. And, as we will this spring, connect to it and rejoice in it.

Between now and then, and I trust for many years to come, here at Congregation Beth El we will renew our community’s story. As you tell it, I’ll learn it. As I learn it, we’ll build on it together, looking for inspiration by renewing long standing synagogue traditions and developing new paths for prayer and celebration, learning and engagement, hesed and tikkun.

I root my vision of Judaism in traditional sensibilities aware that we can and must translate Jewish tradition to speak in this time and place. In part derived from one chapter of my personal story, it will be my goal as your rabbi to push us toward higher communal standards of Jewish practice, learning, and engagement.

I have lived a privileged Jewish life. I grew up in a home with parents who valued Jewish education and Jewish participation. I was fortunate to grow up under the tutelage of some of the greatest and most creative rabbis, educators, and Jewish personalities in the second half of the 20th century. Men and women who inspired me, challenged me, and cared about me.

When I decided to enter the rabbinate way back during my senior year in college, it was in part to pay back the privileges I received. Exposed to and excited by so much Jewish passion, vision, and thought, I wanted to pass it along, to contribute my part, and to touch someone else coming after me.

What’s your story? Personally or professionally, how did you grow to become who you are today? Or to do what you do today? Or to know who you know today? Or to understand what you do today? What’s your narrative? What’s your background? What’s your personal journey? What’s your Jewish journey? What about you can inspire someone else?

The most important thing a synagogue community can provide its members is support for their journeys in life. The most valuable relationships within a synagogue community are those reflecting mutual support and caring, mutual understanding and curiosity.

Some of this support and bonding happens naturally. It grows out of synagogue attendance and participation. It results from learning together and serving others. It comes from sharing the personal occasions in our lives and volunteering to join in with others.

Some of this support and bonding, however, requires personal conversation. It means sitting together and talking about our journeys, discussing our backgrounds, our achievements and disappointments, our next goals and hopes looking forward.

Let’s do this. Let’s get together and talk. This is your invitation. Come tell me your story. As the Ba’al Shem Tov taught his eager student, let us give each other and our society, let us give our people and our community nothing less than our most valuable possessions. Let’s give our stories to the world.

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Resilient, Positive People of Integrity

Shabbat Shoftim 5777 | August 26, 2017
 
Israel Kristal passed away last month just short of his 114th birthday. Mr. Kristal’s passing is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Until his death, Irving Kristal was the oldest man in the world. An observant Jew who lived in Haifa, Israel, last year Irving marked his 113th birthday by celebrating his Bar Mitzvah. He missed his chance to celebrate when he was a young 13-year-old who became an orphan in Poland during World War I.
 
During World War II, the Nazis occupied Poland and confined Irving to the ghetto later sending him to Auschwitz where they murdered his first wife and two children. Mr. Kristal survived the Shoah and moved to Israel. There, eventually, he remarried and built a new family and a successful life.
 
Oren Kristal, Irving’s grandson, said about his grandfather, “He managed to accomplish a lot. Every year he lived was a like a few years for somebody else.”
 
Beyond Irving Kristal’s life story and longevity, I admire the intensity his grandson describes. Irving’s life presents us with a model of resilience. I never met him. I assume none of us knows him. Yet, in reading his story I sense a man who knew the truth about human nature. People wreak much horror and create great beauty. Experiencing it all, Mr. Kristal reminds us. Build lives of love, hope, and achievement. Strive always to be resilient.
 
In our religious lives, you and I are a few weeks away from beginning a New Year. We are now in Elul, the Hebrew month of spiritual and personal preparation for the coming High Holy Days. On many days of this concluding year you and I confronted some of life’s difficult aspects. I hope not too difficult and I hope not too often. It is a challenge to be resilient and hopeful, to choose for ourselves the best possible response to whatever we face.
 
People who knew him say Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, tried to avoid using negative language whenever possible. When he needed to visit someone in the Beit Holim, a hospital, literally in Hebrew “House of the Ill,” he said he was going to visit them at the Beit Refuah, a “House of Healing.” When hearing that something bad happened, he said, “what took place was the opposite of good.” Rabbi Schneerson never worked toward a deadline. He worked keenly aware of his due dates.
A good addition to the resilience we seek. Our lives can elevate what’s positive over what’s negative.
 
For every negative moment in our lives, where possible, let’s create a positive response.
Speak words of kindness. Offer helpful gestures. Smile at someone. Be polite toward him or her, especially when you don’t want to be. Don’t fret over what you don’t like. Appreciate what you enjoy. Hearing news of cruelty or devastation, display compassion and thoughtfulness. If afraid and hurting, plan for any possible moments of pleasure or comfort. Relieve pain. Bring cheer. Offer hope. Cherish memory. Be honest. Kindle the lights of Shabbat. Give tzedakah. Share a meal. Come to synagogue. Offer a prayer. Be in community. Bring a positive response to life whenever and wherever you can.
 
Just this week I learned about the Kabbalistic Rabbi Sh’muel of Nikolsburg, Moravia (1726-1778.) When he served as rabbi in a community, Rabbi Sh’muel always hung his walking stick and his knapsack on the wall of the synagogue. When the officers of the congregation asked him, “Rabbi, why do you do this?” he replied, “I have no favorites; I don’t bend the rules; and I don’t show deference to anyone. If one of you is displeased, I am prepared to resign as your rabbi at any time, to pick up my staff and knapsack, and move to somewhere else.”
 
Rabbi Sh’muel placed before those he served an image of fairness and integrity. We need to be resilient. We want to exude a positive attitude. And, we need to live by our ethics and personal integrity. As we read in Torah this morning, “You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality.”
 
Addressing all of the people, Moses focuses on those who will serve as judges and leaders. As many Torah commentators observe, an official’s behavior sets the expectations for everyone else in the community to follow.
 
“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.”
 
The Hebrew grammar is morally instructive. When the Torah states in Hebrew “You shall appoint magistrates and officials,” the word you is the singular form, lekha rather than the plural form of you, lakhem. This is first a communal mitzvah to establish social authority. It is next an individual imperative for each of us to serve as a judge for ourselves.
 
It’s a basic Jewish moral premise. We are each responsible for the way we carry ourselves and how we present ourselves to others. We must also try to manage and choose how we react to things that happen to us and in the world around us.
 
As we begin preparing for the New Year, three vignettes offer us guidance. We may not live to be the oldest people in the world, though I wish us all health and longevity in the New Year. We may not twist our words to change their spirit, though I wish us all to be upbeat and hopeful in the New Year. We may not be ready to leave everything behind when our consciences bother us, though I wish us moral convictions and good acts in the New Year.
 
We may not be individuals whose memories model meaning, though I hope we turn out to be precisely those kinds of people. Carrying over into the New Year all that we must, judging ourselves and planning for our growth or change, I am confident we can each strive to be resilient and positive people of integrity.
 
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Symbols After Charlottesville

 

 

Shabbat Re'eh 5777 | August 19, 2017
 

In a simple, upbeat song, singer-song writer Ed Sheeran asks, “What Do I Know?” He begins:

“Ain't got a soapbox I can stand upon
But God gave me a stage, a guitar and a song.”

I don’t have a soapbox I can stand on, either. But God gave me a stage, (or at least a lectern,) a thought, and a sermon. So here goes.

This was a difficult week for our country. When we come to synagogue it is important for us to reflect on and talk about what happens around us. It is our proper responsibility as a synagogue community to advocate among ourselves and in our society for the values of our religious tradition and historical heritage. Especially at a time of social discord.

At times, we may disagree with one another. We may never disparage each other. The message going out from this sanctuary and this campus must counter the culture of crass conversations surrounding us.

You’ll discover I do not speak of politics from this podium. I do speak of ethics. Justice is not a political idea. Neither are compassion and human dignity. Judaism teaches us to use words carefully and to act with integrity. Standing against bigotry and standing for the oppressed are core Jewish principles. Denouncing anti-Semitism and racism is our moral mandate.

This particular verse from Ed Sheeran’s song came to mind this week.

“I saw people marching in the streets today
You know we are made up of love and hate
But both of them are balanced on a razor blade.”

Our ancient sages teach this. “Love upsets routine and hate upsets routine.” The rabbis explain. When we act out of love, love lifts us up and moves us to do for others more than is our norm. Yet, when we act out of hate, hate brings us down and moves us to do against others more than is our norm.

Translate the rabbis’ words for yourself. Think about the many times you went out of your way to help someone you care about. Remember the few times you didn’t offer assistance because you didn’t care enough for the person asking. Feelings of love and hate lead us to be kind or mean, kinder or meaner. We’re all capable of both.

Ed Sheeran’s song concludes with these words.

“Spread love and understanding, positivity                                                                                      Love can change the world in a moment
But what do I know?”

It’s a sweet song with a lovely sentiment which came to mind in response to the disturbing events in Charlottesville, VA this week. It would be nice if love could change the world. It sure seems hate can.

We need to remember that hate fills voids in people’s lives. Hate comes from the inability to control circumstances. Hate comes from the inability to achieve validation and dignity. Hate comes from fears felt in a changing world. Hate comes from ignorance and unfamiliarity. Hate comes from difference, envy, anger, desperation, and unhappiness. It would be great if love could fill those voids instead. But what do I know?

This is why Torah places a stark and standing choice before us. “See, this day, I set before you blessing and curse.” Moses’ words urge the people’s allegiance and adherence to God’s commands.

We think of mitzvot as behaviors to perform. Mitzvot are also symbols. When we do them, we discover the blessing of bringing God into the world. When we don’t do them, we discover the curse of living without the grace and ethics of God’s presence. It’s a basic choice. Do our lives reflect our love or our hate?

For this reason, Moses emphatically demands the destruction of “all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods…” Sefer HaHinukh, a text seeking to explain the ethical purposes of mitzvot, sees in the intent of Moses’ demand a decision not to maintain for future generations any impressionable images of idolatry.

All of Judaism’s classic students of Torah agree. In order to stand up for the good and the right, a community and a society must remove any influential symbols of depravity. In our freedom, we have to choose: blessing or curse, good or bad, love or hate.

These very Torah values speak to us today. All symbols have meaning. We must decide. Which ones represent us? Which symbols do we want to influence our children and theirs?

I have two reactions to the racism and rage in Charlottesville. First, it is time to decide that statues depicting Confederate leaders and the Confederate flag have no place on United States government property. Maybe there are other educational settings for teaching about the Civil War, slavery, and our nation’s history. These displays do not belong in the public square.

I’m new to San Diego and unfamiliar with how these issues are or are not present locally. I did take note of the City Council’s decision on Wednesday to remove a sign marking the “Jefferson Davis Highway.”

Confederate symbols are not emblems of a regional heritage. Their display on public property is not a matter of free speech. A nation cannot fly two flags. The Confederate flag and statues paying homage to the Confederacy are icons of racism and sedition.

It’s easy to tell others what to do with their symbols. My second reaction involves deciding what to do with my own.

Last Saturday, men dressed in fatigues carrying semi-automatic rifles greeted the members of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville as they came to pray. Marchers with Nazi flags and lit torches paraded outside the synagogue building and in city streets chanting anti-Semitic slurs. We gasp. Even though we know it’s irrational and ignorant, we know from history, and our own personal experiences, to pay attention.

I, for one, am proud those who can’t grasp or don’t recognize the goodness and dignity Judaism empowers us to represent, promote, and uphold hate me. If my mere presence among them is so bothersome then I must actually represent something truly important. You and I are symbols, too. We are symbols of human dignity.

This ugly episode, and this ugly moment in American discourse, will pass. To be sure they do, like our ancient ancestors preparing to enter their land, we have to decide which symbols will influence us and what our symbols mean. Symbols represent loyalties and identities, memories and hopes, values and beliefs. Symbols include or exclude, embrace or reject, unite or divide.

“See, this day, I set before you blessing and curse.” In order to stand up for the good and the right, a community and a society must remove any influential symbols of depravity. In our freedom, we have to choose: blessing or curse, good or bad, love or hate.

“Spread love and understanding, positivity                                                                                    Love can change the world in a moment
But what do I know?”

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Our Hearts' Desires

 

 

 
 
 

Shabbat Ekev 5777 | August 12, 2017

Robin and I were out to lunch while running some errands. We’re still learning our way around the area. We asked our waitress if she knew the zip code of where we were because we wanted to look up an address for our next stop after lunch. She was very polite. She came back with the information and asked if we were from out of town. We said, “Yes, we’ve just moved here from Baltimore.” She smiled knowingly and said, “I thought there was an eastern vibe about you.”

I have no idea what that means! Especially since everyone in Baltimore thought we were very “California.” Whatever they think that is. Truth is this. We all hold to impressions of people we meet without actually knowing them. It’s human nature. Social psychologists call it “person perception.”

We form impressions and draw conclusions. When you or I meet someone new, we make an initial impression. Shopping in a store you or I may have a first thought about the sales clerk. Maybe you imagine things about people waiting in a line with you. Reacting to a person we don’t really know, sometimes we make a snap judgment. Other times we jump to a biased, if not false, perception.

All of us understand. It takes some time and effort to build genuine relationships. Think about the deep and revealing conversations you’ve had with the people who know you best. Real and honest heart to heart talks. I imagine there are more than a few but not so many, either.

Consider what life events drew you close to people you know well. Maybe you worked closely and for long hours on a significant project or challenge. I remember many late-night conversations after working with someone who is now a dear friend. Our time together and the topics we spoke about created our continuing bond.

Or, more sadly, perhaps together with someone else you came through some difficulty or unfortunate trauma. Rebuilding, renewing, grieving, healing, helping, and supporting: these are the gerunds of strong and enduring relationships.

According to Moses’ account, this is the method God chose. Freeing the slaves from Egypt, as they wandered in the wilderness toward Israel, God decided to get to know the people through hardships.

Moses addresses the Israelites as they anticipate entering the Promised Land. “Remember the long way that the Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep God’s commandments or not.

Moses is aware that there was a more direct route from Egypt to Israel. Maybe the people were, too. Rashi suggests a reason for the circuitous, forty-year route. God was being kind. Keeping newly freed slaves away from the temptation of returning to Egypt. Maimonides thinks God was buying time. The hardship of wandering is preparation for the tasks that lie ahead entering a new land and building a new society.

Other voices echo this sense. God’s purpose in testing the people by hardship in the wilderness is to let them show their mettle, to see how individuals respond to their situation. Or as the Torah states, to learn what is in every person’s heart.

Now there’s a challenge, to know what is in each other’s hearts. Close enough and open enough to appreciate a loved one’s desires or a friend’s yearnings. Arriving at a place of mutual understanding, preferably without sharing hardship. Discovering each other instead through life’s joys and opportunities.

In faith, some of us may believe as the Torah states that God knows what’s in our hearts. For the moment, I’m curious if we can.

I believe God is present in the world through us. God comes to know our hearts as we show them to each other, through our responses to life’s challenges and joys, through our behaviors in the world, and through our amazement at the gift of life.

My faith trusts that God is intrinsic to our being and our world, within our lives and not external to them. Knowing our hearts, how vulnerable and frail we are, how needy we can feel, God grants our world and each one of us the resources, talents, and gifts to succeed.

This morning I encourage us to open ourselves up, to think not only of what God may know, but also of what our hearts desire. Moses was preparing ancient Israel to enter their land. We have to prepare ourselves to enter into and sustain Jewish life today.

So, let me ask you, and answer for myself, a question. Entering the synagogue, celebrating our Jewish traditions, joining in community with others, what does your heart desire from your religious heritage and belonging? What do you seek from your religious engagement for the realization of your Jewish self?

Let me share my answer. Here’s what my heart desires to fulfill my Jewish needs and interests. I look forward to learning the answers of your hearts when you’re ready to share them with me.

A community of adherents and peers who share religious values and a vocabulary about God and the purpose of life - both of which are intellectually rooted in Jewish history while reflecting contemporary experience.

Comfort for when my life is difficult, challenge for when my life is comfortable, and concepts for defining my life’s meaning.

Cultivation of my conscience and common sense so that I ask questions, seek answers, make choices, and work for social justice inspired by the demands of my faith, my hopes, and the dignity all people merit.

I’ll restate it. Being in community, sharing in comfort with others, accepting the challenges my beliefs demand of me, considering concepts for meaning with honesty and thoughtfulness, listening to my conscience, and trying to respond respectfully to the people I meet. That’s the religious vision my heart desires.

This is the question I ask you to consider. If anything, what do you want from your religion, and from your synagogue, and from your participation in Jewish life, that may help you find fulfillment and meaning through the course of your days?

Don’t rely on people’s perceptions. Strive to answer this question for yourself. In conversation, activity, and through hardship if necessary, let me and others know what’s in your heart. By the way, I think that’s actually how God knows, too. God comes to know our hearts as we show them to each other.

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

New Memories

 

 

Shabbat Vaethanan 5777 | August 5, 2017

Rick is the name of the mover who loaded our stuff onto his North American Van Lines Truck in Baltimore and delivered it here to La Jolla. He and his brother Sean regularly cross the country moving families from coast to coast. They could not have been nicer, more careful, more respectful, or more professional.

Rick kept us abreast of his progress and location. He showed up here exactly as we planned. All along our journey west, Robin and I met caring and thoughtful people who assisted our move. Each one of them affirmed for us the presence and possibility of goodness and kindness, a sensation sometimes lacking between people these days.

Our move west reflects the tone for how Robin and I feel about being here. We delight in the genuine warmth of this synagogue community and are eager to jump in, meet everyone, and play our part in helping to sustain Beth El and imagine the future. Before you or I change our minds, let me thank you for the privilege of becoming your new Senior Rabbi.

Back in Baltimore, Rick and Sean brought their Moving Van to the synagogue to load up my office items. Arriving here, as they drove down the freeway aware they would deliver to my new synagogue office, they noticed the large white spires of the Mormon Temple. When I met them at our home, Rick said, “Wow, we saw the big white building off the freeway. That’s a really impressive synagogue!” When I led them here instead, to this beautiful synagogue campus, we all laughed.

Rick’s cute mistake will be one of my first happy memories of being here at Beth El. Not the most significant memory I’ll hold to, just one of the first.

First memories are also very much on Moses’ mind this morning. Moses stands before the Israelite people on the eastern border of the Land of Israel. He is preparing the people to move west and to enter their land. Moses reviews their journey to a new home. His goal is to release the people from his leadership. To encourage their independence. To motivate their allegiance to God and to remind them of their responsibilities in freedom.

“But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.”

What are we to be careful about? Rashi worries we, as well as the Children of Israel, might forget how we’re supposed to behave. Nahmanides vehemently disagrees. He worries we, as well as the Children of Israel, might forget our experiences, and as a result forget God. For Ibn Ezra, the worry is Torah. You may forget everything else, but don’t forget you stood at Mt. Sinai. In other words, above all else, we ought to remember why our behavior matters and what our experiences mean.

Why does what we do matter? Because we measure the purpose of our lives in the memories and results of our efforts and activities. What do our experiences mean? Collected together, all that we experience becomes the story of our lives. As I hope to teach you, this is the core lesson of Torah: purpose for life on every day and meaning for each moment.

Understand, I carry a different worry about my memories. I believe memory is about meaning. We form our identities from our memories. Think about your role models and mentors. We interpret events to learn their lessons. Think about your successes and disappointments. Our memories help us to understand our place in the world. Think about your choices and comforts. Memories influence our values. Think about where your priorities come from.

More than this wonderful congregation’s history, I want to learn your personal Congregation Beth El memories. I want to remember them with you so we can make new ones together.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains why. “History is his-story. It happened to someone else, not me. Memory is my story, the past that made me who I am, of whose legacy I am the guardian for the sake of generations yet to come.”

Rooted in our individual and shared memories, you and I are guardians of the future. Which is why Moses continues his instruction. “And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” Nahmanides again interprets. We don’t lie to our children or pass on to them worthless things.

Judaism has a rich set of compelling memories. The Bible and our other sacred texts contain religious memories that teach us meaning and relevance for our lives. The holidays we celebrate. The principles of faith we believe in. The ethics and hesed we seek to apply as we make our way through challenges and opportunities. The Jewish identities we affirm. The roots of all of these are our collective memories as members of the Jewish people.

Rick and Sean, my movers taught me this, too. Preparing to move, Robin and I looked at all of our stuff. Like all of you when it was your turn to move. We had to decide what to bring along with us and what to give away. Our memories guided some sentimental choices. Practicality guided many of our decisions. Yet, our daughter’s desires also influenced us. If they want something for tomorrow, we have to keep and preserve it today.

This is our sacred charge, congregants and a new rabbi. In order to set our eyes on the future, we have to cherish and honor all that blesses us today. As we spend the next weeks and months getting to know each other, I promise you comfort and familiarity with all you appreciate about this sacred synagogue community because if we want something for tomorrow, we have to keep and preserve it today.

From Moses to us, from Mt. Sinai to Israel, from Baltimore to La Jolla, honoring our individual and shared memories, I also promise new moments and modes of celebrating our Jewish lives so together we can make new memories.

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Tue, December 12 2017 24 Kislev 5778