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B'Shalom Rav - rabbi ron shulman's sermons 2020-21 | 5781

Sermons 2019-20 | 5780 Archive

Sermons 2018-19  | 5779 Archive

Sermons 2017-18  | 5778 Archive

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

freedom's meaning this year

Shabbat Vayikra 5781 | March 20, 2021
 

 

 
The freedom we celebrate on Passover has a new, immediate meaning for us this year. Like the Israelites who waited in the safety of their homes before their exodus from Egypt, it is now our opportunity to emerge from the safety of our homes and carefully begin to reclaim our freedom of movement and gathering.
 
Torah tells us the eve of exodus was “a night of watching, leil shimurim.” It was a time of anxiety and waiting as plague spread throughout Egypt and mercifully spared the Israelite families.
 
Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, explains back in 12th century France that waiting is not only a passive experience. Waiting can also be a time of preparation, watching out that all is ready for the anticipated moment. After a very long and arduous year, it is now upon us to prepare and be ready to reconnect and renew our public and social lives.
 
As we do so, let’s ask ourselves, and perhaps discuss at our Passover Sedarim. If the freedom we celebrate on Passover has a new, immediate meaning for us this year then, what have we learned about freedom during the past year? Do we understand freedom differently this year than we did before?
 
We call Passover Z’man Heruteinu, the Season of our Freedom. Yet, nowhere in the Passover story, or for that matter nowhere in the Bible, does the word herut, freedom appear. When Moses relays God’s law and discusses freedom with ancient Israel the word he uses is hofshi, “in the seventh year a slave, yetzei l’hofshi, shall go free.”
 
The Hebrew word herut comes to mean freedom only through a creative rabbinic wordplay. When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of God, we read: “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, engraved upon the tablets.” Engraved is the Hebrew word harut. The rabbis play. “Do not read, engraved, harut, but rather read freedom, herut. For no person is truly free except one who labors in Torah.
 
It seems that rabbinic tradition invented a new word for freedom, a word not found anywhere in the Bible. Why? In order to answer the same question I’m asking this year. What have we learned about freedom?
 
From their experience, the rabbis learned that freedom without responsibility, exodus without revelation, Jews without Torah is a freedom from slavery but not a freedom to something greater. The freedom to choose meaning and purpose for our lives and our world.
 
The 20th Century British philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguishes between two types of freedom, negative and positive. Negative freedom is from constraints and coercion. Positive freedom is to realize one’s destiny, to aspire toward something more than selfish interest. Judaism, by these definitions, is about positive freedom.
 
What have we learned about our freedom this year? I’ll suggest three insights engraved onto my experience and the circumstances of this COVID year. I look forward to hearing what you identify and possibly discuss at your Sedarim.
 
My first lesson is simple. To cherish our freedoms more than we did before. Our freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and the ability to freely live life as we choose. Rights and opportunities we too often take for granted. Freedoms constrained by the requirements of pandemic precautions.
 
Second, as the rabbis of old believed, I too am reminded. Freedom cannot be sustained without responsibility. We ought not be free to do what may harm others. Since we can’t legislate goodness and compassion, kindness and respect, we need to understand that our individual freedoms require us to choose consideration of others not only ourselves, concern for everyone’s circumstances not only our own.
 
Finally, I suspect we all now realize that freedom is better when lived with others. We need each other to best fulfill our free desires. We need people to support our earning, our communities, our interests, and the precious nature of our lives. As I remind myself each and every Passover, no individual Israelite left Egypt alone. It was as a people that our ancestors were redeemed from slavery to freedom.
 
The freedom we celebrate on Passover has a new, immediate meaning for us this year. Our time for watching and preparing is almost done. After a very long and arduous year, it is now upon us to prepare and be ready to reconnect and renew our public and social lives. It’s time to consider what insights about freedom are engraved onto our experiences and the circumstances of this past year.
 
May this Passover be a sweet and joyous Z’man Heruteinu. This season, may we renew the meanings of the freedom we’ll soon reclaim.
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

grieving during covid

On Sunday March 7, the San Diego Union-Tribune published a series of op-eds about grieving and religious funeral observances during the pandemic. This is Rabbi Shulman’s contribution.
 
After the recitation of psalms and eulogies, mourners seek solace in a variety of Jewish graveside customs.
 
They tear a garment or ribbon for cathartic release. Heartbroken, they approach their loved one’s grave. Death has torn them apart. Their love unending, time helps memory mend their bond.
 
Grasping a shovel, and gasping for breath, reluctantly and gently, they place dirt over the casket just lowered down into the ground. They wipe away their tears and replace the shovel into the mound of dirt. The next mourner must choose to pick it up. A voluntary act of kindness toward the deceased.
 
Over the past year, few others have been there to pick up the shovel. Instead, a new ritual. After a mourner does hold the shovel, the funeral director squirts sanitizer into that mourner’s hands.
 
For those who are present, six feet of distance replace the consoling embrace of family and friends. Mourners grieve their personal loss in the absence of their community. A facemask covers their forlorn expressions, visible in their eyes alone.
 
Their loved one’s body returned to the earth, mourners recite their prayer, the Mourner’s Kaddish. After the last “amen,” the consoling community forms two lines. The mourners walk through, away from death and back to life. While walking, they receive the prayerful words and consolation of family and friends.
 
Often, these pandemic days, hardly any others are able to be there to form the lines of comfort. They’re on Zoom instead. Watching silently and typing their condolences into the chat.
 
Among those who grieve, some are more COVID careful than others. Even so, most Jewish families confronting loss this past year experience, ritually and emotionally, less than complete Jewish funeral observances.
 
Mourners feel this most of all during Shiva, the mourning week during which a bereaved family sits quietly at home. Into their home relatives, friends, and community members bring a caring presence to fill, albeit partially, the absence death has left.
 
Shiva visits over Zoom cannot fill this void the same way. They are much less spiritually and physically nourishing. No one embraces while offering consoling words and thoughts. No one helps around the house. No one brings food.
 
There is one positive element to a Zoom Shiva prayer service and virtual gathering. Folks from all over, people who might not travel to be together, reminisce and share stories of a cherished life.
 
This matters most. Each and every grieving family sitting shiva in person or online needs to know. How we live is more important than how we die.
 
Each life is precious. Every death is significant. Tragically, it’s been hard to remember this truth during this pandemic year of grief and devastation.
 
More than 2.5 million people have died. Horrific as that number is, more upsetting is the loss of each and every one of them as a loving partner, a beloved parent, child, sibling, grandparent, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousin, colleague, or dear friend.
 
Each of their families deserve our compassionate response and support. As much while we’re apart as when we’re together. Adapting the various customs of Jewish mourning rites this year may have made them ritually and emotionally incomplete, but certainly no less significant.
 

anticipate the future - don't miss the past

Shabbat Ki Tisa-Parah 5781 | March 6, 2021
 

 

 
Especially now, with vaccines available, we sense we are at the beginning of a very long end to this pandemic. At least we all hope so. We express our profound gratitude to the scientists who achieved this scientific wonder. We pray this may be the beginning of a new day and renewed life opportunities.
 
Still, for all of our excitement and anticipation, some amount of separation and precaution await us. We hope not many more deaths or much more illness lie ahead. Now that we face re-emergence, we have to relearn social skills we haven’t used it a while.
 
Consider this question. How will we assimilate the losses of life and time, routine and purpose into our needs for personal and communal renewal?
 
We’re simply older now, each one of us. We’re sadder now, each one of us. More than 500,000 human beings have died in America. More than 2.5 million people worldwide. Horrific as these numbers are, more upsetting is the loss of each and every one of them, personally for some of us, as a loving partner, a beloved parent, child, sibling, grandparent, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousin, colleague, or dear friend.
 
Each life is precious. Every death is significant. Tragically, it’s been hard to remember this truth during this pandemic year of grief and devastation. Each impacted family deserves our compassionate response and support. But, we’re tired. It’s been much too much for much too long.
 
It reminds me of the ancient Israelites waiting for Moses to come down from Mt. Sinai. Moses is first away from the camp for forty days and nights. Forty is a Biblical metaphor for much too long, for a stressful time of significant duration. Moses’ isolation from his community is for a substantial period of time.
 
In Torah this is clear. It is Moses’ community in God’s view. “Go down,” God demands of Moses, “your people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted badly.” In Rashi’s view, God’s demand of Moses to go down is a statement of Moses’ position.
 
As their leader, Rashi, in 11th Century France, imagines God saying, you are one among them, not one raised above them. Other voices in Jewish tradition concur. “They are your people even if you disapprove of what they did.” As a result, we learn for better and for worse, we are each part of the communities we live in and, fairly or not, associated with their social and moral character.
 
When Moses returns to the people he is overcome. Not overcome with joy as we may be. Moses is overcome with anger.
 
Emotionally speaking, anger is often a secondary reaction. We get angry because of some other emotion we are feeling.
 
We may express being anxious or nervous through anger. We may express disappointment or loneliness through anger. Like Moses did, we may react to an unexpected challenge in anger.
 
Moses sees the changed habits and behaviors of his people. He’s angry they built a Golden Calf. He realizes they meant it as a stand in for him, their intermediary to God. But, it wasn’t that in Moses’ eyes.
 
Moses’ anger is really rejection. Returning to the community he left behind things aren’t the same. Moses was separated from them for a very long time. Moses does not want to accept the people as his own. In 16th Century Italy, Rabbi Obadiah Seforno observes, Moses has very mixed feelings about his community and how he reacts to the good and bad he sees in them.
 
We, too, will carry mixed emotions to our reunions with family, friends, and others. Joy and delight, for sure. Also grief as we comfort one another in person for the first time after months apart. Maybe nervousness as we reintroduce ourselves to each other, not sure how to physically touch or connect. Possibly bewilderment at what seems the same though we feel different, and at what is different though we feel the same.
 
I hope not, but perhaps we will be angry when we realize what’s changed. I hope we’ll be excited as we discover new things. I suspect many of us will also feel regret as we realize all we missed out on. After more than a year apart, how can we imagine re-entering society without a variety of emotions?
 
In the end, we’re each going to have to choose which emotions control us and our responses to others. This is precisely what Moses did, imagines Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, Rashbam. Moses sought to calm an angry God. He then turned to the people and vented his anger toward them by throwing down and breaking the Stones of the Covenant he carried down the mountain. In his rage, Moses burns the Golden Calf and starts a fight among the people for loyalty and apology.
 
Extreme in this Biblical story telling, we recognize Moses’ emotions as our own. We will have to guard against our own anger re-emerging into society. None of us chose this pandemic and none of us enjoyed this time out from our lives, even as we’ve worked to stay productive and healthy.
 
Jewish tradition speaks of motivations of love and motivations of fear. Preferring love and understanding fear. We live in fear when we face circumstances we did not choose. When someone else tells us what we must change. When we choose from need and act out of discomfort.
 
We live by love when we choose a better, a physically healthier, or a spiritually more uplifting way to live. When we anticipate the future not only miss the past.
 
Love is optimistic. Fear is pessimistic. Love and optimism lead us to believe things will get better. They also breed hope, the courageous belief that we can work to make things better.
 
Judaism teaches that to move into the future we must honor the past. Focus on our hopes. The Hebrew word for new, hadash, also means renewed, hadesh. No new moment is truly pure. Everything results from what came before.
 
Which means for all we fear will be different when this pandemic is done, so much more will be the familiar renewed and the new embraced. If that’s what we each, and all together, choose.
 
From days much more drastic and horrific than our own, survivor of Auschwitz Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist wrote, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves.”
 
As I said, coming out of the pandemic, we are each going to have to choose which emotions control us and our responses to others. We will assimilate the losses of life and time. We will rebuild our routines and purposes. We will renew personally and communally.
 
We will do this by opening up ourselves to each other, remembering how much we need each other. We will do this by setting new priorities, focusing more on the relationships and activities that we now know matter most. Fewer trivial pursuits. More significant engagements.
 
We will live by love choosing better, physically healthier, and spiritually more uplifting ways to live. It’s now time for us to anticipate the future not only miss the past.
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

how we see the world

Shabbat Zakhor 5781 | February 20, 2021
 

 

 
As Purim approaches, this morning I want to discuss adult themes of the holiday. Nothing children can’t hear. Nothing they’ll find fun or funny, either!
 
When we read Megillat Esther on Purim, we’re not paying particularly close attention. We await Haman’s name in order to drown it out with noise. We smile and wince at the familiar plot twists.
 
Vashti’s refusal to display herself before the king and his partygoers. Mordecai’s desire to see his niece Esther become the new queen by entering the beauty pageant. Haman’s evil ego when Mordecai won’t bow down before him.
 
Ahashueros’ acquiescence to Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews of Shushan. Esther’s plea before her husband the king. The feasts she holds for Ahashueros and Haman. Mordecai’s horse parade led by Haman. Esther’s big reveal that she’s Jewish. Haman’s demise. The Jews’ self-defense. Shushan’s relief. The Jews’ delight.
 
We know the story. We don’t know the text. Megillat Esther is a rich and nuanced Biblical tale.
 
Among our earliest diaspora manuscripts, the Book of Esther is a story written about and for the 4th century B.C.E. Jews of Persia. A success story of Jewish acculturation and pride in Jewish identity. Read closely, a story of ancient times and today.
 
Here’s one example. At the end of Chapter Three, at Haman’s prompt, King Ahasueros issues a decree to destroy all the Jews of Shushan on a single date, the 13th of Adar. The last verse of the chapter reads, “The king and Haman sat down to a feast, but the city of Shushan was dumbfounded.”
 
Was everyone in the city upset? Does this indicate the general population was sympathetic to the Jew’s plight? Or is this shorthand? Only the Jews in Shushan were shocked.
 
It depends who you are and how you see the world. To medieval, 10th and 11th Century, Jewish commentators like Rashi and Ibn Ezra, who survived massacres, sadness, and exile, the verse means only the Jews were upset. Their neighbors had permission to rise up against them.
 
One teacher, Moshe Alshich a 16th century rabbi who lived in Tzfat, Israel, writes, “Every person in Shushan said to the Jews they knew, ‘tomorrow I will attack you and take your possessions.’”
 
Though a thought consistent with the king’s decree, it’s not in the text. What’s behind Rabbi Alshich’s comment? He lived under Ottoman rule in the Land of Israel. During his lifetime, the Ottoman empire was a place of refuge for Jews driven out of Europe by persecution there.
 
In fact, Rabbi Alshich was among the 10,000 Jews who settled in Tzfat at that time. Then, Tzfat was a thriving textile, intellectual, and spiritual center. He became a student of Rabbi Joseph Caro, compiler of the famous law code, The Shulkhan Arukh.
 
I suspect, however, that Rabbi Alshich knew the other side of the story. Surely his neighbors spoke of the mistreatment and persecution they experienced. A rabbi, a commentator, a teacher interprets text for his or her students.
 
My hunch is it was to a previously traumatized audience he addressed his statement. ‘Tomorrow I will attack you and take your possessions’ resonates. It gives Biblical context and offers emotional support to his community as they read Megillat Esther.
 
On the other hand, as we like to say, another scholar, Emanuel ben Shlomo of Rome, has a completely different point of view. “There were many Jews in Shushan. They were dumbfounded at the king’s decree and so were those who liked them.”
 
A wealthy, prominent, and cosmopolitan scholar of languages, science, and religious philosophy, Emanuel of Rome lived in 14th Century Italy. He was a respected Italian poet. Though he knew personal sorrows, he enjoyed public respect. Teaching his community, the verse reads as he lived. Accepted by many around him, and welcome in his diaspora home.
 
But, in 16th Century Italy, a teacher named Joseph Ibn Yahya, a witness to the burning of the Talmud by Pope Pious V, interprets our verse very differently. A dumbfounded Shushan suggests what we might call a bad moon rising. The city is unsettled because there are rumblings of danger targeted against the Jews.
 
How we each read and understand the texts of our religious heritage depends on who we are and how we see the world. Just like most things in life.
 
Human beings are creatures of identity. Social psychologist Henri Tajfel, a Polish Jew living in France and captured by the Nazis in 1940, spent five years in a German prisoner-of-war camp. The cruelty he witnessed led him to determine that people innately look at the world through the lens of the group they belong to. We and they. Us and them.
 
Tajfel writes, “The instinct to view our own with favor and outsiders with hostility is so deeply learned that it operates independent of any reason.” Certainly explains Haman’s motivation, and most prejudices and irrational hatreds, including Antisemitism.
 
We live at a time of great disruption and dispute. Tensions mount. Disparities expand. Difficulties endure. Hatred grows. We’re all experiencing and witnessing it. We’re also each interpreting what we know and see based in our particular perspectives.
 
We’re actually interpreting the Megillah phrase about Shushan. Is all of the community dumbfounded, or just me? Just us? What do we have in common with others all around us? What about our experience is unique? What binds us together? What sets us apart?
 
While you celebrate Purim’s silliness and fun next week, try also to pay closer attention to the text. How would you interpret the verse, “The king and Haman sat down to a feast, but the city of Shushan was dumbfounded.”  
 
One last comment. From a modern literary point of view, Professor Adele Berlin writes, “I would not take this expression as a sociological statement, but rather as a literary indicator signaling how shocking the decree was. The reaction of the city represents the normal reaction. Haman’s decree is totally beyond the norm.”
 
Which is why we read toward the end of the Megillah, in Chapter Eight, “And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries.” Finally, when the decree is reversed, the city exults. Joseph Ibn Yahya concurs. “The people of the city were happy by the Jews' rise over their enemies.”
 
Or as the Book of Proverbs states, “When the righteous prosper the city exults. When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy.”
 
That’s always how Megillat Esther ends. May we, too, greet the joy of goodness and wellbeing soon.
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

undesired anniversary

February 12, 2021 | Rosh Hodesh Adar
 
Our last Shabbat in person was March 14 & 15, 2020. One month from this Shabbat marks one full year since we last gathered together in our sanctuary and on our lovely synagogue campus. L’havdil, not to make a comparison. I note in Jewish tradition when a parent dies we say the Mourner’s Kaddish for eleven months. Then we stop. We pause in our ritual practice to anticipate the forthcoming yahrzeit on the actual one-year date. In our pandemic socially distant practice, that’s where we’re at this weekend. We are one month away from spending a full year apart, while remaining together as a community online.
 
I cite what we wrote you last March 15th. “At Congregation Beth El we are guided by the values of our sacred heritage. Among Judaism’s imperatives is Pikuah Nefesh, caring for the health of those in and outside our community, a mitzvah that takes priority over all others. Responding to evolving circumstances, adhering to current government and medical directives, and out of an abundance of caution, we are suspending public attendance at all religious services in addition to the suspension of all synagogue programming. We will let you know when it is safe and proper to gather together again.”
 
I am very anxious to be able to let you know that time is here. But, not yet. Perhaps soon. Most likely in a matter of months not weeks. In the meantime, I’m hopeful. Waiting for my turn to be vaccinated. Happy for all of you who already have been, or soon will be. Hopeful. Waiting. Anxious. Anticipating. Trying to be patient, too. I ask myself a question.
 
How might we mark this upcoming pandemic anniversary? Mazal Tov is certainly not in order. Not after a year of so much suffering, loss, and disruption. No congratulations for this or any other Coronavirus Commemoration. How ought we mark this sad and undesired anniversary?
 
Commenting on our Biblical ancestors’ exodus from Egypt after 430 years, as Torah tradition measures the time, the 17th Century Moroccan Torah commentator known as Or HaHayim observes, “Perhaps the painful element referred to (in the Israelite’s departure from Egypt) is the very length of time it took for the people to be redeemed.”
 
I think that’s about right. Too many among us grieve the loss of loved ones. Too many others of us are financially insecure. Too many are ill and, we pray, many are recovering. But, each and every one of us laments the time we’ve lost this past year. And we’re not yet done. While some of us get vaccinated, others of us wait, and until enough of us are safe, or immunity is established, we’re not yet out of this as a community or a society.
 
Rabbi Hayim ben Attar, the Or HaHayim, is right. The painful part of this strange pandemic anniversary is realizing how long it has been, or may still be, before we can redeem our lives and our routines. Which brings me back to patience.
 
Next month it will be a year. By summer’s end almost a year and one-half. Staying careful, and I hope healthy, the best way to mark this undesired anniversary is to be patient. To look forward to everyone you’ll see again and everything new you’ll do or renew. Sensitive to the memories of this pandemic period that will not, and should not, ever leave us, we hold out hope. As the Biblical Kohelet declared generations ago, “The end of a matter is better than the beginning of it. Better a patient spirit than a haughty spirit.”
 
I pray you are well, comfortable or being comforted. I know, like me, you’re ready to be through with this. Looking ahead, please remain patient until we are.
 

religious ritual in a secular society

Shabbat Shekalim 5781 | February 13, 2021
 

 

 
It’s hard not to notice a major political event taking place this week. Even as we participate in our prayer and virtual gathering this Shabbat, the Senate is in session.
 
As you maybe saw, last Tuesday in the midst of the proceedings there was a micro-moment of religious ritual. One of the attorneys, an observant Jew, having decided not to wear his kippah inside the Senate chamber, covered his head with his hand and made a b’rakhah before taking a sip of water.
 
Some folks found this curious, if not strange. Not me. In my role, and from my perspective, I respect each and every individual’s ritual choices and expressions. I do not judge or mock any of them, nor any of you, or even myself.
 
Ritual acts symbolize the values and ideals important to us. How we demonstrate these concepts in concrete behaviors is up to each one of us. Often static, more often evolved at different times and stages of our lives. Always, however, we are guided by, and strive to honor, a rich and deep religious and spiritual tradition.
 
Even during these days of spiritual isolation, we make Jewish ritual choices for ourselves, perhaps for our families, without the company and encouragement of our community. This Shabbat you tuned in to connect and celebrate. Last Shabbat, perhaps something else captured your imagination and your time.
 
One ritually observant woman wrote this week of Shabbat fatigue. “When your kids are home every day and you’re not going to synagogue or hosting guests on Shabbat, the only difference between [a weekday and Shabbat] is that you eat more.”
 
In his important new book, The Wondering Jew, Micah Goodman explains. “In the eighteenth century it became common to say that in contrast to all other world religions, Judaism was not a religion of faith but a religion of laws. The Jews were not spiritual, many believed, but merely submissive.”
 
I can’t speak for any of you, but I have never looked at Judaism through that type of legalistic, authoritarian lens. A view that Judaism trains us to be obedient rather than objective. It has never occurred to me that Judaism or Halakhah, Jewish law, are oppressive. Rather, their importance and imperative are about being means to a greater end.
 
In our secular society, religious rituals and celebrations are spiritual technologies with which we mediate meaning for our lives. The choices we make to observe Jewish life according to its patterns and customs is a way to bring into our lives a depth of purpose. A focus on what it means to care for ourselves and others. To focus on the patterns and needs of our lives. To connect us to realities and insights of human experience within our group and beyond our own. In Jewish celebration we act out the dramas and quests of human strivings in order to enrich our lives with greater meaning, wisdom, and perspective.
 
My rich ritual life represents my ethical and personal responsibilities before God and to humanity. My observance and celebration are about understanding my role and purpose in the world. They are not my unreasoned or unreasonable obedience to rabbinic authority. I’m a rabbi. I know both the impactful reach and proper limits of rabbinic authority!
 
That’s why I describe Judaism as a symbolic system. 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 value. The Jewish concepts we articulate. All of these symbolize who we are, what we care about, and how we carry ourselves into the world.
 
We cover our heads as a sign of humility before God, and I hope, before one another. There is existence outside of and beyond ourselves. We wear kipot, in traditional Jewish practice, for three acts: when we pray, when we study, and when we eat. At these times of the day we remind ourselves who we are in life and how we exist to do more than survive. Through our lives we hope to enable goodness and holiness to thrive in the world.
 
Yes, some folks who wear kipot embarrass us by their judgement of others, their arrogance, or their unethical behavior. A kipah, however, is actually about something else. 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 signify who we are, what we care about, and how we carry ourselves into the world.
 
Remember, ritual is a means to a greater end. In our secular society, religious rituals and celebrations are spiritual technologies with which we mediate meaning for our lives. I may be the only one, but, I saw all of this last Tuesday as one Jewish man enacted a religious ritual important to him in a very public and secular setting.
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

pray for the welfare of the government

Shabbat Shemot 5781 | January 9, 2021
 

 

 
I’m in deep anger and grief. As a rabbi, I am a teacher of Torah for us and the Jewish People. As a rabbi, I am also a representative of Jewish values and the Jewish People to the larger society in which we live.
 
As an individual, I am a deeply proud and devoted Jew, and a deeply proud and devoted American. As an individual, I am a student of Judaism. I am also a student of American government and political traditions.
 
As the whole of me, a rabbi and an individual, as an American Jew who is a student of Torah and American political history, I am in deep anger and grief over what we witnessed in Washington DC this past week. I imagine many of you are, too.
 
The Biblical Prophet Jeremiah best expresses my concern. First, he declares of God, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Eternal God in its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”
 
It is this verse that founds the tradition of Jews over time and place offering prayers on behalf of ruling secular governments. “Pray for the welfare of the government,” declares Rabbi Hananiah a survivor of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E.
 
Rabbi Hananiah’s words in Pirkei Avot, ethical statements of our ancient sages, resonate within me. “For if the people do not respect the government, they will swallow each other alive.” As a survivor of the Second Temple’s destruction, Rabbi Hananiah saw the effects of hatred and civil strife on a society. Sadly, this week, so did we.
 
The Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah is also witness to destruction, the demise of the First Temple in Jerusalem in the year 586 B.C.E. “Eikhah? How Is it? She that was great among nations, the princess among states, is become a captive.”
 
The last time the United States Capital building, a Temple of Democracy, was breached was in August 1814, when the British Army entered and burnt it down. This week’s disturbance was not that, nor a destruction like the two Temples that once stood in Jerusalem.
 
This week’s horrible riot at the U.S. Capital was an unimaginable, ignominious, shameful act on the part of those who rushed the building and all of those who incited or enabled them by dishonest claims and subversive words. Response to what took place cannot be partisan. It must be American.
 
In his farewell address, President George Washington warned, “Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts…Remember…in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable.”
 
Torah, too, helps me understand this week’s events. The first chapter of the Book of Exodus tells us “a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The Pharaoh we met previously in the Book of Genesis looked kindly upon Joseph. He promoted him to viceroy and relied on him to manage Egypt’s crops during years of plenty and famine. The Pharaoh of Genesis was kind to Joseph’s family, especially his father Jacob.
 
Now we discover the Pharaoh of Exodus is of a different mind. Not knowing Joseph, and the background of how the Israelites came to live in Egypt, Pharaoh is determined to oppress and enslave them.
 
This is what happens when leaders don’t recognize or respect the law and lore of those who ruled before them. Civic culture breaks down.
 
In ancient Egypt slavery begins. Fear of a presumed foreigner motivates oppression. Pharaoh imposes taskmasters and harsh labor on the Israelites who live in his land. In modern America, political norms break and civil debate ceases.
 
In response to Pharaoh’s cruelty, our Torah narrative introduces us to Moses. When God reveals plans for Moses to go before Pharaoh and seek the release of the Israelite slaves, Moses asks for some information.
 
“Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers
has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” God continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.”
 
In this scene God’s name is a verb, not a proper noun. Ehyeh, “I will be.” I am. I exist. God does not present to Moses as a being with a name but rather as “be-ing,” as existing. “Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh. I will be. I will always be.
 
This is an important religious message. This week, it is also an important moral message for our country. For a people to endure, in order to sustain faith in ideas and systems, to believe in purposes and principles that take us beyond ourselves toward shared visions of national or religious identity, truth must simply exist. It must always be.
 
In the Exodus story, God’s moral be-ing redeems Israel from Pharaoh’s slavery. In this American moment, we must see to it that the moral truths of liberty and justice, democracy and the peaceful transfer of power redeem America from this ugly and aberrant moment.
 
We can also redeem this moment through teaching. Let’s explore in our homes and schools the grand and glorious Constitutional history of America. Let’s help our children and grandchildren to learn, to know, or to remember what they’ve not recently seen. Respect for, if not pride in, the institutions, legal traditions, and political debates and differences that are the essence of our national history. Read anew the founding documents of our democracy. Thomas Jefferson once uttered words eerily resonant this week. “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
 
In my anger and grief, the whole of me, a rabbi and an individual, an American and a Jew, on this Shabbat echoes Rabbi Hananiah’s request. Let us “pray for the welfare of the government.”
 
Our God and God of our ancestors: May our country, the United States of America, find the will to fulfill its calling to justice, liberty, and equality. May each of us fulfill our responsibilities to the American ideals of citizenship with care, generosity, and gratitude, ever conscious of the extraordinary blessing of freedom, ever mindful of our duties to one another.
 
May our elected leaders and all who hold public office exercise their responsibilities with wisdom and fairness, ensuring liberty and justice for all. May they faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public so that peace and security, happiness and freedom will never depart from our land.
 
May the armed forces and all entrusted with our safety, as they daily put their lives at risk to protect us and our freedoms, find the courage to act with honor and dignity, as well as insight as to what is right, and what each challenge demands of them.
 
May our hearts overcome hatred and malice, jealousy and strife. May we demonstrate caring and companionship, peace and friendship, among the many peoples and faiths who dwell in our nation. May we uphold the values we associate with God’s name so that our land may be a blessing for us and all of humanity. Amen.
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

blursday

Erev Shabbat Vayigash 5781 | December 27, 2020
 
I came across a new word this week. It’s a new name for days of the week. Blursday. Described this way. The passage of time itself became seemingly unreliable in 2020. Some days felt like a week while some months flew by in an instant. One day runs into the next. The flow and routine of schedule and time markers is less and less clear to many of us. Today, yesterday, tomorrow, it’s all a Blursday.
 
It’s a cute description. It’s a familiar sensation. It’s also a bit of a problem. We don’t want every day to be the same as every other day. It’s in their unique and unexpected moments, as well as in their events and occasions, that we differentiate and remember the days of our lives. On occasion our memories may blur. Not the days themselves, we hope.
 
They say, whoever they are, the average person lives 27,375 days. Obviously, everyone is different. We all hope to be blessed with more. We are all sad for those gifted less. Yet, by counting our days we feel their urgency. Don’t try this at home. But if you were to calculate how many days you’ve now lived, and were to imagine, therefore, how many, on average, remain, I suspect you’d truly want each one to be a vibrant and full one.
 
Consider that we feel the rush of time more as we grow older. Our sense of time’s speed comes from having experienced more with every passing year. Time seems to pass more quickly closer to the end rather than the beginning of what we are doing. As a result, each day we live becomes more precious than the one before it. All that we do becomes more pressing and significant. Everything we hope for becomes more heartfelt and sincere.
 
This is our COVID frustration. Those of us fortunate to be safe, those of us fortunate to be secure, and those of us fortunate to have our health, we don’t want to live out this pandemic as a series of Blursdays. We are tired and impatient. The time of our lives and the activities we fill that time with cannot return too soon.
 
After all, every new day is a chance to begin again. An opportunity to fix what may be wrong. To anticipate what can be right. Every day can be meaningful in its special way. Each precious day comes to us only once, and then it is gone. That’s why we want our lives to be full today. Not in our memories of yesterday. Not in our hopes for tomorrow. We want our lives to be full today.
 
Our patriarch Jacob learns this from Pharaoh when they meet after Jacob’s reunion with his son Joseph, who serves as Pharaoh’s viceroy and manages a famine impacting everyone. By the courtesy of Pharaoh’s inquiry into Jacob’s age, we hear. It’s not our years but our days that matter. Pharaoh asks our Biblical patriarch Jacob, “Kama y’mei sh’nei hayekha?” “How many are the days of the years of your life?”
 
Voices in Jewish tradition appreciate the wording of Pharaoh’s question. “This is typical of the righteous. They consider themselves as merely transients in this world,” our sages explain. You see, the length of our years is fulfilled only by the experiences and goodness of our 27,375  days, more or less.
 
This Shabbat evening, as we celebrate the end of another six days of pandemic life, let’s remember. Each day and its promise form the content and provide the meaning of our lives. Filled with joy or struggle, each day, as we care for others, relate to others, meet people and experiences with determination and hope, each day and its promise form the content and provide the meaning of our lives.
 
These days may feel like Blursdays, but neither you or I have enough days ahead of us to let any one of them come and go without striving to fill them with purpose, contentment and meaning.
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

modern day josephs

Shabbat Miketz 5781 | December 19, 2020
 

 

 
I wonder if you share this sensation with me. I sit at my desk. I’m on a Zoom call or maybe in a meeting. I’m having a personal conversation with someone. I’m teaching a class. I’m attending a lecture or watching a performance. I’m participating in a minyan. This past week, I enjoyed lighting Hanukkah candles with my family and friends.
 
All of these should be in person experiences. Since they cannot be right now, I’m grateful for the technological tools that keep us in touch and engaged. Yet, I feel this sensation that somehow from the comfort of my own home, desk, and computer I’m in the world.
 
I don’t have to go anywhere, even though I want to. I turn the computer on, click the Zoom link, and I’m there. Finished? Had enough? I click the leave button and I’m back home. With ease, I can get up and take something out of the refrigerator or turn my attention to something else.
 
I start asking myself. When I’m able to be out and about, will I go? Of course I will! I can’t wait. But I admit to myself. I sense my artificial power. I enter the world virtually and never leave home. It’s not fully satisfying, though it is a different sensation than anything I’ve felt before.
 
Among my worries accompanying this unusual sensation is isolation. Not from people but from life beyond the people I see. I can’t see the whole world from my desk and computer. I’m can’t look beyond the faces and squares on my screen. What might I be missing?
 
“The seven years of abundance that the land of Egypt enjoyed came to an end, and seven years of famine set in…” Our Biblical ancestor Joseph anticipated this dramatic change. He told of it in his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream. He was able to see beyond the daled amot of his place and palace.
 
A Talmudic lesson. “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One Blessed be God, has only daled amot, four cubits of space…” Religiously, it means God may be sensed in the privacy of our spaces since the Temple in Jerusalem no longer stands.
 
Effectively, daled amot means personal space, the place and purview of our skills, talents, and perspectives in life. Technically, it’s a measure of about six feet, the socially recommended distance we’re supposed to respect these days when near one another.
 
Like Joseph and his vision, are we seeing beyond the distance we must keep? From our screens and devices, at home and about the world, from our daled amot, are we fully sensitive to the famine that has set in? As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on and on, more people than ever are going hungry all around us.
 
Before the pandemic, more than 35 million people in the United States struggled with food insecurity and hunger, according to Feeding America. But now, with millions of Americans unemployed, estimates are that more than 50 million people may experience food insecurity, including 17 million children, some of whom go to bed hungry.
 
We’ve all seen the scenes of overwhelmed food banks with long lines of people in their cars seeking help. Many for the first unimaginable time in their life. I ask myself. Who is Joseph today? Who do people turn to for food when they are without, when their children are hungry, when a pandemic induced famine not of their making leaves them unemployed?
 
“When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, ‘Where do you come from?’” Notice, comments Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir of 11th Century France, Joseph doesn’t ask the brothers why they are there. That he understands. He’s running an ancient food bank. He asks where do you come from pretending not to know them.
 
Imagine Joseph’s brothers’ mood coming before him as the viceroy of Egypt. Since they don’t know it’s their brother Joseph, let’s assume they are at least uncomfortable, humble, and upset.
 
Given these emotions, we can ask if this discomfort brings up any feelings of guilt they may have about their act against Joseph, throwing him in a pit and selling him into slavery. In the Torah narrative we see them musing. We are being punished on account of our brother. Minds wander and wonder when in distress. We didn’t cause this famine. Even so, did we cause ourselves and our family this harm?
 
Families at food banks and food lines across the country and close to home today feel these emotions even more deeply. They did nothing to cause this pandemic or their subsequent un or under employment. We empathize with their anguish, embarrassment, pain, or discomfort as they stand before today’s Joseph, the staffs and volunteers who hand them bags of groceries, who try to offer them comfort and compassion.
 
Commenting on Joseph’s brothers and their predicament, the Midrash teaches about families with need today. “You may learn from the story of Jacob that it is a person’s worst trial to have children ask for food when there is none to give.”
 
Thank you to each and every one of you who volunteers as a modern-day Joseph, who contributes what you can to the various organizations collecting money and food for those who need it. Who help in our Tikkun Committee efforts to do our part to help others through Congregation Beth El.
 
My sensation of artificial power urges me to do more. If I have the luxury to enter the world virtually and never leave home, I also have the responsibility to make a difference in that world from among the comforts I am fortunate to enjoy. I refuse to isolate myself from the exigent and real circumstances of the people whose faces don’t usually appear on my Zoom calls. I must look beyond the faces and squares on my screen and see, as Joseph did, the need to share from my abundance with those enduring an experience of famine during this pandemic.
 
I’m speaking for myself, this morning. I hope in my words you’re also sensing the urgency of what we must all try to do. I’ve given before. I’m now giving more. I’m helped before. I’m now planning to help some more.
 
Choose your organization, food bank, non-profit, or charity. Join me in following Joseph’s example. Be they family we recognize, friends we know, or those whom we haven’t yet met, it doesn’t matter. It’s time to reach beyond my daled amot and give to others what I can. All the world came to Joseph, the Torah states, because, as voices in Jewish tradition point out, he was the one in a position to give. So am I.
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

the challenge of hanukkah

Shabbat Vayishlah 5781 | December 5, 2020
 

 

 

Thinking about what we celebrate, I’m always aware that our Hanukkah is different from the complicated mystery of Hanukkah’s history.
 
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 dedication to Jewish tradition. We remember Hanukkah as a battle to establish Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
 
Hanukkah in and of itself is of little significance yet of significant consequence. The Books of Maccabees tell us that Hanukkah results from the choices made by the Jews in response to Hellenistic culture.
 
Back in second century B.C. E. Judea, there were cosmopolitan Jews with means and access seeking to become part of the larger Hellenistic host culture. There were provincial Jews who were less comfortable within Hellenistic society. Throughout Judea there were also pious Jews, truly uncomfortable with Hellenism and devoted to God and Torah above all else.
 
Political rivalries, priestly corruption, and change from a more benign to a more diabolical Greek Governor all combine to create the part of Hanukkah’s history with which we are most familiar. Antiochus prohibits Jewish religious practice and desecrates the Temple.
 
Resentful and seeking to defend God against a pagan state, Mattathias and his sons begin a revolt. Neither the provincial nor cosmopolitan Jews are particularly comfortable with this battle. Over time, the circumstances of war force some sense of Jewish unity. In 164 B.C.E. the battle is won and the Temple in Jerusalem reclaimed.
 
After their victory the Hasmonean descendants of the Maccabees become the rulers in Jerusalem. It gets political. The Hasmoneans 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.
 
To secure their reign years later, the Hasmonean leaders enter into an alliance with Rome. This sets in motion events that include the destruction of the re-dedicated Temple at the heart of the Hanukkah story. Over time, it all culminates in the creation of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. As I said, Hanukkah in and of itself is of little significance yet of significant consequence.
 
In terms of time, we’re reflecting back on a 600-year span and then some from the final centuries Before the Common Era to the first centuries of this Common Era in which we live. In essence the years during which the Second Temple in Jerusalem stood, from 515 B.C.E. when it was built and dedicated at the behest of Cyrus of Persia (including the events of Hanukkah which take place between 167-164 B.C.E. when the Second Temple is desecrated by the Greco-Syrian governor Antiochus and after a war cleaned and rededicated by the Maccabees) to 70 C.E. when the Second Temple was destroyed at the hand of Titus, son of the Roman emperor Vespasian.
 
During that period of time, ancient Jews lived in relationship with and under the control of great civilizations: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. It is through both acculturation within and defiance to those civilizations that our ancestors created the Jewish civilization and religious tradition we inherit and treasure.
 
In actuality, Hanukkah is a small historic incident, a bridge from an ancient past to a then unknowable future. The actual events of Hanukkah are sandwiched in between much larger social and political developments: the conquests of Alexander the Great, the philosophical and cultural roots of Western Civilization, the emergence of the Roman Empire and the development of Judaism’s Oral, Rabbinic tradition. Like I said, Hanukkah in and of itself is of little significance yet of significant consequence.
 
This needs to become our deeper awareness. As we do today, Jews who lived among the Greeks and Romans in their day participated fully in the culture of their society. Consider these few Greek words in our Jewish vocabulary: Synagogue, Bimah, and Afikomen.
 
Each and every year Hanukkah presents us with this challenge. To be who we are. We Jews live best when we acculturate to the world around us while remaining distinctive, upholding and publicly declaring our particular religious values and traditions.
 
What were our ancestors defending? Their particular identity as Jews, a minority in a large and sometimes foreboding environment. This is the identity that binds us to them, long after the destruction of their rededicated Temple.
 
The real message of Hanukkah is that whenever and wherever we live, in contact and relationship with every human civilization, as Jews we are responsible for preserving and living out our particular values. History presents us with the sacred privilege of living lives of integrity and justice, caring and love.
 
In the glow of Hanukkah’s lights, it is the particular purpose and enduring meaning of our religious Jewish identities we celebrate on Hanukkah. This coming week when it arrives, I wish us all a Hanukkah filled with happiness and light, brightness and precious reflection.
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

thanksgiving 2020

-I-
This Thanksgiving we will miss being together. We will not miss the opportunity to give thanks.
 
We celebrate Thanksgiving this year as yet another holiday during which the pandemic disrupts our gatherings and customs. First it was Passover. Then other holiday and personal occasions followed, including this fall’s High Holy Days. We marked these many dates alone, or in the company of a few, or shared via electronic devices. For my family, and I assume for so many of yours, this will be the first Thanksgiving we do not all sit together around our holiday table.
 
This Thanksgiving we will miss being together. We will not miss the opportunity to give thanks.
 
In 1799, Hazzan Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first American born Jewish religious leader in the United States, and the first to deliver English sermons in his New York Congregation Shearith Israel, spoke at a “Day of Thanksgiving.” It was in the aftermath of a virulent Yellow Fever epidemic that overtook the citizens of New York City. More than 2,000 men, women, and children lost their lives back then, estimated to be almost 3% of the city’s total population.
 
On that occasion, grateful that an epidemic had passed, Hazzan Seixas said, “To pretend to specify all of the particular blessings we enjoyed amidst the terrific evil of the late epidemic would be descending too much in the minutia of things: suffice it to say in general terms, that we had a regular supply of the real necessaries of life, though attended somewhat with more difficulty than common in the procuring of them.”
 
This Thanksgiving we will miss being together. We will not miss the opportunity to give thanks.
 
Hazzan Sexias reflects a genuine Jewish approach to giving thanks. We give thanks for what is, for all that sustains us, not just for specific things. Everyday our prayers conclude, “V’al kulam,” for all of life’s blessing and burdens, we give thanks. In Birkat HaMazon, the blessings after we eat, we recite, “V’al ha kol - for everything we give thanks.”
 
Our gratitude is inclusive because enumerating specific items may make us less grateful. Especially at a time when we may not be feeling thankful. We might realize what we don’t have. What we would like to have. Or, what we’re missing.
 
By expressing thanks more generally, most everyone can find some reason to give thanks. Especially during these difficult days when too many are ailing or grieving. When too many are unable to live their lives productively and comfortably. When so many of us are not able to gather to celebrate Thanksgiving.
 
Like the citizens of New York at the end of the 18th Century who lived through a dangerous epidemic, we are thankful for all of the real necessaries of life that sustain and support us these days. We are mindful of our responsibilities to provide others with the same. Food, shelter, medical care, human compassion, and whatever else they may need. They, too, will be thankful for everything provided.
 
This Thanksgiving we will miss being together. We will not miss the opportunity to give thanks.
 
To express thanks, in addition to sharing personal words of thanksgiving, caring, and love, consider adding the ritual of Motzi (the blessing before eating) and perhaps a form of Birkat HaMazon (the blessings after eating) to your Thanksgiving meal. Honor the American meanings of this annual holiday and at the same time celebrate this holiday in familiar Jewish style.
 
-II-
I’m told there was a run on small turkeys in the grocery stores this year. Smaller gatherings required less food, though I bet many of us probably still have plenty of leftovers!
 
This Thanksgiving we missed being together. We did not miss the opportunity to give thanks.
 
In November 1918, as the First World War ended there was a resurgence of the Spanish Flu pandemic in America. Following Armistice Day celebrations and so many soldiers returning home, public health officials mounted campaigns for people to take precautions and avoid large gatherings.
 
In Congregation B’nei Israel of Athens, GA Rabbi Ferdinand Hirsch stood before his community during a different and deeply difficult season of Thanksgiving. Listen to his words.
 
“The hand of God has lain heavily upon the world in these past weeks. There is so much to learn these days in the uncertainty of life. Let me plead with you - nay, demand of you - that you make peace with one another. There is so much newness, so much smallness in our makeups. Whatever we do, let's be friends, bury past quarrels. Life is so short and uncertain.”
 
Interesting, I think, that the rabbi focused his concern on interpersonal relationships. We can only imagine the traumas people felt. Historians speak of disillusionment among so many people in those days mixing the bright news of war’s end and the dark days of a spreading pandemic. Try to conceive of their mood confronting illness and loss, social re-orientation and re-integration. Days more challenging than ours this Thanksgiving, I imagine.
 
There was a context for Rabbi Hirsch’s remarks. According to Brittany Hutchinson of the Chicago History Museum, rabbis, priests, pastors and more conveyed a unified message, one of "forgiveness and compassion. Clergy are urging people to be considerate of one another, to care for one another. The messages are of putting the smallness of the individual into perspective with the vastness of humanity."
 
By late 1918, our country was in the midst of the suffrage movement, Jim Crow and the end process of World War I. Add to all of that the second wave of the Spanish flu. I’m guessing tensions ran high in some corners.
 
I read that for some people it was the rituals and customs of Thanksgiving that brought a welcome sense of normalcy. Historians also note that many Americans ignored pleas to remain distant and wear masks. They returned to religious services, performed charity work, and went through with planned football games, parties and performances.
 
Anytime anyone tells you the pandemic we are experiencing is unprecedented, remind them that there is great precedent and parallel for almost everything we are experiencing.
 
There is nothing for which all of us will be more thankful than the opportunity to return to the activities and gatherings of our lives. At some future date, that chance will be a cause for genuine gratitude, properly tempered by sensitivity for the vast losses of life, income, and relationships.
 
In the meantime, I suggest we take Rabbi Hirsch’s advice. On this Thanksgiving weekend, whether you were with them or not, think about your family and friends. If a breach or two may exist between you, initiate the healing. Overcome the disagreement. Honor the person if not all of their ideas. Disagree without being disagreeable.
 
Unlike 1918, in 2020 let’s learn from our personal experiences of this pandemic not the smallness of the individual, but the importance of each and every individual in our lives, as by making the vastness of humanity more personal and close.
 
What did Rabbi Hirsch say? “There is so much newness, so much smallness in our makeups. Whatever we do, let's be friends, bury past quarrels. Life is so short and uncertain.” An awareness for which we can all be thankful this particular year.
 
During these difficult days when too many are ailing or grieving. When too many are unable to live their lives productively and comfortably. When so many of us are not able to gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. Let’s be sure to cherish and honor the relationships that bless our lives and fill our hearts. Let’s reap the bounties of love and harmony this Thanksgiving along with whatever we food we enjoyed and other gratitude we expressed.
 
This Thanksgiving we missed being together. We did not miss the opportunity to give thanks.
 
Robin and I enjoyed Thanksgiving at home and online with our family and friends. We included you, our Beth El synagogue family and friends of our community, in our expressions of thanks for all that sustains and supports us these days. On your own or with a few others as it was this year, we hope you too did not miss the opportunity to give thanks.  And if you have any, enjoy your leftovers. Happy Thanksgiving!
 
B’Shalom Rav,
Rabbi Ron Shulman
 

you shall teach them to your children

Shabbat Toldot 5781 | November 21, 2020
 
I don’t need to tell any of you with children at home about the educational challenges of this moment.
 
Online learning, despite our educators’ best efforts, creativity, and dedication to their students, simply can’t match in person class time and in school learning.
 
And in class experiences that limit interaction, keep children apart, and require fewer hours or fewer students, while positively striving to impart age-appropriate knowledge, ideas, skills, and interpersonal socialization, can’t sustain effective academic achievements and social growth.
 
You and I know this, as parents or educators, as adults sincerely concerned for our children’s welfare and futures. My words intend no criticism. I’m impressed by everyone’s work at home and at school to keep our children learning and emotionally healthy during this time of vast disruption to our routines and goals.
 
No one answer or approach fully satisfies us. Balancing health, safety, and education, let alone business needs and individual employment, is the very difficult dance all of us are trying to choreograph these days.
 
According to the Pew Research Center, while parents with students attending in-person classes are more satisfied with their children’s schooling than parents with students learning at home, and to a degree less stressed about their children’s education these days, the most common concern of all parents is that their child are falling behind in their learning.
 
Add to that this insight. “Majorities of parents of K-12 students across the nation say that, compared with before the coronavirus outbreak, they are more concerned about their children having too much screen time, maintaining social connections and friendships, their emotional well-being, and having access to extracurricular activities.”
 
V’shinantem l’vanekha - And you shall teach them to your children…” We add a layer of Jewish educational and experiential concern to our dilemma. We miss seeing our children here learning, celebrating, and engaging with their friends, Jewish ideas and symbols. Our educators are also doing incredible work teaching and engaging our students online. But, as all of you know simply by watching this service, it’s a step removed from actually being together.
 
The first parents in the story of the Jewish people to face this educational dilemma were our patriarch Isaac and matriarch Rebekah. The parents of twins, their son Isaac learned at home while his brother Esau learned out of the house. Esau is described as “a man of the outdoors.” He became a skillful hunter. Jacob “stayed in the tents.” He was more comfortable at home.
 
The imagination of ancient Jewish sources wonders about the different settings for Jacob’s and Esau’s educations. When we meet their pregnant mother, Rebekah, the two boys are struggling within her. As Rashi points out, such a description begs for interpretation.
 
A fanciful midrash offers one. Whenever Rebekah walked past a Torah school, Jacob moved convulsively trying to be born and start learning. Yet, whenever Rebekah walked past a pagan shrine, Esau moved convulsively trying to be born and learn what it was about. Rabbinic values judgment aside, our tradition imagines and understands a child’s natural, innate quest for learning is not only for knowledge, but to be with others in the experience of discovery and exploration.
 
This theme continues in Jewish lore as Jacob and Esau’s story continues. When Jacob approaches his father Isaac for the blessing of the first born, disguised as if he was Esau with animal hair on his arm, Isaac suspiciously observes, “the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”
 
One interpretation equates Jacob with his future descendants, we the Jewish people. The rabbis explain. The power of the Jewish people is their voices when engaged in study and debate. As Rabbi Abba bar Kahane elaborates, “The power of the Jewish people in the world is found when their children are busily engaged in studying Torah.”
 
We are weaker as a people today because our children are learning less of Torah, and all their other subjects, during this pandemic. This is not a call to re-open our Torah school. This is a request to strengthen us as a Jewish people during difficult days.
 
Help your children and grandchildren study Torah at home until they and we can safely be together again as a learning community. We need to become Isaac and Rebekah to all of our young Jacobs staying in our tents and learning of our heritage.
 
In addition to helping your students with their math, history, language, science, and other coursework and homework, carve out a bit of time every week to study Torah as a family. Read the weekly portion, ask about the plot, the intrigue, the meaning. In this online universe we currently inhabit, if you need resources to guide your discussion, they’re out there. Or call on us. We’ll happily provide some insights and materials.
 
Share the stories and curiosities of your Jewish background with your children. Review your family’s Jewish history. As age appropriate, talk about current events in Israel and the Jewish world. Explore the Jewish values important to your family these days. Make some of this part of your Shabbat dinner conversation or set aside a bit of time on Shabbat afternoon. By the way, if like me, your children are out of school, do these things for yourself and any loved ones or friends who may wish to engage with you.
 
I know I don’t need to tell any of you with children at home about the educational challenges of this moment. I do want to remind you. “V’shinantem l’vanekha - And you shall teach them to your children…”
 
We need to add a layer of Jewish educational and experiential concern to our dilemma. During these unusual days, let’s help our children and grandchildren continue their Jewish growth and understandings. Remember, “the power of the Jewish people in the world is found when their children are busily engaged in studying Torah.”
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

how to lose an election

Shabbat Lekh Lekha 5781 | October 31, 2020
 

 

 
This morning, just a few days away from the election, I want to speak with you about how to lose an election. No matter who you vote for, supporters of both presidential candidates with us this morning need to heed this warning.
 
Some of us may grieve what feels like a loss of our values and visions for this society. Others of us may celebrate the validation of our choice. Some of us may feel both sensations. No matter the outcome, no matter our pleasure or displeasure at the results, as citizens, by our votes we render our best personal judgments. To vote is our sacred and historic right and responsibility.
 
Not so many elections ago, I felt that even when the candidate I voted for lost, democracy won. Sure, there was nervousness awaiting for the results. But, there was also pride in celebrating the electoral process. This year, I fear it feels less like an election and a bit more like a confrontation.
 
Even so, I believe the most important thing to celebrate after this election is the ritual and sanctity of American democracy. We must always believe that the voting booth is the holiest place of our republic.
 
Robin offers me wise advice whenever we await some type of results or outcome. “Have high hopes and low expectations.”
 
That’s my first instruction about how to lose an election. Keep your expectations low. You’ll minimize your disappointment if your candidate loses or maximize your excitement if you voted for the winner.
 
My second instruction is for you, temporarily, to put aside your preferences for candidates and their policy proposals. There will be plenty of time to advocate and debate as the next presidential, or any other elected office’s, term unfolds.
 
Instead, for right now, focus on your neighbors, relatives, and the community in which - and with whom - you need to live. There is never enough time to celebrate and cultivate the relationships that matter must to us and for the quality of our personal lives.
 
You can continue to advocate or oppose as you believe. Losing doesn’t mean abandoning personal principles or the reasons why you voted as you did. Speak out civilly for your beliefs and values. Engage in our democratic process. The next election is coming. The social needs you seek to remedy in our society still need your active care and effort.
 
But, to lose well, and potentially win next time, means keeping disagreements and political discourse civil. It means respecting those with whom you disagree rather than resenting them for their victory.
 
Win or lose, all of us have to overcome what academics today call “Partyism.” Studies find dearer than racial, cultural, and religious heritage to many of us, our strongest personal attachments are connections to political parties. And the strength of these partisan bonds amplifies the level of political polarization in the United States. For some reason, it is no longer acceptable to discuss opposing political perspectives in polite company. For some of us personally, and for our body politic collectively, that’s disappointing.
 
Therefore, if your candidate comes up on the losing side of the vote, it’s important for you to model respect and acknowledgement for those who win. Many others around us and in society may not react this way. All the more reason we need to.
 
As our sages remind us in Pirkei Avot, “In a place where there are no mature people, strive to be a mature individual.”
 
Like our spiritual forefather, Abram who is described as standing apart from others in one dramatic scene in this morning’s Torah reading when war surrounds him and his nephew Lot is taken captive.
 
“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. Separate from his larger society. We might muse, his candidate did or didn’t win and now, for better or worse, he’s feeling differently than those who made the opposite choice.
 
Yet, Abram did win the battle and just after he rescues Lot, a neighboring King, Melchizedek of Salem, comes to pay homage. He brings bread and drink. He then declares, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.” It’s an interesting political moment. King Melchizedek seeks out Abram. A loser pays respect to a victor. An opponent gives respect to his foe. A higher ideal, in this case belief in the one true God, unites rather than divides.
 
On this Shabbat before Election Day, I invite you to join me in upholding the higher ideal of American democracy. I pray it unite us not divide us. As a different Abraham, President Lincoln, stated in his Second Inaugural address:
 
“With malice toward none, and with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
 
Think about how you’ll respond if your candidate loses the election. I ask each of us to do our part. Let’s keep our hopes high and our expectations low. Whether your candidate of choice wins or loses, focus on the people in your lives rather than the policies of our politicians. Let’s keep the discourse civil and our bonds as Americans genuinely respectful. Let us strengthen our community as an example of understanding, a model of getting past differences, striving to reach for the common good.
 
 
Prayer Before Voting
As Election Day draws near, we are aware that we are living in a time of social fragmentation, in an occasionally divisive national climate.
 
May all of us in our diversity and variety as a synagogue community at  Congregation Beth El, reinforce our commitment to civil discourse, respectful disagreement, and joint, constructive problem-solving.
 
By the votes we cast, let us reaffirm and realize our mutual values and shared principles as Americans, our historic and priceless commitments to freedom and responsibility, equality and opportunity, democracy and justice.
 
May we celebrate the ritual and sanctity of American democracy believing that the voting booth is the holiest place of our republic. Let us strengthen our community as an example of understanding, a model of getting past differences to reach for the common good.
 
On this Shabbat, in prayer and contemplation, may these hopes become our expectations as we give thanks for the gift of our lives and, as Americans Jews, for the life of our nation. Amen.
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

Giving Relationships

Shabbat Bereshit  5781| October 17, 2020
 

 

 
There was an unfortunate incident last Shabbat here in San Diego. A teenager on his bicycle attacked a local rabbi while he and his elderly father were walking to synagogue. The offender hit the rabbi, called out a couple of nasty epithets, and then rode away, probably feeling proud of his stupidly cruel and uncivil behavior. A scary moment for the rabbi. Unsettling for the local community. Under investigation by the police as a hate crime.
 
As I speak with you now, I know there is a public gathering in that neighborhood to condemn antisemitism and hate. A solidarity statement in support of the Jewish community as we celebrate this Shabbat.
 
Apparently, there’s a small group of ignorant and unruly teens who recently have been taunting and vandalizing the small Jewish congregation in their neighborhood. I hope there will be both punitive and educational consequences for them, and their parents if appropriate.
 
Civil society depends on consideration of and for every individual. No person lessens their own stature in the eyes of others by respecting other people. Though, I suspect those teenagers thought their mean behavior would impress their peers.
 
Someone needs to teach them. Our reputations grow when we are considerate of folks different from ourselves. Not when we mock them. You and I know this. I hope someone helps those teens to learn and internalize this, as well.
 
I mention this incident for our awareness. Not only about antisemitism, but about awareness of who we each are in relation to others.
 
As we meet him this morning, the mythical first human Adam is alone in the Garden of Eden. He can’t seem to find a companion, or as the Torah describes, “a fitting helper.” After all, God recognizes, “It is not good for a human being to be alone.”
 
You and I know this to be true. It’s a social statement which has us wondering if this on-going Pandemic is eroding our abilities to interact with one another.
 
In my observations of people through the years, I sense the longer we spend time alone, the more self-reliant we become, the less sensitive to, or even aware of, others we seem to be. It makes perfect sense. Sustaining and maintaining relationships takes at least two of us.
 
Our Genesis origins saga continues. “So the Eternal God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, God took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Eternal God fashioned the rib taken from the man into a woman; and God brought her to the man.”
 
Let’s put aside the literal sense of these verses, and seek from them social meaning. The 15th Century Portuguese Torah commentator Abarbanel asks why it was a rib, or any other body part, God used to form the woman. Why not fashion her of the earth, just like man was first created?
 
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, offers an intriguing answer in his book, The Lonely Man of Faith, about which I spoke back on Kol Nidre Eve. “Adam [the second] has to give away part of himself in order to find a companion.” As Rav Soloveitchik explains, we have to give up something of ourselves to enter into genuine relationships. We sacrifice from what we have, from who we are, in order to bond with someone else. He calls these “redemptive sacrificial gestures.”
 
Let’s think about our deepest and most enduring relationships. Be they personal and at home, professional and at work, social and among friends or relatives, or communal and shared with many. The truest and most real of our connections with others result from giving of ourselves to them, and receiving the same of them in return.
 
I hope those teens who harassed a rabbi grow up to learn this. I worry they may not. I don’t mean them specifically, I know nothing about them. My worry is that in our society today too many people of all ages have lost this spirit of self-sacrifice for the sake of others, or humility in the presence of others, or even giving away something of ourselves for a greater good.
 
So many among us focus on besting one another. Beating or defeating each other. Competing for the sake of winning alone is for sports and games. Competition for the sake of our ideas and visions, products and services also means contending with one another about the welfare and good of our whole society and all of its citizens.
 
As Rabbi Soloveitchik’s image of Adam implores us. Beyond our natural quests for power, position, and possession, to live meaningfully in community with others requires personal sacrifice in search of redemption and righteousness.
 
For what it’s worth, note how this Biblical story ends. Adam and Eve, together and revealed each one to the other, “felt no shame.” This is what I wish for those troublesome teenagers to discover and the rest of us to know. Giving and genuine relationships in our lives and communities bring respect and pride to us all.
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

high holy day sermons 2020 | 5781

In my High Holy Day sermons this year, I addressed topics I thought about during the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m gratified by your responses to my thoughts and look forward to our on-going conversations. My sermons follow below in this order.
 
On Yom Kippur, I sought to hear the "Voice of the Prophets."
On Kol Nidre Eve, I reflected on our "Spiritual Loneliness."
On the First Day of Rosh HaShanah, I discussed “Equality.”
On the Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, I proposed “A Theology of Technology.”
On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I encouraged us to be “Inspired This Year.”
 

voice of the prophets

Yom Kippur Sermon 5781 | September 28, 2020
 

 

 
You and I are having very different experiences this High Holy Day season. I’m in synagogue. Physically, you’re not. I’m mindful of this. I can’t know what and how you are marking this most sacred of days.
 
Because you are listening to me right now, I do trust you are present in this moment. I sense you seek meaning, perhaps motivation, to sustain your fast, to grow in soul, and to be here spiritually.
 
On this day of introspection and concentration, I hope you are comfortable enough at home to endure and uncomfortable enough to find significance in your observance. I also hope you join me this day in concern for those who are not comfortable at home, perhaps homeless. I ask you to think of those whose discomfort isn’t a temporary religious inconvenience, but a continuing condition of life. Perhaps their hunger isn’t from fasting, but from insufficient means.
 
Each and every Yom Kippur morning, the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah’s words haunt me. This year, I read and hear them with deeper intensity and worry as the pandemic exacerbates pre-existing societal disparities.
 
Preaching in Judea during the final years of the sixth century B.C.E., Isaiah ben Amoz chastises his community for their mindless duplicity and personal disregard. He speaks of ritual as a means to ethics, not piety. He demands of his people moral vision and genuine religious consciousness.
 
Isaiah speaks as if in God’s voice. “To be sure, they seek Me daily. Eager to learn My ways.”
 
Isaiah then speaks as if in the people’s voice as they ask of God. “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
 
“Because you fast in strife and contention,” Isaiah answers as if his words are God’s. “Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.”
 
“Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?” Isaiah’s rhetorical question leads to the moral answer uttered as God’s demand.
 
“No, this is the fast I desire.” We read this Haftarah on Yom Kippur because of the emphasis in this verse, teaches Rashi. This, Isaiah describes, this is the teshuvah, the turn to something better that is at hand.
 
“No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness; to let the oppressed go free. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the poor into your home; when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin.”
 
To which Isaiah adds his charge. “Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; the Presence of the Eternal God shall join with you.”
 
Who speaks like this? Who looks out upon the world as if their eyes were God’s?
 
The Prophets of the Hebrew Bible are people who hold God and humanity in one thought, at one time, at all times, explains Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In a 1963 speech on religion and society, Rabbi Heschel, regarded for his scholarship about the Hebrew Prophets, noted, “the prophets passionately proclaim that God is concerned with the blights of society.”
 
Today, observing Yom Kippur and its fast by ourselves instead of together, fidgeting in front of a TV or device screen instead of in our synagogue seats, Isaiah’s questions, and ours, still require answers.
 
Where are the moral voices in our society when so many are hungry? Who are the voices of prophetic contempt calling us out because too many live in poverty?
 
Here, in San Diego County, fourteen percent of the total population are financially insecure or live on incomes below the national poverty level. Among them are approximately twenty percent of the Jewish households in San Diego County. Our elderly and our young who are unable to meet their basic human needs for shelter, food, and clothing.
 
In response, where do we find the moral conscience of the ancient prophets today? On Facebook or Twitter? On television or You Tube? In the halls of government or the Boardroom? In our homes or around our tables? In our synagogues or Jewish community? Yes. Sometimes. In each and all of these places. No. Not at all times. In each and all of these places.
 
Many organizations, many agencies, many individuals work tirelessly to address and resolve these issues. We at Congregation Beth El support them, encourage them, and when and where possible, join with them. This year, we’ll also join in a new Jewish community venture, “The Kindness Initiative,” a developing coordinated community project which will strive to help alleviate Jewish poverty in this area through volunteerism, fund raising, and direct services.
 
My concern this Yom Kippur morning isn’t only about the tangible help incumbent upon all of us to provide. You and I can donate the amount we didn’t spend on meals today to feed others. We can each sustain acts of kindness and tzedakah according to our abilities. We can check in on our neighbors and be sure no one has unmet needs. We can fast in the moral manner God desires in Isaiah’s description.
 
What I seek is the outrage? What we lack is the indignation. About so many more concerns before us, from where does the voice of the prophets, the voice of Godliness speak in our society today?
 
Maybe not from a young Bat Mitzvah student I once celebrated with. She recited her Haftarah to a melody she made up on the spot. Afterwards, she told me. “I was nervous. I forgot the trope. Though I must admit. It sounded pretty good to my friends and family. But my Bat Mitzvah teacher, he’s not too pleased with me right now!”
 
We teach our children how to read and recite the words of the Hebrew prophets when they become B’nei Mitzvah. I’m not so sure we should. Most Bar and Bat Mitzvah students celebrating their religious transition from childhood to adolescence are not yet mature enough to appreciate the noble, often difficult, upsetting, and ancient words of the Hebrew Prophets.
 
Reciting the complicated Hebrew words of texts most adults don’t properly understand may not be the best way to initiate our children into the meaning and relevance of Judaism for their lives and our world. But, that’s a discussion for another time.
 
Corruption and immorality are very present in the world of ancient Israel’s kings and priests. Prophets stood as checks on every king and each priest. The Prophets of the Hebrew Bible care about two things. They demand the creation of a just society and they urge the Jewish people to honor God’s covenant.
 
Goodness is at the heart of what every prophet preaches about and sees in the world. From the ancient books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest we learn that religion is about goodness because goodness is God’s primary characteristic.
 
If you’re not sure that God is good or that God is just, if those are not religious perspectives in which you believe, reframe the prophets’ beliefs. Goodness is a godly pursuit. Justice is a godly goal.
 
We need to raise our budding teenagers, and the rest of us, too, to know this, to sense this in our Jewish experiences, and to internalize and act on it in a world that is decreasingly good and increasingly mean.
 
Acting with kindness, justice, and fairness in the world are the delight and the vision of our Jewish religious tradition. Our prophets teach these values in the name of God. We must speak of and represent them for the sake of our souls and our society.
 
Beyond reading the prophets’ words, I think we need a project to raise the prophets’ wisdom among ourselves and our children. From where does the voice of Godliness speak in our society today?
 
In Jewish terms, we say that God speaks to us through Torah. We hear God’s voice when we study and debate. When we learn and discover. When we understand and interpret. Like the voices in our heads, which are really thoughts – not sounds, we hear God’s voice in the ideas, insights, or wisdom we glean from our tradition’s texts and our people’s history.
 
God’s voice resonates in the meaning and purpose of the ideas it conveys. God’s voice isn’t audible as sound. It’s intelligible as insight. The sound of God’s voice comes from those of us who internalize and speak its message. Like it did for the prophets of old.
 
It depends, for example, on how we think about the homeless and hungry in our society who live just down the street and yet worlds apart from we who are comfortable and secure. Do we see in their humanity, as in our own, a reflection of God?
 
I return to Isaiah’s words. “If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand, and evil speech. And you offer your compassion to the hungry, and satisfy the famished creature, then shall your light shine in darkness.”
 
We need a consciousness raising project to renew the prophets’ wisdom among ourselves and our children. God’s voice doesn’t come to us in sound. We hear God’s voice when we hear truth and wisdom. We hear God’s voice when we listen carefully to others, and to our inner selves. We hear God’s voice in every lesson that inspires us and every text that speaks to us.
 
We hear, as the prophets once heard, when we transcend ourselves. When we are loving, healing, giving. When we strive to redeem others from the struggles of their lives. God speaks within us the prophetic 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. All of this is from where the voice of Godliness, the voice of the prophets, speaks in our society today.
 
We have to become its mouthpieces. Speaking out against indifference. Speaking up for the values we want our children and grandchildren, our neighbors and friends to understand. Modeling our caring and compassion for them to learn and emulate.
 
Each and every Yom Kippur morning, the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah’s words haunt me. This year, as I read and hear them I seek to make their message yours and mine. As Isaiah himself sums up the moral message he imparts. “For the mouth of the Eternal God has spoken.”
 
G’mar Hatimah Tovah!
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

spiritual Loneliness

Kol Nidre Eve 5781| September 27, 2020
 

 

 
During these pandemic days thus far, were there moments you felt like you were living in a time loop? Did you feel like the same day, the same routine, the same scene repeated and reset? Over the past many months did you feel like you weren’t sure what day of the week it was? Did your daily activities feel familiar or repetitive? Were you living a time loop experience like Bill Murray’s character, weatherman Phil Connors, in the movie “Groundhog Day?”
 
If not hibernation, recently we’ve certainly spent time in isolation. After the first week of this New Year, are we ready to emerge like a groundhog in Punxsutawney, PA? Are our spirits sunny and bright? Do we see shadows of more darkness or the promising rays of light?
 
On this sacred night, we live in a different time loop. As we look back on who we were in the mahzor, the cycle, the year past, we anticipate who we will be in this mahzor, this cycle, this new year. “Mi Yom Kippurim zeh ad Yom Kippurim haba – from this Yom Kippur to the next,” we declared earlier during our recitation of Kol Nidre. In the character of our souls and for the quality of our lives, do we see shadows of more darkness or the promising rays of light?
 
Last winter, I began thinking about my remarks for this season. Unaware then of the coming Coronavirus pandemic, l imagined we would be together. In my original musings, I thought about loneliness and isolation. Though in no possible way did I imagine our experiences of loneliness and isolation over these past seven months.
 
I was thinking about personal circumstances of loneliness. Self-awareness in which we live by ourselves. I was thinking of those of us who live afraid of things others do not. Fears even our families and friends don’t know we hold. Some of us live embarrassed as we try to hide that our means are less and our resources stretched. We want others to see us as they see themselves, not as we really are. Some of us live without relationships others among us enjoy at home or in community. Some of us may be alone in our thoughts or even lonely in not knowing what we believe.
 
Listen to one person’s testimony about his loneliness. “I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating ‘I am lonely’ I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone. I thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many…
 
And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends.
 
Why am I beset by this feeling of loneliness and being unwanted? The genuine and central cause of the feeling of loneliness from which I cannot free myself is to be found in a different dimension, namely, the experience of faith itself. I am lonely because, in my humble, inadequate way, I am a man of faith for whom to be means to believe…”
 
Who gave this testimony? Who’s loneliness is spiritual, not communal? These are the words of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the most important Orthodox rabbi of his generation. He  was born into a family of eminent Eastern European rabbis in Russia in 1903.
 
Trained as a scholar in the sacred texts of Judaism, at twenty-two Joseph Soloveitchik enrolled in the University of Berlin in order to study physics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1932 Rabbi Soloveitchik accepted the position of chief rabbi of Boston, MA where he lived until his death in 1993.
 
During his lifetime, Rav Soloveitchik was regarded throughout the world as the leading authority on the meaning of Jewish law, and as an important intellectual personality who sought to build bridges between Orthodox Judaism and the modern world.
 
And yet, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik is author of a book he titled “The Lonely Man of Faith” from which I just read his words. His image of spiritual loneliness resonates in me, and I imagine in some of you.
 
These past many months, we’ve been spiritually alone. Those of us accustomed to attending synagogue services with others, in the embrace and spirit of a synagogue community, have done so individually and online, just like this – well not quite like this!
 
This past spring and summer, if not postponed or held privately at home, ceremonies to mark our children becoming B’nei Mitzvah, wedding celebrations, even funeral and shiva services took place on Zoom. (Those of us who remember the pioneer days of Israel know the official theme song of our Zoom lives – Zoom Gali, Gali!)
 
If our choice, we’ve also had to figure out how to demonstrate the character and activities of our Jewish identities by ourselves. From the confines of our homes, we sought to create community alone and together. Some of us opted out. It just didn’t feel right.
 
With all of Jewish life and its varieties online, many of us took a tour these past months exploring Jewish addresses we’d heard about, or experiences we would otherwise not have been able to attend in person. Sometimes, we liked what we explored. Other times, we were happy to return home. In all cases, we were enriched in Jewish awareness as we expanded our Jewish horizons.
 
Over time, it will be interesting to see how this virtual Jewish community evolves and blends in with local, personal community. Twenty percent of the people participating with us here at Congregation Beth El on Livestream each weekday and Shabbat, as well as during these High Holy Days, do not live in San Diego County or Southern California. Collected together, over the past six months, we became, in total, an online community of more than 25,000 unique and regular, returning participants. We have to wonder. As we build a vital virtual community to complement our wonderful and warm synagogue community, how will we identify one another and share together in our chosen expressions of Judaism and Jewish celebration?
 
Let’s study Torah and then return to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s book, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” for a framework.
 
The highlight of God’s creation comes toward the end of the first chapter of Genesis when we read this mythical and moral verse. “And God created haAdam, the human being, in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim….male and female God created them.”
 
Ovadiah Seforno, the 16th century Italian Torah scholar comments, “When the word Elohim-God appears as an adjective, ‘in the image of God,’ it refers to the creation of humans as being spiritual in their essence.”
 
In the second chapter of Genesis, the mythical story of the Garden of Eden, we read this different description of creation.
 
“It is not good for haAdam, the human being, to be alone, I will make a fitting helper for him.” And the Eternal God fashioned the rib that God took from the man into a woman…”
 
Here too, Seforno offers insight. “A fitting helper is someone equal, also reflecting the divine image.” This is essential, Seforno explains, for it is describing that men and women are of equal power, moral, and ethical weight.
 
In these two versions of the creation story, Rabbi Soloveitchik defines two aspects of human nature. The first Adam, who is created simultaneously with the first woman, “exists in society, in community with others. He is a social being, gregarious, communicative… Adam the first is never alone.” That’s us before, and I hope after, this pandemic. Together in society and community with one another.
 
Rabbi Soloveitchik understands the First Adam, as he labels this aspect of human nature, as being in and of the world. Seeking our place. Working and creating. Achieving our aims. Together. Yet, in the second telling of the creation story, when we read that Adam is alone, and that’s not a good thing as we reflect on whatever may be our personal circumstances of loneliness. Rabbi Soloveitchik identifies in Second Adam a different aspect of who we are as people.

“While Adam the first is dynamic and creative, transforming sensory data into thought constructs, Adam the second is receptive and holds the world in its original dimensions. He looks for the image of God not in the mathematical formula or the natural relational law but in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of the starlit evening. In a word, Adam the second explores not the scientific abstract universe but the irresistibly fascinating qualitative world where he establishes an intimate relation with God.”
 
Second Adam quests for a different type of community. Not social but covenantal. Not in and of the world, but apart from and observant of it. That’s us during this pandemic. Seeking to overcome our separation from Jewish community by joining online with others to offset our spiritual loneliness.
 
For all of us understand. Judaism is not solely an individual experience. We depend upon, and thrive within, covenantal communities of our fellow Jews. We study and debate with each other. We celebrate and support one another. In each other’s gaze, we see the image of God. Linking hands and arms, we support those who need and serve the needs of our society. We embrace and kiss. We hug and handshake. We laugh and cry. We eat and meet. Together, not apart. In community, not alone. In good times and bad.
 
Yet, in this moment, we are all lonely people of faith. The challenge before us this sacred night, and for however many more days and nights to come, is to find meaning and personal Jewish purpose in our spiritual loneliness. This moment demands of us to be the individual Jews God and our people’s heritage require us to be.
 
“You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Take the words of this command to heart, when you lie down and when you rise up.” Only an individual, covenantal Jew, in the model of the Second Adam, has the inclination to demonstrate faith alone, teaches Rav Soloveitchik.
 
Right now, this is who we are each called to be or to become. Individual Jews upon whom our people’s covenant through history with God depends. While we seek to be together, we cannot wait for each other. Let’s urge ourselves this Yom Kippur to figure out the why and what of our Jewish lives, and with fullness of heart, soul, and personal strength live and learn as best we can. Our spiritual loneliness binds us together.
 
And, when we come back together as individual Jews steeped more deeply in our Jewish selves, we will build an even more vibrant and more compelling destination Jewish community for those of us here in person, and those of us online participating from a distance.
 
As Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, “Faith is born of the intrusion of eternity upon temporality.” Or as Bill Murray’s character, weatherman Phil Connors, discovered in the movie “Groundhog Day,” time loops end when individuals recognize existence beyond themselves and find the ability to live past their own narrow perspectives.
 
I pray. When the time comes, when we emerge from this time loop and live out our days in a new cycle of experiences and opportunities, “mi Yom Kippurim zeh ad Yom Kippurim haba – from this Yom Kippur to the next,” may our reunion ease any of the conditions causing our spiritual loneliness. May we recognize the gifts of our relationships and God’s creation which enable our existence. May the whole of this unusual experience renew for us all the eternal gifts and meanings of Torah and Judaism for our lives and in our world.
 
G’mar Hatimah Tovah!
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

equality

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5781 | September 19, 2020
 

 

 
In simpler times, in the days of my youth, whenever I had to make a big decision, I would go outside, lie down on the ground and gaze upward at the stars in the sky. Somehow, seeing the vastness of the cosmos helped me find clarity, place, and resolve.
 
I guess that’s why Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting, Starry Night, captures my imagination. Rough, short brush strokes. In the sky they swirl. Each dab of white rolling as clouds around the bright yellow stars and moon. The village below is dark. The effect is spiritual and dreamlike.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Van Gogh painted Starry Night while living in isolation. Through the iron-barred window of his hospital room at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole he wrote in May 1889, “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.”
 
“Why,” Van Gogh mused, “should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France? I don't know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.”

That’s how I feel. Seeing the stars makes me dream. Some speculate that the other inspiration for Van Gogh when painting Starry Night was a dream. A Torah verse in which Joseph describes his dream to his brothers. “The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
 
Van Gogh felt a need for light to brighten the dark days of his isolation from the people and places of his life. These days, that’s also how I feel. You may be feeling this way, too. Especially as we greet the Jewish New Year separated from each other, unable to celebrate as we usually do.
 
One summer while traveling in Europe, my family and I visited every art museum in Paris hoping to view Starry Night up close. We couldn’t find it. Until we came home and discovered Starry Night hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Sometimes, we assume the light we seek is far off. More often, we realize its actually much closer than we knew.
 
I hope you share in this realization. The light we seek now is closer than we realize. At home with others or alone, we each see past our separation and imagine our reunion. We dream of days again filled with the routines of our lives. We dream of getting together again with everyone we miss. And when we do, it will be the light of clarity and resolve we gleaned during these darker days that will illumine our way.
 
Whether gazing at nighttime stars or television programs, I’m sure we’ve all been alone with our thoughts for portions of the past 191 days. Like me, I imagine you’ve had some time to think about your circumstances, your worries and hopes, and maybe even your values and ideals.
 
I’ve been thinking about a few things. Questioning some long held assumptions about my life and my place in the world. Wondering what will matter to me more or less when I’m free to go about my life as I may choose. Musing about what the events of this past spring and summer have in common and what may be their lasting impact.
 
Beyond its devastating illness, the Coronavirus pandemic lays bare a fundamental truth of nature. All people are equal. All life is vulnerable. Nature does not distinguish between individuals. No matter our unique characteristics and personalities. By nature’s rules, as human beings, we are equally at risk and equal in life.
 
Yet, this elemental, natural equality is not humanity’s default experience. Too many people, in too many places, for far too long hear they are less equal than others. Live in circumstances less equal to others. Less in status. Less in opportunity. Less in access. Less in life.
 
We Jews meet this in antisemitism, the vicious taunts and deranged hatred persecuting us throughout history. Resurgent today and deeply disturbing.
 
Israel meets this in the hypocrisy of those who question her national legitimacy and scorn her historic identity as a Jewish homeland, though at the start of this New Year, we happily note a small but significant step away from this hypocrisy of delegitimizing Israel.
 
This week the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel signed formal recognition treaties. The first peace overtures to Israel since 1994. Treaties which may help to soften some hatred of Israel in the Middle East, a hatred which complicates things for impoverished Palestinian populations who also deserve home and safety.
 
African-Americans meet this disparity first in slavery and then through vile segregation and unequal justice which our nation strives to end and repair until today.
 
People of different ethnicities and nationalities, people of different orientations and proclivities, people of disability or disadvantage, all of these people meet this inequity when others, sometimes a majority of others, treat them as less in society. Less in dignity.
 
We may each even meet this bias in common community and conversation. When we have to tell someone, “Your opinion is not more important than mine.” When we have to remind another person, “My experience is not less significant than yours.” When proudly declare, “My need to mark my place, or my need to affirm my identity, or my need to celebrate my uniqueness does not diminish your need or your chance to do the same.”
 
Alone with my thoughts, I know I am not alone with this insight. If there is any social lesson to derive from these months of isolation and caution about our health, it is a moral message of community and respect. Equal in nature has to become equal in society.
 
For a pandemic, equality is easy because it’s out of our hands. For a society, equality is hard because it’s up to us to achieve.
 
Which we’ll only do if we use this time of social withdrawal to refocus on who are each one of us and every one of us. During these days of social angst and upheaval coinciding with, and perhaps as a release valve during, the shutdown it seems like many have lost sight of a core idea for sustaining society.
 
When respectful and harmonious, cultural diversity is a strength, not a weakness. When you and I are confident in who we are and what we believe, we live proudly and peacefully amidst the variety of people around us.
 
Every time in human history when one group of people holds itself up as more than equal to others social structures break down and conflicts ensue.
 
Every time in human experience when one group of people suffers the indignities of inequality social structures break down and conflicts ensue.
 
Every time in human community when fear or resentment define some people’s perceptions of others, social structures break down and conflicts ensue.
 
In concept, it’s just not complicated. In reality, it’s humanity’s most vexing and enduring social challenge. I have a hunch as to why that is. I learn this from children. They happily attend each other’s birthday parties with no emotional discomfort that all of the attention focuses on their friends. Why? Because each child knows he or she will get their own turn. They feel secure.
 
Before we can see another’s circumstance we need to feel secure in our own place. We all need to belong. We all need the embrace of a community or group that accepts us and values our identifying with them. Our particular Jewish identity is unique in the world. Our bond as members of the Jewish people roots us. From this place of emotional comfort knowing we are each part of something larger than ourselves we are best able to validate others.
 
“God said to Moses,” one legend relates, “Do I show favoritism to anyone? Whether one is Jewish or Gentile, a man or a woman…the spirit of holiness rests upon each person according to the deed that each does.”
 
According to the deeds we each do. Behavior is our only proper measure of human difference. Respond to what I do not who I am. Critique my actions not my opinions. Pull yourself up. Don’t push me down. Or as Voltaire stated, “Men are equal; it is not birth but virtue that makes the difference.”
 
Equality is a religious principle of Judaism.
 
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad. Listen Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.
 
Our belief in One God is an ethical monotheism that promotes the equality of all people created in the Divine image. Lore imagines the same about the first human Adam, from whom all people descend in Biblical mythology. No individual can claim superior ancestry. An individual’s life is worthy only if every individual’s life is worthy. This we must declare in our society. Each person’s life matters always and everywhere. Equal in nature has to become equal in society.
 
This we believe above all else.
 
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad. Listen Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.
 
Why do many of us cover our eyes when we recite Shema Yisrael? Based on what the Talmudic Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi did, we cover our eyes to block out distractions. We cover our eyes to help us concentrate while declaring Judaism’s core tenant of ethical monotheism. Of course, then there’s the custom I grew up with. Not to cover my eyes but rather to see the community through whom I come to know God.
 
There is another explanation. Medieval Jews who knew suffering and saw pain in the world covered their eyes so they could express their faith in God with less difficulty. They didn’t want to see evidence of God’s absence while seeking God’s presence.
 
If and when we cover our eyes, we are momentarily alone with our thoughts. Isolated from others, trying to concentrate. Alone in our awareness of God, about what are we supposed to think?
 
Alone with our thoughts for portions of the past 191 days, I think we now know. When we are set apart from others, we think about them. When we cover our eyes to recite Shema Yisrael, we think about God.
 
Students of art wonder if in his loneliness as he was painting Starry Night was Van Gogh thinking about God. Perhaps the sky represents the divine and as the church spire stretches up to that sky Van Gogh seeks to bring God into the village. I don’t know.
 
I do know that when I am alone with my thoughts, perhaps gazing upward at the stars in the sky, perhaps covering my eyes to recite Shema Yisrael, to think about God is to think about how I ought to connect my actions to my intentions. How I might make real what I hold up to be ideal. How coming out of this pandemic I hope to apply the moral message of isolation and caution I have learned.
 
Equal in nature has to become equal in society.
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

a theology of technology

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5781 | September 20, 2020
 

 

 
I look into the camera in front of me in order to speak with you. Yet, you and I know it’s not the same. To speak with you effectively and personally, I need to see you, to communicate the unspoken connection we share, or may develop, through our words, smiles, nods, and eye contact.
 
In his 1923 book, I and Thou, Martin Buber explains that relationships with objects are qualitatively different than relationships with people. With the camera, I have an I – It connection. What I desire with you, is an I – Thou, an I - You relationship.
 
As I look into the camera I understand an I – It relationship is impersonal and utilitarian. As I yearn to be with you again I understand an I – You relationship is personal and significant. Ultimately, Buber explains, it is through all of our human, interpersonal relationships that we grow into a relationship with God because, as Buber observes, “All real life is meeting.”
 
Even so, let’s not dismiss this technological gift of online communication no generation before us had, or could even imagine. When our ancestors were separated, exiled, divided, or otherwise apart, if able, they kept in touch through letters and long-distance travel. We have modern technology. We are meeting and this is real life.
 
Here’s a unique Talmudic question. Does someone who stands outside of the synagogue count in the Minyan? The sage Rav says no. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says yes, explaining: “Even a barrier of iron cannot separate the Jewish people and God.”
 
In other words, it’s always better to be together. We miss everyone. We miss our greeting, our talking, our singing together, and simply seeing each other. But, since all of this isn’t possible right now, we learn from the wisdom of our tradition.
 
The technology we are using isn’t a barrier nor is our seclusion. Nothing separates us from God, which means nothing separates us from each other as a synagogue community celebrating a New Year in prayer, reflection, and fondness for one another.
 
To my mind, the Talmudic question of our era isn’t about a barrier or circumstance that may separate us. The new question now that technology is so pervasive and generally effective in sustaining and enabling Jewish celebration and engagement is this. What happens with our use of technology in ritual in a post-COVID world?
 
Do we turn off our Livestream and Zoom cameras? Do we put down the personal devices on which we watch and connect? Do we return to a previous communal assumption that technology has no place in traditional Jewish ritual? Or, does the technological ritual revolution of these pandemic months change what we do when we no longer have to, when this exigent hour is over?
 
Let me remind you. Last March as we and everyone else were moving Jewish life online, rabbis around the world declared this Coronavirus crisis “an exigent hour.” In Jewish religious law and history, at such times of emergency communities may choose to be more lenient, in our case with technology, in order to enable ritual practice and necessary religious expression. I base my question in the awareness that there have been times when once temporary ritual leniencies became permanent practice.
 
Here’s one example. During the 19th century cholera epidemic, there were so many mourners, sadly, that one of the leading rabbinic authorities of his time, Rabbi Akiva Eger of Poland, ruled it was permissible for many mourners to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish simultaneously. At the time, the practice was for each mourner, one at a time, to recite Kaddish. To this day, the practice of reciting Mourner’s Kaddish as a group remains the custom in most synagogues.
 
Right now, as I speak with you through the camera, I also see space for television monitors on the back walls of our sanctuary. Imagine. Individuals or families not able to be here for a family simhah, or not able to be here on Shabbat or holidays, who join their family and our community via a Zoom broadcast right into our live in-person service? Many of us have already discovered our ability to use video-conferencing to share a Seder or milestone event with relatives and friends all over the world. In a post-COVID world, should we discontinue that practice or adapt and benefit from it?
 
For me to answer to this question I need to consider the context and spirit, not merely the function, of relevant halakhah, Jewish law. What is the purpose of a prohibition? How do rules written by those who came before us regulate tools they couldn’t anticipate? How do we live within and pass along the spiritual practices and religious norms we inherit and from which we derive personal and communal meaning?
 
Generations ago, rabbinic tradition considered these same questions in the form of this legend.
 
“When Moses ascended to the heavens, he found the Holy One, Blessed be God, sitting and attaching crowns to the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God, “Master of the Universe! Who is staying your hand?" God said to him, "There is one man who will exist after many generations, and Akiva the son of Yosef is his name, who will in the future expound on every crown and crown piles and piles of laws.”
 
Moses said before God, “Master of the Universe! Show him to me.” God said to him, “Turn backwards.” Moses went and sat at the end of eight rows of students in Rabbi Akiva's Beit Midrash, and he did not know what they were talking about. Moses became upset. As soon as Rabbi Akiva got to one additional subject, his students said to him, “Our teacher, from where do you learn this?” Rabbi Akiva said to them, “It is a law taught to Moses at Mt. Sinai.” Moses calmed down.
 
Moses returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be God, and said before God, “Master of the Universe! You have a man like this, and You are giving the Torah through me?”
 
One generation cannot imagine how Torah will evolve into the next. Every generation interprets and lives Torah in an unbroken line from Moses to them, from those who taught us to those we inspire next.
 
In this sense, there is no such thing as the Halakhah. There is only Halakhah. We are committed to the reality that in every place each generation of Jews has accepted the views and rulings of their ancestors while defining through inherited and sacred texts, teachings, and precedents appropriate application for contemporary life. Jewish law is alive and dynamic, consecrating and sanctifying our lives, conserving and preserving our tradition, all the while leading us forward toward ever new awareness of God’s presence, and our best understandings of God’s will.
 
You and I don’t yet know how we will answer these questions I’m posing. We’re not yet through this exigent hour. We don’t yet have perspective on what will be its lessons and legacies into the future. But, we do have a framework for how to approach the question.
 
That framework is Havdalah, the lovely ceremony of light, wine, and spice with which we end Shabbat and holidays. Havdalah asks us to make distinctions in life bein kodesh l’hol, between what is sacred and what is routine. This distinction can apply to our technological choices, as well.
 
We use the tools of technology for many purposes. Constructive and life-affirming or destructive and debasing. In the narrower space of ritual, technology can enhance celebration and prayer, creating experiences of kedushah, holiness. Or, technology can detract from the sanctity we strive to sense on a Shabbat or Yom Tov. Does using technology help us create something sacred and uplifting, or are we doing with our devices what we do in all other aspects of our routine lives? Can we identify meaningful distinctions between kodesh and hol, the sacred and routine?
 
On this Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, let’s ask ourselves these same questions. Though we don’t yet have perspective on what will be the lessons and legacies of these pandemic months that keep us apart, we can begin to measure what results we seek. In the future, will we make choices to elevate and change or return to our routine habits and previous assumptions?
 
This is the real reason for marking this holy day. The real point of what I’m discussing. Regardless of what we decide to do with technology, what we decide to do with ourselves matters more.
 
Teshuvah is one of Judaism’s spiritual technologies. A quest for growth of soul and character as we age in both years and accumulated experience. The Hebrew word teshuvah means both “turning” and “answer.” Turning back from last year’s regrets we answer this year’s most important question. How will we live the next days, months, and year of our lives?
 
In Martin Buber’s vision of I – You relationships, everything is potentially sacred. We make life kodesh by how we treat one another. By how we act when encountering others in the world. By the teshuvah we do. “What is required,” writes Buber, “is a deed that a person does with wholeness of being.”
 
Teshuvah is a change we commit to. A choice we see as essential. Be it about the technology we may use in ritual practice or the growth we strive for in our personal behaviors. Our goal is to transform hol into kodesh, to make the routine experiences of our lives into truly sacred encounters. Whatever the tools, whenever the moment, wherever we may be, however we may act, we too realize. “All real life is meeting.”
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

inspired this year

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5781 | September 18, 2020
 

 

 
Even in a most different year, I’m delighted to welcome you to 5781. To rejoice with all of you in God’s presence for the gifts and opportunities of our lives. More than ever, we express our hope.
 
Y’ehi ratzon, sh’thadesh aleinu Shanah Tovah umetukah!
May it be God’s will to renew us for a good and sweet year!
 
We do want sweetness and goodness, contentment, and a sense of purpose. We want health, security, and the restoration of our, for lack of a better word, “normal” lives. We also want to know how we might attain what we desire.
 
When the great spiritual master of the Hasidim, the Baal Shem Tov set out on his New Year’s quest before Rosh HaShanah he went to a special clearing in the forest outside the village where he lived. In the clearing he lit a fire in a special way. Then he sang a nigun, a Hebrew melody without words. For him, that was sufficient inspiration for his vision of the year.
 
Years later, when his disciple, the Maggid of Mezritch, set out on his New Year’s quest before Rosh HaShanah he had forgotten the instructions for lighting the fire, but he remembered the location of the clearing and how to sing the melody. And for the Maggid that was sufficient inspiration for his vision of the year.
 
Years later, when the Maggid’s student, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, set out on his New Year’s quest before Rosh HaShanah he would say: “Not only have I forgotten the instructions for lighting the fire, but the melody too, has been lost. All I remember is how to get to this clearing in the forest.” And for Rabbi Moshe Leib that was sufficient inspiration for his vision of the year.
 
Finally, many years later, when Rabbi Israel of Rizhin set out on his New Year’s quest before Rosh HaShanah, he noted with sadness: “I no longer know how to light the fire or how to sing the melody, and I do not know the place. All I have is the story of how it was done.” And for Rabbi Israel that was sufficient inspiration for his vision of the year.
 
What’s enough for you? In this new year, is it enough to know a story, or to carry a special memory forward? Or do you seek something more? Do you need the melody, the fire, and the place?
 
Think about what you’re going through as a New Year arrives. To greater and lesser amounts, you and I are frustrated, angry, isolated, stir crazy, Zoomed out, way too busy, not busy enough, worried, anxious, content, fortunate, comfortable, needing assistance, helping others, and many other responses you can add that I didn’t mention.
 
We’re juggling our personal and family professional, educational, recreational and social needs. We miss loved ones and friends we aren’t able to see or we’re making arrangements to be safe and distant so we can reconnect. We’re also trying to make quality time out of this unplanned quantity time.
 
My sense is, for all that is different about these days, how we each entered this pandemic experience is how we have been during it. Where personally comfortable and strong, still now. Where individually stressed or unsettled, still now. The same is true for organizational life and our society at large. This is it, and it’s not likely to change for a while.
 
Which is why this is the year you stop saying, “someday.” This is the year and the time to resolve to live your life as you really intended once upon a time. What can you do, not in a forest, but where you are at home, even during this pandemic, to find the inspiration to visualize the year ahead?
 
I ask myself this question all of the time. I have a long list of goals, projects, and personal ambitions. But, between the regular routine and unforeseen circumstances that are always what I live through, too much time passes and too little gets done. I think about what I would have done, what I could have done, what I should have done. I feel the sentiment in Shel Silverstein’s poem.
 
“All The Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
Layin' In The Sun,
Talkin' 'Bout The Things
They Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda Done...
But All Those Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
All Ran Away And Hid
From One Little Did.”
 
Enough for me this year, enough for you this year, will be accomplishing something from our lists. A did here, a did there; a deed here, a deed there. Inspiring our vision this year is confidence that we are capable of accomplishment this year.
 
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook teaches, “Teshuvah is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul. Then he will at once return to God, to the Soul of all souls.”
 
This is how we attain what we desire. We turn in, with honesty and resolve. We decide in our hearts that what we really want is more important than what prevents us from accomplishing it.
 
All of us want the fulfillment of life’s promise. Some of us feel that limitations of birth, ability, or various circumstances keep us from such realizations.
 
In truth, we deny ourselves the fulfillment of our dreams because of something within us. We live without an urgent sense of purpose, for we live with the belief that we are the complete masters of our fate. Recent days prove that to be a false idea. These High Holy Days teach us humility. We must integrate the passage of time into our life plans.
 
We say that God’s years have no measure while we know there is a limit to our days. May we treasure each precious moment this year brings. May we proceed with all haste to do this year all the things which will make this a year of achievement, growth, and blessing.
 
Like the Hasidic masters in the legend, we decide in our High Holy Day Home Havens what will be sufficient inspiration. Find your inspiration. Find your melody. Find your fire. Find your place. The quality and character of this new year depends on it.
 
L’Shanah Tovah!
 
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 
Fri, April 16 2021 4 Iyyar 5781