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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.
 

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
 
Sat, October 24 2020 6 Cheshvan 5781