Rabbi’s Remarks for Installation of Officers, January 20, 2017

Rabbi’s Remarks for Installation of Officers

January 20, 2017

 

What a delight it is to stand before you this Erev Shabbat to formally install this superb group of leaders as officers of Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City.  This group of officers and trustees is among the most talented, experienced, and dedicated of any who have served Oheb Shalom, or any other synagogue for that matter.  Before we offer our blessings to the new officers and trustees, I must express my gratitude to our immediate past president and friend, David Willner, who led our congregation these last two years with grace, dignity, and wisdom.  David has served as a board member, officer and president for at least a decade.  It has been an absolute pleasure to work with him on behalf of the congregation.  He has guided us during a somewhat stressful time with a strong yet understanding approach to leading a volunteer board and professional staff.  David is smart, funny, and hard working.  We met regularly for breakfast and spent countless hours together here and elsewhere.  His truly better half, Terri, supported David in all of his endeavors.  Terri loves Oheb Shalom and, fortunate for us, David married into that relationship.  So let me just say that we return that affection to you, David, as we thank you for your past and continuing service to this holy congregation.

Allow me just a few minutes to deliver a rabbi’s report on the state of Oheb Shalom before formally installing our new officers and trustees.  In brief, we are in good hands and in good shape.  Of course, we would be better off if a member won the lottery and donated about $20 million to us but, given the state of contemporary synagogue life, we are doing well.  We went through a potentially difficult transition this year as Rabbi Nagel left after twelve years of service.  The process through which we said farewell to Rabbi Nagel while interviewing for and selecting Rabbi Sarah Marion was essentially flawless.  Of almost all we have done during my tenure, I am most proud of the process itself and those who were part of it.  We identified and chose future leaders to sit on the search committee.  They stepped up, worked hard and made an outstanding choice for our congregation in bringing Rabbi Marion to us.  Several of these committee members are now officers and members of the Board of Trustees.  We thank them as well as Adam Rosenberg and Mina Wender for co-chairing this exceptional committee.

We have continued our internal relationship building through our Young Families and Teen Task forces.  Our programming, characterized by last night’s Challah bake, is exceptional.  Just one caveat.  Last night’s program took well over one hundred hours of staff time to execute.  We will need to be very discriminating in future programming because we do not have enough staff to do all that is requested of us.  Regarding staff, we have such an incredible group of people who work on our behalf.  Each of them is devoted to God, the Jewish people, and Oheb Shalom.  From our clergy to our senior and clerical staff, they give more of themselves than anyone can possibly require.  They work not just for a salary but for the love of Torah and Kehilah.  Our thanks to our clergy, Rabbi Marion and Cantor Braun, Ken, Susan, Maxine, Meredith, Aileen, and Sherri for their dedication to Oheb Shalom.  A mazal tov and special thank you to Caitlin Brazner, who will marry Scott in March and then leave us in May to begin her rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.  We are very, very proud of her.  I offer an extra special thanks to my partner and soul mate, Sally, for her relational skills, teaching ability, and especially for her tolerance of me.  Needless to say, I am not easy to live with.

We are beginning the process of filling two positions, Caitlin’s membership, communications and programming portfolio, and a new position, that of a teen engagement associate.  This person will help fill a huge gap in our post b’nei mitzvah programming and will concentrate on keeping our kids involved in Jewish life.  With the demise of BEIT RJ in May, this position is absolutely necessary, despite our having to seek the funding to pay for it.  This individual will teach seventh grade, run our manifold youth groups, and coordinate our soon to be unveiled sixth grade b’nei mitzvah group service program.

There is so much more to say, but our time tonight is quite limited.  I now invite those newly elected members of our Board of Trustees and our appointed officers to please rise to be inducted into our leadership.

Now I invite Mina Wender to come forward.  Mina, you have been Sally and my friend and co-worker for these last two decades.  We have traveled together and shared many cocktails. We share goals for Oheb Shalom as well as a common world view.  You have given so much of yourself to this holy congregation over these last forty years.  This has been your family’s home away from home as you and Ed built a life for yourselves, Becca, and Melissa in Baltimore.  You have taught in the religious school and confirmation program, served on several search committees and have been an officer for many years. Your taking the helm of leadership is a natural progression.  No one has been more prepared for this day than you.  We pray on your behalf:

Our God and God of our fathers and mother, bless Mina Wender as she takes up this mantle of leadership.  Endow her with wisdom, vigor, and understanding as she guides Oheb Shalom in these trying times. May the Source of Strength grant her the fortitude and courage necessary to lead this family of families to even greater heights.  Sustain her with Your spirit.  Grant that that the words of her mouth be endowed with insight and that the work of her hands be imbued with blessing.  May Your blessing, Adonai, come to rest upon us all as we say, Amen.

 

Would Rabbi Marion and Cantor Braun join me as we bless Mina with the ancient benediction of our ancestors?

 

 

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A Very Difficult Sermon, December 30, 2016

A Very Difficult Sermon

December 30, 2016

 

To say that I have struggled with this sermon is an understatement.  The prelude to this was my anxiety over my Israel Bonds Appeal, which I delivered to you on Rosh Hashanah morning.  My apprehension is rooted in my deep personal struggle over how best to support the State of Israel while opposing its elected government with which I disagree on many issues.  Allow me to explain.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is presiding over the most right wing government is Israel’s history.  The cabinet minister’s ideology reflects that of the Settler movement which advocates for a Greater Israel, one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  The right wing ministers share their ideology with the incoming new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, President elect Trump’s bankruptcy attorney who is a funder of right wing yeshivot in the settlements.  To quote one of the most astute observer of Israeli politics, the writer J.J. Goldberg, “One thing that unites this movement is the attachment of its leaders to Hardal, an offshoot of Modern Orthodoxy, a right wing movement emphasizing stringent religious observance while retaining Religious Zionism’s engagement in modern society.  The movement first emerged in the 1970s as the religious ideology of the West Bank settler movement.  It later spread more widely.  Its nerve centers are in Kiryat Arba near Hebron and Beit El, twenty miles north of Jerusalem.  David Friedman is president of the American friends of Beit El.  What defines Hardal is its radical take on religious Zionism, seeing Israel as a divine miracle and the West Bank as a sacred patrimony which Israel must rule forever or risk divine punishment.”  [i]

No wonder this government has refused to implement the accord it made with the Jewish Agency, Women of the Wall, and the Reform and Conservative movements last January 31, promising to create a new area by the Kotel, the Western Wall, where non-Orthodox Jews are able to hold mixed prayer services for men and women.  The Reform and Conservative movements would be represented on a new public authority responsible for operating the new prayer plaza.  Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners threatened a government crisis if the agreement was enacted.  Recently, Orthodox Knesset members have submitted a bill “that would not only outlaw the new egalitarian prayer space but would ban egalitarian prayer anywhere near the Kotel.  It would prohibit women from wearing tefillin and prayer shawls, blowing the shofar and reading from a Torah at the site, with offenders facing jail time or heavy fines…Forced with a revolt within his coalition, Netanyahu was forced to choose between keeping Conservative and Reform Jews happy or keeping his government intact.  Millions of American Jews, he decided, were expendable.”[ii]

Needless to say, I am already furious with the current Netanyahu government and am even more outraged by his response to UN resolution 2334 and to President Obama.  I say at the outset that UN has a despicable record on Israel and that Israel has valid reasons to distrust it.  Upon reading the resolution, however, I find very little with which to disagree.

The resolution advocates for a two state solution and condemns terrorism.  It states that the Security Council “calls for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction.”  It reiterates “its vision of a region where two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace within secure borders.”  The key to the resolution, and Secretary of State Kerry’s recent remarks, is the support for a two state solution, a idea to which Prime Minister Netanyahu has given lip service while supporting the building of more settlements and the goal of the settlement movement.  The two state solution has been United States policy since 1967.  Its reiteration by Secretary Kerry does not mean that President Obama is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.  How can anyone rationally accuse this administration of being anti-Semitic when it just signed a $38 billion dollar military aid agreement to Israel, the biggest amount ever given to an ally of the United States?

Well known Israeli writer Chemi Shalev wrote this week in Haaretz, “Resolution 2334 shatters the government induced illusion that the settlement project has been normalized, that is passed the point of no return, that it is now a fait accompli that will remain unchallenged…You can have your cake and eat it too, the government implied:  thumb your nose at Washington and the international community, build in the West Bank and still get $38 billion in unprecedented military aid.  The so called Formalization bill recently approved by the cabinet, which sought to legalize outposts that Israel had once vowed to uproot, was one bridge too far.  US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power singled it out as one of the catalyzers of the Security Council move.”[iii]

In 2008, I was part of a clergy group from Baltimore that met with the Palestinian Prime Minister in Ramallah for a two hour meeting.  We met with an impressive man, Salam Fayyad, a PhD in economics from the University of Texas who previously worked for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. before heading the Palestinian government.  I saw a burgeoning economy, an incredible amount of building, and a significant amount of cooperation and trust between Israeli security and the Palestinian police.  In fact, Israeli police and Palestinian police cooperate on a daily basis to apprehend terrorists with some success.  As we know too well, it is practically impossible to stop all terrorism, especially by lone wolves.  My point is that there is already a de facto Palestinian state with which Israel has good relations.  Building more settlements is an obstacle to future negotiations leading to a secure and peaceful future between Israel and Palestine.

The one state solution is demographically untenable.  There are 1.7 million Arabs already living within Israel.  There are another 2.8 million Arabs in the West Bank.  Let me do the math for you.  That adds up to 4.5 million Arabs in the one state compared to the current 6.3 million Jews.  Given the higher birthrate, in a couple of generations Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel.  Then Israel either becomes a kind of Middle Eastern version of 1960’s South Africa, an Apartheid state, or it ceases being a Jewish state and a state of the Jews.  Both outcomes ultimately lead to the end of a democratic and Jewish Israel and perhaps even the destruction of the state itself.

One’s position on the resolution, and Secretary Kerry’s remarks warning Israel that it cannot allow the status quo to continue, depend on our personal ideologies.  This, my friends, is what concerns me the most- we are in the midst of an internecine Jewish ideological civil war.  More and more American Jews are Orthodox religiously and conservative politically.  The Friedman nomination as ambassador has brought this rift to the surface.  The extreme wing of American Orthodoxy, including Friedman, Jared Kushner and so many others, will have a champion in the White House, or perhaps I should say Trump Tower, just three weeks from now.  President elect Trump has twitted that as of January 20, everything will change, inferring that the two state solution is dead.  Netanyahu, who supported Trump’s candidacy, is beaming from ear-to ear.  While he may continue to build settlements, even naming one of them Har Trump, this policy will only bring continued international condemnation and internal dissension.

Many years ago, around the time of the Lebanon War, I read a book by an Israeli general who coined the term “Masada complex.”  In brief, he said that Israel is a small state dependent on having strong allies such as the Unites States.  He wrote that Israel should not conduct itself in a way which alienates itself from its allies and boxes itself into a diplomat corner without a way of escape.  That’s exactly what the defenders of Masada did, those who hated the Romans so intensely that they allowed themselves no means of escape from the Roman assault, assuring that they would die either by their own hands or that of the Romans.  My fear is that Israel cannot continue to alienate most American Jews, the American government and its international allies by pursuing its current policy of building settlements which are an obstruction to eventual peace negotiations with the Palestinians.  Netanyahu’s government is boxing Israel into a corner.  I pray that it will not ascend a figurative Masada so that there will be an eventual peace between two democratic, secure and peaceful states in the Middle East, Israel and Palestine.

 

Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] J.J. Goldberg, The Forward, December 30, 2016, page18.

[ii] Judy Maltz, Haaretz, December 27, 2016.

[iii] Chemi Shalev, Haaretz, December 25, 2016.

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Chanukah Choral Shabbat, December 9, 2016

Comments for Chanukah Choral Shabbat

December 9, 2016

Shabbat shalom and welcome to our Chanukah Choral Shabbat service.  Our wonderful cantor and magnificent choir will sing five Chanukah songs for us, each from a different era and venue of Jewish history.  Before I briefly comment on each piece, allow me to share with you some thoughts about Chanukah.

Chanukah, which begins on December 24 this year, is our only historically based festival, reflecting the real events that occurred in Israel from 167-164 BCE when the Maccabees, a guerilla army of Traditionalist Jews, engaged in a civil war against fellow Jews and then a war for religious and political freedom against the Syrian Greeks or as they were better known, the Seleucid dynasty.

Alexander the Great began the conquest of Persia in 336 BCE.  He then went on to a bloodless conquest of Israel and Egypt a few years later.  After his death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided up among his generals.  Ptolemy took Israel and Egypt and Seleucus took what is today Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.  Our ancestors lived peacefully among the Egyptian Ptolemies who respected our traditional way of life.  In 198 BCE, the Seleucids defeated the Ptolemies and made Israel part of their empire.  The Seleucid emperor, desperately needing money to fight off the Romans in the West, the Persians in the East, and the Ptolemies to the Southwest, accepted huge bribes from leading Jewish families in Jerusalem for the office of the Kohan Gadol, the high priest of the Temple.  A succession of high priests outbid one another for the office. Jerusalem went from being an autonomous city-state to becoming a Greek polis.  How could Jerusalem become a Greek city and still remain Jewish?  They priests engaged in a process of religious syncretism, combining the worship of our one God with that of the Greek gods, saying in effect that Adonai was simply another name for Zeus.  In about 170 C.E., Antiochus conducted an unsuccessful campaign in Egypt and on his way back to Syria, plundered the Temple, tore down the city walls and established a garrison there.  He ordered the Temple rededicated to the sole worship of Zeus and outlawed the practice of Judaism.  It is here where we enter unclear territory.  We know that Antiochus abrogated the Torah as the constitution of the Jewish people, forbidding the practice and study of Judaism.  We do not know exactly why he did this.  Some scholars maintain that he did so at the request of Jewish reformers, who wanted to turn Judaism into a Hellenistic cult.  We do know that many Jews embraced Greek culture and the entire Greek way of life.  The Maccabees, the followers of the priest Mattatias of Modin, led a rebellion against the Hellenizers and the Seleucid enforcers.  They first killed the Jews who cooperated with the Seleucids and then fought the Seleucids themselves.  After a bitter three year struggle, in which Jewish rebels took on the greatest army in the world, the Maccabees recaptured the Temple and rededicated it to the worship of Adonai.  They declared that we would observe an eight day festival in commemoration of this great victory.  Hence, we have the origin of Chanukah, which means “dedication.”

Chanukah is still one of my favorite holidays.  We cannot help but look back at history through a contemporary lens.  On what side would we have fought had we lived 2,150 years ago?  Would we have fought with the Maccabees or have stood with the Jewish Hellenizers?  Obviously, our ancestors sided with the Maccabees.  If they did not, our genetic line would have been extinguished.  Despite my hesitations, Chanukah is a glorious celebration of a great victory of the few against the many, the weak against the strong, the Jew against the pagan.  It is the most widely celebrated festival in the Jewish world.  Music is an important part of that observance.

Our choir will first sing “Kemach Min Hasak,” meaning “Oil from the sack,” a recipe for the making of sweet pancakes for Chanukah.  This comes from the Ashkenazic tradition of Eastern Europe.  (Song)

Next we have “Hazeremos un Merenda,” meaning “We shall make a meal” in Ladino.  This is a Sephardic children’s melody from Adrianopol in Turkey for the making of burmeuelos, a pancake of dough fried in oil, exactly the same dessert from the earlier song.  (Song)

Our choir will sing, “A Chanukah Prayer for Children,” by Ryan Brechmacher which was published just three years ago.  I know you will like it. (Song)

Our fourth composition is “Ocho Kandelikas” which is “Eight Little Candles” in Ladino.  This is one of our favorites.

The last piece for this evening is Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluya,” performed in memory of the late, great Leonard Cohen, who died just a month ago, on November 7 at the age of eighty two in Los Angeles.  He originally wrote “Halleluya” in 1984 and performed it a year later.  It achieved lasting popular after being featured in the film “Shrek” in 2001.  It has been performed manifold times in over three hundred different versions.  This is certainly a fitting way to end tonight’s program.

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Remarks for Rabbi Scott Nagel’s Installation, November 11, 2016

Remarks for Rabbi Scott Nagel’s Installation

Beth Ahabah, Richmond, Virginia

November 11, 2016

Zeh Hayom Asa Adonai, Nagila v’Nismicha Vo– This is the day that God has made.  Come and let us rejoice in it!” (Psalm 118:24).  What a great honor it is for me to address this great and historic congregation at this auspicious moment in its history.  I thank Rabbi Nagel, my student, teacher, colleague, and dearest friend, for inviting me to briefly share his pulpit.  I am very glad to see Rabbi Emeritus Beifield, whom I have known for almost four decades.  I knew his parents well as I served as their new assistant rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, the congregation in which Rabbi Beifield was raised.   I also send my regards to my former congregants and friends, Babs and Larry Jackson, whom I have known for about thirty years, before they moved to Richmond.  I hope you are here tonight.

The first time I met Rabbi Scott Nagel was when I interviewed him in New York to be assistant rabbi and director of youth education at Temple Oheb Shalom, the oldest and largest synagogue in Baltimore.  It was love at first sight!  Next to my wife Sally, over the next twelve years I spent more time with him and was closer to him than anyone else.  We have a bromance!  I taught him and learned from him.  We ate more meals together than we did with our children.  My refrigerator is his refrigerator.  My medicine cabinet is his medicine cabinet.  If we could share each other’s clothes, we’d do that, too.

Truly, daily life is not the same without him.  When he left the pulpit and returned to his seat, I would pat his knee, to let him know he did well.  He came to expect it as a sign of friendship.  Our families would join together each year for break fast on Yom Kippur.  Our custom was to begin the meal with a l’chayim from a new single malt Scotch.  Randi was always the designated driver that night. Our families supported each other through the vicissitudes of life.  Whether it was illness, death, birth, birthdays, or weddings, for twelve years Sally and I were part of the Nagel’s life as they were part of ours.  Separating and leaving one another was very hard.  It was time, though, for Rabbi Nagel to have his own congregation.  He is a star among the rabbinate, one of the finest young Reform rabbis in the nation.  Beth Ahabah made an excellent choice in bringing Rabbi Scott Nagel and his wonderful family to Richmond to be their rabbi.  Your sister congregation, Temple Oheb Shalom, congratulates you on your wise decision.

Since Rabbi Nagel is still a relatively new senior rabbi, and he cannot rummage through my desk to get what he needs, Sally and I thought we should bring him a “Senior Rabbi’s Survival Kit.”  He will certainly need to use these items over the course of a year.

  • Sagamore Rye, from a new distillery in Baltimore, for those special times with your friends and colleagues.
  • York Peppermint Patties with their own candy dish. Everyone who visits your office likes this low fat treat.
  • Tylenol for those inevitable headaches from long meetings and muscle strains from lifting the Torah.
  • A box of tissues. Many tears will be shed in your study.
  • A handkerchief to wipe away tears when you are not in the office.
  • Purell- because you should spread happiness, not bacteria.
  • Mouthwash- because you want your breath, as well as your words, to be sweet.
  • Energy bars- because you will sometimes need that burst of energy to serve your congregants.
  • Last but certainly not least- Rainbow Cake to remind you of how much we love you in Baltimore.

Written in Hebrew letters on our ordination parchment from the Hebrew Union College are the words “Yoreh, yoreh; yadin, yadin.”  This means that “he shall teach and he shall judge.”  We accept without hesitation a rabbi’s responsibility to teach.  His sacred task is to help us understand the eternal message of the Torah.  We often forget, however, that an important part of a rabbi’s responsibility is to judge.  His task is to push us to become more righteous human beings.  His obligation is to encourage his congregation to take sometimes unpopular and controversial stands.  The rabbinic role does not always make him popular but it does make him a better rabbi.  The founder of the 19th century Musar movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter, once wrote, “A rabbi with whom no one disagrees is not a rabbi; a rabbi with whom everyone disagrees is not a mensch.”  Part of Rabbi Nagel’s mandated responsibility is to make his congregation uncomfortable with the status quo.  He will challenge you and will urge you to get personally involved in making Beth Ahabah a more inclusive and loving community.  He will ask you to look at new initiatives and to adopt innovative practices.  He will continue your involvement in the life of Richmond and the nation advocating, in the words of the prophets, that you engage in the sacred work of Tikun Olam, repairing our broken world.  It has been said that a “rabbi’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  Some of you will, on occasion, disagree with Rabbi Nagel’s position on an issue.  If so, make an appointment to sit down with him privately and talk with him about how you feel.  I promise that he will carefully listen to your concerns because he is a mensch.  You have the right to respectfully disagree and argue with him.  He does not have the right to allow you, his congregants, to remain complacent, satisfied with the status quo.

Rabbi Nagel, like all rabbis, is first and foremost a symbolic exemplar, a living example of the values of Judaism.  He must always strive to be a paradigm of his commitments and convictions.  My first senior rabbi, and Rabbi Beifield’s childhood rabbi, was Rabbi Dr. Bertram W. Korn.  Dr. Korn was a distinguished congregational rabbi, historian of the American Jewish experience, and the first rabbi to become an admiral in the United States Navy.  In his ordination address to new rabbis in 1968, he said, “In the rabbinate, the man and his message must coalesce…the rabbi cannot hide behind any theological rationalizations.  He must attempt to live by his message.  The man must strive to bring his life into consonance with his teachings. And his congregants have the right to expect this.  He knows, and they must realize, too, that like all other men he has his faults and his imperfections; that he will make mistakes all his life long and, just because he is a rabbi, his failures and defeats will be all the more conspicuous because they are public ones.  He knows, and his people must realize too, that he is heir to the same temptations and dangers as all other members of his generation…but unlike other men, he may never take refuge in the distinction between the personal and the professional;  he may never justify himself by assigning one action to the rabbi and another to the man.  This is the price the rabbi pays for being a teacher of Judaism.  People will listen more attentively to his actions than his words.  He must strive to be the most authentic illustration for his preaching of which is capable.”  I have no doubt that Rabbi Nagel is, and will be, the most authentic spokesman for Torah in his generation.

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, God tells Avram to leave his native land and his father’s house and go to the land that God will show him.  Just like Abraham, Rabbi Nagel has left the places to which he was accustomed and comfortable to come to Richmond and serve as the rabbi of Beth Ahabah.  Later on, God appears to Avram and tells him, “Fear not, I am shield to you; your reward shall be very great.” Rabbi Nagel will be a living example of Judaism to the people of Richmond.  God will certainly strengthen him in his resolve and hold him up when he is in need.  His reward will not be expressed in material things but in the great satisfaction of knowing that he has helped create new generations of Jews and has given this kehilah kedosha, this sacred congregation, the best he has to offer.  I know that many decades from now people will say of him, “Now that was a great rabbi.”

May God bless Rabbi Scott Nagel, Rabbi Randi Nagel, Daniel, Lev and Ari.  May God’s blessing accrue to this great and historic congregation as you and your new rabbi strive together to create community, serve God and the Jewish people, and bring the timeless message of Torah to this venerable city.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, October 14, 2016

The Journey

After the family dinners of Rosh Hashana and the somber seriousness of Yom Kippur, our emphasis is on the joyous celebration of the fall harvest and reveling in the togetherness of family and community.  In the Torah, Sukkot was the festival par excellence, called “HeChag,” “The Festival.”  It was, for our ancestors, the conclusion of the High Holyday season.  We believed that just as God proclaims judgement upon the individual on Yom Kippur, so does God judge the righteousness of the community through the bounty of the gathered harvest.  If the harvest was good, the community would not suffer through the winter and spring.  If the community was sinful, it would be a long, cold and hungry winter.  Sukkot is still the festival of Thanksgiving, when we offer our gratitude to God for the bounty of the land and the opportunity to live through another season.

As the rabbis connected Pesach to the Exodus and Shavuot to the giving of Torah on Sinai, so did they connect Sukkot to the wandering in the Wilderness, the forty year journey in which our ancestors built Sukkot in which to live.  Where Pesach is about freedom and Shavuot is about responsibility, Sukkot is about the journey, the re-enactment of the Exodus journey to be specific.  As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote, “Passover celebrates a brave departure through a festive meal.  Sukkot marks the hasty lunches and the endless wandering in the dessert. Sukkot expresses the deeper Exodus- the reflective, gritty days of marching during which a new generation grew up.  Freedom came as the end result of pitching tents (Sukkot) and taking them down over the course of 14,600 days.  Sukkot honors the forty-three thousand meals prepared on the desert trek, the cleanups, the washing of utensils.  Passover celebrates a moment of pure triumph.  Sukkot celebrates a seemingly endless forty-year journey.  Passover is the holiday of faith; Sukkot is the holiday of faithfulness.”[i]

Thinking about Sukkot makes me think back to my children’s early years.  From their first day in kindergarten through sixth grade, it was my job to pack their lunches.  This task ended when they were in seventh grade and could buy lunch in the school cafeteria.  By then, I was more than willing to give each of them a few dollars to buy their lunch rather than have to make it for them.  Sally and I calculated that during those years, from 1986 through 1998, I made approximately 21,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!  When I was making those sandwiches, putting in the chips, the cookies, writing the personalized notes on their napkins and their names on the paper bags, I found the daily task to be onerous.  At the time I thought, “I just want to sit with my cup of coffee and read the paper. I don’t want to be bothered with this.”  Now, twenty years later, how I miss those mornings when we would all have breakfast together and I had the opportunity to walk with them or drive them and their friends to school.  What a precious gift it was to share the time with them, to hear their chatter, and to participate in their growing up.  The problems they had in those days loomed so large in their eyes.  How they yearn today for that absence of responsibility and the ability to take an occasional day off from school just to spend their day with Mommy and Abba.  In retrospect, I miss those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so much!  In retrospect, the journey was so sweet and precious.

On Erev Rosh Hashana, we read my favorite poem, “A Sacred Pilgrimage,” written by Rabbi Alvin Fine.  Allow me to share it with you once again.  It speaks to us of the journey we make during our lives.  It is the poetic equivalent of Sukkot which, once again, reminds us of the long and arduous journey in the Wilderness.  As “Sukkot celebrates the way of liberation- the march across a barren desert to freedom and the Promised Land,”[ii] so does this poem remind us of the journey we take from birth to life everlasting.

Birth is a beginning and death a destination.

But life is a journey; from childhood to maturity and youth to age:

From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;

From foolishness to discretion and then perhaps to wisdom;

From weakness to strength or strength to weakness- and often back         again.

From health to sickness and back, we pray, to health again;

From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,

From joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion, and grief to understanding-

From defeat to defeat to defeat- until looking backward or ahead,

We see that victory lies not as some high place along the way,

But in having made the journey, stage by stage,

A sacred pilgrimage.

Birth is a beginning and death a destination.  But life is a journey,

A sacred pilgrimage- made stage by stage- from birth to death

To life everlasting.

[i] Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way, page 97.

[ii] Ibid, page 96.

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Sermon for Yom Kippur Yizkor Service 5777, October 12, 2016

 

We gather here today as a congregation of mourners, every one of us having experienced the death of a loved one.  No matter how long and well they might have lived, their deaths leave us with an emotional void.  We often struggle as we try to fill the emptiness left behind.  We say Kaddish for them, we name children and grandchildren after them, and we cry.  Sometimes, if we are fortunate enough, we are able to endow something of significance in their name, so that their legacy may live on through the good deeds done for others.  This past summer (June 23, 2016), I saw a small article on the business page of the Baltimore Sun listing four cancer centers that have gone into partnership with a biopharmaceutical company to accelerate research into new, life saving cancer therapies.  Listen to the names of these cancer centers:  The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Abramson Center at the University of Pennsylvania, The Herbert Irving Center at Columbia University Medical Center and the Tisch Cancer Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt Sinai in New York.  Do you notice anything the donors have in common?  If not, let me tell you- they are all Jews!  In addition, add the names of local donors not on this list, such as the Greenebaums, Blausteins, Weinbergs, Stolers…I can go on and on.  What is it with Jews and medicine?  Why do we invest so many of our charitable dollars seeking life-saving and life prolonging treatments?  Allow me to share my thoughts with you.

Pikuach Nefesh, the saving of a life, has always been the greatest of mitzvot.  After all, said the rabbis (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5), “One who saves a single life saves an entire world.”  This is one of the reasons why so many Jews have gravitated towards the healing arts.  If we cannot save a life, we can enhance the quality and quantity of that life.  Of course, medicine was one of the few professions open to us in the Middle Ages.  We often had our property and possessions seized and were forced to wander from place to place.  No one, however, could take away the knowledge we had obtained.  Even though they despised us, Christian rulers valued our ability to heal.  When Jewish students were denied places in American medical schools because of quotas and Jewish patients found kosher food unavailable, the Jewish community built our own hospitals, hence Baltimore has Sinai Hospital, Philadelphia Einstein Hospital, New York Mt.Sinai, and Los Angeles Cedars-Sinai.  I think, though, that there is more to it than this.

I will now make what you may consider to be an outrageous statement but one I consider to be valid- we Jews want to defeat death!  At least, we pray three times daily that someday God will conquer death.  In the second paragraph of the T’filah we say, Baruch Ata Adonai, M’chayei HaMeitim, Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who brings life to the dead. In 1951, in his seminal work, Judaism and the Modern Man, Will Herberg wrote, “the whole point of the doctrine of resurrection is that the life we live now, the life of the body, the life of empirical existence in society, has some permanent worth in the eyes of God and will not vanish in the transmutation of things at the last day.”[i]  Even Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, z’l, the great Reform theologian, expressed his faith in resurrection of the dead when he wrote, “I am inclined to think that my hope is better spoken of as resurrection than immortality for I do not know myself as a soul without a body but only as a psychosomatic self.”[ii]  More and more Jewish thinkers “reaffirm the doctrine of resurrection because it alone testifies to God’s ultimate power; because it alone ascribes value to our embodied existence and because it alone makes it possible to preserve our individuality after death.”[iii]

We believe that we are partners with God, as were our beloved dead before us, in the sacred task of bringing order to the chaos of the Universe.  Creation is not yet complete. We serve as coworkers with God in the ongoing task of healing the sick, clothing the naked and bringing comfort to the widow and orphan.  Someday, through the work of these cancer centers, researchers and healers throughout the world will defeat cancer and save millions of lives.  Someday, and only God knows when, death itself will be defeated and we will be rejoined with those whom we have loved and lost.  Until that day, when God is sovereign over all humanity, we pray in the words of the Aleinu:  We hope in You, Adonai our God, may we soon behold the glory of Your might; sweeping away the false gods of the earth that idolatry be utterly destroyed, perfecting the world under the rule of God that all humanity invoke Your name.”

 

Kein y’hi ratson– may it be Your will

 

And let us say: Amen

 

 

[i] Gillman, The Death of Death, page 224.

[ii] Page 233.

[iii] Page 244

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Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5777, October 12, 2016

 

It is so good to be with you once again as we observe our eighteenth Yom Kippur together.   As I look out among you I see new friends and old, a community in the making, one in which we care for and are supportive of one another.  Sally and I have shared so much with you over the years.  Sad and joyous times blend together in the course of life.  As we look back, the years become a blur.  Talking about looking back, you will be interested to know that both Sally and I had our DNA tested this summer to discover our ethnic makeup.  Why did we do it now?  The truth is that Ancestry.com had a 20% off sale so we decided to take advantage of it.

You will be glad to know that both your rabbi and his wife are Jewish, 95% European Jewish to be specific.  The designation “European Jewish” means that our ancestors came from Germany in the west to Russia in the east, Lithuania to the north and Greece to the south. That is not surprising since that was the heartland of Jewish life until the Shoah.  Sally and I also know the names of the towns from which our grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated to America. They are all in what is today Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine. What about, you ask, the other 5% of our genetic composition?  Well, I am 1% Irish, 1% Italian, 1% Greek and 2% East Asian.  We know that several Jewish families sailed from Israel to Italy in the eight century and made their homes there.  Their descendants moved north and settled the Rhineland in France and Germany and then eventually moved eastwards.  It is not surprising that there was some intermarriage along the way.  What about our East Asian genetic component?  Isn’t that curious?  The Jewish journey is reflected in our genes.  One of the most terrible times in Jewish history occurred in mid-17th century Poland when the Ukrainian Cossacks, joined by the Crimean Tatars (descendants of the Mongol Horde) rebelled against their Polish overlords.  Our ancestors were the most vulnerable, as we often managed estates in the Ukraine on behalf of the Polish nobility and settled in small towns throughout the area.   Hundreds of thousands of Jews were brutally murdered and thousands of others were sold into slavery.  I do not need to spell out what happened to the Jewish women captured by the Tatars.  The Jewish communities of Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire paid ransom for the captives but not before Mongolian genes became part and parcel of our gene pool.  If you ever see a Jew with high cheekbones and narrow eyes, you can surmise where his or her ancestors came from.  Before I go on, allow me to add a bit of levity to this sermon.

“Opening the front door, the rabbi found himself face to face with the local priest.  He said, “Rabbi, may I have a few words with you?”  “Of course, Father,” the rabbi replied.  “Rabbi,” began the priest, “It must be evident to you that this town is plagued by thieves.  Scarcely a day passes without one of my flock bemoaning to me that his house has been broken into.  On the other hand, I have noticed that thieves do not bother you Jews very much.”  “That’s true, Father,” said the rabbi. “Why is that?” asked the priest.  The rabbi pointed to the doorpost and said, “Do you see this little box right here?  It’s called a mezuzah.  We Jews believe that when we put a mezuzah on the entrances to our houses God will protect us and our property.”  “In that case,” said the priest, “I must have one!”  Not wanting to cause hard feelings, the rabbi handed him a mezuzah.

Two weeks later, the rabbi was awakened by pounding on his front door.  “Open the door! Open the door!” shouted the priest.  The rabbi opened the door and saw that the priest was quite distraught.  “What happened?  Was the rectory robbed?”  The priest screamed back in return, “Of course not!  But these people were worse than robbers!”  “Who were they?” asked the rabbi.  “Fundraisers!” screamed the priest.

There is more to our genetic makeup than eye color and height.  From time immemorial, we Jews have been philanthropic.  Giving tsedakah is simply part have of who we are as Jewish human beings.  Fundraisers for every imaginable cause target us because of our generosity.  Just take a moment and think of the great institutions in Baltimore.  So many of them are named for the Jewish families which bequeathed them.  Of course, you cannot go to any Jewish community in the world without seeing the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg name affixed to a building.  You can only imagine our surprise the first time we visited the synagogue in Havana and noticed that it was donated by the Weinberg Foundation in 1958!  Giving to others and helping the less fortunate is, indeed, part of our Jewish genes.  We all know so many Jews, most of whom are not here this morning, who are good people and who work for a better world.  It upsets me to meet these Jews who are so concerned with helping the poor and oppressed, here and around the world, and “who see no connection between that universal interest and their Jewish roots.  While never denying their Jewish ancestry, they find it difficult to articulate their Jewish identity…It is as if they hear the question of their Jewishness framed as a hard disjunctive: ‘Are you a Jew or a human being? Is your loyalty to your people or to humanity?”[i]

I have had the privilege of meeting the Russian Jewish Refusenik Natan Sharansky many times.  Since he arrived in Israel decades ago, he has been a minister in Israeli governments and is now the leader of the Jewish Agency.  Sharansky “Understood the moral interdependence between Jewish particularism and Jewish universalism.  While active on behalf of Jewish immigration, Sharansky struggled as well for the rights of Pentecostals, Catholics, Ukrainians, Crimeans, and Tatars.  In the gulag of the Soviet Union, he came to realize that ‘Only he who understands his own identity and already has become a free person can work effectively for the rights of others.’  In retrospect, he observed that helping other persecuted people became part of his own freedom only after he had returned to his Jewish roots.”[ii]  “Like charity, compassion begins at home, but does not end there.

The Torah portions for Rosh Hashanah and the Haftarah for Yom Kippur Afternoon reflect the rabbis’ concerns for non-Jewish human beings.  On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God tells Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael, the progenitors of Islam, and that God will protect them and make of them a great nation.  This afternoon we will read from the Book of Jonah, whom God sent to tell the people of Nineveh to repent. The people of Nineveh heed his call and God renounces their destruction.  “God’s compassion is not restricted to one people.  The Jewish tradition, properly understood, will not allow God to be segregated.”[iii]  As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I live only for myself, of what good am I?”

Last March, I had the privilege of being one of nine clergy on a mission to Rome led by Baltimore’s Archbishop Lori.  I was the only rabbi in the group.  We were presented to Pope Francis following the public service in St. Peter’s Square. Each of us presented gifts to Pope Francis as we were introduced to him.  I think I presented him with the delegation’s best gifts.  I gave Pope Francis Berger cookies, Old Bay seasoning, my mother’s recently baked chocolate chip cookies and a copy of this new Machzor.  (Just an aside- when I called my mother upon returning, the first thing she wanted to know about the trip was if the Pope liked her cookies!)  I felt weighted down that day by the burden of being the sole representative of the Jewish people.  But I stood tall, at least as tall as I can, and was able to stand before Pope Francis with some integrity.  I have devoted my life to the service of the Jewish people.  I am also committed to building bridges between all the various faith communities in Baltimore.  One is an extension of the other; there is no contradiction between the two.

I greatly respect Terrill Williams who is an organizer with BUILD in East Baltimore.  He is a forceful advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.  Until recently, Terrill viewed religion as being a divisive force. Then he started attending a year long conversation between Jews, Christians, and Muslims at the ICJS, the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, one of our city’s treasures.  He recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “In the Jewish Tradition, love forces us to cross boundaries and get to know the other, ultimately taking us to the highest form of love, love of the stranger.”  He goes on to say that “God and social justice, religion and religious practice can be traced and discovered in each of our sacred texts and in each of our lives.”

Working on behalf of social justice is as much a part of our Jewish DNA as is our love for chicken soup and craving for Mandelbrot. I have not yet mentioned that which is at the core of our Jewish DNA, the concept of chosenness.  Chosenness is not something we speak of openly.  We certainly do not flaunt it.  On the eighth day of a boy’s birth, we perform a brit milah, the covenant of circumcision, which brings the boy into the covenant with God which is the cornerstone of our Jewish lives.  There is no Jewish people or Judaism without the concept of chosenness.  For some, our survival over these millennia is proof of our chosenness.  For others, it is the rebirth of the State of Israel.  For the ultra-Orthodox, it is the ability to recreate their shtetl way of life.  No one explained it better than Baltimore born and raised Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg who said, “The chosenness of the Jews is a mystery.  Only God knows the purpose of setting apart an obscure tribe to suffer and to achieve more than could be expected from so small a band on so stormy a journey.  All that we Jews can know about ourselves is that after every tragedy we have always made new beginnings…There is no quiet life for Jews anywhere, at least not for long.  The only question is whether one lives among the tempests with purpose and dignity.  We Jews know why we suffer.  Society resents anyone who challenges its fundamental beliefs, behavior and prejudices…the claim to chosenness guarantees that Jews will live unquiet lives.  I say it is far better to be the chosen people, the goad and the irritant to much of humanity, than to live timidly and fearfully.  We cannot hide from the task of making the world more just and decent.”[iv]

Whether we believe God chose us or that we choose God, our holy task as Jews is to interact with the world and to make it better than we left it.  This, too, is part of our Jewish DNA.  My friends, members of our dear Oheb Shalom family, today we have the sacred opportunity to re-orient our lives and make ourselves better, more Godly, human beings.  Let us today embrace all the strands of our Jewish DNA.  Let us study, argue, eat, reflect, and work for the good of the Jewish people.  Let us also advocate for and struggle on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.  That, too, is part of our Jewish DNA.

In this New Year of 5777, may God move you and yours to work for the benefit of the Jewish people and the good of all humanity.

Amen

[i] Rabbi Harold Schulweis, “Judaism is the Particular Language through which Jews address humanity.”

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Mishkan Hanefesh for Yom Kippur, page 231.

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