Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5778, January 12, 2018

The God of the Exodus

January 12, 2018

         I spent an hour and a half this week watching a documentary made by an American film maker who investigated the truth of the Exodus.  He interviewed several Egyptologists and Biblical scholars who attempt to verify that the Jewish people’s Exodus from Egypt is literally true, that it happened much as described in the Torah.  Of course, the film maker began with a certain predisposition.  He is a believing Christian whose faith depends on the factual basis of the Exodus and consequently, the Jesus story.  The documentary makes quite clear that these scholars’ viewpoint is not shared by the great majority of serious Egyptologists, historians, and archaeologists.  There is no extra-Biblical evidence for the historicity of the Exodus as told in the Torah.  Of course, we do know from the Merneptah stele, a Pharaoh who lived from 1213-1203 BCE, that Israel existed as a distinct entity, for Merneptah claimed to have destroyed us during a campaign in Canaan.  That is the first extra-Biblical mention of the Jewish people and says nothing about the Exodus experience.

         I think that searching for the reality of the Exodus is like searching for the real Noah’s ark.  While there is certainly a historical kernel of truth to both stories, the historicity or lack thereof, is not the reason why we read and value them.  We treasure them precisely because they are stories that contain many truths, truths with a capital “T” about our lives and our relationship with God.  Allow me to explain.

         The Exodus is the foundational story of the Jewish people.  God freed us from Egypt and brought us to the promised land of Israel.  In this week’s parashah, Va’era (Exodus 6:2-3), God introduces Himself to Moses.  God says, “I am YHVH.  I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as El Shaddai but I did not make Myself known to them by the name YHVH.  Last week, we learned that God’s name, YHVH, is a verb of being.  God told Moses that His name was “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” translated as “I will be that which I will be.”  God is a constant process of becoming, a name which connotes possibility and potential.  Two verses later, God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites in His name, saying:  I am the Lord.  I will take you out (vehotzeti) from under the burdens of Egypt and I will rescue your (vehitzalti) from their bondage.  I will redeem you (vehigalti)…and I will take you(velakachti) to be My people and I will be your God.  God outlines here the four stages of liberation which we note during our Pesach Seder with four cups of wine.  How can we understand these stages of liberation?  “To be taken out could refer to physically being removed-or removing oneself- from an oppressive situation.  To be delivered may refer to a personal process of dealing with internalized oppression.  We need to not only physically remove ourselves from the oppressive situation but to remove the internal obstacles that keep us enslaved.  Liberation, however, cannot remain on the level of the individual.  Even if we are successful in achieving personal freedom, whether physical or psychological, the oppressive situation remains.  Redemption then refers to a larger process of working with others to address the cause of oppression and to uproot the factors that constitute degradation…And I will take you to be my people points towards the ultimate goal of our personal and communal freedom”[i]– to serve God in the continuous process of the liberation of humanity and the ongoing process of perfecting creation.  It is not enough to free ourselves.   We are part and parcel of the ongoing drive towards the Messianic age.

         The text, however, does not end with the four promises of liberation.  There is a fifth promise (Exodus 6:6-8), when God says “I will bring you (veheveiti) into the land.  What I find to be quite interesting is that this fifth promise is not included in the Passover Haggadah.  It is as if God did not say this to us in the Book of Exodus.  So, the question is why did the sages who compiled the Haggadah leave this out of the Seder?  What were they trying to tell us?

         I think the rabbis of the late first and second centuries where telling us that the journey, the Exodus itself, is just as important as the destination, the land of Israel. They are telling us “that the journey is intrinsically holy.  Think for a moment about Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, Shavuot, commemorates the revelation at Mt. Sinai and Sukkot.  Sukkot does not commemorate any life shattering events.  It merely remembers and re-enacts the long journey of the Israelites through the wilderness.  Of all these three festivals, which is the most joyous?  Sukkot is the only one called “Zeman Simchateinu,” the time of our rejoicing.  The happiest days in Judaism are the days devoted to remembering and re-experiencing the journey.”[ii]  So this is an important Truth we learn from text- that the journey is just as important as its end.

         Our Jewish identity does not depend on the historicity of the Exodus.  While certainly there is a kernel of truth to the story, for us that is not the ultimate point.  The story teaches that God works in and through history and in and through us to bring redemption to humanity.  We also learn that the journey, which is sometimes painful and now and again joyous, is just as important as the destination.

         Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Rabbi Tova Spitzer, Ten Minutes of Torah, January 20, 2004.

[ii] Mechon Hadar, Parashat Hashavuah, 2016.

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5778, December 29, 2017

Epitaph for 2017

December 29, 2017

By any standard, this has been a tumultuous year.  There are many reasons for this, one quite obvious which will go unmentioned tonight.  My sermon this Erev Shabbat will not deal with the pressing issues which are on all our minds, but rather will take a cue from this week’s Torah portion, V’yechi, the last Torah reading in the Book of Genesis.  Our patriarch Yaakov, before he dies, looks back on the lives of his sons and predicts their futures.  Of course, this is a retrojection from much later history in which their future has already determined.  For example, his two sons, Shimon and Levi, are condemned for murdering all the men of Shechem.  Their father predicts an ill future for the tribes of Shimon and Levi, saying (Genesis 49:7) “I will disperse them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel.”  The tribe of Judah, on the other hand, will rule. “The staff shall not depart from Judah, nor the scepter from between his legs.”  Yaakov’s predictions came true because they were written after the fact.

So, in keeping with the theme of the Torah reading, I will do a retrospective of three prominent Jews who died in 2017.  They all come from Eastern European Jewish backgrounds and are first or second-generation Americans. They each started with very little and became successful and influential people. You may not have known two of them, but they were each quite significant in their societal spheres.  I begin with Vera Katz, a three-term mayor of Portland, Oregon, and, prior to that, the first female speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives.  It was under her leadership that Portland became the “hip” and “cool” city that it is today.

Her parents fled the Soviet Union for Germany which they escaped as the Nazis seized power in 1933.  They found refuge in Paris and then, when she was just seven years old, the family ran from the advancing Germans and crossed the Pyrenees on foot into Spain.  She sailed to the United States as an impoverished immigrant and grew up as a refugee in New York City.  She went to Brooklyn College and earned a Master’s degree in Urban Planning.  She and her husband decided to move to Portland in 1964.  She volunteered for Senator Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign which initiated her into political life.  Five years later, she ran for the state legislature and advanced to the role of Speaker of the House, a job she kept for three terms.  She then served as Portland’s mayor from 1993-2005, “a critical period for a city that was on the cusp of evolution.”[i]  A political visionary, she espoused gay rights, championed education, the arts, gun control, and the rights of labor.  Her background in urban planning helped her to envision the transformation of Portland’s Pearl District and Willamette River waterfront.  She also oversaw construction of an intricate Chinese garden in the heart of the city’s old town which is an international tourist attraction.  She did all of this while battling breast cancer and then uterine cancer.  At the beginning of this month, she was diagnosed with acute Leukemia, which took her life within two weeks.  In 2004, Mayor Katz asked to be remembered with the following quote from George Bernard Shaw: “My life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can.  I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.  I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me.  It is a splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.”

Rabbi Neil Gillman died just five weeks ago.  He was one of the great teachers and theologians of the late twentieth and twenty first centuries.  A Conservative rabbi, he was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical seminary, for forty-six years and dean of its rabbinical school for ten years.  He had a profound impact upon two generations of rabbis and Jews of all denominations.  A student of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, he urged us to “rediscover that innocent sense of awe and wonder of God”[ii] and to have a personal relationship with God.  Rabbi Gillman helped convey religious meaning to his students, which included all of us.  His award-winning books, “Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew” and the “Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought,” had an immense influence on modern Jewish thought.  He was known as a kind man, a gentle teacher who argued for the ordination of women as well as gays and lesbians.  It seemed he always had a smile on his face.

Rabbi Gillman was born in 1933 in Quebec City to an immigrant family.  He later said his Jewish neshamah came from his grandmother.  He attended McGill University and then the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was taught by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel.  He earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Columbia University and began his teaching career at JTS.  He was a Conservative rabbi whose influence was trans-denominational.  He wrote, “This is the ultimate meaning of the Talmudic doctrine that, at the end of days, God will bring my body and my soul together again and that I will be reconstituted as I was during my life on earth…it is this concrete individuality, as manifest during my lifetime, that God treasures and that God will therefore preserve for all time.”[iii]  Rabbi Gillman believed that God is the Mechayei Hatim, the Resurrector of the Dead.  Along with Rabbi Gillman, I believe in that promise as well.

The third prominent Jew is Don Rickles, who died at the age of 90, in April of this year.  Don Rickles built a career as an equal opportunity insulter.  He insulted everyone, from Frank Sinatra to mob bosses to Johnny Carson to every living president.  Nicknamed, “Mr. Warmth,” he was the master of the comic insult.  Never working from a script, he voraciously attacked members of his audience.  “One night, on learning that some members of his audience were German, he said, “Forty million Jews in this country and I got four Nazis sitting here in front waiting for the rally to start.”  He said “that America needed Italians to keep the cops busy, blacks so that we can have cotton in drugstores and that Asians are nice people but they burn a lot of shirts.”[iv]  Jews were not immune from his attacks nor were members of his family.  He said his wife “likes to lie in bed, signaling ships with her jewelry.”  He referred to his mother, Etta, as “the Jewish Patton.”  Despite his aggressive demeanor, Don Rickles was in truth a warm and kind man.

He was born in Queens in 1926.  His father, Max, sold insurance.  His mother was his biggest supporter.  He married Barbara Sklar when he was almost forty and then bought his mother the apartment next door.  The two women had faith that he would someday make it big.

He served in the Navy during WW II where he honed his comedic skills.  He was the class clown of the ship. After the war, he tried selling insurance but decided to go into acting, using the GI Bill to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  He had a tough time getting acting roles so decided to do stand up comedy.  He had parts in such films as “Run Silent, Run Deep” as well as the “Beach Blanket” movies with Annette Funicello.  He did those because his agent was married to the former mouseketeer. His appearances insulting celebrities on the Dean Martin roasts and his sparring with Johnny Carson made him a celebrity.  He went on to do lots of television, several movies, including Casino with Robert de Niro and Toy Story as the voice of Mr. Potato Head.  His best work was stand up comedy which he was still doing seventy-five nights a year into his eighties.

His rabbi, David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, wrote in his eulogy (April 7, 2017) “On meeting the most famous insulter in the world, one was struck by his essential sweetness.  He got away with the jocular savagery because you knew- you really knew- that deep down he was kind and intended no harm.  So, the cannon blasts- and his sheer relentlessness- came as a shock, and once the laughter started, there was not stopping…Rickles grew up in a Jewish home that was not particularly pious but was deeply Jewish.  Yiddish was his mother tongue and he knew the synagogue service very well.  During the hakafah, when we came around with the Torah, I could count on some variation of the following: “Keep it short Rabbi- just keep it short.”  “Cut the sermon. I don’t want to be here anyway.”  “Don’t give us a long shpiel, ok?  I’m due at the track.” …To call Don Rickles politically incorrect is intellectually incorrect.  He was in a certain way the epitome of political correctness.  He did not discriminate, everyone was fair game.  The only people he would not insult were the vulnerable, those who would be wounded by his words.  Rickles’ humor was the great leveler, whether you were a president or Frank Sinatra. As David ben Morechai is laid to rest, the world has not only lost someone who made us laugh; it will have lost someone who saw people the way we aspire to be seen:  flawed but resilient, and all, ultimately, the same.”

May Vera Katz, Rabbi Neil Gillman and Don Rickles rest in peace and let us say-


[i] Newsday,12/11/17

[ii] NY Times, 11/28/17

[iii] Gillman, The Death of Death, page 271.

[iv] NY Times, 4/6/17

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5778, December 22, 2017

Are Toaster Ovens Jewish?

December 22, 2017

Sally and I recently purchased a toaster to replace our aged and ineffective toaster oven.  We have had it for a week and it is really quite remarkable.  It toasts bread and bagels in under a minute whereas it took the toaster oven ten minutes or more to achieve lesser results.  Our toaster oven is now in the garage waiting to be donated to someone who might want it. So now comes the interesting part- Sally shared this news with two female members of this congregation, one in her sixties and one just forty years old.  They both were astounded that we bought a toaster and said, “How could you do this!  Toasters are goyish!  Toaster ovens are Jewish!”  Now I have been a rabbi for almost forty years and a Jew all my life.  I have never heard of such a thing!  Have you?

If this is even somewhat true, it tells me that boundaries between what is Jewish and non-Jewish are breaking down even faster than I thought.  If the rabbi and his wife can buy a “goyish” toaster, is there any hope for the Jewish people?  I think there is and my remarks over the next few minutes will speak to the fluidity of boundaries and the importance of maintaining a few critical boundaries that help define us.

Our family is probably similar to yours in that we are a microcosm of the contemporary Jewish community.  Last Sunday, we “face timed” with a family Chanukah party in Thousand Oaks, California, just north of Los Angeles, at my sister in law’s home.  In attendance were her three children with spouses/partners, two grandchildren, and my son Benjamin and his friend, Rob.  My sister in law, Natalie, has three adult girls.  The oldest, Sarah, is married to Dov, the son of a famous Los Angeles cantor who wants nothing to do with Judaism or anything Jewish.  They have two young children whose only exposure to things Jewish are at their grandmother’s home.  It is, indeed, sad but it is out of our control.  Her next child is Johanna whose partner, Megan, a non-Jewish woman, was present and enjoying herself.  Her youngest daughter, Marissa, was there with her long term boyfriend, James, who has Jewish relatives but grew up with no religious identity.  James was the one frying the latkes.  Benjamin was there with his Jewish boyfriend Rob.  Everyone gets along very well and had a great time.  We then watched a video of my sister’s son, Michael, and his wife, Ramany, lighting the Chanukiyah with their two little boys, Oliver and Teddy. Oliver, who is three, attends a Jewish pre-school in the Bay area.  Ramany is a first generation Cambodian American who converted to Judaism.  My “Jewbodian” great-nephews are, so far, the most Jewish members of the next generation on all sides of my family.  Fifty years ago we could never have imagined a family so diverse and so content.  All the nieces and nephews, with the exception of Dov, still identify as Jews, but everything else has changed.  We have become quite inclusive and have substantially enlarged our Jewish boundaries.

Many of us invite non-Jewish family and friends to our Seder tables and have them participate in the Pesach ritual.  You should be aware, though, that Pesach is our most particularistic of holy days.  The Torah (Exodus 12: 43-49) tells us that no foreigner shall eat of the Pesach, the sacrificial lamb, but that any slave may eat of it once he is circumcised.  All the strangers who live among us may eat of it once they, too, are circumcised. No uncircumcised person may it of it.  Circumcision, of course, is the physical symbol of being Jewish.  If the boundaries were not strict enough, Rabban Gamliel introduced a theological test into the Seder itself to ensure that Christians would not attend.  During the Seder, we point to the Pesach, matzah, and maror and explain their significance.  This is the only time in any Jewish ritual that an explanation is necessary.  Why? Because Jews who had become Christians would attend Seders and explain these Jewish symbols in Christological terms.  This was the litmus test for the Jewish/Christian boundary.

In our day, it is not that simple.  We have Christian family members and friends, so the old rules simply do not apply.  We invite them as guests to our Seder with the understanding that no theological disputations will take place.  What do we do, though, on Christmas?  Many of us are guests in our Christian friends’ homes for the holiday and that is certainly appropriate.  Is it appropriate, however, for us to bring Christian customs and symbols into Jewish homes?  Regardless of the fact that the Supreme Court refers to the Christmas tree as a secular symbol, for believing Christians it is far more than that.  As my friend, Rabbi John Rosove, has written, “According to many Christian religious authorities, the tree represents the cross upon which Jesus was executed.  The crowning star recalls the star over Bethlehem on the eve of the Christian savior’s birth.  The tinsel represents angel hair.  The bulbs recall the apple on the tree of knowledge and the Christian dogma of original sin.  The holly wreath symbolizes the crown of thorns worn by Jesus as he carried the cross and the berries are drops of blood symbolizing the Christian Messiah’s vicarious suffering for the sins of humanity.  For Jews to appropriate the sacred symbols of another faith tradition for our own use and purposes is a profound act of disrespect.”[i]

We can appreciate the beautiful lights and the lovely music of the Christmas season without appropriating Christmas symbols, for they are not ours to cavalierly adopt for ourselves.  Rabbi Rosove writes “A good rule of thumb for Jews, when questioning whether we should use a non-Jewish symbol, is to ask if that symbol would be appropriate to place in a synagogue lobby?”[ii]  We would all answer, “Of course, it is not appropriate to place a Christmas tree in a synagogue lobby.   That’s goyish!”  Well, our home is as sacred as a synagogue.  Our Tradition teaches that our home is a mikdash me’at, a miniature sanctuary, a place where we aspire to holiness, the venue where Jewish life is practiced day in and day out.  Therefore, it is not appropriate for us to have Christmas trees in our homes.  While we have expanded our boundaries to become more inclusive and diverse, there are some borders that we dare not cross.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Rabbi John Rosove, blog

[ii] Ibid

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5778, October 13, 2017

Sermon for Parashat B’reishit

October 13, 2017

After our celebration the last two days of Simchat Torah, we are now ready to begin study of the weekly parashah.  Of course, immediately following Simchat Torah we read from Parashat B’reishit, the first reading in the Torah, which begins with the creation of the universe- or does it?  What we find is that the traditional translation of the first verse of B’reishit has colored our thinking on the Jewish view of creation.  Once we take apart the first few words in the Hebrew, they yield an entirely different meaning which informs our theology and our place in God’s universe.  Let me take the next few minutes to explain what I mean.

As my teacher and the dean of Biblical translators Professor Harry Orlinsky of the Baltimore Orlinskys, wrote, “For some 2,200 years- since the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Torah was made by Jewish translators for the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt- all official translations of the Bible have rendered the Hebrew bereshit bara elohim mechanically, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”  There are several cogent reasons, each independent of the others, for rejecting the traditional rendering as incorrect and for accepting the temporal “when” construction.”  Professor Orlinsky goes on to note that Rashi, the great 11th century commentator already knew this.  Rashi said that in order for the first word to mean “in the beginning God created,” the Hebrew would have to be barishona, which means “In the beginning.”  Rashi tells us that there are several places in the Bible where the word bereshit means the temporal “when.”  Hence, he says, the proper translation of the first verse of the Torah should be “In the beginning of God’s creating …or When God began to create the heaven and the earth.”  Professor Orlinsky goes on to tell us that all the Mesopotamian creation stories begin with the word “When.”  So given these explanations, and several more, Professor Orlinsky took the step of re-translating the verse as “When God began to create the heaven and the earth.”

This translation gives us a radically different meaning of the text.  No longer is creation something that occurred once and took place in the past.  Creation is now an on-going process, an ordering of pre-existent material, of making order out of the “tohu v’vohu,” the formless void which already existed.  This has tremendous implications for us.  It tells us that God’s role in the process of ordering the world out of chaos is not yet finished and that we, the children of Adam v’Chava, Adam and Eve, have an important role as partners with God.  Rashi and Professor Orlinsky tell us that the first thing God created was not heaven and earth but rather “light.”  Light is the first thing named in the ordering process.  Without light, nothing can proceed.  It is our task as human beings, created in the image of God, to bring light into the dark corners of the world, to help bring order to the chaos, to someday along with God, our partner, make creation complete.  Is that process likely?  It won’t happen tomorrow or even next year, but it may happen someday.

Just think for a moment of how life has changed over the last hundred years.  We have gone from the horse and buggy to the driverless automobile, from the Wright’s airplane to the stars.  Penicillin was just discovered in 1943 and look at the diseases we have conquered since then.  With genetic engineering it is possible that cancer and other diseases may someday be a thing of the past.  While we cannot change the nature of human beings, war has become so destructive that we are reluctant to enter it.  A nuclear weapon has not been unleashed since 1945.  We pray that it will remain that way.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century Kabbalist, gave meaning to each person’s life as well as the collective life of the Jewish people when he taught that the power of creation was so intense that the sparks shattered the pre-existent material which spread throughout the earth.  Each time a Jew performs a mitzvah, it is like we take a shard and glue it back to the primordial china cup and saucer which were shattered at creation. So singly and together, we continue the ordering process that someday will make the world whole.  When that happens, we have reached the Messianic age.  By working together with other good people and being God’s partner, we will eventually bring about the perfection of the world.

So, dear friends, who knew that the re-translation of the first three words of the Torah would secure our meaning and purpose in life?  May we, during this New Year of 5778, devote ourselves to continuing the process of ordering the universe.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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Sermon for Yizkor 5778, September 30, 2017

Yizkor Sermon

10 Tishri, 5778 – September 30, 2017

Sally and I are in the midst of deciding what to do with her grandparent’s bedroom set, one which her grandparents had from their wedding night through their eightieth wedding anniversary.  It is a lovely old maple double bed with a high boy dresser and night table.  It is in very good condition.  This is not a “for sale” ad because we have not yet made a decision as to what we’d like to do with it.  Given the recent birth of our granddaughter Eden, we want to turn that bedroom into Eden’s room.  There is no place for the set in our house.  Our children do not have a place for it and, even if they did, it is not their taste.  Sally said she is no longer emotionally attached to the set. So what do we do with the furniture?

It seems this is a quandary not only for us but for almost everyone in our generation and older.  “As baby boomers grow older, the volume of unwanted keepsakes and family heirlooms is poised to grow.  By 2030, 20% of America’s population will be 65 or older.  As these older adults begin to downsize, they and their kin will have to part with household possessions the heirs simply don’t want.”[i]  We are a generation that registered for china and silver before we were married and expected, after much use, to pass it on to our children, as our parents passed on their precious possessions to us.  “For a variety of social, cultural, and economic reasons, this is no longer the case.  Today’s young adults tend to acquire household goods that they consider temporary or disposable instead of inheriting them from parents or grandparents.  This is the first time in American history that there is a break in the chain of inheritance from one generation to the next.”[ii]

Once the children have picked over what they want and the items selected for the smaller home have been boxed up, what happens to the rest?  Some goes to auction, some is given to non-profits, and some pieces just end up on the curb to be taken by a passerby.  A lot of stuff goes into self-storage units.  By the way, while I am not an investment advisor, the self-storage industry is projected to grow by 3-5% a year over the next five years as more and more of us cannot bear to part with our material goods.

So what is really important about these pieces?  If they are quite valuable, there is an obvious material consideration.  What we prize the most, however, is our emotional connection to our furniture, books, jewelry, and china.  They may have belonged to a grandparent or a cherished aunt.  A particular piece may cause us to recall our youth or a sweet moment in our lives.  Sally, for example, has the Rosenthal china her father bought when he was in the military in Germany.  We have her grandmother’s silver as well as her grandparent’s bedroom set.  We have a bookcase that belonged to my father filled with the precious books he accumulated when he was young.  All of these books are now available on line.  I find it much easier to read on an electronic device than read a book, so why do I keep them?  The answer is simple…they evoke the memory of my father.  Memories are attached to all of these items.  That is why they are truly important.

At some point we will have to rid ourselves of these things. We will, however, carry the memories of our beloved grandparents and parents with us until our last breaths.  The love and sweetness they conjure will never go away.  That, dear friends, is why we are here today.  We remember those whom we have loved and lost.  We wish they were with us today but, alas, we know that cannot be.  One generation comes as another goes.  That is the way of life.  We, though, do not forget.

What is truly important are not the material things we pass on to the next generation but the love and values that we share with them.  All we leave behind is for naught except for that.  Just take a moment and think of three adjectives you would like said of you in your eulogy.  Were you loving, kind and empathic?  Were you honest, hardworking, and charitable?  Did you care about your community?  Did you make a positive contribution to the Jewish people?  What kind of reputation will you leave behind for your children and grandchildren?

On this holiest of days, as the gates of heaven are still open to our prayers, let us recognize that the essential gifts we leave on to the next generations are not material, but emotional.  After all, if we didn’t love our grandparents, their furniture would mean very little to us.  If I did not love my father, what would his books mean to me?  What is most crucial is the love we pass on to our children and grandchildren.  As we struggle over the disposition of our material goods, let us remember what is of ultimate importance.  Let us love more- because that is what we leave behind.

Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova


[i] NY Times, August 18, 2017

[ii] Ibid

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Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5778, September 30, 2017

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

10 Tishri, 5778 – September 30, 2017

Shana Tova and G’mar Chatima Tova!  While this is the holiest and most serious day of the year, I cannot help but look out at this congregation and grow a bit maudlin.  This is our 19th High Holy Days together.  Over these last two decades our lives have touched and intersected on a number of levels.  Sally and I know most of your stories.  We have shared your happiest as well as your saddest times.  We are repositories of your secrets and your sorrows, your hopes and your dreams.  It is the listening to and sharing of stories that builds relationships and, in fact, creates a congregation.  While this is Oheb Shalom’ s 164th year of existence, Oheb Shalom is much more than this building.  It is the mingling of our stories over six generations, creating a unique narrative that we call a congregational history as well as a congregational culture. It is the story of our individual as well as our congregational lives. It is our relationship with one another and our relationship with God.  That is what we will be speaking about this morning- the power of relationship.

Our ancestors understood that relationships are at the center of human life.  In the second chapter of Genesis, God created a mate for Adam so he would not be alone.  Eve was called his ezer k’negdo, translated somewhat inaccurately as “helpmate,” but is better understood as “a partner.”  Maimonides differentiates three friendship categories that, while understood to be about marriage, one can certainly extract meaning applicable to friendships, business dealings, and even a relationship with community. First is haver le’davar, a useful friend, or a utilitarian association that depends on reciprocal usefulness. Often, when the davar – the thing that binds the parties disappears, so does the bond of connection as well.

Second, is haver le’deagah, a pleasant and concerned friend, someone with whom to share sorrows and joys. This kind of relationship is needed by each of us in order to share the burdens and celebrations of life. This kind of companion can be regarded as delightful (as in the case of a lover) and trusted (as in the case of a confidant), and can both be found in a single person or in more than one.

The third category is haver le’deah, a friend who shares knowledge and a joint dedication to common goals. One who might inspire and instruct, a relationship where both parties dream of realizing ideals, and a readiness to sacrifice for their attainment.

Each category represents a deepening level of confidence and trust in both intimate relationships and deep friendships. Human beings are drawn to one another for so many reasons, it is especially meaningful to see that reflected and refracted through many traditional texts on what it is to be in relationship. From the beginning, the underlying mission of relationships between men and women, and really, between all living creatures has been one of interdependency.[i]

Modern Jewish theology centers on the relationship between God and human beings.  No one understood this better than Martin Buber, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, best known for his elucidation of I-Thou, the religious philosophy of dialogue. In his book, I and Thou, Buber describes two kinds of relationships, the “I-It”, and the “I-Thou”. The I-It relationship is one based on detachment from others and involves a utilitarian approach, in which one uses another as an object.  In contrast, each person in an I-Thou relationship fully and equally turns toward the other with openness and full engagement. This kind of relationship is characterized by dialogue and by “total presentness.” In an I-Thou relationship, each participant is concerned about the other person. The honor of the other–and not just her usefulness–is of paramount importance. The ethical response of the I-Thou relationship is central to Buber’s understanding of God. For Buber, God is the “Eternal Thou.” God is the only Thou which can never become an It. In other words, while relationships with other people will inevitably have utilitarian elements, in a genuine relationship with God, God cannot be used as a means towards an end.  In addition, our relationship with God serves as the foundation for our I-Thou relationships with all others, and every I-Thou relationship–be it with a person or thing–involves a meeting with God. God, in a sense, is the unifying context, the meeting place, for all meaningful human experience. According to Buber, one encounters God through one’s encounters with other human beings and the world. “Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God.”[ii]

When we meet each other as a Thou, not as in It, God is present.  When we truly are present for one another, God is present.  When we take the time to enter into relationship and genuinely listen, God is present in the relationship between two people.

I read an article this summer in The Atlantic (September, 2017) that has me very concerned about the future of relationships. The article is by Dr. Jean Twenge, a mother of three young daughters and a psychology professor at San Diego State University.  Dr. Twenge reports that what she calls the iGen, those born between 1995 and 2012, experience much higher rates of sleep deprivation, depression, and suicide than earlier generations, such as Generation X and the Millennials. She says “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.  Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones…There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives- and making them seriously unhappy.”[iii]  Professor Twenge goes on to recount the results of many studies which show that today’s adolescents are less likely to date, drive, work, and leave home.  They don’t need to leave home because they spend time with their friends on their phones.  She recalls a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse which shows that teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy than teens who spend more time on nonscreen activities.  Adolescent girls, in particular, report feeling much more lonely and depressed when looking at their phones.  Girls feel left out of social groups and activities and are more prone to cyber bullying.  As Dr. Twenge writes, “Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face to face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them.  In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.”[iv]

The clear message for parents is simple:  Limit your children’s phone time!  Of course, this message is not just for parents but for adults as well.  We spend too much time absorbed in social media and messaging than we do in actual, real time relationships.  While social media is very helpful in passing along information, and I am an advocate of it, we cannot use it instead of developing personal relationships.  It is very difficult, if not impossible, to develop an I-Thou relationship on Facebook.  If we cannot create meaningful relationships on line, does God exist on social media?  While I am not prepared to answer that question now, it is one I am seriously thinking about.

Did I tell you about the time our dog, Lucy, took my cell phone and hid it in the backyard?  For five days, I was untethered to my phone.  I felt liberated.  It was like Shabbat during the week.  I did not have to immediately return emails or be disturbed by a scam callers.  It was truly delightful.  I eventually found the phone in the mud and fortunately, it still worked.  I am certainly not opposed to phones and I am by no means a Luddite.  I strongly believe that the foundation of relationship is spending time together, in person, talking to one another.  Without that, there cannot be love, friendship, or community.  Without that, congregations would not exist.  Without that, God would not enter our lives.  Without God, our lives would be severely diminished.

So, dear friends, let us limit our phone time and expand our relational time.  Let us listen to one another and, as we do so, we will enter into relationship with God.

Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova



[i] Sharon Rosen Leib, San Diego Jewish Journal, January 3, 2017.

[ii] Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit- Halachmi, My Jewish Learning

[iii] Dr. Jean Twenge, The Atlantic, September, 2017, page 4.

[iv] Ibid., page 18.

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Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5778, September 29, 2017

Erev Yom Kippur Sermon

10 Tishri, 5778 – September 29, 2017

This is the most sacred of nights. The gates of heaven are wide open as God is sitting in judgement over us.  God is listening to our prayers and hoping, even praying (yes, God prays for us) that we will make teshuvah, that we will return to the purer and better parts of ourselves.  God wants us to become more sensitive, caring, kind and loving human beings.  God wants us to stand up for justice and to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.  Rabbi Tzvi Freeman once wrote, “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete.  But if you only see what is wrong and how ugly it is, then it is yourself that needs repair.”[i]   There is so much wrong with our city, country, nation and world.  Yet it is filled with beauty and goodness. It is important to be acknowledge the truth for if we are not honest with ourselves, who are we really fooling?

Just one story about being honest and then on to some serious business.

There were four college seniors taking microbiology.  All of them had an “A” in class so they decided to take a road trip to New Orleans and party for the weekend before the big final exam.  They were having such a good time that they delayed leaving until Monday morning and missed the exam.  Not a big deal, they collectively decided.  They would tell the professor they were visiting friends and had a flat tire on the way back to campus.  The professor listened to their excuse and allowed them to take the exam the following day.  The four seniors were excited and relieved!  They studied all day and night for the exam.  The next day, the professor placed them in separate rooms and gave them each a test booklet. They quickly answered the first question worth five points.  Each one, in a separate room, thought this was going to be an easy exam…then they turned the page…on the second page was written…

For 95 points:  Which tire?

God wants us to be honest with ourselves and honest with others.  God does not want us to be perfect but God does want us to be righteous.  God wants us to live as if we were one of the lamed vav tsaddikim, the thirty six righteous ones.  Let me tell you about them.

The source of the Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vavniks is in the Talmud (Sukkah 45b):  Rav Abbaye declared, “There are never less than thirty six just men in the world who greet the Shekhinah [God’s worldly presence] every day, for it is written in the book of Isaiah 30:18, “Blessed are all who wait for Him.” The word “him” in Hebrew is spelled “lamed-vav.”  The numerical equivalent of lamed is thirty and that of vav is six.  Hence we have thirty six righteous people. Although Abbaye does not explicitly say that these thirty six people keep the world from destruction, his statement implies that they have the power to ward off the harshness of God’s judgment.

What is the source of Abbaye’s statement? This question was addressed by Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism who wrote “The Tradition of the Thirty-Six Hidden Just Men” in 1962. In this essay, Scholem speculates that the number 36 “originates in ancient astrology, where the 360 degrees of the heavenly circle are divided into thirty-six units of ten, the so-called ‘deans.’”  Scholem explained:

“A dean-divinity ruled over each segment of the divided circle of the zodiac, holding sway over ten days of the year…. In Egyptian Hellenistic sources, the deans were regarded also as watchmen and custodians of the universe, and it is quite conceivable that the number thirty-six, which Abbaye read into Scripture, no longer represented these cosmological powers or forces but rather human figures.”[ii]

Abbaye was Judaizing a pagan concept by turning its thirty six personified astrological powers that determined the world’s fate into thirty six righteous Jews on which the world’s fate depended.  If you have ever been to the fourth century synagogue at Beit Alpha in the Galilee, you have seen the mosaics that depict the twelve astrological signs.  It seems our people, under Greek influence, took astrology very seriously.  Despite its origin, the legend of the lamed vav tsadikkim has immense power, especially for us on this night of nights.

These thirty six righteous ones are not aware of their status and do not know the others.  They are oblivious to their own righteousness.  They are kind, giving, and compassionate human beings- so much so that the Tradition tells us that the world exists on their account.  God will not destroy the world because they are its pillars. Through their merit the world survives.  When one dies, another is born.  Any of us could be one of the thirty six.  He or she could be the most humble of people or the most exalted.  There is no way to tell.  All we know is that they are the most selfless of people.  Many a righteous Gentile during the Shoah saved Jews at his or her own peril.  There are some who devote their lives to work with refugees or to bring food to the starving.  Others strive at all cost to change unjust laws, to champion the cause of the oppressed, and to bring comfort to those in emotional or physical pain.  There is a story told about the Baal Shem Tov who heard that one of the thirty six lived in a small village in Galicia.  He traveled to the village and looked and looked for the righteous one.  He talked to everyone he thought might be the righteous one- a wise rabbi, a charitable merchant, even the smartest student in the Yeshiva.  He still wasn’t sure.  Then, when he slept at night, he dreamt.  He saw an image of an older man who cleaned the public latrines during the day but at night told jokes at weddings and in the local tavern.  His vision told him that this most simple of men was the one he was seeking.  When the Baal Shem Tov awoke, he went to find this man, only to learn that he left town during the night.  No one knew where he went.   The Baal Shem Tov was ashamed of himself.  He did not imagine that this unpretentious person could be a lamed vavnik.  Yet this person ensured that the people of this town stayed free of disease and were able to laugh at themselves and one another.  He helped make them happy.  The Baal Shem Tov understood and went home.

When I was twenty four years old, I was sitting in the waiting room of Hadassah Hospital’s ER in Jerusalem.  I don’t remember why I was there but I do remember what happened next.  I saw a small Arab woman come into the ER with her son.  He might have been in his late teens or early twenties but was so emaciated it was hard to tell.  She was crying and screaming for help while holding up her son.  I, like most people there, could have ignored her, yet something made me get up and go to her.  I literally picked up her son in my arms and carried him to the nurses’ station where I put him on a gurney.  I don’t remember if his mother thanked me or not.  It is not important.  I realized afterwards that perhaps for the first and only time in my life I did something selfless, something for which I would receive no gain, no thanks, and no reward.  This one act certainly does not qualify me to be a lamed vavnik, I have too many faults for that, but I do understand how selfless a lamed vavnik must be.  I also learned that God wants us to live as if each of us is a lamed vavnik.

This past year, over 150 of us participated in the backpack program in which we fed hundreds of hungry, homeless children in Baltimore City. Not one of us expected to receive a thank you note.  We just did it, and continue to do it, because it is the right thing to do.  Thousands of others are giving of themselves as we speak in Texas and in Florida, aiding those who have been impacted by the recent hurricanes.  There are countless others among us who do discreet good deeds that make the lives of others so much better.  I am aware of some of the acts of gemilut chasadim done by you, but what is important is that God knows.

That, dear friends, is the moral of this sermon.  God wants us to live as if each of us is a lamed vavnik.  God does not expect us to perfect, for that is impossible.   God, however, wants us to strive with all of our being, to become more giving, compassionate, and loving human beings.  In tomorrow morning’s Haftarah, from the Book of Isaiah, God tell us what we need to do to earn God’s favor:

This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke.  To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry and to make to take the wretched poor into your house; When you see the naked to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin…If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand and evil speech, and you offer your compassion to the hungry…Then shall your light shine in darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday (Isaiah 58:6-7, 9-10).

Each one of us, no matter how young or old, healthy or infirm, can do more to lift the yoke of oppression that burdens others.  Let us in this New Year of 5778 devote ourselves to healing some of the hurt around us.  Let us live as if we were lamed vavniks.  We shall avert God’s judgement and, when our time comes and we stand before God, we can truly say, “Adonai, I may not have been a lamed vavnik, but I tried my best.  I truly tried my best.”

Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova


[i] From Moments of the Spirit, compiled by Dov Peretz Elkins

[ii] Forward, May 22, 2008

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