Remarks for Yom HaShoah, April 29, 2016

At this time in 1945, the war in Europe was almost over. The killing went on for another two weeks until May 8, 1945, when the German armies formally surrendered.  In the weeks following this joyous event, the horrible truth of the death camps became known.  Hitler’s planned extermination of the Jews had almost succeeded.  Six million Jews were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators.  One third of the Jews in the world were exterminated.  The figure is practically inconceivable unless we put it in terms we can understand.  Imagine for a moment if every human being presently living within the State of Maryland were to die.  That would be the extent of the human loss suffered by the Jewish people.

There were 18 million Jews in the world before WWII.  Today, the most optimistic demographers tell us there are about 14 million Jews in the world.  That is why Professor Emil Fackenheim, a leading Jewish thinker in the late twentieth century, created the 614th commandment, which is “Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.”  Anything that detracts from Jewish survival should be resisted.  The question that begs to be asked is to survive for what?  Perhaps it is the ultimate expression of chutzpah for us to believe Jewish survival is so important that God requires it.  While all peoples want their culture and language to survive and thrive, I doubt that the Albanians, Estonians and Montenegrins believe their survival is a Divine imperative, something which God demands.  So, if we believe that God requires us to survive, the question is for what reason?

This question was answered this past week as we sat at our Seder tables and opened the door for Elijah the Prophet who, in our Tradition, is the precursor of the Messiah.  It is our most fervent prayer, our sincerest hope that someday the Messiah will arrive when we open that door and our world will radically change for the better. At this moment, the Seder transforms itself from a meal about the redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery to the liberation of all people in the Messianic age.  Our Reform forebears eschewed the concept of a personal messiah, thinking the idea to be superstitious.  They thought we would reach the Messianic age incrementally with all good people and the Jewish people at the forefront, working together for justice and peace.  That vision of all of us working together for social justice may not immediately bring forth the messianic age, but it does establish a raison d’etre for our existence as Jews.  The world needs us as moral exemplars, to be as the Torah says, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  This is one of the reasons we count the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot, to remind us that each day brings us closer to receiving the Torah on Sinai, when we take on the responsibility for healing our fractured world.  God only knows that we still need the personal messiah for whom we pray each day.  Perhaps, just perhaps, if we pray and work hard enough, along with other people of good will, God will hasten that day and bring forth the universal era of love and peace.  That is why there is a 614th commandment, “Thou shalt not grant Hitler a posthumous victory.”  That is why the Jewish people must survive.


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Rabbi’s Annual Report, December 18, 2015

Shabbat shalom!  I cannot tell you how good it is to see you.  Just a few days ago I was in agonizing pain, lying in a hospital bed, not expecting to be here tonight.  Through the benefit of physical therapy, modern chemistry, and Sally’s loving care, I am very grateful to be here.  I have often said to you that the difference between health and illness is one second.  One second I was standing, the next I was on my back in the shower, having torn the three tendons in my left hamstring.  This just reminds me never to take my health for granted.  I am fortunate in that this is really just an inconvenience.  It is worse for Sally than for me.  I should fully heal in a few months.  Every morning after I awake I say, “Modeh Ani L’fanecha,” Thank you God for restoring my soul unto me.”  Every new day is blessing.  Every new day is gift from God.  Every day we have our health is a good day.  We should never take this gift for granted.  I so appreciate all your well wishes and prayers for recovery.  Please save them now for those who are truly sick.  They are the ones who really need our help.

This Shabbat we read Parashat Vayigash, the penultimate Torah reading in the Book of Genesis.  In this parashah, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, Jacob moves his entire clan to Egypt, Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, and Jacob offers a death bed character assessment of each of his twelve sons, predicting their descendants’ future.  Predicting the future based on one’s past is always a bit risky.  The authors of the Joseph story, writing long after the future events occurred, had time as their ally.  I can offer you a tentative prediction of what will happen in the next five years with the caveat that only God knows what the future will bring.

The committed Reform Jewish community in Baltimore will to continue to shrink.  Those who leave our synagogues do not usually affiliate any else, joining the majority of Baltimore Jews who are unaffiliated.  At one time, we made up well over a third of Baltimore’s affiliated Jews.  I suggest that today the number is closer to 20-25%.   We simply cannot maintain four active synagogues and the staff that requires.  Temple Emanuel is the first casualty of this contraction, having to sell their building and rent space from Conservative Beth Israel in Owings Mills.  The survival of this sixty year old congregation is much in doubt.  The rabbis of both Temple Emanuel and Har Sinai are leaving at the end of this fiscal year, leaving both congregations in transition.

That is not to say that the two southern most Reform synagogues, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Temple Oheb Shalom, do not have financial challenges, but I can confidently report that we are both quite stable.  We, in particular, are in a good place.  We are a vibrant and healthy congregation.  Our membership is stable and the number of young families is growing exponentially. Some excellent developments have taken place in this last year which bode well for the future.  In particular, our Engagement Task Force, funded by the Associated, chaired by Vicki Spira and staffed by Maxine Lowy, has involved dozens of baby boomers in the life of the congregation by building one on one relationships between congregants.  To paraphrase Martin Buber, all of life is about relationships.  The creating of deep personal relationships within our congregation is paramount to our health.  This effort will be extended to other cohorts in the near future.

We introduced our new High Holyday Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, to rave reviews.  We find it incredible that we did not hear one negative reaction.  One of the major reasons for this is the wisdom of our officers in allowing our entire clergy team, Cantor Braun, Rabbi Nagel and me, to spend three days in New York at a seminar on how to use and introduce the new Machzor.  We were the only synagogue in the country to send a full clergy team to the conference.  This gave us the confidence and knowledge to craft the High Holyday services as we did.  With Paul Binko’s help, we were able to create a meaningful and more relevant High Holyday experience.

Now I yield the bima to Rabbi Nagel who will continue the Rabbi’s report:

Thank you, Rabbi Nagel.  Let me conclude by briefly discussing the three challenges we have to meet now and in the next few years.

  1. Enrollment in our early childhood center, the Learning Ladder, has substantially decreased.  We are not sure why this has happened and are in the process of working with a consultant from the Union of Reform Judaism to help us understand the reasons.  We know that attendance at all Jewish pre-schools in Baltimore has greatly decreased.  We will be making some serious decisions about the Learning Ladder within the next year.
  2. Our magnificent historically significant facility is in need of some serious repairs. Now 55 years old, it is showing its age.  We need to replace the heating and cooling systems, windows, and other parts of the infrastructure.  This is an expensive proposition.  We should be planning a campaign to pay for this.






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A Second Chance, September 25, 2015

The Erev Shabbat Service between Yom Kippur and Sukkot is usually one of the most sparsely attended during the year. We experience prayer fatigue.  After being here Tuesday night and all day Wednesday for Yom Kippur, neither our bodies nor our spirits have yet recovered.  Perhaps the observance of Sukkot, our z’man simchateinu, our time of rejoicing, is just what we need, a festival not of the individual but of family and community, a celebration of God’s bounties that does not require much from us except for an expression of gratitude.  After the deprivation of Yom Kippur, the emphasis on ripe fruits, grains, and vegetables during this harvest season is quite welcome.  Is there more, however, to Sukkot than this?  The correct answer is “Of course!”

The Torah reading for Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot, the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot, is from the Book of Exodus, chapters 33 and 34.  For those of us without encyclopedic recall of the biblical text, these two chapter come directly after Moses descends from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments and is confronted with revelers engaged in orgiastic behavior around the golden calf.  Moses is so enraged that he throws the God given tablets to the ground and many of the revelers are put to death for the sin of idolatry.  In these two chapters, God gives Moses and the Jewish people another chance- Moses to control his anger and the Jews to realize their serious mistake.  God tells Moses to go back up the mountain for another forty days and nights during which God will give Moses another set of commandments.   Moses brings down the two tablets from the mountain and, among many legal pronouncements, proclaims the observance of the Shlosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  This connection between God granting us a second chance to get it right and Sukkot is not lost on us.  If fact, all of the emotions that roil up within us on Yom Kippur have not dissipated within just five days.  Sometimes, we cannot complete the task of teshuvah on Yom Kippur.  So God has given us another seven days of Sukkot to finish the work of dealing with our unresolved feelings from Yom Kippur.  God builds second chances directly into our calendar.

I was saddened after Yom Kippur to learn of the death at the age of ninety of one of my favorite human beings- Yogi Berra.  Yogi, who lived in Montclair, New Jersey, actually died in my hometown of West Caldwell, New Jersey, where he was residing in an assisted living facility.  Yogi, the ungainly and not too attractive famed Yankee catcher, was arguably the best catcher in baseball history.  He was also one of my childhood heroes, regularly leading the Yankees to pennants and World Series championships.  His great appeal was that he was just a regular guy with inordinate talent.  He came from an Italian immigrant family who lived on the “Hill” in St. Louis, the Little Italy of that city.  He and Joe Garagiola were buddies growing up, playing sandlot ball together.  Yogi’s success was that of all regular guys would dream of someday wearing pinstripes and playing in the Mecca of baseball, Yankee Stadium.  Yogi was just as well known for his fractured English and his famous phrases, such as “It’s not over till it’s over,” “It’s déjà vu all over again,” and “When you get to the end of the road, take the fork.”  There are so many of them that have become part of our vernacular and they make us love him even more.

Yogi went on to coach and manage the Mets, Houston Astros, and the Yankees after his playing days were over.  In 1984, while coaching the Yankees, the owner of the team, the notorious George Steinbrenner, elevated him to manager, replacing the volatile Billy Martin.  The Yankees finished third that year but Steinbrenner promised Yogi during spring training in 1985 that come what may, he would finish that year as Yankee manager.  “After just sixteen games, the Yankees were 6-10 and the impatient and imperious Steinbrenner fired Berra anyway, bringing back Martin.  Perhaps worse than breaking his word, Steinbrenner sent an underling to deliver the bad news.”[i]  The firing, and the manner in which it was done, provoked one of baseball’s most legendary feuds. Yogi did not set foot in Yankee Stadium for fourteen years.  During that time, private donors helped establish the Yogi Berra Museum on the campus of Montclair State University and awarded Yogi an honorary doctorate in 1996.  Three years later, a minor league ballpark, Yogi Berra Stadium, opened there as well.  In January, 1999, George Steinbrenner went there to meet with Yogi Berra and offered him a semi-apology.  He said, “I know I made a mistake by not letting you go personally.  It’s the worst mistake I ever made in baseball.”[ii]  Berra did not quibble with the semi-apology and peace between them was made.  Sometimes, that is a good as it gets.  In July of that year, Steinbrenner held a Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium.  If his apology did not go far enough, his gesture of homage to the great Yogi Berra certainly did.  Sometimes, dear friends, it takes us more than five days to apologize for our wrongs.  There can be a second chance, a Sukkot of the soul, anytime during the year.  Let’s try to not let it go for fifteen years as Steinbrenner did with Yogi.  May they both rest in peace as together we say: Amen

Shabbat shalom and Chag sameach

[i] NY Times, September 23, 2015.

[ii] Ibid.

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Sermon for Yom Kippur Yizkor Service, September 23, 2015

We join together this afternoon as a congregation of mourners.  We come here to gain support from others who have also experienced the loss of loved ones.  We dedicate this hour to think of them, to recall all that we loved about them.  Oh how we yearn to be with them once again, if even for just a few minutes- to hear them laugh, to feel their touch, to express longings and regrets. We would just like to have more time with them for time is our most precious commodity.

We pray today that those closest to us have health and long life.  If, however, this is not to be, we ask that God grant them an easy death, an end to their pain and suffering.  Our prayers are for life and more life.  Our Tradition exalts all life as a gift from God.  It is almost unimaginable for us to think that a healthy person would not want to live as long and as well as possible.  This is why I was so upset when I read an article last month in the Washington Post (August 3) about a healthy and vibrant 75 year old British nurse, Gill Pharoah.  Pharoah had no debilitating illnesses, took no medication, and led an active and engaged life.  Having worked with the elderly for much of her career, Gill feared becoming debilitated by a stroke as had a dear friend.  So she decided to end her life while she was well enough to do it herself.  Since euthanasia is illegal in Great Britain, she traveled to Switzerland where she and her partner checked into a lovely hotel and had a very nice dinner.  The next morning she and her friend went to a clinic where she joked with the doctor before he administered a lethal drug.  Gill leaves behind two children and a grandchild.

I am absolutely appalled by Gill Pharoah’s decision.  She had life, health, and much more time ahead of her, yet she willingly and rationally decided to end her life.  While I testified in the State Senate this year against euthanasia, I certainly sympathize with those afflicted with constant pain and debilitating diseases who want to end their suffering.  Yet our lives are a gift from God.  Our bodies do not belong just to us.  We are not to do whatever we want with them.  Before a funeral, we say “God has given, God has taken, blessed is the name of God.”    Our bodies and our very lives belong to God.

I do not understand why Gill would not want to enjoy all the wonderful parts of even an ordinary day- The laugh of a child, the affection of a pet, the feel of the wind against our skin, the heat of the sun on our faces.  Even the disappointments we experience and the sorrow we feel are proof that we are alive and vital. The ability to read a book, to watch a movie, to listen to music, even just to sit and think are gifts from God. To forsake these gifts is tragedy.  Yet this is not the purpose of our existence.  God did not give us life so we can feel pleasure, live pleasantly, and appreciate beauty.  God did not create us merely to experience joy.  God gave us life to do good deeds, to make the world a better place, to repair the brokenness in our world.   Every day we are alive gives us the opportunity to do more for others and contribute to our communities.  We are here to partner with God in the ongoing perfection of our world.  Each day on earth allows us to fulfill our Divine mandate.

I was the first one to address the State Senate committee in opposition to the proposed euthanasia bill.  Immediately following me was O.J. Brigance, the former Raven’s football player who has ALS.  Mr. Brigance is confined to a wheel chair and can only speak through the aide of a computer.  What he did say that afternoon in Annapolis will always stay with me (paraphrase).  “I have done more good over these eight years with ALS than I did all the previous years of my life.  My purpose in life is to do good and this disease has not hindered my ability to do so.”

When Gill Pharoah ended her life she denied God and engaged in an ultimate act of selfishness.  She could have had many more years of life and love, many more opportunities to do good deeds.  It is so difficult to understand how she could have forsaken all this. How we wish that our loved ones could only have had more time to be with us.  We think of them now as we dedicate ourselves to making better use of the time God has given us.

Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova

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Yom Kippur Morning, September 23, 2015

Shana Tova and G’mar Chatima Tova!  Sally, our family, and I greet you on this most important day of our year, the day when we stand alone before God and the heavenly court, when the imagery of God as the Decider of our fate pervades our consciousness.  In fact, God does not decide our futures- we do.  The power to change, to make teshuvah, is in our hands.  Only we can make the moral choices to become kinder and more empathic human beings.  Only we can alter our behavior and choose our words.  Only we can make the decisions that change our fate.  God does not actually write down our names in the Book of Life or the Book of Death…we do it ourselves…

I base my remarks to you this morning on a text from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 51, verses one and two.  These two verses, written by the prophet over 2,500 years ago, have had an immense impact on our communal fate, the later history of the Jewish people until this very day.  First the text and then I will explain.

Listen to Me, you who pursue justice

You seek the Lord:

Look to the rock you were hewn from

To the quarry you were dug from

Look back to Abraham your father

And to Sarah who brought you forth

For he was only one when I called him

And I blessed him and made him many.

Why should justice seekers look to Abraham and Sarah?  Why is justice associated with God’s blessing?  Why does the text emphasize Abraham’s age when God called him?  These questions and others are worth exploring.

Abraham and Sarah were iconoclasts.  They rejected the cultural norms of their age and followed the one and eternal God, the God of the universe.  Abraham destroyed idols and had no tolerance for injustice.  He even argued with God over the fate of the evil inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah!  He held God to account when he said (Genesis 18:25) “Shall not the Judge of the earth do justly?”  Abraham shattered assumptions.  God chose him because he was able to look at life through the prism of justice and mercy.  Abraham and Sarah were outsiders, estranged from the inhabitants of the land in which they lived by their belief in the one God who insisted on moral behavior, quite unlike the gods of the pagans.  Our God could not be placated with sacrifices and magical rites.  Our God only wanted us to do justly and walk humbly with Him.  Abraham was the original Jew because he was counter-cultural.  Even as a child, he refused to embrace the idolatrous values of his time.  He was the paradigm for the Jewish people from ancient times to this very day- an outsider who looked critically at society and refused to embrace its norms.  God chose Abraham and his descendants to challenge authority, to question assumptions, and to seek a life of justice and mercy for all God’s creation.  No one said this better than Baltimore born and raised Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, one of the great American rabbis of the Twentieth century:

“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 ruling class does not like to be told that morality overrules power.  The claim to chosenness guarantees Jews will live unquiet lives.  I say it is much better to be the chosen people, the goad and the irritant to much of humanity, than to live timidly and fearfully.  Jews exist to be bold.  We cannot hide from the task of making the world more just and decent…Jews must stand up for a society that is bound by human morality- and speak truth to power.”[i]

Like Avraham Avinu and Sara Imeinu, we are the perpetual outsiders, looking in and pointing to the inherent injustices and wrongs in the societies in which we live.  At least that was the way it used to be in America.  Fifty years ago, we could not live east of Falls Road, work in certain occupations, and walk into many private clubs.  There was rampant anti-Semitism in the United States throughout three quarters of the Twentieth Century.  American society has been transformed over the last forty years. We have become more diverse and much more accepting.  Jews are found in every neighborhood and profession.  We are completely American, comfortable in our gilded ghettos, and at home in the top echelons of American society.  We are not outsiders any longer.  In fact, we are leaders and trend setters.  We are no longer critics of societal mores because we shape societal mores.  Generation X and the Millennials have inherited a society that our grandparents could only imagine- a place where Jews are completely at home.  That is not to say there is no anti-Semitism in the United States.  There is, but it exists among the right and left wing fringes of society.  The vast majority of Americans have no qualms about their children marrying a Jew.

The problem with this acceptance is that we cannot critique the culture of which we are an integral part.  We have abandoned the age old role of the Jew.  Along with this change is something I find very disturbing- a loss of empathy.  Baltimore is going through its most harrowing days since the riots of April, 1968.  Where is the Jewish community?  Where are our Jewish agencies in the struggle for justice?  How many Jews have gone to the Sandtown-Winchester to see for themselves the plight of its residents?  How many of us actually care about what happens in inner city Baltimore?  Are we on the streets demanding jobs, better housing and educational opportunities for the poor of Baltimore?  Have we become so inured to suffering that we no longer care enough to act?  Where is our empathy?

Mel Brooks is a comic genius.  In almost all of his comedy, however, is a critique of American society.  “Mel Brook’s humor emanates from his Jewish identity.  Brooks locates the roots of his comedy in Jewish pain.  He said, ‘You want to know where my comedy comes from?  It comes from not being kissed by a girl until you’re sixteen.  It comes from the feeling that as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society.  It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.”[ii]  One of Brook’s most hilarious and meaningful vignettes is in the great movie, “Blazing Saddles.”  I watched it again this summer and was incredibly moved by one scene in particular.  How many of you have seen “Blazing Saddles?”  If so, bear with me.  If not, you must see this movie.  “The entire film reverberates with the Jewish sense of alienation that leads Brooks to concentrate on the problems of outsiders in the Old West, those segregated by race, color or religion.  Jews, as such, never really appear in Blazing Saddles, though one of picture’s funniest moments occurs when an Indian chief, played by Mel Brooks himself, begins speaking Yiddish to a family of African-Americans.   It seems appropriate that the West’s most conspicuous outsider, the Indian, should speak in the tongue of history’s traditional outsider, the Jew.”[iii]  What is not apparent to us but was clearly known to Brooks is that during the early era of Hollywood, in the twenties and thirties, most Indians in Westerns were portrayed by Yiddish speaking Jews.  So Brooks was making a profound statement while spoofing a Hollywood tradition.

Listen to what Brooks, the Indian chief, says to the African-American family in the covered wagon.  I will translate for those of you who do not understand Yiddish. He looks at them and says, “Shvartzes, zeit nicht meshuga!”  “Blacks, are you crazy?”  Then he looks at his braves and shouts, “Lozem geh!” “Let them go.”  Turning back to the family he says, “Kop a walk. It’s alright. A be gesind. (Be well) Take off.”  Looking at his braves he says, “A be gezehen in deine leben?” “Have you seen anything like this in your life? They’re darker than we are! Wooh!”  What Brooks did in that one line, “They’re darker than we are” is establish commonality with other American outsiders, African Americans and Native Americans.  A hundred years ago in this country, Jews were considered to be “people of color.”  Brooks not only feels a solidarity with other people of color but feels empathy for them.  His comedic shtick still resounds with significance.

In order to demonstrate our empathy and represent you, Sally and I drove to Cheraw, South Carolina at the end of August to participate in the NAACP’s Journey for Justice.  The Union of Reform Judaism, through the Religious Action Center, co-sponsored the forty day march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C. on the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march.  While it may appear that the civil rights struggle is over, that is far from the case.  Voting rights are under attack in several Southern states and racism is still rampant in American life.  Each day Reform rabbis and other Jews marched arm in arm with African Americans while holding a Torah, memorializing the rabbis who carried a Torah while marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So I marched in 90 degree heat holding the Torah next to my chest.  I am not ashamed to admit to you that the awl haTorah, the burden of Torah, was never heavier.  Despite the physical toll, we felt a kinship with our fellow marchers and were proud to represent the Jewish community in the ongoing struggle for justice.  The most obvious difference between this march and its fifty year old antecedent was that instead of beating and arresting us, the state and local police protected us.  Some aspects of American life have certainly gotten better.

Empathy, understanding another’s situation, no longer comes naturally to us.  We do not have an outsider’s frame of reference.  We are neither poor nor oppressed, ill-educated, ill clothed or hungry.  We are completely at home in the suburbs and the lovely parts of Baltimore.  As an editorial in the Baltimore Sun recently said, “Whatever is causing Baltimore’s recent spike in crime, we can be certain it’s not because there’s an excess of civil liberties granted to black people.  The evidence of racial disparity is irrefutable:  the life expectancy in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods is worse than in Syria. And police brutality is not some imagined problem; the city has doled out millions of dollars in settlements in recent years…those young people who threw rocks at police or looted Mondawmin Mall or otherwise behaved as criminals weren’t doing so at the behest of a civil rights movement seeking recognition or redress.  The perpetrators were, however, the product of neighborhoods caught in a long standing cycle of drugs, crime, poverty, and joblessness from which there is little escape and about which outsiders often have a minimal understanding or empathy.”[iv] I could go on and on about what is called the “architecture of segregation” and what we can do to end the entrenched cycle of generational hopelessness and despair, but that is not a sermon nor is this the time or the place.  What I can do is urge you to join with me in listening to stories. To stories?  Yes, that is correct.  I would like you to listen to stories.

Over the next few years, we will work with our church partners in BUILD to develop relationships with African-Americans, especially inner city African-Americans.  The only way to do that is to listen to their stories, what they have to say about their lives and their aspirations.   The only way we can develop empathy is to meet these people and start caring about them as human beings.  Once we develop empathy perhaps then we will care more deeply about social justice and the lives of thousands upon thousands of Americans who live in the inner cities, trapped by forces beyond their control.  Of course, personal decisions and behavior enable some to escape, but they are the exceptional ones, like Dr. Ben Carson who is now running for President.  Having made the remarkable journey from a Detroit ghetto to become one of the world’s top pediatric neuro-surgeons, Ben Carson thinks that most other people in similar circumstances can be like him. Once he made it, it seems he left whatever empathy he had behind. Ordinary people just do not have much of a chance for a decent life.  When we get to know them, perhaps we will want to help them as individuals and do our best to change the system that entraps them.

You see, I do want you to be content with your lives.  “In Judaism, such serenity as we are granted comes from the joy of making something better, not accepting something that is worse.  One of God’s names is El Shaddai.  One rabbinic interpretation is that God is saying “dai!” – enough!  God is saying, “I’ve done as much as I intend to do.  Fixing the rest of the world is now your task.  Eschew complacency; leave serenity to calm interludes on mountaintops.  Down here, where the world is filled with suffering and brokenness, feel upset, angry, inspired- and join the fight.”[v]  Join me, join Sally, join Abraham and Sarah, Mel Brooks, and Jews who have lived for the last three thousand years.  On this Yom Kippur, let us begin to develop empathy and help make Baltimore better for all its inhabitants.

Said God to the prophet Isaiah:

Listen to Me, you who pursue justice

You seek the Lord:

Look to the rock you were hewn from

To the quarry you were dug from

Look back to Abraham your father

And to Sarah who brought you forth

For he was only one when I called him

And I blessed him and made him many

Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova

[i] Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, page 231.

[ii] Lester D. Friedman, Hollywood’s Image of the Jew, page 187.

[iii] Ibid, page 228.

[iv] Baltimore Sun, September 7, 2015.

[v] Rabbi David Wolpe, the NY Jewish Week, August 21, 2015.

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Erev Yom Kippur, September 22, 2015

This is the night of nights, the holiest time of the year.  The gates of prayer are wide open as God listens to our pleas.  This day is one of utmost seriousness as we look at ourselves with unvarnished objectivity.  How will God judge us?  Will we be written in the Book of Life?  Is it too late to make changes?  Can we rid ourselves of anger and remorse?  How can we become better human beings?

God will judge us with mercy and benevolence.  God is “El Rachum v’Chanun,” Compassionate and Gracious.  God wants us to change, to become more sensitive, giving, and empathic human beings.  God wants us to reflect the highest values of our Jewish Tradition.  We will speak tonight of three of the most important values which we need to embody- humility, gratitude, and contentment.  I have not chosen these values cavalierly.  After a lifetime of study, I am convinced that they are the central values of our faith.  If we sincerely hold them, I believe, they will enable us to live a life of happiness and peace.

Even though this is the most serious of times, it does not mean that laughter is forbidden.  So let me attempt to tell a story.

Meyer, a lonely widower, was walking home along Delancey Street when he passed a pet store.  He heard a squawking voice shouting in perfect Yiddish:  “Vas machst du?”  Meyer couldn’t believe it.  Perfect Yiddish coming from a pet store!  He walked in to see who was speaking.  You can only imagine his shock when he saw an African Grey parrot sitting on his perch, looking at him and saying, “Vus? Kenst sprechen Yiddish?”  In a moment, Meyer placed $500 on the counter and carried the caged parrot to his little apartment.  All night he talked to the parrot in Yiddish.  He told the parrot about how his parents came to America, about how beautiful was his late wife Sarah, about his family and his years of working in the garment district.

The parrot listened and made comments.  Together they shared some walnuts.  The parrot told him of living in the pet store and how lonely he would be when the store was closed.  Finally, the two went to sleep.

The next morning, the observant Meyer put on his tallit and tefillin and began to daven.  The parrot demanded to know what he was doing.  After Meyer explained, the parrot, being a parrot, wanted to do the same.  So Meyer went out and had a miniature tallit and set of tefillin made for the parrot.

The parrot learned every prayer.  He even wanted to learn how to read Hebrew.  So Meyer spent months teaching the parrot Torah.  In time, Meyer began to regard the parrot as a confidant and even a fellow Jew.  On the next Rosh Hashanah, Meyer went to leave for shul when the parrot demanded to go with him.  He explained that shul was not a place for a bird but the parrot insisted.  Needless to say, they made quite a spectacle.  Everyone questioned him.  The rabbi was reluctant to let him in, but Meyer insisted that the bird could daven.  The rabbi relented and then thousands of dollars were bet on whether or not the parrot could pray in Hebrew.  Meyer took all the bets. All eyes were on the African Grey during services.  Perched on Meyer’s shoulder, the parrot did not utter a sound during the entire service.  Finally, Meyer said, “Daven, already!”  I have four thousand dollars bet on you.”  The parrot remained silent.

A morose Meyer left shul with the parrot on his shoulder.  Finally, when they were several blocks away, the parrot joyously began singing “Ein Keloheinu,” in perfect Hebrew.  The exasperated Meyer stopped and looked at him.  “Why, after you begged me to take you to shul on Rosh Hashanah, did you not open your mouth to pray?  Why did you do this to me?” The parrot replied, “Meyer, don’t be an idiot.  Think of the odds on Yom Kippur.”

The values of humility, gratitude, and contentedness fly in the face of American cultural values.  We are taught to exalt ourselves and be our own full time marketing representatives, shouting out our abilities to the world.  We learn early on that in a culture that promotes individualism, we are personally responsible for our own fate.  We are also taught to strive for greater and greater material gain.  We equate “successful” with rich.  When was the last time we thought of a teacher, a nurse, or a police officer as being a “successful” person?  Our Tradition turns these assumptions on their head.  Judaism is counter-cultural because it acclaims humility, reveres gratitude, and teaches that the secret to happiness is to be content with what we have.  Our Tradition is one that values self-abasement rather than self-aggrandizement; dependence rather than individualism, and satisfaction rather than the constant seeking of financial gain.  Our faith teaches us that we are continually dependent upon God for our lives, our prosperity, and our health- and that we should be thankful for whatever we have- and especially the problems and ill health we do not have.

The rabbis often wrote about the virtue of humility.  The sages detested the prideful and arrogant, the boastful and braggart.  They went so far as to say that only the humble will inherit the World to Come. One of my favorite Talmudic sayings is (Erubin 13b), “He who humbles himself, God exalts.  He who exalts himself, God humbles.  From he who searches for greatness, greatness flies.  He who flies from greatness, greatness searches out.”  The rabbis never tired of pointing to Moses as the example of humility, of one who tried to flee from greatness but whom God rose up like any other.  The central prayer of the High Holy Days, the Unetaneh Tokef, tells us that “We are made of dust and to dust we will return; like clay vessels, we can break, like flowers we can fade, and like shadows we pass, and like a dream we will someday pass from sight.”  This day forces us to confront our mortality, that no matter how great we may be in our own eyes, someday we will die.  There may be many who will remember us and even a few who will passionately miss us.  In two or three generations, however, except for the DNA that exists within our descendants, our existence will be a mere footnote of history.  I am always reminded of this when I visit our O’Donnell Street Cemetery, which was founded in 1853.  The old grave stones and monuments are so windblown and weather beaten that we cannot, in many cases, make out the names of those buried there.  After about a hundred years, even our names no longer exist.  Rich or poor, mighty or meek, it is like we never lived.  There is little that humbles me more than that.

There is the temptation, however, to become prideful about one’s humility.  “Look at me, look at how humble I am!”  When taken to excess, all moral virtues can be corrupted.  It is important for us to be balanced in our self-importance.  According to Rabbi of Bunim of Pishkah, “Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper.  On one should be written, “I am but dust and ashes.”  On the other should be written, “The world was created for me.”  From time to time we must reach into one pocket or the other.  The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.”  Rabbi Bunim knew that the secret of holy living was to keep a check on our arrogance and our humility.

The first thing I say to myself in the morning is, “Modeh Ani Lefanecha, Melech Chai V’Kayam, She’Hechezarta Bi Nishamti, b’Chemla Raba Emunatecha.  I thank you, living and Eternal God, for returning my soul to me with compassion. Great is your faithfulness.”  This is traditionally the first prayer we say in the morning as it expresses our gratitude to God for allowing us to awake and begin our day.  We are not naturally grateful.  It is a quality which needs to be inculcated within us.  I will never forget how, when I was a little kid, I embarrassed my parents by not being sufficiently grateful when I received a gift.  That lesson has stayed with me my entire life.

“Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved.  Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.  Most people feel grateful some of the time- after someone saves us from making a mistake or brings food during an illness.  But some people seem grateful disproportionally.  They seem thankful practically all of the time.”[i]

“People with dispositional gratitude take nothing for granted.  They are hyperaware of their continual dependence on others.”[ii]  They take nothing for granted and appreciate everything they receive. We live in a capitalist society which encourages individualism, ambition and pride.  Our society would collapse, however, without an acknowledgment that we are dependent upon one another, the institutions we have created, and upon government for allowing us to live as well as we do.  Ultimately, we are dependent upon God for everything we are and for everything we have.  Every page of our new Machzor is replete with expressions of gratitude to Adonai for all the gifts we receive.  We thank God for creating us, for redeeming us from Egypt, for giving us the Torah.  We are especially grateful, on this holy night, for the opportunity God gives us to make teshuvah, to return to Him.  Even though our shortcomings are many, if we sincerely repent, God will take us back in love.

American society breeds excess.  We eat too much, drive too fast, and consume too much of the world’s resources.  Our Jewish Tradition teaches us the opposite- that we should be content with what we have.  The poet wrote in the book of Proverbs, “A contented heart makes a cheerful countenance (15:3) and adds “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth and much trouble (15:16).”  Kohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “Better is a handful of gratification than two fistfuls which come from unworthy work (4:6).”  The classic rabbinic aphorism stems from Ben Zoma who said in the Ethics of the Fathers (4:1), “Who is rich?  One who is happy with what he has.”  It is so difficult in this society of material and personal striving to ever be content with ourselves.  We want to live in a nicer home, take more lavish vacations, be thinner, richer, and raise our status in contrast to our neighbors.   There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to better ourselves.  Yet when do we stop?  When does this become an obsession, causing us to never be satisfied with who we are and what we have? Ecclesiastes also wrote (5:9), “A money lover never has his fill, nor a lover of wealth enough income.”  Nothing has changed since the poet wrote these words almost 2,500 years ago. We should try to be content with what we have and who we are. Our “contentment, however, should never degenerate into moral complacency.”[iii]  We should not focus our discontent inwardly, but rather, focus it outwardly. We should be unhappy with the state of our society and strive our utmost to repair it.  There are times when “resigning ourselves to reality is sinful.”[iv] That sermon, however, will have to wait until tomorrow.

As I conclude, allow me share with you one of the most poignant stories of Yiddish literature, “Bontshe Schweig,” or “Bontshe the Silent,” written by I.L. Peretz. “Bontshe was a down trodden porter who would have considered himself rich if he ever held two pennies in his hand at the same time.  His life was a journey in suffering, which began, symbolically enough, with a botched circumcision.  He died in such lonely insignificance that no one erected a tombstone to mark his grave.  Yet, paragon of contentedness he was, Bontshe never complained but praised God for every slight good that came his way.  After his death, he was greeted effusively in Heaven.  Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father, personally greeted him at Heaven’s gates.  The angels who composed the Heavenly Court spoke of him with admiration and deference.  Finding him to be an exemplary human being, the Court told Bontshe that his heavenly reward for his earthly existence was that he could have anything, absolutely anything, he desired.  After much disbelief and hesitation, Bontshe finally, haltingly, said to the angels, ‘May I please have a hot roll with butter every morning?”[v] As the story ends, the angels on the Court wept.

None of us can be as humble and grateful as Bontshe Schweig.  We can, however, try to be content with what we have. “Who is rich?  One who is happy with what he has.”  Let us strive during this New Year of 5776 to be humble, express gratitude, and be happy with what we have.  Then we shall know true joy and peace.

Amen and G’mar Chatimah Tova

[i] David Brooks, NY Times, July 28, 2015.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Borowitz, Jewish Moral Virtues, page 169.

[iv] Borowitz, Jewish Moral Virtues, page 168.

[v] Ibid, page 169.

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Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5776, September 13, 2015

Shana Tova!  Welcome to Oheb Shalom and the New Year of 5776.  It is hard to believe, but this is our seventeenth Rosh Hashanah together.  As I look through the congregation this morning, I see so many with whom we have interacted over these almost two decades.  In happy and sad times, in times of crisis and confusion, we have supported one another.  That is the best part of being in a community.  It is why we are here for each other.  The good news today is that Oheb Shalom is prospering.  In contrast to other non-Orthodox synagogues in Baltimore we are still growing and our religious school is still expanding.  We have the most students since the halcyon days of the sixties and seventies.  While I cannot confirm this, I am pretty sure we have the largest religious school of any synagogue in this area.  So, compared to most synagogues, we are doing well.

Before I go on to the core of this sermon, it behooves me to try to tell a joke.

A young, single man moved to Baltimore to work in a startup tech company.  He was not very social and was lonely.  So he decided to get a pet.  He went to the pet store and told the owner that he wanted an unusual pet.  After some discussion, the owner recommended he buy a centipede.  They young man was surprised.  He asked, “You mean one of those 100 legged bugs?”  “That’s right,” said the owner.  “They make great pets.”  After some thought, he bought a centipede that came in a little white box.  He took the box home, found a good spot for it and decided he would take his new friend to shul.  Together they would try to become part of a community.  So he asked the centipede in the box, “Would you like to go to shul with me today?”  He waited but there was no response from his new pet.  This bothered him but he waited a few more minutes and asked again.  “How about going to shul with me today?  We’ll pray together.”  Again, there was no answer from his new pet.  So he waited a few minutes longer and thought about the situation.  Finally, he put his face up against the centipede’s house and shouted, “Hey, in there!  Would you like to go to shul with me and learn about God?”  This time, a little voice came out of the box.  “I heard you the first time!  I’m putting my shoes on!”

Well, that will probably be the last time we laugh for a while because there is little that this year that has been funny for the Jews.  We will speak about the increase in anti-Semitism, foreign and domestic, the BDS movement, the rise in Israeli extremism and, of course, the nuclear treaty with Iran.  I will try to do all of this, including the Israel Bond Appeal, as expeditiously as possible, so please bear with me.

There continues to be a rise in anti-Semitism throughout Europe and certain sectors of American society.  French and Belgian Jews have been murdered by Islamic terrorists, spurring the largest increase in Aliyah from a Western country since the creation of Israel.  Even the mainstream Islamic world believes in the reality of the blood libel, that we make matzah with the blood of Christian children, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purports that a conspiracy of Jewish elders runs the world.  Even more troubling is the rampant growth of BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in the United States, specifically on college campuses and in liberal Christian circles.  This movement supports the boycott of companies that do business in Israel and removes investment funds from those companies who invest in Israel, leading to the isolation and pariah status of Israel. Many academics and students have embraced BDS and use it as a litmus test for election to student governments.  If a student, typically a Jewish student, fails to endorse BDS, she will not be allowed to serve in student government.  This has already occurred in such hallowed institutions as Stanford and UCLA.  The leadership of the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal Churches as well as the United Church of Christ, have shamefully voted to endorse BDS.  Why?  Just like the students, they have embraced the narrative of the Palestinians as the helpless victims, pawns of the evil Israelis, unable to influence their own fate, not having any responsibility for their own decisions.  This infantilizes Palestinians and makes Israelis the adults who should be doing the right thing.  It is, of course, a complete misreading of the situation and factually wrong.  The liberal Christians also conflate the modern State of Israel with Biblical Israel.  They claim that more is expected of us than the Palestinians because we are God’s chosen people.  Not judging Israel by the standards of a modern state is anti-Semitism.  Worse than this, Christians are very uncomfortable with Jews exercising power.  They much prefer us to be victims.  It better fits into their theological frameworks.  This, too, is anti-Semitism.  Jews cannot solve what is essentially a problem for Christians.  We have many liberal Christian allies, some of whom are in Baltimore, who are struggling with their own denominational leaderships to right these wrongs.  We should support and applaud them for doing the right thing.

I will speak towards the end of this sermon about the struggle for Israel’s soul, but now, let us turn to Iran.  There will be many rabbis today who will address this topic.  Most will be adamantly opposed to the arms control treaty and will condemn the president and all those who support the nuclear accord.  There are some who will vociferously support it. To the chagrin of some of you, my approach is more nuanced. You will not hear any bombastic pronouncements from this pulpit today. Since I am neither an arms control expert nor an expert on Iran, I must rely upon the opinions of others.  In truth, there are many people I respect on both sides of the issue, all of whom make rational and cogent arguments for their respective positions. The first point I must make is that there are committed and loving Jews who both support and oppose the agreement with Iran.  This is a machloket l’shem hashamayim, a controversy for the sake of God. Whether we support the treaty or not, our loyalty to Israel and the Jewish people should not be questioned.  We should strive to discuss this issue rationally and civilly, without name calling and especially without demonizing the other side.  Jewish senators and congressmen have come out for and against the treaty.  We are awaiting word of how Senators Cardin and Mikulski will vote.  What we do know is that regardless of how they vote, they all love Israel and want what is best for Israel.  That, of course, is the big question- what is best for Israel?  The corollary of that is the other big question- what is best for the United States?  This is where we are torn.  We are Jews who love the State of Israel and Americans who love and are loyal to the United States of America.  Sometimes, as of now, the interests of the two may not coincide.  This places us in the current dilemma.  What may be a logical policy option for the United States may not be in the best interests of the Jewish State.  We should, however, be humble enough to realize that no one can predict the future. “Whether Iran will indeed become a nuclear power or becomes more responsive to the West remains to be seen.  At present, what we do know is that the terms of this deal jeopardize the safety and security of the State of Israel and the entire Middle East and creates the possibility of a nuclear arms race.”[i]

There are many influential Israelis in the intelligence community and military who think the agreement is something Israel can live with.  They are former heads of Mossad and retired generals. They say that preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons for fifteen years is good for Israel.  They assume that even if Iran does eventually develop nuclear weapons, Iranian leaders will act rationally, understanding that if they launch just one missile against Israel, the Israeli nuclear arsenal of over two hundred weapons will be unleashed against Iran and will utterly obliterate the country and exterminate the Iranian people.  Most Israelis, however, think the deal is bad for Israel.  In fact, it is practically the only issue that brings most Israelis together.  Israel has the most to lose in the short and long term if the Iranians do not honor the terms of the agreement.  A nuclear armed Iran is an existential threat to Israel.  Supporters of the treaty hope that an Iran engaged with the world economy will moderate its behavior.  Journalist David Ignatius wrote that this possibility is a “cosmic bet.”[ii]  I, for one, do not want to base Israel’s existence on a “cosmic bet.”  Iran is not a serious threat to the existence of the United States.  The other countries which joined with ours in negotiating this treaty, Russia, China, Germany, Great Britain and France, are chomping at the bit for trade sanctions to be lifted so they can do business with Iran.  A German trade delegation has already visited Tehran.

The treaty is supposed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for at least the next fifteen years. While many opponents agree with that statement, they point out that the lifting of economic sanctions will give Iran more cash, billions of dollars, that it can use to destabilize the region, to arm its proxies of Hamas, Hezbollah, and others, to support terrorism, and assert its desire for regional hegemony.  Supporters of the treaty say this is the best possible deal.  No one, they say, wants war with Iran and the alternative to this treaty is war.  The Washington Institute’s Robert Satloff makes a convincing case that a strengthened deal is possible even after the vote takes place in the Senate.  We can only hope that this will happen, but truthfully, it is unlikely.  The President will sign the treaty and Congress will not have the votes to override a Presidential veto.  That is a fact.  So the next question is “What happens next?”  The best scenario is that the administration will sit down with Israel and say, “How can we make you stronger?”  The administration should provide Israel with the bunker busting bomb called the Massive Ordinance Penetrator and even enter into a formal alliance with Israel to guarantee its safety.  Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama will have to repair their relationship in order to rebuild the Israeli-American relationship.  The shared ties between Israel and the United States are too important to be weakened by leaders who do not personally like one another.

Is there anything we can do to help? Yes, there is. We can make Israel stronger by purchasing Israel Bonds today.  Israel Bonds are a secure investment in the economy of Israel.  They are an investment in Israel’s future.  Last year, Oheb Shalom purchased almost $800,000 in Israel Bonds.  Only three synagogues in Metropolitan Baltimore purchased more Israel Bonds than did we. I would like us to increase that number by ten percent.  Last year, 144 of us purchased Israel Bonds.  I would like to also increase that number by at least ten percent. Our purchases will be matched at 100% by four institutions- the Associated, Johns Hopkins Federal Bank, the Haron Dahan and the Berman Foundation.  So, if you purchase a $100 bond, it will automatically be doubled.  We can demonstrate our love and support for Israel in a tangible manner by turning down a tab on the Israel Bond tab card or purchasing a bond on line as Sally and I have already done.  Remember, this is not a gift but an investment.  In fact, as our own member and President of Israel Bonds, Ed Jacobson, will tell you, Israel Bonds offer an excellent return and should be part of our portfolios.  We can help Israel weather whatever storms will come by making her economy stronger and by tangibly expressing our faith in Israel’s future.  I now invite you to pull down a tab on your cards and ask the ushers to enter the Sanctuary and pass around baskets to collect your tab cards.  Please try to listen to the conclusion of this sermon while the ushers are doing their holy work.

While Iran is an external existential threat to Israel, there is another existential threat that threatens its very soul.  This threat is internal. It is Jewish extremism, the kind fed and financed by Haredi Orthodoxy and the settler extremists.  It is the kind of extremism that taught an Orthodox Jew, Yishai Schlissel, that plunging a knife into six Jews at the Jerusalem Gay Right’s parade is a mitzvah.  Tell that to the parents of 16 year old Shira Banki whom he murdered that day, simply because she believed in equal rights for all Israelis.   It is the kind of extremism that animated the deadly firebombing of an Arab family’s home in the village of Duma, killing 18 month old Ali Saad Dawabshe and gravely wounding his parents and four year old brother.  The government of Israel has condemned these acts and, in the arson case, are searching for the perpetrators.  “All available intelligence indicates that the criminals are part of a shadowy network of militant settlers, an offshoot of the mainstream settler movement. These people plan to continue and escalate their attacks with the aim of bringing about the Apocalypse.  They must not be allowed to succeed.”[iii] We would be hypocrites if we condemned only Islamic extremism without denouncing its Jewish counterpart.  “It is crucial for us to speak out.  Friends of Israel who want it to live up to its highest ideals, to be a Jewish state in the truest sense, must not be intimidated into silence.  Israelis who share our values need our support.”[iv]

So on this beginning of our New Year, 5776, we pray that God will continue to stand by and support the Jewish people.  On Erev Yom Kippur, October 6, 1935, facing an earlier existential crisis, Rabbi Leo Baeck wrote this prayer for all the Jewish communities in Germany:

The nobility and truth of our history is in God;

In God- the source of our survival

Our firm stand through trail and change.

Ours is a history of spiritual greatness,

A legacy of spiritual dignity.

We turn to it when we are besieged by insult and attack.

We look to it when need and suffering press in upon us.

From generation to generation, the Eternal led our ancestors.

The One who leads us through all our days

Will lead our children through theirs.

We stand before our God-

Strengthened by reverence for the sacred obligations of Torah,

Ennobled by a commitment to do what is just and right.

We bow before God, stand upright before all people.

In a world of tumultuous change, we are steadfast;

We serve the Eternal.

With humility we say:

Our faith is in God whose call is compelling.

Our response will shape our future.[v]

Amen and Shana Tova uM’tukah

[i] Michael Steinhardt, the Forward, September 1, 2015.

[ii] The Forward, July 24, 2015.

[iii] The Forward, August 14, 2015.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Mishkan Hanefesh, Yom Kippur, page 435.

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