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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Sermon for Memorial Service 5778, September 24, 2017

OSMP Memorial Service 5778

4 Tishri, 5778 – September 24, 2017

Sally and I took some initiative this past summer and took some long awaited and necessary actions.  We met with an attorney and reviewed our will and the various powers of attorney that are so important if we are not able to make medical or financial decisions for ourselves.  Equally important, we chose plots for ourselves in our newly opened section, which is right over there (point!).  This is a marker, rather than monument section.  While marker versus monument is a matter of personal choice, we find that markers are much easier to maintain and are readable for a longer time than monuments.

Why did we undertake these projects?  There are several reasons.  The birth of our first grandchild caused us to consider what we want to pass on to the future generations of our family.  The next is that we want to make what is a stressful and terribly difficult time easier for our children.  We want to make as many decisions for them as possible before we die so they don’t have to make decisions while grieving.  The reason we chose these particular plots right on the road is so our children can do drive-by visits.  They can stop the car, throw a rock onto the marker and be off in less than thirty seconds.  I’m kidding- at least I hope I am kidding…

My point is that this cemetery, just like every other Jewish cemetery, has two purposes.  The first is to provide a peaceful and well- maintained resting place for our beloved dead.  The importance of this task cannot be overestimated.  One of the critical central functions of our congregation is to support and maintain our cemeteries.  It is a holy task.  That is why the cemetery endowment fund must be conservatively invested and its principal never touched.  The second is to provide us with a lovely place in which to visit our loved ones.  Each and every day, some of us can be seen visiting the graves of family and friends, remembering how much they meant to us and how they enriched our lives.  Some people bring tokens of affection to leave at the grave.  I recall that when my father visited his father’s grave between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he poured a shot or two of whiskey onto the grave, remembering how much his father would enjoy it.  It was a small but significant act of love of a son for his father.

The question for us is why do we visit the cemetery now?  Why between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?  The earliest answer comes from the early seventeenth century authority, Rabbi Moses Isserles, the rabbi whose commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, Ha-Mapah) the compendium of Jewish law, made it the definitive legal code for Ashkenazic Jews.  Rabbi Isserles wrote:  “On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, it is the custom of many communities to go (after morning prayers) to the cemetery to pray at the graves of the righteous and give charity to the poor.”  A century later, Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886), in his work, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (chapter 128, paragraph 13) writes (Art Scroll translation), “to arouse the holy righteous ones who are interred there in the earth to advocate for our good on the Day of Judgment. Additionally, because it is the burial place of the righteous, this place is holy and pure and prayer is more readily accepted there since it is on holy ground and the Holy One, blessed is He, will act with kindness in the merit of the righteous.”

With this statement, Rabbi Ganzfried recognizes the existence of an age old superstition of imploring the dead to intercede with God on our behalf.  He notes the danger of this in the next paragraph when he writes: “However, one should not direct his heart toward the dead that lie there because this borders on being included in the prohibition, “Requesting assistance from the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:11). Rather, one should request from God, Blessed be He, that He should have mercy on him in the merit of the deceased righteous.

Rabbi Ganzfried is telling us to avoid the sin of ancestor worship in which we pray to our dead rather than to God.  The traditional attitude of Judaism was not to encourage excessive grave visitation. The rabbis were apprehensive that frequent visiting to the cemetery might become a pattern of living, thus preventing the bereaved from placing their dead in proper perspective. They wanted to prevent making the grave a sort of totem, at which the mourner would pray to the dead rather than to God, and thereby be violating one of the cardinal principles of Judaism: that God is One and that there are no intermediaries between a person and her God.

There is no rule of thumb as to the annual frequency of such visitation, excepting that we should avoid the extremes of constant visitation on the one hand, and of complete disregard on the other.  Jewish tradition discourages excessive mourning and constant cemetery visitations, especially if it becomes an impediment to a return to life. The prophet Jeremiah (22:10) proclaims: “Weep ye not [too much] for the dead.” Wisely, though, Jewish practice provides for a regular, structured, communal expression of reminiscence, through yahrzeit and Yizkor.

In general, Jewish law seeks to encourage mourners to concentrate on bonding with life as opposed to dwelling on the deceased. There is a defined and structured mourning period intended to help mourners cope with the loss of a loved one, but be prepared to enter ordinary life shortly following the conclusion of the mourning period.

The wisdom of our Tradition in giving us structured and formalized time to mourn for our dead while encouraging us to cleave to the living amazes me with its psychological brilliance.  It acknowledges our loss and encourages our tears while saying, gently but surely, “It is time to live.  We remember and still love our beloved dead while extending all our energy to making life better for the living.”  That is, says our Tradition, the best way to honor our dead- to make life better for the living.  During these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, may we re-dedicate ourselves to our holy task of repairing our broken world. May God give us the wisdom and strength to continue our holy work.

Amen

 

 

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Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning 5778, September 21, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

1 Tishri, 5778 – September 21, 2017

Shana Tova!  Welcome to Temple Oheb Shalom as we mark the beginning of the year 5778.  Sally and I personally wish you and yours a healthy, happy and sweet New Year for us, our families, the Jewish people and the all humanity.  This is our nineteenth Rosh HaShanah together.  We have lived through these last two tumultuous decades.  There are many who are missing, no longer sitting in their regular seats.  We miss them and mourn for them.  Their stories are part of our greater congregational story that began 164 years ago in downtown Baltimore.  We have changed so much since then and will continue to change, for that is one of the most important messages of Rosh HaShanah.  We must continue to evolve and grow in order to survive and thrive.  Despite the imperative to change, so many of us resist it.  Let me tell you a story that illustrates this fact.

A man was walking through an elephant camp, and he spotted that the elephants weren’t being kept in cages or held by the use of chains. All that was holding them back from escaping the camp, was a small piece of rope tied to one of their legs. As the man gazed upon the elephants, he was completely confused as to why the elephants didn’t just use their strength to break the rope and escape the camp. They could easily have done so, but instead they didn’t try to at all. Curious and wanting to know the answer, he asked a trainer nearby why the elephants were just standing there and never tried to escape.  The trainer replied: “WHEN THEY ARE VERY YOUNG AND MUCH SMALLER WE USE THE SAME SIZE ROPE TO TIE THEM AND, AT THAT AGE, IT’S ENOUGH TO HOLD THEM. AS THEY GROW UP, THEY ARE CONDITIONED TO BELIEVE THEY CANNOT BREAK AWAY. THEY BELIEVE THE ROPE CAN STILL HOLD THEM, SO THEY NEVER TRY TO BREAK FREE.” The only reason that the elephants weren’t breaking free and escaping from the camp was because over time they adopted the belief that it just wasn’t possible.

Like the elephants, so many of us believe that change is too difficult, that we are too old to change or too set in our ways.  I assure you that it is never too late to evolve and thrive. We continue to grow until the moment we die.  We can change our behavior and free ourselves from old habits and conditioning.  That is the essential message of these High Holydays and this Rosh Hashanah.

This country has experienced so much change over this last year.  It has become apparent to practically everyone that Donald Trump is unfit to be President of the United States.  We are fortunate that the constitutional system of checks and balances seems to be working and that our government has not descended into chaos.  Mr. Trump reached a new low just a month ago in his remarks about Charlottesville, when he said there was a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and the majority of good people who marched against them.  There are no good people who march with Nazis.  Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, Klu Klux Klansmen and other hate mongers are, by definition, evil.  It is amazing to me that Mr. Trump could find goodness among the same people who would, without batting an eye, throw his Jewish grandchildren into the ovens.  Services were being held on Shabbat morning in our sister synagogue in Charlottesville when worshippers heard shouts of “Sieg Heil!” “There’s the synagogue” and “Don’t let the Jews replace us!” Many went out to see white men carrying flags with swastikas and several dressed in fatigues and carrying semi-automatic rifles standing across the street from the synagogue.  Later that day, a clean cut young man plowed his car into peaceful protestors and killed an innocent young woman.  The leadership of the synagogue took the precaution of removing their Torahs, including the Holocaust scroll, from their ark.

It is hard to believe that these scenes were not from Kristallnacht in 1938 Germany but the United States in 2017.  We have always known the danger that White Supremacists presented but, after being given tacit approval by the President of the United States, never have they been so emboldened.  The leaders of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbinical associations have refused to hold the usual pre-Rosh Hashanah call with the president this year saying “We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.”[i]

The enemies of the Jewish people and for that matter, of the United States of American, come from three directions.  There is real danger coming from the far right.  Extremists in Europe have organized under the banner of political parties as they have in Greece, Hungary, and France.  “In some cases, they lionize 20th century fascists, call for the registry of Jews, deny the Holocaust and rant about Jewish power and influence.”  Their kindred spirits in the United States are the White Supremacists who pine for an America of “blood and soil,” a Nazi euphemism for the annihilation of all non-Northern European whites.[ii]    The far left is our enemy as well.  Many on the far left have a real problem with only one country on earth- Israel.  They deny Israel the same right to exist they give to Albania, Botswana, and Laos.  They ignore human rights violations in Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea concentrating only on aberrations in Israel.  They would grant the Palestinians the right to self-determination but not grant it to Jews.  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said last year, “Antisemitism means denying the right of Jews to exist collectively as Jews with the same rights as everyone else.  Anti-Semitism takes different forms but it remains the same thing:  the view that Jews have no right to exist as free and equal human beings.”[iii]   The greatest physical threat to Jews are the Islamic jihadists.  “Every fatal attack against Jews in Europe in recent years has been carried out by Islamic extremists.”[iv]  Islamic extremism has various manifestations in both Shia and Shiite varieties.  Whether Hamas, ISIS, Al Qaeda, or Hezbollah, they all work for a world without Jews.  Their patron, Iran, strives for a world without Israel.  As my grandmother would say, “Es is schwer zu sein a Yid” or in English “It’s hard to be a Jew.”

The tragedy is we make it harder for ourselves.  Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. There is, for example, little inter-action between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Baltimore.  During the week we rent our religious school and modular units to Ohr Chadash Academy, an Orthodox day school.  They are good tenants but for every assembly of any kind, they insist we set up chairs in the Blaustein Auditorium rather than meet in this Sanctuary or the Gordon Chapel.  Why?  Because to enter either space would acknowledge the authenticity of our expression of Judaism, something they fervently deny.  Let me share a brief anecdote with you.  Many years ago, Governor Ehrlich gave out the first homeland security grants to Jewish institutions in the Greenebaum Sanctuary.  Every Orthodox rabbi in town was in here, waiting to receive his check.  They walked right up to this bima to shake Governor Ehrlich’s hand and take the check.  I leave the moral of the story up to you.

In January, 2016, the Netanyahu government entered into an agreement with the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Reform and Conservative movements, and Women of the Wall to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem.  Just two months ago, the government yielded to the demands of the seventeen Orthodox members of the Knesset and annulled the agreement. Since then the religious police at the Kotel have inappropriately searched female Reform rabbinic students for allegedly hiding Torah scrolls under their skirts. The Supreme Court of Israel recently gave the government two weeks to come up with an acceptable solution to this egregious situation.

It is now public knowledge that Oheb Shalom and Har Sinai are “dating.”  These two historic congregations are actively seeking merger.  This is the fourth time during my tenure we have had these discussions but the first time they are really serious.  Why now?  Because we need each other.  Har Sinai has about three hundred family units and we have about six hundred fifty.  Not too many decades ago, we were both twice this size.  We have lost members due to natural causes but primarily through apathy.  Fewer Jews are joining synagogues and many are leaving after their children’s b’nei mitzvah.   The affiliation rate in Baltimore for non-Orthodox Jews is appalling.  Those of you who are sitting here today are the heroes.  You are the heroes who are supporting our synagogues and ensuring the survival of our Jewish community.

It has been said that we are a “community of fate rather than a community of faith.  Jews do feel a sense of shared history and common destiny…for us belonging has always been more important than believing.”[v]  The irony here is that without synagogues, without the religious community we create and strengthen, the Jewish community would not, could not, exist.  I hope the talks between Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom are successful.  It will be good for Reform Judaism and for Reform Jews to have two dynamic and strong congregations in Northwest Baltimore.  Let us not be like the elephants who refuse to break the ropes that shackle them to their past.  We can, and should, change.

Dear friends, as we stand on the threshold of this New Year, 5778, we need to look outwards as well as inwards.  We must stand up for those Americans who cannot stand up for themselves.  We need to protect the children who are protected by DACA, to protest anti-Semitism, and to stand against racism.  We will work with other minorities to protect American pluralism and diversity.  America is not built upon blood and soil but upon the idea that all people are created equal and have equal protection and opportunity under our Constitution.   We need to look inward as we strengthen our synagogues and Jewish institutions.  In this morning’s Torah reading, Abraham said to God, “Hineni, Here I am.”  Now is the time to for us to say, “Hineni.”  I am standing up for all Americans and the American ideal.  I am standing up for Reform Jewish values.  We stand up for the stranger, orphan, and widow.  We stand for the equality of all Jews.”  Join me today in saying, “Hineni” as we begin this New Year.

Amen

Shana Tova Tikateivu

 

 

[i] NY Times, August 23, 2017

[ii] David Harris, AJC, September 4, 2017

[iii] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, September 27, 2016.

[iv] David Harris, AJC, September 4, 2017.

[v] Rabbi Sid Schwarz, the Jewish Week, September 1, 2017.

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Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5778, September 20, 2017

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

1 Tishri, 5778 – 20 September, 2017

Shana Tova and welcome! Sally and I join with Cantor Braun, Rabbi Marion and our entire staff in wishing you a healthy and sweet New Year.  At this moment the words of the song, Hinei Mah Tovu Ma Nayim naturally come to my lips “How good and lovely it is” as we join together as a holy congregation to usher in the New Year, 5778.  In contrast to secular or pagan celebrations, this is not a time for unbridled revelry.  It is a time for prayer and reflection as we push the moral re-start button and begin the serious process of teshuvah, of return, that ends when the gates close on Yom Kippur.  The question is “to whom and to what do we return?”

We return to our truest selves, to the best part of our character.  We strive to be kinder, more sensitive and more responsible human beings.  We endeavor to return to God.  During these Yamim Noraim, these ten Days of Awe, we cleanse our souls and come before the Ribon HaOlam, the Master of the Universe, as humble and sinful human beings.  We struggle to remove the hate, distrust, and anger from our hearts so that we can be more empathic and understanding people.  We want to be more human and more humane.  We pray to God to help us not be indifferent to others.  We ask God to remove the hardening of our hearts so we can reach out to others.

It’s fascinating how the Hebrew letters of the year 5778 reflect the significance of our task.  It is possible to separate the tav-shin-ayin-chet that make up 5778 into two words, eit and shach or sach, depending on whether the first letter is a shin or sin.  Eit means “time.”  Shach, with a shin, means “to bow low or to sink.”  Sach, with a sin, means “to talk.”  In fact, the word for telephone in Hebrew is “Sach rachok,” literally meaning “distant conversation.”  So these Hebrew letters tell us it is time to have an internal conversation, to talk with ourselves about how we should change.  The act of teshuvah, or return, is a humbling one as we look inside of ourselves.  We bow before God and ask Adonai to forgive our trespasses and to give us the courage and fortitude to reach deeply into our souls so that we may repair the parts of ourselves that we deem to be deficient.  This is the serious process in which we are engaged between now and Yom Kippur.  Let us make the most of it.

Last month we marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana.  That day, August 31, 1997, will always be seared into our memories.  Diana was not just the princess of the United Kingdom.  She touched us all with her innate kindness, sweetness and empathy.  Sara Lyall wrote in the New York Times, “Diana was glamorous, magnetic, photogenic, mercurial, manipulative and intuitive; media victim and media perpetrator; the Real Princess of Kensington, a reality star before such a thing existed. If she is a less defining figure to the generation that has grown up since her death, she still is an object of fascination for the generations who were stunned when she died two decades ago, at the age of 36.”[i]  What touched me most when thinking of her was an article I read in the Baltimore Sun in late July (July 25, page 7).  Let me quote the article for you because it has a direct connection to why we are here:

“It was a typical phone call between two boys and their mother, who was on vacation in France.  It was brief; the boys wanted to get back to playing with their cousins, not spend time on the phone chatting.  The brevity of that 1997 call haunts Prince William and Prince Harry to this day, for their mother, Princess Diana, would die in a car crash that night. “Harry and I were in a desperate rush to say good-bye.  You know, ‘See you later.’  If I’d known now, obviously, what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have been so blasé about it and everything else,” said William, then 15, in a new documentary.  “That phone call sticks in my mind quite heavily.”  Harry, then 12, said the final chat with his mother is something he will regret forever.  “It is incredibly hard.  I’ll have to sort of deal with that for the rest of my life.  Not knowing that was the last time I was going to speak to my mum.  How different that conversation would have panned out if I’d had even the slightest inkling her life was going to be taken that night.” William concluded his remarks by saying, “She’d be a lovely grandmother.  She’d absolutely love it, she’d love the children to bits.”

The great theologian Martin Buber recounted an incident in his life that he forever regretted.  He was in his study when one of his graduate students came to see him.  The student was agitated and needed to talk but Buber was too pre-occupied with his own work to focus on his student.  After a cursory conversation, the student left his office.  The next day, Buber learned that his student had taken his own life.  Buber forever blamed himself. He was haunted by the possibility that if he had been more attentive, less selfish, and more giving, perhaps the student would not have died.

Dear friends, let us have a conversation with ourselves and with those we love.  Let us try to live in the moment, to be present for each and every one.  It is a terrible burden to live with regret.  I began this sermon with the word, HineiHinei can be translated as how, but its usual meaning is “here.”  Let us be here, be present, for our family, friends, and community so that in this New Year of 5778, we will not live with regret for the rest of our lives.  We pray that this year will be one of health, love, and sweetness for us all.

Amen and Shana Tova

[i] NY Times, August 30, 2017

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