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

Remarks for Rabbi Scott Nagel’s Installation

Beth Ahabah, Richmond, Virginia

November 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, October 14, 2016

The Journey

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

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

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

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

Birth is a beginning and death a destination.

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

From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;

From foolishness to discretion and then perhaps to wisdom;

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

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

From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,

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

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

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

But in having made the journey, stage by stage,

A sacred pilgrimage.

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

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

To life everlasting.

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

[ii] Ibid, page 96.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Kein y’hi ratson– may it be Your will

 

And let us say: Amen

 

 

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

[ii] Page 233.

[iii] Page 244

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Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5777, October 12, 2016

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

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

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Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5777, October 11, 2016

Shana Tova and G’mar Chatima Tova!  Sally and our family joins me in wishing each and every one of you a happy and healthy New Year.  We pray that this will be a year of health and peace for us and all Israel.  This is our chai year, our 18th year together.  As we look out among us, there are so many new faces, those whom we do not recognize.  I urge you to take a moment now and introduce yourself to someone near you whom you do not know and wish them a sweet new year.

Many of us have been to Italy or have seen Italian art in one of our great museums.  From antiquity on, the Italians, like the Greeks before them, created magnificent pieces of visual art.  Much of Italian art is religious, meaning Christian in nature, since it was commissioned by the Church.  It wasn’t until the Renaissance when art and religion became disentangled.  It was during this time that the leaders of Florence commissioned Michelangelo to complete his magnificent David, a seventeen foot high sculpture which the artist began in 1501 and completed in 1504.  The 16th century painter Giorgio Vasari wrote of David, “When all was finished, it cannot be denied that this work has carried off the palm from all other statues, modern or ancient, Greek or Latin; no other artwork is equal to it in any respect, with such just proportion, beauty and excellence did Michelangelo finish it.” 

When we look at David from a distance, the word that comes to our lips is “perfect.”  How could a mere human create something so divinely beautiful?  The truth is, however, that David is not perfect.  In fact, the sculpture is deeply flawed.  When one looks closely, he notices that David’s face is “pocked with holes which restorers had filled in, and that he was missing a small chip of stone from one of his lower eyelids, and that his right little toe had been lost multiple times and that a mentally ill person had taken a hammer to his left foot in 1991.  Although the David’s maladies were mostly patched up over the centuries, you could still see the scars.”[i]  David’s imperfections are even worse than cosmetic.  “The trouble is the David’s ankles. They are cracked.  Italians first discovered this weakness in the 19th century but it was not until two years ago that a team of Italian geoscientists published a report that stated if the David were to be tilted 15 degrees, his ankles would fail.  The seed of the problem, scientists tell us, is in the statue’s design”[ii]

Isn’t this the essence of the human predicament?  We are practically perfect when we are born, but as we get older the scars from physical illnesses and emotional hurts accumulate.  Our souls are pock marked with the residue of pain and trauma.  Our limbs are hampered by the detritus of time.  While from a distance the David seems whole, as we approach him we see his imperfections.  So it is with us.  On the surface, everything may seem just lovely, but as we engage in cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, we realize how much is broken, how many cracks there are that did not exist before.  The further we delve into the recesses of our psyches, we come to understand that wholeness and brokenness cannot be separated from one another.   “Only a sincere encounter with this brokenness will allow us to put ourselves back together again, more whole than before.”[iii]

Just think for a moment of the sounds of the shofar we heard on Rosh Hashanah.  The first is the unwavering sound of the Tekiah.  This represents wholeness.  The second is the three notes of the Shevarim which signifies vulnerability.  The third, the nine staccato notes of Teruah, remind us of our brokenness. [iv] The last of the notes, the Tikiah Gedolah, the one long blast of the horn, symbolizes that after the process of emotional dissembling and re-assembling is complete, we are more whole than before.  Brokenness may even allow us to become closer to God.

The psalmist wrote (34:19), “God is close to the broken hearted.”  Another psalm (51:19), tell us, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.”  The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, wrote, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”  “When we dismantle our armor and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, only then can we open ourselves to feel raw emotion, to call out for help, and to make ourselves available for transformation.”[v]

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.”  Our holy task as human beings is to engage in tikun olam, the repair of this broken world.  To be human is to live among brokenness while participating in the sacred work of healing.  We must engage in fixing ourselves while simultaneously repairing the world around us.  Jews, even Jews who are hurting and sad, are not allowed the extravagance of sitting idly by while others are in pain.  When we act to change the world for the better, we make ourselves better as well.

Yom Kippur tells us that we have the power to alter even the most egregious of our behaviors.  The message of these High Holydays is that the past does not necessarily determine the future.  If we make a sincere effort to transform ourselves, God will respond. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God is willing to act in new ways in response to Israel’s new behavior.  The prophet calls for Israel to repent saying (18:11) “I am devising disaster for you and laying plans against you.  Turn back, each of you, from your wicked ways and actions.”  God has a plan, but God’s plan can change…the people’s repentance elicits a Divine change of heart.  Tomorrow afternoon we will read from the Book of Jonah.  Jonah called upon the king and the inhabitants of Nineveh to repent.  God saw they changed their ways and so God did not carry out what He had planned.  “Jeremiah and Jonah express a key principle of Biblical theology, that human response evokes Divine change…the God of the Bible profoundly respects human freedom and the dignity of God’s subjects.  Divine sovereignty decidedly does not entail determinism.  In the Bible, not only does God not determine the future, God does not even fully know it yet.  That is what genuine human freedom entails.”[vi]

Some of us come here tonight in despair.  We are physically and emotionally shattered.  We look at the world as being irreparably broken.  Even in the midst of our anguish, we are not allowed the luxury of hopelessness.  “The choices we make and the paths we take really can affect the future of our world.  To live with God, the prophets, tell us, is to live in a world in which the future always remains open.”[vii]

The David may be damaged but that does prevent us from admiring its magnificent beauty.  Like all of us, even the most flawless sculpture in the world is blemished.   We live in a world of brokenness.  Yet we should not despair, for our future is not determined…our future is not yet determined.

Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova.

 

[i] Sam Anderson, NY Times, August 21, 2016.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Sh’ma, June 2016.

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Rabbi Shai Held, Torah commentary, Shoftim, August 26, 2014.

[vii] Ibid

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Sermon for Oheb Shalom Memorial Park 5777, October 9, 2016

Exactly two months ago, Sally, our son Benjamin, my sister Nancy, brother in law Eric and I engaged in a journey of discovery.  Besides learning about Irish whiskey and beer, we were looking for traces of Sally’s grandfather, Nathan Shallman.  The young, lone Nathan left the port of Memel in Lithuania and sailed to Ireland where the family story has it that, as an enterprising teen ager, he sold Christian “tchotchkes” to the locals.  Forced out of Limerick in 1904 by Ireland’s only recorded pogrom, he went to Cork and then Dublin, where he finally departed for the United States, ending up in Chicago where he married and had two sons, one of whom was Sally’s father.

I tell you this story because that is why we made our way on a foggy morning in August to Limerick’s Jewish cemetery. My brother in law was certain we were wasting our time and would never find it, but after interviewing several cemetery workers at the main city cemetery, we were directed to a very small Jewish cemetery a few blocks away.  The lawn was mowed by the city workers but several of the eleven graves, those without names, were overgrown with weeds.  The last burial, a Jewish professor from the local university, took place in 2005.   There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Limerick since the pogrom over a hundred years ago.  Sally had researched the archives of the Irish Jewish community and could find no mention of her grandfather.  Nor did any of the nine graves with names bear any relation to her grandfather.

So, was our trip in vain?  Not really, because my sister and I pulled out the weeds and tidied up the graves of the anonymous Jews buried there. Then the five of us stood at the grave of an unnamed Jewish woman buried in the thirties and said Kaddish for her and the ten others in the cemetery.  Who knows the last time this had occurred?  My brother in law, who was so skeptical about even finding the cemetery, cried as we recited the ancient words.

Why was Eric so moved by this simple act?  I am not really sure but I think it was because he understood the timeless importance of a simple gesture of remembrance.

Every morning we say the words, “These are things that are limitless of which a person enjoys the fruit of this world while the principal remains in the world to come.”  Among these things is “accompanying the dead for burial” or in general, giving honor to the deceased, which we call “Kevod HaMeit.”  That is exactly what we are doing this morning by visiting our dead at this sacred space and by saying Kaddish for them.  According to the rabbis, we will be rewarded for this mitzvah in this world as well as in the next.  Rashi, the 11th century commentator, wrote “The kindness that is shown to the dead is a chesed shel emet, a true kindness, for one does not expect to be repaid for this act.”  “When we do favors for others, part of us hopes that the recipient of our kindness will someday be in a position to help us.  For obvious reasons, however, when we help the dead our motives are untainted.”[i]  We come to this hallowed ground to remember, we remind ourselves of how much those lying here meant to us as we pay our respects to those who gave us so much of their love.  We certainly hope that someday our loved ones will do this for us, but this does not determine our motivation for being here this morning.  Our very presence is a chesed shel emet, a true kindness for which we will never be repaid.

In just a few minutes we shall say Kaddish for our loved ones and then visit their graves.  As we pull up the few stray weeds and tidy up their gravesites, we do so not as obligation but as a true act of kindness.  Even though our motives are untainted, for this we will be rewarded in this world and in the next.

Kein y’hi ratson– may this be God’s will and let us say:

Amen

[i] Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph, The Book of Jewish Values, page 432.

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Israel Bonds Appeal, 2016-5777

Many of us have had some serious disagreements with Israel’s current government.  This is the most right wing government in Israel’s history.  Its ideological bent is indicated by the composition of the cabinet, its settlement policies, and most relevant for us, its refusal to honor the agreement to allow egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, the Western Wall, an agreement voted on and approved by the government last January.  In the last few months, non-Orthodox Jews have also been prohibited from using mikvaot, making it impossible for Reform and Conservative rabbis to use them for conversions or for brides to immerse prior to their weddings.  To make matters even worse, the Rabbanut, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, refuses to recognize the conversions of even the most prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States.  The Israeli government and its rabbinic flunkies seem bent on erecting walls between us rather than building bridges to connect us.

Despite our feelings about this current government, we love the Jewish people and the State of Israel.  Our support for Israel Bonds is not and should not be predicated upon our like or dislike of any particular government.  The $1 Billion raised by Israel Bonds in this country annually supports the building of crucial infrastructure in Israel, such as water desalinization plants, railroads, and research facilities.  It is crucial to the growth of Israel’s economy and Israel attracting major international business.  Sally and I recently purchased an Israel Bond on line.  I urge every single family in our congregation to buy an Israel Bond.  Please note that this is an interest paying investment, not a charitable donation.  Israel has always paid interest on its bonds.  As you will see from your pledge cards, the interest paid is better than we can currently get on any money market or CD.  Last year, 209 members of Temple Oheb Shalom purchased $798,000 of Israel Bonds, making us the fourth largest synagogue purchaser in the Baltimore Metropolitan Area.  Let us increase not just the amount purchased but the number of us who purchase bonds.  If you can’t afford to invest $100, buy a $36 bond.  This makes each of us a partner with Israel in the continued prosperity of the Jewish State.  Please note that every purchase will be 100% matched by the Associated, Bay Bank, the Haron Dahan Foundation and by Sandra R. and Malcolm C. Berman.  So, that means if we raise $800,000 today, Israel will receive $1.6 million in investment funds.

I urge you to pull back the tab on your pledge card and put it in the basket the ushers will send down each aisle.  An investment today is good for you, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel.  Let us all be partners with Israel Bonds in ensuring the health of the Jewish State.

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