Sermon for Erev Shabbat, July 8, 2016

Our rabbis teach us that only a tsaddik, a righteous one, dies on Shabbat.  So it should be no surprise to us that Elie Wiesel died on a Shabbat.  This great man, sage, teacher, and defender of human dignity was, in the words of Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, “a hero of the Jewish people and a giant of all humanity.”  Elie Wiesel’s humanity touched us and all peoples.  He stood for truth and fought against evil his entire life.  He reminded us that “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference.  The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference…To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”  Elie Wiesel was a living witness to the greatest horror human beings inflicted upon one another- the Shoah.  He protested against genocide everywhere and would not allow us to forget the most vulnerable among us.

Elie Wiesel was the author of over sixty books and countless articles. Central to his work was reconciling the concept of a benevolent God with the evil of the Shoah. Even so, he never abandoned Judaism and became even more fervent as he aged.  He often davened in Chasidic shuls in Brooklyn and Israel. “If I have problems with God,” he once said, “why should I blame Shabbat?”  He was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.  In his acceptance speech he said, “Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, we must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor; never the victim.”  He courted controversy when, in 1985 at a White House ceremony at which he accepted the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, “he tried to dissuade President Reagan from taking time from a planned trip to West Germany to visit a military cemetery in Bitburg, where members of Hitler’s elite SS were buried.  ‘That place, Mr. President, is not your place.  Your place is with victims of the SS.”[i]  Elie Wiesel became known for “speaking truth to power.”

The first chairman of the United States Holocaust Commission, he dedicated the United States Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D. C.  His words are carved at the entrance, “For the dead and living, we must bear witness.”  Elie Wiesel was a witness to and a victim of the systematic slaughter of over six million Jewish people, including his mother, father, and two sisters.

Born in Sighet, Rumania in 1928, his father encouraged him to learn Modern Hebrew and to read the works of Freud.  His mother taught him the stories of the Chasidic masters.  In the spring of 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary and put the 15,000 Jews of Sighet in cattle cars.  The young Wiesel spent the next year in Auschwitz and Buchenwald until he was finally liberated by American G.I.s on April 11, 1945.  The now 16 year old was orphaned and, with 400 other Jewish orphans, was sent to a home in Normandy where he was cared for by a Jewish organization.  He mastered French, enrolled in the Sorbonne and became a journalist, writing for a French newspaper, L’Arche.  In 1948, the paper sent him to Israel to cover the War of Independence.  He also became the Paris correspondent for the Israeli daily, Yediot Achronot.  He wrote “Night” in 1956.  The publishers, Hill and Wang, offered him a mere $100 for the rights to the book.  It was only after the Eichmann trial in 1960 that the world was ready to hear about the Shoah.  Wiesel began to personify the Holocaust survivor and spoke for so many who were silent.  For the last forty five years he served first as a professor at City College in New York and then at Boston University.  He still was not personally immune to suffering.  He was struck by a car in New York and spent a year in a wheel chair.  He was attacked several times by unstable people and Holocaust deniers.  Mr. Wiesel invested his foundation’s endowment as well as his family’s personal savings with a fellow congregant at a New York Orthodox synagogue.  He and his wife lost millions and his Foundation for Humanity lost $15 million when Bernard Madoff’s investment strategy turned out to be a Ponzi scheme.

I first met Elie Wiesel through his writings.  As a college sophomore in 1970, I remember reading Night in just one sitting.  I was not able to put it down.  Almost two decades later, I received a gift from one of my congregants who was then on the United States Holocaust Commission.  Arthur Davis shared my Rosh Hashanah sermon with Elie Wiesel who wrote this note to him (read note).  I had it framed and it still hangs in my study.  It is one of my most prized possessions.

Most people think of Elie Wiesel as a universalist, a person concerned about all of humanity and the human condition.  Like many Jews, he was concerned with the weak, poor and oppressed.  He was an advocate for justice and decency for all peoples.  Yet, and this we sometimes forget, he came to his universalism through his Jewish identity.  My favorite quotation of his is “The more Jewish the poet, the more universal his message.  The more Jewish his soul, the more human his concerns.  A Jew who does not feel for his fellow Jews, who does not share in their sorrows and joys, cannot feel for other people.  And a Jew who is concerned with his fellow Jews is inevitably concerned with the fate of other people as well.”  There are so many secular Jews whom we know who deride our concern for the Jewish people as mere parochial sentiment. They believe we should be concerned about all humanity, not just one small group of people.  What our friends forget is that “the effort to embrace humanity in general is as foolhardy as the attempt to speak in general without using any language in particular.  Judaism is the particular language through which Jews address humanity.  Although our Bible originates out of the needs, intuitions, and revelations of a particular people, its wisdom and ethics burst into the domain of humanity.”[ii]

While in the gulag of the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky became aware that the struggle for Jewish freedom was linked to the freedom of Pentecostals, Catholics, Tatars, and Ukrainians.  He wrote “Only he who understands his own identity and already has become a free person can work effectively for the rights of others.”[iii]  When Elie Wiesel became a leading advocate for the Soviet Jewry, he also embraced concern for the needs of other oppressed people.  “If you try to start everywhere at once, you get nowhere, but if you start with a single person, someone near to you, you can come nearer to the other.” With these words he echoes Hillel who wrote these well-known words (Pirke Avot 1:14), “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”  “Like charity, compassion begins at home, but does not end there.”[iv]

Elie Wiesel was a model of what it means to be a Jewish human being.  He was intensely Jewish and saw the world through Jewish eyes.  Those sad eyes made him constantly aware of the dangers of indifference and the need to speak out on behalf of the silent.  Through his Jewish particularism, he became a prophet for all of humanity.

Rav Kook, the late chief rabbi of Israel, captured this paradigm of identity when he wrote what could have been a eulogy for Elie Wiesel, “There is one who sings the songs of his own self, and in himself finds everything.  Then there is the one who sings the song of his people and cleaves with a tender love to Israel.  And there is one whose spirit is in all worlds and with all of them does he join in his song- the song of the self, the song of one’s people, the song of man, the song of the world- they all merge within him continually.  And this song, in its completeness and its fullness, is to become the song of holiness.”


Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] N Y Times, July 3, 2016

[ii] Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Jewish Journal, December 19, 2014.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat, July 1, 2016

I am absolutely delighted to be back on the bima of this distinguished congregation and to be officiating with my good friend, Cantor Robert Gerber, as we continue an almost century old custom of the Union Service, started by Har Sinai, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Temple Oheb Shalom when we were all within a mile of each other on the West Side of Baltimore and later, when we were located on Park Heights Avenue.  I lament that Baltimore Hebrew no longer participates in this summer tradition but rejoice that we are able to celebrate Shabbat, pray and learn together.

As we celebrate the 240th anniversary of our country’s independence from Great Britain, we live in a state of high anxiety.  The ramifications of Brexit are still resonating throughout the world economy.  Business likes predictability and even though the markets have rebounded since the vote, no one can accurately foresee the ultimate effect of Britain’s leaving the EU on the world economy.  We do know that the pound and Euro will be lower in relation to the dollar for quite some time.  This makes tourism to Britain and the Continent a relative bargain but also makes American exports more expensive, increasing our trade gap.  We do know that the only ones rejoicing over Britain’s vote are the Russians, who view any European weakness as an advantage as they continue to economically and militarily threaten Eastern Europe.

Brexit narrowly passed the British electorate but, as I read this morning, its vote is advisory, not mandatory.  In other words, the next British government may not heed the results of the vote and may decide to stay in the Common Market.  Regardless of what happens, we are more concerned this evening with the fear fueled anger that caused British voters to reject affiliation with the EU.  Most British voters say they approved Brexit because of concerns regarding immigration and national autonomy.  This new populism rejects multi-culturalism, internationalism, and globalization.  Many who embraced Brexit are those who have been hurt by the globalization of the world’s economy, especially by the elimination of manufacturing jobs that used to provide millions with a secure middle class life.  It is no different in these United States, where millions see in Donald Trump’s candidacy a rejection of international trade, immigrants and immigration, and globalization.  They want a return to an “American first” policy, one that historians tell us was one of the root causes of the Great Depression, when countries put up trade barriers against imports.  I am not here to debate those policies, but simply to reflect that neo-populism has risen in almost every country in the Western world.  Its refrain is the same whether in Austria, Great Britain, or the United States.  It is nationalistic (even tribalistic), anti-immigrant, and anti-free trade.

Jews have never done well in this kind of environment.  We thrive in a cosmopolitan, open environment where ideas and opportunities cross borders and where people can thrive based on their talent, not on their religious or racial make-up. It is this same fear that haunted our ancestors in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-lecha. Fear of the future and the idealization of the past is what our ancestors have in common with the populists of today.  Needless to say, our Tradition tells us that God is on the side of those who are hopeful and have faith in the future.  Allow me to explain.

God told Moses to send twelve spies, one from each tribe, to explore the land of Canaan.  Moses said to them (Numbers 13: 17-20), “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell there strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns they live in open or fortified?  Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?  And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”  The spies scouted the land from South to North, from the Negev all the way to Syria.  At the end of forty days they returned and said to Moses (Numbers 13:32-33), “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.  However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there.”  They then went on to say, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people we saw in it are of great size.  We saw the Nephilim there- the Anakites are part of the Nephilim- and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves- and so we must have looked to them.”

Among the spies only Joshua and Caleb were optimistic.  They urged the people to go forward and invade the land.  They believed that if they had faith in God and the future they would succeed.  The other ten spies caused the people to lose hope.  They railed against Moses and Aaron and said, “Let us head back to Egypt!”  They would not embrace the future and preferred to return to the idealized past of slavery. “It wasn’t so bad to be slaves,” they said to themselves.  “Better that then die at the hands of some giants.”  The fear and faithlessness of the ten spies condemned that entire generation to death in the Wilderness.  Among the adults, God said only Joshua and Caleb would survive to inherit the future and lead the people into the new land.  Israel would have to wait until a new generation, one which came of age in the Wilderness, born into freedom rather than slavery, would inherit the land.  The ten spies and all their followers viewed themselves as being inadequate to face the future.  They seemed “like grasshoppers to themselves.”  Joshua and Caleb knew the future was daunting but understood that they had the resources and the confidence to pursue it.

“Ultimately, the question posed by the text is whether what we imagine possible is limited to what we see before us or whether we can discern possibilities not immediately apparent to the eye.  In more traditional theological language, the challenge is “whether to trust the bare word of God’s promise or to have our vision limited by the observable realities before us.  Joshua and Caleb do not dispute the acts communicated by their ten colleagues but they trust that God is with them and that God will give them the land.”[i]

Dear friends, so it is with us today.  We cannot return to an “idealized” past but must go forward to an uncertain future.  After all, the past was not that great.  While there may be some attraction to living in the world of the fifties or sixties, I would much prefer to live in an egalitarian age in which there is no legal discrimination against Jews, blacks, women or gays.  I prefer to live in a world of modern medicine and one in which we recognize the danger of climate change. I prefer to live in a world in which my daughter and gay son have the same opportunities as my straight son. I prefer to embrace the future and all its challenges rather than return to a past in which Jews were marginalized and did not have equal rights.  Just like Joshua and Caleb, we need to accept that fear of the unknown is a given in life.  With faith in God and with a healthy dose of confidence, we shall go forward and meet all the challenges the future will bring.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Shai Held, Machon Hadar, Commentary on Shelach-lecha, 2015

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Remarks upon Rabbi Scott Nagel’s Departure, June 3, 2016

This is a bitter-sweet moment for all of us here tonight as well as for hundreds of others who could not join us.  We formally bid farewell to Rabbi Scott Nagel and the entire Nagel family.  It is bitter because we will miss them very much.  It is sweet because we know they are beginning a wonderful new chapter in their lives.  Rabbi Scott Nagel came here twelve years ago upon being ordained from the Hebrew Union College.  When our committee went to New York to interview graduating rabbinic students to replace Rabbi Eric Stark, we immediately knew he was the one.  Rabbi Nagel and I fell in love.  We have had a “bro-mance” for more than a decade.  Just as in a marriage, we have had our ups and downs- but we have always loved each other.  We have been great partners, complimenting and pushing one another for the betterment of Oheb Shalom.  We never expected the Nagels to stay as long as they did.  We thought they would be here five or six years tops.   Yet this match was one made in heaven.  Rabbi Nagel served Oheb Shalom longer than any other assistant or associate rabbi in our 163 history.  Two years ago, the congregation rewarded him with the title “rabbi.”  No longer would he have the letters “ass” before his name.

The Nagels grew up here.  They arrived when Daniel was just a baby.  Three weeks from now we will be celebrating his becoming a bar mitzvah.  We have reveled in Lev and Ari’s birth and growth.  Rabbi Randi Nagel embraced our Temple family. She is a gifted teacher, preacher and pastor in her own right and has made significant contributions to our synagogue and the entire Jewish community.  It is not possible within our limited amount of time to enumerate all of Scott and Randi’s achievements.  Let us just say that Oheb Shalom would not be the vibrant, exciting and warm place it is today without them. They have been an integral part of this community. We will certainly not be the same without them.

The family name “Nagel” comes from the German and Yiddish meaning “nail.” This indicates that Scott’s antecedents were probably carpenters.  How fitting that his name means “builder.”  He led the team that has made our religious school pre-eminent in greater Baltimore.  He is the founding father of BEIT-RJ.  He has impacted thousands of people and built deep and abiding relationships which will survive time and distance.

My wife, Sally, our Director of Life Long Learning, and I have come up with a little ditty to celebrate this moment:

S is for Scott, a rabbi, teacher, story teller, comedian, engineer, fisherman, actor, pastor, son, brother, husband, and father and good friend.

C is for courageous.  Rabbi Nagel has stepped out of his comfort zone and taken us with him to unimaginable heights.

O is for outlandish.  He will do almost anything to make us laugh and facilitate our having fun. He believes that Judaism should be joyous and, indeed, it is.

T is for time.  Over the last twelve years, he has grown from a young adult into a man.  He is now completely ready to be the senior rabbi of a major congregation.

T is for tinkerer.  Scott can fix a boat, build a treehouse and heal the human heart.  For the last twelve years, he has tinkered with every aspect of our congregational program and our building. He is the only rabbi to have a grasp of our heating, cooling, computer, and sound systems. Wait till he gets his hands on Beth Ahabah’s 112 year old building!  He is remarkable man.

N is for the Nagels, the family which is now permanently engraved upon our hearts.

A is for adored.  We adore Rabbis Scott and Randi, Daniel, Lev, and Ari.

G is for God.  Randi and Scott have brought God into our lives and helped to make God’s presence manifest to us.

E is for excellence.  Oheb Shalom rabbis strive for excellence in every way.  Rabbis Nagel have never given us anything less than that.

L is for luck, learning, and love.  We were very lucky to have the Nagels for these last twelve years. Their passion for Jewish learning is contagious.  We are a stronger and more learned congregation because of them. We love them and know they will always love us in return.  The people of Richmond will be lucky to have them.  Indubitably, they will fall in love with them just as we have.

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Remarks for Yom HaShoah, April 29, 2016

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

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

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


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Rabbi’s Annual Report, December 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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A Second Chance, September 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom and Chag sameach

[i] NY Times, September 23, 2015.

[ii] Ibid.

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Sermon for Yom Kippur Yizkor Service, September 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova

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