Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, June 23, 2017

Be Happy! It’s Iyar!

June 23, 2017

Tonight is Rosh Chodesh, the first evening of the month of Iyar.  Summer has formerly begun and we are thinking of upcoming barbecues, vacations, and beach days.  We have bought a few books for light reading and are trying to take it easy for a little while.  Gardens are beginning to bloom and summer flowers radiate their beauty.  My garden has yielded its first delicious cucumbers with lots more on the way.  While we are enjoying the summer respite, we at Oheb Shalom and probably at every synagogue in the world, are planning for the High Holydays.  After all, Rosh Hashanah is just three months away.  Who will chant Torah?  Who will read Haftarah?  What recent b’nei mitzvah should we honor with a reading?  Have they registered for rHouse in order to be included?  That is what we are dealing with over the next couple of weeks.

If we didn’t watch the news or read the newspapers, all would be lovely.  Our country is in crisis, the homicide rate in Baltimore is reaching new highs, and from Afghanistan to Syria to London, there is just bad news.  People we love get sick, others die.  We go to funerals at least weekly.  How can we possibly be happy when there is so much suffering around us?  Our Tradition tells us that it is important for us not to look just at the darkness but at the light. Our world “contains an abundance of goodness. Most human beings are decent and law-abiding individuals. Millions of people arrive home safely every night. Hundreds of thousands of planes land every day without the slightest problem. Most children are born healthy. The sun comes up every morning, without exception. There is always enough air for everyone to breathe. Millions enjoy higher economic standards than ever experienced by their ancestors. Pain prevention has improved dramatically over time. International communication systems have brought us in touch with each other under all circumstances, wherever we live. Luxurious senior citizens homes have replaced the tragic scenes of the elderly languishing in the streets. Clearly, marriage is still seen as sacred, and helping each other is still seen as virtuous.” [i]

There is much goodness and happiness in our world.  Fortunately, our Tradition teaches us how to achieve happiness in our lives.

The famous Chasidic Rabbi, Nachman of Bratslav, taught that “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy.”  The prophet Nehemiah wrote (8:-10) almost 2,500 years ago, “Do not mourn or weep.  Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks and send some to those who have nothing prepared.  This day is sacred to our God.  Do not grieve, for the Lord is your strength.”  Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most depressing author in the Tanach, tells us to find something meaningful to do, to find a person to love, and to enjoy our food and drink.  In other words, the world may be in a terrible state, but we should try to grab whatever happiness we can when we can.

The Psalmist wrote, “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).   Every day we awake to new possibilities and new challenges.  We are enjoined to serve God with all our hearts and all our strength and strive to be happy.  So- you are thinking it’s easier said than done.  Allow me to share with you several ways we can ensure our own personal happiness.

The sages ask the question (Pirke Avot 4:1), “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”  Contentedness, which may very well be the definition of happiness, comes from the recognition that we have all we need, that we are not envious of others and that we are thankful for what we have.  This leads us to the next point, which is gratitude.  Our Tradition urges us to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  We are not promised anything when we are born, so everything we have, from the moment when we open our eyes in the morning to the ability to take our first step, is a gift from God.  That is why we say daily blessings- to thank God for literally every gift we receive.  Anyone who has had any kind of surgery knows that recovery is difficult but the end result is worthwhile.  We should be grateful that those of us still here have issues that can be medically or surgically corrected.  The rabbis tell us that we should recite one hundred blessings a day (Menachot 42b) to express our gratitude for the gifts we receive every minute of every day.

Professor Tal Ben-Shacher, in his book “Happier,” wrote, “We are so constituted that we actually need our lives to have meaning.  Without a higher purpose, a calling, an ideal, we cannot attain our full potential for happiness…for us to be happy it is not enough to experience our life as meaningful on the general level of the big picture.  We need to find meaning on the specific level of our daily existence as well.”[ii]  The well-known Dr. Victor Frankl explains (Man’s Search for Meaning), “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.  What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaningful waiting to be fulfilled by him.”  To be happy, we need to give back, to make our community and our world a little better.  Whether it is by packing backpacks here once a month, tutoring a child, making a hospital visit, or delivering Meals on Wheels, to be happy we need to find something meaningful to contribute to our society.  Regardless of how old or infirm, we can still give back.  For many years, the women of our Sisterhood, in a group affectionately known as “Knit wits,” made blankets for a homeless shelter and the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.  Everyone can find some contentment by giving back.

So we see, dear friends, that there is a formula for attaining personal happiness.  Now all we have to do is apply it to ourselves.

 

Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Nathan Lopes Cardozo, The Algemeiner, June 15, 2017

 

[ii] Rabbi Shmuly Yankelowitz, Judaism’s Value of Happiness, March 9, 2012.

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, June 9, 2017

Fifty Years Ago Today

June 9, 2017

Fifty years ago today we were sitting in front of our television sets, anxiously watching the news with Walter Cronkite.  Our eyes scanned and then read in detail every morsel of information we could get in the morning and evening newspapers.  Just four days before, Israel launched a pre-emptive air strike against the Egyptian Air Force, practically destroying it on the ground.  That strike was followed by similar strikes against the Jordanian and Syrian air forces, giving Israel air superiority over the battlefields.  This attack was preceded by several months of increased tension.  For the next few minutes, let me take you back to that time in May and June of 1967, a time that literally changed our world forever.

In a frenzy of pan-Arab solidarity, the Egyptian President, Gamel Abdel Nasser, had recently created the United Arab Republic, consolidating the armed forces of Egypt and Syria into one command structure.  He held talks with Jordan’s King Hussein, seeking to ally with Jordan in the coming struggle with Israel.  Israel entered into secret negotiations with King Hussein, alas, as we will find, to no avail.  In mid-May, Nasser ordered the UN forces in the Sinai, which had separated Israel and Egypt since 1956, to leave.  U Thant, the Secretary-General of the UN, quickly complied, leaving Israel’s Southern flank completely exposed.  To make matters even tenser, Nasser ordered the Egyptian Navy to blockade the Gulf of Aqaba, cutting off Israel’s life line to the Port of Eilat.  The situation continually escalated until, if you remember, we expected an immanent invasion of Israel and a second Shoah.  In preparation for an expected disaster, the Israelis were digging trenches around schools and even pits for mass graves.   The Israelis had a choice- to await an Egyptian attack from the south and a Syrian attack from the North or to take offensive action, which was the desire of the Israeli military.  After much discussion, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Defense Minister, and Yitzchak Rabin, Israel’s Chief of Staff, decided with the agreement of the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, to launch a pre-emptive strike against Egypt while holding the line against Syria.  Immediately after the airstrike on June 5, the Israeli armored forces began their advance into the Sinai.  The battle was over by June 8, when the Israelis reached the Suez Canal.

The Jordanians began their offensive on June 5, shelling Jerusalem and its outskirts.  Israeli forces under General Uzi Narkiss went on the offensive and pushed the Jordanians out of the West Bank by late on June 7.  Paratroopers reached the Kotel that day, reuniting the Old City with the rest of Jerusalem.  Fighting was fierce for control of Jerusalem.  Israeli casualties were high.  One of five soldiers was killed in the fighting.  On June 8, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren blew the shofar at the Kotel and held the first service there since 1948.

The Syrians did not open artillery fire against Israeli settlements in the north until June 6.  Three times that day, Syrian forces tried to take Kibbutz Dan but were repulsed in heavy fighting.  Israeli forces were moved to the north and offensive operations began in earnest on June 9.  Israeli forces captured the Golan Heights and advanced east of Kuneitra, only thirty miles from Damascus.

The fighting was over on June 10.  All three Arab countries agreed to a UN arranged cease fire.  Israelis, joined by Jews around the world, rejoiced.  David had once again beaten Goliath.  Israel’s territory more than doubled.  Immediately, however, there were warning signs that all was not to be peaceful.  Arabs once again fled from Israeli forces as they did in 1948 during what they called the Nakba, the Catastrophe.  They joined their brethren in Jordan where they still hoped to one day be able to return to their homes.  Egypt began the War of Attrition on the Sinai which melded into the Yom Kippur War.  Israel suffered from a huge case of hubris, allowing itself to be unprepared for the Egyptian and Syrian onslaught seven years later.  Jewish messianists believed the victory in the Six Day War precipitated the coming of the mashiach.  They began building settlements on the West Bank, so many that over 400,000 Jews live there today.  The settlers are calling for an Eretz Yisrael Shleima, one unified state encompassing all the West Bank and Israel.  This state of affairs leads to over six million Israelis occupying three million Palestinians in a type of Apartheid state.  The other alternative is a one state democracy in which the Arabs will eventually outnumber Jews, destroying the Jewish State.  Neither solution is tenable.

The Palestinians, too, live in a fantasy world, still hoping to return to their ancestral homes in Israel and to push over six million well-armed Jews into the sea.  This will not happen.  When Ehud Barak was Prime Minister of Israel eighteen years ago, he offered Arafat everything the Palestinians wanted, including control over East Jerusalem, with the exception of the right of Palestinian return.  Arafat, fearing loss of face and literal assassination if he signed the agreement, called for an Intifada to begin.  Even now, the Palestinians have not recognized that they need to make peace with an Israeli government and get a state on the West Bank within already agreed upon borders.  Israeli Messianists will have to reconcile themselves with reality as well.  Israel cannot continue to rule over three million Palestinians who do not vote in Israeli elections and don’t enjoy equal rights.  To do so, will condemn future generations of Israeli to continued bitter conflict with their Palestinian neighbors.

Fifty years after the Six Day War, the “matzav,” the situation, is still not resolved.  We pray that there will be a just and secure peace in our lifetimes.

Amen

 

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, April 21, 2017

Can Counting the Omer Save Western Civilization?

April 21, 2017

This sermon is entitled “Can counting the Omer save Western civilization?”  It is a rather presumptuous title for what may be an absurd idea.  Let me share with you where the idea for this sermon originated.

One of my favorite op-ed writers, David Brooks, a Jewish Republican who writes for the New York Times, recently wrote a piece (April 21, 2017) on the rise of authoritarian governments and the decline of Western liberalism.  Brooks laments that faith in the ideals of Western civilization is falling all around us and few are rising to defend Western ideals.  Brooks writes, “Western civilization has inherent values- the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated.  It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like.  It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals…the first consequence of the decline is the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only do not believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative but don’t even pretend to believe in them as former dictators did.  Over the past few years, especially, we have entered the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.”  Brooks’ point is well made.  There has been a decline in democracy across the world and few are rising to protect it.

Democracy depends upon a belief in the value of the individual, that every person has inherent rights, that we are each created in the image of our Creator.  It demands a belief that we have the ability as a community to determine our future.  Democracy tells us that the future is not fixed, it is not a re-play of the past, but is determined through the collective action in which each citizen has an important part.  Democracy, though, would be unimaginable without Jews and the Jewish experience.  Allow me to explain.

Until the time of the Exodus, which we just celebrated during Pesach, all ancient peoples believed that the present and future would just be a rewind of the past.  There was no such thing as history, just the passing of the seasons.  Nothing was more important than ensuring the winter rains so the crops would grow in the spring and be harvested in the fall, guaranteeing that the community would not starve during the long, fallow months.  With the Exodus, our ancestors changed the concept of time.  There was an unknown future whose direction and end we cannot predict.  As Thomas Cahill wrote in The Gifts of the Jews (page 131), “…for the first time the future holds out promise.  Even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future through their actions in the present.  We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate:  we are free.  If anything can happen, we are truly liberated- as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds.”

Liberation, however, was not enough.  Freedom without responsibility yields to anarchy.  From the Sea of Reeds, we journeyed to Mt. Sinai where we received the Torah.  We became bound to God and God’s law, an event we mark on Shavuot.  Cahill wrote (page 156) “…these laws remain testimony to the fact that the Jews were the first people to develop an integrated view of life and its obligations.  Rather than imagining the demands of law and the demands of wisdom as discrete realms, they imagined that all of life, having come from the Author of life, was to be governed by a single outlook.  The material and spiritual, the intellectual and the moral were one.”  Cahill goes on to say that the literary prophets encapsulated the beliefs that underpin democracy.  He says (page 239) they taught us that “There are right choices and wrong choices. To make the right choices I must consult the law of God written in my heart.  I must listen to God’s voice, which speaks not only to great leaders but to me.  I must take the I seriously.” 

Democracy could not exist without the belief in the importance of the individual, that what we do and think matters, that we have the ability to determine our individual and collective futures.  That is the great gift of the Jews, one that is being threatened by the collapse of democratic ideals around the world.  So where does the counting of the Omer fit in?

“The omer refers to the 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot. This period marks the beginning of the barley harvest when, in ancient times, we would bring the first sheaves to the Temple as a means of thanking God for the harvest. The word omer literally means “sheaf” and refers to these early offerings.

The Torah itself dictates the counting of the seven weeks following Passover: “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”  In its biblical context, this counting appears only to connect the first grain offering to the offering made at the peak of the harvest. As Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah, and not only with a celebration of agricultural bounty, the omer period began to symbolize the thematic link between Passover and Shavuot. While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one.”[i]

The counting of the Omer reminds us that we move from freedom to responsibility, from liberation to law, from God to humanity.  As the Jewish people accepts the Torah on Mt. Sinai we collectively and individually become in charge of our fate.  The future is yet to be written.  Together we will determine what shall be.  That is the essence of democracy which is so threatened today- authoritarian leaders tell the people what they want without allowing the people to choose what they want.  The counting of the Omer, to which we now turn, contains a most powerful message- that the growth of the barley, as the growth and change inherent within each person, is a gift from God which, like democracy, needs to be cherished and protected.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

[i] My Jewish Learning

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, April 14, 2017

What is the Fourth Turning and Why is it Important?
April 14, 2017

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!  It is so nice to see you here on this lovely Erev Shabbat, a prelude to a beautiful spring weekend.  I am speaking tonight on a “hot button” topic that is at the heart of Stephen Bannon’s ideology.  You recall Stephen Bannon?  If not, let me briefly remind you that he is President Trump’s chief strategist who recently lost his seat on the National Security Council.  He is the former editor of the far Right Brietbart News and a multi-millionaire who made his fortune working at Goldman Sachs in New York and producing movies in Hollywood.  He is vociferously anti-Muslim and is the primary force pushing for a border wall with Mexico.  Breitbart News is the news source of choice for white nationalists, Klu Klux Klaners, neo-Nazis and others of that disgusting ilk.  It revels in conspiracy theories and hatred of minorities, including Jews.  Stephen Bannon has vowed to “deconstruct” the administrative state.  No one is exactly sure what that means but it sounds like the fox is running the henhouse of government.  Fortunately, he has lost some stature in recent weeks and may even be in danger of losing his job as more moderate elements in the current Administration are gaining sway over the President.  Let us, for a few minutes, give Stephen Bannon the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s say that he is a patriot who has good intentions and wants to prepare the United States for what he thinks is the cataclysm to come.  How does he know what is coming and when?  It’s all written down in this book by William Strauss and Neil Howe, “The Fourth Turning:  An American Prophecy.”  This is the pair’s third book.  Strauss is the cofounder and director of the well-known comedy troop “Capitol Steps” and Howe is a historian and economist who works for the Concord Coalition, a think tank dedicated to balancing the budget.

You can see that my copy of the book is well read and that much of it is underlined.  That is because I have read the text several times, first when it was published in 1997 and then a couple of times since.  It was a primary text that year in one of my doctoral classes.  It is a dense and difficult text but is worth a read as it claims to explain all of history through its theory of cycles.  Allow me to explain.

Strauss and Howe claim that the key to understanding history is “a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum.  Practically every major historical crisis comes in transition between saecula or at distinct periods within a saeculum. A saeculum ranges from about eighty to one hundred years.  Like the Seder, the theory is based on fours.  There are four Archetype generations within each saeculum, the Hero, Artist, Prophet, and Nomad as well as Four Turnings. We Baby Boomers, for example, are of the Prophet generation, born in the High after WW II, rebelling against our parents in the sixties and seventies, which the authors call the Second Turning or the Awakening, entering middle age in the Third Turning, the Unraveling, the early eighties through 2005, and entering elderhood during the Fourth Turning, the Crisis.  The last Fourth Turning in American history was the Great Depression and World War II. The authors predicted the Great Recession and tell us that things will only get worse during the next fifteen to twenty years.  They write “A Crisis arises in response to sudden threats that…are perceived as dire…there is one simple imperative:  The society must prevail.  This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice.  People support new efforts to wield public authority …government governs, community obstacles are removed, and laws and customs that resisted change for decades are swiftly shunted aside…public order tightens…families strengthen, gender distinctions widen…wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.”[i]  They write that “…every Fourth Turning since the fifteenth century has culminated in total war.”[ii]   “The Fourth Turning is when the Spirit of America reappears, rousting courage and fortitude from the people.  Another Crisis era is coming- and soon.”[iii]  During the Fourth Turning “new leadership will assert public authority and demand private sacrifice…America will become more isolationist than today in its unwillingness to coordinate its affairs with other countries but less isolationist in its insistence that vital national interests not be compromised.”[iv]  “Through the Fourth Turning, the old order will die, but only after having produced the seed containing the new civic order within it…a new social contract will take root…with or without war, American society will be transformed into something different…the Fourth Turning will be a time of glory or ruin.”[v]

Bannon is using Donald Trump as his instrument to bring about the Fourth Turning. He has referred to Trump as “a blunt instrument for us.” “In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one.  He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.”[vi]  Bannon believes in authoritarian politics as preparation for a massive conflict between East and West, whether East means the Middle East or China.”[vii]  It seems that Bannon is determined to ensure that the Fourth Turning takes place, even if he has to do it himself.

There is a determinism in this theory that is very troubling.  Does free will count for nothing?  Is every crisis like the last?  Certainly, the Great Recession was nothing like the Great Depression.  In the former, the government acted to prevent a complete economic meltdown.  In the latter, the Hoover administration allowed the economy to deteriorate for another two years before recovery began in the Roosevelt administration.  Our country is not at all united.  In fact, we are more divided than at any time in recent memory.  Many Baby Boomers are working against the authoritarian impulses of this administration that Bannon champions, such as the ban on Muslim immigration and the wall with Mexico.  Many of us don’t see threats to our existence as does Bannon.  I think, instead of history being already written, the future is unknown, much of it to be determined by the current actors.  As Rabbi Akiva said in Pirke Avot 3:15: “All is foreseen and freedom of choice is granted.” In our religious Tradition, only God knows what will happen.  Our Tradition teaches us that history, in contrast to the seasons, is not cyclical but rather is linear.  There was a beginning to time and someday there will be an end to time.  It might have come when, during the Seder, we opened the door for Elijah.  Perhaps it will happen next year.  All I can tell you is that we are hopeful, optimistic and determined to make this world a better place.  We await not a Fourth Turning, but a return to values that stress our common humanity and dignity.  Towards that we will work until the long-awaited Messiah arrives.

 

Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] The Fourth Turning, page 104.

[ii] Ibid, page 119.

[iii] Ibid, page 271.

[iv] Ibid, page 276.

[v] Ibid, page 278.

[vi] Linette Lopez, Business Insider, February 2, 2017.

[vii] Ibid, page 3.

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Sermon for Boy Scout Shabbat, March 24, 2017

Sermon for Boy Scout Shabbat, March 24, 2017

We are so pleased to welcome the members of Troop 97 to our service tonight.  Over the last many years, more than I have been alive, Troop 97 has become an integral part of Temple Oheb Shalom.  We are grateful to its members and leaders who have given so much of themselves to our congregation.  We are thankful for their many year round contributions to our synagogue life.  I am especially pleased to congratulate Dr. Barry Cohan, a life-long scout and leader of Troop 97, who recently received the first Distinguished Alumnus Award from University of Maryland School of Dentistry.  We are very proud of Barry and congratulate both him and Adele.  Without your support, Adele, Barry would not have the time and ability to do all that he does for our community.

In my brief remarks tonight, I hope to give you some guidance as to what is really important in life.  Since you are still in your formative years, you may want to think about what I will tell you and perhaps even take it to heart.

We live in turbulent times.  Our values are being assaulted simultaneously from many directions.  There are few role models in public life.  To whom or what do we look for guidance on how to live?  Of course, for us the answer is easy.  We go to Torah, in this particular case, the writings of the Rabbis.   In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers (4:17), Rabbi Shimon teaches, “There are three crowns; the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship.  The crown of a good name is superior to them all.”  Over 1,800 years ago, during Rabbi Shimon’s time, there were none more important than the Kohanim, the Temple priests descended from Aaron and the kings, those descended from King David, who would one day rule again over Israel.  For the rabbis, the most important crown, here a metaphor for accomplishment, was to be a student of Torah, one who studied the accumulated wisdom of our Tradition.  Yet none of these crowns, those of Torah, priesthood or royalty, equaled the importance of a Keter Shem Tov, the crown of a good name.  Rabbi Shimon taught that maintaining a good reputation is crucial to being a successful and content human being.  We should do everything in our power to burnish, rather than tarnish, our reputations.  Nor should we harm the reputations of others by engaging in Lashon Hara, gossip.  Since our reputation means everything, spreading false reports about a person, the rabbi’s tell us, is deserving of death.  While they did not mean that literally, destroying another’s reputation through slander is a most egregious sin.

We are born to the priesthood by being descended from the Kohanim or the Leviim.  We have no control over that.  We are also born to kingship.  We are either a descendant of David or we are not.  There is no way of ascertaining if any of us are descended from Jewish royalty.  While all of us should study Torah, not all of us will become scholars of Torah.  Most of us do not have the ability or the inclination to sit and study Torah on a daily basis.  We do, however, have some control over our reputations.  Through what we say and what we do, we can either enhance or destroy our good names.

I offer you some succinct advice in how to better your reputations and make your good names shine brightly in the form of an easily remembered acrostic:

  • T stands for tattoo. While I do not like tattoos and our Tradition advocates against them, I do not literally mean tattoo. This is a symbol for doing or saying something that you will later regret.  There are so many people who get tattoos who later are sorry they did so and then spend lots of time and money trying to have them removed.  There are some things we do and say which cannot be removed or retracted.  Think very seriously before you speak and act.
  • O stands of others. Let us be empathic to others and care about them.  We can learn from everyone. Each of us is created in the image of God and has within us a spark of divinity.  We cannot ignore the needs of other people.
  • R stands for reading. We cannot read and learn enough.  Read as much as we can from various sources.  Know the viewpoint or prejudice of the author or website.  Everyone has a bias so try to be aware of source’s prejudice.  No one is ever bored if they have a book in their hands.
  • A stands for attitude. Let us be positive and optimistic.  No one likes to be around a grumpy people.  Let us look at the world in a hopeful manner.  Let us also grant good intentions to others.  Few people are deliberately mean.  Let us remember that everyone is fighting a private, internal, battle.  Let us be sensitive to whomever we meet.
  • H stands for humility. The rabbis tell us that we should have a piece of paper in each pocket.  One says “The world was created for me.”  The other reads, “I am but dust and ashes.”  While we should have confidence and self-esteem, the rabbis tell us that God reveres those who are humble.  But let us not wear our humility on our sleeves.  As Golda Meir once said as she admonished an associate, “Don’t be so humble.  You’re not that great!”

Since the letters of this acrostic spell TORAH it should be easy to remember.  Let us not forget that the most important thing we have is a good name.  We should strive to enhance our reputations and do nothing to detract from them.  In this way, we will deserve to wear the Keter Shem Tov, the crown of a good name, the ultimate achievement for a human being.

Amen and Shabbat shalom.

 

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat – February 24, 2017

The Times They Are a Changing

February 24, 2017

  • There have been 48 bomb threats against JCCs in this country in the last month. The two Baltimore JCCs have been evacuated twice.
  • Hundreds of tombstones were overturned and desecrated at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis
  • Anti-Semitic hate incidents are at unprecedented levels around the country
  • Neo-Nazis have publicized the names and addresses of Jewish families in White Fish, Montana and other small towns in the West
  • The administration’s statement released on Holocaust Memorial Day in January did NOT mention Jews, the primary victims of the Shoah
  • The so called “Alt-Right” has resurfaced and is resurgent in this country and throughout Europe
  • Candidate Trump refused to reject the endorsement of Klansman David Duke

These are just some of the reasons why American Jews are more anxious than at any time since the 1930s.  My 94 year old mother in law, a Navy veteran and no shrinking violet, said that  recent events remind her of the sixth grade, when her locker mate changed into a Nazi Bund uniform to attend meetings after school.  Now let me say at the outset that I do not think for one moment that President Trump is an anti-Semite.  He has said he is the “least anti-Semitic and racist person” and, in this case, I believe him.  It is practically impossible for him to have a Jewish daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren and hate Jews.  He surrounds himself with Jewish advisors, lawyers, and doctors.  Several of his cabinet picks have been Jews.  No, I do not think he is an anti-Semite.  What I do think is that he has fallen under the sway of his senior counselor, Stephen Bannon, who now has a seat on the National Security Council and is the generator of the Executive Order to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries.  Stephen Bannon is a right wing Conservative Catholic, a Navy veteran, and a Harvard Business School graduate who made a fortune at Goldman Sachs and then as an executive producer in Hollywood.  He became editor of Breitbart News upon the death of its founder in 2012 and has been a fervent advocate of its worldview ever since.  Breitbart “is the first significant American outlet to articulate and represent, in a large-scale way, a new philosophy of nationalism and populism that has found strong purchase in American society, and in many other parts of the globe.  The Breitbart philosophy revolves around the core belief that a wildly corrupt ruling class, of both parties, has abandoned American workers in favor of policies that line its own pockets and the pockets of corporate interests.  And its white-hot anger stems from how the leading institutions of American life have engineered all sorts of arrangements hostile to American workers: trade deals that favor the interest of large multinational companies over American workers, open-border policies that serve the needs of agro-businesses at the expense of low-wage Americans, and, more generally, a set of globalist policies that support transnational business interests without regard for the deteriorating status and position of middle America.”[i]  Bannon wants to upend and destroy the elites that he thinks have ruined this country.

He is the God father of the alt-right movement.  Bannon, when editor of Breitbart News, gave comfort and support to White Supremacists and other racists who share his views.  This may be why we are seeing a resurgence of hate crimes in the United States.  Bannon, who has the ear of the President, is turning a blind eye to them.  He is also a zealous believer that we are in a civilizational war with Islam.  He has stated on numerous occasions that Christian Europe, including Russia, and North America must unite to fight the greatest threat to our existence- radical Islam.  Hence, the ban on Muslim refugees coming to this country.  Bannon does not like liberals of any variety, particularly liberal Jews.  He seems to be enamored with right wing Jews, such as Stephen Miller and especially right wing Israeli Zionists who advocate a “blood and soil” kind of nationalism akin to Bannon’s.  Allow me to take the next few minutes and explain how we are in the crosshairs of an ideological battle that has been going on for over two hundred years.

Beginning in 1789 with the French Revolution, the ideas of the Enlightenment spread throughout Europe.  Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was the rallying cry of French armies who opened the ghetto doors and emancipated the Jews of Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Poland.  Grateful for their new freedoms, our ancestors supported the French and drank from the cup of the Enlightenment.  The Reform movement began in this era as our people strove to reconcile the Jewish Tradition with the new demands of Reason.  We came to embody the internationalism and cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment.  It was not a coincidence that Jews later flocked to the Socialist and Communist movements which negated the importance of national borders and expressed the solidarity of international class struggle.  These movements were, by definition, pan national and cosmopolitan.  Modern nationalism began as a reaction to the French invasion.  Germans began to acclaim their Teutonic past and the purity of Germanic blood.  Jews who had lived in Germany for hundreds of years were outsiders in this Germany.  According to the purveyors of this filth, we were neither racially pure nor rooted in the sacred soil of Germany.  Simultaneously, Jews benefitted from the rise of Capitalism as we applied our skills and utilized our contacts across nations and continents to become financially successful.  Many of us became ardent advocates of Capitalism and its tenets, which include open borders and free trade.  What’s most important to capitalists is making money.  The borders of nation states are sometimes an impediment to that goal.

Stephen Bannon is most comfortable with right wing Zionists of the Settler movement because they share his “blood and soil” ideology and hate Arabs, as does he.  The settlers do not want to give up an inch of Judea or Samaria because they believe that God gave it to the Jewish people.  As liberal Jews, we believe in the Zionist ideal, just a different one from the settlers.  We support Israel as a homeland for our people and a center for Jewish culture and values.  As Echad Ha-am wrote a century ago, the new Jewish state should be a light unto the nations.  We should live within secure recognized borders at peace with the Palestinians who, too, deserve a state of their own.  We do not embrace the extreme nationalism of Stephen Bannon.  We believe in human dignity and equality.  We believe that all people, Jews and Christians, Sikhs and Muslims, are all created in God’s image.  We have no patience for racism or xenophobic nationalism.  We will espouse these values with all our heart, soul and might.  May the God of us all bless our efforts to ensure that the United States is a land of liberty and justice for all.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Ken Stern, Vanity Fair, August 17, 2017

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Rabbi’s Remarks for Installation of Officers, January 20, 2017

Rabbi’s Remarks for Installation of Officers

January 20, 2017

 

What a delight it is to stand before you this Erev Shabbat to formally install this superb group of leaders as officers of Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City.  This group of officers and trustees is among the most talented, experienced, and dedicated of any who have served Oheb Shalom, or any other synagogue for that matter.  Before we offer our blessings to the new officers and trustees, I must express my gratitude to our immediate past president and friend, David Willner, who led our congregation these last two years with grace, dignity, and wisdom.  David has served as a board member, officer and president for at least a decade.  It has been an absolute pleasure to work with him on behalf of the congregation.  He has guided us during a somewhat stressful time with a strong yet understanding approach to leading a volunteer board and professional staff.  David is smart, funny, and hard working.  We met regularly for breakfast and spent countless hours together here and elsewhere.  His truly better half, Terri, supported David in all of his endeavors.  Terri loves Oheb Shalom and, fortunate for us, David married into that relationship.  So let me just say that we return that affection to you, David, as we thank you for your past and continuing service to this holy congregation.

Allow me just a few minutes to deliver a rabbi’s report on the state of Oheb Shalom before formally installing our new officers and trustees.  In brief, we are in good hands and in good shape.  Of course, we would be better off if a member won the lottery and donated about $20 million to us but, given the state of contemporary synagogue life, we are doing well.  We went through a potentially difficult transition this year as Rabbi Nagel left after twelve years of service.  The process through which we said farewell to Rabbi Nagel while interviewing for and selecting Rabbi Sarah Marion was essentially flawless.  Of almost all we have done during my tenure, I am most proud of the process itself and those who were part of it.  We identified and chose future leaders to sit on the search committee.  They stepped up, worked hard and made an outstanding choice for our congregation in bringing Rabbi Marion to us.  Several of these committee members are now officers and members of the Board of Trustees.  We thank them as well as Adam Rosenberg and Mina Wender for co-chairing this exceptional committee.

We have continued our internal relationship building through our Young Families and Teen Task forces.  Our programming, characterized by last night’s Challah bake, is exceptional.  Just one caveat.  Last night’s program took well over one hundred hours of staff time to execute.  We will need to be very discriminating in future programming because we do not have enough staff to do all that is requested of us.  Regarding staff, we have such an incredible group of people who work on our behalf.  Each of them is devoted to God, the Jewish people, and Oheb Shalom.  From our clergy to our senior and clerical staff, they give more of themselves than anyone can possibly require.  They work not just for a salary but for the love of Torah and Kehilah.  Our thanks to our clergy, Rabbi Marion and Cantor Braun, Ken, Susan, Maxine, Meredith, Aileen, and Sherri for their dedication to Oheb Shalom.  A mazal tov and special thank you to Caitlin Brazner, who will marry Scott in March and then leave us in May to begin her rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.  We are very, very proud of her.  I offer an extra special thanks to my partner and soul mate, Sally, for her relational skills, teaching ability, and especially for her tolerance of me.  Needless to say, I am not easy to live with.

We are beginning the process of filling two positions, Caitlin’s membership, communications and programming portfolio, and a new position, that of a teen engagement associate.  This person will help fill a huge gap in our post b’nei mitzvah programming and will concentrate on keeping our kids involved in Jewish life.  With the demise of BEIT RJ in May, this position is absolutely necessary, despite our having to seek the funding to pay for it.  This individual will teach seventh grade, run our manifold youth groups, and coordinate our soon to be unveiled sixth grade b’nei mitzvah group service program.

There is so much more to say, but our time tonight is quite limited.  I now invite those newly elected members of our Board of Trustees and our appointed officers to please rise to be inducted into our leadership.

Now I invite Mina Wender to come forward.  Mina, you have been Sally and my friend and co-worker for these last two decades.  We have traveled together and shared many cocktails. We share goals for Oheb Shalom as well as a common world view.  You have given so much of yourself to this holy congregation over these last forty years.  This has been your family’s home away from home as you and Ed built a life for yourselves, Becca, and Melissa in Baltimore.  You have taught in the religious school and confirmation program, served on several search committees and have been an officer for many years. Your taking the helm of leadership is a natural progression.  No one has been more prepared for this day than you.  We pray on your behalf:

Our God and God of our fathers and mother, bless Mina Wender as she takes up this mantle of leadership.  Endow her with wisdom, vigor, and understanding as she guides Oheb Shalom in these trying times. May the Source of Strength grant her the fortitude and courage necessary to lead this family of families to even greater heights.  Sustain her with Your spirit.  Grant that that the words of her mouth be endowed with insight and that the work of her hands be imbued with blessing.  May Your blessing, Adonai, come to rest upon us all as we say, Amen.

 

Would Rabbi Marion and Cantor Braun join me as we bless Mina with the ancient benediction of our ancestors?

 

 

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