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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Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777, October 3, 2016

Shana Tova and welcome to the New Year of 5777.  It may be hard to believe, but this is our eighteenth Rosh Hashanah together.  Eighteen, of course, equals chai, “life.”  Given that auspicious omen, I know this will be a very good year.  In last night’s service, I spoke briefly about the meaning of the Hebrew letters, ayin and zayin, that equal seventy-seven.  I said that when reversed they spell “za” which means to “move.”   When doubled to “zaza,” the word means to “agitate.”  This is the time to agitate our souls, to shake ourselves up and rebuild our relationship with God, our loved ones and our community.  When we take another step into the mysterious world of Gematria by adding up 5+7+7+7, we find the numbers equal 26, which is the Hebrew equivalent for yud, hey, vav, hey, Adonai, the name of God.  Is this just a coincidence?  I doubt it.  This year God wants us to shake up our souls and to become agitators in our community and our country. Before I go on, I have a story to tell.

Dan was a single guy living at home with his father and working in the family business.  When he learned he would inherit a fortune when his elderly and ill father died, he decided he needed a wife with whom to share it.  One evening, while attending an investment meeting, he spotted the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.  Her natural beauty took his breath away.  Mustering up his courage, he went up to her at the end of the meeting and said, “I may look like just an ordinary man, but in just a few years my father will die and I’ll inherit twenty million dollars.”  Impressed, the beautiful woman obtained his business card and three days later became his step-mother. The moral of the story- women are so much better at estate planning than men.

Next month’s election will hinge on the questions, “What kind of country do we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.” This has been the most heated and ugly campaign in living memory.   Our country has become so polarized between right and left that it is difficult to have a civil conversation with someone of the opposite party.  Republicans and Democrats used to be able to work across the aisle to create compromise and pass legislation.  This rarely happens anymore.  The distrust, rancor and viciousness between the two sides make it virtually impossible to solve the manifold problems which face us.

The Internal Revenue Service says I am not allowed to endorse candidates.  I will not do so from this pulpit.  I must, however, speak about values and vision.  If I did not, I would be abdicating my responsibility as your rabbi.  My values, our Jewish values, come from our earliest texts, the Torah and the Prophets.  Throughout the Torah, God tells the Jewish people to care for the widow and the orphan, to welcome the stranger, and to treat all, rich and poor with due justice.  The prophet Isaiah (58:6) calls to us “to unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to cloth him and not to ignore your own kin.” The prophet Jeremiah said (7:5), “If you mend your ways and your actions, if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place, only then will I allow you to dwell in this land.”  Lastly, the prophet Amos preached (5: 14, 24), “Hate evil and love good, establish justice in the gate…I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings, spare me the sound of your hymns, but let justice well up as water and righteousness fall like an everlasting stream.”

My values have shaped my vision for the United States of America.  I believe that a great country should live up to the ideals it espouses.  Our country has never lived up to the ideals expressed in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Our country is continually striving for greatness, endeavoring to live up to the ideals of liberty, equality and justice for all.  Over the 240 years of our existence as a nation, we have become more inclusive, extending equal rights to ever more of our citizens.  The dream of American greatness has not yet been achieved.  It is up to us to make American great.

The Civil War ended just 151 years ago.  We are still reeling from the legacy of slavery, racism and Jim Crow.  While Jews have faced discrimination in America, today our children rarely suffer because they are Jewish.  It is still very hard to be black in America. It is especially difficult to grow up poor and black in an inner city neighborhood.  Racism is still rampant in America. While we have recently extended the right to marry to gays and lesbians, transgender people still face discrimination.  Some want to exclude immigrants from this country.  I can attest that Baltimore is better off because of the Latin American immigrants who are living and working in our city.   As a nation, I strongly believe that we have the moral mandate to eliminate that which impedes our citizens from actualizing their potential, from achieving their best, and for providing for themselves and their families. Every American should have enough healthy food to eat, have decent housing,  access to health care, and be entitled to an adequate education.

Just two weeks ago, Ubaldo Jimenez, a starting pitcher for the Orioles, became an American citizen.  He worked his way through the system, holding legal residence for five years, passing a rigorous review process and taking a very difficult test on knowledge of U.S. history as well as being proficient in English. He said, “I’ve been part of this country since I was 19 and this country has given me the opportunity to be a better person, not only for me, but for my family.  Because of the opportunities this country has given me, I’ve been able to help a lot of people.”[i]  Of course, the $50 million the Orioles are paying him over four years helps a lot, but Jimenez said what most people who come here think- this is the best place to live in the entire world.

Contrary to some opinions, the United States is not heading to national ruin.  We are not steps away from becoming a dystopian society, like in the movies Mad Max or Blade Runner.  Our country has sound fundamentals.  “The American dollar is by far the world’s currency.  The FDA is the benchmark for medical standards.  The American patent system is the most important in the world.  Nine of Forbes’ ten most valuable brands are American. We are the world’s leading energy producer and have at least fifteen of the world’s top twenty universities…Some American industries have declined but others are rising.  We excel in global trade.”[ii]  We have the finest medical care in the world.  Patients come to our hospitals from all over the world.  More Americans have health insurance than ever before. The economy is improving.  Home sales are up to 2008 levels and real wages are up for the first time since the beginning of the Great Recession.  Nationally, violent crime is at its lowest level in over fifty years.  Millennials and baby boomers alike are flocking to the cities.  Our country has deep problems but the “biggest threat now is unmerited pessimism and the stupid and fearful choices that inevitably flow from it.”[iii]

NY Times columnist Tom Friedman said it best when he wrote shortly after September 11, 2001, “American power and wealth flow directly from a deep spiritual source- a spirit of respect for the individual, a spirit of tolerance for differences of faith or politics, a respect for freedom of thought as the necessary foundation for all creativity and a spirit of unity that encompasses all kinds of differences.  Only a society with a deep spiritual energy, that welcomes immigrants and worships freedom, could constantly renew itself and its sources of power and wealth…Lord knows, ours is hardly a perfect country.  Many times have we deviated from the American spirit or applied it selfishly.  But it is because we come back to this spirit more times than not that our country remains both strong and renewable.”

All four of my grandparents came to this country from what is now Lithuania and the Ukraine.  They came for the opportunity to have a better life, to live freely as Jews in a free land.  They wanted to give their children opportunities they could never have if they stayed in the Old Country.  It is actually quite amazing that all of my grandparents’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren are college graduates. This country allowed those who worked hard to move up the societal ladder. We want to ensure that all Americans have this same chance today.

Allow me to share a personal story with you.  During my junior year of college, I studied at the University of Lancaster in England.  In those days, debate was a very popular form of entertainment, so there was standing room only for this one entitled, “Resolved: Plymouth Rock should have landed on the Pilgrims.”  This was, of course, supposed to be an indictment of American imperialism in the midst of the war in Vietnam.  After the affirmative argued to great applause, a history professor, Dr. Michael Klein, rose to deliver the negative rebuttal.  While I don’t remember every word, I will never forget the gist of what he said.  He told us that his parents left Europe with nothing and came to the United States. They made their home in Miami where his father worked as a tailor. Their son excelled in school and went to university, earning his doctorate and attaining a tenured position at this university.  Professor Klein stressed that only in the United States could an immigrant’s son, a Jew, not only go to university but earn a doctorate at a great university.  Given the stratified class system, this could not have happened in England, France, Germany or anywhere else at that time. The United States gave him the opportunity to succeed and he made the most of it.  After he spoke, the judges ruled the debate a tie.  It was Professor Klein’s emotional story about the opportunity America gave his family that turned the tide.

I certainly do not want to dismiss the many problems we have as a nation.  Our infrastructure is crumbling, the drug war is unwinnable, and our system of public education needs to be a national priority. Unemployment is rampant in the inner city and Baltimore’s murder rate is as high as ever.  Racism is still an ever present issue. We have 3,000 children in the Baltimore City schools who go hungry if they do not eat at school.  That is why our congregation is starting a “back pack” program, to fill back packs with food the kids can take home for the weekend.  This, however, is just a band aid. We need real systemic change so children do not go hungry, so the mentally ill do not live in the streets, so being poor and black is not an impediment to social advancement.  What did Isaiah say?  “You must unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, share your bread with the hungry and take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, cloth him and do not ignore your own kin.”  There is so much to do and so little time.  The prophets teach us that we must act and act now.  As Rabbi Tarfon taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirke Avot 2:16).

My dear friends, the America I love strives to live up to its ideals.  The America I love welcomes immigrants, builds bridges and not walls between nations, supports the State of Israel and honors our treaty obligations.  The America I love prepares its citizens to compete in the global economy and recognizes that climate change is our biggest challenge. The America I love protects the widow, orphan and stranger.  The America I love is not anti-Muslim, homophobic, and misogynist. The America I love gives opportunity to those who work hard.  It does not reward those who profit from bankruptcies and dishonest and disingenuous business practices.  No, my friends, I cannot endorse a candidate, but one of them is better equipped to create the America I envision.  You can figure out the rest.

In this year of 5777, the year in which God wants us to shake things up and agitate for the good, we should not contribute to the cesspool of ridicule and hate in the political airwaves.  If good people on both sides of the aisle can learn to compromise, we may be able to reach agreement on the unfinished business that we face as a nation.  Then, we pray, America will become the great nation for which we yearn.

Kein y’hi ratson, may it be God’s will, and let us say:  Amen

[i] Baltimore Sun, September 14, 2016.

[ii] David Brooks, NY Times, August 22, 2016.

[iii] Ibid

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Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashahah 5777, October 2, 2016

Shana Tova and welcome!  Sally and I join with Cantor Braun, Rabbi Marion and our entire staff in wishing you a healthy and sweet 5777.  This has been a good year for some of us and a terrible one for a few.  We now have the opportunity to start over as we celebrate this birthday of the world and begin the serious process of atonement that ends on Yom Kippur.

For the first time in many years, it feels like Rosh Hashanah.  There is a nip in the air and it is truly autumn.  The season is literally changing all around us, giving us the impetus to also change our ways.  The year 5777 is written in Hebrew with a tav, shin, ayin, and zayin.  The first two letters add up to 700, the ayin=70 and the zayin=7.  When put together in a word, the letters ayin and zayin mean “then.” When we reverse the two letters and double them we have the word “zaza,” which means “to agitate, shake violently.”  That is exactly what we should be doing over these next Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, these ten days of repentance.  We should be shaking up our souls, agitating ourselves, so that we come out differently at the end.

While we engage in this process in the midst of community, we stand alone before God.  It is very hard for us to be alone.  We do everything possible to not feel we are alone.  We listen to music, keep the television on in the background, and stuff our minds full of information from a myriad of sites on social media.  We Jews are perhaps the most verbal people in the world.  It is hard for us to stop talking even during the silent prayer.  It is as if silence is anathema to our existence.  We affirm our self-importance by posting every detail of our lives on Face Book.  Those of us deemed important have Twitter accounts which others follow with rapt attention.   The author of Ecclesiastes, the poet Kohelet, who lived about 2,500 years ago, deplored the writing of drivel.  He wrote “Of the making of books there is no end!”  Remember, this was 2,000 years before the printing of books, when single copies were written on parchment and a copy was incredibly precious.  “Even so,” thought the poet, “there is too much noise in the air.  Better that people are left with their own thoughts.”  Are we so important that our lives need to be validated by sharing everything about ourselves on Face Book?  Is there any value to privacy and keeping our thoughts to ourselves?  Kohelet says there is much too much trash in our in boxes.

There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely.  Loneliness is the absence of companionship, one which has been found to actually be detrimental to our health.  Recent studies have concluded that the risk of dying is 50% higher for those who report feeling socially isolated. “As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity…the danger signals activated in the brain by loneliness affect the production of white blood cells; this can impair the immune system’s ability to fight infections.  It also is associated with higher levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, as well as higher vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs.”[i] Lonely people “are more aggressive, sleep deprived, and more likely to see unfamiliar people in a bad light, making it hard to operate in a society where we are surrounded all day by people we don’t know.”[ii]  Loneliness can be mitigated by involvement in a community such as ours.  In contrast, aloneness is self-imposed.  We can feel utterly alone even in the midst of thousands of people or sitting next to our closest and most beloved kin.

During these High Holyday days, we need to spend some serious time alone with just ourselves and our thoughts.  “Are we capable of confronting everything we’d rather not admit:  how fast we are aging, what we have amounted to so far and whether we have within us the power to change…Preparations for the High Holydays begin with the Torah reading at the beginning of the month of Elul (which ended today).  It begins, “See, I set before you blessing and curse.  Though the words are addressed to all of Israel, the verb ‘see’ is in the singular, leading commentators to explain that God spoke to each and every person, singly, as if we are alone…The shofar is blown daily during each day of the month of Elul.  It is a single, lonely blast, quick and piercing to the individual soul- because the commandment to hear the shofar is addressed to each of us, alone.  No one else can hear it for us.”[iii]

We are born alone and we die alone.  Along the way we experience joy, trauma, and if we are lucky, love.  We feel pain alone and face alone the agony of loss.  As time goes on, we suffer a weakening of physical and sometimes mental function.  All this we go through alone.  At the final moments of our lives, others hold our hands and, if we can, we say the Sh’ma as we face our Maker- alone.  During these High Holydays, we have the opportunity to rehearse our final moments before we die and are embraced by God.  We have the chance to practice, to enact the ultimate moment of aloneness, before our souls become one with the Universal Soul.  What a precious opportunity this is, to be given ten days to change the course of our lives.  Let us, during these Days of Awe, make the most of it.

Amen and Shana Tova

[i]  NY Times, September 6, 2011.

[ii] Marta Zaraska, Washington Post, September 4, 2016.

[iii] Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, NY Jewish Week, September 9, 2016.

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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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