Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5778, September 29, 2017

Erev Yom Kippur Sermon

10 Tishri, 5778 – September 29, 2017

This is the most sacred of nights. The gates of heaven are wide open as God is sitting in judgement over us.  God is listening to our prayers and hoping, even praying (yes, God prays for us) that we will make teshuvah, that we will return to the purer and better parts of ourselves.  God wants us to become more sensitive, caring, kind and loving human beings.  God wants us to stand up for justice and to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.  Rabbi Tzvi Freeman once wrote, “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete.  But if you only see what is wrong and how ugly it is, then it is yourself that needs repair.”[i]   There is so much wrong with our city, country, nation and world.  Yet it is filled with beauty and goodness. It is important to be acknowledge the truth for if we are not honest with ourselves, who are we really fooling?

Just one story about being honest and then on to some serious business.

There were four college seniors taking microbiology.  All of them had an “A” in class so they decided to take a road trip to New Orleans and party for the weekend before the big final exam.  They were having such a good time that they delayed leaving until Monday morning and missed the exam.  Not a big deal, they collectively decided.  They would tell the professor they were visiting friends and had a flat tire on the way back to campus.  The professor listened to their excuse and allowed them to take the exam the following day.  The four seniors were excited and relieved!  They studied all day and night for the exam.  The next day, the professor placed them in separate rooms and gave them each a test booklet. They quickly answered the first question worth five points.  Each one, in a separate room, thought this was going to be an easy exam…then they turned the page…on the second page was written…

For 95 points:  Which tire?

God wants us to be honest with ourselves and honest with others.  God does not want us to be perfect but God does want us to be righteous.  God wants us to live as if we were one of the lamed vav tsaddikim, the thirty six righteous ones.  Let me tell you about them.

The source of the Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vavniks is in the Talmud (Sukkah 45b):  Rav Abbaye declared, “There are never less than thirty six just men in the world who greet the Shekhinah [God’s worldly presence] every day, for it is written in the book of Isaiah 30:18, “Blessed are all who wait for Him.” The word “him” in Hebrew is spelled “lamed-vav.”  The numerical equivalent of lamed is thirty and that of vav is six.  Hence we have thirty six righteous people. Although Abbaye does not explicitly say that these thirty six people keep the world from destruction, his statement implies that they have the power to ward off the harshness of God’s judgment.

What is the source of Abbaye’s statement? This question was addressed by Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism who wrote “The Tradition of the Thirty-Six Hidden Just Men” in 1962. In this essay, Scholem speculates that the number 36 “originates in ancient astrology, where the 360 degrees of the heavenly circle are divided into thirty-six units of ten, the so-called ‘deans.’”  Scholem explained:

“A dean-divinity ruled over each segment of the divided circle of the zodiac, holding sway over ten days of the year…. In Egyptian Hellenistic sources, the deans were regarded also as watchmen and custodians of the universe, and it is quite conceivable that the number thirty-six, which Abbaye read into Scripture, no longer represented these cosmological powers or forces but rather human figures.”[ii]

Abbaye was Judaizing a pagan concept by turning its thirty six personified astrological powers that determined the world’s fate into thirty six righteous Jews on which the world’s fate depended.  If you have ever been to the fourth century synagogue at Beit Alpha in the Galilee, you have seen the mosaics that depict the twelve astrological signs.  It seems our people, under Greek influence, took astrology very seriously.  Despite its origin, the legend of the lamed vav tsadikkim has immense power, especially for us on this night of nights.

These thirty six righteous ones are not aware of their status and do not know the others.  They are oblivious to their own righteousness.  They are kind, giving, and compassionate human beings- so much so that the Tradition tells us that the world exists on their account.  God will not destroy the world because they are its pillars. Through their merit the world survives.  When one dies, another is born.  Any of us could be one of the thirty six.  He or she could be the most humble of people or the most exalted.  There is no way to tell.  All we know is that they are the most selfless of people.  Many a righteous Gentile during the Shoah saved Jews at his or her own peril.  There are some who devote their lives to work with refugees or to bring food to the starving.  Others strive at all cost to change unjust laws, to champion the cause of the oppressed, and to bring comfort to those in emotional or physical pain.  There is a story told about the Baal Shem Tov who heard that one of the thirty six lived in a small village in Galicia.  He traveled to the village and looked and looked for the righteous one.  He talked to everyone he thought might be the righteous one- a wise rabbi, a charitable merchant, even the smartest student in the Yeshiva.  He still wasn’t sure.  Then, when he slept at night, he dreamt.  He saw an image of an older man who cleaned the public latrines during the day but at night told jokes at weddings and in the local tavern.  His vision told him that this most simple of men was the one he was seeking.  When the Baal Shem Tov awoke, he went to find this man, only to learn that he left town during the night.  No one knew where he went.   The Baal Shem Tov was ashamed of himself.  He did not imagine that this unpretentious person could be a lamed vavnik.  Yet this person ensured that the people of this town stayed free of disease and were able to laugh at themselves and one another.  He helped make them happy.  The Baal Shem Tov understood and went home.

When I was twenty four years old, I was sitting in the waiting room of Hadassah Hospital’s ER in Jerusalem.  I don’t remember why I was there but I do remember what happened next.  I saw a small Arab woman come into the ER with her son.  He might have been in his late teens or early twenties but was so emaciated it was hard to tell.  She was crying and screaming for help while holding up her son.  I, like most people there, could have ignored her, yet something made me get up and go to her.  I literally picked up her son in my arms and carried him to the nurses’ station where I put him on a gurney.  I don’t remember if his mother thanked me or not.  It is not important.  I realized afterwards that perhaps for the first and only time in my life I did something selfless, something for which I would receive no gain, no thanks, and no reward.  This one act certainly does not qualify me to be a lamed vavnik, I have too many faults for that, but I do understand how selfless a lamed vavnik must be.  I also learned that God wants us to live as if each of us is a lamed vavnik.

This past year, over 150 of us participated in the backpack program in which we fed hundreds of hungry, homeless children in Baltimore City. Not one of us expected to receive a thank you note.  We just did it, and continue to do it, because it is the right thing to do.  Thousands of others are giving of themselves as we speak in Texas and in Florida, aiding those who have been impacted by the recent hurricanes.  There are countless others among us who do discreet good deeds that make the lives of others so much better.  I am aware of some of the acts of gemilut chasadim done by you, but what is important is that God knows.

That, dear friends, is the moral of this sermon.  God wants us to live as if each of us is a lamed vavnik.  God does not expect us to perfect, for that is impossible.   God, however, wants us to strive with all of our being, to become more giving, compassionate, and loving human beings.  In tomorrow morning’s Haftarah, from the Book of Isaiah, God tell us what we need to do to earn God’s favor:

This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke.  To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry and to make to take the wretched poor into your house; When you see the naked to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin…If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand and evil speech, and you offer your compassion to the hungry…Then shall your light shine in darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday (Isaiah 58:6-7, 9-10).

Each one of us, no matter how young or old, healthy or infirm, can do more to lift the yoke of oppression that burdens others.  Let us in this New Year of 5778 devote ourselves to healing some of the hurt around us.  Let us live as if we were lamed vavniks.  We shall avert God’s judgement and, when our time comes and we stand before God, we can truly say, “Adonai, I may not have been a lamed vavnik, but I tried my best.  I truly tried my best.”

Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova


[i] From Moments of the Spirit, compiled by Dov Peretz Elkins

[ii] Forward, May 22, 2008

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Sermon for Memorial Service 5778, September 24, 2017

OSMP Memorial Service 5778

4 Tishri, 5778 – September 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning 5778, September 21, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

1 Tishri, 5778 – September 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shana Tova Tikateivu



[i] NY Times, August 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5778, September 20, 2017

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

1 Tishri, 5778 – 20 September, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Shana Tova

[i] NY Times, August 30, 2017

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, August 26, 2017

Sermon for August 26, 2017

Parashat Shoftim

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is replete with instructions for magistrates and officials.  It contains the oft quoted verse “Tsedek, tsedek tirdof,”  “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” in addition to other memorable quotations.  There is one verse, from Deuteronomy 17:14, which captures my interest this morning.  It says, “If, after you have entered the land that Adonai your God has assigned to you and taken possession of it and settled in it you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the other nations around me, you shall be free to set a king over yourselves, one chosen by God.”  For several centuries after the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, we did not have a king.  We were ruled by tribal chieftains, called Judges in the Bible, strong men and women respected for their military prowess and wisdom.  Under pressure from the Philistines, the people urged the prophet Samuel to give them a king, quoting Deuteronomy when they implored, “so that we might be like the rest of the nations.”

In the 19th century, when the ghetto walls fell down around us, many of us said “We want to be like the rest of the nations.”  We will never know how many thousands took that reasoning to the extreme by converting to Christianity.  Many others who remained Jewish looked for an expression of Judaism that would allow us to remain Jews, but not be too different from those around us.  Hence, Reform Judaism was born.  In addition, “To what degree do we want to be like the nations of the world and to what degree do we want to be different was at the heart of the argument among the founding generation of Zionists.”[i]

While Jews have always lived in Israel and have always yearned to return to Israel, modern political Zionism was created by Theodore Herzl who, after reporting on the Dreyfus trial in Paris in 1894, realized that anti-Semitism was so endemic even in France, the most enlightened of European countries, that Jews would never be accepted as equal citizens and must have a country of our own.  He believed that “in order for Jews to survive in the modern world, they would have to become like the other nations- but they would divorce themselves from them and live apart in a land of their own.”[ii]  Herzl created the mechanisms through which the State of Israel was founded, such as the World Zionist Congress and the Jewish National Fund before he died at the tender age of 44, exhausted because of his work on behalf of the Jewish people.

His most severe critic was Ahad Ha’am, a Jew of Odessa who founded what came to be known as “cultural Zionism.”  He did not want Israel to be another Switzerland or Poland.  He wanted to see a flowering of Jewish life and culture.  He thought that “the Jewish people had a unique spiritual mission.”  He wrote “A political ideal which is not grounded in our national culture is apt to seduce us from loyalty to our own inner spirit and to beget in us a tendency to find the path of glory in the attainment of material power and political domination.”  For Ahad Ha’am, it was not enough for a Jewish state to exist- we needed to be a ‘light unto the nations,’ an advocate for justice, equality, human rights and peace.”[iii]

This debate, whether Israel should be a state of the Jews or a Jewish state, still rages today.  Should Israel be a state of the Jews or a Jewish state?  If it is a Jewish state, whose version of Judaism is definitive?  I, and millions of other Liberal Jews, strongly believe that the bonds between religion and state should be untangled, that religious observance should be voluntary and not compulsory.  We advocate for a separation between religion and state. We also believe that Progressive Judaism can help the Jewish state be both a normal country as well as Jewish country.  In this way, Judaism will flourish in the land of our ancestors and we can become, as Ahad Ha’am hoped, a ‘light unto the nations.’

This past Wednesday, the rabbinical students of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem went to the Kotel to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul with the Women of the Wall, who mark the beginning of each month by blowing the shofar and reading Torah.  There were over two hundred others present, Progressive Jews who simply wanted to pray together. I read from the President of the Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Aaron Panken’s, letter to us:


When entering into the Kotel plaza security area, our students wore kippot and brought tallitot as proud Reform Jews. This prompted Kotel security guards to search two of our female students in an inappropriate manner, ostensibly “looking for Torah scrolls” and “other ritual objects” which have been restricted from the women’s section of the Kotel by order of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Orthodox authority in control of the Kotel by order of the state-sponsored chief rabbinate. Because they were identified as Reform Jews, they were taken aside and asked to lift their skirts and shirts in front of the guards before they could enter the Kotel plaza. A third student was only spared this embarrassment due to the immediate intervention of two of our alumni, Rabbis Noa Sattath and Gilad Kariv, on legal grounds.

This search was a dramatic and disgraceful new tactic in the effort to demean Reform and Conservative Jews, limit the right of Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel, and intimidate those who stand for religious pluralism. To subject committed women studying to be Jewish leaders–lovers of Israel and supporters of Jewish life—to an illegal and inappropriate search is deeply disturbing and divides us as a people. Throughout this encounter, our students honored all of us by their composure. They tell us that they emerged from this experience more energized than ever to fulfill their sacred mission as future leaders of the Reform Movement and the Jewish People. We count on them to build a vibrant Jewish future in Israel, North America, and around the globe with respect and understanding for a broad variety of approaches to Judaism. Our students will continue to lead and join in the fight for religious pluralism in Jerusalem and the State of Israel, and we will always support them in all they do.

No Jew should ever prevent others from exercising their rights to pray peacefully in the manner they choose.

Will Israel become a “light unto the nations” of will it be a theocracy controlled by the rigid Orthodox establishment?  This is a question that will be answered in the voting booth as Israeli citizens vote for a government that does not cower in the face of Orthodox demands.  What can we do?  The answer is perplexing. We should not, I strongly believe, stop giving to the Associated nor should we stop buying Israel Bonds.  Our love for the State of Israel out weights our displeasure with the government.  We can, though, support the organizations in Israel that work for a pluralistic and egalitarian country, such as the Israel Religious Action Center.  IRAC is our champion that legally challenges the infringements of religious and human rights.  I give to IRAC every year.  I hope, as you consider the recipients of your tzedakah, that you will give to IRAC this year and in the foreseeable future.  Until Israel becomes a true “light unto the nations” we must keep the lights from going out.


Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Rabbi Neal Gold, ARZA commentary, September 10, 2016.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, June 30, 2017

Reform Community

Sermon for June 30, 2017

What a delight it is to once again welcome the members of Har Sinai and my friend, Cantor Robert Gerber, to Oheb Shalom as we participate in our almost century old custom of sharing summer services.  The earliest reference I could find of this custom was from an Oheb Shalom bulletin in the early 1920’s.  It may go back even farther than that.  I am glad that there are some traditions that we are still observing. I still lament Baltimore Hebrew’s withdrawal from what had been our Summer Union Shabbat services.  I hope that in the near future the newly Reform Bolton Street Synagogue will join with us as we celebrate Shabbat as a Reform community.

Those two words, “Reform community,” are the crux of my message to you tonight.   Allow me to digress for a moment as I speak about our Torah portion for this Shabbat and then come back to the subject at hand.  You will see how they are directly related.

We read this week from Parashat Chukat which, besides being my Bar Mitzvah portion fifty-three years ago, is a fascinating lens through which to understand our people’s Weltanschauung in ancient times.  The Torah portion from the Book of Numbers (19) speaks about the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, a completely red cow which had no defect and had never worn a yoke, whose ashes were necessary to be part of a mixture including cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet stuff.  This mixture would be sprinkled over those who became impure because of contact with a corpse.  They had to be sprinkled with the mixture on the third and seventh day after the contact in order to become ritually pure and re-enter the community of life.  One of the mysteries of this procedure is that the one who burns the cow and mixes the ashes becomes ritually impure in the process.  In other words, the same substance which makes those who have contact with the dead pure, makes those who prepare it impure.  The rabbis cannot explain this paradox and say it is simply something we must accept on faith.  It is a “chok,” a law which cannot be rationally explained.

There are ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel and around the world which are trying to raise a Parah Adumah, a perfectly red or brown cow.  They are doing so because without one, the Third Temple in Jerusalem cannot be rebuilt.  In order to enter the Temple all must be purified with the mixture that includes the ashes of the red heifer.   This brings us back to the events of this week, for it is the same people who are raising the red heifer, the ultra-Orthodox, whose political parties control the thirteen votes in the Knesset Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to maintain his coalition government.  In November, 2015, in an address in Washington, D.C., Netanyahu promised: “As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and Orthodox Jews.” Specifically, he told the thousands at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly, he hoped his government would soon reach the “long overdue understanding that will ensure that the Kotel [Western Wall] will be a source of unity for the Jewish people, not a point of division.”  In January, 2016, we rejoiced when Netanyahu and his cabinet endorsed an agreement between the government, the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements, and the Jewish Federations of North America in which the government promised to construct an egalitarian prayer space just south of the existing Kotel plaza that would be equal in size and significance to the traditional worship space at the Kotel that separates men and women.  Since this moment, the ultra-Orthodox parties of United Torah Judaism and SHAS have campaigned against the agreement, saying the Kotel must be liberated from the demonic Reform Jews, whom they often compare to Nazis.  On this past Sunday, Netanyahu succumbed to the pressure and halted implementation of this agreement.   His minister of health, Yaakov Litzman, leader of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, boasted, “The government’s decision to freeze the Western Wall arrangement sends a clear message to the entire world: The Reform do not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall.”  To add insult to injury, the Knesset also advanced a law denying the Jewishness of Israeli citizens not converted by officials under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.  This means any conversion at which a Reform, Conservative or Modern Orthodox rabbi officiates is invalid.  It also invalidates conversions we have performed in the past.  Suddenly, thousands of Jews who have made the decision to cast their lot with the Jewish people are no longer considered Jewish by the chief rabbinate of Israel.  This action by Netanyahu creates a huge rift between his government and the Jews of the Diaspora, who are overwhelmingly non-Orthodox.  We are Zionists who love the land and insist that the Kotel, the ancient remnant of the Temple, belongs not just to the Haredim, but to all the Jewish people.  Israel is a home for the entirety of Klal Yisrael.  Netanyahu’s action inflicts a wound upon us that cannot be easily healed.  It causes a breach between Jews just when Israel needs us the most.  Israel is beset by foreign enemies.  There is little sympathy for Israel among the left in this country and in Europe.  Millennials do not identify with Israel as do older Jews because of actions such as this.  Netanyahu’s action is a Shanda, a disgrace.

Do you recall reading President Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, in which he wrote about American politicians who sacrificed their political careers to do the right thing?  If Binyamin Netanyahu had only read that book and had the courage to do the right thing he would reject the demands of the Haredim!

So, what do we do now?  We await word on actions to be taken by the leadership of our movements.  They are in Israel now for a board meeting of the Jewish Agency and are meeting continuously.  Next, we must find a way to punish the government of Israel rather than the people and State of Israel.  We do not stop visiting and do not stop buying Israel Bonds.  Right now, we should contact the Israeli ambassador in D.C. and give him a piece of our mind.  He must know how disappointed and offended by his government’s actions.  We should also be contributing to Reform organizations such as the Israel Religious Action Center and the World Union for Progressive Judaism which do wonderful work on our behalf. We will not be dismissed and insist that we are counted among the Jewish people.  All we want is to pray freely as Reform Jews at our most sacred site.  We want those whom we convert to be recognized as the Jews they are.  Our expression of Judaism is as legitimate, if not more so, than that of the extremist, non-Zionist, Haredim.  It is time that the government of Israel recognizes us and grants us official recognition.  We will not stop under these goals are achieved.  May this time come soon!

Kein Y’hi Ratson– May this be God’s will and let us say:




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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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