Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Non-Kosher Tragedy

If you watched Constantine’s Sword with us last Monday night – or even if you didn’t -- you’re aware that anti-Semitism continues as a problem in too many segments of American society.

If you followed the trial of Shalom Rubashkin, former head of the Agriprocessors Meat Processing plant in Postville, Iowa, than you know that anti-Semitism can be a convenient excuse for Jewish criminals nailed by the law.

Here’s some background:

For several years, Agriprocessors was the main source of kosher meat for Jewish communities across the country. The owners of the plant were Lubavitchers, and within a short period of time, regular grocery stores in most big cities developed kosher sections – featuring meat from Agriprocessors. Especially early on, most of these departments were created under the auspices of other Chabad – or Lubavitcher chasidim … and many of us appreciated their efforts! They made kashrut easier than ever!

However, by 2004, it was apparent that the Postville plant wasn’t as “kosher” as we thought. PETA, an “animal rights” group, exposed cruel and inhumane slaughter there.

Sadly, a number of Orthodox rabbanim insisted that the techniques still met the technical requirements of kashut. However, heavy pressure, mostly from the Conservative Jewish world, led to the Rubashkins reforming their practices … or so we thought.

This is important to note. People assume that Orthodox Jews are more observant and adhere more strictly to halachah than do Conservative Jews.

Often, this assumption depends on the parts of halachah we take seriously… ritual that is technically correct but unethical is NOT okay by Conservative standards.

Eventually, the Postville slaughterhouse was raided for immigration and labor violations, and the management charged with serious criminal activity, including both worker abuse and heavy business fraud. Fraud!

Yesterday (November 12), Rabbi Shalom Rubashkin, the man charged, was found guilty on 86 out of 91 criminal charges: bank fraud, making false statements to a bank, wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering. He will probably spend the rest of his life in prison – he could be sentenced to over a thousand years.

I’d like to share the reactions of the Chabad establishment … and then the facts. As my colleague, Rabbi Morris Allan, said, “This didn’t have to happen!” Rabbi Allan is one of many who tried to prevent the debacle in the first place.

But first, the Chabad reaction.

Rabbi Shea Hecht, a leading rabbi of the Chabad movement in Brooklyn, insisted that the charges against the Rubashkins were all due to anti-Semitism. He arranged activities to garner Jewish support:
• On September 1, members of Chabad were asked to come to the Rebbe’s grave to recite psalms and prayers on behalf of the Rubashkins.
• Two weeks later, children were bussed to the Rebbe’s grave for a children’s rally.
• And of course, a great deal of fund-raising took place.

The reason for the fund-raising? To fulfill a mitzvah – pidyon shevuyim … ransoming a captive.

Only, the captive being ransomed was Shalom Rubashkin, out on bail, but charged with 91 counts of criminal wrongdoing.

Because there was “no way to earmark the funds,” it all went to the Rubashkin “cause.” This effort was spearheaded by the same Chabad leader, Rabbi Hecht, who blamed the legal issues on anti-Semitism.

The trial was originally to be held in Iowa, but was moved to South Dakota at the request of the defendant.

Chabad – determined to show their support – drove in a number of followers to attend the trial … and to show the defendant as a pious, good-hearted rabbi.

I can certainly tell you that no rabbinical school teaches about business. However, at my own school, Jewish Theological Seminary, we took ethics very seriously!

Shalom Rubashkin claimed that he got thrust into a situation he didn’t understand. He was a rabbi of a small shul, and suddenly his father bought a company and thrust him into the top position.

Poor guy didn’t know what he was doing, he just made a bunch of stupid mistakes.

IF THIS was true, it doesn’t matter. Torah gave him an obligation to learn what he was doing and to be careful.

The Torah itself tells us that a merchant cannot even OWN false weights, let alone use them. Tradition teaches that the first question God will ask in the world to come is: “were you honest in your business dealings?”

And all through our history, Jews have accepted the maxim: dinah d’malchut dinah … the law of the land is the law.

I’ve spoken about this before – not all of our brethren take the same view. There’s Torah law and man’s law. We only have to obey Torah law.

However, this is somehow interpreted to mean: it’s okay to cheat … Let me be clear … TORAH DOES NOT ALLOW UNETHICAL BUSINESS.

Even IF it did, the law of the land is the law.

However, the sad truth is: starting in 2006, TWO YEARS before the immigration raid, Conservative rabbis tried to help Shalom Rubashkin right his mistakes.

Here’s what Rabbi Morris Allan said yesterday:

“In August of 2006, after spending the summer preparing for the visit, the RA and the USCJ "Commission of Inquiry" made a two day visit to Postville. We took our task seriously, and spent these 2 plus days going non-stop from morning to evening.
Upon our return from Postville, we formulated three recommendations which were then presented to the Agri management in September 2006. The RA endorsed those recommendations and communicated to the Rubashkin family the belief that acceptance of those recommendations could change their business for the better.

"Sadly, on November 29, 2006 the Rubashkins rejected our recommendations. In truth, had the family accepted them, this trial most likely would never have happened and the family would still be in business.”

I won’t take the time to enumerate the recommendations. Suffice it to say, the ethical and legal issues could have been easily solved.

Rabbi Allan continued: "I share all of this now--because in truth the RA was on this issue from the start. Had there not been a case of hubris a mile wide and two miles deep--and had the rubashkin family understood that we came to them as allies in the promotion of kashrut--things might have turned out completely different… It is sad that today Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin was found guilty of 86 counts--but the sadder trial will be the immigration trial which is to start in December.”

NO ONE in the Conservative movement is rejoicing. We are all saddened at the tragic unfolding of events.

For ALL of us, we CANNOT hide behind or blame: anti-semitism, ignorance, or especially not the hubris of saying that halachah doesn’t embrace and include ethical behavior.

Shalom Rubashkin is a tragic example. By all accounts, he’s a very nice man … to some. Obviously not to his workers and to other businessmen. Even more tragic, is the possibility of lador vador, generation to generation. Rubashkin’s wife and children not only support him, but have publicly affirmed their belief in their father’s goodness and righteousness … which gives little incentive for change, for teshuvah. According to newspaper accounts, Getzel, their son, stated that everything is willed by God.

It is not. We all are endowed by our Creator with free choice – which means WE can choose to do moral—or immoral – actions.

For the Rubashkin son and daughter, I pray that they will come to understand that not everything is willed by God, that the holiest action they can take is to understand that their father committed serious crimes … and to order their own lives so they do not fall into the trap of so many others in their family.
May we ALL understand the choices that are in our own hands to make … and how much our Creator wants US to make the right ones.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Creation vs Evolution -- REALLY?

Thirty years ago, Dr. Frings, my zoology professor was notorious for his introduction to evolution. He brought his Bible to class, thumped it loudly, and proclaimed: “I am not an atheist!”

Yes, he accepted the theory of evolution, but felt it necessary to proclaim that he still believed in God. Yes, we could learn about evolution and still believe in God the Creator.
And yes, how sad that he needed to make such a proclamation before he started teaching an important subject.

Worst of all, Divine Creation is seen as pitted against evolutionary theory. AS IF the holiest writings in existence should be treated as a mere science textbook. AS IF God would be pleased at the rancor that surrounds His greatest achievement…

AS IF one could look at Creation as anything but divine – yet ignore the deep secrets embedded in that story.

This brings me to a question by one of our Hebrew students: If God created the sun and moon on the fourth day, how could they tell time for the first three days?

The text itself is pretty clear. We first have to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word “yom,” usually translated as “day.”
In psalm 90, we read

כִּי אֶלֶף שָׁנִים בְּעֵינֶיךָ כְּיוֹם אֶתְמוֹל כִּי יַעֲבֹר וְאַשְׁמוּרָה בַלָּיְלָה:

“A thousand years in Your eyes are as a passing day, it passes in a watch in the night.”

The word “yom” – Hebrew for day – also means an indeterminate amount of time. It could mean a year, a thousand years, a million years. The Bible itself tells us that.

We understand time in our own terms: 24 hours = a day, seven days in a week, 365 days in a year.

The Master of the World is Eternal! Why would we expect Him to work in 24 hour increments of time?

Further, why would He was time in the Creation story to even bother informing us that on the fourth “day,” He made it possible to tell time. But that’s exactly what He does:

Here’s the first day: 1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God moved upon the face of the waters.
3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. 4. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. 5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

We have light, we even have evening and morning, but we have no hint of the ability to tell time.

When Hashem actually began creating, it was so deep, so embedded in Divine mystery, it actually takes a lot of chutzpah to think we could understand this process easily and simply!

Also note, the Torah does not call “day one” the “first” day. The Hebrew is “yom echad.” “Echad” does not simply translate as one, and definitely not as first – there literally was not a “first” day. It was: A day -- a unique day, one that stands alone – a day in which all things are united.

We see that day one isn’t numbered like the rest of the days; it could be 24 hours or a million years. We also see that light is created – but this is a spiritual light. We still have no clue about telling time at all.

Now, let’s look at the fourth day: 1 God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years; 15. And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth; and it was so. 16. And God made two great lights; the large light to rule the day, and the small light to rule the night; and he made the stars.

This is our FIRST hint of time as we know it.

The text itself lets us know that Creation is much deeper … mysterious … than we see from a superficial reading that merely takes the days in order.

Do I believe that God COULD HAVE done this in 6 days and then rested?

I believe that God can do anything He wants!

However, our tradition has much to say about the mysteries of Creation.

There are midrashim that God created and destroyed worlds before He got around to the one that we know.

It sounds fantastic, but then we wonder: Ice age? Age of dinosaurs? Worlds we only see in museums, science books, and tv documentaries?

The Talmud itself (Chagigah 12a) says “the first man extended from one end of the world to the other.”

Now, we usually picture Adam as a normal person. The sages of the Talmud did not. They looked at Creation as the ultimate mystery – and not something everyone was well-equipped to learn.

The Talmudic descriptions of Creation make it clear that they don’t see it as a mere retelling of: He did this on the first day, that on the second …. The rabbis saw Creation as complex and mysterious.

The mystical text, the Zohar, describes Creation as the expansion of an infinitesimal point. They practically describe the Big Bang! Just as the Talmud takes the Creation story to mysterious depths we cannot conceive, so does the mystical view of Creation.

Here’s another example of what the Creation story doe not teach … Exactly what kind of animals did He make in the early stages of Creation?

The text doesn’t give us a clue.

I do feel secure in saying that Boston terriers weren’t included in the animals created on the sixth day! But then, almost all modern dog breeds result from years of evolutionary changes – some natural, some induced by man… definitely a form of evolution.

I want to complete our look at Creation with the last “day”?

What was the last day” (Shabbat)

What did God do on that day? (rested)

But why did He rest? Isaiah said that God doesn’t grow tired or weary. Therefore the midrash (mechilta, bachodesh 7) asked: If he is not subject to tiredness, why does Torah say He rested on the seventh day? … To teach US that if He, who doesn’t need rest, did so on the seventh day, surely human beings … who do grow tired … need to rest on the seventh day!

We need rest. God doesn’t!

Really, it’s a scary thought, God Himself resting! We need Him 24/7!

This is all to say that it doesn’t matter whether we take the Creation story literally as a seven day saga – or a process that took place over billions of years …

The Creation story has so much to teach … especially that the Kadosh Baruch Hu IS the source of all life and everything that has ever come into being.

OF COURSE we don’t know the exact mechanisms behind Creation. However, no matter how we read the story – literally or through the eyes of evolution – we still come to God as Creator.

And THAT is the point of the Creation story. Whether you take it literally or expand it to include evolution, the main point remains the same: the Holy One is the Creator … the world is His …

We have just come from an intense – and exhausting – holiday cycle. If we learned ANYTHING, this should be it: It is our job to acknowledge His role and our duty to help Him make the world even better.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Dead Town -- a Yom Kippur sermon

The great Yiddish writer, I.L. Peretz, wrote a story called “The Dead Town.” As the title implies, it’s about a town in Poland where everyone really … is … dead…

I warn you, at first this story will seem preposterous … then tragic … then all too real.

In this story, our narrator meets a ragged, gaunt traveler and innocently asks: “where are you from?”

The traveler replies: “from a dead town.”

You can imagine, the narrator was … taken aback … and assumed the man was joking!

The traveler insisted, this was no joke … this was a real place, a town that was 100% Jewish. He then went on to explain that it was like any other place … really. They had a learned rabbi who corresponded with other rabbis across the world. They had businessmen, poor and rich people, and that they all lived respectfully, like everyone else.

The man from the dead town went on to describe their beautiful synagogue. Well, it used to be beautiful. There was little left of its former grandeur.

The whole town used to pray together there. As they grew and prospered, their unity faded.

• The tailors soon worshipped elsewhere.
• The rabbis and Talmud scholars stayed in the study hall for prayer.
• Soon other groups formed their own minyanim and found their own places to pray.

The town didn’t start in such disarray! It began with a group of ten men –who didn’t even have permission to build a town. Still, more and more people came. And they thrived … until the people decided it was time to stop bribing authorities and become established for real. They designated the richest and most well-connected man there to go and register everything in his name. Once that was settled, the rich man would sign everything back over to the town.

Wonderful, right? It was, until one of the group absconded with the money and papers and set in motion a dire sequence of events.

Even when the people learned that the town still had no official status -- no problem. They’d ask another one of their rich machers to go to the authorities.

That’s when things got bad. Now they had lots of rich men, and they feuded and fought over who’d get the honor of handling this.

The arguing got so bad, lawsuits abounded, and it looked as if they’d have to sell the cemetery.

Because of the legal ramifications, the bailiff went to check out the cemetery. When the dead heard he was there … and that their cemetery would be sold .. gravestones started to shake violently. Soon corpses were crawling all over the place.

The narrator expressed disbelief. Surely the soul departs from the body at death … corpses have no souls to give them life. They’re dead, how could they get out of their graves?

Here’s how the man from the dead town answered: (lower voice) “But what would you say about the man who has slept away his life, so that he was never really a man, his life was not a life… No one in our town ever really died because no one in our town ever lived …”

No one in our town ever lived…

And so, the dead all went back to their homes as if nothing had happened!

The narrator wondered: No one noticed that dead people had gone back home?

The answer: They were too busy arguing to notice, that’s all they had room in their heads for …

“Before long the dead took over… Who leads the prayers in our synagogue? A corpse! He’s perfectly well-versed though he looks dead and sounds dead …Our most prominent citizens are dead men, every one of them … And me? I’m only half-dead, he said before disappearing into the trees.”

The Dead Town… quite a story..

You see, there is a major difference between mere physical life and a life that is enriched by the soul. How do we know this?

From Creation! That’s the basis of everything. Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

We breathe simply because God gave us His own breath. He implanted a soul within each of us.

That soul is what makes us human … with it, we are fully alive.

To ignore that great gift is to diminish our humanity …

The people in the dead town let their anger – their yetzer harah – impulse to selfishness and evil … overtake their good natures and diminish … destroy … their souls.

Yet, we see from the Creation story, our souls are the very reason for our existence…

Note that when the traveler spoke about all the feuding in town, he didn’t give reasons. That’s just what they did … they forgot there were other ways to live.
As we know, habits – good ones or dangerous -- can become ingrained and … eventually … become a way of life.

Such was the case with the dead town.

At first, I didn’t think about the town’s name … or rather, it’s lack. It didn’t even gave a specific location. When asked, the traveler merely said: “You won’t find the place I’m speaking of listed anywhere… Why bother with geography when any coachman can take you there?”
Yes, it’s puzzling … is it a real place or not? If it’s not on a map, how can coachmen get people there? Are the coachmen real or is their job to ferry malach ha’mavet, the angel of death?

… The answer, of course, is simple. Peretz described the human condition as he saw it.

For Peretz, the dead town could be any town.

Now for the most jarring thought … could it be .. us?

Of course … at worst … this doesn’t describe us to the extent that Peretz described “the dead town.”

On the other hand … aren’t there times when all of us sleep through life?

The answer depends on what we consider to be real living.

Dr. Abraham Twerski, in his book Happiness and the Human Spirit, opines that many of us suffer from a disorder that does prevent us from living fully.

The name of the disorder? Spiritual Defiency Syndrome. Twerski states that we often lack the essential nutrients needed to live fully … to be happy.
Twerski warns us that contentment is not the same as happiness, nor is the pursuit of fun the same as the pursuit of happiness.

Contentment and fun-seeking can both lead to a superficial outlook and emotional and spiritual dead-ends. You see, to overcome Spiritual Defiency Syndrome, we must do our best to live up to our full potential.

A cartoon strip, “Close to Home,” illustrates the pitfalls of doing all the “right” things, but giving little thought to how we prioritize our time –
• how we spend it,
• with whom we spend it,
• and finally, do we share with others, or are we locked into narcissism?

In the cartoon, a long line of people are waiting to get into heaven. They’re met by a man garbed in white checking his computer.

The entrance guard says to the first man in line: “ … Commuting to work, 22,321 days of your life; shaving, 979 days; mowing the lawn, 11,271 days; waiting for your wife to get ready to go out, 9,644 days; standing in line, 13,101 days …”

This is NOT and indictment of shaving, mowing the lawn, or waiting for your wife.

However, when the man was shown the sum total of his life, there was a lot of time spent on meaningless activity. There was no joy, no time spent in relationship, nothing to even indicate whether he was a good person or bad or something in between.
In short, our man waiting at the heavenly gate sounded like a citizen of the dead city – and like a man suffering Spiritual Defiency Syndrome.

In Torah, the Kadosh Baruch Hu admonishes us to choose life, not death. This isn’t a choice between physical life and death.

God doesn’t want us to live in the dead town.

He doesn’t want us to deaden our souls.

Hashem wants us to understand that we always have room to grow. Once we stop growing, we are liable to become spiritually dead.

Mind you, this is no easy task.

For instance, Rabbi –Dr.--Twerski described a visit to a young woman suffering from a debilitating form of multiple sclerosis. She had rapidly lost all motor function and was blind. She needed assistance for the simplest of tasks. She asked Twerski: “Rabbi, why am I alive? What purpose is there in my existence?”
The woman in her misery was surely tempted to give up and live in the dead town.

The rabbi told her a Talmudic story about Rabbi Eliezer: Rabbi Eliezer became seriously ill. Naturally, his students visited him. Each one of them thanked the rabbi for his glorious teaching and praised him highly. Yet Rabbi Eliezer didn’t respond to any of them.

Then Rabbi Akiva walked in and said: suffering, too, can be precious.

Rabbi Eliezer asked for help sitting up so that he could better hear Rabbi Akiva.

What did Rabbi Akiva do that merited such a response?

He knew that his revered teacher had no desire to rest on past achievements. Rabbi Twerski explained that: “self-fulfillment is dependent on our capacities at any given point in time. If we can do little, but we can do it wholly, we have a better chance at happiness than the person who can do much, but instead, does little.”

That’s important and so very wise. Let me repeat it: “self-fulfillment is dependent on our capacities at any given point in time. If we can do little, but we can do it wholly, we have a better chance at happiness than the person who can do much, but instead, does little.”

When Dr. Twerski told the story to the young woman with multiple sclerosis, she was still disabled and suffering, but realized she could still do something, add meaning to her life.

We can all add meaning to our lives. Growth is a constant process. It should happen during our good times, and by the same token, this should happen even when we suffer.

It comes down to our choices … and the attitudes we choose.

It also means we don’t seek perfection. Growth is attainable, perfection is not. Such a pursuit is bound to fail and leave us more at a loss than ever.

We must work to overcome Spiritual Defiency Syndrome. After all, God commands in Deuteronomy 30: 16For I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may live… 19…: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—”
Choose life! Don’t let yourself become a citizen of the dead town…

Gmar chatimah tovah … may you be written and sealed for good in the book of life.

Who by Fire? A Yom Kippur sermon

Who by Fire?

One of our most beautiful, important – and troubling – prayers comes during Musaf: Unataneh Tokef.

Why do I say it’s troubling?

In this prayer, we admit to the Holy One that TODAY WE STAND BEFORE HIM FOR JUDGMENT.

I ask you, is ANYONE comfortable being judged … ever? Let alone when it’s by the One who
• sees our hearts,
• hears our every word
• sees our every deed?

Unatanah Tokef declares that on THIS DAY … on Yom Kippur … God seals our fate for the year … When God decides, who shall live … and who shall die.

How can we read this and NOT tremble?

The singer Leonard Cohen has a modern midrash on Unatanah Tokef in his haunting song, “Who by Fire”:
“And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of may,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
and who by avalanche, who by powder,
who for his greed, who for his hunger,
and who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?”

Let’s examine some of the questions Cohen raises:

• “Who by very slow decay” … who of us sat by as our own lives gradually lost meaning … Last night, I talked about Peretz’s dead town … Have we been slipping into such a numbing world because we stopped paying attention to our lives?

• “Who by greed” … when simple desires and needs pass into the realm of greed and avarice, we set in motion a chain that cannot lead to real happiness or inner peace. If we don’t see that we’re operating from greed, we just want more and more … we’re never satisfied. Where does that bring us? Probably not to death. But it will numb our souls.

• “Who by accident” – despite God’s omnipotence, there are random forces at work in the universe. Sometimes it’s nature – germs, virus, disease in general. Sometimes it’s because God gave humanity free choice, and some people chose evil. And sometimes, accidents happen because for just one split second … someone stopped paying attention.

Leonard Cohen’s song is an insightful midrash on one of our most solemn prayers.

Cohen ends his song with the question: “Who shall I say is calling?”

In Unatanah Tokef, we must ask ourselves the same question!

Who IS calling?

What is Hashem really telling us? If He finds too much fault with us today, DOES HE decree that will die in an earthquake on such and such a day?
Of course not.

IF that’s how the Almighty operates, Yom Kippur would be totally pointless. The Kadosh Baruch Hu would not steal our hope like that … nor would he take away our motives for teshuvah … for turning to Him…
Rather, Hashem in His infinite mercy gives us a way to find deeper meaning in our lives, to transcend our misfortunes, and to fully appreciate the blessings around us.

The Master of the World wants us to understand how much of our future we hold in our own hands.

On one hand, I firmly believe that the mysterious realms of life and death and birth are in God’s hands. Yes, there are mysteries we cannot penetrate, let alone control.

And yes, there are certainly forces … and people … in the world itself that we cannot control.

What we can control … is our attitude.

That’s why our own prayer ends by saying that repentance, prayer, tzedakah can alter the severity of the decree.

Surely these things – done with a full heart – will help the Almighty understand that WE want to do the right thing.

However, IF we see how much is in our hands, IF we don’t accept the theology of Divine reward and Punishment, this would SEEM to make God as Judge an unnecessary part of the process.

The exact opposite is true.

The Kadosh Baruch Hu does watch us. And He can see our lives … our hearts … our thoughts … more clearly than we can see them ourselves.

Hashem sees us directly.

We see ourselves through cloudy mirrors.

Our brains are wonderful; we can rationalize almost any behavior we want! We can even convince ourselves that we don’t … really … have to face … Him.

What DO we think of ourselves?

Looking at the extreme, do evil people think of themselves as evil?

Why would they? Even the most vile among us find ways to justify their actions. Timothy McVeigh, Osama Bin Laden, Adolf Hitler? They convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing! These are extreme examples, but they show that we cannot rely on ourselves to determine our merits.

Rather, we turn to God.

How do we know what He thinks of us?

We can’t … not for sure. All we can know is that He loves us and reaches to us with His infinite mercy.

OUR JOB is to do our best to follow His teachings. At the same time, we have to periodically ask ourselves hard questions about our own motives and behaviors.
WILL we always succeed?

Of course not. We’re human. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, in his book Happiness and the Human Condition, used the game of baseball to illustrate this aspect of the human condition by saying: “errors are part of the game!”

He quoted a former baseball commissioner, Francis Vincent, Jr., to make his point. Vincent said: “Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, to deal with failure…. We learn at a very early age that failure is the norm in baseball, and precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often – those who hit safely in only one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous growth.”

Think about this – a great baseball slugger hits the ball only a third of the time he’s at bat.

A pitcher might throw the ball a hundred or more times in a game. Do you think ever pitch is a strike?

Baseball players certainly try very hard not to make mistakes. They spend countless hours training to get it right.
But no one – not even the greatest baseball stars … gets it right all the time.

We WILL make mistakes.

We cannot let fear of mistakes prevent us from making decisions and living fully.
Therefore, we must cultivate humility … and understand that we’re not better than other people …

Once we acknowledge that yes … we do make mistakes … we can better empathize and reach out to others.

However, we’re now liable to fall into another trap. We can’t get so comfortable with error that we don’t try hard to improve!

That’s what today is about.

We know that we can’t help but make mistakes. But we also know that we must acknowledge them to ourselves and to our Creator.

We want so badly for Him to approve of us … to love us … to help us learn to love Him …

He is our Creator and is so awesome; as we recognize our human-ness – we realize that today … WE HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO DRAW CLOSER TO HIM THAN EVER.

Therefore, in great humility, we ask God: Who by fire? Who by water?
And we ask ourselves: who shall I say is calling?

Hashem is calling … He wants us to be close to Him … yes, He does judge us … as He should … because He wants us to grow in love toward Him.

How can we not tremble before Him … how can we pass up this opportunity … this day … to not partake of the mundane world but rather to proclaim, as did the ancient Psalmist (96):
“Declare his glory among the nations, his wonders among all the peoples... Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary… Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the people, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength…. O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth... Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and all that is in it… Let the field be joyful, and everything in it; then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy… Before the Lord; for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth; he shall judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his faithfulness.”

Yes, He does come to judge … and not even with just equity but with righteousness, love, and compassion.

How can we not tremble before a Creator that treats us with love and compassion – One who guides us.

As the psalmist said: “O give thanks to the Lord; for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever.”

May we take these words into our hearts and souls as we ask the Holy One to seal us for blessing in the Book of Life.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What I Believe -- a Rosh Hashanah Sermon

For years, Bob and I have had a standing joke between us: it’s the pompous rabbi that feels compelled to start ever sermon with: WHAT I BELIEVE.
Why do I look at this as pompous? Learning/ teaching is give and take. My beliefs may not be your beliefs. It takes chutzpah for a rabbi – for anyone -- to indicate that her beliefs are superior to others.
But I realize, I haven’t talked very much about my own feelings about … and belief in … the Kadosh Baruch Hu.
Now, I’ll tell you a secret. That’s very hard to do.
It’s something I think about a lot. It’s just hard to put into words.
However… on this day, when we especially acknowledge and celebrate God’s Kingship … our smallness before Him … and our mutual love and thirst for each other … I can’t think of a more important topic than our Creator.
And yes, I do believe that He is The Creator.
How do I reconcile this with science?
There’s nothing to reconcile!
Creation – as we perceive it – began “off-screen.” This is why Written Torah begins with the letter “bet,” the second letter of the alef bet.
The first letter is alef … a letter with no sound … that hints at mysteries beyond our comprehension.
With this understanding, great Torah scholars posit that Creation is much deeper than we’d think from a simple reading about the seven days.
In fact, the Zohar describes a process similar to the modern Big Bang!
What’s most important here … for me …
• is that Hashem IS the Creator
• that time – as we understand it … has nothing … nothing at all to do with God
• and that the Kadosh Baruch Hu had a reason to create us … that in His eyes, we all have a purpose

Maybe we don’t know what that purpose is. Or we think we do, and then our lives change and we’re no longer sure.

That’s okay … it’s good! We can never rest comfortably with the status quo but must grow with life’s lessons.

As an example, let’s look at this morning’s Torah reading, part of Abraham’s story. It began with great joy … Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac!

Their joy was fleeting … all of life’s great moments are fleeting … and turmoil erupted because of Abraham’s concubine, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael.
As we saw, ultimately Sarah – with God’s backing … decreed that Abraham should send away both Hagar and Ishmael.

This reading is so full of depth!

We see Hagar, previously secure, now a frightened wanderer. We see her despair at what she is sure is certain death for her and her child.

God’s angel shows her a well of water … a well that was already there – she just couldn’t see it. Fear and depression clouded her vision.

The angel’s appearance gave her hope; only then could she see more clearly.

From there, Hagar and Ishmael go on to another life and find purpose and meaning.

This particular story – for me – contains some of life’s deepest lessons.

Our lives change … sometimes … not always … against our will. Relationships sour or get better; our finances may be stable but we’ve seen plenty of crashes; accidents or illness strike, and our lives and capabilities are irrevocably changed.

I can think of plenty of these instances in my own life. I can’t tell you I always adapt well – whatever that even means. However, no one gets to this age without knowing pain…

This is why I often think of Hagar and her well.

It teaches me that there are always choices in how I can act. I don’t always like the choices … but they do exist.

Further, water is a metaphor for Torah. Sometimes, when blinded by life … whether busy-ness, illness, or having a good time … I forget that the Kadosh Baruch Hu is there, that He is always there … that I lost sight of Him and thus feel a gap in my life.

When I’m upset, I sometimes write in my journal. When I write, it’s usually the middle of the night. The house is quiet, I’m alone with my thoughts, which by then are gnawing at me and keeping me awake.

I pull out my little book to work through my lists of complaints and grievances, and like Hagar, very often don’t see any good solutions. That is, until I work through to my need for God: “God, I need You, where are You, why aren’t You helping?”

I didn’t consciously realize that I did this, but in preparing for this sermon, I went back over previous writings, and saw this happen in every single entry.

And what I especially noticed, every time I begged for his Presence, I felt … Him. Along with that, I gained perspective and life didn’t seem so horrible.

In fact, when I do this, I often realize I’m surrounded by so many blessings and especially, God’s love.

I need to journal like that more often … maybe with better perspective – which generally leads me to feel closer to Him … had I done so last Sunday, I wouldn’t have rushed so much that I have an injured finger wrapped up like a corn dog!...

Back to what I was saying - writing down complaints is not the only way to find God. It’s not even MY only way.

I also find Him:
• when I’m gardening, watching things grow, getting my hands muddy
• Sitting cuddled with my dog Greta
• Or helping others with illness and grief and knowing I reached a place where souls meet

And … acknowledging my own pain… my own joys … and slowing down – I said, S-L-O-W-I-N-G D-O-WN enough to remember the Source of All.

Why do I do this? - does God wave a magic wand and give me that happily ever after fairy tale ending?

Of course not. That expectation isn’t belief in God … it’s belief in Schmuely Claus…

When people are hurting, because of a tragedy … or sometimes not getting their way… they say: Rabbi, I’m angry at God.

My typical response … and the response of many in the clergy … it’s okay, God has big shoulders, He can take it.

And even though I say those words … often … I don’t understand them and realize … I need to respond differently: It’s okay to be angry, but try not to stay there, He wants to love and comfort you … don’t let your anger close Him out of your life.

Looking back at my own life, IF things had worked the way I thought they should, I wouldn’t have followed the path to the rabbinate; I wouldn’t have met, let alone married Bob; I’d still be teaching in the day school in Oklahoma City; or maybe I’d still be working in the operating room; people I cared about would still be alive … so MANY ifs.

Every bump in the road forced me to re-evaluate my course in life. And I realize now that if I HAD gotten what I thought I wanted AT THE TIME, I’d be stuck elsewhere … and would never know the many blessings in my life today.

That even includes my hurt finger. It’s been really hard to type … and it did hurt and looked disgusting, but I’ve really learned the value of all five fingers on my left hand. And there were blessings from even that:
• It didn’t take long to realize I had to slow down!
• I am blessed with a husband who stayed with me at every step and friends who have been helpful and supportive
• And I can’t get my left hand wet enough to even think about doing the dishes…

However … and don’t tell Bob, I’m starting … kind of … to miss household chores….

Seriously, I learned something much more important – outside of not wanting to repeat that injury… It’s that I was so focused on details … school, holiday preparation … that I lost sight of my reason for doing all this.

I let myself get out of touch with the Kadosh Baruch Hu. I lost sight of my … our … dependence on Him.

Making room for His Presence doesn’t really make our lives easier, but it shouldn’t. God has high standards for our behavior. The closer I feel to Him, the harder it is for me to justify any of my actions that detract from His glory.

I firmly believe that God seeks our hearts and souls … but we must create an opening – even a tiny one … so He can enter our hearts.

Above all, He is a God of love … and I love and revere the Ribbono shel Olam, the Master of the World. … even though my own meager response to him doesn’t com,e anywhere near to the love and devotion Hashem showers upon all his creation.

Our liturgy is replete with references to Yirat Hashem – fear of God. Our tradition deems this judgment day!

I know it’s not popular to talk about fearing God – we generally translate it as Awe of God. We don’t worry about judgment, we’re doing the best we can.

… Really?

Do we really … in our hearts … believe we can’t do more to please, glorify, and love our Creator?

He is so great; I am so small; He does so much for me, for the world; I only give back a tiny fraction.

I ask this of our Creator: if I am not trembling before You, forgive me.

I don’t want to disappoint You. I know that sometimes, I do.

You are everything; we are the ones You created … to serve You.

Judge us with gentleness and Your great compassion, and show us all how to come to you in love and humility, v’nomar amen.

Civility or Mob Rule? A Rosh Hashanah Sermon

The late Joshua Lederberg was a molecular biologist, Nobel laureate, founder of the school of medical genetics at UW-Madison, and … I can’t leave this out… a rabbi’s son.

Dr. Lederberg defined civility simply but with great depth: “All of civility depends on being able to contain the rage of individuals.”

Think about this and its implications: Lederberg didn’t tell us what civility is, but what it is not – civility means that individuals must control their rage…

Look at the news – any time, any day.

Unrestrained anger is the order of the day!

Along the same lines, 2,000 years ago, in the Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma asked: Who is is mighty? He who subdues his evil inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city.”
Strength – real strength – lies in self-restraint.

Recently, Congressman Joe Wilson did not show such self-restraint during a recent presidential address to the joint Houses of Congress.

Congressman Wilson did apologize to the President. Maybe it was heartfelt, maybe it wasn’t. We do know that the President graciously accepted the apology. The House leadership on both sides expressed their dismay at such an egregious breach of the rules.
So, what’s the problem?

The reaction has been unbelievable. On one hand, there was a huge reaction against Wilson’s comment. However, a whole movement sprang up overnight that backed Wilson’s outcry and made him a folk hero.
And why? What did he do? Speak “truth to power”? No!

Wilson was incredibly rude, chose the wrong venue, and committed a gross breach of Congressional rules!

His was a breach of truly historic proportions – such a thing has never before happened in those halls.

A partisan battle over censorship erupted. It was NOT a partisan issue, simply a matter of whether or not Congressman Wilson was setting a precedent.

Regardless, Congressman Wilson – whether he’s a racist, a hero, or a publicity seeker at the expense of public discourse – is now the story.

Even scarier, Wilson’s rudeness and breach of long-established etiquette succeeded. After all, who now remembers the President’s speech?

Disrespect has ballooned over the last few years into a mob mentality that spans way beyond the world of politics.
Unfortunately, the nation has also watched:

• Town halls degenerating into yelling matches across the country. You could say there was little civil discourse, but with everyone screaming and nobody listening, there was no discourse at all.
• Mob rhetoric that has moved from angry to inflammatory to … in some quarters … encouraging violence.
• Re-emergence of white supremacist militias
• Blatant racism mixing into political issues.

Saddest of all, the planned – angry – demonstrations of 9/12.

Why single the “rallies” of 9/12 as the saddest?

Remember 9/12, 2001 – the immediate aftermath of 9/11?

We came together – as a nation – in a spirit of unity and patriotism. People couldn’t do enough for each other. People flocked to their houses of worship.

We were proud – so proud – to be Americans.

On this last 9/12, we not only displayed massive dis-unity, we watched the spread of incivility … rage … spread its toxicity.

It’s doubly ironic, because the avowed purpose of the 9/12 rally was to: “bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001. The day after America was attacked, we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States or political parties. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the values and principles of the greatest nation ever created.”
What a wonderful mission, who could object? Our country is so divided, and we need so badly to heal.

However, the reality didn’t come even close to the promise. It turned into a day of hate and anger.

Marchers even waved the Confederate battle flag – the symbol of a history of slavery and secession!

People protested, but it’s hard to tell exactly what they were protesting.

The main focus seemed to be hatred for the president. Obama’s picture was displayed: in clown-like white-face, as Hitler, as Frankenstein, as the devil, as a tribal witch-doctor, his hair decorated with a large bone -- but my vote for most audacious – offensive – sign goes to: “The zoo has an Africa n and the white house has a lyin’ African.”

Some of the protestors dressed as Colonials – ready to fight the revolution?

Judging from live video feeds, the crowd’s anger was definitely palpable.

Yes, obviously the goal of the march was for national unity, but unity in what?



They opposed several government initiatives, as is their right – even their duty – but even there, the protests were unclear in direction and often framed by false rumors and hate speech.

No one here would dispute the right to free speech and peaceful assembly guaranteed by our Constitution.

The 9/12 protestors were within their rights.

I just don’t understand the point, let alone the growing disrespect people show each other in these “debates.

Going back to Dr. Lederer: “All of civility depends on being able to contain the rage of individuals.”

Yet we …. today, celebrate the expression of rage. It’s all over television. It’s become the favored method of political discussion.

If we look closely at ourselves, we’re liable to find that we, too, deem it okay to speak sharply, even yell at others,

Civil discourse has deteriorated into people shouting each other down and relying on talking points and sound bytes, whether or not they’re true.

We must to be able to discern facts from lies. On Yom Kippur, when we ask Hashem to forgive our sins, we’re going to ask forgiveness for things that we have said.

Our Creator knows the answer to these questions, but do we look into our hearts in order to answer honestly?
• Did we speak the truth?
• Did we shame another by spreading lies?
• Did spreading a lie … whether or not inadvertently … did we cause so much damage that repair might not even be possible?

When we’re speaking the truth … and we’re sure it’s the truth … we still have a Jewish obligation. If our information will shame someone, we must be certain that sharing it will contribute to the greater good. It must be for a constructive purpose.

As for yelling and interrupting, DO you listen to people when they’re shouting?

Most of the time, we either shut down listening or worse, yell back!

Jewish tradition takes a dim view of anger. For instance, we see in Talmud: “Bar Kappara taught: A man who is bad tempered achieves nothing but his bad temper.” (B. Kid 40b-41a) or `` Resh Lakish said: When a man becomes angry--if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him.” The Talmudic rabbis even applied this too Moses when he was angry!

We have Rav Mani bar Pattish who said: When a man becomes angry, even if greatness has been decreed for him by Heaven, he is reduced from his greatness.” B. Pes 66b.

Why is this so?

When anger … let alone rage … clouds our thoughts, we do not think clearly. Modern brain imaging techniques even show that with anger, we disengage the part of the brain that helps us think rationally.

There will always be angry fringes on all parts of the spectrum.

I’d like to return to the phrase I mentioned earlier from the Pirkei Avot. There’s so wisdom embedded there:
Ben Zoma said: who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: from all who taught me have I gained understanding.
Who is is mighty? He who subdues his evil inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city.
Who is is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “when you eat of the labor of your hands, you will be happy, and all will be well with you — in this world, and it shall be well with you— in the world to come.
Who is honored? He who honors his fellow-men, as it is said: “For them that honor me, I will honor, and they that despise me shall be despised.”

Take this as a package, we have a recipe for a civilized world. And if not the world, then we at least start with ourselves.

Here’s how we can start:
• WE must resist the urge to fall into the angry rhetoric swirling around us
• We must check and re-check our facts, as destructive rumors can spread quickly – virally – through our culture, making it hard to know what to believe.
• We must treat all people with respect, whether or not we agree with them. Certainly, this extends to our elected officials, including the President, regardless of our politics.
And finally, we have another teaching from the Pirkei Avot: “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.”

It means: when the world spins madly about us, and core values seem washed away … hold firm, cling to those core values, and be a mensch.

Who knows, maybe others will learn from our example?

Whether or not we are lucky enough to positively impact others, the world needs every bit of sanity we bring it.

May our deeds find favor in the sight of the Kadosh Baruch Who … may our own deeds write us for blessing in the Book of Life.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Good Manners

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed in appalling lack of civility in our society?

To that end, I’d like to share a story told by my colleague, Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky. It’s about one of the true greats of the Jewish Theological Seminary -- the late Rabbi Louis Finkelstein.

In the late 70’s, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein visited the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Rabbi Lavinsky was given the honor of chauffeuring and escorting the great teacher around town.

During this outing, Rabbis Lavinsky and Finkelstein visited a kosher deli in one of LA’s heavily Jewish neighborhoods. Suddenly, Rabbi Finkelstein slowed his pace.

Now, Rabbi Finkelstein was elderly, but he was not a slow walker. This was out of character.

The pace was so slow, Rabbi Lavinsky had a difficult time maintaining it! … Finally, Dr Finkelstein suggested they cross the street.

So what do you think caused the change of pace and direction?

An elderly man was shuffling just ahead of them. Rabbi Finkelstein did not want to embarrass the man by passing him.

Isn’t that amazing?

Most of us would have hurried past the elderly man – it isn’t our fault that he walked slowly! Always so much to do, we’re too busy to slow down.

Surely Rabbi Finkelstein had plenty to do! And yet, he was willing to slow down his pace to not embarrass – and therefore, add to the dignity of a … total stranger!

The Hebrew term is derech eretz … literally, the way of the land. It means good manners. Okay, good manners aren’t the way of the land but they should be!

And guess what – in this sense, derech eretz has nothing to do with using the correct fork or putting your elbows on the table!

For Rabbi Finkelstein, derech eretz meant going out of his way to avoid embarrassing someone.

Derech eretz – good manners – how we treat others – is the foundation-stone of Torah. It is a manifestation of kavod – respect.

Torah itself teaches that we’re created in the Divine image. Therefore, everyone else is created in the Divine image.

Over and over, we have the injunction to honor God coupled with the injunction to treat others with kindness.

Surely, most of us think we do this … and try to do this… But it is difficult:

Once upon a time people respected their teachers, rabbis, doctors … but today, when kids get in trouble at school, and when the teacher or principal consults the parents – the parents often back the unruly kid, not the teachers! Is it a coincidene that, at the same time, respect for authorities has declined precipitously?

With no boundaries … with no respect for authorities … what’s left to prevent mob rule? Has anyone noticed that our country is moving in that direction?

Another dimension of derech eretz -- many of us think that of course we should respect people … as long as they earn our respect. That’s so wrong … human beings deserve respect because … they’re people!

They were made in the image of God, just like we were! Judaism tells us to “judge” others with an eye to merit … we give people the benefit of the doubt. Yeah, sometimes we learn we were wrong. But still, better to err in that direction and learn from that experience … but often, we learn we were right to do so and expect others to live up to their higher natures!

Perhaps the most important dimension of derech eretz is to remember before Whom we stand. Respect God! Many synagogues have this written clearly to all who enter the sanctuary. You walk in and see the sign: "Know before Whom you stand."

Maybe we shouldn’t need this, but we tend to forget that there is One who always watches – and desperately wants us to be good and to do good.

For me, any form of knowledge is important. But I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I see Torah as the most important knowledge of all --- it’s not only a guide to life … even daily life … but a bridge to Eternity.

Yet, not even the greatest Torah scholar dares stand before his Creator if he mistreats other people – in fact, his Torah knowledge will mean nothing at all if he has no good deeds behind him.

We must take derech eretz to heart … especially now … and not just because good manners and respect are diminished everywhere these days.

This is the month of Elul. The significance? It’s the month leading to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

It’s a special time to recognize … and live … the special bond between God and the people Israel.

We begin our journey to seeking God’s forgiveness … and more importantly … the forgiveness of those we hurt.

When we stand before our Creator on the coming Days of Awe … and seek His love and forgiveness … we must ask ourselves:
• Did we live with derech eretz … did we respect others?
• Even when we come to the synagogue … do we approach with respect and love for God – or do we think He’ll care if we just show up with empty hearts?
• Did we treat His Creation with love and respect … for surely we do not really love Him if we cannot act kindly and respectfully to others.

We must all examine these matters … our hearts and our behavior … in the coming weeks we prepare our souls and cast anger and bitterness aside…

We ask the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed is He … to help us do this during the coming month, so that on the Day of Judgment – Rosh Hashanah – and the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur – our souls will be fresh, clean, renewed … and truly standing in awe of Him.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Can we make a case for Judaism (should we)?

I was recently asked if I could make a case for Judaism – without comparing it to other religions. First off, I don’t believe in defining religion by what we are and what they’re not. The question also involved personal spirituality and avoiding a retreat to Tevye’s answer to everything: Tradition.

That said, I can certainly teach about the essence of Judaism, but I couldn't make a case for it any more than I can make a case for Catholicism. I don’t think that’s how religion is supposed to work. Also, as far as personal spirituality, that's a term I don't know how to define anymore.

Also, what we refer to tradition in Judaism is actually Jewish law developed over millennia with a goal of bringing holiness into our lives and by extension into our surroundings.

If I had to do this briefly, I'd follow the teachings of Hillel, an ancient sage. A Roman pagan asked him to explain Torah while standing on one foot. He said: "do not do to others what is hateful to yourself. The rest is commentary, go and study."

Judaism is an intricate web of practice and belief -- in which practice generally trumps belief. This extends to ritual observance to helping others, kindness, ethics, etc. For instance, we learn in 'Torah to keep kosher. The system developed over time through rabbis who were basically practicing lawyers and judges -- Jewish law encompasses everything. As far as kosher goes, I believe that God wants me to keep His laws and cares how I eat. It's a way of keeping God before me.

In Judaism, "charity" is referred to as "tzedakah." This isn't the same as charity on a voluntary basis -- the Hebrew word means justice and is a command.

We believe wholeheartedly in peace but are human beings at a loss as how to achieve it. We believe in self-defense -- wars of choice are just plain wrong.

There are a host of divided opinions on Israel. Israel is our holy land. We've been there for at least 3,000 years. How do we live there in accordance with Divine precepts of holiness and survive? We're conflicted, deeply. Ironically, according to the sage Maimonides, Islam is closer to us in theology and practice than any other religion. Obviously, we also share deep roots with Christianity.

I don't remember who first said (and whether Jew or non-Jew) religion should afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted. There aren't any easy answers. That's why so much of Bible is troubling, we have to wrestle with the text to understand it. Some of it is history -- and often not history to be proud of but to learn from (and I hate leaving dangling prepositions).

Learning should always continue an ongoing discussion. In fact, Judaism discourages solitary reading and study. It has its place, but it's never fully grasped until it becomes part of a conversation (if then). Every book we read and study will lead to more questions.

I was also asked about Hebrew and making our services more welcoming. As far as the Hebrew: it's simply that this is our particular way of worshiping because that has been our language for thousands of years. I can study texts written over thousands of years – whether from North Africa or Poland – because Hebrew is a Jewish binder. The use of Hebrew in service also means that I can pray at any synagogue anywhere and participate.

Even for those who don't understand the language, in a very deep way, the words are outer garments that carry our thoughts and yearnings to God. We may not even be consciously aware of the process. We sing our prayers, so we don't often have sheet music. But they're prayers and our offerings to God. Who cares if we get the notes wrong or don't say it all correctly? It's a learning process.

It takes a while for many to become truly comfortable at our services. The only way to change that is to alter the distinctly Jewish method of worship. After a while, it becomes second nature. As an occasional experience, service attendance – or prayer in general -- rarely works. It's like a dialogue with your spouse that sometimes is better than others, but if it's not regular, you get out of touch, ie: “Hello dear, we live in the same house but haven’t spoken in months – but why do you seem so distant from me?” It works the same with God.

It’s certainly not a case of trying to make people feel out but to preserve what is distinctly Jewish. While our services may be hard to penetrate, there's a glimpse of eternity in knowing that Jews across the ages and across the world are saying much the same thing at much the same time in praise of God.

In general, there are no easy answers. We live in an uncomfortable world and maybe we should always guard against too much comfort. A spiritual status quo leads to complacency – and complacency is the surest way to end growth.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Numbers and perfections?

This is a tardy response to a comment posted in March. Here's the comment:

Why do we spend so much time on numbers? 10 this, 18 that, the 1st born and on and on. Then we had to build the tabernacle and everything had to be perfect. Even Noah, who wasn't even Jewish, (I don't think) had to have everything just right. I feel like as a Jew, sometimes we spend a lot of time counting even in todays world, you can't walk into shul without seeing people making sure all ten are accounted for. Shavua Tov. Susan

Lots of issues here! First starting with ten and the shul. Ten is the minimum, not the goal for a communal service. However, ten Jews is how we define community. Really, a small number, and kind of sad that it's often so hard to get ten Jewish people to be part of the community when it comes to prayer and Torah reading. However, Judaism is a communal religion, prayer and Torah are our foundation stone, so it makes sense that Torah would set a minimum number. Otherwise, would we ever have a "communal" presence for the functions that keep Judaism alive and from devolving into just a social group?

The number ten for a minyan comes from -- sadly -- one of the Torah's most negative events -- the story of the spies. While in the desert, Moses sent twelve community leaders to check out the Promised Land. They all agreed it was fertile and good. However, ten of them were terrified that the inhabitants would defeat them and nearly convinced the people to go back to Egypt! If that's the damage ten can do, imagine the good that comes when ten band together for a noble cause!

In a sense, that's still skirting the surface. We fine ten as an important number throught Torah, and generally in relation to creation, whether of a world or a people. God created the world through ten utterances. The ten commandments are Jewishly the aseret hadibrot, the ten statements. Through those ten statements, God forged us into a people grounded in Torah.

Even deeper, the mystics point to ten sefirot, aspects of God. The highest aspect is unknowable. These sefirot also teach us the deepest meanings of the Creation story. The first three levels of creation -- referred to through the three highest sefirot -- take place before the Written Torah even begins. They are unknowable to our mortal minds. The remaining seven sefirot are refllected in the "days" of creation.

We know that numbers are critical to building anything. One measurement out of whack, the edifice fails. I would surely not trust an architect who did not design and build according to exact specifications.

But the Torah takes this practical aspect much further. After all, it could have avoided constant repetition of the numbers. Yet, Torah is amazingly concise. Nothing is superfluous.

That's where the mystical signficance of numbers come in. Also, Hebrew numbers are letters! Words and numbers aren't separate. As repetitive and dry as the numbers may seem, it would take years of deep study to unlock their secrets.

Right now, as we count the omer, our days are literally numbered. Yes, there is kabalistic significance to these numbers. Hopefully, will write more on this soon.

Rabbi Shaina

Comforting the Mourners -- some thoughts

Jewish tradition considers it a commandment to “comfort the mourners.” Good so far, but what does this really mean? This is so easy to say, and so hard to do.

Our first step is to acknowledge someone’s depth of suffering. To do this, we have to understand that death is never easy. In my own experience as a rabbi, the intensity of mourning is not diminished when:
· death is expected, even when the deceased is old,
· there has been suffering and pain leading to the death
· a relationship is troubled and the mourner and deceased are estranged.

We give lip service to a death being a “blessing,” but such a response does not validate or explain the intensity of grief the mourner may be experiencing. We’re all tempted to responses like this that don’t sufficiently acknowledge grief. If a mourner indicates this is comforting, we follow the lead. However, we must take care that by telling people their loss is a blessing -o-r that their loved one is in a “better place” – could make the mourner self-conscious and even reluctant to say: I know this, but I miss him, and my life is irreparably torn.

We must support mourners by giving them a chance to express these feelings, and at the very least, to validate them. If people are in denial, it’s not our job to break them out of it. However, if we encourage denial – by them, by us – we actually delay the healing process for them.

Jewish tradition bids us to follow the mourner’s lead in conversation. We’re not even supposed to speak to the mourner until he speaks to us. We might not go to that extreme, but we must take our cues from the mourner. Often, a quiet presence and saying “I’m sorry” and a word or two about the deceased will lead a person to express his feelings. The mourner might not want to talk at all. We should respect a need for silence. If the mourner answers with small talk, we should follow her lead, but only if that is what the mourner desires. Anything deeper might be too painful at that time. The important ingredient here is presence and caring.

In modern times, we often have the equivalent of receiving lines before a funeral. On one hand, it does comfort the family to know that so many people care about their loved one. However, it can be exhausting as well. The mourners have no choice but to make small talk. They cannot lead the direction of the conversation as tradition recommends. Some mourners find this comforting; others find themselves drained by the effort. This can be even more difficult before the actual funeral, because mourners often haven’t truly come to terms with the death until the funeral actually occurs.

For a number of Jews, tradition itself brings comfort. However, we are all unique and people respond differently. When we let people know we care – both emotionally and through concrete means – we do a great deal to bring them a measure of comfort.

In addition to the psychological component – actively, compassionately listening to the mourners – and not superimposing our needs upon them – Judaism gives us concrete rules for their care.

Their meals, especially the first meal after the funeral, should not be cooked by the mourners but by their friends. Meals traditionally include hard-boiled eggs, for they are simple and remind us of the eternity of life.

For the first week after a person’s death, we gather at their home for daily services. There is a prayer called the “mourner’s kaddish” that mourners generally say weekly or even daily for nearly a year after a death. The prayer doesn’t even mention death but extols God our Creator. For many, that prayer creates a spiritual infra-structure that gives them an additional connection to their loved one. It reminds them of the eternity of the spirit and helps place their loss in the context of the living tapestry of memory and Eternity. An added benefit of this prayer is that it is done in the presence of the Jewish community with at least nine other fellow Jews present. Again, this reminds us that mourning is not done in a vacuum and the community is there for the mourners – and that we are.

The pain of death never goes away. We never stop missing our loved ones. However, we hope to help the mourner turn raw grief into a field of memories that can bring warmth and blessing into their lives.

May the memories of all our loved ones be for a blessing. And, may we do everything in our power to let mourners know we care.

Shalom u’vrachah, in peace and blessing.

Rabbi Shaina Bacharach

Friday, April 3, 2009

Ritual -- why?

We Jews are inundated with ritual at every turn:
  • blessings to say when we wake up and when we go to sleep;
  • candles to light before holidays and always at specific – often inconvenient! – times;
  • ancient prayers said in an ancient language
At this time of year, we’re getting ready for the most “ritualistic” event of all … Pesach!

You know the drill: clean the house; change or kasher your silverware, dishes, and cookware; spend too much time looking for special Pesach foods that cost far too much! What’s the point?

Religion sometimes seems awfully nitpicky. Shouldn’t we be thinking about the Kadosh Baruch Hu – not about housework?!

At the same time, how do we spend our daily lives? Surely, we can and should spend time on prayer and contemplation.

… Let’s get real. How much time do we think we’re going to spend this way?
Yeah, sometimes it does sound tempting …and there are people who – like Buddhist monks -- spend their lives in meditation. However, unless I’m missing something, I don’t think any of us here are planning to pursue this direction.

I do recommend prayer, study, meditation. However, what happens when we get up and re-enter the world? Are we counting on some kind of spiritual “high” to get us through?
… I hope not – real life doesn’t work that way.

Let me throw in a point about study: the first question for people who don’t understand the reason for mitzvot is this: How much have you studied? How hard have you tried to understand them?

Further, is there any point where it matters that Hashem Himself commanded us?
Therefore, we must change our question from: “what’s the point of ritual” –to a more realistic one: how can we bring holiness … God … into our lives?

… Now we have a starting point to examine the role of ritual.

Let’s briefly move away from religious ritual. Don’t we have rituals in our daily lives?

A couple of examples may help illustrate:
· Do you tell your children/friends/spouse/girlfriend /boyfriend that you love them? There's really no point. Surely you already know you love each other!
· Say you get sick and no one offers to help. They can’t, they’re too busy with their own lives. Anyway, you know they care about you … don’t you?

All relationships have built-in signals to show caring and understanding. These are our personal rituals. These rituals vary from person to person, but we all have them. We can’t rely strictly on feelings and thoughts; we must find concrete ways to express these feelings. And so it is with religion.

Ritual is what we do when we get up from prayer or meditation. Ritual is an important way to show Hashem that we care.

I often hear: “Rabbi, I’d do these “mitzvot” if I understood them. They just don’t make sense … to me.” Or: the mitzvot just don’t feel spiritual; or the best, I don’t get anything out of them.
So, who are we doing this for? Ourselves? Or God?

IF religion is about satisfying my needs – it’s not very useful! It has little to teach, and certainly won’t help us make the world better.

On the other hand, there are many things in life that don’t make sense … until you do them … like, having children… even something like getting a pet.

Just try coming up with a rational explanation for this!

It’s hard to understand many things … until we do them. Take Pesach. More Jews celebrate Pesach than any other holiday. Why? It’s a lot of work!

… The reason? It’s a lot of work!

It’s tangible … concrete … and part of an endless tapestry of Jewish life. It’s our connection to our ancestors … our descendants … to all Jews everywhere … and to the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

Rituals transcend rational understanding. IF WE LET THEM -- They reach us in the depths of our souls.

But … if we don’t try them … we’ll never even know!

If we don’t study them … we’ll continue thinking the mitzvot are pointless …

We’ll just assume that the rabbis who interpreted Torah laws … and who formulated Judaism … as we know it today … had nothing better to do than think up arcane rules to make our lives difficult.

What a silly thing to think about such brilliant, holy teachers.

As we move closer to Pesach, I’ll endeavor to explain our rituals. Just as importantly, I hope you’ll study them on your own … and do them.

I don’t mean this just for Pesach … Jewish law gives us many ways to do God’s bidding. These “rituals” are ways to tie ourselves to Him and show that we really do care what He tells us to do!
Thousands of years ago, we stood at Mt. Sinai … as a people … and proclaimed … Na’aseh v’nishmah – We will do, and we will learn.

May our lives echo that proclamation … may we do … and may we learn!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What about the Rebitz-men?

The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle just ran a great piece on rabbis' husbands. Is their role different from that of the traditional rebitsohn -- rabbi's wife? Follow the link to find out.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Just saw the question about numbers and why they're important. Shabbat is coming, will answer afterward. Good question, hold the thought.

Shabbat shalom, y'all!

Economic uncertainty

Economic uncertainty has invaded our national psyche like a cancer threatening to burst through the body. Those of us born post-depression haven’t seen anything quite like this. In the Jewish world, important institutions are closing their doors. Some of them are suffering in the aftermath of Bernie Madoff. Madoff aside, the economic downturn is wreaking havoc. In this vein, it’s important for us to understand what’s happening to the Jewish community in Milwaukee. After all, that is the hub of Wisconsin Jewish life.

Recently, the Federation there has:
1. Cut the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle from a weekly to a monthly publication. Six of their employees – including one who worked there for a quarter of a century – are losing their jobs. What we will lose: a continuing stream of information about the Wisconsin Jewish world – as well as Jewish news in general. The Chronicle was an important vehicle keeping Green Bay Jews from feeling isolated.
2. Ended the chaplaincy program that ensured that all Jews in all Milwaukee-area hospitals were visited by rabbis. Rabbi Len Lewy – who has served for years as their head chaplain – a rabbi greatly respected in the community – will soon be out of a job.

This will pose serious difficulties for Milwaukee. Congregational rabbis depended on Rabbi Lewy to notify them when members were hospitalized. Otherwise, that’s difficult given privacy laws and the large number of congregations and hospitals.

Green Bay isn’t as complicated. We only have four hospitals, who all have chaplains who notify me if our members are hospitalized. We’re a small congregation, which makes hospital visits relatively easy.

This is a huge blow for sick people in Milwaukee – and for our own members who sometimes must go there for treatment.

3. Their food pantry is in serious trouble – which will make it much harder for needy Jews to keep kosher.

Funding is drying up for other projects – like the Day of Discovery, a great adult ed experience that a number of us here enjoy every year. Meanwhile, we’re either worried about our own jobs, or are watching our friends lose theirs.

So … what do we do?

The first and most tempting idea: hang our heads. It’s hard to avoid. This is sad. However, we must resist the temptation to let the uncertainty throw us into panic. The parshah known as Ki Tisa – Exodus 30:11-34:35 -- is a guide of what NOT to do when life is uncertain.We must NOT let our fears drive us into building a golden calf – because that’s exactly what drove our ancestors to such a heinous, blatant act of idolatry. They feared that Moses wouldn’t come back to them. He said he’d be gone 40 days. By the 40th day, they went into full-blown panic and insisted that Aaron build them a golden calf. That way, they’d simply replace both Moses and the God who had apparently swallowed him up.

Let’s focus on the uncertainty that led them to irrational fear.

I do not want to minimize the uncertainty generated by lost income and disappearing jobs. However, when our world seems to be falling apart, this is a signal that we must shift our own paradigms – the framework that helps us make sense of the world.The Golden Calf i reminds us that we dare not lose sight of our value systems. We tend to look at the Golden Calf as a stupid blunder – a sin – our ancestors committed thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, it’s a sin that it’s easy for US to commit. I don’t worry that we’re going to start melting down our gold and making statues to worship! I’m talking about something a lot more insidious.I’m talking about the way we see ourselves.

Our self-esteem is often tied to our jobs. We define success by markers such as: where our kids go to school; our prominence in the community; the size of our houses and how much money we make … and how much money we spend; even how busy we stay. We may feel more important if we’re busy – but that says nothing about HOW we spend our time … just that we spend it.

These “values” distract us from our own internal worlds. These self-descriptions are missing one important factor: what kind of people are we? Or more to the point, what kind of person am I?If I’m busy all the time, what am I doing? Am I helping others? Am I nurturing my family … or myself? Am I too “busy” for even a small amount of Jewish learning or communal prayer? Is “busy-ness” a virtue in itself, or do we use it as an excuse to avoid service to the community? What do we really value?

Of course money is important. We have to eat! We have to send our kids to school, keep a roof over our heads! On the other hand, there’s an old Yiddish proverb that: shrouds have no pockets.

The tremendous uncertainty of our times forces us to examine ourselves. Otherwise, we risk seduction by fear, false values, and depression that renders us unable to function. And at this point in time, we cannot spiritually afford to sit back.

Sometimes, there are solutions. Not always great ones. I would love to see my colleague, Rabbi Lewy, stay on as chaplain. While that’s not possible, the Council of Wisconsin Rabbis IS looking for ways to solve this problem and see that ailing Jews receive the spiritual care they need.The Council is also working to help find alternative funding for the Day of Discovery. What WE can do … here:
1. First step is always self-assessment.
2. Then … we must distinguish what we need … from what we want.
3. And each of us must ask ourselves … how can I help my community? Maybe we can’t give as much money as we’d like. But every one of us CAN give of ourselves.

Our society has become one of taking … not one of giving.

Individual needs … while important … have long superseded the needs of the community. What I want to do often bears no relationship to what others need me to do.We must shift our cultural paradigm from materialism to core values.

These measures certainly won’t solve the economic crisis … nor will they bring certainty into our lives.However, they WILL help us to withstand the changing times.

And now we come back to the Golden Calf … and what we did learn:
1. Moses forgave us
2. More importantly, God forgave us!
3. And WE … put away our idols … faced our uncertainty … and followed the King of Kings into the wilderness.

I see this as is a call to collaboration on helping our friends find jobs … and helping them survive if they can’t.We must work together … help each other … and turn our hardships into blessings.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Striking a blow against freedom

In the Torah portion this Shabbat, our ancestors got insecure and made a golden calf. This comes just after God redeemed us from the cruel bondage of the Egyptians. We experienced a number of great miracles which culminated with a the great Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Yet, forty days later, the newly-freed slaves reverted to the slavery implicit in worshipping idols.

Maybe the Jews were insecure. They didn't understand freedom. How could they? Life under Egyptian bondage had been cruel. Our people suffered. But, they knew what to expect of life. To us, it doesn't sound like much of a choice. Who would choose suffering over freedom -- even if freedom does mean insecurity, not knowing what to expect?

The sad reality, many of us live just that way. We're reluctant to change life patterns, even if some of those patterns cause us pain and sorrow. It can be as simple as lousy health choices or as complex as living in an abusive relationship. The comfort of the known world is often more luring than seeking a better life. Change is scary.

However, the Golden Calf episode wasn't even a reversion to old habits. The Egyptian overlords were idol-worshippers. Tradition tells us that throughout that period, the Jews remained true to Hashem.

Perhaps the Jews were trying to emulate their overlords. At this point in the saga, when they built the golden idol, Moses had been on the mountain for forty days. They gave up hope that their leader would return. They lost faith ... not just in God, but in the hope of living as free people. Otherwise, they wouldn't turn away from God and emulate their hated oppressors at the same time.

How do we handle our own fears? Do we revert to bad habits? Do we try to be like others -- and not like ourselves? Do we respond to our own oppression by trying to be like our oppressors?

Lots of questions for the Israelites, and lots of questions for ourselves.

Rabbi Shaina

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Parshah for Shabbat

Tetzavah, the parshah for March 7, is Exodus 28:31-29:18. It begins on page 508 of Etz Hayim.
The Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of memory. Therefore, the maftir Torah reading will be Deuteronomy 25:17-19, beginning on page 1135 of Etz Hayim. This reading relates to Amalek, a group that attacked us during the desert wandering. We read it because Haman is descended from Amalek. The Haftarah is I Samuel 15:2-35, on page 1282 of Etz Hayim.

Friday, February 27, 2009

My Appreciation and Need for Comments!

To anonymous, thank you for writing. The more discussion we have from each other, the more fodder we all have for thought and growth.

Comment on Comment on Creation Itself

A comment on my previous post elaborated on a sense of place. I hope everyone reads it. The writer made some very good points about having a sense of place and, in that place, a sense of order. This isn't order in the guise of neatness (thought it could be) but a structure to your life. Creation itself is how God brought -- and continues to bring -- order out of chaos. Since the sages compare the building of the Mishkan to the very act of Creation, it stands to reason that the Mishkan was a way for us to bring spiritual order out of the chaos of slavery.

The Mishkan was a part of our history and is our present as well. The word Mishkan literally means dwelling-place. Here, it's a dwelling place for Hashem. But it can't really be that! God is everywhere! Rather, it's a way for us to dwell with Him. We surround ourselves with objects that remind us of Him. The symbols aren't holy, but are a way to help us achieve holiness.

Food for thought, which the commenter probably knew when describing the importance of a sense of place: one of God's names is Ha'Makon, the Place -- the Place of the Entire Universe.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Shaina

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why Do 21st Century Jews Bother Learning about Tabernacles?

Our sages explain that Hashem’s directions for building the Tabernacle led to deep layers of holiness. The Tabernacle – Mishkan in Hebrew – would represent many important themes of Torah: the covenant, the creation of the world, the importance of integrity, even the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Statements of Revelation at Mt. Sinai.

Obviously, the Mishkan was not an ordinary building. It was intended to help bring us into God’s holy presence. This leads to a few questions:

1. Do we really need a special building to enter God’s presence? Why or why not? Without such a building as a communal and religious focus point, would we be able to retain a strong core?

2. How do we address the role of symbolism in our own buildings? Do we surround ourselves with objects that remind us of family, religion, our interests? Why do we need these reminders in our homes?

3. The Mishkan was built with the finest materials the Israelites could find. Does cost equal quality when we are designing a place that will hopefully enhance our spirituality? What should be our priorities in creating such a place?

Think about these questions. They are only a few of the issues raised by the parshah Terumah. I welcome your input.

Rabbi Shaina

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Building a Tabernacle, Creating a World

The parshah Terumah is akin to an ancient Hebrew version of Architectural Digest. It’s a guidebook to building the Mishkan -- the Tabernacle -- in intricate detail.

What happened to the great spirituality we’ve seen radiating from Moses’ encounters with the Kadosh Barukh Hu? Has ruach somehow become lost in a sea of minutiae? For crying out loud, in the afterglow of our greatest moment as a people – in this reading, we’re measuring curtains!

As usual, we’re better served by taking a closer look at these “trivial” details ... for as we know, Torah is rarely found on the surface of the text. And since the Mishkan is a place to enable the people to connect with God and holiness, we know that there must be more to this Parshah than meets the naked eye.

We’re creatures of flesh and blood and cannot exist on a purely spiritual plane. We must infuse our worship with the concrete world -- and at the same time, take care that we do not let the concrete world overtake us.

It’s hard having a God whom we cannot see or even visualize. After all, we relate to the world through our senses! The Torah shows us that we can and should find concrete expression of our worship -- as long as we stay focused on God and God’s Oneness.

The Zohar tells us: Rabbi Yose was once deep in study, Rabbi Isaac and Rabbi Hezekiah being with him. Said Rabbi Isaac: We are aware that the structure of the Tabernacle corresponds with the structure of heaven and earth.

A medieval commentator, the Or Hachayyim, explains this further: God equated the building of the Mishkan with the creation of the earth itself!

Simply put, we cannot ignore the details of the Tabernacle any more than a surgeon can avoid the study of anatomy! Let’s take a look at just one of the allusions..

Exodus 26.1 says: “Make the Tabernacle of ten strips of cloth.”

Simple instruction - or deeper meaning?

Below the surface, the Or Hachayyim compares the ten strips of cloth to God’s ten utterances with which tradition teaches that He created the universe.

Ten is certainly a number signifying foundation. We have ten fingers, five on each hand. It takes ten to have a minyan, a quorum for public prayer.

God spoke ten times and created the world. We could easily say dayeinu, that’s enough -- but we have more ... the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Statements -- better known as the Ten Commandments -- God’s spoken revelation to the entire people Israel ... these utterances also created .. not only the foundation for all Torah, but the beginning of Jews as a people.

In mysticism, we have the ten sefirot, or Emanations and Attributes of God. Ten represents our understanding, feeble though it may be, of God’s nature.

Therefore, the Or Hachayyim says that through construction with these ten strips of cloth, the Israelites received merit for building the Mishkan as if they had created the universe itself.

This Torah portion has this and so much more to teach us. Stay tuned for more. And please share your questions and comments!

Rabbi Shaina

Blogging and Torah

With this blog, I hope we'll have a forum to learn and discuss a variety of issues, especially those related to God and Torah.

Along those lines, I want to encourage everyone to read the weekly Torah portion. The first step is letting you know where to find it! After that, I'll post my own thoughts as well as ideas from commentators, ancient to modern. The blog will provide you an opportunity to share your thoughts as well.

Getting started: the reading from this coming Shabbat is the parshah Terumah, Exodus 26:1-30, found in Etz Hayim starting page 491. The haftarah is I Kings 5:26-6:13, Etz Hayim page 500.