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.