We are in the middle of discussing Psalm 148. Yesterday, we observed the overarching theme of the psalm is how the entirety of creation sings G-d’s praise. However, the concluding verse seem to change the topic, veering away from the inanimate world and instead describes the Jewish People’s relationship with G-d.
Perhaps these verses serve as a reminder that the Jewish People, very much like creation, are expected to be the source of G-d’s praise in the world. Just like one looks out to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls and sees G-d’s greatness, one should be able to look at a Jew and see the greatness of G-d through His people who live a life according to His Torah. Hence, the theme of this prayer is the universe and the Jewish People who are both the source of G-d’s praise in this world. The one difference between the two is that the former is naturally a testimony to His greatness, while we have to constantly work on it.
I’d like to share with you a story in three parts. It’s a story of a young boy named Peter. Peter was an only child and at the young age of three his mother passed away. Peter’s father, a successful businessman, was left to care for his only child. And although his father did indeed care for him, as Peter got older he realized that there was something that was amiss in their relationship. Peter, like all children – both young and old- wanted nothing more than his father’s approval. He wanted to hear his father tell him that he’s a good pitcher; he wanted to hear his father tell him that he knows he tried hard on his math test, he wanted his father to acknowledge the model airplanes that he spent so much time building and painting. But most of all, he wanted his father to tell him that he’s proud. Unfortunately, Peter’s father never seemed able to say those words.
As Peter became a teenager, his longing for his father’s approval turned to frustration and anger. Peter never told his father how badly he wanted and needed his approval and Peter probably didn’t even recognize what it was that was bothering him. But with those emotions bubbling in his young and tender heart, slowly, father and son moved further and further apart.
When Peter was in tenth grade, his father was set to turn fifty. Some relatives and friends planned a big party for Peter’s father. And although Peter’s feelings for his father were mixed, he nonetheless wanted to give his father a special gift. And so Peter, the great model airplane builder that he was, decided to build a magnificent model airplane for his dad and present it to him at the party. Peter spent months putting the pieces of the airplane together, painting the airplane his father’s favorite colors – red and blue, polishing the engine and wheels, all the while imagining, hoping, that his gift would find favor in his father’s eyes.
Finally the night of the party arrived, family and friends arrived for the festivities. The evening was going smoothly, just as planned. Right before the birthday cake was to be served, Peter walked up to his father and handed him his labor of love; the beautiful, intricately detailed model airplane. His father took it, turned it over, examined it from all sides, looked at his son and said, “thank you” and turned to continue a conversation with the person next to him.
Needless to say Peter was crushed. Their relationship took a nosedive and as soon as Peter graduated high school, he went to college as far away from home as possible. At first he spoke to his father from time to time but eventually they virtually lost all contact with one another.
The story isn’t over but I’m going to pause.
We say Yizkor a number of times a year and usually I talk about the fond memories that we have of our loved ones and how Yizkor is a time to reflect on that bond of love that transcends the grave. But unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Unfortunately, there are so many whose memories of their parents, siblings, and perhaps even children, are not all that rosy. There are many whose memories of their family members are at best bittersweet. I’m sure there are many people in this room who could relate to Peter’s feelings; people who cry on Yizkor not because they miss their parents’ embrace but they cry for the hugs and kisses that they never received, people who cry on Yizkor not because they miss talking to their parents but because they never really had a chance to share their fears and hopes with them, and people who cry on Yizkor not because of the relationship that is no longer but they cry on Yizkor for the relationship that never was.
And it makes Yizkor very complicated when we have people whom we on the one hand love and at the same time these are people who managed to frustrate us to such an extent. I’m not talking about an abusive relationship which is a conversation onto its own. But between abusive relationships and blissful family relationships there are countless less than perfect relationships in between. Do we miss these people? What do we tell our children about grandma and grandpa whom we never really loved and never really respected? These are questions that don’t have an easy answer.
And of course it’s not limited to people who are no longer alive. What is one to do if they find themselves in a relationship with a parent, child, sibling or spouse and they just don’t feel loved? Should they grin and bear it? Should they just march forward or should they lash out and speak their mind?
How do we interact with people who could never be pleased, who are so often critical, who never share of themselves, and who just don’t seem to care?
Let’s get back to Peter.
Peter graduated college, went to medical school and started his own family. Two years after he married he had a daughter. A year later he had his own practice which really took off. Life was moving along smoothly except for an aching feeling he felt from time to time whenever he thought about his father.
Twelve years to the day that Peter left home, he received a phone call from his aunt. His father had passed away. Peter didn’t even know that he was sick. And now, just like that, his father was gone.
Angry, sad, but most of all, in a deep state of confusion, Peter made it back to his hometown where the funeral took place. He sat through the funeral not really paying much attention to the eulogies. He cried as his father’s casket was taken away and before he knew it, it was all over.
Peter being the only child was left with the enormous task of taking care of his father’s estate. Peter felt it would be most wise to start in his father’s office. After all, it was the place where his father spent most of his time. So Peter went into his father’s office, and looked around the room. No family pictures. No signs of a son who longed so badly for his father’s approval. Nothing.
His eyes finally settled on his father’s filing cabinet that was kept under lock and key. The cabinet almost seemed to mock him – reminding Peter how those papers were so much more important to his father than he was. Peter in a fit of rage found the key, put it in the keyhole and angrily yanked opened the cabinet. And there, on top of all those important files, lay a beautiful, intricately detailed, red and blue airplane.
We often live our lives in a state of perpetual frustration and anger at family members who don’t seem to really care and who don’t seem to really love. But sometimes, actually, almost all of the time, those people love us dearly. They may not know how to tell us how much they care, they may be scared to make themselves vulnerable by complimenting but that’s an expression of their weaknesses – not their lack of love. They may hesitate before hugging their child but that’s because they were never hugged themselves. Virtually all parents love their children. What distinguishes one parent from another is their ability to express it.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, has different ways of expressing their love; some do so verbally, some through physical contact, some express love through utilitarian acts, and some through emotions. Whichever way it’s expressed, the bond of love is there. We can’t change those around us but we can train ourselves to listen and to search and to see how our parents, spouses, children, and siblings do indeed love, even if they express it in a language that is foreign to ours. We can train ourselves to realize that people share their love in radically different ways.
There is a wonderful little book called the Five Love Languages where the author, Gary Chapman, describes five different expressions of love. And whether his list is comprehensive or not is up to debate, but the underlying point he makes is that we all express love in our own language – in our unique way; through touch, through gifts, through time spent together, through words, and through acts of kindness.
While Yizkor is certainly a day of remembering the past, we need not allow those memories to be static. Like Peter finally understood, we can dig a little deeper and look towards our loved ones, whether they are no longer alive or whether they’re sitting right next to you, and try to understand them from a new perspective. We can rise above the frustrations of the past and recognize that we don’t all speak the same language of love. We can realize like Peter did, that his father couldn’t bring himself for whatever reason to say the words he wanted to hear, but his father through the many gifts he gave his son was trying so hard to convey that he truly loved him.
In a few hours we will be celebrating Simchas Torah. And what I am saying regarding our interpersonal relationships is certainly relevant to our relationship with G-d.
I have been asked on more than one occasion a question or perhaps more of a complaint that at first glance seems almost childish but I believe it’s a complaint that’s actually quite sophisticated and an expression of a deep spiritual yearning. The question is the following: I pray; I pour my heart out to G-d, maybe not every day but from time to time I really do. I do mitzvos; I dedicate my body and all my resources to serving G-d and expressing my love to Him. But G-d never responds. And that’s not fair.
I want to hear from G-d. No one likes being in a one-sided relationship where they share of themselves, telling their partner their deepest secrets and yearnings, and never hear anything in return. It’s genuinely frustrating.
But very much like humans, G-d too has His own unique way of expressing His love. G-d does share with us His innermost thoughts and desires, His greatest convictions and aspirations – we call it the Torah. Our Sages teach us that prayer is when we talk to G-d but Torah study is when G-d talks to us.
Through the stories of the Torah G-d shares with us His value system, through the Mitzvos, through the commandments, He describes what life in a relationship with Him could and should look like, and through the complexities of the Talmud and mystical thoughts of the Zohar, G-d shares with us secrets that only lovers share.
G-d, very much like the humans He created, has a love language. He too has His way of expressing His love for us. And tonight and tomorrow, when we dance with the Sefer Torah, we are reminding ourselves that although we gave so much of ourselves over the past few weeks through fasting, through prayer and the countless mitzvos of the holidays, it’s not a one-sided relationship. The climax of the High Holiday season is tonight and tomorrow when we remind ourselves that G-d loves us and He loves us dearly. He shares His innermost world with us. The language and modality of expressing His love may be foreign to us, but we can and we must learn how to appreciate His unique way of expressing His love to His beloved children.
As we dance on Simchas Torah and as the High Holiday season comes to a close, let’s ask ourselves if we are making room for G-d in our relationship with Him? Are we the only ones speaking or can we find time in our busy schedules to hear what He has to say? I know there are so many parents concerned about their children’s Jewish education. What about our relationship with G-d? Torah study is about G-d sharing of Himself with His beloved children and G-d wants to not only talk to our children, He wants a relationship with the adults as well. There are no shortage of learning opportunities both here in Ner Tamid and throughout the community. Take advantage. Don’t just dance with the Sefer Torah this year, learn it! and allow G-d to tell you how much He really loves you.
Let’s conclude by getting to back Peter’s life one last time… Two weeks after his father’s funeral Peter was on his way to work. He was running a little late and so he raced through his house, talking to his secretary on his cell phone in one hand, holding his briefcase in the other. He sidestepped his daughter’s dolls and reached for the door. And just as he turned the knob he felt a tug at his sleeve. He looked down. It was his daughter holding a picture. “Look Daddy, I drew a picture of you.”
Peter smiled and was about to continue out the door. You see Peter was unfortunately conditioned by his stifled relationship with his father. And Peter, very much like his father had a very difficult time telling his five year old daughter who he loved so dearly how much he loved her. Peter was affected by his father’s inability to express his love verbally. But it was up to Peter to decide how he would be affected; would he continue on, the same way his father treated him, or would he teach himself a new way of expressing his love? Would he get past his vulnerabilities and tell his daughter and spouse how they mean the world to him, words that they so badly wanted to hear, or would he limit his expression to buying them gifts and taking them on exciting vacations? Would he find the strength to hug and kiss his daughter or would he be the cold father he promised he’d never be?
Peter told his secretary that he’d be late for work and got off the phone. He turned around and picked his daughter up high in the air, gave her a hug and kiss, and told her that that was the most beautiful picture he ever saw.
Of Angels and Men
Yizkor Yom Kippur
Many people have asked me why it is that I haven’t mentioned Syria once over the High Holidays. How can I ignore the 100,000 people who have been killed? How can I ignore the over one million people who have been displaced? And how can I ignore the fact that this week the fate of the remaining 21 million citizens of the country is being judged by the United States, by Russia, and by the international community? What will be the outcome of the upcoming talks? Will the US allow the civil war to rage on? Will the population be subject to indiscriminate bombings by the warring factions killing countless innocent people? What will the world’s response be to a leader who uses chemical weapons against women and children? And personally, what will be the ramifications for Israel if an attack is launched?
And of course what is going on in Syria is important; it’s a topic that invokes serious moral questions and practical concerns. The reason this topic has not headlined my sermons is because this week, in addition to the fate of the 20 million in Syria, the fate of 7 billion people is also being decided. Because today, “kol bo’ei olam ya’avrun l’fanecha, all those who live pass before You, G-d, and are judged.”
The fate of the entire world is being judged right now. will the United States experience another Sandy? Will we see more terrorist attacks like the ones in Libya? Will North Korea and Iran flex their nuclear muscles? Will people be safe to run marathons? Will buildings collapse in Bangladesh? Will India and Colorado experience more deadly flash floods and what will be with the final outcome in the Middle East? Or will the turmoil never end?
And even without taking such a global view. In our own lives and in our own community – today is the day that our verdict is sealed. G-d decides if we will prosper or if we’ll struggle. There are so many people struggling here in Baltimore and here in our own shul; some to pay for their children’s tuition, others to make sure that BGE doesn’t cut off their electricity. And today, G-d seals that verdict – “B’rosh Hashana yikaseivun, uv’yom tzom kippur y’chaseimun, On Rosh HaShana it’s inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”
So many struggling with health – “Mi yichyeh umi yomus, who will live and who will die” is also being decided right now. Though some of the younger people here, myself included, fool themselves to think that life will go on indefinitely, the angel of death does not discriminate by age.
“Mi yishaleiv umi yisyasor, who will have a tranquil life and whose life will be filled with difficulties” G-d is deciding right now who will live a life that will be calm and enjoyable and who will live a life filled with turmoil – with fighting between family members, with stress at work; a life of agonizing challenges or a life of peace.
Those are the words of Unesaneh Tokef, the heart-wrenching prayer that we say on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur that reminds us of the frailty of life and the magnitude of the judgment that takes place on this day. So no, I am in no way belittling what is going on in Syria, however, the judgment taking place today has far greater ramifications.
So what do we do? How do we respond? It’s actually almost easier to respond to Syria. You can call your representative in the House and tell him or her what you think. If your name is Sheldon Adelson, and your net worth is 21.8 billion dollars, you can call the president and offer to use your connections or maybe even spot the government a little bit of financial aid.
But how do we respond to the judgment that pertains to our lives? What can we do? Or perhaps, more accurately, what can we say? Here we are, standing before the heavenly court pleading for our lives, as this past year’s actions are weighed before us. If G-d gave us the opportunity to defend ourselves what would we say in our defense? What justifications do we have for the many missed opportunities? For our countless failings?
The answer I believe is found in the dichotomy of Yom Kippur. We stand here today like angels. On Yom Kippur we do not eat just like angels do not eat. We don’t engage in any pleasures just like angles who do not need to satisfy any physical desires. We wear a white kittle, or any white clothing, to appear like angels. And on Yom Kippur we say the words “BARUCH SHEIM KEVOD MALCHUSO L’OLAM VOED” out loud, instead of the usual whisper- just like the angels.
And yet, on the other hand, we say Viduy, the confessional, that is said by an individual as they are about to depart this world. We beg G-d for mercy, zachreinu l’chaim, to allow us to live, even though we aren’t worthy of our existence. And we are taught that that same white kittle that represents the angels, also represents tachrichim, the traditional white clothing that is placed upon the deceased; the clothing that a Jewish man or woman is buried in.
So which one is it? Are we majestic angels today soaring to the highest of heights? Or are we miserable human beings unworthy of life? Is Yom Kippur a day of death and mourning or is it a day of joy and grandeur? What is the spirit of this complicated holiday? Should we dance or cry? Should we mourn or should we rejoice?
And I believe the answer is both.
You see, by recognizing how fragile we are, by acknowledging the frailty of life itself, we are awakened to a new experience, to a new life. It’s in the face of this incertitude that we shake ourselves from our slumber and live life to its fullest. Imagine – living a life where every conversation can be the last one. Imagine an existence where every encounter can be the one that you’re remembered for. What kind of life would we live?
This past Wednesday was the anniversary of 9/11. A day that is etched into our memory and forever has changed us as a people. The mere mention of September 11th reminds us of the frailty of life. It reminds how quickly our dreams can turn to dust.
I’d like to share with you a letter from a book called The Legacy Letters. The book is a collection of letters from relatives of those who perished on 9/11 written to their loved ones that they lost on that fateful day. Allow me to read you a letter from Joe, who is today 25, but was 14 at the time of the 9/11 attack. On September 11, Joe lost his father, a stock trader on the 105th floor of the North tower.
“Dad, I guess it makes the most sense to start at the end.
The last time I saw you, you had a triple stack of powdered donuts piled on top of a belly that looked used to that sort of thing. Confectioner’s sugar dusted your lips, and every time the Giants’ defense missed a tackle, you pounded a chubby fist into the couch and left a phantom smudge. You were barely five-ten, bald and out of shape. I looked at you and saw the strongest man in the world. “All right, time for bed,” you said. It was only the third quarter and I turned my head to argue, but you knew what was coming. “I don’t want to hear it,” you told me. “It’s your first week of high school and you’re gonna start it off strong.” I stalked off, headed for the stairs leading to my room. No hug, no kiss goodnight. I grumbled under my breath. It’s not fair. This stinks. “I love you, champ,” you told the back of my head. You knew I was ticked and you weren’t really expecting an answer. You didn’t get one. I never heard your voice again. Well, old man, it’s been ten years since you stuffed those donuts down your throat. I’m six foot three, 185 pounds. I’m a Boston College graduate…When I grabbed hold of my diploma I could almost feel you up on the stage next to me. Wherever you were, I know you were smiling. I’ve been to music festivals, ridden a motorcycle, and gambled in Atlantic City. I’ve been in love. I’ve been heartbroken. I’ve missed you every day. Remember when you took me to the World Series game, when Tino hit the grand slam…I watched the ball sail into those right-field seats…Every pair of eyes in the stadium stared at the field, but when I looked up at you, I saw that you were looking right back at me, more interested in observing your son’s joy than you were in the game. I wish that someday you could have held my kids. I wish I could stand and watch from the bedroom doorway while you sat beside them and sang about the young cowboy who lives on the range. I know the words—I’ll do my best. I’ve spent hours lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, talking to your memory in the dark. I ask for help when I’m confused, for strength when I’m scared, and for comfort when I’m upset. I wonder how it was just at the end—if you were afraid…if there was pain. You never answer, and that’s okay. But more than anything, I wish I could hear your voice again, even just for a minute. I wish I could listen to your stories and to the laugh that lit the room. I wish I could hear you tell me that you’re proud. I love you too, Dad, and I’ll miss you forever.
Your son, Joe”
In a few moments this room will empty out and the only people who will remain will be people who could relate to Joe’s feelings; People who just miss hearing their father or mother’s voice; people who reach out for their loved ones in dark and lonely times. This room will be filled with people who understand that life does not march on forever. And if we too take that message seriously, if we acknowledge the ticking clock, our lives will be lived not like mortals, but like angels. And that my friends, is the theme and the spirit of Yom Kippur. On this day, G-d wants us to see ourselves as if we are about to depart this world because in doing so we are forced to ask ourselves, “If today is my last day on earth, how would I act? Would I try to understand the prayers in the siddur and try to have a conversation with G-d? Would I stay in shul a little bit longer? Would I gossip just a little bit less with the person sitting next to me? Would I bite my tongue before criticizing? Would I instead try to find a kind word? What would I say to my children if this was the last day of my life? What would I do during that little break for Yizkor? Would I spend my time socializing with friends or would I frantically find my children and hug them and kiss them and tell them how they mean the world to me? Would I still hold a grudge against my spouse or would I look her in the eye and tell her I’m sorry – and mean it? Would I spend the time talking to my own group of friends or would I look for someone who looks out of place and all alone and introduce myself? How would I spend the last day of my life? What would I do after mussaf? Would I complain about hungry I am or would I open a Chumash and study the book of Yonah? Would I stay home the rest of the day or come back for Neilah?
Yom Kippur is not a contradiction. When we face our mortality we can find the divine within. The clothing of death is the clothing of life. By facing death we can climb to the heights of the angels. That is the avodah, the service, of this special day. It’s a day when we realize what is important us and what we really want out of our short and fleeting lives.
But Yom Kippur is only one day of the year. It would be overwhelming and it would be debilitating to live in the shadow of death every moment of our life. But on this one day G-d asks us to reimagine ourselves, or perhaps more accurately, G-d asks us to really get to know ourselves, to ask ourselves what we’re really all about, what do I want? Where am I going? If I could be an angel, if I could do all the good that I truly want to do, what would my life look like?
In doing so, we not only give ourselves something to aspire to for the coming year, but by acting today as if this is the last day of our lives, we’re telling G-d that all those mistakes, , all those moments of weakness, that’s not me. Today, on Yom Kippur, I will show you G-d who I really am.
In doing so, G-d judges us accordingly. When we show G-d what we really want and who we really want to be, G-d in turn gives us the opportunity to live up to that angelic image.
Allow me to share with you one more letter from the Legacy Letters:
“My dear Joseph,
On that fateful Tuesday morning, I was on my drive home from carpooling the kids to school. The radio informed us that a plane had crashed into the WTC. I was worried about you; I knew you were at a conference in New York and that much chaos would ensue. I wanted to call you to warn you, but I did not want to disturb you in the middle of your conference. When I came home and put on the TV, I decided to call you anyway, and reached you on your cell phone at exactly 11 minutes past 9 a.m. Mine was the only call that got through to you that day. You told me the air was thick with white smoke, and it was getting difficult to breathe, and that evacuation plans were being announced over the PA system. I told you to call your office to tell them you were safe, then we would talk again. At this point, there was a pregnant pause. I realized, you wanted to tell me you loved me, but you hesitated. You have always been the strong one in our family. You did not want me to think that you feared for your life, that you were not sure of the outcome; you did not want me to worry. I told you I’d pray for your safety. I wanted to tell you that I loved you, but I bit my lip. I did not want you to think that this would be the last time we spoke to each other, that this would be our last chance to say goodbye, our last words. As soon as I put down the phone, I changed my mind. Why wait? I tried to call you back, but the phone was busy. I tried again and again…but it kept going to your voicemail. I kept hitting redial…then I stared, transfixed with horror, as the North Tower imploded and crumbled like something surreal out of an epic disaster movie. That day, I never got my chance to tell you I loved you. We all loved you! We never got to say goodbye.
All these years later, we still miss you, and we will always love you, though those words went unspoken on that fateful day. I have since mentioned that moment to our kids, now young adults. I told them, “Life is precious and life can be short. If you love someone, if you appreciate someone, take a moment to tell them what they mean to you. Take a moment to thank them. Tell them you love them. Several times a day, if need be.” And that is just what we do to this day. With all our love…till we meet again…on the other side of the rainbow. Yours, Teresa”
My friends, there are eight hours left to the last day of our lives. How will we act? What will we do? Let’s show G-d and let’s show ourselves who we really are; let’s give wings to the angel that lives inside. Because tonight after Neilah, we will pray the evening services and say the words Baruch Sheim Kevod Malchuso L’olam Vaed. But tonight, after nightfall, we will no longer be angels; we will no longer say those words out loud. Instead, for the rest of the year, we will whisper those words. We will whisper to ourselves, Baruch Sheim Kevod Malchuso L’olam Vaed, reminding ourselves of Yom Kippur, reminding ourselves of our true aspirations, reminding ourselves how different things would be if it would be the last day of our lives.
May we take to heart the dual message of this precious day. May we face our frailty and walk away stronger. And may we, and every inhabitant of this planet, merit a year of life, a year of peace, a year of forgiveness, and a year of greater aspirations.
A Nation of Heroes
Rosh HaShana Day Two
Salah Ibrahim Ahmad Mugdad is among the 104 remaining prisoners Israel agreed to release as part of a deal with the Palestinians in order to resume peace talks. And just who is Mr. Mugdad, you may ask? In 1993, Mugdad killed a hotel security guard named Israel Tenenbaum by beating him in the head with a steel rod. Tenenbaum was 72 at the time of his murder.
Also being released is Abu Musa who murdered Isaac Rotenberg, a Holocaust survivor; a man who lost his entire family in the camps. Musa and Rotenberg were fellow construction workers until one day in 1994, Musa attacked Rotenberg with an ax, inducing a coma that led to Rotenberg’s death two days later.
In a short editorial in the Wall Street Journal, the author analyzes the pending release of these Palestinian prisoners by summing it up in the following way: “South Africa has Nelson Mandela, Poland has John Paul II, and Burma has Aung San Suu Kyi: Though the measure isn’t exact, one way to judge a nation is by looking at its heroes. So what does it say about a prospective state of Palestine that among its heroes is Salah Ibrahim Ahmad Mugdad?
Every society has its criminals, psychotics and killers, and Israel is no exception. But it says something about the current Palestinian leadership that it has made the release of killers a condition of peace talks. It also says something about the moral values of too many Palestinians that they should treat the returning prisoners not as pariahs but as heroes.”
What a powerful and relevant point this author makes! A nation is judged by looking at its heroes.
Today on Rosh Hashana, we stand as a nation, imploring G-d for a favorable judgment. And by the measure of this yardstick, how will we be judged? To whom does our nation look to as its heroes? And perhaps more importantly, who do we see as our own individual heroes?
Today, I’d like to share with you a brief overview of the rise and fall of heroism in Western culture. Let’s start by taking a look at the moving story of the Binding of Isaac that we read today; the story of how Abraham was asked to take his precious son whom he waited for, prayed for, and now lived for, and to bring that son as a sacrifice to G-d. The unwavering faith of Abraham and the unflinching commitment of Isaac stand for us as a model of religious belief. Two of our foremost heroes indeed.
For thousands of years, this tale was seen as the prototype of a life of devotion and faith. People from all faiths – Jews, Christians and Muslims looked to this story and gleaned lesson after lesson from both Abraham and Isaac. Of the most famous, is a landmark work by Soren Kierkegaard, titled Fear and Trembling. It is his analysis of the Binding of Isaac and is today seen as an introduction to all of existential philosophy.
Interestingly, around the same time that Kierkegaard was penning his brilliant ideas there was a school of thought that was gaining traction in Europe; a school of thought known as Biblical Criticism. It was a movement that was an offshoot of the new Protestant church. As you know, the Protestant church was born out of disgust in individuals who saw themselves as deities. This new movement was meant to humanize the priesthood. But with the godlike leadership out of the way, a humanization of the Bible was soon to follow. The snowflake called the Protestant Reformation turned into a snowball and upended the divinity of the Bible in the eyes of many. And over time, this snowball turned into an avalanche. The story of Isaac was no longer seen as the tenth and most difficult test of Abraham, nor as the starting point for all of existential philosophy, but over time, it became viewed as Richard Dawkins, a respected atheist writes, “a disgraceful story… an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: I was only obeying orders.”
But the effects of this movement are not limited to religious figures and texts. A steady decline in the respect given to secular authority and civil leadership was soon to follow. A month ago, college students from the University of Connecticut, had their photo taken with President Obama. Right before the picture was taken, two young women placed bunny ears behind the President. Now I imagine the vast majority of you did not know this and that further proves this point – this is not news. It’s not that out of the ordinary. It’s okay to display an utter disregard and disrespect towards the president of the most powerful country in the world.
The trajectory of the Western world has followed a clear path, from the Middle Ages – when people maintained a blind belief in both G-d and humans, to the present – an era of cynicism, a society that scorns and laughs at anything of value, a world where the idea of having someone to look up to, a hero, a role model, is non-existent.
Now you may ask, is this really such a big deal? Is this even worth talking about on Rosh HaShana? Who cares if we have no one to look up to and does that really affect my life?
I believe that it does in a very profound way.
Last week in Washington, DC, a memorial took place. Thousands of people descended upon the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate a march and a speech that changed this country. On August 28, 1963, somewhere between two and three hundred thousand people from all over the country converged upon the capital. What is our memory of this remarkable event? What is it that all the newspapers give homage to? Not to the hundreds of thousands who traveled from far and wide. Not to the people who shut down the city and packed the Lincoln Memorial. But our memory rests upon four words, “I HAVE A DREAM.”
And I believe that the reason that the dream got so much recognition whereas the marchers are an afterthought is because those marchers, while they knew that they were sick and tired of sitting in the back of busses, they knew that they were fed up with signs that barred them from entry, and they knew that they were disillusioned in the great American ideal of equality, yet they had their feet planted firmly on the ground. How, they must have asked themselves, will we get beyond this? How will we move forward? They didn’t know the answer to their questions because all they saw was the reality that they lived in. They were marchers and their feet were planted on the ground.
What Martin Luther King did was elevate them. He transformed them from a group of marchers, of people who had their feet and perspective on the ground, and turned them into a group of dreamers. He shared with them a vision; he gave them something to aspire to. And for that he and his speech are memorialized.
We too, are marchers. We have come from across Maryland and filled up this room on Rosh HaShana. We too are tired of the mistakes that we’ve made. We too are fed up with ourselves and the way we have acted with our parents, with our children, with G-d and with our environment. And we too know that this is not the way we would like to live another year. And yet we stand firmly planted on the ground. How do we rise above our failings? How do we get out of the vicious cycles of our lifestyle? How do we break free?
We need to dream. We need to aspire. We need to have a vision of grandeur and greatness. And that is where heroes come in.
Because that’s precisely what a hero is. We all want a better life. We all want to be better people. But we’re stuck because we are who we are. But when we encounter greatness; when we have people, or even a person who we could look up to, who can give us a lifestyle to aspire to we can follow them and attain the greatest of heights.
If you want to read a short book that will truly set the tone for Yom Kippur then pick up a copy of Tuesday’s with Morrie. It’s a true and compelling story of a young man who at one point in his life was idealistic. But career got in the way and he slowly found himself very distant from where he once was. He was wealthy, he had a wife. But he had no life. There was no meaning in his day to day existence.
One day he reunited with an old teacher of his, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS. And they decided that for the remainder of Morrie’s life, they would get together week after week on Tuesday’s and they would talk. Over the weeks and through those conversations, his teacher reawakened within him a passion for life and a passion for meaning. After one especially powerful conversation with his mentor, Mitch decided to reunite with a brother he hadn’t talked to for years. And with time, he left his career as a sports columnist and now dedicates all his energy to writing books that are meant to teach and guide. And in his spare time he has founded a large number of charitable organizations. How did this change take place? Because Mitch had a hero.
And we too, need heroes. We need people who can inspire us. Some of you may have been blessed with parents who taught you what it means to be a spouse and what it means to be a father or a mother. If they’re alive then ask them and learn from them how to be the most amazing family person possible. Some of you weren’t as fortunate. That doesn’t mean you should give up. Break the cycle! Find someone to look up to. Find someone who knows what they’re doing and learn from them. Grow from them. Allow them to teach you how to be greater than you are. Find a hero so he or she could teach how to dream.
A nation is judged by its heroes. A nation without any heroes is a nation without aspirations, without dreams to be greater. A nation that has no recognition of great people to emulate, is a nation that stagnates and never realizes its potential. And the same is true for an individual. Without heroes, we have no one who can inspire us to a greater existence than the one we know. An individual, like a nation, is judged by his or her heroes.
Who is your Morrie Schwartz? Who do you look to as a model of a ‘life worth living’? Who can you confide in to discuss the challenges that you face?
We need to reverse the terrible trend of cynicism and putting people and ideas down. And we need to create a culture of heroism and growth. We need to look around, not with an eye that destroys, but an eye that finds value and lessons to be learned from the people who surround us. We all need our own Morrie Schwartz. Without a hero and without role models, we will never be able to aspire to an existence greater than our own.
Having a role model and someone to confide will in will translate into growth and greatness. Creating a society where we look positively towards others will translate into a more beautiful tomorrow for our children. But there is another benefit that far outweighs the others. Allow me to share with you a short story by Leslie Horan:
The story is titled “Me and Clark Kent” and it is about a man who looks exactly like Clark Kent, the mild mannered reporter. Everywhere he goes people mistakenly think he’s everyone’s favorite alter ego. He is not amused. It haunts him like a plague. He wants nothing more than to be free from the baggage that follows him around like kryptonite, to be accepted for who he is, not for how he looks. He tries going to psychologists, plastic surgeons, and personal trainers – nothing works. He continues to hear whispers whenever he enters a room, “Hey, that looks just like Clark Kent!” It begins to drive him insane. Finally in a fit of desperation, the individual turns to self-mutilation in the hope that it will bring an end to his pain. In the end, as he lies in a gutter unable to move or speak, he overhears a child whispering to her mother, “Isn’t that Superman lying over there?”
All that self-hatred. But he never realized the great potential he actually possessed. He never got behind the suit and the mild mannered personality to see that he really possessed the greatest power in the universe. All he saw and all he heard was Clark Kent but what he failed to realize that every Clark Kent is also a Superman.
The greatest tragedy of our cynical culture is not that we lost faith in others. The greatest tragedy of our cynicism is that we lost faith in ourselves. We have become so accustomed to seeing the regular in everyone around us that we fail to see the superhuman in ourselves! We fail to recognize how many people look up to us and we don’t allow that to change the way we act.
People often ask me at what point did I realize that I wanted to become a rabbi. And honestly, I’m not sure. But I can pinpoint the exact moment that sent me in this direction. I was in eleventh grade, not a star student by any means. I was a typical teenager who cared more about having fun than just about anything else. But one day, a freshman came to me to ask me my advice on something. And I remember it dawning upon me that this little guy looks up to me. That realization changed my life. Knowing that someone looked to me for guidance forced me to be worthy of giving that advice. I changed virtually overnight. How could I do whatever it was I was up to if this ‘freshie’ is looking up to me? I’m not Clark Kent. I’m Superman.
And we are all supermen and superwomen. You’re a mother, you’re a father, you’re a boss, you’re a coworker, and you’re a friend. We are all surrounded by people who we influence. I know that you’re listening to me talk right now and saying, “Give me a break!” But you know what, stop being a Clark Kent and step up to the challenge. Everyone, and I mean everyone here has something that they can teach someone else; we are blessed with talents, with qualities, and with characteristics that can transform the world around us. Share it! Flaunt it! Be big! Be a superhero! Don’t sell yourself short.
My friends, in a few moments we will be invoking the merit of Abraham and Isaac. We will say “V’zocher chasdei Avot, that You, G-d, remember the kindness of our grandparents.” Over and over, we will invoke “the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But what does it mean to invoke their merit? Does G-d really need us to remind Him about our forefathers?!
Our Sages teach us that to invoke their merit doesn’t mean that we are reminding G-d who our ancestors were. Invoking their merit means to find the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that lives within. Meaning, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebbeca, Rachel, and Leah are our heroes and although they are no longer living, they do live on through us. They are not a distant hero to look up to from afar. Rather, their heroism runs through our blood. To be a Jew means that the spirit of our ancestors lives on inside!
They were brave – they stood up to the whole world who told them they were wrong. We too can find within ourselves the courage to stand up to the world when they tell us that we stand for an outdated faith and that Israel is always wrong. They were loving – they opened their doors to passerby’s and lonely people. And we too can find the place in our hearts to help out the many poor people around us. Some are materially poor and some are emotionally destitute. We can find the kindness within. And they were dedicated – to their family, to G-d, and to the world around them. And we too can find the time and energy needed to dedicate ourselves to people and to our Creator.
That’s what zechut avot, the merit of our ancestors is. Kulam kedoshim! We are all holy! We are all superheroes! This room is filled with heroes. Everyone has something to teach and something to share. We all have a special something; a quality, passion, or role in which we excel. Let’s find it in others let’s find it in ourselves!
If a nation is judged by looking at its heroes, then imagine what we can become if we become a nation of heroes! Find a hero – someone to connect to, and someone to confide in, and let them take you to a greater place. Let them teach you how to dream. And most importantly, allow yourself to become a hero. Don’t let the world tell you that you have nothing to offer. A little ninth grader taught me that lesson and it changed my life. May this be year that we invoke the incredible legacy of our ancestors and recognize the hero within.
The Three Jewish Lies
First Day of Rosh HaShana
One of the greatest pieces of advice I have ever received is that ‘When there’s an elephant in the room. Introduce the elephant.’ In other words, there are times when there is an uncomfortable issue on everyone’s mind and people typically shy away from acknowledging uncomfortable topics. But in doing so; by not acknowledging that unspeakable topic it remains hanging in the air, casting a shadow on every comment and gesture. Whereas introducing the elephant, while it may at first be uncomfortable, but in the long run, having an open and honest talk tends to create a bond of honesty and an atmosphere of openness. And so – let’s introduce the elephant.
The elephant in this room is actually taking up two thirds of the seats in this Sanctuary. The elephant in the room is the fact that this synagogue and the vast majority of Synagogues across the world are not filled to capacity, aside from 3 days of the year. That’s the elephant that I’d like to talk about today.
With an introduction like that, I am sure there are some of you shifting in your seats looking for the nearest exit and there are others, perhaps those who I see more often, who are smiling smugly, thinking that you’re off the hook – the rabbi isn’t talking to me today. I’m just going to close my eyes and doze off.
But the truth is my talk is directed to everyone here and most specifically the people I see most often. And that’s because we are all to blame for this unfortunate Jewish phenomenon.
The first group that holds responsibility are the people that you, the individuals I see less often looked up to for religious direction; the rabbis, the Hebrew school teachers and maybe even your bubbes and zeides, we have all failed you. Not maliciously. It was all very well-meaning but we lied to you. And, honestly, if I would be on the receiving end of those lies I’m not even sure if I would be here even three times a year.
The way I see it is that there are three great Jewish “lies” that we taught you through movies, through lectures, through events, and conversations about Judaism, and today I would like to discuss – and dissect those lies. So let’s begin.
Lie #1 – Jewish history is all about anti-Semitism.
When we taught you Jewish history, we taught you about the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Spaniards, and of course the Germans; how each of them tried and were almost successful in wiping the Jewish People off the face of this earth. Instead of focusing on the great minds, ideas and achievements of the Jewish People, we focused on the tragedies and failures. We taught you about Egypt and how we suffered there but we forgot to teach you about King David and his son Solomon who ruled with impeccable justice like no monarchy, and for that matter like no government ever in the history of mankind. We taught you about Bar Kochba and the people of Masada, how they tried and failed to revolt, and how their lives ended in bloodshed, instead of teaching you about Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and how he saved the Jewish People by reimagining Judaism in a brilliant and creative way; how he transformed Judaism from a Temple-based religion to a text-based one and in doing so ensured that Judaism would thrive for thousands of years. We described the Middle Ages as a time of Crusades and Inquisitions. In doing so we glossed over the incredible explosion of Jewish scholarship in both Europe and North Africa. And the image that we painted to you of our ancestors for the past few hundred years was a naïve, foolish, backward Ghetto Jew, a mass of Tevyas from Fiddler on the Roof, living a wretched life while the rest of the world was basking in the brilliant glow of the Enlightenment. Somehow we forget to tell you about a mind-blowing revolution that took place at the same time; a revolution called Chassidut that ignited the minds and imagination of nearly half the Jewish population, inspiring a radical change in the way that we relate to G-d and altering the definition of spirituality not just for Jews but for all spiritual seekers.
So I apologize on behalf of all of us for lying to you and glossing over events and personalities which would have allowed you to see Judaism in a different light. We, the institution, not maliciously, but perhaps subconsciously, lied to you. Perhaps we thought that we could scare you into staying in the fold by telling you how bad the world around us was and is. I am sorry for all those missed opportunities where we could have given you a broader, deeper, and more positive side to Jewish history.
Lie #2 – Judaism revolves around the Synagogue.
The rabbis told you, your Hebrew school teacher told you and your parents all told you that you’re Jewish and so you must go to Synagogue! Synagogue is where we get to express our Jewishness. It’s where we put on our kippot, doilies, and our Israeli star necklace. It’s where we get to catch up on all the gossip about our Jewish friends. And it’s where we get to reminisce about the alte heim. Because Synagogue, we told you, is synonymous with Judaism. And wow did we lie to you on this one.
Because the truth is that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. Daily prayer is arguably even one of them. With the exception of the Temple, it’s really not so clear if there were Synagogues in ancient Jewish history. Abraham and Sarah certainly didn’t pray in one! Neither did Moses!
But more importantly, because we focused so much on the Synagogue we forgot to tell you about everything else! We were probably so busy trying to get you to learn how to read the Torah portion, and say a speech for your bar or bat mitzvah that we forgot to tell you what comes next. It’s like the engaged couple who spends their entire engagement deciding what entrée to serve at their wedding celebration instead of preparing for the decades they hope to live together!
Judaism is not about reading a Torah portion to impress hundreds of family members and guests. It’s about allowing the Torah to touch you in the recesses of your heart. Judaism is not about long and drawn out services in a language you don’t understand. It’s about communicating with G-d, in words and ways that mean something to you. Judaism is not about acting Jewish at shul. It’s about acting Jewish in the way you say “hello” to your spouse after a long day at work. It’s about how you pay attention to your child, whether she is five of fifty and it’s about the way we act with a total stranger.
We should have spent the time preparing for your Bar or Bat Mitzvah by teaching you how Jewish wisdom could have helped you wade through the difficult years that were ahead of you; that a deep knowledge of Torah would have served as a moral compass through the difficult years of adolescence. I’m sorry that we didn’t tell you that Judaism has a unique perspective on marriage that could have dramatically affected your married life and made it so much more enjoyable and fulfilling. Instead of teaching you about a holistic and all-encompassing Judaism, we focused our energy and yours on the synagogue – one small slice of the Judaic pie.
And finally, Lie #3 – Judaism is nothing more than matza ball soup.
I say this only half-jokingly, but every time I attend the funeral of an elderly Jewish woman, I feel like I’m watching a show on the Food Chanel. “She made the most delicious gefilte fish; using the finest spices and a dash of wine. I’m really going to miss my Bubbe.” Or, “You’ve never tasted an apple strudel, until you’ve tasted Grandma’s!” Everyone’s getting teary-eyed thinking about the spread they will no longer have on Pesach night. Meanwhile, I’m salivating the whole service and by the time it’s done I’m starving! If one of my non-Jewish friends were in attendance, they would think that the highest order of Judaism is making a good matza ball soup!
We told you that Rosh HaShana was about apple cake, Chanukkah was latlkas, and Pesach is about matzah. Of course, food is a part of it all. There’s no denying that we like to eat and that us European Jews inherited the most unhealthy diet known to mankind. But we lied to you because we neglected to tell you what else happens on those days. We didn’t to teach you about the magnificent themes of those holidays, how Rosh HaShana is a day that empowers us by reminding us that our decisions do have ramifications, how Chanukkah represents one of the greatest existential questions the Jews have grappled with – the conflict between values presented in the Torah and those of the rest of the world, and how Passover challenges us to reexamine and reimagine what freedom means to us in a free world. We cheapened the holidays by presenting them as cultural relics on which we eat latkas and kreplach. We didn’t teach you about the beauty that you could find therein.
So no, I’m not here to get on your case that you’re only here three days a year. I’m actually thrilled that you recognized that there must be some value in coming here. I commend you for holding on to that and at the same time I apologize. I apologize on behalf of those who didn’t give you a complete picture of Jewish history, who limited your Jewish experience to the synagogue, and who made the holidays out to be a shell of their true self. I apologize for all the guilt trips that we, the collective Jewish mother, heaped upon you.
But it’s not just the Jewish leadership that has failed you. We all have. Because again, we are all responsible for this unfortunate reality.
Recently, a teenaged boy told me that he keeps Shabbat – not because it allows his to reexamine his life, not because it’s a chance to be with family, not because it is a basic tenant of our belief in G-d, but because his grandparents who went through the Holocaust were not able to do so. Now while this boy may be acting for a noble cause, it also illustrates a sad truth, a reality that points to the superficiality in our religious observance. Because while it’s true that this young man made the choice to keep Shabbat, but he unfortunately was driven by a sense of guilt, not fulfillment. There are so many of us who observe many if not all of the mitzvot but not with a sense of joy, but with a sense of dread. We krechtz, we complain every holiday season because we are overwhelmed with the tasks and don’t allow the beauty of the day permeate our lives.
There are so many of us who are externally proud of our Judaism but our sense of Jewish identity is limited to a very vague idea of what Judaism represents. It’s wonderful that so many are connected but it’s also tragic. The tragedy lies in the fact that we’re okay with that. We’re content with having a superficial understanding of our heritage.
There are a lot of us who attend this synagogue weekly, but simply are not present.
Now why does that matter, you ask. What difference does my personal level of engagement and commitment make to world Jewry and the fact that other people don’t feel connected to Judaism and G-d?
I think it makes a very big difference. You know, I wasn’t born in Baltimore. I wasn’t even born in the United States. But this past year I found myself watching all the highlights from the Ravens games. The Super Bowl which I told myself I wouldn’t watch because I had better things to do, and yet I found myself watching the last quarter. You know why? Because of you! Because people would be showing up to shul wearing Ravens jerseys, because people would have Ravens flags hanging from their car windows, because all of you lived and breathed Purple Power. And that purple power was contagious.
If we could capture an iota of that excitement in our religious life, if we who are physically more present can be half as engaged as we are with our beloved Ravens, the Jewish landscape would be dramatically different. All of us, while we may not be verbalizing it, are perpetuating those three Jewish lies, and it’s time that each and every one of us reexamine what Judaism is really all about.
Before the Torah reading today I decided to share with you what we were about to read. Because the Torah reading, like so many other Jewish practices, is something we sadly gloss over. And so I took a moment today to explain what the Torah reading was all about. I explained that it taught us to learn from Sarah the true meaning of faith in Judaism – not a blind faith but a faith that is balanced with powerful and penetrating questions. We learned from Abraham who in moments of moral incertitude turned to G-d and allowed G-d to teach him what he should or should not do. We learned from Yishmael that one could reach out and pray regardless of how distant they may feel from G-d. And we concluded the Torah section with a lesson of peace.
We could look at the Torah reading as an archaic practice or as timeless and eternally relevant. It can be something we listen to in the background while we read, or something we allow ourselves to grow from and glean new ideas that could dramatically change our life. It’s not limited to Torah reading – we could look at all of Judaism the same way. It could be dull or it could be deep. It could be done by rote or we could look for deeper reasons.
Today, my friends, is judgment day. “On Rosh HaShana it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed…Who will live and who will die? Who by fire, who by sword?” But you know what, it’s not only G-d who is judging us today. Today is our day to judge Him. And all of us, whether you’re here every morning for services or here just once a year have to decide what will G-d mean to me in the Jewish year 5774? What will Judaism mean to me for the next 365 days? How Jewish will I act? How often should I come to Shul? Or forget coming to shul! How often will I pray? Will I send my children to Jewish Day schools? Should I wear a head covering in public? Every one of us has our own personal judgment that we must make for this coming year.
Will we, like Sarah, grapple with questions, and truly seek out answers by becoming more familiar with the Torah and Jewish values and laws? Will we, like Abraham, humble ourselves to a Divine Will and seek clarity from the Torah when we’re confused? Will we, like Yishmael, reach out to G-d regardless of the fact that we may feel so distant? Will we develop a relationship with Him? And will we like Avimelech and Abraham strive for peace between our neighbors, our families, and for peace within ourselves?
Because I think if we all do, I’ll be seeing you here much more often. I think if we do, there’s a pretty good chance your children will come with you as well. But most importantly, I think if we do judge Judaism and G-d favorably for this coming year, you’ll be happy to be here; you’ll be excited to be a part of it. And I hope and I pray that that excitement and enthusiasm will rub off on the rest of our brothers and sisters around the world.
May G-d bless us all with a sweet new year and a sweet new beginning. May it be a year of spiritual quests and questions, a year where we increase our knowledge of our rich Jewish heritage, a year where we become closer to G-d, a year where our Judaism is so important and exciting to us that it’s contagious. And may G-d bless us with a year of peace.
Standing on Two Feet
All good things must come to an end.
As a shul and congregation, I believe that we have been blessed with a wonderful year. A lot of Torah has been learned in Ner Tamid this past year; we finished a number of major Jewish works this year; the book of Shoftim, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Derech HaShem, and this week some of us will be concluding Tanya, a landmark work on Chassidic thought. I’ve seen many new faces participating in davening, not just Shabbos morning, but Friday nights and even during the week. There have been new committees and programs and in short, there’s been a whole lot going on. This past weekend was really a great display and great finale to all that’s been going on. We had a number of simchas on Shabbos and a beautiful crowd. And then on Sunday we had approximately 250 people attend the Brotehrhood and Young Family Bar-B-Q. In the words of the event’s main organizer, Bill Saks, Sunday’s event was a testimony to the fact that Ner Tamid, a modern Orthodox shul in middle of Baltimore, is alive and well. I’ve personally lost track, but you could ask Max Jacob after davening where we are holding in terms of membership and you’ll put a smile on his face. Thank G-d, alive and well indeed!
But I think if I’d have to pick one attribute that really defines Ner Tamid, it would have to be the warmth that all of you exude. It has nothing to do with red cups, it is a hallmark of Ner Tamid that goes back years and years, and it is truly a source of pride, I hope for all of us.
I recently met a couple who were trying out the shul and when I introduced myself they told me they had already attended Ner Tamid a number of times. So I apologized that I hadn’t introduced myself the other weeks the previous weeks that they had attended. To which they said, “You have got to be kidding me! Every time we were here, countless people came over to us and made us feel so incredibly welcome.”
Every shul has a feature. I’ve been to shuls where everyone takes the prayers so seriously that if I were to pull out a sefer; a Chumash, a Gemara, I would feel uncomfortable. In what I would call a “davening shul” one just doesn’t study during the prayers. There are other shuls that I’ve attended in which the only person who is davening is the chazzan; everyone else seemed to be studying a chumash or gemara. That would be a “learning shul” or a “Torah shul.” And if we would have to define ourselves we would probably call ourselves a “bein adam l’chaveiro synagogue” a shul where our interpersonal behavior is emphasized. And that’s nothing to scoff at. The institution of a synagogue was partly driven by a need to ensure that the Jewish People will be able to maintain sense of unity despite being dispersed throughout the world. It was in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple that the idea of a Synagogue really flourished and it ensured that the Jewish People, wherever they were, would maintain a level of community. Hence the name Beit Knesset, the Hebrew term for a synagogue. It means a house of gathering because that’s what a shul is meant to be – a place where people gather.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that we have room for growth in this area. I think we could strive to be an even more welcoming place by making sure that our welcomes and hellos go beyond a greeting and develop into deeper relationships with newcomers. And we could also develop deeper relationships between age groups. But overall, this sense of welcoming and warmth is a hallmark that makes Ner Tamid a special place to be.
Bearing that all in mind, I want to share with you an insight from this week’s Torah Portion. This week’s Torah portion begins with Moshe addressing the Jewish people in one of his final speeches. He begins that address with the words “Atem nitzavim hayom, You are standing today.” Now that’s a pretty funny thing to say. Imagine I would have started my sermon today by stating “You are sitting today”
What idea was Moshe trying to convey to the Jewish People with those words, “You are standing today”?
I believe that Moshe was subtly alluding to the past forty years that the Jewish People had travelled through the desert. Over those forty years, many of the Jewish People had died. Some had died because of the sin of Korach and his followers; a group of people who were jealous, struggling with their inability to love others like one loves oneself. Others died because they sinned with the Golden Calf. Those people’s shortcomings were in the realm of their relationship with G-d. Those who survived, those who were standing at the bank of the Jordan when Moshe addressed them for the last time, were people who were balanced; they were people who were able to stand their ground both in the realm of bein adam l’chaveiro, their interpersonal relationships, bein adam l’Makom, their relationship with G-d. In essence, Moshe was telling them the reason you are still standing, the reason you made it this far, is because you are balanced, you stand not on one, but on two legs; you have a firm relationship with people and with G-d, and for that reason you have merited to stand here today.
And I believe that that message is very relevant to us. Because although as a congregation we excel in our bein adam l’chaveiro, in our interpersonal relationships, what we could learn from Moshe’s comments is in order to survive one must learn how to stand on two feet; one must become proficient not only in one’s interpersonal relationships but also in our relationship with G-d. And as a congregation that means that we need to become a place that is not only a beit k’nesset, a place of gathering, but we must become at the same time a beit tefillah, a house and environment of intense and meaningful prayer. To truly stand, one must have more than one strength, one must develop and grow in more than one realm.
Admittedly, this vision is a very challenging one because a bais knesses, a place of gathering, a synagogue where people can come to congregate and catch up with friends does not so easily lend itself to being a place where there is silence during services. It’s very difficult for the two to go together and that’s why you find so many shuls which excel in one particular realm but not more. So yes, it is a very challenging charge. At the same time I do think it’s possible and so I’d like to try.
Over the past couple of weeks I have turned to a number of congregants and asked them to help me in this initiative. I have asked them to help me make Ner Tamid a place of gathering and a place of prayer. I asked them to make a commitment that once a month, on Shabbos Mevorchim, they will try their best not to speak while the Torah is being read, during the Chazzan’s repetition, and during kaddish. Once a month. That’s it. And on those weekends I will distribute some reading material which will shed light on prayer and hopefully make our tefillos more meaningful so that we can become a shul that stands not on one foot, but on two. I don’t want or need anyone to shush the person next to us. Again, we are proud to be a place of gathering. This commitment is a personal one; each individual accepting upon themselves to work on their prayers making them more focused and more meaningful. And with time, we can become nitzavim; we can stand like our ancestors stood at the bank of the Jordan – excelling in both realms, not only in their relationship with others but also in their relationship with G-d. We can do the same.
This poster has the names of fifty congregants who have already made this once-a-month commitment. And I invite all of you to join together and transform this beautiful, powerful, and energized shul from being a beit Knesset, a place of gathering, and to also become a bais tefillah, a true house of worship and prayer. After Shabbos contact the office and tell them that you want your name on this list of people who have committed to make this shul stand and become a place of gathering and a place of prayer.
Do it for G-d. Do it for the person next to you who is trying to concentrate on the prayers. And do it for yourself. As we conclude one year and begin the next, let’s take one step forward in our spiritual journey together as a community. May we continue to grow not just physically but spiritually and in the merit of our communal commitment may we merit a year of health, of prosperity, and of good fortune.
The Talmud tells us that the prayer of Ashrei is of utmost significance for two reasons. 1) The verses are written in the order of the aleph-bais (the first verse begins with the letter aleph, the second with beis, etc.). 2) It contains the verse “You open your hands and satisfy the desires of every living being.”
The Maharsha explains that these two ideas relate to one another and together they make Ashrei so special. A prayer being written in the order of the aleph-bais symbolizes the Torah which is written with the letters of the aleph-bais. The verse of “You open…” is a reference to G-d taking care of our physical needs. The two ideas intertwined together teach us that our physical well-being is dependent on our spiritual well-being. The more steeped we are in the Torah and mitzvos, the more G-d will “open His hand” and shower His blessing upon us.
Why Babies Cry
Parshas Ki Savo
We have a few very big Mazel Tovs today. First, we’ll start with a birthday. Today is Barry List’s birthday. Happy Birthday! Who would have thought that two weeks in a row we would celebrate somebody’s 95th birthday? Last week was Jerry Scherr and this week we’re celebrating Barry’s 95th birthday as well!
Now you have to understand that a president of a shul ages a lot quicker than the average human being. Happy Birthday Barry!
We also have a Mazel Tov to the Singerman’s and the Baumer’s on their wedding anniversary and of course we have a very big Mazel Tov to the Orange family on the recent birth and today’s bris of their new son. Mazel Tov!
Doesn’t G-d have a great sense of humor. In fifteen years from now this little boy is going to turn to his dad, to Israel, and say, “Dad, you’re a photographer. You take pictures of everyone’s celebrations. How could it be that you have no pictures from my bris?”
But before we get ahead of ourselves and start to discuss your teenage son, I want to focus on your son b’asher hu sham, the way he is right now. Now I don’t think I need to give any parenting tips to the Orange’s. I think it’s safe to say that Israel and Joella are two of the nicest, kindest, and considerate people I know and I’m sure that’s not only outside the house, I’m sure it’s true inside as well. But today I just want to remind you about one of the very challenging stages in child-rearing.
Personally, I think the most difficult part of raising children is the stage your baby is in right now; the stage of infancy. It’s three in the morning and the baby wakes up. First you hear a little whimper and before you know it, it’s a full-blown WAH WAH WAH. You know what I’m talking about? So you run to get the baby so that the neighbors don’t think you’re a bad parent. And first you try feeding the baby. WAH WAH WAH. It doesn’t work. Then you move on to the diaper change. WAH WAH WAH. Nothing doing. So you try rocking the baby, but again, WAH WAH WAH. Before you know it, it’s 4 AM and the only thing going through the parent’s mind, “Why can’t you just tell me what you want?!” Wouldn’t it be great if babies could speak and they could just tell you what they need?
Anyway, it got me thinking. Why in the world did G-d create us in a way that as babies we cannot communicate? Life would be so much simpler if my baby could just tell me, “Dad, could you please stop nursing me, changing me and shaking me? All I really want is a nice back massage!” Done! Life would be so simple. So why? What do we have to learn from this?
I try to distract myself with this question while I’m rocking the baby to sleep at 3 in the morning and perhaps because of the late hour I didn’t come up with a very profound answer. But perhaps, at the very least, seeing the baby have such a difficult time communicating makes us appreciate the fact that we are capable of communication; that you and I can have a conversation. Imagine we communicated like babies. Imagine I was standing up here and just crying and you would have to guess what I’m trying to say. Life would be like one long game of Charades! You would all just stare at me while I would be crying and you would have to guess: “Is the Rabbi saying that we should be nicer people or is he saying that we should be giving charity? I can’t tell.”
In all seriousness, our ability to communicate, according to our Sages, is the defining feature of a human being. When the Torah writes that G-d blew a ‘spirit of life’ into Adam, the Targum Onkelos, the first commentary on the Torah, explains that the ‘spirit of life’ was actually a spirit of speech; an ability to communicate.
And I think that we live in a day and age that we could really take a moment or two to appreciate this great gift call communication.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we recently learned that 75% of digital communication can be seen by the NSA. We could discuss if this is ethical, we could discuss if this is in line with the Constitution, but I’d like to leave that of to the side for now. I want to share with you a snippet or two from an article by Peggy Noonan, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
She begins her article by asking, “What is privacy? Why should we want to hold onto it? Why is it important, necessary, precious?
Is it just some prissy relic of the pre-technological past?”
She continues: “Privacy is connected to personhood. It has to do with intimate things—the innards of your head and heart, the workings of your mind—and the boundary between those things and the world outside.”
And to that point I certainly agree. The MaHaRaL of Prague explains that speech does not belong to this world. It’s something that truly transcends this physical world of objects and items. Speech, he explains, takes our highest ideals, desires, and ideas which are all expressions of our soul, and somehow brings them down to earth; speech is the portal that connects the spiritual and physical – our soul and this world. That’s pretty heavy.
But Mrs. Noonan continues, “NSA surveillance will ultimately make citizens increasingly concerned about what they say, do, and think.”
Now I don’t know about you, but that may not be the worst thing in the world. Because you see, while the Edward Snowden saga continues to unfold there is a very ironic story that is unfolding side by side. At precisely the same time so many are arguing that their privacy is being invaded, we as a nation are invading our own privacy willingly and deliberately. I’ll take Facebook as one example – But first full disclosure, I am on Facebook and am proud to be one of the few rabbis I know who will field Halachic questions via email, text message and Facebook messenger. For those who don’t know how communication on Facebook works, allow me to explain. If you and I had Facebook accounts, we could communicate privately. I could send you a message that only you would see, much like email, and you could respond in a way that only I could see. However, one of the novelties of Facebook is that we could have public conversations as well. I could write something to you on what is known as your “wall” and have a conversation that every one of our friends can read as well. On Facebook, I have seen couples break up on Facebook. Literally, “Lisa, I don’t think this is going to work out. Maybe it’s time we took a break.” And on the opposite side of the spectrum I’ve seen people have the most intimate conversations possible that were right there for all to see. Back in the day, if I wanted to speak to someone I would either go into my home or go into a phone booth – remember those things? It was private. Now, I hear people having custody battles with their ex-wife on a cell phone in Seven Mile! Really?!
So I’m not sure Mrs. Noonan, if it’s such a bad thing if people were to think before they spoke, or acted. Because we live in a world where the concept of thinking before speaking has fallen by the wayside.
This week’s Torah portion begins with the section of Bikkurim. When the Temple stood, an individual is commanded to take their first fruit and bring them to the Temple and standing there they would make a loud proclamation, thanking G-d for all the good things that He has blessed us with. When we are thanking G-d we do so on top of our lungs, we tell it to the world. However, the Torah Portion concludes with the Tochacha, curses that G-d will bring upon the Jewish People if they don’t act appropriately. And if you noticed, when Dr. Hendel read the Tochacha, he did so in an undertone. And that’s because we are embarrassed and we are ashamed of the fact that these bad things can happen to us.
There’s a time to be loud and there’s a time to be quiet. There’s a time to share what’s on your mind and a there’s a time to bite your tongue. There’s a time to use a harsh tone of voice and a time to speak softly. Communication is precious. It can build and it can destroy.
Now I know it’s not “in” to bite your tongue. Our culture, led by the world of mental health which I am a part of, tells us to bare and share all. It’s healthy. It’s good for you. And perhaps that’s true. But is it good for the person that you’re speaking to? How will it make them feel?
There’s a time to share what’s on your mind and a there’s a time to bite your tongue.
And even if one must share what’s on their mind, how are we sharing it? I’ve seen people destroyed by comments that were made to them; comments which were absolutely true and had to be shared, but the tone of voice was just so harsh. And I also have met people who were transformed but a well-placed word. People who were so broken due to the stresses of life and someone came over to them and said, “You look down. What’s wrong?” And those words alone, without any actual assistance, but words which conveyed a sense of compassion, made the broken individual feel like a million dollars.
There’s a time to use a harsh tone of voice and a time to speak softly. Communication can build and it can destroy.
We’ve cheapened our speech. If it’s on our mind, then it comes out of our mouth, or on to the computer screen. Speech has lost its value and we’ve lost sight of speech’s power. We’ve lost sight of the fact that our speech defines us, collectively and as individuals.
I think there’s another byproduct of this attitude which I’d like to share with you. But allow me to introduce it with a story. It’s a story that took place in the early 1900’s. There was a modest settlement of Jews living in what was then Palestine. And one year there was a terrible drought. And so the Jews decided they would all join together and pray at the Western Wall. They gathered the men, women, and children, for a day of prayer, begging and pleading from G-d for some rain.
There was this one eight year old boy, Chaim, who came with his father. And as they started to pray, little Chaim tugged on his father’s sleeve. The father gave him a stern look and Chaim stopped. A few minutes later, Chaim once again tugged on his father’s sleeve and this time the father whispered to Chaim, “Not now!” Two minutes later, the same thing. Finally, Chaim’s father said, “What? What do you want? Don’t you see we’re praying for rain?”
And Chaim, with all the innocence of an eight year old said, “Aba, if we’re praying for rain, then why didn’t anyone bring an umbrella?”
You see Chaim took prayer seriously. He understood that our words, our communication with G-d, is powerful; it can shake the heavens, it could change the world. One of the greatest tragedies of the fact that we have cheapened the value of communication is that we fail to appreciate the value of our communication with G-d. No wonder we don’t take prayer seriously, we don’t appreciate the fact that words can build and words can destroy.
In a few moments we will be observing a bris and we will all hear that precious little baby cry. When we hear those cries let’s take a moment to appreciate the gift that we were given; the ability to speak and the ability to communicate. Let’s treat our words with proper respect, using them carefully and deliberately. Let’s use our words to build and not to destroy. Let’s use our words to reach out to the downcast person sitting next to us and let’s use our words to reach out and connect to G-d. And in doing so, may we all learn to appreciate the incredible power of speech.
The existence of free will is a fundamental belief of Judaism. However, there is a verse in Y’hi Chavod which seems to indicate otherwise. “Rabos machshavos b’lev ish, va’atzas Hashem hi sakum, There are many thoughts in the heart of man but the plan of G-d ultimately prevails.” Or as they say in Yiddish, ‘man plans, G-d laughs.’
Rabbi Dr, Orenstein, in his book on prayer, explains that this is a reference to a principle that G-d will at times over-rule an individual’s free-will. What this means is that there is an ultimate goal and destination for history, namely, the End of Days, the Messianic era and what follows. To get to that destination certain pieces of the puzzle have to fall in to place and G-d makes sure they do. This does not mean that our free-will is jeopardized on a daily basis. Rather, there are extreme scenarios where G-d will intervene to ensure that the puzzle piece goes in precisely in its place. The rest of the time, and the vast majority of the time, our decisions are ours – we have full control in deciding and distinguishing between right and wrong.
The prayer of Y’hi Chavod has two themes; G-d and the Jewish People. The commentators observe that the prayer consists of eighteen verses. This is significant because the Talmud states that there are eighteen vertebrae in a human’s spine. (There is a nice amount of scholarly literature explaining how they come to this number which does not match up with what we know to be the case. Obviously, that is beyond our discussion.) The vertebrae serves as the connection between the mind and the rest of the body. So too, explain the commentators, the theme of Y’hi Chavod is one that proclaims that G-d is connected to this world through His people. He is not just “up there” but He is very much involved with the happenings of the Universe and that connection is made through the Jewish People.