Saturday, September 26, 2009

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5770 - Letting Go, Moving On

I’m still relatively new to this community, and there’s still a lot about me that most of you don’t know. But you must know by now that the center of my life are my eight – at last count – grandchildren. Those of you who were here at my installation in August met the two little gems of the Los Angeles branch of the Cohen family – the other six are in Denver. My oldest turned eight in March, and had others warned me, nine years ago, of the feelings of wonder, overwhelming love and a sense of the miraculous I would feel when I held my first grandchild, I would have dismissed them. Me? Silly Old Grandmother with Pictures in Purse? Hardly.

You won’t be surprised when I tell you that I’m shameless. I’ve ceased stopping strangers and flashing my pictures at them, asking them to be honest - have they ever seen such beautiful children? But Fay will tell you that I schlepped my laptop to her desk a couple of weeks ago to show her the picture of the Denver Cohens on my wallpaper. Still shameless.

One of the amazing parts of bubby-hood is the pleasure that can be derived just from watching my little ones blossom. I spent my hours as a young mother running after my own children, and while I know there were moments when I just watched them sleep and wondered at their perfection, I can enjoy far more of those moments watching my little ones explore their world, scamper around the house, and investigate the mysteries of hidden things - boxes, bags, packages, purses. And while the task of exploring containers has now fallen to the boys in the family, I’d like to share with you an incident that happened when my oldest was barely a year old.

Aria has always been an inquisitive little girl. I remember watching her standing at her uncle Scott’s coffee table that Passover, examining each of the pieces in his chess set. While we decided to wait a bit before starting her in on the rudiments of the game, we watched to see what she would do with the pieces. She picked each one up in turn, examined it carefully, and then when she was done, she lowered her hand and tossed it off behind her onto the floor. Then, on to the next piece, that would be examined and tossed behind her to join the first one. Her indulgent uncle watched her with a smile. The carpet was soft and she wasn’t far enough off the floor to do them any damage.

At the risk of sounding like Robert Fulghum, everything we need to know about life we can learn from a toddler.

Very little children have a great deal to learn. Their worlds are so wide, there is so much to experience, that they grasp onto each new discovery, but then set it aside when they are satisfied. They don’t cling to very much. A blanket for sleep, a well-worn stuffed animal or doll...very little becomes irreplaceable to a toddler. If they know they are loved, they feel secure taking on, then discarding, each new experience.

We forget that skill as we grow. We forget what it means to let go, to move on. We cling to things and to experiences long after they can help us.

At this time of year, we are taught that we cannot stand before God on Yom Kippur to seek forgiveness from God if we have failed to seek forgiveness from one another. So it’s not too early to begin thinking today about the forgiveness we need to seek, and also the forgiveness we may be asked to give.

Certainly, there are problems inherent in the t’shuvah process. Recognizing we’ve done something wrong is only half the challenge. While there are those who will always blame someone else or otherwise refuse to take responsibility for their behavior, most of us, deep in our hearts, know when we’ve wronged another person. We think about the words we spoke impulsively, or the words we should have spoken but didn’t. We think about the things we did, or neglected to do. And we are truly sorry. Recognizing the wrong isn’t the problem. The problem is admitting our failing to the person we’ve wronged. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of humility to approach another and say, “I realize I’ve done this or not done that, and I am truly sorry.”

Once a friend or family member has acknowledged the error of their ways, we have an obligation - an obligation – to accept that apology. We are not permitted to hold a grudge. Like a toddler inspecting a knight or a bishop, we are meant to pick up the anger and the hurt and set it aside in the place forgotten toys go.

Of course, all this presumes that our friend or family member not only has the courage to confront their behavior but also acknowledges it to us. Suppose that person is, shall we say, clueless. Suppose the hurt was a sin of omission, or a word carelessly spoken but nonetheless hurtful. Our friend doesn’t know. Our brother or cousin or uncle doesn’t realize. What then?

Some years ago, someone asked me whether a wronged person should call the person who hurt them. My first reaction was to say no, but later I remembered an incident from many years ago.
I had a friend who had hurt me deeply. My friend’s life had become very complicated, and somehow I got lost in the shuffle. It happens. But my friend’s family was relocating to another part of the country, and as the day for the move neared, I realized that we would probably never see one another again, and the last memory I would have would be of great pain. I was angry and I was hurt. But we had both invested a great deal in the friendship, and it felt very funny that our last encounter would have been one so fraught with pain. What to do?

I could have carried that pain around with me. Maybe at some point it would have eased. Time does that. But then I considered the situation from another perspective. I stepped back from the hurt and thought about my place in the tradition. What does it mean to be created in God’s image? What does it mean to be God-like? If we turn to God every year, actually, every day, and say, “We have sinned, please forgive us,” who was I to turn my back on someone who had hurt me?

I called my friend. I pointed out that we would soon be separated by many miles, and as things stood, there was anger and hurt between us and that felt very bad. We needed to talk. And we did. We met and talked for some time before saying farewell. And while we have lost the immediacy we once enjoyed, I have been able to move on without the anger and hurt and pain I might have carried with me all these years. I let them go.

So what should I have told my congregant all those years ago? Yes, we should call the person who has hurt us. Tell them we need to talk. Then tell them they have caused us pain, and watch the ball bounce back into their court. The alternative? We continue to cling to pain, clutching it, dragging it with us, and refusing to put it down.

Then there’s an even more difficult situation. Let’s suppose we can’t speak to the person. Perhaps the person who hurt us has died or otherwise cut off relations with us. Or perhaps we do tell the person they have hurt us, and they simply don’t care. Or claim it’s not really their fault. The pain is compounded and continues to grow.

Let me share the words of that eminent theologian, Dr. Phil, who writes in Life Strategies: “People who carry around the burden of anger invariably say they do so because they could never get emotional closure on the treatment they got at the hands of that other person. They tell me that they hold on to the emotion (anger, disappointment, revenge) because the person who did this to them is not sorry, and may not even admit or understand that he or she has done such terrible things. ‘I can’t forgive, because they aren’t sorry and they don’t deserve or even want my forgiveness.’ If that’s the standard, there are many people in this world who, clearly, will never be entitled to forgiveness.

“Ultimately, and this may be extremely difficult for you to accept, forgiveness of those who have transgressed against you, or those you love, is not about them. It is about you. Forgiveness is about doing whatever it takes to preserve the power to create your own emotional state. It is about being able to say, ‘You cannot hurt me and then control me, even in your absence, by turning my heart cold and changing who I am and what I value. I am the one who makes those choices. You cannot choose for me how I feel, and I will not give you that power.’”

Put another way, my colleague Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of preaching just this kind of sermon one Rosh Hashanah, urging people to forgive those who have hurt them. Did he really mean forgive? Did he mean we should say that what was done to us was OK, understandable, forgivable? Of course not. What he meant was to put the hurt behind us. In the sense of forgiving a loan, we set the debt aside and move on. The story goes that after the sermon, a congregant came to him, furious. She had gone through a particularly difficult divorce some 10 years earlier. The rabbi knew how difficult things had been for her. She demanded to know how she could possibly forgive her former husband for all he had done to her. “You missed my point,” Rabbi Kushner told his congregant. ”It’s been 10 years. Your husband has moved on. He doesn’t even live in the same state. He has a new life. You’re holding onto your anger like a hot coal, and all you have to show for the past 10 years is a burnt hand.”

Then there is the story of Cheree Johnson. She’s a woman who was infected with HIV by her husband and undoubtedly had so many kinds of angry in her heart. But how did she resolve her anger? “Forgiveness is letting go of all hopes of ever changing the past.” No burnt hand. No pain locked in her heart. The past will not change, but how we expend our energy, in anger or in surviving, is our choice.

How many of us are holding on to anger or hurt or deep pain? How many of us have vowed never to forgive? And who is being punished?

There is an even more troubling aspect to our inability to forgive others. How can we stand before the throne of heaven and ask forgiveness for all we have done or failed to do in the year just passed if we are unable to forgive others? I have often told my children, when they become frustrated by the behavior of others, that the only person whose behavior we can control is our own. And the corollary is that the only contrition we are responsible for is our own.

It’s about letting go, putting away the hurt, the anger, the feelings which have ironically become too familiar to dispel. Perhaps the metaphor should be not the setting aside of toys but the cleaning out of a closet. Take the clothes that are only taking up space, pack them up, and send them on, to the trash or the recycle bins. Take the anger and the pain and send it on, put it in a box and throw it away.

Has someone called to ask your forgiveness? Has someone refused to acknowledge their culpability? Has someone left your life with unresolved issues? What would God expect of you? Would God expect you to be less forgiving than God?

We are often told that children are closer to God. Perhaps in their ability to pick up new things, examine them, and then set them aside, children mimic the God-like ability to examine the human heart, recognize the flaws, then focus on the potential for good.

What are you holding on to? Isn’t it time to let it fall onto the carpet?

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5770 - The Holy Society

If I were to ask you what Torah is all about, you might answer in one of a number of ways. It’s about the beginnings of the Jewish people, you might say. Or it’s a book of laws and obligations. You might even say it’s about God and God’s relationship to us as a people.

I would argue that the Torah is a blueprint for a society that God wants us to build here on earth, a holy society that is characterized by a number of features. As we move through our study of Torah in the weeks and months to come, I will try to direct your attention to the elements of the readings that provide us clues as to what the holy society would look like.
It will not surprise you, I don’t think, to learn that the Holy Society envisioned by Torah is a society that cares for its most vulnerable. “Care for the ger, yatom, v’almanah, the stranger, the orphan and the widow” is a leitmotif that runs through four of the five books of Torah. In modern parlance, we have learned that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable: variously, its children, its aged, its poor. That standard of judgment is found first in our own sacred text, and it is a standard that continues to be valid as we consider the world in which we live. How do we know when a society is functioning? When everyone is safe, not just our own family or our own neighborhood, but everyone. When there are no tent cities springing up in Central Park when it rains, when there are no Dumpster divers behind the restaurants on La Cienega Boulevard, when everyone’s children, even those who look nothing like ours, are cared for and protected. We don’t have to be reminded to care for those we love. Those who live miles from us, or just behind the wall next door but whose names we do not know – they also deserve our concern and our energy. Remember, says Moses repeatedly, remember how it felt to be a stranger, an unknown, a member of a shadow people in Egypt.

We Jews have gotten the reputation in this country of always being in the liberal camp politically. I don’t think we ever thought about liberal versus conservative when we thought about our voting options. Rather, we thought about what it means to speak out for those without a voice, what it means in America to care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan. I would like to think it was not a political or a social or an economic choice as much as it was a religious choice. I would like to think that.

The danger of having arrived in America – having Arrived – is that we take on the values of the society in which we live, and sometimes that means leaving Jewish values behind. Sometimes we worry so much about what we have accumulated or celebrate how far we as a people have come in this country that we begin to take off the Jewish cloak and put on the American one.

Sometimes that’s not a terrible thing, but when it comes to our concern for the vulnerable of this country, it can be a very bad thing. When we stop worrying about the stranger and the widow and the orphan, we lose the lesson God intended us to learn in our enslavement. Our time in Egypt wasn’t just so that we might have a wonderful meal every year in the spring. Our time in Egypt was meant to sensitize us to others who are now where we once were. If we have become inured to the suffering around us, we have stopped thinking as Jews. And that would be a very bad thing.

We have had so many opportunities in this country’s history to behave as Jews. We were overrepresented in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. We are probably still overrepresented in the American Civil Liberties Union, and in many social action organizations around the country. And today we have the opportunity to speak out again, as Jews, on an issue that is as important as any to which we have addressed our energies in the three centuries that we have been in this country.

Many years ago, the Rabbinical Assembly organized its first Washington Lobby Day. We were invited to come to the nation’s capital and engage in a number of meetings, including small meetings with our senators and members of Congress. I’m a gosh-and-golly patriot when it comes to our capital, so I spent a good deal of my time gazing around at the beautiful buildings of the Federal Mall, my jaw hanging down, goose bumps marching up and down my arms. I love this country and I love its capital. Being there to speak to my elected representatives as an American and a Jew was thrilling. I even have a picture somewhere shaking hands with Joe Lieberman, who was my senator during the two years I lived in Connecticut.

During a program on that Lobby Day, I learned that only about 1% of the American people take the time to write to Congress. Now, with a population of 300 million, that’s still a lot of postage stamps, but the percentage was surprising. The Christian right has absolutely no trouble writing to Washington and representing themselves as who they are, quoting scripture and explaining what Jesus would want their representatives to do. It’s their right and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Jews, I learned, write as members of a whole variety of organizations and may be identified as Jews by their last names – maybe –but they’re speaking not as Jews but as feminists or civil rights activists or any number of identities – just not as Jews. If Congress is interested in the religious viewpoint on a given subject, I learned, the only one they hear is the Christian viewpoint and they think that’s the only one out there.

In order to express our views to Congress as Jews, two things have to happen. First, we have to know what Judaism says about a given subject, and then we have to feel comfortable writing to Washington (or Sacramento for that matter) and identifying ourselves as Jews, explaining how our tradition looks at a given issue. In 2009, have we come far enough to dare write to a representative and tell him or her that the Jewish tradition holds a particular position on something? Our parents or grandparents might not have, but I don’t think writing to a representative as Sam Gold or Sarah Greenberg the Jew requires the courage it once did. And so we must come to admit that we would write if we knew what Judaism had to say about the issue. We’re ready to teach. We just have to learn first.

And that brings me back to the issue I want to address this morning, an issue that will define this decade as much as civil right defined the 50s and Viet Nam defined the 60s.

Today, some 45 million Americans have no health care. Another 25 million Americans are underinsured; perhaps they are covered for catastrophic care or hospital stays, but not for the tests that might have caught their conditions early on, or perhaps their deductible is so great that they never qualify for their coverage. This makes a total of approximately 70 million Americans. If America’s population is at around 300 million, that means that nearly one in four Americans cannot get sick or injured. One in four. That’s not a few. That’s not a tiny minority. That’s a quarter of the population of the richest country in the world, at risk because they can’t afford office visits and preventive tests to screen for potentially life threatening diseases.
They are people like some who are in this room, some in your neighborhood, young people, middle aged people, not ready for Social Security people, singles, families…the cross section of the uninsured and underinsured is a cross section of America. It is the greatest tragedy of our time. And yes, Judaism has something to say about it.

I will say at the outset that this will not be a political conversation. There are senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle in Washington who are grappling honestly and sincerely with this issue. There are others who simply won’t move. They don’t get it. They have been convinced, like a fellow I heard quoted on the radio last week, that “there’s nothing wrong with the health care system.” They will tell you that the way not to get into trouble with health care is to exercise and eat right and not smoke. Or they’ll just say, “Don’t be a wuss.”
Tell that to the family of the young woman with lupus, an auto-immune disease, who lost her job and couldn’t then get coverage because of her pre-existing condition. By the time her symptoms became critical and she was admitted through an emergency room, she was beyond hope and died six months later. “Lupus didn’t kill her,” her doctor is quoted as saying, “the health care system did.”

Tell that to the cancer patient – who never smoked – whose benefits ran out before his chemotherapy did.

Tell that to people who eat right and don’t smoke and exercise, but who fall and injure themselves and can’t get rehabilitative surgery and physical therapy. And see the diminishment of their quality of life.

Then there's the young woman, a college student, who developed cancer. She was covered by her parents' insurance because she was a full time student. Her doctor advised her to take a leave of absence to concentrate on her chemotherapy and her beating the cancer, but of course once she was no longer enrolled, she lost her medical coverage. Her mother split her time between caring for her daughter and lobbying in the state assembly to get the insurance laws changed. The good news is that she succeeded. The bad news is that it was too late for her daughter, who died at 22.

Eat right, exercise, and don't smoke. Eat your vegetables and you have nothing to worry about.
This approach is simplistic at best, and at worst, it blames the victim. Frankly, it's downright insulting.

In response, we can teach what Judaism has to say. To begin with, we know that piku’ah nefesh, saving a life, is a foundational principle of Judaism. The most observant Jew will break Shabbat in order to save the life of another. Someone mandated by their doctor to eat regularly is prohibited from fasting on Yom Kippur. We are to live by our mitzvot, not die for them.
We also know that to be created in God’s image means that we have been given a divine soul housed in a body given to us by our Creator, and we have an obligation to keep not only our soul but our body safe from danger. We are not permitted to live in a town without a physician. Accessibility to that physician is implicit – what would be the point of living in a town with a doctor if you can’t afford to see her?

So far, we might look to these principles and agree that we have an obligation to take care of ourselves. But we have insurance. Why should we be worried about others?

First of all, we’re Jews and worrying about others is what we do. We learn from Hillel in Mishna Avot al tifrosh min hatzibur, do not separate yourself from the community. As Americans in the 21st century, our community is beyond the four walls of this synagogue. Our community is Orange County, the state of California, the 50 states of our union. We take this teaching seriously every time we go into a voting booth. Some of us demonstrate that they take this seriously when they run for public office or sit on school boards or community councils. Caring for those without access to adequate health care is part of our obligation to be a part of the greater community.
Some of you may remember one of the final scenes in the film “Schindler’s List,” when Schindler is given a ring as a gift. Inside the ring is a quote from Mishna Sanhedrin: Whoever saves a single Jewish soul is credited as though he saved an entire world. Did you know that an alternative version exists in some volumes? The word Jewish is omitted, and the sentence reads, “Whoever saves a single soul is credited as though he saved an entire world.” Every time we act to save a life, whether as a medical professional, a supporting friend, a blood or organ donor, a mental health professional, a donor to a social service agency, or as someone who speaks up for the uninsured, we are saving not only that individual but those who depend on him or her. Future generations. (Think of the young lupus patient who died before she could marry and have children.) Family at home needing her presence and love. Every act of compassion affects not only the person in need but concentric rings of people in his life.

And then there is the passage in Deuteronomy about the body that is found in a field between two cities. The elders of both cities are called out to examine the body and to determine whether they recognize the person as someone who passed through their city. The presumption, of course, is that the person was in need of food and shelter and was sent on his way without help, to die of starvation or exposure in the field.

The Torah instructs the elders that if neither community recognizes the deceased, the elders of the city closer to where the body is found should bring a heifer to the site and slaughter it – literally break its neck. In ancient times, lacking someone to carry the guilt of the death of the individual, something had to be done to put things right cosmically. The elders are declaring that they do not bear guilt for this person because no one would have passed through their city and not had their basic needs met. Theirs is a city that understands the obligation to care for its strangers, its widows, its orphans.

I have not been here in Mission Viejo long enough to have taken the political pulse of my congregation. I might be preaching to the choir here. If not, I hope that I have been explicit: the Jewish approach to health care is neither Democrat nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative. We have an obligation to care for our bodies and as a community to offer health care to all who seek it. We have an obligation to provide health care whether it’s expensive or not, whether the care is for a month or the rest of the person’s life. It’s one way to identify a holy society – one where the welfare of all is as important as one’s own welfare.

But even if I have not needed to change anyone’s mind today, I still must encourage you to act. There are several bills before Congress, and to quote President Obama’s understatement last week, the details have yet to be worked out. Learn what the options are. Learn what each would mean. Study the issue in a cool, dispassionate way. Do not allow the shouting and demonstrations and hysteria to persuade you one way or the other. Make an informed decision. And then take pen to paper and write to Washington. Tell your representatives and Sens. Boxer and Feinstein what you think. Tell them what our tradition teaches. Teach them about the sanctity of the body and our obligation to care for it and how the lack of affordable health care is a clear impediment to fulfilling that obligation.

How will we recognize a holy society?

Let me quote you a verse of a song we probably all learned in grammar school – America the Beautiful.

O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.

I’ve always been a little put off by the image of alabaster cities – cold, hard, impenetrable. But I do love the notion of “undimmed by human tears.” It’s almost a messianic vision.

The promise of the future, of a holy society, is the promise of a place where no one is hungry, where no one is homeless, where no one is brutalized, where no child cries in fear or hunger or loneliness, where all are respected and cared for. That is the promise of America. And it’s the mandate of Torah.

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5770 - Finding Our Way

I’d like to think I have a pretty good sense of direction, but southern Orange County has been a real challenge. I’ve been spoiled by the gridlike street configuration of Los Angeles, where you can pretty much be assured that if you have to make a detour, you can cut north on a street, then west, then south on the next street and end up on the street where you began. You can avoid traffic jams because the streets run parallel. Pretty much.
Then there’s Mission Viejo, with a map that looks like a plate of spaghetti. You can go south on a street then find yourself heading west without ever having turned a corner. Parallel streets, contrary to what I learned in Geometry class, intersect. And heading west from the synagogue, you would do better to take a street further south because the street that’s further north dips way south and you can end up in Ensenada if you’re not careful. I have found myself wanting to high-five someone every time I’ve ventured to a new location and made it home without a hitch.
How have I managed? A Thomas Guide lives in my car. If I have enough warning, I can do a Google search for the address and pull up a map, but on the road, I rely on the Thomas brothers. No, I don’t have a GPS. I have heard so many stories of the signals bouncing off buildings and directing people to the edges of cliffs that I’m going to hold off for a while. Besides, reading a map is becoming a lost art, like reading a newspaper and getting ink on your fingers. I like technology, but I also like some things they way they’ve always been.
But family members have GPS instruments in their cars, and I’ve always enjoyed hearing the voice of the instrument instruct the driver with unending patience. Owners have even named their voices. One person calls his directional friend Jane. Another, the protagonist in a book I’m reading, has dubbed her Chloe and has even provided her with a back story. She’s become part of the family. Jane or Chloe or whatever her name may be is always flexible, always ready to roll with the vagaries of the driver. Did I miss the turn she insisted I take? Was the off ramp closed because of an accident? No problem. “Recalculating,” she will say, almost with a sigh. “Don’t worry, darling, we’ll find another way” she seems to be saying. You feel safe with Chloe.
I love the notion of recalculating. She never says, “Dummy, you blew it.” Or “didn’t you hear me?” Or “wake up!” She’s ready to accept that unlike her, we are human and need a little help now and then to get back on our path.
Recalculating is pretty much what we’re doing this time of year, isn’t it?
Since last Rosh Hashanah, we’ve been driving the roads of our lives, sometimes going on familiar paths, sometimes venturing into unknown territory, and sometimes we’ve had to rely on some kind of directional device to help us when we’ve been lost. That directional device is like an internal compass, orienting us to a true north that is based on some kind of moral right. When faced with a dilemma, we have looked within, checked our compass, and figured out which way to turn.
Maybe. Of course, sometimes a sunstorm rendered our compass inaccurate. Or we just ignored the thing altogether, made a wrong turn, and found ourselves looking back and wondering just how we got so very lost.
We’ve hurt others when we didn’t mean to. We’ve drifted away from family values that used to be so important to us. We’ve stopped doing things that brought us great pleasure, or we began doing things because we thought they would make us happy, only to find out how very wrong we were.
This is the time of year when God says, “Recalculating.” Not “Dummy, what were you thinking?” (God would never say that.) Not “didn’t you hear Me?” (although listening to God might have saved us a whole lot of grief) Not “wake up!” Well, maybe “wake up” – because isn’t that what the shofar is all about?
This is the time of year when we stop in our hurry to get from here to there and look around to see how we’ve gotten to where we are. And then we evaluate where we are. Are we happy in our place? More important, are we happy with how we got here? Or did we do harm to others or ourselves in our zeal to get to where we are?
I have a 14 year old Honda, and even though it’s a Honda, it still needs TLC. I can’t demand that it get me from Reseda to Mission Viejo and back reliably without taking care of it, visiting my mechanic more regularly, making sure its service schedule is up to date.
I also have a soul, and that requires just as much care.
How have we gotten to Rosh Hashana 5770? Have we run ourselves into the ground, without pausing for Shabbat? Have we not maintained our spiritual service schedule and then been surprised when we find some of our spark plugs not firing?
If this time of year is a time for teshuva, we should think about what the term teshuva means.
We are taught that it means both repentance and return. Return? Of course – return to the path God has intended for us. If we do teshuva during this holy season, we are repenting of past errors and resolving to pay more attention to our inner compass. And when we are lost, we are returning to the path in God’s Thomas Brothers Guide.
This is the time of year God tells us to recalculate, to look around, to consider where we are and to act to correct our directional error. For those of us who are directionally impaired, let me suggest that the best spiritual GPS around is Torah. You don’t need a subscription, you don’t need to name the patient voice nagging you to turn left in 100 feet, and you can even consult it when you’re not on the road.
And while you’re recalculating, I’d like you to consider where you are in terms of your spiritual home. For those of you who are here for the first time, welcome! How wonderful that your inner compass (or God’s hand) brought you here! May you bookmark the road that brought you here, so that you can return to us on Shabbat and festivals, for adult education or just to find community. Congregation Eilat has so much to offer, and the more you find your way here, the more you will learn that that is so.
And for those of you who have taken some time away from your connection with Congregation Eilat, welcome back! We are so glad you have recalculated, recalled the warm memories you have of this congregation, and have opted to return.
This is a time of year for homecoming, when children come home to their parents to enjoy Mom’s honey cake and to welcome the new year in the synagogue in which they grew up, when people who used to share in the life of the community come home to re-connect. May the recalculations of this season bring us together as a family, on a path to building a holy congregation that will touch the lives of all its members and sharpen the inner compass in each of us.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Standing in God's Presence, Then Moving On

My sermon from Sept. 12, 2009 - Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh


This is a time of year when rabbis everywhere struggle with choices. What are the overarching themes of the time? What are the issues on which we should be focusing at this time of year? In short, what will we speak about on Rosh Hashanah, when our sanctuaries are full and more people will hear our words that on the average Shabbat?
The irony is, the kinds of issues we address on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are no different from those we address during the year. All year we look at the six o’clock news through Jewish lenses; we try to learn from our sacred texts what the Jewish position is on a variety of contemporary issues. Social justice, the holy society, Jewish identity, God – these are not three-day-a-year topics.
As if to prove my point, the double parshiyot from which we chanted this morning offer a number of suggestions for how we should be approaching the cosmic issues of this season. This is not a holiday sermon, my friends. It is “merely” a Shabbat d’var Torah. But the message is, I think, as far-reaching as any you will hear next week.
Our double reading is comprised of parashat Nitzavim and parashat Vayeylekh. The text is dramatic. “You (Israel),” says Moses, “are all standing here today before Adonai your God. All of you – leaders, tribes, elders, officers, children and women, the stranger within your camps, wood cutters and water carriers.” The picture the Torah paints is a powerful one. While the census often quoted is six hundred thousand, in truth those are just the men of fighting age. From this figure we can extrapolate perhaps two million people, standing together, listening to Moses’ final address.
But it is not only the numbers that make the passage powerful. After 40 years of leadership, Moses is stepping down, not to a comfortable retirement but to face the end of his life, his mission, at least in his own eyes, not fulfilled. While the people have striven with him for all those 40 years, they are undoubtedly struggling with many emotions. They are saddened by the imminent loss of their leader and teacher. They are fearful of the unknown and wish that they could have a familiar face at the front of their ranks. They are in awe of this man, who would go into the tent of meeting and converse with the Holy One of Blessing, who ran interference between God and Israel, who defended Israel despite their sins. And they know they are witnessing a historic moment, when a career of passion and humility will soon come to a poignant end.
The second parasha opens with a signal that the lessons of Moses’ three discourses are at an end. Moses begins his own valediction: “I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I can no more go out and come in; and God has told me ‘You will not go over this Jordan.’ Adonai your God will go over before you…Be strong and of good courage.” Following these words, Moses charges Joshua before the entire community of Israel with the same words: Be strong and of good courage. Hazak v'ematz.
It would not be difficult, I don’t think, to find ways to apply these parshiyot to the end of one’s career and the handing over of one’s responsibility to one’s successor. And if we can find meaning for that purpose alone, I suppose the Torah has done its job. But I think there are greater lessons to be learned as well.
Consider the first words of the two parshiyot: Nitzavim – you are standing, and Vayeylekh – he went. Verbs, and specifically verbs concerning motion, and more to the point verbs in opposition to one another. One parasha opens in a condition of statis, the other in a mood of movement. While I think there are other reasons for the rabbis’ decision to combine these two when not enough Shabbatot are available to read them separately, I think the juxtaposition of these two verbs can teach us a significant lesson.
The Hasidic master Rabbi Barukh of Medzibozh brings a commentary based on the opening words of Nitzavim: The righteous are considered to be in the category of walking, because throughout their lives they continue moving from one stage to a higher one; the only time they are considered to be standing is when they actually cleave to God. Moses realized that right then the people were all standing because they were “before Adonai your God” and nothing separated them from God.
Rabbi Barukh’s commentary suggests that piety is less a goal than a process, and if that is so, living a meaningful Jewish life is always possible, always a road we may choose to walk, and it is the walking that path that defines us, not our sense of “having arrived.” However, we also learn from Rabbi Barukh’s words that the highest form of piety is an absolute stillness in the presence of God. Piety, thus, is less a series of details of observance than the sum total of the effect of all those details. As we work to learn what God wants of us, we re-define our lives according to holy principles, and at last we sense God’s nearness and we are absolutely still.
But that is a lesson focused only on atem nitzavim hayom – you are all standing here. Today, we find two parshiyot, and the second begins not with absolute stillness but with motion. So how can we learn something from this connection?
I would like to suggest that this business about being Jewish is highly dynamic. I am far from the pious figure of classic rabbinic literature and therefore cannot speak for those individuals, but I cannot imagine achieving such a place in life where I am so aware of the presence of God in my life that I am absolutely still and remain that way. There have been moments in my life, moments my colleague, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, calls moments of transcendence, moments when I have been so completely aware of the presence of God, the touch of God on my soul, that speech or even movement were impossible. But those moments pass. I miss them when they go, but for us to function in our world they must go. We cannot remain in a state of suspended animation. For one thing, we would be very hungry very soon. We would need to sleep. We would need to stir and go back to the business of life, but here’s the point: Once we have felt the touch of God on our souls, we are never again quite the same. We begin to think what that contact was all about. What does God want? What does God want to teach us? And how can we make ourselves available to learn the lesson?
Assuming we have learned the lesson, intuited the lesson, the next step is to do something about it. Here, we must pause to consider another Hasidic master and what he has to teach us about teaching. Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch was asked how a person could know whose way of Torah teaching is best. The rabbi responded essentially that it is not the person but the message that is critical – we must not be so concerned with our own self-aggrandizement that we get in the way of the message. If you hear the teacher more than you hear the words, find another teacher.
Profound lesson. But there is more. Rabbi Dov Baer likened one’s style to the fragrance of a flower, which is only a part of the flower, but which serves to attract people (and bees) to the flower. The teacher is the flower, the fragrance is the teacher’s style, and the bee is the student. But surely you have watched bees doing their work. They don’t linger on any one flower but flit from blossom to blossom. And as each bee takes pollen from flower to flower, students take the lessons of their teacher and go out and teach to others, become teachers themselves, enriching the world with the words they have found personally meaningful and profound.
Vayeylekh. He went. In our parasha, this term refers of course to Moses. But in general, “going” is the next logical step after having felt God’s presence in our lives. We may hesitate to talk about exactly how it felt, because the moment was so intimate, and that hesitancy is appropriate. But I suggested earlier that sensing ourselves in the presence of God and finding ourselves absolutely still implied opening our inner ears to God’s message. And it is the teaching of that message that we need to understand as the meaning of Vayeylekh. While it was only Moses whose movement was recorded in the opening verse of the parasha, the word needs to be applied to every one of us. What do we learn, from God and from our teachers? What truths do we understand about Jewish living, about the Jewish approach to interpersonal relationships and the nature of a holy society? While it is important to be still while learning these lessons, the next step needs to be movement, taking the lessons to the marketplace, to the office and the halls of government.
What might prevent us from taking the second step, from going out into the world with the lessons we learn? Possibly we feel humbled by the task – we should be, by the way. But we think we are inadequate, not articulate enough, not powerful enough, not privy to God’s insights. Who are we to speak for God?
Remember the opening lines of Nitzavim – all of you are standing here, from elders to children, from leaders to the lowliest wood cutters and water carriers. All of you, says Moses, stood at Mt. Sinai to hear Torah, and all of you are here today, breathless before God and witnesses to my passing my role of leadership to Joshua.
All of you. All of you. No one was thought to be not good enough to hear Torah at Sinai. No one today is less able than another to offer the Jewish approach to life to the rest of the world. It’s really very easy. All it takes is standing perfectly still when God touches you, then going out to share what you have learned with the rest of the world.
Rabbi Diane Cohen

Preparing for Rosh Hashanah - The Circumcised Heart

This is the short d'var Torah I delivered Friday night:

In looking through my files for inspiration for tomorrow’s d’var Torah, I found a snippet of a record of a conversation I had with my NJ congregation. I can’t remember the spark for the conversation, but what my former congregant observed is a wonderful kavanah for this time of year. He spoke about our bringing our sons to the mohel at the age of 8 days to enter the babies into the covenant of Abraham. In tomorrow morning’s reading, we will hear, “Then Adonai your God will open your heart.” The Hebrew reads, “U’mal Adonai elohekha et l’vav’kha” literally, God will circumcise your heart. My congregant made the connection that "just as we circumcise a boy to bring him into the covenant, so too we bring our hearts to God as the ultimate Mohel to circumcise our hearts each year, so that we may personally enter into a covenant with God to live a life imbued with Torah.”

He continued: “This is a great way to look at the text. And it goes a long was to democratize Judaism - only baby boys can be physically circumcised, but we all have hearts to be brought to God."

As we move through the season of heshbon hanefesh, the spiritual audit in which we engage at this time of year, let this be our kavanah:

Holy One, I bring before You a heart encrusted with ego, with false humility, with arrogance and apathy. Circumcise my heart, cut away the shell behind which I hide, make my heart vulnerable once again to hear Your voice, learn Your intent for me, and follow the path You have set for me.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering 9/11

What I remember most is the ambulances. The rows and rows of ambulances lined up outside hospitals in lower Manhattan, waiting to be summoned to collect the injured coming out of the towers.

They never left their stations.

There was no one to pick up.

The memory of the sight of all those ambulances still knocks the wind out of me.

A congregant who worked in Manhattan somehow made his way out and over the bridges to Jersey where he went to pick up his car in the train parking garage. It was late. He told me, "It was the sight of all those cars that made it more than just an attack on a building. All those cars. Where were their owners?"

Living on the east coast, in the tri-state area, I was intimately aware of the pain caused by the attacks - saw the smoke across the river, held the hands of congregants whose loved ones would never come home and couldn't even be buried.

What saved me? Shabbat. From Tuesday to Friday, I was glued to the television, even though much of what was being shown was a loop - the attack, the crash, the ashes, the weeping, the pictures of lost loved ones. Then Friday afternoon, I turned off the TV, lit my candles, and suddenly the stress was over. After havdalah Saturday night I turned on the TV again (as though something had changed but then, something had changed forever on Tuesday, so who knows?) and watched the same videos I'd seen on Friday, and felt the stress return. Thank God for Shabbat. For those of us not personally involved with the rescue efforts, a break, a separation can restore sanity, put perspective on a mind-numbing tragedy.

And yet, after 8 years, I still think of those ambulances, and all the wounded they never got to collect.