Rabbi’s installation sermon
For anyone who would who would like to read my Installation Speech from tonight
I would like to thank everyone who made today possible. I am so grateful for each individual who served on the Rabbinic Search Committee and everyone who gave so generously of their time and money in order for me to come for an interview in March and to move here in June to accept the position of Rabbi and Education Director of Or Ami. I would like to thank all of the people who worked so hard in order to make this evening a wonderful occasion. Thank you Amy and Alan Arkava for putting the Installation Service together. Thank you David Goldsmith for leading the service. Thank you Rachel, Erin, Jonathon, and Klezm Or’ami’m for providing such wonderful music. Thank you, Dr. Josh Moss, for driving up from North Carolina to be the one to install me today. Thank you to Ralph and Miriam for driving down from Northern Virginia. Your presence tonight is so meaningful to me. Thank you to the Personnel committee, Facilities committee, and Yad B’Yad for helping to set up and make Or Ami so beautiful for tonight.
I feel so lucky to have found Or Ami. To borrow a line from the Hassidic story told earlier in tonight’s service, I have “come to the right spot.” Or Ami embodies what it is to be a sacred community. Members of Or Ami are the most genuine and supportive people I have ever met. In the five months that I have been here, I have seen Or Ami folks come time and time again to support one another for occasions big and small. If anyone is sick, someone from Or Ami is there with a bowl of chicken soup. If anyone needs help moving tables, Or Ami is there with sleeves rolled up. If anyone needs emotional support during a challenging time, walking into Or Ami is like walking into a warm embrace.
This congregation is where lives are shared. In our discussions at services, Torah study, and various programs, people share their deepest thoughts, hopes, and fears. This is a genuine community.
Or Ami is also an incredibly open community. Where else can you try a different style service every week? Or Ami is not stuck in old ways. This vibrant community is open to new ideas, new music, and new spiritual exploration that keeps our worship exciting and thought-provoking.
This openness permeates the community, from our pre-school Torah Tots program to our adult education classes. People are excited to be here. Yes even kids look forward to being at Or Ami’s Religious School early on Sunday mornings. Or Amians do not take this community for granted. We cherish the opportunity to spend time with other Jews and interfaith families and to connect on a meaningful level. Suffice it to say that we are doing something right at Congregation Or Ami.
My vision for Or Ami is to continue to do everything that we have been doing right and to build upon this great foundation towards an even brighter future.
As the Director of Education, I intend to take the Religious School to the next level by using what’s already great about the Religious School and supplementing that with thoughtful consideration of the children’s spiritual needs. I want our students to know their tradition and heritage inside and out, so that they can engage with the world as proud and knowledgeable Jews. I want to increase the opportunities for adult education as well, beginning with an Intro to Judaism course and Hebrew classes geared towards beginning and more advanced level students. I believe that as adults, we must role-model lifelong commitment to learning and spiritual growth for the next generation. I also believe that our classes for adults must be equally fun and thought-provoking as our classes for kids.
As Rabbi of Or Ami, I intend to bring new music and ideas to services, while maintaining a sense of stability and comfort in our worship. I will continue to work with the Avodah Committee to make sure that people who come to services leave feeling uplifted, more connected, and wiser than when they walked in.
I also intend to work with the board to strengthen communication and the sense of community between committees and other congregants. Reform Judaism is about choice through knowledge; and as a Reform congregation, we must offer everyone the chance to learn about what is going on and the choice of how best to engage with our community and tradition.
Finally, I will do my part to create a welcoming space for Jewish families, interfaith families, and spiritual seekers of all backgrounds. I believe this sacred duty of welcoming begins with our online presence, which is often people’s first exposure to us, and it must permeate every interaction people have at Or Ami. Over time, this will enable us expand our membership and create a fantastic future for our sacred community. While I have specific ideas on how to accomplish these goals, I believe that it is absolutely vital for all of these goals to be accomplished through our sacred partnership. I look forward to conversations with every Or Amian who has an idea about how to make Or Ami the very best that it can be. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with and for such a phenomenal congregation. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.
In case you missed my sermon last night or would like to read it
Has anyone here played the game Candy Crush? It’s a game with seemingly infinite levels that you can play on your phone or through Facebook. I played Candy Crush until about level 150, when I realized that I was starting to get addicted. But I have friends who have gotten to level 400 and far beyond. While many people here tonight grew up without any electronic games, I grew up in a time when there were video games like Super Mario Brothers with a set number of levels. Once you beat the set number of levels, you beat the game. There was an immense feeling of accomplishment when you beat not only another level, but also the entire game after rescuing the princess from the eighth and final castle.
As in video games, there are many things we try to “beat” in real life. We can try to beat traffic or the crowds or the clock. Many of us also try to beat or conquer our fears. This week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, provides important insights about the process of dealing with fear. Our patriarch Abram seems to conquer his fear Super Mario Brothers-style. God asks Abram to leave everything he knows—his country, his homeland, his father’s house—and go to some mysterious land that God will show him. Abram doesn’t hesitate. He just gets up and goes, bringing his wife Sarai and nephew Lot with him from Haran to Canaan. If he had any fears, it seems like he conquered them all.
But shortly thereafter, we see a paradigm shift. Famine strikes Canaan, and Abram has to look elsewhere for food. He ends up going all the way down to Egypt. But before he gets there, we realize that he hasn’t completely conquered his fears. Abram’s fear becomes apparent again when he asks his wife, Sarai, to lie about her identity before they enter Egypt. Abram is worried that the Egyptian men will kill him in order to have access to his gorgeous wife.
How can a man who was so brave, who so easily left everything he knew for an unknown land, now let his fear take over to the point where he makes such an absurd request of his wife?
It may seem a bit strange, but it’s actually pretty realistic. People don’t just conquer their fears in one fell swoop. It takes time. We can have moments of bravery and sometimes relapse into fear and anxiety again. But if we stick with it, we can get better about confronting our fears. The only way to conquer a fear is to confront it again and again.
That may be part of why we celebrate holidays like Yom Kippur and Halloween each year. Many people’s greatest fear is of death. The fear of our own mortality has led to many creative euphemisms for death and countless products that mask the signs of aging to help us avoid our fear of life’s natural cycles.
But fortunately, holidays like Yom Kippur and Halloween give us a chance to confront death in a safe way each year. On Yom Kippur, we behave as dead people do. We do not eat, drink, bathe, or have marital relations. Some people even wear kittels or white robes that are used for burial. Yom Kippur is a day to practice dying, so that it’s not as scary later when it really happens. Halloween is another holiday when we surround ourselves with images of death – skeletons, ghosts, and zombies – all to desensitize us to the trauma of life’s end.
Each year, these holidays encourage us to confront our fear again because we need the repeated exposure. Fear is not conquered in the manner of Super Mario Brothers. It is more like Candy Crush. There are multiple levels of fear. We may conquer one fear like Abram, and then struggle more with another fear. But the more we confront our fears, the less scary they become. May we all be blessed like Abram with the resilience to confront our fears again and again, until they have disappeared from our lives. And may we be blessed also like Abram with courage and peace. Amen.
Yom Kippur: A Day of True Judgment
In case you missed my Yom Kippur morning sermon or would like to read it.
Like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur has acquired a number of names and identities over time. It began with the biblical names of Yom HaKippurim (“The Day of Atonements”) and Shabbat Shabbaton (“The Sabbath of Sabbaths”). Later in the Talmud, Yom Kippur is referred to as Yoma (Aramaic for “The Day”). It is also called Yoma Rabbah (“The Great Day”) and Tzoma Rabbah (“The Great Fast”). One would think that six different names would be sufficient for a single day of the year. But over time, people also began to refer to Yom Kippur as Yom HaDin, “The Day of Judgment,” which was originally the nickname of Yom Kippur’s good friend, Rosh Hashanah.
While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur began as very different holidays, their proximity on the calendar has led to a blurring of identities. The shofar used to be Rosh Hashanah’s “thing,” but people liked it so much that they added just one more shofar blast to the end of Yom Kippur. The prayer Unetaneh Tokef, which famously asks who shall live and who shall die, was also originally Rosh Hashanah’s “thing.” But it was such a moving reading that it became a part of Yom Kippur’s liturgical repertoire, too. And it was largely because of the prayer Unetaneh Tokef that Yom Kippur also came to be known as the Day of Judgment.
In the first of Unetaneh Tokef’s four paragraphs, the Day of Judgment is described as a fearful event. Even the angels who have presumably done nothing wrong are quickly pacing back and forth in trepidation. “Hinei Yom HaDin!” they proclaim with anxiety. “Behold, it is the Day of Judgment!” The prayer describes how God will be the Judge who evaluates every creature, taking everything into account, even the things that were forgotten or unnoticed by others.
On one hand, I understand this anxiety about being evaluated. It makes me think back to my first Religious School teaching job when an accreditation team came to observe my classroom. I worked hard to make my lesson plan the best it could be for that day. But you never know what children will do or say especially in front of strangers that you are hoping to impress. I was so worried that one of my students would say something inappropriate while the evaluators were in my classroom and that the whole school would be denied accreditation due to my class and my shortcomings as a teacher. But everything went fine. The team poked their head in while my students were actively engaged in an appropriate discussion. I breathed a sigh of relief as they shut the door, and the school received the necessary accreditation.
Afterwards, I wondered why I was so nervous about being evaluated, and I realized that most people find the prospect of being judged a bit intimidating and even somewhat threatening. On my favorite, guilty pleasure reality TV show at the time (WifeSwap), I would often see characters shout some variation of the phrase, “Don’t judge me!” as if judgment were the greatest sin possible. A number of popular musicians, including the late Tupac Shakur and the more current Miley Cyrus, also assert in their lyrics that only God should be judging individuals. Suffice to say, we really don’t like to be judged by other people.
Some might say that it’s because we don’t like to hear negative things about ourselves. While that’s certainly part of it, I think there’s even more behind our belief that God generally does a better job of judging us than other people do.
I recently learned about something called the Zeigarnik effect. In 1927, in a series of groundbreaking experiments, Bella Zeigarnik concluded that when given a broken circle to consider, the human brain focuses on the unfinished part of the circle. The same tendency appears in many other aspects of life. People have a significant inclination to notice and be attracted to that which is disappointing, torn, unfinished, and broken.
But God evaluates things differently. God sees the whole picture, while our eyes narrowly focus on a fraction of reality. God is Dayan Ha-Emet, the True Judge who can see the positive and negative simultaneously. God is not hyper-focused on the broken part of the circle, like so many people are. The traditional image of judgment for the High Holy Days is an old-fashioned scale, where one side measures our mitzvot or positive actions, while the other side measures our sins or negative actions. All we have to do to be written in the metaphorical Book of Life is to tip the scale in a positive direction. Yes, we need the positive side to outweigh the negative side by some margin, but we are still considered acceptable and lovable and worthy of life’s blessings even with our admittedly negative qualities.
That’s not often the message we receive from the media. Advertisements especially prey on our insecurities and demand an unrealistic standard of perfection from us. We are never thin, rich, beautiful, or young enough according to these standards. Photoshop is brought in to save the poor wrinkly and flabby souls whose photographs were already the closest thing we have resembling this narrow view of perfection. We are always a broken circle in their eyes and often in our own eyes as well.
Even the prayers that people composed for Yom Kippur focus only on the broken and disappointing aspects of our life. We confess our shortcomings in the Ashamnu prayer, which describes our actions in terms of an alphabet of woe: “Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu – we have trespassed, dealt treacherously, and secretly robbed.” But this is only part of the picture, and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel (when it was still the British Mandate of Palestine) recognized that. To counterbalance this negativity, he wrote a new prayer: “Ahavnu, Bachinu, Gamalnu – We have loved, we have cried, we have given back.” In addition to the alphabet of woe and failure, we must consider the alphabet of joy and success. This is true judgment, a holistic and godlike evaluation of not only our shortcomings, but also our strongpoints and beautiful traits.
It is vitally important when judging ourselves and others to consider not only the broken parts of the circle, but also the many arcs that are perfectly in place. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great 18th century Hassidic thinker, taught that we must search for even the tiniest speck of goodness in a person whom others have dismissed as a worthless sinner. When we train ourselves to see the goodness in such a person, we will also come to see the same goodness in ourselves. This is important for everyone and especially people who are prone to depression and self-condemnation. If we get too down on ourselves, too focused on the negative qualities, we will become paralyzed and unable to reach our spiritual potential in life. We need to seek out even the smallest traces of positivity to encourage ourselves and each other to build upon these successes, rather than to give up and resign ourselves to a lowly state of living. That is the only way to accomplish our sacred task of becoming better and better each year.
When we practice the art of finding the good in other people and in ourselves, our view of life becomes more godly. We become more like God, Dayan Ha-Emet, the True Judge who sees the potential for a perfect circle, rather than focusing on the small segment that is currently in need of repair. May we all learn to see ourselves and others as God does this year, and come to recognize the abundance of goodness around us and within us all. Shanah tovah!
Yom Kippur as the Sabbath of Sabbaths (Shabbat Shabbaton)
In case you missed my Kol Nidrei sermon or would like to read it.
Long ago, there were two Buddhist monks on a journey from one monastery to another. Seeking enlightenment, they took a vow of silence and chastity and were on their way to learn meditation from a famous Zen master. About a day into their journey, they arrived at a river, and on the bank they came across a young woman in a beautiful dress. “Good afternoon,” she said. The two monks nodded a silent greeting. “I was on my way home until I became lost. Now, thanks to a kind old woman, I know that my village is on the other side of this river, but I am afraid to cross the water. Can you please help me?” she asked. The younger of the two monks shook his head silently.
Without a word, the older monk picked up the young woman, carried her across the river, and set her down gently on the other side. The two monks continued on their way, side by side in silence. Three days later, the younger monk couldn’t take it anymore, “I can’t believe you did that! We took a vow not to touch women! How could you carry her like that?!” The older monk broke his silence then too, and said, “I carried the woman for just three minutes, but you have been carrying her for three days.”
Yom Kippur is a day to reflect upon everything we have been carrying around for the past year: all of the guilt, grudges, resentments, and emotional pain that we usually try to hide. Our prayers on this day bring these aspects of our lives to the forefront of our minds as they so thoughtfully remind us of all the mistakes we have made this year. Indeed, at times we have all acted selfishly or foolishly. It can be difficult not to replay these embarrassing moments in our minds – you know those moments when we realize what happened and say, “I can’t believe I did that! They must think I’m such an idiot.”
It’s difficult to let go of that shame. But it can be even more challenging not to mentally replay the moments when other people’s selfish or foolish behavior hurt us deeply. Someone may have made an insensitive comment about us or something dear to our hearts without realizing the pain their words could cause. Others may have intentionally deceived us and shattered our trust. Even if these incidents happened long ago, the anger we feel about these wrongdoings may still be festering in our hearts.
We may also feel anger towards people who have broken and disregarded rules, as in the monk story. It can be very frustrating to see others behave as if they are above the rules that we work so hard to abide by. We may also feel resentment towards people who have not contributed their fair share to a group project or shared household. Or we may be carrying resentment towards those who have asked more of us than we could possibly give. Even if the initial incidents happened long ago, the resentment we feel about these grievances may still be smoldering within us.
Rabbi Harold Kushner once related the story of a woman whose husband walked out on her and their three children. Every month after the husband left, the wife struggled to pay their bills, while her ex-husband lived it up with his new wife in another state. The now single mother was furious. Ten years went by, and this woman was still as angry as the day he left. She went to ask Rabbi Kushner for advice. He said it was like she was walking around with a hot coal in her hand, always ready to throw it at the person who had hurt her. But it had been ten years, and the hot coal had never come close to him. All she had been doing by holding onto this anger was burning a hole into her own hand.
While there are many things in life worth getting angry about, there are very few things worth staying angry about. It’s not healthy to completely suppress our feelings. It is vital that we acknowledge our anger and upset feelings as they occur within us. But most grievances are worth thinking about for only a little while – maybe two minutes and certainly not more than two days. The Talmud (in Sanhedrin 27a) defines an enemy as a person one has refused to speak to for three days out of spite. If three days after an argument, we find ourselves still obsessing over it, we are not simply acknowledging our feelings, we are actively creating an enemy and nursing a grudge.
The Torah warns us not to hold a grudge in Leviticus 19:18, which is part of the holiness code that we will read tomorrow afternoon. The verse reads, “Lo tikom v’lo titor. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge.” Rabbi Menachem Ben Saruk, a Spanish rabbi from the 10th century, defined titor (the word for bearing a grudge) as “holding onto anger.” Both the Torah reading and the prayers of Yom Kippur are advising us to stop carrying around these grudges and resentments in our hearts.
No message could be more fitting for Yom Kippur, a day the Torah calls “Shabbat Shabbaton,” or the Sabbath of Sabbaths. We all know the essence of Shabbat is sacred rest, a break from the mundane pattern of endless work. Forgiveness is a form of sacred rest. It is not an emotional state that arises naturally; forgiveness is a conscious choice to let ourselves rest and to stop carrying the cumbersome anger and resentment with us everywhere we go. The rabbis of the Talmud understood the act of carrying to be a form of work. They specifically mention carrying among the 39 categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath. On Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, we have a sacred obligation to rest and not carry anything – not a briefcase, nor a jackhammer, nor a grudge. Today is the most important day to rest both physically and emotionally. It is a day to let go of the heavy emotional and spiritual baggage we have been carrying inside of us for so long.
What’s more, the Torah also teaches us about another Sabbath—the sabbatical year when even the land gets to rest and all debts are forgiven. One of my childhood teachers once told me that relationships are like bank accounts. We cannot withdraw more than we deposit without facing penalties. We may have overdrafted our relationship accounts with others this year, and they may have overdrafted their relationship accounts with us. This Yom Kippur, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, is a time to settle and forgive these emotional debts. It is time to end the tally marking of who is right and who was wronged. It is time to start fresh, emotionally debt-free in the new year.
There are a few things that we have no spiritual obligation to forgive, such as murder, slander, and domestic abuse. But for the more common emotional debts that we may need to settle, and for people who need the spiritual release from the emotional burdens of even the most egregious offenses, I offer a few tips on how to forgive this year: It may help to remember Rabbi Kushner’s analogy, that anger and resentment are like hot coals which hurt us when we hold onto to them. When we hold grudges, we are often hurting ourselves more than the person who originally hurt us. And the more mental energy we give them, the less mental energy we have for the more important things in life. When we constantly think about them and how they hurt us, we are allowing them to live in our heads rent-free and do more damage to our property. It’s time to evict them and reclaim that mental space for ourselves. It is time to lighten our burden by refusing to carry resentment in our hearts any longer. The anger and hurt and resentment will only get bigger and heavier if we continue to focus on them like the young monk who eventually exploded in rage. We must decide whether to focus on resentment forever or forgiveness now. Which one do you believe will make you feel better today and in the long run?
In the case of loved ones who have hurt us, we can shift our focus from the ways they have let us down to the ways they have raised us up and brought joy into our lives. We can magnify their positive qualities, rather than their shortcomings under the magnifying glass of our mind. It is our choice how to view loved ones who have hurt us. We can choose to view them compassionately and remind ourselves of how much forgiveness would mean to us if we were in their situation. Imagine if we were the ones who made a mistake and someone else held it against us forever. Is that something we really want to do to another person? Is being right more important than being happy? Must we self-righteously gloat over their failings forever?
Regarding loved ones or even strangers who have hurt us deeply, we could also write a brutally honest letter telling them how much pain they have caused us. But instead of sending them the letter filled with pain and anger, we can tear it up and burn it. As we watch the smoke rise, we can think about the fact that we are not limited or defined by that pain and anger. We will be here long after those feelings disappear.
There are many steps we can take to loosen our grip on the grudges and resentment we have been carrying around. There are many ways that letting go of this pain can benefit our lives. For those seeking enlightenment like the monks, it may come from lightening our own emotional load. Enlightenment is a process that we must choose and realize for ourselves. We must decide what to set down on the bank of a river, or to forgive in the bank of our relationships with others. We do not have to keep carrying every mistake and resentment with us for days and years on end. We can choose to let go. May we decide to truly observe Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, this year, by not carrying the resentment through this day and choosing instead to engage in the sacred and restful act of forgiveness. Amen.
Yom Hazikaron Wake Up Call
Rosh Hashanah 2014
In case you missed my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon or would like to read the text:
Yom Hazikaron Wake Up Call
Long ago, there was a young man who was absolutely fascinated with all things related to engineering and chemistry. His father would teach him what he knew about these subjects from a young age, and it didn’t take long for him to realize that that his son had a particular interest in explosives. This fascination only grew stronger over the years. By age 34, this young man had made significant contributions to the field of explosives. In 1867, he invented dynamite. His name was Alfred Nobel.
Although Alfred was a pacifist, his family played a significant part in many wars. Their success in business depended largely on selling explosives to be used in battle. It was something the Nobel family had become known for.
When Alfred’s older brother, Ludvig, died, a French newspaper focused on this family’s connection to death and destruction. This newspaper mistakenly published an obituary of Alfred rather than his brother Ludvig. The headline read “The merchant of death is dead,” and it described Alfred as a man “who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”
Upon reading these words, Alfred realized that he did not want to be remembered as a merchant of death. He resolved then and there to change his legacy. In his will, Alfred left most of his wealth in trust, in order to fund the awards that would come to be known as the Nobel Prizes.
It often takes something drastic to inspire a true and lasting change in one’s life. Alfred Nobel had to see what his obituary would say about him before he found the motivation to line up his actions with his values. Few people have the chance to read their would-be obituaries, but many people experience a similar wake-up call in light of other dramatic occurrences. It may be the death of a loved one, the end of a serious relationship, or a health scare that triggers such introspection and motivation to change one’s life.
Why do we wait for something drastic to happen? Is humankind fueled by high drama? Today’s Torah reading seems to suggest as much. Year after year, we read the dramatic story of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac. The story begins with a test of character. God calls out to Abraham and tries to find out if he is the sort of guy who would ever sacrifice his own son. Abraham’s response here seems out of character. In the past, he would often speak up. But now he is oddly quiet.
The text says nothing about Abraham’s emotional state either. He seems to be walking around like a zombie, going through the motions of life without any connection to his emotions or his deepest values. He travels for days, saying nothing. Then when he arrives at his destination, he says just what he needs to say to keep people off of his back, and not a word more. He tells his co-travelers to hang out with the donkey for a bit, assuring them that he and Isaac will be right back. Then when Isaac gets suspicious, Abraham tells him that there will be a lamb waiting for them at the top of the mountain. Somehow Abraham manages to tie Isaac up and bind him on the altar like an animal. Isaac may have thought his dad was just playing with him, until he saw the knife go into the air.
In this story, there are no French newspaper headlines for Abraham to read that morning. Instead, his wake up call comes in the form of an angel, a messenger who calls him out personally. Somewhere along his journey, Abraham lost all sense of himself. He used to be the one who would stand up to injustice and defend the innocent. He even argued with God about destroying the wicked city of Sodom, insisting that God should spare the city for the sake of just ten righteous residents. But now Abraham seems numb to injustice. He has become not merely a passive bystander to injustice like many fearful people. Abraham’s priorities have gotten so jumbled, that somehow he has become an active participant in injustice and in the sacrifice of his own child. Abraham has totally lost himself—his core identity, his core values, everything that made him who he was.
Abraham has lost his sense of self so much that the angel must call out his name twice. “Abraham! Abraham!” He has to work twice as hard to remember who he is after journeying for so long and climbing the mountain, all while following external advice rather than trusting his own gut feeling. Perhaps the angel was a voice within him, the sense of self he had lost. When this voice calls to him, he answers: Hineini, meaning “Here I am.” Abraham is back!
His inner voice speaks firmly: Don’t do it. Don’t sacrifice your son. Family is precious. This is not what God wants for you!
It was then that Abraham’s eyes were opened. He now saw clearly what his life had turned into, and it wasn’t what he wanted. Rather than continuing to sacrifice his son, he decided to pursue another possibility. He quickly found a ram to sacrifice instead, and we remember this ram each year as we blow the shofar.
The shofar is designed to be a wake-up call. It is a reminder of Abraham’s most dramatic life moment. And its ancient voice is calling us to change before we end up too far along a path that is not consistent with our deepest values and identity. It beckons us to return to ourselves and the core values that God planted within us.
We are commanded to hear the shofar each year on Rosh Hashanah, so that we remember this story and do not have to wait for our own dramatic life moment to occur. We do not have to wait for a health scare, relationship end, or death of a loved one to make a change in our lives. We can start living our lives in line with our values right now.
The Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as Yom Hazikaron, meaning the day of remembrance. Traditionally on Rosh Hashanah, we remember Abraham and the ram. And we ask God to remember all of the good things about us and our ancestors. We try not to focus on the negative things that could merit punishment. But this is not just how we pray on Rosh Hashanah, this is also how we must live our lives if we wish to reach our true potential. Rather than relying on the mercy of God or a kind obituary writer, why don’t we make sure we will be remembered for doing good, by actually doing good? Why don’t we grab the pen and become the true and intentional authors of our lives?
I ask: what do you want to be remembered for? Do you want to be remembered as the guy who sacrificed his son? Or do you want to be remembered as a loving parent who was there for your children? Do you want to be remembered as a merchant of misery? Or as a merchant of hope? Do you want to be remembered as a good friend with a generous spirit? A brother or sister you could count on? An accomplished musician or a respected professional? Are your current actions reflecting these aspirations? Or are they currently out of sync, as the actions of Abraham and Alfred Nobel’s were at one point in their lives?
The shofar is calling us all to return to our deepest values and pursue the life visions we have in our hearts. We never know exactly how long we have to live, but we know exactly what we need to do in order to live the lives we want to be remembered for. Do not wait days or months or years for a tragedy to wake us up to the need for change. Let the beginning of this new year, the shofar blasts of 5775, be the only wakeup call we need to become the people we were meant to be. And let us say: Amen.
Planting Seeds on Hayom Harat Olam
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Like a professional spy, Rosh Hashanah has many names and identities. We know it best as the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah literally meaning “the head of the year.” But the Torah refers to this holiday as either Yom Teruah (the day of trumpet blasts) or Yom Hazikaron (the day of remembering), depending on the passage. The rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t seem to nail down Rosh Hashanah’s identity either. They knew Rosh Hashanah by all of these aliases, plus two more: Yom Hadin (the day of judgment) and finally Yom Harat Olam, meaning “the day the universe was conceived.” I am particularly drawn to this last alias.
If today is Yom Harat Olam, or “the day the universe was conceived,” that means we are celebrating the anniversary of creation. And when we celebrate an anniversary, we are not just commemorating some past event. We are celebrating its ongoing influence in our lives. For example, when a married couple celebrates their anniversary, they are ideally celebrating their ongoing relationship and continued love, rather than simply commemorating the date of their wedding ceremony. And when we celebrate the conception of the universe, or the birthday of the world as the cakes at tomorrow’s Family Service will say, we are not just celebrating the moment when our mustard-seed of a universe began to expand. We are celebrating the ongoing process and power of creation.
Our community includes a number of professional artists and parents, who have a profound understanding of what it is to create. The artists and parents among us know what it is to conceive and birth something into existence. But we do not all have to be professional artists or parents in order to participate in the ongoing process of creation. Every person here is a creator, fashioned in the image of the ultimate Creator. Every single one of us is a creator of life, as we create our own lives day by day, year by year.
Yom Harat Olam is the day for us to decide what it is exactly that we wish to create this year. Today is the day we must plant the seeds for the lives and growth we would like to see. But before we start planting seeds willy-nilly, we have to take a step back from our daily lives and consider the bigger picture. We need to reflect and come up with a rough sketch of the garden we wish to create. We must ask and answer for ourselves one of the most common and often dreaded job interview questions: “Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, or 20 years?”
Many people find their palms becoming moist with anxiety while trying to describe their long-term professional goals to an interviewer. But this question need not cause us anxiety on Rosh Hashanah, when it’s just us asking the question of ourselves and when we’ve already got the job. Yes, God already hired us to be the landscape artist of our own lives. God knows we all have what it takes to make something beautiful.
Most of us have been doing a great job already, even if we have doubted some of the decisions we have made along the way. Was it really a good idea to plant squash over here? It seems to have taken over the yard. Was it wise for me to go to medical school? I’m not sure that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. Should I have waited longer to get married? Would marriage have been easier five years later? We all have these questions and doubts sometimes.
Even though these questions can sometimes become a source of anxiety, it is still a blessing that we have such capacity for self-reflection. It is this capacity for examination that enables us to turn our lives into beautiful and unique gardens. To share a personal example of self-reflection and transformation, let me tell you that although I am a rabbi now, I did not grow up in a religious household. My weekends were spent watching television with my family and playing outside with my friends, rather than attending Shabbat services or Religious School. But that all changed in 7th grade, when I had to write a speech for my English class. This middle school assignment led to perhaps more self-reflection than the teacher could have ever anticipated. It was then that a seed was planted. I don’t know if it was a comment my grandmother made about her parents hiding their Jewish identity in Nazi Germany, or the fact that one of my favorite TV shows at the time stared a Jewish character. But something inspired me to pick Judaism as the topic for my 7th grade speech.
As part of my research, I started attending Shabbat services with my grandmother. There was something about the music, the intergenerational community, and the ancient wisdom I encountered at Shabbat services that suddenly piqued my interest. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It led me to come back week after week, excited to learn something new and to connect with a newfound spiritual side of myself. I realized then that something had been missing in my life. There was this rich spiritual and communal experience available the whole time, and I was only now becoming aware of it. As soon as I encountered this warm and inviting Jewish community, I realized that it was something I wanted to plant in the garden of my life.
So I got to work. I grabbed a metaphorical shovel and started digging. I signed up for an adult Hebrew class with my grandmother and became a regular at both Shabbat services and Torah Study at age 12. I asked my mom if I could enroll in the Religious School, and I read as many books and websites about Judaism as I could find. I knew the more work I put into it, the more lush my garden would be.
But that turned out to be only one part of my garden. As I got more involved with the synagogue, I grew closer to the rabbi. He really took me under his wing and graciously allowed me to shadow him in order to see what rabbinic life was like, when I said that the idea of becoming a rabbi had crossed my mind, but I wasn’t sure exactly what rabbis did when they weren’t leading services. While shadowing him, I saw how this man was able to help countless families through all sorts of challenging circumstances. I saw how he shared in the many joys of their lives, too. And I saw how community and Torah were at the center of his life. In other words, I peeked into the garden of his life and realized that I wanted the garden of my life to have the same beauty. At age 13, I decided that I was going to become a rabbi, and I started planting more seeds.
I asked my family to enroll me in Jewish schools, including a Jewish boarding high school in North Carolina, so that I could get an even more substantial Jewish education. Then in college, I became a student leader in Hillel and began to teach Religious School at a local synagogue. I also made multiple visits to Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, to get myself on their radar before I applied to them my senior year of college. I wasn’t going to leave the fulfillment of my dream to chance. I wasn’t going to let it sit in a stack of ideas for that vague “someday.” I knew if I wanted this to happen, I had to plant the seeds, water the soil, and pull out the weeds day after day, year after year. I was determined to create this beautiful garden of a life.
But I wouldn’t have known what to do, if it were not for my first rabbi and other mentors who guided me along the way. I would not have known how to make this garden, had I not seen the beautiful gardens that they created first. I would have wandered around lost if I had not asked them what I could do to create a life like the ones they had created. Of course, sometimes we all feel a bit lost. We may not know what exactly we want to do with our lives, until we encounter someone who is already doing it. This ambiguity about purpose and direction in life is very common. Even the first human beings, Adam and Eve, had this experience.
In the story of creation, which we will be reading in the next couple of weeks, God models for Adam and Eve what a garden can look like. God creates the garden for them to enjoy and then instructs them to work the land, so they can get a strong sense of how to take care of a garden before it is time for them to go off and create their own gardens. The first human beings needed this sort of modeling and guidance. They needed to be exposed to someone else’s creations before they could figure out how to create a good life for themselves. This is true for most people. That is why we have parents, teachers, rabbis, friends, and sacred texts to guide us. We all need artistic inspiration and guidance in life.
Sometimes we can also benefit from the fresh perspective of others. Good friends, loved ones, and professional advisers including therapists can help us to see when weeds may have grown in our gardens. They can often help us to remove those weeds before the weeds take over our garden. And they can recommend other things to plant in their place. Everyone around us is filled with some kind of wisdom. Everyone around us has made their own garden with at least one beautiful aspect that we can imitate. If you are feeling unsure about the garden you have created so far, you can change it. Research how you can remove the weeds from your life. Maybe those weeds are grudges, addictions, or negative self-talk. There are known ways to remove all of these weeds from the garden of your life. Other people can help you find out how.
If you are feeling lost or aimless in life, do not despair. Rather look to other gardens for inspiration. No garden is perfect, but many gardens are quite beautiful and worthy of imitation. If you are at a point where you love your garden, share it with others. Take other people under your wing and become a guide to the creation of beauty and meaning.
Today is Yom Harat Olam, the day we must decide what world we wish to create. Think about the seeds you have planted in the past, and if they seem worth planting again or nourishing further. You have already planted some beautiful things. But your garden is not full yet. There is still time in your life to create something new, no matter if you are 6 or 96 years old. So I ask: What seeds are you going to plant this year? And I pray that you will find the support you need to tend your garden and create the luscious and beautiful life you deserve. Shanah tovah!
Shabbat Ki Tavo
the donkey, the candle and the rooster
In case you missed tonight’s story and discussion on Ki Tavo:
There once was a rabbi named Akiva. He was known for being an excellent student of Torah and an optimistic guy. Whenever anything unpleasant happened, he would always say, “Gam zeh l’tovah,” meaning “this too is for a good reason.” One day Rabbi Akiva set out on a journey with only the most basic travel essentials—no, not the tiny tube of toothpaste or travel-sized deodorant that we bring on trips today. All he brought was a donkey, a candle, and a rooster. The donkey was his main form of transportation, the candle was so he could study Torah late into the night, and the rooster was to wake him up in the morning.
After a long day of traveling, Rabbi Akiva arrived at a gated city. He went deep into the city and inquired at every inn about vacancies. (This was before you could make advanced hotel reservations online.) Everyone sent him away, and Akiva had no option except to sleep in a field outside of the city. As he walked out to the field, he said to himself, “Gam zeh l’tovah – this too is for a good reason.”
Shortly before sunset, Akiva made himself a pillow out of wild grass and found rocks to light his candle. It wasn’t easy to light the candle, but he managed to do everything he needed before nightfall. He lit the candle, tied his donkey to a tree, gave some grain to the rooster, and even reviewed the Torah lesson he had learned earlier that week before nodding off.
Shortly after falling asleep, he awoke to a horrifying sound. Akiva lifted up his candle and saw that a lion had come and attacked his donkey. The poor donkey didn’t stand a chance, and quickly became a midnight snack for the lion. Akiva laid perfectly still and quietly thanked God that he was still alive. He could have been a second midnight snack for the lion, but he was safe. “Gam zeh l’tovah,” he said, “This too is for a good reason.”
After watching the lion leave, Akiva fell back asleep and was woken again to a strange rustling sound. A weasel had now come for his rooster. Akiva tried to protect his rooster, but the weasel was too quick for him to catch. Now Akiva had no rooster. But he still had hope. “Gam zeh l’tovah,” he said, “This too is for a good reason.”
Just then a howling wind started to blow. Of course, it extinguished the candle that Akiva had worked so hard to light. Everything he had worked for was gone, but Akiva still said, “Gam zeh l’tovah” before falling back asleep in the dark and lonely field.
When Akiva woke up the next morning, he smelled smoke. He looked over at where the city gates were yesterday and saw charred stones and piles of ashes. Robbers had come in the middle of the night, raided, pillaged, and enslaved the inhabitants before burning the city down. If Akiva had been in the city that night, he could have been killed or enslaved. If his candle had been lit, or his animals had been making noise in the field, the robbers might have found him out there and made him a slave, too. Akiva was filled with awe as he said once again, “Gam zeh l’tovah. Indeed, every seeming misfortune was for a good reason.”
This week’s Torah portion ends with a series of blessings and curses. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, a prominent Reform Torah scholar, suggested that there is not a strong difference between these blessings and curses in the Torah. The curses are merely the inverse of the blessings, and vice versa.
In light of this interpretation and story, I have two questions for us to discuss:
- What do you think about the difference between blessings and curses? Are they merely the inverse of the other? Or is it a matter of perspective as in Akiva’s story? As in the same thing can seem like a blessing or a curse, depending on one’s perspective?
- If you were trying to encourage people to follow the rules of the Torah, would you include more blessings or more curses to motivate people? Do you think most people respond better to positive incentives or negative consequences? Why?
Gratitude for the Little Things
D’var Torah on Eikev
This week’s Torah portion teaches us to express gratitude for one of the most basic things in life–the very food that we eat. It says in Deuteronomy 8:10 that we should bless God for our food. Based on your experiences at Jewish community events, would you guess that this verse says to thank God before we eat or after we eat?
Most of us are used to saying a prayer before we eat at Jewish communal events. That prayer is, of course, hamotzi, the blessing for bread, which once said over bread can represent our gratitude for the rest of the meal as well. But this week’s Torah portion actually tells us to bless God after we have eaten to our satisfaction, not before we eat.
The idea of blessing God before we eat comes from a teaching in the Talmud, which says that someone who eats without saying a blessing first is considered to be like a thief. This statement is based on an understanding that everything ultimately belongs to the God who created it. So even though we have legally acquired ownership of an apple by purchasing it at the grocery store, we must still consider the source of this apple before us. Someone had to put it into the apple bin at the store, after someone else delivered it, after someone else harvested it, after someone else grew it, after someone else planted it, after God created the seeds that turn into apple trees.
The practice of saying blessings over our food is an important reminder for us to consider the bigger picture and appreciate the work of others. I recently came across a quote from an American writer named Wilferd A. Peterson, who said, “When we become more fully aware that our success is due in large measure to the loyalty, helpfulness, and encouragement we have received from others, our desire grows to pass on similar gifts. Gratitude spurs us on to prove ourselves worthy of what others have done for us. The spirit of gratitude is a powerful energizer.”
Although Mr. Peterson was not a Talmud scholar, he recognized the power of awareness and gratitude, just as our Torah and rabbis did thousands of years ago.
The rabbis of the Talmud recognize that it is difficult to walk around in a state of perpetual gratitude. Sometimes our minds are preoccupied with other things, and we often find ourselves pressed for time. Knowing these limitations, the rabbis could have shrugged and said, “Whatever. It’s okay to skip our practice of gratitude when we’re really busy.” But that’s not what the rabbis did. They decided to promote an abbreviated version of the longer grace after meals.
Now this abbreviated expression of gratitude came from a shepherd named Benjamin. According to the Talmud, this shepherd ate a sandwich and said only seven words to express his gratitude to God. The seven words were “Blessed is the Master of this Bread.” It might sound like a strange blessing, but after some debate, the rabbis agreed that these seven words were enough to fulfill the mitzvah of thanking God after we eat. This simple shepherd’s prayer, uttered not in Hebrew, but in the Aramaic vernacular, was enough to elevate the basic need to eat into an act of holiness.
In closing, I would like to teach you these seven words in Aramaic, along with a tune I learned from Reconstructionist Jews in Jerusalem. My hope is that even when you are busy, this tune will help you to remember to express gratitude for all of the basic things in life, including your food. Thank you. And Shabbat Shalom!
Click here for a link to the song.
Sing a New Song
Subtitle of Third Post
While thinking about my upcoming high school reunion (scheduled for Labor Day weekend), I am reminded of the blessings of a smaller, tight-knit community. One such blessing is the ability to get to know others in the community on a more profound level. My graduating high school class had only 39 people, so we knew each other well enough to give everyone a thoughtful, superlative award each year. I have lived up to my sophomore year superlative of “most likely to become a rabbi,” and I still hope to live up to my junior year superlative of “most likely to inspire a song in your heart.”Si
One of my all-time favorite biblical teachings is the Book of Psalm’s injunction to “sing a new song.” Based on the number of people who have been singing with me at Shabbat services, it seems that this message resonates with the larger Or Ami community. What is it about music that stirs our souls? That magical essence of a song is like a professional escape artist who can never truly be captured. Although some have tried to lock it behind the bars of a musical staff, it still slips from out of these confines, and the more we contemplate how, the more we are left standing with our mouths open in wonder.
A sacred, ineffable element comes to life when notes are played and when voices rise together in song. The transcendent nature of music provides one of the most direct and instantaneous ways to connect with God. Even unresponsive dementia patients have occasionally been galvanized back into life by familiar tunes from their childhood. There is something about music that connects to our core as human beings and nourishes our souls. That is something I would like to share with everyone who comes to Shabbat services and/or attends Religious School here at Or Ami.
One of my many goals as Rabbi and Director of Education is to bring more music to Or Ami with the help of Rachel and the many talented musicians in our community. My intention is to reinvigorate the community with the uplifting feeling of a new song. But in order to accomplish this goal, I need your voice to join in the song of Or Ami. I want to hear what your soul has been craving and what your mind hungers to learn. I want to know who you are, where you came from, and where you would like to go as an individual, a family, and a valued member of the Or Ami community. In other words, I would like to enjoy the blessing of Or Ami’s smaller, tight-knit community and get to know you on a profound level as we write Or Ami’s new song together. If you would like to set up a meeting to share your story or your ideas, please email me at email@example.com.