Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Passover Yizkor 2020

A version of this sermon was delivered at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation, Wantagh, NY at 7th-day Passover Festival Service.

Passover Yizkor 7th Day 2020: Coronavirus Edition

Passover is supposed to be memorable.  That’s the entire point of the holiday, if you listen to God tell it: In Exodus 12:14, in the midst of God’s instructions and forewarning about the 10th plague, we read: “וְהָיָה֩ הַיּ֨וֹם הַזֶּ֤ה לָכֶם֙ לְזִכָּר֔וֹן This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Eternal throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time.”  Throughout the ages.  For all time.  God reiterates this just a few verses later, commanding: “You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time.” (12:17)

Moses then announces this to the people twice.  After explaining placing the blood over the doorposts to cause the plague to pass over, Moses continues: “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. (ib. 24) Moses repeats this commandment to the people after Pharaoh frees them.  “You shall keep this institution at its set time from year to year,” (13:10) Moses repeats to the people while reminding them about the matzot and the Passover sacrifice.
There is a heightened sense of the importance of memory to the Seder rituals as well.  You may not be able to remember all 10 plagues all the time, but you remember that there are 10.  If you’re like me, you always forget one. 

More than the facts or the story, we all remember what we do when we announce the plagues, we take a little wine out of the cup, to diminish our joy and mitigate the sweetness.  Whether with finger or with spoon, whether you make a point to discard the plague-y wine or lick your pinky when done, that’s memorable. It’s a memory that is made in the best way, by involving so many of the senses.  You hear the plague announced. You touch the wine.  You see the drop grow on your plate or spread on your napkin.  You smell the brisket.  You are completely immersed in an act of memory designed to be memorable. 

God makes the point that Passover is meant to be remembered not just by those who experienced it.  It is meant to be remembered always by all their descendants.  It’s no surprise the youngest sings the four questions.  At some point in your life, you were the youngest in your family.  Every one of us was.  It ensures we all learn the questions of this festival at a young age, so that we can work to figure out the answers as we get older.

We have done a pretty good job as a people of keeping this charge, of remembering and recalling the exodus, how God redeemed us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And we’ve been immensely creative over the generations trying to ensure continued success. 

Well, Passover is supposed to be memorable, all right.  I don’t think that any of us will ever be able to forget this one in particular.  It will be one of those years we all look back on and tell stories about.  “What did you do when the world stopped for Coronavirus?  How did you have your Seder when not everyone could be together?” the children will ask.  "We did what our people have always done," we will tell them.  "We recognized that the importance of sharing the memory of our history would not get, and could not get, vetoed by any pandemic.  We improvised, like our ancestors, and ensured that the story was told to a new generation."

“We focused on the important part,” we’ll say.  And, for each of us that was probably something different.  For all of us it was the same thing, a drive, a sense, that this holiday must be celebrated, that we must remember.  Just because we can’t be physically alongside each other didn’t stop us.  When normally we’d see tables set and filled with 10, 20, 30, 40 people, filling tables in every room, this year so many shared photos online of Seders set for one, two, four.  A computer or a tablet on the table.  We used the technology available to us and strove to be together when we could not.  And though there were fewer dishes to be done at the end of the night, and though we can be proud that we followed God’s commandment, we know it’s not how it’s supposed to be.  We felt it when we didn’t need to put the leaf in the table.  We sensed it when we didn’t need to use all the chairs.  We knew it when we divided the recipe in half. 

On this holiday, so focused on memory, the memory of the past pushed us to move forward, but it also pulls something at our souls.  We’re supposed to be together.  We’re supposed to be alongside each other.  And the absence of those who would have been there only heightens the absence of those who could not be there.  It’s not just those who can’t travel who we miss; it’s those who are now sheltered under God’s wings, who were with us at full tables just a few years back, or many years back which only feel like a few.  The full tables of the past are what we miss especially this year. 

The full tables of Seders past render an image of what the Seder was always supposed to be: generations together, sharing in tradition.  The full tables of the Seders of our past burst with memories of their own.  They tell the stories of our families which make us who we are.  The full tables of our past burst with love: for us and from us.  Today, as we transition to our service of memory, our Yizkor on this last day of our festival, we pause to seat our beloved departed at places of honor at the full Seder tables in our memory, our zikaron

These Seders in our souls burst with the blessings of those who came before us, who taught us the importance of the traditions we worked so hard to fulfill this year.  The Seders in our souls bring us closer to all those whose absence we feel every year, and whose presence we feel every year.  We feel them with us when we push ourselves to make the recipe the same way she did.  We feel them with us when we tell that joke that was told every year.  We feel them with us when we hear the familiar melody that they first taught us.  Our loved ones of blessed memory are with us at every Seder, as they are with us at all times, in our memory. 

No ZOOM password required.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Vaera 5780: An Overabundance of Evidence

A version of this sermon was delivered at Temple B’nai Torah – A Reform Congregation in Wantagh, NY on Shabbat Va’era 5780/2020

There are certain perennial questions we have as Jews.  At Passover we ask five of them.  The four in the Hagaddah and then "When do we eat!?"  That question by the way is also the question asked every Yom Kippur!  So, each year when we get to the Torah portions that describe the famous story of the plagues, the Passover, and the Exodus, a series of questions always seem to come up.  Each year, we ask why it is that we read about Passover well before the Holiday falls.  That has to do with the Torah cycle and the holiday cycle.  And that's where we are in the Torah right now.  Another question that arises as we reach this week’s portion, Parshat Va’era, is the question of why it is that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  After all, if God wanted to change Pharaoh’s mind, why prevent it from happening?  It seems counter-intuitive that God would prevent the Pharaoh from being moved to change or act in response to Moses’s pleas and God’s signs and wonders.
Toward the beginning of the portion, we read that God sends Moses to speak to the people Israel, to announce that the God of their ancestors will redeem them.  Even though Moses follows God’s instructions about how to introduce himself to the people, they don’t believe him.  The Torah tells us why: “their spirits [are] crushed by hard labor.” (Ex. 6:9)  They are so despondent in their situation that they cannot imagine that redemption is possible.  They don’t have the capacity or vocabulary to understand God, and sadly, we know, the slave generation will never fully commit to God, with but a few exceptions.
When the Israelites don’t listen, God then sends Moses to speak with Pharaoh.  Moses responds to God: If the people won’t listen to me, then how is it that you think Pharaoh is going to listen to me?
We read: “The Eternal replied to Moses, ‘See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.’” (Ex. 7:1-3)
Now, there is an interesting parallel in the Hebrew.  The people’s spirits are crushed by what the Torah calls avodah kashah, hard labor.  God says that God will “ekasheh et lev Paroh” harden the heart of Pharaoh.  Already we see that God’s response to Pharaoh will be to turn the tables on him, to dole out to Pharaoh what Pharaoh has done to the Israelites.  God will show that God’s power supersedes that of Pharaoh, or that of any of the gods of Egypt.  “You made the people’s labor kasheh,” God is saying, “So, I will make your heart kasheh, and you will pay for it.”
The plagues are meant as much for the Israelites as the Egyptians.  The Israelites’ hearts and spirits are hardened beneath their labors.  Their hearts will need to soften in order to finally be a free people.  But the Egyptians, up until this point, don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, at least we don’t have any indication that they think the way they’re treating the Israelites is wrong.  We don’t hear from anyone but the Pharaoh.  And we know that it is his own obstinacy in the face of overwhelming evidence that ultimately leads to his downfall.  That Pharaoh’s heart hardens after each of the first five plagues is his own doing.  The Torah tells us after the plague of blood in the Nile: “when the Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed [Moses and Aaron]. (Ex. 7:22)  We read similar indications after each of the first five plagues. 
As each of the first five plagues strike Egypt, the evidence mounts before Pharaoh, that God is not pleased and that he ought to pay attention. 
After the frogs, his heart hardens when the relief comes.  After the lice, the Egyptian magicians can no longer recreate the plagues, and they say to Pharaoh, this is the finger of the God! Yet, his heart hardens.  After the insects, we read: “But Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, gam bapa’am hazeh.”(Ex. 8:28)  The inclusion of “this time also” shows that even the Torah narrative seems to be confounded by Pharaoh’s stubbornness and inability to learn.
Each of these plagues is evidence of the Egyptians’ wrongdoing.  Rabbi Tali Adler of Machon Hadar makes this point explicit about the first two plagues as she teaches:  
Both of the first two plagues begin in the Nile where Jewish boys were drowned. The first, blood, makes it clear that the Nile, the source of life for the Egyptian people—the place where even Bat Paroah, the woman who saved Moshe bathed—is actually a site of mass murder. All of Egypt, suddenly, is forced to confront the truth that what is life-giving and sustaining for them has been the locus of unbearable suffering for the people they oppress.
The second plague, the frogs, exposes the horror even more explicitly. The frogs, we are told, emerge from the Nile itself—still, presumably, filled with blood. In picturing the image of the frogs—small, slimy creatures crawling out of the river used as a mass infant grave—it is easy to imagine that as the frogs started to emerge, people thought that they were seeing thousands of ghosts emerge from their watery graves.
It’s not until after the 6th plague, the skin inflammation, that we read that the Eternal stiffened the heart of Pharaoh.  Why does God take over here?  Rashi (to Ex. 7:3) says it’s as punishment.  Since Pharaoh’s heart hardened 5 times on its own, and he didn’t heed God, now God will show Pharaoh what it means not to heed God.  The evidence is mounting.  The proof of the Egyptians’ crimes is public and known, and still, Pharaoh will not let the people go. 
But… we just learned that for plagues 6-10, it is God that hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  So, is the Pharaoh even to blame?  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says yes, pulling from a Renaissance Italian commentary by Rabbi Ovadia Sforno:
“God hardened Pharaoh's heart precisely to restore his free will. After the succession of plagues that had devastated the land, Pharaoh was under overwhelming pressure to let the Israelites go. Had he done so, it would not have been out of free choice, but rather under force majeure. God therefore strengthened Pharaoh's heart so that even after the first five plagues he was genuinely free to say Yes or No.” [1]
This makes sense especially when we recognize that the Hebrew word for what happens to Pharaoh’s heart changes.  It moves from kasheh, meaning harden as we heard earlier, to chazak, meaning stiffen or strengthen.  In this interpretation, God makes Pharaoh’s heart stronger, so that he can make up his own mind in the face of the evidence before him.  But will he be convinced by evidence, or is the verdict already decided in his head?
            God wants Pharaoh to make his decision based not on pressure from others or based on something out of his control, but rather based on a true recognition that what he had been doing, how he had enslaved the Israelites was indeed not ok, that his rule, and the kingdom of Egypt had become corrupt, cruel, chaotic, and focused on an Egyptian supremacist attitude.
            The end of this week’s portion leaves no question as to the corrupt nature of the Egyptian government:  “when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways, as did his courtiers.  So Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Eternal had foretold through Moses” (Ex. 9:34-35).  After every plague, the Pharaoh reverts to his default position, that he and Egypt can outlast God’s punishments.  Next week’s portion will dissuade him of that.
Ultimately, we know that Pharaoh never truly heeds the lesson that God is trying to teach him.  He will let the people go, but then he will change his mind and chase after them.  Not listening to the evidence presented to him over and over again destroys Egypt.  According to the Torah narrative, the crops and herds are destroyed by locust and disease, the Nile is putrid, the people who are still alive are inflicted with lice and disease, and his army is ultimately drowned at the Sea of Reeds.  All that his nation had been crumbles around him. He leads his nation to destruction because his heart is hardened, and he can’t find a way to soften it enough to heed the warning and listen to the evidence of what has been laid out before him.
When evidence mounts before us, will it be heeded?  When God sends a message, will it be heard?  Let us strive to live our lives as the antithesis to Pharaoh, with our hearts pliable, open to change, to compassion, to loving the other as ourselves.  Let our hearts be light, not weighed down by the heaviness of sin, indifference, or lust for power.  Let our hearts be loose, willing to accept the evidence we see before us, so that we may always make a choice for the good. 
Shabbat Shalom

[1] Sacks, Lord Rabbi Jonathan: The Weighing of the Heart: Vaera 5780

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Yom Kippur 5780 - Accepting our Fragility: Antisemitism

A version of this sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur 5780 at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation

An old joke:

Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. "Herr Altmann," said his secretary, "I notice you're reading Der Stürmer! I can't understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?"

"On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we're on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!"

This joke serves as many jokes in our tradition do, to make light of that which is difficult, to try to bring some levity to the complexity of life as a Jew in a world where we are always a minority, the complexity of life as Jews in a world where there are many who do not like us and who see us in the worst light, all the time. 

In January, I was forwarded an email sent to a local middle school principal by a parent in our congregation.  I share this email with the family’s permission. It has been edited for confidentiality. 
Last night, my child reported to me that as he was leaving school, he was confronted by a young male student who said, "I love Hitler."  My child stopped and asked the boy to stop saying that because he found it offensive and that it was a racist thing to say.  The boy continued to repeat the statement.  My child threatened to go to the dean of students and the boy responded by saying that he would just deny that he had said it.

This type of incident is, unfortunately, more and more common. Some school administrations deal with it better than others, and act to respond, not sweep away. Not a year has gone by that I haven’t heard a story about something like this at one of our local schools. When we brought in the ADL a few years back to help our middle and high schoolers learn how to respond when confronted with this kind of antisemitism, so many hands went up when the facilitator asked who among the young people had experienced antisemitism.

Often these kinds of incidents, particularly graffiti of swastikas, fall into the category of kids pushing boundaries, to see how far they can go, and what they can get away with.  Kids push boundaries in lots of ways.  When they do so using hate, it’s coming from somewhere.  Ignorance and stupidity are not always the motive.  Sometimes the motive is truly hatred.  It is our responsibility to work with the schools to ensure that they are handling these issues appropriately, that students know and understand why it is wrong and hurtful for them to draw these images and say these terrible things to their Jewish classmates.

To understand how this kind of behavior hurts, let me share another piece from this parent’s letter:
One evening in December, I was driving through town with my son and I commented on how beautiful some of the homes were with all of their Christmas lights and decorations. He responded by saying that he wished that we could put up decorations for Chanukah.  When I told him that I would buy some blue and white lights and a menorah for the window he told me that he doesn't think that it would be a good idea to decorate because it would bring attention to the fact that we are Jewish.  He said he worried that someone would vandalize our house or do something to us.  I was shocked!  I reassured him that we live in a safe town and that he shouldn't be worried about anti-Semitism here in our town.  That's when he told me that I was wrong.  That he has been seeing swastikas drawn on the walls in school, especially in the boys’ bathrooms, both at his middle school, and at his elementary school before that.

A middle schooler.  Worried about what might happen to him and his family if they make their Judaism too known to their neighbors.  A middle schooler.  Sharing with his father the difficult reality of his life at school.  A middle schooler targeted by his classmates because he is a Jew. 

We all know that this email is not the first like it that I have received; and it will not be the last.  The statistics of antisemitic attacks or incidents are only reporting what we already know, and what we already feel around us.  According to the ADL,[1] though 2018 saw a slight downtick in total incidents, it also saw the deadliest attack on Jews on US soil in American history at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  2018 still saw the third highest number of incidents since tracking began 40 years ago.  The numbers for 2018 are 48% higher than 2016 and 99% higher than 2015.  And that’s just the United States; statistics in Europe are even worse.

Antisemitism never went away, it seems.

For a long time in this nation, and in much of Western Europe, we did not need to worry.  In the shadow of the Second World War, Jews enjoyed a kind of protected status, in part based on the west’s guilt.  But no longer.  I guess the statute of limitations is up, if it ever existed, in living memory of the fires of Europe that consumed more than 1/3 of world Jewry.  And because it is so present, it certainly can feel like the tide is turning against us.

Professor Deborah Lipstadt , in her recent book: Antisemitism: Here and Now traces the uptick in antisemitism in the last decade, while also putting it into historical context.  Lipstadt defines antisemitism concisely using the old line attributed to Isaiah Berlin: An anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary.  “Imagine if someone has done something you find objectionable.  You may legitimately resent the person because of his or her actions or attitudes.  But if you resent him even one iota more because this person is Jewish, that is antisemitism.”[2] 

Lipstadt goes on to explain how Antisemitism has a long history, and how it has morphed and changed over the millennia. 
In ancient and medieval times antisemitism was religious in nature.  Jews were hated because they refused to accept Christianity and, later, Islam.  In the 18th century, racial and political rationales were added to the religious one…By the 19th century, those on the political right were accusing all Jews of being socialists, communists, and revolutionaries.  Those on the political left were accusing all Jews of being wealth-obsessed capitalists who were opposed to the social and economic betterment of the poor and working classes.[3]

Lipstadt adds that adherents of eugenics saw in Jews both negative and positive qualities.  “Jews were maliciously intelligent, and because they were able to easily mix with non-Jews, they used those traits to wreak havoc with non-Jews’ lives.”[4]
Yes, this means that Jews are ascribed contradictory qualities.  No, it does not make sense.  But logic and sense are not the game of antisemitism.  Rather, conspiracy, forgery, fallacy, and otherness are the trades of this ever-evolving hatred.

On tour, promoting her book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, New York Times Columnist and opinion writer Bari Weiss, who grew up Jewish in Pittsburgh commented on one theory as to why we are seeing such an uptick. “Anti-Semitism is not just about the Jewish community, it’s about the health of a society. When a society becomes antisemitic there is something wrong in their body politic.” Weiss goes on to say, “Societies where antisemitism thrives are societies that are either dead or dying. Why? It’s because antisemitism is the ultimate conspiracy and when anti-Semitism thrives it’s a sign that the society has replaced truth with lies.”

Lipstadt and Weiss do an excellent job recognizing and explaining that antisemitism is not a phenomenon on which any one side of the political spectrum has a monopoly.  It’s coming at us from all sides.

In today’s America, we are rightly concerned by the emboldened white supremacists who march carrying torches shouting, “Jews will not replace us.”  This chant, by the way, is not about Jews taking their place.  It is deeper and much more sinister.  This chant puts into words the belief that Jews pull the strings of power politically and economically and we have the ability to replace White people with immigrants and refugees.  These are not fine people.

It was concern for fair and humane treatment of immigrants and refugees, concern that we treat strangers appropriately, as the Torah commands us again and again, for we were once strangers, which influenced the Pittsburgh shooter.  Far-right antisemitism, and those that turn a blind eye toward it or even subtly encourage it are to blame for the martyrs of our people lost in the last year.

Far Right, Alt-Right, White supremacy, white power, neo-Nazis, whatever we’re calling them doesn’t quite matter.  We have seen this movie before and are not quite shocked by it.

The hatred from these groups isn’t new.  What is new is that the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist movement championed by some of the left has also become a haven for antisemitism.  A new breed of antisemitism, perhaps more difficult to recognize because it’s more subtle.  It speaks in the language of liberation and redemption for oppressed peoples, never considering the millennia of oppression suffered by the Jews.  No, the Jews are seen as European colonialists and interlopers in the Middle East, even though as of last count, Israeli Jews hailing from Arab lands make up just over half the population.  Those Jews, by the way, like my mother from Egypt, were often forcibly deported, their possessions confiscated, for no reason except that they were Jews.  But again, logic and history are not the games anti-Semites play. 

The Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, which seeks to ostracize Israeli business and academia for Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians, does not seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.  Instead they seek to quell dialogue.  They seek a one-state solution for the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and it is not a Jewish state.  Denying Jews uniquely the right to national self-determination is an act of antisemitism. 

I am a Zionist and a citizen of Israel.  I believe that Jews deserve a homeland in our ancient home.  I believe that Israel can and should be criticized when it does not live up to its ideals.  I believe that Israel has had many triumphs and has made many mistakes, as all nation-states.  When Israel is singled out for criticism unlike any other nation, when Israel, uniquely, is questioned in terms of its legitimacy as a member of the international community, when Jews in the diaspora are made to answer for Israel’s actions, or questioned about their dual loyalty, the conversation is no longer about Israel.  It’s about hating Israel, the lone Jewish state in the world, more than is absolutely necessary.

Whether you see yourself as on the right or the left, our job as Jews and those who love us is to call this out where and when we see it, and not only when it comes from the other team.  The truth is for all of us, anti-Semites are always the other team!  We would do well to remember that. 

We would also do well to recognize that unlike other times in our past, the hatred is not state-sponsored.  We do not live at the pleasure of a local duke, fearful of expulsion.  We are not living through an era of state segregation of Jews.  Those facts are comforting, but they do not diminish the reality that something has shifted.
So, what are we to do?  What next?  How are we supposed to react to this renewed antisemitism?  It is not enough to just know about it; how do we deal with it?

Today, Yom Kippur, has an answer.  On this day, the liturgy and the rituals are meant to bring us to recognize the fragility of our lives.  We empty ourselves. We fast.  We wipe away our niceties and adornments.  We pour out our hearts until we are left in as close to the condition that God created us.  At that moment, when we come face to face with the impermanence of our existence, when we’ve given God all that we can, all that is in us, then, God reaches out to us, giving us a hand, through the miracles of repentance and forgiveness.[5]

The rabbis in the middle ages, at the time of the crusades, who were well versed in dealing with communal tragedies, made this day even more potent when they added a section of the service known as the Eleh Ezkarah: these I remember.  This section of the service is so titled because of the opening poem which begins: Eleh Ezkerah venafshi alai eshpecha: These do I remember, and my soul melts with sorrow; for the bitter course of our history, tears pour from my eyes. Our Machzor calls this the Martyrology.  In the last number of years, this section of the service has been shortened again and again by many.  It seemed out of fashion.  It seemed unnecessary to dwell on the Jews of ages long past who were killed because of their Judaism.  That’s not our reality.  Last year, in this congregation, we skipped it altogether.

That section of the service was written as a cry out to God in the aftermath of the martyrdom of so many Jews during the Crusades.  In their cry, they discovered a kinship with the martyred rabbis of the ancient world, who were killed by the Roman authorities in the aftermath of a rebellion.  These Jews could think of nothing else but to cry out to God in the sacred act of remembrance for those who were taken, as our tradition says, al kiddush hashem, for the sanctification of Adonai.

If Yom Kippur is about recognizing our fragility as humans before the Divine, then the Eleh ezkarah section is about recognizing the added fragility that comes with being a Jew in this world.  This year, perhaps, we feel that even more keenly.  On this day, when we believe that heaven and earth are at their closest, we cry out to God for those who were taken because they were just like us.  We cry and wail to God demanding answers to questions that will not come.  We cry and remember that throughout our many wanderings, more often than not, living as a Jew was a fragile proposition.

Friends, today, in our nation, we are still in the one year period of mourning for the martyrs of this soil, who were killed al kiddush hashem, who were killed because they had the audacity to go and pray as Jews, who were killed because they were Jews.  A little bit later this Yom Kippur, as we transition into our Yizkor service, together we will remember these martyrs with a new eleh ezkarah for Pittsburgh and Poway, CA.  Together we will do what our ancestors have always done: sit in our precarious predicament.  Together we will mourn for our people, and together we will accept the fragility of our Jewish existence.

Toward the end of her book, Bari Weiss makes the point that protesting won’t change much.  She quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who said: “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.”[6]  Weiss takes this as a signal that passive reaction to antisemitism won’t cut it.  It is time to move from “crouching to standing, from defense to offense, from doubt to confidence, from shame to pride.”[7] 

It is only once we come face to face with our fragility in this world that we can truly see the answers that Judaism has for us, and the answers that this day asks us to consider.  If the underlying theme of Yom Kippur is fragility, and the specific fragility that comes with being a Jew, what counteracts it?  How do we come back to that sense of pride? How do we stabilize ourselves on such shaky ground? 

We respond with the stability of God, the stability of our traditions, and the stability of our community. 

The stability of God.  At the end of this long day of repentance and prayer, before the tekiah gedolah is sounded, we proudly declare three lines.  The first is the Shema, reminding us that God is one and one alone.  The second line, we recite three times: Praised be God’s name forever and ever!  And finally, we announce seven times: Adonai Hu HaElohim!  Adonai is God!  Seven times, like the seven days.  A new creation as we exit the fog of our fasts and afflictions.  Though our bodies bend from our repentance, God remains.  Though we come and go, God remains.  Though we struggle and strive.  God remains.  Though we are often under attack, God remains, as God has been and will be forever.

The stability of our traditions.  We have been saying the same prayers for thousands of years.  The hatred directed toward us may change with the ages, but our faith, our belief, our connection to our ancestors, and our recognition of our place in the chain of tradition does not.  And it offers us stability of identity, pride in our Judaism, when those that would do us harm try to redefine who we are.

Though the Eleh Ezkarah has been a known part of Yom Kippur for more than 1,000 years, it is not found anywhere else in the liturgy all year.  We only bring this up on one day a year.  We do not dwell on it liturgically, even if it is always at the back of our minds.  Even when we know that we now need extra security here at TBT, and that we now make a point of announcing where the exits are, we only dwell on the martyrdom, and the specific fragility for one day.  We are not supposed to dwell on death.  This morning, we heard words from the Torah reminding us that we are supposed to incline toward blessing and life, not curse and death.  And so our traditions remind us that we are to always remember the complications of our existence, but not spend so much time doing so that we become overly engrossed with it.

The stability of our community.  A few years ago, in East Meadow, some high schoolers came to me to tell me about some troubling antisemitism at their school.  Together we determined the best course of action, that the response to these incidents needed to not be by individuals, but by the community.  The students rallied support and went as proud Jews to see the principal, who then reached out to the community rabbis.  We are stronger as a community.  And when we make it clear that we will not tolerate hatred against us or anyone, we make it clear what our community stands for.

Our parents and grandparents who proudly donated their time and funds to build these communities understood this.  In addition to a house of worship, they knew that they needed a place to go where they were comfortable and did not feel like the other.  They knew that they needed a place where their children could come and be free from the fragile life of being a Jew in the world.  Let our community continue to serve that purpose. 

Last year was a difficult year for us, friends.  I pray this one will be easier.  As we enter into 5780, let us not only have pride in God, our traditions, and our community.  Let us also be strengthened by them to keep going.  It was the strength and resolve of our ancestors’ faith which propelled them through times much tougher than ours. 

May that which afforded them so much conviction – God, Tradition, Community, Memory – may these strengthen each of us and all of us in this new year.  And as we are strengthened by each of these, let us strengthen one another.   Amen.  

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

[2] Lipstadt, Deborah E., Antisemitism: Here and Now.  Schocken, 2019. p 14
[3] Ibid. p 16-17
[4] Ibid. p 17
[5] After Atah Notein Yad, Neilah Service
[6] Weiss, Bari.  How To Fight Anti-Semitism, Crown, NY. 2019. p 167
[7] Ibid.

Kol Nidre 5780 - Family. Community. Generations

A version of this sermon was delivered at Kol Nidre, 5780 at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation

Each year, on this day and this day alone, Yom Kippur, the High Priest of Israel, direct descendant of Aaron, Moses’s brother, would make his way from his home in Jerusalem, through the community, into the Temple complex, and up to the Temple Courtyard.  Within a few hours, the entire procedure for the day was completed. The people of Israel had been forgiven their sins for another year. 

It was a precarious day for the people of Israel.  Would they be forgiven?  Would the High Priest do his duty as prescribed?  Would he ensure that the rites and the rituals would be carried out exactly as they had been for generations, since God first gave instruction to Moses, generations ago in the wilderness? 

And what a day for the High Priest… One misstep, one word wrong, one scratch, one error, and the entire procedure would have to start over.  Or worse, his prayer would be denied by God.  He would be struck down.  The people’s forgiveness delayed. 

He was awakened at midnight, an air of anticipation, until the crack of dawn, when he would begin to make his way to the top of the mountain.  To God’s abode.  To the center of the spiritual universe, to the locus of holiness.

The High Priest was surrounded by his acolytes, who stood outside the ritual bath with a curtain between so that they would not gaze upon him.  He bared his flesh, immersed himself, and then put on the eight priestly garments, for he had prepared himself in conformity with the unchanging law.  Appropriately and unerringly, he offered the sheep, spilled its blood, offered the incense, lit the lamp, arranged the sacrifice on the altar, and poured the libation.

Then he once again came out to the porch to sanctify and immerse himself – this time putting on the white linen vestments, not the gold ones.  He stretched his hands over the bull and confessed his sins, and those of his household, withholding nothing in embarrassment.

And thus he would say:
Adonai, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed, I have sinned against you, I and my household.  I beseech you, Adonai, by your holy name: forgive the iniquities and the transgressions, and the sins that I have committed against You, I and my household, as is written in the Torah of your servant Moses: “On this day, atonement shall me made for you, to cleanse you of all your sins before Adonai…”

When the priests and all the people standing in the Temple Court would hear the glorious and awe-inspiring name explicitly enunciated, in holiness and purity, by the lips of the High Priest, they would bow, and kneel, and fall prostrate to the ground, saying; Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto l’olam va’ed! Praised be God’s glorious majesty for ever and ever!”

The High Priest would intentionally prolong the utterance of the Name while the people recited their praise, whereupon he would complete the verse saying: “…You shall be cleansed!”

And You, [O God] out of Your goodness, aroused your love and forgave the one who was faithful to you. [1]
With this first confession, the High Priest, in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem would confess his sins and the sins of his family.  He would go on to repeat the same procedure twice more, in the early hours of the morning of Yom Kippur.  The people’s forgiveness could not wait.  Each time, he would confess again, broadening his vision and his scope. After atoning for his family, he would then atone for his tribe, the entire house of Levi.  Finally, he would atone for the sins of all the community of Israel.

When the entire procedure was done, when the sacrifices were concluded, when the scapegoat had been sent to the wilderness carrying the sins of the people, when the instruments had all been washed, and the vestments buried, “the crowd accompanied their faithful leader home, exulting that the red thread had been turned to pure white [meaning their sins had been forgiven by God].  They gave thanks, gathering the fruits of peace; they sang praises, reaping fulfillment.”[2]  For generations, each Yom Kippur, the people would celebrate behind the High Priest, looking forward to a year ahead, to their work ahead and to doing so imbued with God’s forgiveness and a reminder about the holiness inherent within them.

The High Priest was sent on a journey every Yom Kippur to find expiation for his family and his community.  In so doing, he also encounters the most Holy.  Not just because of where he is and what he’s doing, but because of how he does it, and how in order to find the holy, he has to search for the center.

In the middle of Jerusalem stands Mount Moriah.  At the top of Mount Moriah stood the Temple complex.  In the middle of the Temple Complex, the Temple Courtyard.  In the middle of the Courtyard, the Temple itself.  And in the middle of the Temple, the Kodesh HaKodeshim, the Holy of Holies, Sanctum Sanctorum, the locus of Divine presence on Earth.  In the middle of everything.  Everything emanates from this point on Earth: the Entrance to Eden, the spot chosen by God to show Abraham.  In this most central of spots, God’s presence dwelt between the cherubim on the cover of the Ark, only to be approached on this one day.

The Mishnah for Yom Kippur is found in a tractate called Yoma, Aramaic for “the day.”  That tractate takes pains to express the specialness of the day and explain in some detail the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur.  When he would enter into the Holy Of Holies, the priest would take a handful of incense, throw it on burning coals in a golden vessel, place that vessel down between the poles of the Ark, and fill the small innermost chamber with smoke as he pronounced the prayers of atonement for himself, his family, and his community. 

In that place in the middle of everything, he would commune with the presence of the Eternal, shrouded in smoke, and by just a few words, inspire not just his family and his community, but the generations that would follow, that they too could be in relationship with God. 

In order to approach God, in order to have the deep connection to God, the High Priest needed to make his way to the center, needed to be sure to leave the extraneous outside.  The most holy is in the middle.  And that is not unique to the experience of the High Priest on Yom Kippur.  The book of Leviticus, the book of the priests is the middle book of the Torah.  In the middle of that book, we find God’s instructions that we are to be holy as God is holy, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, the most central of the commandments, according to Rabbi Akiva and Hillel.

If the middle is where the holiness is found, then finding middle ground, making space for ourselves and others, is a practice in creating holiness.  If the middle is where the holiness is found, then the work of compromise is the work of creating holy solutions.

Over this last year, the first as our newly merged congregation, we have striven to find the holiness of the middle as we’ve merged two traditions.  There were a lot of decisions to make and a lot of issues to overcome, but the leadership of this congregation, committed to our shared values, and to creating a sacred community, sought always to find the appropriate holy center.

The holiness of compromise means making space for all voices and working hard to include different viewpoints.  The holiness of the middle means working to not allow extreme points of view to become the only voices heard.  The holiness of the middle means striving to come up with something wholly new, never before seen, bringing with it the best of what has come before.  Friends, I think this evening, we have surrounded ourselves with holiness, and we ought to be proud.

But wait, Rabbi, it’s Kol Nidre, should we really be feeling proud?  Aren’t we supposed to be atoning?  Isn’t this a day about self-affliction?  Yes, it is all of that.  But if it is only that, we are only doing half the work.  You see, the High Priest, yes, was surely filled with dread as he made his way into the sacred center, but he entered that space knowing that he had done all he could to follow all the rules and regulations so that the day would go as planned and so that the people would be forgiven.  He ended the day jubilantly, knowing that he had done good work, that he had followed God’s path.  That he had connected to his family, that he had created a community of forgiven souls devoted to God’s project, and that he had inspired his generation, as his predecessors had done and as his successors would do.

Yom Kippur is about taking stock.  It doesn’t say that it has to be only a list of the negatives.  Certainly, we’ve all been stubborn when it comes to our opinions.  We all haven’t always sought the holy middle.  I know that I am certainly guilty of that, and for those times when my zeal got the better of me, I apologize.  But alongside that sin, there is the knowledge that at times, we did make space.  We did empathize.  We did give a little.  And what that shows us is that we are all capable of finding the holy middle.  We all know what it takes, how it feels and how to do it.  If we don’t acknowledge the good, we cannot commit to doing more of it in the year ahead!

As I explained when we affixed a new mezuzah to this holy space, each mezuzah that adorns our doorposts is to be hung at an angle for no other reason than because a man and his grandson disagreed.  Rashi, our tradition’s greatest sage, who lived and worked in France in the 11th Century, in a comment on a piece of Talmud about the mezuzah, notes that it should be hung vertically, it’s top pointing toward the heavens. 

His grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, an accomplished sage himself, disagreed, and instructed that the mezuzah should be hung horizontally, since the 10 commandments were laid horizontally in the Ark, which rested in the Holy of Holies.  On the same page of Talmud, we can see Rashi’s comment and Rabbeinu Tam’s.  Both men are revered for their understanding of Jewish Law, and both make compelling arguments.  And neither of them won!

Ultimately, Rabbi Jacob Ben Asher, 150 years later in his law code, decides that to honor both, to uphold the holiness of both opinions, a compromise must be reached.  He advises hanging the mezuzah at an angle, in between Rashi’s preference and Rabbeinu Tam’s. 

The words of Torah, reminding us to love Adonai with all our heart, soul, and might, those words which we place inside our mezuzah, those words we hang on our doorposts to remind us of God as we come and go, they are also a symbol of the holy middle, of the possibility of compromise.  The marker of Jewishness reminds us of the holiness of compromise. 

Looking around our sanctuary this evening, I cannot help but be reminded of that sacred compromise, as we gaze upon our newly installed memorial boards, all hung at angles, honoring all equally.  All the names given the same space in the same Holy space.  The committee that worked very hard to oversee the design, installation, and administration of these boards, containing thousands of names, containing countless memories, certainly had to make compromises. In their work, they focused on shared values, and ultimately, ensured that there would be space for everyone’s name, and that everyone’s memory would be equally honored.

Our holy space, our sanctuary, and our holiest task, the task of memory, now also serve as symbols of the holy middle, of the holiness of compromise.

The Temple in Jerusalem is no more.  Ever since the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis instituted that rather than the actual service of the High Priest, a recitation of that service would suffice for God.  But prayer without action is incomplete.  The recitation of this service calls us to seek the holy middle: to strive for it, to seek out that holiness, or to create it for ourselves by channeling the divine call to holiness.

Before we even receive the 10 commandments, we are called by God to be a nation of Priests, a holy people.[3]  Tomorrow afternoon, we will read from the middle of the middle book of the Torah that we are to be holy because God is holy, Kedoshim tihiyu.[4]  We are called to channel holiness. 

Like the High Priests of old, who brought about expiation and ultimately jubilation for their family and their community over generations, we recognize the role we have to play as well.  We are the inheritors of the mantle of the High Priests, making our way toward the holy middle, and like the High Priest, we have a job to do.  And that job is to make of this holy congregation a place that connects families, creates community, and inspires generations.

How are we working with our families to provide opportunities for every member?  How are we working to connect families to each other so that we build our circles and reinforce our social lives as much as our social media?  How are we helping our families live Jewish lives in the ways that they want and the ways that are important to them and add meaning to the daily chaos?  How are we encouraging each other to find a place in the holy center, even if, especially if, some of us are accustomed to being on the outskirts? 

How will we go about strengthening our community?  How will we work to bridge the gaps between the different generations and the different arms of the congregation?  How will we ensure that we are providing a safe and comfortable space for everyone, where everyone is also willing to be pushed in their thinking, and to struggle with what God asks of us?  How will we use our community to pursue and spread righteousness in our neighborhood and in our world?  How can we marshal the power we create by coming together in the holy middle to spread our influence of holiness wider each day and each year?

The answers to these questions and more are before us.  But these questions are not the questions of two communities coming together.  These questions are posed to a new, strong, Holy congregation, chomping at the bit to do what we are called to do—create a thriving, inspiring Judaism for future generations to inherit. To make this congregation a locus of holiness.

Connecting families.  Creating community.  Inspiring generations.  These are our sacred tasks. 

This day, the day, we are reminded over and over that the future is in our hands and the answers to the questions before us are waiting for us to discover.  Yom Kippur is a day of optimism for the future.  A day when we commit to the best possible future, when we recognize the opportunity for perfection on this Sabbath of Sabbaths.  The future of this congregation is bright and filled with holiness because each of us is a conduit for that holiness.  We are conduits for that holiness when we work together and create a holy middle.

The future is before us.  May it be good, sweet, and centered around holiness.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

[1] Jonathan HaCohen Ben Yehoshua – Seder Avodah, trans. Machzor Lev Shalem
[2] Ibid.
[3] Exodus 19:6
[4] Leviticus 19:2