Friday, July 12, 2019

Korach 5779 - When We Feel Like Falling on Our Faces

A version of this sermon was delivered on Shabbat Korach, 5779 at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation in Wantagh, NY.

This week’s Torah portion begins:

“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.  They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”  When Moses heard this, he fell on his face.”[1]

Korach, the namesake of the Torah portion, is known for the rebellion and the aftermath in which he and his band of rebels are swallowed alive by the earth and sent down to Sheol, a sort of Hades of the ancient Hebrews.  Korach challenges Moses’s authority and his humility, calling Moses arrogant.  Aren’t we all holy, he argues?  Didn’t God make us a nation of priests and say that we are all allowed to partake in kedushah?  Why do you raise yourself above this community, Korach demands of Moses?  What makes you think you’re so special!?  Why not us?  Why do we have to follow the rules and morals of this society? 
Korach doesn’t agree with the way things are being done.  He doesn’t like the direction the nation is going.  He thinks it’s time to take drastic action for the safety and security of the people.  He thinks it’s time to upend the still new and untested rules, which not only stipulate the laws of the people, but their morality as well.
Moses hears Korach’s challenge and he doesn’t know what to do.  He is seemingly embarrassed by their actions.  Korach’s complaint flies in the face of everything Moses has tried to teach the people about how things are supposed to run in the Israelite camp and society.  He doesn’t know how to respond.  It’s in this moment, when he just doesn’t know what to do, that we read that Moses falls on his face.[2] 
            Rashi explains that this moment, Moses falling on his face, is because this is the 4th time that the people have risen against him, the golden calf, the demand for quail, and the incident with the spies all precede this moment.  It also won’t be the last time the people rise against him.  Moses and Aaron will fall on their faces again in a few chapters when the people complain they are hungry and thirsty and demand to go back to Egypt.
Rashi goes on to describe Moses in this scene as finally coming to a sense of powerlessness, and he explains his point with a parable from the Midrash: This may be compared to the case of a prince who sinned against his father and for whom the father’s friend gained forgiveness once, twice, three times. When he offended for the fourth time the friend felt himself powerless, for he said, “How long can I trouble the king? Perhaps he will not again accept advocacy from me!”
Chizkuni, a rabbi who lived and worked in France a couple generations after Rashi, describes Moses as: so ashamed he put his face on the ground in order to offer a prayer. Moses had hoped to receive a revelation from God how to confront this challenge.  But he doesn’t get instruction from God.  He doesn’t wait for God to come fix the evil he sees around him. 
Rather, unlike in other instances of face-falling, when we hear God’s suggestion, this time Moses doesn’t fall on his face before God; he doesn’t fall on his face before the Tent of Meeting.  He just falls.  And then, we assume, he gets up, and he challenges Korach to a test to see who truly knows how things are supposed to run.  You put your incense on the fire pan and Aaron will do the same and we’ll see who God chooses! 
Moses is caught in a destructive pattern with the Israelites.  What should be a proud march toward the Promised Land has, time and again, turned away from the ideals of the nation and the ideals of the society.  All Moses can do is turn his face down and pray for an answer.
            He doesn’t get that answer from God.  Rather, he devises the test.  He doesn’t wait for someone else to do something about it; he acts.  And the Torah makes this explicit because later we read that Moses has to tell God not to accept the incense they offer.  Moses takes this issue of upending societal norms into his own hands, establishing and administering the test.  God will dole out the punishment, but Moses sets the terms.
            What are we to do when the norms of our society are trampled on?  How are we to react when, as we celebrate the anniversary of this nation’s independence, the land of the free, we see image after image and report after report of children, separated from their parents, caged in inhumane conditions, without medical care.  Without running water.  Without adequate place to sleep.  Without toilets.  Without tissues, soap, toothpaste, diapers.  Without compassion.  Without humanity. 
These children are living in Sheol, and it is happening in our name and in our nation.
The images cry out to us, as if challenging the joyous fireworks and bbqs, asking what makes this country so special?  What makes us think that we’re any better than anywhere else?  What makes us think we have the market cornered on life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness?  Why does this country raise itself above others?
            It feels as if all we can do is fall on our faces and maybe pray to God, embarrassed by the behavior of the leadership of our country, shocked by the pictures we see of fathers and daughters drowned alongside each other.  Resigned that we may never live up to our ideals, if we ever have. 
If we fall on our faces, and turn our eyes away, and pray to God to fix this mess, we abdicate our responsibility.  Moses understands that he cannot allow this to continue.  The nation will be irrevocably lost if Korach is permitted to offer his incense to God.
We are a nation of immigrants who fled persecution, economic hardship, danger, and lack of opportunities over the centuries.  What are we going to do to ensure that the norms of this nation, of welcoming, of promising liberty, of standing up for humanity are maintained?  What are we as Jews going to do to ensure that we live up to our sacred norms, of welcoming the stranger because we were strangers? 
What arrogance we must have to not remember where we came from, how we got here, how many of our families died because they couldn’t reach these shores or were not permitted to do so.  What idolatry we traffic in when we see the stranger suffering and we do nothing to alleviate it, when we see images of humans detained in camps and we choose to argue over what to call them rather than how to liberate them. 
What test must we devise so that those who would ask us to upend our norms, our morality, our humanity, will know that we are not willing to do so? 
We are supposed to learn from our past, not repeat its mistakes.  After Korah is swallowed by the ground, his firepans, now sacred, are used as plating for the altar, for all to see, to remind the Israelites that there are boundaries of behavior that are not acceptable to cross. The people don’t quite listen. 
Our nation’s history is replete with examples we have not learned from.  May this not be one of them.  May this nation finally learn to live up to its highest ideals such that in future years, when we celebrate independence, we do so knowing that the project of freedom, of self-governance, of unalienable rights, has been extended to all who would be a part of it.

I close tonight with a prayer, For Children at Our Borders, by Alden Solovy:

God of mothers and fathers,
God of babies and children,
Youth and teens,
The voice of agony echoes across the land,
As children are taken from their parents,
Perverting our history as a nation of immigrants,
Perverting our values,
Perverting the ways of justice and peace.
These children
Wait in misery
To be reunited with their families
So that a few may reap the political rewards
Of their suffering
By playing tough at our borders.

Source of grace,
Creator of kindness and goodness,
You call upon us to stand in the name of justice and fairness,
To witness against this abuse of power,
To battle the systematic assault on human beings,
To speak out against their suffering.

Bless those who rise up against this horror.
Give them courage and determination.
Bless those who plead on behalf of the oppressed and the subjugated
Before the seats of power.
May the work of their hands never falter
Nor despair deter them from this holy calling.

Bless those now in bondage at the hand of the U.S. government.
Grant them shelter and solace,
Comfort and consolation,
Blessing and renewal.
Release them. Free them. Heal them from trauma.
Reunite them with their families.
Hasten the day of their reunion.

Blessed are You, God of All Being,
Who summons us to oppose violence, oppression, slavery and injustice.


[1] Numbers 16:1-3
[2] Ibid. 16:4

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving Homily 2018

A version of this homily was delivered at St. Frances de Chantal RC Church in Wantagh, NY, on November 21, 2018, during the Wantagh Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.

Thank you for the kind welcome!  I’d like to thank the members of the Wantagh Interfaith Clergy Council; the community, clergy, and leadership of St. Frances de Chantal; and especially Father Greg Cappuccino for the kind welcome and invitation to preach on this evening of Thanksgiving.  Thank you also to our choir for adding such joy and spirit to this evening!  It’s not easy being the new guy in town, but one of the blessings is that I get to preach here tonight, before one of my favorite holidays.

Tomorrow we will gather around our Thanksgiving tables.  Whether we serve the Thanksgiving meal as lunch or as dinner, or at a point in between when finally everything is ready and warm at the same time, many of us will participate in the same ritual.  Together with our families of origin and of choice; with our friends and neighbors; and perhaps even as we break bread with new friends we meet for the first time tomorrow, we will all pause for a moment to consider what it is that we are thankful for.  We will go around the table and each share those parts of our lives for which we are grateful, and for which our hearts are full. 

Now, I’ve been cooking all day, so if you’d please indulge me, I’d like to get a head start on my list…There are many things for which I have immense gratitude this year.  First, I am thankful for my health of mind and body.  The human body is an imperfect creation, and I recognize that so many struggle each day.  I am thankful for my family.  Too many are estranged from loved ones, grapple with loneliness, and have no one to turn to when in need.  I am thankful that I have a comfortable home to go to each night, when so many are without.  I am thankful for my community and congregation, and the opportunities that have been afforded me by my profession and calling.  Too many are without work, or underemployed, or suffering as prices rise but incomes stagnate.

That list may match yours in some ways.  But this year, and this evening, as we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessings, I must tell you all that I am also thankful for you.  For it was you,  this interfaith community, who showed up at Temple B’nai Torah just a few weeks back, as we paid tribute to the 11 worshippers, gunned-down in the midst of prayer, in the senseless massacre at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh.  The attack on that synagogue left me shaken as a rabbi, left my soul aching, and left me wondering what is next for the Jewish community in America.  But then, Rabbi Nacht, whose partnership I have been immensely grateful for these last months, put out a call to our friends and neighbors, the pastors, reverends, and ministers you have heard from this evening, and you all showed up for us.  You brought your communities with you to mourn with us and to lend us your strength.  You lifted your voices in prayer alongside us just as we are all doing tonight.  And you stood beside us, reminding us that the Jewish community is not alone in the fight against anti-Semitism and hatred of all forms.

And then, something miraculous happened that afternoon: that part of my soul that had been beaten down was lifted up.  Each day in the morning, Jews bless God as the lifter of the fallen.  But when my soul was downtrodden, you lifted me.  I called out from the depths, I looked up wondering from where my help would come, and there you were, our community.  The prayers rising to the heavens, and ringing in my ears brought such comfort, and made me recognize that among the many things for which I am thankful, I am also thankful for America.  Though America, and we Americans, often fall short of our ideals, the times when we get it right emphasize what a gift this nation is and can be.  For helping me to feel this, and for healing my soul, I thank you as well.

It is the premise and the promise of America that neighbors ought to be of different backgrounds, and that those neighbors can and should come together in times of hardship and struggle, as well as times of celebration.  It is in the premise and the promise of America that people of different faiths come together in our schools, in our armed services, and in our businesses, and that those differences don’t alienate us from each other, but rather enrich us.  It is the premise and the promise of America that the differences don’t matter, that above all else, we are all Americans.  As an immigrant myself, it is the concept of “E pluribus Unum,” “out of many, one,” that makes America wonderful.  It is up to all of us to remember that.  When we gathered together at B’nai Torah, I was reminded of that truth about us and about our nation.  And this evening only solidifies what I was reminded of those weeks ago.

Tomorrow, as you take a moment around your tables, consider the gratitude we ought to show to the promise of this nation, which has afforded all of us opportunities unlike any other place on earth.  When we, or our parents, or grandparents, or however far back, made our way to these shores, it was because this nation promised us that what unites us is stronger than what differentiates us.  Humans are imperfect and fallible.  And this nation is run by humans, so this nation will always be a work in progress, as we humans are always a work in progress.  But the promise of America, that individuals can come together, can help one another, can care for each other, can look out for the other, that promise endures.  I am thankful for that promise, and urge us all to recognize that tomorrow.

But, for that promise to endure, we all have to do more.  We see the divide growing between us and our neighbors.  We see the rancor, built of anonymity, which can only be resolved by community building.  And so, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’m going to preach to the clergy.  We have to do more together.  We have to come together more than once per year, or in the wake of tragedy.  If we come together, and build relationships, then our houses of worship can begin to come together.  If our houses of worship come together, the fabric of our community is strengthened, we become neighbors instead of strangers.  When we become neighbors, we look out for each other.  And when we look out for each other, we strengthen the promise of America.  And when that promise is strengthened, we all have much more to be thankful for.  Let us therefore work together to bring this clergy council into a new generation.  One which seeks to meet regularly, to understand what’s happening in our town, and in our neighborhoods.  Let us become true friends, bound by faith, even as our faiths differ.  Let our congregations’ doors be open to each other, such that when, God forbid, another tragedy strikes, we do not show up to support strangers or even neighbors, no we show up to support our friends. 

What am I thankful for?  I am thankful for you.  I’m thankful for this community, and I am thankful for the opportunities this nation allows us to meet and become friends with people of all faiths and backgrounds.  Out of the many traditions in this room, we are indeed one on this night.  Let us continue that work tomorrow, and the next day.

I’d like to close with a prayer for Thanksgiving:

Sing Hallelujah - a poem for Thanksgiving
By Stacey Robinson

Sing praise and
shout hallelujah,
as bullets sing their siren song
and death is never far;
and sing praise
while fires rage and
children fall silent
behind barbed wire fences, and
children fall silent
with bellies distended, and
children fall silent
as their homes are devoured,
and they race against monsters and time.
Sing praise, for the monsters are winning.

Free the captive.
Feed the hungry.
Give shelter to those in need.
This is my song,
this praises my name -
Be kind.
Work for peace.
Hope is an action.
Pray with your feet.
Lift your eyes and see God
In the eyes of the other.

All the earth is holy ground.
The bush burns,
do you not see?
Open your eyes -
there are such wonders!
Open your heart -
there is such love!
Sing hallelujah!

This is my bounty.
This the glory.
For this we give thanks.

For the richness of life,
And the jagged edges that cut
and draw blood,
And the beauty
In the sound of rain
and silence,

We give thanks.

For the Creator of eternity
and time,
Who calls to us in darkness
and light,
In our hunger
And our want,

We give thanks.

For the fullness,
For the stones that bite
And the bedrock upon which we stand,
For the hands that lift us,
And the song that fills us

We give thanks.

For our breath,
For our bodies
For the grace of  healing,
And the blessing of light,
So that we can taste the sweet,
The sharp,
The weary,
Holiness of this day
Sing hallelujah
And give thanks.

May we all have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Yom Kippur Morning 5779 - A New Era of Accountability

It happened once that a group of friends were traveling on a train. They were college students, and they were coming home for the High Holy Days. They all went to the same synagogue, so when they saw each other in the station, they decided to sit together. And of course, the minute the train started moving, so did their mouths.[1]

"I heard we are getting a new rabbi!" One of them started.

"I wonder what she's like!" Another said.

"Is she married?"

"Does she have kids?"

"What does she look like?"

"Where did she come from?"

"I wonder if she can sing."

"I wonder what kind of sermons she'll give."

"I wonder what she'll wear on the bimah. We've never had a woman rabbi before."

This went on for a good half an hour. They knew nothing about the new rabbi, so they could only ask questions and guess at the answers. By the time the train stopped at the next station, they were almost out of questions to ask and guesses to make.

At that next station, a young woman got on the train. She wasn't pretty or ugly. She wasn't tall or short. She wasn't fat or thin. She wasn't dressed in a particularly interesting way. In fact, they wouldn't even have noticed her except for one thing:  she was wearing the ugliest shoes they had ever seen.

Now, a lot of people wear ugly shoes when they are traveling. Most of the young people themselves were wearing comfy old sneakers or cheap plastic flip-flops. But these shoes were something different.

The shoes were SO ugly, in fact, that there was a full minute of silence in the train car while they looked at the shoes and thought about what they would say first.

They started with the obvious. "Those are the ugliest shoes I've ever seen."

"Really! What was she thinking?"

"What a horrible color!"

"The pattern makes me dizzy!"

"And they don't even match!"

"What is she, a clown?"

"Ugh, even clowns have better taste."

Now, as usual when people are talking about someone on a train, they don't always remember to be quiet. The woman's ears perked up, like they sometimes do when someone is talking about you, and she stared in their direction, looking hurt.

"Well," one of them whispered. "It’s her fault for wearing such ugly shoes."

"Really," another whispered, "We're doing her a favor. She should know never to wear those shoes again!"

Soon the train came to a stop. The woman in the ugly shoes got off and so did the rest of the people. They didn't think much about what they had done. Their parents picked them up and they went home to change for Rosh Hashana services.

The service began, and the new rabbi stepped up to greet the congregation. She wasn't pretty or ugly. She wasn't tall or short. She wasn't fat or thin. And since she was wearing a robe, they couldn't tell if she was dressed in any remarkable way. But she did look kind of familiar...

And then, all at once, they saw them. Peeking out from beneath her robe were the ugliest shoes they had ever seen. The ugly shoes they had been making fun of for the entire train ride home.

They didn't find out if the new rabbi could sing or what kind of sermons the new rabbi would give. They were so embarrassed and ashamed that they couldn't listen or concentrate. But this was the High Holy Days. They knew what they had to do. They had to apologize to the rabbi.

After services, they waited at the rabbi's office. Each of them nudged the other, saying, "You tell her. No you tell her" until at last one of them stepped forward.

"Rabbi, we're so sorry we made fun of your shoes. Please forgive us."

The rabbi looked at them. "It is nice of you to apologize. But I can't forgive you."

"But really!" One of them said. "We didn't mean it. Your shoes are lovely. Such bright colors, such a pretty pattern."

The rabbi just looked at them. "It is nice of you to apologize. But I can't forgive you."

The next day, they all came back with flowers, the same colors as the rabbi's shoes. "We're so sorry. Please forgive us."

The rabbi just looked at them. "It is nice of you to apologize. But I can't forgive you."

The day after that, they came with a box full of all their old shoes. "We're going to make up for what we did by giving all of our old shoes to charity. Please forgive us."

The rabbi just looked at them. "It is nice of you to apologize. It's nice of you to give shoes to charity. But I can't forgive you."

This went on for days, each day of the Ten Days of Repentance, in fact.  The college kids would come back and think of a new way of apologizing. And each time, the rabbi would say, "It's nice of you to apologize. But I can't forgive you."

Finally, on the afternoon before Kol Nidre, the college kids came back and said, "Rabbi, it is almost Yom Kippur. This is THE day of forgiveness. Why won't you forgive us?"

The rabbi said, "It's not that I don't believe you are sorry. It's not that you don't deserve to be forgiven. It's just that, I'm not the one who can forgive you. I'm the rabbi. You didn't make fun of the rabbi. You made fun of a woman on a train, when you didn't know who she was. You didn't feel bad about your words then. It was only when you found out who I was that you were sorry. Her feelings were hurt, not mine. You have to apologize to her!"

Apology, repentance, these fill our minds on Yom Kippur.  Having concluded our confessionals, we move into the afternoon of the day, as the hunger pangs begin to gnaw at our insides, cognizant that there is still time to apologize.  There is still time. The gates are open. 

The rabbi of our story seeks to hold the young people in her congregation accountable for their words and their actions.  And, though the group of college students know that they have erred, they cannot go back and apologize, for they are accountable not to the Rabbi, but to a woman they didn’t know, a woman they judged and insulted, that woman with the ugly shoes.  The young people learn that they are accountable for their words and deeds whether or not someone is listening or paying attention.

We are in a new era of accountability, fraught with complexity as we try to balance the need to finally hold many accountable for their words, deeds, and actions while ensuring that due process and rights of the accused are maintained.  But, there is no question that this era of accountability is a positive for our communities, our nation, and for the world. 

This new era began, some would say, with the publishing of articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker, highlighting accusations of the abuses many women faced at the “hands” of Harvey Weinstein.  His power and prestige in the entertainment world meant that many had known about it, and had whispered about it for years.  Some worked behind the scenes to keep others safe.  Others enabled the behavior by looking away, by weakness of will, by fear of repercussion.  As a result of this, and what some call the Weinstein effect, the #metoo movement came to be, first on Twitter and other social media outlets.  Women in this country, and other countries all over the world, stood up to tell their stories of harassment, abuse, and worse.  After months, years, or for some, decades, thanks to a newfound #metoo community, and a sense that others were finally willing to listen and believe, many women and men spoke up, holding their abusers accountable, shining a light on their behavior, and working to ensure that it would not happen again.

Weinstein was held accountable, and many of his terrible actions were brought to light. He no longer has his work or many of his friends.  Though a trial is still to come, the sheer number of accusations is hard to discount, and the stories told by the women who found themselves on the receiving end of his abuse of power are difficult to brush off.  He’s got enough money, and he will live comfortably even if he never works again, but he has, at least for now, been shunned by his community and his company, feeling the weight of accountability.

The first articles last year, on the heels of the trials of Bill Cosby, and leading up to the most recent big name to be accused, Les Moonves of CBS, opened the eyes of the many of us to what too many women and men already knew: no one was holding the powerful, primarily men, accountable for their abusive and exploitative actions.  The power dynamics at play prevented it.  The society we live in and the culture of Hollywood, the boardroom, and even religious institutions, prevented it, but no longer.  While too late for many, #metoo is a mirror for our society, reflecting how we are all accountable for the way we treat each other, and for how power and sex are used as weapons of control.

The original choice for the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading by the rabbis of old was not the Holiness Code we will hear today, which advises us to be holy as God is holy.  Rather, the original reading comes one chapter earlier in Leviticus, which advises us about illicit sexual relationships, detailing which relationships God permits and which God does not.  We are rightfully uncomfortable with this section because our society has evolved enough to recognize that not all which the Bible considers abhorrent is actually so.  But if we take a step back and consider the larger theme rather than the specific prohibitions, we sense that the rabbis recognized that relationships require accountability.  Relationships, especially ones involving intimacy, require boundaries.  Not every relationship is healthy, or consensual, Leviticus tells us.

The purpose of including this chapter of Torah, about the accountability we have to our partners and to our families fits in with this day, for this day, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, is about our accountability in all aspects of our lives.  We remind ourselves over and over, as thirst parches our throats, and our heads ache from lack of caffeine, that we are accountable, that we are held accountable, and that we ought to hold others accountable, as well, for the wrongs they commit.  And yet, there is room for forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a divine quality, but before apology and forgiveness are reached, there must be accountability.

Teshuvah is, in essence, a recognition that we are accountable for our actions.  We list the many sins we have committed to tell God that we are holding ourselves accountable for where we missed the mark, for where we overstepped, for where we spoke out of turn.  We hold ourselves accountable for where our thoughts turned to cynicism, to lust for power, to misogyny, to anger.  We hold ourselves accountable for when we were too lazy to do the right thing, though we knew what it was, too meek to speak out, though we knew we should.  We hold ourselves accountable for where we failed to further the cause of justice and of peace, for where we failed to be allies.  For each of these sins, and the many more enumerated in our al chets, we stand before God saying that we recognize our errors, and that we hold ourselves accountable for them.

This era of accountability, however, ought to cause us to seek out where else we might hold ourselves and others accountable.  Accountability does not stop and should not stop with our personal actions.  In addition to holding ourselves accountable to God, let this new era of accountability push us to seek accountability in all areas of our lives.  Our confessionals are in the plural because we are all accountable, as much as we are each individually accountable.

Let us hold ourselves accountable to our community.  A congregation, especially a newly merged and growing congregation cannot work without everyone’s help.  If we value this congregation, and we value what it provides for our lives and our families, we have to put in the work, and not just between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, but between Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah!

What are the ways that in the last year we missed the mark in terms of how we supported our house of worship?  Finances are only one means of contributions.  A community requires that we hold each other accountable to do what is best for the community, even if it might not be what we prefer.  Holding ourselves accountable means we find ways to use our talents to help whenever and wherever we can.  So many put in a lot of time already, and for that we are grateful.  Imagine what a difference it would make if instead of a handful of folks stepping up time and again, we had a large corps of volunteers willing to help at an event, willing to sit on a committee, willing to work together to create a thriving community with a culture of excellence.

What could we create if we held ourselves accountable to be with each other when we mourn and when we celebrate?  What kind of community would we have if we started treating our B’nai Mitzvah like communal events rather than a private family event, if we all tried to attend the shivah at the home of a fellow congregant we might not know?  What we would see is that by holding ourselves accountable to our community, our community becomes accountable to us, to be with us in our joy, to sit alongside us in our sorrow.  Our community would be with us because we were with our community.

We would be living the words of Hillel, who reminds us not to separate ourselves from the community.[2]  When we actively include ourselves into the community, we hold ourselves accountable and we establish new communal norms of behavior that benefit everyone and bring us closer together.

We ought to also remember to hold ourselves accountable to the next generation.  We are working on fulfilling the vision of a regional Reform congregation for the future generations, but what kind of world do we want to live in, and what kind of world do we want to leave behind?  If we believe in l’dor vador, passing down of traditions from generation to generation, and if we live by it as a principle, it is up to us to ensure not just that there is a next generation, but that the world we leave them is better than the one we were handed.  By recognizing that our actions and our work have lasting impacts, how are we working to make the world as we would like it to see?

What are we doing to combat climate change, as storms rage bigger and more destructive each year?  What are we doing to combat the scourge of gun violence, so rampant in our nation?  What are we doing to support the youth of today, who are speaking up in record numbers against gun policies that keep their lives in danger, and our lives in danger?  How are we working to build a world where differences are appreciated, respected, celebrated and do not become the source of division?

The answers to all of these questions require holding ourselves accountable for our actions and their effects.  But there is only so much each of us can do alone.

We also must hold our elected leaders accountable.  Elections have consequences, and no matter which box we might check, or which bubble we fill in, their purpose is to hold our leaders accountable.  This year, in advance of the upcoming midterm elections, the Reform Movement and the Religious Action Center have announced a civic engagement campaign.  This campaign seeks not to sway any outcome, but to encourage voter participation, with the goal of registering and encouraging everyone to vote as a part of working toward every eligible member of every Reform congregation voting in the November elections, “As Reform Jews, each person is an agent of change. Our Movement has long been committed to protecting and elevating the cornerstone of our democracy: the right to vote.”[3] 

Our Social Action committee has taken up this charge, and has already held voter registration drives in conjunction with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, who will also be here registering people to vote at Bingo in the next few weeks. We can help you, too, if you’re not registered to vote.  Our votes are our voice, and if we are to hold our leaders accountable, we must speak up and use them.  Our Social Action committee will be letting us know about candidate forums and deadlines for registration, all in an effort to bring elections back to what they were always supposed to do, hold leaders accountable, for the good they do as well as the bad.

We’re just 10 days into this New Year.  There is so much potential for what can be accomplished in the days and months ahead.  Likewise, we are only just beginning to understand this new era we are living in.  Let us welcome this new era of accountability.  Let it usher in a time of tremendous growth for us as individuals, as a community, and as a society.  Let every voice add to the chorus demanding accountability, helping us to live in a community we are proud to pass on to the next generation and a world we leave better than we found. 

May we all be inscribed for good and blessing in the book of life.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

[1] With Gratitude to Rabbi Leah Berkowitz for this rendition of The Rabbi's Ugly Shoes--A Children's Story September 11, 2009 LRB JRC based on a story by A.J. Heschel about Rabbi Chaim Soleviechik of Brisk (Dosick, p. 140).
[2] Avot 2:4

Kol Nidre 5779 - Emet

In the attic of the Altneu Shul, the old/new synagogue in the Jewish quarter of Prague, rest the remains of a creature of legend, giant, foreboding, formed of clay: the famous Golem.[1]  The creature was created out of necessity, by the chief rabbi of that old city, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal.  His father’s name, Bezalel, perhaps hinting at his creative prowess, named for the chief Israelite builder in the Torah.

Prague at that time was a city of violent hatreds between the different groups, and the Jews were not spared.  Another blood libel and more false accusations and scapegoating all lead to a feeling of unease and impending danger among the Jewish residents, and their rabbi decided that something had to be done about it.  And so he and his son-in-law snuck out of the Ghetto, and under the dark of night formed a creature out of clay hauled from the banks of the river, and named it Golem, from the word in the psalms meaning shapeless, describing humanity before creation.

After fashioning and forming it into a human likeness, the rabbi and his son-in-law began to intone words of prayer, spells really, from the Kabbalistic—the mystical—tradition, seeking to breathe life into the nostrils of the beast.  But the creature did not move, did not breathe, until finally, the rabbi knelt down beside it, and carved into the wide forehead of clay three Hebrew letters.  Aleph, Mem, Tav.  The word: Emet.  Truth.

No sooner did the rabbi finish the final letter than the creature sprang to life, breathing heavily.  The rabbi commanded the Golem to awaken and instructed the creature that its one purpose was to protect the Jews, to guard the Ghetto at night, and to find those placing false evidence against the Jewish community.  The creature of truth was to ferret out the lies.  By day, Golem was instructed to help out around the synagogue, and if anyone asked, his name would be Joseph.

The rabbi, however, could not anticipate that as anger against the Golem grew from those outside the Jewish community, so too did the Golem grow, until it was almost too big for the rabbi to handle.  Golem could swat away an angry mob with his bare hand.  But, the result was unfortunately more vitriol, not more peace.

The Emperor, seeing what was happening, summoned the rabbi to him, and demanded to know when this might stop, when the monster might no longer persist, as the people were frightened.  “This stops when the Jews are no longer in danger,” answered the rabbi.  With that, the Emperor guaranteed the Jews’ safety and commanded the rabbi to destroy the monster.

The rabbi agreed but said that if the Jews were threatened again, Golem would return, and even stronger.

The rabbi went to find the Golem and came upon him in the cemetery reading the many tombstones.  “Joseph.  The Jews are safe now.  It is time to return you to the earth from which you were born.”

“But I don’t want to,” Joseph replied.  “What if I don’t obey?”

“You have no choice.”  And with that, the rabbi reached up with his staff and quickly erased the first letter, the silent Aleph, from the Golem’s forehead.  With that, emet, truth, became met, death, and the Golem breathed no more.  Again a lump of clay.

The Golem, emblazoned with the word Truth, is set out to protect from the dangers and results of lies, the dangers of falsehoods, the dangers of alternative facts.  The Golem, emblazoned with the word truth like a crown, seeks out those who would cause harm by trafficking in stories created to enrage a populous, in fantasies of malfeasance constructed to elicit harm, and to divide the community.

Would that we had a Golem today!  Given the battering truth has taken, however, I fear that we’d all be in danger.
Much like the middle of the 16th century, when this version of the Golem story was written, truth is under assault in our society and our nation today.[2]  Our leaders and their surrogates are so brazen as to tell us that what we see with our own eyes and what we know to be reality is not so:  “3,000 people did not die in Puerto Rico.”

Truth has become relative. There is no longer a sense of shared reality.  We have lost the ability to live peacefully alongside one another because the world we live in has been divided into sides, each holding on to their own facts, even if those facts are not supported by evidence.  Feelings and opinions have taken the place of facts, statistics, and news.

This shift in our culture away from a shared sense of truth did not suddenly appear.  No, it is the unfortunate ends of a politics based on cynicism, greed, and the hunger for power.  There has been in the last generation an overextension of the recognition that people experience life in different ways.  It is important, probably even necessary, to understand how a person’s narrative relates to the truth.  And it is important to honor those narratives and the many stories of our families, friends, and neighbors.  But, extending this line of thought to say that everyone’s personal narrative is true and aligns with facts brings us to a dangerous point of relativism.  If every feeling and emotion is held as truth, and every story is equally true, then bigotry, hatred, and prejudice become valid expressions of a person’s identity, not something to be shunned or at least questioned.  Hannah Arendt would argue that it is the inability to distinguish between fact and fiction that lays the groundwork for the rise of totalitarianism.[3]  Truth, and the search for it, therefore, is a weapon, and perhaps the most important, of democracy. Truth is under constant assault, and it’s getting worse by the day.

Some of this truth decay[4] has to do with technology.  We have diversified how we get our information.  There are many options for news: in print, on TV or radio, and online.  We choose where we get our news, and often we choose a source based on what we already believe, confirming our biases and putting us into echo chambers.  The democratization of information can be an asset, allowing for more and varied voices to be heard and amplified, allowing for the panorama of America to be painted in more hues than ever before.  However, disparate mass media combined with immoral impulses has become a detriment to society rather than a benefit.  Lies have been weaponized to attack our sensibilities, our communities, and our nation.

On this day of confession, we are, at least partially, to blame.  Al chet shechatanu: We have, in the last decade, reprogrammed ourselves and our minds, thanks to the devices in our pockets.  We now expect immediate information and answers.  And no matter what we find when we search, we assume it to be true. 

Today, within milliseconds of asking, we have information shining brightly back at our faces, and we tend to trust that information, partially because it all looks the same.  But we don’t know or ask who put it there, or whether we should trust it.  We used to have to go to an index, look up a subject, then open a second book to find information.  Truth required curiosity.  Truth required effort and persistence.  Truth required experts in a field.  Truth required reasoned debate, objectivity, the scientific method.  Today, all that truth requires is that we ask Siri or Google and see what comes up on our small HD screens.  The convenience is intoxicating and addictive.  The immediacy of information has trumped vetting whether or not the information is true, factually accurate.  And, studies have shown that the first piece of information we receive is usually the one we will believe, whether it is true or not; and Google does not rank results based on accuracy.

*          *          *

The rabbis who composed Pirkei Avot, Chapters of the Fathers, were concerned with helping the people lead ethical lives, and they gathered their wisdom together.  In that famous tractate of Mishnah we read about what holds up our world.  We read at the end of Chapter 1: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: ‘On three things does the world stand: On justice, and on truth, and on peace,’ and then he quotes the prophet Zecharia: ‘As it is said (8:16): “Judge with truth, justice, and peace in your gates.’” [5] 

In his 18th century ethical text Mesilat Yesharim, The Path of the Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato takes the baton from the rabbis of Pirkei Avot.  He explains the importance of this teaching from Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel.  He writes: “Truth is one of the very foundations upon which the world stands.  As this is so, when you speak falsely, it is as if you are nudging at the world’s foundation.  Conversely, when you are careful about truth, you are likened to someone who maintains the world’s foundation.”[6]  Truth telling keeps the world upright. Lies cause the world to crumble if we are not careful.  It is only the truth, alongside justice and peace, which holds everything in balance.  Without truth, we shatter the underpinnings of creation.

The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat, shifts the focus of truth from the foundation of the world, to the foundation of God.  “The truth is God’s seal,” our sages teach us.  Luzzato elaborates that, “if God has chosen truth as God’s seal, its opposite must certainly be abominable to God.”[7]  God doesn’t just prefer truth; falseness and lies are an abomination to God.  Speaking truth is a Godly act.  Being truthful allows us to be like God, to emulate the divine!

When we chant from the Torah, we recite blessings composed by the ancient rabbis.  The blessing after the Torah reading refers to Torat Emet, a Torah of Truth, picking up on a verse from Malachi, one of the minor prophets of the Bible.  The Torah, as God’s word, is true, we remind ourselves.  When God speaks to us through our scriptures, we believe it. 

On these High Holy Days and our festivals, as we open the Holy Ark, containing the Torat Emet, the Torah of Truth, we announce that God is Rachum vechanun, erech apayim, v’rav chessed ve’emet: compassionate, gracious, endlessly patient, loving, and true.  Truth is not just in God’s words, but truth is an attribute of God, equal to God’s kindness and compassion.   

But what kind of truth are we talking about when we are asked to speak the truth like God?  As people of faith, how are we supposed to understand the concept of truth?  The word emet is used throughout our tradition.  What kind of truth does it describe?  Is it merely that which is, as professor Adele Berlin describes, whatever is authentic, valid, and trustworthy? [8]

Professor Baruch Schwartz of Hebrew University explains that there are two kinds of truth for people of faith: empirical and religious.  Empirical he says, “is obtainable…only through the scientific method…Religious truth pertains to that which is outside the realm of the empirical. It consists of the teachings accepted as normative by the community of believers with regard to God and what God expects of them.”[9]  We hold in our two hands, simultaneously, empirical truth and religious truth.  When we learn more about our world, the realm of religious truth shrinks.  When we experience the awe of God, however, it grows again.  As moderns, we are always working to find that balance between these two truths.

Are we supposed to understand Emet as empirical truth, based on science and evidence?  Or are we supposed to understand it as something else, referring to the more universal, ethical, and religious truths which cannot be codified and cannot necessarily be observed?  Maimonides would say both.  He teaches that truth is about two kinds of perfection: intellectual and ethical.[10] 

We might think that all references to truth in our tradition, in our scriptures and sacred texts, deal only with the notion of religious truths.  But the Torah gives space for the human search for empirical truths, truths beyond the religious and cultural understandings.  In Deuteronomy, no less than three times, the Torah advises that we search for truth.  In Chapter 13, relating to news about idol worshipers in a town, the Torah advises: “You shall enquire and search and interrogate thoroughly and behold if it is true, the fact is established…”[11]

Of these examples, Dr. Isaac Sassoon teaches: “In these scriptures, the Torah assumes that emet can be ascertained by means of human striving and, moreover, that humans are endowed with the capacity to distinguish emet from sheker (falsehood).  These verses… [allow] emet [to equal] empirical truth.”[12]  The Torah makes space for us to discover evidence.  The Torah makes space for us to find those truths which exist regardless of belief.  The Torah asks us to do the research, to find the facts, and then to make a decision based on the reality of the situation, not just based on an accusation or on hearsay.  The Torah knows that it cannot be the end all of our knowledge and that all the answers are not within.  There is truth to be discovered!

Because there are two kinds of truth, it is up to us to distinguish between them.  Because there are two kinds of truth, which we equally value, it is up to us as Jews in the 21st century not to allow them to be conflated.  We must be speakers of truth and know what kind of truth we are speaking.

But speaking truth is not the only divine quality we ought to emulate.  For God not only speaks the truth, God is a judge of truth.  Yom Kippur is a day which is filled with imagery pushing us and prompting us to ponder our mortality.  We plead with God over these 26 hours of fasting and soul-affliction to be inscribed into the Book of Life.  Kol Nidre is sung with an ark void of Torahs.  The ark in Hebrew is called the aron, and that word also means casket.  When we see the open and empty ark, we see our end, in the hopes that coming so close to our mortality, we might finally repent.  It is at the end that we learn that God is the judge of truth, as we recite the blessing Baruch Dayyan HaEmet, blessed is the judge of truth.

This blessing, recited upon hearing the news of a death, puts God into the position of judge and arbiter of our lives, able to see the truth of our actions and our intentions, no matter how we might try to falsify who we have been.  God sees the truth, and God judges based on that truth.  This is the entire purpose of Yom Kippur: to stand before God the judge, to lay out our truths to God, as if God didn’t already know them, to speak the hard words of confession before God, and to let God decide on our fates, on how we will make it through the New Year. 

Just as when we bless God as feeder of the hungry, we understand that as an internal call to feed the hungry in our midst, we must seek to emulate the God of dayyan haemet.  Just as when we bless God as redeemer of the captive, we understand that as an internal call to us to work to end oppression, and we must seek to emulate God as judge of truth.  We must seek out the truth and all make a commitment to do God’s work on Earth, each of us becoming dayyanei emet, judgers and arbiters of truth.  We must each become golems.  When truth is under such assault, being a judge of what is and is not true is a divine call, a divine action, and a divine imperative. 

This evening, we began our worship, after a few introductory prayers, with our Kol Nidre, so beautifully sung by our Cantor, choir, and musicians.  The text of this prayer is really a legal formula that seeks to prevent us from becoming speakers of falsehoods before God in the year ahead.  As Dara Horn puts it: Kol Nidre is “for the kind of vows one [makes] in complete desperation, when catastrophe or stupidity or some other smallness of the imagination [makes] life unbearable, when one [needs] to break the laws of the universe and [sees] no other way but to sign over a first-born child, or a first-true-love, or one’s ability to enjoy being alive.”[13]  We announce that any vow we might make to God, any promise we might make in a tight situation, isn’t really a promise.  We know that we won’t hold up our end of whatever vow we make before God.  By nullifying them in advance, we hold up the truth we know we will put aside in that moment of passion.  By nullifying our vows on this night, we prevent ourselves from being liars in God’s presence.  By this formula, we render ourselves truthful before God for the year ahead, from this Yom Kippur to the next.  But it only works between us and God. 

Every day of the year ahead, we ought to strive to speak the truth, to hold the world’s foundation firm.  Let us go into this year with Emet written on our souls if it cannot be written on our foreheads, such that we might do the hard work of seeking out truth in all its forms.  Let us make truth our seal, as it is God’s.  Let us be dayyanei haemet: arbiters of what is true and what is not. 

Our nation depends on it. 

Our faith demands it. 

G’mar chatimah tovah.

[1] Adapted from Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz’s version of this story in her sermon: “The Golem and Truth.”  Based on a retelling by David Wisniewski in Golem
[2] Much of this is inspired by Kakutani, Michiko The Death of Truth. 2018,Tim Duggan Books
[3] See Kakutani, pp. 11, 13
[4] Ibid.
[5] Avot 1:18
[6] Mesilat Yesharim, trans. By Ya’akov Feldman.
[7] Ibid.
[10] From Pirke Avot Commentary by Kravitz and Olitzky on Avot 1:18
[11] Deut 13:15
[13] Horn, Dara. Eternal Life. P. 50