Monday, September 27, 2010

Yom Kippur Yizkor sermon 5771/2010: "My Eulogy"

The old man asked me, “Will you do my eulogy?”
I don’t understand, I said.
“My eulogy?”  The old man asked again.  “When I’m gone.”
His eyes blinked from behind his glasses.
His neatly trimmed beard was gray, and he stood slightly stooped.
“Are you dying?” I asked.
“Not yet,” he said, grinning.
“Then why -
“Because I think you will be a good choice.  And I think, when the time comes, you will know what to say.”

This was a dialogue that took place between two men, one of whom was a rabbi.
But probably not the one you would guess.

I just read to you the opening words of Mitch Albom’s book, “Have a Little Faith,”
Published earlier this year.

And these words are a transcript of a conversation that Albom,
the best-selling author of “Tuesdays with Morrie” and other books,
had with his childhood rabbi in Cherry Hill, New Jersey,
Rabbi Albert Lewis of blessed memory.

Rabbi Lewis was a giant among contemporary rabbis.
There are actually a number of people in our community who knew him.
He retired after serving his congregation for over 40 years,
as it grew from just a few families to over one thousand.
And shortly after his retirement, Rabbi Lewis contacted his former student, Mitch Albom,
and made this unusual request.
“Will you do my eulogy when I’m gone?”

Well, Mitch Albom was certainly surprised and completely intimidated by this task.
While he had a strong Jewish upbringing, he had been very distant from Judaism since he graduated from high school.
But what ensued was a series of meetings between the author and the rabbi
over the course of the next eight years --
meetings ostensibly so that Albom could learn what he needed to learn about Rabbi Lewis’s life
so he could deliver an appropriate eulogy.
But, as Albom writes, “As is often the case with faith,
I thought I was being asked a favor,
when in fact I was being given one.”

Albom’s friends thought this was the most crazy and disturbing thing they had ever heard.
“You go to his house like he’s a normal person?”
“Aren’t you intimidated?”
“Does he make you pray while you’re there?”
“You actually talk about his eulogy?:  Isn’t that morbid?”

But, as Albom writes, the opportunity to have frank and direct conversations with someone about all those things you don’t discuss in polite company -
issues of faith, life mission, aging, illness, death -
was an extraordinarily powerful and liberating experience.
And presumably, this was exactly according to Rabbi Lewis’s plan.

Jewish tradition has a sneaky way of getting us to think about death
at moments when it would otherwise be the farthest thing from our minds.
The traditional text of the ketubah -
the marriage contract, signed on a day of maximum joy in a couple’s life -
includes a provision for what would happen upon the death of one of the partners.
When a baby is born, we tend to give the baby a name that echoes the names of previous generations, so the birth of a baby is often commemorated by focusing on prior deaths in the family.
Every single synagogue service includes the Mourners Kaddish - a memorial prayer and an opportunity to comfort mourners in our midst.
In a world in which we can shut out the news that we’re not interested in,
we can associate primarily with people of whatever age and life stage we choose,
where death tends to take place under sterile conditions in a hospital, rather than at home surrounded by family -
being part of a religious community is one of the few ways that people at EVERY life stage
are continually reminded of death in a concrete way.

In fact, this Jewish confrontation with death is one of the significant themes of the High Holidays,
and especially of Yom Kippur.
and in fact, this theme figures prominently in one of the most famous contemporary Jewish stories of spiritual awakening.

The story takes place in Germany, in 1913.
It’s a story about a university student in his mid-20’s named Franz.
Franz is Jewish - kind-of.  He had a Jewish upbringing,
but being Jewish has been of only marginal importance in his life.
Mostly because it was experienced as a kind of a barrier,
that could potentially make it harder for him to pursue a career, get a university appointment,
or to be regarded as an equal to all other Germans.
Many of Franz’s Jewish friends, actually, had converted to Christianity.
In the intellectual community of his university,
Christianity was presented as a dramatically more advanced religion than Judaism.
Trust me, there was no ‘Hillel Foundation’ at the University of Leipzig in those days;
No one to guide Jewish young adults to develop a positive relationship with Judaism.

Finally, Franz resolved to convert to Christianity.
But he was an intellectual, so he decided to convert to Christianity in a particularly thoughtful way.
He thought:  Jesus was Jewish -- so the most appropriate route into Christianity would be first to re-attach myself to my Jewish roots,
and then to embrace Christianity from within Judaism.
So even though it had been years since he had taken part in any Jewish ritual or holiday,
he decides:  the High HOlidays are coming up.  I will go to synagogue for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur,
and then - after Yom Kippur - I’ll convert to Christianity.
he writes home to his mom.  Mom, guess what?
I’m coming home for Rosh HaShanah.
Get me a ticket, because I’m coming to shul with you!
And his mother practically screams for joy.
and they go to Rosh haShanah services together
at the Reform synagogue in the city of Kassel, where he grew up.
Then, a couple of days later, mom asks him:
Tell me, Franz, you haven’t set foot in a synagogue since your bar mitzvah!
Don’t get me wrong!  I’m delighted!
But why the sudden change of heart?
And Franz patiently explains:  Well, you see, mom,
I decided to convert to Christianity,
and I thought I would convert to Christianity from within Judaism, like Jesus,
so I’m giving this Jewish thing one last hurrah,
and next week I’ll go for Yom Kippur, and then I’ll become a Christian.
and mom interrupts him and says:  What?!  Like hell you are!
Don’t you DARE come to synagogue to make a mockery of us!
I’m going to tell the ushers at our synagogue
that if you show up, they should throw you out!

Franz may or may not have realized that his mother’s anger was not primarily about theology,
but about the tragic relationship between Jews and Christians over the centuries.
From her perspective, Franz had decided to defect from the oppressed
and join the oppressors.

But Franz is thinking:  I can’t believe that the one time in my life when I really DO want to go to synagogue - they don’t even want me.
So Franz is forced to locate a different synagogue -
he goes to Berlin and finds a much more traditional synagogue than he had ever been to in his life.
And he goes there for Kol Nidrei -
and then he comes back for Yom Kippur day.
And what he experiences there -- changes his life forever.
Not long after Yom Kippur, he writesin a letter to a friend,
"After prolonged, and I believe thorough, self-examination,
I have reversed my decision. ....I will remain a Jew."

Some of you already know that Franz in this story is Franz Rosenzweig,
one of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century.
He retained a life-long admiration of Christianity,
but after his Yom Kippur experience, he knew that he would live his life as a Jew.
He never wrote about exactly what it was that he experienced in that synagogue that utterly transformed him.
Perhaps like most spiritual experiences, some element of it was ineffable - beyond words.
But we can guess what moved him, based on his passionate writings about Yom Kippur.
Franz Rosenzweig seemed to have been especially moved by the way that the people in that community
came face to face with their own deaths.
He would write about this as one of the central themes of Yom Kippur.
The people in that synagogue wearing white,
wearing the kittel that is modeled after the Jewish burial shroud,
even lying prostrate on the floor, as we will do shortly -
Rosenzweig described all this as a kind of rehearsal for death,
as a confrontation with mortality,
but done in such a way as to permit the worshippers
to go on living, maximally engaged in this world
while also looking ahead to the next world.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg details additional ways that Yom Kippur helps us to confront death.
The fearsome Unetaneh Tokef prayer, describing ‘who shall live and who shall die,
who shall live out his days and who shall not live out his days.
Fasting makes some of us look and feel like ghosts.
Even the Shema, which we will recite together at the very conclusion of Yom Kippur,
resembles the final words of the Vidui’, the death bed confession.

This confrontation with mortality may be one of the most important and powerful themes of Yom Kippur,
but that doesn’t mean that anyone actually wants to think about it.
We would take any opportunity to deny that death is something that is ultimately going to happen to us.

You know the story about the rabbi who in the middle of his Yizkor sermon on Yom Kippur,
pounds on the table and says ‘Wake up to the fact that
Every single person in this congregation, myself included, is going to die!”
And as he expected, everyone’s suddenly very alarmed,
except for one man in the 3rd row whose face breaks out into a broad smile.
And the rabbi is so shocked, he points to this man and says, ‘so why are you so amused?”
And the man shrugs his shoulders and answers, “Well I’m not from this congregation.  I’m just visiting my sister.”
(Have a Little Faith: A True Story, by Mitch Albom, p. 231, adapted.)

One of my colleagues has noticed that recently there has been a profound sociological shift in the American Jewish community. -
that it used to be that one of the things that a Jewish adult would naturally do
would be to make some kind of arrangements for his or her own burial -
whether in a family plot, or with one of the thousands of Jewish burial and benevolent societies that thrived in immigrant communities in the United States.
But today, he says, it is not uncommon  for there to be a mad dash immediately after death,
with the surviving relatives struggling, within 24 to 48 hours, to make all the decisions about burial location and rituals,
based on their ‘best guess’ of what the deceased would have wanted.
And my colleague suggests that this is because, for many of us,
that mad dash after death --
is actually easier than -- having a conversation with our loved ones about death.
And that’s a reality that he as a rabbi finds very disturbing.

There’s a precedent for this attitude in the Talmud -
this extreme fear of death that makes loved ones shudder at the thought of death
such that they refuse to even say the word.
This classic and disturbing story tells of the final days of Rabbi Judah the Prince,
Such an outstanding leader that -- when the Talmud simply refers to someone as ‘Rabbi,’ he’s the rabbi they’re talking about.
He was deathly ill, and his distraught followers made a prayer vigil around his bed
And they announced:  Anyone who tells us that Rabbi has died,
will be slain by the sword!
(In the world of pastoral care, we refer to that as ‘denial.’)
But it’s Rabbi’s maidservant who notices what the students are oblivious to:
that he’s suffering terribly,
and that he has made his peace with the end of his life.
First she prays that he die a speedy and painless death,
but to no avail.
then she takes bold and provocative action.
She throws a jug from the roof to the ground.  It smashes, making a loud sound
that startles the students, who momentarily stop praying -
and at that moment, Rabbi dies.

There are numerous ways to interpret this story.
But it’s clear who comes off looking good in the story -- the maidservant,
the caregiver, who has a greater understanding of what the patient is actually going through.
And it’s clear who comes off looking excessively personally needy in this story - the students,
who are so distraught by the approaching loss
and its effect upon THEM
that they can’t talk about it or think about it in anything resembling a realistic way.

Some of us read the article in the New Yorker last month by the physician and writer Atul Gawande about end-of-life medical care
that has quickly become a must-read for anyone involved in medical decision-making.

At one poignant point in the article, a physician who is herself a palliative care specialist
speaks with her father,
who is going to have serious surgery that has a chance of leaving him paralyzed.
Knowing that she will be his health care proxy, to make decisions in case he is incapacitated, she asks him directly - despite all of the difficulties and the awkwardness-
she asks him directly
to tell her what kind of medical interventions he would want.

She said, ‘I need to understand how much you’re willing to go through to have a shot at being alive and what level of being alive is tolerable to you.’
And her father thought for a moment and then responded,
‘Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV,
then I’m willing to stay alive. I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that.’

And she was surprised - she thought he would have made a different choice -
She never remembered him watching a football game on TV even once.
But she used his statement - about chocolate ice cream and watching football on TV -
to guide all her subsequent decision-making.
She would ask her father’s doctors about his chances of being able to do these things.
And as a result, she provided the doctors with medical decisions based on this criterion -
in the aftermath of the surgery, and then for the following ten years, whenever there was a need for a health care proxy.
And she says, she is so grateful that she got those instructions from her father.
She would never have wanted to do something that he would not have wanted -
not, God forbid, to keep her father alive if he didn’t want to be suffering,
and not, God forbid, to allow her father’s life to end if he would have preferred to stay alive despite the pain.
That conversation, awkward as it was, was a beautiful and sacred gift
from father to daughter, and from daughter to father --
just as hard and awkward conversations often make for the holiest of moments.
But how much better when those hard and awkward - and holy - conversations
take place earlier, under conditions of good health.
This is why – when I work with couples who are preparing to get married,
I give them a list of lots of difficult questions to ask each other –
Including questions about these hard issues, like health care, and death, and burial. 
Because the right time to have those conversations is not at the moment of serious illness.
And having a sacred conversation about those issues,
Early on, and in detail,
can help a couple to cement their spiritual bond.

Of course, I am leaving one important question unanswered.
What happened with Mitch Albom
and his eulogy for his Rabbi, Albert Lewis?
Well, in the year 2000, when he was first asked,
Mitch wondered how he could possibly eulogize Rabbi Lewis -
the man who himself had given thousands of eulogies throughout his lifetime..
Well, he had eight whole years to think about it.
Through numerous meetings, he amassed audio tapes, notes, photos,
newspaper clippings, the texts of Rabbi Lewis’s sermons,
all for the purpose of creating for him the most fitting eulogy.

And in the year 2008, Rabbi Albert Lewis died, at age 90.
And yes, Mitch Albom delivered the eulogy -
and he did not have to consult a single note, or photo, or newspaper clipping, or audio tape.
He learned something that all rabbis and clergypeople quickly learn -
that a eulogy is not like another journalistic assignment.
Because of the circumstances of his relationship with Rabbi Lewis -
because of the spiritual depth of their sacred conversations -
he had only to search his memories and open up his heart.
When he stopped speaking, there was not a dry eye in the synagogue.
As the old Jewish proverb says,
devarim ha-yotz’im min ha-lev nichnasim el halev.’
The Words that come from the heart
are the words that enter the heart.

But Mitch Albom’s eulogy did not quite compare with what came next.
One of Rabbi Lewis’s grandsons walked up to the bimah, holding a cassette tape,
Put it in the player, and pressed play.
And a familiar voice rang out over the loudspeakers, and it said,
“Hello my friends, this is the voice of your past rabbi speaking!”

Unbeknownst to anyone -- Rabbi Lewis had recorded a farewell message
shortly before his death - only his caretaker and companion knew about it -
and she delivered it to the synagogue on the day of the funeral.

And Rabbi Lewis spoke briefly, as if from the grave, for perhaps one minute.
He alluded to moments of special joy in his life,
as well as moments of terrible pain,
like the loss of his daughter at a very young age,
and how his faith and the strength of his family and community
had helped him to endure.
And he answered the two questions
he said he had been asked the most throughout his life.
One was, “Do you believe in God?” He said that of course he did.
The other question was, “What happens when we die?”
Does the soul have an existence that is separate from the body?
To which he answered:  “ My yes.
but friends, I'm sorry, now that I know, I can't even tell you.
You’ll have to find it out for yourselves.”
And the room dissolved in laughter.

Rabbi Lewis had given Mitch Albom the gift of gentle but frank conversations about the end of life.
And in an unusual and even playful way,
he gave that gift to his community,
by presenting death not as a word to be whispered, feared and avoided,
but as something to be approached with courage and confidence,
and even with a bit of laughter.
Not everyone faces death this way, and not everyone should.
Just as every life is unique, so is every death.  There is no ideal.
But we are wiser when we take the invitation that Jewish tradition offers us
To think about death from time to time, from year to year.
About how our life would be summed up.
About how we would want to be remembered.
Rabbi David Wolpe tells the story of a man at age 93
Who continues to be comforted by the consoling words that his mother had said to him
While lying on her deathbed, seventy years earlier:
“Do not be afraid.  It happens to everyone.”

And as the book of Psalms reminds us -
limnot yameinu ken hoda ’ - ve-navi levav chochma.
Teach us to count our days, teach us to regard our days are numbered -
then may we attain a heart of wisdom.

Let us now take a moment of silence as we call to mind the faces and voices of those whose memory we recall today during our Yizkor memorial prayers.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Whole-Broken-Shattered-Whole: An introduction to the Shofar

One long blast.
three short blasts.
nine very short blasts.
and again, one long blast.
Why do we blow the Shofar in this peculiar pattern?
There are pages and pages of traditional Jewish writings about ‘
why do we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.’

It’s an alarm to wake us to our task of repentance; it’s God’s coronation clarion;
it reminds us of Abraham’s sacrificial ram,
along with dozens of other explanations.
but none of these answer the question: What is the meaning of the blasts of the shofar?
Why that particular number of blasts, in that particular order, over and over again? When we blow the Shofar,

we blow it in patterns of 3 or 4 notes.
We start with a Tekiah - one long blast.

followd by Shevarim - a set of 3 small blasts / or Teruah - a set of 9 very short blasts -
or sometimes both - 3 blasts followed by 9 blasts.
And then to round out the pattern,
we have Tekiah - one long blast again.
It was the 17th c master, the Shnei Luhot Habrit [Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz],
who first interpreted these blasts
as corresponding to the stages in the process of teshuvah - repentance.
Tekiah - we start out whole.

Shevarim - we break ourselves down.
Teruah - sometimes we are utterly shattered.
And Tekiah - we emerge whole again.
But another hasidic master, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum,
described these three shofar calls slightly differently:
Tekiah - we are born whole and we strive to live with integrity.

Shevarim Teruah: our life is filled with errors, mistakes, actions we regret.
We are broken and shattered.
But then we have tekiah again - we can correct our mistakes and emerge whole again.

And the 20th century mystic and religious Zionist known as Rav Kook

gives yet a third explanation
of this pattern of shofar blasts:
Tekiah - the world was created complete.
Shevarim - human beings, and natural forces, have broken and shattered the world.
Teruah - sometimes it seems broken beyond repair.
But- Tekiah - wtih God’s help, we can rebuild it again and make it whole.
So it occurs to me: this is a new Jewish Rosh HaShanah parlor game.
Anyone can play.
Here’s one:
Tekiah - In 1905, a thriving synagogue was founded in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Shevarim - But by the 1930’s, the Jewish population started to decline.
The remaining synagogues in town start merging with each other.
The synagogue is a shadow of its former self.
Teruah - by the 1970’s, there are no more than 50 Jewish individuals living in

the building is in a shambles,
and any rational observer would tell you that this Jewish community has absolutely no future.
but then - Tekiah -- younger Jews move into the area, and steadily, over the last 30 years,
the United Synagogue of Hoboken revives itself beyond its founders’ wildest dreams.
Or here’s another one:
Tekiah - last week I met with a man who told me about his childhood, his parents, and the wholeness and wholesomeness of his early life.
Shevarim - Teruah - he fell into a life of alcohol and drugs.
his life became, as they say, unmanageable.

Tekiah - through AA and other programs, this year he celebrated 18 years of sobriety,
sponsors others, and lives a life that is whole once more.
How about this one:
Tekiah - A beautiful family is proudly led by a wise and compassionate matriarch.
Shevarim teruah: suddenly, at too young an age, she is stricken with a devastating illness, that ultimately takes her life. her family is shattered - they cannot imagine rebuilding and going on without her.
Tekiah: it’s now a year later. their life is different now than it was before,

they remain devastated by the loss,
but they have found ways to keep her memory alive,
to perpetuate her important values,
to find wholeness in their own lives,,
and to achieve a wholeness even in her absence that they never imagined they would be able to achieve.
For some of us, it may feel that that final tekiah is never going to come.
Tekiah - a man and woman in their 50’s, never before married,
meet, fall in love, get married, and buy the house of their dreams.
Shevarim Teruah: The economy is in utter disaster. Lost jobs. Lost health insurance.
And now they’re just hoping and praying that the powers that be will see fit to adjust the terms of their mortgage.
And they’re still waiting for that final tekiah.
Or Tekiah - a couple has a beautiful baby boy - their first born child..
Shevarim Teruah: within a few days, they get the diagnosis from the doctor,
that tells them that their life with this new child will likely be more complicated,
more challenging than they had assumed.
They’re rejoicing in the birth of their son, but also mourning the loss of some of the dreams and assumptions that they had about parenthood.
They are confident that that tekiah will come, that point when once again they will feel whole,
but it hasn’t happened yet, and sometimes they can’t believe it ever will come.
But seen this way, blowing the shofar on rosh haShanah
is the most radical act of faith --
not faith that everything always turns out as we wish, because it won’t,
but faith that our stories can have an Act III in which we can achieve wholeness again.
A faith that Shevarim and Teruah are followed by Tekiah -
and sometimes, even, followed by Tekiah Gedolah.
And so, as we listen to the sounds of the Shofar today,
as we listen to each pattern of wholeness, brokenness, wholeness,
let’s focus on the wholeness and brokenness of some aspect of our lives and our world.
And let our shofar blasts be our prayer
that, for all of us, our broken notes - our sheveraim and teruah -
always be followed by a whole note, a tekiah -
and ultimately - even a tekiah gedolah.

2nd day Rosh HaShanah sermon 5771/2010: "Spirituality of Food"

Art Linkletter, who died earlier this year at age 97, was the host of various TV shows that interviewed kids and got them to say “the darndest things.”  I have a friend and colleague whose college roommate was chosen to be on this show when he was a little boy in the early 1960’s.  This was a big deal for his whole family.  His siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, and his grandparents, were all watching.

I should add that this boy’s family was Jewish.  As was the case with many families of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the grandparents remained extremely traditional -- but the boy’s parents’ generation, less so.
Art Linkletter comes up to the boy and says, “What is your favorite food?”
The boy thinks for a moment, and then says, loud and clear on national television, “Bacon.”

And apparently you should have seen the eye contact between the grandparents and the parents immediately after they saw that, because until that very moment, the boy’s grandparents thought the parents were still keeping kosher.
In that story, what are the Jewish traditions about food?  An outmoded set of rituals that you do to placate the older generation, practices that real Americans have dispensed with already. If you retain them, it’s only to spare yourself the embarrassment of stories like the one I just told.

But here’s another Jewish food story.

Once, an Orthodox rabbi, a Conservative rabbi, a Reconstructionist rabbi, and a Reform rabbi
travel to India together.  It sounds like a set-up for a joke - except that it really happened.  This was one of the most celebrated interreligious dialogue events, and the subject of a now-classic book, The Jew in the Lotus, by Rodger Kamenetz. 
It all happened almost exactly 20 years ago.  The Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism,
noted that his community was having difficulty raising their children to treasure their identity,
especially since so much of the Tibetan Buddhist community was in exile from their homeland of Tibet.  One of his followers suggested:  “If you’re concerned about how to transmit culture and heritage and identity, even in exile, you should really chat with the Jews, who have managed to do it for 2000 years.”

The Dalai Lama was intrigued, and he encouraged a diverse group of Jewish leaders, including several rabbis, to travel to Dharamsala in India, where he lives, to meet with him and his community.  He asked them various questions about what has been the secret of the survival of the Jewish people for two thousand years.  Was there anything that his community to do to emulate the success of the Jewish people?

Early on in the trip, the rabbinic participants concluded a meal in India and then recited the birkat ha-mazon, the blessing after meals, as is natural for a group of observant Jews.  One of the participants,  Rabbi Joy Levitt (today the director of the JCC of Manhattan), noted the utter surprise of the Dalai Lama and his followers.
What is that, the Tibetans asked.
A prayer of thanksgiving after food.

What does it say?
Well, it starts out thanking God for the gift of food, then goes on to thank God for our connection to the earth, to the land of Israel, to the city of Jerusalem.

And the Buddhists asked, incredulously, ‘And you say this prayer every day?”

They answered: Different Jews may recite it with different frequencies, but traditionally it’s recited after every meal, approximately 2-3 times a day.

Immediately when the Dalai Lama heard about this, he instructed two young Tibetan monks
to compose a similar prayer to help Tibetan Buddhists around the world to focus their attention to Tibet at the conclusion of every meal.

Rabbi Levitt says: “I was stunned by this new light cast on this very familiar prayer.
I have recited Birkat Hamazon for my entire life - and yet had never really grasped its role in preserving the Zionist dream in the hearts and minds of Jews throughout the generations. Since my return from India, I have never recited those words without thinking both of the Tibetans and of my deep longing for Zion at peace.”

Our community learned this story from the Jewish environmental activist Nigel Savage, when he visited our community in January.  The story highlights one of the greatest things about interfaith dialogue, which is that when you look at your religious tradition through the eyes of someone else, you come to see extraordinary aspects of your own religious tradition that you never noticed before.
Additionally:  it is nice to see that Judaism and Buddhism have a kind of a symbiotic relationship.  Judaism has learned so much from Buddhism about Buddhism’s specialties -
like meditation, like having an embodied spirituality through physical practices like yoga, and cultivating awareness of the present moment.  And Judaism has been able to help out Buddhism with Judaism’s area of spiritual expertise.  And what is Judaism’s area of spiritual expertise?
Yes... the spirituality of food.

You think I’m kidding?   Just start by thinking about the Jewish holidays.  From hamentaschen, to apples and honey, to latkes, to figs and carob, each holiday has some special food and some special food practice.  There are days like Shabbat when you’re supposed to invite people to eat in your home, days like Sukkot when you’re supposed to eat, not inside, but OUTSIDE your home, and then days like Purim when you’re supposed to send your food out so that it can be eaten in other people’s homes in your absence.  There are days like Shabbat and other holidays when Jews are encouraged to drink wine, and days like the first 9 days of the month of Av when Jews are supposed to avoid wine.  There are days like Shabbat when we can eat but not cook,
and days like Tisha B’Av when we can cook, but not eat. On Passover we’re supposed to play with our food - making outlandish concoctions of bitter and sweet that no one would ever eat of their own volition.  Actually, Passover, with all its foods to be avoided, is in a category by itself.
Like “Iron Chef” but in reverse.  And on Yom Kippur we’re not supposed to eat at all (though many of us spend that entire day thinking about food all the time).  It’s a mitzvah to serve and eat food at a bris or a wedding. It’s a mitzvah to bring food to a shiva house.  There are blessings before food, and after food, that differ based on what the ingredients of the food are: if it grows in the ground, if it grows on trees, if it’s one of 7 special kinds of produce from the land of Israel.
And believe it or not, with all of this list so far, I actually haven’t yet mentioned the system of kashrut - which prohibits certain foods entirely, which prohibits eating certain foods in combination, and which requires that many foods, actually all meat, be prepared in particular ways.  All of this means that observant Jews have to be pretty aware of exactly what they are eating, and when, and what the ingredients are. Yes, every culture has its special foods - but not quite like THIS. And every religion has some kind of ritual surrounding food - but again, not quite to this degree.

But very few people look at this entire system and see it for what it is - reframing the act of eating so it is not a mere biological function, and not merely a social and recreational activity,
but a spiritual practice. An act of holiness.
It was a preschool parent who first pointed out to me that someone who comes to a Jewish preschool, watching the prayers that were recited, how holidays were celebrated, and the content of many of the songs, would quickly get the impression that Judaism really is all about food.
It’s only after they become adults that they realize that it’s really partially true. In fact, the 18th c. Eastern European mystical sage known as the Darche Tzedek went so far as to say: “The main service of God is through eating…and the tzadikim, the righteous ones, meditate as they eat, in love and fear of God. They eat like they are praying.”

In fact, this is exactly how we might describe what is most distinctive about a Jewish spiritual approach to the world.  Jewish ritual specializes in making each moment special, in sanctifying mundane and everyday actions.  And what could be more mundane and everyday than the act of eating?

For each of the past 13 years, I have had the opportunity to teach introductory classes in Judaism for kids and adults.  Without fail, the one topic that is hardest for people to connect with
is kashrut -- the Jewish dietary laws.  Not surprisingly. For someone who didn’t grow up with them, they seem outlandish, they seem like the very most irrelevant part of Judaism.  And many people from this community have told me so.  In all these years, I have not broached the subject on the High Holidays.

But as time goes on, I have a feeling that the food-oriented dimension of Judaism is being catapulted into the category of the MOST contemporary and MOST relevant facets of Judaism.
We’re increasingly realizing that our relationship with food is a most important facet of our relationship with the earth and all its inhabitants.  And a relationship with food holds one of the keys to a Jewish understanding of our relationship with God and the world.

It has often been my practice to choose a particular mitzvah, or set of mitzvot, to highlight on the 2nd day of Rosh haShanah, My goal today is not to get anyone to suddenly start keeping kosher.
But if kashrut is utterly distant and irrelevant to you, perhaps I can shed some light on why some people, including me, find it to be valuable. And if Kashrut is significant in your life, perhaps I can give you some new ways to think about it, and to articulate it to the people who will inevitably ask you why you’re still living in the 18th century.

When I started teaching about Kashrut, often I would be asked, “How could your food choices POSSIBLY be connected to ethics and spirituality?”  Interestingly, I don’t get that particular question so much anymore.  Because today it’s obvious that food is connected to ethics and spirituality.

A fundamental message of kashrut is that different food choices carry different ethical implications. Twenty years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner said it very bluntly when he boiled the essence of Kashrut down to one principle:  “Eating meat is a moral compromise. There is a difference between eating a hamburger and eating a bowl of cereal.” And he correctly noted that Kashrut is not really about food - Kashrut is about meat:  what kinds can be eaten, how it is to be slaughtered, how it is to be prepared, and what it is to be served with and not served with, because, of all foods, meat is what uniquely requires the taking of a life.

But today we would probably expand upon Rabbi Kushner’s statement.  Writers like Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and others remind us that there are lots of moral compromises involved in the act of eating that we might not even have been aware of. Sure, eating a hamburger involves the taking of a life, and eating a bowl of cereal doesn’t.  But suppose this hamburger came from the meat of a calf that was allowed to run free on the farm throughout its life, without injections of hormones or other interventions, fed healthy feed, and then slaughtered in a painless manner?  And suppose the grain for this bowl of cereal was sprayed with potentially dangerous pesticides, harvested using exploited foreign labor, and then sold by a company with a terrible record of treating its employees?  Now which one is the greater moral compromise? It’s harder to tell, isn’t it?  If we take the themes of kashrut to heart, we should try to figure it out – and to minimize the inevitable ethical compromises we make when we eat.
The last couple of years have highlighted ethical lapses in food production - especially the production of meat.  And sadly, much kosher meat - which is really supposed to adhere to a “higher standard” - falls short of what is ethical in terms of treatment of animals, treatment of workers, and treatment of the environment.  We can be proud that within the next year, Conservative Judaism will begin to mark products with its ‘Magen Tzedek’ - a seal of approval, similar to a kosher supervision symbol, that marks kosher products that adhere to a set of objective standards to ensure that people - whether they keep kosher or not - who want to bring an ethical sensitivity to their act of eating can easily do so.

But kashrut is not only about ethics. It’s also about awareness and holiness.  One of the implications of Judaism’s focus on food and food rituals is that it makes it that much harder to eat mindlessly if you’re keeping track of whether foods are kosher or not, and what blessing you’re supposed to say over them.  And thus keeping kosher, ideally, encourage mindful eating.
Does this mindfulness happen all the time? Of course not.  But it’s the ideal, and ideals never become realities unless someone makes the effort.  In fact, the sage Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin used to say that even if you eat just one food each week in a mode of true awareness and appreciation, that elevates all the less mindful eating you did that week.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that many people around the world could probably benefit if they ate even one food item each week in a state of mindfulness and awareness.

A unique initiative that our synagogue community has undertaken this year is our sponsorship of a CSA - Community Supported Agriculture, in which people in our community purchase a share of the produce of a New Jersey farmer that gets delivered to the synagogue every week, thanks to the initiative of a number of people from our community, especially coordinator Julie Steinberg, and many volunteers.   We didn’t do this just as a service to our members.  We also did it for Jewish spiritual reasons – because the experience of eating is transformed when you have a bond with the producers of the food, when you know something about the story of the food. 
I first began to understand how contemplating the origins of our food enhances our spiritual connection to our food and the earth, the first time I saw a sign language interpreter
sign the Hamotzi, the blessing over bread. The blessing, of course, goes, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz.  Who brings forth bread from the earth.” And the interpreter signed it very literally, in a set of signs that I can’t replicate here,  but that looked like he was extracting bread from the earth.  Of course, bread doesn’t literally get extracted from the earth. The process by which we get bread from the earth is so tortuous that we may usually eat bread completely oblivious to where it came from.  But the goal of the blessing is to help us to focus our attention on the food’s origin.  In fact, most of the Jewish blessings for food include a reference to the food’s origin. And food educators note that one of the ways to help people to eat more consciously, and make food choices more consciously, is to encourage them to consider the ‘back story’ of their food and where it came from.

Coming off of a year of multiple environmental disasters, we can only hope that tomorrow’s decision-makers will feel a closer bond with the environment than today’s decision-makers -
that they will regard it as a partner to be cooperated with rather than a victim to be stripped of its resources.  And perhaps a deeper awareness of the earth as the source of our nourishment
can help them to develop a new understanding of their relationship with the earth.  If we’re going to succeed in rectifying over a century’s worth of environmental damage, it’s going to happen through a combination of corporate and government initiative, and the outlook changes and lifestyle changes of people like you and me, coming to a new understanding of our relationship with the earth.

Human beings are remarkably adept at tuning out routine experiences, at becoming jaded and unfazed by almost anything, so long as it happens frequently enough.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said about the stars in the sky: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of God which had been shown!...”  It’s specifically because the stars, and other amazing phenomena in the world are around all the time,  that we ignore them.  And similarly, the miraculous act of eating becomes mindless routine because it happens so regularly. The Jewish rituals around food, ideally, defamiliarize us,they slow us down just enough to appreciate eating as a gift from God.

Then there’s another dimension of Kashrut -the Jewish identity dimension.  Is Jewish identity a function of who you are inside, or is it a function of what you do?  The answer is clear -- and demographic studies of the Jewish community plainly indicate:  It’s possible for someone to feel very Jewish inside, but they are going to have a very hard time transmitting that Jewish identity to the next generation unless there are demonstrable Jewish things that are part of their lives on a regular basis.

Someone from this community who was starting to adopt kashrut once told me: Listen: I understand all the spiritual and ethical reasons for keeping kosher.  But let me tell you what Kashrut really accomplishes for me.  Every day, on an hour by hour basis, I am thinking about being Jewish, because, for the first time in my life, the fact that I am Jewish is affecting my choices about what I order in a restaurant, what I pick up in the supermarket, what I am ordering from FreshDirect.  Before starting to keep kosher, I might think about being Jewish, say, a couple of times a week,or from shabbat to shabbat, but this keeps my Jewish identity ever present. And without kashrut, I don’t know what else would do that for me.”

Like everything else in Judaism, Kashrut is not an all-or-nothing proposition.  Some people observe the laws strictly in their entirety, while others chart their own relationship with the tradition.  While traditional Jewish texts certainly urge the former, they also recognize that many people do the latter.  This year, may our individual teshuvah processes include ways we can deepen OUR relationships with God and with the world; may we challenge ourselves to bring ever greater awareness to even the mundane aspects of our lives, so that we can truly declare, along with the angels: מלא כל הארץ כבודו - the entire world is full of God’s presence.
Shanah Tovah!

Rosh HaShanah 1st Day 5771 / 2010: "Letter from the Ark"

Shanah Tovah! Here is the text of my sermon from the 1st day of Rosh HaShanah 5771 / 2010. Other sermons will be posted shortly.

Some things that I have learned about this year that I didn’t learn in rabbinical school:
The difference between the New Jersey Registry of Historic Places

and the National Registry of Historic Places.
Different types of smoke detectors

and which ones can get set off by carpentry dust.
and - that that eagle and those lions are actually removable.

We have talked about what an intensely challenging year this has been for many of us,
for most of the people in our region, our country, and throughout the world.
But this is also a time of great triumph and celebration for this community -
because, as we know, this has been the year that we have FINALLY completed our renovation - through its various phases -
and we hope you are pleased with the result!
yes, like all construction, it took a little longer than expected.

For example, The bar and bat mitzvah kids from 2005 whose families were initially concerned that their special days and events would be displaced by the construction-
they are actually starting college this fall.
As they say, time flies when you’re doing a historic renovation!

I imagine I speak for many of us when I say that it is a special joy
to gather here today
in this inspiring place for prayer and reflection and celebration -
in this space that remains just as historic as ever,
but is a good deal safer than ever – more accessible than ever -
and also, just as exquisitely beautiful as it was on the day it opened in May 1915.
and I am so full of gratitude to all those who made this happen - which is, actually, almost all of you -
and especially to those volunteers who steered the project along,
through fundraising, team-building, organizing, making architectural and aesthetic decisions, and seeing the project to its conclusion.

Construction is something I know absolutely nothing about.
but generously the committee often consulted with me about various decisions,
especially aesthetic decisions.
So this morning I want to tell you the story of the back wall of the ark.

As you know, the ark is the focal point of our sanctuary,
and it’s where we keep our Torah scrolls.
And as far as we can tell, throughout the history of this synagogue,

the inside of the ark was covered with fabric.
So Louise Kurtz and Harriet Taub went in there a few weeks ago to replace the fabric
and also - to see what was underneath that fabric.
And you won’t guess what they found.
Another layer of fabric.
And another layer. and another layer. And another layer.
Until eventually they discovered that behind it all was some nice quality wood.
And when our restoration artist saw this, she said,
“Why don’t we put gold paint or gold leaf on the inside of the ark?
We already had plenty which we used to re-gild various items on the exterior of the ark, as you see -
why not the interior also?

So in their generosity, Ken and the committee posed the question to me:

is there any reason why we shouldn’t put gold on the inside of the ark?
Being a rabbi, I can’t really listen to a question like that

without various biblical verses getting replayed in my head.
And the question made me think of a passage in the book of Exodus, Parashat Trumah,
that describes the construction of the ORIGINAL ark of the covenant -
the ark from the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary during the period of wndering in the desert.
In that passage, we read: וצפית אותו זהב טהור מבית ומחוץ תצפנו (Exodus 25:11)
The ark should be covered with gold, both interior and exterior.
And I thought, that’s a good enough reason for me.
Now our ark can emulate the ark in the Tabernacle.
So you may not have noticed it, but the next time the ark is opened,
you’ll see that the inside is colored gold.
(By the way - in case you’re wondering, it’s, um, not real gold,
which would be beyond our means just now.
Though if you find that disappointing,

and you’re fortunate enough to be in the position to do something about it,
chat with Ken during kiddush!)
But here’s the part of the story that absolutely no one else knows.
Even I didn’t know this part of the story until I started writing this sermon.
Is it a true story?
Let’s just say it depends on what your definition of the word ‘true’ is.

Or call it a ‘midrash’ if you prefer.

This past Saturday night, late at night, I checked inside the ark

and there was a letter-size envelope.
It was labeled “Star of Israel” - but then the words “Star of Israel” were crossed out
and written over it were the words “United Synagogue of Hoboken.”
And under that were the words “To the Community.”

Upon glancing at it, I realized that this truly extraordinary correspondence

was intended for the entire community,
and so I would like to read it to you now.

“Dear United Synagogue of Hoboken Community:

Welcome back to your sanctuary!
This will probably be the most unusual letter you will ever receive.

Yes, people usually think of me as an inanimate object,
as a glorified storage area with a pretty curtain.
But I will have you know that from the perspective of Jewish law,
I am a ‘kli kodesh’ - a holy object for holy use.
And for this reason, I wanted to express my appreciation to the community
for making the decision to adorn my interior with gold.
Let me tell you why.

Your rabbi is aware, and perhaps has even told you,
that this is how the Torah describes the creation of the original ark -
the Aron ha-Edut in the Mishkan, in the Tabernacle.
That it is says,
וצפית אותו זהב טהור, מבית ומחוץ תצפנו.

cover it with pure gold, on the interior as well as the exterior.
And it feels great for me to have something important in common with that original ark.

But here’s something I bet your rabbi didn’t tell you.

The ark in the Tabernacle was different from me.
THAT ark was simply a box that held the tablets of the 10 commandments.
It would never get opened. Only its outside would ever be visible.
And that’s what made our sages so perplexed about this commandment

to put gold on the INTERIOR of the ark.
Why? It’s not like anyone will ever see the interior.
So save a little gold - no one will ever know.

And yet, the Torah commands that you’re supposed to put gold on the interior, anyway.
And so, the sages in the Talmud
came to regard the ark, with its gold on the exterior but ALSO on the interior where it would never be seen,
as a powerful metaphor for a person.
everyone knows what you put on your exterior.
other people see your clothes, your face, all the physical manifestations of your self.
And everyone sees how you act in public, what you say, what you do when people are looking.
But -- except for certain particularly intimate friends,

most people never genuinely see who you are inside.
It’s only you, and God, who really know what you are like on the inside.
So when the Torah tells us that the ark was covered with gold both inside and out,
that led the sages to say that we must each be the same way.
In fact, the Talmud comments in tractate Yoma (72b),
[Amar Rava:] kol talmid hacham she-ein tocho ke-varo, eino talmid hacham.
Any sage whose interior is not like his exterior -
is not a real sage.

So it’s my hope that any time I am open,

people in your community will see the gold and be reminded of the importance of ‘tocho ke-varo’ -
of having one’s interior match one’s exterior.
For a very small number of people, the ark may help them to confront
the reality that there is a dramatic distance between how they are perceived by others
and how they genuinely are on the inside.
people who abuse the trust of others; people who carry the mantle of integrity as a cover for dishonesty and corruption;
people who are perceived as kind and generous in their professional or civic life but then come home to terrorize their families.
For people like that, hopefully seeing the gold will be a warning for them that their lives are in serious disorder.

But it’s my experience over these last 96 years
that that’s not really the kind of people who frequent your synagogue.

As far as I can tell, each person has a secret self.
For all people, there is probably some gap between the people they genuinely are
and the people as they present themselves for public consumption.
But there have got to be places that can truly be your ‘sanctuaries,’
places where you can be most genuinely yourselves.
It’s my hope that the synagogue ought to be one of those places.
So hopefully when the ark curtain is opened,

you can see the gold, and it can remind you to check in with your core,
to connect with your innermost the process known as teshuvah.

And then I am sure there are some people who have forgotten that they have gold inside -
especially this year, people who have felt beaten down, discouraged,
concerned about meeting their life goals,
and even questioning their worth.
For you, my prayer is that when you see gold inside the ark

that it will remind us of all the beauty and purity at your core,
that nothing can take away from you –

And that the true measure of a person’s worth has nothing to do with possessions or employment, but with chesed – with kindness.

And this community as a whole, also, can learn something
from the gold inside the ark.
For years, so much communal energy has been invested in the exterior beauty of this community
and the state of its physical building.
As important as that process has been, and as exquisite the result,

now is the time to remind the community about interior beauty,
about the need to nurture the soul of the community along with its body.
And the gold inside the ark can be a useful reminder

that the success of any synagogue or house of worship truly has almost nothing at all to do with the physical space,
and everything to do with the quality of the relationships that are forged there, the depth of the learning and caring and spiritual striving that is accomplished there.

But honestly, all this is only PART
of why I wanted to thank you for putting gold on my interior walls.
Because there is yet another way to understand the symbolism of mi-bayit u-michutz tezapenu:
“the ark should be covered with gold inside and out.’

Maybe some of you recognize
that the word ‘bayit’ means ‘house,’ or ‘home,’ and ‘chutz’ means ‘outside.’
So whereas figuratively they mean ‘interior and exterior,’ they also mean “at home” and “away from home.”
‘bayit’ can also refer to one’s home turf, or one’s home community,
and ‘chutz’ can refer to the rest of the world.
And that leads to one of the most significant questions that Jewish communities ought to ask.
In your community, is Judaism primarily concerned with what happens to other Jews?

or does Judaism have a universalistic vision that is concerned with all people and all of creatures?

And I am gratified that you have chosen that the knd of Jewish community you want to live in
is one that is covered with gold both on the inside and on the outside.
Demonstrating that your priorities are both -- to look inside, at the Jewish community,
and also to look outside - at the world as a whole.

After all – now brace yourselves for a provocative statement:

After all, God isn’t Jewish.
According to Jewish tradition - and this is essentially a unanimous view -
God is the creator of the entire world,
and in that role God and shows special concern for every species, every nation, and every individual.
There are numerous citations in the Bible that suggest
that God has special relationships with many nations -
that God has redeemed many peoples from their various captivities,
so don’t feel so special about the liberation from Egypt.
The book of Deuteronomy teaches

that God specifically assigned some of the heavenly spheres and planets as objects of worship for the other nations,
which seems to imply that God has some degree of tolerance for different religious beliefs and practices.
Whatever the idea of the Chosen People may mean,
there’s one thing we are SURE it doesn’t mean -
which is that Judaism as a religion is correct to the exclusion of all others.
And of course, that’s something beautiful
that sets Judaism apart from many other major world religions.
Christianity, in its classical form, dreams of a perfect world in which everyone is Christian.
Islam dreams of a perfect world in which everyone is Muslim.
And what does Judaism dream of? A perfect world in which JEWS are Jewish -
and other people constitute a diverse mosaic just as they do today -
but in this perfect world, everyone is good, just, generous, compassionate, and gentle.
That’s how Jews have always dreamed that you create a world at peace -
not by walloping everyone until they accept your ideas,
but by encouraging them to maximally be themselves.

And these theological messages are reinforced by the Jewish historical experience.
Having been slaves in Egypt - inclines Jews to work to liberate others from their oppressions.
The experience of the Holocaust - in which we sadly note the paucity of ‘righteous gentiles’ who risked their lives to save the lives of Jews -
inclines Jews to be the righteous to save the lives of others.

And Judaism expresses a universalistic vision in charitable giving.
feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, redeeming captives -
a Jew is obligated to do all of these things for people of all backgrounds and religions.
This is, in part, why your congregation was a founding constituent of the Hoboken Shelter,
and you remain one of the 5 congregations that support it and commit each year to provide a big chunk of its funding.
And I hope your rabbi is taking every opportunity to remind you that Ruth Messinger, the international human rights advocate and president of American Jewish World Service,
is visiting your synagogue on Oct 16 - I was amazed with excitement when I heard about it.
American Jewish World Service is an organization whose mission is to fulfill the Jewish value of tikkun olam - of ‘being agents for the repair of the entire world,’
responding at trouble spots around the world, places like Haiti, Darfur,Pakistan,, in the name of the American Jewish Community.

From everything I have seen, from my vantage point over the course of this century:
for an organization like the American Jewish World Service to be one of the larger and more successful American Jewish organizations today
is a remarkable transformation.
This would not have happened one hundred years ago/
no way could there have been a Jewish organization that is so saturated with Jewish values and Jewish teachings
and that exists primarily to serve the non-Jewish world.

Over the last 96 years, there are a lot of people who have sat in those pews in which you are now sitting.
And I bet you can guess what were the burning issues on their minds.
Certainly sometimes they were focused on the large issues in American society- the great depression; world wars and local wars, the civil rights movement.
But for most of them, for the largest part of that 96 years,

the issues that loomed largest were the Jewish issues.
Pogroms in Russia. anti-Semitism in Germany. The horrifying news of the Holocaust. the effort to create the modern state of Israel. the suffering and expulsion of the Jews of Arab countries. And Israel’s lengthy effort, having arrived and integrated the neighborhood of the middle east, to convince its neighbors that it had no plans to disappear.
I couldn’t possibly count the number of meetings, the number of impassioned speeches,
the tears that were shed in this room over these 96 years
out of concern for the welfare of the Jewish people around the world.
And such efforts continue to be relevant
for as long as Jews are threatened or in danger anywhere.

Jews are not only a religion, but also a people, a family.
Jews experience kinship with each other, based on common experiences and a common history,
just as two family members have a special bond because of common experiences and a common history.
And with a common history like that, it’s not so surprising
that most 20th Jews were especially focusing inward, on Jewish concerns.
Increasingly, younger Jews tend to have a more universalistic outlook.
Which is wonderful for all the reasons I mentioned before.
But I get concerned when I see it taken to an extreme.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to remark that if he would encounter someone who proudly affirmed, “I am a Catholic,’ then that person was usually a Catholic,.
Someone who would proudly announce, “I am a Protestant!” was usually a Protestant.
And someone who would proudly announce, “I am a human being!” -- was usually Jewish.

Jews were often the among the first ones

\to jump on the bandwagon of radical universalism -
in part because it seemed to fit in so naturally

with their understanding of Jewish values:
honor the stranger; respect every human being,

created in God’s image and thus a reflection of you.
But somehow, the universalistic promise tended not to get delivered to the Jewish people.
The Jewish Russian novelist, David Bergelson, was murdered by Stalin in 1952.
Before his death, he recalled
"I traded in my six-speared Jewish star for a five-speared Soviet star
and the sixth spear is stuck in my heart."

Somehow, throughout the twentieth century,
universalists embraced the noble goals and aspirations of peoples around the world - except that often the Jewish aspirations,
including the need for perennially homeless Jews to have SOME place around the world where they can live in peace and security,
were classified as parochial whining.

Increasingly there is a gap between younger Jews and older Jews
in terms of their connection to Israel.
For many older Jews, that connection is automatic.

it comes out of the experience of history, of anti-semitism,
of either memory of, or great familiarity with, the era before there was a Jewish state;
memory of the unabashed anti-Jewishness of Israel’s Arab neighbors.
And for many younger Jews, the connection is not so automatic.
Even with the amazing Birthright israel program, they are less likely to have traveled to Israel, less likely to know Israelis -

so that when they read in the news about threats to Israel’s security,
they aren’t as likely to conjure up the faces of actual Israelis they know
who are dealing with the consequences.
They are less likely to have a strong Jewish identity oriented around a sense of peoplehood.
They regard the issues of right and wrong to be cloudier,
more likely to question aspects of the Zionist narratives they have been taught.

I’ll let the rabbi speak more directly about Israel if he wants to,
but here are my two cents.
When you think about
Israel, and when you speak about Israel,

remember that, at your synagogue, the ark has gold on the inside AND on the outside.
May the gold on the inside remind you

that if you are Jewish, then Israel is family.
and may the gold on the outside remind you that you should be moved by the suffering of ANY individual in the world.
You can be a passionate supporter of Israel without agreeing with every Israeli policy.

You can be a critic of Israeli policies while also acknowledging that there is a tremendous amount of criticism of Israel that is unfair and anti-Semitic.
And you can emphatically reject the delegitimization of Israel, while still conceding that like every society, Israel has serious faults and failures.

You can celebrate Israel’s successes while also addressing those faults in a way that demonstrates that you understand that the issues are complex,
and in such a way that people living in Israel would not perceive you as indifferent to their real and unique security predicaments.

Thousands of years ago, Hillel taught us to come to the most appropriate balance between the needs of the self and one’s own group,
and the needs of others.
Im Ein Ani li, mi li? If I am not willing to take a stand for myself, who will be for me?
u-kshe-ani le-atzmi -mah ani? But if I am ONLY for myself, what am I?

ve-im lo akhshav - eimatai? And if not now, when?

And Rabbi Harold Schulweis expresses a similar idea with the image of the Shofar.
blow into the wide end, and the shofar makes no sound.
but if you blow into the narrow end, THROUGH the wide end,
then the call of the Shofar can be heard.
Judaism begins by focusing on the narrow - on the Jewish people -

but ends up transforming the world.

I know I have taken a lot of your time reading this unusual letter.
But I hope it will give you something to ponder,
to translate your physical surroundings into kavanah,
expressing your hopes, prayers, and thanksgiving at the cusp of a new year.

Each year, my favorite part of the High Holidays is at the Neilah service, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur,
when streams of people come up to spend a moment standing right in front of the ark.
Perhaps this year, the gold on the ark - inside and out - will help you to connect with everything that is golden in your life, in your soul, and in your community, and in the world.
In this new year, may each of these be ‘tocho ke-varo’ – beautiful inside and out.

Your Aron Kodesh, your holy ark.

Shanah Tovah!