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rally the jewish spirit

May 2024 | Iyar 5784
 
As Shabbat approaches, our task is to review the week in our minds. To determine what can be different in our thoughts and activities on Shabbat to raise our spirits and calm our souls.
 
I don’t know who among us takes to heart this kind of intentional preparation for Shabbat. The Talmudic sage Shammai used to say, “Start preparing for the coming Shabbat on Sunday.” In other words, pay attention to what you do and what happens around. Anticipate your needs so that your week ends in blessing and fulfillment.
 
These days, we need to do this together. We need to rally our Jewish spirits in response to the ugliness our people confront. We need to rally our Jewish spirits in response to the difficulty of these tumultuous days of war and discomfort.
 
We need to do this together, and we need to do this in the synagogue on Shabbat. Synagogues are where Jews gather. Synagogues are symbolic centers representing Jews and Judaism to the larger world.
 
When we act together our “prosemitism” counters others’ antisemitism. As Dr. Israel Abrahams, a distinguished Jewish scholar of the early 20th century declared. “For Jews the moral is to answer antisemitism with more semitism, if by semitism we mean greater devotion to the great ideals which Judaism proclaimed to the world.”
 
In synagogue, we rally the spirit of our people and our friends. We are the Jewish people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. We live in covenant with God here today as we have everywhere throughout history.
 
We are the Jewish people, descendants of Prophets and Priests, descendants of pious rabbis and social radicals, descendants of noblemen and paupers, descendants of the persecuted and the celebrated, descendants of survivors and immigrants.
 
We are the Jewish people descendants of our parents and grandparents. We represent generations of Jews in America whose roots come from Europe, or Asia, or Russia and the Former Soviet Union, or South Africa, or Mexico, or Canada, or South America, or Australia, or Israel, or Egypt, or Iran, or elsewhere in the Middle East, or elsewhere in the world. In each of our lives and backgrounds, is the incredible breadth and depth of the Jewish story. We Jews are a microcosm of the world’s population.
 
We are the Jewish people who cherish life’s gifts and blessings, who inherit a tradition that stands for human dignity and equality, freedom and goodness. We are heirs to standards of personal ethics and celebrations marking the seasons and milestones of our lives. That’s who we are - and that’s what we must represent to the world at large. We are the Jewish people.
 
Beyond declaring our pride and presence as Jews, another way to rally our spirits and raise our sights is to discover inspiration from the thoughts and demonstrations of other members of the Jewish people.
 
Abba Hillel Silver was an important American rabbi and Zionist leader who in 1917 became rabbi of The Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. Twenty-four years later, and eighty-three years ago on May 15, 1941, he published an essay entitled, “The World Crisis and Jewish Survival.” Though published during World War II and before the establishment of the State of Israel, Rabbi Silver’s title resonates yet today.
 
“Our people are thus not likely to be shaken spiritually,” he writes, “by the tensions and stresses under which they are living and will continue to live. Rather are they likely to be healed and made whole by becoming more truly and more intimately themselves and more at home with their own spiritual genius.”
 
These thoughts get my attention. It represents again today our best response to all the commotion around us. We Jews find strength and dignity in our visions of life and our self-understanding.
 
Consider the meaning of this Talmudic thought. “Every day a Divine messenger goes from before the Holy One, blessed be God, to destroy the world and make it revert to its original chaos, but when the Holy One, blessed be God, looks upon the schoolchildren and scholars who sit in their Houses of Study God’s anger immediately turns to mercy. As Resh Laḳish said in the name of Rabbi Judah the Prince: ‘The world endures for the sake of the breath of schoolchildren.’”
 
On our campus and in our classrooms, we inoculate our children and ourselves against whatever may trouble us elsewhere. We feel joy, goodness, hope, and promise here.
Whenever we gather for learning, celebration, and community we change the world for the better. We affirm Jewish lives of joy and goodness.
 
We see in our children the future of the Jewish people. The values in which we believe, the ideas which we transmit from one generation to the next, the spiritual and ethical truths we continue to uphold are indeed a vehicle through which the world may be redeemed.
 
Toward the end of his 1941 essay, Rabbi Silver quotes a different midrash. “Blessed are the children of Israel in all their dwelling places, even though they wander painfully to the four corners of the earth, they are always in the center!”
 
We wander. We’ve known exile. We’re also now at home in Israel and here in our community. Yet, there is never a place or a moment, teaches this ancient Midrash, that we the Jewish people are not actually at the center of what happens in the world.
 
This reality, rooted in that seemingly ageless teaching, leads Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver to write the following. "The Jews of this generation should welcome this role, hard though it be, even as their ancestors before them. They must find the strength not only for survival, but for remaining faithful to their spiritual vision of life."
 
Sentiments echoed by Jewish students at Columbia University who wrote an open letter to their college community and all of us. “If the last six months have taught us anything, it is that a large and vocal population of the Columbia community does not understand the meaning of Zionism, and subsequently does not understand the essence of the Jewish people. One thing is for sure. We will not stop standing up for ourselves. We are proud to be Jews and we are proud to be Zionists.”
 
When people are ignorant about us, or don’t know us, when people say things about us we might consider insulting, pause and recall. We know our truth. They don't. If they want to ask about our truth, we'll tell them. If they want to teach us their truth, we can talk. Yet, because we know our truth, we know what others may say has no impact on us. They make noise. They cause us grief. But they do not affect our spirits because we know our truth.
 
As the first Chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Rabbi Judah Magnes, who lived between America and Israel, said. “Antisemitism cannot be the guiding negative principle of Jewish life. Only freedom and service can be the guiding principle of the living Jewish people.”
 
Another way to rally our spirits and raise our sights is to discover inspiration. Toward this goal, I want you to meet the Zionist author, Israel Zangwill who lived from 1864 to 1926. Many considered Zangwill to be one of England’s greatest wits.
 
A story about Israel Zangwill. He was visiting Theodore Herzl in his hotel room. Herzl, the father of Zionism, the man who famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” While Herzl spoke to him, Zangwill lay back on the bed with his eyes closed. Herzl looked at Zangwill and said, “Don’t go to sleep, Israel.” Zangwill shot back, “The God of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps, but Israel himself sometimes does both!”
 
Among the best-known Jewish figures by the start of the 20th Century, Israel Zangwill once declared boldly, “Aspiration is achievement!” This is what we need to believe at this difficult moment. Aspiration is achievement.
 
As achievement, aspiration is not a deed done or a goal achieved. Aspiration is an achievement when it motivates us to see more than what upsets us. Aspiration sets us on our path out of distress and toward the realization of what we seek.
 
Thirteen years ago, Dr. Tal Becker, made a similar statement about aspiration reflecting his own understanding of Zionism. Yes, Zionism, a word and idea we proudly and publicly affirm.
 
As the Jewish students of UC San Diego wrote in their strong and important letter this week. “For the vast majority of Jews, Judaism cannot be separated from Zionism. The two are inextricably linked. Since our exile more than two thousand years ago, we have prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, and our prayers, culture, and holidays are filled with references to Israel, Jerusalem, Zion, and our desire to return to our ancestral homeland. Which means that to 90% of Jews worldwide, including most of the Jewish students at UC San Diego, anti-Zionism IS antisemitism.”
 
Dr. Tal Becker is a former Legal Advisor of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Recently he represented Israel before the International Court of Justice, and has been a prominent negotiator for Israel, most recently in framing the Abraham Accords. In 2011, he observed, “Zionism was never only a response to a crisis – it was a values project from its inception.” This concept matters more today than ever.
 
Living in a world turned upside down, impacted in so many ways by a complicated war, the politics that surround it, and the pain it inflicts everywhere through endless days of war and the loved ones of our people still held hostage, we the Jewish people need to reclaim Zionism as more than our people’s historic national aspirations. We need to re-engage in Zionism as a values project, too.
 
On my mind daily are three questions. Largely alone in the world, what do we Jews believe about others, about ourselves, and about the myriads of issues raised by the war? How, when, and where do we have this conversation with family, friends, and even foes? What variety of answers can we suggest to best represent ourselves, advocate for ourselves, and embracing and honoring everyone’s emotions and feelings?
 
Our purpose is not to seek resolution or unanimity, both of which are out of our reach. Our aspiration is to achieve union, comity, mutual understanding and support, for the sake of our families, circles of friends, and the Jewish people.
 
To rally our spirits, I again quote Tal Becker. “What makes you Jewish, in my mind, what makes you Israeli, is that you are part of the same moral conversation. You have a stake in what the story of Jewishness is about, what the story of Israel is about, and that engagement and disagreement itself is a feature, not a bug, of who we are as a people.”
 
Becker than echoes Zangwill. “We need to be in the aspiration business. Any people is only as great as its next aspiration. We need to be spending as much time as we are on the military and diplomatic challenges on how we pivot to articulate aspirations and plan towards them moving forward.”
 
That’s why we start preparing for next Shabbat tomorrow. Whether the news is good or bad, the events desirable or disturbing, we always need to have a plan for living out our ideals and achieving our goals.
 
Aspiration is achievement when it motivates us to see more than what upsets us. Aspiration sets us on our path out of distress and toward the realization of what we seek.
 
I'm tired of bad news. It's exhausting. It's not going away. It may get worse before it ever gets better, and we'll deal with it all as we must. This is why it is time to rally the Jewish spirit. May all for which we aspire start to become the achievements we desire.
 
Am Yisrael Hai!
 
© 2024 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

b'shalom rav - rabbi ron shulman's sermons 2023-24 | 5784

Rabbi Shulman's High Holy Day Sermons from 2023
are posted below his more recent sermons.

are posted below his more recent sermons.

Update this content.

Preparing for passover 2024

Passover 2024 | 5784 פסח
Dear Friends,
 
How different it will be when we sit down at our seder tables this year.
 
On April 13th, we witnessed a direct Iranian attack on Israel. A surreal and added threat and emotional trauma for Israelis and many of us. Meanwhile, Jews are held hostage by Hamas terrorists. Millions in Israel and Gaza suffer the plagues of war. Israelis feel insecure, thousands are displaced, and all are hurting, angry, and exhausted. In a completely different context, we American Jews hold similar feelings.
 
On my recent trip to Israel, however, I met people of hope with resilient spirits and a resolve to renew their lives and their country when secure and able. I hope we’ll come to hold these attitudes, as well.
 
We in the Diaspora respond to the complicated events in the Middle East with differing thoughts and deep concerns. We monitor the situation in and around Israel. We react to the vexing antisemitism and nasty bullying we confront.
 
How different it will be when we sit down at our seder tables this year.
 
Perhaps we’ll set an extra empty seat at our table to symbolize the plight of hostages, who we hope are still alive as they are held captive. We’ll think of their families who will not know joy this holiday.
 
Perhaps we’ll ask this fifth question after the traditional four.
For on all other seder nights we celebrate in comfort and security,
why on this seder night do we celebrate uneasily?
שבכל הלילות אנו חוגגים בנוחיות ובטיחות. הלילה הזה בעצבנות?
Sh’b-khol ha-lei-lot anu hog’gim b’no-hi-yut u’vti-hut, ha-lailah ha-zeh b’atz-va-nut?
 
I imagine many of us will want to discuss our thoughts and feelings about these circumstances and our Jewish sensibilities at our seder celebrations. The Passover Haggadah is ready made for facilitating this conversation. (For more about this, please see the Haggadah note below.)
 
If discussion about current events is to be part of your seder gathering, consider these guidelines. Why? Because, according to the Pew Research Center, 26% of all American Jews (and 47% of younger Jews) have stopped talking to someone because of a disagreement over the war.
 
Therefore, hear and respect everyone’s opinion and perspective. Embrace and honor everyone’s emotions and feelings. Differ with dignity and speak with kindness. As we consider differing ideas, our purpose at seder is not to seek resolution or unanimity. Our goal is to achieve union and comity for the sake of our families, circles of friends, and the Jewish people.
 
On Passover, our vision is to learn anew for our days the meanings and implications of Jewish origins. How are freedom, justice, equality, and dignity present or not in the world today? What are we each to do to live and advocate for these ideals, especially during the difficult days of Israel’s consequential and defensive war?
 
On this Passover, in Israel and Gaza, individual and collective survival are at stake. How different it will be when we sit down at our Seder tables this year.
 
May what’s different inspire us to be people of hope with resilient spirits and a resolve to renew our lives and our people. Robin and I wish you a sweet and meaningful Passover.
 
Hag Pesah Sameah,
Rabbi Ron Shulman
 
Haggadah Note
After the midrash of the four children, the Haggadah text informs us, “In the beginning our ancestors served idols, but then God embraced us so that we might serve God.” This aspect of our liberation story is about the spiritual character and moral quality of being Jewish. It remembers our Biblical patriarch Abraham, the first to espouse and represent ethical monotheism.
 
Next, this section of the Haggadah quotes the Book of Genesis repeating God’s foreshadow of the Exodus from Egypt and promise to Abraham. “Know for certainty that your offspring will be strangers in a strange land… Know with equal certainty that I will judge the nation that enslaved them…” This promise is of a future redemption and living covenant through history.
 
At this point in the seder, we lift our wine cups and recite, V’hi sh’amdah והי שעמדה -. “It is this that has sustained our ancestors and us, for not just one enemy has arisen to destroy us; rather in every generation there are those who seek our destruction, but the Holy One, praised be God, saves us from their hands.”
 
Now our discussion begins. Since early medieval years when this statement, V’hi sh’amdah והי שעמדה, was added to the seder ceremony, generations of Jews ask and debate.
 
What sustains our people through the ages? Is it a Divine promise of on-going redemption, as suggested in God’s words to Abraham? Is it our religious heritage and cultural values guiding and encouraging us? Is it an urgency to survive, and even thrive, in the face of each new threat? Is it a messianic hope of living to see better days? Is it the diversity of Jewish identity that enables us to adapt and endure? Is it the uniqueness of Jewish peoplehood that transcends other imposed categories of race, nationality, ethnicity, and individual identity? Is it the dynamic interplay between Israel and the Diaspora? Is it none of these or more than one of these?
 
How different it will be when we sit down at our seder tables this year.
 
Invite your seder guests to reflect on these questions and their own. Use their thoughts to frame your discussion of Israel, the war, and antisemitism. Hear and respect everyone’s opinion and perspective. Embrace and honor everyone’s emotions and feelings. Differ with dignity and speak with kindness. Our goal is to achieve union and comity for the sake of our families, circles of friends, and the Jewish people.
 
Here's why. After your discussion, if you continue to follow the Haggadah text, the next two words are, “Go and learn.” This instruction precedes another Torah quote recounting in a few verses the master story of the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt.
 
On Passover, our vision is to learn anew for our days the meanings and implications of Jewish origins. How are freedom, justice, equality, and dignity present or not in the world today? What are we each to do to live and advocate for these ideals, especially during the difficult days of Israel’s consequential and defensive war?
 

© 2024 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

reflections after my trip to israel

Shabbat Shemini | April 6, 2024
 

 

 
Lishay and Omri Miran heard a battle next door. There were sounds of shooting, shouting, and broken glass coming from their neighbor’s house on Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Inside their saferoom, huddled with their two young daughters Alma and Romi, Lishay and Omri knew they were next. They sent What’s App messages asking for help. They tried to keep their children calm and quiet.
 
Then the chaos entered their home as they heard invading terrorists ransack the place, destroy the kitchen, and demand they leave the saferoom. They relented only after a 17-year-old neighbor, Tomer, begged the Miran family to open the safe room door and come out because he was being held at gunpoint.
 
I won’t recount more of the details Lishay shared, other than to say that in the end Omri was placed in handcuffs and taken hostage. Dragging Omri away, the terrorist said, “Don’t worry, they’ll be back.” A strange and not yet true declaration. Lishay and the girls were left to die in another neighbor’s house as it was set on fire. While trying to figure out how to escape, they were safely rescued by Israeli forces 12 hours after their horror had begun on the morning of 10/7.
 
It was a sad privilege to sit with Lishay this past Wednesday morning. I was part of a group of 18 participants traveling on the San Diego Jewish Federation Solidarity Mission to Israel. We listened intently and compassionately as Lishay told her story with remarkable poise, abiding pain, and love for Omri.
 
She told us there are two parts to her life these days, six months after October 7th. The “fight of her life” is to bring Omri home and, of course, to be a mother to her traumatized young daughters. Incredulous, she can’t believe this ordeal has lasted this long.
 
This morning, I’ll share a few observations and a few vignettes like that one. I need much more time to process and internalize all that I saw, felt, and did over a very intense week. Each individual day felt like a week unto itself. I'll share my evolving thoughts over time and more importantly, look forward to comparing them to yours.
 
This was a visit to Israel like none of my previous trips. On the surface, life looks normal. There's lots of traffic on the roads, people going about their daily lives. We learned early in our trip to look more deeply into people's eyes and to listen more conscientiously to what they were saying to sense the fuller impact of how all they confront weighs on them.
 
I found Israel, and I speak only for myself, to be a deeply hurting nation, to be a very angry nation, and to be a remarkably resilient people. Frustrated, hopeful, exhausted, and so grateful for our presence. I wouldn't say that the people I met feel alone in the world. I think more accurately they are lonely.
 
In response, my own personal feelings as I saw what we went to see, but more importantly as I found ways to talk to people whom I thought I could learn something from, both relatives and others in the country, my feelings traveled from horror and shock, grief and pain, to despair. But I came away with a sense of wonder and felt exhilaration in the remarkable spirit and undying hopes of the people I met, regardless, or more likely because, of everything else.
 
A sign above the Schneider Children’s Hospital toy room reads, “In a place of great love (ahavah rabbah) miracles always occur.” We walked down the Israeli flag decorated hallway through which the children released from captivity in Gaza last November were first escorted into the hospital from the helicopters. We learned about the vast preparations made to receive these children. The care and concern for their privacy and dignity while anticipating their every personal and therapeutic need. We watched video recordings of their miraculous and emotional reunions with loved ones and cried for them cathartic tears of compassion, pain, and joy. This is truly a place of great love and daily miracles. Staffed, like all response centers and teams throughout Israel today, by tireless, determined, exhausted, and innovative personnel.
 
I had a vision of Israel, of what Israel is and who Israel is, while I was there. How many of them want to double down on the quality and creativity of what life can be. They understand there's much rebuilding to do. They want to do it with a vision of what more Israel can still become and provide. I felt that spirit. For all of the sadness, for all of the horror, there is a response: quiet, hopeful dreaming. As people shared their visions, their hopes, their dreams, they acknowledged how much is out of their hands. They can't control the larger geopolitical reality or what may come to be. So, they hold on to their hopes and choose to believe.
 
This was particularly true in our close-up and personal visits with everyone in Sha’ar HaNegev, the “Gaza envelope,” the area of the kibbutzim and communities dramatically and tragically attacked on October 7th. They have a resilience plan! A vision to recreate their home environment like it was only better. It’s impressive and inspiring as it rises from the ashes of what was destroyed. It’s also not possible without security. As Strategic Manager Lior Niski told me, “I have to believe there will be security because I have to believe in the dream.”
 
Our group traveled to the site of the Nova Music festival where today stand 400 individual makeshift memorials with pictures and biographies of each victim. It has become a place of pilgrimage for those emotionally able to visit. Before entering the park itself, we stopped before miles of piles of the victims’ burnt cars and the terrorists’ destroyed motorcycles and trucks. It is an eerie place reminiscent of displays at Yad Vashem where the eyeglasses and shoes of those who were murdered are piled and placed on display. 40 or so people were taken hostage at Nova, their pictures along with those who perished, are posted on a large signboard at the entrance to the park.
 
After quiet time among the memorials, our group gathered. We shared tearful prayer and quiet reflection. I framed our impromptu ceremony with the words of the martyrology service we recite each Yom Kippur afternoon.
 
Eleh Ezkera v’nafshi alai eshp’kha…These I recall, and my soul melts in sorrow.” We recited the verse many times, pausing between each recitation to tell each other who or what we were remembering and crying for, not only at Nova but in all we were confronting.
 
I want to add here, that we were often within a mile and a half of Gaza and yet couldn’t hear, see, or sense the conflict from that proximity. Until we were in the middle of our Nova reflections. Three large booms startled us. Our guide, Yona, smiled and said, “don’t worry.  That’s what our munitions sound like.”
 
In every conversation we had, even at a remarkable Iftar dinner we shared with an IDF brigade comprised of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish soldiers, everyone wanted to know about us. A Muslim Bedouin soldier I sat across from while eating dinner looked at me as asked, “can you wear your kippah in America like you are here?”
 
Everywhere we went, while we focused on bringing support, solidarity, love, and care to Israel, Israelis wanted to know how we are confronting and handling the antisemitism intruding on our sense of well-being and identity.
 
I approached Hostage Square in Tel Aviv slowly. After months of seeing it in pictures, on Tuesday it was my turn to stand in front of the board counting 178 days, 07 hours, 45 minutes, and 37 seconds of captivity for the 134 Israeli hostages held in Gaza. I walked around the square feeling as if I was on sacred ground. A place to reflect in sadness. A site devoted to pondering the incomprehensible circumstances of the hostages’ plight and their families’ unending pained worries and fears. I walked into the mocked-up terror tunnel. I listened to relatives speaking with small groups of visitors like me recounting their frustrations and anger and talking about their loved ones. I respectfully stood with others in silence.
 
For me this was an important touch point. The reason I chose to participate on this Israel Solidarity Mission was my need somehow to touch October 7th personally. My daily routine these past months has been intertwined with the news and complexities of this shattering event, but from the distance. Though I’m a “tourist” not an Israeli, I’m a Jew also impacted and hurting.
 
In the middle of Hostage Square a now famous long Shabbat table is set. At the seats representing the freed hostages dinner plates read in Hebrew, “How good it is that you've returned home.” I thought of the children whom I had just vicariously met. At the place settings representing those still held captive there are no plates. Burlap and half-filled water bottles symbolize what they lack in food and dignity. I thought of the hostages still suffering in Gaza.
 
Focusing on the hostages today, I realized it wasn’t that I needed to see what I already had seen on media or somehow touch what I already knew took place on October 7th. It's not that I touch Israel. It's how deeply Israel and the resilient spirit of our people touch me.
 
This really is about all of us, the Jewish people, wherever we may live and however we may identity. Ours is a collective history and a shared destiny. Ours must be, as I sensed Israel’s to be, a doubling down on the resourcefulness and efforts to renew Jewish life for our sake, our children’s sake, our people’s sake, and the sake of the world.
 
Hamas attacked Israel because it seeks to remove Jews from the Middle East. There's also a deeper reason. In the Middle East, Israel represents the finest of human civilization in the 21st century. Israel represents the world and civilization we live in and want to continue to live in. Hamas cannot abide that. Pay attention to this amidst all the media noise. Ask why it is that Israelis understand that this battle is about something even deeper than who we are as Jews. It's about who we strive and desire to be as human beings, the way we envision the world.
 
After a few days in Israel this week, I have not gleaned any insight into what Israel's political and military leaders think about how and when the war will end. I do know what victory will look like beyond the war.
 
The renewal of devastated communities. The promise of safety and security at home, especially for children. Recommitment to the ideals and hopes that bind Israelis to one another, to their country, and to the Jewish people. Healing of a traumatized nation and the well-being of each and every hurting soul. These are not quick and easy achievements. They will require patience, compassion, understanding, resources, and resolve.
 
In every conversation I've had this week, after horrific descriptions of terror, loss, capture, fear, and grief, I hear in people's quiet words and see deep in their eyes the desire, hope, and resilience to redeem their lives and their country from the shock and tragedy of October 7th. Some have already begun. Others are not yet ready. Everyone is exhausted and so grateful that you and I care about them and want to help.
 
Whatever the geopolitical outcome, reviving the spirit and life of Israel's people in their homes and land defeats the hatred of terrorists and the antipathy of many in the world. I met this commitment in everyone everywhere everyday I was there.
 
I have in mind Maimonides’s ageless words passed down through the generations of our people. Ani Ma’amin, I believe. Though it seems to be so far off, I believe in a time of messianic peace, our people’s, and our world's redemption. On Shabbat each week we strive to sense this hope in the celebration of our sacred day. I come away from this trip to Israel believing in the values, ideals, and hopes of our ancestors, ourselves, and, I pray, our descendants. May Israel and the Jewish people, amidst all of humanity, continue to hold onto this vision. Am Yisrael Hai.
 
© 2024 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

purim concept and impact

Purim Message 2024 | 5784
 
Dear Friends,
 
For the last few weeks, I‘ve needed to make a spiritual and emotional adjustment to be able to celebrate Purim. I've been working on that. Two things are on my mind.
 
On the Jewish calendar there is a flow and a purpose to every moment and phase of the year. Every holiday represents a concept, an ethical value, a religious, spiritual, or historical memory or idea. Each year and every season, the Jewish calendar guides us through life.
 
My first question. What is the calendar concept of Purim? I don't mean that the Megillah says on the 14th of Adar we will celebrate. I understand the date. I want to understand the message of the Book of Esther.
 
What is the concept of Purim? What is the purpose of this holiday on our calendar of religious festivals and commemorations?
 
Purim is the only holiday that describes a plan to exterminate the Jews. On Purim we recall an existential threat to the Jewish people, a threat overcome through courage and conviction.
 
Celebrating Mordecai's convictions and Esther's courage, on Purim we laugh, mock, dress in costumes, and act silly. Why? What concept of meaning for Jewish life are we demonstrating?
 
My second question is more personal. I note with complete respect and admiration that at Congregation Beth El we range in lifespan individuals born between the 1930s to the 2020s. Collectively as a community, we represent a very long period.
 
Those of us alive in the 1930s, the 1940s, through World War II, maybe even into the early 1950s, those of us who lived then were present the last time antisemitism was so blatantly virulent and horrible.
 
Born in 1956, the formative years of my Jewish identity were the late 1960s, the 70s and 80s. I was ordained a rabbi in 1983. Those were what some call golden years for American Jews. They certainly were for me. The teachers I met, the variety of Jewish engagement opportunities available, the synagogue, youth groups, summer camps, Jewish schools I enjoyed, Israel trips, family celebrations, the many friends I knew. Truly, a golden age.
 
Read some about Jews in the news and periodicals today. Follow what some in the Jewish community are asking. Is that era over? Is it gone? Have we entered the “normal” experience of being Jewish in the world? No longer enjoying what we did in that second half of the 20th century that was formative for me and many of you.
 
Looking for an answer, I read a verse from the Book of Esther. Not that the Book of Esther speaks precisely to this moment, but if it is a text about haters who seek to exterminate the Jews, if it is a Biblical narrative about antisemitism, it may have some wisdom. Thoughtful commentaries about it may offer some insight.
 
There is the familiar scene in which Mordecai sends word to Queen Esther about Haman's plot against the Jews of Shushan. He urges her to go before her husband, King Ahashueros, and plead on behalf of her people. At this point in the story, no one in the palace knows Esther is a Jew.
 
We read, “Mordecai delivered this message to Esther. Do not fantasize that you of all the Jews will escape with your life by being in the king's palace.”
 
Rashi comments on the verse. “Do not fantasize, dear Esther. Do not think, "I'm safe. I'm okay. I'll escape." Because if you think you are protected, you are mistaken. Therefore, you don't want to endanger yourself by taking the risk of coming to the king without permission, right? (That's the story’s plot. Queen Esther needs personal permission to go to see her husband, the king.)
 
Mordecai continues. "On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter while you and your family will perish." Mordecai concludes his charge to Esther, "Perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis." Esther understands her uncle's instruction. She musters the courage to seek out King Ahashueros and the redemptive part of the Megillah begins.
 
I'm really taken by this idea of fantasizing about being Jewish. Has my Jewish life been a fantasy? Have I not been aware of anti-Jewish undercurrents throughout my years? Is the world so drastically different now? Many are saying in all sorts of articles and online posts, we've now re-entered history. During the years of my lifetime, we stepped out. Now, we're back.
 
On Purim, I ask myself. Is that true? Are my generation and I Esther? Are we the ones who at this moment must re-orient our outlook and respond? If so, how? Is this what I’m to think about as I celebrate Purim? How to respond to the antisemitism of this time and place.
 
An interpretation of Mordecai’s message to Esther may offer insight. It comes from a midrash on the Book of Psalms composed in 12th century France. Recall Mordecai’s concern for Esther. Do not fantasize that you will be safe, perhaps this is why you are queen. Comments Midrash Tehillim, “we learn from Mordecai’s words not to push people off with both of our hands but rather to push them away with the right and draw them near with the left.”
 
How do we respond to the antisemitism of our time and place? When we meet intentional and nasty antisemitic words or acts enacted by those who hate, our response must be to castigate the doers and their deeds. Beyond words or confrontation, we repudiate their venom by the decency of our humanity and the demonstration of our dignity for all to see.
 
When we meet ignorant antisemitic words or gestures demonstrated by individuals who don’t really know the meaning of what they say or do, our response should be to educate them to reconsider their deed. With one hand we reject. With the other hand we bring near.
 
For ourselves and the communities of our lives, we can also elucidate the Jewish ideas we believe in which define who we are. We can engage in Jewish joy and celebration. We can live our Jewish lives publicly and proudly. We can strive to learn more about our history and embrace our destiny, for in life our goal is to do more than survive. Our goal is to thrive. To live well. To do good, be happy, and to laugh.
 
In fact, on Purim we laugh at the absurdity of it all. We rejoice in the possibility that what happens to us has significance and that what we do produces meaning. It’s counterintuitive. We overcome our fear with happiness. We defeat terror by celebration. Though the threat we face is serious, we choose not to be intimidated by our enemies. Rather, we deny them the success they seek.
 
We are understandably anxious these days. We worry about Israel’s war, about all who suffer, and about the horrific antisemitism worldwide and all around us. We’re weary from all of this as we confront so much on every day. The purpose of Purim is to lift us up. Encourage us. Give us respite from all that appears to be difficult, and all that seems empty.
 
The calendar concept of Purim is to live life with joy and intensity. Celebrate what’s good. Stand up for what’s right. Defend against the absurd. On Purim, humor protects us. It helps us to cope. It nurtures our souls. We transform the threat of annihilation into the joy of living.
 
In Megillat Esther we read of how days of grief and mourning were transformed into days of festive joy. “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.” To which we add every Saturday night when we recite Havdalah, “so may it be for us.”
 
Now I’ve made the necessary mood adjustment. I’m ready for Purim and the reaffirmation of my Jewish spirit. I hope you are, too.
 
Hag Purim Sameah!
Happy Purim!
Rabbi Ron Shulman
 
© 2024 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

live as is

Shabbat Ki Tisa | March 2, 2024
 
Consider this important narrative in the spiritual history of our Biblical ancestors. Moses is atop Mount Sinai as the people encamped around the mountain wait impatiently for his return. They’ve earlier heard God’s voice in the declaration of the Ten Commandments.
 
Without Moses among them as a visible representative of God, they seem lost and appeal to Moses’ brother Aaron to create a replacement. From out of their gold and jewels Aaron crafts a Golden Calf. God senses something is amiss down in the camp and sends Moses back down to the people.
 
Imagine Moses’ anger. His personal knowledge of God is unique and secure. Moses serves as God’s agent, conduit of the twin miracles, redemption and revelation. Descending the mountain of God, grasping tight to tablets inscribed with the words, “You shall have no other Gods besides me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness…of God.”
 
Imagine Israel’s fear. Their leader Moses is absent a long time. Their understanding of God immature. Their memories are of Egyptians worshiping bulls or cows as sacred. Both their redemption from slavery but three months earlier and the unknowable future of their desert wandering are frightening mysteries.
 
Moses hears the people’s revelry as he draws near to the camp. He sees the Golden Calf and hears Aaron’s declaration, “This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Anger overwhelms Moses, perhaps frustration and sadness too. He throws the tablets of God’s revelation to the ground. They break into pieces.
 
The result of Moses’ anger and Israel’s fear is rupture. The symbol of their covenant with God, a vision of moral purpose and national destiny, lies broken before them on the ground. Between Moses and the people, between the people and God, there is little trust and great discord.
 
The next day, however, Moses calms down. “I will now go up to the Eternal God; perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin.” God has not calmed down. Unwilling to forgive in the moment, God punishes the people. In Torah text or real life, it is difficult to witness and reflect on the just or over wrought consequences that follow bad actions.
 
Which is why, today, I read this classic scene of Torah as a metaphor for us and our world, not only as a tale of religious memory from long ago. Broken fragments lie before us. We live in a world of too many shattered covenants, of disrupted social norms, of diminishing concern for the common welfare, and disregard of moral truths upon which freedom, goodness, and human dignity depend.
 
How did Moses and God repair the breach? We read from the lore of Jewish tradition, a midrash, an imagined conversation.
 
God says to Moses, “I have put the words of Torah in your mouth,” to lay the moral foundations of the earth. God continues, “but the people have exchanged My glory for the image of a bull, and you have broken the tablets. How will the world continue without Torah?”
 
Moses said to God, “What shall I do?” God said to him, “Carve for yourself two tablets of stone like the first ones.” Notice the command. “Carve for yourself.” Moses, take responsibility for what you have broken. Notice the comparison. “Like the first ones.” The original tablets came from God. Now Moses must approximate what he originally received, as if, they are the same.
 
As if. That’s how we’re supposed to guide our lives. All of us live as if now and again. Sometimes to negate and deny. As if it was true, people believe the slander and lies they hear about others. As if it didn’t happen, people deny events they wish did not occur. But these kinds of “as ifs” diminish our souls and weaken our spiritual strength.
 
“As ifs” that affirm, motivate, inspire, and transform reality, these postures strengthen us and bring us hope. To live as if helps us to imagine what might still be. To live as if we will exceed expectations, and then some. To celebrate Shabbat is to live as if the world is whole and redeemed.
 
From Torah and Jewish tradition, we learn. We are to live as if the moral precepts and social norms that sustain our society remain intact. We are to live as if what we say to one another still matters, because it does. We are to live with one another as if we agree to disagree so that what we share becomes more important than on what we may differ.
 
We are to live as if we remain whole and secure in the face of hatred or nastiness that may come our way. We are to live as if those held in captivity for 148 days will be brought home to their loved ones. We are to live as if what’s wrong is actually wrong, and what’s right is always true.
 
In Hebrew, as if is k’eelu. Our sages teach, a person who lives honestly and with integrity, it is k’eelu, as if, this person is God’s partner in sustaining the world.
 
Sustain the world. Like Moses once upon a time, we can take responsibility for what is by approximating what was. We can be spiritually alive to what can and still ought to be. We can live as if we have the power and potential to manifest the goodness and presence of God in our lives; to live as if doing what is right and speaking what is true still matters to the world.
 
© 2024 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

joy postponed

Shabbat Mishpatim | February 10, 2024
 

 

 
Hodesh Tov! This morning, we mark the first day of the last month of the Hebrew calendar, the month of Adar. Those of us familiar with the Jewish calendar know, however, that this isn’t a normal Adar. This is a leap year on both calendars that guide our lives. We’ll mark February 29th later this month, and thirty days from now we’ll celebrate Rosh Hodesh Adar again, adding not a day but a full thirteenth month to the Jewish calendar.
 
We do this, of course, to keep our two lunar-solar calendars in sync. To prevent Passover from becoming a fall festival and Rosh HaShanah from occurring in the spring. These seven leap years in a nineteen-year cycle of the Hebrew calendar are why our holidays float a bit. “The High Holy Days are early or late this year,” we all observe annually.
 
This year, the consequence of two months Adar, Rishon and Sheni, is to postpone our Purim fun and joy. (Which means I’m not going to regale you this morning with my high school memories of Mel Brook’s movie, Blazing Saddles, which marks its 50th anniversary this week.) During a leap year we celebrate Purim in Adar Sheni. I am grateful for this postponement this year.
 
A couple of weeks ago we postponed a class because of the rains. We rescheduled it for everyone’s safety and comfort. We don’t choose to postpone Purim. Holidays occur when they do. (Which is why the High Holy Days, Passover, Hanukkah, and all our holidays are actually on time each year, regardless of their overlap with the Gregorian calendar.)
 
Still, I’m grateful for this postponement. I want us to have fun, to be silly, to wear costumes, and rejoice. I just need some more time to get into the mood.
 
Toward the end of the Book of Esther, Purim’s sacred storybook, we read, “For the Jews there was light and happiness” as they defeated their foe Haman and survived his antisemitic threat. It doesn’t feel like we’re there just yet.
 
For those of us whose every day is intertwined with monitoring Israel’s war against Hamas, for those of us who daily pray for the release of those held hostage, things grow more complex and contentious every day. I don’t mind keeping my grogger on the shelf for another few weeks. Postponing joy feels like a proper metaphor for this moment in Jewish life.
 
On the other hand, think personally. Too often we postpone our joy or contentment because the moment doesn’t seem right. When we’re stressed, when we hurt, when we’re sad, frustrated, or ailing. The more time we spend being understandably unhappy, the less time we have for experiencing contentment overall.
 
Jewish joy is more than happiness. It is hope amid gloom. Sings the Psalm, “ba’erev yalin be-khhi, v’la-boker rinah.” “One may lie down crying at night weeping but wake up in the morning with joyful song.” The seriousness and significance of our lives is best understood when joy or serenity accompany our pains, when we place into a larger context and perspective every type of experience we meet.
 
This is Jewish joy. Present in the pleasure we give and receive. Simple, caring gestures of attentiveness and compassion toward others. Offers of assistance, efforts to help, taking time to listen and cry with one another. Doing what’s right, being sensitive and acting ethically are sources of deep Jewish joy and gratification.
 
Judaism teaches us to seek life’s joy. We do not live in this world to suffer sad nights, though we do too often. We live to sing the joy that comes in the morning, to love and to nurture, to fulfill the promises of God’s creation, and to complete the world’s existence. Even when its hard and especially when we don’t feel like it.
 
In Torah this morning, we read a familiar commandment to observe sacred festivals three times a year. One comment on this command teaches that we should always associate God’s name with our joys and celebrations. Gratitude for each routine or holy day is our very best expression of joy.
 
Though postponing joy may feel like a proper metaphor for this moment in Jewish life, joy postponed cannot become joy denied. That’s why next month, Adar Sheni, will begin with the refrain, “when Adar begins joy increases.” Together, we will figure out how to celebrate Purim.
 
Before then, today and every day, I hope we each find a sense of Jewish joy and purpose. The best and only way to cope, be content, and respond to the world is to live in goodness, with integrity, compassion, and by celebrating our lives and our Jewish heritage.
 
© 2024 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

revealed boundaries

Shabbat Yitro | February 3, 2024
 

 

 
I appreciate that everyone here is not a sports fan, and those of us who do follow our favorite teams and athletes are not all experts about the rules of the games. Yet, I believe there is one fundamental concept about sports competition we all understand. I use it as a metaphor for a larger conception of who we are and how we live today.
 
Out of bounds stops the play. Out of bounds stops the clock. When a player steps out of bounds, when a ball lands outside of the regulation playing area, officials, referees, or umpires pause the game and reset. Even a well-played achievement is called back because it wasn’t in bounds. It didn’t take place within the space of the regulated playing field. Fair competition requires boundaries.
 
This morning, Torah teaches us that revelation also requires boundaries. Rabbi Neil Gilman explains. “Revelation is what brings God into relationship with a community of human beings.” In relation to God, a community determines what it affirms, what it denies, and what’s up for debate. As a reflection of God, a community and adherents set the necessary boundaries.
 
Revelation comes from complex interactions with history. Real events and ideal visions acting in tension with each other result in the discovered and received truths Judaism teaches and the sacred traditions we honor. All validated in the experiences of the Jewish people through time and place. All honored as the boundaries of what it means to behave, believe, and belong as a member of the Jewish people in covenant with God.
 
“You shall set bounds for the people round about,” God tells Moses. Protect the people gathered around Mount Sinai. Notice, observe commentators, God does not say set bounds around the mountain. People need boundaries, not mountains. Boundaries set limits. Boundaries protect. Boundaries distinguish.
 
In the Torah text, as Mount Sinai quakes, fire burns, and the shofar blares loudly, God reminds Moses to keep the people at a safe distance. Read closely, it's a confusing narrative conveying disorientation. Experiencing the Divine is an inexplicable sensation. So, Moses reminds God in turn. You’ve already warned us to honor the boundaries of your Presence among us. Then God speaks.
 
“I am the Eternal your God; you shall have no other God’s beside Me.” These first two utterances establish spiritual boundaries between God and humanity.
 
Think about the Ten Commandments with me. These can be read as statements and visions of boundaries. These prominent commandments symbolizing God’s revelation to the Jewish people, and through us to all of humanity, mark a variety of social, personal, and moral boundaries.
 
“You shall not swear falsely nor bear false witness.” The third and ninth commandments delineate acceptable and unacceptable words and discourse.
 
The fourth commandment to “remember Shabbat” urges us to measure and mark the boundaries of time so we may find in life meaning and purpose.
 
“Don’t murder, commit adultery, or steal” set out boundaries between people and property in order to protect human dignity and interpersonal propriety.
 
“Honor your father and your mother,” the fifth commandment places each of us within a context of family, community, and social groupings. Such boundaries help us to belong, to have a place, and to define our relationships with others. These do need to be porous boundaries, however, that we may allow others in and not only keep them out.
 
Let me teach you a curious midrash. It’s a comment on the first statement of the Ten Commandments. “I am the Eternal God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
 
A rabbi named Hananiah reads the text differently. He declares, “I am the Eternal God who was led out of the land of Egypt with you.” Hananiah is reading a text in which a letter is missing so the Hebrew word for “brought you out” is spelled and read as “was led out.” This interpretative reading echoes a view among the ancient sages that “to whatever place the Jewish people were exiled, God’s presence was also exiled.”
 
The creative power of this misreading, or perhaps this accurate reading, is the possibility that God is absent, or the ideals and values we teach in God’s name are absent, when human beings break the boundaries that are necessary to hold us together. When people deny and destroy the dignity of others. When we breach the boundaries of the social contract required to contain revelation. When we flout revealed and cherished truths. Look all around. Such is the world we inhabit today.
 
In a world like ours now is, in a world of broken moral and social values, just like at Sinai, our sensations overwhelm. We feel confused. We strive to hold multiple thoughts and feelings simultaneously. I know us. I know you. I know our people. We feel compassion for the horrific pain and intolerable suffering of so many while demanding absolute justice and security for our own in response to our agony and anguish.
 
Still, inside the boundaries of my family, community, and people, I can affirm two things at the same time. Israel is just in its war against Hamas and too many in Gaza suffer. The violence upsets us while an acceptable resolution eludes us. Israel’s battle against an unbounded enemy so enmeshed in what should be the infrastructure of a civil society is unprecedented. So is the cruel captivity of 132 hostages and their families for whom we are nervous and pray.
 
This is not a game. This is not a competition between injured and hurting people. Consider the moment. Be in God’s presence. War, even when just and in self-defense, unavoidably involves violations of moral margins. If we cannot affirm this within and beyond the boundaries of our experience of the world today, even while standing strong and resolute, how then do we live as Jews with Torah as a revealed moral guide for life and promise our children and grandchildren better days of meaning, goodness, and peace.
 
© 2024 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

torah for our distressed souls

Shabbat Shemot | January 6, 2024
 

 

 
My soul, our souls grow weary as war wages, as hate rages, and the steady flow of bad news engages us. For many of us, counting the days creates the backdrop against which we live and in which we worry. I don’t know about you, but from my first waking hour of each day I check the news to see what happened over night, to sense some of what I might feel every day. Today is day 92 of Israel’s war against Hamas.
 
For meaning in our count, I look to Psalm 92, known as the Psalm for Shabbat. Though it makes no mention of Shabbat, the poem is about a day of soulful rest. The poet contemplates the troubles he sees in the world at large and declares his hope that the righteous will endure, the wicked will perish, and the values we teach of God will triumph.
 
As Psalm 92 declares, “I shall see the defeat of my foes, hear the downfall of the wicked who beset me.” The righteous shall bloom, in old age produce fruit, and attest to all that is right and good.
 
As the days and our count of them grow longer, we too contemplate what’s troubling and hope for better days. Israel and we who associate ourselves with Israel, all of us who proudly and positively affirm our place and our role in the world as Jews, Israel and we defend ourselves as few before us have ever had to.
 
The only “success” Hamas can claim on and after October 7th is to force our ultimate victory over them out of the multiple lose-lose choices Israel and the IDF confront. The unforgiveable costs of this war Hamas exacts for everyone are death and destruction, pain and suffering.
 
Speaking for myself, my soul breaks as my head aches from the visions of violence I see and accustom myself to. More than seeing them, my heart and soul sadly make sense of them and understand them at this existential moment about Israeli and Jewish survival.
 
The currency Israel spends is the bravery, courage, compassion, and unity of those who fight. The resilience of those who support. The individual and collective strength of those who endure heartache, grief, and anguish. Our moral debates and conversations, our angst and discomfort, our compassion and questions are also valuable resources we expend. That’s why my, our, souls are weary.
 
Yet, also in our souls resides resolve and a surprising hope that animates many in Israel and beyond. Listen to this example. A poem I received yesterday written by Rachel Goldberg-Polin, whose son Hersch was wounded and captured by Hamas at the Supernova Music Festival on October 7th. Hersh remains held in captivity as a hostage in Gaza.
 
One Tiny Seed (by Rachel Goldberg-Polin)
 
There is a lullaby that says your mother will cry a thousand tears before
you grow to be a man.
I have cried a million tears in the last [67] 92 days.
We all have.
And I know that way over there
there’s another woman
who looks just like me
because we are all so very similar
and she has also been crying.
All those tears, a sea of tears
they all taste the same.
Can we take them
gather them up,
remove the salt
and pour them over our desert of despair
and plant one tiny seed.
A seed wrapped in fear,
trauma, pain,
war and hope
and see what grows?
Could it be that this woman
so very like me
that she and I could be sitting together in 50
years laughing without teeth
because we have drunk so much sweet tea together
and now we are so very old
and our faces are creased like worn-out brown paper bags.
And our sons
have their own grandchildren
and our sons have long lives;
One of them without an arm
But who needs two arms anyway?
Is it all a dream?
 
Learn with me Torah for our distressed souls. As our souls and the soul of our people become more deeply mired in the muck of this insufferable situation on each next day, it is the spiritual right of our values and ideals we need to affirm. We must manage our existence in the realities of today with a vision of the ideals we believe are still true every day. We need to care for our souls.
 
We turn to a scene of Torah. Moses stands before a thornbush all aflame, “yet the bush was not consumed.” A legend of our tradition addresses our distressed souls. “A Roman once asked Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah, ‘why did God choose a thornbush from which to speak to Moses?’ Rabbi Joshua replied: ‘Were it a carob tree or a sycamore tree, you would have asked the same question; but to dismiss you without any reply is not right, so I will tell you why.’’’
 
Let me explain Rabbi Joshua’s retort. We cannot take to heart those opposed to our perspective, who doubt us and deny us and Israel the integrity of our being. They’ll always find ways to question and challenge us. Ours is to respond with what we believe to be true, with the visions for life and humanity that inspire and animate us. To go about our lives they stubbornly and nastily try to disrupt. So, Rabbi Joshua explained to his challenger.
 
“‘To teach you that no place is devoid of God’s presence, not even a thornbush. Therefore, it is for the Jewish people to make clear that God’s sovereignty can be found everywhere in the world.’’’
 
Or as the sage Rabbi Yohanan once said, “Just as this thornbush is used as a gate to protect a garden, so is Israel to be as a gate protecting the world.” That’s our role. That’s our purpose to live and secure as Jews. Protecting what is just and right for the world until many more are ready to embrace these ideals as their reality, too.
 
Back to Moses, once again. He turns aside intrigued and perhaps awed by the mysterious sight of a burning bush not turning to ash. Another midrash imagines God calls to Moses from out of that thornbush and says, “Do you feel that I am not entangled in distress like the people of Israel are entangled in distress? Pay attention from where I am speaking to you. Among the thorns, as if to represent that I am also a participant in their troubles.”
 
The Burning Bush is a symbol of Jewish continuity and endurance. Surrounded by the flames of disdain all too often, and living everywhere and at all times, as God’s witnesses to humanity, the Jewish people and our heritage survive and thrive through the visions of life and goodness we teach and affirm in God’s name.
 
The Jewish spiritual tradition urges us to be patient and trusting. “Anyone who is distressed together with their community will merit seeing the consolation of the community.”
 
As Psalm 92 declares, “I shall see the defeat of my foes, hear the downfall of the wicked who beset me.” The righteous shall bloom, in old age produce fruit, and attest to all that is right and good. This is the song we sing on Shabbat calming our distressed souls and directing us toward an eventual and inevitable peace.
 
© 2024 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

fight for light

Shabbat Hanukkah | December 9, 2023
 

 

 
Hanukkah does not celebrate war. As told in the ancient Book of Maccabees the horrors of war and conflicts between different warring groups are core to the Hanukkah narrative. Hanukkah celebrates the victory at war’s end. As Judah says to his brothers, “Now that our enemies are defeated, let us go up to Jerusalem to cleanse the Temple and rededicate it.”
 
It's too soon for Israel to celebrate any kind of victory. This Hanukkah, we need a different framework for our celebration and deep, emotional, visceral concerns. One of the things that helps me during Israel’s war against Hamas is learning from those before us who lived through intense and harsh moments of attacks on Jews and Judaism.
 
20th Century Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote extensively about being Jewish after the Holocaust. Fackenheim’s thought helps me. As he reviews the calamities and tragedies sadly so prevalent in the history of our people, Emil Fackenheim writes, “Jewish thought in our time must move forward toward self-exposure to epoch-making events.”
 
“Epoch making events,” often tragedies, break what was and in response demand renewal and new vision. Think about the birth of rabbinic Judaism in Babylonian exile.
 
Think about Hanukkah. The actual events of Hanukkah are sandwiched in between much larger social and political developments: the conquests of Alexander the Great, the philosophical and cultural roots of Western Civilization, the emergence of the Roman Empire and the development of Judaism’s oral, rabbinic tradition. Clearly, epoch making.
 
Think about the creation of a vibrant Jewish life in and around the State of Israel in our lifetimes. A Jewish existence and presence Israel currently fights to protect and secure.
 
Looking back at the creation of the State of Israel out of the ashes of the Shoah, Fackenheim worried about people making that connection between the horrors of World War II and the creation of the State of Israel. He wrote, "while to see a casual connection here is possible and necessary, to see a purpose is intolerable. No purpose, religious or non-religious, will ever be found in Auschwitz.” Nor in the savagery of October 7th no matter what political entities may come to be in a Middle East of the future.
 
What Fackenheim sought then, what we will come to seek now in the aftermath of Israel’s war with Hamas, is not purpose but response. “Yet it is of the utmost importance to recognize that seeking a purpose is one thing but seeking a response quite another. The first is wholly out of the question. The second is inescapable.” The very survival of Jews after historic trauma depends, in the end, on how we respond.
 
October 7th was, and will always be seen, as an epoch-making event. Israel and the Jewish people are changed by this. Ultimate victory will have to include, again to quote Fackenheim from decades ago, us seeing this moment as “an epoch-making response to an historic challenge. No light matter, it is a fateful step.”
 
Another piece I recently read was by Cantor David Frommer. Cantor Frommer is also Captain David Frommer, who first served the IDF in Gaza in 2004 and then later served as an American soldier in Afghanistan and Kuwait in 2012.
 
Thinking about Hanukkah, Cantor-Captain Frommer observes, until I faced it personally, the one “aspect of war I had been missing, of course, was its terribleness, and consequently, any understanding of the dedication required to wage it. Dedication, as it turns out, lies at the very core of the meaning of Hanukkah.”
 
About war, Frommer explains, “it is terrible when we’re not sure what we’re doing, and equally terrible when we know exactly what we’re doing.” But, had Judah not defeated Antiochus and the allies not rid Europe of Nazism, “the world would indeed be a far darker place than it is today.”
                                     
This year on Hanukkah we do not celebrate war. Instead, we acknowledge how terrible we feel as Israel fights this war. Anticipating Israel’s eventual victory over Hamas at war’s end, this year on Hanukkah we choose to celebrate the many and moral possibilities of light.
 
We dedicate ourselves to the light of hope overtaking darkness. We dedicate ourselves to the light of love replacing hate. We dedicate ourselves to the light of goodness triumphing over evil. We dedicate ourselves to the light of peace for our people in Israel and for all people in the region.
 
This year, as we kindle Hanukkah’s light each night, the flames shining bright represent our conviction that in God’s name justice and decency reign and our belief that being Jews brings each of us dignity in life and purpose in living.
 
Reflect on this piece of Talmud. The 4th century Talmudic sage Rava sought to solve a ritual dilemma. If a person only has enough money to purchase wine for kiddush on Shabbat or oil for kindling lights on Hanukkah, which has priority? Rava answers his own question. “The Hanukkah lamp takes precedence due to publicity of the miracle.”
 
What does this mean for us today? In a world so focused on Israel and the Jewish people, and not because we’re popular, we must each take public and personal responsibility for who we are as Jews. We must publicize the miracle of our resilience and our ageless hopes to help establish a world of justice, goodness, life, and peace.
 
After the Maccabees rededicated the Temple, Judah Maccabee stationed men to guard it. Out of anger, Greco-Syrian opponents of the Maccabees attacked anew. War continued for many years as the Hasmonean leaders of Judea battled their foes.  Judah himself died in battle twelve years after the rededication of the Temple.
 
Hanukkah does not celebrate war. Hanukkah celebrates our religious heritage and identity as Jews, a minority in a large and often foreboding world. Our Hasmonean ancestors fought to defend their lives and their people. They fought to see the light of Torah and Judaism shine bright for generations to come.
 
On Hanukkah we create that light to make a dark world bright. A potent religious symbol, light signifies life and goodness, hope and God’s presence. On Hanukkah, we ignite sparks of holiness and gratitude. We rejoice in the miracles of Jewish history.
 
This Hanukkah demonstrate pride in being a Jew, care and compassion for the people of Israel, for the hostages still captive, and for all the innocent who suffer. Pray that God’s light of peace and goodness may soon shine again and for all time.
 
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

whisper no more

Shabbat Vayishlah | December 2, 2023
 

 

 
I’m whispering because Jewish children in captivity were not and are not allowed to be heard. I’m whispering because my anguish and anger would otherwise be deafening. I’m whispering because I can’t bear my comfort and safety without demonstrating some kind of connection to Israel’s hostages.
 
My deep compassion and caring extend to those still in captivity and those thankfully free; to their families and the entire extended family of all those taken hostage. We the Jewish people are who these hostages and their families courageously represent in their suffering and torment.
 
In a difficult piece of Torah before us this morning, our patriarch Jacob’s daughter Dinah doesn’t speak. Less than a whisper, she has no voice. Jewish tradition is curious. Preparing and nervous to meet his brother Esau, Jacob takes his wives, maidservants and eleven children across the river for safety. At this point in the narrative, Jacob has twelve children, eleven boys and his daughter Dinah born to his first wife Leah.
 
The midrash wonders, where was Dinah? Why is she not mentioned? Our sages imagine, Jacob placed her in a box and locked her away. This ancient legend has a profoundly contemporary and eerie sound to it.
 
Why did Jacob put Dinah in a box? To protect her? To shield her from Esau? To hide her from view? We don’t know. It’s a fantasy so we can only ask. In contrast with the horrible reality of Israel’s sons and daughters held silent, hungry, and terrified in the boxes of their confinement. Sadly, we do know why.
 
Sometime later, Dinah is attacked and humiliated by a prince infatuated with her. Violence and conflict ensue in an ugly and unfortunate story reflecting a Biblical memory of the mores and uncivilized morals of the ancient Near East. A barbarism still very much present in the Middle East of today. A cruelty trying to silence Jewish voices.
 
Though Dinah’s brothers seek to avenge her honor, most striking to me and to many readers of this text is Dinah’s silence. Rabba Sara Hurwitz, an Orthodox teacher and scholar answers. “Dinah was silent because she didn’t have the words to express her trauma.” She couldn’t even whimper or whisper.
 
A couple of days ago, an Israeli woman told me that when people ask her how she’s doing she answers, “I’m trying to be like everyone else.” I smiled. I gave her a hug. Then I whispered in her ear. “Don’t be like everyone else.” Our people and our world desperately need us be ourselves, instead.
 
Let’s heed this message of Torah. After resolving Dinah’s fate and getting his family settled, Jacob finds himself in God’s presence to receive God’s blessing. God declares, “You shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.” In this verse, Israel means, “God will rule.”
 
To be Israel, to be a Jew, is to hold a distinctive identity advocating for the sovereignty of life affirming values taught in God’s name. To be Jew is to envision justice, goodness, and human decency in a world where these ethical principles are not automatic or always assumed. Though the tragedy of war upsets and challenges us, our resolve and solidarity are because we must defend these visions and truths central to who we are, what we believe, and toward which we strive to live.
 
We must not be quiet in speaking about and living out these ideas. We cannot shirk and we most certainly will not whisper. Ultimately, we will know peace has come long past the cessation of hostilities when the voices of our children are heard loud and clear, unafraid and secure.
 
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

A complicated time of thanksgiving

Shabbat Vayetzei | November 25, 2023
 
The Talmud lists blessings to be recited corresponding to the experience of awakening each morning. These b’rakhot were originally recited at home to heighten awareness of the presence of God in our lives at the start of each new day.
 
Rabbi David Abudarham, a 14th century Spanish commentator who wanted the Jewish people to better understand their prayer tradition explains, “We have been commanded to recite all these blessings to give thanks that God has supplied all that is needed for our bodies to be healthy, so that our souls should be content and able to contemplate the graciousness of God and give thanks to God’s name.”
 
As American’s 19th century poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson similarly composed, “For each new morning with its light, we are thankful. For rest and shelter of the night, we are thankful. For health and food, for love and friends, for everything God’s goodness sends, we are thankful.”
 
I share this today mindful that while my Thanksgiving celebration was lovely and delicious, it was, and is, also a time of very complicated emotions. Perhaps that’s what I’m most thankful for, the ability to hold different ideas and emotions simultaneously and sometimes uncomfortably together.
 
Witnessing the emotionally and ethically fraught plight of the hostages, their families, their loved ones, and all of us focused on them and their circumstance, it’s a bit surreal to enumerate and celebrate the blessings and comforts of my life. We live at a time of war not peace. A war waged on our behalf as Jews, not only a war to defend the state and people of Israel.
 
I’m thankful for the humanity we share to hold these complicated and opposing experiences together in our hearts and minds. Shaking our humanity is one of terrorism’s goal. I’m grateful they fail.
 
This Thanksgiving weekend, when I recited the morning blessings, my body and soul focused on one b’rakhah in particular. “Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh haOlam, sh’asani Yisrael, who made me a Jew.” This daily represents our conviction that in God’s name justice and decency reign and our belief that being Jewish brings each of us dignity in life and purpose in living.
 
In my memory is a harsh echo of this idea. It is the testimony of a Holocaust survivor who speaks on a large screen at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “’A man tells of watching another inmate in the camp praying. ‘Why are you praying,’ he asks. The man answers, ‘I am thanking God.’ The first man is stunned. ‘For what could you be thanking God? What is there to thank God for in this hell?’ And the second man calmly responds, ‘I am thanking God that God did not make me like them.’”
 
As an American Jew this Thanksgiving, my focus is mostly elsewhere as I am thankful to demonstrate my pride in being Jewish, my care and compassion for the people of Israel, for the hostages still captive, and for all the innocent who suffer. I pray for a future date of Thanksgiving when all are safe, secure, and the thoughts of my heart and head are less complicated and more content.
 
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

stubborn and unfailing

Shabbat Toldot | November 18, 2023
 

 

 
I didn’t go to Washington DC for the Israel rally. Watching it online, I felt a deep and profound sense of Jewish peoplehood and unity with everyone who was there. Sad that it takes a crisis to bind us. Glad that this bond is the palpable feeling I sense right now for an overwhelming majority of Jews wherever we may be.
 
As I listened to the speeches, I thought most of us now share a common understanding about what are seeing and experiencing. We’re clear in our horror as hostages continue in captivity and our outrage at too many others who don’t seem to care at all. We’re clear in our disappointment that the complicated and moral cause of Israel’s fight is not clear to so many others.
 
We and Israel don’t fight only to survive. We seek to live as Jews alongside a thriving and secure Jewish state because, as God tells Moses in the Exodus story, we are a stiff-necked people.
 
We are a stubborn people. Unfailing in our conviction that in God’s name justice and goodness reign. Unrelenting in our belief that being Jewish brings each of us dignity in life and purpose in living.
 
Last Monday evening, the night before the DC rally, I attended our Women’s Connection Rosh Hodesh gathering. I pointed out the proudly absurd irony of our heritage and their program that night. There our wonderful women sat waiting to discuss antisemitism with me after they first explored opportunities to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide Thanksgiving cheer to families needing support.
 
We are a stubborn people. Unfailing in our conviction that in God’s name justice and goodness reign. Unrelenting in our belief that being Jewish brings each of us dignity in life and purpose in living.
 
Rabbi Regina Jones was a woman ordained in Germany as a Reform rabbi in 1935. She was murdered in the Theresienstadt ghetto on November 6, 1942. Part of her legacy is a document entitled, “Lectures by the Only Female Rabbi Regina Jones.” Let me read you her final words in this text.
 
“Our Jewish people was planted by God into history as a blessed nation. ‘Blessed by God’ means to bestow blessings, lovingkindness, and loyalty – regardless of place and situation. Humility before God, selfless love for God’s creatures, sustain the world. It is Israel’s task to build these pillars of the world – man and woman, woman and man alike have taken this upon themselves in Jewish loyalty. Our work in Theresienstadt, serious and full of trials as it is, also serves this end: to be God’s servants… May all our work be a blessing for Israel’s future and the future of humanity.”
 
We are a stubborn people. Unfailing in our conviction that in God’s name justice and goodness reign. Unrelenting in our belief that being Jewish brings each of us dignity in life and purpose in living.
 
Jacob wears his older brother Esau’s clothes. Rebekah, their mother, covers Jacob’s arms and neck in hairy animal skins so that before their blind father Isaac, Jacob can pretend to be Esau, the older, furrier son. Jacob approaches his father Isaac to receive the first-born son’s blessing, a blessing to which Jacob is not technically entitled.
 
In a famous and poignant verse, the climax of this Torah scene, we sense Isaac’s suspicion as to which of his sons Esau or Jacob stands before him. Isaac wonders, “the voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.”
 
The 12th century French sage, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, Rashi’s grandson known as Rashbam, explains Isaac’s quandary. “Having first established that unlike Jacob who was smooth skinned, the son in front of him was hairy, Isaac was now faced with a dilemma. Whether to trust his sense of hearing or his sense of touch.”
 
We trust Jacob’s voice, the heartbroken voices of pain, resilience, and hope that we hear in Israel. We do not trust, as too many others do, the camouflaged arms of terror dressed up as resistance and used to hate.
 
Watching the Israel rally in Washington DC, I was moved hearing so many Jewish voices imagining a different and better future. Hoping for eventual peace. Expressing empathy and compassion for all who suffer the tragedy of this battle. For the hostages, their families, soldiers and civilians, Israelis and Palestinians.
 
We are a stubborn people. Unfailing in our conviction that in God’s name justice and goodness reign. Unrelenting in our belief that being Jewish brings each of us dignity in life and purpose in living.
 
In Torah, to resolve his dilemma, Isaac smells Jacob’s clothes, which are really Esau’s garments. Fooled by Rebekah and Jacob’s trick, Isaac blesses Jacob.
 
I don’t derive any insight or direction from this story for our response to Israel’s war against Hamas. But, as a metaphor, the image works. We know who and what to trust as news flows from battle.
 
Unlike Isaac, we knowingly bless Jacob, who at times may need to be wily in order to claim his birthright. We bless Jacob, who becomes Israel, with our eyes wide open because most of us share a common understanding about what we are seeing, about what is happening. How many people do we know, fooled by disguises and falsehoods, see the story in reverse and knowingly or unknowingly bless Esau?
 
Still, we are a stubborn people. Unfailing in our conviction that in God’s name justice and goodness reign. Unrelenting in our belief that being Jewish brings each of us dignity in life and purpose in living. May we be resolute and determined in our support of and solidarity with Israel, and in the dignity and promise of our personal, shared convictions as Jews.
 
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

insufficient words and powerful symbols

Shabbat Vayera | November 4, 2023
 

 

 
When words are insufficient, symbols become powerful. I’ve been asked a few times these past couple of weeks if, as a precaution, it is okay for Jewish families to remove the mezuzah from the front doors of their homes. It’s a very hard question to hear. I know of those who approached me, it was a very hard question to ask.
 
Let’s be honest. These friends are not asking a ritual question. Their question is a visceral representation of the discomfort and fear they, and many of us, feel. We don’t have the words to adequately express our horror at the barbaric events of October 7th. An attack which has unleased against Israel and the Jewish people a world-wide antisemitic torrent of venom.
 
Previously believed to be somewhat contained, constrained, or at least hidden from public view, antisemitism is now in vogue in our communities, on our students’ college campuses, in the hate and lies of social media, and in the loneliness we sense.
 
You’re all aware of what’s going on. You bring your examples and stories to me in search of a response or at least some comfort. Some of you report being abandoned by neighbors, colleagues, and once assumed communal allies. I don’t want to overstate it, but I cannot understate it, either. This is real.
 
We do have friends. There are good people of moral conscience who see us and support us. I have heard from local ministers asking how they and their congregations can support and be with us. We’re talking about that. I am grateful for these calls. It’s just that in our ears the noise of those who hate is simply louder and so vile.
 
Antisemitism is unique in history among people’s prejudices. Beyond their hate, antisemites are zealous, preaching violence and extermination. Why? The essence of antisemitism is to believe Jews are not a natural people within society. Though we are numerically small and have no objective conflict with anyone else, through the millennia and today those who hate us project onto we Jews whatever noxious or threatening characteristics disturb them about their life circumstances.
 
Remember what we have said to each other numerous times. We respond to others’ ignorant and hideous hatred for us from a posture of confidence, conviction, and pride. We are not Jewish because they hate us. We are Jewish because we love the values and ideals of our people’s historic and enduring heritage.
 
“Inscribe these words of Torah on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Mezuzah is the doorpost, though we have transferred the name to the decorative case that holds those Torah words written on a small scroll, or klaf. The mezuzah case often displays the Hebrew letter shin, or a Hebrew name for God Almighty, shin-dalet-yud, Shadai.
 
In medieval days, these three Hebrew letters came to represent a fervent religious hope that God is Shomer Delatot Yisrael, Guardian of the doors of Israel. Some Kabbalistic and Hasidic teachers leaned in on folklore and superstition seeing the mezuzah as a Biblically ordained amulet or magical charm.
 
As one sage taught, a mezuzah “imparts in our hearts the principle that Divine protection pervades Israel at all times, day and night.” An attribute misused to this day as an explanation for tragedies in locations where the words inside a mezuzah have faded.
 
Respectfully, a mezuzah is not a shield. A mezuzah is an emblem. It marks a Jewish home. It is a sign of our people’s historic covenant and an individual’s or family’s commitment to being Jewish. At a time of Jewish vulnerability, the mezuzot on our homes are a display of Jewish unity.
 
I understand and sympathize with those who asked me about taking down their mezuzot. I comprehend the fear that animates their question. My answer, however, is one of trust and pride. If I take my mezuzah down, hate wins. Terrorists win. Extremists win. I lose something precious about who I am and who I want to be in the world.
 
The medieval Torah scholar Abraham Ibn Ezra thought, “In times of trouble, God saves those who serve God out of fear. However, God protects those who serve God out of love, from encountering trouble.”
 
Setting aside wishful thinking, for certainly we’d all like a guarantee of Divine protection, as a religious symbol the mezuzah protects our souls. It reminds us that we do love the values we believe in and the ideals of Torah we cherish “with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might.”
 
These days we despair and are upset. We despair at what took place on October 7th. We are upset by all we witness in the necessity and tragedy of war. Keeping a mezuzah on the doorposts of our homes indicates our Jewish purpose and conviction. Seeing the mezuzah balances our current despair and upset with a true vision for life and goodness.
 
Recall with me our people’s master story. Before their exodus and redemption, the ancient Israelite slaves in Egypt were told to place lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their houses. This, of course, is the earliest origin of our ritual mezuzot.
 
The Torah story explains that seeing the blood on the doorposts God will pass over the Israelite slaves’ houses in the dark terror of striking down Egypt’s firstborn sons. The actual Torah verse reads like this. “And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you…” The focus of this commandment is on the people performing it. Imagine their fear, their courage, and their redemptive hope.
 
Reading this verse, voices in Jewish tradition ask. Would God’s harbinger of death really need a map of the neighborhood to know which homes to strike? The Talmudic sage Rabbi Joseph answers, yes. “Once permission has been granted to the Destroyer, he does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked.”
 
When we see or kiss a mezuzah, we must know this. We think not only of ourselves, but of everyone else, too. Jewish identity is our proud distinction in life. We do not live in isolation from others. That’s why the marginalizing prejudice of antisemitism so hurts us. The maps the IDF may use in waging war cannot become diagrams of our hearts segregating our pain and feelings of compassion for everyone this battle tragically impacts.
 
When words are insufficient, symbols become powerful. Though I speak about mezuzah, you and I know I’m really talking about us. Right now, our words are insufficient expressions of the complexity and difficulty of all we are going through.
 
Let the mezuzot marking our doors protect us as we manage ourselves and our emotions. We need to be strong and concerned as well as compassionate and humble. A mezuzah is one powerful symbol urging us to serve God and humanity out of love, not fear.
 
Out of love, we pray. Shomer Delatot Yisrael, Guardian of the doors of Israel, as we stand in solidarity with the people of Israel, may those who defend our people's historic homeland find strength, courage, and humanity in their task. May those held in captivity be released to their loved ones. May the State of Israel and everyone who lives in and around her know peace. May that day come as soon as can be.
 
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

our most powerful light

Shabbat Lekh Lekha | October 28, 2023
 

 

 
There is no Shalom on this Shabbat. There is war. Israel’s plows are now swords and Israel’s pruning hooks are now spears. Few are the words that will mean anything right now. Many are the emotions and thoughts that weigh on our hearts and minds.
 
My role is not to be a pundit or military analyst. Understanding what we are feeling, my role is to speak to our pain and strengthen our resolve.
 
We and our family in Israel are hurting. We and our family in Israel are grieving. We and our family in Israel are shaken. We and our family in Israel are worried. We and our family in Israel are united. We and our family in Israel are determined. During these darkest of days, I want to help us find our most powerful light.
 
Our children and grandchildren, our teens and college students, our young adults and our elderly need us to be present to them. They need us to explain our loneliness in an ignorant world that shuns us. We must protect them from the cruel words and acts of antisemites and their copycats. It is also our task to answer their questions, calm their fears, and fortify their souls with hope and Jewish affirmation.
 
We rally around and stand up for Israel because the Jews in Israel are our family. We are bound to them in memory and history, by destiny and identity. We know better than anyone else how Israel’s place in the Middle East is complicated, not yet secure. We also know it is just and correct.
 
We are hurting because of the harm done to Israel, and therefore to us. We are hurting because we don’t want others to be hurt in our name. We did not seek this war and carnage. We do want to live another day.  We want to see the world made right.
 
Many of us are advocates for Israeli-Palestinian peace and mutual recognition. We argue about it and do not all support policies by Israeli governments, or violent acts by Israeli settlers, that undermine Palestinian aspirations.
 
Hamas, however, does not seek the creation of a free and independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas wages war to destroy Israel, not to build Palestine. That’s why for us the usual Israeli-Palestinian debates simply don’t apply right now.
 
Too many around us and around the world don’t understand this. They perform intellectual gymnastics attempting to justify barbarism. In what world of justice and peace does a totalitarian, brutal, bigoted, sexist, and cruel terror regime garner sympathy for their inability to see Jews as human beings?
 
As we support Israel, we need to speak about the Palestinian people. We empathize with them as much as one people can understand another from the outside. They feel for their own as we do for ours. Innocent civilians in Gaza live under harsh and difficult circumstances. We recognize how truly complicated is this strained co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians.
 
We cry deep and real tears of compassion for all who mourn, for all who hurt, and for all who suffer. This includes Israeli civilians of all ages and life stages, soldiers, and innocent Palestinians in Gaza. We pray for them all. We care about them all. We yearn for peace.
 
Our hearts break. We are deeply hurt. We cherish peace and human dignity above all else. Yet, in despair we know. Hamas, who cynically put Palestinian civilians in harm’s way as part of their evil ideology, must be defeated for the sake of Israel, Palestinians, and all people.
       
During these darkest of days, I want to help us find our most powerful light. I find it in the words of our prophetic tradition. Words that remind, inspire, and focus me when so much that I see is awful and upsetting.
 
In this morning’s Haftarah, the Prophet Isaiah tells the exiled Israelites of 6th century Babylonia of the futility of evil aggression. “Less than nothing shall be those who battle you in war.” About Israel, some verses later, Isaiah declares Jewish national purpose, to be “a light of nations.”
 
Our heritage and our history call us to bring light into a deeply dark world. To seek for all people life and goodness, justice and freedom, dignity and peace. We want to live another day and see the world made right. We stand with Israel not only at this time of war. We stand with Israel in our shared vision of what we hope can be when this war is won.
 
As a light of nations whose plows are now swords and whose pruning hooks are now spears, may we soon live out Isaiah’s most famous prophecy. “And they shall beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; they shall never know war again.”
 
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

rules of engagement

Shabbat Noah | October 21, 2023
 

 

 

In Torah and Jewish tradition there are extensive discussions about what makes for a just war and what ought to be the rules of engagement when going into battle. To be clear, Israel’s current war against Hamas is just and, sadly, proper.
 
We read in Torah that four types of men are exempt from military service. A new homeowner, the owner of a vineyard who has not yet tasted its fruit. A newlywed, and one who is afraid. Each of these four affirms life. Each of these individuals represents something about life that is unfulfilled. Something that ought to be nurtured even in the face of battle. Life affirming postures that must endure and be secure in war’s aftermath. Jewish tradition strives in many places to protect the humanity of those who must act in ways that challenge their ethics, as war necessarily does.
 
Talmudic tradition adds. Among the people excused from military service is a person who while putting on tefillin is interrupted after wrapping the leather straps around their forearm before putting on the headpiece. We can only wonder.
 
As a rule of war, why would the rabbis concern themselves with a simple ritual? The Torah’s four exemptions seemingly make sense. A man who is afraid and disheartened will never be a good soldier. What does this Talmudic ceremonial addition mean?
 
Imagine the head symbolizes one’s intellect. We bind our tefillin on our arms to hold their words near our hearts. During war, if an individual permits the force of their hands, motivated by understandable and legitimate emotion, to overpower the ethical reasoning of their mind, that individual is not a fit soldier. Especially in war, our mind’s just purposes must check our heart’s justified passions.
 
I heard President Biden make this same point in his remarkable speech in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. He said, "You can’t look at what has happened here and not scream out for justice. While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it.” Easier said than done for us all.
 
We are consumed, however, by the hypocrisy of the media narratives that rarely understand Jewish rage and fear, yet all too quickly and uncritically amplify Hamas’ outrageous propaganda. What we who live here need are our own rules of engagement. Not Torah ideals about ancient wars, however morally quaint and insightful, but personal and communal norms to guide us through these very difficult circumstances.
 
[1] We don’t have to like this. We shouldn’t like this. What this should do is make us uncomfortable. Imagine, if you even can, how the hostages held in Gaza tunnels feel. How victims, grieving families, soldiers waiting for their orders, and all who are impacted feel. From this safe place, uncomfortable is the least we can be.
 
[2] Israel will not be a perfect actor in this war. No nation could be. However, Israel will never be an intentionally unethical combatant. Israel’s complicated and urgent moral obligation is to defend its citizens and the Jewish people from the threats of those who hate us.
 
[3] Cry deep and real tears of compassion for all who mourn, for all who hurt, and for all who suffer. This includes Israeli civilians of all ages and life stages, soldiers, and innocent Palestinians in Gaza. Pray for them all. Care about them all. Yearn for peace.
 
[4] At the same time, understand. None of our compassion and worry excuses or rationalizes the atrocities committed by Hamas, a terrorist organization which only sabotages all prospects for humane responses in Gaza. They, and they alone, bear the moral responsibility for all the suffering of this war.
 
More so. No matter our pain, real and genuine feelings for others, there must be justice for the Jewish children, elderly, and adults so brutalized, dehumanized, and murdered. Apparently, we’re almost the only ones who ascribe value and tragedy to the loss of Jewish children. How quickly and wickedly the camera lens changes its view and loses its focus.
 
[5] We respond to the anguish and urgency of this moment by taking affirmative acts of Jewish identity. We must stand out and stand up as Jews at home, among our colleagues, and in our community. These affirmative acts may include speaking out, educating, advocating, learning, practicing Jewish rituals, or any other positive expression of Jewish purpose.
 
This morning our Torah text reinforces the sanctity of life. Human beings are created in God’s image. Humanity is urged to protect and cherish life, not to spill blood. Blood sustains and symbolizes life.
 
[6] Another and unique rule of engagement. Before we eat kosher meat, it is soaked and salted in order to remove the blood. Separating meat from milk as we eat to nourish our bodies sustains our souls’ yearning for life over death. Do this, even if just for now, as an affirmative act of Jewish values. Buy kosher meat. Or at least separate meat from milk when you eat. We need to maintain our personal moral equilibrium at this time of war, as we remember the dead, hope for the captured, and pray for the living from October 7, 2023 until today.
 
Israel’s current war against Hamas is just and, sadly, proper. There is inexcusable and cruel evil in our world that must be defeated. Hamas’ charter dehumanizes and calls for the murder of Israelis and Jews.
 
Among the harshest tragedies in all of this is the cynical use by Arab nations of Palestinian civilians as pawns in their chess game to hurt, delegitimize, and destroy Israel. Please see and understand this as the world cries out for humanitarian assistance in Gaza and no Arab country responds.
 
[7] One last rule of engagement. Do not acquiesce to apologists who see any type of moral equivalence in this battle. There is none. Which is why none of us is exempt from engaging in this war. Our challenge is to be resilient, steady, and attuned to the simple truths and complex circumstances of this existential fight for Israel’s existence and the Jewish people’s destiny.
 
Everyone in Israel, and many of us here, knows one of the 1,400 souls who were massacred or abducted on October 7th. Every Israeli, and many of us as well, know one or more of the soldiers and reservists now serving in the IDF. Therefore, together we pray.
 
May those who defend our people's historic homeland, may the Israel Defense Forces and Israel’s leaders find strength, courage, effective strategic insight, and humanity in their task. May the State of Israel and all who live in and around her know peace, as soon as can be.
 
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

moral clarity and solidarity

Shabbat Bereshit | October 14, 2023
 

 

 
Shabbat is a day of peace. Shabbat is a day of quiet, rest, spiritual and physical renewal. Shabbat celebrates the precious gift of life and existence. Shabbat is a day for Jewish connectivity and gathering. It is hard to honor all these Shabbat ideals right now. It is also necessary that we try, even while Israel is under vicious attack and at war as never before.
 
Last Shabbat’s surprise barbarism and massive barrage of missiles from Gaza, the devastating breach of Israel’s borders by Hamas terrorists, the heinous kidnapping, torture, and brutal murder of Israeli civilians along with soldiers, and the tragically large and growing numbers of dead and wounded unnerve and upset us. Along with all Israel, on this Shabbat, we are devastated and distraught.
 
Our emotions are mixed and many as we react to these vicious attacks on Israel and our people and as we monitor the war Israel must fight.
 
We feel grief for so much loss of life and suffering. We are angry as we see the barbarism and inhumanity of such unimaginable slaughter and cruelty. We feel compassion and pain for those who mourn, for those wounded whom we pray may heal, and for those whose lives are changed forever by the horrors inflicted on them.
 
We feel unity with and love for the people of Israel and for the Jewish people worldwide. We feel lonely, aware that some of our neighbors and too many others don’t understand what we and all of Israel confront. We feel cautious. Following the news as we must, we try not to fill our heads with the noise of those who try to justify or find excuses for the dehumanization of Israelis and Jews. There is no moral equivalence in this battle.
 
We feel sad that past traumas of Jewish history echo in the darkness of these days. We feel inadequate as we work to respond and assist from the safe and comfortable distance of our homes and community. We feel hope in the resilience of Israel’s citizens and in the promise of Israel safe and secure as soon as can be.
 
We grieve with our friends in Sha’ar HaNegev, San Diego’s sister region in the south of Israel. The residents of Sha’ar HaNegev are experiencing the worst of Hamas’ attacks in their cities and on their kibbutzim. They are the ones whose suffering and despair you see on TV. We worry with all of them for their captured and wounded. We grieve with all of them for their dead, and for the loss of a dear friend to so many in our San Diego Jewish community, Mayor Ofir Libstein.
 
We think of all who are our family in Israel, individually as relatives or friends and collectively as Jews. We send to them our support and concern. When our land, our state, and our people are under attack by enemies sworn to our destruction, the most important thing we can do is to let Israel and Israelis know we are with them.
 
As Rabbi Libman and I wrote to you this week, we demonstrate our support for Israel by showing up for one another here in our Jewish community. We support Israel by spending a portion of our day gathering accurate news and making sure our families are aware. We support Israel by reaching out to our Israeli families and friends who are confronting this frightening reality. We support Israel by our advocacy and explanations to friends and neighbors. We support Israel by sustaining and embracing our people's heritage as we affirm the ideals in which we believe at this challenging time.
 
On Shabbat, we also study Torah. This week’s lesson is clear and unequivocal. The world’s creation reflects God’s transformative love. The world exists to enable our lives. We exist not only to thrive, but to sustain the moral and natural beauty of the world.
 
Too many amidst the variety of humanity fail to fulfill these imperatives of life. Too many human beings negate and neglect the inherent dignity of all people. Too many hate. Too many direct their hate at we Jews who are privileged to be the bearers of these Divine truths and ideals into the world.
 
More deeply, I derive from this week’s opening chapters of the Book of Genesis that while creating light God knew how truly dark and evil people could be. Follow the progression of the Torah’s first narrative. “God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light.” God’s words suggest intention. Light is both a natural phenomenon and a metaphor for life and love.
 
As human beings come to life, the first Biblical myth sees in humanity the promise of goodness. “And God created humankind in the Divine image, male and female. God saw all that had been made and found it very good.”
 
In the second Biblical myth, God places human beings in a paradise, the Garden of Eden, “to till and to tend it.” Interestingly, God instructs Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit from one of the trees in the garden. Of course, they do! As a result, God realizes human beings have knowledge of good and bad.
 
God also comes to learn something about human nature. Humankind is aware of right and wrong. Murder ensues. Blood spills. God despairs. “The Eternal God saw how great was human wickedness on earth, how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time.
 
What follows next is in my mind the saddest verse in all of Torah. Torah begins in the light and promise of creation. We learn of human dignity and responsibility. We celebrate life and love. Yet, as human nature reveals its darker side, God laments. “And the Eternal God regretted creating human beings on earth.” God plans to blot out the evil doers and begin again.
 
I do not teach Torah this way to suggest it is a blueprint for Israel’s defensive war. I pray for Israel’s leaders to find the wisdom, insight, and ethical sensitivity they’ll need to conduct this war justly, effectively, and successfully, as they must.
 
I teach this text to remind us all. There is inexcusable and cruel evil in our world that can never be justified or excused. It must be defeated. Hamas’ charter dehumanizes and calls for the murder of Israelis and Jews. Do not acquiesce to apologists who see any type of moral equivalence in this battle. There is none.
 
It is morally just and necessary that Israel defend against this unprecedented attack. Though we all have deep and searing compassion for innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians, the usual Israeli-Palestinian conflict debates don’t apply right now. No desire for civilian safety, and no criticism anyone may have of Israeli policies toward Palestinians, justifies the atrocities committed by Hamas, a terrorist organization which has only sabotaged any and all prospects for peace and co-existence. They, and they alone, bear the moral responsibility for the suffering of innocents.
 
I teach Torah this morning so that in the days ahead we’ll remember. There really is such a thing as moral right and immoral wrong. It’s time for all people of conscience and caring to stand up and declare this truth to the four corners of the world. A world that we who are Jews believe was created to reflect God’s transformative love.
 
At Congregation Beth El we stand in solidarity with the people of Israel. May those who defend our people's historic homeland find strength, courage, and humanity in their task. May the State of Israel and all who live in and around her know peace. May that day come very soon.
 
May Shabbat soon again be a day of peace. Shabbat Shalom.
 
© 2023 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

high holy day sermons 2023 | 5784

yom kippur sermons 2023 | 5784

On Yom Kippur, in the form of an imagined Podcast I discussed How To Think About God.
On Kol Nidre Eve, I reflected back and looked forward advocating for our Moral Ascent.

godcast: how to think about god

Yom Kippur 2023 | 5784
 

 

 
Thought I had an original idea. To present this sermon stylistically as if it were a podcast. Except you don’t have to wear earbuds. Since my subject is how to think about God, I thought I’d call this talk a “Godcast.” A quick search of available podcasts revealed there are at least 56 podcasts called Godcasts out there. So much for my original idea! Though from my very brief review of them, none of those podcasts seem to reflect Jewish theology.
 
We’re told by pollsters that most Americans, more than three-quarters, do not often have spiritual or religious conversations. In fact, one study of 1,000 people showed that only 7% of us talk about spiritual matters regularly.
 
For my purposes this morning, that means I have to figure out how to speak to the other 93% of you. I have no trouble speaking spiritually or talking about God. It’s what I do for a living!
 
You and I are fortunate. As adherents of Judaism, we know that anything we say about God is symbolic. We name or describe God in order to capture some aspect of life in this world that’s important to us. When we speak about God, we’re actually talking about ourselves. We impose on God the images and concepts we need in order to find meaning in and define purpose out of the experiences of our lives.
 
My first podcast guest is Rabbi Neil Gillman. Rabbi Gilman, how do you describe the ways in which we think and speak about God?
 
“All of our human thinking and speaking about God uses our familiar human experience in a metaphorical way. All of our characterizations of God are human creations, never objectively true or false. They are shaped by human communities and products of the cultures in which they arose.” Thank you, Rabbi Gillman.
 
Let me tell you when the question of how we talk about God first occurred to me. My second guest on this Godcast is my 8th grade Hebrew High School teacher, Rabbi Joe. (That’s his real first name.)
 
Rabbi Joe, do you remember when I was sitting in the back of the classroom talking somewhat rambunctiously with my friends? You were frustrated with me. You called my name, asked me to come to the chalkboard and copy a Hebrew phrase from the Torah onto the board.
 
Reluctantly, I rose from my seat, approached the board and began writing the Hebrew verse in chalk. When I announced to all that my task was complete, Rabbi Joe you turned around to look at my work.
 
“What have you done?” I asked you in anger. “Did I copy the wrong verse?” you replied with surprise. “You can’t ever write that!” I shouted to you and the entire class. “Write what?” I asked on behalf of us all. “The four Hebrew letters that are the name of God, Yud, Hey, Vav, Hey. We can’t ever write them down,” I explained. “Oh, I didn’t realize that” you answered. “I just copied the verse you assigned me. I’m sorry.”
 
Rabbi Joe, what happened next? “As you apologized, you turned back to the board, picked up the eraser and began to correct your mistake.”
 
That’s right. As I was erasing what I wrote, I heard you scream even louder. “No! Don’t erase it. Now it must stay on the board.” Rabbi Joe, remember? “Oh yes. I walked forward, picked up the chalk and drew a box around a half-visible representation of God’s name. All of you,” I told your class, “are to leave this alone.”
 
Rabbi Joe, tell us what happened after you left the room for recess? “At recess a group formed around you and the board. In youthful defiance, you each took turns erasing and writing, erasing and writing the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters our tradition uses to symbolize the name of God.” Thank you for being with us today, Rabbi Joe.
 
I do not recount this story out of any disrespect for Rabbi Joe or Jewish tradition. It’s just that his reaction fostered a distance between me, many of my classmates, and God rather than the awe and respect he desired us to feel.
 
At that moment, I decided. In whatever became of my religious and spiritual development, I would choose to speak or write God’s name without abbreviation or shortcut. I discovered the first premise of my personal theology. I will not be afraid of God or God’s name.
 
The next voice to speak with us on our Godcast today is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a frequent visitor with us on the High Holy Days. “Thinking about God begins when we do not know any more how to wonder, how to fear, how to be in awe.”
 
Or as I like to say, Rabbi Heschel, life’s mystery is God’s reality. A spiritual essence found within the workings of the world. Innate to our experiences, not beyond them.
 
I like to think that God is present through us when we experience life, through us when we respond to life. God is present through us when we meet, through us when we respond to one another. When we are loving, healing, and giving. When we strive to redeem others from the struggles of their lives. By transcending ourselves, by moving beyond ourselves, by thinking about something more than ourselves we bring God into the world.
 
God speaks within us the voice of conscience. God animates within us uplift and inspires us upward to be better. By our caring God draws us outward. As we are gentle and gracious God draws us forward. God protects our inner spirit from hopelessness, helplessness, and despair. Belief in God motivates us not to allow ourselves to sink into small thinking or timidity, to be self-absorbed or callous.
 
Listen to this remarkable teaching of our next guest. He comes to our Godcast today from the 18th century. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was a leading Hasidic teacher who moved his community of adherents out of Belarus in the Russian empire to Israel in 1777.
 
Rabbi Menahem Mendel now speaks. “All my life I have struggled in vain to know what human beings are. Now I know. Human beings are the language of God.”
 
I agree, Rabbi. It is not God but we human beings who let God be present or force God to be absent in the activities of our lives. How we act, how we treat one another, how we speak, justly or unjustly, is precisely how we experience God. We are the language of God. Some people sew division or demonstrate contempt as the language of God their lives speak. We also celebrate the blessings and inspiration we receive in life as a God language of gratitude.
 
Human beings are the language of God because God’s name is ineffable. That’s what Rabbi Joe was hoping to teach me. There is literally nothing we can say for certain about God. We develop our ideas about God in contrast to what we know about ourselves. We are physical. God is incorporeal, spiritual. We are finite. God is eternal.
 
Let me ask each of you listening to this podcast. Were you to see yourself as the language of God, or if as I said at the start, if speaking about God is actually talking about ourselves, what do your God ideas, in the affirmative or the negative, say about you and your life?
 
On Yom Kippur, this most spiritual and challenging of Jewish dates and observances, what weakness do you confront? What strength do you celebrate? What lack do you hope to fill? What gift can you give others? What support do you wish to receive? What need do you want to meet? What joy do you want to hold close and keep?
 
To help us think about these questions, I’ve asked Rabbi Shai Held to join our podcast. Rabbi Held, let me ask you. Because our way of thinking about God reflects something about who we each are, how ought we frame our thoughts theologically?
 
“One of the great challenges of religion is that many people end up worshiping a God who is just as small as we are. That God shares our biases, embraces our hatreds, and above all, blesses our comforts.”
 
If so, Rabbi Held, can we change that? “The whole point is to worship a God who is far greater and more expansive than we are. A God who exposes our biases, loves those we hate (or simply have no time for), and interrogates our complacency.”
 
In other words, if I were to summarize, our ideas about God ought to challenge us not excuse us. Raise us up. Help us transcend what holds us down. Heighten our sense of moral outrage or moral purpose.
 
“Yes!” Rabbi Held, that doesn’t sound like your voice. “No, it’s me your patriarch Abraham.” Who is a more appropriate guest than me to speak on a Godcast?”
 
Point taken, Abraham. Please teach us. “At one point in my Biblical story, God told me, ‘Ani El Shaddai, I am God Almighty.’” Abraham, what does this name of God mean?
 
“For that answer, ask the Talmudic sage Reish Lakish to add his voice to our discussion.” Reish Lakish, please. “It means, I am God, sh’dai, Who said to the world: Enough!” (Sh’ represents God said. Dai means enough.) In other words, if I may, this name for God represents boundaries, perspective, limits, and contentment. Enough.
 
God’s nature results in our mandate. We can have too much. We can work too much. We can want too much. We can control too much. We can worry too much. We can eat, drink, spend, yell, consume, waste, and talk too much.
 
We debate. Do some have too much at the expense of others who don’t have enough. We wonder about the limits of nature’s resources. We often find ourselves encouraging those whom we love to strike a balance between work, or study, and play. There is such a thing as too much.
 
Abraham and Reish Lakish, isn’t it fascinating, the name of God, El Shaddai, which translates as “God Almighty,” as in all-powerful, is understood by voices in Jewish tradition to represent limits, “enough.” Even of power there can be too much. Dayeinu!
 
This is how we think about God. We discover the value of limits, of not only dreaming big dreams, but finding satisfaction in living as we must. A Yom Kippur lesson to take to heart.
 
We also learn to think about God from our people’s religious history, from our parents and their perspectives, or from others we meet in life. In the end, however, it is only through our own experiences, from what makes sense to us, from what inspires us, that God becomes real to us.
 
Belief in God emerges out of personal experience, not professed philosophy. Other insights we may come to are concepts we imagine or hope, but as faith are not fact. Thinking about God is confronting that which is unknowable but from our individual vantage points believable. Seeking sources of meaning in ideas and ideals as we each make our way through the challenges and complexities of life.
 
The experiences we each collect in life are different. And whatever truths or values our experiences may teach us or lead us to, we are each privileged to glimpse but a small aspect of any greater truth.
 
Ethics, conscience, history, common sense, human decency, science, these are all necessary checks on the purposes and meanings we ascribe to what we believe. To think about God, consider your beliefs as grounded idealism. Let them elevate your spirits and touch your hearts even as what you believe informs your mind.
 
We come to think about God through experience, through relationship, through goodness, justice, and truth. Through us God is present in the world. Demonstrating our belief through ritual and celebration, through conscience and ethics God becomes real to us.
 
Finally, to close out this Godcast. I believe we find God’s presence in our experiences when we apply our own religious imagination and sense of wonder to them. When we intuit in what we are feeling something extraordinary in the ordinary moments of every day.
 
The embrace of lovers. The kiss of a parent to their child. The tears of sadness when there is a loss. The pangs of anxiety before a debut. The thrill of accomplishment. The warmth of friendship. The frustration of trial and error. The happiness of learning something new.
 
All of us are affected by these things. All of these can be sacred moments when we think about God. Think about people’s courage and determination. Think about their cries and laughter. Think about their fears and pride. Think about peoples’ relief and resilience, their compassion and mutual support. Think about life’s deepest pains and greatest joys.
 
I think about God this way. Life’s mystery is God’s reality. I find God within the workings of the world. Innate to our experiences, not beyond them. God is intrinsic to our being, within our lives and not external to them. God grants our world and each one of us the resources, talents, and gifts to survive and, hopefully, to thrive.
 
My thanks to Rabbi Neil Gillman, Rabbi Joe, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, Rabbi Shai Held, our patriarch Abraham, Talmudic sage Reish Lakish, and all of you for sharing in this Godcast.
 
On this Yom Kippur, as you reflect on who you are and how you live, think too about what you believe. As you consider at least one area of your life in which you might change and grow, think too if what you believe still stands you in good stead. It might. It might not.
 
Here’s how you may know. We demonstrate what we believe more effectively than we profess it. As Rabbi Heschel once wrote, “We have no nouns by which to express God’s essence. We have only adverbs by which to indicate the ways in which God acts.”
 
It’s practical theology. When our choices demonstrate our values. When our behaviors represent our beliefs. When our presence in life matters to others. When we imbue our Jewish identities with meaning. When we strive to make a difference in the world of our loved ones and experiences.
 
To think about God for yourself, answer these two questions. What do you think you believe? What do you do to make it true?
 
G’mar Hatimah Tovah!
 

elyon: moral ascent

Kol Nidre 2023 | 5784
 

 

 
G’mar Hatimah Tovah! At the conclusion of this sacred day, I pray we are all inscribed for goodness in life and contentment in heartfelt response to all that fills our days. Year after year, we go through this ritual. We adopt this sacred routine and on Yom Kippur take a spiritual journey toward soulful renewal and personal wholeness.
 
Mi Yom Kippurim zeh ad Yom Kippurim haba. From this Yom Kippur until the next.” We know our journey is finite, limited. We seek not a ‘once and for all’ healing. Our goal is an annual review and revival of spirit, purpose, and self-awareness. Please God, we’ll be well this year and back here doing it all again next year. Just like we did last year and the one before that.
 
Mindful always of those not with us, we understand the urgency of these hours and the boundaries of space and time that both constrain and motivate us. As we just noted before we confessed our sins, "Our days are a passing shadow. Only is the Eternal God of time without end.”
 
I’m sensitive to the passing of time. This High Holy Day season marks forty years since my rabbinic ordination in 1983. (I know, I look much younger! I feel much younger, too.) Like Moses who wandered with the ancient Israelites for forty years on their road to the Promised Land, I, too, have journeyed for forty years with the members of the congregations I have served. Which means, looking around, after forty years this must be my Promised Land! Where else could be more enticing and endearing?
 
Vivid images of people, places, sacred times, personal and professional milestones fill my mind from the past four decades. Too many to tell you about right now. It has been, as it remains, a genuine privilege to join with families and friends at their lives’ most intimate and significant moments.
 
I have rejoiced with congregants at joyous occasions and cried with them at times of deep sorrow. I’ve worked to encourage their Jewish growth. Understand their Jewish angst. Support their personal challenges. Help to create community among and between them. Each congregation a vibrant microcosm of the Jewish people.
 
I’ve also participated in and witnessed the trends, the achievements, the challenges, and the evolution of American Jewish life. Picking one from the many changes I’ve seen in synagogue and Jewish life, I’m keenly aware the center hasn’t held.
 
Religiously or ritually practicing Jews have moved right while less traditionally engaged Jews have moved left. I feel this personally as the particular cultural, institutional, and communal world of the Conservative Movement in which I was raised and began my rabbinic career has waned. (I don’t even know how many of you understand or relate to that statement as a reflection of your own backgrounds and experiences. I’ll spare you the details for now. Ask me later if you’re curious.)
 
This is not a lament. I recognize that personalities and institutional cultures formed in the context of 20th century memories and models naturally give way to the more diverse demographic patterns and less conventional sensitivities of Jews today. I celebrate, and I hope I have contributed to, the creativity and innovation in synagogue life that seeks participation over presentation, meaning over form, and individual empowerment over institutional norms.
 
Still, I do believe in the religious ideology and functional purpose of Conservative Judaism as a relevant lens for beholding, interpreting, and practicing a vibrant, modern, and traditional Judaism. It is in the religious and social center that we best seek truth among competing ideas and create community among diverse people. Congregation Beth El is a dynamic demonstration of this quest.
 
After forty years in synagogue life, I also appreciate how underappreciated you all are as synagogue members. While so many in our culture point to people’s waning interests in organized religion and congregational affiliation, the fact is that most American Jews call upon a synagogue at various times in their lives to support and facilitate their Jewish needs. Today, more Jews belong to synagogues than any other Jewish organization and, as a group, synagogue members are more active in all other Jewish organizations than Jewish adults who are not synagogue affiliated.
 
Historically and still today, synagogues are the core organizations and foundations of every healthy Jewish community. Synagogues are where Jews gather. Synagogues represent Jews and Judaism to the larger world. Devoted and long-standing synagogue members generously and loyally keep this true. So, to you, and as if you also represent the synagogue Jews I’ve served elsewhere, thank you!
 
Hard as it is for me to believe I’ve been a rabbi for forty years, what matters to me is what comes next not what’s already been. “Mi Yom Kippurim zeh ad Yom Kippurim haba. From this Yom Kippur until the next.”
 
If now is the moment of my arrival in the Promised Land, to where have I come? What now are you and I to do? Instead of reflecting on Moses and his forty years leading ancient Israel, to go forward I want to take us back even farther. Back to our beginnings. Back to Abraham when the promise of a land, a people, a religious creed, and a destiny began.
 
One interesting episode in Abraham’s life finds him in battle. Near the Dead Sea, Abram must go to war to rescue his nephew, Lot, who has been taken captive from his home. A fugitive from the battle brings this news to “Abram the Hebrew, haIvri.” This is the first time Torah uses this descriptive term.
 
Abram the Hebrew, haIvri, suggests more than tribal identity. As Jewish tradition interprets the term, Abram stands apart. He is eiver, beyond or across. “All the world was on one side, and he was on the other,” teaches the ancient sage Rabbi Judah. It’s not about identity. It’s about belief. It’s not about who he is, who we are. It’s about what we stand for, what we seek to represent in the world.
 
We learn from this description of Abram as haIvri, the Hebrew. At a time when almost all the boundaries between distinctive groups of people are permeable - which we applaud as a positive development for society and humanity - only our religious and ethical ideas, Jewish beliefs and values that emerge in their variety from our sacred texts, shared experiences, and historical memories, can bind us together as a community of Jews.
 
Back to the Biblical episode. At the conclusion of the battle, with Lot home and safe, Abram meets an ally, King Melchizedek who brings him bread and wine. Torah tells us this foreign king was “a priest of God Most High,” who greets Abram, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High – Barukh Abram l’El Elyon.” Elyon, derived from aliyah, means ascend, transcend. It is a word expressing our highest aspirations, a vision of excellence and awe.
 
Moses himself referred to all of this when preparing Israel to enter the land toward which he led them for forty years. Moses instructs that the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot are to settle in the very Dead Sea region where Lot once lived. Carrying memories of their ancestors’ travails and exhausted by their own wandering, Lot’s descendants, descendants of first person called a Hebrew, descendants of those Hebrew descendants who themselves were once slaves in Egypt, come home.
 
We learn from these scenes. Out of strife, following conflict, in response to any discontentment we may feel, we can raise ourselves up toward the promise of a better vision. How many of us, following a difficult experience or a personal scare, grow toward and make necessary and positive changes in lifestyle or circumstance to prevent repeating what we’ve been through?
 
Pay attention to your life, your decisions, your achievements, your regrets. This sacred night. It is possible to transcend our troubles and look up toward a better vision of self, of society, of life.
 
As a symbol of this better vision, I describe King Melchizedek’s description of Abraham and his relationship with God. “Blessed be Abram of God Most High – Barukh Abram l’El Elyon.” Elyon, meaning ascend, transcend. A word that expresses our highest aspirations, a vision of excellence and awe.
 
El Elyon is a phrase you may recognize from our liturgy, as well. As we acknowledge when standing before God’s presence in the words of our Amidah prayer, “haEl haGadol, haGibor, v’haNora, El Elyon…”
 
Now, notice what metaphors follow as we describe God. “Gomel hasadim tovim, bestowing lovingkindness and goodness. Koneh hakol, Creator of all. Zokher hasdei avot, remembering the compassion of those who came before. U’mevi goel, bringing redemption. B’ahavah, all of this in love. In the next paragraph, our praise continues with more Divine attributes: sustaining, healing, supporting, and freeing.
 
Gathered on this sacred night in honest reflection, we seek to imagine what more, what better, and how best we may live our days.
 
We look back on pandemic years and their still present aftermath. We live as Americans amidst social division and cultural derision. We identify as Jews aware of hatred and engaged by the challenges and blessings of acculturation. We are daily sensitive to wars, conflicts, and suffering all around the world.
 
On this sacred night, we can, and we must, root our vision for the lives we lead and the community in which we live in traits of Divine inspiration and human aspiration: kindness, goodness, creativity, memory, compassion, healing, supporting, understanding, redeeming, and loving.
 
This is what Moses tells our ancient Israelite ancestors after their forty years of wandering. “And that God will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above, u’l-titkha Elyon, all the nations that God has made; and that you shall be, as God promised, a holy people to the Eternal your God.” Torah teaches us. Holiness, as a reflection of God, El Elyon, is the highest level of moral resolve.
 
On June 16, 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy. Rabbi Heschel was writing to accept an invitation to a meeting for religious leaders planned to discuss the social, ethical issues of the day.
 
Know this about Rabbi Heschel. He believed that individual moral responsibility is the heart of human dignity. As he concluded in his telegram. “I propose that you Mr. President declare a state of moral emergency. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
 
After forty years in the rabbinate, I believe the focus of Jewish life, of being Jewish, in addition to literacy and active engagement with the norms and ideals of Judaism, I believe the focus of Jewish life must be renewed personal and social morality. If I were poised as a thought leader for the whole of the Jewish people, I would renew Rabbi Heschel’s call for “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
 
As a religious community, as caring Jews, we must hold ourselves and our society to moral account. Our role as Jews and caring human beings is to audaciously motivate the goodness and ethics our society requires.
 
This means personal resolve. Care and compassion. Honesty and integrity. Generosity and activity on behalf of others, by whatever means we can. And spiritually. By living the ideals of our personal ethics. By embracing moments of mitzvah, of connection, of faith, of hope, and of love. We must live the values we believe in, and let those ideals be most important to us.
 
To live as a Jew is not only to practice, learn, and engage. To live as a Jew is also to seek moral truth, develop moral courage, and exhibit moral strength. To sustain a synagogue community, we can be more than Beth El, we can strive in our programs, our services, and our efforts to become “Beth Elyon.” A Jewish source of the highest ethical ideals and moral aspirations our individual and collective lives require.
 
For however many more than forty years I am blessed and privileged to serve as a rabbi, I hope to teach and preach this vision of Jewish meaning and purpose, to help us all look toward a future of heightened goodness and moral ascent.
 
G’mar Hatimah Tovah!
 

rosh hashanah sermons 2023 | 5784

Rosh HaShanah: Unsettled: The Gloriously Complex and Compelling Reality of Being Jewish
I have never presented one, expansive Rosh HaShanah sermon in sections over the course of the entire holiday. This year, as I thought about and prepped for the High Holy Days, I found myself returning to and expanding on the same theme. I decided to pay attention to my heart and my head.
 
You can read the entire piece below, or by clicking here, or further down the page you may read or listen to and reflect on each one of the three sermons separately.
 

Unsettled: the gloriously complex and compelling reality of being jewish

Rosh HaShanah 2023 | 5784
 
-I-
It’s been quite a year since we were last here. How have you been? I’ve been well, thanks for asking. Looking back, like me, I hope you have much to appreciate, little to regret, and some good moods and moments to carry with you into this New Year. I trust you and I also have some mishaps and memories to leave behind in the annals of last year.
 
If your retrospective on last year is more negative than positive, I wish you renewal and rejuvenation in the unlived and undefined days ahead of us. Use these sacred days to plan changes where you can, imagine responses to circumstances as you must, and live the best you are able by pushing yourself to manage with everything else.
 
Jewish tradition offers a daily b’rakhah, a blessing to recite each morning acknowledging any unsettled feelings we may hold. Barukh Atah Adonai, Blessed are You, Eternal God, Eloheinu Melekh haOlam, Sovereign of existence, haNoten la’ya-ef koah, giving strength to the weary.
 
These words were added to the list of blessings we recite each day as support and encouragement to those feeling unsettled and overwhelmed by the events and circumstances of their lives. We’re all weary at one time or another. Yet, through determination, and with the support of others, for through our caring comes God’s caring, we can all be strong of spirit, of purpose, and of vision as we meet the opportunities and challenges of each new day, of this New Year.
 
Unsettled. Was there ever a time in the past when folks didn’t live in a world unsettled by conflict or change? Bothered by disagreement or discord? Overwhelmed or stymied by the too fast or too slow pace of progress? Striving to hold on to the familiar or personally yearning for respect and acceptance?
 
No. Apart from our individual sense of being content or discontent in life, in every era of human history, there were reasons for people to feel uneasy about their larger world. Were the ancient Israelites calm and steady as they wandered through the wilderness to a new and unknown land? In our history of exile, conquest, persecution, or acculturation, our ancestors rarely lived at ease as they evolved new forms of Judaism and Jewish identity in foreign lands.
 
It may just be that a Torah based religious tradition, what we know as Judaism, first fully emerged in response to the larger world, to the religious-cultural expression of ancient Greece, Hellenism. Think Maccabees and their zeal for Torah among the Jews of their day that we recount on Hanukkah.
 
That would mean that for almost 2200 years, we Jews have actively and creatively interacted with the larger world. Our mandate is not to withdraw unto ourselves, but to know who we are and give of ourselves.
 
In the larger sweeps of human history from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Age, through World Wars and revolutions, reacting to the printing press, the renaissance, and the enlightenment, people have always felt anxious.
 
Our time is one in which we must keep up with the dynamics of information, technology, gender identity, climate concerns, social schisms, political polarization, and the development of artificial intelligence. We feel, as people always have, a mix of wonder, curiosity, and apprehension.
 
Being unsettled is also part of Jewish identity. The Book of Proverbs teaches us to transform our uneasy feelings into joy. To be constructive and productive with our worry. Commenting, the Talmud teaches to live a dynamic and focused life, join with others to counter the stresses and challenges before you.
 
Ben Sira, a second century Hellenistic Jewish scribe and sage wisely cautions us. Deal with today. “Do not suffer from tomorrow’s trouble, as you do not know what a day will bring.” In response, one kabbalist master proclaims, when feeling unsettled “be content in your portion, trust in your God, and do good things.” I can go on and on. We Jews are good at worrying, wondering, and overthinking things through.
 
This sacred season I will explore some of what unsettles us. We begin a year of deliberation and understanding, as 5784 symbolizes in its Hebrew letters. Tehi Sh’nat Iyun va’Da’at.
 
To be unsettled is to be alive. Aware of the world. Engaged in life. Caring. Worrying. Hoping. Believing. Doubting. Arguing. Asking. Helping. Participating. Learning. Changing. Living.
 
-II-
In at least one aspect of our lives, however, I sense we share in a different and collective feeling of being unsettled. We live at a time when being Jewish occasionally overwhelms or confuses many of us.
 
Consider the antisemitic gestures and demonstrations that are much too frequent and all too real. Remember, as we have reminded ourselves repeatedly for the last few years, we respond to others’ ignorant and hideous hatred for us from a posture of confidence, conviction, and pride.
 
We are not Jewish because they hate us. We are Jewish because we love the values and ideals of our people’s historic and enduring heritage. Our best response to antisemitism is “prosemitism.” We need to identify as Jews publicly and proudly.
 
Reflect on the recent and ongoing unrest among the Jews of Israel. It is hard to watch and complicated to explain. We misunderstand the debate and protests taking place in Israel if we think they are only about judicial reform and coalition politics. Take note of the unresolved and insufficiently addressed unrest between Israelis and Palestinians, too.
 
Israeli Jews are in the midst of a serious conversation about the character and quality of who they are as Jews. How to govern their society in which different lived Jewish identities merge.
 
Well beyond the borders of the state, and very much within the boundaries of Diaspora Jewish identity, we grapple with these very same questions. The degree to which religion is important. The degree to which secular society is important. The degree to which they complement or challenge one another.
 
-III-
Let me pose this question with which to begin the New Year. Why is Jewish identity so complicated? Like all good rabbis today, I asked an expert to help me answer this question. Here’s what Chat GPT told me.
 
“Being Jewish can be perceived as complicated for a variety of reasons, and it's essential to recognize that individual experiences and perspectives may differ. Some of the factors that contribute to the complexity include a rich history of religious and cultural diversity, historic persecution, assimilation, the legacy of the Holocaust, and many modern challenges.”
 
A couple of years ago, I told you of my desire to visit the Museum of the Jewish People, ANU, in Tel Aviv. This past May, along with everyone traveling on the San Diego Community Mission to Israel, I did visit the museum.
 
The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv offers another explanation for “the incredible diversity of expressions of Jewish identity and culture.”
 
“In this day and age,” the introductory exhibition explains, “there are many and diverse ways to be Jewish and belong to the Jewish people, a collective memory, a bond with Israel, a connection with the Jewish religion, knowing and using Hebrew and Jewish languages, an affinity with Jewish culture, a kinship with other Jews and any Jewish group, ties with family and origins…each of these ways, separately and combined constitutes a foundation for the multifaceted identity of Jews as individuals and as a group in modern times.”
 
Why is Jewish identity so complicated? Here's what artificial and most other definitions miss. We Jews are not defined by the perceptions and proclivities of others. We are not a race, superior, inferior, or anything else. We are a people. Unique in the world.
 
It is complicated because we Jews are a microcosm of all of humanity’s categories: race, nationality, ethnicity, and individual identity. Our bond is in a shared collective myth of common origins and history, of common values and culture, of challenges and relationships, and a common destiny. We have our own language, mores, customs, homeland, and Diaspora. As members of a people, we care about each other's welfare and well-being.
 
This real Jewish identity doesn’t conform to the categories people most commonly use to define themselves or others they know. We all know proud Jews who are not religious, disconnected and non-identifying Jews, and practicing Jews by Choice with no biological Jewish families.
 
More than what any one of us, or all of us believe, Jews are a group bound by covenants of history and fate, collective memories and eternal, sacred ideals. We know others don’t fully understand this about us. Through the ages, they never have. Honestly, neither we have.
 
-IV-
The story is told about a rabbi who was once so intent on his studies that he failed to hear the cry of his baby son. The rabbi’s father heard the baby’s cry, went down, and took the baby in his arms until he went to sleep again. Then he went to speak with his son, still focused on his books, and said, “My son, I do not know what you are studying, but it is not Torah if you read it so closely that it makes you unable to hear the cry of a child.”
 
We misrepresent the Jewish religious tradition when we read our sacred texts so closely, so literally, that we miss the larger moral message at the heart of Torah. All human beings represent the image of God and are to be treated with dignity. All of us are expected to behave ethically. Shema Yisrael! We call it Ethical Monotheism.
 
Torah study and interpretation must be intellectually rooted in sacred history. It must also reflect conscience and common sense. Reasoned and religious understandings of Jewish tradition, in every era, honor both a previous past and a contemporary present.
 
To be a religious Jew is to embrace the fullness of human life. To remember and to hear the cries of the afflicted and the affected, and to find inspiration in the goodness and caring we seek and strive to sustain. To live the imperatives of Torah with kindness and humility.
 
Humility is the official Jewish character trait. Torah tells us “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” Moses, the one person whom Torah describes as speaking to God face to face did not grow haughty or arrogant. Moses is known for his humility.
 
We model this humility in our ritual practice when we cover our heads suggesting there is existence in life beyond each one of us. We learn from our Talmudic tradition. “When those with boastful hearts proliferated, dispute proliferated in Israel.”
 
As Jews we ought to strive to be unpretentious and respectful. Elu v’elu divrei Elohim hayim. Both these and those are the words of the living God is our tradition’s truth. It’s not a cliché. We are taught to follow the decisions of those who are genial and humble because Judaism does not claim to know God’s will. What we possess is our best current understanding of God’s will.
 
Religious authority is earned through respect, admiration, and shared experience. By moral vision and spiritual truth. Here’s a test you can use to evaluate the variety Jewish teachers all around when you encounter them.
 
Pay attention to the ideas and the attitudes reflected in what they teach. Ask about their messages. Are they intolerant, dismissive of those different than themselves? Are they arrogant, disrespectful of ideas and choices they disdain? Are they insensitive, seeking to impose their will on others as if that’s their role or their right?
 
Ponder the prevalent and sometimes problematic news stories we read about our people. Depictions of Jews we love, but whose world view we do not share. Extremist personalities in Israel and here in our Diaspora who either present Jewish particularism as chauvinism or universalism as Jewish purpose.
 
I want to be very careful in my descriptions of other Jews. I seek to be tolerant, humble, respectful, and sensitive. I believe everyone should live the life they choose for themselves. I don’t care if you’re secular or religious, or aligned with any of the many religious streams that comprise Jewish religiosity today.
 
We can be eclectic. We can be “reconservadox” Jews, picking and choosing as meaningful to each of us. I learn from the insights of a great diversity of Jewish voices past and present. I wish to honor the ideal of ahavat Yisrael, to love all Jews. Even those with whom I disagree. I don’t want to stereotype.
 
But. I’m not without an opinion and a preference. For example, I understand the felt success of a rejuvenated Haredi population among the Jewish people. A victory over Nazism we all ought to appreciate. I also understand projections that by 2040, one quarter of the entire Jewish people will be fundamentalist Jews. This unsettles me.
 
Is it possible that a full fourth of the children growing up to be the next generation of Jews will not be educated in math or science, language skills and history? Classical rabbinic tradition prizes a robust and worldly education along with Torah learning in order to produce productive, socially adept people.
 
While the essence of Judaism is ethical monotheism, we are not an essentially monolithic group. I embrace our dynamic diversity. I celebrate the gloriously complex and compelling reality of Jewish identity for everybody. Up to a point. We have to explain to our children and to the world our way of being Jewish. We must raise our voices and be heard.
 
If we don’t, if we are quiet and reserved, if we don’t actively teach how we think and read and interpret the sacred texts, if we don’t model and practice the moral, religious, and spiritual lessons of Judaism from a worldview that embraces tradition and modernity, then literalism or illiteracy will become the dominant demonstrations of Judaism in the world.
 
If this happens, most of us and our children will reject such a Judaism because our intellects and consciences will not abide fundamentalism. It fosters an ethnocentrism about the rest of the world we reject. Or, on the other secular extreme, we’ll be unmoved by a thin Judaism, empty of compelling purpose and relevant meaning.
 
-V-
I am grateful to all of you. Though Jewish communal trends may suggest otherwise, this is the right place for us to gather, to connect, and to converse with each other.
 
In a synagogue community, in a community devoted to God by caring about one another and the destiny of the Jewish people, in a community of Jews gathered to mark this sacred season in the annual cycle of Jewish living, this is where we best consider all we confront and take comfort in all we cherish. Not only here, but especially here, the ideas and ideals of Judaism inform our cares and frame our questions.
 
Now, I ask what you think. I make a simple request. Next, I’ll tell you why I’m asking and make a more challenging request.
 
At lunch or dinner today, or whenever you next can, ask, answer, and discuss these questions. What is Jewish identity to you? What are the ideas, practices, beliefs or tenets, memories and meanings you hold and hope to pass along? Think for and speak to yourself. Think with and speak to your children, your grandchildren, each other.
 
From ancient to modern times, we who are Jews seem to be central characters in the ongoing drama of human history. I believe all the positive and negative attention people focus on us is because what Jews do matters, and not only to us.
 
History is replete with perspectives. Some say Jews and Judaism are quintessential outsiders who by our very survival and creativity represent freedom and human dignity. Others suggest it is the originality of Judaism’s ethical monotheism that carries influence or calls attention.
 
I believe as Jews we represent that first memory and message of the Exodus for all of humanity. Judaism is a religious humanism which measures the fullness of human life and deeds by criteria of moral good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood.
 
-VI-
It is an imperative of Torah to Moses. “Speak,” God often tells Moses. “Daber el b’nei Yisrael. Speak to the Children of Israel.” Jewish tradition derives from this Divine command to Moses something about us all and our relationships with our people and our God. In words we must speak our minds. In prayers we must speak from our hearts.
 
On this day of thoughtful words and heartfelt prayers, it is also an imperative for me to speak to you, the Jewish community I serve from my heart and my head. As a rabbi, a teacher of Judaism and our Jewish heritage, I often ask myself. How do we learn to be Jewish and live Jewish lives?
 
For a moment, let me ask from the past. Were we taught by our parents and grandparents? Did they teach us from knowledge and a vision of who they hoped we’d become as Jews? Or did we learn from their good or bad experiences? Their biases and attitudes? Their suppositions and uncertainties? Their choices and modeling, for better or worse?
 
Now, let me ask about the future. Are we teaching our children and grandchildren how to be Jewish? Do we teach them from our knowledge and a vision of who we hope they’ll become as Jews? Or do they learn from our good or bad experiences? From our biases and attitudes? Our suppositions and uncertainties? From our choices and modeling, for better or worse?
 
Does the world teach us how to be Jewish? Do we figure out who we are in comparison or contrast to others? Do we learn through experience how people of different religious or cultural backgrounds react to and treat us? Are we conditioned through history, memories, sorrows, and joys?
 
Does the Jewish community teach us how to be Jewish? Students attend religious or day schools, summer camps, JCC programs, and the like. Mentors or teachers inspire. Jewish communities offer social groups, informal educational experiences, and travel to Israel for all ages. An alphabet soup of organizations, institutes, and creative ventures vie to teach us, reach us, connect us, and engage us.
 
Still, I ask. How do we learn to be Jewish? Though there are a myriad of resources and opportunities available to us and our children, I’m not sure anyone actually teaches anyone else how to be, let alone how to do, Jewish.
 
Being Jewish is a gloriously complex and compelling reality. It is best learned and internalized through experience, by discovery, and with peers. It is very hard to be Jewish by ourselves. It’s even harder to learn to be Jewish without connection to others also journeying toward and forming their Jewish identities.
 
Especially for our youth. A dynamic, ever changing, and exciting world awaits them. Too often, they, and I regret to say some of their parents, don’t see Judaism as a vital and compelling part of all of that.
 
If it were my way, and I could redesign the Jewish education programs we provide our children, whether they go to afternoon Religious School or Day School, I’d realign our efforts at Jewish identity formation to focus on the prime teen years of our students’ growth, ages 13-18, with Bar Mitzvah at 16. Or with Bar Mitzvah still at 13, but as a gateway not an off ramp.
 
The most important group we need to reach and teach is our teenagers. Adolescents doing the personal work of coming into their own and forming their identities.
 
As you were growing up, did anyone engage you in thinking about God beyond fanciful tales of Torah, beyond a literal reading of religious metaphor and mythology? Did you ever debate about moral truth and seek relevance for the questions of your life from Jewish sources? Were you given permission to question authority, as every adolescent does, in order to define your purpose in life? Did you argue with Abraham, Maimonides, Spinoza, Yehudah haLevi, Talmudic sages and the great Jewish thinkers through the ages? If you answer yes, you are among the fortunate who grew up engaged in the on-going Jewish conversation through the generations.
 
Imagine the intensity and excitement of debating and confronting the great ideas, ethical challenges, and complex, compelling lessons of Jewish history with master teachers and friends. Imagine the bonds, the social reinforcement, and the personal meaning embraced as complementing and supporting all the other responsibilities, requirements, and interests of high school. Imagine conversations at home focusing not only on the vital secular subjects of schooling, not only on academic achievement and future learning or career plans, but also equally important discussions validating the wisdom of Judaism for a life well lived.
 
While I may not get many takers for my vision, here at Congregation Beth El Rabbi Libman and I will convene parent-teen gatherings (we’ll welcome grandparents, too), hopefully in some of your homes, for small groups of us to think and learn and talk in this manner.
 
Of all the challenges currently facing us as American Jews, the hidden one, the one least addressed, the one almost nobody is even aware of, is the one that undermines our vitality and viability. We must figure out how to effectively take responsibility for ourselves and our descendants.
 
We need to acculturate ourselves and the next generations within our community to connecting with a Jewish culture and identity that inspires and sustains each of us and our people. Otherwise, the viability of the Jewish people into the future, especially in our non-Orthodox/liberal Jewish communities, will be less secure and less captivating.
 
The expressions and demonstrations of Jewish values and visions are what create bonds to Jewish peoplehood and identity. To say nothing of the religious, spiritual, and moral ideals which are the actual essence of what it means to be a Jew.
 
I believe to be a Jew is to inherit from our ancestors, and to interpret and pass along to our descendants, the ethics and moral insights, celebrations and rituals, ideals and life wisdom, stories and symbols of Jewish tradition, all taught in the name of God. I believe Judaism’s goal is nothing less than the refinement of our humanity and the fulfillment of every human being’s existence in this world.
 
Jewish ideas give us our values and vocabulary for life. Jewish meanings comfort us when life is difficult, challenge us when life is comfortable, and inspire us when life is demanding. To live our lives as Jews passionate about Judaism elevates our humanity and validates our individuality. Who else but all of us is going to teach that to and model that for our children and their children.
 
Many years ago, Rabbi Richard Israel wrote these words while waiting for the birth of his first child, “One goal that I think I shall not give up is that I want you to be clearly and irrevocably Jewish. I do not know if my way will be your way, but your way must be a real way, and a serious way. I won’t give an inch on that one. I do not feel compelled to wish you an easy time of it. Valuable things usually cost quite a bit. I want you to be happy, caring, and Jewish. How I am going to get you to be any of them – ah, now the anxiety begins.”
 
Earlier, I asked you to think. Now, I’m asking you to become exemplars of the Jewish future. To help me, to help us, become the Jewish community we and our world desire and require.
 
“You shall love the Eternal God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” We’re certainly all familiar with this imperative of Torah. Taking this goal to heart, the first task Moses’ assigns the Jewish people is to “teach them to your children. V’shinantam l’vanekha.”
 
In Jewish tradition, this command is not only about teaching. It is about making an impression. Our children should be impressed by what we teach and how we live. They should internalize for themselves these lessons we model. They should become confident in their own Jewish knowing and being.
 
Here at Congregation Beth El, we will work to facilitate, support, and celebrate your discussions, your affirmations and qualms, your visions and values, your efforts and enthusiasm. Let’s make of our communal space and bond something even more.
 
Let’s overcome our Jewish complacency. Let’s not be so set in our ways and so sure of our assumptions that there can’t be one new mitzvah, one renewed act of Jewish living, one new sacred habit, one intriguing idea, one former personal religious or spiritual practice, one expression of Jewish culture we might return to or discover. Let’s reclaim our curiosity, our sense of wonder and awe, our vision of who or what we might be or become in life.
 
-VII-
At our core, we the Jewish people profess a rational religion. A tradition, heritage, and culture intellectually rooted in sacred history. Our people’s wisdom for life cultivates conscience and common sense. We openly and honestly express wonder and worry. We ask probing questions and seek relevant answers. We cherish hope and dignity.
 
We affirm a reasoned and religious understanding of Jewish tradition rooted in both history and modernity. Our very presence and persistence in the world advocates for the dignity of all human beings created in the image of God.
 
It is a privilege to be a Jew. Precious few of us walk through life so honored. Affirming the privilege of our places as responsible members of the Jewish people we walk together on a path toward meaning, community, and life promise.
 
That’s why we feel unsettled as Jews right now, if not always. It is also why we must model and put forward our beliefs about what Jews and Judaism are all about. In this New Year, may we affirm the gloriously complex and compelling reality of being Jewish.
 
L’Shanah Tovah!
 

unsettled - part one

Unsettled: The Gloriously Complex and Compelling Reality of Being Jewish
Part One
Erev Rosh HaShana2023 | 5784
 

 

 
It’s been quite a year since we were last here. How have you been? I’ve been well, thanks for asking. Looking back, like me, I hope you have much to appreciate, little to regret, and some good moods and moments to carry with you into this New Year. I trust you and I also have some mishaps and memories to leave behind in the annals of last year.
 
If your retrospective on last year is more negative than positive, I wish you renewal and rejuvenation in the unlived and undefined days ahead of us. Use these sacred days to plan changes where you can, imagine responses to circumstances as you must, and live the best you are able by pushing yourself to manage with everything else.
 
Jewish tradition offers a daily b’rakhah, a blessing to recite each morning acknowledging any unsettled feelings we may hold. Barukh Atah Adonai, Blessed are You, Eternal God, Eloheinu Melekh haOlam, Sovereign of existence, haNoten la’ya-ef koah, giving strength to the weary.
 
These words were added to the list of blessings we recite each day as support and encouragement to those feeling unsettled and overwhelmed by the events and circumstances of their lives. We’re all weary at one time or another. Yet, through determination, and with the support of others, for through our caring comes God’s caring, we can all be strong of spirit, of purpose, and of vision as we meet the opportunities and challenges of each new day, of this New Year.
 
Unsettled. Was there ever a time in the past when folks didn’t live in a world unsettled by conflict or change? Bothered by disagreement or discord? Overwhelmed or stymied by the too fast or too slow pace of progress? Striving to hold on to the familiar or personally yearning for respect and acceptance?
 
No. Apart from our individual sense of being content or discontent in life, in every era of human history, there were reasons for people to feel uneasy about their larger world. Were the ancient Israelites calm and steady as they wandered through the wilderness to a new and unknown land? In our history of exile, conquest, persecution, or acculturation, our ancestors rarely lived at ease as they evolved new forms of Judaism and Jewish identity in foreign lands.
 
It may just be that a Torah based religious tradition, what we know as Judaism, first fully emerged in response to the larger world, to the religious-cultural expression of ancient Greece, Hellenism. Think Maccabees and their zeal for Torah among the Jews of their day that we recount on Hanukkah.
 
That would mean that for almost 2200 years, we Jews have actively and creatively interacted with the larger world. Our mandate is not to withdraw unto ourselves, but to know who we are and give of ourselves.
 
In the larger sweeps of human history from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Age, through World Wars and revolutions, reacting to the printing press, the renaissance, and the enlightenment, people have always felt anxious. Keeping up with the dynamics of our information-technological age, people respond with that very same mix of wonder, curiosity, and apprehension we see and feel all around us today.
 
This sacred season I will explore some of what unsettles us. We begin a year of deliberation and understanding, as 5784 symbolizes in its Hebrew letters. Tehi Sh’nat Iyun va’Da’at.
 
To be unsettled is to be alive. Aware of the world. Engaged in life. Caring. Worrying. Hoping. Believing. Doubting. Arguing. Asking. Helping. Participating. Learning. Changing. Living.
 
If, like me, you feel unsettled because you care about so much to which you pay attention, then you also better care about what kind of Jew you are and what you can find within Judaism that speaks to these concerns. As we begin a new Jewish year for our lives, we embrace and recognize the gloriously complex and compelling reality of being Jewish.
 
By the way, I’ve never done this before. Delivering a Rosh HaShanah sermon in three parts. As I thought about and prepped for our holiday gatherings, I found myself returning to and expanding on the same theme. I decided to pay attention to my heart and my head.
 
Consider these questions which I’ll discuss tomorrow and Sunday. Why is Jewish identity so complicated? How do we learn to be Jewish?
 
A couple of years ago, I told you of my desire to visit the Museum of the Jewish People, ANU, in Tel Aviv. This past May, along with everyone traveling on the San Diego Community Mission to Israel, I did visit the museum.
 
The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv offers another explanation for “the incredible diversity of expressions of Jewish identity and culture.”
 
“In this day and age,” the introductory exhibition explains, “there are many and diverse ways to be Jewish and belong to the Jewish people, a collective memory, a bond with Israel, a connection with the Jewish religion, knowing and using Hebrew and Jewish languages, an affinity with Jewish culture, a kinship with other Jews and any Jewish group, ties with family and origins…each of these ways, separately and combined constitutes a foundation for the multifaceted identity of Jews as individuals and as a group in modern times.”
 
Jewish identity is complex because we Jews are not defined by the perceptions and proclivities of others. Because we meld together as one people from many different backgrounds and experiences. Because we are a group bound by covenants of history and fate, collective memories and eternal, sacred ideals. We’ll delve deeper into all of that tomorrow.
 
Tonight, I want to remind you. Being unsettled is also part of Jewish identity. The Book of Proverbs teaches us to transform our uneasy feelings into joy. To be constructive and productive with our worry. Commenting, the Talmud teaches to live a dynamic and focused life, join with others to counter the stresses and challenges before you.
 
Ben Sira, a second century Hellenistic Jewish scribe and sage wisely cautions us. Deal with today. “Do not suffer from tomorrow’s trouble, as you do not know what a day will bring.” In response, one kabbalist master proclaims, when feeling unsettled “be content in your portion, trust in your God, and do good things.” I can go on and on. We Jews are good at worrying, wondering, and overthinking things through.
 
On the eve of our New Year, let’s take the advice. I do hope you and yours are well. I do hope the New Year will bring you much of what you desire, all that you deserve, and little to disturb you. I wish us all renewal and rejuvenation in the unlived and undefined days ahead of us. As we reflect and celebrate during the next two days, may we be content in our portions, trust in our God, and do many good things.
]
L'Shanah Tovah!
 

 

unsettled - part two

Unsettled: The Gloriously Complex and Compelling Reality of Jewish identity
Part Two
Rosh HaShanah Day One Sermon 2023 | 5784
 

 

 
-I-
It’s been quite a year since we were last here. How have you been? I’ve been well, thanks for asking. Looking back, like me, I hope you have much to appreciate, little to regret, and some good moods and moments to carry with you into this New Year. I trust you and I also have some mishaps and memories to leave behind in the annals of last year.
 
If your retrospective on last year is more negative than positive, I wish you renewal and rejuvenation in the unlived and undefined days ahead of us. Use these sacred days to plan changes where you can, imagine responses to circumstances as you must, and live the best you are able by pushing yourself to manage with everything else.
 
Last night, I introduced my sermon for today. Here’s a brief synopsis. It’s both natural and human to feel unsettled and overwhelmed by the events and circumstances of our lives. We’re all weary at one time or another. Yet, through determination, and with the support of others, for through our caring comes God’s caring, we can all be strong of spirit, of purpose, and of vision as we meet the opportunities and challenges of each new day, of this New Year.
 
There has never been a time when folks didn’t live in a world unsettled by conflict or change, disagreement or discord. Stymied by the too fast or too slow pace of progress. Striving to hold on to the familiar or personally yearning for respect and acceptance. In every era of human history there were reasons for people to feel uneasy about their larger world.
 
For the Jewish people this has also been true. Because as Jews we actively and creatively interact with and react to the larger world, we are often unsettled by the condition of our lives. Our mandate is not to withdraw unto ourselves, but knowing who we are to give of ourselves.
 
To be unsettled is to be alive. Aware of the world. Engaged in life. Caring. Worrying. Hoping. Believing. Doubting. Arguing. Asking. Helping. Participating. Learning. Changing. Living.
 
Raise your hand if anything I mention concerns you today. Our time is one in which we must keep up with the dynamics of information, technology, gender identity, climate concerns, social schisms, political polarization, and the development of artificial intelligence. We feel, as people always have, a mix of wonder, curiosity, and apprehension.
 
If, like me, you feel unsettled because you care about so much, then I hope you’ll join me this morning in thinking about who you are as a Jew. Understanding something deeper about ourselves, we can then discover about Judaism wisdom that speaks to these important concerns we carry. (Concerns we’ll address another time in classes and explorations this fall.)
 
-II-
I sense we share a collective feeling of being unsettled. We live at a time when being Jewish occasionally overwhelms or confuses many of us.
 
Consider the antisemitic gestures and demonstrations that are much too frequent and all too real. Remember, as we have reminded ourselves repeatedly for the last few years, we respond to others’ ignorant and hideous hatred for us from a posture of confidence, conviction, and pride. We are not Jewish because they hate us. We are Jewish because we love the values and ideals of our people’s historic and enduring heritage. Our best response to antisemitism is “prosemitism.” We need to identify as Jews publicly and proudly.
 
Reflect on the recent and ongoing unrest among the Jews of Israel. It is hard to watch and complicated to explain. We misunderstand the debate and protests taking place in Israel if we think they are only about judicial reform and coalition politics. (Take note of the unresolved and insufficiently addressed unrest between Israelis and Palestinians, too.)
 
Israeli Jews are in the midst of a serious conversation about the character and quality of who they are as Jews and how to govern their society in which different lived Jewish identities merge.
 
Well beyond the borders of the state, and very much within the boundaries of Diaspora Jewish identity, we grapple with these very same questions. The degree to which religion is important. The degree to which secular society is important. The degree to which they complement or challenge one another.
 
Let me pose this question with which to begin the New Year. Why is Jewish identity so complicated? Like all good rabbis today, I asked an expert to help me answer this question. Here’s what Chat GPT told me.
 
“Being Jewish can be perceived as complicated for a variety of reasons, and it's essential to recognize that individual experiences and perspectives may differ. Some of the factors that contribute to the complexity include a rich history of religious and cultural diversity, historic persecution, assimilation, the legacy of the Holocaust, and many modern challenges.”
 
Why is Jewish identity so complicated? Here's what artificial and most other definitions miss. We Jews are not defined by the perceptions and proclivities of others. We are not a race, superior, inferior, or anything else. We are a people. Unique in the world.
 
It is complicated because we Jews are a microcosm of all of humanity’s categories: race, nationality, ethnicity, and individual identity. Our bond is in a shared collective myth of common origins and history, of common values and culture, of challenges and relationships, and a common destiny. We have our own language, mores, customs, homeland, and Diaspora. As members of a people, we care about each other's welfare and well-being.
 
This real Jewish identity doesn’t conform to the categories people most commonly use to define themselves or others they know. We all know proud Jews who are not religious, disconnected and non-identifying Jews, and practicing Jews by Choice with no biological Jewish families.
 
More than what any one of us, or all of us believe, Jews are a group bound by covenants of history and fate, collective memories, and eternal, sacred ideals. We know others don’t fully understand this about us. Through the ages, they never have. Honestly, neither have we.
 
-III-
The story is told about a rabbi who was once so intent on his studies that he failed to hear the cry of his baby son. The rabbi’s father heard the baby’s cry, went down, and took the baby in his arms until he went to sleep again. Then he went to speak with his son, still focused on his books, and said, “My son, I do not know what you are studying, but it is not Torah if you read it so closely that it makes you unable to hear the cry of a child.”
 
We misrepresent the Jewish religious tradition when we read our sacred texts so closely, so literally, that we miss the larger moral message at the heart of Torah. All human beings represent the image of God and are to be treated with dignity. All of us are expected to behave ethically. Shema Yisrael! We call it Ethical Monotheism.
 
Torah study and interpretation must be intellectually rooted in sacred history. It must also reflect conscience and common sense. Reasoned and religious understandings of Jewish tradition, in every era, honor both a previous past and a contemporary present.
 
To be a religious Jew is to embrace the fullness of human life. To remember and to hear the cries of the afflicted and the affected, and to find inspiration in the goodness and caring we seek and strive to sustain. To live the imperatives of Torah with kindness and humility.
 
Humility is the official Jewish character trait. Torah tells us “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” Moses, the one person whom Torah describes as speaking to God face to face did not grow haughty or arrogant. Moses is known for his humility.
 
We model this humility in our ritual practice when we cover our heads suggesting there is existence in life beyond each one of us. We learn from our Talmudic tradition. “When those with boastful hearts proliferated, dispute proliferated in Israel.”
 
As Jews we ought to strive to be unpretentious and respectful. Elu v’elu divrei Elohim hayim. Both these and those are the words of the living God is our tradition’s truth. It’s not a cliché. We are taught to follow the decisions of those who are genial and humble because Judaism does not claim to know God’s will. What we possess is our best current understanding of God’s will.
 
Religious authority is earned through respect, admiration, and shared experience. By moral vision and spiritual truth. Here’s a test you can use to evaluate the variety Jewish teachers all around when you encounter them.
 
Pay attention to the ideas and the attitudes reflected in what they teach. Ask about their messages. Are they intolerant, dismissive of those different than themselves? Are they arrogant, disrespectful of ideas and choices they disdain? Are they insensitive, seeking to impose their will on others as if that’s their role or their right?
 
Ponder the prevalent and sometimes problematic news stories we read about our people. Depictions of Jews we love, but whose world view we do not share. Extremist personalities in Israel and here in our Diaspora who either present Jewish particularism as chauvinism or universalism as Jewish purpose.
 
I want to be very careful in my descriptions of other Jews. I seek to be tolerant, humble, respectful, and sensitive. I believe everyone should live the life they choose for themselves. I don’t care if you’re secular or religious, or aligned with any of the many religious streams that comprise Jewish religiosity today.
 
We can be eclectic. We can be “reconservadox” Jews, picking and choosing as meaningful to each of us. I learn from the insights of a great diversity of Jewish voices past and present. I wish to honor the ideal of ahavat Yisrael, to love all Jews. Even those with whom I disagree. I don’t want to stereotype.
 
But. I’m not without an opinion and a preference. For example, I understand the felt success of a rejuvenated Haredi population among the Jewish people. A victory over Nazism we all ought to appreciate. I also understand projections that by 2040, one quarter of the entire Jewish people will be fundamentalist Jews. This unsettles me.
 
Is it possible that a full fourth of the children growing up to be the next generation of Jews will not be educated in math or science, language skills and history? Classical rabbinic tradition prizes a robust and worldly education along with Torah learning in order to produce productive, socially adept people.
 
While the essence of Judaism is ethical monotheism, we are not an essentially monolithic group. I embrace our dynamic diversity. I celebrate the gloriously complex and compelling reality of Jewish identity for everybody. Up to a point. We have to explain to our children and to the world our way of being Jewish. We must raise our voices and be heard.
 
If we don’t, if we are quiet and reserved, if we don’t actively teach how to think and read and interpret the sacred texts, if we don’t model and practice the moral, religious, and spiritual lessons of Judaism from a worldview that embraces tradition and modernity, then literalism or illiteracy will become the dominant demonstrations of Judaism in the world.
 
If this happens, most of us and our children will reject such a Judaism because our intellects and consciences will not abide fundamentalism. It fosters an ethnocentrism about the rest of the world we reject. Or, on the other secular extreme, we’ll be unmoved by a thin Judaism, empty of compelling purpose and relevant meaning.
 
-IV-
I am grateful that all of you are here this morning. Though Jewish communal trends may suggest otherwise, this is the right place for us to gather, to connect, and to converse with each other.
 
In a synagogue community, in a community devoted to God by caring about one another and the destiny of the Jewish people, in a community of Jews gathered to mark this sacred season in the annual cycle of Jewish living, this is where we best consider all we confront and take comfort in all we cherish. Not only here, but especially here, the ideas and ideals of Judaism inform our cares and frame our questions.
 
Now, I ask what you think. I make a simple request. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you why I’m asking, possibly discuss your answers, and make a more challenging request.
 
At lunch or dinner today, or whenever you next can, ask, answer, and discuss these questions. What is Jewish identity to you? What are the ideas, practices, beliefs or tenets, memories and meanings you hold and hope to pass along? Think for and speak to yourself. Think with and speak to your children, your grandchildren, each other.
 
From ancient to modern times, we who are Jews seem to be central characters in the ongoing drama of human history. I believe all the positive and negative attention people focus on us is because what Jews do matters, and not only to us.
 
History is replete with perspectives. Some say Jews and Judaism are quintessential outsiders who by our very survival and creativity represent freedom and human dignity. Others suggest it is the originality of Judaism’s ethical monotheism that carries influence or calls attention.
 
I believe as Jews we represent that first memory and message of the Exodus for all of humanity. Judaism is a religious humanism which measures the fullness of human life and deeds by criteria of moral good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood.
 
At our core, we the Jewish people profess a rational religion. A tradition, heritage, and culture intellectually rooted in sacred history. Our people’s wisdom for life cultivates conscience and common sense. We openly and honestly express wonder and worry. We ask probing questions and seek relevant answers. We cherish hope and dignity.
 
We affirm a reasoned and religious understanding of Jewish tradition rooted in both history and modernity. Our very presence and persistence in the world advocates for the dignity of all human beings created in the image of God.
 
It is a privilege to be a Jew. Precious few of us walk through life so honored. Affirming the privilege of our places as responsible members of the Jewish people we walk together on a path toward meaning, community, and life promise.
 
That’s why we feel unsettled as Jews right now, if not always. It is also why we must model and put forward our beliefs about what Jews and Judaism are all about. In this New Year, may we affirm the gloriously complex and compelling reality of being Jewish.
 
L’Shanah Tovah!
 

unsettled - part three

Unsettled: The Gloriously Complex and Compelling Reality of Jewish identity
Part Three
Rosh HaShanah Day Two Sermon 2023 |5784
 

 

 
We are here today because Jewish tradition understands Rosh HaShanah to be one very long day, Yoma Arikhta. A long day blending 48 hours into one sacred day with which we begin our New Year.
 
I’m so very glad you’re here today. As an extended family, in synagogue is where we best consider all we confront and take comfort in all we cherish. For the next moments, I want to pick up where I left off “earlier today” (meaning yesterday) when I made a simple request.
 
I asked you at lunch or dinner, or whenever you next could, to ask, answer, and discuss these questions. What is Jewish identity to you? What are the ideas, practices, beliefs or tenets, memories and meanings you hold and hope to pass along?
 
I suggested you think for and speak to yourself. Think with and speak to your children, your grandchildren, each other. Now, I’ll tell you why I asked and make a more challenging request of you.
 
It is an imperative of Torah to Moses. “Speak,” God often tells Moses. “Daber el b’nei Yisrael. Speak to the Children of Israel.” Jewish tradition derives from this Divine command to Moses something about us all and our relationships with our people and our God. In words we must speak our minds. In prayers we must speak from our hearts.
 
On this day of thoughtful words and heartfelt prayers, it is also an imperative for me to speak to you, the Jewish community I serve from my heart and my head. As a rabbi, a teacher of Judaism and our Jewish heritage, I often ask myself. How do we learn to be Jewish and live Jewish lives?
 
For a moment, let me ask from the past. Were we taught by our parents and grandparents? Did they teach us from knowledge and a vision of who they hoped we’d become as Jews? Or did we learn from their good or bad experiences? Their biases and attitudes? Their suppositions and uncertainties? Their choices and modeling, for better or worse?
 
Now, let me ask about the future. Are we teaching our children and grandchildren how to be Jewish? Do we teach them from our knowledge and a vision of who we hope they’ll become as Jews? Or do they learn from our good or bad experiences? From our biases and attitudes? Our suppositions and uncertainties? From our choices and modeling, for better or worse?
 
Does the world teach us how to be Jewish? Do we figure out who we are in comparison or contrast to others? Do we learn through experience how people of different religious or cultural backgrounds react to and treat us? Are we conditioned through history, memories, sorrows, and joys?
 
Does the Jewish community teach us how to be Jewish? Students attend religious or day schools, summer camps, JCC programs, and the like. Mentors or teachers inspire. Jewish communities offer social groups, informal educational experiences, and travel to Israel for all ages. An alphabet soup of organizations, institutes, and creative ventures vie to teach us, reach us, connect us, and engage us.
 
Still, I ask. How do we learn to be Jewish? Though there are a myriad of resources and opportunities available to us and our children, I’m not sure anyone actually teaches anyone else how to be, let alone how to do, Jewish.
 
Being Jewish is a gloriously complex and compelling reality. It is best learned and internalized through experience, by discovery, and with peers. It is very hard to be Jewish by ourselves. It’s even harder to learn to be Jewish without connection to others also journeying toward and forming their Jewish identities.
 
Especially for our youth. A dynamic, ever changing, and exciting world awaits them. Too often, they, and I regret to say some of their parents, don’t see Judaism as a vital and compelling part of all of that.
 
If it were my way, and I could redesign the Jewish education programs we provide our children, whether they go to afternoon Religious School or Day School, I’d realign our efforts at Jewish identity formation to focus on the prime teen years of our students’ growth, ages 13-18, with Bar Mitzvah at 16. Or with Bar Mitzvah still at 13, but as a gateway not an off ramp.
 
The most important group we need to reach and teach is our teenagers. Adolescents doing the personal work of coming into their own and forming their identities.
 
As you were growing up, did anyone engage you in thinking about God beyond fanciful tales of Torah, beyond a literal reading of religious metaphor and mythology? Did you ever debate about moral truth and seek relevance for the questions of your life from Jewish sources? Were you given permission to question authority, as every adolescent does, in order to define your purpose in life? Did you argue with Abraham, Maimonides, Spinoza, Yehudah haLevi, Talmudic sages and the great Jewish thinkers through the ages? If you answer yes, you are among the fortunate who grew up engaged in the on-going Jewish conversation through the generations.
 
Imagine the intensity and excitement of debating and confronting the great ideas, ethical challenges, and complex, compelling lessons of Jewish history with master teachers and friends. Imagine the bonds, the social reinforcement, and the personal meaning embraced as complementing and supporting all the other responsibilities, requirements, and interests of high school. Imagine conversations at home focusing not only on the vital secular subjects of schooling, not only on academic achievement and future learning or career plans, but also equally important discussions validating the wisdom of Judaism for a life well lived.
 
While I may not get many takers for my vision, here at Congregation Beth El Rabbi Libman and I will convene parent-teen gatherings (we’ll welcome grandparents, too), hopefully in some of your homes, for small groups of us to think and learn and talk in this manner.
 
Of all the challenges currently facing us as American Jews, the hidden one, the one least addressed, the one almost nobody is even aware of, is the one that undermines our vitality and viability. We must figure out how to effectively take responsibility for ourselves and our descendants.
 
We need to acculturate ourselves and the next generations within our community to connecting with a Jewish culture and identity that inspires and sustains each of us and our people. Otherwise, the viability of the Jewish people into the future, especially in our non-Orthodox/liberal Jewish communities, will be less secure and less captivating.
 
The expressions and demonstrations of Jewish values and visions are what create bonds to Jewish peoplehood and identity. To say nothing of the religious, spiritual, and moral ideals which are the actual essence of what it means to be a Jew.
 
I believe to be a Jew is to inherit from our ancestors, and to interpret and pass along to our descendants, the ethics and moral insights, celebrations and rituals, ideals and life wisdom, stories and symbols of Jewish tradition, all taught in the name of God. I believe Judaism’s goal is nothing less than the refinement of our humanity and the fulfillment of every human being’s existence in this world.
 
Jewish ideas give us our values and vocabulary for life. Jewish meanings comfort us when life is difficult, challenge us when life is comfortable, and inspire us when life is demanding. To live our lives as Jews passionate about Judaism elevates our humanity and validates our individuality. Who else but all of us is going to teach that to and model that for our children and their children.
 
Many years ago, Rabbi Richard Israel wrote these words while waiting for the birth of his first child, “One goal that I think I shall not give up is that I want you to be clearly and irrevocably Jewish. I do not know if my way will be your way, but your way must be a real way, and a serious way. I won’t give an inch on that one. I do not feel compelled to wish you an easy time of it. Valuable things usually cost quite a bit. I want you to be happy, caring, and Jewish. How I am going to get you to be any of them – ah, now the anxiety begins.”
 
Yesterday, I asked you to think. Today, I’m asking those of you who are cognizant of the meaning of being in synagogue on this Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, I’m asking you to become exemplars of the Jewish future. To help me, to help us, become the Jewish community we and our world desire and require.
 
For if we don’t actively model, learn and teach how to think and read and interpret the sacred texts, moral, religious, and spiritual lessons of Judaism from a worldview that embraces tradition and modernity, then, as I warned yesterday, literalism or illiteracy will become the dominant demonstrations of Judaism in the world.
 
If this happens, most of us and our children will reject such a Judaism because our intellects and consciences will not abide fundamentalism. It fosters an ethnocentrism about the rest of the world we reject. Or, on the other secular extreme, we’ll be unmoved by a thin Judaism, empty of compelling purpose and relevant meaning.
 
“You shall love the Eternal God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” We’re certainly all familiar with this imperative of Torah. Taking this goal to heart, the first task Moses’ assigns the Jewish people is to “teach them to your children. V’shinantam l’vanekha.”
 
In Jewish tradition, this command is not only about teaching. It is about making an impression. Our children should be impressed by what we teach and how we live. They should internalize for themselves these lessons we model. They should become confident in their own Jewish knowing and being.
 
I’ve never before delivered a Rosh HaShanah sermon in three parts. I certainly recognize the disparity in congregational size, and possibly interest as I share my message. Even so, I decided to pay attention to my heart and head.
 
I began by reminding us that it is both natural and human to feel unsettled and overwhelmed by the events and circumstances of our lives. In every era of human history there were reasons for people to feel uneasy about their larger world. Unsettled by the condition of our lives, we Jews actively and creatively interact with the larger world. Our mandate is not to withdraw unto ourselves, but knowing who we are to give of ourselves.
 
If, like me, you feel unsettled because you care about so much, then I hope you’ll join me in thinking about who you are as a Jew. Understanding something deeper about ourselves, we can then discover about Judaism wisdom that speaks to these important concerns we carry. Being Jewish is a gloriously complex and compelling reality. It is best learned and internalized through experience, by discovery, and with peers.
 
We’ve explored why Jewish identity is complicated. We’ve reflected on how we learn to be Jewish. I’ve asked you to ask, answer, and discuss questions about Jewish identity. What is Jewish identity to you? What are the ideas, practices, beliefs or tenets, memories and meanings you hold and hope to pass along?
 
Here at Congregation Beth El, we will work to facilitate, support, and celebrate your discussions, your affirmations and qualms, your visions and values, your efforts and enthusiasm. Let’s make of our communal space and bond something even more.
 
Let’s overcome our Jewish complacency. Let’s not be so set in our ways and so sure of our assumptions that there can’t be one new mitzvah, one renewed act of Jewish living, one new sacred habit, one intriguing idea, one former personal religious or spiritual practice, one expression of Jewish culture we might return to or discover. Let’s reclaim our curiosity, our sense of wonder and awe, our vision of who or what we might be or become in life.
 
At our core, we the Jewish people profess a rational religion. A tradition, heritage, and culture intellectually rooted in sacred history. Our people’s wisdom for life cultivates conscience and common sense. We openly and honestly express wonder and worry. We ask probing questions and seek relevant answers. We cherish hope and dignity.
 
We affirm a reasoned and religious understanding of Jewish tradition rooted in both history and modernity. Our very presence and persistence in the world advocates for the dignity of all human beings created in the image of God.
 
It is a privilege to be a Jew. Precious few of us walk through life so honored. In this New Year, may we affirm the gloriously complex and compelling reality of being Jewish.
 
L’Shanah Tovah!
 
Mon, June 24 2024 18 Sivan 5784