Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning, Beth Israel Synagogue, 10 Tishrei 5778

Two years ago, when I gave a sermon about the passing of my beloved teacher, Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, I ended with one of the many funny stories he would regularly share with us in class. I would like to share another one this morning.

The story is one from his days as a rabbinical student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, HUC. His teacher walked into the class one morning and announced, “Boys,” - and here Rabbi Zlotowitz would add the observation that, in his day, HUC only admitted men - “Boys, I want you to know that when I woke up this morning, I felt the desire to put on tefillin. But I resisted!”

Now, if you don’t find that story funny, it might be that you lack one of two important pieces of information that it assumes you have. First, you might not be aware that, particularly at the time that Rabbi Zlotowitz was a student, the Reform Movement rejected all types of prayer dress including head coverings, tallitim and tefillin. Even today, one can walk into a classically Reform synagogue and see bare heads in abundance. The Reform movement would, in time, soften its stance on the use of these items, but Rabbi Zlotowitz’s teacher - who was likely Orthodox trained (as was, I might add, Rabbi Zlotowitz who had ordination both as an Orthodox and a Reform rabbi) - was playing with the idea that wearing tefillin was a form of heresy.

The second piece of information you might lack is - what exactly are tefillin? For that explanation you need to go back to Judaism’s most well known prayer, the שמע. That prayer refers to הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם - these words that I command you this day. Regarding these words we are told קְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל־יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ - you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and you will make them symbols between your eyes. Judaism takes these words literally and tefillin are the embodiment of that literalness. They consist of small, leather boxes into which are sealed pieces of parchment on which the words of the שמע have been written. These boxes are fitted out with leather straps that allow you to bind them and the words they contain onto your arm and your forehead.

Thus the wearing of tefillin is a mitzvah. It is one of the 248 positive mitzvot - to go along with the 365 negative mitzvot for a total of 613.

But what exactly is a mitzvah? This word is absolutely central to Judaism, and yet it is generally misunderstood by Jews. Ask virtually any Jew what a mitzvah is and she will tell you that its a good deed.

Such an understanding fits well with our general attitude toward religion: that it is, in a free country like ours, an association we enter into voluntarily for the purpose of community or history or, in the case of younger families, cultural and, maybe even perhaps, a little moral instruction. We see religion as playing a primarily pastoral role. Religion attempts to offer comfort during life’s crises, and it seeks to to solemnize life’s transitions. And for Jews, religion adds a touch of differentiation in our lives - a vague cultural and historical exoticism that sets us apart from our overwhelmingly Christian neighbors.

Contextualized thus, the idea of mitzvah as good deed fits well. By asserting that the central concept of Judaism is one that guides us toward good citizenship and neighborliness, we justify our religious practices and our decision to raise our kids as Jewish as a thoroughly modern and American thing to do. In saying that a mitzvah is a good deed, we assert that, though we identify with a particular religion, we are, in no way, fanatical or irrational or otherwise given to the craziness we often associate with those who wear their faith on their sleeve. We are simply good people, seeking to inculcate good habits in ourselves and our children. And we have extracted from our ancient faith that essential core of human morality, casting aside the superstitions, or consigning them to cultural color.

Against this modern perspective, I want to offer a contrasting view of the idea of mitzvah. It comes in the form of a story from the book Rebbe by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. As the title suggests, it is a biography of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim, known to his followers simply as, The Rebbe. The story concerns a Londoner and devoted Chabad follower named Bernie Rader. Mr. Rader was on a business trip to Detroit and was having dinner with friends. A guest at dinner started asking him detailed questions about tefillin - their requirements as to shape and color. Mr. Rader understood that his interlocutor must be very familiar with tefillin in order to ask such questions. When he asked if the man put them on, he said no. But he said he would put on Mr. Rader’s tefillin if doing so was so important to him. Rader made arrangements to meet the man next morning where he expertly negotiated the rather complicated procedure of donning tefillin. Rader then suggested that the man should put on tefillin every day and the man agreed that he would - on the condition that Rader buy them for him. Rader said he would do just that - bringing the tefillin to him when he returned to Detroit six weeks hence.

On his way back to London, Bernie Rader stopped in New York where he briefed the Rebbe on his business dealings and his curious encounter with the man with the tefillin. He was looking forward to returning to London where, the next night, for the first time in his life, he would have his entire family - all his children and grandchildren - gathered together for Shabbat. But the Rebbe had other plans for him. “Do you think its right” he asked, “that a Jew who put on tefillin yesterday for perhaps the first time in twenty years should wait six weeks for you to bring him tefillin? He instructed Rader to buy the tefillin immediately and “(i)f you can get the tefillin to the man in Detroit so that he can put them on today, do so, but if not, you yourself should go back to Detroit and put the tefillin on him, even if this means you won’t get to be home with your family for Shabbat.” The Rebbe reckoned that such a display from Rader would impress upon the man the special importance the mitzvah of tefillin had to him.

For those of you familiar with the ways of Chabad, such zealotry over tefillin will come as no surprise. The group has created what they call Mitzvah Mobiles which they drive around various cities looking for Jewish looking men whom they urge into the van to put on tefillin. The first time I put on tefillin was under the guidance of one of the Rebbe’s שלוחים - emissaries - who came to my home for a so-called “Jewish family visit.”

Obviously we are dealing here with a very different sense of the meaning of mitzvah from that of good deed. Here each mitzvah is like a discrete act that has its own infinitesimal, but nevertheless, real impact on the universe. Each mitzvah performed moves the world one step closer to the time of the messiah and redemption. The aim, then is to multiply the number of mitzvot performed in order to hasten the coming of the messiah. In the case of Mr. Rader, both he and his family would observe Shabbat whether he was in London or Detroit. There is no net gain in the number of mitzvot performed by him being with his family. However, by delivering the tefillin, there is a net gain in mitzvot performed - perhaps as many as six per week if the man should put them on at all appropriate times. Plus, who knows how many other mitzvot will be performed as a result of the man doing this one? In this understanding, a Jew’s primary purpose in life is the performance of mitzvot and whatever personal gains he or she may derive from such performance are incidental to the cosmic gain of bringing the world a tiny step closer to redemption.

יהושע בן פרחיה taught that we are to דן לכף זכות - judge with an eye toward merit. So let me try to do that with these two very different ideas of mitzvah. First, the idea that a mitzvah is a good deed has the merit of keeping this central Jewish concept alive in the minds of millions of Jews who have little connection with their faith. It reinforces the correct notion that Judaism emphasizes behavior over belief, thus making it a religion focused on this world, rather than the next. This is very appealing to those of us who approach all religions with great skepticism. As the son of such a skeptic, and as someone who followed a slender thread of Jewish identity all the way to the rabbinate, I cherish those ideas that make Judaism’s eternal truths approachable to a broader Jewish public. Mitzvah as good deed is one such idea.

As to the idea of mitzvah as the path to redemption of the world, this too is one of great merit. It affirms the idea that, small though we may seem in our own eyes, our actions have consequences that impact the entire world. Amid the prevailing nihilism of our culture, such an attitude affirms the value and sanctity of each life and, for that matter, each drawn breath. And, in affirming a transcendent quality to the idea of mitzvah, it bears out that observation, often ascribed to the British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane who said that, in his own estimation, “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.” For someone like myself who thinks himself fairly rational, a reminder of rationality’s limits is always a useful tonic.

That said, whatever merit these opposing concepts of mitzvah might have, they each suffer serious weaknesses. Reducing the concept of mitzvah to that of good deed effectively hollows Judaism out. It negates one of Judaism’s central insights: that the ethical and the ritual are inextricably linked to one another. To lose one is, in fact, to lose the other; that without the ritual, the ethical will quickly degenerate into the popular or the emotional. By the same token, the idea of mitzvah as vehicle for world redemption dehumanizes this most intimate source of contact between us and our companions, and between a Jew and his God. In the example I cited, it takes a man from his family, not even for the sake of the stranger, but for the sake of the slenderest of hopes.

I believe that we need a different concept of mitzvah; a concept that affirms both its centrality to Judaism, and its role in shaping the character of individual Jews.

Such a concept must begin with the meaning of the word. A mitzvah is a commandment. It is what God wants us to do. At any given moment in our lives when a mitzvah can be performed, we face the choice between doing what we want to do and doing what God wants us to do. It is a mitzvah, for instance, to be mindful of our neighbor’s property. So if we are driving down the street on a windy day and we see that our neighbor’s trash can has been blown over, we should stop and turn it back upright. Now it may be that we like our neighbor or we take pride in our neighborhood or we’re just considerate folk and so we want to stop and turn the can upright anyway. None of that matters. We do not turn the can upright because it is a good deed, but because God wants us to do it. We do not turn the can upright because doing so will hasten the messiah, but because God wants us to do it. A mitzvah is a commandment and we do them because God tells us to. And we do what God tells us to because we want to be close to God; because we want to be holy.

The decision, then, to take on a mitzvah is a highly personal one. It reflects where we are in our own journey as Jews. We do not live in a shtetl where the community’s will can impose itself on us, nor in a politically oppressive state where our freedoms are curtailed on account of our religion. Each of us has been raised to be largely free agents in our lives. The restrictions we have placed on our freedom through the associations and commitments we have made have been those of personal choice.

The restriction Judaism asks us to place upon ourselves is greater by far than any other commitment we might make. It is לקבל על מלכות שמים - to take upon ourselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. The rewards it offers too are greater: an element of transcendence; the possibility of holiness; the chance to feel near to God. I believe there is only one way to take on such a commitment: slowly, thoughtfully, step-by-step, one mitzvah at a time.

How do we begin? My suggestion: start with the fallen trash can. Or a visit to a sick friend. Or a morning spent cooking at a soup kitchen. Or any of the other hundreds of actions that the rest of the world thinks of as good deeds. Only, don’t tell yourself its a good deed. Say instead, ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes our lives holy through Your commandments and has commanded us to do this thing.

I will not tell you that from there, the adoption of new mitzvoth becomes easy, because it doesn’t. Each mitzvah that one takes on makes one’s path steeper and more trying. But I will say that from the adoption of one single mitzvah, the next becomes more natural. Each mitzvah we take on changes us; it pushes us emotionally, intellectually and spiritually forward. It becomes the next step in our striving toward union with the divine image in which we are created. And it is this striving that I believe is the true substance of holiness. Indeed, I believe that if a mitzvah has the power to bring on the messiah, it does so by making us strivers after holiness. For this reason, I believe that anyone who has taken on a single mitzvah and is sincerely striving toward the next, stands as close to God as the most pious among us.

As for me, I have of late felt the desire to put on tefillin, and I have not resisted. Not every day; maybe once or twice a week. It adds a few minutes to my prayer time and they are not particularly comfortable to wear. They are also easier to put on in the summer when one is wearing short sleeves, so whether this practice will survive the coming colder weather is anyone’s guess. But they are, for me, the latest chapter in my own, personal struggle to do God’s will. However this particular chapter will play out, I am grateful for the struggle and the striving and the hope for the transcendence and holiness and redemption that they bring.

Sermon for Yom Kippur Evening, Beth Israel Synagogue, 10 Tishrei 5778

Three weeks from today, we will read פרשת נח, the second of the weekly readings of the Torah.  At the end of that פרשה is a brief story with which everyone is familiar.  But at the risk of sounding unqualified as a rabbi, I must admit that it has taken me a long time to understand it.  It took a rather silly situation comedy on Netflix to explain it to me.  But I will get to that in a moment.

The story is that of the Tower of Babel.  In it we are told that the entire earth was of one language and one purpose.  Rashi tells us that one language was לשון הקודש - the Holy Tongue, that is to say, Hebrew.  The people decide to use their skills at brick making to build a city with a tower whose top would be in the heavens.  They do so to נַעֲשֶׂה־לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן־נָפוּץ עַל־פְּנֵי כָל־הָאָרֶץ: - make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of the earth.  God comes down to check on the construction and is appalled.  Says God, הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת - Look! They are one people and one language and this is what they begin to do!  God confuses their language so they can no longer understand one another and scatters them across the face of the earth.  Their actions, in other words, are the very cause of the thing they were trying to prevent.

Now the prejudice we bring to any biblical story is that God’s actions are right and good and just.  But I, for one, find it hard to understand why God acts as He does in this case.  Isn’t unity of human purpose something we all pray for?  As we bring tonight’s service to an end, will we not all sing together of our hope for the great day on which, יִהְיֶה יְיָ אֶחָד, וּשְמוֹ אֶחָד God will be one and God’s name one?  In this story, at least, God does not seem to share that hope. 

The rabbis are at pains to explain what great sin was afoot in the building of the tower to warrant such a response from God.  Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eliezer in the Talmud suggests that some of the builders wished to use the tower to wage war against God.  Rabbi Nathan says they were all bent on idolatry.  The 15th Century Portuguese philosopher and commentator Abravanel believed that the process of building the tower incited hatred and envy among the workers as they vied to lay the first brick in each new level.  And his Italian contemporary Ovadia Sforno believed that having but a single language and a single mode of thought would crush dissension and freedom.

But for me there is one explanation of why God did what he did to the builders of the Tower of Babel - and through them to all mankind - that is more compelling then all the rest.  It’s one I have known for a long time, but whose true significance only came to me a few months back while watching the Netflix comedy series Grace & Frankie.

For those of you unfamiliar with this show, Grace & Frankie follows the same premise as that 70’s sit-com, The Odd Couple.  As some of you will remember, that premise was offered in the voice-over to its opening credits: “Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”  Grace & Frankie asks the equally compelling question, “Can two divorced women share a beach house without driving each other crazy?”  The show’s modern twist is that the two women - played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin - are divorced because their respective ex-husbands have fallen in love with, and have gotten married to each other. 

In one particular episode, a beloved friend has moved back next door after years of traveling through all the world’s most exotic places.  She enlists Frankie’s help in throwing a big party for all her friends, at the end of which she intends to commit suicide.  The cancer is back, she tells Frankie, and it has spread all over.  She wants Frankie to serve her poison laced butterscotch pudding.  After a couple of scenes of soul-searching, Frankie decides she is all-in on the project.  The problem is Grace who says that death is not her friend’s choice to make.  Replies Frankie, “Of course it is.  Her life, her death, her choice.”   But Grace is stubborn:  “Its not right,” she says.  “Only God can make that decision.”  And while I can think of absolutely nothing about either the character Grace or the actress Jane Fonda that is even vaguely Jewish, in this case she is arguing the side of the rabbis.

Many of you have asked me questions that begin with the words “What does Judaism say about …”  To your frustration, my answer, virtually every time, begins with the sentence “That depends on whom you ask.”  The differences are not only among Judaism’s various movements, but just as often within them.   But this is one of those instances where Judaism speaks with one voice: euthanasia, suicide, or assisting another in committing suicide is prohibited under Jewish law.  In many instances, such actions constitute murder.  Quite simply, our bodies do not belong to ourselves but to God - lent to us with the expectation that we will care for and preserve them.  Harming them, let alone destroying them, is not allowed.  Jewish law is absolute on this subject.  Says the Mishnah, והמעמץ עם יציאת נפש. הרי זה שופך דמים - one who closes the eyes of someone at the time his soul is departing from him, this is the spilling of blood - that is to say, murder.   The Talmud tells us that one whose soul is departing is like a guttering candle; the slightest touch will extinguish it.  Nothing should be done to extinguish that life even a moment before God’s time for it.   Every human life, regardless of its condition, is considered in Judaism to be of infinite value.  The last breath of one who is dying and the first breath of a new born are of equal worth.

That said, Judaism is sensitive to the pain that often accompanies our departure from this life.  The Talmud records the final sufferings of Judah Ha-Nasi, known simply in our tradition as Rabbi.  Rabbi’s students gathered around his bed and prayed incessantly that he would stay among them, thus drawing out his suffering.  His maid, seeing the pain he was in, threw a jar from the roof of Rabbis house and it shattered on the ground.  The sound caused Rabbi’s students to cease their prayers momentarily and in that moment he died.

Thus the state of Jewish law on treating the dying as universally accepted throughout the world and across the movements: one may remove impediments to dying - such as the prayers of Rabbi’s students - but one may not take any actions to hasten one’s dying - such as the closing of the eyes.

The active debate in Jewish law is over where the line is drawn between removing obstacles to dying and hastening death.  Can one, for instance, administer pain relieving medicine even to the point that it suppresses heart and respiratory function?  Some say yes, others, no.   Is intravenous nutrition and hydration an impediment to dying?  Some say it is, others, it is not.  All of these decision, however, are reserved for life’s final days.  They are a very far cry from the self-administration of life ending drugs that the various states’ physician assisted suicide laws contemplate.  The workings of those laws is what is depicted in my aforementioned episode of Grace & Frankie.

I watched this episode with no expectation that the characters would honor Jewish law and turn away from this act of self-destruction.  But what troubled me enough to turn it into a sermon was how quickly Grace's objections melt away.  At first she refuses to attend the pre-suicide party.  But ultimately she is convinced that the demands of friendship trump any qualms she might have over the morality of her friend’s behavior.  And indeed we can sympathize with her dilemma.  It cannot be easy to hold to a moral position that might mean physical and emotional pain for another.  She attends the party.  And when Frankie hesitates at serving her friend the poisoned pudding, Grace tells her that Frankie’s own beliefs and her bonds of friendship require her to do so.

What I find so troubling about all of this is the sense that this episode represents - if not where we are as a society with regard to suicide and the sanctity of life - then at least the direction in which we are heading.  We live at a time when palliative and hospice care is more available and better than it has ever been.  Professional counseling and pharmaceutical anti-depressants and anxiety medications offer more options to deal with the emotional pain of life’s end.  New therapies and powerful analgesics precisely administered can deal with much of the physical pain.  You would think the call for suicidal options would be diminishing in such circumstances, but the opposite is occurring.   In the past four years, three states plus the District of Columbia have passed Physician Assisted Suicide laws, bringing the total to six states where this is legal.  Seven more states have considered such legislation in recent years, including Connecticut where the legislature held hearings on the matter in 2013, ‘14 and ‘15.  Grassroots institutions working under the banner of “Death with Dignity” are cropping up all over the country and indeed all over the world.  And in the meantime, shows like Grace & Frankie and even an Israeli film entitled מיתה טובה - mistranslated into English as The Farewell Party - celebrates suicide as the ultimate expression of human autonomy and even a kind of triumph over death.

What all this says to me is that we are in the process of redefining life not as a divinely granted gift, or even as a happy accident of blind nature, but as the canvas of personal utility.  We live our lives for the utility we find in doing so, however we define that.  And whenever we feel we have worn out that utility, we, exercising our autonomy, end them.

Yet there is something very dangerous in defining life by its utility, and the reason why Jewish thinking across the movements is in near total agreement is because all realize that our law is pointing us away from that danger.  In saying that our bodies belong to God, we are saying that there is something inviolable about our lives - inviolable by others, inviolable by the state, even inviolable by ourselves.  In that sense, suicide is not the ultimate expression of human autonomy.  In fact, it destroys that autonomy by taking away its source.  And once that autonomy is gone, and our lives are defined strictly by their utility, well then there is no depredation to which we cannot be subjected.

And this brings me back to the Tower of Babel and to the midrash that has helped me to understand this strange story.  It comes from the possibly eighth century text known as פרקי דרבי אליעזר.  Here it is:

Rabbi Pinchas said, “There were no stones there wherewith to build the city and the tower.  What did they do?  They baked bricks and burnt them like a builder until they had built it seven miles high and it had ascents on its east and west.  The laborers who took up the bricks went up on the eastern ascent and down on the western.  If a man fell and died, they paid no heed to him, but if a brick fell, they sat down and wept and said: ‘Woe is us!  When will another one come in its stead?’”

The midrash speaks of our propensity to turn the work of our hands into our gods.  We take pride in our skill and our accomplishment.  We see in our workmanship a reflection of our own creativity and individuality.  And ultimately, we come prize it beyond all other things.  This is what the tower becomes to its builders.   And this is moment when the value of the individual human becomes measured by the number of bricks she can carry.  This is the moment when life is measured by its utility rather than its God given value.  In the Grace & Frankie episode, it is the moment when the friend announces that if she cannot live life on her own terms, then she will live it not at all.  And it is also the moment when Grace, who senses that life must mean more than this, shrugs her shoulders and says, “who am I to judge.”

Today is the most beautiful day of the year.  Its premise is that life is a gift whose value transcends our understanding of it at any given moment.  Its promise is that, through self-denial, through confrontation with our faults, and through reflection on our deeds, we can change in ways that make us worthy of this gift.  Growing and changing in this way, we can indeed achieve that sense of meaning that tells us that each breath we draw is as precious as the last; and indeed as precious as the first.  For we are not the mere sum of our utility.  We are instead the weakest and most transient of creatures in whose ear God nevertheless whispers the words, “Choose life that you and your children may live.”

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning, Beth Israel Synagogue, 1 Tishrei 5778

In Hebrew, the word is קהילה.  It means community.  In the more than hundred years this congregation has existed, much has changed.  We have gone from Orthodox to Conservative to God-knows-what.  Our method of Shabbat observance is totally altered.  Our standards of kashrut are looser and our attitude toward interfaith marriage has undergone a complete reversal.  I view all of these changes as good.  And I view them that way because they have preserved Beth Israel’s most important function: as a קהילה - a community.

Last year on this day, we unveiled plans to rebuild this synagogue of ours.  My cousin Jay’s model - now on display in our lobby - inspires our members to work toward its realization, and speaks to potential members of our hopes and dreams.  What remains is to instill in all of us not merely the beauty of our vision, but its importance as well.  That importance rests in our being a community. 

Each of us needs a community: a place where we can stand face-to-face, arm-in-arm, and hand-to-hand with others who share our journey.  Beth Israel is such a community.  And to watch it work - as I am privileged to do - is an inspiration.  I see how the groups that make up our community - our children, our parents, our empty-nesters and our elders - each play a different yet vital role in the lives of all the others.  Growing through these roles becomes an ongoing source of purpose and fulfillment that graces our days with meaning.

For those of us who did not grow up among the proliferating forms of social media - Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest - the idea of a virtual community is a contradiction in terms.  To us, physical presence is what makes a community a community. We know how hard it is to be physically present in someone’s life - especially when that someone is sick or scared or grieving.  Yet knowing how important that presence is in precisely in those moments, we face our own fears and show up anyway.  In doing so, we comfort others, and strengthen ourselves.

I worry that our younger generation, for whom the virtual world is native ground, are not being pushed to learn how to be present in the lives of others.  And this is where I think that the importance of what we do here rises to the beauty of the physical space to which we aspire.

This past Spring, I met with some of our parents to brainstorm ways in which I could broaden the exposure of the school and the shul to the unaffiliated Jewish community in Wallingford and beyond.  One of our parents, Lauren Esposito, told me that she and her daughter Galina spend a lot of time in the public library and suggested that I look into doing some kind of programming there.  Perhaps something on parenting, and she recommended a book that I might want to look at.

The book is entitled The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings To Raise Self-Reliant Children by Dr. Wendy Mogel.  For fifteen year Dr. Mogel was a practicing child psychologist dealing with troubled children and, to a large extent, their equally troubled parents.   Then she had two kids of her own and, between parenthood, marriage and career, she found herself frenzied and exhausted.  A chance invitation to join a friend for Rosh Hashanah services at a nearby shul turned her life around.  Convinced from childhood that she didn’t like synagogues and didn’t like rabbis, she couldn’t believe that the service moved her to tears.  She returned on Yom Kippur.  And then she started attending Friday night services.  And then she and her family started lighting candles on Shabbat.  And eating dinner in.  And avoiding shell-fish.  Some time later she decided to take a year off from work to explore her Judaism in depth.  These studies would coalesce into a theory of child rearing drawn from Jewish practice and Jewish ethics.

The book’s title provides a beautiful understanding of the most common of childhood experiences.  The skinned knee is a blessing when it teaches our children a degree of personal strength and courage.  Dr. Mogel draws a parallel between this common childhood trauma and God’s call to Abraham to leave behind everything he knew to pursue his mission in life.  “Unless your child ventures forth into the world,” she writes, “he won’t get a chance to learn how to master it and find his place.”

This is but one of the many lessons Dr. Mogel believes Judaism teaches us about raising children.   In the Torah’s command to honor one’s father and mother she sees the need to provide our children with role models and the expectation that they will treat their elders with respect.  In Judaism’s teachings on the human struggle between our good and bad inclinations, the יצר טוב and the יצר הרע, she sees the need to teach our children the difference between what we need and what we want - cultivating a sense of gratitude toward the one and blessing toward the other.  In Judaism’s laws of kashrut and its many blessings over food she sees the opportunity to raise our children’s consciousness about what they eat and encourage moderation.  And in Judaism’s sanctification of time she sees an opportunity for family members to slow down and be present in each other’s lives.

In relying as she does on religious teachings, Dr. Mogel rediscovers, I believe, some essential truths about parenting.  Looking back at our own skinned knees - which my brother Jay and I earned together trying to jointly coast a tricycle down Saddle Ridge Road’s steep and curvy hill  - I suppose we did learn something about carrying on in adversity.  But while I agree with most of the lessons she draws about child rearing, I feel she has missed the larger context into which they are intended to fit.  The problem is evident in her subtitle: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children.  Ultimately, the purpose of Jewish teachings is not to raise self-reliant children; it is to raise Jews, and Jews have a very different take on self-reliance.   As I got deeper into the book, I had the increasing feeling that something was missing.  Where was the synagogue?  Where was the community?

My answer came four pages from the end of the book.  Here is what she writes:

(D)espite the fact that bringing Judaism into my life has yielded astonishing blessings, I have not achieved unambivalent enthusiasm for organized religion.  I still carry baggage.  It bears the labels “Dislikes being part of a group,” “Squirms when sincerity verges near the corny,” and “Finds getting through the day hard enough hard enough without extra restrictions or obligations.”  Sometimes the goodness of the congregants at my synagogue makes me feel venal, cynical and selfish by comparison.  Sometimes the idea of ritual and religious obligation annoys or exhausts me.

I am sympathetic to Dr. Mogel’s plight and to the baggage that weighs her down.  But if her much desired self-reliance has left her unable to cope with others’ emotions or her own sense of ritual inadequacy, what is its point?  The truth is, for Judaism, the idea of “self-reliance” makes no more sense than that of “virtual community.”  Judaism emphasizes personal responsibility and moral accountability and it does so precisely because it recognizes that we all need each other.  Judaism is not about living alone.  The divine covenant - membership in which is what makes us Jews - is not between God and each of us, but between God and all of us.  It is between God and the entire nation of Israel.  The bulk of Judaism’s laws that remain operative since the destruction of the Temple deal with relationships between and among people.  As it happens, these are the lessons our kids need the most today, for reasons having to do mostly with a three-by-five rectangle of glass and metal we implant in their hands right around the time they hit adolescence.

Dr. Jean Twenge has dedicated her twenty-five year career in psychology to studying the changes among the generations.  Using data that have been collected on teenagers since the 1930’s, she has been able to monitor differences in such things as self-perception and social interaction.  Generally, these differences have expressed themselves as gradual changes from year-to-year.  Then, beginning in 2012, they became large and abrupt.  Not coincidentally, 2012 was the year that smartphone ownership crossed 50% of the US population. 

Some of these changes are positive.  Teen birth rates last year were down 67% from their peak in 1991.  Today’s teens are significantly less likely than their parents to get into car accidents, and they have less of a taste for alcohol. 

This is the positive side of what has been, essentially, a drastic fall in actual face-to-face interaction between and among teens.  Between 2000 and 2015, the number of kids spending time each day with their friends dropped by 40%.  12th graders in 2015 went out less often than 8th graders in 2009.  High schoolers wait longer these days to get their driver’s licenses, and fewer of them take part time jobs to earn a few bucks for themselves.

Rather than date, kids “talk” which is actually a euphemism for sending text messages and Snap-chatting each other.  56% of today’s high schoolers go out on dates compared with around 85% two and three generations ago.  So if kids aren’t driving and aren’t dating and aren’t seeing their friends, what are they doing?  “They are,” writes Dr. Twenge, “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.”

She reports that the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future report - which has surveyed high schoolers since 1975 - finds that all screen related activities make kids more unhappy, while all non-screen related activities make them more happy.  Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook can all exacerbate feelings of isolation and being left out.  The statistics are devastating.  From 2012 to 2015, depressive symptoms in boys increased by 21%.  In girls, they increased by 50%.  And between 2007 and 2015, twice as many 12 to 14 year old boys and three times as many girls committed suicide.

My daughter Sarah, who brought Dr. Twenge’s work to my attention, explained it to me this way.  “The lives of the people I know,” she says, “have become performances.  They go on Facebook and their friends are all posting picture of their vacations and the parties they are going to and the food they are eating and my friends ask themselves, ‘Why am I not enjoying life like they are?’  So their own Facebook posts become a performance to convince themselves and others that they are as happy as everyone else seems to be.”

This is obviously a major challenge to parents and to our society as a whole.  I am not here to tell you that church or synagogue membership is a cure to the isolation and depression that is at the heart of this problem.  But I am here to tell you that this synagogue’s very existence is built on the idea of community involvement and caring; that to live a fully and meaningfully Jewish life requires that you interact personally and directly with others.

This synagogue, in the year just past, offered each of us the chance to put up our sukkah with Larry Hyatt and to put out our candles and challah with Tammy Kahn; to allow a new family observe Pesach, and to allow an old friend say Kaddish; to help Bob Gross bury old siddurim and machzorim and to help Shirley Glasner send out happy birthday or anniversary wishes; to give Jack Huber one last hug and to give Nancy Huber or Mimi Bloch one more hug; to have a slice of lox with the Torah study crowd and to have a slice of birthday cake with Saul Freilich; to explore the meaning of love on Shavuot and to explore the meaning of loss on Tisha B’Av; to plan a celebration with Phyllis Gordon and Sue Burt; to celebrate with Ethan Thomaswick and Josh Rodriguez.  Each one of these actions is a mitzvah in the truest sense of that oft misunderstood word.  As such, they are not incidental to this synagogue’s existence.  They are the very reason for it.  To bring your children up as participants in such a community is to necessarily raise their gaze beyond the glow of their smartphone screen.

Some of the things a community asks of its members bring great joy.  Others are painful and scary.  Each exposes us to a new person or a new experience or a new idea - and so each forces us to grow.   And each implants within us a sense of meaning in our lives.  That is what Beth Israel is all about.  Achieving that is what makes us worthy of the noble designs standing before us.

For all the changes that have taken place in this synagogue over its long history, we have remained a קהילה קדושה - a holy community.  We are present for each other and interdependent on one another.  As this community has been there for each of us as we have progressed through this lifelong journey of ours, so, with God’s help and our own dedication, may it be there in the lives of our children - to instruct them in their youth, to gain strength from them in their vigor, and to honor them and draw wisdom from them in old age.  This is the noble task of our community.  Our ancestors’ work, and God’s blessing, have given it to us as an inheritance.  For our children’s sake, may this community grow and thrive and be stronger for having been in our care.

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening, Beth Israel Synagogue, 1 Tishrei 5778

For the last several years, my prayer book of choice has been The Koren Siddur, edited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who was formerly the chief rabbi of Great Britain.   What I like most about it is the layout.  Rather than large blocks of text, the Hebrew is set as the poetry it truly is.  And the English on the facing page mirrors the Hebrew.  I occasionally look at the translations just to see how Rabbi Sacks has treated a particular word or phrase.  But for the most part, when I pray alone, I pray exclusively in Hebrew.

Praying in Hebrew is different from praying in English.  Under Jewish law, prayer is acceptable in any language that one understands.  The important thing is to pray with כונה, which is the Hebrew word for intention.  For the longest time, I have taken these two requirements together to mean that praying with intention calls for absolute concentration on the meaning of the words one utters.  Now I am not so sure.  My own מטביע תפילה - my own formula of prayer - seeks to avoid undo repetition, yet words like redemption, rescue, sovereignty, holiness and every possible synonym for praise appear repeatedly.  When one says these same words multiple times a day, most every day of the week, concentration on their meaning becomes well nigh on impossible.

But in Hebrew, the actual words matter less.  Its the experience of saying them that matters. Hebrew prayer has a trance-like quality to it.  Once you have trained your tongue to say the words, they fall from your lips in a natural cadence that can remove you - at least a little bit - from the place where you are physically standing.  And it is this sense of removal - this sense of being transported - that I now associate with the requirement of כונה. 

Prayer in English is different.  Being in our native language, our sensitivity to its nuance is far greater.  And this sensitivity is heightened because the prayers are translated not just from a foreign language, but also from a foreign time - one far removed from our own and possessing its own nuance of thought.  The translator faces the double challenge of not only capturing the nuanced meaning of the original, but then deciding whether that meaning can even be captured in another language.  A simple example is one of my favorite prayers, the one that acknowledges the wondrous nature of the human body which can be found in our מחזורים on pages 82 and 83.  It praises God as the One who fashioned האדם with wisdom, creating נקבים נקבים חלולים חלולים.  That last phrase literally means “holes that are holes and hollows that are hollow.” Such a phrase would be disconcerting if not outright confusing to most modern worshippers.   So instead, our translation renders it “an intricate network of veins, arteries, structures and organs.”  Is that what the phrase נקבים נקבים חלולים חלולים really means?  Possibly, but it is one of the only translations that can make sense of it.  The bigger problem is the word האדם which literally means “the man.”  Instead, our translation renders it as “the human body.”  No one is going to translate this phrase literally lest one be accused of misogyny.  So a text that literally praises God "who fashioned the man with holes that are holes and hollows that are hollow,” becomes “who has fashioned the human body … creating an intricate network of veins, arteries, structures and organs…”  And this is a non-controversial example of problematic translation.

The problems inherent in translation mean that translation itself becomes an ongoing process.  As the culture into which you are translating a text changes, the translations themselves have to change in order to keep up.  This is very different from the experience of Hebrew prayer where texts have changed very little over huge stretches of time.  Two years ago, I attended my rabbinical school’s annual retreat.  One morning for our prayer service, we used the siddur or Rav Sa’adia Gaon who died 1075 years ago.  Virtually everything in that siddur is recognizable to a knowledgeable Jew.  While there were differences in phrasing and in word order, what amazes about that prayer book is how little has changed over the course of a millenium. 

That is not the case with translations.  Just in the course of my lifetime the language of translation has changed dramatically - and I am not referring solely to every “Thou” that has become a “You” and every “Thine” that has become a “Yours.”  Starting in the early 1990’s and in response to evolving sensitivities, prayer books have sought to become what is called “gender inclusive.”  Ancient texts that referred to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have been rewritten to include the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah as well.  Other texts that rely heavily on masculine pronouns now get the nouns “God” and “Adonai” in translation.  Or they change the translation from third to second person in order to use the neutral pronoun “You” rather than “He.”

For some time I opposed these changes as I felt they corrupted an ancient text.   Nevertheless, just raising the issue altered my consciousness of the language of our translations.  Now every “He,” “Him,” and “His” evokes in me the fear that someone in the congregation is feeling excluded.  So when the closing of Beth El Synagogue in Torrington gave us the opportunity to acquire the newer version of our prayer book - the one with the more gender inclusive language - I grabbed them up.  I am not sure how much of a difference these changes make to our congregants, but I do know that they are in line with the direction in which all prayer translation is moving.  Indeed, if you look at the title page of the מחזור you are holding in your hand right now, you will see that it is styled the Enhanced Edition.  Turn the page and you will learn that the enhancement is the “Expanded Use of Egalitarian English Terminology.”

More revealing of the complications of translation is the מחזור we will be using here on Second Day Rosh Hashanah and the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  A word of explanation is in order here.  שערי תשובה, Gates of Repentance, is the Reform Movement’s High Holiday מחזור published in 1978.  It is produced in the format of the movement’s regular prayer book at that time, שערי תפלה, Gates of Prayer.  That prayer book’s most notable feature is that it offers ten separate and distinct Friday night services, ranging from almost traditional to virtually humanistic.  I never liked Gates of Prayer which struck me as too scripted.  But I did like Gates of Repentance which to me, supplemented the core of the traditional liturgy with meaningful contemporary readings and reflections.  In particular, I remember being moved by its Yom Kippur afternoon service - a service which has the potential for great emotional power, which I have long felt has been lacking here.  When Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison decided to switch to the Reform movement’s new מחזור, I asked Rabbi Offner if I could have some copies of the older book.  She was only too happy to know they might yet be used in worship.

When I sat down this summer to outline our services using that מחזור, it had been twelve years since last I picked it up.  I was amazed at how dated it had become.  Of course, at nearly forty years old, it predated the move toward egalitarian language by more than a decade.  I expected that.  But what struck me was the tone of many of the readings.  They seemed to be aimed at taking certain messages in our liturgy that were particular to the Jewish people and broadening them to a larger audience.  This strikes me as a concern of the Reform movement four decades ago, but not one we share today.  Indeed, given how loosely Judaism’s bonds fall on many of our contemporaries, I think we would be more likely today to emphasize the particular over the universal. 

Another thing that struck me about this מחזור was how it handled the Holocaust in the martyrology section of the Yom Kippur afternoon service.  Written a bit more than 30 years after that time, the readings speak to a generation for whom the Holocaust would be a living memory.  That, for the most part, is no longer the case.  As formative an experience as that massive tragedy may have been a generation or more ago, it needs to be remembered differently today.

Whether or not Gates of Repentance will enhance our prayer experience here in 5778 is something we will discover over the next ten days.  As one of my favorite readings in that מחזור says, “Merely to have survived is not an index of excellence.”  So too may it be that all the work of our hands - whether synagogues or sermons or translated prayers - can but serve us a very short while.  If there is still life in these forty-year-old translations and interpretations, we will find it together.   And if not, we will, hopefully, be none the worse for the experience.

The bigger question I ask myself is what is the value of translated prayer, given how transient they are?  Is praying in translation a fools errand - providing only the form of prayer without the כונה that makes it soar?  Three things keep me from coming to that conclusion.  First, it was through translation was I introduced to prayer.  And while I will not - even today - hold myself up as a model to anyone for how to pray, at least I am trying.  Second, given my own limitations and flaws, who am I to say what moves and inspires others to the level of intention, introspection and beseeching that prayer requires?  And finally, I have learned that, while prayer might be the only path to communicating with God, there are many paths to prayer itself.  Study or great triumph may implant in us the desire to pray. Introspection or great tragedy may stir within us the need to pray.  And then we will learn for ourselves.

And finally there is this: the belief that, in truth, the language of prayer is neither Hebrew nor English nor, for that matter any spoken language.  I believe that the language of prayer is that of the heart.  זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה says the Psalmist - the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a heart that is broken and contrite.  Not, I think, broken in the sense of despairing, but rather in the sense of being broken open - stripped of all its pride and arrogance.  Such a heart will reach beyond what it can understand and seek that which it can only sense is there.  Whatever can open such a heart - a joy, a pain, a sense of awe, a spoken poem, a wordless song - that is the stuff on which prayer is built.  As we enter these days of נוראים - may that sense of awe, of fear, of wonder - open each of our hearts to that truth that stands before us - unseen, but real.

Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning, Beth Israel Synagogue, 10 Tishrei 5777

Nine years ago, my daughter Sarah joined her high school swim team and my wife became quite hysterical.  No, she wasn’t afraid her baby was going come down with swimmer’s ear.  Nor was she perturbed by the thought of spending long weekend afternoons at seemingly endless swim meets, breathing close, chlorinated air while we waited for our child’s two minutes in the pool.  What started her crying jag was the fear of what Friday evening swim practices would do to Shabbat dinner.

Sarah only stayed on the swim team for a year, but by then, there were other distractions for a high schooler on a Friday night.  Then there was college, and then a job in New York.  In the meantime Rachel acquired her own host of young adult interests, all the while this place took up half my Friday nights.  And there were friends, and boyfriends, and travel and the other entanglements that lay claim to each of us.  The times the four of us welcome Shabbat together are by now so rare that I am actually afraid to try and count. 

But one of those rare occurrences took place a few weeks ago and I want to tell you about that night in some detail.  That detail, I am afraid, will include some singing on my part, because singing is a big part of Shabbat dinner in my house.  But as this is a day when one is supposed to afflict one’s soul, I have no trouble allowing my voice to inflict that affliction on you. 

Of course, given the nature and complexity of our lives, even those rare evenings when the four of us share Shabbat dinner together are never quite like they used to be.  Its a two hour commute from Sarah’s job to home.  And of course, I have my obligations here.  So I cooked our Shabbat dinner on Friday afternoon, wrapped it all in aluminum foil, left it on the stove top and headed to Wallingford.  After services, I drove into New Haven where I picked up Sarah and her boyfriend Leon at twenty-to-nine.  When we got home, I was surprised to find Rachel’s boyfriend Spencer was also joining us.  So there would six at our table.  Another chair dragged up from the basement, a leaf put in the table and by quarter-passed nine we were ready to go.  I watched Terri light the candles at my own table as I had watched Sue Burt light them here hours before.   This, of course, is forbidden under Jewish law.  When the sun set, it took the time for kindling flame with it.  But here’s the thing: you can always hear Terri strike the match to light the Shabbat candles in my house.   That’s because in the moment that she strikes it, regardless of how much noise there had been a second before, there is silence.  In that moment of silence, Shabbat enters my home.  And it doesn’t matter to me where or whether the sun is in the sky. 

Then my hands reached for the foreheads of my two girls.  I began my blessing upon them with the words   ישמך אלהים כשרה, רבקה, רחל ולאה - The Lord make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.  Then I had a choice.  Do I proceed with the blessing in the Torah’s actual language, thus referring to my girls with masculine pronouns, or do I modify the text to reflect who they really are?  Based on my rather liberal attitude toward candle lighting, you might think I would equally loose with the text.  But I am not.  When it comes to words of Torah, the pull of tradition is too strong for me.  And while rabbis have an equally long tradition of taking liberties with even the Torah text, I am hesitant to do so.  So I blessed my girls with masculine pronouns and then kissed them with the right words - שלום לך.

All the while, my pewter kiddush cup sat, brimming with wine, waiting for me to lift it and sing:   יום הששי.  וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַֽיִם וְהָאָֽרֶץ וְכָל צְבָאָם..    I sang the entire kiddush - beginning with the biblical account of the creation of the seventh day  - and I did so very slowly.  To be  embarrassingly frank, singing over my Friday night table is, to me, like singing in the shower; it sounds much better in my ears then I am sure it does to anyone else.  But I savor the words of the kiddush.  אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְרָֽצָה בָֽנוּ - who has made us holy with his commandments and who desires us.  In our Hebrew school, I feign anger when one of our kids tells me a מצוה is a good deed.  “No,” I tell them for seemingly the hundredth time with a cry in my voice, “its a commandment!”  Its our link to God and God desires us.  This sentiment is never more palpable to me then in the kiddush. 

כִּי בָֽנוּ בָחַֽרְתָּ וְאוֹתָֽנוּ קִדַּֽשְׁתָּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים For us you have chosen, and us you have sanctified from among all the nations.  How antithetical the notion of chosenness has become to so many!  It offends our egalitarian sensibilities to no end.   I, on the other hand, revel in it; and no more so then when I sing those words on Friday night.  The rest of the world stands outside Judaism and when they look in, to the extent they even can, they see an עם קשה ערף, a stiff-necked people, praying to their angry, “Old Testament God.”  But a Jew stands inside a covenant whose very purpose is to help her understand that outside world with a caring and compassion that will never be reciprocated.  She knows that it paradoxically takes an עם קשה ערף to bring such compassion to a broken world.  And she delights in being chosen to do so.  I delight in being so chosen, and if I close my eyes when I sing those words, its because in those moments I truly feel how special and important it is to be Jewish.

In a prior iteration of this sermon, I wrote at length about the meal I served.  My wife declared that description a wanton act of cruelty inflicted on a people who, throughout its long history and, certainly on this particular day, have suffered enough.  Suffice it to say, then, that the meal I served that night was the same meal I serve at every Shabbat dinner.  There’s a purpose in the sameness of it all.  Like Shabbat itself, its dishes become something you depend on and which form deep and abiding associations in our souls.  Shabbat is real because you know it: its look, its smell, its taste, its sounds, its character.  But I will come back to this thought in a few moments.

Over dinner we talked as you only can talk among those closest to you; unguardedly and without fear of saying the wrong thing.  To me, my kids are the most interesting dinner companions in the world.  Part of that is because they are both incredibly smart and incredibly funny.  But part of it is because they are the two people in this world on whom I have had the greatest influence, and yet who are entirely their own persons.   As the parent of a young child, you tend to think of him or her as a tabula rasa - a blank slate which you fill with knowledge and wisdom and values.  But in fact, each child has a distinct personality through which they filter everything you say.  And not only do they listen to what you tell them, they watch how you act and they measure those actions against your words.  Talking to your kids, then, is a wonderful way of ridding yourself of any illusions you might have as to your own virtue. 

On this particular Shabbat evening, our conversation was about the internet: specifically about two books on that subject that Sarah had recommended to me and which confirmed my growing belief that the world wide web is a black hole, sucking the life force out of each and every one of us.  I asked my girls and their boyfriends if they were afraid of it all.  They answered a patient maturity that would make one wonder who was whose elder.  “Of course the internet could be dangerous,” they told me,  “but so were cars, subways and public spaces.”  But it was also a part of their lives and they treated it with caution, but not fear.  Their comments were enough to scuttle my plans for today’s sermon, but not enough to change my mind.

After we wrapped up the leftovers, stacked the plates in the dishwasher and wiped down the table, I reached into what I derisively refer to as “the Jew cabinet” and extracted a copy of the NCSY Bentsher, the little booklet which contains  the blessings and table songs one might share over a Shabbat meal.  One of my great prides as a parent is that when I opened the cabinet, both my daughters asked for their own copies of the bentsher.  And now, with only the half drunk kiddush cup and the half burned down candles glowing on the table, with Terri falling asleep on the sofa and the two boyfriends off doing who-knows-what, my daughters and I sat down and sang.  We sang
יוֹם זֶה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, שַׁבָּת מְנוּחָה.
צוּר מִשֶּׁלּוֹ אָכַֽלְנוּ בָּרְכוּ אֱמוּנַי, שָׂבַֽעְנוּ וְהוֹתַֽרְנוּ כִּדְבַר יְיָ.

יָהּ רִבּוֹן עָלַם וְעָלְמַיָּא, אַנְתְּ הוּא מַלְכָּא מֶֽלֶךְ מַלְכַיָּא.

Each of those זמירות contains beautiful imagery about Shabbat and the many delights and rewards attached to its observance.  But they are, after all, זמירות, songs, and their true beauty comes in being sung - heartily and joyfully.  And that is just what we did until we were ready for ברכת.

ברכת המזון - known commonly and mistakenly as the “grace after the meals,” is something of a miracle.  It is very long and most people who hear it feel sure they will never master it.  But everyone who puts the effort in, does master it and does so remarkably quickly.  Perhaps its the prayer’s upbeat style: הַזָּן אֶת הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּחֵן בְּחֶֽסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים.  Or perhaps its the staccato beauty of the words: כַּכָּתוּב, וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ, וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת יְיָ אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ.  Or maybe its the delightful wordplay that is obvious to anyone - even those who don’t understand Hebrew: הוּא הֵטִיב, הוּא מֵטִיב, הוּא יֵיטִיב לָֽנוּ. הוּא גְמָלָֽנוּ, הוּא גוֹמְלֵֽנוּ, הוּא יִגְמְלֵֽנוּ לָעַד.  Whatever its source, this extended piece of liturgy truly conveys the sense of blessing.

And for me, that night, it conveyed something else.  There are two wonderful notions of Shabbat that our rabbis teach which, for me, came together that night. The first is that on Shabbat, we are granted a נשמה יתרה - an extra soul that descends upon us at kiddush and accompanies us through havdalah, doubling our joy on this greatest of days.  And the second is that Shabbat gives us a taste of the world to come, that ill defined after-life promised to all whose virtues even slightly outweigh their vices.  That evening, around my table, singing the ברכת with my kids, I had a taste of the world to come.  It was a world in which my children sang ברכת at their own Shabbat tables with their own children.  And I knew that the sense of שלום that they would feel in that moment – that sense of wholeness – was the same sense that I felt in this one.  And I knew also that in their moment of שלום, my נשמה יתרה would be there with them.

We live in strange times.  How strange?  Consider this fact:  In my lifetime, men have walked on the moon.  But not in my children's.  Now this might strike you as an odd quirk of history, but for me, it is deeply significant.  When I look at my children's generation, I see that their lives are lived increasingly not in this world, but in a virtual one; in a place where all conceivable knowledge is free, but where wisdom and discernment are as rare as they have ever been.   Its a world in which every keystroke they make can be, and for all we know might be, recorded somewhere, and where a single, ill-considered tweet can make them the subject of viscous ridicule, or worse.

At the same time, theirs is a world in which confidence and trust in our society's institutions has fallen precipitously.  Trust in the government is at an all time low.  The same is true for our economy.  And institutions like the colleges and universities, for which many parents mortgage their homes so their children can attend, seem to have lost confidence in themselves, unwilling as they are to defend themselves against the growing anti-Semitism and assaults on free speech on their own campuses. 

I look at the world my kids face and wonder: where is the optimism?  Where the hope?  Where the sense of the ideal?

In giving them Shabbat, I have given my children an ideal made real.  The notion of Shabbat as a day of rest is just that - a notion.  But my kids know what Shabbat looks like, what it sounds like, what it tastes and smells like, and what it feels like.  Shabbat is no disembodied theological concept to them.  It is as real to them as my נשמה יתרה is to me.

This is Judaism’s great power: the ability to project an ideal and then, through its prayers and its practices, make that ideal achievable in our lives.  It gives a Shabbat dinner the capacity to transport us into the future, just as it gives a Passover Seder the capacity to transport us into the past.  It turns a Torah reading into a reenactment of revelation, and a Megillah reading into a reenactment of redemption.  Judaism can turn a week spent shivering in a hut into sense of abiding contentment.  And it can transform a day’s worth of hunger and contrition into a sense of absolute purity.

Judaism is often said to be a religion of this world, and indeed it is.  But it sees this world not with cynicism or fear, but with hope and courage.  This is why I believe so strongly that we must rebuild this place.  Our children deserve a heritage that fosters their ideals and charges them to do great and good things.  And we need to nourish that נשמה יתרה within each of us whose presence fills us with the sense that our lives and our choices matter for they extend beyond ourselves.  The challenge is before us.  It brims with possibilities.  It only remains for us to take it up, to claim it, to nourish it, and to sing its song.  The yearning souls of our children, and the yearning souls within each of us, are watching to see what we will do.

Sermon for Yom Kippur Evening, Beth Israel Synagogue, 10 Tishrei 5777

This past spring I went for my annual physical.  After the normal pleasantries, my doctor got down to business.  He stared at his computer screen to look at my latest blood work.  Soon, a flurry of other windows were opening, including tests and letters from other doctors I happen to see.  In a few moments, he turned to me and told me I needed more tests.  And I did what I normally do when a doctor tells me he or she wants to look further: I panicked.  My doctor, who is truly a mensch, did his best to reassure me, and I did my best to look reassured.  But I really don’t handle doctors all that well.

That night, I slept fitfully for a couple of hours.  I woke up around midnight and started Googling. By 3 AM, I was a total wreck; scared, exhausted and completely unable to sleep.  That’s when I decided to pray.  In the dark I stumbled for my glasses, a bathrobe and, finally, a siddur.  I prayed slowly and deliberately, lingering over the words.  And they brought me comfort.  My mind began to settle.  In a little while, I put the prayer book down, went back to bed, and fell asleep.  A few days later, my doctor called with news that my tests had turned out okay, and mildly upbraiding me for not trusting him more.

I don’t pray ever day, but I do pray most days.  My own daily rubric of prayers takes me between 20 and 30 minutes, depending on how fast I go and whether I add prayers here and there along the way, as I often do.  I usually, but don’t always, put on my tallit to pray.  I rarely use tefillin.   But you might be surprised to know that I do use an Orthodox siddur - the Koren Siddur which is relatively new and has a clean, modern style which appeals to me.  What I like most about it is that it lays out the Hebrew, not as large blocks of text, but as the poetry it truly is. 

As someone who was raised an atheist, prayer has been a struggle for me.  It has taken me years to develop a minimal competence as a שליח צבור - a prayer leader - and even that faint praise might be too generous.  And it has taken me just as long to develop a true need to pray - a need that transcends temporary wants or anxieties and touches my very being. When I don’t pray, I feel like something is missing in my day.  But that said, my prayer is often - perhaps too often - mechanical.  I often find myself at the end of a prayer having been barely aware that I had even started it.  This, of course, is a far cry from the Talmudic standard which demands a concentration so intense that if a snake curled itself around our feet while we prayed, we wouldn’t take notice. I won’t need many hands-worth of fingers to count how many times I reached that standard of intentionality.

So let’s begin with that - with the recognition that prayer in general, and Jewish prayer in particular - is very hard to do right.

How hard?  Recently I spent a Saturday afternoon attending a Catholic Mass at which a friend’s daughter was being married.  The entire service, including the wedding, ran to about an hour and a half.  There were some hymns and a couple of scriptural readings of little more than a half dozen verses.  And, of course, there was communion.  The only thing in the service that struck me as anything close to the Jewish concept of prayer was the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Just out of curiosity, I did a word count on that prayer.  It came, in its traditional form and including the “amen” at the end, to seventy words.  In the course of those seventy words, a Catholic manages to confess submission to God’s will, and asks for sustenance, forgiveness and deliverance.   That prayer is shorter than the first of nineteen blessings that constitute the weekday עמידה.  The עמידה includes requests for knowledge, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, healing, prosperity, justice, the ingathering of the exiles, the preservation of the righteous, the destruction of the wicked, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the restoration of the Davidic kingdom.  And that doesn’t include the three opening blessings of praise or three closing blessings of acceptance, thanks and peace.  In all, the עמידה runs close to 800 Hebrew words, which corresponds to more than 1200 in English.  And that is but a single section of the liturgy.  I haven’t even touched the שמע or the lengthy blessings that surround it. 

For some reason, I have had much less experience with Protestant prayer than I have Catholic.  I have had no experience with Muslim prayer.  But from what I have learned about both these faith’s practices, neither has anything near the length nor the complexity of Jewish prayer. 

The point I am trying to make is that Jewish prayer isn’t merely long and hard.  The demands it places on its practitioners are far beyond what is expected in any other faith system with which I am familiar.  This might have worked in a shtetl or in a ghetto where a Jew was regularly forced into prayer environments and could absorb its language and habits through osmosis.  But once regular synagogue attendance became the exception rather than the rule, and once we raised up a generation of Jews who got their knowledge of Hebrew and prayer in a classroom rather than in a sanctuary, and then expected that generation of Jews to raise up another generation of Jews who would also get their knowledge from a classroom rather than a sanctuary, the hope that we could convey to a majority of our people the great depths of thought and subtle emotional power that our prayers command became became a distant one at best.  When we lost the ability to pray comfortably, with knowledge and ease, we also lost the understanding of why prayer is so important to us.  So let me take a few moments to tell you why prayer is so important to me.

First of all, I pray because people rely on me to do so.  My job puts me in contact with many people who are hurting physically, emotionally or both.  I pray for these people, by name, every time I pray.  And when I tell them that I do so, they are touched and grateful.  Perhaps they believe, I think mistakenly, that my prayers are more efficacious than their own.  But I think that for many of these people, that gratitude comes from the knowledge that someone - perhaps on the periphery of their own lives - is taking a moment to recall their suffering and sincerely asking that they be made whole again.  Knowing that someone else cares about your pain is, at times, medicine in itself.  I often pray just because of this - the sense that I owe these people who are suffering that moment of devotion.

Second, I pray because I feel it my due.  I do not believe that I am owed any of the thousands upon myriads of blessings that I enjoy in my life.  And heaven forbid that I feel that in praying, I am earning for myself either the continuation of those blessings or the merit of future blessings.   I pray, rather, in appreciation of feeling the need to do so.  There is, for instance, a prayer one says upon going to the bathroom.  It says, in essence, thank you God for all the parts of my body that open when they should and close when they should.  Its a prayer like that that has the power to raise at least a few of our many blessings from something we take for granted to something of which we are conscious.

Third - and this is especially true when I pray here - I pray because its fun.  I love it when I begin a service with a niggun and people actually join in.  I love that I have no idea which tune for לך דודי is going to come out of my mouth until it does.  I love that I know four different ways to sing Psalm 150, one more joyous then the next.  I love gathering up my ציצית and kissing them during the שמע.  I love singing the קדושה and ישמחו and אין כאלהינו and אדון עולם.  And when there are, in this place, enough voices to, at least in part, drown out my own, I feel like we must be making a noise that pleases God.  And that, to me, is joyous.

As someone who has struggled with prayer, I am working hard to make prayer more meaningful and more accessible to you, my fellow strugglers.   Six years ago I streamlined these high holiday services, omitting many of their repetitions on the theory that it is better to say a prayer once with feeling than four times by rote.  More recently, I have introduced a once-a-month Shabbat morning service that seeks to bring the full beauty of our most important and extensive liturgy into a brief, three-quarters of an hour.  In both of these innovations, I have tried to preserve and present the essence of Jewish prayer in a form that will make people wish to master it and think of it as their own.  Mindful of how hard it is to become someone who prays, I am doing my best to ease and broaden our paths into prayer.  In this way, I hope to make prayer a part of our lives that we rely on, that we feel is our due, and that brings us joy.

But there is yet another reason why I pray; a reason that surpasses all the others.  Indeed, it is to me the very essence of prayer.  To try and explain it, I have to take you back to that night last spring when, in exhaustion and fear, I picked up my siddur at three in the morning.  What prayers does one say at such times?  Its too late for the evening service and too early for the morning.  For some reason, I decided to pray the הלל - that collection of Psalms 113 through 118 with which we praise God on our festive days.  Our tradition attributes them to King David which would make them around 3000 years old.  But on that difficult night, it was as if they had been written just for me.  I read מִן־הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ: - From the narrow place, I called to God.  He answered me from God’s wide expanse. 

Each of us inhabits a very narrow place.  It is a place bounded tightly by a short span of years, but whose walls we veil over so as not to succumb to despair.  Then something happens: the veil is lifted, the walls seem to close in on us and we are find ourselves frightened and alone.  From that very narrow space we cry out to something beyond ourselves.  We cry out to God.  We cry out with the same words that David cried out; with the same words that he gave to the scores of generations that cried out between us and him.  Those words connect us to those untold generations that came before us, and to the untold generations that will follow us, thus transcending our narrowness.  And thus does God answer us from His unlimited expanse.  And while it does not change our situation, we in our very narrowness are comforted knowing we have an answer in that which is infinite.  We have touched, and have been touched by something transcendent and eternal.

This is why I pray. This is why our prayers are such a precious inheritance. And this is why we must work so hard to reclaim that inheritance. Rebuilding this shul as a modern, vibrant and prayerful community will not be easy. Indeed, doing so will go against some of the most entrenched trends in our society. But doing so will reclaim for us – and more importantly for our children – what is perhaps the most important tool one can possess for building a good and flourishing life: the conviction that that life is not a narrow thing, but has the ability – nay the need - to touch the broadest plains. With God’s help and with your willing patience, we can do this together.

May the Holy One who revealed Himself to our ancestors, grant us the patience and the strength to recover their words of praise and thanks and petition, and make them our own.  May He make our prayers a source of comfort to those who need them, a source of reflection in our own lives, and source of joy that binds us all together as one community.  And may He, from His infinite expanses, hear our small voices, whispered from our narrow places, and answer us.

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning, Beth Israel Synagogue, 1 Tishrei 5777

ברוך המקום, ברוך הוא.  ברוך שנתן תורה לאמו ישראל, ברוך הוא.
Blessed be the Omnipresent, blessed be He!  Blessed be the one who gave the Torah to His people Israel, blessed be He!

Allow me to begin with an aside.  What I am about to say has nothing to do with my sermon topic, but is, rather, an appreciation of the greatness of Torah.  The Talmudic sage Ben Bag Bag observed as the reward of continued Torah study, הֲפֹך בָּהּ, וְהַפֵּך בָּהּ דְכֹלָה בהּ - Turn it over and turn it over, because everything is in it.  The genius of holding something as an eternal gift from God is that you keeps you turning it over and it keeps you amazed by what you find in it.  I have been turning over Torah every Shabbat morning for close to 20 years, and every year I challenge myself to find something new in it.  The wonderful members of this community who join me in this study both push me to deepen my own understand of this difficult text and make the task of doing so as rewarding an experience as I have known.

Sometimes, the task of finding something new in a text you have read 20 times before means digging all the deeper into its language.  Here we Jews are blessed with thousands of years of written commentary by some of the most brilliant minds who, like us, have turned this text over and over seeking insight, understanding, and the contentment that they bring.  But sometimes, indeed more often then not, that new thing for which you are looking is hiding in plain sight - there all along, like a Pokemon - just waiting for you to see it. 

Such is the case for me with today’s Torah reading.  For as long as I have been reading this text, particularly in the context of this day, I have been focused on its first three aliyot, which tell the story of Abraham’s abandonment of his first son Ishmael.  I have always viewed this story as the counterpoint to tomorrow’s reading, Genesis 22 which tells of the binding and near sacrifice of his second son, Isaac.  Reading it thus, I have completely ignored the contents of the last two aliyot of today’s reading.  These sections deal with dispute over water rights between Abraham and the Philistine chieftain Avimelech.  Avimelech’s servants have seized a well that Abraham dug and Abraham wants the well back.  He presents Avimelech with seven lambs, whose acceptance of the gift ratifies Abraham’s claim to the well.   Hence the place becomes known as באר שבע from the Hebrew words באר meaning well and שבע meaning seven.  The well of the seven. 

This story touches on a deeper truth about the land of Canaan - the land Abraham’s descendents will inherit and land we call the modern state of Israel.  It is a dry land; a land in which water is a precious commodity.  This idea is touched on in Deuteronomy as Moses, who will never, in fact, enter the land himself, nonetheless describes it for his people.  The land, he tells them, is not like Egypt where the Nile supplies a constant source of irrigation.  Rather, the land is completely dependent on the rain that falls upon it in its season.  אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְי אֱלֹהֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ תָּמִיד עֵינֵי יְי אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ מֵרֵשִׁית הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה: - it is a land that the Lord your God looks after continually - God’s eyes are upon it from the beginning of the year until its end.   For us, for whom it would never cross our minds to turn off the shower while we soap up, failure to appreciate the preciousness of water is an impediment to understanding Abraham’s dispute with Avimelech over possession of a well.

I drove past Beersheva last December.  The city just kind of pops up on you, situated as it is on the edge of the Negev desert.  Its home now to 200,000 people and its growing quickly.  Israel is developing it as yet another world-wide technology site, this time with an emphasis on cyber-security.  Its also sight to major facilities of the Israel Defense Forces and the home of Ben Gurion University. 

We drove past Beersheva on our way to S’de Boker, the kibbutz on which Israel’s most noted founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion lived and is buried.  S’de Boker is now the sight of Ben Gurion University’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research.  There, in one of its laboratories, we witnessed an ongoing experiment in which fish were being grown in various mixtures of fresh and highly treated wastewater.  The experiment is showing promising results and if all ultimately goes well, the plan is to use the wastewater generated by the city of Beersheva to farm fish.  Imagine that!  Farming fish in the desert, on a piece of land which is named for a fight over water rights.

Israel is an extraordinary land in so many ways.  But in its championing of water technology, it may well be creating tools that can save the world.  This from a land that, from the time of the patriarchs until just a couple of years ago, depended entirely on a good rainy season for its existence.  Our prayers reflect this basic truth.  From the end of Sukkoth to the beginning of Pesach - the rainy season in Israel - a prayer for rain is part of our daily liturgy.  The rest of the year we pray for dew - the only source of water during the summer months.  Eighty years ago, the British restricted Jewish emigration to Palestine, condemning thousands if not millions of Jews to death in Nazi concentration camps, partly on the justification that the land's water resources could support no more then two million people.  Now it is home to ten million Jews and Arabs and Israel actually exports water intensive crops like melons to the rest of the world.  When I was there ten years ago, the water level of the Kineret - the Sea of Galilee - was a part of every newscast.   Since that time, Israel has lined its Mediterranean Sea Coast with with a string of desalination plants - one of which is the largest in the world - that collectively provide the country with 785 million cubic yards of potable water per year.  The revolution was made possible by technology developed and refined in Israel to make desalination cheap.  In a part of the world where all the surrounding countries are parched, Israel actually has a surplus of water. 

And desalination is only a part of that story.  Since the founding of the state, Israel has treated water as a precious economic good that cannot be wasted.  In Israel, every drop of water - even the water that falls on  your own private roof -  belongs to the state and must be purchased by the end user at its actual cost.  This early decision by Israel’s leaders to treat water as an economic good instilled in Israelis a sense of its value.  And like all people faced with real economic choices, Israelis didn’t just conserve water, they discovered ways to make it cheaper and go farther. 

Israel created drip irrigation which is vastly more water efficient then either sprinkler or flood irrigation.  Israel has pioneered the development of seeds and fertilizers that produce more crops on less land and using fewer resources, including water.  And - at a time when many major cities are losing a third or more of their fresh water to leaks in their systems -  Israel has created a water infrastructure that can trace every drop. 

Israel’s mastery of water technology is beginning to change how the world sees this tiny country.  Most of the nations of Africa severed their ties to Israel after the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  But just this summer, Prime Minister Netanyahu was greeted warmly on a tour of four East African countries.   Each of them - and many more across that continent - want something Israel can provide better than any other nation - expertise in confronting terrorism and technology for managing water.

But perhaps the most dramatic example of how Israel’s expertise in water is changing the shape of the world and relations across the Middle East is the Red Sea-to-Dead Sea Conveyance Project.  Israel’s neighbor Jordan, with whom it concluded a peace treaty in 1994, is in desperate need of water.  But unlike Israel with its long Mediterranean coast on which to build desalination plants, Jordan’s only access to the sea is in the south, at the Gulf of Aqaba.  In the meantime, the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth relative to sea level, is quickly disappearing as both Israelis and Arabs have diverted water from its source - the Jordan River - into agricultural uses. 

There are two major problems the Jordanians  face in trying to build a desalination plant on the Gulf of Aqaba.  First, the gulf’s ecosystem - filled as it is with many coral reefs - is too fragile to be able to sustain the discharge of highly saline sludge which is the natural byproduct of desalination.  Second, Jordan’s population and agricultural centers, and hence the place where it needs the water, are far to the north, around the capital city of Amman.   And Amman is a 3000 foot climb from the sea.  The need to push that much water that far and that far uphill make the costs of a desalination plant prohibitive.

Enter Israel.  Israel has a growing agricultural industry in the desert and can always use more water.  So instead of pushing it all uphill, the water from Jordan’s desalination plant will be sent to Israel.  Israel in turn will compensate Jordan by allowing it to draw water from the Sea of Galilee, right near Amman.  The water will flow through the West Bank and thus increase Palestinian access to fresh water.  And that highly saline sludge from the plant?  Instead of pumping it into the Gulf of Aqaba, it gets pumped into the Dead Sea to help replenish that struggling body of water.

My visit to the Zuckerberg Water Institute was easily the highlight of my trip to Israel.  Driving back, again passing Beersheva, that city where 4000 years ago Abraham struggled to hold on to a single well of water, I needed to share my excitement.  I called my father-in-law and told him about all that I had seen and learned.  His reaction?  “What do you expect from the Israelis?”  And then he said something that really got me thinking.  He said, “the Israelis understand that human beings are the one inexhaustible resource.”

In a few moments, this service will end and we will all reassemble downstairs to see the model of our proposed renovation of this building unveiled.  As David Stein’s long range planning committee has brought us to this point, my own emotions have run the gamut from excitement to terror.  On the one hand, revitalizing this building and, more importantly, this community, is the one great goal I have set for myself.  On the other, I know that attempting a project this big, this challenging, this daunting may well threaten a community that has achieved a quiet stasis, living modestly off its small inheritance. 

Can we achieve the ambitious goals that are about to be put before you all?  My more rational brain is quite sure we cannot.   The times we live in - times where religious affiliation in general and Jewish affiliation in particular are declining - seem to be against us.

Is it that our parents and grandparents and great grandparents were more pious then we are?   I actually don’t think so.  I suspect that their willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to build a shul and a Jewish community reflected the constraints the larger community put on them as Jews.  This is what we have always done: build for ourselves that which has been denied us by others.  It is why this country is filled with Jewish hospitals and Jewish country clubs and Jewish colleges.  It is why Jews have been such technological and cultural pioneers - because they have been shut out of all the established paths into our society.  It is why the Arab boycott of the nascent State of Israel actually made the country stronger and more powerful. 

But these are no longer times when Jews feel particularly marginalized by the larger society.  They are, indeed, well wrapped up in it - including its trend toward secularization.  For that small number of Jews for whom their religion is a large part of their lives, the tendency is not necessarily to join the shul that is in their town, but to find the one whose practices and programming best meets their needs.  A committed Jew in Wallingford cannot be faulted for seeking a spiritual home in the much larger religious communities in places like Hamden or Cheshire. 

For all these reasons, then - the seamless integration of Jews into the wider culture, the growing secularism of that culture, and the freedom that religiously committed Jews have to seek out even distant communities - leaves me feeling very dubious that the plans we are about to reveal will ever become anything more then that.

But I cannot help but see in my mind’s eye the skyline of modern day Beersheva.  No doubt the desert that surrounds this oasis would look far more familiar to the man who dug its first well which, along with his seven sheep, gave it its name; a city in the middle of the desert that will soon be farming fish.