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High Holiday Sermons 2019/5780

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Rabbi Ed Feinstein: 2019/5780

[collapsed title="2019 Rosh Hashanah Sermon"]
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"Anti-Semitism and Us."

A truth we didn't want our children to know -- there are those in the world who hate them only because they are Jews. We thought it was gone, this perennial cultural virus. But it has flared again, in Pittsburgh and Poway, across Europe, and close to home. The question is, how will we respond? Our response will shape Jewish life for the next generation.

I want to apologize for any difficulties you experienced getting into the synagogue today. I’m sorry for the checks and screening and metal detectors.

I’m not sorry we had these things. I’m sorry we had to have them.

I’m especially sorry to the young people who are with us.

I’m sorry because this isn’t the world that we wanted to share with you. We wanted a world without hatred, without anti-Semitism; a world where Jews, and all peoples, could live freely and never be afraid. We fought for civil rights and civil liberties. We built a culture of inclusion and acceptance that shamed prejudiced and shunned discrimination.  We dreamt yours might be the first generation in our history that would never know a word of hatred, a gesture of exclusion; never experience the closed door, the painted swastika, the angry epithet.  

And we believe this was possible. Because America is different from all the lands and cultures we have lived during millennia of Jewish diaspora.  America’s core narrative is, after all, our master story, taken from our Bible: We escaped from tyranny, we crossed the Sea, traversed a forbidding wilderness, and with the help of Providence, arrived into a Promised Land of freedom. We believed America offered a release from our long history of persecution. We prayed that we might set aside the frightful words recited each year at the Seder table – b’chol dor v’dor, omdim aleynu l’chaloteynu.  In every place, in every culture, in every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us. We believed in the promise of America. 

And then came Charleston and Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and Poway. Hate has returned with a vengeance. Anti-Semitism has resurfaced. Hate crime in the US rose by 17% last year. Crimes against Jews rose by 37%. The ADL recorded a total of 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents across the country in 2018, a 99% increase since 2015. You can enter the mall or the market or the movie theater without anyone stopping you. But today, to come to shul for yontiff prayers, you had to pass armed guards and submit to security screening. I’m sorry for that.

For many of you, this new. It comes a shock that someone hates you. Someone who doesn’t know you, never met you, has no idea who you are, except for one thing -- that you are a Jew. You must be wondering, Why?  What did I do? Who are these haters? Why now? I want to recommend two fine new books. Emory University Prof Deborah Lipstadt’s Anti-Semitism Here and Now, and New York Times columnist Bari Weiss’ How to Fight Anti-Semitism. Both these books are very readable and will help you understand what we’re facing.  

Anti-Semitism is a cultural virus. It is incurable; it never goes away. It may lie dormant in the body politic for generations.  But at moments of social stress, of instability or change, it flares up.

When people feel they no longer control their world, when they experience a dissonance between the way things are and the way things ought to be, they have two possible responses. They could ask – What do we do about this?  -- and begin a process of self-criticism and self-improvement. That’s what mature people and free societies do. Or alternatively, they ask – Who did this to us? They define themselves as victims. They imagine themselves as objects of sinister forces beyond their control and they go looking for someone to blame. In Western civilization, this has classically been the Jews.

This is not about you or about me. We did nothing to provoke this. And nothing we could change about ourselves, our behavior or our way of living, can allay this.

This is about the hater, the racist, the anti-Semite. It is fueled by the psychology of projection.  The anti-Semite projects his powerlessness into a picture of the Jew. He imagines the Jew as the avatar of all that he most fears, the embodiment of all that he deems evil. He fantasizes about all the super-powers Jews possess. Jews, he will tell you, control the government, the banks, the media. Jews orchestrated the terror of 9/11. Jews created ISIS. Jews got America into the Iraq War. And Jews will force America into the next war.  

We have been cast as a character in someone else’s nightmare.  

There are those on the extreme Right, for example, who hold the conviction that America is a white, Christian nation. Real Americans -- regular, normal Americans -- are white and Christian. And today, this America is being threatened. On the horizon they see hordes of black and brown immigrants, armies of non-Christians, coming to sully and dilute the purity of America. They see an organized conspiracy to replace white Christian Americans with an unrecognizable mélange of inferior races and strange beliefs; a conspiracy engineered and paid for by devious Jews. So the Charlottesville marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”

In the manifesto he left online, the shooter in Pittsburgh, aimed his rage at HIAS. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization founded in the 1881 that helped many of our families come to America, and helps refugees the world over. HIAS, he believed, is the powerful tool of the Jewish conspiracy. In his blog, he wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch our people get slaughtered. Screw the optics, I’m going in.” So he took powerful weapons into a synagogue on a Shabbat morning and murdered 11 innocent people at prayer.

Disliking Jews is not anti-Semitism. That’s human. We are all entitled to not like people. But when you deny Jews the rights that all peoples are entitled to, to be free and equal, that’s anti-Semitism. Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitism. That’s democracy. Criticism of Israel’s government, challenging its policies and practices, demanding that Israel live up to its ideals as a democratic, Jewish state, advocating for the rights and freedoms of Palestinians, are all perfectly legitimate. That kind of dissent, that voice of protest, has always been an important part of the Zionist conversation.

On the American Left, there are voices that demand human rights for all peoples, an end to racism and oppression, a redress historic injustice and inequality. That’s very admirable. But on the extremes of the Left, there are voices that go beyond. What the Jew becomes for the anti-Semitic Right, Israel becomes for the anti-Semitic Left, a fantasy, an avatar, a projection of all that is evil. 

There are those on the extreme Left who perceive Israel as the last bastion of white, European colonialist imperialism. They accuse Israel of committing genocide against an innocent native, non-European, non-white community. Born of this original sin, Israel is deemed the enemy of all that is good and progressive. Its very existence is an offense. In some progressive circles, the word Zionist has become a curse word.  On some college campuses today, it is dangerous to be openly pro-Israel. Under a banner of justice and righteousness, Israeli academics, journalists, artists and political leaders are shouted down and the demonization of Israel has become academically respectable. It is taught in classrooms, rehearsed at conferences, published in journals.

They claim they are not anti-Semitic, only anti-Zionist. They say they love Jews. They will point to Jews who are part of their movement. They will raise the objection that legitimate criticism of Israel is being branded with the hateful stamp of anti-Semitism. So let’s be clear.  Criticism of Israel’s policies and practices is legitimate. But denying the right of Jews, among all the world’s peoples, to exist collectively as Jews, that’s anti-Semitism. Denying the right of Jews to define themselves as a nation, and denying the long, historical connection of Jews to the land of Israel, is anti-Semitism. Reducing the staggering complexity of the Israel-Palestinian conflict to the single cause of Israeli intransigence, demonizing Israel as uniquely guilty for all the problems of the Middle East, is anti-Semitism. Calling out only Israel, among all the nations of the world, for boycott, divestment and sanction, calling out Israel -- with a very free press, an independent judiciary, and a growing population of Moslem Arabs -- as an enemy human rights in a world of Syria, North Korea, China, Turkey, Russia, Sudan, Myanmar, Iran, the Congo, Saudia Arabia, Yemen and so many more… that’s a not a call for justice, that’s anti-Semitism.

I’m sorry there were guards and metal detectors in front of the shul today. This a sad reality that will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable. I’m sorry that our children must now live with a heightened awareness of hate around us. I am genuinely sorry. But please recognize:  

While anti-Semitism is all about them, and not about us, our destiny as a community, the texture and tenor of Jewish life is all about us, and must not be about them. How we choose to respond to the hate that surrounds us, how it affects us, how it affects our view of ourselves and each other, and our view of the world, is entirely our choice.

I have been a life-long student of Jewish history and this is my conviction. No power on earth can destroy the Jewish People, except the Jewish People. We control our destiny. So how shall we respond to the hate?   

When Moses brought the people Israel to the Red Sea, they heard the hoof-beats and war-cries of Pharaoh’s chariots pursuing them. According to the Midrash in the Mechilta, they broke into four camps.

One faction said, “Let us return to Egypt and serve the Pharaoh.”

Another said, “We must fight the Egyptians!”

Still another said, “Let us pray to God for redemption.”

And the last said, “We must move forward together.”

These same voices are heard today.

“Let us return to Egypt” is the voice of surrender. Accept the reality, it counsels. Recognize the inevitability of Jew-hatred. Lie low. Make no waves, attract no attention. They don’t want you here? So find another place to live, another place to work, to go school, to raise your kids. The opposite of activism is quietism, an ethic our ancestors learned over the centuries to practice conscientiously. Maybe if we change, they thought, they’ll change. Maybe if we assimilate, give up our distinctiveness, blend in, they’ll come to accept us. But they didn’t. They never do.  Their hatred is not affected by anything we do. It’s not about what we do. 

Today, this approach is more subtle. It is expressed in the partial blindness that enables us to see so clearly the anti-Semitism on the other side of the political divide, but not on our own. It is the “yes, but…” response, the “what-about-ism.”  This allows those on the Left to scream about the dog-whistles and winks to white supremacists by the Right, while remaining deaf to the voices of vicious anti-Zionism in their own house. It allows those on the Right to raise the alarm at the language of apartheid and the tool of boycott deployed against Israel by the Left, without hearing the racist invectives by their own.

Anti-Semitism must be called out, wherever it lives. On my side, on your side, on any side. Pretending not to hear, not to know, offering rationalizations, the “yes…but…”, the “well, we need to understand…” excuse only serves to enable, to facilitate, to reinforce the hate. It stops only when we say, “Enough.”

When I was young, I participated in demonstrations and actions to free Jews from the oppression of the Soviet Union.  Lots of Sundays, we’d be somewhere protesting something Russian. I once innocently asked my mother -- When you were my age, the Holocaust was happening, how many demonstrations did you go to, how many political actions do you join? My poor mom, a first generation American, could only lower eyes. “We were scared,” she explained, “scared that if we made too much noise, stirred up too much trouble, they throw us out. Your generation is different. You belong here, as we never did.  Go demonstrate” she said, “Do what we couldn’t do. Go save Jews.”

I give thanks to God that in my lifetime I have seen the end of Jewish quietism and the arrival of Jews into power. This is a spiritual revolution. We have found our voice. We have assumed responsibility for our political destiny. We learned the singularly bitter lesson of the tragedies of 20th century. No matter how nice we are, they’re not going to stop. They’re not going to stop until we make them stop. We’re not going back to quietism. We’re not going back to Egypt.

Out of the crowd comes another voice, “Let’s fight!” And that’s exciting. It’s muscular and assertive. It raises the adrenaline. We feel rage, and that pushes away the fear. Yes, we’ll fight! But fight what? And fight whom?

I’m sorry to say, but there is a severe moral auto-immune disease within the Jewish people. When we are threatened, and we turn to fight -- filled with the rage and righteousness of battle – we turn on each other. We turn on our own.

After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdash, the holy Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud tried to piece together an explanation. How could this happen? How did we lose our land? Our city? How was God exiled from our world? They told a story: When the armies of Rome laid siege to Jerusalem, with an enemy literally at the gate, the Jews fought among themselves. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai escaped the city and went to negotiate a peace with the Roman general Vespesian. In the rabbis’ telling, the Roman asks him with astonishment, what kind of people are you, fighting one another? Can’t you see what’s before you?

The Talmud concludes sadly – Jerusalem was destroyed and God was exiled, not by mighty Roman armies, by the uncontrolled, boundless hatred and rivalry we unleashed on each other in a moment of crisis. mipne sinat hinam, they taught. Jerusalem was lost and God exiled because of the boundless hatred and rivalry we unleashed on each other, because of what we did.  

There is an enemy at the gate once again. And once again, we turn on one another. Instead of unifying us into a common defense, the rise of anti-Semitism has become a wedge that breaks us apart. How many families have told me they can’t sit together at the Shabbos table, or the yontiff table or the Thanksgiving table or before the Hannukah candles? How many circles of friends have broken apart? One word is uttered, “Trump,” “Netanyahu,” “Omar,” “occupation,” “immigration,” and instantly bonds of family, and ties of friendship, years of closeness dissolve into shouting. Seamlessly, the language escalates. “Racist,” “Nazi,” “Traitor” –are screamed across a table. It is as if all the hate directed toward us, is hurled back at those who should be close to us. All the frustration and rage, vented upon those who should matter to us.    This is sinat chinam. This is how God was exiled from the world.

We have to do something about this. We have to fix this. This year, VBS, together with communities around Southern California, will undertake a project with the support of the Jewish Federation, called “Resetting the Table.” We’re going to learn how to quiet the shouting and the accusations. We are going to learn how to hear one another. You’ll read about this in our announcements soon. This is a workshop teaching us all how to find one another again; how to listen, how to share, how to engage in dialogue, how to find our shared values, how to be families and how to be friends again.  I hope that you will come and participate. I’m coming too, because I too need to learn.

We can fight anti-Semitism. But we have to remember that anti-Semitism isn’t an insurgency or an invading army. Anti-Semitism is an idea, a narrative. You fight a narrative with education. You fight a narrative by presenting a different narrative, a narrative which supplants and undermines the hate.

You know what happened in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct 27th last year. Do you know what happened the next Shabbat? Muslim communities across the US and Canada formed human chains, circles of life and protection, around synagogue so that Jews could pray in peace. The national Muslim community raised $200,000 for the families of victims.  Listen to Molly Pascal, a member of Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh writing in the Washington Post --

“Six days [after the shooting], [she writes] on Friday evening, the Tree of Life congregation gathered privately in a small chapel at Rodef Shalom, a nearby synagogue, for the first service of Shabbat. As I waited for the service to begin, people I didn’t know filed in. Soon, the row behind me held a half-dozen strangers, the women in traditional abaya and hijab. I looked around and saw many Muslim families like them joining the crowd. When our congregation rose to speak the mourner’s Kaddish, they rose with us. They offered us their condolences and invited us to attend a service at the Islamic Center. Salaam, I said. Shalom, they said.”

Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of Israel, taught that there is only one way to defeat sinat chinam, boundless hatred, and that is ahavat chiman, boundless love -- a unreasonable measures of human solidarity, respect, community and care. That is our ultimate weapon in the fight against hate.

The third voice Moses heard that day at the sea said, “We must pray.” I’m all for prayer. The tradition is all for prayer. Except that a strange thing happens in the Torah at this point in the story.

Standing before the Sea, with his people crying about him and Pharoah’s armies pressing down upon them, Moses prays, and according to the Torah, God responds, Ma tizhak eylai, Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Israelites to move forward, commands God.

Of all moments, standing at the edge of oblivion with no escape, God says, stop praying.  Why?

There is a time to pray, and time to move. There is a kind of prayer which can move me. And there is a kind of prayer which paralyzes.  When I pray, God save me, I become helpless, frozen in place. I become passive and powerless. I relinquish responsibility for my condition and I assume the role of victim.

The truth is, there is something strangely delicious in being a victim. As a victim, I can command attention and demand the pity of others. As a victim, I occupy an imaginary moral high ground. I can be mad as hell and shout “Look what they did to me!” and feel somehow superior. Jews are curiously good at this game of victimhood.  

This was my Jewish education growing up. I knew the words “pogrom” “ghetto” “holocaust” “inquisition” “expulsion” before I learned the words of Shema Yisrael. I knew the names of all the Nazis before I learned the names of the rabbis of the Talmud.  This was Jewish history for us – Pharaoh, Haman, Nebuchadnezzer, Antiochus, Titus, Torquemada, Chelmnitzky, Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Heidrich, Eichmann. Every week of Hebrew school, a new tyrant, a new persecution, the next atrocity. After a while, we stopped listening.

God says to Moses, Ma tizhak eylai. Stop praying and move forward. Because victimhood is a drug. A narcotic. It may temporarily lift us up, but it changes nothing in the world, and it leaves us with a terrible hangover. 

God says, Stop praying and move forward because I took you out of slavery, out of helplessness and powerlessness, and I won’t allow you to crawl back.

God says, Move forward, because victimhood, just like quietism and rage, is no identity. In victimhood, there is nothing there to live for, to aspire to, reach toward.  Quietism, rage, victimhood are all based on fear. Hiding from fear, punching back at fear, internalizing fear. But fear is no basis for commitment, for passion, for vision. For that, you need love. Only love can launch a life of purpose. Quietism, rage, victimhood are defensive. A life of meaning must be creative. Quietism, rage, victimhood all scream NO. A life worth living begins with a YES.

So please, tell your children our story. But tell them a different Jewish story. Jewish history is not a story of what they did to us. Jewish history is not an endless nightmare of persecution, oppression, destruction and Holocaust. Jewish history is the story of all that we became, despite the hate; the communities of care and support on ruins of destruction;  the brilliant spiritual wisdom and profound moral truth we discovered, in spite of persecution; the ideals we uphold, the faith we sustain, the convictions we impart, in the face of cruelty and brutality. We maintain: Olam Hesed Yibaneh, it is our responsibility as God’s partners to build a world of lovingkindness. And no anti-Semite can triumph over that dream if we don’t let them.    

So, yes, for the foreseeable future, there will be guards at the door, but there will be powerful wisdom, inspired Torah, within.

A guard will check your ID at the gate, but once inside, you will get a warm a hug from Shirley Lowy, a word of Yiddish wisdom from Herschel Fox, and if you’re lucky, Yossi Dresner will give you an aliyah. Once inside, is Jewish life and Jewish joy.

We will have metal detectors at the entrance, but in here together we will share joy and learning and friendship and song.

After the demise of Haman, the Megillah of Purim proclaimed, la’yehudim hayta ora, v’simcha v’sasson vi’kar, We Jews are blessed with light, celebration, honor and joy. We will let neither hate nor fear destroy that.[/collapsed][collapsed title="2019 Yom Kippur Sermon"]

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"A People of Soul"

Sigmund Freud imagined the human being driven by the dynamics of id, ego, superego. Maslow held that we are driven by a hierarchy of needs leading upward toward self-realization. The Jewish tradition described a different psychology. Each of us is a soul. The satisfaction we find in life is a function of the health of the soul. Learning to hear and respond to the needs of the soul is the great wisdom of life. The great 20th century Jewish philosophers are great High Holiday companions, and they offer deep insights into the workings of the soul.

An old old bad joke: The young rabbi meets with the synagogue president before his first High Holiday service. 

“What will you be talking about this year?” asks the president.

“With all the news in the air, I thought I would talk about world affairs and how Jewish values help us understand our situation,” responds the young rabbi.

“No! No politics from the pulpit. You can’t do that!”  exclaims the president. 

“Well, then, I’ll talk about the life of mitzvot, the imperatives that shape Jewish life.”

“No. Not everyone is religious like you are. You’ll exclude too many people.”

“How about the beauty of Shabbat, the joy of Sabbath?”

“No. Most of us work or shop on Saturdays. You’ll offend people.”

“The flow of the Jewish holidays through the year?”


“The moral imperatives of Kashrut?”

“Big ditto. All the steakhouses in town are owned by our members.”

“Perhaps Jewish ethics, the importance of Tzedaka, of caring for the poor and the downtrodden?”

“Rabbi, not everyone is in a position to give, you know. You don’t want to embarrass those members.” 

“Ok, so what would you like me to talk about?” asks the exasperated rabbi.

“You’re our rabbi,” responds the president quizzically, “talk about Judaism!” 

Ok. So let’s talk Judaism. Ya-hadut. We are Yehudim,  our faith is Yahadut.  We are Jews, Judeans originally, descendants of Yehuda, Judah, fourth sons of Jacob, grandson of Isaac, great-grandson of Father Abraham. Judah is our archetype. His story is our story. Our spiritual evolution is contained in his.

 The Torah tells the story of Judah in three episodes. When we first meet him, he’s eating lunch with his brothers, while their younger brother, Joseph languishes in a pit screaming for help. “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?” Judah wonders out loud. “Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our flesh and blood!’

When we first meet Judah, he is every young man, a guy’s guy. Ambitious, cocky, self-confident, self-possessed, self-absorbed. He is the self-reliant individualist interested only in his own success. For Judah, life is a game, a competition, a contest. It’s all about winning. You climb over whomever you have to get a step ahead. Winning is all that matters. And Judah is most definitely a winner. He’s leader of the pack, captain of the football team, prom king, president of the fraternity, the up-and-coming new associate in the firm. Anyone ahead of him is an object to be overcome. And anyone behind, is, well, another loser, the collateral damage of his ferocious drive to succeed.

In the family, he had only one competitor. Reuben, his eldest brother was a loser from the start. Shimon and Levi were too unfocused, too violent. Their aggression knew no subtlety or craft. The rest were all just followers. Except for Joseph. Joseph was a problem to Judah. Joseph was his father’s favorite. The first-born of his favorite wife, Rachel. He even looked like Rachel. When Rachel died, the father fawned on him – the last remnant of his youthful passion. Joseph wore the coat of many colors, he wore his father’s favoritism like a flag before the brothers. That, and the incessant dreams. Those egotistical dreams! – “I dreamed the sun, moon and stars all came to bow before me.” Soon, everyone wanted him dead.

So when he comes down to the pastureland, the brothers threw Joseph into the pit, and conspired to kill him. But Judah, ever looking for an angle, for a way to squeeze something out of nothing, Judah has a better idea. Don’t kill him. Don’t lay a hand on him.  We’ll sell him. We’ll make a few shekels!

Does it occur to Judah that selling a pretty young boy into slavery might be a fate worst than death? No.

Does he think about how this will affect their old father, bereft since the death of his wife, Rachel? No.

With Joseph gone, and the old man out of commission, the family business will be mine, he imagines. Besides, he rationalizes, this is our family tradition. Father Jacob stole the birthright and blessing from his brother. Father Isaac supplanted his brother. Father Abraham was chosen over his brothers. Now it’s my turn.

So ends Act 1. Not too pretty, I know. But wait. The real drama is about to begin.

As Act 2 begins, Judah has been blessed with all the success he asked for. He has wealth and position and prestige. He marries well and has three strapping sons. He is the leader of the family, the uncontested heir to Father Jacob. All his ambitions are fulfilled. He’s a winner. Until life sneaks up on him.

That is the story of life. All our lives. We carefully maintain the illusion of control. We assiduously deny our vulnerability. But life won’t be denied. With little warning. With no preparation. Vulnerability has a way of asserting itself. Read the Mahzor: Who will live and who will die? Each one of us. Who in their time and who before their time? Again every one of us. Everyone death comes at the right time, and everyone dies before their time. Who by fire and who by water? Who is singed by their passions and who is drowned in the boredom of routine and regularity? Everyone of us. We carry the illusion that we are in control of our live, but the frightening truth is that the things that matter most, life and death, health and sickness, the fate of those we love….are all out of our hands. Learning to live with that vulnerability, learning to squeeze meaning and joy into the accidents and exigencies of life, that’s the greatest wisdom of all.

When he least expects it, Judah is assaulted by life. His first son dies shortly after his wedding. Then the second son dies. And then Judah’s wife dies. In the midst of this maelstrom, Judah holds onto to his third son with all his might, defending him and defending himself…but from what? 

For the first time in his life Judah is lost and powerless. He is defeated. Nothing in his individualism can help him. Bit by bit, all of his proud self-reliance crumbles, all of his self-assurance dissolves. Judah finds himself in a pit, just like the brother he once condemned, Judah is flung into a pit of despair, helplessness, defeat.

Then an angel arrives. An angel named Tamar comes to rescue him. She comes to teach Judah what life is really about. Tamar is the widow of Judah’s first son. By Biblical law, she is automatically married to the succeeding sons, in order to keep the family name alive. But when his second son dies, Judah is afraid. He sees ghosts in every dark corner of his life. He refuses to give Tamar to his third son, effectively cutting off his future.

Tamar decides to rescue Judah from the pit of defeat and depression he has flung himself. She dresses herself like a harlot and stations herself by the side of the road, and when Judah comes by, she surreptitiously seduces him.

This isn’t about lust or sex. This is a meeting between two ways of perceiving life. He is a lonely, sad, desperate man. He goes in to the tent of a prostitute. He needs the comfort of human communion, the support of human connection, the reassurance of intimacy. But he thinks that’s a commodity he can buy. He still thinks that what he needs can be purchased.

But Tamar is no prostitute. This is an act of pure loyalty. Loyalty to the family, faithfulness to the dead, devotion to the living, ensuring their posterity. Tamar gives of herself. Something Judah could never imagine doing. She gives her most intimate being, so that life might win over death, so that Judah might be redeemed, so that this family might go on into history. In Tamar, Judah confronts a radically different ethic, and a profoundly different idea of what life is about.

In the Torah’s telling, when Tamar becomes visibly pregnant, Judah accuses her of infidelity, a crime punishable by death. She produces the rod and cord and seal – the ancient equivalent of his American Express card that he left with her when he thought he was paying a harlot. With these in hand, she owns him. She could expose him, shake him down, extort him, exploit him. She could use him in all the ways he used people. But that’s not what she’s about. She wants him to understand another way of life, a different ethic. “Examine these,” she says to him, “and tell me who they belong to.” Examine yourself. Tell me who you belong to. Examine your life. Tell me to whom your life is dedicated.

For the first time in his life, Judah surrenders. He makes no excuses, offers no clever justification, seeks no escape. He surrenders. She is in the right, he declares. Judah is defeated. But out of that, he wins the greatest victory, he discovers what life is really for.

Judah finds his soul.

“Soul” is an unusual word. Modern psychology has taught us a vocabulary of “self”, “personality,” “ego”, “identity”.  What we need today is a vocabulary of soul. The Hebrew for soul is “neshama.” “Neshama” literally means breath. Breath is a metaphor. Breath is a connection between inside and outside, between the self and the world. Breath expands us. Literally makes us bigger. So too, neshama.

The neshama, the soul is the part of us that pushes us beyond the boundaries of the narrow self. Like breath, it expands us, makes us bigger. Soul opens the self to the Other, to the Thou, in compassion and intimacy. The soul’s truth is that we are not alone, not self-created or self-made or self-contained. The soul makes us aware that we are inexorably embedded in a fabric of life. We were born of that fabric. We are nurtured and sustained by it. That recognition brings gratitude and responsibility. The soul offers an invitation to reach beyond the narrow self, to give, to care, to help, to heal. In Heschel’s words – “We are driven by an awareness that something is asked of us; ….we are asked to wonder, to revere, to think and to live in a way compatible with the grandeur and mystery of living….All that is left to us is a choice – to answer or to refuse to answer.”

The soul is the seat of meaning, of purpose. Why is it that when we witness self-sacrificing devotion, when we hear a story of selfless dedication, tears well up in our eyes? Why do genuine moral heroes move us so? Because even vicariously, we are elevated, ennobled, moved by the prospect that life isn’t just getting through, but that life can be lived in service to higher ideals, greater purposes, deeper values. The Kotzker Rebbe would scream at his Hasidim – Be Torah. Don’t just sit in the yeshiva and learn Torah, Be Torah. Make your life into a sacred text, a story of heroic commitment. Give yourself away to greater purposes. That’s the soul talking.

As Judah would discover, the soul is the source of genuine resilience. Our reality is fluid. In life, there is nothing solid or substantial to hold onto. We are creatures in time, and in the flow of time, nothing lasts. All things fall apart. If we are to build a home in the world, a place of rest and safety and security, it must be made of the relationships we cherish, the love we share, the caring we give and receive. That’s really all there is to life. All the rest is an illusion.  

Tamar rescues Judah. Her selflessness, her love, her loyalty, are all beyond Judah’s understanding. In her presence, his world cracks open. Slowly, painfully, we watch Judah grow a soul. He can no longer hunker down into the well-defended fortress of his ego and protect his illusion of independence. The hurt just won’t go away. He lets go of his ethic of winning. It turns out that if life is a competitive game, no one wins. In solidarity, connection, intimacy, there is a life worth living. Only when we engage in genuine relation, only in the eyes of the Thou, do we realize our place, our unique irreplaceability in the world. Through Tamar’s love and loyalty, Judah finds his soul.

Act 3. There is famine in Canaan. The sons of Jacob go down into Egypt to get food. There, they are met by a strange, mysterious man, the Pharaoh’s prime minister, who interrogates and manipulates them, taking one and then another of the brothers hostage. What they don’t know, of course, is the stranger is their lost brother, Joseph. And the manipulations are his test. Joseph must decide whether he will reconnect and rejoin his family, but first he must know if the brothers have changed. Are they still competitive? Are they still cruel and murderous? Have they any interiority, any soul, any loyalty, any love?

Cunningly, Joseph puts them into exactly the same circumstance they met 21 years earlier, when he was a boy, abandoned to the pit. All the brothers are held for trial, accused of espionage, facing death. All their lives hanging in the balance. Hiding behind the mask of  his power, Joseph announces his verdict. The brothers may return home, back to Canaan, back to their old father, never to return to Egypt again. But Benjamin, the youngest will remain in Egypt as a slave.

There is a long moment of cinematic suspense. [We actually wait an entire week between Torah portions for the climax.] And then: vayigash Yehudah, Judah rises, in every sense of the word. Judah comes forward to confront this faceless man of power. Judah, the brother whose callous cynicism and soul-less cruelty sent Joseph into slavery a lifetime ago, stands up and declares --

“Take me. Take me instead of the boy. If you keep the boy, our father will die of grief. Our father has already lost one son. He couldn’t bear to lose another. It will destroy him. I would rather suffer here whatever misery awaits me than return home to witness his suffering. If you would take one of us, take me,” says Judah.

This is the climactic moment of the book of Genesis. The entire book is about brothers and their endless rivalry.  Sigmund Freud argued that human development is driven by the Oedipal drama, the child’s relationship with parents. The Bible has a different idea. In the Bible, it is the rivalry among siblings, the conflict among brothers, that drives human history. Genesis serves up in a series of brother stories: Cain/Abel; the sons of Noah; Abraham/Lot, his brother’s son; Isaac/Ishmael; Jacob/Esau; Joseph and his brothers. In each successive generation, a deadly fratricidal struggle – who gets the blessing? Who inherits leadership?

It ends here. Two brothers, Judah and Joseph, confront one another. And they remove their masks. Judah removes the mask of his self-absorption, he discards the enmity of competition, the ferocious need to win. He stands in all his vulnerability and reveals his soul. This is a different man than we met before. He has become a man of empathy, compassion, loyalty, and love; a man transformed.

At this, Joseph begins to cry. He too removes his mask, the mask of his authority, and all the resentment and bitterness it conceals, to reveal himself to his brothers. Ani Yosef achicha. “I am Joseph your brother.” Nothing, he realizes, is as valuable as connection, intimacy and wholeness. No amount of worldly power or worldly success or material prosperity can replace the life of the soul.

This is the Bible’s answer to violence and brokenness of human history -- henay mah tov u’mah nayim, shevet ahim gam yahad. How wondrous and rare it is when brothers can dwell together.

We either nurture or it starve the soul. When a soul starves, we find ourselves in the pit. We feel listless, depressed, burnt out, empty, useless, lost. We search for a life-line to pull us out. We turn to our worldly success, our possessions, our entertainments, our diversions. But one by one they betray us. Sometimes, it takes reaching the bottom of the pit, to hear the soul’s cry. 

But we can nurture and cultivate the soul through life, we can learn its truth, to see every human being who comes before us as a brother, a sister, as part of us, to feel their pain as ours and their well-being as our responsibility, and then the soul is ready to protect us, rescue us from the darkness than inevitably comes.  

We either nurture the soul or it starves. That’s what Judah learned. 

We raise children with meticulous attention to the development of their minds. We carefully monitor what they eat so that their bodies grow strong. We inculcate character, rules of right and wrong. But do we nurture the soul? Do we show them that they live in a web of connections that unites all life into one? Do we teach them to see the Other as a reflection of the tzelem, the image of God?  What image of personal success have we put before our kids to emulate and aspire to? Is it only an image of triumph for the self, of victory in the competition of life, or is it an image of dedication to higher ideals and visions? Have we taught our children to listen for the voice of the soul, and to “be Torah?” 

According to an ancient legend, just before a baby is born into the world, God chooses a soul from Paradise to send into the world. The soul cries, I don’t want to leave this world of wholeness, this Paradise, to enter that cold and difficult world. God whispers to the soul, “I need you there. I created you for just that purpose.” According to the legend, that’s why babies cry when they are born. Somewhere deep in our instinctual memory, we still remember the paradise we all came from. And somewhere deep within, we can hear the voice and feel the power of the soul beckoning us to move in that direction. Toward wholeness. Toward peace.   

The end of Genesis is the last we hear of Judah in the Bible. Except for the genealogy. Judah was father to Peretz, ancestor of Jesse, father of King David. And from King David, according to tradition, the Messiah, the messenger of redemption, will come. We are Yehudim, descendants of Judah, heirs to Ya-hadut,  his story and his wisdom….a people devoted to the cultivation of soul.[/collapsed]


[collapsed title="2019 Rosh Hashanah Sermon"]

View the Sermon Video
Loving Change"

We're more successful than any generation before us. We're more accepted and included in the conversations that shape our society and culture. We're also more anxious and less prepared for what the present and future may hold. This Rosh Hashanah, we'll identify portraits of 21st Century Jews and what our community looks like as we move forward from uncertainty to greater possibility. What is the heritage we're passing on to our children and grandchildren?

Jews are known for being anxious. This has fueled the careers of writers like Phillip Roth and Woody Allen, and virtually every Jewish comedian under the sun. Maybe it’s our unique relationship with God. Maybe it’s being a minority people struggling for survival. The connection of anxiety to the Jewish people is well known.

Here is one definition of anxiety: ‘Overestimation of threat plus the underestimation of an ability to cope.’ (Chanksy) That sounds like us. Historian Simon Rawidowicz once coined the term for the Jews. He called us “The ever dying people.” We’ve made anxiety an art form.

Anxiety isn’t just a Jewish trait alone any more. The prevalence of anxiety is saturating the general culture today. This unprecedented moment is captured in the title of SDSU professor Jean Twenge’s 2018 book, “iGen” - “Our “Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

“Our children are completely unprepared for adulthood.” Now that’s some good anxiety!

Recent studies reveal the riskier, even life threatening behavior of teens are plummeting. Yet, lacking any real direction or guidance of what the world asks of them, the research shows that our emerging adults are legitimately anxious for what lays ahead of them on the horizon - Responsible Adulthood. The stunning truth is, we’re not sure what to model for them either.

Our children today are spending their quality time trying to associate with and make sense of their anxious lives, their anxious parents, their anxious world. While we begrudgingly give our children cell phones, personal computers, iPads, and widespread access to infinite information, everything they see reinforces their anxiety - overestimations of threats, and underestimations of abilities to cope streaming through the screens.
Where we assume that anxious bonding is at least a connection of some sort, studies are showing that “screen activities are linked to more loneliness, and non-screen activities are linked to less loneliness.” (Twenge, loc. 1161)

Our children may be sitting on park benches together watching everyone’s thrilling lives unfold before their eyes. As voyeurs in other people’s lives, our children must be wondering if their lives are just as much, if not in some way similar to the lives of others. Our kids go to lavish b’nai mitzvah parties, where the entertainment is over the top, and there’s more attention given to the screens. Some of you might be scrolling through your Facebook feed right now!

All this watching turns into years of time spent peering into the lives of others. We are watching a generation emerge who simply are not figuring out how to live lives on their own terms.

Yes, today’s youth are empowered with the same information we have to maneuver through the perils of modernity. Yet they lack the most significant tool vital to the interpretation of all this knowledge...wisdom.

Meanwhile, we are impatiently looking for AN answer, not THE answer, we look to the Rebbes of our day - Google, Facebook, Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle - to temporarily assuage our fears of uncertain tomorrows. Alexa answers all. Answers, but no wisdom.

Jewish anxiety is being supplanted by the anxiety of the greater culture. Anxiety is the response to change when we’re fearful that we can’t adapt. (I doubt the folks at Apple computers built the iPhone, or the folks at Amazon built Alexa, thinking that such devices would cause anxiety.) Instead of meeting the challenge, we’re hiding behind the screens. Overestimation of threat and Underestimation of our ability to cope. We’ve constructed worlds of avoidance shaded in blissful comfort, while the world rages aflame.

Judaism isn’t the religion of anxiety. It's the religion of wisdom.

Wisdom is much more than a “How To” video on life filmed in fast forward. Wisdom isn’t gained by living someone else’s life or shouting into an empty room waiting to hear a calm voice responding to our anxious needs. Wisdom comes from meeting challenges, overcoming obstacles, and more than not, from meeting failure. Our kids aren’t having enough of these experiences. Perhaps in our love for them, in battling our own anxieties, we protected them too much?

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt recognized this lack of wisdom in their studies reflected in the late 2018 book, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” There they note:

We adapt to our new and improved circumstances and then lower the bar for what we count as intolerable levels of discomfort and risk. By the standards of our great-grandparents, nearly all of us are coddled. Each generation tends to see the one after it as weak, whiny, and lacking in resilience. Those older generations may have a point... (Lukianoff, Haidt, Coddling, p.15)

It should shock us to hear that kids will say “My life is not useful,” with feelings of uselessness reaching all-time highs.” (Twenge, loc. 1427). Today’s youth, “aren’t even convinced that their education will help them get good jobs or give them information they will need later. Fewer 12th graders now believe that school will help them later in life, and fewer believe that doing well in school is important for getting a good job.” (Twenge, loc. 2385)

Is it perhaps that our children don’t see their place in the world that we’ve tirelessly, carefully, even anxiously created for them? Who’s teaching our children their lives have infinite value?

Over connected, over stimulated, under developed. There’s no Google search, no downloadable app, no clever vocabulary we’ve given our children or use for ourselves to pass on as wisdom. If our kids aren’t seeing what use their lives are, what good are all the comforts and security of our days, anyway?

The problem is uncertainty and the solution is wisdom.

Let’s return to something we know that works quite well for times of uncertainty. Religious communities don’t merely exist as destinations for life-cycle celebrations. Religious communities are centrifugal forces of connections and meaning. The Jewish people persist because we continue to prove the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Meaning and connections change the world. In Judaism, wisdom is our conduit of meaning and connection.

What we do here really matters! What we say and do really does have a significant impact beyond our little shtetl on the corner of Densmore and Ventura! We are well-proven to be the bellwethers of social change and growth. We are Or l’Goyim - lights to the world. The moment our anxieties are met with wisdom not with fear, but with loving change, the world will surely follow.

Our response is that our heritage has much more for us than long prayer services and insufferable appeals for money. And we’re ready and prepared to make a difference in your life, to make a difference in our lives, to make a difference in the world around us.

There is one essential piece of this loving change that requires our attention. It is being comfortable with how we speak about change. The languages of Judaism can help our children discover the treasures of our heritage and confront anxieties with real wisdom. But, it’s a language, like any other, that cannot be spoken once or twice a year to demonstrate fluency. It requires practice and depth. We may not be Hebrew speakers, we may not be Yiddish speakers, but we can speak the languages of Judaism. What we need is nothing less than a recommitment to this Jewish literacy. And from our languages of Judaism, we can reclaim our sacred wisdom.

To give you an example: My children attend the school up on the hill and I am proud they have published a thing called, “The Portrait of a Graduate.” It’s a helpful conceit, because it enables us, as parents of students in the school what to expect from a Milken School education. Many schools do this too. The goal is not to gain admission to the most prestigious universities - Chas v’Shalom any school would ever claim such a goal! Let alone the staggering economic propositions such a goal demands. Rather, the goal is to create responsible human beings, lovers of learning and committed citizens of a grand and complex world.

What if Valley Beth Shalom had a Portrait of the 21st century Jew? What would it look like? This Rosh HaShanah let’s think about our Judaism in these terms and see what we discover. Sacred wisdom, sacred behavior, sacred family, sacred presence. I imagine the model looks similar to this:

We’ve got sacred wisdom:

Committing to a life of Torah study is the definition of a good life. Very little of the models of human behavior today exemplify this goal. The good life is more than limitless free choice, unlimited streaming on our devices, Epicurean culinary delights, and tranquil beach locales with a servant bringing us a slightly chilled tequila with a freshly cut piece of lime.

Our rabbis have a limited vision of the good life. “This is the way of the student of Torah. Eat a salty crust of bread, ration your drinking water, sleep on the ground, live a life of privation, exhaust yourself in Torah study. If you life in this manner, “You will be happy” in this world; ‘all will go well with you’ in the world to come” (Avot 6:4)

Sacred wisdom isn’t consumed like crusty pieces of bread and minimal amounts of water. It’s in a vibrant dynamic environment, where nearly every day during the week Torah is learned here. Make a commitment this year to study in a weekly or periodic Torah study group. Meet the sacred wisdom here. We are waiting for your story to write into our grand Torah too.

We’ve got sacred behavior:

It is Moses Maimonides who offers us sage guidance. " One who settles in a city for thirty days becomes obligated to contribute to the charity fund together with the other members of the community. One who settles there for three months becomes obligated to contribute to the soup kitchen. One who settles there for six months becomes obligated to contribute clothing with which the poor of the community can cover themselves. One who settles there for nine months becomes obligated to contribute to the burial fund for burying the community's poor and providing for all of their needs of burial." (Gifts to the Poor 9:12)

This idea isn’t just theory! Taking responsibility isn’t a mandated community service project. It is the total commitment to supporting the institutions that provide health and security to the most vulnerable among us and it is the resource we reflexively embrace when our needs are greater than we can handle alone. There is no anxiety in asking for help when you’ve done your part to help others. There is no anxiety when you’ve invested time into a project that asks more from you than you can expect to gain in return.

We’ve got sacred circles of caring family:

I was walking into the synagogue with my daughter one Shabbat morning recently, and we came upon the conversation about Shabbat observance and synagogue participation in general. In sharing the goals and purpose of Shabbat observance, I simply offered a conceptual frame for her (and for me) about why we do what we do and what are my expectations for her in her growing independence. Simply put, I told her, I want her to always have an idea of Shabbat in her mind. Whether it is celebrated in the synagogue, or with lighting candles and making Kiddush at home, or with no ritual at all, I want her to always have the sense that one day of rest in seven is vital to her physical, emotional and spiritual well being. And it happens to be the way the world was created too.

What makes the idea of Shabbat so profound in our day isn’t the stepping away from the world. For us at Valley Beth Shalom, its near to impossible to turn away from the presence of these connective technologies. But, what makes the idea of Shabbat utterly essential is how it affects the family, how it affects our community, how it remains the magnetic field through which all our programming, our worship, our social service is centered.

We’ve got a sacred presence with eternal values:

Our heroes are Avraham and Sarah who teach us to be a blessing in the world. Our teachers are Moshe and Aharon who remind us that we are a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation; that loving freedom, protecting the tradition and caring for the most vulnerable among us are what defines a good life. Our models are Miriam, whose response to God’s presence is with dance and rejoicing with Timbrels and Drums!

This Torah of ours teaches us a way. It is the antidote to anxiety, or sacred mastery. Tamar Chansky teaches mastery is the act of, “Shrinking fear by Fact-Checking. Approach the [solution] in Small Steps.” The gifts of the Jews to the world is factually proven throughout the millennia. Gifts of history, empathy, righteous action, loving family and sacred time. This is not an easy Judaism. This world we’re creating and passing on to our children and grandchildren rings with one clear message. Judaism provides small and large steps to help us achieve mastery of our souls. Small steps begin here with learning, action, worship, and connection.

These days are the gift we give ourselves for reflection and permission to change. Love the change. Over the next week, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we make a plan to change our behaviors for the better. And the most confident message of all is, we have more than anxiety, we have Jewish wisdom, a wisdom that has shaped generations and generations of great human beings.

We’ve got this - You’ve got this - Now Let’s Begin Together.

L’Shanah Tovah[/collapsed][collapsed title="2019 Yom Kippur Sermon"]

"Loving Change"

Judaism preserves a sacred dynamic that oscillates between tradition and change. We are better families, communities, and citizens of a world that carefully adjusts to new realities with a loving capacity, shared in family, community and beyond. This Yom Kippur we renew our resolve to nurture a community of loving change to pave toward futures of responsible and mature behavior.

Imagine with me Yom Kippur while standing in the Temple in Jerusalem. There are no books, there are no tallitot, there are no cards requesting donations dangling from the seats before you!  We’re there to witness something powerful, the presence of God appearing in the Temple. The Kohanim have washed and prepared themselves for the awesome responsibility of bringing the sacrifices on our behalf. Luckily, our view is unobstructed and we see the Kohen in the distance uttering some words. Carefully and cautiously the priest enters the space known as Kodesh HaKodashim - the Holy of Holies to beseech God’s compassion and forgiveness for those among us, even ourselves, who have committed sins in the past year. With bated breath, the Priest emerges and then...I imagine there is rejoicing and relief.

A centerpiece of the Yom Kippur holiday is this re-enactment of was called the Avodah Service. In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Avodah service was the time when the High Priest would prepare himself to enter the holy of holies - the center of the Temple - indeed the center of the known universe. His job was to bring a sacrifice to assuage God’s judgments for all the misdeeds of the Jewish people in the past year and to utter God’s name as it is correctly pronounced. Assuming he made it out safely, he would pronounce God’s acceptance of our supplications and we would be blessed for another year of life and prosperity. 

Even long after the Temple was destroyed, we neatly fit the remembrance of the ritual into the middle of our machzor, to read and watch the prayer leader rehearse what was done once upon a time.  There were plenty of high priest moments in the Temple cult besides Yom Kippur. We take time on this holiday, though, to remember those rituals. Why?

We still need our sacrifices today. There is something so confirming and haunting in making an offering into the unknown. We affirm our humanity in the liminal moments between life and death, between blessing and curse, between the past and the future.  Sacrifices affirm our identity.  

And, they are a spectacle. They are entertainment, perhaps to distract us from the monotony of our daily experience, perhaps because they give us permission to believe we can make a difference in a world despite our suspicions that what we do does not. 

The Temple was destroyed, that spectacle evaporated into the ether when the last bull was cast upon the altar. We don’t make offerings of animals or grains anymore. Lacking the means to bring the people back to witness the fulcrum of life and death, blessing and curse, past and future tottering in the balance, the Rabbis found the act of prayer as the replacement for sacrifice. That should have been enough, But, the nostalgia for sacrifices was too powerful to ignore. Words describing what we did is all we have.  And, the Rabbis wisely knew even prayer isn’t going to be enough to create certainty in the generations.

We still need our sacrifices.  Our visceral connection to some external change is very strong. A sacrifice today is understood as something we give up. On a personal level, our unmet needs for sacrifice, one in which we gain this strong connection sometimes appears in our impulsive treatment of those around us whom we care about. Harsh words, dimunitions of feelings, belittling the dignity of others, even violent physical reactions. These are the knee-jerk responses to our need for certainty, reactions to our fears that something is taken away from us without our permission. We speak about these acts at length throughout this holiday and pray for the humility to ask forgiveness for our misplaced frustrations. 

Our challenge then, year after year, is to believe that God really cares how we treat each other, and how we treat ourselves.  Lacking some pyrotechnic explosion or pillowing smoke ascending to the heavens, though, we remain skeptical. 

Are we too entrenched in a skepticism for any sacrifices of our day to really inspire changes within us?  

The young prophet Elijah goes out into the world after graduating from prophet school full of energy and excitement to perform some miracles and change some lives. He meets a young woman crying on the outskirts of her town, and asks her, “Why are you crying?” “No one will marry me!” she sobbed. “How can that be since you are so beautiful?” Elijah said as he deftly pulled out a mirror to show her. “I guess I really am beautiful!” The woman smiled. She went back into her town and told everyone the story of the mirror that miraculously showed her beauty. The townspeople dismissed her enthusiasm. “It was just self-affirmation.” But with her newly-acquired positive outlook she found a mate. 

Elijah returned to the woman sometime later to find her even more distraught than before. “I cannot bear children,” she whimpered before the new prophet. “Take this prayer and say it daily.” In time, the woman was blessed with a child, a son. “It was just a relaxation exercise,” muttered the townspeople upon hearing the good tidings. 

Elijah returned later still and found the family forlorn. “What is wrong now?” “We are destitute with no hopes for any income to support ourselves. All we have is this jar of olives and oil.” Elijah instructed them to grab as many buckets and pails they could find and pour the jar into the buckets. The oil kept flowing from the single jar and the family was able to sell enough oil to support themselves again. “It was a miracle!” the family proclaimed. The townspeople: “It was just a jar of concentrated oil.” Why didn’t the townspeople see the miracle? 

Some time later Elijah came to the town and found the woman screaming for help. “My son! My son is very ill!” Elijah ran to the home, ran up to the boy’s room to find him not ill, but dead, and stood over him. In a moment, the boy was revived. “It was a miracle!” The parents were astonished. “It was just CPR!” The townspeople were clearly a hard group to please. Elijah was at this point furious. “Four perfectly good miracles I performed! I’m not returning until you can appreciate a good miracle when you see it!” And in a fiery chariot, the prophet Elijah was swept up into the heavens, only to be seen on occasion and in disguise. (adapted from story told by Mitchell Chefitz, The Curse of Blessings, 2006) 

We are the townspeople in the story. We can find totally legitimate reasons for the Elijahs of our day, performing incredible feats of healing, food production, fertility treatments, even beauty enhancements. Reasons, but not truth. Some of us even make a good living performing Elijah’s miracles.  Our disbelief is more than an attempt to rationalize the mysterious. Our disbelief is the confirmation that our world can never be the way it might yet be.  

I’ve had a hunch for some time that we’re experiencing a phenomenon as a community that psychologists identify in individuals called regression. Regression is an unconscious defense mechanism which causes the temporary or long-term reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development.  Sure we can see it in children and even in adults. But what about groups, even societies? Sustained regressions, due to traumatic experiences, left unchecked, can cause harmful results.

What if we’re experiencing a response to the uncertainty of our days with avoidance, embracing the skepticism that this change is really good? These painful revolutions of change have improved our quality of life, softened and broadened our understanding of identity, and amplified our concerns for the economic and social vitality of our global community. We used to think a sacrifice will do the trick - watching an animal carcass go up in flames to affirm that the future is better than the past.  Today, we will all feel better about this uncertainty when we validate the changes taking place around us. We have to believe the change will be good. We have to love the change. More importantly we have to be loving through the change.

Loving change starts with prayer and focus. Loving change is found in our celebration of the new. Loving change is when we see each other as who we truly are and who we truly are meant to become.

Loving change starts with prayer. Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it best. He asks, “What is a soul without prayer? A soul runaway or a soul evicted from its own home. To those who have abandoned their home: the road may be hard and dark and far...If you prize grace and eternal meaning, you will discover them upon arrival.” (Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, 1997, p.259)

Loving change is the tender discovery of what Heschel calls grace. Grace is a sense of total appreciation for all that exists. Grace is found in expressing kindness and generosity to all that you experience.   Prayer is the tool we use to regain focus for this essential human experience, or to paraphrase Heschel’s words, which the soul longs for in this life - to find its way home.

Prayer is not a gesticulation of words, for us in a foreign tongue, somehow uttered to complete a righteous incantation. These words are not amuletic, they are proscriptive. Hear the words of the Rabbi of Satanov in the 19th century. “Let your heart not be precipitate, nor your mouth be hasty. Rather, pause several times while speaking or acting so as to deliberate and calm yourself.” 

Simply put - prayer reminds us to be loving when change happens. Prayer is the tool of calmness we so desperately need in an age of acceleration to regain focus and purpose in the graceful words we mean to express.

Loving change also means celebrating the new.  We live in an age where our experience feels like a ‘tyranny of the new.’ The incessant recognition of small victories, our headlong race to the latest and greatest versions of the world we create becomes an infantilization of the spirit.  The spirit thrives in the calm and thoughtful repose. Un-loving change has produced a generation of award winners rather than true achievers. By contrast, loving change is the recognition that the newness worthy of celebration helps is progress, not regress.  

To quote the great poet, Walt Whitman, “The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. He consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance happens” (Preface to Leaves of Grass, 1855) Our goal in life is to be a complete lover.

Loving Change is ultimately about deep listening and seeing the Face of the Other.

To borrow a tale once told by Rabbi Schulweis - There was a woman whose husband abandoned her who went to see the Rebbe for guidance and advice. The Rebbe was busy in his study so she presented her concern to the Shamas, the man who kept the rabbis study in order. He instructs the woman to write a ‘kvitel’ a little note to him with her request to which the Shamas would bring to the Rebbe. The Shamas entered the Rebbe’s study and returned with the message, “Your husband will return to you.” But the Shammas adds, “I do not think your husband will return to you.” The woman was flabbergasted, “How could you disagree with the Rebbe’s response?” The Shammas tenderly replied, “Ma’am, the Rebbe saw the kvitel. I see the face.”

The face, Rabbi Schulweis taught, is what we turn quickly aside from when we confront the pain of others. The face tells a story of anxiety and fear that no amount of eloquent language can capture. We look at the kvitel - the statistics - the superficially nameless and faceless suffering in the world. We counsel with armchair wisdom about the world as it ought to be.  You can’t see the face of the other when you’re distracted by your own words or the words of others. Seeing the face requires presence; and presence is the greatest gesture of loving change.

What seems to be the most simple act, is truly the most challenging. On a day, especially one like today, seeing others is incredibly powerful. Take away the makeup, the costumes we wear, the contentments from fattened stomachs after a well-eaten meal and we can see each other for who we are. Then, and only then, this holiday teaches us can we see who we might become, who those around us might yet become for us, and who we might yet become to them. We’re in prayer together not to see who’s the holiest among us, but to see each other in such a way as to help each other grow, to confront the changes of their lives with dignity, with support, with love.

This Yom Kippur, loving change isn’t about the change. It’s about the love. Seeing others, celebrating the discoveries as individuals and what you share together and allowing pray to bring you focus and determination is the goal. These 25 hours are the gift given to us to lovingly embrace the change. To embrace it with each other, as we can most authentically see ourselves. 

G’mar Chatimah Tovah[/collapsed]

RABBI Noah Farkas: 2019/5780

[collapsed title="2019 Rosh Hashanah Sermon"]

View the Sermon Video
"To The New"

Judaism has given the world many gifts. Perhaps its greatest gift is the future itself. On a day of Rosh Hashanah where the world becomes new again, let us look at what holds us back from entering the new, and how we as community can step boldly into the future together.

One of the great privileges of my job as a rabbi is that I get to teach and mentor over a hundred young people. Every Tuesday morning I teach theology to rabbinical students at the American Jewish University.  Every Tuesday afternoon I teach prayers to seventh graders. Every Tuesday night I do current events with 10th graders. Once a month, I train young professionals who want to expand their leadership in the city through the Jewish Federation’s Rautenberg New Leaders Project. Quarterly, I work with the Emerging Leaders Cohort, a group of about 30 young members of our community who love Valley Beth Shalom so much that they were willing to commit themselves to our leadership pipeline.  I love working with the young, not just because they have so much energy. Not just because they give me insight into what’s cool, or what to listen to, or what NOT to wear, but because they have something that many of us lost.  Something that I want to think about deeply with you on this holy day. 

These young people I work with and so many others I see, have a sense of the new. They come to the world and to their Judaism with new eyes. Everything is new.  The younger you are, the adage goes, the newer things are. Have you ever seen the world through the eyes of the young? 

Like on an airplane.  When the young want to touch every button and look out every window.  Or when they want to play with the tray table, much to the chagrin of the business traveler. Or when my son, who is now seven, was a baby he was allergic to everything.  No matter what we tried to feed him, he would get sick. After about a year the allergies subsided, so Sarah and I decided on his birthday to give him a chocolate cupcake.  He’d never had chocolate before. We put a bib on him in his little high chair and put the cupcake in front of him. He looked at it like it was from another planet. This poor kid had no idea what it was.  We had to to nudge him to get him to give it a try. Finally, he picked it up and with his chubby little hand and took a bite. It was then, he gave us a look I’ll never forget. First, came the surprise: What a wonderful, sweet delicious thing. He ate the cupcake with his whole body, I mean it was everywhere.  It’s so new! 

And then came the second look, the one that truly burned into my soul. Indignation. He couldn’t speak yet, but I know this is what he said.  “How come you’ve been holding back on me all this time?!” “I’ve been sticking to mush, peas, potatoes, and carrots, what in the name of God is this?” “Where has this been?”  I’ll never forget that. 

This is the magic of the new, to be full of wonder, and surprise.  

You’ve all had new experiences, like the first night you slept in a place that is not your childhood bedroom. Or the first time someone who is not related to you held your hand. The first time your spouse or partner said, “I love you.” 

That is the feeling of the new.  It’s exhilarating, it’s scary, and it’s awesome. 

That is the feeling and the experience I want to focus on with you today.  This idea of the new. The idea of the future -experienced so freely by the young.  Rosh Hashanah is all about the new. Hayom Harat Olam, today is the birthday of the world. Hayom, today is a day to celebrate the New Year where we praise creation, and commit ourselves to the future. Hayom,  today, is the New Year which brings new possibilities.  

However, some of us will never step into our future because we live only in the past.  Some of us are running from our past but will never turn to look for the future because we are too afraid to find what might be there.  And as a community, some of us let the shadows of the past eclipse the light of tomorrow. But today, hayom, we can bring an end to that.  We are going to move from the old to the new, and from the past to the future.  Are you ready to go there with me? 

We Jews worry. We don’t need a whole sermon about it, because we already how to worry.  Just ask how many people are coming for break-fast next week and you can see the blood pressure rise. We worry all the time, and about the future especially.  We fear that our children just won’t have it a good as we do. We fear that the world they are coming into is violent and hot. Most of all we fear our own disappearance, that every generation is the last generation. We have reason to fear because that is true. Every generation of Jews is the last generation if we let it be. 

But, often in our worry about the Jewish future we also fear the new.  We fear new forms of living Jewishly. We fear new forms of Jewish identity. We fear new forms of belonging. And so we let our fear grow and grip us. We let our fear transform our skepticism into cynicism. And our optimism into pessimism. Our fear transforms our memory into nostalgia. A feeling of longing for the past because the future is too scary.  

When I was a kid, I made the mistake of taking four years of Latin. I thought I was being so smart by learning this dead language. “It will help you learn all the romance languages,” they said. “It will give you better SAT scores,  they said.”  

When traveling my friends can speak french in France, Spanish in Mexico, and German in Germany. Me, well, I could translate the Catholic mass for you. Or perhaps you would like to here Seneca’s orations in the original? How about Caesar's war journal? I can do that.  

But asking where the grocery store is? No. Ordering food in a restaurant?

How does one order a burrito in Latin exactly?  

Da mihi burrito, si reaction tibi by the way. (Took me an hour to figure that out.)

What I did learn in Latin class, is how the Romans understood history.  My Latin teachers were enamored with the Romans because they built roads and they loved the Greeks because they built democracy and I could think to say, “well it wasn’t so good for my people.”

There once was a famous Greek poet named Hesiod. He is considered the first historian by the way. He came up with this idea that once upon a time, a long time ago, human beings lived in harmony with nature and with the gods.  Hesiod coined the term, the “Golden Age.” The Golden Age was when we lived in peace. The Golden Age is when we had the greatest knowledge. The Golden Age is when we accomplished great things. Each age that came after it was just not as good as that first Golden Age.  You had your Silver Age, and your Bronze Age, your Heroic Age, and finally the Iron Age -which is the contemporary time we all live in. Hesiod thought that the Iron Age was the worst of them all, calling it “Dark filled with toil and sorrow.” (Ages of Man)  Oh how good would it be to go back to the Golden Age. 

We are taught over and over and over again in Western culture that when we fear the future and when we can’t quite get to the new, our answer is to go backwards.  Remember the good old days! Life was simpler! Go back to the way things were! Don’t ever change! Hold onto the past! The present is just too dark. We are too burned by each other.  Our lives are too hard. Traffic is terrible. The future is too uncertain it is too scary. So let’s go back to the past. 

The greatest expression of the Jewish imagination of this idea was found in the words of Rabbi Moses Shreiber, known as the Hatam Sofer.  He was considered one of the most authoritative Rabbi in Europe. He hated the new and feared the future. He bridled at anything that would change the way Jews practiced Judaism and wrote, “chadash asur min haTorah,  The new is forbidden by the Torah. Nothing new was aloud.  The Torah prohibits innovation.  All that matters is the past. All that matters is living for yesterday, and not for tomorrow. 

What’s worse than forbidding the new, is saying that it’s not possible. Famously, King Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  (Ecl. 1:9). He was an old man when he wrote that.  After living a wonderful life, learning everything there is to know, sharing in the riches of prosperity, and reigning over the largest Jewish territory ever in the history of the world, Solomon leaves us with this little line.  “There is nothing new under the sun. “

Solomon was wrong. Maybe he was having a bad day.  Maybe he forgot his privilege. Maybe he was tired of worrying about the future. How could a man with so much success, with all of his wisdom leave us with this as his last word? When he says that there is nothing new under the sun, it sounds like a great tweet - quippy and destructive all at the same time. But in writing that there is “nothing new under the sun,” he consigns us to the past. He destroys the possibility of tomorrow. With all his great wisdom, he destroys wisdom itself.

Why build a house or have a child if nothing new is possible?  Why start a business, or educate children if the future is closed?  Why should you fight, or dream or struggle if all we live in is an Iron age? 

If we allow our nostalgia to enslave our present than there is no future. If we forbid the future all we live for is the past. If we do not embrace the possibility of the new, then we will only hold onto the old. 

If you are cynical then you will see the whole world as cynical.  If you believe the world is dark, you will become the darkness. If you look out at the world and all you see is meaninglessness then you will live your life without meaning.  If you surrender yourself to the past, you are never free to explore your future. If you only long for the good old days, then you have no good days ahead.  

Do not build your view of reality on someone who says the future is meaningless.  Do not build your future on the cynic, or someone who is given up the future itself.

Do not build your life on the darkness. 

Do not build your life on the empty complaints of an irascible old man, no matter how powerful he is. 

Instead, we need to tell a different story. Not one that puts the golden age into the past. Not one that says that we live in a dark and sorrowful world.  Not one that pines after the good old days or forbids the new. We need to tell a different story, a better story, a story is rooted in the past, but whose conclusion is yet to be written. We need to tell our story. The Jewish story. The story of you. The story of me. The story of us together.

It begins in a place called Midian. Moses, after growing up in Pharaoh's palace has a confrontation with a taskmaster. He runs away into the desert so very afraid that the authorities will catch him for protecting a Hebrew slave. 

He hides himself as a shepherd. What was once the prince of Egypt is now a lowly shepherd boy. Moses ran away from his past hoping that he would make his life all over again. He puts on different clothes and takes on a different title. He hides in plain site. One day, according the midrash, he was following a lost sheep up a mountain and noticed for the first time a bush burning on the apex.  He had never seen it before. For years now he had run past this very spot with the sheep, but suddenly there it was. He turned to it, the Torah says, and when he turned for the first time saw the light upon the mountain. (Ex. 3:1-4)

The rabbis say that this fire had been burning from the time of creation, but no one had seen it before.  It’s always been there, glowing like a beacon for thousands of years, but no one had turned to see it, until Moses did. 

Some of you know this story because you are this story.   Some of you here are running everyday away from your past - from a childhood you’d rather forget.  From abuse, from bullies, from your own addiction and depression. There are some of you here that have made real mistakes in your life.  Some of you cover up your past with the clothes of a new life. Hiding in plain sight.

I know some of you are terrified because your past haunts you. And now that we live in a time when everyone wants to point out our worst moment of our past and tell us that we are nothing more than our worst moments, we are so afraid of the new, because it just might look like the old.  

I know this about you as a rabbi, but so does God. God does not leave us in the dark. God’s light has always been there. If you turn to it, God’s light is there.  If you look for it, God’s light is there. The new is there waiting for you. It always has been, eternally. All you need to do is turn towards the future. 

Moses came to terms with something inside himself and he turned and he saw it.  When God spoke and said that Moses had to go back to the land so that he can free those still trapped in Egypt, Moses asked God the most daring of questions. He says, “When I came to them and say that God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me “What is God’s name?” what shall I say?” God replied, “Eyheh Asher Eyheh...This is what you should say. Ehyeh sent me to you.” (Ex. 3:13) 

Many translations read God’s response to mean, ‘I am what I am.’ Some thinkers translate God’s name to mean ‘I am the One who is’. These are deeply significant mistranslations because they tell us nothing we don’t already know. We already know that what is in the world. The Heberew phrase does teach us something new.  It’s not in the present tense. The Hebrew literally means, ‘I will be what I will be.” God’s name is in the future tense. If we fail to understand this, we will miss the very gift that Judaism brings to the world.  

Moses says, “It is the God of my ancestors that liberates me”, but God says, “No!  It’s not enough to hold onto the past. The past can give you comfort but it cannot liberate you. The past gives you grounding but it cannot make you soar.  The past shapes our present, but it cannot make our future. The past cannot bring us up from the darkness nor can it break the chains!” 

“Tell them,” God says, “Tell them Ehyeh sent you!” Tell them the future sent you. So that you may free the slave, help the poor, reach toward the light and to go into the new which you have never experienced, but have only dreamed.  

Eyheh Asher Eyheh.” Sent you. 

That is the name of our God.

God’s name is the future.  

God’s gift to us, is Judaism’s gift to the world.  Never before has a culture said that your tomorrows don’t not have to look like your yesterdays. Never before has anyone said what is enslaving you today, can be broken tomorrow.  Your golden age is ahead of you, not behind you. Your greatest accomplishments, are still to come. It does not matter who you’ve been before or what has been done to you or the choices you’ve made, if you make the turn, if you choose to see the light, if you go into the new, you can leave it behind. 

When you step out of the past and into the future you can be redeemed. When you step out of yesterday and into tomorrow, you step into redemption.  And Just like Moses, when you turn towards the light and see the new, you step into God’s territory.  

God’s name is the future.  

We are created in the image of God, which means that we are created for the future. However, we’ve collectively lost this sense of the new. For many years we have collectively felt that the goal of the Amrican synagogue in theTwentieth Century was survivorship. We built a community in order to maintain what was because we were haunted by the past.  We were afraid for our future. 

We needed to survive.  Whether it was to preserve ourselves against assimilation in the early generations or to ensure continuity in the later generations, we designed, built, and funded communities in order to hold onto the past. We built our community on memory, our institutions on memory, and for generations now, our entire Jewish lives out of memory.  Our walls are adorned with the names of the dead. We say Yizkor four times a year. We light candles in memory, we fast in memory, we pray in memory.  

There are good reasons for doing so.  The past has incredible value in Jewish life the past is the source of authenticity and authority. It shapes us and authors our values. We educate our children to know from where they come.  We are taught to remember, so we teach them to remember.

Remember that  God created the world.  Remember the oppression of Pharaoh.  Remember the Exodus from Egypt. Remember being a stranger. Remember the gile of Amalek. Remember the ovens of Auschwitz. Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember!  

Remembrance, we are told over and over again is part of being a Jew.  

But, and please remember this: Everytime the Torah says, “Remember” it proceeds a new creative action.  Remember God’s creation, so we must create shabbat. Remember the Exodus, so you too must free those who are bound up in the chains of oppression. Remember being a poor stranger, so that we do not allow the poor and the homeless to suffer.  Remember the gile of Amalek. You must erase the guile from your midst. Remember Asuschwitz, so that you create a vibrant Jewish life. 

Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember :Remember the past but do not live in the past!  

Go into the new! 

If we only struggle against what haunts our past, we will have no energy to fight for our future. If we allow ourselves to be hunted by shadows generations on, we will never chase the dawn. 

We cannot get to the new, until you stop fearing it.  We cannot step boldly into the future by only looking in the rearview mirror. None of us can become the person we long to be if we only hold on to the person we used to be.

We cannot just remember the past to survive, we must use memory so that we might thrive.  The old shapes, but we must not let it control the new. The past gives content, but not form to the future. 

It is the role of every generation of Jews to grapple with the ideas of what it means to be Jewish. And it is the role of the synagogue to help Jews with those conversations. Today, we are experiencing another generational shift in Jewish life.  These young Jews take their Judaism seriously but express it very differently than you and I. They see Judaism as the paint, and the clay, and the stone of their lives, but not the canvas. Today there is an emerging type of Jew who wants to be a fully active partner in the creation of Jewish life.  Not to be told what to do, or how things should be, but to be guided by wisdom and tradition for them to make their own ritual, art, and Jewish culture. The contemporary Jewish psyche is one of self-expression and creativity not obedience. They want to craft their own Jewish path. These younger Jews I encounter,  hundreds of them, are experimenting more and more with ritual and identity and what it means to be Jewish. Jewish institutions need to take note. We need to take note. 

We have spent so much time obsessed with assimilation and continuity - ideas that fear the future, that we are not ready for it now that it has finally arrived. The future is here and if all we listen to is the commanding voice of the past, we cannot hear the voices of the future. There are new commentaries that are being written,new songs sung, new dances danced, new art made every day. There is a Jewish future that is being created with or without us.  

The synagogue,our home and the spiritual home for Jews for thousands of years stands at a turning point right now. There are more Jewish creatives today than ever in the history of the world. More art, more books, more poems, more songs are written now than ever before.  But those creatives don’t see the synagogue as the place to make express their Jewish spirit. Our prayers do not speak to their hearts. Our programs do not captures their spiritual imaginations. They don’t see themselves here. If we want to step into the future, we have let go of our fear what the future will look like. We not only have to turn towards the new. We have to design, fund and build our community on it. 

Where the purpose of the synagogue before was about preserving the past, the purpose now is to step into the future. To use the old to go into the new.  To touch the spirit and help those who are running from their past to see the light of their own future. We must guide the spirit of every person who comes in our doors or engages with us online towards their own spiritual expression. This needs to be our mission, to step into tomorrow, into the new, into God’s territory.  

My goal as rabbi, is to use the past to create the future.  Spiritual leadership is its most powerful when it sets the spirit free. To use the wisdom of the past to help every Jew who wishes to unleash their spiritual future. I do not know what it will look like, but that is the most beautiful part about the future.  We cannot predict it but we can create it.  

This is not a policy proposal.  It is a theological proposal. It is an ideological, sociological, and psychological proposal. 

When new ideas proposed, we should say ‘yes’ before we say ‘no.’  When new songs are sung, we should say ‘yes,’ before we say ‘no.’ Wherever creativity is found inside the Jewish spirit, say ‘yes’ before say ‘no.’ We already have the ‘no’. The only way to get to the future, is to go after the ‘yes.’

Do not fear the future. Take heart from the last phrase of the last line of the last song of every service. From the Adon Olam, Adonai Li’ V’lo Ira. The last message given to every Jew before going out into the world. “I have no fear for God is with me.” Take heart when facing the future. Have courage. Be strong. Do not fear the new, for God is with us. Do not fear, take heart, for the young are ready.  Do not fear what might come next, because the future is already out there. Do not fear, have courage, because these young Jews care, believe, create, and build what they love. Do not fear the future, because God’s name is the future.  

Every melody you have ever heard, every sermon taught, every word of Torah from this bima or others was written by someone. Every song we sing is the product of the creativity of a Jewish mind. Ohr Hadash, Shir Hadash, to step into the new we must create a new light and a new song. We gave the world the idea of the future.  It’s time we use this wonderful gift for ourselves. Tomorrow will not look like yesterday, but Hayom, today, on this day of creation and of new possibility let us embrace the new. Let us go into the future without fear. The young are ready. They are already creating the future because they are the future. God is with them, as God is with us, because God’s name is the future.  Let us be bold. Let us be creative. Let us go into tomorrow, for when we step into the new- we step into God’s territory.[/collapsed][collapsed title="2019 Yom Kippur Sermon"]

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"Called Out"

We live in a call-out culture where we lie in wait for each other fall short. We become known only for our imperfections and not for our accomplishments. What if we flipped the script and called each other out for what really matters...the blessings we give to each other.

Back in October 2012 an organization called LIFE (Living Independently Forever) which is a group home for high functioning adults with learning difficulties, organized a trip to Washington DC. Like other trips to DC, this group visited the National Mall, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Smithsonian and Arlington National Cemetery.  Two young women by the names of Lindsey and Jamie, were caregivers for these adults. Lindsey and Jamie had been friends since elementary school and were now in their late twenties. They thrived in creating activities for these very special people by lighting up their lives with knitting, painting and small trips. 

Lindsey and Jamie, like many young people, kept a running joke between them; they had their own personal meme. They would take silly photographs and text them back and forth and sometimes post them online. Like the time one of them pretended to smoke a cigarette in front of a no-smoking sign or another time when they posed in front of famous statues, mimicking the pose. These women would take the photos and text them to each other, or post them online with funny comments.  

So when they went to Arlington National Cemetery, Lindsey saw a sign. It was black with brass lettering that said, “Silence and Respect.” When she saw it and inspiration struck.  Lindsey quickly ran over to it, and in a moment of complete thoughtlessness, decided to pose in front of it by pretending she was shouting and swearing, all the while flipping the bird.  Jamie snapped the photo for their collection. Imagine her now, in a photo in front of a sign that “Silence and Respect” and she was fake yelling.

Except the sign was placed there for a reason. Anyone who has ever gone to Arlington National Cemetery knows that sign. It’s posted outside of the Tomb of the Unknown.  The burial place of remains of our veterans that are yet to be identified. A soldier is permanently stationed outside the tomb. It’s a solemn place, many would say a sacred place. 

The day the photo was taken, Jamie, with Lindsey’s permission, posted the photo on Facebook for their very modest-sized friend group so they could see it as part of their meme, or running gag. 

Now a few weeks later,  while celebrating Jamie’s birthday, their phones blew up with messages.  Someone had found the photo and brought it to the attention of hordes of online strangers, none of whom knew Lindsey or Jamie. 

You can imagine what happened next — an outpouring of rage across the internet tagging Lindsey and her photo.  A new Facebook page, “Fire Lindsey.” had been created. It attracted 12,000 followers. These online commentators started calling her out for being inappropriately irreverent.  But within a few minutes this page also became a meeting place of hate and shame. Instead of just holding her accountable, the comments became harsher saying things like, “Lindsey Stone hates the military.  “She hates soldiers, she hates people.” Another read, “You’re just pure evil.” Spurred on by the shame, these commentators used the page to organize themselves to find out more about Lindsey and where she worked. The comments kept getting worse, including calling for to be arrested, committed to an insane asylum,to be raped and to be killed.  This all happened in one night

The morning after the birthday party, news cameras appeared in droves outside her home. When she showed up to her job, she was indeed fired.  Her boyfriend left her. She barely left the house. Lindsey couldn’t find work for over a year. When she did find a new job, she never socialized with coworkers because maybe her new employer would find out about her, and she would lose this job too. Since the incident happened, she hasn't dated anyone, because she is just too afraid to trust others with her story

What Lindsey did was wrong. As a veteran and as a rabbi, it bothers me that someone would be so thoughtless to take a sacred space like The Tomb of The Unknown . It was morally wrong.  Even though she never meant to hurt anyone, and she in fact did not hurt anyone, Lindsey’s actions are still wrong.  

But it was one moment of being wrong. It was a single moment in a young woman’s life where she made a mistake. The response, however, to this single moment that went on forever. There was a tsunami of shame and pillory. She said over and over again that she regretted and was sorry for what she did. She released a statement of apology. Jamie took the post down. But as one of the trolls said sarcastically after she deleted the post, “Sorry Jamie, your post lives on forever.” After being called out for one thoughtless moment,she became trapped in fear, now playing out over and over again across the globe forever.  

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about this story and the culture that it symbolizes.  This “call out” culture that has taken over our lives. For those that don’t know, call-out means naming people publicly that you think have done something wrong. Maybe someone we know or don’t know or think we know, makes a mistake or says something we don’t like and we call them out and shout their name and tell the world how wrong they are. Basically, it’s the story of Lindsey.  It’s the story of so many people, famous and not famous people, who have made a mistake in their lives and because of the culture we live in, they can never be forgiven. Their actions are never forgotten, their past is not the past, they have no future because they couldn't let go of the past. Their life is ruined forever. 

Lindsey is just one story, but there are many more. Political gaffes, mistakes in judgements, inopportune moments, all pounced on and ground into dust. Each can be isolated as a single phenomenon, but together make up an entire culture. A call out culture that allows us just to wait for other people to mess up so we can unleash our own indignation upon them.  A culture that rewards us for shaming each other. A culture that tells us that our own fury is righteous if we can just shame each other into paranoid silence.  

I see it here in this congregation, around Shabbat dinner tables and meeting rooms. I see it in our larger community in boardrooms and chat rooms.  I see it globally, online. I see this call out culture that searches for our worst moments and terrible mistakes and holds it up to our face and says you are nothing more to me than this moment.  You can never be more than this moment. You are nothing more than this.  

It’s this culture of calling out that I want to discuss with you today.   Why do we do this? How did we get here? How have religion and other systems played a roll?  How can we change it, if at all? On this most holy day of Yom Kippur, it’s time to call out this call out culture. It’s time to flip the script. Instead of calling each other out, it’s time to call ourselves out.  To lay bear real truth and hopefully to activate something inside of us to grow, to heal and to step into a different space, a holy space.   

I don’t know anyone who likes being called out. Sometimes we do things that we think are just against the rules without realizing that we are actually hurting other people.  Like that time as a teenager when I came home late after curfew. I was out having a great time seeing a girl and I just didn’t want to go home. This was before cell phones, so I didn’t have to text or call.  Sorry kids, you do have it worse than we did. I pulled up to the house and it was dark. There were no lights on anywhere and I opened the door slowly and quietly. I took my shoes off on the patio so I wouldn't make noise.  As I passed through the living room on the way to my bedroom I thought I had made it. Only thirty feet to go and I’d be home free. “Noah!” I heard from the dark. I froze. “Get over here right now!” Busted. I got caught. Called my name right out.

I certainly did not like that. But I didn’t realize then what I know now.  When we don’t come home on time and if we don’t call, we scare the people we love.  We can hurt them. We can take relationships for granted. There are lots of times we get called out like this.  Maybe you drank milk from the carton, or left your socks on the couch. Or didn't put the dirty dishes into the dishwasher and left them on the counter — next to the dishwasher.  Or maybe you said something overly rude at a dinner party. Maybe you didn’t come home from work when you said you would, because things got busy, but you missed dinner and bathtime — again.  Or maybe you took advantage of a friend in business. Or you lied out of shame. Or you pushed a rumor just to create drama because it makes you feel relevant and important in the workplace. 

In those moments when we are called out, we deserve it. I deserved to be caught after curfew. I deserve to be called out leaving my socks on the couch. I certainly deserve it by leaving dishes out.  I mean it’s right there, just six more inches and it would be in the dishwasher! And we should come home to family, and slow our speech. Being called out there is a reminder that we can do better. It’s a reminder that we made a commitment in love to another person.  It’s a reminder that we live in a covenant with them — in a life-long relationship that is as deep and accountable as it is loving.  Being called out like that is part of what it means to be a covenanted person. To have a covenant  with friends, family and God. 

But this is not the kind of calling out I’m talking about with you today. I’m talking about the kind of culture that destroys lives, destroys communities, and destroyed the future.  A culture we built and we are responsible for. 

There is a law from the Torah that speaks to the very idea of building a culture. The Torah says, “When you build a new house, you shall put a guard rail along the rooftop, so that you do not bring blood upon your house should anyone fall from it.” (Deut 22:8)  The teaching is clear enough. One must put up the guardrail so that they prevent others from falling off the roof. The Midrash adds that if you fail to build the guardrail upon the roof of your house, it is considered a bad house, and if you choose to go up to the roof and fall from you actually deserve to fall, because you know you built a bad house. ( Deut. 22:9-7)   

The idea of the Torah and the Midrash together is that we should not be surprised if we create a bad house that bad things will happen in that house.  The culture of calling out is exactly the house we built. We built a bad house. We built an entire global culture that is lurking for things to be angry at; a culture that waits for others to mess up.  A house whose foundation is fury, whose cornerstone is contempt, whose, banisters are bitterness, whose walls and windows are wickedness and whose roof is ruined. When we build a bad house, we should not be surprised by the life that is lived in that house.

Is it so shocking to us that when we create a culture that searches with gusto for people’s worst moments, and then lay waste to their souls, that we find ourselves in a soulless world? Is it so surprising that if we spend our time destroying other people for their mistakes, that the world itself is not destroyed? Is it really a wonder when we foment shame and disgrace, that find ourselves in a shameful world that seemingly has no room for grace? 

When we build a bad house, we will live in a bad house. When we build a world of darkness, we become the darkness.  When we build a world of shame, we become shameful. We live in the culture we create. If we build a bad house, then we deserve to fall off the roof. Our lives are our responsibility.

We have built this call out culture and we have to tear it down and build something new. So let’s tear it down. 

We might want to blame others for our call out culture.  We can blame social media, politics and religion. That’s natural, but it is misplaced. All three systems share responsibility but they are each created by us, but are not us.

Some of us blame social media. Since the dawn of the new information age we can communicate now more effectively instantly and globally. But we didn’t foresee that the very thing that can bring us together turned into the very thing that tears us apart.  We can text our friend on the other side of the world. We can buy anything through your phone and it will be delivered to your house. There is hardly a wedding or a bris or a baby naming I do today that someone isn’t video chatting in a friend from another country who couldn’t be there.  Yet, what has been heralded as a tool of mass communication has become a weapon of mass destruction.  

It’s like an atom bomb in reverse.  When the bomb goes off, a chain reaction spreads destruction over hundreds of miles destroying millions of lives.  When we call someone out online, when we shame them and ridicule them - the opposite is true. Millions focus their ire in a chain reaction onto a single person, breaking them. Cities are destroyed by bombs, souls are destroyed by tweets. 

In this call out culture we seek to own, to destroy and to ravage each other’s point of view.  Anyone can pass judgement on anyone anonymously without facts, truth or moral judgment. In this unforgiving call out culture, the people who survive the call out apocalypse are those that thrive on it. People without shame. Those who are loud and care not for facts or morals, those whose pugnacity and unrepentantance is the core of their being. 

The truth is, however, we can’t just blame social media for this bad house.  It’s a tool that has tapped into something deeper in our psyche. Every time we read a post or a Tweet, every time we click on an article, every time a friend or influencer tells us to think a certain way— to hop on the call out band wagon—  to add hate upon hate, shame upon shame, every single time we have to decide whether to go along with it. We decide to share, we decide to like, and we decide to comment, not the screen. Social media is a system, it begins and ends with a screen in your hand and in front of your face, not inside your soul. 

Some of us blame politics. All the studies show that we are more politically divided than ever.  Our politics have moved beyond anger to contempt. Anger is an emotion that comes and goes. We can be angry in the morning but not in the evening. We can’t hold onto anger, but contempt is sticky.  It endures. Contempt says that I don’t just disagree with your ideas, I disagree with your humanity. A politics of protest, a politics of contempt, a politics that negates the souls of other human beings contributes to this bad house.  It’s because we don’t feel like we have any power, we call each other out to feel powerful. We feel really good in calling each other out because it makes us feel like we are winning even when we have done nothing to actually make a difference.  It makes us feel righteous.

You can’t only blame politics for calling each other out either. Politics is a system like social media for capturing the mood of America. Politicians do not just create the culture, they live off of it. Furthermore, politics only address outcomes — policy — not the deepest part of ourselves. There is still something deeper inside of us that needs to be addressed to be questioned, if we want to tear down this bad house.

Some of us blame religion for this call out culture too. This one hits much closer to home. It’s terrifying to think what that Godly voice might say about us, especially if we are called out for being somehow naturally bad or for reminding us of our mistakes all the time. It’s frightening to think God thinks the worst of us, especially if we think the worst of ourselves already.

On a communal level, there are too many times in religious spaces where we call out congregants for messing up. I’ve met so many good people who feel uncomfortable in synagogues because they’ve felt called out. They’ve been told that there is no place for them here. They've been told that what they believe, or how they act or who they love is broken or wrong or unacceptable.  I’ve sat with too many people who struggle with themselves and feel no home in God’s house.

Some of you are here and know the sting of what it feels like to be called out. To feel alone. To sit while others stand, or stand while others sit.  To be unsure if this is your home or if you have to elsewhere. Unsure if you are truly loved, or just tolerated. Some of you feel off inside. Having your differences point out to you only to confirm the worst story you are already telling yourself about yourself.  To those that feel this way, please know that you are known. Please see that you are seen. Please know that here is where you are heard.

We can blame these systems, social media, politics and religion, for creating a call out culture, but none of them get to the bottom of what is really at stake.  None of these systems or tools get to the source of why we feel the need to destroy each other — the need to shy away from grace, the need to pull back from compassion. None of these cultural patterns go the deepest part of ourselves, because they are all just artifacts of society.  Working euphemisms, for groups of people, for collectives of individuals, and for bouquets of souls.

Friends, if we want to build again, we cannot look only to systemic change. We have to begin with the smallest and most foundational unit.  We have to begin with you. We have to begin with me. We have to begin with each of us. We have to begin with the soul. We have to begin with the brokenness we all feel.  We have to begin with the lack of agency and power that reminds us of our own failures. We have to begin with the voices in our heads that remind us that we are nothing. That ringing in our ear that says that we will never live up to the dreams of our parents or our teachers.  The voice that discourages us to be vulnerable. The voice that says we can’t be kind. We have to fear. We have to hide. We have to destroy.

If you want to change the world for the better, if you want to tear down the vile culture and build it up a better one, if you want to build a good house, God’s house, you cannot start with the frame, you have to start with the foundation.  You have to build up your soul for the better. To show yourself instead of hide yourself. To have courage instead of fear. To heal and not to destroy. 

And so let us flip the script. Let us build again.   

Imagine what kind of world we could build knowing that calling out someone could draw them closer and not farther away? If we could lift them up instead of tearing them down?  Imagine what accountability would look like if we called them out in love instead of hate? If we could draw out from each of us the greatness that is within us all instead of shaming us for not yet achieving greatness? 

Let us use the best soul-system we have to find a way of calling out people, not for how they fail, but for how might yet succeed. What kind of world could religion build knowing that calling out someone could draw them closer and not farther away to the life they dreamed of living?

The best soul-system there is our Torah. In the Torah, the word for calling out is Vayikra. It means both to name something and to call it out. Each book of the Torah uses this same word for different purposes, and each book shares a different facet of God’s call out culture. The Book of books, the Torah uses the word Vayikra to add up to greatest calling of all.  

Genesis begins with a calling.  In the beginning, God makes the most daring decision ever in history. God decides not to be alone. God calls the world into a relationship. On the first day of the world, God said let there be light and “called the light day ‘day’ and the darkness, God called, ‘night.’ (Gen. 1:5) God called upon the world to be with the Divine. On the second day, God fashioned the firmament and called out again, calling the bubble that allows for everything on earth to live Shamayim, Heaven. (Gen. 1:6) And so it went every day until one day Adam and Eve were hiding in the Garden of Eden. They were afraid and ashamed and God calls them out looking for them. (Gen. 3:9)

The calling out of Genesis say to you that the world matters to God.  Each of us is created in for relationship. You are made of the cosmos. You're soul-potential is infinite. Your life is invaluable. God does not want you to hide, especially from yourself. God is looking for you, no matter how imperfect you are. God is calling to you.

In Exodus, God again uses the same word when calling Moses from the burning bush. (Exodus 3:4-6)  Moses too was hiding. God calls him out, not because he ran away from Egypt  but because God wants him to run to Egypt. God calls him from stumbling through his life to marching for others. God calls him from living by accident to living on purpose. God calls Moses out from his past and into the future.  God calls Moses out to find the greatness that is inside of him. God calls him out so that he can begin the process of redemption. 

The calling of Exodus says that your life matters so much that you cannot live by accident. You must let go of the past so you can seize the future. God calls upon you to hear the voice that is commanding you to find your purpose in life, the voice that says to look for meaning, and drive towards redemption not just for yourself but for those who are still enslaved.

God calls again in Leviticus.  The entire name of the book is Vayikra. Each time God calls, God reaches into the world to draw it closer and closer. From outside the universe to the top of the mountain, and now into the inner sanctum, the holy of holies. This time God calls from the Tent of Meeting.”( Lev. 1:1). God calls to Moses saying, “Come in here.” Come close to Me. The sacrificial system of Leviticus teaches that what God wants is your failures, your guilt, your shame, your sin. God wants those things to take them away from you. God calls you out not because of your capacity to sin, but for capacity to forgive.  God calls us out to forgive us. To raise us up, not push us down.

The calling of Leviticus is holiness because the holiest thing you can do is take away someone else’s shame. God says I’m calling you out not because you are perfect but because you are not. I’m calling you out so that your worst moments become My worst moments. God is no longer outside the world, but inside its heart. God no longer calls you out from someplace far away, but from within the home we build together. In a good house.  In God’s house. 

In Numbers, we find the laws of our sacred calendar. God calls us out to to create and name certain days as holy those holidays and times of the year are to come together as a community.  To remember the past and create the future. Seven times the word mikra, from the same word as vayikra, is used to describe our times together.

The calling of Numbers is that of space and time. It says we have to make time to encourage each other.  We have to make time to lift each other up. We have to make time for family, for community, to show up for each other.

If you want to create a positive culture you have to create a positive culture. If you want to create a world of love, you have to create a world of love.  If you want to build a world of peace and goodness you have build a world of peace and goodness. In Numbers, God transfers that responsibility for calling people out to us. The world becomes our responsibility.

Finally in Deuteronomy, after years and years of God calling out, Moses finally returns the call. (Deut. 32:3).  At the last moments of Moses’ life, when he has said everything that he has said and written, when Moses saw the Promised Land but could not enter, he calls out God one last time. Here, at this last moment, Moses is doing what we are doing here today on Yom Kippur, he asking for forgiveness. Asking for each of us to remember that our lives are precious.  Our souls matter. And a world built on love,on relationships, on forgiveness is possible. Even if it is a world of the future- one that we dream of but might not ever experience.

Over and over again the Torah calls out to you.  God is calling you out. Every book of the Torah calls out in some way. Genesis: you are called upon because you are are precious and matter to God. Exodus: You are called upon to find you have a purpose. Leviticus: You are called upon to not shy away from your failures. Numbers: You are called upon to make time and take responsibility for creating the world you dream of.  Deuteronomy: You are called upon to call back. To work for the next generation. Each of these is a special calling, but they lead up to the greatest call of them all — you.

God’s greatest gift to the world is you. You are made in the image of God and the Holy One does not put average inside of anyone. You might feel average, you might feel alone but you are not. You are never alone in the covenant. You have greatness inside of you that is ready to be activated and elevated, to be called out.

What kind of world can we build if we take up the Torah’s calling?  What if, instead of catching people doing their worst, we caught people doing their best?  I saw that! I saw you buy that lunch! I caught you feeding the hungry! I caught slipping a few more bucks into the tzedakah box! I see you, taking off of work to catch your kids ballgame!  I see you giving up that parking space on Yom Kippur!

I see you, reading with your child.  I see you teaching them to be a mensch.  I caught you giving a hug for no reason, for sharing your sadness with me, for sitting with a friend in the hospital. For taking in a kid who is lonely or lost. Imagine the kind of culture called out of us if we make the Torah’s calling the center of our lives. 

There is greatness inside of you, and the Torah calls it out over and over again.  You are God’s gift to the world, so you can act like a gift to others. To give of your time, your love, and your energy.  You are called to give compassion, and goodness and sweetness. God calls you out for your greatness, so you can call out the greatness in others. 

This is the kind of call out culture that we need. We need to throw away the culture that finds joy in another’s pain and hurt. We need to throw away a paradigm that judges others only for their faults. We need to tear down this bad house and build up a good house, our house, God’s house.  We need to hear the calling of Torah, and take our Godly responsibility to find flourishing each other’s eyes. This is why God called out Adam. This is why God called out Eve, why God called out Moses, and why the Torah is calling out to you. 

God wants what is inside of you, but humanity needs what is inside of you. We all need each other to build a more loving and holy house together.  Our house. God’s house. 

Today, Yom Kippur, is the day to reach deep inside and call ourselves out. Today is the day to go into your holy of holies and find what God has put inside of you. The capacity for greatness. The capacity for love. The capacity for goodness. The capacity for forgiveness.  This holy day, is the day we show up for others, to love more, to care more, to forgive and be forgiven more. This day, Yom Kippur, is a holy day. It is my day. It is your day. It is our day. It is God’s day. A day to flip the script. To tear and to sew. To break and to build.  Today is the day where everything matters. It is your day to be called out. 

Gmar Chatima Tova - May you be sealed into the Book of Life. [/collapsed]

Thu, April 2 2020 8 Nisan 5780