Friday, December 29, 2000

Shabbat-O-Gram for Dec. 29, 2000

Shabbat Shalom


As I write this, it appears that the blasts today in Tel Aviv have resulted in relatively few injuries, something that is being seen as a bit of a "Hanukkah miracle" over there.  Otherwise, we seem to be running short of miracles this year.  Even our electric menorah in the chapel has blown a couple of bulbs -- maybe we should go back to olive oil.  The miracle of peace now seems more elusive than ever in Israel, leaving us all the more disillusioned and confused in the wake of this week's dizzying events.  I've been studying all the information I can gather on the Web as to exactly what the Clinton bridging plan entails and I still can't get a handle on it.  At the center of it all lies the old city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.  How ironic to be considering giving up the very place whose capture and rededication we are in the midst of celebrating during Hanukkah.  Ironies abound, of course.  Jews bemoan the fact that Jerusalem was "originally" ours and that the Temple plateau was razed and the Dome of the Rock put there only after it had been taken by force by the Moslems.  Yet that very spot was also taken by force by David (it's the Jebusites that really have a gripe here) 3000 years ago.  In fact, Jerusalem has never really belonged to anyone but God.  I've never been in favor of internationalization of the city, but some form of shared sovereignty has a certain appeal to it, as long as all people have the freedom to worship there in peace.  I don't know how the Clinton plan might work this out, but if it provides the framework for doing just that, it could just be the catalyst for another Hanukkah miracle, not the Maccabean kind involving conquest and revenge, but that espoused later on by the rabbis, one where the oil made from the leaves of the olive branch, that universal symbol of peace, might enable the flame of peace and harmony to burn brightly from Mount Moriah.

In this week's portion, Mikketz, Joseph rises from the depths of prison to become Vice Pharaoh, thus becoming the archetypical Diaspora Jew.  He takes on a new name, an Egyptian wife and new style of dress, losing contact with his family.  His silence regarding his father, according to Ramban, is a grave sin, though Abravanel excuses it on grounds of political considerations.  An Egyptian proverb states, "A foreigner who drinks the waters of the Nile forgets his native land."  Memo to the reader: I've been on the Nile.  You DON'T want to drink the water!

By the end of the portion, however, Joseph's tune is changing.  He is testing his brothers to see if they have gained compassion for their brother Benjamin and their father, but it truly is a test of Joseph himself.  In Gen. 42:21-24, the first signs of remorse by the brothers regarding what they did to Joseph are followed almost immediately by Joseph's first tears.  And in chapter 43:27, Joseph asks how their aging father is, a remarkable turning point.  Then he sees Benjamin and is overcome by emotion.

Sometimes all it takes is a brief encounter with an old friend or relative to trigger a rush of old memories and a profound emotional response.  That's what happens to us on the High Holidays, or even on New Years Eve for many (although I never did quite understand that song about all those old acquaintances being forgot).  It's also what happened collectively to the Jewish people in 1967, when we were reunited with our ancient Temple Mount and the Kotel.  We began to feel things we hadn't felt since the days of the Maccabees. It affected all of us, including those in the Diaspora.  When Joseph felt those renewed ties to his tribal family, he brought them over to settle with him. He never returned to the land of his birth until his bones were brought back centuries later, after the Exodus. When American Jews renewed old acquaintances with Israel in 1948, most, like Joseph, elected to stay in Exile.  Now with those family ties weakening again, we have to redouble our effort to reconnect to our people and to Israel in whatever ways we can.  Even if we choose to remain here, we've got to give our descendants reason to want to carry our remains (i.e. our ideals and values) over there, in some manner, when they return.  And we have to ensure that, for them, those old acquaintances will never "be forgot."

All the Internet Torah that's fit to print will be sent on an addendum to this e-mailing.

Candles: 4:20
Kabbalat Shabbat Services: 8:00
Shabbat Morning: Family Service in lobby (Sweater Day), followed by lunch: 9:30 AM
There is just one scheduled children's service this Shabbat, as Burt's service will not be held.
Weather permitting, Nurit's service will be held.
Which brings us to...

We never officially cancel Shabbat services, so it doesn't pay to be listening to the radio for such notice -- nor is it a good idea to be calling our office (or home) for that information. There's no information to be had.  It's as simple as this: the password is "Sechel."  If it's snowing heavily in the morning, children's services will almost certainly not be held, we quite likely won't have a minyan of adults and our parking lot will likely be inaccessible to most vehicles.  But if the snow has stopped, our snow removers have been very conscientious about getting here fairly quickly and ploughing us out.  If you can't get here because of the weather, simply print out (before or after Shabbat) some of the Torah materials I send or are otherwise obtainable on the Web, open up the portion and study.  Shabbat is both weather-proof and transportable. A quiet snowed-in Shabbat in the house might could end up being quite the spiritual experience Shabbat was meant to be.  It sure beats sliding on the highway and shoveling snow. 

If we do get snowed in you manage to have one of those special Shabbat experiences, I'd love to hear about it!

And on the 7th day of Hanukkah, we had 8 at our morning minyan.  The S.O.S. I sent out on Tuesday worked -- for exactly one day.  We had 12 yesterday (Wednesday).  Clearly the "on call" solution I proposed two weeks ago also will not work.  It only helps when we have 9 and can reach someone no later than 7:40.  Susan Eitelberg has volunteered to help us seek out more permanent solutions to this age-old problem.  For now, it might be best for those who plan to be here in the morning for Yahrzeits to let me know if you wish to have it announced via e-mail so that people will make plans to come.  I can begin that process right now, because I happen to have yahrzeit tomorrow (Friday) morning.  It would be nice to have a minyan.

To Hazzan Rabinowitz and Frank Rosner, both of whom have been under the weather this week.

If you wish to have a name, in English or Hebrew, added to the list for our healing prayer on Shabbat morning, please e-mail it to me by mid-day on Friday.  We would be delighted to help along the healing process in any manner possible -- and this prayer helps.

To Larry and Sue Holzman on the engagement of their son Jonathan, to Judy Tenzer
and to Lisa and Joel Zartisky, who had a baby girl at Stamford Hospital just yesterday.

Pasta and Bingo: an unbeatable combination.  This dinner has been a highly successful event over the past few years, with lots family fun.  On Sat. Jan. 6, at 6:30.  To reserve, contact Ellen Gordon: 968-8029 -- and sign up SOON!

In preparation for Sisterhood Shabbat (Feb. 10).  First rehearsal: Jan. 3, 8-9 PM

Don't forget to go to for all things Jewish, including the following Jewish Web Week chats:
* Thursday, December 28 at 7pm EST join in a live chat sponsored by with Tom Smerling, Vice President of the Israel Policy Forum on the situation in the Middle East.
* Thursday, December 28 at 10:30pm EST join Dr. Egon Mayer, founder of the Jewish Outreach Institute for a chat on "Interfaith Hanukkah in America and the Who, How, Where, and Why of Intermarriage for the Year 2001"  Dr. Mayer will be Beth El's Scholar in Residence this coming June.

Last call for reservations.  There is still room, but barely, for the January 12-14 Congregational Shabbaton.  The theme is "Being Jewish in America," and we'll be going to beautiful Holiday Hills in Pawling, New York, a veritable Winter Wonderland, but very accessible via main roads.  Contact Barb or Eileen Rosner ASAP if you are thinking of coming.  It might be best to speak with one of them first before sending in the forms, just to be sure we haven't closed out registration.

As we approach the last night, here's a final thought on Hanukkah and the dreidel, from Rabbi Lori Forman of UJA-Federation:

The rabbis teach that each letter represents one of the four kingdoms that dominated and exiled the Jewish people from the Land of Israel: Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. As we spin the dreidel, there’s a still-point amid the turning circle. All four sides, which symbolize these oppressive powers, blur into nothingness as the dreidel spins. The Jews’ survival against much more powerful forces also is a miracle.

In gematria (Hebrew numerology), the letters in dreidel add up to 358, the equivalent to those in the word “messiah.” So, as each kingdom that has oppressed the Jews falls, we pray that the messiah and ultimate redemption will come to our people. Tonight, as Chanukah ends, reflect on how you can spread its light by bringing redemption to your small corner of the world.


Friday, December 8, 2000

Shabbat-O-Gram, Dec 7, 2000

 Shabbat Shalom

This is the weekend of the 30th Cantor's Concert, a moment of history for our congregation.  As, we think back to the incredible quality and diversity of what we have seen here over the years, I'm sure all of us will have our favorites.  As we compile this list, I suggest that we save room for the Zamir Chorale very close to the top.  I have followed them since I was a child and had the pleasure of hearing them just a year ago.  If you haven't yet decided to join us, I believe there will be tickets remaining at the door.  But get here early!  We all owe Hazzan Rabinowitz our deepest thanks for all that he does here, in particular, on this occasion, for introducing us to the wide spectrum of Jewish music.

We'll be visiting B'nai Jeshurun on Shabbat morning.  About 25 of us will be there, as of now.  There is still room on the bus, which will be leaving from the temple at 8:15 AM sharp, returning around 1:30.  Call to reserve a spot, or, if the spirit moves you that morning, just show up.  Or meet us there.  Anything you need to know about B.J. can be found at their Web site,


Educator Cherie Kohler Fox's eight ways to celebrate Hanukkah meaningfully:

An article explaining how Israel's election laws are making for unusual bedfellows.  You think it's confusing here??

Last Shabbat a roudy group protested outside of Joe Lieberman's home in New Haven?  Did the right wing protesters resort to anti-semitic sloganeering?  See for yourself in the New Haven Register, at

for the original report, and
for George Jepsen's response.  More disturbing than the rally itself, perhaps, are the reader's opinions that follow the stories.

Beth El Cares Starts A New Season!

All aboard!  We’re rolling forward at a good clip and we need YOU to hop on the Beth El Cares bandwagon.  We’re planning a number of programs and coordinating Mitzvah Projects with the Religious School.  With a little of your time we’ll be able to accomplish a lot.  See what we’re planning and take your pick of activities…no contribution of time or effort is too small…then, please call the committee chairs to find out how you can help us to help others.

Family Winter Coat Drive:  
We’re collecting coats and sweaters for the needy.  The goods will be donated to our friends at Person-to Person, who are doing a spectacular job of distributing food and clothes in our region.  A special Sunday morning tour of the Person-to Person headquarters in Darien will be informative and rewarding.  Drop off your donations at the synagogue from December 3-14.  We need volunteers to donate, collect and sort the goods.  A great tzedakah project for all!
Call Shelly Wunderlich at 968-1195

Wednesday, December 6, 2000

The Show Must Go On (Jewish Week)


The Show Must Go On

by Joshua Hammerman
Originally Appeared in The Jewish Week 2/9/00

I was 18 at the time, a neophyte iconoclast, bursting with hormonal angst and long, shaggy hair. It was the mid ‘70s, and with the War and Woodstock fading memories, the only thing I could rebel against was, of course, religion.

So I went up to the bima of my home synagogue on that fateful Shabbat morning and delivered the sermon (to this day called by many, "THAT Sermon") at our annual teen-led service. I discussed with great sympathy Aaron’s rebellious sons, who were killed in a flash while performing an unusual sacrifice, an "aish zara (strange fire)." Then I went on to offer my own brand of strange fire, critiquing the repetitive, predictable and overly theatrical offering being made by my elders on that pulpit week after week. I called it a show.

For some reason, the rabbi took offense.

It was a show, and the service I lead today is too -- only now I realize that that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've learned that the question should not be, "Is it a show?" but "Is it a good show?" Is this offering pleasing to the Lord? Is it real?

In rabbinical school I was advised that services can't possibly compete with Lincoln Center and Broadway, so best not to try. OK, I thought, so we’re not supposed to aim for that part of people’s souls that cry when they hear Aida or laugh at the banter of Neil Simon. We can’t compete, so let’s just be mediocre, weighed down by rote, suffocated by committee, callused by custom. I was led to believe that the only way to get people to return to services regularly is either by scheduling special events, (meals, guest speakers, honorees, special cantatas, special sermon themes), or by appealing to guilt.

I never bought into that. It's the service that matters, and my goal has always been to build my message from the power of the service itself, not to educate, but to connect; not to teach, but to inspire. I aim for the emotional jugular, all the time. And if that means adding a dramatic pause here and a well-timed joke there, if it means utilizing some of the tools of the actor and playwright, so be it. Each week, I expose more of my inner self than all the guests on Oprah, not to shock, but to share, to engender vulnerability. There's nothing wrong with drama, as long as it doesn't sink into melodrama. It can be real and still be a show.

What people bemoan as clergy-centered "performance Judaism" has little to do with it being a performance and lots to do with it being a bad performance. How does one differentiate good from bad? The answer has little to do with how polished or aesthetically balanced the performance is; it's based more on how intense and authentically human are the emotions evoked by it. Almost always, the people decide. They vote with their tears, their singing voices and their feet.

Recently, my synagogue was privileged to host the New York area debut of "Friday Night Live." Originated by the musician Craig Taubman and Rabbi David Wolpe, this monthly service attracts upwards of 2,000, primarily young singles, at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. It was inspired in part by B’nai Jeshurun in New York, and although the two styles are quite different, through the use of beautiful, contemporary and sing-able music, the results are remarkably similar.

On a frigid Friday last month, Craig Taubman and his band galvanized a packed sanctuary of seekers. I imagined how my father, a hazzan of the previous generation, would have reacted, as Taubman walked among the congregants with his guitar, interspersing humorous anecdotes and warm commentary between the prayers. I decided that, traditional though my dad was, he would have smiled -- the same way he beamed with pride on the day I offered my "strange fire" sermon a quarter century ago. Taubman presented each melody not as a solo, but as an invitation; and all of us, from expert to novice, total strangers, swaying, repeating, closing eyes and holding hands, sang with a power that I have rarely seen in a synagogue.

Was it a show? Yes. But no one exited that service feeling emotionally cheated or manipulated. No one would rather have been at Lincoln Center. We connected at the deepest level. And when I spoke briefly that night on the need for young, wayward Jews to return home to Judaism, I felt at one with my message.

A few days later, I got a note from one young woman with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, who that night attended a Shabbat service for the first time. "It was WONDERFUL," she wrote, "filled with God’s spirit. I felt right at home. I’M SO EXCITED!!!" In reaching out to Jews on the fringe, we touched at least one who had strayed far beyond it. Her letter alone was enough to convince me that this show must go on.

Craig Taubman will be "performing" Friday Night Live at the upcoming Rabbinical Assembly Convention. I urge my Conservative colleagues to listen closely to their own voices singing along. Orthodox Jews will recognize this revolution in the popularity of the Carlbach style of service, which like Taubman's and B.J.'s, is also now being exported to distant places. And Reform Jews need to heed Eric Yoffie's recent cry for liturgical reform.

There is a Darwinian aspect to this that we must understand. That which brings life to our worship will survive, and that which doesn't will not. The Germanic-Eastern European music that energized synagogue life for two centuries did its job well, but its day is done, except as it is being synthesized into contemporary forms. The psalms themselves are imploring us, "Shiru L'Adonai, Shir Hadash," "Sing unto Adonai a new song." The caravan has already moved on to other ways of making our ancient, sacred prayers come alive. Service attendance will continue to decline until we all understand that it's either good show -- or no-show.

Friday, December 1, 2000

Shabbat-O-Gram, December 1, 2000

Shabbat Shalom. 

As I write this, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments and might decide who our next President will be.  Meanwhile, Israel's government has fallen and new elections are being planned.  If the Supremes are really looking for a Solomonic solution, I've got one.  This might be the perfect time to say that Gore and Bush both win, only one of them gets to be President here and the other gets to be the Prime Minister of Israel.  Think of all the problems this would solve.  Everyone would be happy.  Israelis love American imports -- and Joe Lieberman, especially, would go over well.  Arafat and his friends would have hard time dealing with this new reality, especially when the new PM appoints none other than Bill Clinton as Foreign Minister.  Meanwhile, I think Ariel Sharon would be just peachy as Prime Minister of Florida.  Here's a guy who will attract both the Jewish retirees of the Gold Coast and the gun-toting rednecks up north.  He'll be more popular there than Disney World.  Hmm... this idea has real possibilities.  It certainly can't be more bizarre than what we're dealing with now.

On to other matters...

PORTION: TOLDOT: "The Generations of Isaac."

Brief D'var Torah (BDT):

Toldot means "generations," referring to Isaac's line, leading to the births of Jacob and Esau.  Isaac, Jacob's father and Abraham's son, plays a relatively minor, transitional role in the epic of the ancestors, sandwiched between his illustrious co-patriarchs.  Most of the deeds connected to Isaac actually were done by other people, and what he did seems almost to be a repetition of his father's life.  He even re digs Abraham's wells, and reexperiences his father's encounters with Avimelech and Pharaoh.  Adin Steinzaltz comments that Isaac's task was actually a difficult one.  It's not easy to be a successor.  As he states, "All beginnings are difficult, but continuation can be more difficult."  The State of Israel had no shortage of Abrahams and Sarahs, but following the death of Prime Minister Rabin, the last of the old guard of founders, it has been unable to find an Isaac or Rebecca to fit the bill.  And we need them or the whole experiment could be in jeopardy.  As unromantic as is the task of the successor, to hold steady and consolidate, Abraham needed Isaac to establish his name forever, and to prepare the way for Jacob and his progeny.


The following important message was written by Rabbi Jack Riemer.  This is a very difficult time for Israel, and we need to look for ways we can help -- even small gestures have great meaning.  Beth El Cares is now  working on a project where we'll be able to extend Hanukkah wishes via mail and e-mail to Israeli soldiers.  Here is another way that we can help:

Dear friends,

Like me, I am sure that you watch the news that comes from the
Middle East every day with ever increasing anxiety. We watch from a
distance as our people in Israel are trapped in a war that seems to
have no end. And it is all the more frustrating and all the more
painful because this summer we seemed SO CLOSE to a peace
agreement. The Israeli Prime Minister offered more concessions at
Camp David than any previous leader of Israel ever even dreamed of
making. And then Arafat turned the proposal down and the Arabs
went to the streets instead, hoping that by throwing rocks and putting
children in harm's way, they could win more than they could at the
negotiating table. And ever since, there has been attack and
reprisal, counter attack and counter reprisal, and lives have been lost
and the dream of a new middle east has come crashing down.
I am not going to say anything in this column about politics or
diplomacy, or about short term or long term goals for Israel. There
are enough diplomats both here and there who are working on these
questions and this is not my area of expertise. And besides, by the
time this column appears, who knows how the situation may have
changed? And so, I want to write instead about one small facet of
the situation which is within our power to do something about, one
small microcosm of the situation which we do have the power to do
something about.

I want to tell you about the three children in the Cohen family who
were on that bus, heading home from school at Kfar Darom recently.
Their names and ages are Orit, age twelve, Tehilla, age eight and a
half, and Yisrael, age seven. They had a younger who, fortunately
had a cold and stayed home from school that day. The. bus was
blown up, two children were killed and nine were seriously injured.
Among the injured were all the Cohen children. One had to have her
leg amputated, the other two lost parts of their legs. As one of the
Israeli army medics who tended to them put it: "We were trained in
how to help heal wounded soldiers; no one ever taught us how to
deal with little kids parts of whose legs have been blown off."

Let me ask you to join me in helping these kids by sending a
donation of whatever size you decide to the bank account below. If
If you want to send a note of encouragement to these kids too-that
would be nice. And if you want to share this request with others
whom you think may want to help, by all means.

We can't do much from here to help the people of Israel militarily.

We can do a little, not much but a little, to help Israel get a fair break
from the media, and to insure that the American government stays
firm in its support. But we CAN do something that will help a broken
hearted family raise the funds that they need for the medical
expenses of their three children. And that is no small thing to do.
You can send your checks to Bank Account Number 07l0l0, Bank
Mizrachi 20, Branch 426, Beersheva, Merkaz Asakim. Mark the
check: for the Cohen Children. And you may write to the family if you
wish, care of Rabbi Lippy Friedman, head of Yeshivat Bnai Akiva,
POB 4537, Beersheva, Israel, 84144 (IL).

There is an old Jewish blessing with which you are supposed to sign
letters like these. It is 'tizku limitsvot" which means: "by virtue of
doing this good deed may God bless you with many more
opportunities to do good".

This is my wish for you who respond to this request.
With gratitude in advance for any help that you can give to this
family, and to our brethren in Israel, who need to know that we are
with them, I am

Sincerely yours,

Rabbi Jack Riemer

P.S. I have to include this story which I just heard from my friend,
Rabbi Bernhard Presler. He is on his way to a wedding of a nephew
which is to take place this week in Gush Kativ, which is located in
Aza. The other day one of the young people in Gush Kativ was killed
by an Arab terrorist. Gush Kativ is a small village, where everyone
knows everyone and where everyone cares about everyone. And so
everyone in the village was going to not attend the wedding and to
spend the time with the family which is sitting shivah instead. The
Rabbi of the community issued a ruling that the family that is sitting
shivah must lock its doors and admit no one. Further, they must not
observe shivah on that day, but postpone shiva for one day, so that
the community can go to the wedding instead. I find that a very bold
halachic decision and a very moving story. The Rabbi correctly
understood the tension the village was feeling between the mitsvah
of honoring the bride and groom and the mitsvah of helping
mourners, and he made the wise ruling. And this story makes real
for us the pain and the determination to continue living despite all
obstacles that characterize the people of Israel today. May we share
in their determination!


Friday night at 6:15, Nurit will lead a Tot Shabbat service for families.  Dinner will be at 7  Our regular Kabbalat Shabbat service will be held at 8.  If you would like to sign up for dinner, please let Bonnie know in the education office immediately.  We have over 100 people coming thus far, and our Shabbat dinners have been exceedingly successful this year.


Shabbat morning, we begin with Psukey d'zimra at 9:15, then the morning service at 9:30.  The sermonette/discussion will center around the eternal efforts of Jacob and Esau to campaign for their father's blessing and the mantle of leadership, and what lessons we might extrapolate from the Torah for our current never-ending Presidential campaign.  At Mincha, beginning at 3:45 PM, Allison Bernheimer will become Bat Mitzvah.  Mazal Tov to Allison and her family!



That very important journey has been rescheduled for next Shabbat morning, Dec. 9.  A bus will leave from here at 8:15 AM, returning in the early afternoon.  Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan is truly at the cutting edge of the movement, and our board, ritual committee as well as all interested congregants are vigorously encouraged to join us.  Transportation is free.  If you would like to come, bus reservations are being taken on a first come first serve basis.  There will definitely be a bus.  Contact Roberta Aronovitch at 


Get your reservations in for the Cantors Annual Concert (and the delicious dinner to follow), scheduled for December 10.  The world famous Zamir Chorale of Boston will be here.  Don't miss it!  This event is for the entire family, and tickets are going fast.


Our January Shabbaton is fast approaching, and the reservations are pouring in (over 90 at last count).  Space is limited!  We need to hear from you very soon!  The group signed up thus far is remarkably diverse, reflecting all our generations, from the youngest children to the most seasoned empty-nester.  We'll do lots of eating, playing, singing, spirited praying, learning and discussing.  Our guest song leader will be Cantor Debbie Kotchko.  Our guest lecturer, Jack Wertheimer, Provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is one of the foremost experts on American Jewish life, and the theme of the weekend will be "Being Jewish in America."  On Friday night he'll discuss the topic, "Jews on the Move - the Transformation of American Jewry,” on Shabbat morning, "Walking the Tightrope -- the Tensions Between Jewish and American Values," and later that day, the summation session will be entitled, “De-Mystifying Jewish Continuity.”  


The AIDS quilt is here this weekend, at UConn Stamford.  New panels were dedicated on Wednesday night in a beautiful ceremony, memorializing local residents who have died of AIDS recently.  Our seventh graders will be visiting the quilt on Sunday morning.  Contact Debbie Goldberg at the Council of Churches and Synagogues (348-2800), if you would like to help read the names on Sunday morning.


On Wed. December 6, the Board of Rabbis will be sponsoring a community-wide event, "Chanukah for Adults."  Find out what this sizzling holiday is all about.  Chanukah will never be the same. Or is it Hanukkah?  Or Chanooookah?  At Agudath Sholom, 7:30-9:00 PM.


1. The seminary's all-new Hanukkah pages ( ):
The pages include resources for families and thoughtful adults for the
upcoming “Chag Urim,” including: articles by JTS faculty, activities for
kids, recipes, and book recommendations.  In the spirit of the holiday,
they will add more material each week.

2. JTS's book of the month club discussions :

This coming month, over 400 Jews around the world will share in a
discussion of  “A Different Light,” the twin-volume compendium of
Hannukah resources.  It includes everything from engaging activities for families with small children to
thought-provoking articles from important modern Jewish writers.

For more information, you can point your web browser to


Rabbi H. on WNBC Sunday Morning Today in New York -- 6:00 AM (God willing!)     
Sunday seekers with Eric Hoffman -- 9:00 AM
Shabbat Sking Along Class with the Hazzan -- 9:30 AM
Learn to read Hebrew -- 10:00 AM
Seniors Group Chanukah Lunch -- 1:00 PM


As of now, we are most definitely planning to send a group of teens to Israel next summer, on the heels of our fabulous teen tour of last summer.  We are aware that people have legitimate concerns about security there now, and we wish to address those and other issues at a Beth El Teen Tour organizational meeting, Sunday, Dec. 10, at 10 AM.  If you have any interest at all, please make every effort to attend.

That's all for this week.
Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 17, 2000

Shabbat-O-Gram, November 17, 2000

 Shabbat Shalom.

Va-Yera and a New Humash

This Shabbat we read the climax of the Abraham story, the portion Va-Yera.  Since we read a third of the portion each week, and we're reading the last third of each portion this year, this is the only time in three years that we'll be reading this climactic section -- that is, except for every Rosh Hashanah.  That's because this section includes the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac, so often discussed on the High Holidays.  This week, we'll be able to follow the portion in a new way: we'll be using sample pages from the galleys of the new Conservative movement Humash (Torah and commentaries), due to be completed in about a year.  Our congregation will likely be purchasing this new Humash for our pews, so this will be our first chance to really see it in action.  The entire Torah reading and Haftorah, with commentaries, will be distributed to all who come.

The Hertz Humash, which this will be replacing, has done its job for well over half a century.  But the new book is far more accessible, user-friendly, and up-to-date.  It will take some of the "strangeness" out of the service for all of us, and provide much food for thought.  We'll be using the new book as a basis for our discussion this Shabbat.  Since our board will be discussing the purchase of this book at its next meeting, and congregants have already begun donating money to have bookplates inscribed in these volumes, it is important that everyone have a chance to sample it now.

Brief D'var Torah (BDT)

Although the highlight of the portion is most definitely the Akeda, the prior chapter (read on Rosh Hashanah as well) is fascinating.  In it, Isaac's brother Ishmael and his mother the Egyptian handmaid Hagar, are banished to the wilderness at the behest of Sarah, because Ishmael has been taunting Isaac.  The two outcasts are lost and thirsty.  The text tells us that Hagar burst into tears, yet, it then adds, "God heard the cry of the boy."  The new Conservative commentary states, "But we never hear that Ishmael cried (only Hagar did)," adding that this teaches us that "God can hear the silent cries of the anguished heart, even when no words are uttered."

Remember the outrageous claim by a Southern Baptist several years ago that God does not hear the prayers of Jews?  Well, this is the Jewish response.  What's clear is that God hears even the silent cries of "non Jews."  Ishmael traditionally is seen as the father of the Arab peoples.  So we can say that yes, God even hears the prayers of Israel's enemies. 

Yesterday, I had the chance to hear a speaker discuss the situation among Israeli Arabs at a rabbis meeting of the New Israel Fund.  I am speaking specifically about those who have been Israeli citizens since 1948, who, until recently, have kept somewhat out of the fray.  That changed dramatically seven weeks ago, though the situation has calmed down considerably in Israeli Arab communities.  And now, partly as a result of the violence, a new dialogue is springing up.  Israeli Jews are beginning to hear the pleas of their Arab co-citizens for an equality that they've never fully received.  A commission of inquiry has been assembled to look into the deaths of 13 Arabs in the rioting.  Other issues are being discussed with great seriousness.  There is still tension, but Israelis are now seeing it as in their best interest to promote cooperation and peace on the home front, while having to fight the violence perpetrated by Arafat from beyond the Green Line.

If we can try to hear the cries of Ishmael, at least the Ishmaels who live among us, it might enable the at least some Ishmaels in our midst to hear our own.


Interesting Thanksgiving Links....

Try Judaism Online at:


And finally, Jewish Family and Life has lots of articles on Thanksgiving, at:

Incidentally, Jewish family and Life has just spun off a new site,, where you can find a new discussion of my book in the "night reading" column.

Shabbat Services...

Friday night at 7:15, Nurit will lead a Shabbat Shalom service for families with kids in grades 1-4 (and sibs).  Our regular Kabbalat Shabbat service will be at 8. 

We were originally scheduled to attend services at B'nai Jeshurun in NYC this evening.  That very important journey has been rescheduled for Shabbat morning, Dec. 9.  A bus will leave from here at 8:15 AM, returning in the early afternoon.  This service is truly at the cutting edge of the movement, and our leadership and all interested congregants are encouraged to join us.  Transportation is free.  If you would like to come, bus reservations are being taken on a first come first serve basis.  Contact Roberta Aronovitch at

Shabbat morning, we begin with Psukey d'zimra at 9:15, then the morning service at 9:30.  We'll be naming Emma Stein Listokin, newborn daughter of Elissa Stein and Ted Listokin.  Mazal Tov to the entire family!  At Mincha, beginning at 3:45 PM, Michelle and Stephanie Brodsky become B'not Mitzvah.  Mazal Tov to them and their family!

Other Announcements

Get your reservations in for the Cantors Annual Concert (and the delicious dinner to follow), scheduled for December 10.  The world famous Zamir Chorale of Boston will be here.

Our January Shabbaton is fast approaching, and the reservations are pouring in (nearly 80 at last count).  Space is limited!  We need to hear from you very soon!  Our guest lecturer, Jack Wertheimer, is one of the foremost experts on American Jewish life, and the topic of the weekend will be "Being Jewish in America."  After the past few weeks and months, it a topic that gets more fascinating all the time.

Adult ed on Sunday: "Sing-Along Shabbat Melodies" at 9:45, and "Learn to Read Hebrew" at 10.  The leadership retreat has been rescheduled from this week to Sunday, January 28.

Beth El Cares meeting, Monday at 7.

The AIDS quilt is coming to Stamford in two weeks.  New panels will be dedicated in a special ceremony on Wednesday the 29th at the First Congregational Church, at 7 PM.  And World AIDS Day will be commemorated with a special interfaith service on the following night, Nov. 30, at 7:30, at the First United methodist Church.

On Wed. December 6, the Board of Rabbis will be sponsoring a community-wide event, "Chanukah for Adults."  Find out what this sizzling holiday is all about.  Chanukah will never be the same.  At Agudath Sholom, 7:30-9:00 PM.
Thank you, Shelley!

On a personal note, I wish to extend a very public "Todah Rabbah" to Dr. Shelley Buxbaum, who will be leaving her position at the JCC at the end of this month.  Shelley has done remarkable work there for the entire community and has brought many, many people closer to Judaism.  Her greatest legacy perhaps will be the Derech Torah program, an important bridge to basic Jewish understanding for scores of Jews by Choice and others.  This program has also been the best example of how enriching the partnership between the JCC and local synagogues can be.  I only hope that Shelley's departure will not signal a change in that direction.  It will be all but impossible to replace her -- but the community cannot afford to allow this partnership in the cause of serious Jewish learning to weaken.  I look forward to working with her successor in strengthening that partnership and to watching the community's commitment to Jewish education continue to grow on all levels.  But most of all, I wish Shelley and her family only the best of luck in their future endeavors.

I also take this opportunity to express sadness at the passing of a true giant in American Jewish life, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, whose funeral took place in Westport today.

There will be no Shabbat O Gram next week.  Wishing everyone a warm and festive Thanksgiving holiday.

P.S.  I thought at this point that you'd be glad that I didn't talk about the situation in Florida.  So now I will.  An important milestone was passed this past Wednesday: the national election has now lasted two more days than our longest Beth El election, which now looks quaint and peaceful by comparison.  Perhaps it's a nice reminder that time heals all wounds, even for Republicans and Democrats.  Look, even Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are the best of friends.  In the mean time, let's try not to demonize the opposition.  And for heavens sake, lay off the bubbes in Palm Beach County!  I've heard more jokes about Early Bird Specials this week than I usually hear I a year.  Judaism calls upon us to "rise before our elders."  I think Republicans and Democrats both need to heed those words. 

Friday, November 3, 2000

Shabbat-O-Gram, November 1, 2001

 Shabbat Shalom (X2)

This O-Gram will cover two the next weeks, as I will be leaving for Israel on Sunday.  By the time I return, it will be too late to get next week's out. 

First, some old business: the STAR Webcast on Monday was spectacular.  About 1,500 participated nationally and over 40 congregations set up chat groups, including ours.  We were able to hear two eloquent theologians speak of the human implications of these difficult times, from a Jewish perspective.  One comment by Yitz Greenberg that sticks with me is the quote form our sources, "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God."  In truth, the fear that we face now can lead us to lives of greater wisdom and deeper meaning, if only can we can face those fears with courage and conviction.  As Gary Rosenblatt writes in this week's "Jewish Week," "Fear at times is understandable and normal; but the real enemy is not fear, it’s panic. So we have to react with our heads as well as our hearts, turning our would-be alarm into steadfastness."

While the rabbis were presenting, our chat room was humming with concurrent discussion.  It was, to quote a certain 10 year old who lives in my house, "cool."  There were glitches, and many were unable to receive the streaming video or enter the chat room of choice.  STAR is working on those and I apologize to any of you who were frustrated in your efforts.  You can still view the archived lecture at, and once you've seen it, feel free to e-mail me your questions and reactions.  I'd also like some feedback from any of you who participated on Monday.  How was it for you?

The second bit of old business is that the response to our scholar-in-residence of last weekend has been phenomenal.  There clearly is a need for more spirituality and variety in our prayer experiences, and more teaching of Kabbalah from a liberal perspective.   We are looking for ways to bringing you more of what so many clearly are seeking.  Along those lines, we're going to be setting up a Woman's Rosh Hodesh Group that will celebrate this women's monthly semi-festival together.  An organizational meeting will be held with Barb on Thursday , Nov. 8, from 6:30-7PM


Friday Night:

Candles: 4:30 PM
Tot Shabbat 7:15 PM, in the lobby.
Kabbalat Shabbat: 8:00 PM, in the chapel.   The service will be led by our Junior Choir.

Shabbat Morning:
P'sukey d'zimra (psalms and meditations): 9:15
Shacharit (morning) service begins: 9:30
MAZAL TOV to Eric Weinstein and family, as Eric becomes Bar Mitzvah
Torah Portion: Va'yera
D'var Torah recommendation:   You can't go wrong with the selection at The Torahnet Page:  The text of the portion and haftarah are at

Children's Services: 10:30, with Nurit Avigdor (through grade 2) and Bert Madwed (grades 3 and up). This week, our 3th grade will be "hosting" the older service.  Last week over 30 kids came to the service that was sponsored by the 4th grade.  Let's keep this up!   Religious school and Bi-Cultural students of all grades are naturally most welcome, as are parents.

Friday, Nov. 9
Candles: 4:23 PM
Shabbat Shalom service (for grades K-4 and families): 7:15
Kabbalat Shabbat: 8:00 PM, in the chapel

Shabbat Morning, Nov. 10
P'sukey d'Zimra: 9:15 AM
Shacharit: 9:30 AM
Torah Portion: Hayye Sarah
MAZAL TOV to Natalie Simon and her family, as Natalie becomes Bat Mitzvah.
MAZAL TOV to Adam Siegartel and Lisa Rabinowitz on their ufruf and upcoming marriage (and to Adam's parents Sandy and Alvin Siegartel)

Children's Services at 10:30, with the older service hosted by the 6th grade.


“…[I]f Americans go [approximately] 5,000 miles to find this terrorist group who killed their citizens, we have to go…the distance of one mile…I want you to understand, my house…is half a mile from the president's house, in the very center of Jerusalem. I hear every shot in Beit Jala, because it's only two miles from our house…And so we…go there for…24 hours, 48 hours. If you call it occupation, well, that is the obligation of every government to defend its citizens…”--
Deputy P.M. Natan Sharansky during his U.S. visit (National Press Club, Oct. 29)

"It is not a revelation that large segments of the Arab world--at all levels of society--are not just anti-Israel, but fanatically anti-Semitic. Bernard Lewis wrote in 1986: "The demonization of Jews goes further than it had ever done in Western literature, with the exception of Germany during the period of Nazi rule. In most Western countries, anti-Semitic divagations on Jewish history, religion, and literature are more than offset by a great body of genuine scholarship... In modern Arabic writing there are few such countervailing elements."

So why did I look the other way? Why did I discount this anti-Semitism on the grounds that these are alien cultures and we cannot fully understand them, or because these pathologies are allied with more legitimate (if to my mind unpersuasive) critiques of Israeli policy? .... We in the West simply do not want to believe that this kind of hatred still exists; and when it emerges, we feel uncomfortable. We do everything we can to change the subject. Why the denial, I ask myself? What is it about this sickness that we do not understand by now? And what possible excuse do we have not to expose and confront it with all the might we have?"  (
Protocols, by Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic; see the full article at


1) Response to Last Week's Issue:
"Hate Bin Laden" Web Sites:  Are they helpful? -- This from Beth Boyer:

As one of the people who forwarded you the Day-O spoof, I must say I debated sending it. It depicts Colin Powell, the son of Caribbean immigrants, singing the Day-O calypso song while bombs fall video-game style around Bin Laden. But then I figured, ok, so it isn't sensitive, it could even be called racist. But let's face it, it's funny and I need something to laugh at. Someone had way too much time on his or her hands, probably up late at night worrying about anthrax and put this together. It relieved steam for me, that's why I sent it on. I have to assume Powell and Bush, if they saw it, would laugh too.

2) Alan Dershowitz, on the parallels between American and Israeli experiences of terrorism:

3) On the Red Cross and its blatant anti-Israel policies.  (Thanks to Craig Price for forwarding this one -- it later appeared in the Stamford Advocate)

4) The Uri Regev flap:  Rabbi Regev, a leader of the Reform Movement in Israel, was quoted to have said some rather controversial things about Jewish extremism in comparing it to extremists of other faiths.   I've yet to find a transcript of his original speech.  What follows is a JTA report of the event, a commentary by the noted Orthodox (and vehemently anti-Conservative and Reform) columnist Jonathan Rosenblum, Regev's own response, and some background from Regev's organization, the Religious Action Center of Israel, indicating what he's been up against over there.  Read it all and decide for yourself. 
report from JTA --
Rosenblum  --
Uri Regev responds -- 
R.A.C --


-- Jewish educational and other links:
-- Also try:
-- This is the most moving tribute to the victims of 9/11 that I have seen on the Web, with a collage of photos set to a haunting Enya melody.  You'll have to wait a few moments for it to download, but it is absolutely worth the wait:

6) THE GOOD SIDE OF ISRAEL:  Since I'll be there in a few days, i need to be reminded that the true Israel is not what's on the front pages of the newspaper.  Check out these two sites and you'll see what I mean.  A photographic bonanza is to be found at  While you're in a photographic mood, heck out the classic shots of the famed news photographer, David Rubinger, at
Finally, try out this fantastic brand new site and see Israel behind the headlines: the good news --
And if you want to prove to your friends that the American people have never felt closer to Israel, read them the results of this Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun Times poll, at


Sheila and Gordon Brown have a new granddaughter!  Shoshana Laura born to Sheryl & Russ Ambers.
Amanda Matthews and Michael Lapides, who will be married at Beth El on Saturday evening, Nov. 10 (and to Amanda's parents, Marsha and Neil Matthews)

1) Midrash: Adding Color to the Bible -- Adult ed series with Rabbinical Student Greg Harris.  Continues,  Wednesday, Oct. 31.  There was a very nice turnout at the first session and a very positive buzz about the class!  It's not to late to sign up!  We will continue to study the creative genius of our Rabbis as they enrich the biblical text with stories, legends and lore.  These inspired texts blend the sacred position of the Torah with the real human struggle for spiritual understanding.  All texts will be in Hebrew and English.  The feel for the whole course is $18.  To reserve a spot, RSVP to Bonnie at 322-6901 X306.  

2) Shabbaton reservations are coming in, fast and furious! I expect the demand to be greater than the "supply" this year, given the enthusiasm shown by those who attended last year, when we were sold out. Don't be left out in the cold this MLK Weekend! Sign up now!

3) Lunch and Learn at the JCC --  Thursday., November 15, I'll be discussing "The Death Penalty" at 12:30.  Cost is $15 for the session, which includes lunch. 

4) Temple Beth El Seniors: Stem Cell Research:  A Panel Discussion with Dr. Fran Ginsburg, Dr. Justin Schechter and Rabbi Joshua Hammerman -- this Sunday at 1:45 PM  RSVP to the temple office, 322-6901 X300.

5) Book Discussion, co-sponsored by TBE and the JCC, at the JCC.  November 13, at 9:30 AM.  Rabbi Joshua Hammerman will be discussing "The Bee Season," by Myla Goldberg.

6) If you are interested in some basic information on Jewish customs, history and prayers, why not take our Judaism 101 class, taught by myself and Barb Moskow. The class meets as part of the B'nai Mitzvah group curriculum, but it also can be audited independently. Meets Thursdays from 7-8. Also see the Adult Ed brochure that was sent out this week for material on other offerings, including Hebrew classes, upcoming classes with our rabbinical student Greg Harris and opportunities for home group study.

7) Read Hebrew with Shirley Fish: Begins Sunday, Oct. 28: 9:45 - 11:00 AM.  Cost: $50.00 for a ten week session.

8) On Sunday, Nov. 11, at 7:30, I'll be giving a first-hand report on our community Solidarity Pilgrimage to Israel, at the November meeting of our Discussion Group (a monthly "Havurah" of  Beth El families that has been meeting for years).  It's open to everyone.  For info and directions, call Elliot Tuckel, at 967-9441.

9)  Don't forget: "The Rothchilds," Nov. 17.  A one man show, cocktails, dessert and a fun social evening with your TBE friends.

10)  "Learn to Read Torah" with Hazzan Rabinowitz.  9:45 - 10:25 in the organ loft, beginning Sunday, November 11. Call him at 322-6901 X309 to register.

11) Women's Rosh Hodesh Group, organizational meeting: Thurs, Nov. 8, at 6:30 PM, in the library, with Barb Moskow.

12) Our Sisterhood plans to send out Chanukah packages to all college freshman. Laura Markowitz is in charge of this effort. Names and addresses of students should be forwarded to Laura at: or call 968-2598. I also would LOVE to have the e-mail addresses so that I might include them on my college e-mail list.

13) Sisterhood Shabbat will take place on Dec. 15 and all members of Sisterhood are invited to take part. They should call Linda Simon at 324-2246 or me at 322-8842 or mail in the form which appeared in the October bulletin.

14) Temple Beth El Sisterhood   Proudly Presents   A Concert of Israeli Music
Featuring Ofri Salam
, direct from Israel, Tuesday, November 13 at 7:30 p. m.  Followed by Israeli dancing led by Yossi Elmani
Of the 92
nd Street Y and the New Haven JCC
Refreshments will be served
Ticket Prices:
Adults $12 Students and Seniors $8
Sponsors (includes 4 tickets)  $100             
Remaining tickets sold at the door  $15
For information: Temple Beth El 322-6901 Ilene Madwed   968-257

15) Sisterhood Paid-Up Membership Brunch
Sunday, November 18 -- 10:00  12:00

“You Can Do This”

Lori Guttman, from The Robert Nevins Plan, will help us start the new year with ideas for healthy eating from your refrigerator.
We would appreciate your RSVP by November 13
Mary Sue Gilbert 322-9372
Ilene Kirschner Madwed  968-2570
Volunteers needed.  Please call to RSVP and to Volunteer.
Sisterhood dues of $25 may be paid at the Brunch.
Bring a friend.  New members welcome to join.

16) Mercaz and the Zionist Elections: MERCAZ USA is the Zionist Organization of the Conservative Movement, the voice of Conservative Jewry within the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Zionist Movement and the Jewish National Fund to support religious pluralism in Israel and strengthen the connection between Israel and the Diaspora.  Go to to see how you can sign up to vote for the upcoming Zionist Congress elections.  The deadline is fast approaching,  Do it now!

If you are 18-26 (post high school) and have never before participated in a peer Israel experience, KOACH the Conservative movement's college student organization, provides an uplifting and enriching Israel experience, offering first time travelers the requisite spiritual and educational framework for a truly transforming journey as well as a lot of fun.  Koach "Birthright Israel" trips are booking for this winter!  More information and registration are available at the Koach website,


Please check the bulletin for information on the Birthday Closet project we've just initiated.  We're looking to collect unopened children's gifts for the closet, to be housed here and used by local agencies to support needy children.


Shabbat Parashat Vayera - November 3, 2001 - 17 Heshvan 5762
Freed From the Trap of Experience
Torah Reading: Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Haftarah Reading: II Kings 4:1-37

Personality is molded by experience. How we live our lives and the events that we confront individually serve to shape our very beings. We respond to each new situation by referring to previous ones -- always seeking to avoid past mistakes, always looking to improve upon earlier interactions.

In this light, our response almost always comes one event too late. We become trapped by our most recent experience. The story of Hagar and Ishmael conveys that essential insight into human nature. Expelled from the security of the caravan, Hagar takes her young son, Ishmael, into the desert. Unwilling to watch him die, she sets him down under a plant and then wanders to a distance, where she sits and sobs. God hears the wailing of the boy, and tells Hagar to have confidence, that her son will become the ancestor of a vast nation. "Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water."

The Torah does not claim that God created a new well for her. The miracle of the well is that Hagar had not noticed it before, and now she is able to see it. Trapped by her own despair and her own past, she was unable to recognize possibilities for her own survival. Her awareness of God, and of hope, liberates her from the shackles of her own experience.
Modern scholars have applied this same insight in their own fields of expertise as well. Professor Ernest May of Harvard University, in his book, "Uses of the Past," argues that the errors committed in America's last several military conflicts all spring from the fact that our generals applied the lessons of the previous war to the next conflict, always operating one war too late.

In Korea, we tried to rectify the errors of World War II, but those errors (and insights) didn't apply in such a different environment. Then we tried to correct the errors made during the Korean War in Vietnam, again with disastrous effect.

May argues that the dynamics of history itself leads people to seek to apply a model to each new situation, and that logic and memory dictate that the model they apply is the one they best remember, the most recent occurrence that seems relevant.

Sigmund Freud perceives a different motivation, arguing that each of us strives to correct deficiencies or painful encounters from our childhood. The way we do this is by constructing similar situations as adults, over and over again, desperately trying to master our pain and frustration by engineering a new resolution. Generally, however, we simply repeat past encounters, perpetuating a cycle of trauma and disappointment. This phenomenon he calls "repetition compulsion." We are compelled, says Freud, to constantly recreate scenarios of childhood pain and frustration. And most of the time, we are unable to emerge any differently, or any better, then we did as children. Thus, children with abusive parents often wind up marrying abusive spouses. To escape the enslavement of past experience requires a radical openness to the present, a willingness to see the world afresh each moment that we live.
As the Midrash Beresheet Rabbah notes, "All may be presumed to be blind until the Holy Blessed One opens their eyes." Until we learn to open ourselves to the marvel undergirding existence, we smother ourselves in convention and expectation and experience. But the liberating vision of a humanity redeemed and of a God who cares, in the present, can sunder those restrictive bonds.

Amen. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, a rabbinical school for the heart, mind and soul. Please feel free to forward this message to anyone who you think might enjoy joining our Torah community.  If you have received this e-mail via another person and would like to be added to the list for automatic receipt: Send an e-mail to with the following in the body of the message: SUBSCRIBE torah


These announcements were found in shul newsletters and bulletins.  In lieu of a Web journey this week, let's just lighten up a little and enjoy.

1. Don’t let worry kill you. Let your synagogue help. Join us for our Oneg after services. Prayer and medication to follow. Remember in prayer
the many who are sick of our congregation.

2. For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

3. We are pleased to announce the birth of David Weiss, the sin of Rabbi and Mrs. Abe Weiss.

4. Thursday at 5:00pm, there will be a meeting of the Little Mothers Club. All women wishing to become Little Mothers please see the rabbi in
his private study.

5. The ladies of Hadassah have cast off clothing of every kind and they may be seen in the basement on Tuesdays.

6. A bean supper will be held Wednesday evening in the community center. Music will follow.

7. Weight Watchers will meet at 7 PM at the JCC. Please use the large double door at the side entrance.

8. Rabbi is on vacation. Massages can be given to his secretary.

9. Goldblum will be entering the hospital this week for testes.

10. The Men’s Club is warmly invited to the Oneg hosted by Hadassah. Refreshments will be served for a nominal feel.

11. Please join us as we show our support for Amy and Rob, who are preparing for the girth of their first child.

12. We are taking up a collection to defray the cost of the new carpet in the sanctuary. All those wishing to do something on the carpet will
come forward and get a piece of paper.

13. If you enjoy sinning, the choir is looking for you!

14. The Associate Rabbi unveiled the synagogue’s new fund-raising campaign slogan this week: “I Upped My Pledge. Up Yours.”

That's all for this week.  As I head to Israel, I pray that we find peace and security on both sides of the ocean, in my going and in my returning, in our home country and in our homeland.  I look forward to sharing the stories of this journey when I return.  You will be able to follow the steps of my journey next week in the pages of the Advocate.  Wherever I go, I'll convey your love and support for the people of Israel.  And at the same time, wherever I go, I'll be thinking and worrying about all of you back here. 

"Hold the fort" while I'm gone!

"Shabbats" Shalom

This Shabbat-O-Gram goes out weekly to hundreds of Beth El congregants and others. Feel free to forward it to your friends, and if you know of anyone who might wish to be included, please have them e-mail me at To be taken off this e-mail list, simply click on "reply" and write "please unsubscribe" in the message box.
For more information on the synagogue, check out Beth El's Web site at To check out some previous spiritual cyber-journeys I have taken, see my book's site at

Sunday, October 1, 2000

High Holidays Sermons 5761:"Shehechianu: Connecting the Dots"

Day 1 | Day 2 | Kol Nidre | Yom Kippur 
Rosh Hashanah Day One
"Shehechianu: Connecting the Dots" 
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

What an extraordinary sight this is; to look around and see all of us right here, all of us, in some way or another, part of this family of faith; all of us, no matter where we are on our lifes' journey, no matter what arbitrary labels define us, all of us, coming from the four corners of the globe, from Jewish backgrounds and non-Jewish, from secular homes and observant ones, all of us, who are here are one family. We are here, we have survived another year, and we are renewed.
What an extraordinary time this is, what an unbelievable year this has been. The whole world ushered in a new millennium together in an astonishing display of global outreach and celebration. This was a year when Israel finally left Lebanon and came ever closer to the goal of true peace with all her neighbors. This was the year when the Pope slipped a note into the Kotel, and sought anguished reconciliation at Yad Vashem. This was the year when the human genome was decoded and new planets discovered; when reality programming became the rage of TV while virtual reality supplanted it in the rest of our culture. This was the year when children began to read again, thanks to Harry Potter, and, most amazingly, when Jewish children could begin to dream, for the first time, of growing up to be President.
Imagine that! My grandmother would never have believed it! Nor would my fourth grade teacher, who, undoubtedly like most of yours, told the class that anyone of us could grow up some day to be President, knowing that such was not really the case. But now it is.
And what prayer did Joseph Lieberman recite in English when he got the call from Al Gore, and what did he recite again on the stage in Nashville when accepting the invitation publicly? It was that all-purpose prayer for those reaching important milestones, the Shehechianu.
Praised are You, Adonai our Source, who has revived us, sustained us and brought us to this moment in time. Shehechiyanu, V'kiyemanu, V'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.
It is hard to imagine how Lieberman must have felt at that moment that he was nominated to the highest office to be held by a Jew of faith since the biblical Joseph became vice-Pharaoh. It is hard - and yet it is very easy - because all we have to do to understand how he felt, is to recall how each of us felt the last time we said Shehechianu for something.
There are prayers, and then there is the Shehechianu. For Jews, no matter what our background, only the Sh'ma and possibly the Kaddish are more universally-known than than this liturgical gem. It is prayer imbued with history and laden with positive Jewish teachings about the value of life and seizing the moment. It helps us to appreciate every small gift we receive, from a new article of clothing, to a first fruit, to a new baby, and to see it all as a gift from God. It is what we say when we kiss the soil of Israel for the first time, and the cheek of our grandchild at her Bat Mitzvah. This prayer is filled with more emotion than a hundred Olympiads, and more tears than a hundred hours of Olympic coverage on NBC.
So, in this the year of Shehechianu, that prayer will from the framework for these High Holidays talks. Last year it was the bagel; this year it's the b'racha. With each sermon we'll focus on a different word: today, "Shehechianu," tomorrow, "V'kiyemanu," Kol Nidre Night, "V'higianu" and finally on Yom Kippur morning, "Laz'man hazeh."
There's something very odd and seemingly self-contradictory about this prayer in Jewish practice. Here is a blessing that is supposed to be recited only on very special occasions or when doing something for the first time, and yet we do it so darn often. On the High Holidays it almost gets ridiculous. We say it when we light the candles on Rosh Hashanah, both nights, and when we say the Kiddush, both nights, here and at home; we say it when we eat a new fruit and wear new clothing, which is customary on this holiday. We say it when we blow the shofar, we say it after Kol Nidre and when lighting candles before Yom Kippur. So we say over a dozen Shehechianus on these ten days alone, and that doesn't even count those that we recite for reaching our individual milestones. Halacha enjoins us to recite Shehechianu for all types of milestones, from the birth of a child to receiving good news, to buying a new car, even the appreciation of ones investments. The 16th century law code known as the Shulchan Aruch says that the blessing can be done at the moment of purchase, rather than having to wait to actually use the item, because it is a natural outpouring of the "joy of the heart," to acquiring something new. If we really took this to heart, we would actually be reciting more prayers at the Stamford Town Center than we do here. And the floor of the stock exchange would routinely echo with more joyous davening than Friday afternoon at the Kotel.
But don't get me wrong. Shehechianu is not about acquisition and ownership. It's not that we are exalting possession. Shehechianu is all about the joy of newness. New things, new people, new seasons, new epochs. Newness. Because newness implies renewal. And renewal implies revival. And revival implies the triumph of life over death. Every moment worthy of a Shehechianu is a moment framed in eternity.
A blessing, any blessing, is a celebration of the here and now. The word "b'racha," shares etymological roots with the word "braycha," which in Hebrew means a pool of water. And how is a blessing like a swimming pool? Because when we jump in, we really awaken. The shock of the cold and wet brings radical awareness. Our nerves tingle. We suddenly become completely aware of parts of us that we hadn't noticed in days. Then, the survival instinct takes hold. Our arms and legs act urgently to get us to the surface. Breathing is no longer taken for granted. And the water transforms us, refreshes us. Jumping into a pool, we feel fully alive. And that ubiquitous word for life, "Chai," forms the root of the word Shehechianu.
Lieberman's moment was a triumph of life over death, for him, for Hadassah's family most overtly, for the Jewish people, and for America. It was the purest Shehechianu moment we Jews have had since the establishment of Israel in 1948. And we've been blessed with many. But for our people to have emerged from the ashes of the Shoah to the brink of having one of our own in the second highest office of the most powerful nation in the world, is the stuff of pure miracle. It's not a question of a Jew's rising to power, but of increasing the capacity of Jews to bring sanctity, Kedusha, to the world. The Liebermans have often used the word Tikkun - a Kabalistic term meaning world repair - in describing their mission. In a sense, we can now say, "Dayenu. Mission accomplished." A shattered world of half a century ago has come together miraculously, and the shattered Jewish soul has been mended. The fact that he is an observant Jew, one who understands the need to find a divine purpose and grounding to his moral choices, has mended our people all the more. It has mended America too, as with this move our nation has begun to break down the barriers of anti-Semitism and racism, and distance itself all the more from the original sin of slavery and Jim Crow, and the stench of recent Washington scandals. Win or lose in November, Lieberman's ascent has marked for all Americans a season of renewal, a Shehechianu moment.
A Shehechiyanu moment is much like a Kodak moment. When we snap a photo, we are trying to freeze an instant of sublime happiness in time, so that we can retrieve it later on when we need to reconnect to our truest selves. The Shehechianu, like a photo, captures those priceless moments, but unlike a photo, it also connects each moment to the bigger picture. It links all the pictures together in the album, and every album to the eternal web of life.
I can recall saying Shehechianu so many times this past year; each holiday, each Bar and Bat Mitzvah here, each conversion I presided over, each one a step, each moment priceless. And I recall saying Shehechianu here last Rosh Hashanah, and the one before that, and the one before that. The milestone marker becomes the link -- the link back to when my father and mother used to say it while I was growing up, and my grandparents before them.
This prayer helps us to connect the dots of our lives, and thereby to connect our lives to the lives of those around us, those who preceded us, and those who will follow us.
What are some of our peak Shehechianu moments? I asked that question in our last bulletin and got a number of beautiful responses, a few of which I'll be sharing with you on these High Holidays. This one from Barbara Brafman:
"This particular prayer has, for a very long time been quite personal for me. For me the joy of life comes from the everyday moments. Each year when I sit down for the Seder at my stepbrother's table and recite Shechechianu, I recall my beloved stepfather and I am thankful that once again we have reached the season in good health and can experience the joy of being together to re-experience the exodus. But in addition to the holiday events, I frequently recite the Shehechianu for very ordinary occurrences, like seeing the first crocus of spring, tasting that first wonderful peach of the summer season, sitting on my patio looking at my garden, going to Fenway Park with my son Jason, making the first fire in the fireplace in the fall, looking out of my house at first beautiful snowfall of the winter season. After the loss of several very close friends in the last few years, I say Shehechianu with joy in just being alive, healthy and able to reach each season, each event with my loving family and "almost family" friends. For me this prayer means thanking God for being alive, noticing the change of the seasons, and appreciating the life we were given."
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shows us how the dots of our lives are often connected in amazing ways, in this story of an encounter he had years ago when he was a rabbinical student. He was spending a cold, wintry Shabbat with his mentor, the revered scholar and now Stamford resident Eugene Borowitz, at Borowitz' former home on Long Island. Late that afternoon, they were walking in the driven snow and vanishing sunlight, with the teacher looking like Polish Rebbe in his big fur coat, when the teacher joked, "Here we are, Larry, crossing the frozen River Vistula." Flash forward about a quarter of a century, and Rabbi Kushner arrives early to teach a class at Hebrew Union College in New York. It is another cold winter's day, with the wind-chill turning the canyons of Manhattan into tundra. And Rabbi Borowitz walks through the door, again wearing an ankle-length fur coat and Russian hat. Seeing him there with the fur hat brings it all back to Kushner, and he reminds his teacher about the River Vistula. To which the mentor responds with a smile and without missing a beat, says, "And the only reason I said it then was so that we could share this sweet memory now."
Kushner calls this a new type of deja-vu, not the feeling that we've been there before, but the even stranger sensation of, for at least a moment, understanding why we were there in the first place. Zaddok HaKohen of Lublin, a Hasidic master taught that "the first premise of faith is to believe that there is no such thing as happenstance. Every detail, small or great, they are all from the Holy One."
I was thinking of the Kushner story a few days before Lieberman was given the nod, when Al Gore's short list was published. When I saw that list of about five names, I had one of those moments. Things suddenly became clear. I had a flash of understanding - for an instant I could connect the dots of history. I understood that Joe was going to be the one -- that he would be the one not simply because he was the best qualified and because the country is ready for a Jewish candidate, but because history had been leading to just this moment, just this possibility. Everything suddenly made sense; Lieberman's relationship with Clinton going back to the Yale days, his first race for the Senate when he had to run to the right of Lowell Weicker, his support of the Gulf War, even the whole sordid Lewinsky thing, everything was leading to this moment, making Lieberman the only logical choice for Gore, not in spite of his being an observant Jew, but because he is an observant Jew. Am I saying that the Lewinsky scandal happened because God was setting things up to have a Jewish vice president? Not at all - I don't pretend to know God's ways. What is happening is much more subtle, much more mysterious. What I am saying is that the Lieberman nomination throws the whole Lewinsky scandal into a different light. Because the direct consequence of a scandal that exposed the American Jewish experience at its worst, reeking in materialism, post-Bat Mitzvah drop-out-ism and reckless, uncontrolled lust, directly facilitated the rise of the exact opposite, the best of the American Jewish experience, fully assimilated into the upper echelons of American government, yet fully committed to living a meaningful Jewish life, a man who is now a role model for the ages, for all Jews and all Americans.
Lieberman broke the glass huppah for all minorities, and he might have saved the Supreme Court from the religious right and thereby saved our precious freedoms of choice and privacy, while at the same time bringing religion to a new, more mature place in the fabric of American public life. All this, and without Lewinsky 98, there would have been no Lieberman 2000. For months we wondered why the President, Ken Starr and Congress were putting us all through the torture of impeachment and a trial. Now we know. It was so the Republicans could run on a platform of morality, linking Gore to the sins of Clinton, thus forcing the Democrats to nominate Joe Lieberman to become the first Jewish Vice President. Shehechianu has a little of the "Outer Limits" melody to it, doesn't it? How in the world did things end up this way? All we can do is shake our heads in wonder, enjoy the ride, and try to connect the dots.
And we know that this is not yet the end. Who knows where it will lead? Maybe we will now be treated to a new form of reality television. Forget "Survivor," and tune into a show called "Reviver," or in Hebrew, "Shehechianu," where the goal isn't to out-maneuver the others and manipulate them to suit our Machiavellian ends, but instead to build a community together around common goals and shared love. At the end of each episode a new person is invited onto the island. And with each bubbling new face appearing on the horizon, the entire cast recites Shehechiyanu, thanking God for each encounter with a new human being. Who knows where this Lieberman thing will lead us?
When we manage a glimpse of the big picture from time to time, it helps us to enjoy the ride. Because we realize that history is going somewhere, that our actions do have meaning, that our lives do have a purpose. When we see the present moment as the nexus of all that has happened in the past and all that will happen in the future, and when we live to be fully present in the here and now, it is as if we are present at the Creation itself. Hayom harat Olam. Today it all begins. No wonder both the Torah and Haftorah readings on the first day of Rosh Hashanah deal with children being born. And in a sense we all are born today, and we are giving birth to the future.
I had another cause for a Shehechianu this summer. A few days before Lieberman received his call from Al Gore, I received from Fed Ex a white envelope that contained the first copy of my first book. If there was ever a Shehechianu moment, this was it. (Now as you know, I am not one for shameless self promotion, and I never would try to capitalize on the opportunity for crass commercialization before a captive audience of nearly 2,000 of my closest friends and I wouldn't think of taking this opportunity to remind you that I'll be signing copies this coming Thursday evening at 7:30 at the JCC in an event co sponsored by the JCC, our congregation and the Council of Churches and Synagogues - wouldn't think of it!)
But as I was saying Shehechianu on the publication of "," I couldn't help but think of all the teachers, friends and life experiences that led to this new creation; how everything in my life seemed to be leading to that instant. Even the bad times - even the times when I seriously considered abandoning not only this project, but my writing altogether, they all played a role in this moment of renewal. I learned how the act of writing a book makes you vulnerable in ways that I could not have imagined. At one point during this past year, the project appeared to have hit a dead end. I abandoned all hope of this hard work coming to fruition and could feel a bereavement process setting in. I had reached, it seemed, the end of a life-long dream. I had nowhere to turn but inward, not wishing to discuss this with all but a few close friends and family. It was one of the few times in my very fortunate life that I've ever experienced suffering. There is pain and there is suffering. We all experience pain, all the time, and we confront it, usually successfully, although often by denial, and it ofte leads to anger or depression. Suffering occurs when you try to confront pain and all you get is more pain, and when all it leads to is hopelessness. We all have our times of. There are moments for all of us, when no matter where you look all you see is emptiness and death. It was a difficult year in many respects.
So when I opened that book for the first time, it was a moment of revival, the resurrection of lost hope; whether it puts my children through college is irrelevant (mostly). Whether it si the first of many is not the point. It exists. It's imprint us upon the world. And I am more fully alive for it. So as I opened it, my life flashed before my eyes, much as it does for those who are at death's door, reminding me why the moment before death is the ultimate Shehechianu moment. We are never more alive than when we are most aware of life's fragility, because we see that big picture, we can connect the dots, and out of the ultimate chaos comes the ultimate order and serenity. Therefore, in today's haftorah., Hannah, in her moment of extremis, can only say, in utter astonishment, "Adonai Me'mit U'mechayeh," "It is God who brings death and revives."
For the most part, when we are not living life on that edge, we drift. When we allow days and nights to run into each other like wet ink on a white page, we lose the dots, we don't make the connections. It is a spiritual death - and we are all on the danger list. Shehechianu helps us to gain our bearings again. It puts us right back on the edge - its' reference to revival makes us all the more acutely aware of our mortality. From that moment of revival, that utterance of Shehechiyanu, emerges the seed of new life.
Which brings me one more exquisite statement of faith, a Shehechiyanu moment shared with us by our own Pamela Cohn Allen:
"Every day, and at many moments, I recite a Shehechianu. A particularly meaningful one, though, was this past spring. Throughout the previous year, filled with such struggle, mental and physical pain, I had held as a beacon - spring in Israel'. If only God would give me the strength, that was my goal. I had learned, as an immediate instinct after being diagnosed with cancer, not to plan. But at some point, as my strength started to build up, I cherished the goal of being in Israel during the spring. At the end of March, Scott and I sat at the Friday night table of my sister in Jerusalem, with her beloved family. We held hands, and hearts, and with quiet, overbrimming joy, recited the Shehechianu."
And so today, from the depth of our souls, we breathe in life and exhale a prayer, Shehechianu: For the Jewish people reborn in our ancient land. Shehechianu, for Joe Lieberman and his family. Shehechianu, for Larry Kushner and his mentor, for Barbara and Pamela, for the pope's visit to Jerusalem, for the Israeli soldier leaving Lebanon, for you, for me, for everyone who is truly alive, for everyone who rejoices in this wonderful, astonishing ride of life. Shehechianu, V'kiyemanu, V'higiyanu lazman hazeh.

V'Kiyemanu: Taking a Stand 
Please rise. Please be seated.
Doesn't it feel like that's all we're ever doing at services, especially on the High Holidays? Sit - stand - sit - stand. It can drive you crazy. You likely have noticed that I'm not one for the majestic rabbinical wave of the arms (show); I've never liked it. So I usually don't do it. Now it's fine for us all to sing in one voice at times - it sounds beautiful and gives us strength. But even then, some of us automatically harmonize (for better for worse). So even in our unity there is diversity. But why in the world would we want everyone to stand and sit on command? Since when do Jews do anything on command? It reminds me of that joke about the Yeshiva rowing team; appropriate for this last day of the Olympics. They couldn't win a single race. So they sent a spy to scout out the Yale team. The spy came back and said, "I finally figured it out. It's amazing. You see, we got it reversed. We're supposed to have eight guys rowing and one guy barking out the orders!"
Sure we should stand when the ark is open, but not because the rabbi signals it, but rather because we are literally leaping to our feet at the joy of embracing the Torah. And when we stand, each of us does it on her own, in his own way. The physical act of standing up requires so many things to happen, between our brain, our arms and legs -- our vocal chords too (so we can say "oy" while we do it) -- but most of all, standing up is an act of will and courage. And when we do it as an act of will, we feel good about it, even when our feet are tired. That why it is so powerful when we stand to say Kaddish for a loved one, especially when everyone does not stand around us. It as an act of pure resoluteness, expressing the desire to testify, to take the stand, on behalf of a departed love one, to say to the world that yes, this life did matter and yes, through me and in God, my loved one lives on. Taking a stand is what enhances life. We never feel so alive as when we are willing to stand up for what we believe in. Not when the rabbi tells us. Not even when the Torah tells us. But when the still small voice of conscience summons our brains and arms and legs and "oys," to rise.
The word after Shehechianu is "Kiyemanu." And what does it mean? Kum, in Hebrew means "stand." V'kiyemanu? "And who helped us to stand." An act of revival, Shehechianu, is therefore elevated into an act of affirmation with "Kiyemanu." Revival is part one. Affirmation is level two. How alive we become when we stand alone on the peak of the mountain, having toppled the walls of doubt and fear on the way, recognizing that death is lurking and that nothing else matters but living with integrity. V'kiyemanu means more than to stand. It means to be willing to stand up to anything or anyone - even God.
Today's Torah portion is framed in Abraham's standing and sitting. In verse 3, Abraham doesn't just set out for the place where he was to sacrifice Isaac. The text says, "Vayakam vayelech," First he stood up, then he went. Abraham's response to this supreme challenge was to stand up to it, to come to the plate, unlike Jonah, who chose to flee his destiny. And at the end of the story, after all the fateful events have transpired, the account concludes with the words, "Vayeshev Avraham Biv'er Sheva." "And Abraham settled, literally sat down, in Beersheba. Life goes back to normal. As it does for all of us when the battle us over, when a challenge has been met. Normal, yet forever transformed. So the Akeda story is framed in standing and sitting - and what transpires in the middle is one of the most courageous stands of all time.
We all know the story - or we think we know. Abraham is about to slay Isaac, following what he thinks is God's command, when an angel calls out to him from heaven, telling Abraham not to lay a hand on the child. So Abraham obeys, sees a ram caught in the thicket, then offers the ram instead of his son, and the place is renamed, "Adonai Yireh," meaning "on the mount of the Lord there is vision," or, in a translation found in the soon-to-be-published Conservative Torah commentary, "the high point where I saw God."
I believe that the high point where Abraham saw God was a height he himself scaled, not one God pulled him up to. For that angel calling down to Abraham from the heavens, I read to be the still small voice of Abraham's own conscience saying, "What in the world am I doing with this knife? God can't possibly want me to do this. What am I doing here? NO, THIS IS WRONG."
And he throws down the knife, releases his son and looks up and sees the ram. He stands up, finally, to the false God he had himself created, and recognizes that God's true intent is coming through to him from his own conscience. And therefore, the place was named Adonai Yireh, "On the mount of the Lord, there is vision." There is vision - and there is integrity.
Now the place where Abraham took that stand happened to be Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, the epicenter of world politics to this day. We hope that from that place in our own time a vision of peace will shine forth. But the lesson of "V'kiyemanu" has implications also for those of us who live far from that sacred mountain.
For that still small voice of conscience does not exist in a vacuum. A conscience is like a muscle; it needs constantly to be exercised and trained. The training comes in many forms; for Jews, primarily study, prayer, and deeds of kindness. Teshuvah, tefilla, tzedakkah. All of these things. And the more we do them, the more we grapple with the tough questions the sages have been grappling with for centuries, the stronger that muscle becomes. The word g'milut hasadim, means acts of love, but the verb "gamal" really means "to render." "G'milut hasidim' would therefore be "acts which cause or awaken love." When repeated, certainly they cause love in another; perhaps even more importantly, they awaken love in us.
Abraham was one of the greatest tzaddikim of all time, all the more amazing because he could do all this without ever reading the guidebook. So when the final test came, that still small voice of conscience had been honed just enough to save him at the last minute. We need to exercise that muscle as well. We can't count on our being good for a few days to inoculate us for the entire year. And we need to understand the central role that religion plays in making us into good people.
Now there are some very good people around who don't happen to study Torah, come to pray at synagogue or do lots of acts of kindness. But I equate them to a great Olympic athlete who can win the marathon without training. There are people who are so innately good that they can do that. I'm not one of them. I need to exercise the muscle of conscience, to stand and sit, here, often. Now I know that there are also people who are corrupt even though they are ritually observant Jews. They are like the Olympic athlete who trains rigorously for an event for four years, only to ruin it by going out drinking on the night before the big race. It happens; but these are exceptions to the rule. I can only tell you that I am absolutely sure that Jewish study, prayer and ritual, all three, have helped me to become a better person. They have given me the moral strength to take a stand. They are the keys to my own integrity.
They have also given Senator Lieberman the strength to take stands that often have been unpopular. His growing legend is indicated by the joke going around that the Senator is so charitable that he donates every penny he earns to Hadassah. But in all seriousness, if we listen closely, we can hear the still small voice of menschlichkite in every word he utters. We can trace many of his votes to the values that Jews everywhere have been taught from the cradle. And that is religion's proper place in the public square.
Kiyemanu doesn't just mean to stand. It means to establish. The first amendment protects us from the establishment of a state religion. It protects us from coercion by the government. It does not protect us from the still small voice of conscience. Nor should it. As Lieberman properly said at that church in Detroit, the Constitution does not guarantee us freedom from religion. It protects us from religious coercion, to be sure. But not from religious influence on a politician's worldview. He didn't say that atheists can't be moral. He didn't say that the wall of separation should come down. He was talking about a very different wall, that firm religious foundation that he gained from his parents, his rabbi and teachers, and from you who were his neighbors growing up, but most of all from his life-long encounter with Torah and its commandments: these are the influences that guide him. And America is ready for this. Everyone, it seems, but the Jews.
It is an incredible paradox. One that we could see coming a mile away. Lieberman has revolutionized the politics-religion equation here in a manner that Ehud Barak is now trying to do in Israel. Finally, in both countries, God is no longer the exclusive property of right wing fundamentalists. And this is not only good politics, but good for our world. You don't have to be a Christian evangelical to rant about the dangers of violent children's programming. Other issues where the moral high ground had previously been ceded to the fundamentalists are now becoming fodder for Talmudic-style discussions that rarely yield black and white answers. The addition of a particularly Jewish voice to this dialogue has helped the rest of America to see what Jews have known all along, that morality has many shades of gray. Most Americans live in the gray. Most fundamentalists do not. In this way, Judaism is now making a contribution to this country in a manner that is unprecedented. And the country is responding. The online magazine Salon recently ran a terrific long story on the complex Jewish view on abortion. Matt Drudge is running articles about the proper observance of Tisha B'Av. Don Imus is asking about Jewish concerns regarding intermarriage. George W. Bush wishes Larry King a happy Rosh Hashanah. Somebody pinch me!
Lieberman has liberated God to become a shade of gray too. As much as he speaks of God openly, he never claims to know God's will or to have a privileged relationship with the Almighty. Religion is being presented in a positive, non-threatening way. If he can continue to pull this off, and if Barak can pull off his current civil reforms over in Israel, both politicians, win or lose, will have made a contribution that will last far longer than one election campaign.
So what are we to make of Abe Foxman's public condemnation? It's easy to be cynical, and think that he was looking to make an example of someone and Lieberman was the safest target. Or one might speculate that the ADL can only thrive financially in an atmosphere where Jews feel that there is an external threat out there, and here was this meshugenah Lieberman proving to all of us that we have indeed nothing to fear but fear itself. Or one might try to psychoanalyze and assume that Foxman, like many establishment American Jews, is more comfortable in the old model of synagogue-state separation, where rabbis and religious Jews stayed in the background and the secular organization machers made all the big decisions. That world simply doesn't exist anymore, as I will discuss on Yom Kippur.
But I choose to take Foxman at his word. He did, after all, take a stand, a difficult stand, so somewhere in his soul, I believe that he thought that still small voice was telling him that Lieberman had really gone too far. In fact, however, Lieberman never even got close to the line. But the line is shifting, and the world is changing, and the ADL and others need to recognize this and adjust. The American people, in expressing such enthusiasm for the first traditional Jew ever to be on a major party ticket, are telling us that just as you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate rye bread, but it helps, you also don't have to be religious to be a great public servant -- but it helps.
Robert Parham, the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has come up with seven guidelines for evaluating the role of religion in politics. They are an excellent starter for any discussion of the role of religion in the public square.
First, because our society is pluralistic, we would do well to recognize that public expression of faith might make some people uncomfortable, and we should be sensitive to that. Second, many Americans mistakenly believe faith is exclusively a private matter. We need to speak in favor of faith having a public dimension. Third, politicians need to be judicious so as not to use religion for political ends, and we all need to be equally vigilant in watching for it. Fourth, the Bible is not a blueprint for public policy. We must discern the difference between politicians who articulate religious values that shape public policy and those who insist their religious values become public policy. Fifth, the platitudes of faith are no substitute for the meaty debates about public policy. We should insist that our politicians debate the issues. Sixth, we should always favor a sturdy wall separating church from state. And seventh, morally upright politicians might still support public policies that are unjust. And vice versa. We must separate the messenger from the message -- we've had a lot of practice doing that in recent years.
Charles Haynes, an advocate of First Amendment rights, put it this way: "The conviction of the latter part of the 20th century that religion was a private matter was an anomaly. The question for the 21st century is how we can make sure it comes back into public life in ways that strengthen the nation and not tear it apart." The Aspen Institute recently pulled together a dialogue of pro-life and pro-choice advocates, with surprisingly positive results. One participant commented, "From our own experience, we are convinced that religious voices brought together in dialogue to locate common ground can serve the deepest public good."
The rest of America is ready to welcome religion more openly into the public square. Are we? Will it be Lieberman or will it be Foxman? It's time to take a stand - and to lift our sights to the peak of the mount of the Lord, where there is vision. Behar Adonai Yireh.
Two more "Kiyemanu" moments to share: In his classic autobiography appropriately titled, "Fear No Evil," Natan Sharansky details his nine years of solitary confinement in a Soviet prison. It is hard to imagine how he could summon the moral strength to endure the constant torture and resist the pressure to confess to a crime he did not commit. One imagines those Jews imprisoned in Iran right now going through the same thing - and they are in our prayers. At one point, inexplicably, Sharansky was allowed to receive a birthday gift from his family, his tiny black book of psalms. Although he struggled to read the Hebrew of these ancient poems, but he sensed their spirit and felt both the joy and suffering of King David. These words lifted him above the mundane and directed him toward the Eternal. Grounded in the firm foundation of an unbreakable faith, he was able to stand up to a global superpower. The superpower is now gone; and the individual, little Natan Sharansky, is still alive and well (and still making life miserable for those in power).
Recently I was part of a group of thirty-plus rabbis, representing the full spectrum of North American Jewry, who traveled to Prague. As part of the trip we went to pay respects to the victims of Terezin, the infamous concentration camp located an hour's drive from the Czech capital. At the end of a long and emotional tour of the camp, the guide brought us to a site only recently discovered, a small synagogue hidden in the basement of a bakery. It was an oasis of holiness in the midst of hell, never defiled by the Nazis, a place where the condemned could utter ancient prayers and dare to hope.
On the walls are Hebrew liturgical inscriptions, two of which absolutely floored me. One says, "Know before whom you stand" ("Da lifnay mi ata omed"), a verse found in synagogues everywhere, but one that took on a whole new meaning in that place; for on the other side of that wall stood the S.S. guards. But they knew in their hearts that the One before whom they really stood was God, a sovereign whose very existence they had every reason to doubt. In spite of it all, they believed. And while they stood in prayer, they rose in opposition to the evil taking place around them.
And like Abraham's mountain, that cellar became a source of vision. On the front wall of the makeshift synagogue is inscribed a verse from the Amida, "May our eyes be able to envision Your return to Zion in mercy." "Vtechezenah aynaynu b'shuvcha l'tziyon b'rachamim. " "Hazon" in Hebrew means "vision" and that word is embedded in the inscribed verse. Note that the prayer doesn't ask that the people themselves be whisked to Zion. The Jews of Terezin were not so quixotic as to imagine that they themselves would ever see the spectacular sunrise over Jerusalem. They didn't pray for their own return to Zion - but for God's - just as Abraham must also have prayed for God's return to that very same spot, when all seemed lost up on Moriah. Hidden away for a moment of sanity amidst the madness, the Jews of Terezin had the audacity to pray that God and the Jewish people survive the Holocaust, even though they knew that they themselves most likely would not. They not only saw the light at the end of the darkest tunnel in human history, they shined it toward a distant future that no sane person could possibly have imagined, a future that certainly would not include them.
We were in tears. Spontaneously we davened the afternoon service, although very few of us had prayer books. It didn't matter. The prayers were calling out to us from those walls. It suddenly didn't matter that there was no Mechitza separating the men from the woman or whether the language was gender-neutral. Nothing mattered but that we were Jews, of all denominations, praying together, the living fulfillment of their vision.
Then I read aloud two selections from that classic collection of children's poetry written in Terezin, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," and I felt like a pilgrim on the steps of the ancient Temple on Mount Moriah, reciting psalms. The poems were all about the joy of being alive.
If these residents of hell could find the vision to see butterflies and pray for God's renewal, how dare we allow ourselves to become mired in cynicism and negativity! The words of the prophets were written on these subterranean walls:
"May our eyes be able to envision."
It is from our faith that we gain the strength to stand up and shout "this is wrong" in the face of evil. It is from our sacred texts that we gain the courage to endure even the harshest of trials. And it is from our ritual practices and our prayers, that we build up the moral muscle to hear that still small voice of truth.
So how will each of us stand up as a Jew this coming year? What mitzvot will we add to our lives to strengthen that muscle? An hour of study each day? Increased attendance at morning minyan and Shabbat services? Building a Sukkah at your home for the very first time, as a large number here are now planning to do? Through acts of tzedakkah and kindness - helping us to reinvigorate Beth El Cares? Volunteering in our gift shop? Helping us to create community on our Shabbaton? Or, as is the case for some of our kids yesterday, by standing up in protest when your soccer league schedules a championship game on a Jewish holiday?
Each new step we take will be very difficult. But on this closing day of the Olympics, we heed the words of the Olympic creed, "&the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."
We are so fortunate to be living in a time where spiritual Olympians can set an example for all of us to follow, people like Sharansky, those Jews of Terezin and now, our own Joe Lieberman, who, whether or not you agree with his politics, is fast becoming a Jewish role model for the ages. They all followed the strict training regimen established by Abraham, a program that reached its apex on the heights not of Olympus, but Moriah.
And with each step we take, with each time we show the will to stand up for our beliefs and Jewish values, we will feel those moral muscles beginning to grow, faster, higher and stronger than ever before, we will be far better able to hear the still small voice of conscience, and all of this will renew our lives. Shehechianu V'kiyemanu Amen.

V’Higiyanu: Arrivals 
When I was growing up, I was weird. I liked Hebrew School. There was one teacher especially that I loved – Miss Lapidus in fifth grade, who made Judaism so real that it jumped out of the textbook. And she introduced me to Annie Haggerty. Now Annie Haggerty was not a person, at least not her Annie Haggerty. It was a code -- a secret code that Miss Lapidus taught the class. This is how it worked. Whenever Miss Lapidus took a long trip, she would call home to her parents to tell them that she had arrived safely. But, in those days before the 500-minute cell phone packages, she would call home collect, only she would say that she was placing a call to Annie Haggerty. Her mom, who was not named Annie Haggerty, would refuse the charges and hang up, but she would know that her daughter had arrived safely. Why? Because the Hebrew translation of Annie Haggerty is "I’ve arrived safely," or "Ani Higati."
I think of Annie Haggerty when I think of the word "V’higiyanu." that third leg of the Shehechianu prayer. Last week we discussed the first two, Shehechianu, revival, and Kiyemanu, standing up to a challenge; tonight, Higiyanu, safe arrival. As we reach another Kol Nidre, Higiyanu has the feel of having landed at the end of a long plane ride. On United. In the rain. At last! We’re here. And we know that our arrival had little to do with us.
I had a Kiyemanu moment last summer when Mara and I were flying back to Newark from a friend’s wedding in Chicago. The plane was taxiing to the runway for takeoff and it suddenly stopped. Why? We were told that a series of strong thunderstorms were passing through New Jersey and they wanted to wait until they had cleared. So there we were, in Chicago, waiting in a hot plane for an hour and a half for a storm to clear an airport nearly half a continent away. Even before that, the flight had been delayed nearly two hours because of storms in Houston, where it had originated. Of course everyone whipped out his or her cell phones and frantically called home, probably to ask for Annie Haggerty’s brother, Lou Haggerty, (Lo higati) which means, "I didn’t arrive yet." From the worried looks on their faces, I think half of the passengers had seen "The Perfect Storm," the previous evening and weren’t too keen on traveling as it was.
Neither was I. I was glad to wait at that airport, rather than land in a severe thunderstorm. Then something occurred to me. If the flight had landed from Houston on time, it would likely have taken off to Newark on time, and we would have arrived in New Jersey just as those storms were at their worst. And they were bad, as we later discovered. So the best thing that could have happened for me that night was to have been delayed those three and a half hours, thanks to a cold front in Houston, a place I have never been to.
Sometimes you just have to wonder who is controlling that big air traffic tower in the sky. Like most people, I often delude myself into believing that I have true control over my life. Just to knock me back to reality, I try to squeeze most of my appointments into my little calendar diary. And it gets rather, shall we say, messy. That’s OK, because it helps me to remember that, in the end, I have almost nothing to do with arranging my schedule. Every day, we are all on that runway in Chicago. We are on that fishing boat heading back to Gloucester. We are Jonah in the belly of the fish. We are my sister and teenage niece, closing their eyes and saying the traditional wayfarer’s prayer, "Tefillat Ha-derech," every time they drive back from Jerusalem to their home on the West Bank, especially this past terrible week. We all pray that a benevolent hand is guiding us because we have no idea what we’ll see around the bend and when our calendar diary will run out of days.
But that’s the beauty of it. In a sense, Higiyanu is antithesis of Kiyemanu. Kiyemanu is what we can control, what we can and must stand up to in order to feel fully alive. Higiyanu is what we cannot control. It’s that out of breath feeling when we pick up the phone after planting both feet, at last, on terra firma, hearing your loved ones voice and saying, "ani higati." In truth, the Shehechianu Prayer, is the Jewish cousin of the Serenity Prayer, written by the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1926: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."
And, in some small way, we have this sense, this instinctive, gnawing sense that God has brought us here. That if we have arrived, it is because we were meant to have arrived. And if not, it’s because we were not. And we’ll never know why. And we’ll never lose that feeling of helplessness, but we’ll never lose the sense of wonder either.
A young congregant wrote me of her "Shehechianu" experience this past year, also airline related. "Never has prayer entered my life before in such a profound way as when I almost lost my father last year. I received a phone call late in the night from my mother hysterically crying, telling me that the plane that my father was on en route to Alaska was diverted because he was bleeding internally. She said that she was on the next flight to Anchorage and I was left to man the fort back home and stick by my grandmother. I did not say the Shehechianu per se, but I did talk to God constantly. We were all fortunate to have an angel in Delta airlines who stayed with my dad as he had his stomach pumped and escorted him to the hospital. And prayer served me well, as my father returned after receiving transfusions for the blood he lost."
Higiyanu is all about survival and what we do with it. It’s about people and it’s about their stories, and how they all really are our stories. I told one such story this year when I was giving a charge to a Bat Mitzvah here. On that same Shabbat, a Bat Mitzvah student named Rachel Tursky was giving this d’var Torah at her synagogue just out side of, where else, Chicago, just five months after her father had died from chronic alcoholism. Here is what she said:
"My portion speaks of how the Nazerites didn’t drink alcohol. In school this past year, seventh grade, we learned a great deal about the ill effects of chemical dependency. Individuals from the community came to talk to us and we were taught to say "no." Lamentably, children of other generations, like my parents, were not as lucky to have this type of education. As a result, my dad passed away in December from such a problem. This had a major impact on my life. From this experience, I have learned many things, one of which is that when you choose to make a harmful decision, you are not the only victim. Everyone around you is affected.
This year has been especially difficult, because my dad was basically the one who pushed me to do my studies. In spite of the loss of my dad however, I decided to devote myself to something that means a lot to me – my bat mitzvah. The synagogue has become almost like a second home to me.
As result of my experiences, I have come to understand that everyone walks down their own path of life. Some people have a dark, thorny, cold road and others have a peaceful one with beautiful trees, sprouting plants and the wonders of nature surrounding them. But what I have discovered is that, no matter what your path might look like, nobody can choose it for you. You plant your own flowers, you make your own sun or rain and when you get to the part of the path where there is more than one way to turn, you have to choose. Life is a rich, lush, beautiful experience that is given to you. Not everything in life is in your control, but only you can decide whether or not you will let your negative circumstances overcome you. Life is for living, Don’t take it for granted."
This from a 13 year old who became all too wise, all too soon.
We’re all on journeys, all of us, all wandering through the forest, looking for the way out; and like that classic Hasidic story tells us, the way out is look together, marking every arrival with a Higiyanu. Like the rafters in an overnight camp cabin, the world is full of the graffiti that we leave behind, each step of the way proclaiming, Annie Haggerty, I was here. I made it this far.
When we look at life this way, cruelty becomes almost incomprehensible. Because we see that we’re all interconnected. I think that’s one of the secrets to the extraordinary success of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Contestants are tied into a studio audience full of strangers, sending out lifelines and getting a response. If the mapping of the genome taught us anything this year, it confirmed a fundamental Jewish principle, taken from Mishna Sanhedrin, that we all have the same ancestry, although each of us is also utterly unique. And when we realize that we are all on the same boat, and that that boat is the Andrea Gail, all those little differences that seemed so important suddenly aren’t anymore.
I discovered this year that I have an alter ego, a person that I’ve never met. His name, believe it or not, is Joshua Hammer. And we have lived virtually the same life; it’s eerie. We are almost exactly the same age, although we grew up in different cities; we both went to Ivy League schools at the same time, though he went to an inferior one. He opted for a career in journalism at a time that I was in journalism school. He spent several months in Israel during the exact year that I was there while in rabbinical school and had many of the same experiences and encounters that I had. And he wrote a book about how his very secular and rebellious brother became observant and moved to Muncie. My sister followed a similar path, though she ended up in Mitzpeh Yericho. My sister and his brother even lived in the same quaint Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot, at the very time he and I were there. We could well have passed each other at the pita place on the corner. I could have written basically the exact same book.
His book, "Chosen by God" came out about a year ago. I enjoyed it. But I haven’t gotten to the weirdest part yet. When my book first came out, I proudly clicked onto to revel in my immortality, and lo and behold, the book was there, but the author was listed as Joshua Hammer! I emailed my publisher frantically and then started combing other book sites on the Web. Barnes and Noble? Joshua Hammer. Borders? Joshua Hammer. Finally this matter was cleared up, but then, three weeks later, out of the blue, back at Amazon it was Hammer Time again. This time both names were there: we were listed as co-authors, side by side, Hammerman and Hammer. Now I wouldn’t have minded this co-authorship thing so much if the other guy’s name had been Stephen King. But this was getting ridiculous. I was beginning to wonder who I really am, when, as I was writing this part of this sermon, and I kid you not, Ethan walked into the room, looked over my shoulder and asked, "Who is Joshua Hammer? Is he the same as you?"
And yes, he is the same as me. He ended up at Newsweek, where I might have gone, had I chosen another path. And I ended up on this pulpit tonight. At one point in his book, Hammer bemoans the fact that while his brother had the choice to become ultra-Orthodox, his brother’s kids did not, so insulated are they from the secular world. But as you read on you find, ironically, that it is Joshua Hammer who never had the choice. His father had pledged, "As long as there’s anti-Semitism in the world, I’m going to identify myself as Jewish; but I’m not going to force anything on my children." And he was true to his words. Hammer adds, "By the time I began to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah, in the spring of 1970… I found myself growing bored with the services and felt little connection to God." Religion didn’t figure highly in our childhoods," he adds, but "family fragmentation did." So he had no real choice either. He was offered plastic Judaism, a lifeless, empty shell of the real thing, and, like the vast majority of his generation, he rejected it.
My Bar Mitzvah was also in early 1970, but I loved Hebrew School because I was lucky enough to be brought up in a Jewish home filled with warmth, song and joy, and I had a Hebrew teacher who could enchant me with secret codes and Annie Haggerty.
Sadly, all too many have had the Jewish upbringing of Joshua Hammer and not enough were as fortunate as I was. Nonetheless, no matter what our background, we are all writing about the same searches; we are all on essentially the same journey. And we all end up as Hammer and Hammerman did, on the same street in Jerusalem and on the same page at Amazon, side-by-side, co-authors in a book not yet fully written. He rediscovered the religion that I never lost. In the end, both of us can say, "Ani Higati." All parallel universes ultimately converge.
This summer I finally saw the film "Keeping the Faith." It was a big hit last spring, but I never got to see it then, even though it seemed like everyone and his brother was asking me if I had. This is your basic Hollywood tragi-comedy-rabbi-and-priest-fall-for-the-same-non-Jewish goddess-and-feel-lots-of-guilt kind of movie, and I looked forward to seeing it before these High Holidays, because, after a little prodding, I actually promised one of our Gen X ers that I would speak about it. I got a little nervous when August rolled around and it hadn’t come out on video yet. So I called Blockbuster. And I found out that it would be coming out on video on October 10. Yes, the day AFTER Yom Kippur. So I was faced with three choices. 1) Find a bootleg copy – not an option. 2) Move tonight’s sermon to Sukkot. Or 3) Break my promise.
And then a miracle occurred – talk about "Keeping the Faith." I was staying in a hotel one night in late August, and "Keeping the Faith," was playing on the in-house pay per view. Did I mention where this hotel was? Of course – Chicago, where I went for my friend’s wedding before the plane got stuck. So I got to see the movie, including the famous gospel choir Ein Kelohenu scene, that I would just love to see reenacted here.
Although the film had flaws, which I won’t dwell on now – and no rabbi on this planet is as cool as the Ben Stiller character – nor should we strive to be. But it was nice to see a rabbi not portrayed as a shlub, I suppose. I liked the film, mainly, for one particular reason: the characters were all engaged in serious religious searching; each of them was on a journey. All of them were Joshua Hammers, no matter what their faith, and I understood that people of this lost generation are actively seeking a way back – back to something they never really had. All the old answers were not good enough for them. Life, they discovered, isn’t about career, ambition and greed, and being Jewish is not about blind ethnic loyalty. It’s all about keeping faith – faith in friends and family, even when they betray you; faith in religious leaders, even when they fail, and the understanding that falling in love is only the first step when two people come together; the next step is just as important – it’s being able to find a common faith-path to forge together through life.
Suddenly, religion is being taken seriously again. And that’s good news, because when it is not presented in superficial, plastic ways, Judaism can’t help but shine in the marketplace of ideas. It’s intriguing that by the end of "Keeping the Faith," it is clear that the female character is taking classes toward a possible conversion to Judaism, although it’s not discussed openly between her and her rabbi boyfriend. The producers evidently didn’t want to offend either Christians or Jews, so they fudged it. It’s amazing: in this age of Oprah, when every other intimate fact about people’s lives is being discussed openly almost to the point of nausia, and every speck of naval lint has been exposed; when it comes to religious conversion, suddenly Hollywood gets as shy as a 12 year old at a school dance. The subject never came up, and it would have been nice to see this taboo broken here.
For as we enter the new century and the New Year, what is overwhelmingly clear is this: All Jews are now Jews by choice. If I happened to have been born Jewish, brought up in a warm, spiritually nourishing home and synagogue and taught the right values, when I leave home, I have the have the right to say, "V’higiyanu." All the factors not in my control have brought me to a place where I now have the power to bring holiness into the world. But I still have to do the "Kiyemanu" part on my own. I still have to stand up and choose my life’s path. For some, like Joshua Hammer, the path is more circuitous, for others, like Rachel Tursky, it is exceedingly tragic, and for others, like the characters in "Keeping the Faith," the path suddenly shifts course dramatically with the earthquake of falling in love. But we’re all on it, and it all comes down to that curious mixture of will and serendipity, Kiyemanu V’higiyanu.
And that is why, in the end, there are no solid lines that divide us, no degrees of separation. Our spiritual identities are like shifting sands, constantly changing. But we share two basic facts: we all chose to be here tonight, and we all were lucky enough to survive to be here tonight. We are all on the same page, despite our differences. In this room alone, we’ve got Jews, half Jews, quarter Jews, lapsed Jews, returning Jews, recovering Jews, born again Jews, gay Jews, straight Jews, Asian Jews, African Jews, Russian Jews, not yet Jews and non-Jews. It’s darn confusing, but if we try to focus on the differences, we miss the big picture. We’re all asking the same questions: Why am I here – and what am I going to do about it? When we look at that map of the genome, we find that all human beings are almost 100% the same. That’s why we must be inclusive. That’s why we must extend a hand to everyone who comes across our path, everyone who chooses to cast their lot with us, including non-Jewish spouses who have made the tremendous gesture of committing to raise their children in a Jewish home. That’s why everyone who comes through these doors must be greeted with the love and embrace that befits all those created in God’s image.
And that’s why, when we are lucky enough to reach a milestone like Yom Kippur and to be alive, it is best to sit a while and look around, hug our neighbor, pray for our future and give thanks to God. After all, we’re all here. We’ve arrived. Higiyanu. And that is why, following the completion of this sermon, I’m going to spend some time doing just that.
Throughout the year, I often speak from and sit in the congregation. Why should tonight be any different? Mah Nishtanah a halila ha-zeh? As I have tried to demonstrate so often, a rabbi is no more than a fellow traveler on this path, not some monarch prodding you from above. So now I’ll come down. And together we’ll thank God and humbly ask for forgiveness. If I happen to walk past and someone in your row who is at our Yom Kippur services for the first time, please let me know, so I can personally welcome them. For we have made it this far.
The plane from Chicago has dodged the storm and we have landed. We know not why we’ve been given the privilege of life. But we have arrived, we and Annie Haggerty, and by God we are not going to waste this gift of arrival. Shehechianu, V’kiyemanu, V’higiyanu – AMEN

Z’man Hazeh: Jewish Americans

Before reciting the Amidah, it is customary to take three steps backward and then forward, a gesture that came from the ancient protocol of approaching a king. It also is a way of carving out sacred space in which we can encounter God. But we are also carving out a place for ourselves in sacred time. At the beginning of the Amida, we invoke our ancestors, from the most distant past. At the end, when we also take steps, we pray for the future – that there be peace for all of us and all Israel. So we step backwards, to our remotest past, and forwards, towards the most hopeful future. And where do we end up? Anchored in the present moment. The here and now. We live in between. Between war and peace, vision and reality, hope and despair. The present is framed by all of these, by all that was and all that will yet be. We yearn and anguish for then, but here and now is where we live. The Shehechianu blessing points us toward a keen sensitivity of being fully alive in the here and now, with it’s final words, "Laz’man hazeh."
And what does it mean to live in "Z’man ha’zeh?" It means to be able to balance the vision and reality, to live without illusions, but with faith. That is also what it means to be a Jew. But if we take a closer look at Z’man ha’zeh, the here and now, we find that these are times of transformation for Jews in this country. I’d like to take some time this morning sorting out where we stand, ba’zman hazeh, and then we can then address the more significant questions of why be Jewish and what our people can now contribute to the world.
The change is best reflected in what we are now being called. Last millenium we were American Jews. This millennium, we are Jewish Americans. And there is a big difference.
I’ll illustrate this with another true Shehechianu story:
A young private named Winneger was with the US Army as it marched through
Europe at the end of World War Two. His unit was assigned a village with orders to secure the town. Winneger was on patrol one night when he saw a figure running through a field just outside the village. He shouted, "Halt or I'll shoot!" The figure ducked behind a tree. Winneger waited and eventually the figure came out and figuring that the soldier was gone, he went to a spot near a large tree and started to dig. Winneger snuck up on this figure and captured him. To his surprise he found that it was a young boy. An ornate menorah had fallen from the boy's hands in the scuffle. Winneger picked up the menorah and the boy grabbed it back saying, "Give it to me, it's mine!" The soldier realized that the boy was Jewish, for he was too. And he then learned that the boy had suffered in a Concentration Camp, had been forced to watch the shooting of his father, had lost track of his mother and had become mistrustful of all people. In the weeks that followed, Winneger took the boy, whose name was David, under his wing, offered David the chance to return to New York City with him, and eventually adopted him.
Winneger was active in the New York Jewish community and a friend of his was
the curator of the Jewish museum. When he saw the menorah, he told David it was very valuable and historic. He offered David $50,000 for it. But David refused the offer, saying that it had been in the family for over 200 years and that it was not for sale. When Hanukkah came, David and Winneger lit the menorah in the window of their home in New York City. David went upstairs to study. There was a knock on the door and Winneger went to answer. It was a woman with a strong German accent who said that she had been walking down the street when she saw the menorah in the window, and that she had had one like that in her family and had never seen any other like it. Could she come and take a closer look? Winneger invited her in and said he had a son who could tell her more about it. He called David down to talk to the woman - and that is how David was reunited with his mother.
In this story we go from Shehechianu, David’s miracle of survival, to Kiyemanu, the willful act of pure love by Winneger in adopting David, by David in not selling the menorah, and by both in placing that menorah in the window; to Higiyanu, the sheer, miraculous happenstance that brought David’s mother past that house on that night. And we end up "Baz’man hezeh," at this time, a time when we Jews need not bury our Judaism any more – but rather we can shine the light of the menorah from the window with pride, without fear of repression and ridicule.
Look how far we have come! On April 29, 1945, unrepentant to the end, Hitler wrote in his last will and testament, "Most of all, I enjoin the government and people to uphold the race laws to the limit and to resist mercilessly the poisoner of all nations, International Jewry."
If there is a hell, I hope it is wired for cable so that all the notorious anti-Semites of yore might be chained to a sofa around a large screen TV and forced to watch C-Span, all day, so that they can see round the clock, full coverage of the reception Joe Lieberman is getting at all his campaign stops, especially from believing Christians.
Imagine. In just a blink of the historical eye, we’ve gone from being the devil incarnate to being a prime spiritual role model for the world. We’ve gone from being sneered at as the conspiratorial "International Jewry," to being admired as, "Jewish Americans." When that phrase began to be used frequently over the summer, I think most Jews were shocked. We’ve always been, in our own eyes, American Jews, not the other way around. Whenever we’ve seen "Jewish American" used it was normally followed by a pejorative term like "princess." No more.
Timothy Noah, a columnist for Slate, was as confused as the rest of us, when Lieberman used the term. He then began to notice that people in the media seemed consciously to be avoiding the term "Jew." One minute he hears Paula Zahn talking about considering a Jewish American candidate on the merits, the next it’s Chris Matthews on "Hardball" using the term, then George Stephanopolis on ABC and Perri Peltz on CNN. Wherever he turned, there it was, "Jewish Americans." So why this change in terminology, almost overnight?
According to Deborah Dash Moore, a religion professor, it’s a cyclical thing, and just as with African American, it signals a desire to return to roots. It also sounds softer and less in-your-face than the term American Jew. It’s a kinder, gentler way of looking at ourselves.
Arthur Goren, professor of American Jewish history at Columbia, prefers "American Jew" because he thinks it is more inclusive, implying that you can be a Jew without having anything to do with religion. But the word "Jewish" implies faith, as in, "I am a Jew of the Jewish faith." He thinks Lieberman calls himself a Jewish American to underscore that he is no mere member of an ethnic group, but a believer in God.
Indeed. The ascent of this term "Jewish American" marks the end to the era of secular ethnicity in the American Jewish world. It had been on its deathwatch for quite some time. But now it clearly is dead, and it’s got a lot of Jews scared and confused, at a time when we should be bursting with pride and purpose.
And, to no surprise, its got Jews fighting each other. Samuel Freedman’s well-publicized new book, Jew Vs. Jew, brings us to some all-too-familiar flash points: the conversion issue, the "Who is a Jew " controversy, the impact of feminism, the rise of Orthodox neighborhoods in formerly secular Jewish suburbs. He concludes that what he calls the "Orthodox model" has triumphed; this is not to say that the Orthodox themselves have prevailed, or that that denomination will alone survive on these shores; but rather that the portion of American Jewry that will flourish in the future is the portion that has accepted the central premise of Orthodoxy, that religion defines Jewish identity, which by the way, also characterizes Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform. As I see it, the real war that has been going on is one of self-definition, not between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, but rather between American Jews and Jewish Americans – and the Jewish Americans have won. Freedman writes, "From the time massive Jewish immigration to America began in the late 19th century, religious Jews feared that the new land would undermine faith. Instead, we see now, it undermined faithlessness."
So, bazman hazeh, we see surveys showing that while ritual observance has increased slightly over the last half century, ethnic identification has plummeted in almost every measurable way, from affinity with Israel to membership in Jewish institutions to friendships with fellow Jews. Only religion is enabling Jews to feel Jewish and motivating them to raise Jewish children and grandchildren. Guilt and chicken soup don’t do it anymore. This has created a different kind of dividing line, between a core of American Jewry oriented around religion and a periphery clinging to the eroding elements of ethnicity, drifting ever further away.
We often read about these fault lines: core and periphery, Orthodox and secular, religious and ethnic. But we live in a real world in the here and now, where the lines aren’t drawn so clearly. People shift swiftly from the periphery to the core, and vice versa, and religion means different things to people at various points in their lives. This comes through clearly in a new survey of Jewish Americans done by Bethamie Horowitz of Brandeis. Freedman fails to take into account this fluidity, as well as the massive impact of the Internet on bringing people back to greater Jewish literacy and attachment to community. I know, for instance, that the Jewish Outreach Institute, which has a web site appealing primarily to interfaith families who feel shunned by synagogues, routinely gets 300 visits a day. This organization has done incredible outreach work, and I am proud that we will have its founder, Egon Mayer, as our scholar in residence this spring. Yes, we’re losing Jews, lots of them. But others are finding their way back. It’s a two way street. But the way they are finding to come back – let’s make this clear – is through religion. That’s the only form of Jewish identification that sticks.
And then there’s the Lieberman factor. Last week I spoke of his impact on religion in the public square; well aside from saving America from the religious right, I think our man Joe just might be able to save American Jewry from itself. Why? Not because he’s Orthodox, but because he isn’t. Matt Drudge squawked when he heard that Joe was drinking water on Tisha B’Av on a 100-degree day in Atlanta. There’s been some muted complaining about Lieberman’s compassionate but inaccurate statements about intermarriage. He probably should stay away from sticky religious matters, since he is not running for vice-Rabbi; but for the most part, even right wing rabbis have given him an incredible amount of slack on this, because, although he isn’t truly orthodox, he is the best thing to happen to the image of Orthodoxy since the invention of the knitted kipah. Last week the New York Times editorialized on how the boundaries of Jewish law itself are being stretched by unprecedented questions that are now facing us. Do you answer the hotline on Shabbat if Putin is calling? Of course you do. So he has already had a liberalizing impact on Orthodoxy; meanwhile, liberal rabbis love him because he transcends all the labels.
And so, on the first Shabbat following the Democratic convention, while Gore was steaming down the Mississippi, Joe and Hadassah walked a mile and a half from the Radisson hotel to a Conservative shul in LaCrosse Wisconsin, Congregation Sons of Israel, the only synagogue in town. He talked to neighbors all along the route as they stepped outside their houses, most likely just a little bit surprised. And then he went in to the synagogue and all the reporters and cameras waited outside. "The Sabbath’s a private time for his faith and his family," said Lieberman’s press secretary. And the news story ended with the assertion that regardless of the cost of his not campaigning one day every week, Americans will respect this clear display of commitment to religion above political ambition. And: a side benefit. Where on Friday, Lieberman’s voice had been raw and hoarse, on Sunday, when he rejoined Gore in Moline, his voice was back to normal.
With stories like that one beginning to proliferate in the media, Senator Lieberman has reminded American Jews just how wonderful it can be to be a Jewish American. And he has done it in a pluralistic way. He has shown us how to be inclusive, while still strongly affirming faith, how to embrace change and globalism while at the same time drawing strength from traditional practices. His walking on Shabbat makes him a role model for commitment, his walking to a Conservative shul makes him a role model for pluralism, and his drinking a little water on Tisha B’Av makes him a role model for moderation and compromise. 
We Jews have a unique opportunity to teach the world all these things, about faith and tradition, outreach and love, pluralism and compromise. It’s true, the ethnic era is over, that’s behind us. That is why it is so essential that the American synagogue is being transformed into something so compelling that even the most jaded secularist might find spiritual sustenance here. We’ll have the chance to strengthen our own communal bonds at our Congregational Shabbaton at Holiday Hills this coming January. There we’ll share time together, eat, laugh, play, think, talk, pray, sing, all generations, from the youngest to the oldest. It will solidify our community like nothing we’ve seen before. And we’ll hear from one of the world’s foremost experts on American Jewish life, Dr Jack Wertheimer, Provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who will be our guest scholar for the weekend, and Deborah Katchko Zimmerman, familiar to so many around here, who will be our guest song leader.
If we can teach ourselves how to be models of menschlichkite, learning how to love God, love our neighbors and love ourselves, we truly can become a light unto the nations.
And once we learn how to show love within our own family, we can begin to share it with our more distant cousins. This has been a terrible week in that regard. A sad week for those of us still clinging to the vision of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East. Many rabbis throughout the country spent this past week tearing up their sermons and writing new ones to come to grips with the fast-changing situation. Indeed, part of living in Z’man hazeh is that things change so quickly that we don’t even know what is happening in Israel in this exact moment, only that this is the most foreboding Yom Kippur there, and here, since 1973. But the message of this sermons still stands, that to live baz’man hazeh, in the moment, means, for the Jew, to be able to balance an often cruel really with vision and hope. That’s what they did in Terezin (see Rosh Hashanah sermon for day 2), and if they could do it, so can we. So must we.
And despite all evidence to the contrary, there is good news out there. Even through the recrimination, some hope is beginning to shine through. We’ve seen this year how the pope’s visit to Israel was reciprocated by a statement from Jewish leaders calling upon Jews to join hands in partnership and mutual respect with the Christian world. And even between Jews and Arabs, there is hope, as illustrated by this story:
Just a few weeks ago, in early August, Omri Jadah, a Palestinian was accorded the funeral of a martyr. Over 7,000 carried his coffin aloft through the streets of his dusty village. He was a hero. But unlike so many martyrs who came before him, he wasn’t lionized because he killed Jews, but because he saved one. The 24-year-old construction worker lost his life rescuing an Israeli child from drowning in the Sea of Galilee. Jadah and a cousin had spent the afternoon barbecuing kebabs on the beach, napping, and swimming. They were packing up to leave when they spotted a 6-year-old boy flailing in the lake and screaming for help. Jadah swam out and towed the child back to the shore, fighting a strong current. Another Palestinian took the child from Jadah's arms and returned him unharmed to his mother. But Jadah, exhausted from the effort, was dragged toward the center of the lake by a strong undertow. By the time he was brought back to shore, he was in a coma. He died two days later, leaving behind a 2-year-old son, a 10-month-old daughter, and a pregnant 23-year-old widow.
Jadah's heroism turns on its heels some of the conventional assumptions about relations between Israelis and Palestinians. What was remarkable was not just the individual act of bravery but the seemingly universal acclaim it has received in a community where most of the heroes were those killed fighting Israelis, not rescuing them. "Politics is one thing, but a human life is another," said Jadah’s father, receiving visitors during the mourning period. "We are all born the same, without nationality or religion." Jadah's widow, Kifaya, rail-thin even in her seventh month of pregnancy, nodded her approval.
The Palestinian press has written glowingly of his feat -- Jadah was featured in a two-page color spread in Fosta, a popular glossy magazine, under the headline "The Story of Omri and the Jewish boy." Yasser Arafat sent his condolences to the family, as did Prime Minister Barak. "Everything is possible among the ordinary people," said an uncle, Abdullah Ghana Radah. "Even if the politicians, can't make peace, we can."
There are partners out there, even now, even if Yasser Arafat is apparently not one of them. There is true hope for global reconciliation, baz’man hazeh, if we can begin that process here at home, and among our own people. If only we can figure out how to bring an end to Jew vs. Jew, if peace can make it here, among the Jews, then peace can make it anywhere. It will almost seem easy to bring about a historic reconciliation between the Jews and our historic enemies. But it must begin here – within the family, with our love fo rfellow Jews here and our unbending support for our brothers and sisters in Israel.
And that is why the world needs us. Because we Jews are always experimenting with new ways to bring sanctity and harmony into the here and now. Ours is a dynamic tradition. We comb the Torah again and again, and delve into the Talmud, Midrash and Zohar for guidance. Ours is a good way, when it is truly followed, a way of pleasantness, a path to peace, unclouded by illusion, based in reality, flexible and fluid, strengthened by tradition, buoyed by hope, yet anchored to the present.
And now, as we enter the New Year, can this possibly be the year when even Jerusalem will finally see peace? We look for guidance to the model set out in Genesis Rabbah (56:10), an early fifth century collection of Midrash. Looking at the verse we discussed last week, where Abraham calls the place of the Akedah "Adonai Yireh," "God will show me a vision," the Midrash notes that the exact same spot was claimed generations before by Noah’s son Shem, who called it "Shalem." One holy place, two names, two nations. What’s a God to do? Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘If I call it Yireh as did Abraham, then Shem, a righteous man, will resent it; while if I call it Shalem as did Shem, Abraham, the righteous man, will resent it. Hence I will call it Jerusalem, including both names, Jireh Shalem. Jerusalem, the city of peace, city of different names, got its universal name through an act of compromise and outreach. If only the Arabs could see this. If only. Then the spirit of Omri Jada might have a chance to live on.
And one final story. This of a Holocaust survivor, a woman from Hungary, who told her tale to Steven Spielberg’s Survivor’s project and was featured in the award winning movie, "The Last Days." In this incredibly moving film, she speaks of one day at Auschwitz, how she had just witnessed yet another mass execution. And she thought: "They’ve taken my identity, they’ve taken my parents, they’ve taken my siblings, they’ve taken my possessions. They won’t even let us die when we choose. Why are they doing this? There is something that they want from me. What could it possibly be that they want so badly that they don’t already have?" And then she realized. "They wanted my soul. I said: they’re not going to take my soul. I decided then and there to get up from this mud and fight – that I was not going to become ashes."
The world looks to us as never before, and not just on the grand stages of Camp David, the Knesset or the campaign trail. The world is watching us, because it is fascinated by our ways. Let our ways be ways of pleasantness. The world is in awe of the indominable Jewish soul. Let us be worthy of that awe. These are indeed miraculous times. And we have a pivotal role to play, not as American Jews, but as Jewish Americans.
Next year, God willing, we will all be here, though we know that not even God can assure us of that. But we can be sure that this room will be full once again, and our congregation even larger and more vibrant; the room will be filled with people who have tales to tell about the miracles that brought them to this moment, this place of meeting, and all the places they’ve been and returned from safely, and all the excruciating decisions made or put off, all the paths that changed course midway, all the loves lost and gained. And together we will all say the Shehechianu prayer, and drop our jaws in utter astonishment at our good fortune merely to be alive. And we’ll understand, even more fully than now, what it means to be a spiritual Jew, a Jew who is truly Jewish. We’ll feel closer to one another and to God. And to the world, we shall be a blessing. Shehechianu, V’kiyemanu, V’higiyanu, Laz’man hazeh…