Wednesday, September 29, 2010

G-dcast Bereisheet

Parshat Bereshit from

More Torah cartoons at

Parshat Bereshit, again from

More Torah cartoons at

One Week to Go: J-Street and Dershowitz at TBE

Meanwhile, one week from now we'll be preparing for a High Holiday-sized turnout for the Harold Hoffman Memorial Lecture featuring Alan Dershowitz and J-Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami, entitled "Who Speaks for American Jews?" People will be coming from all over the country. Read the Jewish Week's article, U-Turn on J-Street, for some background on why next Thursday will be of vital importance to American Jewry and to Israel. I encourage all of you to come - don't let the expected crowds dissuade you, just plan to get here very early.

Current accusations have raised questions about Ben-Ami; but while he is clearly on the defensive - and his own job may be in jeopardy - there is still a need for some group to represent the feelings of a large segment of American Jewry who simply don't buy the pro-settlement spin. It's not a matter of the rightness of the argument on either side. It's that many aren't buying it. I don't think Israel wants to write off the support of a huge portion of American Jewry. I know I don't.

Read Tzipi Livni's recent JPost op-ed: Time for a new Jewish conversation. Her centrist Kadima party will, I believe, become increasingly vocal as it positions itself as the inevitable coalition partner for Likud as negotiating pressures heat up. She writes:

For too many young Diaspora Jews that I meet, Israel is not the source of pride or inspiration that it was for their parents' generation. Living in vibrant Jewish communities abroad - within states that embrace multiculturalism and respect religious and minority rights - too many Jews no longer feel they need Israel as a safe haven or as an anchor for their identity. What's more, they feel they have been taken for granted - their loyalty to Israel is expected, but their voice and their concerns are not heard.

As I've said before, if there were no J-Street, someone would have to invent it, Soros or no Soros. I've been a vocal supporter of AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations. Most do not choose to hear the concerns of those who question (often lovingly) Israeli government choices. Not all Jews agree that the Land is the ultimate value. I would contend that Judaism itself does not agree. There is a conversation to be had there, although likely not a meeting of the minds.

Livni also stated: This state of affairs requires a dramatic reframing of the role of Israel in Jewish life and the nature of the relationship between it and world Jewry that should be built around four key principles: First, if Israel is to realize its mission as the national home of the Jewish people, it must act like one. It must find ways to welcome rather than alienate Jews regardless of their opinions or the stream of Judaism with which they are affiliated. It must embrace an inclusive and pluralistic Jewish agenda that respects our traditions without denying the legitimacy of difference.

There is reason to believe that within Israel a new consensus is beginning to coalesce around the principles of pluralism so eloquently stated by Livni. Disgust over the continued provocations of the Haredim are fast reaching a tipping point. This week, it wasn't about arresting a woman for carrying a Torah or racist attacks against school integration with Sephardim. No, this week, a court ruling had to stop Ultra Orthodox Jews from erecting a plywood barrier in Jerusalem down the middle of a sidewalk and forcing women to walk on the other side. (See Israeli Court Rules Against Gender Segregated Sidewalks). This is not an Israel many American Jews would be proud of - and try as we might to separate "domestic" matters from negotiations with the Palestinians, it's impossible to do that, when we see the same engine driving the train. That's what PM Netanyahu understood when he shelved the Rotem Bill (though only for six months). But it took the Federation movement to convince him that he was heading toward a trainwreck.

I'd love for American Jews to be able to support Israel with one voice - I'm not sure that is possible. When a left-leaning government is next in power, and J-Street is securely in the Prime Minster's back pocket, the ZOA will certainly agree with me on that point. But short of seeking unanimity, we can still seek a little civility and some honesty as well. There is common ground to be had. Maybe it's about human rights. Maybe it's about what to say to Congress. Maybe it's even about conversion and the separation of religion and state. Let's find it.

And it's certainly about Iran.

I assume the sign is already on Bibi's desk. "It's Iran, Stupid!" What does that mean? It means that nothing else matters. I would assume it means that Israel knows that maintaining strong Administration support is more important than, well, just about anything. I have no problem with building houses in Ma'aleh Adumim, eventually. But I'd rather they not be incinerated, thank you.

I just hope that sign is on Bibi's desk.

Monday, September 27, 2010

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Eli Litchman on Sukkot

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot!

Sukkot has another name in Hebrew, Z’man Simhataynu, the Time of Rejoicing. In ancient times, this harvest festival was the biggest holiday of the entire year in the Jewish calendar. There’s even a commandment in the Torah, “And you shall be glad on your holiday, and you shall be only joyful.” And in Jewish tradition, music plays a central role in any celebration or festival. It certainly did in this one.

When the temple stood in Jerusalem, the festival was highlighted by a water drawing festival, where Levites played on many musical instruments, including harps, lyres and trumpets. "Whoever has not seen the celebration of the water libation has never experienced the feeling of true joy.”

As many of you know, I am very into music and I enjoy playing it a lot. My favorite instrument is the saxophone, which I have been playing for over five years. The sax was not one of those biblical instruments. In fact, it’s very new. It was invented in 1841 by a man named Adolphe Sax.

Although it is not an ancient instrument, I feel that the saxophone is kind of a Jewish instrument in some ways. For one thing, it appears that Adolphe Sax was himself Jewish. He was also looking to create something that would be a combination of a powerful woodwind and an adaptive brass, bridging the middle ground between the two sections.

Jews have often been able to bridge different cultures. We’ve lived all over the world at all different times of history and we’ve been able to take a little from each culture we’ve experienced. Jews have also become very good at adapting to new environments.

Also, the sound of the saxophone is unique and different. It is perfect for jazz, and the Jewish form of jazz known as Klezmer, because it has a soulful sound. It can sound sad at times, but it also is heard often at joyous occasions like weddings – and has a sound that is very appealing to the human ear.

Plus, the saxophone can work well in any type of arrangement, either in classical or jazzy setting, either with other instruments or by itself. And one more thing. More than almost any other instrument, the saxophone lends itself to improvisation. The notes are on the page, but I’m also free to add in anything that I feel can be added in. At times I even create my own music and sounds. I just feel what I want to happen in the music, then I open my mouth, blow, and music comes out. It’s a great feeling to have total control over what comes out of the instrument, and yet there’s a mystery to it as well.

Growing up is like that. You have control over what you can do, but in the end, it’s a mystery as to what will happen.

As I continue to grow and get older, although many things will change, certain things will stay with me, including my saxophone and my Jewish studies. On this festival of rejoicing, I hope that through these tools and instruments, I’ll be able to spread happiness to the world.

For my mitzvah project I chose to collect and have repaired used instruments to donate to children who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to have the joy of music in their lives. My cousin Michael Simons has created a non-profit organization called Intonation Music Workshop which reaches out to inner city children through music, providing the instruments and the instruction as well as the opportunity to perform and develop a passion for music. To date I have collected ten alto saxophones, one tenor saxophone, one trumpet, two flutes, two violins, one accordion, one electric keyboard and one acoustic guitar for donation. You see some of these on the bima today and will see more of them at our celebration tonight. I still need to have these instruments repaired and transported to Chicago and welcome any donations.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tzipi Livni: Time for a new Jewish conversation (JPost)

Very impressive - and important statement by Livni...

The leader of the opposition, and head of Kadima, on the rift between young Diaspora Jews and Israel – and what we can do to bridge it.

Like any good family, the Jewish people have shown time and again how we can unite in times of crisis. When Israel faced its enemies on the battlefield or when Jewish communities abroad have been threatened, we have come together and recognized our collective responsibility for one another.

But if this alone is the nature of the ties that bind us, it constitutes a failure of vision and of leadership. To define ourselves only by the threats we face is to allow our adversaries to define us. It is a definition founded in fear. This may be a mechanism for Jewish survival but it is not a prescription for vibrant and meaningful Jewish living.

Israel – as the homeland of the Jewish people – has a central role to play in developing a positive and unifying vision for the Jewish world. And yet, in my meetings with Jewish leaders and citizens from around the world I have been struck by the growing sense that Israel’s place in Jewish life is eroding.

For too many young Diaspora Jews that I meet, Israel is not the source of pride or inspiration that it was for their parents’ generation. Living in vibrant Jewish communities abroad – within states that embrace multiculturalism and respect religious and minority rights – too many Jews no longer feel they need Israel as a safe haven or as an anchor for their identity. What’s more, they feel they have been taken for granted – their loyalty to Israel is expected, but their voice and their concerns are not heard.

Within this country, identity is increasingly pulled between two poles: one, a secular Israeli identity centered around army service and the Hebrew language; the other a growing but narrowly defined Orthodox or haredi Jewish existence. In the process, a common commitment to the ideas and values that unite us as a people and that can resonate with Jews here and around the world seems increasingly tenuous These trends should alarm anyone who cares about the unity and future of the Jewish people. They not only threaten to fragment the Jewish people, but they place the Jewish communities here and in the Diaspora on radically different trajectories which undermine and weaken both.

THIS STATE of affairs requires a dramatic reframing of the role of Israel in Jewish life and the nature of the relationship between it and world Jewry that should be built around four key principles: First, if Israel is to realize its mission as the national home of the Jewish people, it must act like one. It must find ways to welcome rather than alienate Jews regardless of their opinions or the stream of Judaism with which they are affiliated. It must embrace an inclusive and pluralistic Jewish agenda that respects our traditions without denying the legitimacy of difference.

While Israel must retain its sovereign authority to determine its own future, decisions taken in Jerusalem that affect the Jewish people as a whole require that we listen to, consult with and take account of the concerns and interests of Jews beyond our borders.

Second, the relationship between Israel and world Jewry cannot be founded on shlilat hagola (negating the Diaspora), nor on the mistaken idea that Israel is no longer central to Jewish life. For the first time since the Babylonian age, the Jewish people live in vibrant communities both in their ancient homeland and abroad. The relationship between these communities should be seen as mutually reinforcing rather than hierarchical.

As Zionists, we must continue to encourage aliya, but we also have a vital interest in the vibrancy and welfare of Diaspora communities.

Similarly, Diaspora Jews have a critical stake in Israel’s success and prosperity.

This is not only because Israel must always be a place of refuge in times of need. It is also because Israel – through its rebirth and its very existence – gives sovereign expression to our people’s collective right to self-determination and creates unimagined opportunity for Jewish renewal, creativity and engagement with the world.

Third, if we are to encourage a common sense of purpose and belonging, there must be a place within Jewish discourse for responsible criticism of Israel’s policies, even from overseas, without it being considered an act of betrayal. To equate supporting Israel with supporting the policies of any given government at any given time risks distancing Jews by forcing upon them a false choice between their commitment to Israel and their personal worldview. Israel is a confident and strong democracy and it is able to withstand and contain this kind of criticism.

AT THE same time, those who criticize from within the family – those who criticize out of love – have responsibilities as well. They must be conscious of the fact that their criticism may be exploited for more sinister ends by Israel’s enemies and they should shape the context and form of their criticism accordingly. They must also show sensitivity to the excruciating dilemmas and constraints under which Israel operates and not fall victim to the double standards that so often characterize its critics.

Fourth, and most important, while in many ways Israel has realized the Zionist vision of establishing a Jewish state, we have yet to succeed in creating a Jewish society. By this, I do not mean a theocratic society founded on Torah. I mean a society that is inspired by Jewish values, tradition and experience – a society that is a source of meaning, identity, culture and spiritual growth for Jews around the world, and a source of leadership and moral example for the world as a whole.

It is a society that answers the questions of what we stand for and what we contribute not because we are threatened by enemies that seek to delegitimize us, but because we owe it to ourselves and our children. This is not just a project for Israelis, it is a project for Jews worldwide – it is a responsibility that both communities share and neither can abandon.

In 1897, at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people were able to unite around a profound idea that transformed Jewish history – the miraculous rebirth of a state for the Jewish people in their ancient homeland.

It is time for us to embark upon a new Jewish conversation with that same revolutionary spirit – a conversation that recognizes that Israel and world Jewry are together writing the next chapter of Jewish history.

It is within our power and our responsibility to generate that conversation and articulate a new Zionist vision that transcends political differences and gives expression to the unity and vitality of the Jewish people, its values and its potential.

The writer is leader of the opposition and head of the Kadima party.

J-Street's Full Page Ad - October 7 is Coming!

Did you see J-Street's full page ad in several newspapers today, including the New York Times? It sends a very powerful message and only ups the ante for October 7th's conversation between Alan Dershowitz and Jeremy Ben Ami, right here at TBE.

David Grossman, the great Israeli novelist, has said, regarding the current talks, "I don't have the luxury of despair." I agree with that, which is why I've endorsed other J-Street efforts.

I haven't signed on to this one, though, because the text of the ad makes an issue of settlements without mentioning the many other issues on the table right now. True, the Sept 26 deadline is fast approaching, and it seems clear that Israel's current moratorium on settlement construction will either end or be modified. But the parties know all about the deadline and it weakens Israel's hand to make mention of settlements in isolation - in an otherwise powerful and effective ad.
Click here to see the full newspaper ad.

Make no mistake, the neocons have J-Street on their radar, and one blogger is even targeting rabbis (gasp) who have supported various positions J-Street has taken. It all reeks of the same demonization that has become all too prevalent in Israel, where any group advocating human rights and dialogue has been vilified, Rabin style, as traitors (one rabbi called the New Israel Fund a "Rodent in the Mikva.")

It will be verrrry interesting to see where Ben Ami lands on Dershowitz's vilification scale (and vice versa), or whether the two will discover vast areas of agreement. I'm hoping that will be the case.

Be here on the 7th - and get here early! People are coming in from all over the country. Student groups will be coming from Yale and Brown (whose delegation will be led by my son Ethan, naturally) and who knows where else.

Sukkah City

Check out to see the winners of this year's Sukkah City contest. Some of the entrants are incredible.

What is a Sukkah? (My Jewish Learning)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Yom Kippur Sermon 5771 "When Everything Changes"

Yom Kippur Day 5771
"When Everything Changes"
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Click below to hear the audio of the sermon:

If you can't play this or are looking for a different format, click here

Last week I spoke about how to deal with a chaotic world that seems to be spinning increasingly out of control. We’ve talked about some of the keys to dealing with this increasingly complicated world, including love, discipline and the need to structure our time.

Today we take another tack in dealing with the craziness, and in particular the accelerated pace of change. How do we cope when everything suddenly changes overnight? When black turns to white. When newspapers and books disappear. When jobs disappear. When loved ones get sick or die. When worlds come crashing down. The ability to adapt to change has become the basic survival skill of our generation.

This is also the question of the High Holidays. How do we deal with change? And this is as good a year as any to ask that question. There have been a number of changes here, some major, some less so. Each change has its own ripple effect. We stand when we used to sit and sit when we used to stand. The rabbi has a new kipah and the cantor uses a guitar. A new machzor means new translations and readings as well as adjustments in page numbers. We say goodbye to “xenophobia,” and “Our Father Our King,” even though the Hebrew words are mostly the same. And this year we’ve rearranged the honors, resulting in fewer ark openings.

Change, change, change. It’s no wonder that Woodrow Wilson once said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” But I think if President Wilson had been sitting here over the past ten days, he would think differently.

Teshuvah is supposed to reawaken something in ourselves, enabling us to create something new and beautiful, to see the old with new eyes, to encounter the old in new ways. To change.
That’s never easy. But it is so necessary. The old adage “Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine” no longer holds true. It’s more than inevitable now, and vending machines take credit cards. But when we can get our arms around the change, no matter how unwelcome it is, then we embrace life, and we enhance our potential to make a difference as human beings.
Every breath brings about change. It is said that the average adult takes between 12-16 breaths in a given minute, which translates to about 20,000 per day. And where does that precious breath come from? We get half our oxygen from trees, so you can thank a tree when you leave here today. And the other half, I am told, comes from plankton located far below the surface of the deep, in places like Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. We are seriously connected to those little guys. There is a flow of life, one living thing connected to the other. Every day of our lives, while asleep and awake, as the force of life is flowing though us, our hearts beat, 72 times per minute. Between 50 and 70 billion cells die each day on every human adult. So you think things don’t change? We’re changing dramatically by the second.

What’s a new machzor, when we’re replacing 70 billion cells a day?

When I was on the Island of Rhodes this summer, I saw a potter at his wheel. It was one of those side excursions they add to tours to give us a chance to buy at factory rates. But this was no factory, it was a studio, and after I had finished annoying people with puns about Grecian urns, I took a look at the potter – and I was astounded at how quickly a lump of clay became a beautifully shaped vase – less than a minute. A little touch here, a little there, and it was complete. And then, just like that, demonstration over, he took some wire in both hands and sliced the vase right down the middle like it was a piece of cheese, and both sides collapsed and it was smushed it into a lump again.

We read in last night’s liturgy that we are like clay in the hands of the potter. Constantly changing shape. Continually on a journey toward completion, but never quite getting there. One minute almost whole, the next, a clump of clay and we start all over.

That lovely piyyut also states that we are glass in the hands of the glassblower. God breathes life into us just as the blower shapes the glass – that divine breath is called Neshama. In Kabbalistic lore, that breath then takes a more human form in our bodies, invigorating us with life. The breath that we then exhale, projecting it back out into the world is called nefesh. The give and take of God’s breath and our own, neshama and nefesh, bespeak a very dynamic way of being human.

For we really aren’t human beings. We are human becomings. We are constantly evolving and growing. Evolving, growing and connecting to everything around us. There’s a little bit of each of us in that plankton and in that tree, and certainly in one another, and in every human being on this planet.

This year, the film Avatar captured perfectly this sense of our sacred connection with all creation, the trees living in harmony with those super evolved blue human-like creatures. The film resonates authentically with Jewish beliefs. And with three billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales, I think it’s a safe guess that it’s resonating out there as well.

Kids today are much more prepared then the rest of us to embrace rapid change. The ten year olds among us have seen more technological change in a decade than our great grandparents saw in an entire lifetime.

This is reflected in that latest fad that seems to have only intensified over the summer, Silly Bandz. Talk about trendy! I gave out dozens of Jewish ones to kids last week and when I came into the Hebrew School classrooms with it was as if Justin Bieber had just entered the room, with Miley Cyrus on his arm. So what’s so popular about them? They shape shift when you put them on your arm. And it’s the shape-shifting aspect of Silly Bandz that I find the most attractive to this elusive, perplexing, altogether strange new generation that we are producing, these post-millennials whose identities seem forever to be shifting like the shapes of the bands they now wear. Online transformations occur instantly. Doctor a photo. Invent a relationship. Create a whole past. For contemporary teens, perpetual transformation has become routine. Maybe that’s why vampires are so hot right now, even for adults.

Thoreau wrote: “Things do not change; we change.”

George Bernard Shaw said: “The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”

Everything is constantly changing.

Judaism changes too. And it must. The answers that held true a few decades ago are often irrelevant in today’s context. People have made so much of the challenges of the Conservative movement. There is talk about changing the name. We shouldn’t fear that. “Conservative” doesn’t work anymore. Rather than conserving Jewish traditions, we should be breathing new life into them. That’s how you conserve things – by helping them to change. That’s why they call them MOVEMENTS. Because they MOVE.

We’ve taken that to heart here, in any number of ways. We know that we need to be more inclusive of interfaith families than Conservative shuls have been historically. We’ve done that. We know that we can’t expect people to come looking for us, the way Jews used to automatically join synagogues. We have to go out and find them. We have to make the case. We know we provide something that people need; we just have to convince them of that. What we provide here has to be authentic but refreshing, comforting yet absolutely compelling. It’s a very different world out there – synagogues need to change in order to survive. And we have.
Religion isn’t about preserving fossils. It’s not about staying the same. Each of us must adapt in order to grow. It is religion’s job to help us do that, to empower us to deal with change, to give us the sense of security and grounding to go out into the world and to change it. To take that first step into the Red Sea, as an unknown Israelite named Nachshon is said to have done –the midrash has it that he walked in up to his neck and only then did the sea split. Religion gives us comfort, but it also helps us to stake out our place in this swiftly changing world. Its job is to remove us from our comfort zone, so that we will snap to life – so that we will take advantage of every minute of precious life that we have.

So the little secret is now out: Judaism has a bias toward change. Yes, there are things that remain constant. We need an anchor. Some things never change. The Mets, for instance (sorry). And in Judaism, we have an eternal covenant with God – but while the Torah is unchanging and canonical, its interpretation always changes. The words stay the same, but the meanings revolve around them. They ebb and they flow.

Matzah doesn’t change. That’s absolutely true. Put matzah in a time capsule and fifty years later open it up, it will taste exactly the same. Yet Matzah is never left alone on the Seder table. It is constantly being challenged for attention by the wine. And wine is the very symbol of change, of fermentation. Lift the wine, cover the mitzvah, empty the cup, lift the matzah. It’s a game. And it seems like a level playing field. Except that at the end of the Seder the matzah’s all gone and only the wine remains. Once the last crumb of the afikoman has disappeared, we’ve still got two cups of wine to go. And then we add one for good measure for Elijah. The wine wins. Change wins.

And in the Sh’ma, in that second paragraph, where it talks about the connection between morality and our environment, three types of produce are mentioned, and all are symbols of transformation. Dagancha, v’tiroshcha v’yitzharecha. Wine, grain and olive oil.

The olive is like the Jewish people. The more you crush it, the more refined and valuable it becomes. The oil of the menorah transforms darkness to light. Olive oil, when poured on the head of a commoner can transform him into a king. When poured on the head of a leper, he was welcomed back into the community of the living. And the olive branch symbolizes the ultimate transformation that we all await – a world at peace.

Grapes also symbolize transformation. In ancient times on Yom Kippur afternoon, young girls would dance in the vineyards and find husbands for themselves. Just as grapes transform into wine, wine’s impact on the drinker is also instantly transformational. You would think that the rabbis would be suspicious of wine, but as I said, Judaism has a bias for change. The book of Judges states that “wine brings joy to God and man.” And what would Shabbat be without wine? Grapes have their own special blessing – boray pri hagafen. No other food can boast that.
The blessing over bread, meanwhile, is the one used for the entire meal, the motzi. As we say that blessing, we understand that the grain has undergone massive transformation from the time it is planted to the moment it appears on our table, through the divine human partnership.
It is interesting that these three agents of change, found in the Sh’ma, also appear on the Shabbat table. The wine, the hallah and the candles. All come from products vital to sustaining life.
And that verse from the Sh’ma also appears in the mezuzah, at the entrance to every Jewish home. It’s as if our homes themselves are agents of change – and wherever we turn, we are being told to embrace it. And pray that God will protect us on life’s incredible journey.
Judaism indeed has a bias for change.

Even God has evolved, at least our conception of God; it’s shifted dramatically from the warrior sky God of the Bible to the Rabbis’ concept of ha-Rachaman – the womblike embodiment of love. This is also, by the way a Muslim name for God. Maimonides looked to reasoned Aristotelian thought for his God, while the Kabbalists added a sense of balance, of yin and yang, to their mystical eroticism. Art Green, whose new book, “Radical Judaism,” I’ve been citing this week, writes, “The Oneness of God, for the Kabbalists, is dynamic and flowing rather than static and unmoved.” God is flowing, emanating, unfolding, and so is Creation.
God is, in fact, breath itself - the life force embodied in breath. We actually have a prayer that says just that. NIshmat Kol Chai tevarech et shimcha Adonai Eloheynu. All who breathe praise You. To breathe is to testify to the march of life, the gift of constantly becoming, constantly growing. Even God’s very name mimics the act of breathing. Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey. Pronounce it and you get the sound of breath. It’s no accident. God is found in that flow of life, in the process of change, and we are created in God’s image. Kol Haneshama t’halelya halleluyah says Psalm 150. The mere act of breathing is a prayer.

I’ve had a renewed fascination with Darwin lately – partly because of the attention given last year’s 150th anniversary of his birth. Given the newest discoveries in DNA research, his theories on evolution have now been nearly universally accepted by the scientific community. The pope has even given his hechsher. The evidence of our evolutionary ancestry is written all over the human genome. Intelligent Design has been discredited – notably in trials in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But that doesn’t mean God is out of the picture.

There are those who are very concerned that accepting Darwin’s notion that humanity is an accident of nature would be a bad thing for morality. They claim that if you teach kids that they are evolved from apes they are going to behave like murderous animals.

Prof Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown and bestselling author, disagrees with the Creationists on this. The core of their argument is that evolution is driven by mistakes. And it’s true that evolution is driven by mutation. “But imagine an organism that never made these mistakes,” Miller says. “We think of mistakes as being bad, but if you have no mistakes, you have no mutation, you have no evolution.

What’s going to happen to an organism that replicates its DNA perfectly every time? It’s not going to survive. So by what standard are we calling these mistakes?”
In evolution, perfection is the road to extinction. The path to survival is the path of growth, of change, of shattered patterns.

Maybe evolution is not a mistake of nature, Miller suggests. Maybe it is, in effect, the “design” of nature. The way nature is supposed to work. Somehow, and we don’t know how, something happened that drove that first amphibian to take a big gulp of air and climb ashore. Somehow, at some point, something drove that first bird to flap its wings and soar. Somehow, at some point, a pair of chromosomes melded together – we know which ones they are, marking the evolution from ape to human. Maybe it was random, maybe it wasn’t, but either way, one can easily fit a model of God into this scenario, not a God who micromanages every detail of the universe, but who created a process of flow and change that we call evolution, which reflects the will of the Creator.

One could easily make the claim that evolution is simply teshuvah writ large. Just as we make mistakes and grow from them, so does DNA. So does the universe. So does God.

I think Einstein would agree. The universe, like Judaism, has a bias for change.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote the following after a trial where the Kansas Board of Education tried to impose anti-evolution curricula on classrooms - and lost.

He wrote: “How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education, too.”

The God I believe in is a God of change. Our lives are governed not by stagnancy but by flow. The only constant is change, and we need to adapt, constantly adapt to it. We need to Grow with the Flow. Like nature itself, we are not perfect. We make mistakes. But perfection is the road to extinction. When we become perfect someday, we’ll all have become robots. Perfection is not a goal to aim for; it is an illusion to dispel.

I love you. You’re perfect. Now change!

Perfection in fact is measured BY the ABILITY to change, to adapt, to learn from our mistakes, to shed old skins, to put on a new yarmulke from time to time, to heal after a catastrophe. As Reb Nachman said, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” Perfection is all about growing and not stopping until the moment we stop breathing.

Rabbi Dayle Friedman writes about someone who took that idea quite literally.

“As a spiritual caregiver to elders, I have often wondered if it is ever too late for forgiveness. Sam and his son and daughter-in-law, Irv and Deborah, taught me that forgiveness is possible until we draw our very last breath.

In the 30 years Deborah and Irv had been married, Sam never gave Deborah a break.
Imperious and harshly critical, Sam never acknowledged Deborah as a loving wife and mother. He never thanked her for shopping for him, for taking him to the doctor, or for remembering his birthdays. Now 95 and still crusty but worn out, Sam lay dying in the hospital.

Deborah and Irv were at Sam’s bedside when I arrived. I offered Sam an opportunity to say Viddui, the traditional Jewish deathbed confessional prayer. “You know I don’t believe in God, Rabbi,” Sam replied. I said, “Sam, I think this prayer is really an opportunity to talk to one another as much as to God. Maybe there are things that you, Irv, and Deborah would like to say in this last part of your lives together.”

Deborah went first. “Pop, I love you, I always have.” Irv stroked Sam’s hair and said, “Pop, I love you. I’m going to really miss you.”

With tears in his eyes, Sam turned to Deborah: “You know, I’ve been really hard on you. You have been good to me. I love you.” Deborah, crying now, too, replied, “I know you do, Pop. I forgive you.”

Together, we recited the Shema.”

The Sh’ma – the perfect transitional and transformational prayer. The one that helps us mark the change from evening to morning, from past to future, from lying down to rising up, from home to away, from childhood to Bar Mitzvah to parenthood, from life to death, from comfort to martyrdom, from periphery to witness, and all by uttering the name of God, Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey – the name that is breath, the One that is One, proclaiming that all life is, in fact one – as long as we are breathing. You WILL Love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. B’kchol nafshecha – with all your nefesh. As we learned before, that word nefesh means more than soul. It is that sacred breath of life, breathed into us by God, which we breathe back out into the world. To breathe is to testify to the gift of being alive, of constantly becoming, constantly growing.

The Psalmist exclaims, “Lo Amut Ki Echyeh” – I shall not die but LIVE, and declare the works of the Lord.

Tradition has it that this Psalm (118) was written at the shores of Red Sea, at the place where it appeared life would hit a dead end. Before Nachson made his leap into the water as the Egyptians closed in. Lo Amut ki echyeh! That must have been what the first amphibian said when it took the first step OUT of the water. “That’s one small step for a frog. One giant leap for the God’s unfolding, mutating plan.”

I’ve been speaking a lot this week about various journeys I’ve taken recently, in particular the trip to Poland last April, with the March of the Living and our local Kulanu group. Several of stories I’ve recounted have appeared before, as I’ve spoken and written about the trip quite a bit. But there is one story that I have not yet recounted until right now. I do so today with great trepidation.

Just two hours after my first visit Auschwitz, I nearly died of suffocation. Two hours earlier, I had set foot for the first time into the gas chambers, struggling to imagine what it must have felt like to stand there a generation ago, how I would have responded if crammed alongside a thousand others denied of breath. My eyes were transfixed by the victims’ scratch marks that can still be seen on the walls.

Still shaken from that close encounter with genocidal asphyxiation, two hours later, at dinner in Krakow, a soup crouton, no bigger than a pea - about the size of a pellet of Zyklon B - somehow got lodged in my trachea. For what seemed like an eternity, I couldn’t breathe.

The world was filled with clogged air passages that week. The group’s flight from New York to Krakow was delayed because of thick fog over Poland – the same fog that took the life of Poland’s president the next day. And the following week we left Warsaw for Israel just as the airways of Europe were being choked by the Icelandic ash cloud.

In the midst of a large hall filled with hundreds of teenagers, the adults in our group sat at a long table for an impromptu staff meeting, a fortunate thing since our staff included two physicians. I came back from the food line with a bowl of vegetable soup, being sure to sprinkle a couple of spoonfuls of soup nuts on top – the Israeli kind that I’ve always loved. A few gulps in, I felt something not quite right in the back of my throat. When a gulp of water didn’t clear up the problem, I began to get concerned. A few seconds later, I could feel the crouton slide an inch or two and my air passage was blocked.

I stood and began shaking my head. Someone near me asked me to try to breathe, but all I could do was let out a seal-like bark, loud enough to startle everyone, I think in the entire room, perhaps in all of Krakow. One of the doctors came up behind me, wrapped his arms around my diaphragm and pumped hard. I felt some air squeeze out, but the Heimlich didn’t work.

“Some air is getting in,” cried the other doctor, who was sitting across the table. “You’re going to be OK.”

I didn’t believe it. Frankly, I’m not sure what I believed at that moment. I’d be lying if I said I thought about the irony of choking HERE, in Zyklon’s backyard. I didn’t see how people were reacting around me. All I knew was that my mouth was wide open, my face a contorted Scream mask, but no air was getting in.

My time was running out.

I mentally clutched every molecule of oxygen still in me and begin to feel the compulsion to breathe again.

“Try to breathe” is what I heard. I did. Another deathly croak.

“Some air is getting through!” I heard the doctor, but began to feel dizzy and a full panic set in. Not here. Not now. Don’t black out!

The doctor behind me attempted one more Heimlich thrust. Hard.

I felt a whoosh. Something moved inside. It was the soup nut.
I sucked in my most significant breath since birth, the last time a doctor had slapped some air into me. I breathed in Neshama. I breathed out Nefesh.

And we all continued with our dinner.

Analogies are dangerous and I would never claim to have nearly become victim 6 million and one. I was no near-martyr, no Akiva or Anne Frank, just an unlucky swallower, one fortunate enough to have doctors around who were trying to save me rather than kill me.

But I will now be able to convey the martyr’s story with a unique empathy. The terror of dying by asphyxiation is one that I can now begin to understand. The horror of being cruelly stripped of all humanity: that is something I’ll never comprehend.

Ten days later, our plane home from Israel took a circuitous, southern route to avoid ingesting that volcanic cloud of Icelandic ash. Somewhere over France, I set my iPod to shuffle and up popped John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”

Corniest song ever written.

But maybe it was the lilting music, the lyrics or recalling Denver’s own untimely demise; it all suddenly hit me: the crematorium and the crouton, the overwhelming beauty and fragility of life, the enormity of what had nearly happened, my family still intact, it all took my breath away.
I cried some muffled tears, collected myself, and breathed deeply.

Did that incident change me? Well, I’ve stopped eating those croutons. I am very careful when I eat – at times I almost feeling like saying tfillat haderech ( the traveler’s prayer), for every bite of food that goes in.

As of today I’ve taken about three and a quarter million breaths since the one that seemed like it would be my last. My heart has thumped about 700,000 times and 9.6 trillion cells have been replenished in my body. Now, for the rest of my days, I’ll be doing literally what the Jewish people have been doing for the past 65 years: measuring my life by the number of breaths taken since Auschwitz.

It has changed me. I smile more. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I get angry less. And I thank God every day for the gift of being alive – and the chance to grow some more.
I know that so many of you are suffering out there, victims of these tumultuous times, or simply casualties of time itself. I hope you can gain some comfort from these words. And from the words of the Sh’ma, which is our greatest prayer for a reason. It is a prayer that has withstood the winds of relentless change over the centuries. Because it contains within it the source of those very winds – the breath of Life itself, the nefesh, and all the tools we need to cope with it, the grain, the wine and the oil.

On this Yom Kippur, I thank my lucky plankton for each of the three and a quarter million breaths I’ve breathed since last April. We turn to the Sh’ma, which bathes us in blessing twice daily, imploring us to live a life of love and discipline, to bear witness and to embrace a world of unceasing change. And I pledge, perhaps more than any Yom Kippur before, never to stop growing, until I breathe my last.
Lo Amut – Ki Achyeh….I shall not die – I shall live – to declare the works of the Lord.

May it be, for all of us, a year of unrelenting growth – a year of movement, of fermentation, of transformation and mutation- of trial and error – and giant leaps – a year of life. Amen.

Kol Nidre Sermon 5771 "Bearing Witness"

Kol Nidre 5771
Bearing Witness
By Joshua Hammerman

Hear the audio of the sermon here:

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Can you say Kaddish for a shoe?

I found myself asking that question a few weeks ago when I heard the sad news that a fire had destroyed some shoes.

Now normally, losing a few shoes in a fire is not such big news, but these weren’t just any shoes. These were the shoes warehoused in a barracks at Majdanek, a thousand of them, destroyed by a flash fire believed to be accidental.

Majdanek, the infamous death camp on the outskirts of Lublin, called by a New York Times war reporter “the most terrible place on earth,” is the one camp that has remained virtually unchanged since the day of its liberation. The Nazis didn’t have time to destroy the evidence because the Soviet Army swooped in so quickly. And of all the exhibits there, the barracks filled with shoes leaves the most indelible impression. Now the shoes and their rightful owners have been reunited on high. Having been there last April, I felt a very personal, deep sense of loss when I heard about the fire last month.

Can you say Kaddish for a shoe?

I’m thinking of one shoe in particular, one that grabbed my attention. It was red, a child’s shoe - tiny. All the rest were dusty and grey, but this one retained its color, as if to call attention to the innocence of the children and the uniqueness of every victim.

Primo Levi has stated that in the Camps, death began with the shoes. As feet began to throb from infection from days and days of marching and the pain from the sores that became fatally infected, the shoes became instruments of torture. But now the shoes play a different role entirely.

The Yiddish poet Moshe Shulstein writes:

I saw a mountain
Higher than Mt. Blanc
And more Holy that the Mountain of Sinai
On this world this mountain stood.
such a mountain I saw—Jewish shoes in Majdanek….

Hear! Hear the march.
Hear the shuffle of shoes left behind—that which remained.
From small, from large, from each and every one.
Make ways for the rows—for the pairs—For the generations—for the years.
The shoe army—it moves and moves.

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers,
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of stuff and leather
And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire. We shoes—that used to go strolling in the market
Or with the bride and groom to the chuppah
We shoes from simple Jews, from butchers and carpenters,
From crocheted booties of babies just beginning to walk …

Unceasingly we go. We tramp.
The hangman never had a chance to snatch us into his
Sack of loot—now we go to him.
Let everyone hear the steps which flow as tears.
The steps that measure out the judgment.

Columnist Michael Berenbaum adds, “The shoes of Majdanek are rotting. They smell. The rot and the smell tell us of the distance that stands between that time and our time. They bear witness to the erosion of time, which we do not want to couple with the erosion of memory.”

The shoes bear witness.

Well, a thousand of those shoes are now no more. But these shoes are not the last witnesses.

For now we must stand in their shoes.

When you look in a Torah scroll at the verse containing the Sh’ma, one thing becomes immediately clear, even to a person who does not read Hebrew. Two letters are larger than the rest, the final letters of the word Sh’ma and Echad – the ayin and the daled.

No one really knows why this is. One possibility is to make sure not to mispronounce those two words. The daled at the end of Echad, for instance, can easily be misread as a resh, which would change the word from echad to acher, from the word “one” to “another.” “Hear O Israel, Adonai Elohenu is another deity entirely,” sort of distorts the meaning.

But commentators have also speculated that the reason for the two enlarged letters has something to do with the word that you get when you put the ayin and daled together. And that is the word “ed,” “witness.” There is something about the Sh’ma that calls on each of us to bear witness.

But bear witness to what? And how? And why?

That’s what I’d like to talk about this evening, having recited the Sh’ma all together only a few moments ago. We said it all together, but each of us bore witness to it individually.
Notice that unlike a blessing, there is no place to say “AMEN” after the Sh’ma. Typically, it’s enough to hear the cantor say a blessing and all we have to do is acknowledge it by saying “Amen.” And in that way we have fulfilled the responsibility of saying that prayer. Not so with the Sh’ma. Each of us must actively recite it, usually in full voice, so that we can hear ourselves affirm divine unity, each of us bearing witness to it on our own.

There is a response to the Sh’ma. But it’s not AMEN. It’s that verse that was recited in the days of the temple when the people heard the High Priest pronounce that most sacred of names, on the holiest moment of the year, on Yom Kippur, in the most mysterious place, the Holy of Holies. “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed - Blessed be the Name of the One whose glorious sovereignty is forever and ever.” Traditionally this verse is recited silently after that first line of the Sh’ma.

Except on Yom Kippur.

This is the day when we can feel the awe, this is the one day when we are close enough to the source of all life and meaning, that we can sense, even if only for an instant, the clarity of our mission – our place in the scheme of things. So we can say OMG! to what we have seen.
It’s more than an AMEN. Amen is what bystanders say. Amen is the polite applause after a chamber concert. Amen is the nod of agreement after a sermon or the broad smile after a bar mitzvah speech. Amen is a letter to the editor, or clicking “likes this” on Facebook. Amen is what spectators do.

The Sh’ma is for witnesses.

In saying the Sh’ma, we are walking in the steps of all those who said it before us or who will after us. Our kids or grandkids at bedtime. Jacob’s children at their father’s bedside – assuring their dad, whose name was Israel, “Sh’ma Yisra’el - Listen, Dad, Israel, your God and our God, they’re one and the same. We’ll carry on.”

And when we say the Sh’ma we are bearing witness to martyrs, who from Roman times onward, had these sacred words on their lips while meeting their demise. Rabbi Akiva and the others in the first century, to the martyrs of the first Crusade in 1096, the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, the massacres of Polish Jewry in 1648, the Czarist pogroms and the Holocaust.

Rabbi Akiva was sentenced to death for studying Torah. The Romans tortured him by scraping off his flesh with a giant comb. As he was being tortured, Akiva recited the Sh’ma , and his students asked how he could praise God while in such pain?" Rabbi Akiva replied: "All my life, I strived to love God with all my soul. Now that I have the opportunity to fulfill it, I do so with joy!" With his dying breath, he sanctified God's name by crying out the words of Sh’ma.
So when we say the Sh’ma we aren’t just remembering them. We’re bearing witness to their suffering and their triumphs. We’re saying, for all to hear, that their story has become our story.

I know that it’s a downer to talk about martyrdom and such. I mentioned last week how important it is to place less emphasis on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in conveying a more positive sense of being Jewish to the next generation. I have always been a true believer in “Jewish and Joyish.”

But having gone to Poland for the first time this year, I came to a greater understanding of what it means to be a witness.

I documented the trip with thousands of photographs and nightly blogs, because I wanted, the greatest degree possible, to bring all of you along with me, so that you could get a sampling of what we were experiencing. A few of them, including one featuring the shoes, are scrolling right now on our TV screen in the lobby. The confluence of events that took place that week, the death of the Polish president, placed an added significance on this journey – as our group wasn’t simply learning history, we were making history. Instead of simply visiting the graveyards of our people, we were making a shiva call to a nation – a nation that had to a great extent sat silently while we were butchered (though with notable exceptions). And we were representing all of the Jewish people, and certainly American Jewry, since the March of the Living is big news over there, and in Israel.

But this sermon actually germinated last fall, on a much shorter journey, when about 70 of us went to the 92nd St Y to hear Elie Wiesel. He met with our group separately before the presentation, and in particular, spent time with Andrew Schwartz, who had chosen Wiesel’s foundation as his bar mitzvah project. During a special question and answer session for our group, I asked Wiesel what I should say to Andrew in my charge to him at his Bar Mitzvah. Wiesel responded immediately: Tell him that anyone who hears the story of a witness himself becomes a witness.

In a stirring speech given at the White House in 1999, Wiesel said, “Fifty-four years ago to the day, a young Jewish boy from a small town in the Carpathian Mountains woke up, not far from Goethe's beloved Weimar, in a place of eternal infamy called Buchenwald. He was finally free, but there was no joy in his heart. He thought there never would be again.

Liberated a day earlier by American soldiers, he remembers their rage at what they saw. And even if he lives to be a very old man, he will always be grateful to them for that rage, and also for their compassion. Though he did not understand their language, their eyes told him what he needed to know -- that they, too, would remember, and bear witness.”

We bear witness with our eyes.

On the March of the Living, our group not only heard the story of Judy Altmann, a survivor, returning to the camps for the first time, we lived her story. We were with her as she discovered for the first time where her sister most likely perished, and she brought a group of our teens to the barracks where she was imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau. One teen, Kayla Berman, “adopted” Judy’s story, to carry that story with her once she is no longer with us. Kayla’s promise epitomizes what it means to be a Jewish witness, merging the ayin of Sh’ma and the daled of Echad. An ayin comes from the Hebrew word “eye,” and daled from the word delet, door. That teen will become Judy’s eyes and will open the door for a new generation to bear witness to her story.

For Jews, that’s a true witness protection program – but we need to bear witness to more than just the horrors of the Holocaust.

I had the honor of hearing Representative John Lewis speak this year. Ethan invited me up to hear him on campus and I jumped at the opportunity. He was very powerful, talking to a group of college students about the need to be involved, to bear witness. Lewis was one of ten speakers at Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. He is the last surviving speaker. There was urgency in his voice that mirrored Wiesel’s. We have now become witnesses, I thought, as he described vividly the bridge in Selma, the barking dogs and the police, Sherriff Clarke keeping them from crossing the bridge, fending them off with them with a gun in one hand and a cattle prod in the other, and the deaths of the three in Mississippi, among them two Jews. The shared suffering of the Civil Rights era rang out to me when Lewis concluded his lecture by saying, “We may have come over in different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat.”

And so, the Sh’ma reminds us that we are all now edim witnesses, and not merely to tragedy, but also to the majesty of the cosmos, to the miracle of life, to the eternal lessons of our Jewish experience and to the unity of all humanity.

Theologian Art Green asks, why does the Sh’ma say “Adonai Eloheynu,” Adonai OUR God?
Adonai, he states, was what was there before each of us came into existence. Adonai becomes Eloheynu - OUR God - for the brief instant that our lives flash across the screen. But then we let it go, and it is Adonai, once again, endless being. Our individual existences are merely the blink of an eye – but we are linked to an eternal life force, and we are eternal witnesses to its power, and to the role that our people have played in the unfolding of the divine drama.

Just think about that – Sh’ma Yisrael….Adonai-Eloheynu-Adonai…echad. Each of us is living in that one narrow window of time, that brief, fleeting moment of Eloheynu, shoehorned in between the two Adonais – the eternities that preceded our birth and that will follow. For this brief moment, we inherit the mantle of being a witness to all that has come before, all of that becomes ours, all that sanctity becomes Eloheynu, Our God. What are we going to do with that gift.
Yes, much of our Jewish experience has been painful but that has given us the unique ability to feel others’ pain because we ourselves have felt it. We have the responsibility to love the stranger, as the Torah instructs us more than 30 times, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We have that certain instinct, radar to detect prejudice, an instinct that few others have.

We can bear witness to all suffering. Because we have felt that pain.

A perfect example of that was last summer, when the Supreme Court welcomed its third sitting Jewish justice, Elena Kagan. Nice Jewish girl. Earned her street cred as a 12 year old in the Upper West Side by having a run-in with her rabbi and as result became Lincoln Square Synagogue’s first bat mitzvah. For many, the most revealing moment in the confirmation hearings came when Senator Lindsey Graham asked where Kagan had been on Christmas Day of 2009. His purpose was simply to find out her views on the failed terror attack on an airliner that occurred that day. But in asking that question, he unknowingly pushed that button that we all know so well, the button of the witness, and that radar kicked in, and she responded in the perfect Jewish manner – not to up the ante with defensiveness, but to diffuse a volatile situation with humor.

She said, "Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant”

I have no way of knowing what the senator was thinking, but I know exactly what Elena Kagan was thinking, which is exactly what I would have thought, and many of you, and exactly what Woody Allen thought in Annie Hall when he got upset every time someone asked him “D’Jew want to go out to eat?” She poked fun at a question that was insensitive, though probably not deliberately so, and her joke pointed to a coping mechanism that has been employed by Jews and other non Christians to deal with feelings of being outsiders on December 25. Brilliant.

Neurotic, but brilliant!

Being a witness has its burdens, and one is, I suppose, neurosis. Kagan had no reason to be defensive in that hearing. She had just been nominated to the Supreme Court! As a Jew and as a woman, that is truly remarkable.

But still, she is a witness. And her response to that question, along with many others, indicated that she takes that role seriously. Even when we are at the pinnacle of power, we must remember that WE were slaves. Not our ancestors. US. For a Jew there is no such thing as history. There is only an ever evolving present, a story that we are writing even as it unfolds before us.

We are the authors, we are the main characters and we are the storytellers. That is what it means to bear witness.

In Israel you really can sense the timelessness of the Jewish story and what it means to be witnesses to it. That’s what I love about being there; every moment connects you to history. We are living witnesses.

Last summer our group was headed north and the bus driver decided to veer from the straight and narrow and take an alternative route to our destination. (The bus driver was a pain in the neck, but that’s another story). So we were meandering through the Jezreel valley and passed right alongside Mount Tabor, a steep hill that sticks out of the otherwise flat farmland. You might recall that this is the place where in the book of Judges, Deborah defeated the Canaanite King Sisera when, after a sudden downpour, all his chariots slid down the mountain in the mud.
So just as we were passing this sacred, storied site, a sign on the road stated plainly and without a hint of irony, “Slippery when wet.”

I’m sure it is slippery when wet. It was for Sisera, 3,000 years ago. We know! We read the book! And that sign, in the same language as the original story, bears witness to that fact, and links all of us something that happened long before we were born. But the past doesn’t come alive through the sign itself. It comes alive through our reading the sign. We are the eyes and the doorway, the ayin and the daled, the AYD, making the story of Deborah spring to life.

Bearing witness goes beyond being part of key moments in world history. It means to take those experiences and channel them into wisdom. If you take the word AYD and reverse the ayin and the daled, you get “DA,” to understand.

Israel is the only place on earth where McDonalds, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken are kosher. So whose secret recipe is it? Colonel Sanders meets Tante Sarah. Suddenly our act of eating a piece of chicken raises awareness of the sanctity of life and the moral obligation to limit the pain of living creatures, reminding us of our kinship with all of God’s creations. Not bad for a bucket of chicken. With each crunch of Kosher KFC we are bearing witness to a deeper understanding of what it means to live a holy life.

Sorry for mentioning food.

Lifting a filled goblet of wine was a form of giving testimony in the ancient world. In saying Kiddush, we’re doing just that, testifying to God’s role in nature and history.

Or the child who brings matzah to school during Passover, bearing witness and sharing wisdom (and usually most of the matzah).

How fitting that on this, the holiest night of the year, the Kol Nidre is a legal formula that literally bears witness to our human frailty. It is recited in the setting of a trial, which is why we remove the Torahs from the ark. But the words are by far the least significant ingredient here. It is all about the haunting melody.

A famous Hasidic story tells of an illiterate young farm boy who attends services for the first time one Kol Nidre eve. He was so moved by the chant that he took out his shepherd’s whistle and began to blow, to pray in the only manner that he knew. The congregation was furious and began to remove him from the room, when the Baal Shem Tov informed them that it is only because of that primal call of the shepherd’s earnest prayer that all the congregation’s prayers had been received in heaven.

Our task is to discern the call of our age, to respond, to dig beneath what Art Green calls the “complex, civilizing masks of language,” to lead ourselves to that primal scream that goes beyond words, the kind of unfiltered, pure message that one heard in the shofar’s call or in a wordless niggun, something that can penetrate deeper, a place more ancient, deeper within us than words can reach.

We need to respond to that call of the Sh’ma: Listen – Listen to that call; listen to that primal whistle. Listen to the Oneness that hides beneath all apparent divisions. Listen to heart beat – to the heart beating next to you – to a thousand heart beats, a cacophony of hearts beating, voices raised and souls reaching upward, yearning for the Oneness.

It is our responsibility to bear witness to the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. And it is our responsibility, as a people who stands in Covenant, to open ourselves up to the flow of divine love and to bring light and blessing to the lives of others. That is what it means to bear witness.

In our day, we also must bear witness to the dangers that surround us. Having seen firsthand in Poland the product of unconstrained hatred, it is our responsibility as Jews to alert the world to the similar dangers percolating in Iran. The world’s resolve has stiffened of late, but it too soon to know if sanctions will be enough. If not, we will need to make lots of noise. All of us will. In fact, all of us need to make noise now.

When I led services in the synagogues of Poland, it was almost as if the dead were calling out to me. Europe is filled with dead synagogues. Beautiful, restored but still dead. Back in the 1930s, the chief rabbi of Krakow, who preached precisely where I was standing, was firmly convinced that Polish Jewry was ascendant. “There… the Jewish people came into its own,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Poland of that era. “It did not live like a guest in somebody else’s home, who must constantly keep in mind the ways and customs of the host. There Jews lived without reservation and without disguise, outside their homes no less than within them.”
The Jews of Palestine were small in number, American Jews were too assimilated and Soviet Jewry was being crushed by the Communists. But Poland is where the best and brightest studied Torah in glittering yeshivot, where three million Jews lived a vibrant life, separate from but unbothered by their neighbors. Poland was the great meeting place of Hasidic fervor of Galicia, the Talmudic expertise of Lithuania and the western scholarship of German Jewry. It all came together in Poland, arguably the most vibrant Jewish community in all of history.

The Jews of Poland must have thought it would last forever.

So as I stood there in front of our group at the Tempel Synagogue, a large ornate structure tucked between the narrow little alleyways of the Kaszimierz, the Jewish quarter with no Jews, I speculated out loud with the teens what it meant to be a witness. I asked them to realize that, just as in their synagogues back home, the pews they were sitting in once belonged to someone sat in that same place, every Shabbat, every Rosh Hashanah and every Yom Kippur. In the fall of 1942, the place was full on Yom Kippur. And the next year, they were all gone, following the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in March of 1943, a scene emblazoned in our consciousness by Steven Spielberg in the movie “Schindler’s List.” That horrible scene witnessed by Schindler on horseback from the top of the hill, when amidst the tumult the camera focuses our attention on a single victim, a little girl.

And what we remember most about the girl is her shoe. Her red shoe.

And I asked the teens to think of that one individual while we said the mourner’s kaddish. The person who sat in that pew. And then we danced. We danced to the melody created by Shlomo Carlebach in memory of those victims. The Krakower Niggun. And at that moment we became living witnesses. Witnesses don’t sit on their butts and listen passively while succumbing to a spiritual numbness. Spectators do that. Witnesses pray with intensity. Witnesses sing with fervor. Witnesses perform acts of selflessness and courage. Witnesses stand arm in arm with those who marched at the bridge in Selma and with those who suffered Egyptian slavery.

Witnesses side in the mud on Mount Tavor and lift a Torah at the Western Wall. Witnesses cry with the parents of Gilad Schalit and scream to Congress about the nukes in Iran.

But most of all, witnesses dance.

So we danced, and the walls of the Tempel Synagogue came alive. Then days later, we danced again at the synagogue in Lancot, also dead and lovingly restored, and our voices echoed so loud that a Polish woman came in off the street asking how we could be singing so loud when her whole country was in morning. “We’re not singing,” she was told by Judy Altmann. “We are praying.” To be a witness is not to recall history. It is to live history. On that day, we made history.

Shlomo Carlebach’s Krakower niggun begins with a vision, one that Reb Shlomo had as he sat in the pews of Krakow synagogue, of the Jews of the city boarding the trains, their belongings and loved ones snatched from them. The darkness of the ovens – suddenly gave way in his vision to a bright light. And the victims: instead of being limp corpses, they were dancing in joy.

I have that same vision now, about the 1,000 shoes of Maidanek. The victims are no longer barefoot. Their sores have healed. The infections have gone away. The shoes don’t even smell anymore. They fit perfectly. And somewhere, a little girl, like Cinderella, tries on her long lost red slipper and smiles and jumps for joy.

Now we must be their eyes. Their aynayim. And we must stand in their shoes, their ragged, dusty shoes, the shoes of Maidanek, and dance their dance. We stand in the shoes of Akiva too, and Mordechai Anilevitch and Yitzchak Rabin. And we stand in their place – all who came before us! We are their eyes and we stand in their shoes – we are their witnesses – and we will open the door, the delet, to their future, and our own.

The shoes of Majdanek will lie dormant no more.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dershowitz and J - Street's Ben Ami: Round Two

Time to begin prepping for the upcoming conversation we'll be hosting on Oct 7, featuring Alan Dershowitz and J-Street's Jeremy Ben Ami.

The two have already debated once, at the 92nd St Y, and this summer had a heated exchange in writing. See from JTA:

Op-Ed: J Street’s McCarthyism
By Alan Dershowitz · July 21, 2010
Alan Dershowitz says that J Street is showing its colors by falsely implying that he opposes a Palestinian state and supports settlements. Read more »

and the response...

Op-Ed: Making the case for ‘Yes’
By Jeremy Ben-Ami · July 25, 2010 Alan Dershowitz-style advocacy cements his position as part of the “Chorus of No” that is working hard to frighten American policymakers and politicians from speaking out on Middle East issues, the head of J Street writes in response to a Dershowitz Op-Ed.. Read more »

If you are planning on being here on Oct. 7, and who isn't, get here early!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

And The Word Shall Go Forth From Tel Aviv

Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week

I spent a few weeks in Israel this summer and couldn’t help but notice a fascinating trend developing, one that might help those of us back here to overcome our uneasiness about Jerusalem, with its fundamentalist leanings and shady politics.

It occurred to me that maybe we’ve been mistaken in looking exclusively toward Jerusalem for moral guidance and spiritual inspiration. Granted, our Eternal Capital is as beautiful as ever, despite the blight caused by uncontrolled growth — in particular the corruption-plagued Holyland project, an urban stain that has turned a majestic hillside into the Tower of Babel.

So when I had a few extra days to spend in the country, I opted for Tel Aviv, a city with zero holy sites and that a century ago was just a bunch of sand dunes. For all its grime and flatness, though, this quintessentially secular city has some sacred lessons to share. Holiness can happen even in a place where Habima is a theater and not a pulpit. While the Torah may still come from Zion, a woman holding one in parts of Jerusalem will be subject to arrest.

(for more on the Women of the Wall being banned from sounding a shofar as well, see Echoes of a Shofar, 80 years later – The official Women of the Wall website )

Not so in Tel Aviv.

It seems that even the ultra-Orthodox agree that Israel’s commercial mecca is gaining some serious spiritual street cred. Recently the highway between Israel’s two central cities was plastered with signs featuring a photo of a black bearded man declaring that the messiah is from, of all places, Tel Aviv. According to the “Mystical Paths” blog, the photo portrays the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shalom Dov Bear of Lubavitch, who died around 1920, and the sign’s purpose is to draw attention to the apocalyptic expectations that have become rampant in Israel. According to this theory, Tel Aviv is mentioned to heighten curiosity even more.

While some are awaiting apocalypse, others are simply looking for a quiet evening by the seashore, and that’s where I found the Torah that emanates from Tel Aviv. For the past few years, the reconfigured Tel Aviv port has become a cool hotspot for young couples and families, and now, each Friday in the summer, an outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat service, of all things, has become a huge hit in this bastion of secularism. Along with many hundreds of others, I attended one of the services, which are coordinated by Beit Tefila Israeli, a pluralistic, non-denominational group that seeks to meld Tel Aviv’s creative spirit with ancient Jewish traditions. Its prayer book does just that, interspersing the traditional prayers with selections by Bialik, Heschel, Naomi Shemer and a number of other Jewish and particularly Israeli sources. The congregation wants its service to be considered an indigenous expression of modern Israeli culture, not an import from elsewhere, and it is most definitely succeeding.

North American visitors will recognize the influence of non-Orthodox centers of Jewish spirituality in the U.S., but it is reassuring to see such recognition happening in Israel, far from the back rooms of the Knesset, where politicians appear determined to ban all expressions of Judaism save one. Almost everything about this Kabbalat service would have been prohibited near the Kotel: the mixed seating, the female prayer leaders, the many men in the congregation not wearing kippot (and the women who were), the exotic musical instruments, and the hints of Eastern spirituality combined with ballads of great Zionist poets.

As we turned to greet the Shabbat bride, with the setting sun splashing into the blue sea before us, I realized that we had been praying the entire service facing the water — in other words facing west, with our backs to Jerusalem. I smiled. Outdoors, it really was a no-brainer to face the soothing Mediterranean rather than the fast food restaurants across the way, or the juggler a few hundred yards down the pier. But this is also the best possible response to the Rotem Bill on conversion — not to shun all of Israel, but turn away from the sickness of Jerusalem’s corrupted, forbidding, vindictive brand of Judaism and seek better models elsewhere. The view from Tel Aviv that Shabbat was simply delightful.

The congregation’s siddur states: “My God — here we have no Wall, only the sea. But since you seem to be everywhere, you must be here, too. … And maybe I was created so that from within me you can see the world you created with new eyes.”

Jerusalemites are beginning to take their cultural cues from their neighbor to the west. The most popular spot in town is now the upscale, very Tel Avivian outdoor mall in the Mamila quarter, right outside Jaffa Gate. Who could have imagined that Jerusalemites would flock to Hilfiger, Prada and the Gap? And in the hit Israeli TV series “S’rugim,” which portrays the lives of single modern Orthodox 30-somethings in Jerusalem, one of the most poignant scenes of the first season involved one character’s experience of an exhilarating Shabbat, not at the Kotel but on the beach in Tel Aviv.

Non-Orthodox forms of Jewish expression are thriving in Israel and places like Beit Tefilah Israeli are not going to fade away. It reminds us that throughout Jewish history, great religious innovation could take place only at a safe distance from the watchful eyes of the Jerusalem elites. Places like Yavne, Tiberias and Safed gave rise to the Judaism we know today, while Jerusalem corroded and crumbled under the weight of its own ossified hubris.

As we stand facing east over the coming days, toward all of Israel, recall that Torah is being renewed, with new eyes, in Tel Aviv.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5771: The Broomstick, the Bush and the Sh'ma

Rosh Hashanah 5771 Day Two
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
"The Broomstick, the Bush and the Sh'ma"


For other audio formats or if the above is not playing, click here

It was the iconic image of the past year, if not this entire generation, and the picture wasn’t pretty.

Day after day we gawked at it, staring into the murky oblivion as it seemed to mock us, to laugh at our helplessness. Day after day we turned on the news and that oil just kept on gushing. Our technological prowess was just good enough to get a color camera down to deepest fathoms of the Gulf, able to capture the image in stark details and living color. And yet we were technologically helpless to do anything to stop the flow from the Deepwater Horizon well.

The catastrophe has taken an enormous toll.

Day after day, government and industry experts offered suggestions, and everything failed. If it weren’t such an environmental and human disaster, it would have been funny - in the way Road Runner cartoons are funny. Or I Love Lucy at the conveyor belt of the chocolate factory. It was a train wreck that we couldn’t stop staring at, unfolding before us in slow motion, one drip at a time, one glob after another, one ruined beach after another. The most powerful nation on earth was rendered powerless to turn off a simple faucet!

Remember that scene in Fantasia where Mickey Mouse plays the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? That’s what I kept thinking about as the oil continued to gush. You know the tale, based on a poem by Goethe, where the apprentice gets tired of fetching water with a pail, so he enchants a broom to do the work for him.

(Kids – this is a broom. You might have seen it used as prop in “Wicked.” It’s what we used to use before the invention of the Dustbuster. Yes, it’s crazy, in the old days we never actually sucked up dirt, we simply rearranged it – in really nice neat piles).

So in the story, the brooms keep multiplying and things get out of control, the floor is soon filled with water, and the apprentice is powerless to stop it – fortunately, the sorcerer comes back at the last second and restores everything the way it was.

It seems like every culture has its own version of the sorcerer story, where hubris takes over and people who try to manipulate nature suddenly and quite literally, discover that they are in way over their heads. There’s Frankenstein and Prometheus, and for Jews, the Tower of Babel, and the Creation story. In an interesting twist, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) God plays the role of the Sorcerer and we are the apprentice, and sure enough, just as the Creation is completed, things get crazy and soon God is ready to destroy everything with a flood and begin again. In fact, the midrash posits that there were actually 10 aborted Creations before one finally took – ten worlds gone wild. But after the Flood and Noah, God gives humanity the covenant of the rainbow and promises never to destroy the world again.

Today is the birthday of the world. If only we could wipe the slate clean again. If only we could stop the wildfires in Moscow and the rains in Pakistan and volcanoes in Iceland and take all those tornados that have touched down in Fairfield County this year and put them back in Kansas, where they belong. If only we could gain a sense of control over our world again, our world and our lives.

Now this is not a sermon about environmentalism. I could give that sermon, but this year, with our new Finkelstein Mitzvah Garden, we’re letting our actions speak louder than words. Our garden fits right in to the earth-centered ethos we are nurturing here. Our new nursery school will be called “Shorashim,” which means roots. It’s a marvelous name with a multitude of meanings. But most of all, it emphasizes our love of nature.

And that has been our response to the chaos, the craziness. To a world that has gone out of control.

Crazy has become the norm. So you see, the fundamental problem we face is not simply that we are ruining the earth. That is merely a symptom. The problem is that we’ve allowed everything to spin out of control. Everything. If we want to get a handle on what we’re doing to the Gulf of Mexico, first we have to get a handle on the sorcerer’s broomstick. We need to get a grip.

You know that feeling, the loss of control. It happens nearly every day, but we notice it especially in extreme situations – when a relationship goes haywire, when a loved one dies, when we get sick, when we begin to forget where we left our glasses (spare pair). People have confronted the loss of control ever since the beginning of time– but now the scope has been magnified exponentially – it’s everywhere. This past summer, the United States became that person who staggers out of the doctor’s office with a tumor that no treatment could stop, the one drowning in debt with the marriage falling apart. This summer in the Gulf of Mexico, the US became the sorcerer’s apprentice.

We’ve lost the ability to focus. We are so bombarded with data, with information, with demands on our time, with phone calls and texts and emails and Facebook postings and Tweets – that, according to the New York Times, we aren’t just losing our bearings; we are literally losing our minds. One neuroscientist said of our multitasking, “We are asking (our brains) to do things (they) weren’t necessarily evolved to do.” And there are consequences.

When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, the miracle was that Moses noticed that a miracle was happening at all. A burning bush that’s not consumed is a rather chintzy, two bit trick. But in order to notice that the bush wasn’t being consumed, Moses had to stare at for a good five minutes without being distracted. If that were happening now, Moses probably would have failed that test. In those brief five minutes he would likely have gotten a text from Miriam that she really liked her new Yoga class, a poke from Aaron asking him to read Torah at services this weekend, an emailed shopping list from Tzippora, a Google Alert that some rabbi was quoting his blog again, a Tweet from the Anti Defamation League about continued Egyptian mistreatment of Hebrew Slaves, which is great because at that moment his iPod is playing a remix of his favorite song, “Go Down Moses,” and then comes a reminder from his laptop to TiVo a Charlton Heston movie marathon. And then, maybe finally, God sends Moses a Tweet saying simply, “Hey! Dummy! Look over here! The bush! It’s still burning!”

And so it is. Did you ever have that sensation while you were in the middle of washing dishes that you forgot to mention something to someone – so you leave the dishes where they are and run to the computer and write the email, only in the middle of it someone pokes you on Facebook so you begin a conversation which then leads you to check a website for something, which leads you to something else and before you know it it’s 11 o clock and you’re tired and you go to sleep and the next morning your wife asks you why there are so many dirty dishes in the sink?

Has that ever happened to you?

Me neither.

Out – of – control.

We need to find a way to gain control of our lives again – for if each of us can do that, then maybe we’ll be able to slow things down for the rest of the world.

How do we do that? The Sh’ma tells us how.
It’s a three step process.

One – we have to learn how to focus; two - we need to take control of time, and three - we then have to assert control of our behavior.

Yesterday I spoke of how, when we feel powerless to confront a world so filled with hate, the most effective response is to love all the more. The same formula holds true with a world spinning out of control. The best solution is to assert control, through discipline. And since we can’t impose control on the rest of the world, we need to do it first on our own lives
So – three steps to the Sh’ma method.
Step one: focus.

In the Talmud, we hear that when the time for the Sh’ma arrived Rabbi Yehuda would cover his eyes, because he was engaged in other activities. The recitation of the Sh’ma was seen as a moment of deep inward turning and intense concentration. It remains a custom to cover our eyes today when reciting the Sh’ma.

There is no multitasking with the Sh’ma. This intense concentration is how we turn a set prayer, one recited at a set time, into something more purpose-filled.

Instead of multitasking, we do the opposite. Instead of doing many things at one time, the Sh’ma prescribes that we do the same thing over and over. For many of us, the word “routine” often implies “boring,” but the term actually comes from the word route – a path that we travel. Routine is an adventure along the beaten path, along the road MORE travelled.

V’shinantam l’vanecha, the Sh’ma says, “Teach your children and speak of these sacred words.”

But it doesn’t really say "teach.” V’shanantam means repeat. Don’t just teach this to your child once. Do it a second time. Repeat. Again and again. We have another word for repetition. Ritual. Daily prayer, weekly Sabbath, seasonal holidays, annual gatherings like this – that’s the Jewish way of dealing with the chaos. Discipline, repetition and focus.

Step two:

So how do we seize control over time? We do it from the moment we wake up. The Sh’ma is supposed to be recited when we lie down and when we rise up. The very first discussion among rabbis in the Talmud was about when to recite the morning Sh’ma. It came down to one of two things – either when it’s light enough to distinguish different colored threads of the tzitzit or for us to recognize the face of a casual acquaintance at a distance of about 6 feet. Maimonides fixed that time as being about 6 minutes before sunrise. The window for the morning Sh’ma extends for about three hours, for that is when, according to the sages, princes and kings would arise. Even royals were tied to the clock. Even they had to answer to a higher authority. Saying the Sh’ma at the right time was considered by our sages to be a more meritorious act even than the study of Torah.

But, you may ask, hasn’t technology liberated us from the tyranny of time? Isn’t it true that now we don’t have even to set appointments? After all, if we’re running late - which we always are - we can simply text the other person so that both of us can arrive late. Spontaneity has taken over as we’ve lost our ability to schedule. Time can be adjusted to suit our own particular needs. Dinner hour? Who’s kidding whom? When you work 24/7, you don’t dine, you graze. There is never a set time to eat anymore.

Jewish tradition has a perfect remedy from the ravages of time run amok. It’s called Shabbat.

This past summer, I spent a week on a body of water, half a world away from the Gulf of Mexico. As our boat glided along, the Aegean was pristine and calm. Not a Cyclops or Hydra in sight - or even a gushing oil rig. We left port on Friday afternoon and that evening, Mara and I spent some time on our balcony watching the full moon glisten over the placid waters, as we passed island after island. At one point we passed an island that appeared to be virtually uninhabited. I say virtually, because there were lights there. As we slowly passed, I was able to count them – about 50, all glistening like the stars above, flickering like Shabbat candles.

But something seemed strange about those lights. They were scattered all over the island, not concentrated in any one area that you could call a village. There were no patterns that resembled streetlights or roads. In fact, none of them were moving. Not one. No cars. Everything was peaceful and still. It looked like a scene out of Fiddler on the Roof.

Sabbath Prayer with Souvlaki.

Was this possible? Everyone else searches these ancient waters for the lost city of Atlantis, and here had I stumbled upon a Greek island full of observant Jews? Nothing was moving. I called it Shabbos Island. I’ll never meet the people who live there; I’ll never know whether they are shepherds or stockbrokers – but it doesn’t matter.

And all I heard was the whoosh of the boat gliding through the waves. But in the back of my mind I knew that this was an illusion, that the quiet of Shabbat is a needed rest-bit, but that in fact the Aegean is connected to the Mediterranean which is connected to the Atlantic which is connected to the Gulf of Mexico. It was an illusion, but it was an illusion that I needed.

Shabbat is the antidote to civilization. It is the best possible response to the craziness of time run amok.
At the port of Mykonos I was relieved to be greeted there by a white pelican, the mascot of the island, waddling about like he owns the place. It was a relief to see one not covered with black crude. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My world had been turned right side up! Is there such a term as turvy-topsy?

As lovely as the Aegean was, I wasn’t fooled. My thoughts just kept gravitating back to that image of the gushing oil just four seas away – knowing that it was still gushing mightily - and that terrifying feeling that we have lost control.

In her popular new book, “The Sabbath World,” Judith Shulovitz speaks of the difference between what she calls mechanical and mobile time. Mechanical time, the kind of time we lived in before we lost control of everything, was seen by many as shackles, enslaving us to its dictates.

But a chain can also be an anchor, and what we thought enslaved us was also grounding us. And we’ve lost that. We’ve lost the anchor. There is no such thing as a z’man kavua – a set time. Everything is immediate. Everything is “On Demand.” As Shulevitz notes, “We shop when it’s convenient, not when stores are open. We watch movies and television on DVDs and TiVo, not according to published schedules. We correspond via email and Twitter and Facebook in instant staccato bursts throughout the day…not when the mail is delivered.”
The schedule has been “softened,” as she calls it. “…we’re in charge of mobile time (and it connects us)…” she adds. “But being in perpetual contact can also make us feel as if time is in charge of us…. The Sabbath, by contrast demands of us a hard and tragic sense of beginnings and ends.”

Shulevitz’ makes a solid case of how the seventh day was the first great attempt on the part of human beings to take control of time, by creating a day, a randomly selected block of 25 hours – where we can anchor ourselves to the clock. Tonight, Shabbat begins at 6:55. We can begin our observance whenever we wish – our service begins at 6:30 - but the time for Shabbat’s start is fixed. Can you imagine texting God, saying “God? I’m running a little late. Can you hold that sunset for ten min?” It doesn’t happen that way.

So here’s the paradox. The only way we can assert control over time is to create a day where time asserts control over us. There has got to be something fixed in your life – something that you can’t change. Something like Shabbat. Something that, if you are late for it, you are simply late. Even when we are late, it gives us that comforting feeling to be grounded to a world that’s actually spinning normally on its axis. We are tethered to our lateness. Even if I miss the beginning of Shabbat, I know that Shabbat has begun. For a day, at least, the craziness stops.

And then finally, step three. Once we have begun to assert control over time, we need to employ discipline to assert control over our behavior.

The second paragraph of the Sh’ma makes it clear that we have a tremendous degree of power, not only over how we behave, but how our behavior will impact the world around us. If we heed the commandments, rain will fall in its proper time and we will enjoy a bounty of grain, wine and oil. If not, things will spin out of control again and oil will gush into the Gulf of Mexico. We struggle with some of the implications of that paragraph, but its primary message is empowering. The Sh’ma is all about our power to control our destiny.

The Machzor picks up that message and hammers it home - “U’teshuva, U’tefila Utzedakkah Ma’avirin et Roa Hagezayra.” Repentance, prayer and tzedakkah avert the severe decree. We have the power. We have control! The rabbis understood that. In the Zohar it says that when a person judges himself, the heavenly court is not allowed to touch the case. God would throw the prosecuting angels out of the room. If we do our own soul searching, Heshbon ha-nefesh, the whole Book of Life thing is moot. This statement is both remarkable and radical. All we need is a little discipline and we can assure ourselves a purpose-filled life.

So how?

Here are some rabbinic guidelines to leading a more disciplined life.

The Peasetzna Rebbe set a time limit for each of his activities. Eating? Give it a half hour. Even Torah study had its limit. His entire day was scripted. He was obsessive.

Another rabbi carried a list of character traits with him at all times. Not many, just the few that he was trying to fix. You can’t do it all at once. So one week it might be anger. And he would write down, “Silence and speak in a low voice” and constantly make reference to that piece of paper all day.

Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg wrote on his list the instruction to read the list three times a day, every day, without exceptions. Of course, if the instruction to read the list is on the list, you sort of don’t need it, since you’re reading the list anyway….
OK, It might seem a little over the top, but maybe we should try that. Make a list of three things you need to do to be a better you, and read it religiously three times each day.

The rabbis believed that if you practiced a certain behavior for 40 straight days, it would become natural and instinctive. They felt that if an angry person forced himself to be cheerful to everyone for that long, he would no longer be an angry person.

If you are naturally shy, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk said, “Pray real loud for 40 days, with vigorous movements of all your limbs.” You’ll notice a change. If you are lazy, force yourself to get ready in half the time each morning, dressing, washing up, going to the bathroom, going to synagogue – do it all with more energy. And you will change that character trait.

These Hasidic leaders said exercise is important too. Take walks, they said, but with a focus, a purpose, a discipline. Do it for the sake of heaven.

They understood that for some, forty days was too long a time to ask for a complete character transformation. So they said, one hour. Fix one hour when you live according to the Torah.

Just one hour. One hour each day. That’s all. The hour of living biblically. And sorry, it can’t be between 3 and 4 in the morning.

Think how much more purposeful our lives would be if every day, for an hour, we tried not to gossip. Several years ago I challenged you to do it for a week, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was very powerful. Maybe it’s time to do that again. But maybe you already are pretty good at refraining from bad speech. So maybe for an hour, try not to lie – just speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Otherwise we fall into traps of embellishment and self deceit that have been the scourge of politicians, business leaders and former Cy Young award winners accused of taking steroids.

One hour. Just an hour of truth – it could be catching.

Or maybe, for an hour, do something especially charitable.

Here’s an exercise to suggest to the cheapest person you know. Have him withdraw a hundred dollars in singles and then give it all away. The trick is, you have to give it to a hundred different people or causes, one dollar at a time. In an hour.

Are you the impatient type? (If you are you are probably out in the lobby right now). Pick the hour-long period each day when you feel your patience is going to be most challenged. Maybe it’s when you first come to work in the morning, or when you get home after a long day. Or when you get behind the wheel and you’re running late or you are in the back of a long line at supermarket. Now, commit to being patient, just for that one hour. When your child comes at you as soon as you’ve come in the door and you finally sat in your chair, say, “Yes, sweetheart, I’d love to build the Empire State Building out of Legos with you, right now.” Grit your teeth and smile.

Is arrogance your issue? Do you always need to be the center of attention? Try sitting in the back of that classroom or meeting hall. For an hour, let someone else speak.


Recall the line from Pirke Avot in the Talmud: “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.”

Are you the lazy type? Set the alarm for an hour earlier – to a really loud radio station that you hate - and force yourself to get up.

How about narcissism? That seems to be our biggest issue these days. How can we overcome it? How about covering the mirrors in your house. Just for an hour. Yes, it will make it look like a shiva house, but sometimes that’s not so bad either. Just, for one hour, don’t look at yourself!

How can we overcome prejudice? Go online. Seriously, go online and visit Mecca. Take a virtual journey to a place where they wouldn’t let you in. Women, go to the men’s section of the Western Wall. Go to the website of the Other and find out just how much like you the Other really is. Spend an hour in Haiti. I listened to radio Australia the other day, just to become better able to communicate with the cantor! You know, the accent is very close to a Boston accent – especially the “r”s. More often than not we discover that as different as we are we’re still the same.

These exercises are what our tradition calls Mussar practice, designed to release the light of holiness in our souls by enabling us to refine positive character traits. Next month, I’m going to be teaching a series of classes in Mussar at the JCC for our Bureau of Jewish Education. At each session, we’ll work on one trait, like humility, empathy or honesty. This will be a hands-on class. And you can get a head start.

So for this coming week, pick something to work on. And start with an hour a day. And then, like we did with the gossip project a decade ago, send me your suggestions for how you’ve used that hour to change something about your life. You can do this anonymously. I’ll be sharing the ideas on our website and yes, Twitter. I hope we can create a long list of suggestions to share.

What can we do to overcome arrogance or anger, envy or greed, slander or worry or fear? How can we better cultivate leadership and gratitude; awareness, modesty and love, simplicity, honesty, optimism, respect and awe?

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the patron saint of the 19th century Mussar movement said, “A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow human’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow’s stomach.”

It is time to focus on adding a modicum of discipline to our lives – If we can refine our souls, maybe there is hope for this chaotic world.

Rabbi Naomi Levy has just written a book called, “Hope Will Find You: My Search for Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living.” It turns out that her inspiration came from her physically disabled daughter, Noa, whom doctors thought had a degenerative and perhaps fatal condition early in life, but who was able to overcome it. “Life is uncertain, life is unfair, life is chaotic, and God is in a fog,” she writes.” We grope blindly in the darkness for hope, but, with the courage, and confidence and faith to act, hope will find you.

One day, Noa, asked Naomi if she could have a rock climbing party for her twelfth birthday. Naomi was petrified, always so overprotective.

She said, “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” “But why?”
“It’s too expensive.”

But day after day Noa kept pushing for the rock climbing party. Eventually Naomi gave in.
On the day of the party Noa put on a climber’s harness, and to her mom’s amazement, she pushed with her legs and pulled with her arms and boldly made her way up the wall. It wasn’t easy, but she climbed and climbed. She was fearless, beaming with joy.

During the party there was a boy about Noa’s age who was too frightened to climb. His father was encouraging him, but he stood frozen in his place. His muscles were strong, but his fear was stronger still.

“That day,” Naomi continues,” my daughter taught me an invaluable lesson: our greatest disability is fear, our greatest strength is courage. In climbing, it is the smoothest surface that is the most treacherous. A rough rocky landscape is fertile ground for ascending. If you want to rise up don’t fear the bumps. Turn every stone into a step…

…As I looked around the gym that day I couldn’t help but wonder if the key to a meaningful life was embedded in that rock wall. The beckoning stones gave me my answer. The challenge in life is a

simple as this: Do I stare at the wall or do I climb?”

We have our answer. Climb.

When the most powerful nation on earth can’t plug a leak for three months, a 12 year old girl who can barely walk can still climb. When we are overwhelmed by gigabytes of data, bombarded with texts and 24/7 communications, we all have the authority to turn it off – maybe for an hour, maybe even for one weekly sublime, Sabbath day. When we feel powerless to change all those little nagging things that we hate about ourselves, we can climb out of that morass too.

We have control. Climb.
Climb up the ladder where the true power lies. The power of discipline.
The power embedded in the very words of the Sh’ma.

We’ll repeat those words until they are engraved upon our hearts; we’ll cover our eyes and focus on each one. We’ll recite them at a time assigned not by our whim, but by the rising sun. And we’ll write that list of character traits upon the doorposts of our homes and upon our gates.

Let those words carry us beyond the oil leaks, the crazy weather and the incessant noise that we have generated, to the peaceful bliss of Shabbos Island. And let us grab that sorcerer’s broomstick and toss it to the wind. And then we’ll turn, we’ll pause and we’ll notice.

The bush …. It still burns.