Friday, February 11, 2011

Shabbat-O-Grams for 2011


Bookmark and Share 
Join us on Friday at 7:30 for a musical celebration of Israel’s 63rd birthday.  Beautiful Israeli songs, classic and contemporary, will be sprinkled throughout our Kabbalat Shabbat service.   If you love Israel and Israeli music, you simply can’t miss this one!

We’ve got all things Israel this week.  As a new iPhone customer (thank you, Verizon!) I’ve compiled a listofSome Super Israel Apps.  Also, for those, like me, who have been frustrated at the lack of civility among Jews in talking about Israel lately, see Arnold Eisen’s pointed op-ed, Appreciating, and Learning To Talk About, Israel, and for something a little lighter, see old friend Barbara Sofer’s The Top 63 (Plus 1) New Reasons I Love Israel.  Some will surprise you.  Did you know that Israel is the world’s happiest country…or that McDonald’s there has now come out with a McFalafel?  Reason enough to plan your next trip!  If you can’t be in Israel, you can hear the Prime Minister live over here, at the AIPAC Policy Conference in two weeks.  I will be there – let me know if you will be as well.

The killing of Osama bin-Laden sent Americans out into the streets in spontaneous celebration.  The question for this week’s Hammerman on Ethics: Isn’t it against Jewish practice to rejoice at the downfall of your enemies?  See my response here, and we’ll carry the discussion further at services on Shabbat morning (and mazal tov to Lucas Ehrlich, who will become bar mitzvah that morning as well). 

Also this week, a congregant with an expertise in Middle Eastern politics, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared with me some timely thoughts. For those apologists who expected Bashir al-Assad to act in a civilized manner simply because he studied in London, they have learned a cruel lesson. Our institutions of higher education are doing a poor job of reinforcing humane values, with a premium on promoting dignity and the respect for innocent life.  See Evil Cum Laude, Majoring in Genocide.

See also a tribute to scouting: TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Noah Durica on Kedoshim.  And for all you mothers out there, read What’s So Jewish About Mother’s Day? And don’t forget Shorashim Early Childhood Director Ronnie Brockman’s blog posting, SPRING HAS SPRUNG! 

I had the privilege of speaking at last Monday’s Yom Hashoah program, which drew over 400 people to our sanctuary. See the transcript here: Light Up the Future: Closing Remarks from Yom Hashoa Community Program.   See also Jan Gaines’ Letter from Netanya from erev Yom Hashoah.

Here’s how my Yom Hashoah remarks concluded:

Many years ago, Leonard Fein wrote that there are two kinds of Jews in the world:

There is the kind of Jew who detests war and violence, who believes that fighting is not the Jewish Way, who willingly accepts that Jews have their own and higher standards of behavior. and not just that we have them, but that those standards are our lifeblood, what we are about. 

And then there is the kind of Jew who is convinced that we have been passive long enough, who is convinced that it is time to strike back at our enemies, to reject once and for all the role of victim, who will willingly accept that Jews cannot afford to depend on favors, that we must be tough and strong. 

And the trouble is, most of us are both kinds of Jew. 

Over the past decade, the same can be said for we Americans.

But maybe the teens will inhabit a better world. In the end, for the teens on the March of the Living, it wasn’t simply about their becoming witnesses to the horrors of the past, but somehow they had become the catalysts for the promise of the future. They had taken the victim’s soul and transformed into one that can love again. Precisely because they had visited the camps of death, they felt an added urgency to celebrate the potential of life – of life triumphant.

Take that, Hitler! Take that Bin Laden! We can still love. That is the best revenge. To love and to hope.

And we’ve got the kids to prove it!

Happy Mother’s Day and Happy Birthday, Israel And don’t forget Yom Hazikaron, when Israel remembers it’s 20,000+ victims of war and terror. , and Shabbat Shalom too.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


Shabbat-O-Gram for April 29 2011

Bookmark and Share  

Yes it’s true.  There will be a royal wedding today at TBE.  No, not THAT royal wedding.  In our wedding, taking place at 7:30, the bride is Shabbat.  It will be just as exciting, but the paparazzi will be asked to leave their cameras at the door.  Join us tonight for another great Kabbalat Shabbat service.  Tomorrow morning too.  And mazal tov to this Noah Durica, who becomes Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat.

Over the next few days, we commemorate the Holocaust.  The community Yom Hashoah program will be here on Monday at 7:30, and on Wednesday, a program in conjunction with the Red Cross, featuring a woman who has dedicated herself to reuniting families separated by the Holocaust. 

On Sunday, our 7th grade families will be hearing from Rachel Cohen, a TBE teen who recently played the lead role in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”  After that, as part of a class visit to our cemetery, we’ll be participating in a burial of sacred books.  Unlike the Nazis, who routinely burned books, we treat our sacred scriptures with the respect that we would give a human being.  As the 19th century German Jewish philosopher Heinrich Heine said, prophetically (a quote that is now featured at Yad Vashem), “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.” 

If you have any old siddurim or other books with God’s name inscribed in Hebrew and wish to bring them for burial, join us at the cemetery at about 11 AM on Sunday.  My first recommendation, BTW, is that these books be handed down as heirlooms.  But people often look to us for book burial, so by all means, bring them on Sunday if you wish.

Our hearts go out to all who have suffered in our nation through this week’s storms; here the April rains have brought us a bounty of flowers.

See Flowers Planted by Our 7th graders.

Instant reactions to this week’s stunning announcement of Hamas-Fatah reunification agreement ranges from the predictable: “Now Israel really longer has no partner with which to talk” to the equally predictable, “Israel just squandered its last best chance to bring peace and security.”  Both statements have some validity.  Where does the truth lie?

Think about the inherent paradox of that last expression:  How can truth lie?  If it’s the truth, I mean, it can’t lie, can it? 

Well, when we’re talking about the Middle East, spring 2011, indeed it can.  Even the truth can lie, because no one, and I mean no one, knows where this is going to end.  Up is down and down is up.  Old foes and ruthless dictators suddenly are seen as bastions of stability; democratic uprisings have morphed into religious revolutions.  Or have they?  Predicting these events is like predicting this year’s  NFL Draft in a league where there are currently no rules, only the stakes are much higher. 

When none of the so-called experts saw the Abbas-Hamas smooch coming, and as James Besser iterates, no one did, why do we keep on going back to them for more disinformation?  Where does the truth lie?  At this point, only one thing seems certain, the PA just gave up a ton of American financial aid, which legally cannot be provided until Hamas renounces terror and recognizes Israel.

So what are the experts saying?  

In this week’s issue of Foreign Policy, Michael Oren proves conclusively that Israel is America’s Ultimate Ally in this more-unstable-than-ever region, and Jeffrey Goldberg rebuts, stating that Israel’s position in the US is now more precarious than ever.  And that was written before the bombshell.  Robert Satloff looks at the long view in lauding the durability of US – Israel ties as the region explodes around them.  Dore Gold chimes in with  Why Palestinian Unity Won’t Lead to Peace and Jonathan Halevi, in The Fatah-Hamas Agreement: Analysis and Initial Consequences, gives some interesting analysis of how the new Egyptian regime is making use of the Palestinian card and how the unraveling of Syria is compelling Hamas to reorient itself toward Cairo.  That Syrian unraveling only intensified with today’s mass protests.  Ha’aretz in today’s editorial claims that Israel can redeem itself by recognizing a Palestinian state.

My take in all this hardly matters, but something tugging within me sees this as having positive potential, despite all the legitimate dangers.  Hamas was pushed into these unity talks, we must recall, because of a popular uprising taking place in streets of Gaza.  Hamas is far less popular than it was when the last elections occurred, and the PA has gotten its act together in a number of areas.  There is far less corruption, which has led to economic progress and increased security cooperation with Israel, despite this week’s mishap at Joseph’s tomb.  Maybe, given the right signals from Israel, this time the Palestinian people and the Egyptian people will vote for peace. 

OK, go ahead and call me naïve.   After all, I believed the President was legitimate even before he produced his birth certificate.  Now, I hear, BTW, that Donald Trump’s next tack will be to demand that Hawaii produce proof that it’s really a state.

But right now, no matter what citizenship they have, the Palestinian and Egyptian people are all from the “Show Me” state of Missouri.  I do believe that they are open to positive gestures, and Israel has to show them all reasons to move their democracies in the direction of regional reconciliation rather than perpetual confrontation.

Israelis need to be shown some things too.  It will be interesting to see if the security situation will improve now along the Gazan border.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s job has just gotten harder.  Suddenly his visit to the US in late May has taken on an intensified significance.   (BTW Let me know if you are planning to attend AIPAC or are interested in going.)  Face to face negotiations with the Palestinians now seem more unlikely than ever.  But just like all the candidates over here pounding the pavement of Iowa and New Hampshire, the Israeli Prime Minister’s got to campaign too, this time for Arab votes, and fill the airways of Ramallah and Cairo with something that is as hard to come by in that part of the world: hope.  Otherwise, the Egyptians and Palestinians will vote accordingly. 

Freedom is messy.  

 That’s where the truth lies in the Middle East.

Shabbat-O-Gram April 15 Best. Seder. Ever

 Bookmark and Share  

It’s been so busy here lately that Passover almost seems anti-climactic.  Last week’s concert drew over 300(see the photos), and we had about 150 at services last Friday night, plus some fantastic Hebrew SchoolPassover events on Sunday.  But no rest for the weary, because you really can’t miss this weekend’s services either!

Here’s a Fifth Question (really the first):  How Can I Make This Year’s Seders the Most Meaningful and Enjoyable Ever? 

Ladies and gentlemen, sit back and I’ll tell you.  Your Shabbat-O-Gram provides you with one-stop shopping for Seder supremacy.

 Our quest for the Best. Seder. Ever. begins with a very special scholar in residence (with thanks to Penny and Michael Horowitz for their continued sponsorship).  Join us this Shabbat as we welcome noted author and columnist Jay Michaelson.   

The weekend’s topic couldn’t be more timely: Freedom from Seder Slavery: Cultivating the Spirituality of Passover

 On Friday evening, Jay will speak on “A Better Way to Answer the Four Questions: Myth and Function in Jewish Practice.” Also, as a special bonus during the service, Cantor Mordecai will be teaching us Ladino versions of Seder night favorites, “Had Gadya” and “Ehad Mi Yodea.”  Think how impressed everyone will be when you bring those melodies to your Seder!   

 Plus, at services I’ll show everyone the first fruits, literally, of our Shorashim Nursery School.  A short while back, the two year olds planted some parsley seeds in our Finkelstein Garden.  And just in time for Passover, the parsley is ready to be picked.  I am overjoyed to say that the parsley on the Hammerman Seder Plate this year will be home-grown, by our children, in our garden.

 On Shabbat morning (we’ll have the service in the chapel this week, for greater informality and intimacy), he’ll speak on “Beyond Maxwell House: Creating an Embodied, Enriching Passover Seder.” And after a scrumptious Hametz lunch, he’ll conclude his presentations with a look at Passover’s spiritual side as we’ll discover the deeper meaning of the holiday through Kabbala.

 With Passover coming, see my new “Hammerman on Ethics” entry, Is Breaking Passover as Sinful as Illicit Sex? as well as prior ones: Seder Guests and the Dysfunctional Family, and Is it Cruel to Force Dogs to Keep Passover? 

Best Seder Ever?  A little preparation couldn’t hurt.  Here’s a link to the Rabbinical Assembly’s and my Guides to Passover Preparations

 Love those Pesach videos?  I’ve collected collected my favorites, including What’s Up Band’s “I’m Going to A Seder,”the hilarious and edgy “Just Had Hametz,” “The Fountainheads’ Passover” (filmed at the lovely Judean wilderness location where my niece was married), “Miriam and the Passover Story,” an Aussie “Who Knows One, “and of course, “Google Exodus,” which has really gone viral. See them all here.  See also“Google Exodus” – the Backstory, and Other Passover Features from JTA.

Best Seder Ever? Add some Passover Freeware,  - New Seder songs including, “Hey there Elijah,” “To Lice” and “If I Only Had Some Chrain,” along with the old favorites like “Through the Red Sea.” Plus you can download entire Haggadahs and I’ve linked to a slew of Seder Supplements (say that five time s fast), on Israel and Jewish peoplehood, along with liberation, global responsibility  and human rights.  There something for everyone, whatever your political leanings..  And if last week’s concert whetted your appetite, check out some Diverse Dayenus from the Piyyut website, a Passover journey round the Jewish world.

Nostalgic?  Head back to Passovers Past in the Papers: Nostalgia for Simpler Times – Or Were They?   I’ve scanned and uploaded the Passover food sections from the New York Post of 1954 and 1965, along with some more radical Passover fare, from the Boston Jewish student paper Genesis 2 in the rocking early ’70s, what with the campaign for Soviet Jewry and other liberation movements.  And then my all time favorite, Chronicles: News of the Past’s version of what a morning paper would have looked like on the day of the Exodus itself.

Judy Feld Carr is a modern Jewish hero whose story was known only to a few – including our community, since she spoke here last year.  Now that is about to change, big time.  See Judy Feld Carr – a Documentary in the Making.

Just for the fun of it, check out Eretz Nehederet’s Kindergarten Skit, a biting satire on the mindset of Jewish victimhood, and TBE Stephanie Hausman’s rip roaring Bat Mitzvah Commentary on parashat Metzorah.  And for those who didn’t see it last week, my Reflections on TBE @ 90: A Conservative Crossroads.

More on Jay Michaelson: He’s  been called a “New Jewish Culture Guru,” is author of three books, most  recentlyEverything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism and over 200 articles and essays.  He is a columnist for the Forward, the Huffington Post, Tikkun, and Reality Sandwich magazines, and founding editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, and a contributor to Slate, The Jerusalem Post, and other publications.  He has been a scholar-in-residence at dozens of universities, synagogues, and other institutions.  Last December, he was included on the Forward 50 list of “the men and women who are leading the American Jewish community into the 21st century,” and in June, 2010, he won the New York Society for Professional Journalists “Deadline Club” award for opinion writing.    Read this interview from the Jewish Ledger and see Michaelson’s article, ‘Why Is Your Haggadah Different From Others?’ 

Finally, see Ronnie Brockman’s recent early childhood blog postings: ON YOUR MARK…GET SET…GO! One week and 3 days left before the first seder, plus OH, THOSE PLAGUES… and THIS PASSOVER… LET’S MAKE OUR OWN GREEN CLEANERS WITH THE CHILDREN.

Enjoy your best Seder ever!

A sweet, significant Passover, from my family to yours.

Shabbat-O-Gram for April 8, 2011: TBE @ 90, Conservative at a Crossroads

Bookmark and Share  

 This Shabbat we celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of Stephanie Hausman.  Mazal tov to Stephanie and her family!  For those not signed up for dinner, join us tonight at 7:25 (a slightly early start to accommodate the comedian) and check out the best Kabbalat Shabbat service in town.  

Our celebration of our 90th anniversary climaxes with tonight’s service and this Sunday’s concert.  See coverage of the anniversary in the Jewish Ledger.  Tickets for the concert have been selling briskly this week- click here to order online (they cost more at the door) and herefor my top reasons why this concert is a must-see!  The cantor informs me that the musicians are among the best around at what they do.  Celebrate with us all weekend long. 

With Passover coming, see my new Jewish Week Hammerman on Ethics entry,Seder Guests and the Dysfunctional Family, and last week’s  Is it Cruel to Force Dogs to Keep Passover?  Also see the prior one: If I’m an Ethical Person Does That Make Me a Good Jew?  


More on Pesach:  Yes, I’ve seen that hilarious Google Exodus video and even posted it.  For more serious matters, you can check out last week’s Parsha Packet, Jewish Education, the Seder and “Race to Nowhere”  demonstrating how the educational modes of the Seder might help get our whole educational  system back on track.  My reflections on the film, shared with you last week, can be found here.  Finally, here’s a link to the Rabbinical Assembly’s and my Guides to Passover Preparations.  Good luck! 


Next week we welcome  noted author and columnist Jay Michaelson. See his interview in theJewish Ledger.  The weekend’s title: Freedom from Seder Slavery: Cultivating the Spirituality of Passover.  See also his article in this week’s Forward, ‘Why Is Your Haggadah Different From Others?’ 

You’ve simply got to take a look at our 7th Grade  Wedding Photos, taken last week.  If you didn’t know that they were all thirteen, you would think it’s the real thing!  And if you haven’t seen our Purim 2011 album yes (and the additional album too), by all means, check them out. 

On Israel:  Yesterday for the first time ever, the Iron Dome missile defense system was used to thwart an attack – and it worked.  Somewhere up there, Ronald Reagan, who was laughed at when he introduced the concept of “Star Wars” is smiling.  But the targeting of a school bus (fortunately most students had already been dropped off) just outside the Gaza fence is another matter entirely.  This is clearly a war crime and  blogger Marc Schulman suggests that Israel eschew the Pavlovian military response and instead take this case directly to the UN.  

Speaking of alleged war crimes, this was the week when Goldstone retracted his infamous report’s chief accusation against Israel.  The responses have been predictably, ranging from righteous indignation on the right to “but that wasn’t all that was in the report” on the left. This op-ed from the Washington Post expresses the latter view, and makes what I feel are valid points.  Purity in arms has always been Israel’s greatest asset in the battle for moral legitimacy.  Given its tough neighborhood, I am inclined to agree with what Alan Dershowitz says about giving Israel the benefit of the doubt.  But we who love Israel need to hold it to the highest standards, and even if we give it some slack in self defense, we cannot do so in other areas of human rights.  For instance, women were harassed this week once again – by police – simply for praying at the Western Wall.  Read “A Place of Prayer for All People.” And Israel continues to be the place where rabbis do weird and provocative things, like  calling for a Paschal sacrifice on the Temple Mount 

And here in America, on a week where it was revealed that pastor Terry Jones had burned a Quran and still has not been arrested for this hate crime, we have to ask, What if it had been a Torah?  We Jews need to speak out against hate wherever we see it, whether from the loudspeakers of a Gaza mosque, the front lawn of a Florida church, or within the Jewish community.  Along those lines, some interesting insight can be found in this essay from ZEEK:  ”We Are Not Like Them”: Itamar Massacre Activates A Dangerous Israeli-Jewish Ethnocentrism. 

And finally, check out Rebecca Satz’s Bat Mitzvah commenatary on last week’s portion of Tazria, along with Ronnie Brockman’s recent early childhood blog postings: ON YOUR MARK…GET SET…GO! One week and 3 days left before the first seder, plus OH, THOSE PLAGUES… and THIS PASSOVER… LET’S MAKE OUR OWN GREEN CLEANERS WITH THE CHILDREN. 


Now for this week’s main topic: 

Reflections on TBE @ 90:  A Conservative Crossroads.  

Apologies for the length (but hey, no one’s forcing you to read!) 

Our 9oth anniversary, a year-long celebration, is coming to a climax, ironically during a week when our president, Eileen Rosner, announced to the congregation our departure from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.  We are truly at a crossroads.  That notion is supported by other parts of her email, discussing our new nursery school and the hiring of our new Director of Community Engagement, Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, currently a Rabbinic Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun of NY.  Read more about her impressive background here. 

If you look at our first TBE bulletin in 1922, you’ll see how many things have not changed, what with appeals for greater service attendance and membership recruitment.  There were junior services and Sisterhood meetings and, yes, a United Synagogue convention.  But the world has in fact changed radically since then, and over the past decade, that pace of change has intensified almost immeasurably.  

We have worked hard over the years to keep up with that pace, and, wherever possible, to be ahead of the curve.  When it became clear that synagogues had to open their doors to a wide array of Shabbat programming, we were among the pilots to introduce Synaplex.  We were at the cutting edge in our movement’s drive to be more inclusive of people of all faith backgrounds and sexual orientations.  Before informal education was all the rage, we were taking every grade on Shabbatons.  While others were still offering boring, hear-a-pin-drop, custom-designed private Bar Mitzvah services, we were able to synthesize the individual needs of the family with the collective goals of community building.  We were also a pilot community for Birthright Israel, the JTS Mitzvah Initiative and over the past few years we have led the way in the engagement of Young Professionals and, all along, the use of technology. 

Sometimes we are too far ahead of the curve.  But I appreciate the fact that our leadership – and the vast majority of the congregation – have bought into the fact that if we aren’t constantly looking at what’s around the bend, the next generation will suffer the consequences.  Even at the risk of the occasional flop, it’s always best to keep innovating.    People often ask me whether I take flak for some of the “out there” positions I occasionally take.   Maybe it’s because you’re so used to me that you’ve stopped listening…but I believe it has more to with the congregation’s buying in to the vision that I’ve been articulating for so long, a vision that we constantly are refining together.  We simply cannot afford to stagnate.  Because we have kept up with the torrid pace of change, we are well situated as we move toward our centennial year. 

Take synagogue music, for example – and read this excellent backgrounder on the dramatic transformations that have taken place.   The role of cantor, as we once knew it, is now virtually nonexistent, both in the liberal and Orthodox communities.  JTS  is trying to figure out what to do with its cantorial school.  The role is being reinvented as we speak, and few have done that better than Cantor Mordecai.   A decade ago, we were among the first congregations to bring Craig Taubman’s “Friday Night Live” to the east coast (the first in the New York area) and now, with Cantor Mordecai, we stand at the cutting edge of the next phase of this revolution that is giving Jewish spiritual expression a global beat, authentic, yet very new.  This pulsating music was pioneered by B’nai Jeshurun in New York (read about them in that same article) and our deepening partnership with BJ reaches a new level with this Sunday’s concert.  It is the music that is fueling our growth. 

BJ, by the way, has a close affinity with the philosophy of Conservative leaders like Abraham Joshua Heschel, but they long ago left the United Synagogue.  The USCJ’s new strategic plan, in fact, is designed to lure creative, sacred communities like B’nai Jeshurun back into the fold. 

Unfortunately, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, to a large degree, has not kept up with that torrid pace of change.  While we are living in a Facebook world, the USCJ still has the feel of our bulletin of 1922.  For many years, I have stood behind our continued membership and it has been a lonely position to take at times, especially in an era of economic challenge.  This year, we reached the breaking point.  In order to pay the significant sums being asked of us, we would have had to abandon, to a degree, our pursuit of excellence.  Were USCJ providing excellent service, that would not have mattered, but that has not been the case for some time. 

The board’s decision came as a last resort after repeated efforts to seek accommodation at a lower rate.  A USCJ leader came here to present the organization’s new strategic plan.  The plan carries hope for significant reform, though many feel it does not go nearly far enough.  Rabbis who helped to craft the plan have spoken publicly of their frustration that an opportunity to completely remake the movement was not seized.   For the time being, the organization is in disarray, and our board felt that the considerable sums we are being asked to contribute in annual dues might better be invested in pursuing our goals here.  There are lots of things we can do to strengthen Conservative Judaism.  But what will help the most is what we can do best – be a role model of transformation, a magnet of energy and sanctity for all to see. 


Meanwhile, we are still very much engaged with the Conservative movement through its many other arms, including J.T.S., where I serve on the Chancellor’s Rabbinic Advisory Council, Masorti, Ramah, the Jewish Educator’s Assembly, the Cantors’ Assembly, Woman’s League and the Rabbinical Assembly.   One could say that part of the problem, in fact, is that there are so many avenues to connecting with the movement and no centralized address.  But for now, it helps us.  We are still most definitely a Conservative congregation in our attachments and philosophy. 


We are also working more closely with Conservative synagogues in Fairfield County and are planning joint activities for the coming year.  Put Sunday, afternoon Sept. 18 on your calendar for the first such event. 


A concern that I know others share is for our youth program.  I grew up loving USY and long before this decision was made, was mourning the passing of its golden era.  USY still does wonderful things, but, like its parent organization, it is a shadow of its former self (in contrast to the movement’s other informal educational arm, Camp Ramah, which is independent of USCJ and is thriving).  While regional  USY affiliation has benefited many of our teens tremendously, including my own, I firmly believe that our youth program will become stronger over the coming year, even though we are now outside the USCJ orbit.  Rabbi Dardashti, who will be youth director, comes to us with creative ideas and a desire to engage our teens to generate their own.  And she currently serves a congregation that is unaffiliated. 


My sense is that this period of disengagement will be relatively brief and I am hopeful that we’ll soon be a part of a rejuvenated USCJ, a renaissance that, along with many other thriving Conservative communities, we’ll help to inspire. 


Looking back at that 1922 bulletin, it is striking how the rabbi had to admonish young people to attend Friday night services more often.  But that’s the model we’ve come to accept.  Jews everywhere think that going to services is like medicine.  You gotta take it, but YUCKKK.  We are building a new model here.  In an era of what Arnold Eisen calls “The Sovereign Self,” people pick and choose how to express their Jewish identities – or not.  No one affiliates out of simple obligation.  If it tastes like medicine, people will spit it out and flock for the exits.  Everything we do needs to generate meaning, community and engagement.  We need to connect with people of al types on all levels, intellectually and emotionally.  I think we are most definitely on the right track. 


As we continue to dream and reflect on what it means to build a sacred community, listen to this just-posted TED lecture by David Brooks: The Social Animal.  Always insightful and humorous, Brooks offers ideas from his new book that are especially relevant to those whose lives are centered around groups designed to generate meaning,  communities, like ours, that are built upon the power of connection and relationship.  Let me know what you think. 


I’ve had the honor of serving this congregation for a generation, and I have a great respect for what has come before.  We stand on strong shoulders.  But I also feel that our best days lie just up the road.  In fact, we’ve reached them as we reach this crossroads.   It is impossible to sway and sing at our Kabbalat Shabbat services each week and not think that this is the beginning of a an era where we will make a profound difference in the lives of all whom we touch. 


Shabbat Shalom 

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman 


***  Have you “liked” TBE on Facebook yet???????? 

From Baghdad to Beth El: A Musical Journey



Bookmark and Share 




From Baghdad to Beth El: A Musical Journey
It was exactly one year ago that Cantor George Mordecai came here for his tryout. You might recall that the weekend was hastily arranged and was scheduled for just before Passover. George and Michal arrived, hundreds heard, sang and marvelled, and TBE hasn’t been the same since. Now a year has passed, and this weekend we’ll look back and look ahead, and reflect on the miracle of two journeys that have merged - our cantor’s and our congregation’s. This is a rite of passage, something akin to an installation, without the formality and pomp…because neither George nor TBE is much into formality and pomp these days. Just bring on the music!
Aside from the above, here are my top five reasons why you should come to Cantor Mordecai’s Musical Journey this Sunday evening – and bring friends!
1) Because we are so appreciative of what he has brought us and what better way to demonstrate that than by filling the seats at his first concert.
2) Because we can’t wait to hear him and his musicians jamming to the tunes of Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
3) Because we’ll get to learn from Rabbi Roly Matalon and deepen an already strong partnership with Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of New York.
4) Because this is an important fundraiser for us, and a chance to build community.
5) Because what better thing could anyone possibly be doing this Sunday night???
Go to, scroll down to the bottom and order your tickets now.
See you Sunday!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Shabbat-O-Gram for March 25 2011


Bookmark and Share 
 Purim is now behind us – but the memories linger - take a look at ourPurim 2011 Album featuring hundreds of photos, including some new ones.  Thanks to those who took the photos and captured the hilarity perfectly.


Next comes Passover.  As you begin your preparations, see theRabbinical Assembly Passover Guide as well as my own “Guide For the Perplexed.”  Some of those preparations are inwardly focused, as we engage in removing the excess leavening from our souls. Mark your calendars now for our Pre-Pesach scholar-in-residence Shabbat, April 15-16, featuring noted author and columnist Jay Michaelson, whose topic is Freedom from Seder Slavery: Cultivating the Spirituality of Passover.


This Shabbat we celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of Hannah Katz.  Mazal tov to Hannah and her family.  Tonight’s Kabbalat Shabbat service will also give us a chance to celebrate spring which has, believe it or not, begun.  Join us at 7:30! (Last week we had 100 – see what all the buzz is about!). I’m also looking forward to our 3rd and 4th grade Shabbat this evening at 6.


Next Wed. at 7 PM, our Sisterhood will be showing the acclaimed film about the unbearable pressures of being a teen, “Race to Nowhere,” after which I’ll be introducing a distinguished all-TBE panel that will include Drs Alvin Rosenfeld, Dorothy Levine and Mara Hammerman and TBE teens Morgan Temple, Jackie Schechter and Alex Heyison.  Tickets are being gobbled up quickly (over 150 sold thus far) CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE.  If you are coming, please plan on carpooling, as we expect a very full parking lot.


This week’s news leaves us breathless.  As we try to get a grip on what it all means: Libya, Syria, and the latest attacks from Gaza on Israel, as well as the bombing in Jerusalem (yes, Reuters, was a terrorist attack) and the continuing catastrophe in Japan.  


Before the Jerusalem bombing, I wrote what some have called an important piece: Itamar, Cairo And The Culture Of Victimhood.  After the attack, I’ve since revised it for next week’s print edition of The Jewish Week.  You can preview it here.  See a list of those injured in the attackhere.  We’ll be praying for them this Shabbat.


Sadly, we seem to be returning to a period of turbulence in Israel, I’ve long felt that Israelis were living under an inflated sense of security.  While defending itself vigorously, Israel also needs to be mindful of the swiftly changing dynamics at play in the region and be very strategic in its actions. 


I am hopeful that the danger of increased terror attacks will be mitigated by the security coordination between the IDF and he Palestinian Authority, something that been dramatically enhanced since the last Intifada. Cooler heads and compassion still abound, as seen in this story.  Plus, Muslim leaders speaking out against terror are beginning to be heard more clearly (this collection of resources, for starters). The P.A.’s West Bank leadership has seen tremendous gains from non-violent protest and, with momentum growing toward international recognition of Palestinian statehood (hopefully accompanied by an agreement with Israel), their response to the terror attack has been unequivocal condemnation: Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called it a “terrorist attack” (he gets it more than Reuters) and added, “It is a big shame after the disasters and damages caused by all the previous attacks and operations. It seems that there is a Palestinian party which insists to keep carrying on these shameful actions.”


That party is, of course, Hamas, and they have every reason to goad Israel into a war, with an eye toward the Egyptian electorate, as I explainhere.


I received this dispatch containing a dramatic story of the courage of a kiosk owner who warned authorities of the suspicious object that exploded while he was on the phone with them.


Also see: why we need to buy Israeli products on Wed. March 30.  And here is Jan Gaines’ take on this week’s news: Letter from Netanya: A Difficult Week.


With all that has been happening in Israel, a government official still found time to try to ban us this week: see Religious Services Minister Calls for Law Against Non-Orthodox Movements (JPost).  See also these related (and hard-hitting)columns from Ha’aretz, The new self-hating Jew, andIsrael’s problem is the settlements, not J Street. 

Can someone be a good person but a bad Jew? See my response:Hammerman on Ethics: If I’m an Ethical Person Does That Make Me a Good Jew? 

Elizabeth Taylor, who dies this week, was a Good Jew… a Jew by choice.  See this tribute from the Forward.  Why did she do it?  She was quoted as saying “I felt terribly sorry for the suffering of the Jews during the war. I was attracted to their heritage. I guess I identified with them as underdogs.” With all her marriages, she could have had the world’s record for “Gets” (Jewish divorces).

In other entertainment news of Jews, Bob Dylan confirmed that he will beBob Dylan confirmed that he will be performing in Israel on June 20.  

This week’s portion, Shmini, contains the laws of Kashrut.  It is also
Shabbat Parah
 (Sabbath of the Cow, literally) which further highlights the treatment of animals.  Take a look at this extensive guide on the Ethics of Eating, as well as another Parsha Packet on how to determine where humor crosses the line to become hate.

See also an extraordinary from last Shabbat, now featured online: TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Samantha Kraftsow on Moving to a Strange Land.

Finally, don’t forget that in two weeks we have the grand finale of our year-long 90th anniversary celebration, giving us a chance to officially celebrate Cantor Mordecai’s journey to Beth El, with a concert and journal. See all the details here.

Shabbat Shalom and good luck to UConn!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Shabbat-O-Gram for March 18 (Purim)


Bookmark and Share 

The news this week was dominated by the murders in Itamar and the disaster in Japan.  Click here for my comments on Itamar and and see Praying for the People of Japan: Jewish Resources on the Disaster.

Purim is here!  At Last….Spring!  See my little visitors who brought me Shalach Manot (Purim gifts) and read an Apache blessing for spring.

The celebration begins on Friday evening with members from TBE choirs, past and present, singing the music of Debbie Friedman, as our 90th anniversary celebration continues as we honor our newest members, those who have joined our TBE family over the past decade.  


Come to our “Purim for Adults” on Sat. night, including the scotch tasting (plus wine, beer and non-alcoholic beverages).  This brings up the larger question: is it proper to extoll drinking on any holiday, much less a “religious one,” in this day and age (even for those who “drink religiously?” )  The answer is no.  I explain why in my “Hammerman on Ethics” blog this week:Is Drunkenness on Purim a No-No?     

On Shabbat morning we’ll be taking a close look at custom of blotting out Haman’s name – where it comes from and how it is practiced in different communities around the world.  During the Kiddush after services, we’ll have a chance to take a closer look at the Book of Esther.  


On Sunday morning we’ll enjoy our annual carnival, along with the family Megilla reading, costume parades and a good old fashioned Purimspiel (Purim skit).  Everyone is welcome: Teens, Hebrew Schoolers, Day Schoolers, Preschoolers and their families.  We’ve moved the carnival from Purim night because Shabbat ends too late for the younger kids.  So bring them on Sunday morning! 


See some more background material on Purim – here. Click here to see Over 60 Purim Videos  including the Shalom Sesame version of the Purim story. From the Shabbat-O-Gram Purim archives, Photos from last PurimLatke vs Hamentaschen Debate,  The Best Purim Parodies and Jewish JokesPurim Pics 2009More Purim Spoofs, and Lessons of an Ever-Dying PeoplePurim Parodies from Sh’maMeshugene Men (by the Shushan Channel) and Miracle Days: Special Purims in Jewish History. 


Plus, there’s Purim – the “Real” Story And, in honor of March Madness, my all-time favorite, The Evil Doers’ Final Four 


Also this week, see “What can you do while you’re waiting?” Early Childhood Director Ronnie Brockman’s blog about what you and your child can do when there’s a 20 minute (or more) wait in the dentist’s office, or when there are many, many people ahead of you on the line in the market (and read about our new Early Childhood Center here). 

Take a moment to sign up for TBE’s showing of the acclaimed film, “Race to Nowhere,” on March 30 at 7.  CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS.  A panel of experts will discuss it afterwards.     

For all you TBE B’nai Mitzvah buffs…. see  

TBE Bar Mitzvah Commentary: Matthew Kobliner on Vayikra 

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Rachel Wolff on Pekuday 

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Michael Zielinski on Rosh Hodesh Adar II  

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Tyler Zielinski on Rosh Hodesh Adar II 


Finally, check out a Jewish Parenting website for today’s parents, one that goes way beyond the old formats, beyond the recipes for Lokshen Kugel. It’s called, a website for those who want to add a Jewish twist to their parenting.  


Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim! 

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman 

 ***  Have you “liked” TBE on Facebook yet???????? 




Shabbat-O-Gram for March 11, 2011

Bookmark and Share  

Shabbat Shalom!

It’s been a couple of weeks since the last Shabbat-O-Gram and so much has been happening.  Here at Beth El, we hosted nearly 200 for the Shabbat Across America dinner and then over 350 for the Klezmer-style service that followed.  It just keeps getting better and better.  This Friday evening, we’ll be back in the lobby for our “normal” service (normal meaning our typically, wonderful, musical celebration of Shabbat).  This Shabbat we celebrate with Matthew Kobliner and family as he becomes Bar Mitzvah.  Mazal tov, Matt! 

Also, take a moment to sign up for TBE’s showing of the acclaimed film, “Race to Nowhere,” on March 30 at 7.  CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS.  A panel of experts will discuss it afterwards.   Don’t forget our Purim celebrations next weekend (the one for kids is on Sunday morning this year, complete with carnival, and the one for adults is Sat. night). And, with Passover around the corner, if you are interested in coming to a TBE Second Seder, we need to know this week! Contact our office. 

So what’s been happening in the world?

On college campuses this was a challenging week for Israel advocacy, the infamous “Apartheid Week” a notorious reflection of Jimmy Carter’s Big Lie about Israel.  I have the chance on Thursday evening to discuss this and other topics up at Brown, where I’ll be the guest rabbi at their weekly “Thursday Night Torah” session.  The process of delegitimizing Israel has gained traction recently, in large part because of the brilliant shift of strategy by the Palestinians themselves – at least the leadership on the West Bank. They have decided to toss aside terrorism and look to isolate Israel through non violent resistance and international pressure. As a supporter of Israel, I’ll gladly take that tradeoff.  For one thing it forces Israel to redouble its efforts to discover the language of accommodation. Thus far, they haven’t been very good at that – as Gary Rosenblatt writes this week: When Israel Becomes A Source Of Embarrassment.
It’s on college campuses where delegitimatization has been met most innovatively, not with counter threats, but with an even greater voice of kindness and outreach. At Brown, a group of Israel supporters has dubbed this week “Israel-Palestinian Peace Week.” You can’t imagine how frustrated that makes Israel’s detractors, including this op-ed writer.  On Wednesday, the rebuttal to that op-ed was written by none other than my son Ethan: Hammerman ’13: The Mission and Purpose of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Week.  It really is a brilliant response (if I must say so myself), and precisely the one that is needed. 

In the New Middle East, where ballots now matter more than bullets (Libya notwithstanding), authority will depend more than ever on the power of persuasion, and Israel’s standing will rise or fall according to its ability to convince voters in places like Cairo that it really wants peace.  So it’s a good exercise to try out that message of accommodation in the highly charged atmosphere of American college campuses.   See also,Report from Netanya: Jan Gaines at the Gaza Border- a new letter from Jan.

Speaking of highly charged locations, the established Jewish community has commented very little about the standoff in Madison, Wisconsin. Here is a plea I received fromthe rabbis who actually live there.    

One hundred years ago, 146 innocent workers, mostly women, died in the tragic fire that changed everything.Read about the Triangle Fire and see a list of the victims’ names by clicking here. I recalled the historic events at services this past Friday night.  Read my comments here

What do you do if your loved one’s DNR order is ignored and the doctors actually revive him?  Is it unethical to save a life?  That’s this week’s Hammerman on Ethics quandary: Live or Let Die? 

With the Oscars still fresh in our minds, I asked the question last Shabbat, Is Natalie Portman the Next Sandy Koufax?  OK, so she’s having a kid out of wedlock and the father is not Jewish, but she’s promised to bring him up Jewish! But the big picture is that Natalie Portman has become a genuine American Jewish hero, and last week clinched it, between her Oscar and her staunch defense of Jewish pride in the face of an anti-Semitic attack. Read all about it in this parsha packet.    See also Jewish Talent Shines at Oscars.

And speaking of the Oscars, you may have noticed that the winner in the documentary category, Strangers No More, featured the children of migrant workers who attend Bialik-Rogozin School in South Tel Aviv, where Jews, Muslims and Christians from many nations learn together and become Israelis. Attention to the issue of children of migrant workers and refugees in Israel could not come at a more important time. Currently, 400 children who know no other home than Israel may soon be deported from the country. You can help to prevent this.   

And see this short animated gem that’s been making the rounds:  Almonds and Wine.  In this tale of an arranged marriage, a young couple flee the threat of war in Eastern Europe by establishing a new life together in Canada, handing down their traditions to the generations that follow

Finally, Purim is coming next weekend!  Click here to see Over 60 Purim Videos  including the Shalom Sesame version of the Purim story.  It’s a child-friendly version, where no one gets killed. Haman simply wants to “send the Jews away.” While cleaned up for kids, the use of the euphemism is almost eerie in the echoes of Holocaust era euphemisms.  Our Shabbat-O-Gram Purim section also includes these classics, from the archives, The Envelope, Please! (Purim Movie recommendations),  Photos from last PurimLatke vs Hamentaschen Debate,  The Best Purim Parodies and Jewish JokesPurim Pics 2009More Purim Spoofs, and Lessons of an Ever-Dying PeoplePurim Parodies from Sh’maMeshugene Men (by the Shushan Channel) and Miracle Days: Special Purims in Jewish History.

Plus, there’s Purim – the “Real” Story (and I’ll be talking about the Book of Esther on Sunday morning at 10:45).  And, in honor of March Madness, my all-time favorite, The Evil Doers’ Final Four 

Also this week, see “OUTSIDE/INSIDE” Early Childhood Director Ronnie Brockman’s blog about children at play, and I’m proud to add three more b’ar/bat mitzvah divrei Torah to our growing library:

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Rachel Wolff on Pekuday 

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Michale Zielinski on Rosh Hodesh Adar II 

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Tyler Zielinski on Rosh Hodesh Adar II 

Finally,  are you, like me, someone who has difficulty imagining God as the “Old Man in the Sky?” Do the prayers of the siddur not connect with your view of the universe? Do you have trouble reconciling the Creation story with what we know about fossils and Carbon 14 dating?   Click here for a lecture by Rabbi Arthur Green, also available for downloading on iTunes or here.  It’s called A Creation Theology for a Post-Darwinian Age.

That catches us up.  Whew!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Adar 2!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Shabbat-O-Gram For Feb. 18

Bookmark and Share  
Shabbat Shalom! 

Join us this evening in the lobby at 7:30 – Cantor Mordecai is back and what better way to begin a holiday weekend on a spring-like day then by singing and swaying together at our amazing Kabbalat Shabbat services?  And tomorrow morning we welcome old friend Nahum Daniels, whose d’var Torah will discuss that ingenious work of engineering that was the ancient tabernacle – and what it means for us.  Nahum is one of the best teachers in our community, with a large following and for good reason.  Come tomorrow (we’ll be in the sanctuary) to see why. 

With the temperatures rising, our thoughts turn to baseball – and on this President’s Day Weekend, our thoughts turn to cheating.  Cheating?  Well, Abe was honest and GW couldn’t tell a lie, so when better to think about the great cheaters of our time, Bernard Madoff, and Derek Jeter. 

Derek Jeter?  Isn’t he the one superstar NOT to be tainted in the past decade’s steroid’s scandal? True, but last season, he cheated his way on base, pretending to get hit by a pitch – and THAT is the subject of this week’s Hammerman on Ethics column: Is Jeter a Cheater?    

Madoff was back on the front pages this week, granting an interview to the New York Times.  Even though he is in jail for another 148 years, we can’t seem to get him out of our systems.  And with social pressures increasing on everyone to cheat from a very young age (see “Race to Nowhere,” which we are planning on showing, and read “Tiger Mom”) – Bernie’s Disease will be with us for a long time.  I address that in my Jewish Week column this week, We Still Haven’t Put Bernie Away (Jewish Week). 

And speaking of President’s Day, see the famous letter written by George Washington to the Jews of Newport here, where he wrote ”To Bigotry No Sanction” – along with the letter that prompted Washington’s immortal response. 


 - We’ve uploaded hundreds of Temple Rock Photos, courtesy of Aviva Maller.  Thanks to all who made it happen.  

 -  Schaefer ’13 remembered: A year later, legacy remains – The Brown Daily Herald – 

See Ethan’s quote in this article commemorating Avi Schaefer – and the important work he is carrying on. 

-  J Street Vows To Calibrate Tone Amid Criticism - See Jim Besser’s Jewish Week profile on J-Street on the even of it’s conference: J Street Vows To Calibrate Tone Amid Criticism. I’m quoted toward the end, reaping yet another “benefit” of the Dershowitz-Ben Ami “conversation.” Some day we’ll look back at that evening as a watershed moment. I’m just not sure yet whether it was a watershed for J-Street, for the angry, alienated generation that is fueling it, or for the stodgy establishment that so irrationally fears it. See also Day Schools Need New Israel Ed Approach. 

 -  A Creation Theology for a Post-Darwinian Age 

Are you, like me, someone who has difficulty imagining God as the “Old Man in the Sky?” Do the prayers of the siddur not connect with your view of the universe? Do you have trouble reconciling the Creation story with what we know about fossils and Carbon 14 dating?   Clickhere for a lecture by Rabbi Arthur Green, also available for downloading on iTunes or here.   This talk summarizes the themes of Green’s important new book, “Radical Judaism,” explaining why religion remains relevant at a time when evolution and Biblical criticism have been accepted as fact. Religion and modern science need not be seen as enemies. While there are still a few holdouts who believe that the world was actually created 5771 years ago (e.g. the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who said “If you are still troubled by the theory of evolution, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that it has not a shred of evidence to support it”), Green posits a dynamic, new way of looking at Creation and God, enabling us to interpret the narrative of Genesis in a whole new light, taking 20th century theologians like Heschel and Kaplan into our 21st century world of multicultural fusion and universal connectivity. If you are looking for an authentically Jewish vision for the religious skeptic, this one is it. 
- You may have read in the Jewish media that the USCJ’s new strategic vision was just unveiled in draft form. Our board heard about it this week directly from a USCJ rep. See United Synagogue Turns Inward from the Jewish Week for more details and see the plan itself here. 

 - Letter from Netanya: Jan’s Israeli “Family” - a new letter from Jan Gaines, this one focusing not on world events, but the lives of real people in her neighborhood. 

 Shabbat Shalom! 

 Rabbi Joshua Hammerman 

Shabbat-O-Gram for Feb. 11, 2011

Bookmark and Share  
Shabbat Shalom! 
As I bask in the glow of yet another spot-on Super Bowl prediction, we’re entering a relatively quiet time of year, both meteorologically and programmatically, but someone apparently didn’t get the memo.  On Friday night alone, I’ll be shuttling to two different TBE Shabbat dinners, one for our young families group and then another here for grades 5 and 6.  Then, I’ll lead our regular Kabbalat Shabbat service, this week in the chapel, with the help of Rabbinic Pastor David Daniel Klipper, along with Katie Kaplan, who will be holding down the musical fort while Cantor Mordecai is away. 

On Shabbat morning, again in the chapel, we’ll focus on the topic of coexistence, honoring the first yahrzeit of a very special young man named Avi Schaefer who dedicated his all-too-brief life to coexistence, specifically between Arab and Jewish Israelis.  Click here to see how the theme of coexistence ties into this week’s Torah portion and to read about a related film showing next week at the Avon and click here for more about Avi Schaefer Shabbat.   And if you come on Shabbat morning, an added bonus: SOUP AT THE KIDDUSH.  Finally, I’ll be talking Ethical Dilemmas this Sunday night with the TBE Discussion Group.  Feel free to join us, it’s at the temple on Sunday evening at 7:30. 

And this is a QUIET time? 

Last Saturday night’s Temple Rock Cafe was as good as advertised. No, even better!  A great time was had by all, plus it was a fundraising success.  It was the perfect antidote to the winter doldrums (boldly scheduled during a time of year where few other fund raising agencies dare to go.  Some prefer to make us schlep to a formal dinner in October or May, when it’s gorgeous outside :) )  We’ve uploaded hundreds of Temple Rock Photos, courtesy of Aviva Maller.  Thanks to all who made it happen. 

And check these photos of our 7th graders from last week’s World Wide Wrap, photos of theBCDS 8th Graders in Israel, this fantastic review of Cantor Mordecai’s concert in South Florida and Early Childhood Educator Ronnie Brockman’s blog posting, “Little Yoga.” 


With the situation in Egypt changing by the minute and, according to current reports, Mubarak has left Cairo, I’ve collected various articles for you, with the focus on what it all means for Israel. Here’ The Latest from EgyptAlso see, on the situation in Egypt: 

Gazan Youth Are Taking Their Cues from Cairo – on Facebook  

Egypt, Israel and a Strategic Reconsideration  

Egypt – the Birthplace of Freedom (which narrative fits?  Purim or Passover?) 


You may have read in the Jewish media that the USCJ’s new strategic vision was just unveiled in draft form. Our board heard about it this week directly from a USCJ rep. See United Synagogue Turns Inward from the Jewish Week for more details and see the plan itself here. 

One feature of the new plan is to replace the word “congregation” with the Hebrew “Kehilla” – “Community.”   Throughout Jewish history, whenever communities would be mentioned, you often would find the Hebrew abbreviation Kuf Kuf (K”K), which stands for Kehilla Kedosha, or Sacred Community.  The USCJ is returning us to that traditional nomenclature.  Unfortunately, these days we mostly see the acronym in connection to those commuinities lost in Shoah.  But now the notion of “Kehillah” is being revived.  During this time of transition, there are lots of things we can do to strengthen Conservative Judaism. But what we can do best will also help most – that is, to be a role model for transformation, a magnet of energy and sanctity for all to see, a shining example of what a Kehila Kedosha (a Sacred Community), can be, authentic, passionate, caring and inclusive.  In other words, the way we most can help the movementis by striving to change the world. 


Snow Days, Facebook and Cheating: Hammerman on Ethics 

Holy Spaces: The Tabernacle, the Temple and the Kotel 

Valentines Day, Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, and the Jews (Answering the age-old question, can Jews celebrate Valentine’s Day?) 


A special thank you to Ariela and Peter Pelaia, who will be heading to Vermont as Peter takes on his new position as executive director at a congregation in Burlington.  We will miss them and we are especially appreciative of all Ariela did for us as our Programming Director these past two years.  She will continue to work with us on our highly acclaimed website and other social networking efforts (don’t forget to like TBE on Facebook!).  Our search for a new Programming Director / Family Educator for the coming year has begun.  We’ve also found people who will help us to finish out this year, picking up various pieces of her job.  Thank you, Ariela and Peter! 

Shabbat Shalom! 

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman 

World Wide Wrap 2011 Photos

Bookmark and Share  

Last Sunday was our annual World Wide Wrap program, where kids and adults learn about the mitzvot of tallit and tefillin. Here are photos of our 7th graders trying ‘em on. Click here to see them.

Dershowitz and Ben Ami – Hoffman Lecture Audio


And The Word Shall Go Forth From Tel Aviv (Jewish Week)

Bookmark and Share  

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.

Roni and Allan Lang – Simchat Torah Honorees

Bookmark and Share  

As we honor Roni and Allan Lang on Simhat Torah, here are statements written by the two of them, about voluntering and about TBE. 

Roni Lang
I became a member of Temple Beth El 18 years ago when I married Allan, so this is my Chai year of membership. Allan clinched the deal for me to relocate from California to Connecticut with a marriage proposal and my very own pew seat in the sanctuary. For all these 18 years, the clergy and congregants have been here for our family through simchas and tsuris. Rabbi Hammerman married us, my daughter Gabrielle attended Mirkaz Torah and was confirmed here, and one year ago the Rabbi married Gabrielle and Jeremy and so the beat goes on.

It is a real honor to be recognized on Simchat Torah as Kallat Bereishit along with Allan as Chatan Torah, who in real life is my Chatan. The Lang family has a long history at TBE, while my history dates back to 1992. When I think back on the first few years at TBE, I was clearly just Allan Lang’s wife. It didn’t take long though for me to find that TBE could also be my own spiritual home. I made new friends, started attending Temple events and felt more and more a part of the TBE community. I joined the women’s book discussion group, participated in Sisterhood Shabbat, got the opportunity to present a d’vor torah, and then with the encouragement of Rabbi Hammerman (think firm push) I became the chair of the adult education committee. Working with a great committee, we planned some interesting programs; one of the most memorable for me was the one on Jewish Medical Ethics. My work with Adult Education morphed into my becoming co-chair of the Synaplex committee again thanks to Rabbi Hammerman’s suggestion (think gentle nudge this time). Working as chairperson of the Synaplex committee continues to be a source of satisfaction for me as the committee tries to bring fresh and innovative ways to worship, study and discuss important aspects of Jewish life and celebrate Shabbat. My work with Synaplex has been amazing. Again I worked with a great committee and staff, and committee members and staff became friends. I personally had the opportunity to meet and learn from our guest speakers as well as the chance to lead several educational programs myself. Each Synaplex Shabbat challenges us to pull together a full agenda of activities for all ages on topical subjects. And of course there is always lunch to obsess about…. what kind of centerpieces…. how much should we order…do we have enough people to serve. It always works out…I always obsess.

I hope to continue volunteer in program and leadership opportunities at TBE, as participation for me is both an honor and a privilege.

Allan Lang

My affiliation with TBE began in the early 1950’s, prior to my Bar Mitzvah, and has continued through the years. After college I became an organizer of the Young Adult Group and was its first representative to the Board of Trustees . Later on I asked Hazzan Rabinowitz if he would organize a class to teach shofar sounding, and that led to the practice of sounding the shofar at daily minyan services during Elul. Although I wasn’t very skilled, I was given the honor of being the leadoff shofar sounder each year until I retired from the shofar corps.

The Chai-lite of my Temple life was to introduce Roni, the California Social Worker to the Stars, to Stamford, to Temple Beth El, and to Rabbi Hammerman, who was happy to help us tie the knot 18 years ago. Roni and her daughter Gabrielle quickly became involved in Temple life and soon I was known as “aren’t you Roni’s husband,” and Gabi had a pretty regular baby-sitting job with two boys named Ethan and Daniel.

Since Roni was soon teaching college on Tuesday nights, I needed a Tuesday evening activity, so in 2007 I accepted the nomination to serve on the Temple Board, (which meets on Tuesday evenings). Unexpectedly, the Treasurer’s position soon became open. I missed one Board meeting, and learned that in my absence I was elected to fill the vacancy. Now I have no free time as I serve on The Executive Committee, Chair the Finance Committee, and spend a lot of time reviewing bills, signing checks , and discussing our finances with the professional staff.

This honor is a double honor because I share it with my wife. It will encourage us to continue working on behalf of TBE, and to enjoy what TBE has to offer.

And here’s what Roni said on that morning 

It’s a real honor to be recognized on Simchat Torah as Kallat Bereishit, along with Allan, as Chatan Torah (who is in real life is my Chatan). 

I became a member of Temple Beth El 18 years ago, when I married Allan, so this is my “chai” year of membership. Allan cinched the deal for me to relocate to Connecticut, from California, with a marriage proposal and my very own pew seat in the sanctuary. For all these 18 years, the Beth El clergy and congregants have been here for our family, through simchas and tsuris. Rabbi Hammerman married us; my daughter, Gabrielle, attended Merkaz Torah and was confirmed here; about one year ago, the Rabbi married Gabrielle and Jeremy. So the beat goes on.

 It didn’t take long for me to find that TBE could also be my own spiritual home. I made new friends, started attending Temple events, and felt — more and more — a part of the TBE community. I joined the women’s book discussion group, participated in Sisterhood Shabbat ,  got the opportunity to present a D’var Torah, and with encouragement  — or rather, a firm push — from Rabbi Hammerman, I became the chair of the adult education committee. Working with a great committee, we planned some interesting programs. One of the most memorable programs was on Jewish medical ethics.

My work with adult education morphed into my becoming co-chair of the Synaplex committee again, thanks to Rabbi Hammerman’s suggestion. (This time, the rabbi gave me a gentle nudge.) Working as chairwoman of the Synaplex committee continues to be a source of satisfaction for me, as the committee tries to promote fresh and innovative ways of worshipping, celebrating Jewish holidays and festivals, and studying and discussing important aspects of Jewish life. I work with a great committee and staff and committee members have now become friends.

A colleague at worked  asked me why I volunteer at my temple and what does it do for me.

 Well, I don’t do it because: 

        I need it for my college application 

        I need to fill in blanks on my resume to get a job 

        I’m bored and need to be busy…. 

                  I’m a pretty busy person   so why then add another dimension to my life?

  • Precisely because it is another dimension. Like Shabbat , volunteering at TBE adds another aspect to my spiritual life.  It makes me more connected to my religion, and the community.
  • I enjoy a sense  of satisfaction and personal fulfillment from helping the Temple with special projects
  • It feels good—to work on Synaplex or lend a hand as needed
  • I get a chance to make new friends
  • Feel connected to Synagogue in active not passive manner
  • I enjoy TBE more when I show up… and I  show up more when I volunteer
  • Volunteering is a win-win proposition- good for the Temple and good for me
  • Rabbi Janet Marder wrote that being a member of a synagogue brings us out of the narrow circle of self-concern and help open us to the needs of others.”  I think  volunteering at synagogue widens the circle even more.
  • Putting  on my therapist /social work  hat for a moment I can tell you that volunteering is good for your health and well being.    If you doctor has read any of the recent studies of the health benefits of volunteering, next time  you don’t feel good his advise might be “take two aspiring and volunteer in the morning.” 
  • In addition to measuring the psychological rewards of volunteering,  research shows that   the benefits of volunteering go well beyond just making the participants feel better about themselves; it helps you stay healthy and may even prolong your life. Volunteers live longer 
  • Volunteering leads to spiritual and emotional growth too.

  I hope to continue to volunteer in programming and leadership roles at TBE, as participation is both an honor and a privilege. 

David Klipper Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon – 5711

Bookmark and Share  

Thank you for your introduction, Rabbi, and thank you as well for sharing your pulpit with me, particularly during the High Holidays. It is a rare rabbi who has the graciousness and confidence to do this, and I am honored by your trust.

I also appreciate the opportunity to speak with you at this time. This is literally the first sermon you will hear in the year 5771. I suspect that a number of you are hoping that it will be good, or at least interesting. I want you to know that I share that hope.

I want to tell you a little about what the process of generating this sermon has been like. I would never say that writing sermons is something that I find easy, but it usually is not that difficult to find something that I want to speak about. Once I have figured that out, then there is the process of actually converting the idea into a sermon.

But this year, I had a hard time knowing what the idea was that I wanted to convey. First I was feeling stuck, and then as Rosh Hashanah grew closer, I was feeling panicked. I started asking people for advice but the advice they gave me was for the sermon that they would write, not the sermon that I would write, so that didn’t help either.

I finally got rescued by my job. I work as a chaplain at Stamford Hospital, and during the last week of August I had a number of experiences with patients that were very significant and meaningful to me. As I thought about them, they gave me a perspective that I wanted to share with you about the nature of the High Holidays.

I had told one of my spiritual mentors about my sermon-writing quandary and asked him what I could talk about. He suggested that I could talk about the potential of Rosh Hashanah in enabling us to make a new start. He said that I should talk about how it is possible to change one’s self, one’s relationships and basically to experience a completely new life.

This was on a Monday night. My first patient on Tuesday morning was a 48 year-old woman named Stacey (all names are pseudonyms) who had been given a new blood pressure medication that was apparently making her dizzy. I say apparently because her husband had found her unconscious at the bottom of the stairs the night before. It was presumed that she had fallen but no one really knew for sure.

However, the really horrifying thing about this woman’s injury was that she had amnesia. She couldn’t remember anyone in her life. In the Emergency Department, her husband asked her if she knew who he was, and she replied, “You’re the person who found me at the bottom of the stairs.”

When I visited her, her daughter was lying in the bed with her, holding her hand. It took me awhile to realize what was going on, and the daughter finally explained it to me. The patient was absolutely terrified, and was trying her best to remember, to no avail. I could only barely imagine how she felt. She was totally adrift. She said to me, “There are these people telling me that they are my family and that they love me” and it was clear that she didn’t know who they were.

This was a very challenging patient for me to work with. I had no idea if her memory would return, and I couldn’t give her false hope. We prayed together, her daughter, the patient and I, but all of us knew that there were no guarantees, and this person might have to rebuild her life from the ground up – discovering who she had married, what her children were like, basically learning about her own life as though it was a stranger’s life.

Stacey wasn’t the only patient who touched my heart during that week. There was Harriett, who I actually knew from having done some work together several years ago. Harriett is a psychotherapist. Some time ago she developed cancer, and she was in the hospital because of an intestinal blockage, which is a common complication of her type of cancer. She told me that she had been candid with her patients about having cancer, and told me about one of her training analysts who had not told her patients that she had cancer. One of these patients, an adolescent girl, got quite angry at this therapist because of some things the therapist said in phone sessions while she was sick (and to be fair, the therapist was quite sick at the time and probably not thinking very clearly). But unfortunately the therapist then died, and the adolescent girl was left with the guilt that her last words to her therapist were negative and hostile when she had no idea that the therapist was as sick as she turned out to be. My friend Harriet calmly told me this story, and her resolve that she would not put her patients through the same experience that she had witnessed.

There was Chuck, a man in his late fifties. Chuck had a large bandage on his foot. He told me that he had a degenerative bone disease in his foot, and that he kept repeating a cycle. He would injure the foot, stay in a wheelchair for a number of months while he tried to recover, and then finally put weight on the foot when he tried to walk, only to have it break again. He had suffered the disappointment of thinking that the foot was cured and wouldn’t break again, only to find that it did. Now he was considering whether he would be better off amputating the foot and learning to walk with a prosthesis. One of his concerns was that his other foot was starting to show the same symptoms, and he was concerned that he would have to learn how to walk using two prostheses. He spoke to me about how difficult it has been for him to be unable to practice his profession in the financial field for the past five years, and how badly he felt about putting his wife and children through the ordeal of having to take care of him when he wanted to take care of them. His tone of voice was calm, but he needed to wipe tears away from his eyes from time to time.

Finally, there was Sandi. Sandi was 20 at the start of her latest hospitalization, and had turned 21 during it. Sandi has severe Crohn’s Disease, which is an auto-immune disease that attacks the intestines. She has had this disease for the past eight or so years. When I first met her, she was telling me how she hoped this would be a short hospitalization, without any complications. Several weeks and more than one procedure later, after she had been given a (hopefully reversible) colostomy, she talked to me about her struggles to try to help her alcoholic father into finding and then going to a rehab. She spoke about how he had always been there for her, and even though her mother was divorcing him and had gone to the police and had a protection order issued so he couldn’t go into the house and see his other children, she wasn’t giving up on him. She talked about how hard it was to be in the middle between her mother and her father. She talked in a matter of fact way about the amount of scar tissue on her intestines, and the likelihood that she would need pain medication for the rest of her life because of it. But that day she was far less concerned with her own issues than she was about trying to help her father. She too, spent much of our time wiping tears from her eyes. And while I prayed with and for her, as I had with all of these patients, I knew that there really wasn’t a fairy-tale God that would sweep down from the heavens and make a happy ending for them.

I thought back to what my spiritual mentor had suggested that I write about Rosh Hashanah and realized that he was wrong, that Rosh Hashanah is not about starting all over and having a completely new life. That was what my patient Stacey, who had lost her memory, was experiencing, and it was a nightmare for her. Nor is the goal of having a completely new life realistic or possible in most cases. It is not possible for Harriet to be cured of her cancer, or for Chuck to be able to walk again on his own feet, or for Sandi to have the kind of family, and kind of digestive system, that she wished she could have.

So in light of these experiences, I asked myself how I could reframe my spiritual mentor’s message into something that made sense for me, and hopefully would make sense to all of you, and this is what I came up with.

Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe are not about getting an entirely new life; they are about doing the best you can with the life you already have. This season offers us the chance to change our perspective on and approach to our existing life and by doing so, change its nature. During this sacred time we can make amends to those we have harmed, and perhaps melt the anger that had arisen between us, transforming hostility into the potential for friendship, or at least civility. At this time we can look at what we have done and what we need to do to get right with God, whoever or whatever we understand God to be, and by doing so, bring out new facets of ourselves as people.

More than that, I think that this season suggests that not only can we do this, but if we are really to live a life that is rich, joyous and free, then we must do this. Who among us has not allowed at least some rust to grow on the once-shining mirror of our souls? Who among us has not allowed complacency to blind us to how much we have and how much we need to give? Who among us would not be at least somewhat uncomfortable if our past life was suddenly the focus of a 24-hour/day reality TV show? I suspect the answer to these questions is all of us, because each of us is human, and these are human things to do, human failings to have.

When I pray with patients, I frequently ask that God’s presence touch their hearts, and that this presence gives them comfort, strength, hope, peace and love. So too I ask that God touch each of our hearts during this season of amazing hope.

May our contact with God help bring out the best in who we are. May our contact with God help us find reserves of strength, tolerance, decency and love that we may not have known we had. May our contact with God help us see the best in ourselves and the best in one another. And finally, may our contact with God help us to see the blessings we have in our lives, blessings that are so often invisible to us, and may the deep gratitude we feel for these blessings enrich us not just tonight, but for the entire year as well. Shana tovah.

Yom Kippur Sermon 5771 “When Everything Changes”

Bookmark and Share  

 [insert audio file 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”

Bookmark and Share  

 [insert audio file here] 

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.

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

Bookmark and Share  

 [insert audio file 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.


Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5771: “Why Do They Hate Us?”

Bookmark and Share  

 [insert audio file here] 

Why do they hate us?

It’s not a great question with which to begin a Rosh Hashanah sermon, but it’s one that can’t be avoided, given our experience, both historic and recent.

On a warm night in, just after I had escorted our Israel group to Ben Gurion airport and grabbed a cab back to Tel Aviv, as I was ready to sit back and enjoy that warm glow of the night sky over the promenade, and that feeling of satisfaction following another great trip, I flipped on the computer and saw a video called “Only Israel” that had gone viral on YouTube, 400,000 hits in less than two weeks, a song written by an Israeli girl from Efrat named Yedida Freilich. The song is a powerful, haunting indictment of the world for holding Israel to an unfair double standard following the flotilla incident off the coast of Gaza.

“Only Israel has no right to defend herself,” she sings. “Because the world cares nothing about Jewish blood.”

Why do they hate us?

That week, I also received an email from one of our TBE young adults telling me of her shocking experiences while attending the 2nd U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, a conference for every leftist social justice cause imaginable. She was struck by the overwhelming anti-Israel presence there.
“As early as the opening march,” she wrote, “I saw more kafiyas and Palestinian flags than I’d ever seen before. There were numerous workshops each day with titles such as “Unlearning Zionism: Unlearning Racism,” “The Case Against the Jewish National Fund,” “Understanding Israeli Apartheid,” and the list goes on. The word “Zionist” was bandied about the way people used “Communist” in the 1950s. A session organized by a pro-Israel group was cancelled.”

“I’ve never encountered anti-Israel temperament on such a large scale,” she wrote…. “It’s not as if I thought the world was on our side. But, seeing and hearing these things in-person changed me forever.”

The numbers can be scary. A poll in the Boston Review last year, conducted just after the Madoff scandal, indicated that a fully 25% of the American people blames the Jews for the economic crisis. So we’re not just talking about the fringe here.

Why do they hate us?

The flotilla incident was terrible, but the response to it went far beyond what one might call “proportionate.” It became a sort of Rorschach test for venom and resentment. Once the facts came out, Israelis were united in defending the actions of soldiers under attack, and they were united in their belief that the world was out to get them, including, many felt, the American President.

Meanwhile, many American Jews were left with stomachs churning after the flotilla, feeling helpless to defend Israel blindly when we were seeing the Israeli Prime Minister exclaim that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, while the networks were showing us a very different story.

By the end of July, Netanyahu and Obama had made nice and things began to calm down, but while I was in Israel, make no mistake, their despair was palpable. Israelis feel totally secure on their streets. The economy is booming over there. The place is more beautiful than ever.
But Israelis can feel the world closing in: Denied the right of self defense by Goldstone, delegitimized by European intellectuals and on American college campuses, dehumanized by Iran and its proxies, rebuffed even by some of their American Jewish friends, and this week, misrepresented by Time Magazine’s mean spirited and just plain wrong cover story. The goal of Israel’s enemies is no longer to defeat Israel militarily but to delegitimize it in the eyes of nations. And it is working. The Prime Minister understands this, by the way, which is why he is highly motivated to strike a deal for peace.

Why do they hate us?

Why does the world not give a hoot about Gilad Shalit, who hasn’t even been seen by the Red Cross? Why is the world fiddling while Iran prepares its own Final Solution? Why are atrocities ignored in Darfur, Chechnya? Turkey? Afghanistan? Why is Israel the only one who has no right to defend itself?

Why? Why? Why?

When I was over there in July, the Israeli papers were filled with columns discussing that question. During these days leading up to the fast of Tisha B’Av, a time usually reserved for national rumination, there was plenty of that to go around. And then, thrown into the mix, there was the Rotem bill, designed to help hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants convert to Judaism, but which threatened to disenfranchise American Jewry by placing the power of defining Jewish status entirely in the hands of chief rabbinate. And all of this begged the question of why anyone would want to convert to a people that everyone hates.
In June, noted intellectual Peter Beinart raised a storm by accusing the American Jewish establishment of sacrificing its liberal values in favor of support for Israel at any price. A long-time supporter of Israel, Beinart spoke about a generational divide. The sense that the world is against us doesn’t resonate with younger American Jews, he said. In focus groups, young American Jews repeatedly used the word “they” rather than “us” in reference to Israel. In a poll, only 50 percent of young Jews said they would consider Israel’s destruction a personal tragedy.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post featured an interview with political guru Frank Luntz, who was in Israel to advise government officials on how they can improve their PR skills in talking to Americans. “American’s want to hear empathy,” he advised. “They want to know that you feel the pain of the people in Gaza.”

And it’s true. Americans have a strong historical affinity with refugees of all nations.
As long as they don’t move here.

Luntz spoke of a focus group he did with Harvard and MIT students. He only told them that he was going to ask them about the Middle East. There were 35 people in the room: 20 of them were non-Jewish, 15 were Jewish. And he didn’t tell anyone who was which.

“Got them all into the room,” he continues. “It was so crowded that we had kids sitting on the floor. But that added to the intensity. They felt like they were in a dorm room. And within 10 minutes, the non-Jews started with “the war crimes of Israel,” with “the Jewish lobby,” with “the Jews have a lot more power and influence…”

And guess what? Did the Jewish kids at the best schools in America, did they stand up for themselves? Did they challenge the assertions? They didn’t say (anything). And in that group was the leader of the Israeli caucus at Harvard. It took him 49 minutes of this before he responded.

Luntz later confronted the Jewish kids about their silence.

“And it all dawned on them: If they won’t say it to their classmates, whom they know, who will they stand up for Israel to? Two of the women in the group started to cry. I got the whole thing on tape. The guys are like, “Oh my God, I didn’t speak up, I can’t believe I let this happen.” And they’re all looking at each other with horrible embarrassment and guilt like you wouldn’t believe.”

Why do they hate us? Why do WE hate us?

OK – time to redefine the problem: The problem is NOT that everyone hates us. Jews have been hated for 3,000 years. And guess what! We’re still here! Get over it!

Things aren’t that bad anyway. There are many who love us. Hey, Chelsea Clinton married one of us. Amare Stoudemire signed with the Knicks and discovered his inner matza ball. Things aren’t so bad – but even if they were, the real important question is, how can we respond to all the hatred we see around us, much of it directed to people other than Jews, without losing our humanity?

The paranoia of feeling hated is threatening to take over our souls. THAT’S the real problem. And if that fear takes over our souls, if THAT is all there is to being Jewish, we will lose our kids, we will lose Israel and we will lose a whole lot more.

This conversation gets us into scary territory. Do we in fact take perverse pleasure in being demonized, because it allows us to demonize in return? Because it enables us to send out panicked emails, galvanize and raise money? Not that the dangers aren’t real – they most definitely are, but the greatest danger is that such negativity will turn off the next generation and sully a tradition that for 3,000 years has left a beautiful legacy of love.

Golda Meir used to say that we will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”

Maybe peace will also come when WE love their children too.

That’s hard. No doubt it’s hard.
But it’s right and it’s the authentically Jewish response. For ours is a religion of Love. Ours is a God of Love.

We need to love their children not simply because showing empathy is a good political strategy – which it is – but because it is right, it is good, and it is the essence of our faith. What Israel did in setting up a model medical facility in Haiti after the earthquake was not simply good PR – although it was terrific PR – it was a gesture that came right out of the Jewish Values playbook. It was the essence of what a Jewish state should do – and we were proud, so proud of it. It was the right thing to do. Just as rescuing Ethiopian Jews, including many of dubious Jewish lineage – was and remains the right thing to do. Just as caring for African refugees and the children of foreign laborers is the right thing for a Jewish state to do.

There’s an argument in the Talmud between Rabbi Akiva and Shimon Ben Azzai, over which is the most basic principle of the Torah. Akiva says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He was a big fan of love. He LOVED love. He’s the guy who put the Song of Songs into the Bible, and his late-blooming romance with his wife Rachel is maybe the greatest Jewish love story of all time.
But Ben Azzai trumped him by saying, “No, even more important than ‘Love your Neighbor’ is the verse from Genesis that states, “On the day that God made human beings, they were made in the likeness of God, male and female God created them.”

Rabbi Arthur Green, whose new book “Radical Judaism” is must reading for any post-modern Jew – and we’ll be teaching it here this year – thinks Ben Azzai was on to something important. It’s not enough simply to love your neighbor. Anyone can love a neighbor. Azzai says that’s not enough! We have to love everyone. Not just the person who lives next door. Not just a fellow Jew. Every human being is in God’s image. True, some are harder to love than others. Some are nearly impossible.

And we all know who they are!

Some days you can love them, and some days you can’t. Even if you can’t love them, you have to treat them with dignity. We should reach out even to those whom it might be hard to love: the stranger, the indigent, the immigrant, the Muslim, the Pole, the Haitian, the Haredi Jew, the sinner, do-gooder, the office snitch, the teacher’s pet, the right wing activist, the left wing activist, the enemy, the former friend.

I know very little about God, except that God looks something like all of the above. All are created in God’s image. And we’ve got to love them all – but if we can’t love them, and God knows it’s not easy, we’ve got to treat them with respect.

As you know, I often like to focus on a particular prayer during these sermons, as a thread that will connect them all. This year we’ll look closely at the Sh’ma, our most important prayer and the prayer that commands us to love – V’ahavta – “You shall love the Lord your God.” So, one may ask, how can you command love?

Well, it’s not really a command, as professor Reuven Kimelman has pointed out. Read properly, “V’ahavta is a response. An instinctive reaction projecting love out into the world. Projecting back what we have received.”

In both the morning and evening liturgies, the Sh’ma is immediately preceded by a prayer about love. In the morning, that prayer is Ahava Rabbah – “A Great Love,” a transcendent love, an UNCONDITIONAL love. The word for love, “Ahava,” appears in various forms no fewer than six times in that single prayer, including the first, middle and last words. Love, love, love, love, love, love. Six times! Like a mantra.

We are loved by an unconditional love – a boundless love, as we say at night, Ahavat Olam. When you’ve been loved in that way, when the world has loved you in that way, the only way to respond is to give love in return.

You’ve undoubtedly heard that old bit of wisdom from Dorothy Law Nolte, “Children learn what they live”

If a child lives with encouragement,he learns confidence.
If a child lives with praise,he learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with security,he learns to have faith.
If a child lives with acceptance, and friendship,he learns to find love in the world.

This is a popularized version of Erik Erikson’s idea of basic trust. The psychologist conducted an enormous amount of research showing that children who have a secure attachment with loving, sensitive caregivers come to know a world that is predictable and reliable. The Sh’ma is saying that such a world is at the root of the Jewish concept of love. A loving parent is doing God’s work. A nurturing community becomes God’s place – which is, by the way, what Temple Beth El aspires to be, an ever-embracing community, from womb to tomb, a conduit of divine love, nurturing our temple family and then projecting it out into the world.

Well, our prayers seem to be telling us that we have lived in a child’s paradise. A world of freely given love, an unending flow of love. And all we have to do is recognize it – and return it. And return it with ALL our heart, which for the ancients meant with our intellect, and ALL our soul, our nefesh, which is life itself, and with all our might, all our physical and material capacity. Love the world as best you can, in any way that you can, because we’ve been loved.

We take that love and hurl it right back at ya’ God, right back at ya’ to the world. That’s what we are here to do as Jews. We are here to love. Not because we are commanded to – rather because, when we have been enveloped by so much love, it is natural to want to give love back.
V’Ahvata, then, to summarize, is not a command but a natural response to a lifetime of nurturing.

I will grant that it is often not easy to give love back for those who have felt very little love in our lives, either as children or adults. And that indeed is a tragedy.

But no matter how horrible your childhood, it could never match the historical experience of the Jewish people. If the children of Israel were really children, God would have been picked up by Child Protective Services long ago. And after what he did in today’s and tomorrow’s Torah portions, Abraham would be next in line.

And that is the crux of the problem once again. We want to love, but our experience has coarsened us. The heavenly Parent seems to have been AWOL while six million were butchered, and while terrorists were allowed to run amok on the buses of Jerusalem and the towers of Manhattan. It’s hard to love when we have not always felt the love. We’ve been burned more recently too, when so many are out of work, when people are suffering, when life savings have been lost. It is easy to succumb to fear. It happens all the time – to very good people.

And yet somehow, through all our travails, Jews have historically been able to transform sorrow into song. And that is because, despite it all, we’ve never forgotten how to love – we’ve never stopped feeling that Ahava Rabbah – that expansive love.

Last April as our Stamford Kulanu group arrived in Krakow on the March of the Living, we had every reason to remain suspicious of the Poles. With all that history of anti-Semitism, it’s hard to wipe the slate clean. I was astonished to see anti-Semitic figurines of Jews with moneybags for sale at the airport gift shop. But when the Polish president was killed in that tragic plane crash on the day after we arrived, suddenly we became the emissaries of the Jewish world at the Polish national shiva. Suddenly the fact that we were in Poland was not simply a coincidence of geography, but a summons to responsibility. And our responsibility was to love. We asked the hotel to secure for us 80 black ribbons, so that we could wear them on the March. We asked our Polish guide to teach us how to say I’m sorry, and we said it to every Pole we passed. The word we used was Solidarnosc – meaning “we feel Solidarity with you.”

But these are Poles…. They’re supposed to hate us. And we’re supposed to hate them. Aren’t we?

Two stories: First from the Zohar: A man traveling on a hot day grew weary and sat down to rest on a rock. A snake slipped toward him but a gust of wind came, snapped a branch from a tree and it killed the snake. When the man awoke and stepped away from the rock, the rock suddenly slipped off the cliff.

Rabbi Abba saw what had happened and asked, “What is your merit that you have been saved from death twice?”

The man answered, “I never fail to make peace with those who harm me. I become their friend and repay good for evil. And before I go to sleep, I forgive all who require forgiveness.

Rabbi Abba said, “You are greater than Joseph. He forgave his brothers, but you forgive strangers as well.”

And from the Talmud, tractate Ta’anit:

During a drought, Rabbi Eliezer prayed long for rain, but nothing happened. Rabbi Akiva offered a short prayer and the rains fell. A Voice from Heaven called out, “Not that Akiva is any better than Eliezer, but Eliezer carries a grudge against those who slight him, while Akiva forgets it and moves on.”

Sometimes it is better to have a short memory, as Akiba did. And sometimes it is not:

As our Polish guide, Ziggy, suddenly broke down in tears when he realized that he now had to speak of his leader in the past tense, I connected with him on a most human level. We can all recall the shock of first saying a loved one’s name in the past tense. I’ve sat in hundreds of homes and hospital rooms where that has happened. It usually takes a few days, or even weeks, as we switch back and forth.

And at that same moment I also remembered those wintry days in 1980 Gdansk, when Lech Walesa’s Solidarnosc party courageously broke the Soviet stranglehold of Eastern Europe, working in perfect synchronicity with Jewish refuseniks were corroding the Evil Empire from within.

And I remembered, March 26, 2000, when the Polish pope wrote a note at the Kotel and cried at Yad Vashem, and prayed for God’s forgiveness for “the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer.” Rabbi Michael Melchior described the moment as being “beyond history. Beyond memory.”

We have been loved by an unbounded love!

And I said to myself on that rainy, cold night in John Paul’s hometown of Krakow, “How could I possibly hate this man – and these people?” They’ve lost their future. Their leader – and a good percentage of their government. This is their 9/11, their November 22. And I embraced our guide in front of the entire group, and pledged solidarity with him.

This past summer, while vacationing on the Island of Rhodes, Mara and I visited the old synagogue there, now beautifully reconstructed – though only a few dozen Jews remain. The museum there tells an important story. In September 1943, as the German military commanders took control of Rhodes, British aerial bombings caused much damage in the Jewish quarter. The Jews wished to protect their Torahs, among them an 800 year old scroll. In secret, the Torahs were given to the Turkish Moslem leader, the grand mufti of Rhodes, who agreed to house them in, of all places, the pulpit of his mosque! The following July, the Jews of Rhodes were deported to Auschwitz. Of the 1676 that were deported, only 151 survived. After the war, the Torahs were returned to the few who came back.

But that’s not the end of the story. In 1971, the Grand Mufti confided to a long time Jewish friend, “One of the greatest moments of my life was when I was able to embrace the Torah, carry it and put it in the pulpit of the mosque – because we knew that no German would ever think that the Torahs were preserved in the pulpit of a mosque.”
After all, the Nazis based their world view on hatred of those who are different. They had perfected the art of turning good people into paranoid haters through the use of demagoguery, by transforming the Other into a subhuman life form, easy to destroy, like a roach. How could the Nazis, of all people, imagine a scenario so filled with the love of one’s neighbor? Theirs was a world of black and white, of us and them. It was beyond their capacity to imagine a Muslim leader actually helping Jews.

And that’s still not the end of the story. In 2004, a journalist interviewed the daughter of the grand mufti, expressing how much the Jewish community had appreciated her father’s gesture. She acknowledged the recognition and then stated, “I have Jewish blood.” Not quite sure what she was trying to explain, the journalist asked the translator what she meant by that. She replied, “My grandfather was Jewish, on my mother’s side.” That meant that the Grand Mufti’s father in law was Jewish. Who knew! I’d love to have been at THAT Seder.

Hearing a story like this, my question is no longer why they hate us, but why in the world would we hate them! We’ve been loved by an unbounded love.

70% of Albanians are Muslims. According to Yad Vashem sources there is no evidence of a single Albanian Jew being turned over to a Nazi. Norman Gershman, a Jew who researched this subject, adds that “In many cases, Jews were arrested or were refugees, and those (Albanians) living there would give them false passports and dress them in Islamic garb. In many cases, the Albanian rescuers never even knew their real names.”

V’ahavta – We will love. Not we MUST but we will. We will love because we’ve been loved. Even at times of enormous suffering, we’ve been touched by an Ahavah Rabbah. We will love because our God is a God of love, our Torah a Torah of love; every ounce of breath that comes from us is a breath that was given to us in love.

So two weeks ago, when our Interfaith Council held a vigil to show solidarity with our Muslim friends, how could I not attend? I know what it’s like to be part of a despised faith group, a group who, so it’s been said, has insidious designs to take over the world. A group that’s called shifty and rich and devilish. A group whose holy books are burned. There is only a short hop from the Protocols of Zion to some of the things we’ve seen written about Muslims over these past several weeks. So I went to the vigil and I spoke – and the next day I received a number of emails from local Muslims who had been there, thanking me profusely for my courage. I was embarrassed.

Since when is it courageous to stand up for decent people who are being vilified?
These aren’t terrorists. These are police officers and firefighters and bus drivers and Little League coaches. These are fellow Americans!

My friend and partner in dialogue Behjat Syed recently relocated to Houston, but he wrote me, on the day after that vigil:

Hello Josh,
I just wanted to drop a line and tell you how proud I am to have known you all these years. The vigil was very, very well received in the Muslim community not just in Stamford but many miles away it’s being touted as an example of how a pluralistic society should function. I must say I miss you all. .I love and appreciate you; and there’s nothing you can do about that !!! Also my personal warmest to all that come to Learning & Latte this year. Behjat

The situation in downtown Manhattan is a complicated one and I don’t presume to resolve that matter here. But I plead with us all. Let’s not allow the voices of intolerance to dominate the discussion. I don’t know Iman Rauf personally, but all I know of him tells me that he is precisely the person we want in this conversation.

I pray that loving hearts will prevail on all sides and that the Cordoba Center, wherever it is built, will become a beacon for moderation and hope, the one we have all needed for so long, and that the resolution to this matter be just the thing that will enable our still-grieving nation to at last begin to heal.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach said, “If we had two hearts like we have two arms and two legs, then one heart could be used for love and the other one for hate. Since I have but one heart, then I don’t have the luxury of hating anyone.”

This is the journey from the lower hey to the upper hey is the one we all need to take, the journey from receiving to giving, the journey to unconditional love. Let it begin now. Let us make the passage from Ahava Rabba to Ahavat Olam, from a great love, to the greatest love of all, the love of all with whom we share this earth.

It is easy to be cynical. It is easy to be suspicious. It is easy to throw up our arms and disengage.

It is easy to hate. But IF WE HATE – THE HATERS WILL HAVE WON. They will have turned us into them.

So why do they hate us?

All I know is this. 20,000 Albanian Muslims risked life and limb to save us. How many of us have done that for an Albanian Muslim?

No, they don’t all hate us. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter who hates us and why. All that matters is that we love. Why?
Because we have been loved.

V’ahavta! We WILL love.

The March

Bookmark and Share  

My March of the Living posts and photos can be found at my blog, indexed at

Toyota, Auschwitz and Chelm (NY Jewish Week)

Bookmark and Share  

This week, I’ll be joining the March of the Living, an annual pilgrimage from Poland to Israel. The experience of the Holocaust stands alone in Jewish history, a godless counterpoint to all things sacred. Alongside the majestic peaks of Sinai and Zion, our view now includes this man-made mountain of children’s shoes, empty luggage and echoing shrieks, a clump of human refuse that dwarfs everything around it, taller than Sinai, more imposing than Zion, more insurmountable than Everest.

As I prepare to face the enormity of Auschwitz for the first time, it occurs to me that since the Shoah, rabbis have become like Toyota salesmen. What, after all, are we selling, but a product once revered, but now proven to be a grand farce? The myth has been summarily detonated, the brand exposed. Just as “Made in Japan” now has reverted to its original derogatory, postwar meaning (cheap, fake, laughable), “Made at Sinai” now feels like its “Made in Japan.”

Oh, we rabbis have been trained well. We’ve developed numerous diversionary strategies to refocus the question (“Where was God? Well, where was man?”) or simply to foster a perpetual state of denial (“We can’t know God’s ways”). Some have chosen to relinquish some of God’s omnipotence, others go much farther. But for the most part, we focus on beating home the message that Judaism still has an important function to serve, even if there’s a gaping hole under the chassis. Some deny that the hole exists, clinging naively to pre-Auschwitz fantasies. It is astonishing how many otherwise intelligent, modern, skeptical Jews buy this theological nonsense, slickly packaged by various ultra-Orthodox groups. But most rabbis, while not denying the seriousness of the challenge, prefer to set the questions aside, suggesting that maybe the next generation will solve the problem.

Over the decades, there have been brilliant attempts to deal with this dilemma. Some, like Richard Rubenstein’s existentialist “After Auschwitz,” have been powerfully honest. Such radical theologies proliferated in the ’60s, during the so-called “Death of God” era. Since then, God has survived quite nicely, thank you, but those bold theologies have yellowed with age. The question of Auschwitz remains as vivid as ever, but after 65 years, we seem to be tiring of asking it.
It makes me wonder: If Toyotas never get fixed, but for 65 years company propagandists spew forth the message that the cars are really safe, will we start believing in them again? Will the producers just wear us down until we tire of asking the questions? That strategy seems to have worked with other products. Some people actually think that cable news is really news. Some Jews believe that the same God who was silent in Auschwitz actually caused Iraqi Scuds to miss their targets in Tel Aviv. The madness has worn us down.

Perhaps the antidote to such madness is a different kind of madness.

The day after we march on Auschwitz, my group will stop off on the way to Warsaw in a quaint town called Chelm, for Jews the eternal capital of absurdity. Chelmites are mythical Jews from a real town, known for their propensity to take logic to its bizarre extreme.

Two men of Chelm went out for a walk, when suddenly it began to rain.
“Quick,” said one. “Open your umbrella.”
“It won’t help,” said his friend. “My umbrella is full of holes.” 

“Then why did you bring it?” 

“I didn’t think it would rain!” 

A New York-based klezmer group named Golem wrote a song recently about a Chelmite who leaves on a journey to Warsaw, gets lost and ends up back in Chelm. “He’s so stupid that he thinks he’s actually in Warsaw,” bandleader Annette Ezekiel told “The moral is any place can be any place else — it doesn’t matter where you are.”

But for me, it will matter a lot. I’ll be coming from Auschwitz, the darkest place in Jewish history, and then I’ll be staying over in Chelm, the funniest. Chelm will be the place where I wash my hands after visiting this countrywide cemetery, a way station before I head to Jerusalem for the second part of the March.

Two points about Chelm. First, laughter provided a great outlet for those suffering from hunger, poverty and hatred, as the Jews of Poland did for so long. But rather than laugh at real people, the Jewish genius invented a mythical community to laugh at. Not only is that practical (as opposed to laughing at Poles, who might respond by killing you), it is far more ethical to make fun of fake people than real people.

Second, Chelm might hold the key to our getting beyond the theological quandaries of our age. If the commanding voice of Auschwitz has muffled the God of Sinai for the time being, maybe we need to pay more attention to the God of Chelm. The Yiddish aphorism, “Man plans, God laughs,” just might be the most apt theological response to an age of absurdity. It’s not that God is laughing at us; it’s simply that God has taught us that laughter is the only way one can respond to a world of unfathomable evil and unspeakable tragedy, while clinging to life and dignity. Maintaining some semblance of sanity requires a modicum of insanity, an art we’ve been perfecting for centuries, ever since we figured out how a poor peasant living in rags could be transformed into royalty through the simple act of lighting candles, drinking wine and blessing hallah. The first Jewish kid, whose life was replete with tragedy, was nonetheless named laughter (Isaac). We’ve been re-living Isaac’s story ever since.

Would you buy a used Toyota from this God? Perhaps not. But at least the divine gift of laughter gives us the courage to stare directly into that gaping hole in the chassis and laugh at the absurdity of it all, while gasping in amazement that, despite everything, we are alive.

Visions of a Sacred Community

Bookmark and Share  

From the Alban Insititute, “Visions of a Sacred Community” summarizes the new book of Isa Aron , Steven M. Cohen , Lawrence A. Hoffman , Ari Y. Kelman describing the key components of a “visionary” congregation, as opposed to one that they call “functional,” which they (rightly) claim cannot survive in this environment. An excerpt:

Congregational leaders who embark upon change efforts develop contrasting images of the qualities they seek in their congregation and of the characteristics they hope to shed, transcend, or avoid. They aspire to become what we call visionary congregations, those that most effectively develop, nurture, and apply powerful, widely shared, and widely understood visions of the sacred community. In contrast, they distinguish their communities from what we call functional congregations, those that may excel at performing discrete functions that satisfy their consumer-members but tend to fall short of genuinely achieving an integrated sense of sacred community.

The composite images we draw here emerged clearly from interviews with the lay and professional leaders of eight transformed congregations. Not only can these leaders point to their currently held view of their congregation’s ideal features, some can also point to the time when their dreams began to take shape and when their dissatisfactions came into sharper focus. All engaged congregational leaders had to face their congregations’ shortcomings and envision the ideal state to which they could realistically aspire. Dissatisfaction with the seemingly adequate, functional present was a necessary prelude to envisioning the extraordinary congregation they wanted to become. We found that functional congregations had six characteristics in common.

Consumerism: the fee-for-service arrangements provide consumers with discrete services, in particular, education of children for ceremonial celebration of bar or bat mitzvah and clergy officiation at life-cycle ceremonies.

Segmentation: programs stand on their own, with little integration of worship, learning, caring, social action, or community building.

Passivity: professionals exercise firm control over congregational functioning; worshipers sit passively; parents drop off children for religious schooling; boards deal with marginalia.

Meaninglessness: rote performance of scripted interactions, with little genuine significance or feelings of transcendent connection with Jews and Judaism.

Resistance to change: the routine is supreme, preventing diversification and serious consideration of alternative modes and structures.

Nonreflective leadership: focuses on program and institutional arrangements rather than purpose and vision.

The synagogues we studied successfully challenged their congregants to be life-long, year-round, thoroughly committed and practicing Jews. We call these synagogues “visionary.” Through the course of our interviews, our key informants provided contrasts between “the congregation we once were” and the “congregation we have now become.” Some spoke of them (other, more typical congregations) versus us (a very special congregation), distinguishing the ordinary and mediocre congregation from the extraordinary and vital congregation. Visionary synagogues have six characteristics in common.

Sacred purpose: a pervasive and shared vision infuses all aspects of the synagogue.

Holistic ethos: the parts are related to each other, such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasadim are intertwined throughout synagogue life.

Participatory culture: on all levels—congregants, lay leaders, professionals, and family members of all ages—engage in the work of creating sacred community.

Meaningful engagement is achieved through repeated inspirational experiences that infuse people’s lives with meaning.

Innovation disposition is marked by a search for diversity and alternatives and a high tolerance for possible failure.

Reflective leadership and governance are marked by careful examination of alternatives, a commitment to overarching purpose, attention to relationships, mastery of both big picture and detail, and a planful approach to change.

At the heart of the visionary congregation is an overarching commitment to sacred purpose, a commitment that suffuses all aspects of the community. Where the functional congregation delivers specified services to consumer-clients, its visionary counterpart provides sacred experiences to members of a holy community.
Visionary communities maintain a holistic ethos where the parts are integrally related to the whole. This ethos attempts to minimize boundaries between people, programs, institutions, groups, and space and to promote cooperation between and among the various domains of the congregation. It rejects dualisms such as education versus entertainment and study versus action. It rejects the segmentation of functions common in most congregations, such as compartmentalizing worship, learning, caring, and social action. It also rejects an atomistic view of the congregation as separate from everyday life, the larger Jewish community, and the larger society.

For leaders, clerical or otherwise, of visionary congregations, a highly participatory culture signifies not loss of control but success in leadership. Congregants’ participation, initiative, and leadership are not seen as impinging upon the prerogatives of leadership; they are signs of its effectiveness and success in making engagement with the congregation truly inspiring and meaningful.

A major theme in American religion over the last twenty years or more has been the rise of meaning seeking on the part of Americans of all faiths. In Robert Wuthnow’s terms, religious adherents have increasingly shifted from the mode of “dwellers,” where extant religious structures are sufficient, to that of “seekers,” where the journey is an end in itself. Current and potential congregants choose to affiliate and to become more or less involved in congregational life based in part upon the extent to which such involvement provides them with genuine meaning. Congregations are challenged now more than ever to provide environments and experiences where meaning making can happen. As people and culture continue to diversify and evolve, the objective requires ongoing innovation. As Alan Wolfe observes, “All of America’s religions face the same imperative: Personalize or die.”

The leaders of the visionary congregations with whom we spoke cast themselves as change agents who promote innovation but carefully pace and monitor change. Given the complexity of instituting and monitoring innovation, a visionary congregation requires a leadership and an organizational culture not merely predisposed to innovate but also committed and capable of engaging in genuine reflection.
For years social scientists have been tracking the ever-quickening pace of change in technology, culture, and society. Management experts have been nearly unanimous in proclaiming that corporations and the people who lead them need to develop the tools to make sense of the changing world around them, to recognize emerging obstacles and opportunities, to manage adaptation and innovation, to assess their successes and failures, and to adjust their responses in light of these assessments. Innovation demands ongoing reflection and attention.

No congregation performs perfectly as a visionary congregation in all aspects. Rather, we envision the six characteristics shared by visionary congregations as continual, in which the core distinction of a congregation is that it is always in pursuit of sacredness over consumerism, holism over segmentation, participation over passivity, innovation over routine, meaning over rote interactions, and reflection over inattention.

Behind these characteristics lies the larger story, the story of how the synagogues themselves were transformed, from “limited liability” institutions to sacred communities; from shuls with schools to congregations of learners; from having clergy who made hospital visits to having congregants who visit one another; from having a small and somewhat beleaguered social action committee (or no social action committee at all) to joining a citywide social justice coalition that engages a broad range of congregants.
By making such changes, these synagogues have joined a national trend in churches, too. The news is filled with stories featuring evangelical megachurches transforming the face of American religious consciousness. But quietly and with much less fanfare, mainline churches too are starting to move into the twenty-first century with a new sense of intellectual, spiritual, and prophetic excitement, reaching far beyond the small band of regulars and into the very heart of the church’s membership rolls. If religion in America has a future beyond just its conservative right wing, it will depend on this kind of transformation of church—and synagogue—culture.

Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog 

Hammerman on Ethics: No Handshake: Don’t Take it Personally

Bookmark and Share  

Some of you might recall this question, which came up earlier this year. Now it appears in my “Hammerman on Ethics” column. Feel free to send along your own ethical dilemmas!


No Handshake: Don’t Take it Personally


Q: Hey Rabbi– I have a quick question. I met the Rabbi at the Chabad at our school. Anyways, I had a long conversation with him and when I went to leave I put out my hand to shake his hand and he politely declined. Does my hand have a disease? What’s going on here?

A: No you don’t have a disease! (Find out why here)


The Flotilla: What We Know Now…

Bookmark and Share  

Here’s the first problem. When we rush to judgment, we are almost always wrong. Here’s the second problem. In this age of instant communication and ubiquitous punditry, everyone rushes to judgment. Thethird problem: just about everyone who rushed to judgment about the flotilla incident was wrong. Which leads to the fourth problem: Israel should have released its video proof of the violent intent of the so-called peace protesters many hours earlier. An entire news cycle came and went and the knee-jerk pontificators all had time to step up onto their soap boxes and pontificate.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic blog, “The Disappearance of Jewish Wisdom,” highlights this problem – he admits that he doesn’t have all the facts yet and that the protesters were “not exactly Ghandi-like,” but can’t entire suppress the temptation to pontificate anyway about Israel’s lack of foresight.

With the dust now beginning to clear, we are getting a solid picture of where the Israelis could have done better – and why a bloody confrontation still might have been unavoidable. I participated an hour long briefing for rabbis from AIPAC yesterday via conference call. We learned that Israel indeed pursued several courses of action to avoid a confrontation, but that confrontation is what the radicals on this boat – and apparently the Turkish government – wanted. The signals of radicalization from Turkey are especially distressing. We also learned that, despite all the claims to the contrary, Israel is going to great lengths to ensure that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. You can see the documentation here.

For more background, see We Had No Choice, Says Commando Who Killed Six on Flotilla,
For the Commandos, No Fiasco and Relatively Few CasualtiesNetanyahu Tells Blair Israel Looking into “Creative Ways” to Allow Aid into GazaTime to Leave Hamastan to Its Own DevicesIsrael Obeyed International LawThe Gaza Blockade and International LawTurkey’s Radical Drift and Israelis Wonder: Has the World Lost Its Mind? (also find that article from WSJ here.)

Bülent Yildirim, the main organizer of the Gaza Flotilla, explained at a Hamas rally in Gaza that the operation was no humanitarian effort but part of a global Jihad to overthrow governments and install Islamist dictatorships. He made no secret of that fact, as shown in the MEMRI translation and video – see more details here.

AIPAC also provided an Action Alert, calling upon us to contact our representatives.

Click here to view statements made by VP Biden and members of Congress. See also House Majority Leader: Israel “Rightfully” Raided Flotilla and Sen. Lieberman Defends Israel Over Flotilla Raid.
Biden’s comments on Charlie Rose:
“They’ve said, ‘Here you go. You’re in the Mediterranean. This ship — if you divert slightly north you can unload it and we’ll get the stuff into Gaza. So what’s the big deal here? What’s the big deal of insisting it go straight to Gaza? Well, it’s legitimate for Israel to say, ‘I don’t know what’s on that ship. These guys are dropping… 3,000 rockets on my people. “Look, you can argue whether Israel should have dropped people onto that ship or not — but the truth of the matter is, Israel has a right to know — they’re at war with Hamas — has a right to know whether or not arms are being smuggled in.” Biden also blamed Hamas for the crisis that has wracked the coastal territory and for the ongoing state of conflict with Israel. 
As we put pressure, and the world put pressure on Israel to let material go into Gaza to help those people who are suffering, the ordinary Palestinians there, what happened? Hamas would confiscate it, put it in a warehouse [and] sell it. So the problem is this would end tomorrow if Hamas agreed to form a government with the Palestinian Authority on the conditions the international community has set up.” 

Click here to watch the interview.

Jim Himes, BTW, released the following statement on June 1:

“Israel is our good friend and our only long term ally in a dangerous part of the world. As Americans we do not rush to judgment before we have the facts. As tragic as the situation in the Mediterranean is, I urge all parties involved to do all they can to reduce tension and to allow the facts to be examined.”


Correctly, he did not rush to judgment on June 1. Now that it is June 4, I’ve contacted Himes’ office to thank him for his wisdom in that initial response and to see if there might be an updated statement reflecting his current perceptions.

President Obama has said some encouraging things as well, here with Larry King:

President Barack Obama told CNN’s Larry King on Thursday: “The United States, with the other members of the UN Security Council, said very clearly that we condemned all the acts that led up to this violence. It was a tragic situation. You’ve got loss of life that was unnecessary. So we are calling for an effective investigation of everything that happened. I think the Israelis are going to agree to that – an investigation of international standards – because they recognize that this can’t be good for Israel’s long-term security.” 
“Here’s what we’ve got. You’ve got a situation in which Israel has legitimate security concerns when they’ve got missiles raining down on cities along the Israel/Gaza border. I’ve been to those towns and seen the holes that were made by missiles coming through people’s bedrooms. Israel has a legitimate concern there. On the other hand you’ve got a blockage up that is preventing people in Palestinian Gaza from having job opportunities and being able to create businesses and engage in trade and have opportunity for the future.” 
“I think what’s important right now is that we break out of the current impasse, use this tragedy as an opportunity so that we figure out, how can we meet Israel’s security concerns, but at the same time start opening up opportunity for Palestinians….You’ve got to have a situation in which the Palestinians have real opportunity and Israel’s neighbors recognize Israel’s legitimate security concerns and are committed to peace.” (CNN) See also Video: Obama Interview (CNN) 

See also Gaza’s Diplomatic Fallout Less Damaging than Feared and Jewish Groups Want Stronger U.S. Defense of Israel -

See also this AIPAC backgrounder on the NPT Review Conference last week, another major concern (that has fallen under the radar because of Gaza). Instead of seizing the opportunity of the NPT Review Conference to highlight Iran’s blatant pursuit of nuclear weapons, many member nations worked to use the NPT document as a vehicle to criticize Israel. Regrettably, the US givernment did not use its veto power to prevent this document from being passed (although US spokespeople later deplored it). Calling the document “deeply flawed” and “hypocritical,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that it “singles out Israel, the Middle East’s only true democracy and the only country threatened with annihilation… [and] ignores the realities of the Middle East and the real threats facing the region and the entire world.”



See also J-Street’s

Gaza Flotilla Resource Page and Q&A: Gaza Blockade - to gain a slightly different perspective.


Still, with more of the facts now known, with Israel’s case far more defensible, there is this:
In our zeal to defend Israel against unwarranted and relentless attack, we need to temper that bumper sticker mentality with a dose of humanity. In 2001, with the Oslo process blown to bits by the suicide bombers, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:

“In the past, Israel’s enemies have tried to put it in a military crisis and failed. Then they tried to put it in a political crisis and failed. Now they are about to put it in a spiritual crisis, and they may succeed.” 

That is exactly what is happening now. The war right now is for Israel’s very legitimacy in the eyes of the nations. Not for its physical survival, but its moral legitimacy. Of course we know that the playing field is unfair, that Israel is being led into trap after trap by those who do not value human life. But the only way to combat that is to not allow us to dehumanize the Other. We must grieve for the loss of life this week on the open waters west of Gaza. Israel’s enemies understand that those who lose their humanity can easily be portrayed as themselves less than human: bloodthirsty, vengeful demons.

There is no question that Israel’s case is strong, even if some might question the precise tactics used. There is also no question that the embargo of Gaza needs to continue, as long as humanitarian aid is allowed to enter (as has happened). But our best response – and Israel’s – to continue to be human; to acknowledge the suffering on all sides. And to grieve for all the victims.


 TBE’s Rachel Leiterstein at a rally supporting Israel yesterday in New York 


Windpocalypse #2: An Unexpected Sabbath

Bookmark and Share  

Just last Shabbat, as the winds were howling outside the sanctuary, we discussed what Shabbat could mean for people today. We looked at new and perhaps unorthodox ways people are bringing a form of Sabbath into their lives and how necessary it is. It’s both timeless and timely, as culture critic Judith Shulevitz has just come out with a book on the topic, based on her prior New York Times Magazine essay.

She writes:

What was Creation’s climactic culmination? The act of stopping. Why should God have considered it so important to stop? Rabbi Elijah of Vilna put it this way: God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating it and start to think about why we did so. The implication is clear. We could let the world wind us up and set us to marching, like mechanical dolls that go and go until they fall over, because they don’t have a mechanism that allows them to pause. But that would make us less than human. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember. 

The book is called “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time”. You can read an excerpthere. See the Forward article.

I talked about how important it is to find a Sabbath – any kind of Sabbath that works – even if it is not completely consistent with tradition. As long as it is internally consistent. In other words, as Shulevitz writes, even if your Sabbath is not “religious” (halachic), do whatever you do religiously. So if you Skype family, do it on Shabbat. If you choose one day to go to a museum or listen to quiet music and avoid e-mail, make itShabbat. If, as they did in the 1973 oil crisis, you choose to go one day without driving for environmental and conservationist purposes, make that day Shabbat.

I mentioned that my son Dan would not be taking his SATs this past Shabbat, not only because it is in accordance with Shabbat restrictions, but also as a statement of unity with the Jewish people everywhere. Even for those who do not observe Shabbat normally, I stated, it is a very positive way of affirming Jewish identity – and kids invariably get better scores.

Then Stormpocalypse hit. The hurricane force winds and driving rain did not impact those who took theSATs on Saturday. But Dan and the other Sunday takers had to bear the frustration of a cancelled test date. So much for positive impacts. But maybe in the long run it will pay off.

Meanwhile, massive power outages have forced many in this community to rediscover a personal Shabbat. One congregant, David Wolff, who had heard me speak this past Shabbat, wrote to me on Sunday:

As if on cue, Shabbat came early; or again; or simply extended. Either way, for those of us not fully observant, over the last 24 hours we have gotten a chance to experience a more traditional Shabbat (even if it was Sunday) – no phones, no electricity, no TV; rather, family games, discussions, candle-lit dinners. 

And the one bend for convenience, our blackberrys, actually allowed us to alert and be aware that family and friends are all OK, providing a measure of relaxation and comfort. 


Neighborhood a mess, but no one injured, and during a morning walk/survey, we got to say “hi” to people only hundreds of yards away that we haven’t seen in months… 

Not a bad “shabbat“!
Not a bad Shabbat at all!

As Shulevitz writes:

The old-time Sabbath does not fit comfortably into our lives. It scowls at our dewy dreams of total relaxation and freedom from obligation. The goal of the Sabbath may be rest, but it isn’t personal liberty or unfettered leisure. The Sabbath seems designed to make life as inconvenient as possible. Our schedules are not the only thing the Sabbath would disrupt if it could. It would also rip a hole in all the shimmering webs that give modern life its pleasing aura of weightlessness—the networks that zap digitized voices and money and data from server to iPhone to GPS. In a world of brightness and portability and instantaneous intimacy, the Sabbath foists on the consciousness the blackness of night, the heaviness of objects, the miles that keep us apart. The Sabbath prefers natural to artificial light. If we want to travel, it would make us walk, though not too far. If we long for social interaction, it would have us meet our fellow man and woman face-to-face. If we wish to bend the world to our will, it would insist that we forgo the vast majority of the devices that extend our reach and multiply our efficacy. We would be deprived of money and, to a certain degree, of the labor of others. We would be allowed to use our hands and a few utensils, and then only for a limited repertoire of activities. There is something gorgeously naïve about the Sabbath. To forbid people their tools and machines and commercial transactions, to reduce their social contacts to those who live no more than a village’s distance away—it seems a child’s idea, really, of life before civilization.


For those who are going through similar, Shabbat-like experiences, I’d love to hear about them! Share them with me directly or by adding a comment to this blog entry.

“Shabbat” Shalom!

Windpocalypse #1: How Art the Mighty Fallen



Bookmark and Share 


The storm of this past weekend has turned Stamford into a virtual war zone. The storm killed 2 locally and cut power to 80000. Estimates are that about 30% of the homes in the area are without power. Schools have been cancelled for the day and the mayor robo-called everyone yesterday to tell us to stay off the streets. I was out at the time, cruising downtown to a wedding in a blacked out inn along the battered shoreline – we did the huppah by candlelight alongside a crackling fire. It was beautiful.

IMG_0844The damage was awe-inspiring. Not since I saw the glowing wildfires of Yellowstone and thetoothpick-like flattened trees of Mount SaintHelens have I encountered first-hand such an example of raw natural power. People commented that Saturday’s storm felt “biblical.” It did.

An enormous tree fell in my front yard (see photos – click to enlarge), so huge and majestic that it took three trees with it. Another large tree, beautiful and stately, now lies sprawled across the temple’s driveway. Still another was completely uprooted and leans limply near the temple’s office entrance. So which is more mind boggling: a huge tree snapped literally in half? Or one equally large uprooted from the bottom? Either one bespeaks a power more humbling than the human mind can imagine. One was a victim of the drenching rains, the other of the piercing, howling winds.

It is all so humbling. Humbling – and healing.

Tonight is Rosh Hodesh Nisan, an irony that one can only call Jewish.
The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch 226:1 with Mishna Brura) informs us that the first of the Hebrew month of Nisan marks the beginning of the season when we say Birkat Ha’Ilanot – the blessing we recite annually upon seeing trees in bloom. Technically, we are to say it only when we see the flower bloom that precedes the growth of a fruit.

The blessing goes like this: Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech haolam shelo chisar ba’olamo klum, u’varavo beriyot tovot v’ilanot tovim lehanot bahem b’nei adam.
“Blessed are You, Source of Life, who does not deny Your world anything, and who has created lovely things, including good trees from which human beings may derive enjoyment.”
So at the very moment we mourn the loss of some stately trees, we’ll also bless the new life sprouting forth from others. And the wonderful drama of nature’s regeneration plays out before us.

What I wrote about Mt. Saint Helens in a Yom Kippur sermon several years ago still holds true today:

But of all the artistic responses to catastrophe, none can match what I saw just a month ago in Washington state. The canvas was Mount St. Helens and the artist – the artist was God. On May 18th, 1980 the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in southwest Washington changed more than 200 square miles of rich forest into a gray, lifeless landscape. The devastation of the blast is almost unfathomable. The lateral blast swept out of the north side at 300 miles per hour creating a 230 square mile fan shaped area of devastation reaching a distance of 17 miles from the crater. With temperatures as high as 660 degrees and the power of 24 megatons of thermal energy, it snapped 100-year-old trees like toothpicks and stripped them of their bark. The largest landslide in recorded history swept down the mountain at speeds of 70 to 150 miles per hour and buried the North Fork of theToutle River under an average of 150 feet of debris. The massive ash cloud grew to 80,000 feet in 15 minutes and reached the East Coast in 3 days, circling the earth in 15 days. 7,000 big game animals, 12 million salmon, millions of birds and small mammals and 57 humans died in the eruption. Before the blast the mountain stood 9,677 tall. It now stands at 8,363 feet. A thousand feet of mountain is no more. Talk about destruction! 

So when we went there last month, I expected to find an eerie moonscape. But I saw something absolutely amazing instead. The land around the mountain is slowly healing. There is new growth everywhere, trees and moss and animal life. In fact, life returned to Mount St. Helens even before the search for the dead had ended. National Guard rescue crews looking for human casualties during the week after the 1980 eruption found that flies and yellow jackets had arrived before them. Curious deer and elk trotted into the blast zone just days after the dust settled. Helicopter pilots who landed inside the crater that first summer reported being dive-bombed by hummingbirds, which mistook their orange jumpsuits for something to eat. A whole new ecosystem is emerging before our eyes. PeterFrenzen, the chief scientist at Mount St. Helens, put it best, “Volcanoes do not destroy;” he said, “they create.”

Now I know how we Jews developed our proclivity for confronting madness with artistry. We inherited it from God, the One who renews Creation each day. Never was that more evident to me than at Mount Saint Helens.

Now I can amend that statement and I don’t have to go to Washington State to do it. I only need look out the window.








The T.B at T.B.E

Bookmark and Share  

purim 1 

Some say I’m the Top Banana at Temple Beth El. Others claim that we are a Banana Republic. Well, this past Saturday night, for Purim I was literally a Banana (that’s Rabanana to you!). I explained that we are going Green, and I was green just a few days ago. It was a great Purim. Here I am above, with some seventh graders and Mara, all decked out in their M and M finest. Check out more pictures here  and at this website (which also has a terrific video montage) – and thank you to Steve Labkoff for taking them. Click on the photos to enlarge.

My Father’s Chupah (NY Jewish Week)

Bookmark and Share  

My Father’s Chupah,by Joshua Hammerman  Special To The Jewish Week

The questioner was an African-American high school student — not Jewish — playing the role of Tevye’s daughter Chava in an astonishingly multicultural production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” one that brought together more than 100 students of all ages from 24 private and public schools in my modern Anatevka. Thanks to my son Dan, cast as Nachum the Beggar, I was asked to be the show’s rabbinic adviser.

“Rabbi, why does Tevye act like his daughter is dead when she marries someone who isn’t Jewish? Is that what Jews do?” 

I had just watched them rehearse the wedding scene and couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of a Catholic Tevye and a Catholic Golda serenading their African-American and Asian daughters with “Sunrise, Sunset,” while a Hispanic rabbi, a recent immigrant from Colombia, performed the ceremony; and lurking in the background, a Jewish Cossack waited for his cue to wreak havoc on this bucolic scene.

At the center of the stage was the very symbol of Jewish continuity, the wedding canopy — and not just any canopy, but my father’s small, faded, linen chupah, off-white with gold tassels, embroidered gold flowers on the sides and a simple Jewish star on top. The four stubby wooden poles covered with peeling gold cloth give it a kitschy look, like something rescued from a Catskills catering hall, last seen in faded photos alongside the chopped liver and gefilte fish. My father, a cantor, had used this chupah for small, private weddings before stashing it in the attic sometime before his sudden death 30 years ago. There it remained in a crumpled pile until my mother and I rediscovered it when we were packing up the house. I had it cleaned and pressed and since then my father’s chupah has graced a number of weddings that I’ve performed.

But up until that moment when I sat there watching this “Fiddler” rehearsal, only Jews had stood underneath it.

A Catholic Tevye? Sounds crazy, no? Imagine a production of “1776” performed by Iranian mullahs, “Hair” by octogenarians or “Rent” by Republicans. But somehow, this all-school “Fiddler” worked. This dizzying production challenged some of my deepest-held convictions, forcing me to play a Tevye-like role in a 21st-century sequel, prodding me to calibrate what God might expect of us in an age of radical global shrinkage and swiftly dissolving boundaries.

Tevye, the Shalom Aleichem character, would never have allowed this Tevye, the Trinity Catholic student, to marry his fictional daughters. And the majority of the actors playing the daughters would themselves have been banned from standing under the chupahs of the real life shtetls where those fiddlers fiddled.But there they were, at center stage, standing under mine.

The cast members peppered me with detailed questions about lighting candles, kissing mezuzahs, and spitting to ward off the evil eye. I sensed from this very diverse group of students a desire to wrap their arms around their characters and make them their own. They wondered why it was seen as so radical for girls to dance with boys and whether Yenta still exists (“J-Date,” I replied). Somehow this production of “Fiddler” made perfect sense to them; and because of that it began to make sense to me as well, as it likely would have to Shalom Aleichem himself, a man who embraced life’s absurdities, saying, “No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living, even if it kills you.” 

The chupah has long been a great symbol of both exclusivity and inclusivity. It represents the home — the Jewish home — that the couple will build together. In the Bible, the term connotes the private chamber where the marriage was consummated; today it still marks that sacred space reserved for bride and groom alone.

But it’s also said to be modeled after Abraham’s tent, which had open walls and welcomed all comers, dissolving boundaries between private and public, promoting an inclusiveness that is both intimate and ultimate.

Back in the ’60s, the closest my father came to officiating at intermarriage was something involving fans of the Red Sox and Yankees. As a justice of the peace, he often performed small weddings in my home, both for Jewish and non-Jewish couples. I was too young at the time to care which of these weddings were of the shotgun variety; my curiosity was limited by the bifurcated universe I inhabited, preoccupied with one question only: Jewish or goyish? If the guy wore a yarmulke, bingo! A Jewish wedding! Chalk up another one for our team!

But the chupah was always the most definitive clue. When my dad took it out of the closet, I knew it would be a Jewish ceremony. When he did not, it was not. Life was very simple back then.

But not anymore.

Do Jews still mourn with sackcloth and ashes when their kids intermarry? 

No, I told Chava. No one does that anymore. Even Tevye wouldn’t, if he were alive today. I explained, as sensitively as possible, how Jews have always seen immortality less in terms of their own souls’ ascent to heaven as in their children and grandchildren carrying on the faith. But Jews also want to be welcoming, like Abraham was.

Would I sit shiva for my child if he married out? Would I officiate at his wedding?
No and no.

But would I celebrate?

In the words of the immortal dairyman: I’ll tell you… I don’t know. 

But I know that, like Abraham, I will love anyone who comes into my home with an unconditional, unbounded love. I’ll do it because it is precisely that kind of love that will bring renewed vitality to the Jewish people and eternal relevance to the Jewish message.

And I’ll do it because, as I’m sure Tevye would agree, loving our neighbor is a tradition; for it reminds us who we are and what God expects us to do.

25 Reasons to Visit Israel (especially with TBE!)

Bookmark and Share  

Why visit Israel?  Here are 25 reasons culled from various sources* 

 1) Visiting Israel takes you higher. It heightens your senses. It heightens your awareness. It heightens your sense of self. It heightens your faith. And it heightens your sense of identification with a land, thousands of miles away, a land that is so very dear to us all.  Experience Jerusalem, visit Tel Aviv, float in the Dead Sea, tour the Negev, visit Safed, the highest town in Israel, one of the four holy cities of Judaism. Drive into the Galilee hills and ascend up to the Golan.

2) Meet the Family.  Israel is filled with unforgettable places, but ultimately what will make this trip so special will be the people that we’ll meet – the ones in the country and the ones in the group.  I can think of no group with whom I would rather share these precious days than all of you.

(3) Feeling the serenity of Shabbat in Jerusalem

(4) The sense of community that exists everywhere, from people annoyingly telling you not to cross the street on the red light (would they bother to do that here?), to the calls you get after every terror attack — to inform you, to console you, to include you.

(5) To show unity and support. 

(6) Because it’s our home.

(8) To get back to our “roots,” smell the air and feel the dirt of our ancestors. You can feel the history come up through the soles of your feet.

(9) When I walk anywhere in the country, I always feel that I’m “home.” When I’ve traveled anywhere else in the world, and even where I live, I’m still part of a minority. In Israel, I’m part of something much more — I belong to a vibrant, dynamic, friendly society that has made its own modern history of success.

(10) Seeing the accomplishments of the Israelis . The desert has become alive with bustling cities, and a thriving economy. Visiting Israel now becomes an important statement of support for Israel, and a denial of the philosophy that “fear” will make the Israelis leave.

(11) Everything is better in Israel. Personal relationships are very real and very caring, the air smells better, the food tastes better, the sky is clearer, the birds are happier.

(12) The shwarma at Maoz on King George Street, the shwarma at Masov Burger near the central bus station, to talk to the people who make shwarma, and to see the lambs that become shwarma.

(13) The feeling I experience at the Western Wall. All of life’s idiosyncrasies become smaller when you are engulfed by what’s most important and special.

(14) Eating falafel and chumous in Machaneh Yehudah on Friday.

(15) Because I haven’t been there yet! 

 (16) To raise the spirits of the Israeli people. 

(17) The Bible just comes alive.

(18) To see that Jewish people come in all colors, shapes and sizes and can hold all kinds of jobs……from doctors and lawyers, to police and street cleaners.

(19) To  feel connected in the present to past and future at the same time. 

(20) The scenery is unparalleled when standing at the Dead Sea (lowest point on earth) and then directly above it at the top of Masada. The unplanned tears that come down your face as you experience the pain of what was lost, but yet the hope of what will come promised through the prophets long ago. It is so awesome beyond words, that when you depart, you cannot say goodbye, only that you will be back. There is an unseen force that draws you in and assures you that you will be back again, it’s where you belong, it’s home.

(21) The incredible sense of unity. Being in Israel makes you feel connected to everything and every person on earth.

(22) To see true permanence. As Mark Twain said, “All things are mortal but the Jew.” In Israel, you can see buildings that were around thousands of years ago, and what could easily be around thousands of years from now. In America, nothing goes back more than a few hundred years (except for a few Native American sites), but those don’t compare to places that are all over Israel.

(23) Miracles occur daily.  

(24) Two words: Kosher McDonalds 

(25) Because WE’RE GOING! Our group is growing and waiting for YOU!   Click here for the full itinerary for next summer’s TBE Israel Adventure.

I close with this poem, by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg:

For the Jew, Israel is a state of mind 

It is not only a piece of geography 

It is history 

It is theology 

It is Jewish tears and Jewish triumphs 

It is Jewish anguish and Jewish ecstacy 

It is childhood legends and biblical verses 

It is the direction that we pray and the subject of our prayers 

It is exile and homecoming 

It is a burning Temple and a new flag at the United Nations 

It is the 9th of Av and the 5th of Iyar 

It is a people restored and hope reborn 



*(including this from Aish and from another blog,  Sixty things I love about Israel) : 



Bookmark and Share  

 Week after week, our students come forward to explain the deeper meaning of their Torah portions, connecting them to their lives.  Here are many of those given this year, included (with permission) with the most recent ones at the top.  To go back to earlier ones from 2008, click here and scroll down. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jake Silver on Bereisheet 

Last school year I had the opportunity to hear Gabriel Bol Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, speak about his escape from the oppression in southern Sudan and how he built a new productive life. From his experience he is committed to building a school in southern Sudan to give opportunity to children to receive an education that they otherwise wouldn’t get. This made me think about my portion, Bereisheet, and the challenges and opportunities that Adam and Eve faced after eating from the tree of knowledge.

I studied the story in detail and came up with three important lessons that, it turns out, have a lot to do with my life and this bar mitzvah

Lesson # 1: The importance of education

The story of the Tree of Knowledge is often misunderstood. People think it was a bad thing that Adam and Eve ate from the tree. It was definitely against what God said; but good things came out of the experience. When God told Adam he was forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, Eve wasn’t even created yet. So it was easy for her to misunderstand God’s command when she was talking to the snake. And why was that talking snake put there in the first place?

It was all a set up! I think that God wanted them to eat from the tree. He wanted them to be able to reason and make their own choices. Before that, they were no smarter than animals. But afterwards, they were capable of doing great things, including acts of kindness – mitzvot. It wasn’t just a tree of knowledge after all, but the knowledge of good and evil. Judaism has always taught us that education is very important, especially learning right from wrong. That belief was there right from the very beginning.

In order to connect with my portion and this theme of education, I chose to do a mitzvah project of collecting school supplies for middle school students in Stamford who can’t afford them.

Lesson number two: Everyone is a unique individual

My portion teaches us that all human beings were created in God’s image. This means that everyone is equal but also unique.

I’ve certainly tried to be my own person. I play the bass, which not many people do. Most want to play guitar and drums. But if you think about it, most bands can’t survive without a bass. It makes me unique, and music is a way of expressing my uniqueness. Once I have a little more time on my hands – like tomorrow – I’d love to start up band practice again.

Lesson number three: The process of growing up

As we’ve seen, God seems to want Adam and Eve to be rebellious; to disobey God’s word and make their own choices in order for them to grow up. It’s as if God set them up to break the rule so that they would learn from their mistakes and begin their life outside the garden.

The tree incident was like their bar mitzvah. After it, they gained wisdom and were considered adults. They also gained responsibility and learned that life is not always easy.

Today I begin to leave the garden. Not that I’ve done anything wrong or EVER disobeyed my parents. This is just part of growing up.

As I become a bar mitzvah today, I hope that I can help create a world a little more like the garden was, but where everyone has an equal opportunity to eat from the tree of knowledge as much as I have.


TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Hannah Freund on Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan 

Happy Rosh Chodesh, You may not realize it but this holiday is very important, and I have come to learn about one of the most significant reasons:

If you have patience and confidence, things work out.

It all goes back to the story of the Golden Calf. The men were impatient for Moses to come back, because he was up on Mt. Sinai for forty days (you know how men are) – but the women were patient, and waited for him. In the end, they were rewarded by being given the holiday of Rosh Chodesh so that they could have a day of rest.

There have been many times that have tested my own patience. Like last year at camp when we put on the show Hairspray. Putting the musical on was very difficult, and a lot of cast members dropped out. No one thought that it would come together, but a few girls and I stayed in because we thought that it might work out. In the end it did, even though the director had to play one of the lead roles.

Back in ancient times, before there was a set calendar, the new month began only after people saw the moon reappear. It took patience for that, just like the people had to have patience when they were waiting for Moses.

But we’ve had to learn patience a lot throughout our history:

• It took patience for the children of Israel to wander in the wilderness for 40 years…

• And the Jewish people waited almost 2000 years to return to the land of Israel. Facing Jerusalem, Jews prayed to return to our home land, three times a day. Finally those dreams came true.

Here is how I have had to learn patience in my own life:

o Rehearsing and waiting to do a show like the Nutcracker takes a lot of patience, not to mention all the practice that went into becoming a bat mitzvah

o As my friends all know I spend lots of time at my ballet school. Learning new dance steps can take long time, but it feels great when you master them.

What I have noticed these days is that my friends and I are always rushing, texting, and multitasking. My teacher told the class a story about how his daughter was sitting in the front seat of the car, and she was texting her friend in the back seat of the car.

Heshvan is the only month without holidays – some call it Mar – (Bitter) Heshvan. But after all the holidays we’ve had, we could certainly use a break. And then, when Hanukkah comes – at the end of the next Jewish month – Kislev, we’ll be good and ready. I can wait – with a little patience, we’ll enjoy it even more when it comes.

Another example of where I needed to have patience was my Mitzvah Project. I ran bingo for the seniors at Sunrise Assisted Living. You really need patience for this activity. . . many residents have disabilities, so it’s important to speak slowly, speak loudly, and repeat your instructions frequently. . . and you have no idea how many times I said, “B14”.

Broadway shows, and movies are often about kids rushing to grow up too quickly. Well, I’m in no rush! But I also know that today, as a bat mitzvah I’m in some ways becoming an adult. And one thing that shows we’ve grown up is learning that, WHAT’S WORTH HAVING IS WORTH WAITING FOR.

This has been a year of learning and growing for me. At Temple Beth El, Bat Mitzvah students become involved with both a Mitzvah and a Tzedakah project. For my Mitzvah project, I spent my Sunday evenings at the Sunrise Assisted Living Center running bingo for the seniors. At Sunrise I met many elderly people who played bingo after dinner. Watching the elderly play bingo and have a good time, filled my heart with joy because I knew I was doing something to make other people happy. I know now that I was doing a Mitzvah – also know as good deed – and I would like to do more.

For my tzedakah project, I was on the Teen Tzedakah Foundation Council. The Council allocated funds raised by the teen tzedakah program. We researched many non profit organizations, and then selected a few to receive donations. From that research, I know that the non profit organizations we donated money to will help people in need.

Monday, October 5, 2009
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Stacey Hazen on Sukkot 

Those of you who know me know that I’m a dancer. I’ve been dancing for 9 years (which is a long time when you are 12). I’ve always loved it. I dance everything from hip-hop to ballet. I’ve been on pointe for about two years, during which time I had the opportunity to dance as Tinkerbelle.

The more I learned about Sukkot, the more I’ve come to realize that is the perfect holiday for me. It’s a holiday that celebrates the body, a holiday of happiness, a holiday of nature, a holiday of thanksgiving and most of all, a holiday with a lot of dancing.

After we’ve spent lots of time indoors praying and fasting on Yom Kippur, Sukkot is the exact opposite. We go outdoors, build a sukkah, celebrate, and enjoy a great deal of food. Even when we are inside the synagogue, we are constantly in motion, shaking the lulav, parading around the sanctuary almost every day, and at the end of the festival, dancing frantically with the Torahs on Simhat Torah. No wonder this festival is called “Z’man Simhataynu” “the time of our rejoicing.”

When we are in the sukkah, we feel connected to nature. In fact, when you look up at night, you are able to see the stars through the roof. My dancing has also connected me to nature in many ways. I’ve performed as everything from a lion to the Ugly Duckling and as both Winter and Fall in “The Four Seasons.”

Sukkot is also a holiday not just for the Jewish people, but for all the nations of the world. My Torah portion speaks of 70 oxen that were brought as sacrifices, a very high number. The commentators suggest that those 70 animals represented each of the 70 nations that were known to exist at the time. While Passover tells a story of how the Jewish people began, Sukkot is about being thankful for the harvest and that is a lesson for all people everywhere. Everyone feels thankful at harvest time. It is not surprising that when the American pilgrims in Plymouth were looking to base their new Thanksgiving holiday on a festival from the Bible, they used Sukkot as a model.

Being thankful for our food is something people should never take for granted. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way. Ten years ago I was diagnosed with Celiac and since then I’ve had to avoid all gluten products. In fact, at today’s Kiddush there will be many gluten free items; we even had a special gluten free challah made for the occasion.

For my mitzvah project, I raised money to donate to local food banks so that they could make sure to have food available for people with allergies. We’ve bought special cereals, pasta, crackers and cookies, as you can see displayed in the bima baskets.

So you can see why I’m so glad that my bat mitzvah fell on this festival, the kind of holiday that reminds us to celebrate life all the time, and the best way to do so is to dance!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Matthew Katz on Nitzavim Vayelech 

A few week’s ago, I had the chance to see a game at the new Yankee Stadium. It was amazing and reminded me of how it felt the first time I saw the old stadium, back when I was about 6. Everything was perfect. The manicured grass was a perfect shade of green. The infield dirt was raked perfectly, not a pebble in sight, smooth and nice. I was amazed seeing the huge monitors in the outfield. I loved the smell of the peanuts – the entire atmosphere was indescribable.

How green it is, how perfect the field looks, how peaceful. It was like a scene out of “Field of Dreams.” A baseball field can be the next closest thing to heaven.

Amazing though it may seem, that exact same vision is described by the prophet Isaiah in my Haftorah. He could have been talking about how I felt when I went through the turnstiles at Yankee Stadium when he said, “Pass through, pass through the gates! Clear the road for all the people; build up the highway, remove the rocks…”

Of course, Isaiah never saw Yankee Stadium. He was actually a Red Sox fan. (The rabbi told me to say that). Look at the bible, where in Isaiah, Chapter 1, verse 18, he states, “If they are as red as crimson, they shall be wool.” He was either talking about the sins of Israel, or about his pick for the AL Pennant.

But in our verse, Isaiah describes how the land of Israel will not longer be desolate and forsaken – how beautiful it will look. And from all the pictures I’ve seen, it certainly does.

One way to highlight the beauty of a place is to build baseball fields. In “Field of Dreams,” Kevin
Costner says ‘If you build it they will come,” The founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, said almost the exact same thing about a century ago, long before the State of Israel was born: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

My dream is to combine both of those dreams and to make the land of Israel even more beautiful by helping to build baseball fields there.

It’s called “project Baseball,” and it’s being organized the Jewish National Fund, which has helped build the land in so many ways. I’ve raised over $2,000 so far to build new diamonds cities and towns all over Israel.

So you might be asking, why and I doing this?

In my portion, Nitzavim, Moses begins his speech, saying, “Atem Nitzavim hayom,” “You who are standing here today.” But the word used for “standing” also means to “take a stand.” Moses is telling us how important it is to stand up for what’s important to you. That’s exactly what I’m doing. Baseball and Israel are both important to me.

So, now you may be asking. what can baseball bring to Israel, and what about baseball do I love so much that I want to help build fields over there?

Here are four explanations.

o First, baseball teaches the importance of INTER-DEPENDENCE, something I’ve learned all about at camp, in school and on the field. You can be the greatest pitcher ever, (I’m not, but I’m pretty good), but if the shortstop can’t field, it won’t matter. Israelis also know how important it is to work together as a team. I learned that especially from my soldier Eran, who stayed with us about five years ago. Just about every Israeli goes into the army, and that’s where they really learn about the importance of teamwork.

o Secondly, baseball teaches sportsmanship. Many of us will remember that story about the girls softball team, when Western Oregon’s Sara Tucholsky suffered a knee injury when she hit a home run and the players on the opposing team carried her around the bases.

o Third, baseball teaches how important it is to have a level playing field, both in and outside the stadium. In Israel, the new baseball league is a place where all people can come together and get along:, rich and poor, Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, all playing a game that they all have to learn at the same time. If people can learn a sport together, it will help them to live together in peace.

o Finally, a baseball game is a great place to relax and appreciate nature. Much less intense than other sports, like soccer, basketball — or politics (unless the Yankees and Red Sox happen to be playing).

So now you can see why I’ve chosen to honor baseball as I become a Bar Mitzvah today.

Friday, September 11, 2009
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Max Weinberg on Ki Tavo 

Those of you who know me know that one of my favorite things to do is skateboard. I love it so much that this past summer I went to skateboard camp for two weeks and skated with professionals. I can do things like “ledges and rails,” which means that I can leap off of high walls (especially when my mom is not looking) and skate onto rails that are high and narrow. I can also tilt my board up and flatten it out so that I can skate downstairs.

When I’m on my board, I can go very fast; but it’s important also to stay in control and not lose my balance. At this time of year, we realize that even when we are not on skates, we are moving very fast. We’re all so busy. But in two weeks, we’ll slow down on Rosh Hashanah to catch our breath and take a look at how far we’ve come.

Being on a skateboard also teaches us that every action has consequences that we need to understand. To turn on the board, all you have to do is lean a little. If you lean too much, the board can slip out and you’ll fall down.

My portion, Ki Tavo also talks about facing the consequences of our actions. It addresses the time when the Israelites settled in the Land. It talks about Moses telling the people to donate part of the fruits of their harvest to the priests at the sanctuary. The food is then distributed to “the Levites, the strangers, the fatherless and the widows”. This Torah portion is about how Jewish people are supposed to donate, to give something of themselves.

Part of the parasha speaks about specific things that the Jewish people are not supposed to do. The portion talks about how if the Jewish people do bad things, they will be punished. It also talks about how, if they do good, they will be rewarded. Moses tells the Jewish people to “observe faithfully all the terms of the covenant, that you may succeed in all you undertake.”

So that’s why it’s important to give to charity. Some of the things that I did for my Bar Mitzvah to fulfill my obligation to be charitable were:

1. I’m donating the food from my bimah baskets and lunch table decorations to Person to Person. Because my Torah portion is about harvest time, it seems appropriate to donate food.

2. My dad and I chopped wood to sell to raise money for Operation Fuel. Operation Fuel gives money to poor people who cannot pay for fuel during the winter. While I’m warm in my house during the winter, I’ll know that I’m helping other people with their fuel money problems.

3. Instead of spending money on expensive invitations that people would just throw away, we decided that for every invitation sent we would donate a tree to be planted in Israel. My family is trying to teach me how to give back in a lot of ways. It is important in Judaism to give back in many ways just because it’s the right thing to do, and not because you think you’ll be punished.

I’ve also learned that from skateboarding. My friend Mike got hurt when he, Miles and I were at the skate park a few years ago. Mike fell and broke his arm. Immediately everyone started crowding around the bowl. An adult came down and said his arm was broken and we called 911. After Mike went to the hospital, Miles’s mom took us to the hospital so we could stay with him. We did the good thing—-instead of continuing to skate, we went to the emergency room to be with our friend. Being charitable can also mean giving your time.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Brandon Temple on Shelach Lecha 

In case you happened to have looked at the “All About Me” section of my booklet, you may have noticed my favorite prayer is the “Sh’ma.” I like it because it is repeated more often than any other prayer and also because it helps me to concentrate on how proud I am to be a Jew.

Little did I know until recently that part of the Sh’ma is found in my portion – and in fact, I just read it as my maftir! The third paragraph of the Sh’ma is found at the very end of my portion; this is the part that speaks about the tzitzit, the fringes found at the end of a tallit.

These tzitzit have many different meanings, but mostly, they are reminders of the 613 commandments.

But this paragraph doesn’t just remind us about all good things we’re supposed to do. It also teaches us how to do them.

Very often, people will do favors for others hoping to get a reward. People do it all the time. It’s an old custom when kids begin their formal Jewish studies, to dip Hebrew letters into honey so that the study of Torah will be sweet for them. We have a similar custom here at Beth El. When we contribute to a class discussion, our teacher gives us M and M’s. I know that I would contribute even without the M and M’s! But it’s nice to have them too.

Well, in the paragraph from our portion, the Torah tells us that we should wear the tzitizt, “Le’m’a’an tizzzkeru,” so that we will be reminded. In other words, so that we will remember that God rescued us from Egypt and then gave us these commandments. It is traditional to stretch out the “z” sound in Tizzzkeru, because if we mistakenly pronounce it “tisskeru,” with an “s” instead of a “z,” then it would mean “you shall be rewarded,” which implies that the only reason to follow the commandments would be to get a reward.

That’s something we should try to avoid. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”

I agree with that completely, and I’ve learned this recently in many ways. First, as part of my mitzvah project, I’ve been going to Greenwich Woods Nursing Home and visiting senior citizens there. I usually spend about two hours there, mostly helping them with their bowling, using a Wii video game. There’s one person there named Theresa, who always asks for me. I’ve developed a real bond with her. Last month, when I visited her, she offered to buy me a soda and I said, “No, that’s OK.” This was before I had even studied about the tzitzit, but I understood already that I was getting so much out of this, simply from seeing her be happy, that I did need any reward. That was reward enough.

Generally speaking, I like making people happy and often will cheer people up when they are in a bad mood. Sometimes when a young child is unhappy and makes a frown, I mimic their face, and most of the time it makes them laugh.

I’ve learned about how to do this kind of mitzvah from my dad. He often goes away to identify the remains of people who have died in tragedies like Hurricane Katrina or the nightclub fire near Providence. I know that one reason he did this was to set an example for me. But it wasn’t just an example of how to do a good deed – it was an example of why. There was no reward for all his efforts, except for the reward of knowing he had helped the families of the dead.

So it is true that I have learned the lesson taught by the paragraph regarding tzitzit in my portion. But I wouldn’t want to carry this thing too far. As I become a bar mitzvah today, I know that I am not leading these prayers because I’m hoping to be rewarded with lots of gifts. But you shouldn’t feel that you have to go through all the trouble of returning those gifts either! And keep in mind that I’ll be donating the money that we saved by making my bar mitzvah invitations myself to a number of medical charities: American Heart Association, Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center, Tourette’s Foundation, and Cystic Fibrosis.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Amber Kitay on Beha’alotchaShabbat Shalom!
In this week’s parsha, בהעלתך- B’nai Yisrael complained about the lack of food in the desert. They remembered fondly the fish and vegetables that they had back in Egypt. They were so afraid of not surviving that they were willing to go back to Egypt and be slaves again.

It’s natural to want to turn back when you are afraid, but it is important to be able to move on. The only way to move on is by learning how to overcome fear.

For me, fear comes in the form of a big science test or getting a shot. But if you ask a kid from Sderot what fear means, they’ll talk about not making it to school or a parent not making it home. Fear can be captured in the 15 seconds between the sound of the siren and the crash of the rocket.

For my mitzvah project I helped to organize a walk raising money to send children in Sderot to summer camps, far the fear of rockets. We raised about $5,000 – and we are still collecting, if you would like to donate.

A fear that I’ve had to overcome was in gymnastics. For those who don’t know me that well, I love gymnastics and have been competing since I was 8. Right now I’m ranked first on bars for my level and age group in the state. Even now, I still have to overcome fears when I do new skills and sometimes even old ones. So I had to overcome the fear of doing my first flyaway on bars (that’s when you let go and flip in the air), and I’m still afraid of it today – but I always get it right. On the balance beam, I used to find a back walkover scary when I’m on high beam, which is four feet high and four inches wide. But now that I’ve got the hang of it, I hardly ever fall. On floor exercises, there’s the round-off back-handspring back-tuck. I used to be scared of it, but now I can do it anywhere. In fact, my mom suggested that I do it as my entrance at the party. The rabbi even said it would be Ok to do it right here. But I said, “It’s OK.”

Believe it or not, the best training I’ve had at overcoming fear has been at a place my family visits a lot: Disney. When I was little I used to be afraid of all the roller coasters, but after I went on Rock and Roll roller coaster, followed by Tower of Terror and Mount Everest, now I can go on every ride in the park and not be scared.

Despite all the experiences I’ve had with fear, I can’t imagine how they must feel in Sderot. But that’s what makes me all the more determined to help kids there live a normal life. No child deserves to live in fear – anywhere. As a bat mitzvah, I will do my best to help make this kind of world possible.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Rachel Katz on Shavuot and Ruth
A few weeks ago, I surveyed my friends and family, asking them the first thing that comes to mind when I say ‘Judaism.’ I got some interesting responses. Some of them include: the Torah, being Kosher, pride, and bagels and lox.

After learning about the story of Ruth, which was read earlier this morning, and very nicely done, Cantor, I think my answer would be kindness. On a holiday that talks about the Torah, one might think that the focus is all about laws and how important it is to obey the commandments.

However, Ruth teaches us that what’s most important is kindness. Two words that appear several times throughout the story are ‘Chesed’ and ‘Chen,’ both of which mean “kindness.” In the book there are many examples of people who do incredible things for others. Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, her mother in-law, even after Ruth’s husband dies, when she could have gone back to her own home and family, instead. Ruth says to Naomi, “Where you go, I will go; your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d.” This act of commitment was the first form of conversion to Judaism, and shows that it’s not about what you’re born into, but how you choose to live. If you choose to be Jewish, then what counts the most is being kind.

Another example of kindness in the Book of Ruth is when Boaz lets Ruth glean barley from his field, and eventually, marries her. Here is where it gets interesting. Boaz and Ruth have a child, who has a child, who has a child who happens to become a KING, King David. According to tradition, the Messiah will be a descendent of David. Any math teacher could tell you, that this also means that the Messiah will be a descendent of Ruth. Ruth, not Moses, not Aaron, sorry Aaron. While Moses and Aaron’s lives were centered around law and justice, Ruth was all about kindness. In the end, kindness is the most important Jewish quality of all.

Knowing that, I looked for some way to bring more kindness into the world. For my mitzvah project, friends of mine and I knit over 100 hats and sent them to newborn children all over the world. Some of the countries include Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bolivia, and other African nations. Just thinking about giving these babies their first experience of human kindness and warmth makes me smile.

I also knit some more hats and brought them to patients at the Norwalk Cancer Center. I talked to two women and I gave them each a hat that I made. One even offered me money, but I told her I was just glad that she would have the hat.

That experience of giving the hats really showed me how important it is to be kind, because that is what being Jewish is all about.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Lauren Schechter on Naso 

Today is Memorial Day, a day to commemorate the soldiers who have given their lives defending our country. These men and women have demonstrated remarkable qualities, such as courage, loyalty and most importantly, leadership.

Leadership: what does it really mean?

In this week’s parsha, Naso, we read about the gifts brought by the leaders of each tribe when the Mishkan was dedicated. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for leader, Nasi, comes from the same root as the title of the parsha, Naso. In modern Hebrew, Nasi means President.

What makes these tribal leaders special? Unlike Moses and Aaron, they aren’t really known at all, but they stand out in a different way.

According to the Midrash – they became leaders because in Egypt, they were taskmasters and they refused orders from their supervisors to whip the slaves, so they themselves where whipped. Because of their loyalty to their people, they were seen as worthy to become the leaders of Israel.

In the desert, it came time to bring the voluntary gifts at the celebration of the dedication of the Mishkan. Strangely enough, each Nasi brought the exact same thing: a silver plate, a silver bowl, and a gold spoon filled with sifted flour, along with a lamb, a bull, and a ram. The Torah then goes on to repeat this twelve times, once for each tribe.

Why does the Torah repeat the exact same thing? Each of these leaders gave with all his heart, and that spirit of generosity and love cannot be measured or compared to another person’s.
In addition, each gift was the only one that came on that given day. So on that day, that person’s gift was special. In fact, that day became a holiday for the tribe.

We also learn that leadership is not always about making a big splash, but about making a difference, even when you seem identical to everyone else.

On Memorial Day, we think of the soldiers and how they look when they are standing together, dressed in exactly the same uniform. But each brings a unique love for the country and a gift that no one else can bring – his own spirit, personality, and life. They give all of this but do not get a lot of credit, and today we give them that.

What the soldiers and tribal leaders teach us is that the best kind of leader is one who can simultaneously blend in and stand out.

Another person who fits that description is Nancy Drew. As you might guess, I’m a big fan of the Nancy Drew series. Most of the time she seems like a normal girl, but when someone is in need of help, she’s the first one to volunteer. She always tries her best but never looks for the credit.
As I become bat mitzvah, I’ve learned that I should try to become the kind of person Nancy or the tribal leaders would be proud of, someone humble, but never afraid to help.

Those who are involved in cancer research are much like the Nesi’im. They work behind the scenes to save lives, but their accomplishments are rarely recognized. For my mitzvah project, I made Hanukkah gift bags and sold them to raise money for cancer research. In addition to this, today during the party, in the lobby, there will be a table where people can decorate bags that hold aero-chambers and Epi-pens. These are medicines that kids like me, with asthma and allergies have to carry around wherever we go. The bags will be given out to underprivileged children in clinics at Montefiore Hospital.
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jonathan Rich on Naso 

My portion’s name, Naso, means “to lift.”

It’s a very appropriate portion for someone whose family has been involved in the moving business. But I found out that it means much more than just that. Because this is the portion where moving is a mitzvah. You see, the portion begins by describing how it was the special job of the Levites to carry the ark of the covenant which contained the two tablets with the ten commandments.

The ark was very heavy. One commentary says that it was so heavy that it took the strength of many men even to budge it. But then, the story continues, once they lifted it, it carried the carriers. A Hasidic rabbi once said, regarding a very heavy torah scroll that he was lifting, “Once you’ve picked it up, it is no longer heavy.”

Over the past several months, I have been volunteering at the Stamford Nature Museum for my bar mitzvah project. The first day I got there, I was a little scared and did not know what to expect. I even told my mom that I didn’t want to go. When I got home, I told her how much I enjoyed it. At first, cleaning out the animals’ living spaces was hard. After a little while, I got the hang of it. When I first saw the animals I was scared, because they were wild. Try cleaning out the stall of a Clydesdale horse – with the horse there! Still today, I am a little uneasy around the bigger animals, but it’s gotten a lot easier and a lot more fun. Just a few weeks ago, 12 lambs and two goats were born. Now I feel comfortable picking them up and holding them – I even named one. “Bo” the goat. I gave him that name after he put up a fight while he was getting de-horned.

The nature center is not the only place where doing a mitzvah might have been hard at first, but got easier and easier as I went along. The same is true at Hospice. Following in my brother Jeffrey’s footsteps, I’ve gone there several times. I was a little nervous at first seeing the residents in end of life care. But after a couple of my brother’s events, I got used to it and now I really enjoy talking to the patients. In fact, part of my mitzvah project is that I am selling bracelets to raise money for hospice. Again, just like carrying the ark, once you get the hang of something, it is no longer heavy.

When I was younger, I used to be scared of my brother David’s fastball. As we played more and more, I started even being able to hit home runs against him. And speaking of lifting heavy burdens, I want to pay tribute to David and all who are serving this country on this Memorial Day weekend.

Finally, what’s true about carrying the Torah is also true about reading it. When I first got my binder, I looked into it and said to myself, “I’m never going to be able to do this!”

Within a few weeks, I knew lots of the Hebrew and now I can even read out of the Torah.

So next time you think you can’t do something, try it a couple of times, and you’ll amazed how quickly you make progress. My portion’s title might speak about heavy lifting, but once you get the hang of it, there is no mitzvah that’s too difficult to do.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Ross Lang on B’midbar 

My d’var Torah is about the most neglected person in all of human history: of course I’m talking about…. the middle child.

Through all of Jewish history, either the oldest or youngest child gets all the attention – never the middle one!

Today we begin the book of Numbers, and when it comes to birth order, numbers count. My

Torah portion of B’midbar describes a census that was taken of the Israelites while they were wandering in the Wilderness. In that report, the tribe of Reuben is listed first, because he was the eldest son of Jacob. In the Torah, the oldest usually inherited from the father.

The oldest comes first, but in the Torah, it is the youngest child who usually ends up as the winner. When you think about it, all the younger children end up on top: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Moses over Miriam and Aaron.

Meanwhile, the special Haftarah that we read today, on this day before Rosh Hodesh, is about David, before he became king. David was the youngest of eight brothers. Some say it was seven, but either way, he was still the youngest.

So either the oldest or the youngest always wins. So what about the middle child????

The subject of my being a middle child comes up a lot in my house.

My family thinks I use my birth order as an excuse to get attention. There may be some truth to that, but if you were in my position, you would too.

But now that I am a bar mitzvah, I need to get over it. I’ve now matured to the point where I can publicly admit that there are benefits to being a middle child.

Yes, it’s true.

So, in the spirit of the book of Numbers, here are a number of reasons why:

1) As someone who is both younger and older than his siblings, the middle child is very flexible and learns to shift roles very quickly. We also can see both sides of many issues, because we’ve grown up looking at see things from all perspectives. Middle children make excellent peacemakers. Moses’ brother Aaron, for instance, was considered a real man of peace – and he was a middle child.

2) Because of our ability to adapt, middle children usually make friends very quickly and often reach outside the family for significant relationships. I’m close to my family, but I’ve always been able to make friends easily at school. Whenever a new kid comes into the school, I try to become his friend.

As a certified middle child expert, I’ve come up with some suggestions on how to survive as a middle child. Again, I’ll list them by number, in honor of my portion.

1) Make trouble! That will get you lots of attention… but seriously…

2) Do what you can to stand out – in a positive way. Do chores around the house. I’m really good at that.

3) If you find yourself really lacking in attention, keep on asking for what you want until you become very annoying. Usually it takes about 25 minutes of whining to get an iTunes download, and up to a few months for a go cart. I think I’m wearing them down for that go-cart, though!

4) Be funny! Middle children usually make great comedians. When you are stuck between two siblings, having a good sense of humor really helps. Did you know that David Letterman is a middle child?

5) Don’t give up hope of standing out some day! Other famous Middle Children include: J.F.K., Madonna, Donald Trump, Barbara Walters, Bill Gates and Rabbi Hammerman. (He asked me to mention that – he needs the attention). Each of these people is an example of just how successful middle children can become.

But seriously, there are people in this world who really do need attention. Some of them are children in hospitals. That’s why for my mitzvah project, I will be donating toys to the children’s unit of Stamford Hospital.

In the end, I’ve learned that it’s not about the amount of attention your receive; what matters most is the amount of attention you give others. As I become a bar mitzvah, that’s something that I will try to do more and more.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Adam Lee on Rosh Hodesh 

Happy Rosh Chodesh Sivan!

It was exactly one month ago, on April 24, Rosh Chodesh for the month of Iyar, when I was heading home on my bike. Suddenly, my front tire hit a pothole. My foot slipped from the pedal, and I fell forward. Somehow I stayed on the bike, but when I looked down, I saw that my leg was cut open. I was in shock! All I knew, at that moment, was that I had to get home, and despite the pain, I rode the whole way back.

Now here we are, just one month later, and I am riding my bike again. Everyone knows that when you fall off a bike, or a horse, you have to get right back on. I know this firsthand because I happen to have fallen off both a bike AND a horse, and I am pleased to say that each time, I have gotten right back on!

Rosh Chodesh is the first day of each new Jewish month. The moon begins a new cycle on that day. In ancient times Rosh Chodesh was important because the calendar was dependant on the moon so that people knew when the holidays were supposed to occur. It also symbolizes a renewal for the people. The thought is that Israel may suffer but it always survives and renews itself.

That is also the theme of Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new year, when people are given a chance to start again. This holiday declares the new beginning with the sounding of the shofar.
Not long ago, I had an encounter with a shofar… sort of. Unfortunately, it was still attached to the ram. You see, I’m an animal lover, but it seems that not all animals love me. As part of my mitzvah project, I volunteer at the Nature Center. One day, while I was raking some leaves, I was suddenly shoved from behind. I turned to see that a ram had hit me! Obviously, he did not want me in his space! This particular ram was one of the more aggressive ones and known for butting other animals, but not usually people. Lucky me!

This was not the first incident that happened at the nature center. While cleaning out the chicken coop, I was attacked by two turkeys. One pecked my ear while the other jumped on me! I did not let these incidents stop me from helping at the Nature Center, I was just more
careful around the animals after that.

At hockey camp last summer, I was given the Mr. Hustle Award for my dedication and perseverance. I may not have been the most talented player but I never gave up. The coach thought that I had a great attitude. It was a grueling week but I always tried my best.

I am known for my efforts in other sports as well. In lacrosse last year, the coach gave me the award for the most improved player. He spoke about how I always get right up when I am knocked down, which happened more often than I would like to remember. He also mentioned that I am always smiling, no matter what.

However, I must admit, that when I biked home after I cut my leg, I wasn’t smiling. I also wasn’t smiling in the emergency room when I had to get 21 stitches or when I hobbled out of there on crutches, realizing that my bar mitzvah was just a month away. My mom tried smiling for my benefit but it wasn’t the best day I have had.

In studying for my bar mitzvah, there were moments when it felt like I could not it. But with encouragement from many people, I kept working at it and here I am today. No stitches, no crutches.

No problem.

I know that there are many people who face many difficult challenges every day. As another part of my mitzvah project, I will be donating money to the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, to help cover the cost of training these guide dogs. A guide dog will allow people to achieve independence, so that they, too, can have a new beginning!

Monday, May 18, 2009
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Josiah Boyer on Behar 

There is a Talmudic story related to my parasha. Two men are in the desert, and there is only enough water for one man to make it to the next oasis. Who should get the water? The rabbis say that the person most likely to survive may drink the water, even if it means the other person dies.

It’s fitting that Behar is being read on the day of my Bar Mitzvah, because, like this portion, I am very concerned about how we use scarce resources.

The agricultural laws of Behar have a lot to do with giving tzedakah. Elsewhere in the Torah, God states that each farmer must not harvest the corners of his field so that the poor may come and gather what remains. My sister, Aliya, and her class from WFHA, just helped to fulfill this mitzvah. When she was in Israel for two weeks with her 8th grade class trip, they harvested hundreds of pounds of beets which a farm was growing so that it could be distributed to the poor.

In my parashah, the Torah requires that we give the land a rest every seven years and do not plant a crop. But whatever grows, and whatever fruit grows on our trees, is to be left for poor people to harvest. But we also now know how important it is to give the land time to rest, in order to make it stronger and more productive. If you keep working the land, year after year, it loses some of its nutrients. You have to give it time to regenerate. So the Torah was way ahead of its time in its concern for the environment.

Right from the beginning of Bereisheet, it is clear that we are God’s partners in taking care of the land. God planted the first garden, Eden, and gave it to Adam to till and tend. Since then, it’s been our job to protect the environment.

I’ve taken this responsibility very seriously. I have created a website that teaches you about sustainable agriculture.

The URL is

I’ve been working on it for several months. Of course, my family has always had a concern for the environment. We compost in the backyard, raise three chickens and use their eggs, and no visit to our yard is complete without seeing our honeybees. Of course, I still have my two guinea pigs, Peanut and Taffy.

On my site, you will find information about sustainable agriculture and links to other sites that explain it in more detail. I also posted links to several organizations dealing with Judaism and the environment. Judaism has a lot to say about protecting our planet and the environment and it’s a good thing that there are so many organizations raising awareness about this.

In addition, part of the money I receive for my bar mitzvah will be given to some of the organizations listed on the site, including Canfe Nesharim, which means “Wings of Eagles,” an innovative Israeli environmentalist site and COEJL, The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Of course, also JNF, where people can plant trees in Israel—did you know that in the last 107 years the Jewish National Fund has planted over 240 MILLION trees?

One other aspect of the Shmita year needs to be mentioned. The laws apply only to the Land of Israel. That’s because that land is considered “God’s Land.” Elsewhere in the Tanach, we read that Israel is supposed to be a “Light unto the nations.” I believe that by keeping the laws of Shmita and letting the land rest every seventh year, Israel can set an example for the rest of the world to follow. We might follow the laws more strictly there, but we need to be stewards of the earth everywhere. If all nations followed these laws, there would be more productivity and a longer time window of productivity.

But that having been said, there is something extra special about the land of Israel. I’ve had the good fortune to visit there many times and there’s no more beautiful place on earth. The sun’s always a little warmer there, the fruit is tastier, and the colors of the landscape are more vivid. I love rafting on the Jordan River, looking into the clear water, where you can almost see the bottom, and passing the willow trees hugging the shore and listening to the sweet sounds of the birds chirping while Elias falls off the raft.

Returning to the Talmudic story that I mentioned at the beginning, water is very scarce in Israel. But leave it to Israel to find ways to conserve water and uncover new sources. If Israel has its way, both of the men in that story would not only survive, they would have swimming pools in their backyards.

As I become a bar mitzvah, I now understand how each of us can pay a crucial role in protecting our planet, because all the land belongs to God.


Friday, May 15, 2009
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Lauren Tuckman on Emor

Shabbat Shalom!

In my portion, as you can see, the priests had a very set script. There were lots of rules that they had to follow and very little room for self expression. They were like the actors and actresses of their day, and the presentations they put on were very powerful… but no one ever really thought of them as leaders. Moses was the leader… the priests weren’t.

As many of you know, and the rest of you might be able to guess – I love acting. I go to acting camp and I’ve been in a number of shows, both there and back home, including “Music Man” twice!

I’ve always loved Broadway shows. I went to my first one when I was around the age of three. I’ve been to lots and lots of shows; in fact, just in the past few weeks I’ve seen Shrek and Hair. My all time favorites are Hairspray and 13.

The great thing about both shows, especially Hairspray, is that they talk about the tough choices teens have to make. It’s so important that teen feel free to be able to express who they really are.

The funny thing is, that the actors who are doing this are actually reading SOMEONE ELSE’S WORDS! They are not being themselves at all, but are going according to a script and a director’s instructions.

I also love to dance, and can tell you that the same is true for dancers. We’re dancing to someone else’s music and someone else’s choreography.

The key is to be able to take those words and that choreography and fly with it – to make them your own.

That’s what I try to do when I dance and when I act.

And that’s what a bat mitzvah does too. This morning, I’ve been chanting words written twenty five HUNDRED years ago – and the key is to make them my own. That’s what I’ve tried to do here today.

One way to make those words come alive is through speeches like this. Another way, is through performing mitzvot. For my mitzvah project, I’ve been selling hand-made bracelets to raise money. I designed them and made them myself, with some help from my friends. You can find more about this project in my booklet; I’ll be taking orders all day today.

Thursday, May 7, 2009
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Alex Weinberg on Kedoshim 

Shabbat Shalom!

My double portion of Acharay Mot – Kedoshim contains some of the most important laws found in the entire Torah, but one of them seems a little out of place. In chapter 19, verse 11, it says, “Lo Tignohvu v’lo te-hach-shoo v’lo tir-shak-eru eesh ba-amito.” “You shall not steal, you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with another.” Commentators note that the instruction not to steal is already found in the Ten Commandments, so why repeat it here?

Ibn Ezra suggests that “stealing” here refers to the prior verse. Where we are told to leave the corners of our field for the poor. If we don’t do that, then we are, in effect, stealing from them. The things that grow in those corners are not really ours to keep, even if they are growing on our property.

The 11th century commentator Joseph Kara states that we are commanded to help the poor find enough to eat so that they will be not be driven to steal. Rambam went one step further, saying that the highest level of tzedakkah is to find someone a job, so they won’t need to receive charity any more, much less to have to steal.

Tzedakkah has been a topic that has really interested me lately, since I became part of the community’s Teen Tzedakkah Foundation Council program at the JCC. In Teen Tzedakkah Foundation Council, the kids research different charities and then decide as a group, which ones to support, using money that we raise through our own donations and matching gifts.
The whole process is a lot of fun, especially when we get to choose.

So I thought I might give all of you here today a little taste of what it’s like with a brand new reality show:

Welcome to today’s edition of “Choose Your Tzedakkah!”

Today we’ll get to decide among the top three candidates. I’ll describe them all and then you get to text your vote to 1-800-Mitzvah! No, just kidding, we won’t be doing any texting.
So here they are, the three finalists:

· The Koby Mandell Foundation
· Friends of Yemin Orde
· Chai Lifeline

Now, I’ll tell you a little about each of them. Keep in mind that I’ll be donating part of my bar mitzvah money to the winning charity! It’s all up to you.

Each of these three causes is very worthy, which is what makes Teen Tzedakkah so challenging as well as fun. It’s like when the UJF or United Way have to make some tough choices about how much money to give to different places. It’s even harder this year, when so many people are out of work or don’t have as much to give.

The Koby Mandell foundation helps families in Israel who are harmed by terrorism. It is named in memory of a child who was killed by terrorists in 2001, when he was just 13 years old. Some of these kids attend Camp Koby, which helps them to receive the special care that they need while also enabling them to have a fun camp experience. The experience doesn’t stop there retreats help grieving families become stronger despite obstacles.

Yemin Orde is a youth village in northern Israel which is home to more than 500 immigrants, disadvantaged and at-risk children and youth from 20 countries around the world. many of them survivors of trauma and displacement. Many of the programs at Yemin Orde are designed to rebuild the self-esteem and self-confidence of the children as many of them are survivors of trauma and displacement. Yemin Orde is particularly known for its work with the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel.

Since 1987, Chai Lifeline’s programs address the emotional, social, and financial needs of seriously ill children, their families, and communities, here in America. One project of theirs is Camp Simcha in Gen Spey New York, which offers children and teens a chance to forget about illness for a while and enjoy all the fun that camp has to offer.

So what will it be? Koby Mandell, Yemin Orde or Chai Lifeline? We can only pick one!
In the bar mitzvah booklet, you’ll find three little pieces of colored paper. You can see that the basket is

The Torah and the Cross: Supreme Symbols and the Supreme Court

Bookmark and Share  

I delivered the following sermon this past Shabbat / Shmini Atzeret:

Tonight and tomorrow, we’ll be dancing circles around and with our most sacred object – the torah.

Isn’t it fascinating, when you think about it, that our most sacred object is not really an object at all, but a book – an open book, one that is in so many ways a living document. It occurred to me this week that we are most careful never to turn the torah into an object – even an object of veneration. Yes people have been known to risk life and limb to save a torah from a burning building. and yes, we never discard it when it is no longer usable – we bury it, as we would a human being. But that’s the point – the torah is more of a person than an object – and we treat it that way.

So what about the kissing, then? Isn’t that almost idolatrous – to kiss an object? A kiss is a way of expressing love, not worship. In our tradition, no one kisses the ring of the rabbi. When we kiss, we kiss our spouse or our parent or our child. Most parents don’t worship their children. Well. Maybe not. But the kiss is not indicative of worship, at least. Kissing the torah is a way not of expressing love for an object, but for all that it symbolizes, and for God. So I don’t see it as idolatrous.

Torahs are not used in art very much (similar to human beings) – you see lots of Jewish stars and menorahs. Ancient Jewish art, especially synagogue mosaics and coins – are filled with zodiac signs, menorahs and also especially lulavs and etrogs. Almost never do we find a torah.

And at the cemetery, we’ll see menorahs on gravestones, and other symbols, like the pitcher for the Levite or the hands of a Cohen – but again, rarely if ever a Torah. When a Jew dies in the military, his grave will most often be marked with a simple Jewish star.

We’re very careful not to make too much of our symbols – they should never become more important than they are – and even the torah, our most sacred symbol, gains its power not as an object, but as a summons– calling upon us to choose life.

So what are we to make of the current case now before the Supreme Court, which was argued this week?

Salazar v. Buono deals with the constitutionality of a 6 1/2-foot cross sitting on what originally was public land in California’s Mojave National Preserve. The memorial was constructed 75 years ago to honor World War I victims, but 10 years ago it was challenged by a National Park Service employee who thought it violated the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion.

Congress passed legislation in 2004 declaring the site a national memorial. The legislation transferred the ownership of the land on which the memorial sits to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in exchange for five privately owned acres in the preserve.

This week an ACLU lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia tangling over the meaning of a cross to honor war dead.

Scalia, according to media reports, responded that the cross was the “common symbol of the resting place of the dead” and asked whether the lawyer would instead want erected “some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David and, you know, a Muslim half-moon and star?”

Eliasberg responded, “I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.” 

The justice retorted, “I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.” 

I think that is an outrageous statement!

Legal observers said the court may end up deciding the case on the narrower issue of whether Congress acted legally in transferring ownership of the land to a private entity rather than the constitutionality of the cross sitting on public land. I hope that is the case.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank argues that the case doesn’t have nearly the import that interest groups suggest it does — but there are benefits for talking about it in such stark terms:

For the interest groups on both sides, a good fight can bring in money and members — even if that means making the “fight” appear to be something larger than it actually should be. The “injury” claimed by the ACLU was rather a stretch: that Buono, a former National Park Service official, would “tend to avoid” the area when he returns to visit Mojave. So, too, was it necessary to inflate the menace posed by the pipe cross, which stands 100 yards off of a dusty road at an elevation of about 20 feet. Congress, in one of its legislative actions to defend the cross, even gave the place the status of a national war memorial, as if it were another Gettysburg.

The other side, too, had to pretend that taking down the cross would jeopardize veterans and God-fearing folk everywhere. “We pray that those who laid down their lives will be properly memorialized with a cross so tenderly placed in the lonely desert,” the Rev. Rob Schenck of the National Clergy Council preached outside the Supreme Court.

A JTA summary of the case details some of the statements made by the two sides in its report on the case. Some of those statements are almost apocalyptic in nature: “What’s next?” demanded Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Will we sell a few steps of the Supreme Court to some group that wants to put up a Jesus-in-the-manger scene year-round?” 

On the contrary, declared Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of the Liberty Legal Institute. “If you have to tear down a cross in the middle of 1.6 million acres of desert, then what do you do with the 24-foot-tall Cross of Sacrifice in Arlington Memorial Cemetery?” he asked. “Anything that has religious imagery now has to come down?”

Both scenarios are, of course, equally absurd. But fear and loathing fill interest-group treasuries. But as a JTAblogger quipped this week, “It is a cross they must bear.”

Why the Supreme Court took on this case I can’t quite figure out, but I also hope they won’t use it to make a broad statement about church state separation. As Wendy Kaminer wrote in The Atlantic, “If the Court seizes the opportunity and denies taxpayer standing to challenge federally sponsored religious displays, then constitutional prohibitions of such displays will be effectively unenforceable.” 

No one would question the right to having crosses at individual people’s graves in military cemeteries. That’s free expression of religion. And no one should question that the cross is a powerful religious symbol – as important to Christianity as the torah is to Judaism. And the Torah is the only symbol that is analogous – it evokes the same passion (though not in a Mel Gibson kind of way), which the menorah doesn’t and certainly not the lulav or Jewish star, at least not today. There really is no parallel to the cross other than the Torah.

And that’s when it occurred to me that there is a major difference. The torah never is used in connection with death. It is etz hayyim – the tree of life. The cross is not only a symbol connected to death it’s origin as a symbol was related to a death. A death followed, in Christian tradition, by a rebirth. We have a similar Jewish story from that era, of Rabbi Chananya, who was burned at the stake wrapped in a torah scroll. We’vegot plenty of martyrs who died holding torah scrolls – still it forever has remained a tree of life – etz hayyim. 

Actually, Judge, Scalia, I do believe that a cross would only honor Christian war dead! Even one erected out in the middle of the Mojave desert! I do not mean to denigrate a proud and great religion, but Christianity is simply different from Judaism. Our greatest religious symbol would never have been considered for such a memorial. We just think differently, that’s all. Judaism is all about the affirmation of a life that is. Christianity focuses much more on life hereafter.

We are about redemption, they are about resurrection.

Neither faith is better, we are simply different. And that difference is demonstrated clearly in our supreme religious symbols, even if those differences are not recognized by some on the Supreme Court.

There is much that we share, but that is something that we do not. And that is why this case is so important. But only if the Supreme Court chooses to make it so.

Why I Volunteer: Rosalea Fisher and Jared Finkelstein

Bookmark and Share  

Rosalea Fisher and Jared Finkelstein were honored at our Simhat Torah services with the special aliyot marking the end and beginning of the Torah reading cycle.  Here are the remarks each of them made to the congregation in honor of the occasion: 

Rosalea Fisher: 

As a child, I watched my mother as she modeled for us the art of volunteering. She was the treasurer of our school’s PTA; she volunteered for ORT which provides skills-training and self-help projects word-wide. She was a life member of Hadassah, and in her later years, she volunteered at a nursing home to turn pages for a pianist. Volunteering was a part of her everyday life. My sister also worked tirelessly for Philadelphia’s renowned Children’s Hospital and still does to this day. 

When Dick and I moved to Stamford, he got involved in Jr. Achievement and the Stamford Symphony as well as our son’s Boy Scout troop. He has served on the Alzheimer’s Board and is now their Chairman for the state of CT. He continues to attend morning minyan here every week and serves on the Cemetery Association.

My first experience in the world of volunteering was working with mothers and their babies. I became a certified La Leche Leader. It was a perfect fit for me as we raised our two children.

When we joined Beth El, I joined Sisterhood and served on many committees throughout the years, culminating with my appointment as president of the Board of Trustees. It was an honor and a privilege to volunteer in this position. I continue to serve our synagogue; just recently I have been working with a committee to explore the possibility of establishing a preschool here. And just two weeks ago I helped to unload food bags at Person-to-Person.

For my mother, my husband, my sister, and for me, volunteering is woven into the fabric of our lives. I hope that we can also be a model for our children and for our grandchildren and for everyone one of you here today.

Chag sameach.


Jared Finkelstein: 

In being honored today, I have also been given the great opportunity to talk about volunteering.  If you had told me when I joined TBE over 12 years ago that I would be standing here today being honored for my volunteer efforts at TBE I would have thought you were dreaming.  But I am here and I have volunteered.  How and why did I go from where I was when I joined TBE to today?

First, I think is the power of role models.  My parents were both very involved in their synagogue and Jewish organizations when I was growing up – my dad was the president of his synagogue, was very involved in Israel bonds and B’nai Brith and my mom was very active in the sisterhood and Hadassah.  My mom’s father was the secretary for his temple in upstate New York for years and years.  Even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time and they didn’t hit me over the head with it, they were being role models.  I believe the power of role models is a good reason to volunteer.  If you believe in what we are doing here at TBE or there are things you want TBE to be doing, by spending your time to achieve those goals you are sending a very powerful message to your children and others in the community.  You may not see the impact of that message immediately but I am proof that the impact can be felt decades later.   The concept of l’dor va dor, from generation to generation, is very powerful and passing on a belief in volunteerism and helping others from one generation to the next is vitally important.

Second, is the belief that you can make a difference.  There are many ways to volunteer at or through TBE.  In reality, this is a very small congregation and a small community.  If you have a passion or interest in something you will not be lost in a crowd – you will be able to make a difference in what TBE is doing both within these walls and outside in the larger community.  Even if you have an interest we aren’t currently involved in, odds are you can chair a committee, recruit your friends and tap into the TBE community to get something done.  There is also no project that is too small.  Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, takes many shapes.  You need not solve world hunger or even the health insurance debate.  The world is repaired one person at a time, one block at a time, one community at a time.  In that regard there are things I would like to see TBE do in Stamford.  For example, there are men and women at the shelters in Stamford at times of the year other than Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when TBE and another temple bring in and serve those wonderful meals to the residents.  I would love TBE to be there at least one other time during the year – even to simply make sandwiches and be there to talk to the residents.  There is also a soup kitchen in Stamford run by the Bridgeport diocese – I would love to have TBE become involved there on a regular basis.  TBE as a community within the larger community can make a difference in the lives of people around us and there are so many more people in need these days.

Finally, volunteering feels good and can be a learning experience.  Being involved in the TBE preschool initiative I learned so much about early childhood education from Rosalea and the other amazing people on the exploratory and search committees.  We truly have a wealth of talent to tap into here at TBE with great people on the Board of Trustees and Board of Education, the Mens Club and Sisterhood and other organizations.   I want to thank all of them for their time, dedication and passion.   In the current economy, if you are “in transition” as I am, it can be a way to do something productive that you wouldn’t otherwise do if fully employed and is a change of pace from the grind of the job search routine.  Further, in this environment, if you are not able to contribute as you have in the past with dollars, you can donate something even more valuable: your time and energy.  If any of you are in a similar position I urge you to volunteer, you won’t regret it.  Even if you are fully employed, there are opportunities to volunteer that won’t take up a lot of your time.  For example, making sandwiches and serving at the shelters would only be a couple of hours on a weekend and will make such a big difference in the lives of others.  Let me take this opportunity to put in a word for my wife Liz who is the chair of Beth El Cares – she has done a great  job the last couple of years working on the Passover Food Drive and the Christmas Eve dinners at the Stamford shelters.  She is making a difference.  So please contact Beth El Cares through Steve or via a new email that is being set up  We need your help to enable TBE to better serve our community.

I want to thank TBE for this honor and for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the community we are building together.  The best is yet to come.

Yom Kippur Sermons 5770

Bookmark and Share  

For audio of all sermons, please see the rabbi’s library section of this website.


Kol Nidre 5770 

Mitzvah, Money and Madoff 

By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman 

 Mitch Albom, author of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” has a new book that is being published in a few weeks, in which he talks about his childhood rabbi and mentor, Albert Lewis of blessed memory.  In it, Lewis talks of a Yom Kippur sermon where the subject is death, and he informs the congregation that everyone is going to die.  After the service, a man comes up to him all excited.  The rabbi asks, “Why are you so excited?  I just told the entire congregation that they are going to die.”  “Yes,” said the man, “and THAT’S why I’m so excited.  I belong to another congregation!  I’m just visiting!”

On the day of Ted Kennedy’s death, I was speaking to one of the kids here after services and she said something very wise.  “He was very lucky to have lived until he died.”  She meant, of course, that he was fortunate to not have had his life cut short unnaturally, like his brothers.  He made it all the way to 77.  But in a real way he also lived until he died by making the most of each day, knowing, more than most of us, that every day actually could be his last. 

Most of us don’t have a bullet proof vest hanging in the closet, as he did. Most of us choose not to live with such intensity.   We shove death to the farthest reaches of our closets and our minds.  

True, a preoccupation with death and suffering can paralyze us, rendering us cynical and hopeless.  But most often it is denial that is the enemy.  And denial feeds on itself – we build a huge scaffolding of lies and masks and excuses until it ultimately collapses all around us.  Inertia develops its own strange momentum.  It’s a momentum that won’t let us move.  It’s a refusal to believe in the urgency of the moment, that change is possible and that our lives can have an impact.  To confront an ultimate reality, death, we need to cultivate the ultimate degree of honesty.

But Yom Kippur clears away the scaffolding and the masks.   Yom Kippur provides us with the glimpse of mortality – we stare death in the eye by fasting and the denial of all bodily pleasures, and then, at the end of the 25 hour day, it shepherds us gently back into the realm of the living. 

So let’s not fear looking closely at ourselves.   Yom Kippur is a time for hard truths.  And folks, we’ve been needing to do this for quite some time. We’ve been talking about mitzvot this week.  On Rosh Hashanah I focused on how they are instruments of connection and obligation.  Tonight we look at the mitzvot of Yom Kippur as agents of change in the public sphere. 

In 1937 in Crakow, the Yiddish songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig composed what was to become his most well-known song: Es Brent, “It Burns.” It spoke about the looming dangers of the Nazis, just across the border.  But it really was a call to his fellow Jews to rise up and respond to the growing threat:

Es Brent! 

It is burning, brothers, it is burning.
Our poor little town, a pity, burns!
Furious winds blow,
Breaking, burning and scattering,
And you stand around
With folded arms.
O, you stand and look
While our town burns.

            And today, we are doing the same.  There are dangers abounding and we are stuck in a state of paralysis. 

            There are external threats to be sure, as there were in Crakow in 1937.  As Professor Ruth Wisse said at a Hillel conference last year, speaking of the many existential threats Israel now faces, “Ultimately, history is going to ask us only one question, ‘Did you or did you not secure the Jewish homeland.’” 

And indeed, we all must search our souls and ask what we are doing to make sure that a precious gift of a Jewish state, 2,000 years in the making, will be with us for generations to come. 

But ES BRENT, it burns, not because of the Iranian nuclear program or Islamic extremism.  We burn because when we take a moral inventory, we come up lacking.  The list of al chets we’ve just begun reciting – it is only the beginning.  We’ve got to take a hard look at ourselves.

As one congregant, writing to me recently about the Madoff affair, the Syrian rabbis of Brooklyn and Deal and the indictment of Ehud Olmert, said: “I guess the “game is on” about Jewish business ethics throughout the world…now, don’t get me wrong, we still probably represent a small percentage, though, the impact of the Madoff affair will be felt for generations, I truly believe we should start to reevaluating our beliefs and who / what we think we are… I think we might be a bit misguided in our personal evaluation of the Jewish people.” 

These revelations have been humiliating to all of us.  You can throw in any number of other recent scandals that have Jewish connections, including the Agriprocessors fiasco in Postville Iowa.  Earlier this month, on the very day that school began both in Israeli and Stamford, which children attend to learn right from wrong, here’s what happened in Israel: Shas Knesset member Shlomo Ben Ezri began a four year prison term for corruption charges, former Finance Minister Hirschson arrived at the Hermon prison to begin serving a five year sentence for embezzlement, and the trial of former President Moshe Katzav began, on charges of sexual harassment. And former Prime Minister Olmert was indicted.  Four corruption cases, four major public figures, all in one day.   Who knew that the expression “Chosen People,” would be meant in terms of a police lineup?

Something is wrong with this picture.   If you Google “Jewish” plus “Scandal” you’ll come up with 2,980,000 hits.  Even assuming some of them come from anti-Semitic sites, that’s a lot of hits.  Yes, there may be a lot of anti-Semites too, but that’s a lot of hits!  Narrow it a little, by adding the term “Madoff” and the number is 868,000.  In other words, almost one third of the Jewish scandal hits have to do with Madoff.  It’s humiliating.

But I really don’t care what anti-Semites think about us.  I care what we think about us.  And I can only imagine what Jews in their 20s and 30s are thinking right now.  They are the ones who need to choose to embrace a Jewish vision for themselves and their families if there is to be any Jewish destiny at all. If they don’t then I will have failed and all my sermons will be like that proverbial tree falling in the forest.  No one will hear it.  It won’t matter.

But how in the world can I expect people to embark on a Jewish journey when our most venerated institutions have been devastated by greed and corruption and denial, and all the little people have suffered, and even some big people, but no one seems to care!  And it just gets worse and worse and worse and no one cares!

The margin for error is so small.  One moral slip up in Gaza, or not even, and the world comes crashing down on Israel with accusations of crimes against humanity.  And again, I don’t really care what the world thinks.  But what the world thinks has a lasting impression on what Jews think, until Jews don’t know what to believe.  And then they’ll do what is most logical in a free society.  They’ll opt out. 

While accusations against Israel are damaging for the Jewish self image, the accusations involving Jews and the Wall Street scandals are simply devastating, feeding into every anti-Semitic stereotype that has haunted Jews since the middle ages, when transient and landless, Jews took up the only field open to them, finance. And now we have scandal after scandal, from Bear Sterns to Bank of America, and everyone is obsessed with looking for Jewish names.  And there are plenty to be found. 

When American Jewish Committee director David Harris wrote in the New York Times that the media should not focus so much Barnard Madoff’s Jewishness, he was reacting in panic and anger, but his anger was misdirected.  He claimed correctly that no one was speaking of Rod Blagojevich’s religion, or Kenneth Lay’s.  But that begged the point.  It’s not that the New York Times and others in the media were preoccupied with Madoff’s Jewishness.  It’s that we were.

The Madoff scandal tapped into the deepest veins of anti-semitic mythology.  Journalist JJ Goldberg commented, “His being Jewish is relevant in some way that I think most people can’t put their finger on. It’s exactly what everybody has in the back of their minds… Jews and polite gentiles don’t want to talk about it because it reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes.” 

It’s relevant because his story seems to be an anti-Semite’s fairy tale come true.  It confirms all the horrible, hateful things we’ve been told since childhood.  How do you get two Jews into a taxi?  You know, throw a penny in.  Remember hearing that for the first time and either running home crying or pretending to smile, or, if you were really brave, saying, “Uh, Joey?  Guess what.  I’m Jewish.”

“Well of course it’s not about YOU!  Can’t you get a joke?” 

Well now you don’t even have to throw in a penny!  Just throw in 10% annual return – or even less, a letter promising that 10% signed by “Smilin’ Bernie!”

And these sentiments were suddenly released in a torrent of rumination.  That’s what we do best.  Ruminate.  The YIVO institute sponsored a public bull session a few weeks after the story broke, and Pandora ’s Box was opened widely before hundreds of people.

Martin Peretz talked about the materialism in the American Jewish subculture, “with the million dollar Bar Mitzvahs and the lavish Viennese table,” he said, “there’s something built in-even the fact that lower middle class Jews feel compelled to bankrupt themselves on these elaborate Bar Mitzvahs.”  He was booed lustily by the crowd, Just like Philip Roth was berated when he wrote “Goodbye Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.”  Such is the punishment of those who reveal uncomfortable truths.

Moses Pava, a Professor of Business Ethics, writing in an op-ed in the Forward, went even further in calling out the Jewish community.  

“Perhaps the biggest enabler …is the prevailing ethos of the business world. We live in a world that has become increasingly oriented toward a bottom-line mentality. Ours is a culture of money first. In every business school I know of, we teach our students to maximize profits. Good enough is never enough. 

Our Jewish communities, which once honored rabbis and scholars, now almost exclusively honor those with the biggest bank accounts. Our students and children surely take note of this. 

Bernie Madoff should be punished for his wrong-doing, but we simply fool ourselves if we think that jailing Madoff will solve the deeper problem of which he is just the most recent symptom.” 

The Madoff disease did not just infect one person.  He was evil.  No doubt a special circle of Hell – if only we Jews had hell – has been reserved for him.  But he was not alone and he was part of a culture that is trying very hard not to go away.  And what is the proof of that?  The deafening silence that followed the Madoff revelations from those very organizations – from our institutions and leaders.

The paralysis stemmed from the fact that Madoff was not merely a thief who crashed the party.  He was the party’s host.  He was the toast of New York’s Jewish elite, especially among the modern Orthodox, although he was not Orthodox himself.  As the Times’ Samuel Freedman wrote of that community, “Their leaders and members overlap like a sequence of Venn diagrams. They are bound by religious praxis, social connection, philanthropic causes. Yet what may be the community’s greatest virtue — its thick mesh of personal relations, its abundance of social capital — appears to have been the very trait that Mr. Madoff exploited.” 

So when all these institutions were so shamelessly exploited by one of their own, someone so enmeshed in their social circles, what was lost was not merely trust.  “The currency is not so much trust;” said Princeton professor Jenna Weissman-Joselit. “The currency is community.”

Communal ties were shaken to the core.  But something else was lost as well.  The moral voice.  The sense of outrage.

 Es brent!!! 

 Abraham Joshua Heschel said that “we are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.”  And if that was not the case back in Heschel’s day, with Vietnam and racial injustice – and it has certainly become the case now.

 Witness Hadassah.  And I love Hadassah.  My wife is a life member.  I’ve often spoken about how moving it was to spend time in the new pediatric unit in Ein Karem and see how Hadassah is the place where Arabs and Jews not only coexist, but care for one another.  From out of Zion will come forth the Torah, and from Ein Karem and Mt Scopus will come Middle East peace.

I really believe that! 

But what do I say to those 20 and 30-somethings about an organization that not only betrayed its investors by figuratively cohabiting with the creep Madoff, it betrayed its investors by literally cohabiting with the creep Madoff.  Go to Hadassah’s site and you won’t see anything about the current scandal involving their ex-CFO’s affair with Madoff.  Their leadership has told the press they knew nothing about it.  Fair enough.  Except that while she was CFO and before she became a best selling tell-all author, Sheryl Weinstein WAS Haddasah. 

“Hadassah was shocked to hear the news reports of Mrs. Weinstein’s personal admissions regarding this relationship,” Hadassah president Nancy Falchuk wrote in a memorandum to board members in mid August. “We knew nothing of her relationship with Mr. Madoff until today, and her departure was unrelated to Mr. Madoff.” 

Not good enough.  Yes, Sheryl was in some ways a victim too, and yes, Hadassah’s current leaders can’t be blamed for the sins of their predecessors.  And yes, I still love Hadassah. 

But we needed “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu” and instead we got a publicists’ idea of damage control. 

What they needed to say was this:

This is horrible.  We have betrayed your trust, our dear members and investors.  We have betrayed the values of the Torah we hold so dear.  We have betrayed the cause of holiness and the destiny of the Jewish people.  We’ve betrayed the very people whose lives we are trying to save.  We were taken in but we are not blameless.  There are no excuses.  Please forgive us. 

There is redemption in such a statement.  There is the beginning of a possibility – the possibility of change.  Without it, there is nothing but blame and excuses and the scapegoating of Madoff.   Excuses are what creates the momentum of inertia.  And not since Flip Wilson has “The devil made me do it” worked as an excuse.

This is the perfect time to talk of scapegoats – we’ll read about it tomorrow.  The scapegoat was invented for this holiday.   But my advocacy of excommunication for Madoff was not so that he would be our sacrificial lamb to exonerate us from all sin. No, it was to do precisely the opposite.  The goal was to isolate the evil and identify it clearly, to explain to ourselves and the world why his deeds were so alien to all the values we stand for and to proclaim with great clarity that for such a person there is no redemption. 

I consider the title Jew to be something to be proud of, and I wanted to rob him of that honor.  Like Haman, Madoff was completely absorbed in ego and honor, able to cultivate the trust of the powerful through the manipulation of truth and half truth until, ultimately, the end result was a lie.  I wanted him to bear the full burden of the truth of what he had done.  In the end, no mask was big enough to hide it.

Elie Wiesel suggested that the best punishment would be to sit him in front of a computer screen all day, with photos of his victims flashing before him.  But I don’t think that suffices.  He saw those victims every day for decades and it never moved him.  No, for a person so corrupt and sociopathic, the only punishment that would suffice would not be a life sentence, but one taking him beyond this life: for him to know that no rabbi will eulogize him and no synagogue or Jewish cemetery will welcome his corpse and no minyan will say amen to his wife’s kaddish.  For him to know that those circles of connection that fed his insatiable greed were now going to exclude him entirely.

Only then would he realize that there is no redemption in this case.  Otherwise he might expect to get the treatment of other supposedly reformed crooks.  Jailed terrorists the world over know that it’s only a matter of time before they are freed, either through the extortion of a prisoner exchange or, in the case of the Scottish leaders last month with the terrorist from Lockerbie, a lack of moral backbone. 

It burns!  Es brent!  

But while the Jewish organizational elite fiddled, the Jew on the street burned with anger.  And that’s the voice that helped me to see the danger of doing nothing.  Thank God I have a congregation to keep me grounded, because I too would likely have fallen into the crusty doublespeak of equivocation that has infested our institutions, religious and secular.  I wrote that we needed to take a strong stand to affirm the values of our Torah, but the organized Jewish world did very little, preferring to pass the buck while counting up their losses.  There was no excommunication, no joint statement, little outrage, just a few choice press releases and a prayer that I would all soon blow over.

I heard from many, many non machers, from all over the world, some of them Madoff’s victims, people with heartbreaking stories to tell. The damage was Katrina-esque.  Never minimize it.  Our moral levees broke and thousands of lives were shattered.  Many homes were lost.  People lost their livelihoods, their scholarships, their life dreams, their retirement and in some cases their lives.  When Katrina happened, President Bush paid a steep price for being asleep at the wheel.  People lost faith in him and that faith was never regained.  The Madoff affair has smashed the levees of American Jewish life and it has caused us to lose faith in the very principles of philanthropy that have been our lifeblood as Jews and as Americans.  Whether we regain that trust remains to be seen.

People were waiting for action but the powers-that-be said, “Let the legal system do the work.”  OK so now it has.  He’s in jail, but still there has been no kapparah, no cleansing. 

As novelist Thane Rosenbaum wrote, “Among the 11 counts of criminal activity, Madoff will not end up serving any jail time for reinforcing an ugly stereotype — the pernicious connection between Jews and money. He admitted his guilt for committing fraud, but not for defaming Jews, for resurrecting a blood libel with a grotesquely contemporary twist: the commingling of Christian and Jewish blood not for the making of matzo, but for the losing of money.” 

As a result, the old canard that Jews are crooks has been allowed to stand.  And grow.  And Jews have come to believe it.  It’s a little like that case that we heard about a few weeks ago, of Jaycee Dugard, the girl who was kidnapped and held hostage so long that she began to relate to her oppressors, the Stockholm Syndrome. 

Well, have we heard these Big Lies so much that now we’ve come to believe them and relate to them, and because of it, have we begun to hate ourselves?  Must we wake up each day staring into the mirror and repeating, Nixon-like, “I am not a crook?”

So how do respond to all this, constructively?  By writing letters and angry blogs?  Nah.  Been there.  Excommunication was a nice trial balloon that became a water balloon.  It helped me and others to express outrage, but that’s about it.  So what else is there to do? Throw up our hands up walk away?  So where will we go to?  We are at the edge of a moral abyss.  There aren’t too many directions we can walk.

Perhaps we can take some comfort in that Madoff went to jail utterly friendless.  Not one letter was written in support of him.  Not one of his circle of friends wrote in attesting to his good deeds and fine character.  He also spared us a trial, probably knowing that no jury in the world would fail to convict him.

But we are still left feeling uneasy.  On this Yom Kippur, we ask, how can we achieve kappara, a real cleansing?

No, the best thing we can do now… is to change the system one person at a time, one deed at a time.  They used to say that Jews should have an extra child to replace the 6 million.  I never bought into that.  No one should be considered an “extra child.”  But maybe we all need to be extra honest.  Maybe our business practices should be extra fair?  Extra transparent?  As good as we try to be, maybe this year we need to try to be just a little bit better.  If we have the means, maybe we give more tzedakkah to restore faith in our system of philanthropy. Maybe we give our normal amount for ourselves, and another 50%  to counteract Madoff.  If we have oversight over a nonprofit, maybe we are extra vigilant to restore that trust.  When we are paying our taxes, maybe we go the extra mile to make sure we’re not cutting corners.  If we know of someone who is doing something wrong, maybe we take responsibility to make sure it stops.

At Harvard Business School they’ve taken a first step.  According to the New York Times, nearly 20 percent of the graduating class signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.

Will that really happen?  There’s a Talmudic expression, “halavai,” “It should only happen.”  It’s a nice idea and worthy goal.  But the Daily Show gathered some of those students and they collectively stuck a fork in that idea.  One Harvard MBA said: “It’s impossible to uphold the oath and still be responsible to your shareholders.” And another:  “I feel that ethics is a really fuzzy subject.”

Maybe the best way to blot out the name of Madoff is to blot out his impact, by setting on the other side of the scale so many acts of goodness and kindness and justice and charity and honesty and transparency that it might outweigh even the massive damage he has caused.  Maybe we force ourselves to believe again in the goodness of people and the promise and hope embedded in the Jewish message.   Maybe that way – that is the ONLY way, to assure that my children and grandchildren – and yours – will choose to have a Jewish destiny and won’t hate themselves.

For our collective future rests on that choice.  It is the choice of mitzvah.  For the traditional approach of Judaism to money is about as far from Bernard Madoff as you can get.  To leave a corner of your field for the poor, that’s mitzvah #44 on the Maimonides’ list of 613 that I linked to our website.  Not to commit fraud – that’s #181.  Not to cheat in weights and measures, that’s number 182.  Not to collect excessive interest, that’s #173.  Not to delay the payment of wages, # 184.

These are mitzvot of justice and conscience.  These are what we need to put out the fires.  Es Brent! 

But that requires a restructuring of priorities in Jewish education.  Brooklyn College professor of marketing and business Heshy Friedman told the Jewish Week:

 I feel that the yeshiva system is partially to blame. There is an obsession in the yeshiva world with the legalistic aspects of the Talmud, without focusing on the practical law. More than 100 of the 613 precepts in the Torah deal with economics and business, yet so little time in yeshiva is spent on this area. 

            Elie Wiesel now suffers the irony of being once again a victim of a crime of unprecedented proportions, though the destruction of his foundation cannot compare to the crimes of 70 years ago.  Still, he picked up on this theme of victimhood running through his life in an interview a few months back, telling the USA Today, “All my life has been about learning and teaching and building on ruins,” he says. “That will not change.” 

He will rebuild – and already is doing that.  And while his resolve won’t change, as we’ll see when we hear him at the 92nd St Y next month, his life is living proof that things can change.  Society can change.

In the end, as I often say, American Jews are exactly the same as all Americans, only more so.  The issues we face in self perception are the same issues confronted by all Americans following the Wall Street meltdown.  If we Jews can find our way out of the morass, we can help lead the rest of America to a future that will truly be enriching, in ways that go far beyond money and material possessions.

So who will lead us from this dark place and toward an era of moral renewal in business ethics, who will restore our pride in who we are and help us dream again about what we can become?

Religious leaders need to play a role, for Jews and for Americans in general.  But rabbis long since ceased being prime moral authorities for Jews.  That stopped as soon as we stepped onto these shores.  Did you know that at the time of the founding of the oldest synagogue in New York, Shearith Yisrael, they established a rule that if you violated the Sabbath, you got fined?  It didn’t work, and rabbinic moral authority that had held sway in the shtetls was a thing of the past. 

We need to create a new model now, a partnership between religious and business leaders and elected officials, one that can restore a sense of moral purpose.  We’ve seen again and again that the business world cannot regulate itself, nor has Congress been very effective.  Only the leaders of the business world themselves can get us out of this mess, but they need moral guidance and support.  This rebirth can begin with anyone, so it might as well begin with the Jewish community.  

It might as well start with us.

Google “Jewish business ethics” and 487,000 hits will appear.  Not quite as many as “Jewish” and “scandal,” not by a long shot.  But we can build from that.  We can reaffirm a sense of Jewish Business Ethics in this age of scandal, and that can help lift us all out of the morass.

I’ve mentioned Ted Kennedy a couple of times in these sermons, but I want to close with a quote from his brother Bobby, whose words are as relevant today as they were in 1968 when he spoke them on the campaign trail in Lawrence, Kansas.

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts …the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.” 

The true source of our wealth as Jews comes from the priceless legacy that we’ve been schlepping across the face of the earth for 3500 years.  We need to remind ourselves that we are the people of the Book, not the people that cooks the books.   We are driven to make the world better for our stakeholders, not our stockholders.  And our principle stakeholders are the next generation.

According to the Talmud, the first question a person is asked in the next world after death is:  “Nasata v’Natata b’emunah?”  (Shabbat 31a) “Were you honest in your business dealings?” The very first question!

Let each of us be supremely honest in answering that question.  Let our signature mitzvah be that whenever we apply our signature to anything, we appoint God as our witness.  Let us repent today as if it is our final day, for it may yet be.  Let us rip aside the masks of denial and feel the wind whipping on our naked faces.

Furious winds blow,
Breaking, burning and scattering,
While our town burns.

It is time for us to put out the fire.


Yom Kippur Day 5770 

Mitzvah and Mindfulness: God’s Tweets 

By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman 

I don’t want to jump the gun, but I want to begin this sermon by talking about what’s going to happen a little after 7 tonight as we end Yom Kippur. 

Oh, great!   That’s all we need!

No really.  I want you to imagine everything.  We’ve just finished Ne’ilah.  Wasn’t that fun!  The smells of bagels and coffee are wafting through the air.  OK, OK. Sorry.  And we’re just about to hear all the shofars sounded for one final blast.

Now hold that thought.  Freeze that moment.  So tonight, I’m going to invite you to do something that you will think somewhat, well, counter-intuitive.  At the moment when we sound that final shofar blast, I’m going to ask you to take out your cell phones. 

Say what?

Yes.  I mean it.  If you are going home and coming back, by all means, bring your cell phones.  Please do not turn them on, of course, until that moment.  But at that moment, I’m going to ask you to take them out… and call someone.

Someone you love.  Someone who is not here; maybe he’s in the hospital or a nursing home.  Maybe she has swine flu at home or maybe she is simply too young to bring.  Maybe he’s depressed and stayed home or is too busy for these “meaningless rituals” and went away on a business trip.  Maybe she’s taking a gap year in Africa or a junior year abroad in Italy.  Maybe he decided not to come out of protest to God for not helping Uncle Joe in his battle with cancer last year, or for not providing a winning lottery ticket.  Call them.  Spontaneously.  And then  say, “Hi – I love you – now listen to this!” 

That single moment will speak volumes about the power of mitzvah.  Even given the fact that we don’t get very good reception in here.  Maybe we’ll all crowd around the windows.  But someone, somewhere out there, will hear the sound of a real shofar, our shofar… enhanced technologically, but still real, and still very much a sound that is coming from the deepest, most confounding, most mysterious place, from God, as it were, a natural sound, not artificial at all, a sound saying, “Hi.  I love you.  Now listen up!” 

You can call it God’s Tweet.

Back on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I pledged that I was going to try to bring mitzvah back, by helping us to redefine it from a number of perspectives, in anticipation of this year’s “Mitzvah Initiative.”  So on the first day, we looked at mitzvah as a path of connection.  On the second day, we saw mitzvah as a path of obligation; last night, as a path of conscience and change, to counteract the momentum of inertia.  Today, we’ll look at mitzvah in a different way, as a path to a life of mindfulness and a God of connectivity, as we discover God in the details, God in the moment.  We’ll consider a life guided by mitzvot, and then we’ll take it to the streets. 

And there is nothing that expresses mindfulness more spontaneously than that final shofar blast, a single moment that we remember all year long, one that transports us from past to future, that takes us from the intensity of Yom Kippur to a newly intensified and purposeful life.  We feel really grungy but we all feel real good too.  We feel embraced by the love of our sacred community – and that is divine love.  We feel hopeful.  We feel that change is possible.  And we can share that with the world. 

We can’t begin to imagine the way God was perceived even by our own grandparents, much less those who lived many centuries ago.  Back then, God’s function was very different.  God was supposed to explain science, hear prayers.  We now have a great deal of difficulty perceiving God in such a literal manner, one that seems naïve to us. 

But we have a huge advantage over our ancestors.  We don’t need to see God as father and king.  We can experience God’s Tweets.   Instant global communication has a power that can awe and amaze us and send empires to their knees.  And it has done precisely that, from China to Iran.   In 140 characters or less, or a single snap of a cell phone camera, or in the sound of a shofar heard round the world, everything can change in an instant. 

Our little shofar call tonight will be the heard everywhere, that cosmic sound coming forth from this sanctuary.   Some calls will be going a few blocks, others as far as California or Israel perhaps, and still others piercing the outer reaches of the Bronx.  The cry tekiah will send seagulls fluttering on the Jersey shore, or across the ocean, becoming the cry of our community, our Shaliach Tzibur - this will indeed be theShatz heard round the world.

The key is not to let your loved ones know in advance.  For one thing, I’m not sure your phones will work in here.  For another, the surprise is part of the experience.  If they‘re not home, leave it on the machine.  They’ll get the message. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way: “Mitzvot aren’t acts of compliance so much as acts of inspiration. They are the songs that express our wonder.” 

Mitzvot express that wonder.  The joy, the meaning, the clinging to life.  The reaching out to the person next to you and the person around the world.  The words that we utter here that are heard THERE.  Wherever THERE may be.   We need to see mitzvot not so much as orders from on high so much as a musical score for universal connectivity. 

You know, this old-man-in-the-sky God is soooo 20th century!

Tonight, we’ll show that.  Tonight we’ll be sounding – and sending God’s Tweet.

The maximum number of characters you can Tweet is 140.  Every word, every letter, must be meaningful.  It brings us back to the old days of Western Union, where you paid by the letter.  You know, like original Jewish telegram: “Start Worrying.  Letter to follow.” 

But long before Twitter, or even Western Union, God was already tweeting away.   I found online a version of how God might have Tweeted the Ten Commandments:  Number 3 is “No omg’s.”  Number 9? “Dnt lie re:bf.”

The Sh’ma is a perfect Tweet.  It’s one of those six word memoirs that’s popular out there now.  One line that says it all. 

Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad 

One could say that Hillel wrote the first Jewish Tweet.  He’s the one who was asked by a non Jew to tell him the essence of the entire Torah while standing on one foot.  And he replied, on one foot, “What is hateful to you do onto do to your neighbor.  The rest is commentary, now go and study.”  

A church in Jackson, Michigan has really gotten into Twitter.  While one pastor preaches, the other Tweets the congregation questions to guide their response to the sermon, and the tweets of congregants are in turn flashed on a video screen as a means of responding to the preacher – while he is still talking

We’re not there yet.  But this kind of interactivity has changed the way we do things. I’ve set up a Twitter account though haven’t started tweeting yet.   But imagine what I could have been Tweeting from up here while the service has been going on.  Every thought. 

“Mrs. Schwartz sitting by window this year, just two rows from Mrs. Goldberg, with whom she hasn’t talked in five years, since that comment about 3rd hubby’s 1st wife.”    That’s exactly 140 characters.

Whether or not we can fully grasp them yet, these new ways of communicating are enabling us to reach more people in less time.  But that is not the ultimate goal here.  The goal is to enhance the experience of being alive by living each moment to the fullest. 

No one can deny the power of instant global reach.  What we saw in Iran this summer was nothing short of miraculous.  I just kept thinking, if only there had been Twitter and YouTube 70 years ago, there may never have been a Holocaust. When witnesses escaped to the West to tell what the Nazis were doing, no one believed that such atrocities were possible.  But no one had pictures to prove it and they weren’t believed.   Now such pictures are beamed around the world instantly.

 A picture is worth a thousand LIVES. 

Tweets increase mindfulness, even when they seem inane.  Same thing with Facebook postings.  Do I really want to know what my 8th grade classmate whom I haven’t seen in 30 years is eating for breakfast?  No….but…


From the minutia of these details a web of connection is constructed.  And every detail is holy.   God is in those details

These details are the songs that express our wonder. 

Do you know that the system of mitzvot goes as far as to instruct us to put on our right shoe before our left shoe?  Now that might seem a little inane – and certainly we may decide to struggle with that one, but the underlying message is an important one.  Kabbalah teaches us that the universe exists in a precarious balance between divine qualities existing in relationship with one another – especially the quialities of strength and mercy.  Well one would think that, if we were to map out this divine system, that strength,gevurah, would be on the right side, the strong side for most people.  But in fact, it is mercy, hesed, that emanates from the right side.  The hope is that, for God and for us, kindness and mercy will come first. 

So, in putting your right shoe on first, you are reminding yourself that even this seemingly trivial activity can imbue our lives with meaning and restore balance to the universe.  By putting on the right shoe first, we are reminding ourselves to let kindness overcome anger, that gentleness trumps power. 

All from that simple act.  And by the way, we all put our shoes on in ritualized fashion anyway, each morning.  It is in that sense a religious activity, so let it become a mitzvah – a mindful activity.  And if these simple acts can be lifted from the realm of the trivial, maybe evefry action of our lives can become imbued with meaning.  

Putting on your shoes, then is a mindful act.  A mitzvah.  A song that expresses wonder! 

So flood my Facebook wall with all the inane stuff you got!  Lay it on me!

Waiting for the bus?  We’ll I’m waiting for the messiah!  We’re all waiting! 

Packing the kids’ lunch?  Well, that will help remind me of the millions of kids who have no idea where their lunch is coming from.

Arriving in Maui for a vacation?  Well, great, by all means let me know that, so I can live my vacation vicariously through you!

These inane posts are the stuff of real life.

This summer, the word “Staycation” officially was added to the dictionary.  Just in time for me to take one!  We took some short trips here and there, but basically it was a stay-cation, and instead of making magical moments that I’ll remember the rest of my life, I spent several weeks remembering all those magical moments from years past.  It was the perfect thing to do just as you’re about to send your first kid off to college. 

So I scanned hundreds and hundreds of family photos, going back to my parents childhood photos and wedding slides, and uploaded them all into digital albums online.  One of the gifts I gave Ethan on the day he left home was the link to the Picasa albums, so that he could see his entire childhood and his family whenever he wants to.

These photos are sacred.  They preserve the precious moments of life, moments that are all too fleeting.  How quickly childhood comes and goes!  And now it’s gone.  Many of you have been telling me for years, “Enjoy your kids now, because their childhood will be gone in the blink of an eye,” and I knew you were right and I cherished all those family dinners and we took lots of trips and I took lots of pictures, but it didn’t slow things down as I had hoped.  It was still gone in an instant. 

So I spent a few weeks scanning photos and sending them out into the cyber universe, one album at a time, like so many sacrificial thanksgiving offerings brought to the temple in Jerusalem, the memories sent heavenward in a burst of cybersmoke.

Posting photos online is not without its complications: A family in Kansas City posted their Christmas card photo in high resolution on Facebook last winter, and this spring a friend of theirs passed a grocery store in the Czech republic, looked up at a big billboard advertising the simple goodness of the store’s products and happy clientele,  and there it was, the same photo, blown up to life size.  Imagine their surprise that something so personal could become so public so far away.  But there is a certain immortality that comes from that.  Suddenly, that anonymous family photo resonated half way around the world; somewhere in Prague, this anonymous family, one among millions, became a poster child for Czech happiness.

Sometimes the desire to capture moments for immortality drives us to do strange things.  A writer for the Catholic journal Commonweal recently commented derisively on something he saw in Rome: a man standing with his back to the Trevi fountain, arm outstretched with his cell-phone in his hand, taking a photo of himself in front of the fountain.  The experience of taking a picture of yourself at the place takes precedence over the experience of the place itself.  The same thoughts were echoed by a writer in the Times this summer, who stationed himself at the Louvre this summer and noticed that almost no one was stopping to look at the art, but everyone was clicking away and moving on. 

Yes, we need to take the time to look straight at the Trevi fountain, but that photo of that man at the fountain has meaning too.  It has, for him, immortalized that moment, that experience.  And now, posted online, in some way that moment will never die.

And isn’t that why we are so in need of making every moment count to the point where we try to capture each one and freeze it?  It is our way of trying, vainly, to defeat death.  Those Tweets, those postings, those blogs, those e-mails, those book of remembrance listings, it all comes back to that one thing. 

We want to preserve something, anything, about us and those we love. 

We don’t want to die. 

The poet Mary Oliver has written:

To live in this world 

You must be able to 

To do three things 

To love what is mortal; 

To hold it; 

Against your bones knowing 

Your own life depends on it; 

And when the time comes to let it go, 

To let it go. 

So today on this Yom Kippur, we cling to life; we are holding it against our bones with all our might.  But today, we do it without the Tweeting and the photography.  We do it in a very different way.  We make each minute count today not by freezing it, but by living it.  Not by multitasking, but by going very slowly and focusing on one single task.  No diversions, no editing; it’s just us and God – the raw footage of life.  A single moment stretched to twenty five hours. 

Today we embrace the boredom. 

Erica Brown writes in her new book, “Spiritual Boredom,” “When we get bored and take responsibility for our boredom, we arrive at a new level of interest, introspection, or action that has been stirred by the very creativity used to keep boredom away. The relationship between boredom and creativity is far from accidental. Creative minds are often stimulated by boredom, regarding it as a brain rest until the next great idea looms on the horizon of the otherwise unoccupied mind.” 

So today we stay off Facebook and slow down and avoid technological enhancement, but for the same reason we are so attracted to those Tweets – to find God in the details of life, the ones that we don’t otherwise notice.

Heschel, who called mitzvot the “songs that express our wonder,” also called Shabbat “the pause between the notes.”  And if Yom Kippur is the Sabbath of Sabbaths, this is the pause of pauses.  There are no notes all day long, nothing at all from the Shofar.  It’s as if we are holding our breath for 25 hours.  But when we are holding our breath, life becomes all the more precious.  There is nothing more boring than sitting there holding your breath.  Nothing is happening, not even breathing.  But there is also no act more dramatic.  Life hangs in the balance.  Will we exhale?  Can we hold this pause for 25 hours?  Will we make it through?  Will we survive the ordeal? 

Today we embrace the boredom – and we find that it is not so boring after all.  

And we do it not with fear and trepidation, but with love and joy, with confidence that indeed the decree will be the right one – not in terms of the length of our days, but in terms of the quality of each minute – and the immortality of each act. 

It comes back to that.  The immortality won’t come from the photos that we post, but from the love that lies behind each of those precious smiles, and the acts of love that precipitated them. 

Each mitzvah is an act of love that plants a seed of immortality. 

If this were my last sermon, that’s the message I’d want to convey.  Like Randy Pausch in his bestselling “Last Lecture.”  He knew that, with only a matter of months to live, he would need to make the most of each moment.  So all of life became like one long Yom Kippur to him.  He became mindful of even the smallest, simplest act.   What Pauch, a college professor, was doing in fact, is what we are all supposed to be doing today. Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before your death.” His students asked, “How do we know when that day will be?” to which he replied, “All the more reason to do teshuvah today – everyday.”

When he used the self-scan aisle at the supermarket one day and realized that he had accidentally swiped his credit card twice, he had a decision to make.  He could have tracked down the manager, filled out some form, taken his credit card to the register and gotten them to remove one of the $16.55 charges.  It would have taken 15 minutes and been zero fun.   Instead he left the store, happier to have the 15 minutes than the 16 dollars.

How many of us waste so much time on so much nonsense.

Pausch learned to prioritize, that it was not necessary to polish the underside of the banister.  

Don’t sweat the small stuff! 

His mother called him Randolph.  He HATED being called Randolph.  But in light of his illness he gave up his lifelong struggle to stop his mother from calling him that.  Life is too short, he realized, and surrendering became the right thing to do. 

He learned not to waste time obsessing about what other people think of him. 

He learned from Disney not to dwell on the negative, but to make every living moment count.  At Disney, they never will tell you that the park closes at 9.  They will say that the park remains open until 9. 

He learned to let people finish their sentences and to seek common ground when working with them.  He learned how important it is to praise and thank other people and to look for the best in others.  He learned that a bad apology is worse than no apology. He learned that it is better to live like Tigger than like Eeyore, and he learned always to tell the truth.

Pausch stood before his students on that day as we all do today, standing before a vast celestial mirror, seeing ourselves as we really are, and knowing where we are inevitably headed.   He delivered his last lecture on that day, as we do on this day, and the focus was on the little things, as it is for us in the machzor: not the wars and recessions, but the snippets of gossip and the courteous “thank yous,” the scoffing language and the idle thoughts; not the mountains scaled in Nepal but the simple act of lending money or making a promise.

In Mitch Albom’s new book, “Have a Little Faith,” which I mentioned last night, the author describes how his beloved life-long rabbi, Albert Lewis, knew that he was dying and prepared a tape that was played at his funeral.  The sanctuary was filled, but the pulpit was left empty.  The tape was brief.  The rabbi answered the two questions he had been asked most in his life: “Do you believe in God?” He said that he did.  The other: whether there is life after death.  On this he said, “The answer here too is yes, there is something.  But friends, I’m sorry. Now that I know, I can’t tell you.” And the place broke up laughing.

In his last lecture – his final High Holidays sermon, Rabbi Lewis did not offer a list of his accomplishments.  Rather he asked forgiveness for not saving more marriages, not visiting more homebound, not easing the pain of parents who has just lost a child – for not having done more – with every breathing minute allotted to us.

A rabbi had three students, 

And posed them a question: 

“If you had one hour remaining in your lifetime, 

What would you do in that one hour?” 

The first one read and studied, then answered the question: 

“I would spend that hour studying the Torah.” 

The second one closed his eyes, then answered the question: 

“I would spend that hour in the ecstasy of prayer.” 

The third one looked at the rabbi, then answered the question: 

“I would spend that hour loving my family.” 

The rabbi looked at his students, stroked his beard, and smiled; 

“Each of you has given a deep and holy answer.” 

But the students turned to the rabbi and asked him the question: 

“What would you do, in your last hour?” 

“Me? I would spend that hour, doing what I’d been doing. 

Doing what I’d been doing, for all of life is sacred.” 

The rabbi looked at the students, stroked his beard and smiled: 

“Doing what I had been doing, for all of life is sacred.” 

Don’t sweat the small stuff – but LOVE the small stuff; for God is in the details. 


Do you ever have those moments when, suddenly, you say to yourself, “God, I’m happy.  I didn’t realize it, but I’m really happy right now.”

Usually happiness is a product of memory or anticipation.  Rarely do we actually feel it in the moment.  Our memories of happy events are typically distorted by what novelist Michael Chabon calls “the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past.”   And often the anticipation of an upcoming event gets so blown out of proportion that the experience itself becomes anti-climactic.

But those moments when you catch yourself and say, “Gee, I’m happy right now.  This is good.”  Those are rare.  And they rarely occur in front of the Trevi fountain or on top of Everest.  They typically occur when least expected.  For writer Tim Kreider, writing in a New York Times blog, he realized he was happy while driving on Maryland’s unsublime Route 40 with the window down, looking at a peeling Burger King billboard while Van Halen played on the radio.  But try as he might, he could not recapture that feeling artificially.  And so he made this observation.

“I suspect there is something inherently misguided and self-defeating and hopeless about any deliberate campaign to achieve happiness. Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that chasing it is such a fool’s errand, is that happiness isn’t a goal in itself but is only an aftereffect…  In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomena familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes. And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the “real” stars, those cataclysms taking place in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.” 

So what is real happiness?  Kreider replied:

“It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to — by which I don’t mean ethically correctly so much as just consciously, fully engaged in the business of living.” 

 I like that notion.  If a mitzvah is the song that expresses the wonder, we’re missing the point if we assume that the song is always about doing the right thing.  Hearing the shofar isn’t inherently ethical – but it sure does wake us up!  It’s simply singing the song of life, joyfully, consciously, fully engaged.  The path of mitzvah is the path of being fully alive.

So I had one of those “wow” moments not long ago, one of those times when I looked around and said, “My God, I’m happy.”  And it took place in one of those most dramatic of moments, one that the disengaged might consider completely mundane and boring.  Dinner.

We were sitting around the table, a week after Dan got home from camp and a week before Ethan was to leave for college.  This was one of those moments when we were all together, something that we took for granted for 18 years, but never again could we take it for granted.  Now the planets would have to be aligned.  But there we were.  All together.  And I looked around and said to myself, like God on the 6th day,“This is good.  This is VERY good.” 

And yes, there was a wisp of teariness for what was to come – any real happiness has that, but that was not a moment for grieving, but for celebration.

Yom Kippur is a day of joy.  It is Rosh Hashanah that is called the Day of Judgment.   Yom Kippur is the day of cleansing.  In ancient times, on Yom Kippur afternoon, the women went dancing in the fields and the men would court them, seeking wives.  Why such a celebration of life?  Because they knew that at that moment they had shed the illusions of the past and could look forward.  The temple ritual had already occurred.  The high priest had gone into the holy of holies.  The goat had been sent out into the wilderness.  The word had been uttered – titharu – “forgiven.”  And so it was time to celebrate.  They had held their breath and now they could exhale.  They had looked at mortality in the mirror – and it was good.

So last week, we tried something at home.  Ethan Skyped us on the computer (for those uninitiated – think Jetsons on the phone) at about dinner time and we placed the laptop at his place at the table.  So there were the four of us, having dinner together again.  He could see us and we could see him.  We could ask what happened in his classes today – and, for all you whose kids aren’t in college yet: a revelation – he didn’t say “nothing,” as kids usually do.

And I felt it again.  That fleeting moment.  Even  “nothing” would have been music to my ears.  This was the music of normalcy.  The music of life.  The music of connection.  The song that expresses wonder.  It was a moment of Happiness, technologically assisted, to be sure.  Another Tweet from On High.

Last night I started out with that wise comment from one of our kids, about Ted Kennedy: “He lived until he died.” 

The power of mitzvah can help us to do exactly that.  To live right up until the moment we die.  Each and every moment of each and every day.  That can happen for all of us – but only if we decide that this year, this year, we’re not gonna leave mitzvah at the door.

Look at the pamphlet we’ve distributed and sign up for one of our committees.  Do something to keep the ball rolling.  

The power of mitzvah goes far beyond a good deed.  It’s about connection and coming together.  It has something to do with obligation, a covenant sealed at Sinai and affirmed daily by Jews everywhere, even at Auschwitz.  Mitzvah calls on us to bring justice to the public arena and to bring about greater pride and understanding about what is truly good about Judaism.

And a mitzvah is an act of life affirmation that plants a seed of immortality.

A mitzvah makes a single moment echo unto eternity. 

A mitzvah is God’s Tweet and our song. 

A song expressing wonder.

And so, as we prepare to move forward into the future and from this elongated moment, climaxed by tonight’’s shofar blast heard round-the-world, let us pledge, in 5770, to Bring Mitzvah Back.

Mitzvah Initiative: Congregants’ Stories

Bookmark and Share  

I asked congregants to send me examples of the role mitzvah has played in their lives during this holiday season.  Here are some of the moving responses I’ve received.  Since it’s not so much the “who” as the “what,” they are posted anonymously.  Send me yours!

A close friend of mine became seriously ill recently-his second go-around with a difficult cancer.  He’s just returned home from the hospital following surgery and will need time to heal. I am coordinating over 20 families who will be bringing meals to this family’s home for at least the next month. Each day, new emails fill my box with more of their friends who want to help.  My friend’s wife and I have talked about how it takes a certain kind of strength to accept a mitzvah from others, to give people the opportunity to give. In a terrible situation, so many people rise without ego to help.   It reinforces for me what I have known all along and worked to instill in my children–that mitzvah must be woven into the fabric of our lives-it’s just what we do. A kind word to a stranger, a meal for a family in crisis or any selfless act that makes the world a better place is holy. 

In response to your sermon…  I thought that Temple Beth El would be a good place to start using   Fair Trade certified products, such as Coffee and Tea.  We perhaps could educate the congregants about Fair Trade products and then perhaps expand it to other Jewish Organizations in Stamford.  Please let me know what you think of this idea.  Wishing you and your family a very Happy and Healthy New Year.


There is nothing better than a “serendipity or unplanned” mitzvah.  After the Hoffman lecture (which was inspiring),  leaving the Temple and heading for our car (parked legally, near the entrance sign) we could not help but notice an elderly couple walking slowly toward Roxbury Rd.  We asked if they needed a ride and of course, they did not want to impose.   

We insisted and after a very short ride brought them to their car.  They thanked us approximately 10 times in 10 seconds.  I was thrilled to catch up briefly (they have family in Israel).  Knowing that they did not have to walk on the dark road was all the thanks needed. 

Sometimes we have to think about doing a mitzvah and other times it is just staring us in the face…saying come and do. 

BTW, thanks to your prompting, the first thing we did upon leaving Beth El after hearing your sermon on Mitvos, was drive straight to Long Ridge of Stamford Nursing Home, to visit a paralyzed patient (we knew). We found him still there, but moved up to the 3rd floor. We wished him & his wife a Happy & Healthy New Year, too.

Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5770

Bookmark and Share  

Rosh Hashanah Sermons by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman 

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5770 

“A Signature Mitzvah” 

OK – set your watches. I’ve got a tough job – I’ve got four sermons over the next ten days – a couple of hours to recharge your Jewish batteries for another year, to convince you that it matters to be a Jew, to live by Jewish values and to raise Jewish families; to believe that Judaism gives us something that can touch us profoundly, that speaks to that which is most human about each of us and to help us believe that change is possible.

All of that.  Four sermons. 

Without boring you, even for a minute.

Without your taking out your cell phones and texting and Twittering. Without a single yawn.  And today, without benefit of a single shofar blast.  You in the 17th row!  I saw that yawn! 

All of that – and this year, I’m ratcheting up this challenge even more: I’m going to try to get you to see the Jewish path in a new way. 

I want to bring mitzvah back!  - I want to be the Justin Timberlake of rabbis. 

I want to make mitzvah sexy.  

It won’t be easy.  For one thing, as we’ve been told over and over again, this is not a good year for bold initiatives.  People are not feeling very hopeful.  Hope was last year’s poster.  Right now we are in a state ofcrisis. 

The economy fell off a cliff right around last Rosh Hashanah, and only now are there some glimmering signs of an eventual recovery, though it would be hard to convince those who have lost jobs of that, or people who face foreclosure, or those who can’t afford school or can’t get loans for a small business.

As if that weren’t bad enough, our faith has been shattered by scandals involving lots of money.  Politicians?  Just about every major politician in Israel is under suspicion of something, and meanwhile back here we’ve have rabbis arrested for selling kidneys and handbags on the black market.  Most sickening of course was the Madoff affair, which caused tremendous suffering for people of all backgrounds, but had a particularly devastating impact on Jews and philanthropy.   I’ll have more to say about that on Yom Kippur.

Let’s see…what else.  Speaking of sickening, how about a pandemic?  An unkosher one at that?  How about Iran getting perilously close to the bomb and imploding internally. And how about a war in Gaza that made it a little safer to go outside in Sderot but brought Israel no closer to peace and security. 

Everything is a crisis: the economy, health care, the climate; and for Jews, we’re in the midst of an identity crisis.  We’ve got parenting crises.  We’ve got midlife crises, which has led perfectly normal governors to do crazy things like run off to Argentina.  Tell me about midlife crisis!  I just sent my first kid off to college two weeks ago.  Ethan’s reading Torah there today. 

It just occurred to me. 

He’s not here!   What do I do now? 

Everything is in crisis: And to top it all, Paula Abdul is leaving “American Idol.” 

So as I dive into these sermons, the degree of difficulty is very high. 

Pray for me. 


So every ten years the monks in this monastery are allowed to break their silence to speak two words.  Ten years go by and it’s one monk’s first chance.  He thinks for several seconds before saying, “Food bad.” 

Ten years later, he says “Bed hard.” 

It’s the big day, a decade later. He gives the head monk a long stare and says, “I quit.” 

“I’m not surprised,” the head monk says, “You’ve been complaining ever since you got here.”

Why this was voted the best joke in America by Reader’s Digest I’ll never know – but if it had to win, this was the year for it to win.  For if ever there was a time to complain, this year is it!

I recently read that the Chinese character for Crisis does not mean opportunity (as has been claimed by every motivational speaker this side of Confucius).  However, if you rearrange the letters of the Hebrew root word for crisis, tzara: tzadi – resh – hey, the plural of which is tzarot, or the more familiar Yiddish tzuris, you get the word tzohar, which means threshold or radiance.  And the word “tzarei,” which means balm.  B-A-L-M.  So from tzuris, we Jews get healing, we get radiance, we get to cross the threshold of new possibility. 

And we get this without the help of the Chinese

And how do we get to that state of radiance and Confucian calm?  A little minor surgery to the word Tzarawill do the trick.  The middle letter, a resh, is all hunched over, like a guy whose just been punched in the gut, who can’t bear to see what’s up ahead, bearing the burden of life’s hard knocks. 

Well it’s time to straighten up, to hold your head up high, to spit in the face of despair, to look at crisis right in the eye and to overcome it.  

And if you straighten out that resh, what you are left with is the straightest of all Hebrew letters, the vav, stretching to the sky.

And that leaves us with the root word Tziva – from which we get… MITZVAH. 

So our task today?  Let’s move beyond the mentality of crisis. Tzara, to a mentality of Mitzvah. 

Do I believe that that could save the world?

Well, at the very least, it can set us out in the right direction.

Kurt Andersen, bestselling author and radio host, suggested that the international nature of our current economic meltdown has its upside – and presents us with a chance for us to, as he put it, “reset.”  He calls this “A spectacular moment of global consciousness, this generation’s version of the Apollo astronauts’ 1968 photograph of the earth from the moon, an unforgettable reminder that all 6.7 billion of us, from Reykjavik to Sacramento, Vladivostok to Athens, Wall Street to Tiananmen, are together, deeply and inextricably interdependent.” 

And perhaps that is true.  We’re all united because we’re all broke! 

Maybe out of the cauldron of the current crises we will emerge a kinder, more helpful society, one more aware of our interdependence. 

The jury is still out on that one – as people in extremis can go either way.  Some will choose to withdraw and close themselves off.  No doubt that the combination of a tough economy and Swine Flu scare kept some people at home today.  But you are all here.  And we are all more aware than ever of that which binds all God’s creatures together.

By the way, did you know that Swine Flu is mentioned in the Talmud?  I kid you not.

The Talmud tells us that when Rav Yehudah was informed of a deadly plague affecting the pigs, he decreed a fast.  Now Yehudah didn’t think that the disease would harm kosher farm animals.  Pigs are different from cows and other kosher animals, he said, because their digestive tracts are similar to those of humans (Ta’anit 21b). 

He didn’t know what he was talking about but… Think about it.  At that point, there was no sure sign that the disease would impact the human population.  He was fasting for the pigs!  

He also saw their connection to people.  He understood that, in the end, we are all one.  Even with pigs!

And that’s what we celebrate today.  A unity that transcends all crises.  We’ve even put the shofars away today to lay bare those things peculiar to Shabbat – a day where all of us come together.  People, all people – even servants are included in the 4th commandment – and animals too.  Even pigs.  The Shabbat is for everyone. 

Kurt Andersen feels we are entering a new cycle of community mindedness, aided by the rapid pace of globalization, the technological revolution and the worldwide concern for climate change.  In his book “Reset,” he traces 15 such cycles in US history, as the pendulum continually swings from “an unfettered zeal for the individual to a rediscovery of the common good.” 

And indeed, we have seen a swing back in the direction of altruism.   “Teach for America,” a program that sends college grads into America’s poorest school districts for two years, received 35,000 applications this year, up 42% from 2008, including one out every nine Ivy League seniors!  True, it’s a reflection of the lack of jobs, but these kids are looking to give back.  We haven’t seen anything like this since the early days of the Peace Corps.

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain said, “But it rhymes.”  And it is rhyming now.  But not back to the ‘60s as Andersen claims.    For today, on this Rosh Hashanah, we have just entered – the ‘70s.  The 5770s.   For as we now reset social priorities, we have a wonderful chance as well, to reset our clocks – to Jewish time and Jewish values (without, God willing, bringing back disco).

If ever there was a chance for us to look again at our lives and where all things Jewish might fit in, this is it.  If there were ever a chance to re-explore the meaning of mitzvah, this is it. 

If ever there was a chance to take Torah out of that closet where we have been storing it, and open it up to speak to our lives and the life of our community, THIS IS IT.

So what’s a mitzvah?  A good deed?  A commandment?  

Yes and yes, but it’s more.  Much more. 

If we are going to push the reset button and reboot our Jewish souls, we need to rediscover this primal Jewish concept as if for the first time.  And for many of us, it will be the first time.  

To be a Jew is to reside in the world of mitzvah.  That’s what bar mitzvah means.  A Jew at age 13 is to be called one who has mastered the art of world repair – that’s why our 13 year olds are always out there doing so many incredible things to change the world. 

A mitzvah is a very human act, but with a cosmic result, one that reverberates throughout the entire universe.  But while mitzvot are ordained from on high, many perform them for reasons that are most mundane. 

Some light candles because their parents did. 

Some go to services because they get to schmooze with their best friends.

Some send clothes to Goodwill because their closet is so stuffed that the door won’t close.  

There are many shadings to mitzvah, and we’ll be covering a few of them on these high holidays.  And then, as part of JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s mitzvah initiative, we, along with several dozen other Conservative congregations, will be conducting a 14-session seminar that will bring us together to learn and discuss, in a non judgmental atmosphere, with openness and honesty.  This seminar is a very exciting venture.  It will help us to redefine what it means to be a Jew in this age.  And it will help us to reset and redefine the concept of mitzvah for ourselves, our congregation, our movement and the world.

Mitzvot are, above all, opportunities to open ourselves up to a life of greater meaning and purpose.  To make the most of our God given talents.  But not in isolation.     For the path of mitzvah is the path of bonding. 

Some derive the word mitzvah from the Hebrew expression “tzavta,” which means connection.  Through simple acts, we bond together what is divine with what is so utterly human and we connect to people everywhere.

Mitzvot are the mountain peaks where heaven and earth meet, where the mundane becomes sacred, where the religiously blind become spiritually aware. 

In this green era, the mitzvah is a cheap source of renewable Jewish energy.  And how do we energize?  By taking on more.  By stockpiling our mitzvot.  But each of us must also specialize.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe looked at the Sh’ma and asked what does it mean to “love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your soul and with all your might?”  Everyone has a particular mitzvah, he proclaimed. By fulfilling it, that person achieves the world to come – this mitzvah and its fulfillment become the essence of that person’s whole existence.

So what’s your mitzvah?  Everyone has a signature mitzvah, a mitzvah that defines us. 

I teach children – therefore I am. 

I feed the hungry, therefore I am.  

I take people to Israel, therefore I am.  

That mitzvah becomes our immortality.  Our legacy.  Our footprint in the sand.  It is, to quote one of  this summer’s celebrated heroes, Julia Child, when talking about cooking, “what I dooo.” 

There is a midrash that when a person is asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and they answer, “I fed the hungry,” that person will be told, “This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry….  The same goes for those who reply that they raised orphans, performed acts of tzedakkah, clothed the naked and embraced acts of lovingkindness (Midrash Psalms 118:17).” 

So what will you say when you reach paradise?  What will your descendants be saying about you?  What do you dooo?”

Once you discover your signature mitzvah, the key is to take that mitzvah, to live it with all your soul and all your might – and to share it. 

Think about it: There are, according to Maimonides’ count, 613 mitzvot in the Torah and we have nearly three times that many people here today.  By my calculations, then, if each of us were to take on one mitzvah on behalf of the community, then all together, we would make up three complete Jews! 

Well, in fact some of the 613 mitzvot are no longer in play and others are only meant to be observed in Israel – but the main thing is that most of us actually might want to do MORE than one.  We do many mitzvot, after all, and often without knowing it.

But let’s each of us begin with one.  Everyone start with one. 

And if we bring that one to this community it will bind us as one.

And if we project our mitzvah out from this sanctuary out into the world, its positive impact will have all of us behind it.  They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… but what happens here impacts the world. 

So what will your mitzvah be?

 To attend morning minyan? To make Beth El greener?  To read Torah or to tutor?  Or maybe to coordinate letter writing for Israel or to help with our Sukkah or Purim carnival.  Maybe it’s to run a support group for those who struggle with addiction. 

This year, Beth El has responded so supportively to the needs of those out of work that job networking has become our collective signature mitzvah.  Michael Arons has been moving mountains to make this happen, but our neighbors have been thanking us simply because we belong to Beth El. 

Call it Mitzvah by association.  

There are a number of mitzvah heroes here.  This one is helping with job networking, and that one is helping with the food drive.  This one is paying anonymously for a famous scholar to teach a series on prayer, and that one visits people in the hospital.  We’ve got Beth El mitzvah-makers all over the world.  This one is teaching Adon Olam to a bunch of schoolchildren in India that one is serving up vitamins to Ethiopian kids in Netanya.  And we’ve had congregants volunteer countless hours to realize the dream of the renewed social hall and lobby we are enjoying today. 

The UJC has created a Mitzvah Heroes website and has been asking people to vote among a number of nominees, for people like Anne Heyman who is responsible for a youth village in Rwanda that cares for orphans.   And Sadie Mintz, a Hollywood resident since 1929, who has risen at 4 AM once a week to prepare for her early-morning volunteer shift in at the cancer ward of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

Think about it – if every person here took upon him or herself one mitzvah – one way to bring a little more love and holiness to our community and to the world and just did that, imagine what an impact that would make.

So what is your signature mitzvah?  What others can you bring into your life?  I asked board members that question and their responses are on our website.

As a rabbi, I consider myself somewhat of a general practitioner, but I’ve also got more than a few signature mitzvot.

One that I embrace is the one listed as #16 on Maimonides’ list of 613; it is a mitzvah for everyone to write a Torah for himself.  I see my own writing in that light, as an attempt to bring the Torah to life through the prism of my own experiences.  I also like #28, not to harm anyone in speech, though it’s hard and I often fall short.  And there’s #39, to care for animals, and the 150’s, which all deal with aspects of Kashrut.  And then there’s the 170’s, which all deal in business ethics.  I care about those. 

And I can’t forget #114, the mitzvah of making pilgrimage on festivals to the sacred soil of Israel.  I’ve come to see that as truly my signature mitzvah.   As you know, we are planning our next TBE trip, and we decided to postpone it from this December to next July in order to give more people this chance to go to Israel with our congregation family.  We’ve cut costs to the bone while still providing a five-star trip.  I implore you to talk about this over lunch today and consider this amazing opportunity. 

And one more signature mitzvah: #53.  Love the stranger.  The Torah repeatedly commands us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt.  Often, this refers to the Ger Tzedek – the convert.  And indeed, we make it our business here to welcome converts and to make the process of becoming a Jew by Choice one of tremendous spiritual growth.  But there is another type of stranger found in our sources – theGer Toshav – the person who, while not taking on Judaism as a faith, has elected for whatever reason to reside in our midst, and who, often with a Jewish spouse, has chosen to participate in this grand experiment called Jewish destiny.  Maimonides could not imagine a world like ours, but the sentiment expressed in that mitzvah – to love the stranger – has made # 53 it one of Beth El’s signature mitzvot.

For those who are here today who are not Jewish, I embrace you warmly and unconditionally and invite you to share in this crucial work of world repair.  No strings attached.  We need all the help we can get!

So this is going to be our year of the mitzvah. 

And to start it off, I’d like to ask everyone here to do a mitzvah this week, between now and Yom Kippur, one that you have never done before.  And make it a challenging one. No cupcakes!  Anyone can put a few coins in a tzedakkah box.  How about lighting candles this Friday night?  If you do that already, how about separating milk and meat – for a day?  For a meal?  For a course?  I’d be happy to help explain it to you.    

OK, and if you can’t do that because you are blogging your way through Julia Child’s cookbook, how about taking an hour away from all that butter to study the Torah portion?   Or maybe visit a local hospital or nursing home and see people you don’t know.  Or, hey, I don’t know, if you’ve never come to shul on the second day of Rosh Hashanah – come here tomorrow to participate in the mitzvah of hearing the shofar – that’s number 132! 

Come to minyan and maybe try on tefillin – that’s #20.  If you’ve never built a sukkah, it’s not too late.  We’ll help! Or simply have a meal in our temple Sukkah; that’s mitzvah # 142.  And even easier, buy a lulav set – # 141. We’re really pushing this one this year, because it’s so much fun and we’ll have a huge lulav parade here on the second day of Sukkot, which falls on a Sunday.

If you return a lost item, you’re doing a mitzvah – # 276.  So if someone lent you something years ago and you just came across it, but you weren’t really sure what to do – return it!  If you have one of my books, for instance, I’m declaring an amnesty period until Yom Kippur.  No questions asked. 

If you care for an animal, you’re doing a mitzvah.  So adopt a dog and name it mitzvah.  Throw a yarmulke on it and have a bark mitzvah….  If you’ve been carrying a grudge, end it. #32.   If you’ve been gossiping, stop it (28); if you are known for angry outbursts (and who isn’t these days!), cool it – #30.  If you’ve given tzedakkah, give more – #52.  If you’ve never performed a bris… …maybe hold off on that one… but it’s #17.   

Find a mitzvah, do it and do it on behalf of all of us.

Many of the 613 mitzvot are obscure, some have become obsolete, and others are downright objectionable.  But the act of struggling with mitzvah in itself connects us to our roots and to one another.  Maimonides wasn’t the last word on Torah, which is fortunately a living document. The mitzvah map is changing all the time. There are plenty to choose from, though.  So find one that means something to you. 

Then just do it. This week. 

I know of one rabbi who asked his entire adult ed class to go home and light candles that Friday night.  The response was amazing. – sort of like the response we had last year when several congregants hosted others for Shabbat @ Home, something we’re planning to do again in a few months.

One student came back and said “My family laughed at me.”

Another said he went upstairs and lit them in the closet.  (I don’t recommend that).

And a third told the teacher, “I went home and lit candles last Friday night – and my husband cried.”

You know, it’s interesting that we always use the expression that we practice mitzvot.  We’re alwayspracticing.  We never get it right! 

In Judaism, Practice never makes perfect.  But practice makes something much more important. 

Practice makes affect.  Practice makes purpose. Practice makes holiness.  Practice brings hope.  Practice brings bonding.  Practice brings people together.  Practice brings communities together. 

Practice brings heaven and earth together.  So just do it!

But don’t do it for any reward, or mitzvah points, as we used to call them.  Think of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, who said, “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge at you because you are a vegetarian.”  Kaplan had a decidedly secular term for mitzvot.  He called them folkways, but they were no less important to him, even without the notion of a personal God.  Whatever your beliefs about God, Kaplan understood that without ritual, there is no Jewish civilization

Do it out of love, love for a parent or grandparent, love for our children, love for the Jewish people, love for a Torah that has filled the world with holiness; to bring the world from tzarot to mitzvot, from pain to perfection; do it out of the conviction that there is something bigger than us, a power of love in the universe that we can tap into – and a Jewish message that is timeless and wonderful.

Do it to atone.  We now know from his just published memoirs that Senator Ted Kennedy was haunted by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne to his dying days.  He spent the last half of his life atoning for the first half of his life.  40 years of wandering in that personal wilderness. But he spent those last 40 years making the world better for all of us, and especially for the poor, the homeless and the sick. “Our sins don’t define the whole picture of who we are,” Kennedy said.  And that is true. 

But our mitzvot do. 

Kennedy’s father said it to him early on.  “You can have a serious life or a non-serious life, Teddy. I’ll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a non-serious life, I won’t have much time for you.” 

Teddy made the right choice.  And he wasn’t afraid to declare it to the world.  JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen says that the question of mitzvah here is not about theology, it is about our desire to be different, to stand out, to make the case that change is possible and to declare it to the world.

Don’t be afraid to declare it to the world! Kennedy was an unabashed liberal.  We should be unabashed Jews.

Because what we do matters. 

Think of Robert Lappin.  This is the guy from Boston whose foundation funded a number of educational ventures, including the trips to Israel taken by our teens a few years ago.  His fund was totally wiped out by Madoff.  Completely.  It ceased to exist. 

So what did Robert Lappin do?  He reopened his foundation, and is using his own money to restore the retirement savings that his employees lost in the fraud.  Lappin is the anti-Madoff, the antidote to a civilization-gone-mad, the one who turned crisis into opportunity, into a threshold of radiance and balm.

Whenever we hear the world saying that Jews are crooks, think of Lappin, and think of all the mitzvah heroes you know.  Look around you.  In fact, all you’ll have to do is look in the mirror.  Think of a tradition that is our precious legacy, and a heritage of goodness that can take your breath away.  Think of mitzvot.  The ties that bond. 

And think of how it’s possible to awaken to the rhythms of life and love, on this first day of the new decade, the 5770s, without benefit of a single shofar blast.  We have done it, and we can do it.

The recovery begins today, as we embark on this path of connection, the path of bonding. The path oftikkun olam. 

The Mitzvot are our stimulus package for the world. 

Together, let us bring Mitzvah back.  

And together, we’ll continue this journey tomorrow.



Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5770 

“The Mitzvah of Obligation” 

By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman 

Not long ago, I came across this moving story in an online magazine.

In the fall of 1943, after being captured by the Nazis in the Ukraine, my grandfather was sent to Auschwitz. At first, he was just one of many Soviet POWs held at the camp, but it was later discovered that he was Jewish, so he was removed from the Soviet soldiers and placed with the other European Jews. My grandfather never knew why he survived while others perished, but there was never a day that passed after liberation in 1945 that he thanked God for that gift of life. 

My grandfather was able to get to England and then on to America to restart his life. He raised 5 children and later cherished his 22 grandchildren. He loved to work in his garden, even on the hottest of days. As a child, I always wondered why he wore long shirts even on those August days when it would easily be 100 degrees (even in the shade). When I was 9, I caught my grandfather shaving in the bathroom and that is when I saw it: His Camp Number – 58877241. 

Not knowing any better, I asked him why he got such a “stupid tattoo”. He told me that he really didn’t want to get it and quickly tried to cover it with a towel. I followed him asking him, “Why don’t you get it removed then?” He stopped dead in the hallway and without turning around said “So I don’t forget.” We never discussed it again. 

When he died last summer, I told myself that he was finally at peace. As I stood over his coffin with my wife, I reached down and took his arm in mine. I unbuttoned his sleeve and rolled it up. I looked at the number again – 58877241. My wife looked at me and asked “Why are you doing that?” All I could say was “So I don’t forget.” Right then I made my promise to him – Never again. 

Now when I see the hate and bigotry, I know that this is how it began seven decades ago in Europe. It was too late, when people finally woke up, millions had been carted away in cattle cars to their deaths. 

I don’t want to see that here or anywhere else. I do not want there to be cattle cars filled with people that these hate mongers scream out against.  This summer, my family and I will be traveling to Auschwitz, so my children understand what their grandfather went through. I want my daughter to know why I see him in her eyes. And then every time I look in her eyes I will see hope and love and not 58877241. 

This coming April I’ll be making that same trip for the first time, visiting Auschwitz on the March of the Living, traveling with scores of teens and adults from our region and thousands from around the world.  It’s hard to call it a pilgrimage to a place of such darkness, but that’s exactly what it will be.  For while the commanding voice from Sinai binds us in love, it is the commanding voice of Auschwitz that compels us to remember, that compels the world to remember, in the face Ahmadinejad and his ilk.

Yesterday I noted how one way to define the term mitzvah is as “connection.”  Mitzvot help to create the ties that bond.  Today we need to go one step further.  Today we explore the very difficult topic of obligation.

A mitzvah is a commandment, after all, although we joke these days that what Moses brought down from Sinai were the “Ten Suggestions.”

But we aren’t really doing justice to the concept of mitzvah unless we at least struggle with the notion of obligation.  And that’s pretty hard to do these days, when many of our public figures have made a spectacle of shirking their obligations to the ones they love the most.  They’ve been caught up in so many sordid scandals that it makes us long for the simpler days of Watergate.  In the wake of the affairs involving Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Jim McGreevey and others, we can speculate that a reason we can’t put the Ten Commandments in political office buildings is that the posting of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” would constitute for politicians a hostile working environment.  It should be noted that I’m not in favor of placing the Ten Commandments in any public building, but I wouldn’t mind if people exercised a little more self control.

And then there is this summer’s #1 story this side of Michael Jackson, the saga of Jon and Kate.  Now I must confess that when I first heard about the show “Jon and Kate Plus 8” I thought it was about two Jewish kids celebrating the last night of Hanukkah.  But alas, Jon and Kate have gone their separate ways and their very public breakup has been a ratings bonanza for their show.  And who wouldn’t want to watch this train wreck where a bunch of five year old sextuplets and their sibling twins act with greater maturity than their parents.  When the show marked its 100th episode last June, Kate was in awe of the accomplishment of holding the show together for so many years.  Holding a marriage together did not seem to matter nearly as much.  

Yes, infidelity seems to have become this year’s most fashionable pandemic.  One might say it’s just another strain of swine flu.  But it’s gotten bad enough that this past July, Time Magazine ran a cover story entitled, “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?” 

In that article, sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin claims that the face of the American family has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, with an dramatic increase in the pace of coupling and uncoupling, of marriage and divorce, creating “a great turbulence in American family life, a family flux, a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else.” 

The essay states that this increasingly fragile construct depends less and less on notions of sacrifice andobligation than on the ephemera of romance and happiness… “The intact, two-parent family remains our cultural ideal, but it exists under constant assault. It is buffeted by affairs and ennui, subject to the eternal American hope for greater happiness, for changing the hand you dealt yourself.” 

And the essay concludes, “There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage.  It hurts children, it reduces mothers’ financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation’s underclass.” 

I want to make it clear that Judaism does not object to divorce.  In some cases it is absolutely necessary.  What I’m speaking about here is not about specific cases, but general trends.  And the trend is away fromcommitment in relationships and toward what the kids call “hooking up.”  The kids may call it that, but they aren’t the only ones doing it. 

Commitment has become a dirty word. 

Whatever happened to obligation? 

The culture of hooking up has become so prevalent today, all the way down to middle schools, that even the kids are beginning to say, “enough.”  A backlash is developing.  Recently at Duke, a group of 250 students, mostly women, were asked whether they would like to bring back good old fashioned dating.  Four out of five raised their hands.  It seems that people are beginning to yearn for intimacy again, to be seen by the other not as an object but as a human being in the image of God. 

And we need to begin to discuss this plainly with our kids.   Yes, we all got so worked up last spring about the placement of that scandalous Advocate front page article about the Bat Mitzvah party gone wild in Norwalk.  And we had a right to.  It should not have been front page news.  But that’s precisely the problem.  It’s not news.  Everything described in that article is happening around us all the time, including the vandalism, and the hooking up in the bathroom.

I said then and I repeat now that we happen to have some amazing kids and teens here.  It’s not about that.  We have some amazing adults too.  But there is something corrosive and rotten about our culture that we need to help change, and that something rotten is the abandonment of obligation. 

Caitlin Flanigan, who wrote the Time essay, told of her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, when she turned to her father at the dinner table and said, “It’s amazing, Dad — 50 years, and you never once had an affair. How do you account for that?”

He replied simply, “I can’t drive.” 

Does it really come down to that?  The only thing that keeps people from betraying the ones they love is a lack of opportunity?  The only thing that comes between a person’s deepest commitments and falling off the cliff is simply not having the means to do it?

If that’s the case, I recommend that everyone here become a rabbi. 

No, seriously.   Yes I know, there is plenty of opportunity for clergy to abuse power in their relationships with parishioners, and God knows many have.  Or, I should say, some have.

But I would venture to say that most have not.  Part of the reason for that is that most people of the cloth are good, moral folk.  But another part of the reason is the cloth itself, whether it is worn on the collar or on top of one’s head.  I know that I am far from perfect, but as soon as I put on the yarmulke in the morning, I am reminded of my obligation to set an example, not of perfection, but of integrity.  And that means striving to be worthy of my title, my Torah, my God, and your trust – to be a living embodiment of menschlichlite.  Again, I fall way short of my own expectations; but my expectations are pretty high, and being a rabbi is part of the reason why.

So yes, unlike the writer’s father, I do drive, but my sense of responsibility keeps me from driving myself and my family off a cliff.  God willing it will continue to.  I also happen to love my family.  But I suspect many philanderers do too.  They just have the opportunity – things happen, they lose control, they forget a commandment or two, they take a business trip to Argentina and they blow it.

So being a rabbi has no doubt helped make me a better person.  I often ask myself, would I be as ethical if I didn’t know that the eyes of the entire community are on me?  Would I even come to shul every week?  Would I pray at our minyan nearly every morning?  Would I keep kosher?  Would I give as much to tzedakkah if it were not my job to set that example?  Would I study as much Torah?

And the answer?  To quote Tevya, “I’ll tell you. I don’t know.”  

I’d like to think I’d do all those things, but that’s partly because I’ve been doing all these things for so many years and have come to appreciate how they have enriched my life.  Morning minyan gives me a chance to collect myself before I start my day, to reorient myself to the task at hand, to separate the essential from the tangential.  Kashrut sensitizes me to what goes into my body and how I care for all of God’s creatures, great and small.  Tzedakkah and study help me to connect to the world around me and the wisdom of the generations. 

Had I never become a rabbi, it’s likely that I would sleep-in more on Saturdays, and maybe I would even have discovered what a weekend is.  I’d probably take the opportunity to check out Shabbat services in different places.  But I think I would crave the kind of friendship and warmth that exists here every Shabbat.

I know for sure that I would not be as loving, not as giving – and in the end not as happy

Of course, rabbis are no better than anyone else, in theory.  All of us are equally bound to the mitzvot.  And we all need a little external push sometimes to be better people.  For some it’s their title that motivates them, for others it might be the donor lists that appear in newsletters.  Sure it’s better to give anonymously, but the mitzvah is to give tzedakkah, in any form, and if public recognition motivates us to follow through on that commitment, well, I can think of far worse forms of peer pressure.

Let’s take a closer look at obligation.  When we think about it, it’s not really such a dirty word to us – wewelcome obligation in much of our lives.  Our days are filled with commandments that we willingly embrace:

- Thou shalt put the cap back on the toothpaste tube. 

- Thou shalt put the seat down. 

- Thou shalt not accept a dinner invitation without checking with your spouse. 

- Thou shalt let in the dog and take out the trash. 

I bet you can think of dozens of these.  It would be a good exercise over lunch today.

In addition, we all have our rituals that we stick to, for lack of a better term, religiously.  These rituals guide the way we dress, the way we set the table and eat our food, the way we play or watch sports.  Did you know that when I turn down the sound on the TV, the Patriots almost always recover a fumble on the kickoff?  It’s a proven fact!

And we are always answering to the commands of others.  Maybe we light candles because our mothers told us too.  Maybe it was a father’s dying wish that we give to a certain charity.  When a baby cries in the middle of the night, that’s thunder from Sinai.  CARE FOR ME!  And we hop-to.  So obligation should not seen as such a dirty word. 

But if I were to stand up here and say, “Every member of Beth El is henceforth obligated to come to morning minyan once this month,” I suspect I’d have a few messages in my inbox tomorrow. 

As we explore the concept of mitzvah this year, we are obligated to ask ourselves what obligates us.   Ultimately, God may be part of the answer – certainly that is what tradition tells us – blessings include the phrase “Asher Kidshanu b’mitzvotavv’tzivanu” “who has made us holy through the commandments and has commanded us,” but “God” is the answer that is both easiest to give and most difficult to grasp. 

We are in fact commanded by a lot of things, including our own sense of right and wrong, including the roaring thunder from Sinai and the muffled cries from Auschwitz.   

Some feel obligated by the number 613 – and others by 58877241. 

To be obligated is to be needed. In a very profound sense, it is to be loved. 

Just as the Holocaust survivor reached out to his grandchild. God reaches out to us, imploring us, “Love me.”  “V’ahavta.”  

Signature Mitzvot of the TBE Board of Trustees

Bookmark and Share  


With theme of Mitzvah being a prime focus of our activities this year, I asked the Board of Trustees to share some of their “signature mitzvot.”  The results are below.  If you would like to see a full list of the 613 Mitzvot, click here. 

When you are asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and you answer, “I fed the hungry,” you will be told, “This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry…The same goes for those who raised orphans, performed acts of tzedakah, clothed the naked and embraced acts of loving-kindness (Midrash Psalms 118:17).

What is your “work?”  What is your signature mitzvah?  What do you want to be the first thing mentioned in your eulogy (aside from “loving parent, spouse, friend, etc.”)? 

  •  I have spent more than 40 years committed to involvement in Jewish and Secular community service.  My parents and grandparents were my role models. 
  •  A decent human being who really cared for his fellow man through acts of kindness. 
  •  Opening the Temple and facilitating morning minyan so people can say Kaddish.  Overseeing Beth El Cemetery. 
  •  Pillar of personal support for anybody needing an ear, a shoulder, encouragement, focus and/or ideas about a better way and a better life. 
  •  That I was a good person.  That I was a good mother.  That I loved my friends and family above all else. 
  •  A wonder and supportive friend and confidant. 
  •  Help when help is needed. 
  •  My wife and I have a pool party each year inviting widows who do not get out much.  In addition we invite them for breakfast.  You cannot believe the wonderful feeling these people have being included and not forgotten. 
  •  VP membership for Stamford Chapter Hadassah.  Greeter for High Holy Days.  JFS Ambassador from Temple Beth El.  JFS yearly dinner committee and auction.  Hadassah calendar committee.  Hostess 2ndPassover seder for everyone.  Shalom Stamford Beth El representative. 
  •  My signature mitzvah was tutoring a young, physically and mentally challenged woman to become a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Beth El.  Thank you, Rabbi Hammerman, for giving me this opportunity. 
  •  I have volunteered in my community within my children’s schools and Temple Beth El, all the way to international work for Israel and Hadassah Hospital outreach programs.  What I have found as my greatest reward is seeing all ages, each generation, finding a way to come along and help. 
  • Volunteer reading tutor for first graders in the Stamford  public schools. 

Maimonides’ List of 613 Mitzvot

Bookmark and Share  

This year, we’ll be focusing on the ancient but misunderstood concept of mitzvah.  We’ll grapple with it, rediscover it and even redefine it.   Here is a link to the 613 mitzvot delineated by Maimonides, divided by category.  Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive, as the Torah is a living document.  Not all are meant to be observed in this age, and many are reserved for observance in Israel.  Some appear outdated and problematic and indeed some have been reinterpreted over time.  But this list provides a nice guide as to the depth of the traditional connection between sacred deed and sacred text.  All of these 613 are derived, in some manner, from verses in the Torah.  You can find the list, along with explanatory links,  here.

Rosh Hashanah Message

Bookmark and Share  

As clay in the hands of the potter…so are we in Your hand.” 

This 12th century poetic composition, based on Jeremiah 18: 3-6 and included in the Yom Kippur liturgy, perfectly encapsulates how so many feel right now, whatever our theological inclinations.  I was also thinking of this verse in the context of this week’s passing of the actor Patrick Swayze, and one of the scenes for which he was best known, where his ghostly essence stands behind his loved one at a potter’s wheel.  

The relationship between an artist and her work of art is one of great intimacy, nurturing and healing, as we strive, through that relationship, to overcome natural flaws and aim toward perfection.  Our divine potential is reached only when the raw material of life is somehow molded, through love, through touch.  The material is malleable.  We haven’t hardened yet, but we all seek that love to guide us, to mold us, so that we’ll become the people we so want to be.

At times as vulnerable as these, we’re all looking to be held.  Most often, we experience that loving touch of God through the hand of another human being.  We are so limited, and the future seems so uncertain.  Only that love can help us to overcome our mortality and our frailties.  Only that love can heal us. 

We are in Your hand this week as the new year begins.  “Your” hand – means everyone who extends a hand, everyone who reaches out one to the other (with or without Purell).  “Your hand,” means filling bags of food for Person to Person, since the need is greater than ever.  It means standing up against Iranian oppression at the UN next week.  And it means praying all together here, or wherever you will happen to be. 

To our college students and others who will not be here, you are in our hearts. To all those who will be with us, we’ll be the richer for it.  At times as uncertain as these, all hands need to be on deck.

And that includes Your hands – God’s hands.

L’shanah tova u’metukah. 

PS – This week’s O-Gram is up at 


Beyond Apples and Honey – Rosh Hashanah at Home 

Some Rosh Hashanah reflections by Ronnie Fein:  Crimson Red Pomegranates 

No Kissing the Rabbi! 

And an interesting story from the Jewish Week on cybershuls on the holidays.

Beyond Apples and Honey – Rosh Hashanah at Home

Bookmark and Share  

A congregant asked me for some ideas as to how to make the Rosh Hashanah meal more meaningful. It’s true that the meal tends to get short shrift on this holiday, at least in comparison to Passover, Sukkot, Thanksgiving and other more home-based celebrations. it tends to be overshadowed by what takes place in the synagogue, which is considered the center of the action on the Days of Awe.  More

stop the world I want to get off!

Bookmark and Share  

Being a rabbi a week before Rosh Hashanah and a week after Labor Day is like going from 0 to 60 in five seconds.

It’s not that I am that much busier, but suddenly there are so many other needs to be met other than that little matter of preparing for next week.  And each of them is as crucial as the next.  This year especially, the needs of the community are very great (and we also managed to find the time to move Ethan into college successfully this week).  I suppose I’ll be able to sleep sometime around Hanukkah!

Fortunately, many of those local needs are good things, like tomorrow’s bar mitzvah of Matt Katz.  Mazal tov to Matt, and thanks to Sharon, Steve and Billie for sponsoring our weekly announcements and Shabbat-O-Gram in Matthew’s honor.

Tomorrow evening is Selichot, beginning with a film and discussion on goodness at 8:30 PM.  And Sunday is our annual cemetery service at 10:30 AM, along with USY and Kadima opening programs, bima and sukkah construction and lots more.

Selichot combined with the anniversary o 9/11 gives us much reason to reflect this weekend.

Take a look at this week’s Shabbat-O-Gram for the following postings: 

9/11 and Iran

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Max Weinberg on Ki Tavo

Some Good News about a recent bone marrow drive

G-dcast for Netzavim – Vayelech

Counting Down to Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah for Kids, and What is Selchot

Eight Actions to Stop a Nuclear Iran

It’s all at 

090909 and Iran: Apocalypse Now?

Bookmark and Share  

It’s hard to let a date like this go by without some retort to all those apocalypse fans out there who think anything like this means the end of the world.  Check my blog at
to see why this day is pretty lucky, in fact, and filled with goodness and blessing – a real Jewish “Tet” offensive.

It also happens to be President Eileen Rosner’s birthday.

Happy Birthday, Eileen!

Also, see the other new entry about Iran.  I hate to be unnecessarily apocalyptic myself, especially since people have cried wolf over weapons of mass destruction all too often before.  But this matter is evolving in a (predicatably) troubling manner, with the world again averting its eye to a major threat.

While I do not intend to focus exclusively on Iran on the High Holidays, it should remain on our front burners next week and every week, until real effective sanctions are imposed and the threat averted.

Meanwhile, enjoy 090909!  It will never happen again.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Inglourious Revenge at TBE

Bookmark and Share  

Lots of talk lately about the new film “Inglourious Basterds.” See this week’s O gram to see two ways it ties into this week’s epic portion of Ki Tetze. Plus tributes for Ted Kennedy (and a cheap shot from one site), mitzvah heroes and an Ask the Rabbi from a teen about whether it’s OK for an agnostic to go to services.

Also, please send me your favorite recollections of the High Holidays or reflections during this season of preparation; I’d love to share them and get a dialogue going. Plus see what a TBE grad had to say about his childhood here.

See it all at

Join us for wine and cheese tonight at 6, followed by services in our spanking new lobby. And check our new website for some great upcoming programs and fantastic membership opportunities. Tell your friends!!!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Death Panels at TBE?

Bookmark and Share  

No, we won’t really have death panels here, but we will have something just as unimaginable this Shabbat morning: a reasoned, informative non partisan discussion of the crucial Health Care issue. Join us for that and for tonight’s Kabbalat Shabbat service at 6:30, the first one in our spanking new lobby, which will be led, camp style, by none other than my son, Dan Hammerman!

Read about Dan, camp, death panels, Jerry Springer and lots more, in this week’s O’Gram, at

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Health Care and Jewish Values

Bookmark and Share  

Shabbat Shalom! It’s good to be back – though for the most part, I wasn’t too far away. Check out this week’s Shabbat-o-Gram for a look at Health Care Reform from a Jewish perspective, a G-dcast on this week’s portion Re’eh, and some new analysis of the “Two State Solution.” Make a note, on Monday, to see Rep. Jim Himes report on his trip to Israel AT 10 AM at the JCC and then to turn on your television to see the long-awaited Cablevision premier of ShalomTV. For all the details, click on 

See you at (outdoor) services this evening at 6:30 and tomorrow (in the chapel) at 9:30.

I hope you are enjoying your summer!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Jim Himes Meets With Local Rabbis



Bookmark and Share  

Yesterday I took a couple of hours off from my vacation to join with a couple of dozen local rabbis for an informal chat with Congressman Jim Himes on the eve of his first official visit to Israel as our representative. The meeting was initiated by Rep. Himes, another very positive sign as to how he is listening to his constituents, and in particular to the Jewish community… read the rest of this post 

Murder in Tel Aviv

Bookmark and Share  

We just commemorated Tisha B’Av, a dark day designed to remind us of the results of causeless hatred. And we’ve seen those results again last night in Tel Aviv, with the horrific killings at a social club frequented by youth from the GLBT community.

The irony here is that Israel has become increasingly a haven of tolerance for the GLBT community, despite the protestations of the religious authorities. (See “Can gay friendliness boost Israel’s image?” – JTA). This Friday’s Gay Rights Parade in Tel Aviv is scheduled to end with Israel’s first public gay wedding. In recent months, there have even been marketing campaigns to draw gay tourists to Israel…

Read the rest of this entry on Rabbi Hammerman’s blog at 

Of Rabbis and Deals

Bookmark and Share  

OK – I’m away on vacation, but I see my inbox is filled with questions about Syrian rabbis in New Jersey… so check my blog for a few observations. Also there this week: my recent Jewish Week piece on Jerry Springer, Stamford and the Jews, and another “Ask the Rabbi” question from, this one on whether you can say Kaddish after an abortion.

The blog is at 

Life is never dull, I must say. But I hope you are having a relaxing summer.

My condolences to the Cooper and Grushkin families – and don’t forget Tisha B’Av next Wednesday evening. We seem to have a little extra on our plate to reflect upon this year!

Shabbat Shalom from the State of Limbo (right now, any state is better to be in than New Jersey)

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Bruno, Cremation and a Shul on Fire

Bookmark and Share  

This week’s O-Gram includes the latest on:

- The Top Five Jewish Moments in “Bruno”
- A New “Ask the Rabbi” feature from – Judaism and Cremation
- Bizarre back-story regarding a synagogue set aflame in Israel
- Great News about a recent bone marrow registration drive
- Wonderful news about a couple of babies born in Israel (one related to me)
- Dan Madwed’s latest triumph
- G-dcast for Pinchas
- Maccabiah preview

It’s at

Enjoy – see you at Barechu and Barbecue! – and have a great rest of July as I take leave for some r and r (but check the blog periodically for new goodies).

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerma

No comments: