Monday, October 31, 2011

TBE Bar / Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Elias Boyer on Noah

Shabbat Shalom!

Ok, so there are 2 muffins sitting in the oven. One muffin says to the other “Boy its hot in here” and the other muffin goes “WOW, a talking muffin!”

You are probably wondering what connection this has to my portion. The answer is absolutely nothing.

In my portion, God commands Noah to build an ark and take a pair of every animal and 7 pairs of kosher animals into this ark and to stay there while God floods the world. While Noah was on the ark he had to care of all those animals right? For those of you who have pets you know how hard it can be. Now try to imagine yourself taking care of 1 million different kinds of animals, all with their different needs. Noah had it really hard on this ark. Many commentators have said that Noah didn’t have the compassion and love that Abraham had and that Abraham did have these attributes and was a better person. However I think that Noah had a lot of compassion and love because of the fact that God chose him to care for all the animals in the world.

I have my own pets. I have 2 hamsters and 2 chickens. My hamsters are Hamtaro and Bijou and my chickens are named Skipper and McGonagall. I think that chickens really are great pets. They make you laugh and they do all sorts of funny things. However unlike a dog or cat they really depend on you for not only food and water but also for protection. There are many things out there to which a chicken is a tasty snack. I’ve seen that first hand when Skipper was attacked by a hawk and when my other chicken, Hermione, was killed by a fox. It must have been really hard for Noah to keep the chickens away from the hawks, dogs, wolves, foxes, eagles, lions, etc. It was a full time job for him to keep all the animals safe.

Although you might not believe it, chickens are really Jewish animals. There are customs involving chickens such as before Yom Kippor when it is traditional to swing a chicken around over your head in a ceremony called kapporot. It’s supposed to be a way to transfer your sins the chicken. Many people still do this today, others give charity instead. Chickens are kosher, which brings me to my next subject, Jewish food, and how much chickens are involved in it. Matzo Ball soup is a very Jewish food. But how do you make it? You make the matzo balls and put it into a chicken broth. Chicken soup + Matzo Balls= Nice, Friday Night meal. Chicken soup also heals all sickness. When ever I’m sick I eat chicken soup NOT from my chickens and I feel better. At many Jewish tables chicken is the main course of Friday night dinner, along with the soup. Chickens have worked their way into so many Jewish customs and traditions.

However, in the beginning God wanted humans to be vegetarians. In fact humans were not allowed to eat meat until after Noah’s flood where God made an exception and the people could kill animals for food. Before the flood no one ate meat, in Bereishit, or Genesis, where God says to Adam, 'Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food.” Even animals were created to be vegetarian, the following section reads, “and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.”

But after Noah and the flood, God does let people eat animals, but with lots of restrictions. In the Torah cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden. You may not cause indiscriminate pain and destruction. People could only kill animals for legitimate reasons. Hunting for fun was banned however hunting for food was not. We are instructed in the Talmud to feed our animals before our selves. Also one of the reasons why Noah had to bring more pairs of kosher animals is so that the people would have food to eat. In the torah it says that if you treat animals well then you will have a long life. That is the same reward as that for respecting your parents.

For my mitzvah project I will be donating a percentage of my Bar mitzvah money to 2 local animal shelters. I spoke with people at the shelters and they game me lists of things they need. Last week I went to the pet store and bought many of the items. They’re right here in these dog beds. I’ll bring them over to the shelters on Monday. If they’ll let me, I’ll help in other ways too, but I may be too young. Even though I’m a man according to Jewish law, Connecticut law doesn’t seem to think so and state regulations require a parent to volunteer with me.

TBE Bar / Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jessica Rubin on Lech Lecha

Shabbat Shalom!
This is a very special night. I am very lucky to be standing here in this room with all of you; talking about my Bat Mitzvah portion of Lech Lecha. I’ve wanted to learn this portion for my Bat Mitzvah ever since the second grade, when I was chosen to sing the song Lech Lecha at a school assembly.

Lech Lecha talks about going on a journey. The commentaries wonder why it doesn’t just say Lech - go. Some think that the word Lecha shows us that Abram and Sarai’s journey was not just to a faraway place, but also a journey inside themselves. In order to grow, you need to take both kinds of journeys……. and I have.

I’ve been to many faraway places like Paris, California and Florida - but it’s the journeys to sleep away camp in Pennsylvania - and all over Fairfield County with my travel soccer team - where I’ve travelled not only in distance, but within myself as well. I chose to take on the challenge of trying out for travel soccer. I have grown over the years playing against different top teams in Connecticut. Similar to Abram and Sarai – where they left their home and all that was familiar to them – I learned to play on unfamiliar turf with teams outside the Stamford home league.

One time in my life, I took both journeys at the same time. When I was about 4 and my brother was 2, my house caught on fire and burned down. We had to move into a new house for a year and a half. In the fire, we had lost all of our material things, but we felt very lucky because we still had our family and we were all safe.

As I’m now a Bat Mitzvah, I realize I will have many journeys ahead. I look forward to sharing them with all of you. I will always remember to stay close to home in my heart and true to myself no matter where I may journey.

For my Mitzvah Project – I decided to help raise money to donate to My Gym Challenged America Foundation. My Gym Challenged America provides financial scholarships to those children who can’t afford to attend gym classes at a My Gym near their home. My Gym Challenged America provides financial aid for families of handicapped children who may not be able to afford the wheelchairs, hearing aids or physical therapy that they need. I feel that by donating money to this group – I am making it easier for those children with special needs - to move along with their journeys in their lives. Additionally, I was trained and volunteered for the Friendship Circle – working with siblings of children with special needs. Here, too, I made a difference in making those children’s journeys better as well.

Friday, October 28, 2011

"This Isreal" Much More than a Travel Video

This Isreal from Matthew Brown on Vimeo.

Suzanne and Norman Stone: Hatan Torah and Kallat Beresheet



Norman and I are very honored to receive this special recognition.

Since joining Temple Beth El six years ago, Norman and I have made TBE our home spiritually, educationally and socially.

We have tried in many ways to return some of what we have received from TBE, both together and individually.

TBE is our place to remember and do T’ shuvah, T‘ fillah and Tz’dakah, the words that we repeated so many time on Yom Kippur.

“Thank you for allowing me to do a Mitzvah”

Many years ago, a fellow congregant did a favor for me and although I no longer remember the favor, I have not and will never forget the response “Thank you for allowing me to do a “mitzvah”.

For me volunteering gives me the opportunity to do mitzvoth.

I started volunteering when I was in High School. At that time I volunteered at the Industrial Home for the Blind. I either read to those in need or did whatever was needed in the office. The day before Rosh Ha Shana, they called to ask for my help. I debated but my mother said go and so I did.

During college, I worked in a lab at Sloan Kettering Hospital and then two nights a week stayed to volunteer visiting and helping patients. Those were the days when you weren’t afraid to ride the subway by yourself late at night.

During my years at Yale, I volunteered in pediatrics, playing and reading to the children.

During the years that my daughters attended Ezra Academy, I was on the Board and a member of many committees. At that time, Ezra was a very small school and the need was very great.

At Purim, my daughters and I would bake and bring Shalach Monas to the Jewish Home and Tower One.

When I thought of retirement I knew that much of my time would be spent volunteering.

Some of those activities are at TBE and others with the greater Stamford community.

I am Torah Fund VP and on the Sisterhood Board. This past summer I had the joy of being on the Mitzvah Garden Committee. On Tuesdays I would come to the garden to weed and pick vegetables and herbs and bring them to Person to Person. I had never been a gardener but I volunteered to help plant a garden for Kids In Crisis and I was


Last year, Norman and I chaired the Person to Person TBE High Holiday Food Drive and other years we helped unpack the bags and stock the shelves.

Norman and I together with Ellie Mirne and Barbara Brafman serve lunch at Covenant House the third Monday of every month.

My first year of retirement I trained to be a hospital Chaplain. I now volunteer at Stamford Hospital. Although I visit all patients regardless of religion or race, I always visit any member of TBE that is a patient as both a chaplain and congregant.

A few months ago, I responded to an e-mail from the Interfaith Council asking for volunteers for Neighbor Link. One day a week I help neighborhood immigrants learn to speak English. It is one of the most rewarding experiences. It leaves me on an emotional high.

Most recently I trained for a new program at Stamford hospital, NODA - No One Dies Alone. This week I was called for my first vigil.

I am so very thankful for all the opportunities I have to do Mitzvoth.


The Tanach, Bible, contains 613 commandments or as we usually say mitzvot. However, I don’t think of these mitzvot as commandments but rather as privileges.

These privileges reinforces how fortunate I am to be able to help those who are less fortunate.

We translate the word tz’dakah as charity. However, it is more than that--it is really justice, justice for those who in many cases face adversity through no fault of there own. Voluntarism is a real way to make a difference and turn some of the great principles of Judaism into actions not just words on a page.

The lessons I learned at Temple Beth El have helped me realize how important it is to help others, not as an obligation, but as part of a community where helping those in need can ease their suffering and help make this world a better place.

As a member of another congregation I was an active participant on the Soup Kitchen committee. Once a week we prepared food and served the needy in Norwalk. Here at Beth El I continued volunteering to “feed the hungry” by serving Christmas Eve dinner at Pacific House together with other congregants. Wanting to do more, Jared Finklestein and I organized a committee to serve lunch at New Covenant House. Ellie Mirne, Barbara Brafman, Suzanne and I now serve lunch to between 150 and 200 hungry people.

Suzanne and I chaired the High Holiday Food Drive for Person-to-Person last year and two weeks ago, together with other volunteers we helped unpack the hundreds of bags of food and stock the shelves. This activity is one of the many that makes me proud to be a part of the TBE community.

Fundraising is a critical activity for the survival and growth of our synagogue. Having had previous experience calling bingo I now volunteer at our recently started bingo and and look forward to its success for TBE.

I am now serving my second term on the Board of Trustees. Both Steve and Eileen know that whenever they ask me to help that I never say no and that they can always count on me regardless of how easy or difficult the task.

I am so very thankful for all these activities that I am able to do and hope to find others.

Are Zoos Ethical? Hammerman on Ethics

Are Zoos Ethical?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, Jewish Week Online Columnist

Click here for Parsha Packet

Click here for an archived TBE Bark Mitzvah Booklet

Q – Given the recent Ohio tragedy involving a private zoo, in which dozens of exotic animals were killed, I was wondering whether it is ethical to have such zoos in the first place.

A – The images of last week’s massacre of over fifty animals freed by their deranged (and suicidal) owner in Ohio, Terry Thompson, is still fresh in our minds. "It's like Noah's Ark wrecking right here in Zanesville," cried a former director of the Columbus Zoo. As if on cue, this week Jews read the portion of Noah, describing the epic tale about that largest floating private zoo ever.

The midrash goes into great detail to show how difficult it was for Noah to feed the animals in the ark – and to keep them from feeding on one another. He didn’t get a wink of sleep for months. Midrash Tanhuma suggests that Noah is described as righteous specifically because he showed such compassion for animals.

Any pet owner can tell you that caring for animals is a 24/7 job, even when your pets don’t happen to include 18 rare Bengal tigers. This exotic menagerie should never have been permitted to Thompson, but Ohio law foolishly allows ownership of such animals (perhaps thinking that otherwise they would have to ban the Cincinnati Bengals from playing in state). After this incident, the Wall Street Journal ran a state by state chart indicating where you can live if you want to own a tiger. Ohio is one of eight states where not only is it allowed, but you don’t even need a permit.

Last summer I saw thousands of animals in their natural habitat on safari in Africa, where the only “exotic” creatures present were me and my fellow human intruders. The animals we saw were free and content (except for those unfortunate moments when they were being eaten). When you’ve seen these animals in their element, you can never go back to a zoo. But witnessing this glorious spectacle made me wonder whether any zoo can be considered ethical, even ones run by qualified, licensed zookeepers. Do animals have an inherent right to liberty, or at least to live in a climate that is natural and normal for them, and not to be separated from their families?

There are only two justifications for the incarceration of animals, conservation and education, according to zoologist Dr. Michael Hitchen. By learning more about these species, and by exposing the next generation to them, we can help to save them. An additional, secondary benefit of zoos is that they help to bring diverse groups of people together. TheJerusalem Zoo is one of the few places in that city where Arab and Jewish residents mingle freely, exploring their common love of nature. But all these advantages need to be weighed against the moral imperative that animals not be allowed to suffer.

Maimonides felt that animals can feel pain on a level equal to humans. The Shulchan Aruch agrees, adding, “It is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our religious duty to relieve the pain of any creature.”

Terry Thompson clearly crossed that line, long before he released his beautiful creatures into the wilds of Zanesville. It is irresponsible for unqualified private individuals to collect wild animals, whether for resale or display. Next time, stick to stamps and baseball cards.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Month of Hagim: Jan Gaines' Letter from Netanya

Dear Friends,

The Hagim (holidays) here in Israel starts with frenzied shopping before Rosh Hashonah. Not just for food, but new clothes, kitchen and dining items, and even furniture. The lines in the supermarkets lasted an hour, giving me plenty of time to chat with other shoppers in my line. One young woman, seeing I was an American, said to me " if we ever lose the U.S. we will be doomed." Just another reminder of how many Israelis rely on Congress, on American Jews (YOU!) for a feeling of semi-security.

Many Israelis DO go to synagogue on the Yamin Noraim (High Holy Days) even tho they are considered "secular". I saw many unfamiliar faces, men dressed in T shirts and jeans, in my synagogue. But they put on tallit and kippot. Especially for Yom Kippur which was a truly awesome day. Even the most anti-religious Israelis observe the custom of NEVER driving a car on Yom Kippur. All over the country there is a sudden quiet descending, starting with 4:00 p.m. Kol Nidre night. Everyone wears white, the women especially dressed in flowing white cotton skirts or pants and tops. The men put on a white shirt. And while there are a few who are not in synagogue for Yom Kippur day, most everyone goes somewhere. We were packed, much more so than on Rosh Hashonah. If only we could get a handful of these families to join us during the year!!!

The exception to this quiet are the kids. This is the one day a year when they have unfettered access to all the streets. So every conceivable kind of wheeled apparatus was out, from small toy cars to skate boards to mountain bikes. The kids started this wheel rally on Kol Nidre and kept it up almost for 24 hours. There is a hill on my way to synagogue and there the shrieks of delighted boys followed me all the way to the doors. Kids as young as 2 or 3 years were part of the fun, chaperoned either by a parent (not in Synagogue) or an older sibling.

Few synagogues have a break fast on the premises. Most people go to family, friends or home. We had about 20 people at someone's apartment, everyone bringing something. Backing up a bit, the only similarity at the end to TBE was Neilah with the kids up on the bimah to see the last shofar blowing - - and we only had one shofar blower, the cantor. We finished earlier than in Stamford, or at least so it seemed. It got dark by 5:30, probably because the Yamin Noraim were so late this year.

I missed the gorgeous and spiritually inspiring services at TBE. Do you know how lucky you are?

After Yom Kippur there is a 1 day breather until Succot comes in, during which everyone, or so it seems, puts up a succah in any corner they can find. Every single or duplex home, every apartment balcony or terrace, and surprisingly for me, every restaurant, puts up a succah which they really use every day of the holiday. In fact, a group of us went to a new restaurant last night and were surprised to see that they didn't have a succah- - - we almost walked out.

All over the streets you see men and boys carrying their lulav in a long plastic container, day and night. There are services every morning and for some, every night, in all the city synagogues. Of course these are all Orthodox. We only do a long morning minyan.

This is the week when all the kids are out of school and there are wonderful activities for them all over the country. Here in Netanya, which is crowded with French and British tourists, we have a unique art festival of mosaic art, both do it yourself in the public square, and galleries with professional exhibits. We also have a huge festival of succot from 20 different countries with different activities for the kids from watching a fire eating juggler at the French succah to making paper fans at the Spanish succah.

But today, as I write, on Tuesday the 18th, there is another drama going on, the releast of Gilad Schalit for 1200 Palestinian "prisoners" as the media call them, but "terrorists" and murderers as we call them, which is what they are. While 80% of the Israeli public approve of the swap, it is still with a heavy heart. Released are the planners and executors (who weren't killed by the suicide bombs) of the Park Hotel Pesach massacre here only 4 blocks from me, of the Jerusalem Sbarro bombing where whole families were wiped out, of the Dolphinariam bombing in Tel Aviv which killed dozens of teen agers, many of them Russian only children of their parents, and a Haifa restaurant bombing, as well as many other terrorist murders.

I'm watching a TV channel called France 24 which many of you can get in Stamford, and which I always have felt was pretty well balanced. They are an English language station, and now they are giving full coverage to the joy of the families of "prisoners" , which they see as so "touching." Never do they get specific over who these "prisoners" are or what they have done. Just the sweet reunions. This is Israel Bashing in a "kinder, gentler" version. I don't expect anything different from CNN Europe and haven't even turned it on.

These days are some of the most beautiful I've experienced in Israel. The sun is strong, the breeze is gentle, the sea is calm, the temps between 75-80. I've been swimming in the sea because it is so smooth, without waves. The city square, our promenades along the sea( of about 6 miles) and the pedestrian areas are crowded with strolling families, young couples, baby carriages. The cafes are full. This is Succot in Israel, celebrated also today in Jerusalem with the Feast of Tabernacles procession of both 4,000 Christians and their Jewish friends. It is a time when the eternal dedication of the Jews to their traditions and their homeland have never been more visible.

Hag Sameach. Jan Gaines

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sukkot at TBE Photos

We had a blast at today's Sukkah Hop, as beautiful fall weather finally arrived. A nice crowd came by to my place for lunch and the cantor's next door for dessert. Click below for photo album also featuring photos from the decorating of the temple's Sukkah, a mock Brit Milah in our Religious School, the Young Jewish Professionals Sangria in the Sukkah program (another great success) and last week's grand opening of Bingo.

2011 Sukkot at TBE! (Sukkah Decorating and Hop, Relig. School Mock Brit Milah and Opening of Bingo)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Sustainable Sukkot and Famine in the Horn of Africa

See this Action Guide connecting Sukkot to the current famine in Africa, distributed by ONE,am advocacy organization devoted to fighting poverty on that continent. And while you are at it, check out Hazon's Guide for a Healthy and Sustainable Sukkot to make this a most meaningful holiday from a global perspective.

Johannesburg, Jackson, Boston… And Jerusalem? The Jewish Week

Johannesburg, Jackson, Boston… And Jerusalem?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Joshua Hammerman

Special To The Jewish Week

During a visit to South Africa last summer, I stopped at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, hoping to better understand how so despicable a system could dominate that country for nearly half a century, from 1948-1991, and why any comparisons to Israel are ridiculous. I came away humbled, wondering whether there might just be a little residue of apartheid in us all.

After visiting Johannesburg, I boarded a plane for the three-hour flight to Cape Town. Shortly after takeoff, I was reading some of the material I had bought at the museum and I noticed the guy next to me looking over my shoulder. He was a stocky, youthful 40-something, built like he could have played rugby, back in the day.

Abruptly, he asked me a question:

“Do you think I’m evil?”

So what was I supposed to respond? Uh … nice country you got here. How ‘bout them Springboks! No. I was a captive audience.

I told him (Bernard’s his name) I didn’t think he was evil. I thought that apartheid was evil and I was trying to understand it. I said that as an American I had nothing to crow about — in fact we had Jim Crow at the same time he had apartheid, and we had slavery. America has given the world lots of bad things, from the KKK to Watergate to Rick Perry’s hunting ranch.

I looked over but knew that would not make him feel better, because he was struggling with his past and I was not struggling with mine — though perhaps I should have been. I grew up in the Boston of the 1970s busing crisis, and I was part of a Jewish community that had fled its inner-city roots and shed its civil rights partnerships. The Boston of my youth was not all that different from the Jackson, Miss., depicted in the recent bestseller and hit film, “The Help.” And that America was not all that different the South Africa of Bernard’s youth. In all these places, racism infected all strata of society, from City Hall to the Ladies Auxiliary. It trickled from top to bottom, getting into the cracks and nooks and those tough to get at places, where we might tell the Help to give it another shot of Windex.

The disease of discrimination spreads from one generation to the next, until everyone buys into its toxic lies, even the victims. It plays itself out at the lunch tables of Woolworth’s and in the bathrooms and water fountains, or wherever someone displays a Confederate flag or tells an ethnic joke. Enough people stood up to the hatred to relegate Jim Crowe and apartheid to history’s dung heap. Boston is now a diverse, inclusive city. But the disease remains.

I came to realize that apartheid was little more than a virulent combination of the same toxic brew that still threatens us today: religious extremism and fear. In 1948, right-wing Afrikaner leaders played to the suspicions of a rising communism and blended that with a belief that white domination is God’s will.

The recent vandalism against mosques by Israeli Jewish extremists does not point to apartheid, but Israeli officials need to be especially vigilant or such hate crimes could easily lead Jerusalem to a moral place not too distant from Johannesburg and Jackson, where houses of worship were also set aflame.

In Jackson and Johannesburg, buses were segregated by race. In some parts of Israel, they are segregated by gender, as are banks, elevators, grocery stores, pizza parlors and a corner snack shop in Jerusalem’s Bukharian Quarter that has a side entrance with a sign marked “women only.”

But Mr. Netanyahu, tear down that sign!

Apartheid began with segregation. Any segregation, including excessive gender segregation, leads us down a slippery slope toward discrimination. I’m not calling for unisex bathrooms, but there is no religious basis for pizza with a mechitza and the constant harassment of females. Yes, it’s worse in Saudi Arabia and Iran. And yes, Israel’s human rights record is commendable, considering the fact that not long ago those currently segregated buses were being blown up.

Before my trip this summer, I had no idea just how intensely Nelson Mandela is loved, both by his own countrymen (including the Jews) and around the world. When you read his words of reconciliation and visit his tiny cell on Robben Island, you see how easily he could have succumbed to the hatred and the fear. He could have crushed his oppressors and driven them into exile; instead he embraced them, saying, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

When I posted on Facebook how Mandela is so loved, a rabbinic colleague replied, “Too bad he is anti-Israel.” Not true. Mandela has stated, “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel, within secure borders.”

Think about how counterproductive it is to label as anti-Israel a person who has lived his entire life promoting human rights. That puts Israel on the wrong side of history. That’s why Israel and the U.S. couldn’t publicly defend Mubarak, no matter how beneficial he had been. They didn’t want to be perceived as swimming against a tide of freedom and inclusiveness.

I’m not sure what the right side of history is, but I know that Mandela is on it. The Jewish people have always been there too, as vanguards of justice and compassion. We invented the right side of history at the Red Sea and Sinai. The right side of history loves the stranger; it’s eight lanes apart from playing the victim and has no exit marked “fear.” It does not allow discrimination, hatred and religious extremism to rule. Johannesburg and Jackson have been struggling mightily to board the bus headed that way.

I pray that Israelis might board it too — and sit wherever they want.

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

A Thousand Terrorists For Shalit: Hammerman on Ethics

A Thousand Terrorists for Shalit?

Q – Is the release of Gilad Shalit worth an exchange of a thousand Hamas prisoners, including some who have blood on their hands and could well kill more innocent Israelis (and others)?

A - Civilized people everywhere are celebrating today at the agreement that will lead to the release of a living, healthy, Gilad Shalit, “to his home and his nation,” as Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Tuesday. The release will give a tremendous morale boost to Israelis, who have been confronted with a barrage of diplomatic challenges of late. Netanyahu also quoted the Talmudic dictum “All Israel is responsible, one for the other,” Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh. Initial reports indicate that a thousand prisoners are to be set free, some of them notorious. This leads to the inevitable, hard-hearted, ethical question: is this deal it worth it?

For Jews, this is a classic search for the lesser of the evils, a choice we’re quite experienced at making. The Talmud considers “Pidyon Shevuyim,” the rescue of captives, to be among the highest of priorities (Bava Batra 8b) and later legal authorities concur. Medieval Jewish communities often were called upon to pony up big bucks to redeem kidnapped kin. In contemporary Israel, it has become standard practice to swap busloads of prisoners for one captive soldier, or even for his remains.

There are limits. In a detailed responsum on the subject that predates Shalit’s capture, Rabbi David Golinkin concludes, “We do not pay excessive ransom… In other words, the public takes precedence over the individual, even if this endangers the individual. Exchanging hundreds or thousands of terrorists for one Israeli encourages kidnapping of Israelis, and frees hundreds or thousands of terrorists who will pick up their weapons and attack Israel. In other words, it endangers the public and should not be done.”

But it’s more complicated with regard to Shalit. The destinies of individual and group have merged, as Gilad has become everybody’s child – and a poster child for Israel’s and sense of responsibility for her own. No case has better illustrated Judaism’s view that every human life is of infinite value. And no case has better showcased Israel’s vulnerability to Hamas terrorism. The “Free Gilad” movement has united all factions of Israeli society, even as they differ on what to do about it. World leaders have rallied behind Shalit and American politicians routinely have invoked his name.

His family succeeded in keeping Gilad’s fate on the front burner, just as Jews succeeded at doing for Soviet Jewish Prisoners of Conscience a generation ago. That human rights campaign arguably helped to bring down the Soviet empire, leading to human rights based policies like the Jackson – Vanick Amendment that weakened the Soviet gulag.

Here, Shalit has become living proof of Hamas’s ruthlessness. The International Red Cross spoke out forcefully that the two year absence of any first-hand information on Shalit’s condition went beyond the pale. That message seeped through, especially among the Europeans who are now deliberating Palestinian aspirations for statehood (significantly, Gilad Shalit also has French citizenship). Hamas knew it was time to cut a deal. Noam Shalit succeeded in turning his son’s captivity into a moral albatross for the Gazan rulers. Gilad became a latter-day Natan Sharansky, exposing the corrupt moral underpinnings of Hamas.

Still Gilad’s father felt that Prime Minister Netanyahu should pay the asking price, “not out of weakness but out of strength.” In his mind, Israel is secure enough to keep the released terrorists from harming its citizens, as evidenced by the success of the Security Barrier and the dramatic reduction in the number of terror victims over the past few years.

For some time, I felt that a thousand terrorists was too high a price to pay. Even if the released terrorists may not be able to attack Israelis with impunity (only a small percentage will be let back into Gaza), every Israeli – and every Jew – would face an intensified campaign of kidnapping once it is revealed just how much Israel paid.

But I now feel that the cost of such kidnappings proved to be far greater to Hamas than they expected and I don’t see this leading to a spate of new kidnapping attempts. Don’t let the celebrations in Gaza fool you. Hamas would not have made this deal unless they felt they had to. Through its continuous exposure to Shalit’s angelic face, the world became better acquainted with the evil Israel that confronts daily, as well as the infinite value that Jews have always placed on every human life. And the morale boost for Israelis and Jews everywhere will be priceless, as we all prepare to welcome Gilad back into the safety of our Sukkahs on this joyous festival week.

Yom Kippur D'var Torah by Rabbi Michelle Dardashti

Introduction to the Torah Reading – Yom Kippur Morning, 5772

Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, Temple Beth El


This was the subject heading of an email I received last year—the day before Yom Kippur—as I sat pondering the meaning of the strange and confusing ritual described in the section of the Torah we are about to read. The email was from Jackie, one of my closest childhood friends, now a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

As some of you may recall reading, there was a shooter that day one of the surgical floors of the hospital and a surgeon was shot and critically wounded. As that doctor lay bleeding, and the shooter held hostages, Jackie wrote to me from a building across the street where she and her colleagues had been removed and placed on lockdown.

Craziness, indeed.

Jackie’s question was “WHY?” Why was she where she was at the moment of the shooting; WHY was her fellow surgeon where he was. If the injured doctor was conscious, she imagined he was asking the same questions.

Instances of wondering—why, or why me—have been echoed on the world stage in the past year through an abundance of human and natural acts of craziness/randomness, resulting in tragic fatalities (and also unintended heroes). From high profile cases like the shooting in Tucson, targeting Gabrielle Giffords—and many other less-covered but no less shocking stabbings and shootings with seemingly random victims and survivors—to the most close to home and fresh in our minds, Hurricane Irene… people all over the country and world have occasion to ask this question every day: WHY ME?

This is the question calling out from our souls at this period in the Jewish year in particular, as we take account of what and where the past year has brought us.

The question may be asked out of a sense of overwhelming and inexplicable blessing: how come—against all odds—I beat that disease or lived through that crash?

Or it may be that we are asking the question this year from a place that is overburdened with hardship and tragedy – a feeling of disproportionate suffering and injustice: why have I, or my family, been plagued with illness; why can’t I seem to get a break professionally, personally? Why do I have such bad luck?!

What is the meaning of my having seemingly been chosen to survive … or seemingly chosen to suffer?

At the center of today’s Torah reading stand two goats. Shnei seirei eezim, two identical male goats stand before God, awaiting opposite goralot, or fates –fates that literally befall them. Based on a casting of lots by Aaron, the High Priest, one will die and one will live. Or, more accurately, one will die immediately, being ritually slaughtered and sacrificed to God and the other will be sent off into the wilderness to whatever cruel or pleasant fate awaits him there …

In this reading, in which it is easy to get lost amidst all the gory details of Aaron’s purification and sin offerings on behalf of his household and the whole community of Israel, my attention is refocused and imagination captured by the image of these two goats standing before God: as the lots fall, I imagine them each wondering: why me?

On the Yamim Noraim, we are made to feel like these 2 goats: we are reminded in numerous ways that our fate hangs in the balance … and that the hand we are dealt is utterly unpredictable …may in fact seem random.

But today’s Torah reading addresses itself not to the question of the goats (“why me”), but to a second, more difficult question, represented by Aaron: WHAT NOW?

The context in which Aaron performs this atonement ceremony is easy to read past, but critical, I believe to our understanding. Our reading opens immediately following the death of Aaron’s two sons. The Torah does not tell us why Nadav and Avihu die suddenly in their service of God … and the countless midrashim, which offer widely varying and often conflicting explanations, only reinforce the readers’ impression that no one has the answer. We are left with a sense that this is our answer: not knowing.

And yet somehow, following this humbling and painful, tragic and inexplicable experience, Aaron continues to serve God. In fact, he goes on to literally create order out of the chaos of life: the service he performs at the instruction of God is called SEDER haAvodah – ORDER of the Service.

The goat ritual comes to teach Aaron—and us—not to waste too much time on the question of “why me.” Things will befall us and we will not know why. But we can use those experiences as opportunities to check in … to shape our destiny. Steve Jobs, who died an untimely death this week, captured this sentiment beautifully in words spoken as part of his Stanford University Commencement Address just 6 years ago. “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked; there is no reason not to follow your heart.”

I believe this lesson is embedded in the Hebrew word goral, the word used by the Torah to mean “lot”—the objects which determine the goats’ fate. Goral, in modern Hebrew, actually means both fate and destiny.

Perhaps our lesson lies in these two different meanings of the word. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes beautifully on the distinction between them: While our fate points to the aspects of our lives that we cannot control, destiny, he writes, "is an active existence in which humanity confronts the environment into which she or he was cast…Humanity’s mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny, an existence that is passive and influenced, into an existence that is active and influential."[1]

There is no definitive answer to the question of “why me …” Instead, it is left up to each of us to determine post-facto answers—to be living responses—to this question through the actions we take in the wake of what befalls us, through the destiny we create out of our fate.

The HHD liturgy reminds us repeatedly that all of our days are numbered and we know not the number - (this is most pronounced in the Unetane Tokef, but is hinted at everywhere through pleas to be inscribed in the book of life and allusions to the fragility of life and the human condition…).

But these scary metaphors and reminders of our mortality come not simply to scare us, but to push us to take the FATE that befalls us—and choose our DESTINY. We are not goats, we are discerning human beings with tremendous agency.

If we are indeed granted, please God, another year to live, the question is: how can we make sure that we are not simply headed off to wander purposelessly in the wilderness?

“Remembering that you are going to die,” Jobs said, “is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked; there is no reason not to follow your heart.”

WHAT NOW? This is the real question that the liturgy and biblical readings on this day push us to ask and answer. How will we claim this agency that comes with the blessing of tomorrow? As a teacher of mine once noted, the real meaning of Yom Kippur is what we do the day after.

May we each be blessed with the strength to respond to the “craziness” in our lives—both good and bad—and our nagging questions of “why me,” by boldly deciding, what now.

As quoted by Rabbi Avi Weiss in a D’var Torah on Parashat Acharei Mot, 5770.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Yom Kippur Sermons, 5772

Yom Kippur Sermons

Audio for Kol Nidre

Audio for YK Day

Kol Nidre 5772

Engaging Our Pain

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Last week I spoke about some of the more exotic aspects of what was an eventful summer for me. Tonight I want to speak about another, less enjoyable event, but perhaps one of even greater significance.

Some of you know that on a Friday evening in late August, as I was leading services here, I began to experience discomfort in my abdomen that, by the time I got home, had become severe pain. When it got to the point where I could neither lie down, sit nor stand, I realized there weren’t too many choices left, so I went down to the emergency room where, after a couple of agonizing hours, the problem was diagnosed as a kidney stone. I spent the next three nights in the hospital, right through the hurricane. For the next few weeks, that stone – or more precisely, the pain caused by that stone – became the defining factor of my life.

When I was in the hospital, they kept on asking me, on a scale of one to ten, how much pain I was feeling. I was never sure what to answer. If I said a ten, I’d come off as a wimp. There are people who endure much more pain than this. I know. I have too. I’ve been to the dentist! Football players feel more pain than this while they’re still singing the National Anthem. But if I said “two,” where would that get me? They’d wonder why I’d even bothered to come. I hovered at somewhere around a 6.5 but really just wanted to say, “a lot.” I’m not sure pain can be quantified. The only way I can describe it to you is to say that the morphine didn’t help. I’m not sure you can ever say my pain is greater than your pain, or the pain of a kidney stone is greater than the pain of a broken leg, or the breakup of a marriage or a sudden death in the family. It’s all pain. It all hurts. For me, in fact, the proper number at that moment was infinity. All that mattered was the pain. Everything else became secondary.

This week we’ve been talking a lot about engagement. On Rosh Hashanah I focused on engaging our world, engaging with Israel and engaging community. Tonight we turn inward: engaging our pain.

Until this experience, I’d never had to stay overnight in the hospital for an illness of my own. I’ve visited Stamford Hospital literally more than a thousand times over the past two and a half decades, but until now I had always been on the caregiver side of the bed. This experience was very different. It will help me, for sure, to be a better pastor, but an in-service training class would have been fine, thank you very much.

It hit home, just how different this was, when the priest came by and he blessed me. And we know each other well. But when Father Dora came in, this was different. I was the patient.

Last week we noticed how our choir has disrobed; well, here I felt defrocked, in his eyes and my own. But I appreciated being in his prayers.

I now realize just how helpless a patient feels. The nursing staff was terrific and I have a new appreciation for the work they do. They were angels responding to every prayer, and most of the prayers involved pain management. But I was totally dependent on them. Every movement was difficult. With the IV in me, my mobility was severely limited and showering was out of the question. And even the slightest twist of the IV tube would result in that annoying beep and I’d have to call the nurse to reset it.

With the hurricane coming, I thought, at least I’m in the one building in town guaranteed not to lose power. At 5 AM on Sunday, the hospital lost power. The emergency generator kicked in to maintain essential services, but evidently hot and cold food are not considered essential. And with the a/c off, it became uncomfortably steamy. The only thing air conditioned in the whole room was the back of my gown. With no TV, I lost touch with much of the outside world. The shades were shut so I couldn’t even hear the winds of Irene. I lost all sense of time, except in counting the hours between medications. Given the weather and subsequent state of emergency, no one could visit, which I was OK with, because I felt so lousy and looked even worse. It also kept me from reenacting that classic scene where the president visits the rabbi in the hospital and gives him the good news that the board passed a resolution calling for his full recovery, by a vote of 8-5.

I tried to sleep assisted by the pain medication. The room just kept getting darker and darker and I felt myself closing in more and more, cocoon-like, into myself. I found myself wanting to be alone yet feeling lonely at the same time.

And I wondered if that’s how everyone feels, and whether it really helps when I come by to visit patients, with my prime role being to reconnect them to the outside world, to re-engage them, to unite them with something beyond their own pain. Can anything I do really make that pain go away? And I wondered whether those patients who are asleep when I come to visit are really asleep, or they just don’t want to deal with visitors.

I wondered, had I visited me, would I have appreciated it, or would I have pretended to be asleep?

By the third day, the day after the storm, I was attuned almost exclusively to the rhythms of my own pain. The world around me was tuned out. The same nursing staff cycled back a few times, so I got to know them. But interestingly, not one asked what I do. It’s just one of the ways that the pain transports you to a totally different world. When you’re in HERE, it doesn’t matter what you do OUT THERE. In fact I didn't want to be made a fuss over. I asked once about whether they had Kosher vegetarian food and got a “say what???” look that made me realize this wasn’t the check in counter at La Guardia. During the afternoons my fever would spike as the pain returned.

In a moment of weakness, I remarked to the nurse "this is a nightmare." She looked somewhat taken aback. And then I heard a voice within me. This is the only time that voice came out. It was the voice of the guy who has been on the other side of that bed at least once a week for the past 25 years:

"Idiot! Are you kidding me? THIS is a nightmare? Walk down the hall and I'll show you a real nightmare. Walk down the hall and visit the people who don't know if they will ever get that inane wrist band removed until it’s replaced by a toe tag. You call yourself unlucky? You’re walking out of here. You feel pain, but you’re walking out of here. There are people dying in here and you’re carrying on and kvetching because of a little pebble. Get a grip! Man up!”

After that, I was ok. Grubby, but ok. I realized my pain might feel infinite, but it is also relative.

A farmer was riding into town on horse and buggy with a load of grain, when he was struck by a car. Seriously injured in the accident, the farmer filed a claim, but his insurance company didn’t want to pay, so he was dragged into court. The lawyer representing the insurance company asked him: “Sir, while you were lying at the scene of the accident, is it not true that when asked how you were feeling, you answered: ‘I never felt better’?”

“Yes,” the farmer answered, “that is true.”

“I have no further questions,” the lawyer said.

The farmer’s lawyer, on redirect, asked his client: “Can you tell me the circumstances in which you said ‘I never felt better’?”

“Sure,” the farmer said. “After the accident, I was lying on the ground and the deputy sheriff walked over to my horse, saw that its legs were broken, took out his revolver, and put him out of his misery. He then looked at my dog, also very badly hurt and in great pain, and did the same to him. Then he came to me and asked: ‘And how are you feeling?’”

Pain is relative – and so is how we endure it.

They say that having kidney stone is like delivering a child. When I say “they” I mean everyone. I mean I must have heard it a thousand times. It didn’t make me feel any better. And I have no way of knowing that, but I do know that my stays in the hospital when my kids were born were much more pleasant than this one. For me, anyway.

Amazing things happen at the hospital. Miraculous things. This past year, a congregant lay near death in one room, while, just down the hall, his great grandchild was being born. My God! I always feel it is such a gift to be part of all that. When I first became a rabbi, going to the hospital was hard for me. The smells, the alarms, the gyrations of hope and despair, all on the same floor, and the burden on the pastor to do something about it all, to explain the inexplicable. But I came to see these visits as gifts, as blessings.

Until August 26.

Until I was there myself. By myself. Helpless to do anything for anyone. Helpless to take my dogs out in the storm, to bring food home, to make sure my family was safe. Helpless even to walk across the room, much less to leave that room. Unlike other times when I’ve been at the hospital with other family members, this time I never left the room and I kept the door closed.

So I stopped complaining. At least I tried. I left the hospital with an ample supply of pills and an appointment for lithotripsy, which shattered the stone, but the fragments did not come out. So the pain continued to govern my life in the ensuing weeks.

Ethan went back to college by train, because I couldn’t drive him. I missed minyan here several mornings and a couple of shivas at night. I would take pain pills as infrequently as I could, not wanting to become too dependent on them, but I made sure to take them a couple of hours before I really needed to function. On those few occasions when I was hungry, I knew I wouldn’t really enjoy the food because everything tasted different. I had to build up fortitude before going to the bathroom, knowing that it would involve pain. I slept in a certain way, hoping it might reduce the pain if I woke up in the night.

At work I was able to function as needed. We had some wonderful bar and bat mitzvahs and the 9/11 program. Clergy tend to want illness to be a private thing. Heaven forbid, people might actually think we’re human! But I felt it was important to be transparent about this, so that inaccurate rumors wouldn’t spread, and also to encourage all of us to never fear openly confronting fear of illness and the reality of pain.

But while I talked the talk, I found it hard to walk the walk. I just couldn’t go back to the hospital. Having now been in the bed, rather than merely looking down at it, it was just hard to go back there. I had a visceral, gut response that just told me to stay away. I couldn’t deal with it.

It took me a couple more weeks to build up the fortitude – or as I joked, the stones - to go back. And if you were there during those weeks, I apologize. When I went, it was exactly three weeks from the day I first took ill. I was just at the point where I was thinking about what the next step might be to finally pass this kidney stone. After visiting a patient, I stepped into the third floor bathroom, and it came out.

The stone came out in, of all places, the hospital, the hospital where it had been first discovered.

I’m probably the only Jew on this planet, who, just two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, celebrated Passover.

I thought of the prayer we say each morning about the wondrous intricacy of the human body. I felt an immediate sense of healing and relief. And I was amazed that it almost seemed preordained that in order to get this thing behind me, I had to back to the hospital, the place where I had felt so much pain. I had to face those demons square on. I had to overcome that revulsion and get back to the task of living, and my body responded in kind.

How we deal with pain defines how we deal with life. It is estimated that 50 million Americans live with chronic physical pain. A recent analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that drug deaths now outnumber those killed in traffic accidents, and deaths from prescription pain medication far surpass those from heroin and cocaine combined. It is now being called an epidemic. And its all about people needing to deaden the pain, whether it be physical or emotional. I promised myself I would veer away from the trial over Michael Jackson’s death, but really what’s on trial here is our growing addiction to pain medication.

It’s about the Numbing of America.

So how can we engage our pain?

Jonathan Franzen said to a group of graduates last spring, “To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived.” He was talking about the risks of rejection in relationships, but he could be talking about physical pain as well.

To go through life painlessly is not to have lived.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we must engage the pain, the fear, head on. “Afflict yourselves,” is the commandment from Leviticus pertaining to Yom Kippur. “Ta’anu et nafshotaychem.” The word ta’anu comes from the Hebrew root ‘ana’ which has shadings of humbling and torturing, as well as afflicting. A whole tractate of the Talmud is called “Ta’anit,” devoted to special fasts that were declared in times of drought, times of great physical pain. At first only community leaders would fast, and only on given days or days of the week. If that didn’t help, more people would fast for longer stretches. Then, if that didn’t work, people would begin to give up other pleasures of the body, like anointment with fine oils, marital relations, wearing leather shoes. At that point, life came to be one long, endless Yom Kippur.

You almost get the feeling that the Jewish view on pain is that if we can somehow learn to overcome it, then we can become immune to it. In the gym they say “No pain, no gain.” For Jews the message is, “Only by experiencing pain can we immunize ourselves from further pain.” The sages called these divinely inflicted trials “Yisurim shel ahava,” “Afflictions of love.” Thank you very much, God. And Ta’anit extols the person who joyfully bears the suffering that befalls him.

If we can bear the pain, we can gain. In the case of Ta’anit, they believed that pain could bring rain. They felt that if they actually cared enough about the world around them as to cause tears to flow, the world would care back, and the heavens would flow with rain.

And similarly, when we fast, our hunger makes us acutely aware of our bodies. And once we surmount that anguish, it helps us to focus on the pain of those around us.

It helps us to face the demons head on and choose life!

There’s no hiding those demons on Yom Kippur. The dryness, of my throat and lips; that usually lingers through the day; the headache in the morning, without that cup of coffee. If I can fight through it, it’s usually gone by noon. But by 2 or 3 o clock, I start to feel it in my back and legs. All the standing, all the talking. Then there’s the general clamminess and the stubble and the unwashed face and the unbrushed teeth. By Yom Kippur afternoon I feel, well, sort of like I’ve just spent a night at Stamford hospital. Without the Morphine. It’s just me and the pain.

But not really. Because here it’s me, YOU and the pain. My pain and your pain. We all got pain! A room full of pain. And we’re all together.

And on Yom Kippur all we do all day is read about others who have dealt with trials of the body: People like Rabbi Amnon of Maintz, who, according to legend, composed of the Unetane Tokef prayer after his limbs were cut off by the Archbishop of Maintz when he refused to convert to Christianity during the dark days of the first Crusade in 1096. Rosh Hashanah arrived and Amnon ordered his students to carry him into the synagogue. As the cantor was about to begin the Kedusha, Amnon asked him to wait. And he preceded to utter his passionate response to his unbearable affliction "Unetanneh Tokef Kedushat ha Yom," ("Let us tell how overwhelming is the holiness of this day"). And then he immediately died. But the prayer lived on. We should think of the unbelievable pain of Amnon when we belt out that prayer tomorrow – and his even more incredible, his ability to overcome it.

That’s what that prayer is teaching us. The greatest pain we have to endure as human beings is the knowledge of our mortality. Who shall live, who shall die. Dogs don’t have to deal with that. They have fears. We have angst.

We could be paralyzed by that. We could be humming “who shall live, who shall die” all day, every day. But we take our cue from Amnon, who composed this prayer as he was bleeding to death. Overwhelmed by the holiness of the day, his response to the pain was Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakkah – we have the power to change our lives. To face the demons.

Later tomorrow, we’ll dwell on the stories of the Eyleh Ezkera - and the execution of ten martyrs during the reign of terror of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century. Among them was Rabbi Akiva, who recited the Sh’ma as he was being killed, and he stated that finally, at long last, he could fulfill the mitzvah of loving God with all his soul – because at that very moment, his soul was being taken. He died reciting the Sh’ma, and with his final breath he uttered to word “ehad,” One.

There’s enough pain there to take our minds off caffeine withdrawal and kidney stones.

But can it take our minds off our sins? Scientific American released a study this year indicating that people seek out physical pain to provide an emotional catharsis for feelings of guilt or shame. We’ve been doing that every Yom Kippur for three thousand years. But for all you thieves, slanderers and adulterers out there, know that Yom Kippur doesn’t let you off the hook. Fasting only enables us to gain forgiveness sins between people and God. When we have guilt from sins committed against other people, fasting will not get us off the hook. We’ve got to rid ourselves of the pain the old fashioned way, by confessing and apologizing directly to the person we’ve harmed.

Later in the day tomorrow, we read how Jonah was unable to feel the pain of the people of Nineveh, who were warned of pending destruction if they did not changed their ways. It turns out they did and were saved.

One could say, then that the entire day of Yom Kippur is designed as a training session in pain management.

And for Jews, the prime way to deal with pain is – as always, through relationship. Through engagement with fellow sufferers, because we all are fellow sufferers, especially today. We confess in unison, in the first person plural.

Jean Paul Sartre said “L’enfer c’est les autres,” “Hell is other people.” Judaism says, ‘Au contraire. Hell is loneliness. HEAVEN is other people.”

There is very little about hell in rabbinic folklore, although there are lots of speculations about heaven. But most of these stories about the afterlife are intended to teach us how to deal with this life.

One Hasidic tale, speaks of the difference between heaven and hell. In hell you’ll find row after row of tables with platters of delicious food. Every person holds a spoon but no one can eat, because they cannot bend their elbows. In heaven, exactly the same scene. Same table, same food, same number of people, same locked elbows. But there everyone is feeding his neighbor, so no one goes hungry.

So for Jews, hell isn’t other people. Heaven is. We often hear that when you laugh the world laughs with you and when you cry you cry alone. But whoever wrote that never experienced Yom Kippur, the day when we all beat our chests and cry together.

When people are in pain, we comfort them. Tomorrow we also have Yizkor, a time when we would naturally focus on our own pain of loss. But by then we are ready to give comfort to those around us. They are all around us, and they all need our care. And as we are forced to confront our mortality all day long, by the end we begin to realize how much of a gift it is to be alive.

Here’s one more midrash about the afterlife, which again, is really a parable about this life. In the Talmud there is a widespread belief that we get our bodies back in the World to Come. So, the rabbis wondered – which one do we get back? What will we look like?

Will I look like I do now? Or like I looked when I first came to Beth El, so young and spry? Which me will be me?

They come up with a brilliant response: They divided the night into four equal sections. So during the night's first watch, we are children again, during the second watch, each righteous man (the midrash talks only of men here) “becomes young and rejoices the way young men rejoice. On the third watch he becomes middle aged and on the fourth, he’s an old man and rejoices like an old man.”

The rabbis are suggesting something that would be unthinkable in American culture. They imagined eternal bliss, the perfect life, as one where we get to enjoy each of life’s stages. The carefree play of a child, the sensual exploits of the young adult, and the aches and pains of the old man. In the other world, we’ll get to relive it all.

At all ages, this midrash is teaching, we have to enjoy living in this world, to know and appreciate he full joy of what it means to be human. Even when we are old! This diseased, imperfect mortal body, this painful body, thirsty, slightly overweight or too skinny body, this misshapen, flawed vessel – is in fact a beautiful gift. For the young person too, who isoften so concerned about body image to the point of obsession and eating disorders, this midrash is for you. Your body is literally heavenly. It’s the one you’ll have in heaven.

As imperfect as it may feel to you, it is beautiful. And that is true for all of us.

So many of us deal with disease, and end up with bodies that feel less than whole. This is so often the case for cancer survivors or those whose bodies are susceptible to it. In August an article appeared in the Forward about a young mother who learned from genetic testing that she carried a mutation that, without radical surgery, would put her at high risk for breast or ovarian cancer. After much debate, she opted for the surgery and the prospects of a full life with her family. Despite this radical procedure, there is nothing less whole about her or her body. She confronted a painful decision squarely, and chose life.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the photo and realized that the courageous mother in question is Jill Steinberg, who in my mind will still be far better known as Jill Rothkopf, my first bat mitzvah here as senior rabbi.

In the face of pain, we choose life. Confront the pain, and we gain.

And then there was the great singer, songwriter Debbie Friedman, who died suddenly this past year. For most of her life, she endured a debilitating neurological illness. She compised the healing prayer, Misheberach, that so many synagogues now use, and in explaining that song’s power, she said, “Sometimes life takes its turns into the unknown and presents us with challenges we would have preferred not to encounter under any circumstances. Suddenly we are confronted with our pain. It is a strange thing that pain creates beauty and potential for healing. It is hard to imagine that it can provide a foundation for beautiful moments to arise. Our pain need not bury us, instead it may elevate us to the point of healing - if we choose to allow it.”

Ultimately, our greatest healing will come when we use our suffering to heal another’s pain – “to release another from their confinement. And (then) you shall be a blessing.”

What I learned when I returned to the hospital to expel my kidney stone is what Jonah learned as he was being expelled from the belly of the fish. You can’t escape it. You can’t run away from it. The burden of responsibility. The pain of rejection. The afflictions of body and soul.

Tomorrow, don’t be misled by the liturgy when we contemplate “Who shall live and who shall die?” We all will live and we all will eventually die. There’s no drama there. The question really is how we shall live and how we shall die. How we confront the throbbing aches of life will define how we have lived. Pain brings us to the ethical precipice. The eternal question is not simply whether we can endure hardship, but whether, despite the hardship, we can live gracefully.

The next time I get a kidney stone (God forbid), I’ll be prepared. I’ll remind myself of the afflictions of our ancestors and the people down the hall in the hospital, and their grace under pressure. I’ll remind myself of the intricate beauty of the body I’ve been privileged to know as mine, and its miraculous ability to heal. And I’ll be comforted by that.

May we all learn how to engage our pain, never to fear it, and thereby to transcend it. And may we all, despite the inevitable hardship, find the way to lives of holiness, love, grace and dignity.


Yom Kippur 5772

Otherly Love

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Last week I spoke about my recent trip to Africa. Well, it turned out that just a few weeks after I returned, I found myself back there. Kind of. You see, I took my boys to see “The Book of Mormon,” this year’s big Tony winning musical, most of which is set in Uganda. I don’t know how many here have seen it, but two pieces of advice: If you are under 18, don’t. And if you’re over 18, do!

Now I’ve never been a huge fan of Mormonism, but I am a big fan of the show, and while the writers poke plenty of fun at both the Mormons and religion in general, the underlying message is profoundly religious. Now it’s hard for me to explain this to you without giving away too much of the plot or, frankly, because I can’t quote most of the show in mixed company. But let me try to sum it up in a few short sentences.

Mormons have lots of strange stories that explain their world view. Ancient Jews came on boats to America, the Garden of Eden is located in Missouri, etc.. In the show, the Mormons are depicted as naïvely racist and Africans are depicted as primitive and gullible, even as they are ravaged by AIDS, famine and ruthless warlords. But in the end, all the stereotypes are exposed as false. The Mormon characters display a genuine acceptance of the natives, and the Africans display a sophistication and wisdom - and the crazy stories even begin to make sense, when understood as metaphors that teach us to live a life of kindness.

As Judaism teaches us again and again, it’s not enough to love your neighbor who is like you – you need to love the one who is different, the stranger in your midst, as the Torah reminds us 30 times. And no two groups could be more different than these Mormons and these Africans.

These past ten days, we’ve talked a lot about engagement. Last week, engaging the world and engaging community. Last night, engaging pain. Today, engaging the Other, the one who is NOT your brother. Today, it’s about Otherly love. For we are our Other’s keeper.

For that, as you know, is at the very top of our agenda. Just a couple of weeks ago we hosted the community’s September 11 concert of healing and hope and it was one of the proudest moments I’ve had here. For this kind of gathering could not have taken place in any other country, many other cities and I dare say, most other synagogues. We had, on our pulpit, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews, reciting prayers reciting peace prayers taken from our service guide. And we had a local Imam, a friend, chanting the Muslim call to prayer, from right here, words that are chilling to so many because they have been perverted by a few, but words that Imam Adeeb correctly explained are really words of peace. The cantor and I will be teaching an adult ed series comparing Judaism with Christianity and Islam and the Imam will be a guest panelist. I was honored to be his guest in August, at an Iftar meal held during one of the evenings of Ramadan. I’m also happy to report the findings of a new Gallup poll indicating, perhaps surprisingly, that American Jews express more understanding for American Muslims than any other U.S. religious group. Eighty percent of American Jews believe U.S. Muslims are loyal to the country, placing them behind only Muslims themselves (93%), and far ahead of the next most sympathetic religious group, Catholics, 59% of whom see American Muslims as loyal.

The 9/11 concert here was a loud clarion call to care. It was a supreme moment of engagement with the Other. And it was so needed. I said that night, and again right now – we were put on this earth for no other reason but to love.

This has been a horrible year for the treatment of the Other. In any normal year, the shooting of Gabby Giffords might well have been topic number one of these high holidays. This year it was quickly drowned out by the Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring. But for several weeks, this country was immersed in conversation about the lack of civility in politics and public life. Months later, we were jolted back into that conversation when Giffords showed up in the House for the final vote on the debt package, not Congress’s proudest hour. She received a prolonged ovation, a welcome moment of sanity in a Congress bent on implosion – but a fleeting one.

In Israel, the increasingly strident tones of extremists have been all too prevalent. Extremism goes both ways, what with the attacks on Israelis near Eilat last month and then at the Israeli embassy in Egypt. Meanwhile, some Jews have vandalized mosques in the name of a God I do not recognize. Last Sunday, in the dead of night, strangers entered a mosque in the Arab village of Tuba Zangaria in the upper Galilee. They sprayed graffiti in Hebrew and torched the mosque. In a statement condemning these acts, the Orthodox Union echoed other groups in saying, "Jewish synagogues and holy sites, in Israel and across the globe, have been similarly vandalized and desecrated over the course of history and, thus, Jews should know very well that such actions are beyond the pale." Most of us do.

And then there’s that Florida pastor who last March made good on his threat to burn a Quran in public. In Norway, Anders Behring Breivik called for “a Christian war to defend Europe from the threat of Muslim domination” and then went out and killed 69, mostly teenagers, at a summer camp. Anti Semitism in America is on the rise for the first time since 2004, according to the ADL, and we’ve seen it manifested this year in new ways, like the efforts to outlaw circumcision, and in delegitimization attempts aimed at Israel.

And finally, bullying and cyberbullying have been much in the news this year.

People are just not being very nice, and it starts young. The statistics are staggering. According one sobering study, half of high school students have admitted to bullying. One-and-a-half million students said they were threatened with harm, and one million students reported they had their property destroyed during the school year. Kids who are obese, gay, or have disabilities are up to 63% more likely to be bullied than other children. In 2009, 9 out of 10 GLBT students experienced harassment at school. Even with all the attention paid to the subject, bullying still goes on routinely, especially when people now have the cover to do it online, anonymously. There is nothing so cowardly as anonymous bullying.

I discussed bullying at services one Shabbat this past year, in light of the recent suicides, and told the bar mitzvah class, "If you want to see your rabbi cry, all you have to do is be cruel. If you are cruel to a classmate, I guarantee you will see me cry."

It so happens that this year’s bar mitzvah class has been especially caring. But I know the world that they are entering, a world not unlike that faced by the hero of that day’s Torah portion, Noah, a world filled with violence and corruption. I recounted a midrash about Noah, who when he emerged from the ark and saw that the whole world had been completely destroyed cried out, “Lord, how could you have done this?” God replied, “Oh Noah, you are so different from the way Abraham will be. Abraham will argue with me on behalf of total strangers when I tell him that I’ll be destroying Sodom and Gemorrah. But not you! When I told you that I was going to destroy the whole world, I delayed, I lingered. I asked you to build an ark, a project that would take a long time to complete. And you built it in clear sight of your neighbors. I hoped you would speak to them. But you just thought of your own safety and that of your family in the ark. You were not touched by the plight of your neighbors, as evil as they may have been. And now you complain?”

And Noah knew that he had sinned.

Judaism does not ask us to love our enemy, but the point of the midrash is that, if Noah was expected to have some empathy for his violent neighbors, all the more so should we reach out to victims of that violence, all victims everywhere, the weak and the powerless. And this midrash affirms the prophetic vision of Isaiah in today’s haftarah and the famous dictum of Elie Wiesel – that the greatest sin is not hatred, it is indifference. As he said in the White House in 1999:

Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. ….One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response.

…Indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor -- never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.”

This summer, on that other major fast day, Tisha B’Av, commemorating just about every Jewish disaster with the possible exception of “Bridget Loves Bernie,” local Jews from all denominations got together to study. I joked at the time that only in Stamford could the Conservative rabbi meet the new Reform rabbi at Chabad on Tisha B’Av. It was great!

That night we studied a text, one that is fairly well known in connection to Tisha B’Av. It was a truly enriching discussion, so enriching, in fact, that I want to invite you to stay during the break this afternoon to study the text with me.

A man in Jerusalem had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He made a banquet and told his attendant to invite his friend Kamtza, but a mistake was made and Bar Kamtza was invited instead. When he arrived, the host told him he was not welcome and should leave. Bar Kamtza begged to be allowed to stay so that he would not be humiliated, even offering to pay for the entire banquet. The host would not be swayed and ejected him, in plain sight of a group of rabbis who simply sat there and did nothing.

Bar Kamtza took note of that and went to the Roman emperor and spread slander against the Jews. All of which led ultimately to the sacking of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple. This, according to the rabbis, was why the Second Temple was destroyed, because of causeless hatred among Jews.

The most troubling aspect of this is not the host’s callous humiliation of another human being, but the fact that the other guests, including these distinguished rabbis, did nothing. Rashi suggests that they did nothing because they felt it would not make a difference. But the Talmud is not so kind to those rabbinic bystanders. The mere fact that they are even mentioned in this story brands them as accomplices to the destruction of the temple.

After all, even if they were reluctant to rebuke their host, someone could have gone running after Bar Kamtza to comfort him and calm him down. Bar Kamtza would at least have known that someone cares. The rabbis had the authority to suggest to the host and Bar Kamtza that they take a time out and let cooler heads prevail. Something could have been done. They did nothing. They were indifferent to the plight of the “other.”

Interestingly the Hebrew word (and vowel) Kamatz means to conceal. In this story, Bar Kamtza and Kamtza wore the masks of opposites, when in fact, had they removed the masks, the host would have found that they are nearly identical, like their names. Today is Yom Ki-Purim – which can mean, a day LIKE Purim. Because, whereas on Purim we put masks on, this is the day the masks come off. In order to engage the Other, the masks have to come off.

Had this banquet been on Yom Kippur, the day the masks come off, maybe it would have made a difference.

But of course, there IS no banquet on Yom Kippur.

And everyone sat by, in silent indifference.

Al chet shechatanu lefanecha b’emutz lev. For the sin we have committed before you with hard heartedness.

We can’t love every Other equally. The suffering from famine in the Horn of Africa – it’s staggering. 750,000 could die in the coming months, according to a UN report. The victims of the earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan or the tornadoes in Joplin and Tuscaloosa. How can we love everyone? I like the advice given in a college commencement address this year by author Jonathan Franzen:

Love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

Franzen had lost his concern for the environment, and couldn’t bring himself to love nature until he fell in love with birds.

“Whenever I looked at a bird” he states,” any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And…now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again.”

So, if it is easier to love one than than to love many, pick an individual and love that person. And then let that specific love bubble over so that everyone else is touched by it. Let it start with the one, that that one melt your heart, and then let your heart be open to all. That is how we combat the sin of hard heartedness and indifference.

Maybe that one will be Rachel Beckwith, a 9 year old girl from the state of Washington. Rachel had hoped to raise $300 through the "charity: water" program to bring clean water to an African village. She was close to that goal when she died in a tragic car accident last summer. NBC picked up the story and within two weeks over a million dollars had been raised. The thousands of donors likely had not an ounce of concern for thirsty Africans, until they were inspired by this determined little girl.

Pull back from indifference!

Maybe the one who will change your life is Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who was outed by his roommate last fall, in a cruel and heartless way, and he subsequently posted a Facebook goodbye and jumped from the George Washington Bridge. For those who are gay, bullying is nothing new, but at a time when we thought that maybe we are entering a new era of acceptance, at least among the younger generation, this was a horrifying cold slap in the face. Clementi’s death inspired the series of “It Gets Better” videos aimed at those desperately seeking love and acceptance – I hope it will someday get better.

It didn’t get better for 14 year old Jamey Rodemeyer of Western New York, who created an “It Gets Better” video several months back, talking about the bullying he had confronted. Things seemed to be getting better, his parents thought, until last month he committed suicide. I watched his video, as nearly a million had before me. And I looked at some of the comments left on the page. Most of them were tearful and heartfelt. But there was hate mail too. Lots of it. Imagine the courage it must take to call a dead kid a fag. Must have been one of the guys at the recent candidate’s debate, who shouted “Let him die!” when the topic of uninsured sick people came up, or who cheered executions like there were touchdowns at a football game. The ADL might have to establish a new campaign to fight posthumous bullying.

The Tyler Clementi suicide had a profound impact on a congregant here who was dying of AIDS. For the sake of this sermon, I’ll call him Sam. It led to a series of conversations about how he might be able to make a difference. A few months later, at his request and with his family’s permission, I did one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in all my years in the rabbinate: I outed Sam at his funeral – It had to be done in a way that would send the right message, one that would respect his grieving family as well as Sam’s legacy. Speaking about it today is not much easier, but with the family’s encouragement, I am.

The decision to go public at the funeral had been made in the hopes that young people might not make the mistakes that had caused great pain to Sam and others, in particular the mistake of hiding something so essential about himself for virtually his entire life. Sam felt that if by telling his story he could save the life of just one person, something positive might come of his own suffering and his family’s. For a brief time, some months before his death, he began to write his memoirs. He didn’t get too far – just 70 pages. Here is what Sam wrote about his time in college:

"I was convinced that being gay would cost me all my friends, my family, and my ambitions. After all, who would knowingly hire a gay person? I was convinced that my parents would disown me. I was convinced that all my friends would abandon me. So with the costs so high, I did what most did, I continued to live a life in a closet of my own making.”

He came to realize that that was not the right path. In fact, in the end, when the masks came off, he was not abandoned, by his family or his friends. The world has changed since his youth. It has become more accepting, at least in part. It does get better. And it has gotten better. Nothing can wipe out all the pain, but through the telling of his story Sam found some redemption. Maybe through my telling it today, he’ll find more.

He was buried around Purim, the time when so many wear masks. But this is the day the masks come off. In order to engage the Other, the masks have to come off.

Maybe the one who saves us from indifference will be Alexis Kashar, a hearing impaired civil rights attorney who is president of the board of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center. She wrote recently of her struggles to be accepted in her synagogue, her fear of having an aliyah at her child’s bar mitzvah, and her having to deal with those who told her basically, to hire her own interpreter if she wanted one.

Just this year, the Conservative movement went a long way toward writing a historical wrong in Judaism’s treatment of the hearing impaired. Judaism has long marginalized the deaf. In traditional Jewish law they weren’t allowed to be witnesses, serve as ritual slaughterers or even be counted in a minyan. Attitudes have softened over recent centuries, and the fundamental Jewish values of inclusiveness are reinforced by the Torah commandment not to curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. The new Conservative ruling affirms the equality of all before the Lord and calls on Jewish communities to be more accessible. It allows for the use of sign language in place of audible language for all rituals, including reading Torah. And of course, to count in the minyan.

No one should be cursed with denial of access to Jewish life.

As we sit here in this beautifully refurbished sanctuary that we have just dedicated, I must add that this renovation is not finished. This sanctuary cannot be considered complete until we have a fully accessible bima. The cost was too much for this go-round, but in order to be true to our values of inclusivity, it must eventually be done.

Or maybe the one who will make us care is a 90 year old woman from Scotland named Mattie, who was very sharp mentally although body was badly ravaged by time. She often complained about being "spoken about" as if she wasn’t there, and very rarely "spoken to." She desperately wanted to be included in the conversation. Our elders have all too often become the “other” in our lives, more often ridiculed than respected, though thankfully now in Wendy’s retro ad campaign the crotchety old women are no longer the only ones asking “where’s the beef.”

According to some accounts, this poem, which has popped up in various forms, was discovered in Mattie’s belongings when she died. Or it was written by one of her nurses. Either way, it reflects what Mattie experienced and felt - what many old people feel - what many disabled people feel –and what it feels like to be the Other.

What do you see, nursie, what do you see,
what are you thinking when you're looking at me?
A crabby old woman, not very wise,
uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes.

Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
when you say in a loud voice, "I do wish you'd try?"
Who seems not to notice the things that you do,
and forever is losing a stocking or shoe.

Who, resisting or not, lets you do as you will
with bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you're thinking? Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse; you're not looking at me.

I'll tell you who I am as I sit here so still,
as I use at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I'm a small child of ten with a father and mother,
brothers and sisters, who love one another.

A young girl of sixteen, with wings on her feet,
dreaming that soon now a lover she'll meet.
A bride soon at twenty-my heart gives a leap,
remembering the vows that I promised to keep.

At twenty-five now, I have young of my own
who need me to guide and a secure happy home.
A woman of thirty, my young now grown fast,
bound to each other with ties that should last.

At forty my young sons have grown and are gone,
but my man's beside me to see I don't mourn.
At fifty once more babies play round my knee,
again we know children, my loved one and me.

Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead;
I look at the future, I shudder with dread.....
For my young are all rearing young of their own,
and I think of the years and the love that I've known.

I'm now an old woman and nature is cruel;
'tis jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles, grace and vigor depart,
there is now a stone where I once had a heart.

But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,
and now and again my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys, I remember the pain,
and I'm loving and living life over again.

I think of the years; all too few, gone too fast,
and accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, nursie, open and see,
not a crabby old woman; look closer - see ME!!

Those words could well have been uttered by Hagar, the Egyptian concubine whom Abraham banished. Hagar still has grievances. We now include the matriarchs when we pray the Amida, but we don’t include her.

Look closer, see ME!

Those words could have been uttered Nelson Mandela at the limestone quarries of Robben Island. It could have been said by the poet Amichai’s tourist, the one with the fruits and vegetables, sitting next to the Roman arch.

Look closer, see ME!

They could have been said by Rabbi Amnon of Maintz as he awaited his brutal fate during the first Crusade. Or by Rabbi Akiva in Caesarea as he prepared to die at the hands of vicious Hadrian. Or Troy Davis, as he awaited his execution two weeks ago, for a crime he quite possibly did not commit. Or for that matter, the victim who was murdered, though by whom we are not sure.

Or Elder Cunningham and the young African woman Nabalungi, from the “Book of Mormon.” The little secret about that show is that it doesn’t hate religion. I wouldn’t have cried at the end if I thought it did. It just thinks we need to create new ones where the old ones have failed, new traditions preaching universal love and acceptance. That is, of course, what all religions claim to do. But they all get lost along the way, primarily through their mistreatment of the Other.

Judaism too has had its moments that do not make us proud. But we can correct that. For the heart and soul of our Torah is good. Deracheha darchei noam v’chol netivotecha shalom (we sing whenever we return it to the ark), “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths - are peace.”

As the the Midrash states:

We find God by good deeds and the study of Torah....

through love, through brotherhood and respect

through companionship, through truth and through peace

through bending the knee, through humility...

through a good heart, through decency

through no that is really no

through yes that is really yes.

Take these words and let them guide you through the year.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of the impact the few hours before Yom Kippur had on him. He wrote: "I can only say that they were moments in my life when I felt somehow more than human. These were very difficult hours. It was a great fear and trembling, great awareness that you are now to be confronted."

When we imagine today that we are standing in the presence of ultimate sanctity, and we are straddling that fine, fine line where life and death meet, that place where life is lived in its purest form, where all the masks come off, where we come to recognize that there is essentially no difference between the words brother and other – Ach and Acher in Hebrew – and that the word Acher is virtually identical to Echad – ONE. That recognition, that place, that encounter, that engagement, is our holy of holies.

That is the moment when our tongues can only speak the purest truth, when our yes is truly a yes and our no a no. That is the moment where we discover our capacity to love and love completely and unconditionally – first, one other person. And then, softened to that warm glow, the cup of love runneth over, the moment runneth over, the day runneth over, the place runneth over, and that one encounter, that face in the holy of holies, the one right here right now, becomes all the faces sitting around us, and later pierces the firmament and extends us beyond the protective womb of this very vulnerable maskless day. And we take it out into the world with us, and engage the world and challenge one another and build our community, making this place, God’s place, Beth El, a place of holiness.

And we will be a community of engagement.