Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rosh Hashanah Sermons for 5772

Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5772
The Right Side of History, by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


What a year we’ve just concluded! An earthquake and a hurricane in the same week, and some tornadoes for good measure. A tsunami in Japan with a nuclear catastrophe thrown in, an economic roller coaster like nothing we’ve ever seen. We’ve seen it all this past year, and we thank God to have simply survived it. We are here.

But more than anything else, this past year has been a Year of Engagement, a year when Facebook, Twitter and YouTube single-handedly reshaped the map of the Middle East.

This era of people power is replete with danger, especially for Israel right now, but it is here, and it has every autocrat shuddering in his boots – and even democratically elected leaders are perplexed as to how to deal with it – and how to get themselves on the right side of history - the side of engagement, of courageous people discovering the hidden power of hope.

It is scary right now, but ultimately – and it may take many years – it is a power that promotes human dignity, overcomes fear and shuns hatred and could shape the world for the better. And it is on the march. It is breathing on the streets of Cairo and the shores of Tripoli, the alleyways of Damascus, the avenues of Athens and India and Spain and, yes, over 400,000 strong in the public squares of Israel. And it is so powerful that it rendered bin Laden an irrelevant couch potato even before his era was officially terminated by our Navy Seals. Even parts of the Muslim Brotherhood are beginning to see that in this new era, religious extremism will not stand.

It was fitting that “The Social Network” won the Oscar for Best Picture and that Mark Zuckerberg was Time’s “Person of the Year.” One out of every dozen people on the planet has a Facebook account, 800 million users, and they speak 75 languages and spend 700 billion minutes a month pruning their statuses. Every day a “like” button is pushed two billion times and 250 million photos are uploaded. A twelfth of humanity has been weaved into a single network. But the phenomenon is not purely about Facebook or the internet. It is about engagement and what has happened since God said in Genesis chapter 2, on that fateful day in the Garden of Eden, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

This morning I’d like to take a step back and explore further this era of engagement, and what it means for the world and particularly for Israel, and tomorrow I’ll talk about its implications for our community. What are some of the lessons we’ve learned?

We don’t know how things will end up in the Middle East, and it is certain that Israel is in for a bumpy ride, but we also know that three tyrants have been toppled and others are hanging by a thread. Syria has employed all the internet jamming technology that their Iranian allies can provide, this revolution cannot be stopped. And if these tyrants are replaced by other tyrants, another revolution will be spawned and they will fall too. So the first lesson of this Year of Engagement is that oppressive rule will not stand.

But, as I learned this past summer during a trip to Southern Africa, this phenomenon is hardly new.

Our first stop was in Zimbabwe where we stayed in an elegant old hotel in Victoria Falls built during the height of British colonialism. There was something alluring about finding myself suddenly in the middle of a Rudyard Kipling story, sitting on the veranda waiting for someone to bring me my pipe and brandy, a nostalgia for a simpler time, when gentlemen had tea while native servants fawned on them. But ultimately, as any Brit will tell you, those wistful memories dissolve into the final scene of “Brideshead Revisited,” the greatness of the Empire is no more, and we are reminded that regimes built on oppression always crumble.

Even without the help of social networking, they all have – or will. We Jews know it better than anyone. We’ve survived them all. In the past century we’ve seen it with Nazi Germany and the Eastern Bloc – the Soviet Jewry movement in fact helped to set in motion those historical forces that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has happened in so many other places as well, and it will happen eventually in Iran.

How it comes back to bite us when we enslave another! In today’s Torah reading, Sarah’s Egyptian slave, Hagar, becomes Abraham’s concubine. Yes, back then they treated the Help with even less respect than in Jackson, Mississippi in the early ‘60s. So Hagar, (you can just call her “Aibileen,”) gives birth to Ishmael, and when Sarah is belatedly blessed with Isaac, she doesn’t want to see her little boychick corrupted by this slave child. So Sarah calls on Abraham to banish them both, mother and child. And this troubles Abraham greatly. But God tells him to listen to his wife - and so he banishes Hagar and Ishmael.

Now when you think of it, Ishmael actually got off easy when compared to brother Isaac’s treatment at the hands of his father. Tune in tomorrow. Let’s call it what it is: Abraham was a great leader, but he had a stretch of bad parenting that would have shocked even Casey Anthony (though maybe not her jury). We often question whether all this abuse was truly God’s will. Maybe God didn’t really want Abraham to send Ishmael off or bring Isaac up to the mountain. Maybe these were both tests that Abraham failed.

Because what happens? God hears Ishmael’s cry – that’s what the name Ishmael means – and the slave boy lives and grows up. And then, his descendents, the Ishmaelites, become the merchants who sell Isaac’s grandson Joseph as a slave – in Egypt. Joseph brings his family down and, generations later, THEY TOO are enslaved by the Egyptians. So, if you follow the logic of Genesis, we became slaves in Egypt because of how our ancestor Abraham mistreated his Egyptian slave. A direct connection is drawn. The Torah is brilliant. And the relationship between Israel and Egypt remains complicated to this day. So lesson number one: Oppression invariably fails.

Interestingly, the next time we read about Isaac after the Akeda, he is visiting what appears to be the very same well where God heard the cries of Ishmael and Hagar. A legend has it that Isaac was seeking them out. He now understood the depth of their trauma, having also suffered the consequences of Abraham’s religious extremism, and so he had compassion for them. But they missed connections, and the rest is history. The damage could not be undone.

After Zimbabwe, we went to Johannesburg. One goal of mine during this trip was to better understand Apartheid, partly because I have an insatiable curiosity about the nature of evil. But also, well, we all know – and we heard it most recently last Friday at the UN by none other than President Abbas. Those who seek to delegitimize Israel often try to brand it as the next South Africa, tossing about the term apartheid. This could not be farther from the truth, as in Israel there has been consensus for some time on a two state solution – they do not want to rule over another people and have demonstrated it again and again, and will AGAIN, God willing in a few days, when they accept the Quartet’s formula for peace talks without preconditions.

So we visited Soweto and toured the Apartheid Museum. I had seen “Cry Freedom” and “Invictus” and read some books. But I still didn’t get it. How could an entire nation allow racism to become the law of the land? And, even more amazingly, Apartheid was enacted in 1948, even as the embers of Auschwitz were still smoldering! 1948. How could a nation so knowingly sell its soul to the devil - THEN?

I came up with three reasons:

1) Religious extremism. The Afrikaan leaders saw this as God’s will. It must be pointed out that there were many religious leaders, including Jewish ones, who opposed Apartheid, but others, including prominent Jews, acquiesced. As Yossi Klein Halevi has stated, when people do crazy things in the name of any religion, it is a stain on all religion.

2) Ignorance. In speaking to people in South Africa about their experiences, many claimed not to have had any idea what was really going on. The media was tightly controlled and they just learned not to ask questions.

And finally, 3) Fear. 1948 also marked the beginning of the Cold War and the fear of Communism was a convenient tool for those who sought to limit civil rights for the sake of security. Fear remains a convenient tool to this day, everywhere, and the greatest threat to civil liberties.

But still, it is amazing that an entire nation was able to buy into this evil system and keep Apartheid afloat for a nearly half a century, despite worldwide condemnation, ostracism and isolation.

After visiting Johannesburg, we boarded a plane for the three hour flight to Cape Town. Shortly after takeoff, I was reading some of the material we 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, even before saying “hello,” 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! Would you like some nuts?” No. I was a captive audience. It was time to engage.

I told him 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 you guys had Apartheid. And we had slavery. America has given the world lots of bad things, from Watergate to the KKK those talking dog videos on YouTube.

I looked over but knew that would not make him feel better. Because he was struggling with his past. I was not struggling with mine – though perhaps I should have been. I grew up in the Boston of the 1970s busing crisis, the Boston of Joseph Rakes, who, in that famous news photo, attacked a black attorney with an American flag, using it as a lance, and I was part of a Jewish community that had none too proudly abandoned its roots in Mattapan and Roxbury and its partnerships in the civil rights movement.

The guy, Bernard was his name, said he had known nothing of what was really going on while growing up. History in school ended with the Boer war. He grew up outside Cape Town and rarely saw people different from him. That was by design, as Mara and I realized when we toured a museum in Cape Town’s old District 6, an entire neighborhood that was leveled because the populations were mixing too much.

Bernard did say that Cape Town was much more liberal than other places, which meant, as he explained it, that on the segregated buses, the dividing line was down the middle, rather than front and back. So the blacks could be on the left and the coloreds and whites on the right. How enlightened! I wonder what Rosa Parks would have done.

By the way, in Israel there are now gender segregated buses, along with gender segregated HMO clinics, banks, elevators, grocery stores, pizza parlors and a corner snack shop in the Bukharian quarter of Jerusalem that has a side entrance with a sign marked “women only.” In Beit Shemesh, stones have been thrown at modern Orthodox women while jogging and two women who were taken off a bus recently for not wearing modest enough clothing. Of course, Saudi Arabia, women can’t even drive.

Apartheid began with segregation. Any segregation, including gender segregation, when enforced by public law, leads us down a slippery slope toward discrimination.

Please understand, I am not calling for unisex bathrooms, although I do believe that the woman’s restroom here is much nicer than the men’s – from what I’ve heard. There are boundaries, but what’s happening in Israel now is a serious civil rights issue, fueled, as always and everywhere, by religious extremism, ignorance and fear.

So I sat for 3 hours next to Bernard and I heard his life story. He recalled 1991, in his twenties, and the crowds that lined up to see Nelson Mandela as he emerged from 27 years of incarceration. He soon realized how everything he had heard about this man was a lie and that Mandela was a hero.

No one on this planet is as universally loved as Nelson Mandela. Mediva, as he’s called, turned 93 when we were in Cape Town and on his birthday, every school child in the nation sang a simultaneous “Happy Birthday” to him. With any other leader, it would be scary how much this man is loved. The Jewish community also loves him and recently hosted an exhibit paying tribute to him at the magnificent Cape Town Jewish museum.

When you read about Mandela, when you read his words of love and reconciliation, and when you visit his tiny cell on Robben Island, as we did, you see how easily he could have succumbed to the hatred and the fear. Then you admire how, from his position of strength, as the leader who could have crushed his opposition and driven them into exile, he instead embraced them. It is impossible not to shed a tear on behalf of the man from whom the capacity for tears was ripped away, as his eyes were blinded in the limestone quarries.

Mandela writes in his autobiography, “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.” And people like that rabbinic colleague are precisely the problem – those who are so quick 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 US couldn’t publicly defend Mubarak, no matter how beneficial he was to them. They didn’t want to be seen as opposing democracy and freedom and being on the wrong side of history.

I may not be sure what the right side of history is, but I know that Nelson Mandela is on it – and I want to be there.

I want the Jewish people to be what we’ve always been, the vanguards of justice and compassion. What is the right side of history? We invented it when we crossed the Red Sea, marched through the Wilderness and parked at a rest stop at Mount Sinai. The right side of history loves the stranger. The right side of history is eight lanes apart from playing the victim and has no exit marked “fear.” It is the side that does not allow discrimination and hatred to rule.

I want to be there.

As you already may have guessed, last month, I saw the film, “The Help.” (I think I was the only man in the theater). I loved the movie, as I loved the book, and it reinforced some of the lessons I had taken with me from South Africa. Oppressive political systems might be established by the powerful, but they are lived by the rest of us; not merely by those in the government, but also by those at the Ladies Auxiliary. Discrimination infects all of society, trickling down from top to bottom, it gets into the cracks and nooks and those tough to get at places, where we might tell the Help to give it another shot of Mop ‘N Glo or Windex. This disease is like the breadcrumbs in my car before Pesach – it’s everywhere, and it 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 Woolworths and in the bathrooms and the water fountains. It plays itself out wherever someone displays a Confederate flag or tells an ethnic joke.

I, like most Caucasians in the audience, looked to the white character Skeeter to save us. She’s very convenient. She is courageous. We would have done the same, we say. We think. We don’t know.

But enough people did stand up to the hatred to relegate Jim Crowe to the dung heap, that place where all the failed “isms” go, all those doomed experiments in human engineering – the Communisms and Social Darwinisms and fascisms, the ones that end up on the wrong side of history.

Colonialism has failed. Segregation has failed. And now, fear has failed as well.

Until this year, the assumption was that if a government was willing to use lethal force against its own people, it could suppress any grasp at freedom. That was so often true in the 20th century. The Soviet Bloc and Apartheid fell primarily when governments were not willing to do that – and the Chinese stayed in power because they were. But that image of that Chinese protester at Tiananmen Square, the one standing before the tank, was seared into our consciousness – and when that was combined with the power of social networking, which helped people to feel that they were not alone and that their deaths would not be meaningless, that in fact that they could gain immortality, like the innocent martyr of the Iranian street, Neda – something magical happened that changed history. It began to change in Iran two years ago. But this year, we saw it in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and most astonishingly in Syria. People willing to die for freedom. In olden days people did that because they had the comfort of a strong belief in an afterlife. But now the solitary individual has been empowered by an even stronger belief that we are not alone, that our lives have meaning and that our heroism will live on after us – in that modern Book of Life called YouTube. All you need is a cell phone with a camera and you’ve got a Liberation Movement in the making.

Mark my words, had Tiananmen Square occurred this year, it would still be going on – and the Chinese know it. No one can be more brutal than Assad has been, and he can’t stop it.

In Israel this summer, filmmaker and waitress Daphni Leef set up a protest page on Facebook after she received an eviction notice. Her protest soon gave Israelis a chance to vent about astronomical rents and home prices. And soon, tent cities sprang up and the Start Up Nation found itself on a Sit Down Strike. Israel is doing very well economically as a country (Standard and Poors recently raised their credit rating), but the gap between ultra rich and middle class has become astronomical and the average Israeli can’t make it. Buying an apartment costs an average of 12 years of salary. Israelis also have seen jumps in the cost of food. Earlier this summer another Facebook protest went viral over the cost of cottage cheese. At the same time that Leef set up her tent, real estate tycoon Yitzchak Tshuva threw a 2 million dollar wedding for his son, taking over an entire national park for several days. That didn’t just require money. That required what Israelis call Protectzia. Friends in high places. Govt corruption. People said enough is enough.

So while Tshuva had his wedding shindig, Tefilla and Tzedakkah took to the streets.

And Daphni Leef’s little posting turned into the largest mass movement for social change in Israel’s history, drawing 400,000 to its nationwide rallies. The grass roots protests have pressured governmental leaders to be more attuned to the needs of the ordinary middle class Israelis, who want kindergartens for their children, fair wages for teachers, affordable housing, and dignity for the elderly. And the government has begun to respond in kind. As the Forward commented in an editorial, “For now, perhaps for the first time in a long time, American Jews can…find inspiration from the passion pulsating down Israel's streets.”

So now, a few words about Israel. The time has come for all of us to care about the future of Israel as passionately as those who took to the streets. We need the same kind of people power here that they have shown there. There are many, including myself, who question some decisions made by Israel’s leaders. There are many, including myself, who have seen the human face of the Israeli - Palestinian conflict and recognize that there has been tremendous pain on both sides.

But there are others, too many, who just given up. They’ve lost interest. Too many have given up. Too many have become cynical. We can’t. It will not weaken Israel if we criticize it, internally and lovingly, as a family conversation. Israel will only be weakened if we ignore her. If we give up on her.

To address this problem, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni has called for a dramatic reframing of the role of Israel in its relationship with world Jewry, built around four key principles.

First, if Israel is to realize its mission as the national home of the Jewish people, it must embrace an inclusive and pluralistic Jewish agenda that respects our traditions without denying the legitimacy of difference.

Second, the relationship between Israel and world Jewry should be seen as mutually reinforcing rather than hierarchical. We are equal partners with a shared destiny.

Third, there must be a place for responsible criticism of Israel’s policies without it being considered an act of betrayal. At the same time, those who criticize from within the family – those who criticize out of love –must also show sensitivity to the excruciating dilemmas and constraints under which Israel operates, and not fall victim to the double standards that so often characterize its critics.

Fourth, and most important, while in many ways Israel has realized the Zionist vision of establishing a Jewish state, we have yet to succeed in creating a society that is inspired by Jewish values, tradition, and experience – one that can be a source of moral leadership for Jews around the world This is not just a project for Israelis; it is a project for all Jews worldwide.

Israel needs us, our minds and our hearts. It needs advocacy, but even more, it needs full engagement. We need to understand the challenges Israel faces and be prepared to help our neighbors understand those challenges. And then we need to engage Israelis and their leaders so that Israel will become the best Israel it can be.

To do that, we need to have an unclouded view of how things are – we cannot underplay the disturbing things happening in Egypt right now, along with the dangers in Turkey, Gaza and Lebanon and most of all Iran. We need to be vigilant about that.

But at the same time, we need to distinguish between legitimate security threats and the politics of fear. David Hartman states correctly that it is disingenuous for us to brand Israel as being in a state of perpetual crisis. For one thing, it’s not true. Secondly, Israelis don’t buy it – stroll down the beach in Tel Aviv or in on of Jerusalem’s outdoor shopping malls you’re not looking at people who feel that they are living in perpetual crisis, though the situation is more challenging in outlying places like Sderot. Just yesterday a poll in an Israeli newspaper indicated that a full 88 percent of Israelis say their country is a good place to live.

Third, it’s counterproductive. Fear just becomes another excuse to disengage. If Israel is depicted as a scary and vulnerable, who would want to go there? Who could be proud of it? Go to the website of Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Science Museum and see an exhibit of Israel’s 50 greatest inventions and you’ll be amazed. Where would we be without the key flash drive, the Intel processor, the electric car, the pill cam, a tiny camera that you ingest to get an inside view of your small intestine ad last but not least, the cherry tomato. And finally, fear breeds paralysis and moral regression.

I learned that in Johannesburg, where everyone lives behind an electrified fence. The people are friendly, but it is a scary place to be.

Israel faces challenges –real, existential threats – but also opportunities. The place is flourishing, and the newly discovered natural gas reserves will only make things better. It is a high tech superpower and in position to lead the next stages of the social networking revolution. Israel is therefore not isolated. But she needs to build more bridges, especially to the newly empowered people of her changing and volatile neighborhood. And in order to that, she needs peace. And peace means two states. In short, Israel and the Palestinians both need Mandela-type thinking in order to emerge on the right side of history – and we need to help them get there.

For when they do, it will be a beautiful sight. We will at last break the cycle of victimization and revenge that began with Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael.

So I propose that during this year of engagement at Temple Beth El, we redouble our engagement with Israel. I am proud that over the past year our congregation has welcomed speakers spanning the full spectrum of opinion, at a time when most Jewish organizations have been afraid to do so. Is there another synagogue where Ari Fleischer, Alan Dershowitz and Jeremy Ben Ami could appear in the same year? So come to our events. Better yet, join me at AIPAC’s policy conference next March, or, best of all, come with Mara and me to Jerusalem next July. The time to go is now. The experience is unforgettable and as safe as it ever has been. Take a copy of our itinerary from the information table in the lobby, or check it out online (click here) .

“For on that day, a great shofar will be sounded,” says Isaiah in a verse from the Shofarot section of today’s service. And then he adds, prophetically, “Those lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away in the land of Egypt shall come back and worship Adonai on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” On that great day, this verse proclaims, Egyptians, Israelis and Syrians will worship together in Jerusalem. Well, although that may not be happening yet, Syrians, Egyptians and Israelis are already posting on one another’s walls on Facebook. We’re “virtually” there!

Nelson Mandela wrote, “Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death."

We needn’t despair. Bin Laden is gone. Kaddafi is out. Assad will be gone soon too. Apartheid is no more. It is buried in the same graveyard as Jim Crow and the SS and the KGB.

If we can strengthen Israel as a bastion of democracy and stability in the Middle East, she will be a light unto her neighbors. And then, if we can fully engage with Israel, to instill her with the Jewish values of kindness and compassion that have sustained our people for thousands of years, then she will be a light unto the world.

Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakkah will finally defeat religious extremism, ignorance and fear.

Let this be, then, a year of engagement for us all.



Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5772
The We of Me, by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


My sermons during these High Holidays are focusing on that basic truth as expressed by God in Genesis 2, “Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado” - “It is not good for man to be alone,” as we strive here at Beth El to become a community of engagement. Today, I want to discuss what that means and why it’s important to be part of such a community – and I’ll also talk about lions.

Gee, you’re thinking. He’s speaking about the importance of belonging to a synagogue on the very day when we’ve opened our High Holidays services to those who are unaffiliated. How convenient!

Welcome, unaffiliated friends! Hey, and I get it. Joining is not for everyone. But give me a few minutes and I’ll explain why it should be. I’ll show you why you gotta BELONG. But first and foremost – let’s start engaging – so please turn to the people around you and wish them a Shana Tova.

You really can’t be Jewish in isolation. To have a complete service, you need to be part of a minyan, a quorum of ten. It all begins with that. The rabbis said that God is present wherever there is a minyan. It’s not that God can’t be experienced on your own, but the communal setting is the ideal setting. That’s why we don’t have Jewish monasteries, out in the middle of nowhere. Could you imagine a Jewish vow of silence? That one would go over well!

It’s not enough to simply drop in, and the rabbis understood that. Next week on Yom Kippur we’ll re-imagine that dramatic moment when the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies to pray for his people. According to the Talmud, what did he pray? What do you think? We know he probably didn’t pray for the Red Sox. He said, "God, may you not heed the prayer of the wayfarers.”


So why does the Talmud say this? Well, what do tourists pray for? Nice bargains. A good restaurant. And most of all – good weather.

There’s the rub. When the high priest went into the Holy of Holies – he was praying for a year of sustenance for his people. In other words, he was praying for RAIN. In Israel at this time of year the ground is parched. It’s still hot. They need rain desperately. And it’s important to note that the priests was fearful that the tourist’s prayer would be effective. So any tourists out there, know that the Talmud considers your prayers to be as valid as anyone else’s. It’s just that the priest then said, “God, don’t listen to them. WE NEED RAIN.”

So what’s the message here? A tourist who is just passing through has no real stake in the serious issues that face a community. When people travel, anywhere, we often express the wish that there be no incidents, while we are there. That’s pretty selfish, when you think about it. We should care for those who live there all the time. We should recognize that our destinies are thoroughly intertwined.

A tourist won’t pray for that infant who were delivered prematurely to the woman in row five. And a tourist won’t sit up all night with a fellow congregant awaiting heart surgery, sitting over there. A tourist won’t know that the person sitting next to him is weeping because his daughter survived a horrible auto accident, or that the person on the other side was just laid off.

It’s one thing not to know. None of us knows all the intimate details of every congregant’s life. The difference is this: The tourist doesn’t care. The tourist walks in and walks out without leaving so much as a footprint in the sand.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai described it in his poem, “Tourists.”

“Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head." "But he's moving, he's moving!"

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, "You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."

This is the place for authentic, sacred relationships that can sustain us at key moments of our lives. But only if you engage.

We ask that you engage. And in return we grant you the greatest gift we can bestow – the gift of sharing one’s few precious years on this earth with a loving, like-minded community of seekers and strivers, all trying to figure it out, all trying to make a difference, all together.

When you engage, it’s real. The drama is so real. The parade of extraordinary young adults who come up to this bima every Shabbat to become b’nai mitzvah – it’s real. Their stories are compelling. It’s real! Come here and you won’t miss “All My Children” because they are all our children.

People join synagogues for lots of reasons. But primarily it’s about social ties. You may have heard that old line about the guy who comes to services every Shabbat and someone asks him why, and he says, “I don’t believe in God. Finkelstein over there, he comes to talk to God. I come to talk to Finkelstein.”

For Jews it’s less a matter of believing in God than EXPERIENCING God. So the guy who comes to talk to Finkelstein – he’s talking to God and not knowing it. That IS God – the coming together, forming bonds of trust in a sacred communal quest. And making a minyan for someone else to say Kaddish and feel a little less lonely. The joining of hands – that is God.

It’s like the classic Hasidic story of two people who meet in the middle of a dark forest, and each one is lost. But they say to each other, “Maybe together, we can find the right way.”

We’re all lost. We’re all groping for answers. But together, we can search. And together, we will never be lonely. As Ecclesiastes states, “Two are better than one; if one falls, the other will lift him up."

Lo Tov Heyot ha-Adam Levado – For it is not good for man to be alone.

David Brooks wrote a book this year called “The Social Animal.” He says that “We're social animals, not rational animals.” Our relationships determine who we are. He shows research that a baby who has formed close bonds at 18 months is 77% more likely to graduate high school than one who hasn’t.

It all begins with relationship – and it begins with the simple math – of two becoming one. We crave that Oneness. Down deep, we know that’s what matters. When we come together in community, it is a fusion of souls.

South Africans are guided by the Zulu saying, "Umuntu, ngumuntu, negamantu,” meaning, “I exist only through others – I am because we are.” The word “ubuntu” means “the We of Me.” The Talmud states precisely the same thing. “Kol Yisrael Arevim ze ba-zeh,” “All Israel is responsible for one other.”

Classical Hebrew has no expression for independence. But there are a host of terms for inter-dependence. In a congregation, it is all about the WE of ME.

Another reason to be part of a congregation: It helps us to navigate our pathway through life’s luminous events, the sacred moments of the lifecycle. I know how privileged I am to have accompanied so many families through so many transitions. Just this month I was speaking with a bat mitzvah girl about her parents’ wedding, which took place right here, and then I showed her a photo of her grandmother – and the photo was taken at my son’s bris. How could this young girl not feel firmly rooted, with so many lives intertwined in this one place?

Lifecycle is very much on my mind right now, because we’ve just entered a new phase: the empty nest. Last month we sent Dan off to college.

Over the years I’ve shared so many special moments with you, reflecting about my kids as they grew. I’ve shared so much about them that I practically invented the concept of “too much information.” But now, I’m an empty nester. I have nothing more to write about!

And, as an empty nester, I am a high risk member of this synagogue. As the kids move away, we are often tempted to drop affiliations the way we might clean out the kid’s cluttered bedroom – to downsize, to shed some ballast. To loosen those ties.

But empty nesters need community more than ever. For we’ve now entered the age of wisdom. We have stories and important lessons to share. All we need to do is connect: we’re still social animals.

So middle aged adults are, surprise, surprise, the fastest growing group on Facebook. Much to the dismay of our kids! We’re not severing relationships…we’re intensifying them. And now with social media, everyone has become a rabbi; everyone’s telling those annoying stories about their lives that up until recently you only heard from me. I go online and I know who is at the movies right now. On some level, I care. I connect to each stage of the life cycle without having to officiate at it. Who’s learning how to ride a bike, whose pet just died, who is visiting their kid in college, who just took their first exam, who is having coffee at Starbucks with the cantor, who just got back from Israel and who just went to the beach, who is sick, who is recovering, mi yichyeh, mi yamut, who by fire and who by water, who is truly alive and who is depressed, who is content and who is lonely. It’s all out there. For empty nesters, and for everyone else. This is the stuff of community, the Face-book of Life. Judaism was always about engagement – but now everything is about those webs that we weave together.

We do all this online, but we still need a place to engage face to face. And when I say that we are a community of engagement, I really mean it. In August the cantor and I performed a wedding for a couple who got engaged after meeting right here, last year, on Yom Kippur! In the afternoon! First row in the social hall. I kid you not. I’m telling you, unaffiliateds, join here and who knows what will happen! (But if you’re married, hopefully not THAT!)

We engage at each key moment in life. We’re now providing meals not only for people who have just suffered a death, but also for families who have just experienced a birth, a time when new parents might just be a little too tired to cook. Our new Director of Community Engagement has recruited a group of young parents who have volunteered to prepare those meals. We’ve developed a vibrant young professionals group where singles and couples can meet. Most weekday mornings now, our building is bursting with a hundred learning retirees upstairs and our Shorashim class of two year olds downstairs. And it all comes together, right here.

Belonging to a congregation like ours gives us the chance to bring joy, love and laughter to the weekly pace of our lives, to live by a Jewish rhythm punctuated by Shabbat. And every Shabbat has become a moment to celebrate here, to sing, laugh and cry together, particularly on Friday nights.

Also, belonging to a religious community helps us become one not only with those alive, but with those who came before us. They are part of our minyan too. They are with us right now. When I was in South Africa last summer, I was impressed at the enduring power of ritual and tradition among the people. In Soweto, I noticed that there are an extraordinary number of funeral homes. I learned that funerals are a major part of the local culture, because their dead ancestors are very much alive to them, a vivid presence in their lives, so vivid that our Safari guide’s name was actually “Remember.” It’s similar for us. Keeping alive the dreams of our ancestors is a powerful reason to be part of a religious community. And it’s not just their dreams that remain with us.

In his book, David Brooks writes of a a scientist named Douglas Hofstadter at the University of Indiana, who was married to a woman named Carol, and they had a wonderful relationship. Then Carol had a brain tumor and died suddenly when the kids were very young. In a book he subsequently wrote, Hofstadter describes a moment when he came across Carol’s picture on the mantel.

"I looked at her face, and I looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes. And all at once I found myself saying as tears flowed, 'That's me. That's me.' And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes, but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that welded us into a unit -- the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that, though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all…."

When we sit here in prayer, say Kaddish at a yahrzeit or simply reflect, we sense that same fusion of souls. We join a congregation because it makes us one with all who came before. The simple math – we are where two become one. The We of Me.

So I’ve given you a number of reasons to be part of a synagogue community - and notice that I haven’t once brought up High Holiday tickets. The High Holidays are the dessert. You need to come for the meal.

This summer in Africa I learned many things that can help us in our quest to be a community of engagement. I’d like to share some reflections with you.

We are social animals. And like all animals, we crave a natural order of things, a simple sense of who were are and, as Tevya liked to say, what God expects us to do. That simple sense of understanding our place in the grand scheme. That’s what I look for in my community – and that’s what I found in Africa.

Safari means “long journey” in Swahili, and indeed I felt very far from home. But strangely, while there I felt equally AT home. Not like a tourist at all, but a small part of vast, orderly ecosystem. I became part of that world – as it became a part of me. A world without cages or walls. I would look off my porch and an elephant would be munching away at branches down below. No boundaries. For me it lent a whole new meaning to the expression, “the elephant in the room.”

In our world, the only sure things are death and taxes. But there, the only sure thing is death. And death is ever present. But because of that, death is strangely beautiful there. And because of that, every moment of life is enhanced and sharpened. The reds of the sunset are redder. The blue waters are bluer. The lion’s roar is louder. And the stars are unbelievably bright.

The animals we saw were free and content - except for those unfortunate moments when they were being eaten. When you’ve seen these animals, you can never go back to a zoo. Have you ever seen, in the zoo, a baby elephant running through the brush from one parent to another, back and forth, (I’m with mommy – I’m with daddy) skipping and smiling like a school kid? Once you’ve been out there, life develops its own natural rhythm, and it is very hard to leave it. The outside world just seems a dreamlike memory, something not real. This was real. This little savannah in the northeast corner of South Africa was like our Anatevka. Every creature knew her place, all of them living in complete, uncomplicated relationship with one another.

No wonder the book of Job states, “God teaches us from the animals of the land, and from the birds of the heavens makes us wise.” To be out there takes your breath away.

But you need patience. On our first day on safari, for about an hour all we saw were groups of impala and some sand squirrels.

Deer and squirrels, I thought. And for this I came 8,000 miles!

And then we saw the lions.

Karen Blixen wrote, “You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” And by the end of this trip, I knew what she meant. There is such pathos to their story. So powerful. Yet so fragile. With lions, the problem of infant mortality is particularly acute. Three out of four cubs do not make it to adulthood. So the lion population has become dangerously small. It was shocking to learn that lion males eat the cubs of other sires so that their gene pool may dominate. They willingly will destroy all the other kids in order to promote the fortunes of their own.

Back here we call that the college admissions process.

In Zimbabwe, Mara and I spent an afternoon with a group that protects cubs during infancy, and then, when they are grown, slowly weans them back into the wild. You may have seen those photos of us walking with the lions. Those were real lions, not stuffed animals. We never felt like we were in any danger. They were wild, but used to humans, and we were part of their gradual reintroduction to their natural environment.

No wonder lions have become a prime symbol of the Jewish people and Jerusalem. Noble yet so vulnerable. Fiercely loyal and fiercely protective. In Jewish art, lions are always guarding something; they are the epitome of earthly courage. No wonder Leon Uris chose the name Ari – lion – for his quintessential Israeli hero in “Exodus” and Israel often uses lion synonyms like Kfir and Lavie in naming their jet fighters. The lion and the Jew share nobility - and loneliness.

Adult males wander vast distances and always appear forlorn or threatened. One night we heard a lion’s wail, all night long, that sounded almost like the piercing sound of the shofar, only weighed down by perpetual sadness. We met a real-life version of Scar, from the Lion King – a male known as a ruthless killer, with much of his ragged main torn and his face gaunt, with visible scars on his face.

One morning our guide heard about a kill that had occurred a few miles away, and we rushed across the bush to locate it. We came upon two lions, who were panting, exhausted from having spent the night devouring a giraffe. As our jeep slowed down for a peak at the predators and their prey, I felt like a rubbernecker on the Merritt. But we had to see this. Even this long-time vegetarian was transfixed at this most carnivorous sight. It somehow reaffirmed my faith in the order of things. This was a meaningful death, meant to perpetuate the grand plan. That giraffe had been born, in part, for the purpose of being eaten by that lion, and on some level the giraffe knew it. In the words of the poet Marcia Falk, “To celebrate life is…ultimately to embrace death….all death leads to life again. From peelings to mulch to new potatoes, the world is ever renewing, ever renewed.”

That evening, we heard the news about the horrible mass murder that took place at a summer camp in Norway. The contrast could not be more stark. On the one hand, senseless murder in a world gone mad. But here on the savannah, death reaffirming a grander plan and sustaining nature’s precious balance. I caught myself wishing that we wouldn’t have to go back to so-called civilization. I somehow felt safer on the savannah, even with elephants in the room.

Incidentally, did you know that giraffes are kosher? I don’t think that lion cared, but they are. But you won’t find much giraffe meat at Fairway. There are, shall we say, logistical problems. Imagine this little old rabbi with a knife walking up to a giraffe, pulling out a step ladder and trying to find the right spot to kill it painlessly.

I fell in love with giraffes – they are clearly the most Jewish animal that we saw. They’re basically pacifist, but they have a good swift kick to fend off predators. Like Jews, they hang out in family groups and protect each other. They are a little goofy and awkward and try to keep out of everyone else’s way. And they are ruminants. That, along with the split hoof, is what makes them kosher.

It’s great to be a ruminant. Giraffes are able to enjoy life. They nosh a little, and then they just hang while they regurgitate their food and eat it again with their second stomach. Elephants, in contrast, have only one stomach, so they have to keep eating. And they are gluttonous, eating the equivalent of the weight of three people in leaves and branches in a single day. All they do is eat. They never get to reflect. An elephants may never forget, but memory alone is not enough. You need to make sense of those memories. Giraffes and other ruminants get to, well, ruminate. Like Jews. That’s why they’re kosher. You are what you eat – and Jews eat animals that are peace-loving ruminators.

One time our guide alerted us to a pair of giraffes that looked like they were about to, well, you know. (I keep hearing a voice saying, "Pumbaa, not in front of the kids" - but this is G-rated) The male’s chin was in an unusual upright position and the female was indicating assent. We watched for a couple of minutes. The male kept on chewing and chewing. Ruminating. Finally the female walked away. The moment was missed. God knows what this male was thinking. Was he worried what his mother would say? If giraffes are the most Jewish of animals, we had just met the Woody Allen of giraffes.

Rhinos are fascinating. Whenever I saw one I felt like we were in Jurassic Park. I asked our guide who is the rhino’s most feared predator and he said, “You.” Sure enough, rhino poaching has reached epidemic proportions in southern Africa. I also learned that rhino males pile their dung in huge heaps, to leave as sort of calling card to their territory, so their families can find them. Our guide compared it to posting on someone's Facebook wall. The rhino dung is actually cleaner than some of what I’ve seen posted on Facebook walls.

In the bush you lose the outside world. They had Internet in the camp library, but service was sporadic and we stayed off for several days. One guy from the Upper East Side was with us on a game drive. He brought his blackberry. “It’s for emergencies,” he said. So there we were, gaping at a hyena nursing her cubs, and he was checking his email.

The animals routinely made eye contact with us. Their eyes invited us into their world. They often interacted with us. I was lying on a lounge chair at one camp and a baboon came over and grabbed my glass of diet coke. We came across a group of zebras and rather than running away, they seemed to pose for our photos. But a stallion then gracefully stepped in front of his pregnant mate so that we would come no closer – to her. Chivalry lives.

It was fascinating to see how the different species interact. Many of the more vulnerable ones would hang out near each other to have strength in numbers, to ward off lions and leopards. Exactly a half hour after sunset, we saw hundreds of guinea fowl fly up into the same tree, right next to a pond – we had never see them even spread their wings before. There they would sleep safely, handing from the branches together.

We saw battles, like a high noon standoff between a heron and an eagle, and two bull rhinos locked in a struggle that left both of them bloodied. I wondered whether there was any rhyme or reason to all of this beyond a Darwinian survival of the fittest. I knew it had to be something grander than the reasons humans fight. I knew that there had to be something more to it than that rhino A refused to pick up the check.

Despite these spasms of violence, most of what we saw was like a grand Garden of Eden. Lots of moms and babies cuddling. Lots of kids growing up and leaving the nest. I could relate to that one. But the parents there seemed to be having a much easier time than I am. Lots of eating, drinking and sleeping. The miracle of the ordinary. On Shabbat afternoon we were lying on our porch overlooking the water hole. I looked down and saw a small antelope called a steenbok, gently picking at branches and drinking. I thought of Psalm 42, which the cantor often sings on Friday night. “As a deer thirsts for water, so, O Lord, do I thirst for You” – The world around me seemed so at peace and complete, tapped in to the great source of all connection, and Oneness. It was much bigger than me. But in part because of that, it was of great comfort to me.

Because I realized that long after I am gone, this will still be here, and to the degree that I am tapped into it, so will I.

I look around this room right now and I feel the same way.

It was hard to leave this blissful place. As our jeep drove out, heading on the bumpy road toward the airport, a rhino stood by the road staring at us as if saluting us and saying goodbye. They had so invited us into their world that we became a part of it. I had become the accidental non-tourist. I had tapped into the We of Me.

I thought of what Karen Blixen wrote:

“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”

We rambled through the neighboring villages and I knew that there is really no permanent place for me there – no “Rabbis' Peace Corps” program that I could join, where I could teach the locals how to burn their hametz and lay tefillin. No, my natural place is back here. But strangely, having fit in so easily into that little jungle of Anatevka, where every creature knows his place and what God expects him to do, it became easier to transfer those feelings back to what I do here.

Blixen also wrote, “We must leave our mark on life while we have it in our power.”

My week on the savannah reminded me that I have a place, a role to play, that I am a small piece in a very large puzzle, but that I fit in, right here, right next to the deer and the squirrels, the cantor and the choir, the newborn and the grieving widow, and you. We all have our sacred task in this eternal game. We all know a song of Africa, the place where the first homo sapiens walked, and where our ancestors emerged from the cauldron of Egyptian slavery - and Africa knows a song of each of us.

And we know a song of Jewish destiny – and that destiny has a place for us, right here.

And that is why we belong to a congregation. We are social animals. We are animals, and like all of God’s creatures, we exist solely through relationship, with one another, with other species, and with our Source, our Creator – with all of life. Like the lion, we come here to protect and defend, like the rhino, we seek out our loved ones, and like the giraffe, we ruminate. But as long as we are here, we never lose our bearings and even when we are gone, we will remain here. For when we die, and the “me” disappears, the “we” will remain.

So stay with us. Find the “we” in “me.” Shed your thick tourist skin. Become one with your synagogue community. Lo Tov Heyot Adam Levado - It is not good for man to be alone.

It’s a jungle out there.


Click below for photos from the Africa trip

Africa Photos

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