Friday, September 28, 2012

Shabbat-O-Gram for September 28


 (click here to see more of last year's Sukkot photos) 

No rest for the weary, as we move right from the spiritual high of Yom Kippur to the physical release of Sukkot.  Now, if only this rain will stop so I can work on my Sukkah.  We had a nice program for young families yesterday, where the kids did some fabulous Sukkah decorations.  We'll have more Sukkah decorating fun on Sunday, followed by "Pizza in the Hut" after services on Monday (thanks to Weinsteins for again sponsoring), Sangria in the Sukkah for YJP on Wednesday, young family (adult) Sushi in the Sukkah next Saturday night and our annual Sukkah Hop a week from Sunday

Oh yes, and in between, on Thursday, the Hoffman Lecture featuring Professor Ruth Wisse, a fabulous speaker on a timely topic, "Anti-Semitism and Tikkun Olam: How Jews can Repair a World in Crisis."

Looking back to Yom Kippur for a moment:

During services, I asked people to think up 6 Word Jewish Memoirs, and I've gotten some really good ones.  See them here - and check back often, as I'll be updating this as more come in.

I also appreciate the very positive comments that have come in regarding our High Holiday services.  There was a glow in the room on Wednesday evening that went way beyond the glow-sticks used during Havdalah.  A great way to start the year.  Several have inquired about when the sermons will be posted.  You can see and hear Rosh Hashanah's here.  Yom Kippur's were never intended for online distribution - just an old fashioned, intimate conversation between me and 2,000 of my closest friends.  But if you have questions or would like to see certain sections, quotes, anecdotes, etc., please feel free to email me and I'll be happy to send them along.  I'm glad that people have been able to relate Wednesday's sermon to their own lives in so many different ways, and that Tuesday night's has provoked serious discussion.  That's what they're supposed to do: comfort troubled souls while provoking serious reflection.

We also have had some nice response from the Stamford Advocate article on our online streaming of services.  A special thank you to Harlan Neugeboren for making it happen.  I understand that our services we being viewed on 27 computers Wednesday, ranging from a teen who was home following surgery to seniors at local nursing homes, to every age group in between - including Hazzan Rabinowitz, at home recovering from surgery. While there were some glitches, it was very satisfying to know that no one in our extended TBE family should feel abandoned or alone on the holiest day of the year.  We are all connected.  My hope is that in a short period of time we'll be able to stream lifecycle events and Friday night services on a regular basis, for the entire world to see.  Of course, nothing beats being here, so join us for services tonight at 7:30...

...and this week on Shabbat morning we inaugurate something new.  We're calling them "Synergy Shabbats," weeks when we go beyond the "comfort zone" to do something a little different.  This week, we'll be having a full Torah discussion from 9-10 AM in the library, followed by services (without Torah discussion).  The service will end at the normal time.

Over the coming months we'll have many more Synergy Shabbats and Beth El Cares Shabbats. On Oct 13 we'll welcome Stamford's new Superintendent of Schools,Winnie Hamilton.  And on Oct. 20 our Blessing of the Animals (without actual animals present).  Please take a moment to send us your Pet Profiles for our Bark Mitzvah booklet.  See more info here (plus a nice photo of the Hammerdog, Crosby). Even if you can't be here for the service, the booklet will be shared online, a nice tribute to the pets of TBE - it will be sort of like a pet directory of our membership.  And they deserve the recognition!

Download the full year's Shabbat schedule here.

For those looking for more about Sukkot, see a Guide to all things Sukkot here and a full collection of archived Sukkot postings here.  Also, as we enter this environmental festival par excellence, this week marks the 50th anniversary of the book "Silent Spring" from the "nun of nature" as Rachel Carson was called. Let's give thanks for a book that spawned the modern environmental movement, and ring some much needed alarm bells for our impact on nature and ourselves. See Ronnie Brockman's blog entry on the subject.

Finally, if you missed Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech at the UN yesterday, you can read and view it here (complete with the effective Wile E Coyote bomb diagram).  From the analyses I've been reading, both from Americans and Israelis, the two main takeaways from this presentation - aside from alerting the world to the imminent danger of Iran gaining nuclear capability - are that the Prime Minister has ruled out an "October surprise" unilateral attack and he extended a rhetorical olive branch to the Obama Administration and affirming the bipartisan nature of the US-Israel relationship.  That bipartisanship is still rock solid, as indicated by the 90-1 Senate resolution this past week, affirming a strong, unified stance against Iran.  Perhaps now the US and Israel can jointly return the public focus to increasing the international pressure on Iran, while privately synchronizing their strategies, clocks and public messages, as well as their red lines.

Shabbat Shalom and have a wonderful Sukkot!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Beth El Streams Yom Kippur Services (Stamford Advocate)

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman at Temple Beth El is setting up a service to webcast the high holy day services including Tuesday's Yom Kippur service to shut ins. He poses with the camera on Monday September 24, 2012 in Stamford, Conn. Photo: Dru Nadler / Stamford Advocate Freelance

\STAMFORD -- On Sept. 17, Stanley Darer, 78, had a chance to watch morning Rosh Hashana services at Temple Beth El via a laptop from his room at the Waveny Care Center in New Canaan.
His wife, Susan Darer, 74, who participated in the service as a singer with the New World Chorus, said her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, sang, cried and moved from side to side during the webcast. His reaction, she said, was especially emotional to the blast of the shofar, an instrument carved from a ram's horn that is blown to symbolize the arrival of the Jewish New Year.
"I thought it would be great for him to watch, and he obviously related to the music and the service because it brought back some things from the past," Darer said. "It was ideal to have a live link."
On a business trip, Susan Darer's son, John Darer, of Stamford also followed the morning Rosh Hashanah services at Temple Beth El on Sept. 17 via his iPad, watching his mother sing.
The virtual connection to Stamford helped offset some disappointment of not being able to be home for the beginning of the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days, the 51-year-old John Darer said.
"I travel a fair amount and whether it is something like this for a service, or another type of program I might miss, I think it shows an awareness by Temple Beth El of a need," he said. "You often see soldiers fighting in Iraq connecting with their families via video streams, and of sporting events, so why not religious services?"
On Tuesday, Temple Beth El on Roxbury Road will webcast the Kol Nidre service to mark the beginning of Yom Kippur, a strict 25-hour final stretch in the 10 days of atonement and self-reflection that ring in the New Year, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman said. The service begins at 6:30 p.m.
On Wednesday, those with the Web link will be able to see inside the synagogue as Jews pray from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., when Hammerman will lead a memorial service and concluding ceremony that will run until after 7 p.m.
To limit glitches during this trial run, Hammerman said access to the link will be limited to Stamford, Norwalk, and Greenwich hospitals and some other congregants who have requested it, but he foresees offering open access to view weekly Sabbath services online, as well as major milestones like bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs and funerals.
"I've always wanted to create a synagogue without walls, and I do see the potential that it can bridge barriers, and one of those boundaries is geographical and the fact we don't all have to be in the same building to be praying to the same God," Hammerman said.
While the concept of streaming services online and archiving them has been around awhile, Hammerman said, until recently the technology has been too expensive to use regularly.
"There are many times this might be beneficial like for bar mitzvahs when a relative is too old to travel or grandparents are in Florida for the winter let's say," Hammerman said. "My sister lives in Israel, so I can imagine what it is like when families are spread out for the High Holy Days, which is a time more than anytime else people have to be with their community."
The fast and observance of Yom Kippur ends after nightfall Wednesday with a meal to break the fast, which typically includes round foods like eggs and challah, a Jewish bread baked in a round shape.
"The idea is that after our little brush with death through the fast and denying our physical needs, we return to the land of the living with renewed enthusiasm," Hammerman said.
Staff Writer Martin B. Cassidy can be reached at or at 203-964-2264.

Read more:

Sukkot and "Silent Spring" - Ronnie Brockman

The latest entry from the blog of Ronnie Brockman, our early childhood educator.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the book Silent Spring from the "nun of nature" as Rachel Carson was called. Let's give thanks for a book that spawned the modern environmental movement, and rang some much needed alarm bells for our impact on nature and ourselves.
Why write about Rachel Carson in a blog talking about best practices for young children.  After all, Rachel Carson was a scientist.  She grew up loving the outdoors.  She studied to be a writer and scientist while she was in college.  In 1936, she became the first woman scientist in the Department of Fisheries.  She was not a teacher, nor was she a teacher trainer.  She was, though interested in making the world a better place for our children.
In 1962, Carson published the book SILENT SPRING, and with it the environmental movement was born. The book was written to raise awareness of the great harm that synthetic chemical pesticides had on the environment. It took great courage for Carson to speak out against the agriculture and chemical industries. But she firmly believed that we as human beings are just as vulnerable to the toxic pesticides we spray on our fields, homes and trees as the insects themselves are. In defending her book, Rachel Carson stated: “We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature.”
Why write about a Rachel Carson in a blog talking about best practices for young children?
 “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.” -Rachel Carson
That’s Why!

Sushi in the Sukkah

Sukkah Hop

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Six Word Jewish Memoirs

On Yom Kippur, I challenged congregants to come up with Six Word Memoirs during their meditative moments, as a way of getting in touch with their Jewish selves in a deeper way - of rebooting their Jewish identities.  I recommend this site  as a good resource for ideas.  Here are some that were offered by congregants here (the list will keep expanding, so email me yours!)

I came
       I saw
             I converted

Working on bringing my neshama forward

                            I’m never satisfied

Going to shul is very cool!

Kvetching and noodging  are growth hormones.

We get Chinese food for Christmas

This is the brisket you married

Waiter to woman, is anything okay?

One issue, three Jews, five opinions

         children's ruach
         drowns out
         Shoah dirges

Still searching after all these years

Everyday, in everyway, I am healthy. 


Here are some of my favorites that I've spotted online:

“Didn’t get Seinfeld ’til met in-laws.”
“I kvetch. And therefore, I am.”
“Catholic in Jewish neighborhood: double guilt.”
“Moved to Israel. Rest is history.”
Jewish dad, not mom. No guilt here. 
“Yes, we can drink chocolate milk.” 
Ten summers at camps in Wisconsin. 
Grandpa said Richard Nixon saved Israel. 
Maybe we should have proselytized some.
God said 'Go.' 'Stop' He forgot. 
Cousin Pauly dead, excessive sour cream. 
Pogroms, pogroms and more pogroms. 
God likes us. We don't. 
Yeshivah banned trick-or-treating. Left after Kindergarten. 
You're really wearing that to synagogue? 
Little boy, now a dad. Oy! 
Post-Rosh Hashanah with Cantor Dad: Cheeseburgers. 
Family spends meals discussing other meals
A pronounced weakness for smoked fish
Stuck in the desert, messiah AWOL. 
Knishes, yes. Kishka? No so much. 
Wasnt expecting to miss Hebrew school
Food is basically love to me.
I worry if I don’t worry
Chicken is central to the story
Everything with us is a question: why?
Had bar mitzvah- still not man
We are not a concise people
In cahoots – optometrists and Talmud publishers
Half jewish  half Italian – totally stuffed

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rabbinic Pastor David Daniel Klipper D'var Torah for Rosh Hashanah, First Night


             Thank you.  As always, I appreciate being given the privilege of delivering the first sermon of 5773.   It puts a certain pressure on me, like throwing out the first pitch of a new baseball season.  I hope to be a good example.
The subject of my talk is one that is relevant not only for the High Holidays but throughout the year.  What decided me on this subject is a play on words.  The title of this sermon is ‘WHERE IS GOD?’  Please picture these words in your minds.  Now imagine that the letter ‘W’ of the word ‘WHERE’ is in parentheses.  So the message becomes ambiguous.  If you ignore the parentheses, then it is still a question “Where is God?”  But if you view the parentheses as separating the ‘W’ away from the rest of the word, the question turns into a statement.  Now it says HERE IS GOD.
          So clearly the letter ‘W’ is a very important part of that message and its presence or absence makes a great deal of difference in its meaning.  Let’s look at the letter ‘W’ and its implications.
          When I was growing up, one thing I was taught in school was the rules of journalism.  My fourth grade teacher was a big fan of the New York Times, and we had to read articles and discuss them.  She even taught us the right way to hold and fold the paper.
One thing that she liked to highlight were what she called the five ‘W’s of journalism.  These were the things that needed to be identified in the very beginning so that readers would know what the story was about.  The five ‘W’s were:  who, what, when, where and why.  For example, “John Doe was taken to Stamford Hospital with minor injuries yesterday afternoon after he was struck by items of his personal possessions thrown by the woman he had just broken up with from her fifth floor condo on Washington Boulevard.”  Notice that the gist of the story is encompassed by the five ‘W’s,.  In this case, the ‘who’ is John Doe, that ‘what’ is his being hit by these objects and going to the hospital, the ‘when’ is yesterday afternoon, the ‘where’ is Washington Boulevard, and I think we can safely say that the ‘why’ probably has to do with his ex-girlfriend’s anger at the break up.  Looking at this another way, the five ‘W’s orient the story in identity, space and time.
I recently read a very interesting book that addressed the subject of being oriented in identity, space and time from a very different perspective.  The book was titled My Stroke of Insight and it was about the experience of Jill Bolte Taylor, a Ph.D. neuroscientist who had a severe stroke at age 37 when a blood vessel in her left brain burst and bled into her brain.   She discussed how she observed herself losing her ability to walk, talk, read, write, or recall many aspects of her life in the first four hours after the stroke. The stroke essentially shut down all of her left brain.
The left brain is the home of logical, sequential thinking.  The left brain tells us who we are and who we are in relation to others.  Dr. Taylor’s mother came to help take care of her but when she arrived Dr. Taylor did not know who she was or what the word ‘mother’ meant.  She also lost the capacity to order things in her mind sequentially.  The knowledge that socks need to be put on before shoes is a left brain function that Dr. Taylor had to relearn.  Due to her stroke, Dr. Taylor lost these abilities and it took her eight years to restore full functionality. 
In a sense, the left brain is what takes care of the five W’s – who, what, where, when and why – for us.  We use our left brains to tell ourselves who we are, what we’re doing, how we’re doing, what’s going to happen next, etc.  Do you know the little voice inside your head – the one that is almost always talking to you and evaluating you and the world around you?  Dr. Taylor calls this “brain chatter” and it is a left brain function.
However, what was really fascinating to me was her description of how she felt after losing the functionality of her left brain. This is from her book where she is trying to describe how a person undergoing a similar experience might feel:
No longer capable of perceiving temperature, vibration, pain or proprioception (the position of your limbs), your awareness of your physical boundaries shifts.  The essence of your energy expands as it blends with the energy around you, and you sense that you are as big as the universe.  Those little voices inside your head, reminding you of who you are and where you live, become silent.  You lose memory connection to your old emotional self and the richness of this moment, right here, right now, captivates your perception.  Everything, including the life force you are, radiates pure energy.  With childlike curiosity, your heart soars in peace and your mind explores new ways of swimming in a sea of euphoria. (p. 81)
Elsewhere, she says, “To the right mind, no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with sensation.  Life or death occurs in the present moment.  The experience of joy happens in the present moment.  Our perception and experience of connection with something that is greater than ourselves occurs in the present moment.  To the right mind, the moment of now is timeless and abundant. (p. 29)
What Dr. Taylor seems to be saying is very simple:  when the right brain can function free from the dominance of the left brain (and for most of us, our left brain is dominant, even if we are left-handed), we are able to perceive the fundamental connection we have with the universe.  We sense the interconnectedness of all things.  We feel an overpowering sense of love and of being loved, down to the core of our being.  We feel a connection to something that we often describe as Holy.
An important aspect of these experiences is that the five ‘W’s don’t really apply to them.  Often the person loses the sense of having a separate identity and feels incredibly connected to the entire world, so in a very real sense there is no ‘who.’  There is no ‘what’ because these experiences are not about activity, or about something happening in the physical universe.  These experiences, while generally short by clock time, frequently are perceived as being timeless during the process, so ‘when’ doesn’t apply.  Similarly, these experiences are generally not localized to a particular location but embrace all locations, ruling out the quality of ‘where’.  Finally, there isn’t a clear ‘why’ to the experience, other than the sense of the universe’s or God’s overwhelming love and the naturalness and rightness of this love’s expression.
These feelings of spaciousness, of a loving connection to the universe, of experiencing the moment of now as timeless and abundant – these are consistent with what the mystics tell us about the nature of God and spiritual experience. 
For example, in Judaism, the Kabbalist Moses Cordovero, in the 16th Century (using language consistent with his times) wrote, “The Creator Himself, [is] at one and the same time, knowledge, the knower, 
and the known ... There exists nothing which is not united to Him and which
He does not find His own essence. He is the type of all being, and all 
things exist in Him under their most pure and most perfect form.  Buddha said, “He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings.” Meher Baba said, “The soul…is so great that it includes all
objects, however large or numerous, within itself. For it is not so much that
you are within the cosmos as that the cosmos is within you.”  There are many other examples.
At this point, it is possible that your inner voice (the left brain) is saying, ‘This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with the High Holidays?’ 
The High Holidays are about the Jewish practice of t’shuvahT’shuvah is sometimes defined as repentance, but there is an implication in the word t’shuvah of turning.  If I walk away from you but then I change my mind and come back, then this would be a small example of t’shuvah.  So t’shuvah in the Jewish context is not merely a matter of feeling sorry about what one has done, but more that we turn away from those aspects of self that lead us to these dark places and turn more to the best parts of ourselves that can take us to the light.  In more theological language, we turn away from our selfish pursuits and turn towards God.
Why should we do this?  Or, to put the matter even more bluntly, what’s in it for us?  T’shuvah is not exactly a fun practice.  It involves not only admitting that we were wrong and trying to fix things, but it also entails an ongoing change of behavior. Maimonides said that the way to tell if t’shuvah is genuine is that the person doesn’t repeat the same behavior when subsequently exposed to the same temptation.  This is clearly a lot more than just saying we’re sorry.  It’s about making fundamental change. In a very real sense, it is about surrendering an aspect of self that has been important to us.  This is never easy. 
But I think Dr. Taylor and the other mystics’ experiences of connection, love and joy resulting from living in their right brains illustrate a very important reason why we should do our best to practice t’shuvah.
While we need our left brain for survival (it is how each of us was able to get here today), it is the left brain’s dominance of the right brain, and its incessant focus on the five W’s, that prevents us from truly being in the moment and having the ability to perceive and experience the Holiness that is always present.  The experience of God is in the present, and it transcends the left brain’s five W’s.
Letting go of the left brain is not easy or natural for us. But if we have not undergone the process of t’shuvah, if we are still attempting to manage the conflicts between how we are and how we think we should be, between what we have done to others and what we should have done and between what people know about us and what we know about ourselves, then we cannot let go of our left brain functioning.  We become embedded in our left brains for protection and the illusion of safety that they bring, and we can’t see how they obscure the light and love of the Divine. 
So practicing t’shuvah assists us in letting go of our left brain processing.  When we live in harmony with ourselves and others we don’t need to over-manage the five ‘W’s of our story. We become able to surrender to the reality of the present moment.  We improve our ability to function out of the grace and holy connection that our right brains make possible.  We put parentheses around the letter ‘W’ in the question “WHERE IS GOD?” and what’s left is the question’s answer – “HERE IS GOD”.
May all of us be blessed this year with the experience of knowing “HERE IS GOD.”  This year, may each of us be given the strength to do what we need to do to live in harmony with ourselves and others.  This year, may all that obscures the presence of the Holy and Sacred be diminished.  May we each serve as vessels, not only to convey, but also to experience, Divine love, Divine light and Divine peace, throughout this year 5773.  K’en y’hi ratzon.  May it be God’s will.  L’shana tova.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Robert Welt on Nitzavim and the Beatles

Shabbat Shalom!
                As most of you know, I have two main interests (aside from studying Torah and leading prayers, of course J) : those interests are music and comics.  

                These two interests match up well with the themes of my portion, as we can see right from the beginning.  Just before he is about to die, Moses gives his final speech to the people of Israel, telling them, “You stand here this day, ALL OF YOU…”  Over the centuries, commentators have asked why he added that last word, KOOLCHEM, in Hebrew, which means “All of you.”  As we read in a commentary in our Bible, “The whole community is greater than the sum of its parts. Each individual may be flawed and imperfect, but when all of them join together, the strengths of each are reinforced.  This also teaches that no one should say, “It’s not my responsibility.”

                In other words, it’s all about teamwork, and the responsibility of each individual.  As it states in the book of Kohelet in the Bible, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.” Teamwork is a very important Jewish value.

                You can see this demonstrated in music and comics. 

                In comics, each hero has to work closely with others even if they are not officially part of a team.  The Justice League and the Avengers are the perfect examples of teamwork in action.  As powerful as each superhero is individually, only by working together can they accomplish their common goal. 

                In music, when you are in a band, each person needs the others in order to produce just the right sound.  I’m a huge Beatles fan.  I know everything that there is to know about them!  Did your know, for instance, that “Let it Be” was actually recorded BEFORE “Abbey Road.”  But there was so much fighting on the “Let it Be” master that they had to re-do it, and in the meantime, they released “Abbey Road.” 

It’s important to know that the Beatles did not really become super popular until they replaced their old drummer, Pete Best, with Ringo.  If they hadn’t done that, they would probably have ended up playing in run down clubs and bar mitzvah parties.  Yet we think of Ringo as the least important Beatle.  And he might be, but for a team to accomplish great things, even the least important member matters.

Just as we can wonder what the Beatles would have been like without Ringo, we can ask what the Jewish people would be like without Moses, or without Abraham, or for that matter without Judy Aronin, or for that matter, without me.  Today I’m taking my place with those who have come before me.  I know that for the Jewish people to help build a better world, everyone needs to contribute – including and especially me!

For my mitzvah project, I’ve been supporting the “Adopt a Fire Fighter project.” It’s important to me because I feel that this money will help fire fighters to purchase new equipment to fight wildfires in Israel – there have been many fires there this summer, just as there have been in America.
In my rabbi's charge to Robert, I sang to him these Beatles songs with their original Jewish lyrics :)  

Moses is the Guy We'll Follow

(Sung to the tune of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds")

Picture yourself in a desert in Sinai
With sand in your shoes, and sun in your eyes
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A man who's incredibly wise.

Very tall mountains of yellow and brown
Towering over your head
Look for the man with G-d's light in his eyes and he's gone.

Moses is the guy we'll follow
Moses is the guy we'll follow
Moses is the guy we'll follow

For Purim: “Esther Day”
Esther Day
Ahashverosh sent his queen away
Had a game Vashti refused to play
And so today is Esther Day

Every woman dreams of royalty
But there is one so fair all can agree
Esther Day came suddenly

Why she had to show I don't know
She wouldn't say
Of her deep, dark past no one asked
On Esther Day
Esther Day

Ahashverosh' court was swept away
Little did they know she was a "J"
Hip hip hooray
For Esther Day

And the ever famous “Hey Jew”

HeyJewdon't be afraid / don't eat ham; beef is better / The minute you let it under your skin / You will have sinned, so try to be better. /

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5773

Audio Links
Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - here
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - here

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5773 – The God Particle

By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

I savor this opportunity to wish you all a Shanah Tova - because this may be the final time we’re all together to do least if the Mayan calendar is to be believed.

According to an ancient Mayan prophecy, there will be no more new years.  Forget about next Rosh Hashanah…. We won't even reach January 1.  The world will come to an end, the prophecy states, on December 21 of this year.  So we will have Hanukkah.  All eight days.  But no Christmas.    Just saying...

I'm a pretty skeptical guy, and I was skeptical of this prophecy that we won't make it to the next New Year, until I heard the stunning news this past April that Dick Clark had died.  Coincidence?  New Years Eve somehow survived the passing of Guy Lombardo.  But Dick Clark?  I'm not so sure.

So as I speak to you this morning, there is a great uncertainty, one that transcends all the economic and political turmoil, one that exceeds even the great angst we feel about Iran, and do we ever -  and about Syria and Egypt and Libya - and about Israel herself.

Will any of that matter six months from now? Will we all be here?  The liturgy does little to comfort us, what with the Unetane Tokef prayer that we just chanted, asking the very same question, and crying out "Who shall live and who shall die?” Mi Yichye um Yamut?

“Who by Fire and Who by Water?” “Mi Ba-eshu mi ba-mayim?” 

This past summer, I traveled to Colorado for a family bat mitzvah, and the smoky stench of Rocky Mountain wildfires asphyxiated downtown Denver. In that thin air, it was hard to breathe.  A few weeks later, I performed a wedding in Barbados (Yes, it’s a tough job… but give me a break.  Most of my business trips are to cemeteries in Queens). Twelve hours after we left the island, it was hit by a tropical storm.  Within the course of a few precious weeks this summer, then, I literally lived this prayer – Mi Ba-eshu mi ba-mayim?”  

“Who by fire and who by water?” That was nearly me – both times.

Mi B’Kitzo – umi lo B’kitzo?” “Who will die at his natural time, and whose life will be cut short abruptly?”  

On our way from Denver airport, we drove through Aurora, having no idea that just days after our departure, it would become yet another metaphor for the madness is overcoming our society.

Mi Lo B’Kitzo?

In Israel with our group last month, we visited Yad Vashem, along with the site of Prime Minister Rabin's murder in Tel Aviv.  And then we went to Mount Herzl and saw too many graves of soldiers who died way before their time. And then, we brought gifts and support to Israeli soldiers up on the Lebanese border.  And I greeted these amazing soldiers, youth and promise personified, kids who should be dressing for the prom, and instead are weighed down with weapons and gear and the uncertainties of the world on their shoulders - knowing that at any time, the battle of their lives could begin.  And I wondered, quietly, through my smiles, who among this group of half dozen, in one year’s time, might be resting on Mount Herzl?

Mi B’Kitzo, umi Lo B’kitzo?

Maybe the Mayans are onto something.  Maybe Unetane Tokef is too.  In Israel, go into a supermarket and you'll see a version of this prayer everywhere.  Not exactly Unetane Tokef; but Pag Tokef.   A pag tokef is an expiration date.  This prayer reminds us that we all have one. We sit there on the shelf, waiting to be summoned to the task at hand, not wanting to spoil or go stale.

Most of us don't know when our pag tokef is.  Steve Jobs knew. Jobs died this past year after a long bout with pancreatic cancer.  But as early as 2005, he could tell a goup of students at Stanford, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Now, thanks to the Mayans, and to Unetane Tokef, we all wander in the valley of the shadow of death, as we approach December 21, 2012.

Steve Job’s expiration date was much too soon.  So was my father’s, and with each passing year I get closer to the age when he passed. While I'm not a believer that biology is destiny, the approach of that date makes me even more keenly aware of the impact of everything I do. I see that pag tokef in front of me.  

Each of us is one day closer to that expiration date than we were when we woke up yesterday, one hour closer than when we began musaf.  The High Holidays, more than anything else, are designed to remind us of that simple, clear fact.  Rabbi Eliezer stated that we should repent one day before our death.  “Does then one know on what day he will die?" his students asked.  "All the more reason he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow" (Shabbat 153a). 

We should examine our deeds every single day – because every day could be our pag tokef, our expiration date.  

We must take what seems like a predetermined destiny and read it instead as a moral call to arms.  It’s not that we will die because our time has come.  It’s that we assert through the sheer force of human will that can reverse that evil decree.  We will not submit to any ancient prophecy or the dictates of our DNA.  We will live – And not just today and tomorrow – but on December 22nd too.  We will prove the Mayans wrong! Our time has not yet come.

When my father died, it was not that his time had come.  It is because his rheumatic heart gave out and heart transplantation had not yet advanced to where it is today. 
When 12 precious souls died in Aurora, it was not because it was their destiny.  It was because a single crazy person got a hold of enough ammo to terrorize a hundred movie theaters, and he did the unthinkable.

When 7 died at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin, or the four Americans in Libya last week, it was not because God willed it, but because bigotry and hatred reigned in the heart of the shooters.

They all died “lo b’kitzo,” not in their time.

Unetane Tokef is a call to arms against the determinism of the Mayan calendar.  It is a call to live with dignity and compassion for however many days we have left.  It is a call not to be preoccupied by the precise date of our death, but always to have awareness that it could be any day. 

But really, should I be blaming the Mayans here?  I did some exhaustive research on the Mayan Apocalypse – OK, I Googled it – and I discovered something very interesting.  The whole thing might just be a misunderstanding of the ancient Mayans’ intent.   According to Guatamalan author Carlos Barrios, the famous date of December 21, 2012 marks not the end of time as Hollywood would imagine it, but the beginning of a change in consciousness, when “a new socioeconomic order will arise in harmony with Mother Earth.”  There are a number of beliefs in regard to this December; all revolving around the winter solstice coinciding with the Earth’s being located at a point of particular balance, midway through the Milky Way.  

Other traditions also see this as a time of spiritual transformation for the world.  In India, over 15 million Hindus consider Guru Kalki Bhagavan to be the incarnation of the god Vishnu and believe that 2012 marks the end of the Kali Yuga, or degenerate age.

What we have with the Mayans, then, at least in some people’s estimation, are cycles of creation and destruction, but leading not to an ultimate apocalypse, but rather a time of eternal peace and bliss – a better time, not an end time at all.  It all sounds very, well, Jewish.  

Midrash Genesis Rabbah cites Rabbi Avahu’s claim that God created numerous universes prior to the creation of this one. Each time God created a universe, something went wrong and the experiment was discarded.  But when this one was created, God looked around and saw that it was Tov Me’od, very good.  This one was a keeper.  This one God could work with.

What a great midrash.  It teaches that that, for the rabbis, not even God could determine in advance whether a given world would work out.  It was not a given that any world would survive or be destroyed.  There were apocalypses aplenty.  But this one, the world we inhabit, has not been destroyed.  Why?  Because people have demonstrated a capacity to grow and change.  A will that can overcome even the dictates of one’s own biological or social predispositions.   Because teshuvah has entered the world.  Because we’ve learned how to press on.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not claiming that this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, just that I feel I can say with a  degree of confidence that we will wake upon December 22 and the world will still be here.

They discovered the God particle this summer.  And it was a big deal.  I tried to get my arms around the concept.  I Googled it.  Evidently, in my layman’s understanding, this particle somehow takes mass and propels it into energy.  It propels everything forward, and in doing so, it enables existence to happen. Maybe this little particle, writ large, is that thing that pushes us to get up when we’ve fallen, like that panic button seniors wear – you know, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” 

But we can!  We can get up. Even if we are physically unable to rise from the floor, there is something pushing us to live on. We’ve got the God particle.  And we’ve learned this summer that not only is it in our DNA, it’s in every atom.  BECAUSE WE ALWAYS HAVE TO GET UP.  WE HAVE TO FIGHT THOSE FORCES THAT KEEP PUSHING US DOWN.  WE ALWAYS HAVE TO KEEP MOVING FORWARD. We always have to change. Past does not need to be prologue.  There can always be a brighter future.  But only if we push that button and get up. 

That button – that sound - TEKIYAH – wake up!  I’ve fallen but I can’t get up!  SHEVARIM!  I’m broken and I can’t get up!   Teruah! I’m crying – I’m sobbing and I can’t get up.  And yet we do get up. 

And yet we do get up.

When we say Kaddish, we activate that God particle within us.  Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Shmay Rabbah.  We say it again and again and it lifts us, as we try to reestablish the reign of sanctity and order, to overcome the chaos of death.  We say it in the Amida – God is what lifts us – Somech noflim, and heals us – rofeh cholim – and releases us “matir asurim.”  As Judaic scholar Eitan Fishbane describes it, “God is the space within the inextricable threads of life.  God is the mystery that pulsates at the core of our living and our dying.” 

The God particle is within us.  It propels us to rise, but we only can rise as an act of will.  Author Sam Harris wrote in his book called “Free Will” - “Free will is an illusion.  Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.”

The instinct to live does go beyond free will.  We recognize that when we try to hold our breath.  But to rise, when you’ve fallen and can’t get up, THAT does take an act of will. 
We never stop moving forward.  We never stop changing.  We never stop growing.

Last May, I had the unique experience of moving both my son and my mother to new homes - on the same day.  And I moved the other son, Dan, a week earlier from his dorm so that he could help me move Ethan and my Mom.  What an incredible experience.  My mother had decided it was time to leave an apartment she had called home for over 30 years.  It was time.   So she moved back from Newton to Brookline, into a wonderful senior housing facility right near my brother’s group home and just around the block from the shul where I grew up, where my father was the cantor.  It was hard for her to downsize, to shed the belongings of a long life well lived, souvenirs of her past and mine.  

But, now that it’s all behind us, and her condo was sold, she has not been happier in years.  She may have fallen, but she has gotten up. 

Just before Dan and I left her on that moving day, I looked up and saw something that shook me to the core.  Dan was making her bed.  He made her bed, just as his parents had done for him when we left him at college; just as so many of us have done for our kids on the first day of camp – and just as my mother had done for me.  With hospital corners.  She always insisted on hospital corners.  It was like we were leaving her at camp. 

Such a simple, mundane thing, but such an intimate, loving gesture. It’s all about creating order out of the chaos of life, preparing the way for the next stage of the journey.

It occurred to me that life comes down to a series of beds made, beds messed up and beds made again.  Our parents keep making our beds, and we make our children’s and then they make ours.  And finally, we make our parents’ beds. 

Until that day we shovel earth into that final bed, tucking a loved one in one last time.
All the soldiers’ graves on Mount Herzl look like neatly made beds.

And while my mother adjusts to her new life in her old age, and my sons adjust to their dorms and try to chart their futures, here I am.  The bed-maker in chief.  The only one not actually moving, but who still must always be changing.  Judaism is an anchor too.  It gives the illusion of stability while shifting just as radically as everything else. 

Psalm 19 speaks of the circuitous journey of the sun across the skies, like a bridegroom bursting forth from his wedding chamber to take on the dizzying rat race.  But, the Psalmist then adds,

 תּוֹרַת יְהוָה תְּמִימָה, מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁGod’s Torah is complete, giving stability to life. 

The God particle keeps us moving forward, but the Torah provides us with the ballast to gain firm footing as we move onward…

And upward.

It occurs to me that there just may be an upward slope to history.  Not something God determined, but God propelled.  A world of peace and harmony is hardly a given.  But this God particle.  This thing that drives us forward.  There is something to it.  There is something magical about the human capacity for goodness and I daresay that it is winning out – perhaps just as the Mayans predicted.  Perhaps there is a new era at hand – though I doubt it will begin with a fanfare on December 21.

Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed famously that the “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I see some truth to that.  We’ve made great advances in equal rights, for instance.  But in Jewish tradition, justice is only half the battle.  For Jews, the arc of the moral universe must bend, at least as much, toward love.

And that is what is happening as we approach the end of 2012.  There are some small signs that all is not lost.

This year, Jerusalem climber Nadav ben Yehuda was set to become, at 24, the youngest Israeli ever to conquer Mount Everest, and only the 5th of all time.  But he prepared for his final ascent; he saw a few feet away, a Turkish climber named Aydin Irmak who lay there, dying.  He had fallen and he couldn’t get up.  He chose to forgo the climb and took the Turk on his back, tying the nearly lifeless body to his harness and then dragging him down to the mountain base camp eight hours away.  Israel and Turkey have been having tough times lately, but Nadav explained his heroic deed very simply to the Jerusalem Report.  “Aydin Irmak was my friend.”

The arc is bending toward love.

Over here, when we read about Israel, it’s usually in the context of tension and strife.  And there is certainly enough to go around.  We are all desperately worried about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and what the world will do about it.  On every border, Israel feels the tension, and the Palestinian Authority is also showing signs of fraying, even as it continues to incite hatred against Jews.  

Internally there is tension too.  I was at the Kotel last month when four members of the Women of the Wall were arrested for the horrible crime of wearing a tallit.  This, in a Jewish state?  And that same week, a 17 year old Arab Jamal Julani, was attacked by a mob of Jewish youth and an Arab taxi driver and six members of the Palestinian Ghayada family were severely burned by a Molotov cocktail tossed at them in Gush Etzion.   A week later, Jews defaced a Trappist monastery in Latrun, and then a mosque in Hebron.  There is tension.

But the Israel I saw and the one our group saw was something very different from all this.  Arabs and Jews were mixing everywhere.  With minimal security detectable.  The beach in Tel Aviv – the world’s first all Jewish city – was filled with Palestinians from the West Bank, many of whom had never seen the seashore before.  Many of whom had never seen a bikini.  We drove up north and the traffic was impossible.  I’ve never seen Tiberias so busy.  Again, Jews and Arabs together. 

In honor of the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr, ending Ramadan, Israel had issued 130,000 entrance permits to residents of the territories.  This wasn’t exactly the lion dwelling with the lamb, but it was very encouraging.  And it was shocking, how normal it felt. No fear, very little police presence visible.  This must be what peace feels like, I thought.  And maybe a sign, a small sign that the God particle is propelling us forward.  Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, in an act worthy of the High Holidays, visited one of the victims of the Zion Square mob attack in the hospital and told him, “We are sorry… What happened is the responsibility of every leader and member of Knesset.” And even on the pluralism front, there is progress.  Some non orthodox rabbis are being paid by the state, at long last, Israelis are engaged as never before in a serious conversation about women’s rights and the role of haredim in the military.

And in Gush Etzion, Efrat resident Yitzchak Sokoloff, who some of us know, reports that following the firebombing of the Palestinian taxi, “Local rabbis and other writers published articles and gave sermons condemning the attack. Several local schools have made the attack a central topic for discussion and condemnation. A good number of local residents, myself among them, took it upon themselves to visit the Ghayada family at Hadassah Hospital and there is an active car pool in place of Jewish volunteers ferrying members of the extended family back and forth to the hospital.”

“For all of my discomfort,” Yitzchak adds, “I was heartened by my visit to Hadassah Hospital.  I sat with Bassam  , the driver of the taxi, who was himself severely burned.  He welcomed me with tears in his eyes and spoke with equal sadness about the violence perpetrated by Jews and by Arabs.”

We’ve seen too many examples of anti-Semitism this year, most especially the terror attacks on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France and Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.  But two weeks ago, 1,000 Berliners gathered in the city’s Schöneberg district to demonstrate against anti-Semitism, following an attack on a rabbi. A thousand Berliners.  Many of them wore yarmulkes to demonstrate their support.  The city’s largest daily proclaimed, “Berlin wears a Kippah.”

Maybe the tide is turning.

We held an Interfaith Seder here last March.   Over a 120 people, all faiths and ethnicities.  That all grew out of our September 11 service last fall, which led to our interfaith Comparative Religions class and, as we’ve seen, to our choir this morning.  How meaningful it is to be able to pray with our neighbors alongside us.  And I say to them, “Welcome.” Welcome!  Let us work together to bend that arc of the moral universe toward love.  

The conventional wisdom is that religion has radicalized in the post modern world. There are those who seek to use religion as a lever to divide us rather than as a banner to unite us.  I know that the temptation among many people is to see the damage that has been done in God’s name and to flee all faith.  Even easier during this past week.

But religion has a role to play – a very important role – in a world of upheaval.  It can help bring people together.  As Andrew Sullivan wrote recently in Newsweek, “The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been?”

I plead with all of you – do not lose faith…in faith.  We are not sliding toward apocalypse.

The capacity for kindness is there.  The capacity for inclusiveness is there.  The capacity for love is there.  It is embedded in every strand of our DNA – in every atom of existence.  It is the God particle, and it is in us all.  When love and courage win out, we can ask the old question, is it odd or is it God?  I don’t know, but I do believe, to cite a popular phrase from this year, that the odds are increasingly in our favor.

We can’t let hatred and despair win.

This past July, thousands gathered in Columbus Park for “Alive at Five” to hear Matisyahu the very popular Jewish reggae singer – what a great thing - let me just reiterate that - what an amazing city we live in, where all different kinds of people can work together.  If I’m going to die on Dec. 21, I couldn’t pick a better place to spend my final days.
 At the concert, the throngs of young fans were whipped into a frenzy, totally focused on the performer (though I wasn’t thrilled at some of the liquid refreshment being shared and traces of smoke that did not appear to be of the medicinal variety).  And they were singing about, well, Jewish things, like the part of the Jewish calendar that we had just entered, the Three Weeks marking the destruction of the temples.

Jerusalem, if I forget you,
let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do

That’s what he sang.  Put yourself in my shoes.  Any rabbi would absolutely sell his soul to be among thousands of people, literally thousands, primarily 20 and 30-somethings, Jews and non Jews, swaying, hugging and singing about Tisha B’Av – and Jerusalem. 

And he had us all dreaming of a better world with his rousing finale, “One Day,” a song made famous at the Vancouver Olympics, a song that echoes the optimism that Jews have carried through centuries of darkness.

Sometimes in my tears I drown
But I never let it get me down
So when negativity surrounds
I know someday it'll all turn around because

All my life I been waiting for
I been prayin for
For the people to say
That we don't want to fight no more
They'll be no more wars
And our children will play

One day, One day, One day…
One day….

He kept singing it over and over.  One day.  One day.  Over and over.  One day…Hayom…Hayom…

And I’m standing there in the middle of the crowd singing with the guy next to me who must be wondering who this old guy is – and he’s singing and everyone is singing.

And it makes me think of those beautiful Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border, and those Sikhs in Wisconsin and those kids in Aurora and those Americans in Libya, and that Arab taxi driver and those Israeli and Turkish mountain climbers – and the people who are still out of work and the people who are sick and the people who’ve been bullied and the people who have fallen and they keep getting up! 

And I think of my son, making his grandmother’s bed.  And God, reinventing the world, making our bed.  

The Arc of American history may bend toward justice. And the arc of Mayan history may bend toward apocalypse.  But the arc of Jewish History bends toward love – and it bends toward hope.  

It will get better. It will change – the word shanah means change - It will get better.  
Today.  Tomorrow.  V’im lo machar az machartayim…. If not tomorrow, then the day after…   If not Tishei 1, then December 21…   Eventually, inevitably, the God particle will propel us forward.  The fallen will rise

One day.


Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5773 – Many Paths, No Shortcuts

By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

When last we met, I ended yesterday’s sermon with a reference to last summer’s “Alive at Five” concert here in Stamford featuring Matisyahu.  So let’s pick up the tale from there.  If you were at the concert, you might have been surprised at how the singer looked.  Where there had once been a long scraggly beard and black frock of a Hasidic disciple, now Matisyahu has forsaken the messianic for the messy and shed his 18th century Polish garb and the Brooklyn beard for the windblown blonde coif of a newly minted Californian.

 “No more Chassidic reggae superstar,” Matisyahu wrote on his Web site. “Sorry folks, all you get is me … no alias.”

One commenter on his Web site wrote, “As a huge fan of your music and your personal voyage, I’m pretty confused right now.” Another said, “I am so sad that you did this. ... I can’t even breathe.”

Matisyahu, with or without the beard, is one of the best ambassadors to the younger generation that we Jews have, and he takes his role seriously. But without the beard, he is something different.

The Beardless One still observes Shabbat and eats kosher.  He sends his kids to Jewish schools.  He honors his parents.  And he prays.

But the Beardless One does things that the Ba’al Teshuvah could not do.  His transformation communicates a passionate desire to continually grow and never to fall into stale patterns.  He won’t allow his physical appearance to BECOME him. He has forsaken dogmatic certainty and halachic purity for a pinch of doubt and a dose of theological humility, and these have brought him to a deeper, more spiritual and more authentic Jewish place – more authentic for himself and for his children.

As he stated in a recent interview:

“When you are raised in a religious family, you learn that there is no alternative,  (that there is only) one ultimate truth.  I’ve had to talk to my kids and explain that maybe that’s not so. Basically what I tell them is that no one can ever be sure of anything — and in this life, your teachers, parents, yourself — you can have your own ideas, your own opinions, intuitions feelings, etc., whatever it is.  But never to be too sure of yourself and never to be too sure of anyone because, at the end of the day, we don’t know.”

No doubt the facial hair will return, as he himself as promised.  But that’s OK.  He’s already shown us that the beard and black frock are not necessarily the journey’s end for any Ba’al Teshuvah, and that the process of Teshuvah in fact never ends.  It involves an eternal struggle with a tradition that is itself constantly evolving and with an elusive God who persistently refuses to be painted in anything other than infinite shades of gray.

You thought there were only fifty shades of gray!  According to our sources, every letter of the Torah is painted in at least seventy shades.

I love this Matisyahu.  He is the rabbi of the real.  He is the professor of perplexity, the discourser of doubt.

As today’s Torah reading commences, Abraham and Isaac’s journey is a nice guide on how NOT to do religious education.  The pattern is clearly set: Abraham demonstrates, Isaac acquiesces and the two move forward together. Sounds like Hebrew School of the 1950s.
Va’Vayelchu Shnayhem Yachdav – that’s the key phrase, repeated in verses six and eight.  In verse 6, Abraham takes the wood, the firestone and the knife, and the two walk off together.  In verse 7, Isaac asks a question.  It’s the only time Isaac speaks in the whole Akeda episode. He says, “I see the firestone and the wood, but where’s the sacrifice, Daddy?”

He asks the right question.  Although I might have asked, “Daddy, the last time you used that knife, I was 8 days old and it didn’t feel very good.  Are you planning to do THAT again? (You know in New York you have to sign a consent form!)” 
In verse 8, Abraham gives him the worst possible reply:

אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה, בְּנִי
 “God will provide!”  “God will take care of the sheep.” 

And then that phrase repeats…. “Vayelchu shnayhem yachdav.”  The two walked on together.  And there are no more questions by Isaac.  Nothing.   The two never speak together in the Torah text again. 

Rashi speculates that the phrase is repeated twice because by the time it was mentioned for the second time, Isaac was in complete lockstep with his dad.  The two had become one.

Wishful thinking. It may have worked in Hebrew Schools of the 1950s, but not today.  Abraham wouldn’t have lasted a week with our upper grades.

His response to Isaac’s challenging question was atrocious.  It was the equivalent of what we do when our kids ask a question we don’t want to answer.  We say, “We’ll see.” Or “Because I said so.”  But in adding God to the equation, Abraham knew that Isaac would not be able to follow up, because a follow-up question would be a challenge either to his father’s faith or to God’s ability to provide.  Basically he cut off discussion.  Isaac was stuck.  “God will provide.” His instinct to ask deep, probing religious questions was snuffed out.  One could make the claim that Isaac was sacrificed then and there.  His religious growth was snipped off like that foreskin at eight days.  His individuality had been sacrificed at the altar of conformity.  The two protagonists in fact did walk off as one, because one of them was no longer there.  Isaac was already gone.

And indeed, as we saunter through the next several chapters, Isaac is portrayed as a caretaker, physically and spiritually blind, incapable of doing the one thing that he was asked to do – choose his own heir.  Lacking a base of spiritual questioning and mature doubt, he picks the shallow Esau over the questioner, Jacob.  He picks the wrong one.
If only Isaac had run from Abraham instead of walking in lockstep.  If only he had scampered onto the synagogue roof like the troubled Hebrew School student in Philip Roth’s classic short story, “The Conversion of the Jews.”  Ozzie runs to the roof and threatens to jump until he gets his rabbi to promise never again to hit anyone about God.  That short story was central to my religious development.  I long ago made that very same pledge.  And I’ve kept it.

What is mature religious growth?  The path Matisyahu is on, to be sure.  He still happens to be observant, but perhaps not as consistent.  He wears no kipah.  He keeps kosher to a slightly modified degree and he does not perform on Shabbat.  He’s on a journey and so are we all.  We are all on different paths. 

So I have two messages today.  Message number one:  We should never hit anyone about God, because there are many kinds of Jews and many ways to be Jewish.  Many legitimate ways. I might not agree with all of them, but that does not make them less legitimate.  The current denominational labels don’t even come close to defining them. There are infinite shades of Jewishness and an infinite variety of Jews.

There are certain minimal standards that I adhere to, and that my movement adheres to.  Certain expectations or aspirations in areas of ritual and interpersonal and social ethics.   They are important, and they’ve been nicely defined in the movement’s new guide to religious practice, “The Observant Life,” a great book that I’ll be teaching this coming fall in one of our adult education series.

But not all Jews fit into that neat package. 

As I mentioned yesterday, I recently performed a wedding in Barbados. The wedding was held at the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere, called Nidhe Yisrael, which tellingly means “scattered of Israel.”  It is a Jewish community with an amazing story.  The name “Barbados” means “Bearded Ones,” referring to the plentiful fig trees, and so it was fitting that the bearded people came to the place of the bearded tree in 1654, to escape from the Portuguese Inquisition, which had made it to their prior refuge of Recife, Brazil. 

I was surprised to read in the museum adjacent to the shul that all the Jews who arrived were Conversos, also called Marranos and Crypto Jews.   In other words, Jews of Barbados were descendants of those who had publically professed Christianity but privately followed Jewish practice, only then to face the wrath of the Inquisition, first in Spain, then in Portugal, then in Brazil.  I double checked this with my friend, historian Jonathan Sarna, and he confirmed that it was likely that most if not all of the Jews of Barbados had "converso backgrounds." Expelled, tortured and ridiculed, they found freedom on this island, and only then, after a century of wandering, could they return to an open expression of their Jewish heritage. 

The floors of most Caribbean synagogues are made of sand.  Why?  Not so they can come in right off the beach. They are made of sand to muffle the noise.  Not to draw attention to themselves. 

Ever the outsiders, Conversos were the Jew’s Jews.  They couldn’t even be insiders among the group of outcasts known as the Jewish people.  Later, this group fled Barbados and moved up the Atlantic to found new synagogues in far off places like Newport, Rhode Island and New Amsterdam.

Yes, the first Jews to come to our American shores were not really Jews at all.  But they were!   And they are a lot like us.

Listen to this quote from French writer and historian Jacques Attali, describing the Conversos, a quote fond at the museum on Barbados. “Raised in a climate of doubt, torn between two religions, ever vigilant, seeking novelty in the empty shells left by others’ certainties, …capable of appreciating, accepting, believing in contradictory things, they invented the scientific mind and become the most emancipated minds of our time.” 

Jon Entine, author of Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of The Chosen People, claims that these original Conversos did not just disappear. No.  He cites DNA research suggesting that there may be as many as 10 million Brazilians who are descended from Jews.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello has been doing DNA research in the Italian region of Calabria, a hilly region on the toe of Italy’s boot where Sephardic Jews fled, only to encounter a renewed Inquisition there.  Aiello organizes Shabbat retreats and revives traditions such as Hamishi seder, a crypto-Jewish Passover gathering that was celebrated on the fifth night, rather than first, when it was less likely to be noticed. “We’re all bnei anusim [children of forced conversion] and we had our roots stolen from us,” she says. “There are Jews like me across Italy, and it’s my goal to re-sew them into the tapestry of the Jewish people.” 

There are many ways to be Jewish, many types of Jews and – many paths to Jewish destiny.  We’re all bnei anusim.

Everywhere you turn these days, there are remarkable stories of lost Jews finding their way back – generations later.  This is not a purely Sephardic phenomenon.

A Catholic woman in Poland died not long ago, survived by her husband and granddaughter. The family opened the will and there, at the very end, is the revelation that the woman had been Jewish all along.  She wanted her granddaughter to know.
This news sends the granddaughter and grandfather into a real hysteria.  This can't be.  The granddaughter gets control of herself and tries to console her grandfather.  "There there, grandpa.  It'll be okay."   He then exclaims," No, you don't understand.  I'm Jewish, too!"

This story was related by the granddaughter herself to her guide on a Birthright Israel trip a few years ago.  Her guide told our guide who told the story to our group last month at Yad Vashem.  And now I’m telling you.

Approximately 4,000 registered Jews currently live in Poland, but community leaders suspect that tens of thousands of Poles may not have identified as Jewish. In August, 25 people traveled to Israel on a trip for Poles with newly discovered Jewish roots.  They are called “The Hidden Jews of Poland.” The trip’s organizer said, "There can be no sweeter revenge for what was done to us seven decades ago in Poland than to reconnect as many of these young Polish Jews as possible with Israel and the Jewish people.”

And speaking of Birthright Israel, this year Birthright brought its 300,000th young Jew to our homeland - Jews from Poland and Greece and France, from Argentina and Mexico and Brazil, and from Stamford and Norwalk and Greenwich - many, if not most of them, rediscovering their Jewish roots and reconnecting with Jewish destiny.

New York Times writer Doreen Carvajal recently wrote a memoir called “The Forgetting River,” about discovering her own Jewish past in Spain. She had been brought up Catholic and only late in life did start collecting the “nagging clues of a very clandestine identity.”  

She quotes a phrase from T. S. Eliot:

“And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

It sounds like a Jewish journey.  Like the kind we are all on, no matter what our observance level.   

Laurel Snyder author of the children’s book “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher,” wrote recently on the CNN Belief blog, that she was having trouble figuring out the role of kashrut in her family’s life.   

She wrote: There’s something about having kids that makes me want to be a better version of my Jewish self. I want something special to pass on to them. Something more than “You’re Jewish because I’m Jewish.”

(But) in truth, I do not keep kosher and I don’t really want to. My husband is not Jewish, though we’re raising our family to be. So, yeah, we eat tacos for Shabbat dinner most weeks and usually skip Friday night services.

This is the truth and I have to own it. I can only shift my life around so much without feeling inauthentic.Lying to my kids about my religious life is no way to model the value of faith.

The purpose of faith, as I understand it, is to infuse life with greater meaning. To make it more real.  Not to dress it up. Not to pretend.

My kids and I are on a journey together. We’re setting out for parts unknown.

And while we may find ourselves changing as we trek along, there is a sacred quality in simply being who we are today. Of stopping on the trail and taking a deep breath. It’s enough, I think, to be exactly who we are, kosher or not.

So, I bet THAT’S not something you expected to hear me preach about.  In truth, I don’t entirely agree with Laurel Snyder, but perhaps surprisingly, we’re not that far apart.  I too advocate trekking along.  But I’d like that trek to be just a little bit uphill. 

Which brings me to my second point.  There are many ways to be Jewish and many types of Jews. That was point number one.  Of that I absolutely agree.  But… and here’s number two: there are no shortcuts.  The climb needs to be constant, the search relentless.  We need to transform what is into what ought to be.  Where we end up, who knows?  Some may keep strictly kosher, others less so.  For some it may suffice to travel to the ends of the earth to explore their genealogy.  But whatever we do should not be lip service.  It should be all consuming.  There is no easy way.

As we read in “The Hobbit,” “Short cuts make for long delays.”

That point is brought home to me every time I try to send an email on my iPhone, and the autocorrect demonstrates that it never went to Hebrew School.  Whenever I type in a Jewish word, this supposed time saver jumps the gun and makes me sound very dumb.

Autocorrect was intended as a remedy to having to constantly backtrack when texting on mobile phones, where our enormous thumbs often wreak havoc on those minuscule keypads. Using algorithms, it anticipates what you are trying to say and completes the word for you.  But time and time again, I find myself wishing I had just turned off the shortcut and done things the long way. Shortcuts are bad!

Some examples:

I write the word Seder, and my ipad jumps the gun gives me – sedation (“I need to pour the four cups of wine for the second sedation Thursday night.”)

Yontiff - Pontiff

Kipa – lips   (“Joey, here is a clip for your lips.”)

Minyan – minivan (“We need a tenth for our minivan”)

Kotel becomes Kotex – not going there – and motel.  (“The tearful Israeli soldiers had made it!  They grasped the stones of the motel.”)

Glila – glitz 

Musaf – missed (I’m sure it was) 

Tefillin – refilling (actually rather profound)

Hol Hamoed – Call Hemorrhoids (“The middle days of Pesach, Call Hemorrhoids, are a nice break after the Sedation”)

And to give some equal time to Sukkot, someone on Facebook posted the other day that autocorrect had turned lulav and Etrog into “Lilac and estrogen.”

Tevila – revival – not so far off / born again.

Huppah – humph (a sad commentary on marriage)

And here’s my all time favorite.  Chosenness - chose mess.

Yes, if we’ve chosen to be Jewish, we’ve chosen a mess.  An enormous mishmash of history, ritual, ethics and imagination, worlds created and destroyed, identities lost and recovered.  There is no short cut to exploring it – or explaining it.  Being Jewish is a life-long vocation.  And it is – or it should be – a lifelong labor of love.

God chose the long way in the Wilderness – not the coastal route, in order for us to experience the many tests of those forty years of wandering, a claim Moses himself makes in Deuteronomy chapter 8.  Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes, “The hardships of life are vehicles for growth.  Each time we confront the suffering life presents we grow stronger, more able to keep our purpose…

There are no shortcuts to a full Jewish life.
Ten days of Birthright Israel cannot be enough.  The ten days of Repentance can never be enough.  This week can only be a springboard to a deeper commitment.  The era of the three day a year Jew is over.  

There are many paths to Jewish identity – but all of them are long, and all of them are uphill. It is not easy to be a Jew.

Returning to that striking midrash from yesterday, where God kept on destroying universe after universe, creating new ones, and the crumpling them up again…. God was simply modeling for us how to live our lives.  We can never be totally satisfied with where we are.  We always need to be creating new worlds, always embarking on new projects.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik posits that the obligation to imitate God isn’t purely about moral action, like feeding the hungry, but that it extends to God's capacity to create, as well.  We, like God, are compelled to be creative, to be God-like, always to be inventing new worlds.

In essence we inherit the vast body of Jewish tradition from our ancestors – and then we reinvent it.  Judaism is renewed within each of us, and by each of us.  We don’t just pass it down unopened.  Judaism can’t be regifted.  Each of us is a living Torah.  And if what we reinvent is radically different from the Judaism of our ancestors, so was theirs very different from their ancestors’.

There are common threads that link Laurel Snyder, Matisyahu and Moses, you and me.  But it comes down not to any particular ritual practice or theology.  Certainly there is monotheism, but that meant something very different to Moses than it does to us.  There are ethical common denominators – like an abhorrence of child sacrifice, which we learned in today’s Torah reading. There are cultural threads, like the embrace of questioning, the engagement with the land and people of Israel, and the striving for a perfected world.  And, perhaps most of all, there is the centrality of humanity – the eternal lessons of loving the stranger and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  As we’ve been tossed from empire to empire, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Rome to Arabia to Europe to America, we’ve never given up on people. We’ve taken the best from each culture and given back to that culture. We’ve never withdrawn, never stopped engaging, even when we’ve had to daven on floors made of sand.

Speaking of sand, there’s lots of sand in Moab.  This summer, I had the rare opportunity to gaze upon the Mountains of Moab on two different continents.  First, in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Moab, Utah, and then, on the top of Masada, staring out at the original Moab range, across the Dead Sea in Jordan.  In both places the natural beauty is stark and striking.  Both have forbidding landscapes.  In Utah we literally drove for hours without seeing a single human habitation.  Israel has the natural beauty too, but what makes it special is that every inch of that land is a place where hundreds of generations of human beings have laughed and cried and striven.  Layers upon layers of civilizations.  While all people grapple with the predicament of being human, no group of people has done it better and longer and more intensively, and under more challenging conditions, than the Jews.

And when I was at the Dead Sea, we passed the ancient community of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  If you saw the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit last winter in Manhattan, you learned about how they came from a world of clashing visions of Judaism.  Pharasees, Saducess, Essenes, all with very different perspectives as to what it means to be a Jew.  There was no Judaism back then, but many Judaisms.  Just as today.

But you also may have discovered something else.  The excavations that yielded the scrolls yielded other treasures in the Judean WIlderness.  They yielded 30 pairs of tefillin - phlacteries.  In the box that we wear on our heads, there are four separate compartments, each containing a different text from the Torah.  In the box that we wear on our arms, there is only one compartment, containing all four texts.  On the head, we celebrate our rich diversity, while on the arm, we celebrate our unity, or ability to come together.  Whenever we’ve had to, the Jewish people have come together, setting differences aside. 

There are many ways to be Jewish.  Many Judaisms.  But only one Jewish people.
And there are no shortcuts to living a full Jewish life.

No matter what path you take – being Jewish is not merely a path, but a destiny, and it is a destiny that is shared … 

…By Matisyahu the bearded and shaven, by the Converso narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Inquisition, by the Holocaust survivor who hides her identity.  By Abraham and Isaac.  By you and by me. We’re all bnei anusim.  We are all Conversos.  And we were all slaves as well.

No shortcuts – Many paths – One People.