From the Rabbi's Desk

Rabbi Danny Gottlieb

Flying in Israel

on Friday, 31 October 2014. Posted in Rabbi

From Rabbi Gottlieb, 10/31/2014

This morning began with an internal flight on Israair, from Eilat to Tel Aviv. A tour of the Rubin Art Museum, reviewing the history of the State of Israel through the works of one of her most famous artists. Lunch and shopping in the Nachalat Binyamin market, and now we are at rest, preparing for Shabbat evening service at Natan Ya Congregation in Netanya. Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom...

Dead Sea & South

on Thursday, 30 October 2014. Posted in Rabbi

From Rabbi Gottlieb, 10/30/2014

WiFi has been intermittent over the past couple of days. We left Jerusalem and headed south with stops at the Dead Sea (look for pictures of BIJ mud people...) and Massada. Then to the kibbutzim of the Arava -- Yahel, Lotan, Keturah and Grofit, to see the tremendous R&D of dessert ecology and resources. Yesterday we crossed into the Kingdom of Jordan for a visit to Petra, one of the true wonders of the world. It has been a full few days, packed with information, visions and the people of the south.

The Holy Land: Tzfat and Jerusalem

on Monday, 27 October 2014.

From Rabbi Gottlieb, 10/27/2014

Shabbat has come and gone, so I will resume blogging now...

Our Friday was shared between two of Israel's four "holy cities", Tzvat and Jerusalem (the other two are Tiberias and Hebron).  We began in Tzvat, the city of the Mystics, visiting the beautiful Ari synagogue and learning a bit about Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah in the place where it's masters lived. Stopped to sing Lecha Dodi together in the place where the Mystics used to go out to greet the Shabbat bride, knowing that our first Shabbat in Israel was only hours away. 

Then we traveled south to Jerusalem, entering into the city and stopping at a vista point overlooking the Old City, where we sang Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and a Shehechiyanu.  Erev Shabbat took us to services at Kol Haneshama, one of Jerusalem's Reform congregations followed by a festive Shabbat dinner at our hotel. 

Shabbat morning Torah Study was held in the park near Yemin Moshe, across the valley from the Old City, and then we walked to the Old City, and explored the sites of the Jewish, Armenian and Christian quarters of the city, as well as the Arab Market. 

There is something which is unique and indescribable about Shabbat in Jerusalem. Traffic drops to a mimimum, most shops and restaurants are closed. Jews across the spectrum from secular to Ultra-Orthodox share the parks and sidewalks of the city. "Shabbat Shalom" is heard everywhere. We marked the end of Shabbat with Havdalah and then spread out in several directions for a "night on the town". Feeling right at home...

Another thing that is unique to being in Israel. Sunday is a regular work day. So the city returns to "busy" and we continue our formal touring, with trips to the Israel Museum, Supreme Court, Machane Yehudah and the Davidson Center for Archeological Studies at the Temple Mount. 

The contrast between ancient and modern that we seem to experience as we move from one neighborhood to the next, and from one site to the next is a constant reminder of the richness of each day here in The Land. Our evening concluded with a tour of the Kotel tunnels, where we walked on a 2000 year old Roman street and along the length of the Western Wall (underneath the Arab Quarter)...

...and a victory by the beloved Giants (whom the faithful can watch at 2:00am on Channel 5--play by play in English, color commentary in Hebrew!!)

You can find photos of our journey posted on the new BIJ app.  If you don't have it yet, go to the home page of the web site and follow the link...

Prayers for Peace

on Thursday, 23 October 2014.

From Rabbi Gottlieb, 10/23/2014

Our day today began with a hike in the Hula Valley Nature Reserve, a peaceful walk among the flora and fauna of the Galilee and migrating birds visiting Israel on their way to Africa for the winter. Then the contrast of the Golan Heights, where from a single lookout point we could see the border with Lebanon, the border with Syria, and the kibbutzim and Israeli towns in the valley below and know how close the enemy once stood and how vulnerable our brothers and sisters could be. After a brief interlude making our own chocolate creations at a Golan Heights chocolate factory, we had dinner and spent the evening with the young soldiers who protect The Land and without whom we could not have enjoyed this beautiful day. They were our inspiration on this day.  We pray for their well being, and for peace for Israel and her neighbors. 

Tel Aviv - Caesaria - Rosh Hanikra

on Thursday, 23 October 2014.

From Rabbi Gottlieb, 10/22/2014

Today began at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, in the room where the State of Israel was declared by David Ben-Gurion, under the photo of Theodore Herzl. It was incredibly moving to be in that famous location, hearing the recorded voice of Ben-Gurion and singing Hatikvah in full voice. 
Then to another era--the Roman and Byzantine Periods--at the archeological excavations at Caesaria; amphitheater, hippodrome and harbor. And finally to the magnificent water-caverns of Rosh Hanikra. 
It is amazing how fluidly one moves from ancient to modern and back again when visiting Israel. Settling into our home for the next few days at Kibbutz Nof Ginnosar on the Sea of Galilee. 

BIJ Trip to Israel, October-November 2014

on Tuesday, 21 October 2014. Posted in Rabbi

From Rabbi Gottlieb, 10/21/2014

BIJ Trip to Israel, October-November 2014

Our first full day in Israel was focused on the events leading up to the War of Independence. In particular the history of the Palmach and its role in defending Israel against the attacks that followed the Declaration of Independence in 1948. We also saw the secret bullet factory at the Ayalon Institute where young kibbutzniks ran a clandestine operation to manufacture the ammunition for the War of Independence, an enterprise that was so "top secret" that it was not revealed to the public until the 1980's. 

Returning to our hotel on the beach in Tel Aviv, watching the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea and taking an evening stroll along the promenade, we could only marvel at the beauty and serenity of this first day. 

Looking back on the day we think about the tremendous strength, courage and faith of these young fighters, most of them in their twenties, who faced constant danger in their service to the State of Israel, and the gift that their sacrifice gave to us and to the Jewish People. 

We also rejoice in our return to The Land, where we immediately felt "back at home", even those of us arriving for the first time. 

Check out our photos on the new BIJ app (available in the app store for iPhone and Android)!!

High Holy Day Sermons 5775

on Saturday, 04 October 2014. Posted in Rabbi

Yom Kippur Morning

NOTE: I am indebted to my colleague, Rabbi Rick Block, whose “fundamental facts” about Israel, Hamas and the New Middle East, offered in his Rosh Hashanah sermon at The Temple in Cleveland, OH, form the basis for the first part of this sermon.


My colleague and friend, Rabbi Rick Block, Senior Rabbi of The Temple in Cleveland, Ohio, a past-president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the current President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, tells the following story: 

A visitor to Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo noticed that each enclosure bore a sign with a pertinent biblical quotation. One quoted Isaiah, “[T]he wolf and the lamb shall dwell together.” Across the moat separating the animals from visitors, he saw that a wolf and a lamb were, indeed, resting peaceably, side by side. Amazed, he sought out the zookeeper and asked how that was possible. “It’s simple,” the zookeeper replied. “Every day we put in a new lamb.”

“This story,” according to Rabbi Block, “captures the yawning chasm between the ideal world our tradition commands us to seek and the real world we inhabit. This summer,” he writes, “that chasm seemed wider than ever, as Israel found its cities and citizens under relentless, indiscriminate bombardment and terrorists swarmed through tunnels to kill and kidnap. Hamas’ instigation of hostilities and its refusal to accept or honor a series of ceasefires, compelled Israel to defend herself, with the awful consequences that war always brings.”

Rabbi Block goes on to state some fundamental facts about the conflict and discuss their implications.  First he offers some fundamental facts about Israel:

One: Israel is deeply invested in peace and wants a better life for all. Having known little but war since it was born in 1948, no country yearns for peace more passionately than Israel. That is why Israel gave up the entire Sinai for peace with Egypt, made peace with Jordan, left Lebanon, left all of Gaza, and offered 97% of the West Bank for a Palestinian state. Israel seeks only to live within secure and recognized borders, in mutual recognition and respect with its neighbors, its children free from fear and violence, their future defined by peace rather than devastated by war. It wants the same for Palestinians and their children. So do we, as do all decent people.

Two: Israel has the right to exist. (Why should we even have to say this?) What other nation is asked continually to justify its existence? It is an obscenity. But make no mistake, Israel’s conflict with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and other Islamic extremists is not about its borders or settlement policy or anything Israel does or doesn’t do. The conflict exists because the Jewish State exists. As Hamas puts it in its charter, ‘Islam will obliterate [Israel] just as it obliterated others before it.’

So, for the record, says Rabbi Block, Israel is the Jewish People’s ancient, present, and eternal homeland. It is so by Divine promise and irrevocable covenant, by millennia of prayers and dreams, backbreaking labor, survival and sacrifice, by history and destiny, lawful decree and the rightful exercise of self-defense. No amount of ideological fanaticism, polemical propaganda, pathological hatred, terrorist violence or historical revisionism can make it otherwise. In a world with 57 Islamic states and 20 officially Christian, there is but one Jewish state, and it’s here to stay.

Three: Like every nation, Israel has the right and duty to defend itself and its citizens. Interviewed on a German radio station during the recent conflict, Amos Oz, renowned Israeli author and peace activist, began by presenting two questions to listeners. ‘What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery? And what would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or…kidnap your family?’ The answers are self-evident.

Four: National self-defense presents complex moral and tactical challenges; perfection is unattainable. Do you put civilians at risk or allow terrorists to act with impunity? It is an awful, but unavoidable choice. Natan Sharansky observed, ‘Before the IDF bombs an area in Gaza, residents are alerted by radio, e-mail, phone and text message telling them to leave. The army also uses small warning missiles to let civilians know a real missile will soon be fired. Do other free countries go to similar lengths?’ We all know the answer. Golda Meir reminded us, during her years of leadership, that it would be suicidal to trade the moral challenges of power for the moral purity of powerlessness.

Next, Rabbi Block offered some fundamental facts about Hamas:

One: Its indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians and its use of civilians as shields were war crimes. The rules of war require combatants to wear distinctive markings on their persons and vehicles and stay away from non-combatants. Otherwise, they bear responsibility for the ensuing casualties. While Israel employed rockets to protect civilians, Hamas used civilians to protect rockets. By firing from mosques, churches filled with refugees, schools, hospitals, and clinics, and by urging non-combatants to ignore Israel’s advance warnings, Hamas pursued a PR strategy that President Clinton called ‘crass,’ and ‘designed to force Israel to kill their…civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them.’ Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer quoted a second statement of Golda Meir. “We can forgive [them] for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.’

Two: Hamas’ PR strategy also involves deception, manipulation, and intimidation of the news media. Threatened with death, journalists in Gaza were afraid to report anything that departed from the Hamas narrative, which dictated that all Palestinian casualties be reported as ‘civilians’ and blamed on Israel. As in prior conflicts, these will surely prove to be gross exaggerations or outright lies. The damage to Israel’s image, however, has been done.

Three: Hamas is profoundly anti-Semitic. From a prominent Hamas leader: ‘We all remember how the Jews used to slaughter Christians, in order to mix their blood in their holy matzos…It happened everywhere.’ From Amos Oz: ‘I read the charter of Hamas carefully. It says that the Prophet commands every Muslim to kill every Jew everywhere in the world. It quotes the [fictitious] Protocols of the Elders of Zion and says that the Jews controlled the world through the League of Nations and through the United Nations, that the Jews caused the two world wars and that the entire world is controlled by Jewish money…I have been a man of compromise all my life. But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say: 'Maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.'’

Four: Hamas seeks to take over the West Bank as it did Gaza. Last month, it was revealed that Hamas was plotting to overthrow the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and carry out terrorist attacks on Israel from there. ‘If only the West Bank had one quarter of [the weapons Gaza has]’ a Hamas leader declared, ‘the Israeli entity would end in one day.’ Imagine the mortal danger Israel’s citizens would face if Hamas took over the West Bank, whether by force or by elections! Israel, the Palestinian Authority, much of the region, the US and the West share a strategic goal: preventing the West Bank’s Hamasification or Hezbollization.

Five: The Palestinians’ true enemy is not Israel; it is Hamas. By Hamas’ own estimate, more than 160 Palestinian children died constructing its tunnels. It also murdered workers to keep the project secret. PA President Abbas reported that Hamas executed 120 Palestinian teens for curfew violations and 30-40 alleged ‘collaborators,’ all without trial or due process. Billions of dollars of aid to Gaza that could have been used to build schools, hospitals, roads, and the infrastructure of a better life, were spent on tunnels and terror instead. Why? Because trying to kill Jews and destroy Israel is more important to Hamas than the lives of the Palestinian people.

And finally, Rabbi Block offered some fundamental facts about the region and the world:

One: There is a new Middle East. Israel’s war with Hamas was not just more of the same. This time, much of the Arab world, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates supported Israel. They all face a common threat from radical Sunni Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, ISIS and Iran. Iran’s surreptitious, advanced nuclear weapons program remains the greatest single threat to Israel, the region, the US and the West. Israel is on the front line of this much wider and more lethal conflict. The new Middle East explodes the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the region’s core problem. It is not and never has been. Though it needs to be solved, if possible, that would not end a clash of 1400 years duration within Muslim civilization, into whose vortex the world has now been drawn.

Two: The New Middle East requires new thinking. The radical transformation of the region since the “Arab Spring” demands deep reflection, wherever we may be on the political spectrum. For conservatives, a key takeaway, as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conduct of the war recognized, is that military force, even when necessary, fully justified, and carefully employed, can only accomplish so much, and has geopolitical costs, not just human and financial ones, that must be taken into account. For liberals, the lesson is: get real. I quoted Amos Oz precisely because he is a prominent leftist and peace activist. I find it maddening that so much criticism of Israel from the left focuses obsessively on its flaws - real, exaggerated, and imagined - while ignoring or rationalizing the misdeeds and failures of others. Where are Israel’s high-minded detractors when 200,000 people, including 50,000 civilians, are slaughtered in Syria? Where is the Presbyterian Church (USA), which voted for divestment, when Christians in Iraq who won’t convert to Islam are decapitated? How, in good conscience, can those who call Israelis who defend themselves ‘war criminals’ and ‘baby killers,’ remain silent when Muslims ruthlessly rape, murder, kidnap, maim and drive out other Muslim and Christian men, women and children?

In a recent column in Haaretz, Israel’s left-leaning newspaper, Ari Shavit, author of the acclaimed book My Promised Land, offered a compelling explanation. He wrote, ‘It is difficult for the Western liberal to observe the new Middle East. His worldview is based on criticizing the West and granting sweeping amnesty to those who are seen as its victims…So he demonstrated against the war in Vietnam, but kept silent in the face of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. He opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but kept silent in the face of oppression in Iran. This is why he hastens to denounce Israel, while displaying leniency toward Hamas’ fanaticism…The new Middle East is now raising penetrating questions that must generate an upheaval in liberal thought. Liberals can no longer ignore the awful plague of Middle Eastern brutality and the fact that millions of Arabs live with no rights and no future. While voicing justified criticism against Israel…they must lift their eyes and see the expanse in which Israel is located. An expanse in which Yazidis are massacred and Christians are persecuted and women are stoned. An expanse in which there is no democracy, or peace, or grace. This is a Middle East that liberals must see as it is—and deal with courageously.’

Three: Anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel are closely connected. Anti-Semitism is embedded in ‘the BDS Movement,’ which demonizes Israel, calling for boycotts, disinvestment, and sanctions. In essence, BDS is the third phase of the seven decade long war against Israel. The first, as former Ambassador Michael Oren points out, from 1948-73, was ‘the attempt to annihilate Israel by conventional means.’ The second ‘sought to cripple Israel through terror.’ The current, BDS phase seeks ‘to isolate, delegitimize and sanction Israel into extinction. And a key weapon…is the hugely destructive word ‘apartheid.’’

Four: Israel is not, and will never be, an apartheid state. In South Africa, apartheid imposed total segregation between whites and blacks by law, akin to the Jim Crow period in the American South. In Israel, no such laws have ever existed. Arabs vote, attend university, serve in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court, some even in the army. All over Israel, Jews and Arabs mix freely. Go to any mall, park, or hospital; you will see it is so. Arab Israelis have rights, protections, and opportunities unheard of in the Arab world. And the security barrier, vilified as an ‘apartheid wall,’ was not erected to segregate Palestinians, but to save Israeli lives, Jews and Arabs alike, from suicide bombers. Branding Israel an apartheid state is a monumental, malicious lie. It does nothing to bring about Palestinian statehood and does ‘a grave injustice to the millions of South African and American blacks who were the victims of true apartheid.’

And what about the response of the American Jewish community? Rabbi Block observes that “there are some who share the anti-Western critique and they are among Israel’s most strident critics. Driven by ideology, their minds are closed. They represent a tiny fringe, far outside the mainstream. A larger number of American Jews have yet to do the rethinking that the new Middle East requires and have been influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the fictitious narrative of Israeli oppression and Palestinian victimization. And a third group, partially overlapping the second, and perhaps the majority, are disappointed that Israel doesn’t live up to everything they imagined a Jewish State would be.”

“The bottom line,” says Rabbi Block, “We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We must be realistic and vigilant, yet also hopeful and optimistic. Realistically, bias, unfair criticism, myths, anti-Semitism and conflict will persist, just as bacteria thrive despite antibiotics. It’s sometimes said that optimists believe this is the best of all possible worlds and pessimists are afraid they’re right. Jewish optimism is different; it accepts reality, but refuses to be defined or defeated by it.”

Those of us who are true “ohavey tzion—lovers of Zion”, sometimes forget why it is that we love the Land, and feel an abiding connection to it, amid all of the talk and concern about security and politics.  So I want leave the issues of war and peace for a moment, and take just a few more minutes to explore the holiness of the Land of Israel—to see if we cannot reconnect to Eretz Yisrael in this way, and remember what it is that has kept her so close to the hearts of Jews throughout our history.


            "All the earth is holy--but holier still is the Land of Israel"


This statement from the Midrash represents in a nutshell, both the emotional and the theological response of the Jewish People to The Land. It is the place from which we begin to examine the holiness of the Land of Israel.


Kedushah—holiness—is that quality which is unique to God, but which emanates from God to infuse various elements of our world: objects, time and space.


Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, adonai tzevaot, M'lo chol ha-aretz k’vodo—Holy, Holy is Adonai Tzevaot. The fullness of all the earth is God's glory.”


What does this mean, and how do we apply it to The Land?

Holiness is the Divine emanation that separates elements of our world from others of their kind, enabling them to become vehicles for the manifestation of God's Presence.  Thus, a simple cupboard—aron in Hebrew—becomes an aron ha-kodesh—a holy ark—in clear distinction to all other cupboards. And once a week, every week, we designate an entire day of holiness—Shabbat—marking it off as distinct and separate from all of the other days.

The opposite of "holiness" is not “unholiness”, but rather "ordinariness—in Hebrew, chol". And what makes ordinary things ordinary is that God's Presence is not manifest in them. It is only through vehicles of manifestation of God's Presence that we can have the direct experience of kedushah, or holiness.


How then, can we understand kedushat ha-aretz—the holiness of The Land?

The poet, Danny Siegel, writes:


Blessed be Your Negev,

For it shall bring forth sesame and apples.

Blessed be Your Galilee,

For it shall be a rest for Exiles coming home.

Blessed be the rocks, the buses,

The grocery stores and balconies,

For they are holy, too;

The parrot in Eilat quotes the Prophets,

And the grinding of the gears are melodies

To Your discerning listeners.


O my God,

I could list forever

All the sacred things of Israel:

The jets with their Star of David wings,

The pomegranates and sunflowers,

The accents of a thousand lands,

The beards, gold-domed vistas,

The way the people carry their freedom,

The history in the air,

The wisdom in the streets,

The fishponds and alfalfa fields,

The awesomeness of Hebrew.


Glorified, magnified,

Sanctified and praised be You

For all these wonders.

                        - Danny Siegel


God's Presence is manifest for us in The Land because we are the current generation of the eternal People of Israel—Am Yisrael. And as God was manifest to our ancestors—to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel—to Moses and Miriam and Deborah and Solomon and Amos and Micah and Isaiah—in the Land of Israel, by definition and by affirmation, God is manifest to us in The Land.


The Land of Israel is a part of the Covenant promise that defines the Jewish People. And the presence of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael is a demonstration and a confirmation of the lasting validity and the eternal continuity of that Covenant promise.


"To the Rabbis, Israel was the center of the world, the highest land, the light of the world, the holiest of all countries, though they would not have called it merely a country…

…Nine-tenths of all the world's wisdom is in Israel, they said. Nine tenths of all the world’s beauty is in Jerusalem. Rabbi Nathan said: There is no wisdom anywhere like that of Israel, nor any beauty like that of Jerusalem. In quantity and in quality, Israel was the fair genius of the earth.”

          Before Our Very Eyes, by Danny Siegel

                                        (Town House Press, 1986)


In my youth, I had the good fortune to know Clarence Eyfromson z”l, a philanthropist, a Zionist and a Jewish scholar who lived in Indianapolis. I would visit him in his home each summer when I went to work at the Reform Movement summer camp there.  Those were the years that I was in high school and college, and I would sit in his living room, chatting with him about Judaism and about Israel and about life. He was well into his 80's in 1973 when the Yom Kippur war broke out. A true lover of Zion, he left the comfort and security of his home and boarded a plane to Israel. An ardent Labour Zionist, he went straight to the kibbutz that he had visited often throughout his life, and picked dates until long after the war came to an end. It was his way of marking the holiness of The Land and experiencing it all at the same time.


Ricki and I were in Israel in 1973 as well, though we didn’t see each other there.  And while many of our friends returned to America or left Israel for the safety of Greece or Cyprus, we remained in Israel, and like Clarence Eyfromson, we found work to do on kibbutzim to immerse ourselves in the Land. There are thousands of stories like ours...


“Who could think of leaving The Land? Even in times of distress and persecution, who would abandon Israel?" - ibid.


"We are told that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and Rabbi Yochanan the Sandal-maker were on their way to Netzivin in Babylonia to study Torah with Rabbi Yehudah ben Betayrah. Now, to leave The Land in order to study Torah with certain Masters was within the Law. And yet, when they reached the border, they looked back, tore their clothes, and began to weep. They wept deeply, and returned to The Land. They simply could not leave, no matter how good the reason." - ibid.


My own Zionism is informed by my lifelong membership in the community of North American Reform Judaism, and is both a part and a product of the liberal Jewish theology that I embrace, and by which I try to live faithfully.



In 1997, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published its Miami Platform, "Reform Judaism and Zionism".  In this historic document, the Reform Movement affirms that “the restoration of Am Yisrael to its ancestral homeland after nearly two thousand years of statelessness and powerlessness represents an historic triumph of the Jewish people,” and a realization of the ancient covenant promise…a necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and of all humanity.


This articulation of Reform Religious Zionism teaches us that the holiness of The Land must, in the end, be a reflection of the holiness of God.


To affirm the holiness of The Land, we must ensure that Israel be an exemplar of righteousness and ethical behavior, a sacred place for study, prayer and spiritual renewal.  And we must ensure that Israel is at the forefront of tikkun olam, the redemption of Am Yisrael and humankind, and the fulfillment of the Messianic vision.  And so we have a stake in working for social and religious equality in Israel, and peace for Israel and her neighbors.

The Talmud teaches that "Rabbi Chanina would remove rocks from the roads and take care of anything that might cause unkind words to be spoken of The Land. It must be a pleasant place to live, he insisted.” - ibid.


And so we have a stake in ensuring that Israel will be a pleasant place to live.  We can do this, not just through financial contributions, although they are important, but through a system in which YOU can influence political policy and social change in Israel, in the same way that you can do it here in America, with your vote.  This is done through the World Zionist Organization. Often called “the parliament of the Jewish people,” the WZO was convened in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism.


My daughter, Rabbi Emma Gottlieb, describes the World Zionist Organization in more detail:


At it’s inception the goal of the WZO was to unite the Jewish people and to bring about the establishment of the Jewish state. Today, it continues to try to unite the Jewish people and to support the now-established State of Israel.


The WZO is a global organization. International political parties, representing different groups of Jews around the world, compete in elections every five years to determine their number of delegates within the WZO. In addition, Jewish organizations like Hadassah, B’nai Brith [and the World Union for Progressive Judaism] have fixed representation, and Israel’s political parties are represented based on the number of seats they have in the Knesset.


Reform Jews are represented in the WZO by the international party called Arzenu, which means “Our Land”.  Arzenu’s mission is, “to imbue all Reform Jews with a common vision of Jewish peoplehood” and, “to see...Israel as the Jewish, democratic state inspired by Reform (and) Progressive values.”


For Reform Zionists like me, voting for Arzenu in the WZO election is the best way to ensure that those who share our values have a seat at the table where pressing matters about Israel are discussed, and have the ability to influence the decisions made there, which directly impact Israeli policy.


Often, we end discussions about Israel with the question, “What can we do?” How can we ensure that Israel is a place that reflects not just our history and heritage but our values as well?


Voting in the WZO election is one answer. If you’d like to know how to register to vote in the upcoming election, please refer to the postcards that were distributed with your machzorim when you entered the bet tefillah this morning. There are more of them out in the lobby as well.


In less than three weeks from now, a small group of travelers, most of them from Beth Israel Judea, will stand on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, God’s holy city.  We will gaze down upon the ancient city, the Temple Mount, its synagogues and its mosques shining like jewels on a royal crown.  (There is still time if you’d like to join us…) Pouring out cups of wine, preparing to sing God’s praises, we will speak these words:

“We turn to You, O God, in thanksgiving for the privilege of arriving in the land of our ancestors.  May our visit in Israel deepen our understanding of our Jewish identity and may it inspire us to work for the well being of all Jews in Israel and throughout the world.  We look forward with deep joy and anticipation to the experiences which now await us.”


And then we will sing shehechiyanu:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Guiding Spirit of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this sacred moment in time.


Ken Yihi Ratzon


High Holy Day Sermons 5775

on Friday, 03 October 2014. Posted in Rabbi

Erev Yom Kippur Kol Nidre

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi was a most amazing man.  Born in Poland in 1924, he was raised in Vienna, where his father, a member of the Hasidic sect, was immersed in both Orthodox Judaism and the intellectual and political life of the city. With the rise of the Nazis, Zalman’s family moved repeatedly — to Belgium, France, North Africa and the Caribbean—before landing in New York City in 1941. Along the way, he came under the influence of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was to become the 7th Lubovitcher Rebbe, and when Zalman and his family finally arrived in America, he went to Brooklyn and studied with the Lubovitchers until he received ordination as a rabbi.


But his life did not follow the path one would expect from an Orthodox rabbi, a Chabad Lubovitcher rabbi, no less.  In the 1960’s, at the height of the sexual revolution, Zalman arrived in San Francisco, teaching—and learning—in Berkeley and in Haight-Ashbury. He explored the spiritual teachings of other religions; Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism and Native American tradition. He formed friendships with Thomas Merton, Ram Das and the Dalai Lama, and even took LSD with Timothy Leary, after which he came to believe that, “what I’d experienced in prayer and meditation before—the oneness and connection with God—was true, but it wasn’t just Jewish…I realized that all forms of religion are masks that the divine wears to communicate with us. Behind all religions there’s a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people.”


Reb Zalman, as he came to be known, left the world of Chabad to start a new movement in Judaism; which we now know as the Jewish Renewal movement. “It can’t be the same Judaism as it was before,” he said in a videotaped interview in 2010 with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It has to come to terms with the emerging times.” Zalman’s influence has been felt throughout the spectrum of all of the Jewish movements as well as in other faith communities, with the introduction of chanting and meditation, spiritual study and exploration, drumming and dancing.  Our own Sacred Chant and Drum service is an example of Zalman’s influence upon us.


I don’t really believe in coincidences, so I just take it one of life’s mysteries that when I was in Toronto, I worked with a woman named Marcia Gilbert. Marcia was one of the teachers in the Jewish Information Class, the Reform synagogues’ conversion program. She was a gifted teacher and we became friends, and, as it turned out, she was married to Reb Zalman’s son, Sholom.  And then, in another coincidence in which I do not believe, it turned out that Zalman was the mentor of my friend Rabbi Jerry Steinberg, who many of you know.  It was Reb Zalman who set Jerry on the path to becoming a rabbi, a “rogue rabbi” like Zalman, himself. As a result, I had the privilege to visit with Zalman when he came to Toronto from time to time, at Marcia and Sholom’s home or at a lecture that Zalman was giving. 


Reb Zalman was not a big man. But he was a big presence. I loved to sit and listen as he would tell stories or talk about his life, or something that he was thinking about or doing.  He had a way of looking deeply into you when he was being serious, and a mischievous smile with a twinkle in his eye when he was being playful.  He had a way of asking the most thoughtful and challenging questions, while you hardly noticed that he had worked them into the conversation.  Most of the time, I just tried to listen, and make myself like a sponge, with the hope that I would absorb a drop or two from this fountain of wisdom.


Reb Zalman died in July of this past year at the age of 89.  Zecher Tzadik Livracha—May the Memory of the Righteous be for a Blessing.


One of the last things that Zalman worked on was his “December Project”, his attempt to respond to the physical decline that he was experiencing in his later years, a decline that left him with no doubt that his death was approaching.  The December Project was his attempt to prepare himself for that which was inevitable, and for what would come next.  And, together with his journalist-friend Sara Davidson, he offered his December Project as a model for all of us to cope with the realities of our own “December” years, and the challenges, the questions, anxieties and fears that we will all face as we approach the moment that will come for each and every one of us.


For two years, Reb Zalman and Sara met each Friday, and they talked about their December years; the physical struggles, senior moments and memory lapses, the fear of debilitating illness and Alzheimers.


One Friday, Sara found Reb Zalman coughing and short of breath…


“He’d been carrying one of his cats up the stairs from his basement when the cat started squirming and clawing.  ‘So I started going up faster, and when I reached the top, I was gasping so much I felt, if I had to climb one more stair, I would have a heart attack.’

He said he’s been thinking hard about what he needs ‘to meet the steep decline of the body.’ When he lies down and imagines, ‘Okay, this will be my last breath,’ there’s no problem, he said. ‘I have all kinds of serenity about dying, but I do not feel serene when I can’t get enough air or my inner organs don’t feel aligned and I can’ move freely.  I start to worry, am I gonna get cystic fibrosis?’…

What kind of awareness do I need so I don’t get freaked out?  When I’m struggling for breath and adrenaline is rushing through me saying, ‘Warning, red alert!’ how do I manage that? I need a kind of spiritual armament that I don’t quite have yet…Picture a woman giving birth. When the contractions and pain come, you can’t do anything but ride them.  But in between the contractions, you can meditate, pray, attune to the soul.  In between, I can do that.  But when it’s happening…”

                                                                        The December Project, p.47f


Sara told Zalman that she was more worried about the decline of the mind than the body…


“Most people, I’ve found, are more frightened of losing what they consider their mind—the ability to think, remember, and speak—than of physical illness, because it seems like it would be losing one’s core intelligence, becoming an imbecile…” She told Reb Zalman, “I can feel my memory slipping—yours is in better shape than mine, and you’re two decades older.  I want to be at ease with what’s going to happen but…how do I face this with equanimity?”


“Zalman said there is a bright side: people with dementia are living completely in the present… Who is Zalman,” he asks rhetorically, “what is he made of? He starts by looking at his body, his mind, his feelings, then goes deeper until…he arrives at an interior space where the outside is not so interesting…If we cultivate the interior—where the One who makes it all happen is present—we don’t need the outer memories…All the details—who is that woman and when did we meet—are not so important.  What’s more important is: Do I sense the field around me? Do I appreciate the specialness of the moment? Do I feel consciousness, awareness, presence—it goes by many names?  All these wonderful things…they don’t happen on the outside.”


“When I have a memory lapse, I don’t lose the sense that I exist, that I am…So when you have a memory lapse, think about meditating between the contractions.  Go to your heart and connect with ‘I am.’”

                                                                                                            Ibid. p.48-53

They spoke of changing relationships with family and friends, guilt and regret over events that had taken place long ago, forgiving and seeking forgiveness—and forgiving themselves.


Looking back over one’s relationships is a part of the December Project that Zalman calls life review. Sara told Zalman…


“I am loath to do it. Just thinking about it makes me anxious. I [don’t] want to relive all the times I made a hash of things, [messed] up, yelled at my children, argued over nothing, married a man for the wrong reasons, and turned down a job that would have led to wealth and opportunities.”


“…[I]t’s best to this with a loving friend who can help you see how you’ve evolved, acknowledge what you’ve learned—especially from your mistakes—and forgive yourself.  It’s critical because if you don’t face those negative emotions and release them, they’re going to haunt you some more.”

                                                                                                            Ibid. p.119f


Zalman to Sara that forgiveness is “a crucial part of the December Project”, but that it is also a healing and freeing practice to do at any age.  And he shared with her the prayer that he offered each night before sleep:


Source of creation, I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or hurt me, in this incarnation or any other.  May no one be punished on my account.


And if it be Your will, may I be forgiven for the hurt I’ve caused others and myself, and may I not revert to the old habits that led me to do harm.

                                                                                                            Ibid. p. 173


They spoke about their relationship with God, and their hopes and fears about the after-life, about letting go.


When the dark moments come, accompanied by pain or deep depression, Zalman advises that we “kvetch to God,” that we talk to God about our misery.


“Let it out,” he says, “all your sorrows, complaints, self-pity, anguish, how you just can’t take it anymore!  When it’s all been voiced and you’re spent, lie or sit quietly.  Turn your attention to gratitude…then smile, even if you’re faking it, because smiling releases endorphins.  Open yourself to presence, to receiving love.  Imagine the warmth traveling through your veins, bathing every cell.  And if you still feel stuck in darkness, go back and kvetch some more.”

                                                                                                Ibid. p.178


But it is not only about complaining to God.  Zalman also suggests that we find time and develop the skill of just sitting in solitude and letting God love us.


“‘All the beautiful attributes you feel—warmth, gratitude, love—that’s furniture for the sacred place inside.’  He used to tell his students, ‘You won’t understand prayer unless you set up that inner sanctuary.  For instance, when I’m lying down to rest, I’ll start my afternoon prayer, and it might not be verbal.  I might hum or meditate or just commune with God.’  He especially likes what Rumi wrote, quoting the Quran, that God is nearer than the vein in one’s neck. ‘I don’t have to climb to the highest heavens to meet God,’ Zalman said. ‘All I have to do is go into that sacred inner place.  So let’s furnish it well.’”

                                                                                                            Ibid. p.148


And then there is the letting go.  Sara tells a story of Zalman, at the age of 80, practicing his death.  He arranged with the local funeral home and chevra kadisha to allow him a “trial run”, in which he was ritually washed, covered by a white sheet, while the proper prayers and psalms were chanted, before he was dressed in his kittel and laid out on a table.  He explained that when the time came, if indeed he was able to observe in an “out-of-body” way that many people who had had near-death experiences described, he wanted to be familiar with what he was seeing.


Letting go, for Zalman, also meant putting your affairs in order. Writing letters to family and acquaintences, dealing with unfinished business and leaving something of yourself—an ethical will to transmit your values to your children, instructions for your medical care, your wishes for your funeral and burial—for after you are gone.


Letting go also meant confronting your fears. When Sara asked Reb Zalman to record some inspirational words for people facing death, he spontaneously created this poem.


“Lying down, he closed his eyes and imagined he was about to depart.  He began by thanking God for being with him through his years, then said:


It was a wonderful life. I loved and I was loved.

I sang, I heard music; I saw flowers, I saw sunrises

            and sunsets.

Even in places when I was alone,

You, in my heart, helped me to turn loneliness into

            precious solitude…

What a wonderful privilege this was!


I still have some concerns for people in the family,

for the world, for the planet,

I put them in Your Blessed Hands.

I trust that whatever in the web of life needed me

to be there is now completed.

I thank You for taking the burden from me,

And I thank You for keeping me in the Light,

And I let go, and let go…and let go.

                                                                                                            Ibid. p.160


And in the end, they offered as series of exercises, a path for our December years, for each of us to ponder, to explore, to experience directly, or to share with our loved ones as their Novembers turn to December.


Give thanks.  Make friends with Solitude. Meditate between the contractions. Forgive, forgive. Kvetch to God. Review your life. Hang a bell. Let go.


I forgot to talk about “hanging a bell”.  I am told that Zalman kept a bell hanging from the rear view mirror in his car.  Whenever he would go over a bump, or stop suddenly, the bell would ring. The ringing of the bell reminded Zalman that there was more to that moment than getting from one place to another.  “It is a mitzvah to turn your attention to God.”  So when the bell would ring, Zalman would simply say, “Thank You, God,” or “You are One.”  (Try it sometime…when you are in traffic…“Thank You, God,” or “You are One.”)


Our rabbis teach, in Pirke Avot, that “this world is the vestibule for the World to Come” and that we should “repent on the day before we die.”  Their idea was that all of life is, in some way, preparation for our death and what will follow, and that, since we cannot know when we will die, we should live each day as if it were our last—to the fullest, and that we should be in a constant state of preparing.  They didn’t mean it in a morbid way, but in a deeply spiritually comforting way, and as a guide to living the best life we can live.


In a sense, the rabbis were teaching that we should all be engaged in our own December Project, throughout all of the days in the whole of the twelve months of our years.  And each year, on a completely sure and reliable schedule, Yom Kippur arrives to help us with this task.


Yom Kippur completes the 10 Days of Repentance.  Our Book of Life remains open, and we stand in judgment in a “trial run” for the judgment that will come at the end of our lives.  We dress in white, some wearing tallaisim or kittels because these are the clothes in which we will be buried, and at least symbolically, we are standing ready for that final judgment tonight…”who shall live and who shall die…”


For these next 24 hours, we will engage in a kind of December Project: Give thanks.  Make friends with Solitude. Meditate between the contractions. Forgive. Ask for forgiveness. Kvetch to God. Review our lives.


May this be sacred time for us.  May our fasting help us to focus on the task at hand. May God grant us the strength to do the work with sincere hearts and open minds. May we be hard on ourselves, and compassionate with ourselves. May we free ourselves from the burdens, the fears, all that restricts us or holds us back from being the best we can be and enjoying the life we are given.  May the memories of our loved ones return to us with their sacred teachings, their scoldings, their outpourings of love. And may we  be sealed in the Book of Life for good.


Ken Yihi Ratzon

High Holy Day Sermons 5775

on Thursday, 25 September 2014. Posted in Rabbi

Rosh Hashanah Morning

One of the great debates of our time concerns the onset of life.  That is, when does life begin?  There are some who believe that life begins at conception, others believe that life begins at birth.  And, of course, borscht belt comedians will tell you that life begins “when the kids move out and the dog dies.” (I believe that they are quoting Rav Groucho on that one…)

Jewish law recognizes the potential of life in a fetus.  We know this because the Talmud records the case of one who strikes a pregnant woman causing a miscarriage, and assesses a civil penalty—the payment of a fine for property damage, since the fetus is not yet a life but has value as property.  And in another citation, we are taught that it is not only permissible, but obligatory to abort a fetus whose presence is a threat to the life of the mother, since the mother is a life and the fetus only a potential life.  It is only when the child’s head and shoulders are outside the mother’s body that the fetus—property, or potential life—is declared to be a human life, its potential having at last been realized.


No matter what side of the debate you find yourself on, and where you personally draw the line between potential life and life itself, it is almost universally agreed, based on ever increasing scientific knowledge, that a fetus becomes a sentient being with simple awarenesses, the ability to hear and feel and recognize that which is familiar, before the Talmud’s declared moment of birth. The experience of the fore-life, that which is experienced by the fetus prior to birth cannot be known to us with certainty, just like the experience of the after-life cannot be known with certainty, because no one has yet been able to give us a first-hand account of what it was like.  Nevertheless, we wonder about what life is like before our birth.  It is one of many things that we wonder about.


Hayom harat olam…with the sounding of the shofar, we proclaim “This is the day of the world’s birth”.  And so it should be no surprise to you when I tell you that the rabbis wondered about what the world was like before it was born.


The book of Genesis, Bereshit, offers two creation stories that give us some of our earliest ideas about the world before it was born.  The first one, which is the most familiar, (you know…the creation of the world in six days…) says that before the world was born, it was “tohu va-vohu”— total chaos.  All of the elements of the universe were present; wind, water, darkness, space.  But they were without any order or design, moving about, as it were, with no interconnectivity, no predictability and no purposeful interaction.  The first creation story tells us that God fashioned the world out of these elements, bringing about an order and a design that evolved into the world as we know it.


The second creation story begins with Adam in the Garden of Eden, which, in the second story, is the world before its birth.  In this second story, the world before its birth is the total opposite of “tohu va-vohu”.  Not only is it ordered, it is perfectly ordered.  It is paradise.  Complete harmony, all of the elements; animals, trees, vegetation, water, light, interacting with purpose and combining to meet all of Adam’s desires and needs.  There is no work, no pain, no hunger, no shame, and there is no death.  In the second story, the world as we know it is not born until Adam and Eve are forced to leave the Garden.  They enter into a world where people have to work for their food.  They experience violence and pain, and life is finite. This is the world we live in, the one we know. The second story is a different imagining of how our world came to be.


Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the great masters of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, asked a different question.  He wondered, “If God is ever-present, then before the world was created, God was all there was.”  That is to say, there was no world yet, there was only God.  Then, by definition God filled all time and space.  Luria then wondered, “If God, indeed, filled up all of the space, where would there be room for God to put the world when God created it?”  And he offered this answer.  Luria said that, in an act of great mercy and compassion, God retracted into God’s self to make space for the world.  Only, according to Luria, the increased density of God’s light, resulting from this contraction, could not be contained in the vessels in which God’s light was kept, and the vessels shattered, sending shards of God’s light throughout the universe.  This left the world in a state of brokenness, and in need of repair.


The teaching of the Lurianic Kabbalah is that we are charged with the task of gathering up the shards, and repairing the brokenness of the world.  Luria teaches that we can bring about this repair by doing the mitzvot, and through the pursuit of justice and acts of loving kindness.  This is what we call “tikkun olam”.  Repairing the world.


Last night I spoke about many aspects of our world today that are in serious need of repair. War and hunger and disease.  Diminishing natural resources.  The effects of climate change.  Israel and the Palestinians.  Shia and Sunnis.  (My goodness, even the Scots and the Brits are at odds with one another these days.)  Escalating crime and violence here at home.  The hardening of our hearts toward immigrants, visible minorities and the poor.

I spoke about the fact that repairing the world is a big job and we are small in relation to the task. But we are not too small to make a difference, and, according to Isaac Luria, tikkun olam is our responsibility and our mission. Pirke Avot reminds us, “Lo alecha ha-m’lacha ligmor. V’lo ata ben chorin lehitbatel mimenu—You are not required to complete the task, but you were not made free people in order to avoid it”.  If the world is to be repaired one breach at a time, then that is the approach we must take.  One small repair, then another and another, until the job is done.  In the words of the Kotzker Rebbe (one of my favorites…) “The distance from west to east…is one step.”


So, where to begin?  What will be our first step?  Our tradition tells us to begin in our own community.  And common sense tells us to start with a task that we can manage, one for which we can make a difference.  

This morning, I want to suggest that, as a first step in the coming year, we do whatever we can to reduce hunger in our community.


* * *


It’s 8:00 a.m. and children romp on the playground outside of Starr King Elementary, a public school nestled on top of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. The morning scene of laughter and games is typical of any schoolyard, but inside something very special is happening — their parents are choosing groceries from the school’s Healthy Children Pantry.

The pantry is a program of the San Francisco Food Bank.  It provides staples, grains and legumes, along with fresh produce for families to take home. Thanks to the support of its donors, the Food Bank has recently been able to supply Starr King Elementary’s pantry with eggs twice a month.


Like so many children in San Francisco, some of the students at Starr King Elementary get a free lunch at school. The food bank sends a calendar of what the lunch is going to be, so the parents can know what their kids are getting to eat. Children eat groceries from the pantry at home, and they eat lunch at school.


High unemployment, a tough economy, the rising cost of living and the effects of the recession that are still being felt by the most vulnerable, have pushed record numbers of people in San Francisco to the point of hunger. With government safety net programs stretched thin due to budget cuts, people have come to rely on the San Francisco Food Bank as the main source of hunger relief. Families who have always lived securely in the middle class are now seeking help at the food bank and its food pantries. The number of people at risk of hunger increased by 14% in the recession years of 2008 to 2011 and the numbers continue to grow.


There is a common misunderstanding that it is mostly the homeless who face hunger. But in a city as expensive as San Francisco, it's not easy to make ends meet. People in almost every part of the city and from all walks of life, including hard-working people with low-wage jobs, find themselves unable to afford all the food they need.


Children, seniors, unemployed and low-wage workers make up the majority of those struggling with hunger. The fact is that only 17% of those receiving food through the Food Bank network are homeless.


Many low-income neighborhoods lack an adequate number of grocery stores, leaving residents without a place to buy healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.

Skipping dinner. Eating less, or eating less well. Giving up food in order to pay rent. These are the choices that some folks face right here in our community.  One in four residents of San Francisco and Marin is unable to afford all the food they need.  One in four.  And while the numbers are staggering, hunger in our community is a solvable problem.

In the year that has just ended, The San Francisco Food Bank distributed more than 45 million pounds of food — enough for more than 100,000 meals each day.


And this will be its impact in the New Year 5775: 


225,000 people will be nourished through its programs

  • 30,000 families will receive wholesome foods at its food pantries each week
  • 100,000 meals will be served each day in San Francisco and Marin Counties
  • 11,000 children will be served fresh, healthy snacks in the classroom each school day
  • 450 nonprofit partners will rely on the Food Bank to supply their meal and food


  • 230 farmer's market-style pantries will provide foods people can use to prepare healthy

            meals in their own home.


Each year at the High Holy Days, our congregation participates in a non-perishable food drive, filling barrels with canned and dry foods to help stock the shelves of the food bank.  You see the barrels in the foyer, and I know that you will fill them to overflowing during the next 10 days.  This is a beginning, for sure, but it will not be enough.


Immediately after these High Holy Days, together with our friends at B’nai Emunah, Ner Tamid and Or Shalom, we will be forming a tikkun olam partnership with the expressed purpose of engaging in programs of hunger relief in our community.  Together we will conduct food drives and raise funds for the San Francisco Food Bank and for Mazon, the Jewish Hunger Relief organization. We will make regular visits to the San Francisco Food Bank to volunteer—sorting and packaging food for distribution.  We will donate left-over perishable food from synagogue events to women’s shelters and other agencies in need, and we will encourage our congregants to do the same after their b’nai mitzvah and wedding celebrations.  We will make sandwiches for the homeless in our community, and volunteer at soup kitchens.  And we will educate our communities about the problem of hunger and think creatively together to discover new and better ways to make a difference, in our community and then, perhaps, in other parts of the world as well.


And, of course, when I say “we”, I mean “you…and me”.  We will need volunteers to make this happen.  And so this morning I am inviting you to become a part of this tikkun—this small repair of this one bit of the world’s brokenness.  Lori Ganz is one of our representatives on the Steering Committee, and she is looking for someone to sit on the committee with her.  You can let Lori know if you would like to be her partner in this endeavor.  And even if you don’t want to be on the committee, we will need you to be a volunteer and a contributor for our efforts to be successful.


Our tradition teaches that the world will be saved by 36 righteous people.  The problem is, we don’t know precisely who these people are, so each of us has to act as if we were one of them. (Who knows, maybe we are…)  On your way out of the service this morning, you will find a sign-up board in the foyer, and there will also be a spot on the Temple web-site, so that you can let us know that you would like to help.  Leave your name and contact information and someone will be in touch with you.


* * *


This past year the world lost an icon in the Israeli music world, Arik Einstein (z”l).  With his passion for social change and idealistic spirit he composed the well-known song, Ani V’ata Neshaneh et Ha’olam –You and I will Change the World.


Ani v'atah, neshaneh et ha'olam.

You and I will change the world.

Ani v'atah, az yavo'u k'var kulam.

You and I, and then others will follow

Amru et zeh kodem, l'fanai, zeh lo


Others have said it before,

It doesn’t matter.

Ani v'atah,neshaneh et ha'olam.

You and I will change the world.


As this New Year, 5775 begins; let us build on the spirit of these words, and say:


Ani v’ata n’takeyn et ha-olam.

You and I can repair the world.


Ken Yihi Ratzon.

High Holy Day Sermons 5775

on Wednesday, 24 September 2014. Posted in Rabbi

Erev Rosh Hashanah

I'm worried.

The New Year is upon us, and I am worried.

It is Yom HaDin -- The Day of Judgment, and we have just sung the Avinu Malkenu:


"Avinu Malkenu, hear our prayer.

Avinu Malkenu, we have sinned against you.

 Avinu Malkenu, have compassion upon

 us and our children.

 Avinu Malkenu, let the new year be a

 good year for us."


Our book is open.  Our judgment is being recorded.  And I've got to tell you, I'm worried.


I'm worried about the year that lies ahead.  I'm worried about some things that are far away and seem to be beyond our control.  And I'm worried about some things that are very close to home, and over which we have total control.


I'm worried about our world. 

When I look around, read the papers, watch the news on TV, I am deeply troubled by what I see.

ISIS continues to expand its territory and its influence in the realm of terrorism, growing in strength, attracting disaffected Americans and Europeans into their ranks, and committing acts of barbarism and violence on a scale not seen since the Shoah.  Putin’s armies, together with pro-Russian rebels, continue to threaten the sovereignty of the Ukraine, even in the face of unanimous condemnation and harsh sanctions from Europe and abroad. The African continent is ravaged by war and disease, and the nuclear arsenals of North Korea, India and Pakistan threaten the security and the stability of the Far East, the sub-continent and, indeed, the whole world.


And as we enter the New Year, our world is faced with overpopulation, contagious disease, diminishing resources, and climate change – harsh winters, hurricanes, tornados and flooding in the East and the Midwest, and scarcely a drop of rain here at home.


I'm worried about Israel.

The summer of war with Gaza, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge…it confirmed our worst fears---that Israel's history and, perhaps, her destiny are being shaped by the absence of any true progress toward a two-state solution that would see a Palestinian State, in either or both of the West Bank and Gaza, co-existing with a Jewish State in Israel.


It has been nine years since Israel withdrew from Gaza, removing all settlements and all military and police presence. In the aftermath of the withdrawal, the peace process seems to be moving ever so slowly, and against a growing tide of opposition from both Palestinians and Israelis.  I believe that the vision of peace which was born with Peres and Rabin and initiated in Oslo, will come to fruition over time.  But as the New Year begins, I worry about the visible lack of progress in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, and a return to the Netanyahu government’s policies of establishment and expansion of Jewish settlements in the territories, which continue to place obstacles on the path to peace, and the stalemate over the future of Jerusalem.  Though I do not despair of Israel's survival, I worry about her long-term relations with the Palestinians, and with her Arab neighbors.  I worry about Israel's security, and about support from the International community of nations. And I worry that young Jews, those below the age of 30, are increasingly estranged from Israel, and believe Israel to be responsible for the current situation. But that is not all that concerns me about Israel.


Religious discrimination continues to be a significant problem in Israel, though strangely enough, it is not directed against Christians, Muslims, Bah'ais or other non-Jews.  It is a sad truth that the most serious religious discrimination in Israel continues to be directed at non-Orthodox Jews, whose rabbis cannot officiate at weddings or in matters of divorce; Reform and Conservative Jews like you and me, who cannot even be buried by their own rabbis according to their chosen custom.  Over the past few years, it appeared that we might see some progress toward religious pluralism in Israel, as Israel’s Supreme Court consistently ruled in favor of the Reform and Conservative movements in matters of civil legislation and government funding for liberal Jewish synagogues and educational institutions. The egalitarian worship space at the Western Wall has become a reality, and the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis serving Regional Councils are now being paid by the State, as has always been the case with Orthodox rabbis.  But it is a constant struggle, and in the year ahead our brothers and sisters in Israel will need our support, just to maintain the progress they have made over all of these years.


And in the New Year, Israelis will give up even more of the values of the chalutzim -- the pioneers who built the land -- for the values of the West, which they see every day on CNN, NBC and HBO.  Tel Aviv has become a high-tech, international caliber city, with modern skyscrapers, mass transit and cultural offerings on par with any major city in the world. But it has become more and more difficult to find good felafel in Jerusalem, large shopping malls have replaced neighborhood grocery and clothing stores, and the Atara cafe on Ben Yehudah Street—the place where leaders of the Irgun and the Palmach met to formulate the plans for Israel's independence—is now a Burger King. Ben-Gurion and Begin would have been appalled at the new face of their old meeting place, even though both of them liked the idea of having it “their way”…


I'm worried about the United States of America.

We have not gained much in the arena of national security following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, only more uncertainty, and an ever-growing loss of civil liberties.  Our economy continues to suffer from the financial costs of the wars, and we see its cost in other ways; in the eyes of families who lost sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and in the eyes of those who returned, many with physical and emotional injuries that they will carry forever. And we don’t even talk about the wars all that much anymore, because people are tired of hearing about them, because it is too painful.  Instead we tuck it away. But for those who love this country, it quietly eats away at our souls.  Cynical politicians try to turn our attention away to other matters, and move these distractions to the top of their agendas. Partisanship, finger-pointing and sabre rattling have replaced debate and compromise in Congress, and the effect on our economy and on our national pride, has damaged our national psyche and our sense of security. 


Escalating violence and crime, intolerance of racial, cultural and religious differences, and disillusionment of our young people have become hallmarks of American communities.  There is a great deal of fragmentation, and growing alienation.  Sandy Hook.  Ferguson, Missouri.  We worry about our kids when they are out of our sight, and after dark.  And we worry about our own safety.


Refugees and emigres continue to line up on our shores and at our borders, but we have removed the welcome mat from our door.  Yielding to the pressures of the economy and a political shift to the right, we have become wary of the strangers in our midst, and unwilling to increase their number in our communities.  Lady Liberty still cries out,


 “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

                        Emma Lazarus (inscription on Statue of Liberty)


But the gild seems to have come off the doorknob, and I wonder if anyone is listening.


I'm worried about California.

We have had over a year now with almost no rain. “Meyshiv ha-ruach u-morid ha-gashem”, the words we will add to the tefillah after Simchat Torah asking for the winds and the rain are no longer just a theoretical prayer for rain in the Holy Land.  The effect of the drought on the environment, our economy, and the food supply is obvious.  Forest fires burn for weeks on end, not only in southern California, but at Yosemite National Park, and outside of Sacramento, closer to home. The economic divide in our communities continues to increase, as the income gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow, with resulting increases and hunger and homelessness.  (I will have more to say about that tomorrow.) Unemployment remains at levels that are unacceptable for a healthy society.  Everyone here knows someone who is unemployed or under-employed and losing hope.  And tolerance for minorities is not what it used to be.


Governor Brown has done an admirable job in deficit reduction and budget balancing, a seemingly impossible task that he inherited from his predecessors (one of whom was him.)  But this has resulted in reducing the resources available to prop up the social welfare net that is needed to provide the most basic standard of living for people in need. Support for mass transportation, public education, job training and affordable housing have been reduced, thus denying avenues of self-improvement that provide hope for the future.


In 5775, California will still be a great place to live, but it will not be as nice a place to live as it once was for lots of folks.


And I'm worried about our own community.

It is not just the civic community, but the Jewish community as well, where changing demographics and diminishing resources present difficult challenges; to our federation and its agencies and institutions—and to synagogue communities like our own.  The Pew study confirms that the new generation is far less committed to supporting the institutions of Jewish life according to the models of affiliation that we grew up with, and is more interested in purchasing their Jewish services a la carte,


Who would have thought it?

And a better question...what can we do about it?


That is to say, what can we do about all of these things, beyond sharing our worries with one another?  What can we do when the problems seem to be so huge and beyond our reach?  What can we do when we are so small?  After all, we are not world leaders or politicians.


Jewish tradition teaches us to begin at home, and then in our own town, and to move outward from there.  And so the year ahead will need to be one in which we get involved in our local community, to try to make it better.  To renew the commitment of Torah to tikkun olam, repairing the broken parts of the world.  Tikkun olam can be achieved, one small repair at a time. 


Tzedakah is a part of Tikkun Olam. 

Judaism teaches tzedakah—righteous behavior—as its highest goal: to help those who are able to become self-sufficient, and to ensure the safety, security, and dignity of those who are unable to be self-sufficient.  It teaches that an individual need not be in jeopardy before the community extends its hand, and that a community who abandons its poor has ceased to be a community by definition.


We know that much of the brokenness in our community and in our nation is connected to the inability, or perhaps the unwillingness, of government to provide adequately for those in need.  In the coming year we will have to take up the slack, and become even more involved in charitable work—food banks, affordable housing projects, provision of day care, employment training and job banks.  And we will probably have to do it through our religious communities and the non-profit, charitable sector, which means we will have to ensure the well-being of our synagogues by joining and sustaining them, and our non-profits and charities, by giving something of what we have.  Judaism teaches "no less than 10%, and no more than 20% of our income" should be used for tzedakah.  We need to make sure that we place ourselves, all of us, within these parameters.


At the same time, we need to make our voices heard.  It is the role of government to ensure basic standards of living for its citizenry, and it is the role of citizens to exercise their franchise and participate in the election of public officials and the formation of social policy. 


It is not the role of religious communities and charities to look after the poor and disadvantaged.  We will do it if they won't, because human decency demands that we do.  But we ought not tolerate a government that abdicates its responsibility to those who need it most.  Balance the budget.  Sure.  Reduce the deficit.  Sure...but not on the backs of our most vulnerable. 


Tzedek tzedek tirdof—Justice, justice shall you pursue.” That is the voice of our tradition speaking, the voice of our Jewish values.  We need to make our voices heard—voices of Torah—Jewish voices that articulate God's will as we understand it.  We need to step up and become Or L'goyim -- a Light to the Nations.  Making our voices heard is also tikkun olam, and it is equally important for local, national and international issues.


One of the ways that we, as individuals, can fulfill the mandate from the Torah of “justice, justice shall you pursue” is to vote. Our system of government that finds its mission in the preamble to the Constitution has established away for each of us to pursue a just society. That practice—voting—is a just way for our collective goals to be realized. The deadline for voter registration in California is October 20th, and November 4th is the day to cast your ballot. Educate yourself on the issues, and then vote your conscience.  A registration guidelines sheet is available in the foyer.  Voting is also a part of tikkun olam.   


We can make a difference, as our voices are added to those of others.  People of good will can bring about good ends.  I do believe this to be true. 

"yad b'yad, echad im ha-sheyni

 am echad im lev echad,

 ken anu natlim n'suat olam"


"Hand in hand as one with another

 one people with one heart,

 we bear the burden of the world."


Building Community is yet another part of Tikkun Olam.

Here at Beth Israel Judea, we have an opportunity to build community together, to fashion and become a part of a vibrant religious community and carry on its proud heritage, dedicated to repairing the broken parts of our world.   A community dedicated to the study of Torah and Mitzvot, to acts of tzedakah and g'milut chasadim.  For the two go hand in hand:           

                        "Im ayn kemach, ayn Torah,

                         Im ayn Torah, ayn kemach"


                        "Without Torah, there is no sustenance.

                         Without sustenance, there is no Torah"


In the year ahead, we must strive to become a community committed to action that comes from our understanding of Torah, and God's demands upon us.  And we need to continue to be a community that makes it possible for each of us to reach God through song and prayer.  You see, I believe that prayer helps.  I believe that by putting our faith in God we can help to bring about some of the repair that, at times, seems to be beyond our reach.  Tomorrow morning, I will speak about our BIJ community, and share with you some of my thoughts about where we can go in the year 5775, and how we can continue to move toward the achievement of these communal goals.


To return to that which has always been available to us, and to renew our lives through such a return, is called teshuvah, and it is what these High Holy Days are about.


On this Day of Judgment, the book lies open, and we cry out:

"Avinu Malkenu, hear our voice.

 Avinu Malkenu, we have sinned against


                   Avinu Malkenu, make an end to sickness,

                   war and famine.

                   Avinu Malkenu, make an end to all


                   Avinu Malkenu, give strength to Your

                   people Israel".

 Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us for blessing

 in the book of life.

                   Avinu Malkenu, be gracious and answer

                   us, for we have little merit.

                   Treat us generously and with kindness,

                   and be our help.”


Ken Yihi Ratzon.

High Holy Day Sermons - 5774

on Monday, 30 September 2013.

Kol Nidre - Saving Our Souls

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I spoke about spiritual fitness. You may remember, I suggested that the synagogue might serve as a “spiritual fitness club”, and that membership was available to all who would seek it.

That sermon was connected to the one I gave on Erev Rosh Hashanah, about saving the world by saving a single life. I explained then the thinking of our rabbis of old—that every life is precious and that in every life there is the potential to create a whole world. And I suggested then that we ought to begin by doing the things that were necessary to save our own lives.

And so this evening, I offer the third part of the trilogy:

Saving our lives—preserving our physical existence in this world;

Saving our spirits—ensuring our emotional and spiritual well-being;

and now...

Saving our souls—using this life to prepare for life in the world-to-come.

The great Rabbi Baruchiya was having trouble sleeping. Night after night, he was awakened in the middle of his sleep by a deam, in which his life in the world-to-come was revealed to him bit by bit. And the rabbi was troubled, because it was revealed to him that his neighbor in the world-to-come was to be none other than Yankel the tailor. “How can this be?” He asked himself, “How can it be that a simple tailor will sit next to me in the House of Study in the world-to-come? I would have thought that I would have merited at least another rabbi or, perhaps, a scholar. I wonder what it is that I might have done to make God so unhappy with me that I should sit next to Yankel the tailor in the world-to-come. And then Rabbi Baruchiya had another dream. And in this dream he saw Yankel collecting all of the little scraps of cloth that remained after he had made a shirt or a dress, and saving them away. And then, at night, when no one was watching, Yankel returned to his shop to make a beautiful wedding dress for a bride from a poor family. And then he woke up. And Rabbi Baruchiya thought to himself. I wonder what it is that I might have done to make God so happy with me that he would allow me to sit next to Yankel the tailor in the world-to-come.”

The world-to-come.

So much has been written in rabbinic literature about the world-to-come, and despite this there is so little agreement about what it might be like. Just about the only thing that the rabbis agree upon, concerning the world-to-come, is that we cannot know anything about it with certainty. This, by definition, for no one has ever died and come back to tell us about it first-hand.

“During the Rabbinic period virtually all Jews shared an accepted set of doctrines concerning life after death. Jews believed that every person has an eternal soul, which outlives the body. They believed that after death God rewards the good and punishes the bad. They believed that in time to come God would bring all the dead back to life. The good would then be rewarded with eternal bodily life on earth, while the evil would go to eternal destruction.

The primary concern of Jews was to live this earthly life according to the Torah. The rabbis were more interested in defining halakha than in defining the details of the afterlife. A great variety of beliefs existed. The rabbis made an attempt to unify Jewish beliefs in such matters. The Talmud quotes a variety of rabbinic masters concerning their beliefs about the nature of life after death. No attempt is made to judge between the different opinions.

One belief was that after death the souls of the righteous are kept in a box under the throne of God. Another belief is that the righteous sit upon thrones and enjoy the radiance of God’s light. The former view sees the afterlife as a passive existence in which individual character and personality do not persist. The second opinion depicts an afterlife in which the individual has a more self-aware existence in eternity.

A more active view of the afterlife is the belief in the ‘Yeshiva shel malah—the Yeshiva on high’. On earth the Torah scholars sit in the yeshiva and discuss the meaning of the Torah; in heaven the righteous sit in the Yeshiva on High, while the Patriarchs, Moses and the Prophets teach. A righteous Jew could look forward to listening and even participating as the greatest rabbis of all time clarified the fine points of Torah. (It is the permission of this heavenly Yeshiva that we will ask before we chant Kol Nidre in a few moments.) Of course the laws of the Torah did not apply to life in heaven; the heavenly study of Torah was truly ‘Torah lishma—Torah for its own sake.’"                               (Wylen, Settings of Silver, p.90f)

Maimonides suggests that, whatever the world-to-come might be like, it is other than this world, and beyond our understanding:

"There are neither bodies nor bodily forms in the world-to-come,” he writes, “but only the disembodied souls of the righteous who have become like the ministering angels. Since there are no bodies, there is no eating or drinking there, nor is there anything which the human body needs in this world. Nor do there occur there any of the events which occur to the human body in this world such as sitting, standing, sleep, death, distress, laughter and so forth...You may be repelled by this,” he goes on to say, “imagining that the only worthwhile reward for keeping the commandments and for a man (sic) being perfect in the ways of truth is for him to eat and drink well and have beautiful women and wear garments of fine linen and embroidery and live in marble palaces and have vessels of silver and gold...But the sages and intellectuals know that these things are vain, stupid and valueless and only are greatly attractive to us in this world where we do have bodies and bodily form. All these things have to do with the needs of the body,” says Maimonides. “The soul only longs for them because the body needs them if it is to remain healthy and thus perform its function. But all these things cease when the body no longer enjoys existence. There is no way at all for us to comprehend the great goodness, which is the experience of the soul in the world-to-come, for in this world we know only of material pleasures, and these we desire.

That goodness is great beyond measure, and can only be compared to that which we consider to be good in this world by analogy. But in reality there can be no way of comparing the good of the soul in the world-to-come with the physical goods of food and drink in this world. That good is great beyond all our understanding and incomparable beyond all our imagination. The ancient sages have already told us that man is incapable of truly comprehending the good of the world-to-come and that only the Holy One, blessed be God, knows its greatness, beauty and nature. And that all the goods the prophets foretold for Israel refer only to the material pleasures that will be theirs in the days of the Messiah when Israel will once again enjoy sovereignty. But there is nothing to which the life of the world-to-come can be compared, and it is beyond the human imagination."  (Maimonides, Yad, Teshuvah 8)

So why all this concern with a world-to-come that we can never fully comprehend? Why be concerned at all with the disposition of our souls after our time in this world has come to an end?

Because it has been inconceivable to the Jewish heart and mind that this world is all there is. And it is hard for me, personally, to imagine that God’s purpose in creating this world and the human beings who inhabit it is simply to allow us a few years of existence—threescore years and ten, by virtue of merit—and then to destroy us at whatever moment God chooses for our earthly lives to end. And it should be equally hard for any of us to imagine that this physical life, as focused as it is on materialism and satisfaction, is in itself, worth all of God’s efforts or worthy of God’s talents.

Therefore, the rabbis held out the hope of a life of greater purpose and meaning in the world-to-come, a life of metaphysical pleasures and unity with the Divine—but the richest of its pleasures was to be reserved for those who earned such reward through their acts and deeds in this world.

We are taught in Pirke Avot, that this world is a “vestibule for the world-to-come”. In other words, this life is in preparation for that which is to follow. And if we are to save our souls, what prescription is offered? What is the kind of life that we are meant to live in this world?

Nothing less than a life of mitzvot, a life dedicated to values of Torah, avodah and gemilut chasadim—Torah, worship and deeds of loving kindness.

Raba said,

When man is led in for Judgment he is asked, Did you deal with integrity [in business matters], did you fix times for learning, did you engage in procreation, did you hope for salvation, did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom, did you understand one thing from another. Yet even so, if 'the fear of God is his treasure,' it is well: if not, [it is] not [well]. (Shabbat 31a)

According to this passage from the Talmud, the first question that we will be asked in heaven is “Did you deal with integrity in business matters?” Not “did you go to shul?” “Did you honor your parents?” “Did you give tzedakah?” Not even “did you study Torah?” (That is the second question.) Raba is trying to tell us that it is how we deal with the day-to-day aspects of living, and whether or not we are able to bring elements of holiness to the mundane tasks of our lives, that allows the soul to shine through, and to rejoice in the fulfillment of its mission.

It is only after this that we are asked about partnering with God—Torah study to connect us with the Divine Will and procreation to ensure a lasting covenant with the Holy One and a partnership in the unfolding creation of the universe. Hope for the future. Engaging in religious ideas and wisdom. But still the soul is not redeemed.

For in the end, we are told that saving our souls depends on “yirat shamayim—the fear of Heaven”. If this is our treasure, it will be well, and if not, not…

…And so we find ourselves here on this Kol Nidre, trying to summon up the Fear of Heaven, preparing ourselves for the judgment that will come at the end of this Yom Kippur day. We sense that we are still not “ready” for the moment of judgment. We are aware of our need for this final day, these last hours, to lessen the severity of the decree, to purify our souls and renew our lives through our confessions, our declarations, our promises for the future.

With the setting of the sun, our Day of Atonement begins. We look back upon the year that has ended, and forward to the year ahead. Together in this “vestibule of the world-to-come,” we cry out to the Holy One to help us with our teshuvah:

O God, from this Day of Atonement to the next—may we reach it in peace—we make these vows: to turn from wrong, dishonesty and greed, to walk in the path of justice and right. And yet we know our weakness—how prone we are to fail: help us to keep our word; help us to act with humility and integrity. We seek pardon and forgiveness. We seek Your radiance and Your light…As You have been faithful to us ever since Egypt, please forgive our failings now, in keeping with Your boundless love.”


Hashiveynu adonai eylecha v’nashuvah—Help us to return to You, O God, and we shall return.”


Hoshiya et amecha—Save us, Your people.”


To You, alone, do we call. Save our bodies, save our spirits, save our souls.

High Holy Day Sermons - 5774

on Monday, 30 September 2013.

Rosh Hashanah Morning - Saving Our Spirits

Last night, I spoke about saving the world by saving a single life.  I explained the thinking of our rabbis of old—that every life is precious and that in every life there is the potential to create a whole world.  And I gave some examples of how we might save a life in the year ahead, through acts of tzedakah and g’milut chasadim—simple things like feeding the hungry, getting on the bone marrow registry or donating blood.  Bigger things like fostering a child, carrying an organ donor card or finding someone a job.

And I know, because some of you talked with me after the service, that there are some who plan to do some of these things, and that, indeed, we willsave lives in the year ahead.  But what surprised me most was the reaction I got to what I had to say about saving our own lives.  So, here is a reminder of what I said last night: 

“...finally, there is the matter of saving our own lives.  This is the time to commit ourselves to lifestyle changes that will contribute to our own good health and well being.  If you have not already done so, this is the time to stop smoking…this is the time to stop using non-prescription drugs…this is the time to lower your cholesterol….  Regular exercise, less stress, less chemicals in our food and on our lawns.  Whatever it might be that you have been flirting with to live a healthier life, this is the time. To save a life.  To save your own life.”

Now, something about this must have struck a chord, because after the service last night and before the service this morning, people began coming up to me, asking me about my cholesterol level (and my state of health in general) and telling me about the things they were doing to save their own lives, as well as the lives of others.

And so, for the record, (so you don’t need to ask…) my cholesterol level has come down over the past year to reach the target numbers, and I am right where I should be.  My weight is down, too, although there is still some distance to go with that. (Let’s talk again next year…)

During this past year I paid closer attention to my diet and spent many hours exercising and walking with Ricki and with Dinah, our dog, several times each day. And I have this to thank for my relatively good state of physical well being.  But even more, I have this to thank for the relatively good state of well being of my spirit.  For, in addition to the physical exercise we have done together, there have been hours of conversation about things that matter to us a great deal; thoughtful conversations about our society and its values, passionate conversations about politics, quiet conversations about our families, revealing conversations about the things that really matter to us; conversations about our work, about our hopes and our dreams.  Everyone should have such people in their lives, such moments and such conversations.  In the course of saving our bodies, I believe that we have found some ways to save our spirits as well.

You see, for the most part, we live in a society that understands physical fitness, but has very little understanding, or even regard for spiritual fitness.  We mistakenly believe that if we feel good outside, we’ll feel good inside.  We have come to recognize the rush of endorphins that makes us feel good after physical exercise, but we have not yet learned how to get that rush from a good spiritual workout.

I am both amazed and perplexed by the stories of dedication to physical exercise that have been shared with me by people who have talked with me about their physical fitness regime.  They seem willing to spend hours and hours in disciplining their bodies through grueling exercise.  Many of them get up early, so they can be at the gym by 5:30 or 6:00am, so they can do their daily routine, whether it is swimming or jogging or rowing or biking or the treadmill.  And then they go home to get the kids off to school, or to the office for a 9:00am appointment.  Some return to the gym at the end of their day. And the weekends are for hiking.

There are precious few, however, who get up early for study or prayer as a daily routine and return to it at their day’s end, even though this is the fitness routine that Judaism recommends for the spirit.

This is not to say that Judaism devalues the body.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  Shmirat ha-guf—protecting the body and its sanctity—is one of the highest regarded mitzvot.  There are rules against hurting the body in any way, which must be kept not only in life but in death as well, including the rules of kavod ha-met, respect for the body of a dead person.  The psalms say, “The soul is Yours, O God, and the body is your handiwork.”  The body is valued precisely because it is a vessel of our spirituality, evidence of a higher purpose.

There is a midrash in Leviticus Rabbah: 

“One day, the great sage Hillel was accompanying his pupils as they walked home, when he took his leave of them.  ‘Master, where are you going?’ they inquired.  “To perform a religious duty” he answered.  ‘Which one?’ ‘To bathe in the bath house.’  ‘Is that a religiousduty?’ they wondered.  ‘If someone who is appointed to scrape and clean the statues of the king that stand in theatres and circuses, is paid for the work, and even associates with the nobility as a result,’ he answered, ‘how much more so should I, who am created in the image of God, take care of my body.’”

The body, however, is not enough to give our lives meaning.  At the beginning of the morning service we recite the prayer asher yatzarwhich praises God for the intricate workings of our bodies.  But that prayer, on its own, is not enough.  It is immediately followed by elohai neshama, which praises God for the purity of our souls.  At the beginning of this morning’s service, Ricki and I sang these two prayers together in counterpoint.  Body and spirit.  Spirit and body.  To focus on one without the other; to care for one without the other; leaves us only half-alive.

Popular culture and Surgeon General have taught us about physical fitness. Now we need to learn about spiritual fitness.

“I’m not religious but I’m very spiritual” people say to me.  I can’t tell you how many times I hear this.  But, I must confess, I just don’t get it.  To me, religion seems to be the container that we put our spirituality into. 

Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, a respected contemporary spokesman for modern Jewish mysticism once described those who want spirituality without religion as wanting “the cream without the milk.”  Spirituality, he suggests, is service to a goal bigger than yourself, a community dedicated to changing the world together, a daily regimen of exercises that take us closer to self-reflection and the action required to change a person’s bad habits and sagging spirits.  Omer-Man speaks of “systems of spirituality” and says, “If it makes you work, there’s a chance it might be a good one.  If not, it’s just another commodity for consumers.  It’s a gimmick.”

My friend and colleague who will be with us in January for our Scholar-in-Residence Shabbat, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, tells a story about a weekend she spent some years ago at Kripalu, an ashram in Massachusetts.  There she met a number of Jews who had chosen eastern spirituality.  Kripalu was their new home, and Mark had become Vishna and Ellen was Shona and they were chanting Sanskrit all through the weekend.  (Does any of this sound familiar?)  On Saturday evening, after a candle ceremony that reminded her of havdallah, Rabbi Goldstein asked these Jews, now dressed in white with turbans on their heads, why they had left Judaism.  “This is such a spiritual way to live,” they said.  “We have a special diet, special clothes, special rules about sex, daily special chanting in a special language...”

Well, have I got news for you...Judaism has all these things, too.  And they are a part of the Jewish system of spirituality, part of Judaism’s spiritual fitness program.  Only, you have to take it seriously, just like a physical fitness program, or it has no chance to succeed.  So, here is the program:

First, you have to join a Jewish spiritual fitness club (sometimes known as a synagogue).  You have to be a member.  You have to make a commitment.  You have to get to know the place and feel a sense of ownership.  You have to get to know the people you are working out with and feel a sense of community. 

Now it just so happens that we have one of the finest spiritual fitness clubs in the city right here. So for those of you who are not members—this is a “one-time offer” to join us.  Sorry, no mountain bike give-aways, although we do have some membership incentives, and a gift to share that came to us from a mountain. 

Second, you have to come out to the spiritual fitness club on a regular basis.  If I told you that I was planning to improve my physical fitness, and that my plan was to go to the health club twice at the beginning of September, and then twice more ten days later, and then not go back until the next September, you might think that I was not serious.  You might suggest that my plan was flawed, and that it would not work.  Well, it won’t work for spiritual fitness, either.  So if that is your plan, I’d have to suggest that you are not serious.  You cannot achieve spiritual fitness in that way.

I am always amazed that people are willing to ride a stationary bike or walk for half an hour on a treadmill that takes them nowhere every time, but they are not willing to study a text or participate in communal worship unless it takes them somewhere every time.

Those who come to the synagogue regularly, and make a place for the Jewish religion in their home and family life, find that it is possible to engage in a spiritual workout on a regular basis.  And just like the physical workout, sometimes you feel great afterwards, sometimes you feel tired, sometimes you feel nothing.  But your progress is measured in small steps, and you get better at it as you go, and your spirit, like your body, becomes stronger and healthier with each day, and you begin to miss the workout if you don’t make it to shul on schedule.

Third, you have to vary your order to maintain your vitality, and in order to stretch different parts of your spiritual being, strengthen different parts of your spirit.  And again, like physical fitness, you need a regular routine to combine with different supplementary exercises.  And again, we have them here.

Communal prayer is the regular routine.  On Shabbat and Festivals, we gather here in this place.  If you want a daily routine, morning and evening prayers can be read at home.

Here are some supplementary exercises for you to consider:

1. Personal prayer. What might it mean to begin and end your day with a personal prayer?  What might it mean to get up in the morning and say “modeh ani lefanecha”—I am so grateful this morning to be alive and to have a new start, a new opportunity on this new day?  What might it mean to end each day with a quiet inventory of the day and a moment or two of self-reflection?  Did I act today with integrity?  Where did I fail?  How can tomorrow be better?  Followed by “Shema Yisrael”—I acknowledge my connection to the Jewish People and the unity and oneness of God and the universe as I drift off to sleep.

2. Torah study. There is a tale of a man who brings his son to the rabbi to study.  “Why do you want him to learn Torah?” the rabbi asks.  “So that he can teach his son Torah” was the reply.  “Better you should come to study Torah so that when your son sees you study, he will want to study also.”  So many Jews think that Jewish learning is for children.  If you have studied anything as an adult, you know how profoundly serious and deep Judaism is; it is not pediatric, although we have forced it to be “fun di kinder.”  Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the Past President of the Union for Reform Judaism, liked to compare it to an oxygen mask in an airplane: if you need oxygen, you are always instructed to place your own mask on first, and then place one on your children.  Torah is an adult Jew’s oxygen mask.  You need to put it on yourself first, and then you can put it on your children.  Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was once asked why all the pages of the tractates of Talmud start with page 2? (There are no page 1’s in the Talmud.)  He replied, “However much you study, you should always remember you haven’t even gotten to the first page yet.”

3. Tzedakah. A lovely way to practice gratefulness each day.  Set aside a can or a jar as a “pushke”, and at the end of the day throw our pennies or loose change into it.  And as you do, think about the fact that there may be someone somewhere who needs that change even more than you do.  At the end of each month or two, take the money and decide what you want to do with it--perhaps thematically.  At Sukkot, festival of the harvest, you might use it to buy food for a food bank, or donate to Mazon or other food-related charities.  At Pesach, festival of freedom, you might contribute to the Religious Action Center, or other organizations working toward freedom or civil rights; or to Ma’ot Chittin, which provides kosher-for-Pesach food to people who cannot afford to buy it.  At Shavuot, festival of learning, you might choose to support schools or organizations dedicated to teaching and study.

4. G’milut Chasadim – Acts of kindness toward others. Mishnah Peah, which we read in the morning service, reminds us of some of these: visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked.  For many years in Toronto I was involved, together with a number of members of my congregation, in volunteering for StreetHelp—a mobile response to homelessness, in which we provided food and essential goods (blankets, sleeping bags and clothing) to homeless people. And those who shared in the experience could tell you that, in addition to saving the lives of others, it was for us an exercise of the spirit.  Indeed, our souls were touched and none of us are now who we were before.  Volunteering at the food bank, walking to raise money for the homeless, blowing the shofar at a seniors’ residence, visiting someone in hospital or at home, are examples of G’milut Chasadim that I have done here in San Francisco with, and on behalf of members of BIJ.  These, too, are exercises of the spirit.  We need to choose some of them and do them.

5. How and what we eat. Perhaps the most difficult discipline to control is what, when and how we eat.  Judaism elevates the very banal and somewhat animal act of eating by offering a regime that includes a special diet and the offering of blessings of gratefulness both before and after eating.  Distinguishing between permitted and prohibited foods and which ones may or may not be eaten together, is a simple ritual that reminds us that not everything is available to gratify our desires, and that we have choices to make in all matters of daily living.  Having to figure out whether the foods we are eating grow from the earth, on vines or fruit trees, in order to make the right blessing, helps us to remember that the grocery store is not the ultimate source of our nourishment.  Remembering to thank God for the bounty of nature’s goodness and for our sustenance and good fortune is crucial to our spirituality. We are, after all, reflections of God’s grace and lovingkindness.

6. Celebrating Shabbat. Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov said, “A human being who does not have a single hour for his or her own every day is not much of a human being.”  We instinctively know this already.  We are so exhausted by the end of the week.  Can you imagine 24 hours without the phone ringing? Without e-mail? Without your iPad or your smart phone? Just peace and quiet?  Shabbat forces us to take a moment, an hour, a day for ourselves—for refreshment and renewal.  If we are more than our bodies, then certainly we are more than our jobs and our daily routine.  So on Thursday we should prepare: set the menu, make plans to be with friends or family on Shabbat afternoon.  On Friday we should clean—ourselves andthe house; Friday night, no more eating fast food in the den, or leftovers in front of the open fridge.  With candlelight and wine we can feel like mentshcen again.  The body gets to rest, and the spirit gets to breathe. Our spirit gets to rejoice.

This is the program, and these are the exercises.  They are the offering of this Jewish spiritual fitness club, and they can make a difference in your life, if only you will “get with the program.”  Oh, and did I mention... membership here is for life! 

May yours be filled with all that is good, from this Rosh Hashanah until the next, may we reach it in peace...

High Holy Day Sermons - 5774

on Monday, 30 September 2013.

Erev Rosh Hashanah - Saving Our Lives

There is an amazing midrash that I want to share with you tonight.  A midrash is a story that the rabbis write about an incident in the Torah.  The midrash, itself, is not in the Torah, but the rabbis write it for the purpose of teaching a new lesson or revealing a new truth about the verses that they find in the Torah. 

The midrash that I want to share with you is about the time when the Pharoah’s daughter came to bathe in the river Nile, and discovered Moses floating in his basket among the bull rushes by the river’s edge.  We all know the story.  Pharaoh’s daughter rescues Moses and arranges for a nursemaid, so that she can raise him as her own. The nursemaid turns out to be Moses’ mother, Yocheved.  Moses comes to live in the Pharaoh’s palace, only later to emerge as the leader of the Israelite people.

Now, according to the Midrash, found in Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer (47b), one of the handmaidens accompanying Pharaoh’s daughter, seeing that Moses was a Hebrew child, asks her why she is saving this little baby.  And here is the amazing part—Pharaoh’s daughter answers by quoting the Talmud—saying, “it is because we have been taught that one who saves a single life is regarded as one who saves the world.”

Now, you might not find this to be out of the ordinary.  And generations of rabbis and their disciples who studied this midrash might not have thought it unusual.  But anytime an ancient Egyptian princess quotes the Talmud, it gets my attention.  For even though it would not be written for another 2000 years, the rabbis put the words of Sanhedrin 37a into the mouth of Pharaoh’s daughter, and we must ask ourselves why?

The passage that she quotes is from the warnings presented to prospective jurors in cases involving capital crimes, to ensure that they treat their responsibilities seriously, because they would understand that Judaism places the highest value upon human life.  And because even Pharaoh’s daughter knew this, and quoted it correctly—and because she acted upon it, according to our midrash, she was given a place in Olam Ha-ba—The World to Come—which is our tradition’s highest reward.

Through this midrash, the rabbis are reminding us of the importance of this teaching: “One who saves a single life is regarded as though they had saved the world.” 

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah concurs: “Regarding Cain it is written,” he says, “The bloodsof your brother cry out to me.” (Gen 4:10); the word “bloods” is in the plural.  “The bloodsof your brother cry out to me.”  That is, his blood and the blood of his potential descendants.  For this reason, Adam was created alone, to show that should anyone destroy a single life he shall be called to account as though he had destroyed a complete world; and should anyone preserve a single life, he is credited as though he had preserved a complete world.”

So what did they mean by this?  That we should go around looking for people whose life was in immediate danger, and save them at all cost?  Yes, I believe that this is indeed what they were telling us.  For in their day one might have had the opportunity to redeem a captive from kidnapping or forced labor, or one might have stumbled across two people in a violent struggle and taken the opportunity to intervene before one of them was killed.  But I also believe they were telling us more.

I believe that the rabbis were telling us that, in addition to literally saving lives, there was so much we could do to save a single life—and therefore save the world—in a figurative sense.

We learn thisfrom another passage of Talmud—Nedarim 7b—that “poverty is like death.”  The rabbis understood that “poverty is immobilizing, in the restrictions that it imposes on the health, time, and choices available to poor people.  Poverty devours the body and spirit; it brings tears of stress and sorrow to loving relationships; it devours the present and obliterates the future.  It buries the poor in a coffin of invisibility, removing them from our sight and consciousness—except, perhaps, when the ghosts of poverty make their criminal appearance on our very doorstep.”       (Jews, Money and Social Responsibility, p.113f)

The rabbis knew…and they taught us.  Poverty is like death.

“It breeds despair in the hearts of its victims, as well as in the hearts of the rest of us who, seemingly lacking the means to ‘do something’ about homelessness, hunger, AIDS, crime and other poverty-related problems, resort instead to shunning the poor, counting our blessings and building walls and moats around our good fortune.” (ibid. p.114)

In tractate Avodah Zarah, the Talmud lists a poor person as one of “four kinds of people who are regarded as if they were dead.”  Poverty is like death.

But in Bava Batra 10a we find the prescription.  Rabbi Yehudah says, “But tzedakah saves from death…”  So it is possible for us to save a life and save the world through acts of tzedakah—no immediate physical peril, and so no special prowess or heroics necessary here.  Just a little righteous giving.  Give tzedakah and save a life.  Save a life and save the world.

By extension of the rabbis thinking about tzedakah, we can imagine that there are, in fact, numerous ways in which we can “save a life”, so many ways in which we can act to save the world.  We are taught that “one who teaches a neighbor’s child is regarded as though he had given life to that child.  We can give life—we can save a life—by teaching a neighbor’s child. 

We can save a life by providing employment for someone we know who is out of work, or by assisting them in finding employment.  This is, after all, the highest rung on Maimonides’ tzedakah ladder:  “The person who helps another support himself by a gift or a loan or by finding employment for that person, thus helping that person to become self-supporting.”

And if this is true, then we can save a life in many other ways as well.

Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless.  Each of these acts of lovingkindness—g’milut chasadim in Hebrew—has the potential to be life changing, and therefore life-saving.  Visiting the sick and comforting the mourner.  

Fostering or adopting a child who is without parents, or without a stable home in which to live, may well determine that child’s fate. Providing the stable environment in which a child can heal and grow and thrive can save a life. Advocating for children who are being exploited in the workplace or traded as commodities in the sex and porn industries or sold into slavery in this country and around the world, may save them from a life of physical abuse, and ultimately from death.

This is what I believe our ancient rabbis wanted us to know and to do.  And the challenge is before us to give form to their words, through acts of tzedakah and tikkun olam.  But in our day, there is also the opportunity to save lives in the literal sense.  A true story will illustrate my point.

A few years back, when I lived in Toronto, I was contacted by the Canadian Red Cross and informed that I was a potential match for a person, unknown to me, who was awaiting a bone marrow transplant.  (Several years before this, I had been screened at a bone marrow clinic at a neighborhood synagogue.)  I remember the feeling of apprehension and anxiety that I felt, because actually being a bone marrow donor requires time and the procedure leaves the donor with some discomfort for a period following the removal of the bone marrow.  But I also remember the feeling of exhilaration.  I remember walking into the Red Cross building with my head held high, feeling like I was some kind of celebrity, and somewhat surprised that the mayor had not come by to personally welcome me.

I know now that it was because I realized that I had the potential to save someone’s life.  I had no idea who that person was, nor did they know me (Maimonides’ 7thlevel of giving).  All I knew was that I might become the instrument of someone else’s survival.  In some ways it reminded me of the feelings I had when my children were born.  And I remember how disappointed I was when, within a short span of time, I learned that the follow-up testing had shown that I was not a match for this peson after all, and I would have to keep my bone marrow to myself for the time being.  Giving a life—saving a life—is awesome and powerful.

I am surprised whenever I meet people who are not yet on the Bone Marrow Registry, through which potential matches are found for thousands of people who lie in hospital beds, with hopes fading for this last chance to be restored to health.  After all, the screening is not difficult.  A few drops of blood, fill out some forms, and in some cases pay a nominal fee to cover the lab costs for the test itself.  The ideal candidate is 18-40 years of age and in good health, but you can register even if you are older. All you need to do is go on line at  Similarly, we can give a gift of life at local blood donor clinics.  I am amazed that more people do not make blood donation a regular part of their schedule.

A third way that we can give a gift of life to someone else is by completing and carrying an organ transplant card with us.  I wrote about this in my Bulletin article in the spring, but it is so important as a way to save lives that I will speak about it for a few moments this evening. 

I am often approached by people who believe that Judaism is opposed to organ transplantation, because of the traditional belief in bodily resurrection in the time of the Messiah, and the requirement that of all parts of a dead body must be buried together.  In a modern Reform responsa, Rabbi Walter Jacob cites the recognized Orthodox scholar, Moshe Feinstein.  Feinstein rules that saving a life is the highest priority, and therefore such transplants are certainly permitted, but that in addition, any body part that is transplanted into another person, such as bone or eyes, even if not life saving, becomes a part of a living body, and is therefore no longer connected to the dead body in any way, and does not require burial with the dead body. The State of California gives us the right to identify specific organs for transplant if we wish, or to leave that to the medical practitioners whose skills can make use of our organs to give new life to a dying person. So with these reservations set aside, there seems to me no reason why we should not all carry consent forms, and leave explicit directions in our living wills for our organs to be made available for transplantation—to save a life.

And finally, there is the matter of saving our own lives.  This is the time to commit ourselves to lifestyle changes that will contribute to our own good health and well being.  If you are one of the increasingly small number of folks who have not already done so, this is the time to stop smoking.  If you have not already done so, this is the time to stop using non-prescription drugs.  If you have not already done so, this is the time to lower your cholesterol.  I know, because I have been working to lower mine.  Regular exercise, less stress, less chemicals in our food and on our lawns.  Whatever it might be that you have been flirting with to live a healthier life, this is the time. To save a life.  To save your own life.

A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem bureau takes an apartment in the Old City, overlooking the Western Wall.  Every day when she looks out, she sees an old man praying vigourously.  So the journalist goes down to the wall and introduces herself to the old man.


“You come every day to the wall,” she says.  “How long have you done that, and what are you praying for?”


The old man replies, “I have come here to pray every day for 25 years.  In the morning, I pray for world peace and for the brotherhood of man.  Then I go home, have a cup of tea, and after that I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth.”


The journalist is amazed.  “How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these things?” she asks.


And the old man replies, calmly… “Like I’m talking to a wall.”

Each year we come here on Rosh Hashanah, and we pray for good things to happen in the year ahead.  Each year we come searching for a way to make our world a little better, searching for a way to make a difference.  But if each year we only pray, then go home to have a cup of tea, as it were, and then return only to pray again, sooner or later we will get the feeling that we are talking to a wall.

So this year, I am asking that each one of you add actions to your prayers.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, a home to a child who needs it, employment for someone who is out of work.  Put yourself on the bone marrow registry, donate blood regularly, fill out your organ donation form, live healthier lives.

You don’t have to do them all.  But if each of us did just one of these things.  If, in the words of Kol Nidre, “between this [year] and the next, may we reach it in peace,” each of us saves just one life—together we can save the world.

Join Us In Israel --2016

Written by Flying in Israel on Sunday, 26 July 2015. Posted in Rabbi

While June 26- July 10, 2016, may seem a distance away, it is not too early to block it out on your calendar and plan to join Ricki and I on our "Jewish Roots Journey to Europe & Israel." Highlights of the trip include traveling to Warsaw and Krakow Poland to visit the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw Ghetto and Okopowa Street Cemetary, Kazmierz Old Jewish Quarter and Krakow Ghetto, Aushwitz/Birkenau Concentration Camps; Prague, Czech Republic to visit the Old Jewish Quarter, Alta-Neu Synagogue, Jewish Cemetary and Prague Jewish Museum, Prague Castle, Wenceslas Square and Charles Bridge, Shabbat at Bejt Simcha Reform Synagogue; Israel to visit Haifa, Acco and Cesaria, meet with Israeli Muslims, Druze and Christians working for Peaceful Co-existenace, Historical Sites in Jerusalem--City of David, Kotel, South Wall Excavation, Christian Quarter, Shabbat in Jerusalem. Estimated land package price per person is $3900. For more information and registration please contact me at 415.586.8833.ext.22 or email me at

Past postings regarding our previous trip to Israel are posted below.