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Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Posted on October 4, 2018

When I was a kid in elementary school I attended a Jewish day school. Every year at this time, our teachers taught us that if you commit a sin against God, you have to ask forgiveness from God directly. That’s why we beat our chests and spend so much time in services today. We were also taught that if we committed a sin against another human being, then we had to apologize to that person directly.

We thought that was the coolest thing. Here was God, the all-powerful, all-knowing God, and there were things that even God couldn’t do. God could not forgive us for our sins against each other; we had to get forgiveness directly (okay, so we didn’t exactly have a great concept of “cool”).

We were told that we had to ask our fellow classmate for forgiveness, and if we asked three times, and they didn’t forgive us, then the onus was on them. So, what did we do? At recess, we ran around the playground shouting after each other, “Do you forgive me, do you forgive me, do you forgive me? No? Okay, it’s your fault now!”

It wasn’t exactly a path for true teshuva, true repentance. Here we were, kids, running around trying to forgive and be forgiven at the same time. Each one of us was chasing the other trying to make sure that we were clean. We were not paying any attention to the people from whom we were asking forgiveness. The result was that no one was able to either truly atone or truly forgive.

I’d like to say that we are much more evolved than those kids chasing each other around the playground demanding forgiveness, but I’m not so sure.

This is the time of year set aside to reflect and improve. We ask ourselves what it is we haven’t we done right. We think of how we’ve let others down, and how they’ve let us down as well. The process of Teshuva is a complicated one. It’s an intricate web of internal and external forgiveness. Even the name, teshuvah has multiple layers. For some the word means “repent” or “atone,” for others, it means “return.” For the rabbis, it means returning to God, that we have sinned, and the process of teshuvah means that we turn back to God.

 

There is another way to see it. Teshuva is a return; a return to being ourselves and to helping us become better. Teshuva is the process of self-improvement. We know that we’re not expected to be perfect no one expects that. Let me repeat myself, no one, no human nor anything divine expects perfection from us. If they do, that’s called abuse.

Just because we’re not expected to be perfect doesn’t mean that we can be satisfied with our status quo. Bettering ourselves is a process, and the rabbis knew this. In Pirke avot we read, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This is the work of teshuva. This is the work of becoming better people. We will not finish it, but that doesn’t mean that we’re exempt from trying.

Every day during the month leading up to RH, we read psalm 27. It is called the penitential psalm. In it, we read the words, כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי; וַיהוָה יַאַסְפֵנִי. though my father and my mother have forsaken me, God will take me up.

Unfortunately, at some point in our lives, our parents will abandon us. But this sentence is not just about the death of our parents. The psalm is telling us that even our parents, our primary caregivers, the people upon whom we’re dependent, even they will disappoint us. The psalm is saying that every single person in our lives will disappoint us at some point or another.

And we will, at some point or another disappoint them as well. The challenge we’re up against isn’t to rid ourselves of these moments, that’s impossible. Part of the price of the beautiful gift of vulnerability is that we can and will disappoint and be disappointed. Those only happen when we let ourselves be vulnerable. It’s our job then to be transparent and vulnerable when get hurt or hurt someone else. Too often we beat ourselves up when we disappoint someone we love. We beat ourselves up in private, and then, when they bring our attention to their hurt or disappointment, we’re already so tortured that we get defensive cold. We stonewall the people we love not because we don’t care that we hurt them, but because we’re flagellating ourselves so harshly that we’re embarrassed to talk to them.

 

And so, we end up being just like the kids, chasing each other around and demanding forgiveness from each other.

We fling our apologies out between gritted teeth and if our loved one doesn’t accept it wholeheartedly, we say, it’s on them. If you’re wondering if this applies to you, here’s a test to offer yourself. We can ask ourselves when we’re more honest and open with our mistakes. Is it when we’re with the person we’ve hurt? Do we make ourselves vulnerable and allow ourselves to feel the full hurt they experience? Do we allow ourselves to remain open and refrain from the defensiveness and shame that comes when we’ve hurt someone, or do we issue denials, rationalizations, and half apologies in their presence, and beat ourselves up when we’re alone?

We don’t engage in these habits because we don’t care. It’s the opposite. We care too much. We flagellate ourselves so much that by the time we’re in front of another person asking for forgiveness, we’re so raw that every word stabs us in a wound that is still fresh and tender.

Unfortunately, as Jews, we’re born with guilt. Beating ourselves up is our own national pastime. But it’s misguided. We need to love ourselves in private. We need to be compassionate and understanding even of those parts of ourselves that are sub-optimal. And, when our loved one comes to us with their hurt, when we’re standing together acknowledging our failure, we come to them with vulnerability. We lay ourselves bare in asking forgiveness. We open ourselves up to hear their hurt and pain.

If for no reason other than the fact that they’re much more likely to forgive us than we are to forgive ourselves. We know that their true forgiveness is a prerequisite for our own forgiveness. And even then, it might not be enough.

The process of teshuva is a process in which we must engage. We must become better people. But we can do so while loving ourselves as well. The one relationship that we will never get away from is the relationship we have with ourselves. It becomes the basis for every relationship we ever have. If we’re judgmental of ourselves, we’ll be judgmental of others. If we’re critical or abusive of ourselves, we’ll criticize and abuse those around us.

 

Think about this for a second. How often do you look in the mirror? Most of us would say that we look in the mirror at least a couple of times a day. The problem is that whenever we look in the mirror, we are looking at what is wrong, what needs to be fixed. We poke and prod, we pull and flatten seeing all the flaws, but when was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror and loved what you saw? When was the last time you (and I know some of you may laugh at this) said something nice to yourself?

Loving and being compassionate to yourself does not mean you can’t improve. Self-compassion is a prerequisite for positive change.

It’s our obligation as beings created in the divine image. It’s our burden.

And it’s our privilege. We get to improve. We get to become better versions of ourselves. And the only way to do that is through self-compassion. Some people worry that self-compassion is selfish, that if we’re nice to ourselves and like ourselves the way you are, then we won’t change. But the kinder we are to ourselves, the kinder we will be with others. Self-compassion is a cornerstone of positive relationships. The more judgmental and critical we are with ourselves, the more likely we’ll be judgmental and critical of others.

In the words of Dr. Christopher Germer, “accepting our flaws doesn’t mean that our behavior can’t or shouldn’t change. Each of us has room to grow and grow we must.” But, he says, “We start by befriending who we are today, no matter how fumbling, incomplete, or clueless we are.”

It is my hope and prayer for all of us that over the next few days, we are blessed to experience the give and take of real forgiveness. May we learn from our mistakes, and compassionately guide ourselves back, may we do teshuva and return to the people we want to be.

 

Shana tova

Forgiveness: The Path of a Repentant Life – 2018 Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Posted on October 4, 2018

INTRODUCTION

            We live in an era in which people are being accused of crimes, indiscretions, harassment and even inappropriate social media posts that actually occurred years ago.  The MeToo movement is a reminder that there is no statute of limitations for accountability.  Sometimes it takes a seismic social shift for us to acknowledge and put a stop to inappropriate behavior.  But in the social angst of accountability that we are now feeling, the question of forgiveness has also been raised.  Namely, what does it take for someone to be forgiven?

Several months ago the writer and director of the hit Guardians of the Galaxy movies, James Gunn was fired from the third movie under production because of 10 year old tweets.  In a statement, Gunn said: 

 “My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative. I have regretted them for many years since — not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don’t reflect the person I am today or have been for some time.”

            Should Gunn be forgiven for his offensive tweets posted ten years ago?  Should the studio allow him to continue his involvement with the movies?

            The question surrounding Gunn, is a question relevant to many other people.  Whether it is actors, politicians, friends or family, in our deeply divided society, the question of how forgiving do we need to be and what is required to be forgiven are questions more relevant today than ever before. 

 

FORGIVENESS

            When it comes to forgiveness it is important to know that in the Jewish tradition forgiveness is not granted, as much as it is earned. 

            We live in a time when people blame the wrongful acts they have committed on a physical, emotional or medical condition.  Without accepting any blame for their actions, they enroll in a rehabilitation program as a means of cleansing away their sin. 

            The inability to acknowledge fault and accept blame is nothing new.  It is no accident that the first story in the Torah about people is one in which humans are unable to acknowledge their wrongful acts.   Eve blames the serpent for the decision to eat the fruit of the tree and Adam blames Eve.   There is no accountability.  The Garden of Eden is a place of perfection and we as humans have no place there, because misdeeds are part of the human condition and therefore there must be a path for repentance.

In some cases, there is a real medical or psychological issue that is the motivation for a person’s behavior.  I have had a number of congregants share with me bad decisions they have made because of an addiction to drugs or alcohol.  I have lived through the chaos created when they go off necessary medication needed for diagnoses of mental illness.  These people need the necessary support to deal with their illnesses, but cannot do so until they acknowledge this reality.  This is the true path to rehabilitation.   But very often, we read in the newspapers about people responding to accusations of impropriety with plans of therapy and rehabilitation, that seem more about rehabilitating their reputations, than rehabilitating themselves.  Judaism knows that even if a wrongful act can be attributed to medical or psychological issues, the reparative journey of recovery and forgiveness must include repentance.

In order to understand the concept of forgiveness we need to distinguish it from repentance and the difference between these two different journeys. 

Repentance is such an interesting English word.  How many of you associate repentance with a religious context? 

Namely, that repentance is the religious response to sin?

As I looked for synonyms for the word repentance that might provide a secular feeling I could find none.  The words regret, remorse, penitence, contrition, shame, penance are no better.  Most significantly they don’t tell the story of what it means to honestly deal with a misdeed, apologize and seek to become a better person.  Perhaps this is because the secular world can’t conceive of such a process.  As a result, I believe repentance is the only possible word we can use to discuss the reparative process of responding to a misdeed.   As I speak today, I will be using the terms repentance and forgiveness in a non-religious context and solely as concepts in how we should be dealing with repairing the misdeeds of our lives.

Let us begin with my understanding of the difference between repentance and forgiveness.

Repentance is the process that the wrongdoer must go through.  It is the journey in which we embark upon, that begins with acknowledging that the act was wrong, next an apology to the person we have wronged, and finally working to undo the harm caused by our act and working to be a better person. 

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the process we go through, on our journey to heal from the wrongful act committed against us.  As a victim of some act committed against us, we actually have some control.  Namely, do we choose to forgive in the face of true repentance?  

There are many people who suggest that forgiveness is the act of giving up anger, resentment and need for revenge.  This idea is supported by a number of religious groups including Christianity, that forgiveness can be granted without the wrongdoer expressing remorse or apologizing. 

Can the unrepentant murderer be forgiven by the family of the person he murdered?

Can the rapist be granted forgiveness by the woman he violated without acknowledging the pain and trauma he caused her?

I want to argue against using the term forgiveness in this context, because I believe that forgiveness, when earned, represents that reparative process that allows the two parties to reconcile.   Rather than using the word forgiveness in this context, I prefer the term “letting go.”  Namely, we are willing to let go of the wrong committed against us, because we choose not to let the experience and the pain have control over our lives.  By letting go, we don’t forgive, but we also don’t allow the wrongdoer to have control over us; we take away their power.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, is a possible outcome that helps repair our relationship and can only be accomplished when the wrongdoer initiates the repentant process. 

            Although interconnected, repentance and forgiveness are two separate paths taken by the parties involved in the incident; each path has a life of its own.  Sometimes they are both achieved, but other times they are not.   What is clear, is that, the penitent’s process of repentance does influence the ability to achieve forgiveness from the person that has been wronged.

 

FIVE STAGES OF REPENTANCE

            What is repentance?

A major part of repentance seems obvious, it is present in the apology offered by the wrongdoer.  Apologies are at the heart of repentance because they ideally reflect the sincerity of the individual.  But sincerity is not always easy to determine because it is an inner emotion that we can only be judged by external symptoms.  We have seen some doozies of public apologies in the last year.  Was Kevin Spacey’s apology sincere?  What about Roseanne Barr? Matt Lauer?  Bill O’Reilly?  Notice that in our politically charged culture I had to give examples of people from the left and the right, otherwise many of you would have required repentance of me.

How do we know when an apology is acceptable?

Judaism provides a simple alliteration of what is called by some as the 5 R’s of Repentance- what we call teshuvah:

  1. Recognize you did something wrong
  2. Remorse– own up to what you did and feel remorse
  3. Repentance– Demonstrate repentance for what you have done with a sincere apology
  4. Restitution– provide compensation if necessary for the damage you have created.
  5. Resolve never to do it again

 

RECOGNIZE, REMORSE AND REPRENTANCE

            I think we would all agree that true repentance requires sincerity.  For forgiveness even to be possible, the wrongdoer must be sincere in the acknowledgement and in the apology. 

From the perspective of the penitent, the five steps are all necessary.  First, of course, he or she must recognize that they committed the act.   This may sound simple, but just look at the many people who refuse to acknowledge the wrongs that they have committed.  In the minds of these people if you don’t acknowledge it, you are not guilty.  Acknowledging the wrong often takes an act of courage, because then you have to deal with the consequences.  Being able to own up to the possibility that we did something wrong requires an introspection and willingness to face up to the consequences that not everyone is willing to do. 

How can we tell if the person is truly remorseful?  How can we truly know if they are sincere?

Usually it is through the unequivocal acceptance of blame for what they did.  The difference between, “I’m sorry if you felt hurt when I….”, and, “What I did was wrong and I feel awful that it caused you pain” are worlds apart.  The first expresses regret only for the hurt caused and doesn’t acknowledge the wrongful act.  

A press release from an actor that acknowledges that he “is taking the time necessary to seek evaluation and treatment and no other information is available at this time” is not an apology. 

A statement that “I am entering a rehabilitation program and therefore request privacy” is not an apology.

The first three “R’s”- recognize, remorse and repentance- the apology, are essential to forgiveness, but unfortunately many people believe this is the end of the process rather than just the beginning. 

The process of getting to a sincere apology is often difficult.  It requires a spouse to be honest about the times in which he or she yells at or embarrasses a partner.  We often feel that our actions are warranted.  The other person made us act this way.  If he just wasn’t so obstinate and having to be right all the time.  If she just could be more understanding of when I’m in a bad mood, then I wouldn’t yell at her. 

The first 3 “R’s” are supposed to get us to a sincere apology, but there are many people, who believe that just by uttering the words, “I’m sorry” that the situation has been corrected and forgiveness should be forthcoming.  In truth, the words “I’m sorry” are only words unless they are backed by action.  Repentance can only be completed through acting upon the next two “R’s.” 

 

RESTITUTION

            The fourth stage of restitution is often thought of as having to do with compensating someone financially for any damages you caused them.  If you stole from them you must repay them.  If you hit someone’s car and didn’t tell them, repentance must include paying them for the damage. 

            But I want you to think about restitution in a larger category.  Namely, that restitution refers to repairing the damage done.  How about that, another ‘R’, repairing.  If you have damaged someone’s reputation you have to figure out how to try and repair it.  If you have damaged a relationship between two people, you have to work to repair it.  The journey for repentance must include actions, whenever possible, that help to repair the situation in ways that words cannot. 

 

LIVING A REPENTANT LIFE

The fifth ‘R’- resolving not to do it again, is something that many people do, but don’t live up to.  They promise not to yell again.  They promise not to cheat again.  They promise to be patient next time…but they just can’t change.  Resolving not to do something again, must be backed up with actions that help the individual change.  In fact, according to Maimonides, repentance is actually not complete until the wrongdoer is in the same position of doing the same thing wrong and this time gets it right.  For Maimonides repentance is only possible when we have truly changed.   For many of our wrong doings, we might be able to demonstrate rather quickly that we have changed, but for more egregious acts, it will take longer.  This final stage of repentance is not demonstrating to others that we have changed, but rather demonstrating to ourselves.  It is about living a repentant life.  A life dedicated to making right the wrong we have committed. 

 

FORGIVENESS

            If a person follows the steps of repentance, do we have to forgive the individual?

            Some of you might know that the rabbis mandated that we grant forgiveness after someone makes a sincere request of us 3 times.  The rabbis established a very clear ritual of the penitent taking 3 witnesses with him or her to ask forgiveness of the person wronged. If after the first and second rejections, the penitent comes back a third time with a sincere apology, according to Jewish tradition if forgiveness is not granted, then the penitent is considered to have been forgiven anyway.  Some rabbis even suggested that the person who has been wronged has committed a sin in not forgiving the wrongdoer. 

On a lighter note, according to Maimonides, if the person you wronged was your rabbi you must ask for forgiveness forever, not just 3 times.

            I have studied this obligation of requesting forgiveness three times and always assumed that it was to test the sincerity of the penitent.  If it is difficult to ask for forgiveness once, how much courage and humility does it take to ask three times?  But I have come to accept another element to this process.  Namely, that forgiveness takes time.  Getting past the anger and pain of being wronged takes time and perhaps the thrice-repeated request for forgiveness, is simply a way for the person was wronged to have the time to process and get through the anger and pain.  Perhaps, in between the apologies, the person who was wronged sees the wrongdoer acting differently.  I love this idea, that the rabbis are allowing us time to go throw the process of forgiveness.  Sincere forgiveness requires time, just as sincere repentance does. 

By the way, sometimes forgiveness just isn’t possible.  I have had many people in my office who have been hurt so badly that they were not able to forgive the other person.  Sometimes it is the abuse suffered at the hands of a parent.  Sometimes it is the dishonesty of a spouse.  The closer the relationship, the greater the hurt; the greater the hurt, the harder to forgive.

More than letting the wrongdoer off the hook, forgiveness sets us free.  We acknowledge the world can’t go back to the way it was, but it can continue on.  The energy we once used to hold on to the resentment and anger can now be applied to positive directions in our lives.  We all have a finite amount of energy, how much of yours is spent holding on to a grudge?  Forgiveness takes courage, but it is also so liberating.

 

HOW LONG DOES REPENTANCE AND FORGIVENESS TAKE?

            So, back to my original question, “how long does forgiveness take?”. 

            It is clear that forgiveness is influenced by the sincerity and penitential path of the wrongdoer.  It also clear that forgiveness can only be given by the person wronged.  Therefore, the question really is, “how long do we hold the offender accountable?”. 

In truth, there is no objective timeline.   It is a complex formula related to the severity of the wrong committed, the sincerity of repentance and the ability of the person wronged to get over the pain. What is clear is that an apology followed by a stint in rehab should not be considered as a formula for immediate forgiveness.  The penitent and the person wronged must both travel their own journey and sometimes those paths don’t intersect when we would expect. Sometimes a penitent deserves to be forgiven before the aggrieved party is able to do so.  Sometimes the pain is just too great.  The closer the relationship and the greater the violation, the greater the pain.

I have had many people in my office who just can’t forgive the wrong committed by another person.  They are often able to let go of the anger.  They can even get past the pain that they suffered.  They just can’t interact with the other person, because their repentance does not seem sincere.  Forgiveness for me, means that the relationship is reset with new possibilities for growth.  It can never be the same, but with honesty and rebuilding the relationship can become strong again.  Never the same- we can’t undo the harm we have caused.  But it can be different, and sometimes different is what we have to accept.

            Today, in a world of text messaging, Amazon same day delivery and instant everything, people often expect instant forgiveness.  But as I have discussed, forgiveness requires a sincere process of repentance and that takes time.  We want to see that the person has taken the time to change his ways.  That, in fact, she is a changed person.  We want the wrong that he or she has committed to result in some good of a changed life.  That is often the price of our forgiveness; that our pain has resulted in another’s change.

            But what about our society?  Have we become too harsh in our judgement?  Too unforgiving of people being able to change?  Too punitive to allow for repentance?

 

CREATION

A rabbinic midrash teaches that before God created our present world, God was about to create a world based only on absolute righteousness and judgement – a world without compassion.  But then God realized that this kind of world couldn’t exist very long. God then considered a world consisting only of compassion, with no judgement, but realized that that too would not be a viable world.  God then decided to create a world with both judgement and compassion and gave priority to the attribute of compassion.             

            Our world, our society can only exist when we allow for compassion.  This means believing that people have the capacity to change.  If we don’t believe that people can change, then these High Holy Days are a farce.  If we don’t believe that repentance is possible then why should we even try changing.  These Ten Days of Repentance are predicated on the idea that teshuvah, repentance is a possibility. 

 

CONCLUSION

Rabbi  Charles Klein explains in his book on Forgiveness, “We forgive, not because we believe that what was done was unimportant, but because we are prepared to put aside our anger long enough to hear words which reflect remorse, long enough to begin to believe that people have the potential to grow.”

Another rabbinic midrash states that even before God created the world, God created teshuvah.  Teshuvah has many meanings: on a most basic level, it means to “return”; on a more practical level, it means to regret our mistakes and to turn toward goodness. People make mistakes. Sometimes we even do things we know are not good for us.  Without the possibility of teshuvah our world would not be a worthy one; a society that does not allow for repentance and forgiveness is not a world that God imagined.

I believe that James Gunn should be forgiven.  Ten years is a long time to walk the repentant life.  We must hold people accountable and yet we must also provide a place to recognize that repentance is possible.  By giving forgiveness, when it is deserved, we demonstrate the very hope of humanity; that we have the ability to change, and in doing so, make the world a better place.

Is there somebody you need to ask forgive of?  Do you have the humility to ask that person for forgiveness?  And if there is work necessary to achieve that forgiveness are you ready to change and live a repentant life?  Initiating the process of forgiveness requires us to overcome our fear of beginning the process. 

These are the questions and the reality we confront on Rosh Hashannah.  The symbolic Book of Life is opened, our deeds and our misdeeds tell our story.  How do we deal with our misdeeds?  It is so easy to put them behind us, but only by confronting them can we become free of their shackles.  It takes a great act of courage to approach someone you have wronged to begin a personal journey of rehabilitation.  The paths of repentance and forgiveness can sometimes feel equally daunting.  They are not for the faint of heart.

            Let today, the first day of the Ten Days of Repentance be the beginning of your journey.  Do you need to begin a path of repentance for something you did?  Do you need to work on forgiveness of someone else?  May you have the courage to embark upon your necessary path and may this be a year of repentance and forgiveness for us all. 

The Big Questions – 2018 Yom Kippur Sermon

Posted on October 4, 2018

INTRODUCTION

            Towards the end of every school year I am invited into our Pre-K classes to answer their questions about God.  These are the questions that teachers and parents shy away from when asked by a 5-year-old.  The typical questions are:

  • “Is God a boy or a girl?”,
  • “Does God live in heaven?”,
  • “Does God eat or sleep?”
  • “Is God Real?”  

My answers, always follow the basic same format, “God is different than anything else we know…God is not a boy or a girl…God doesn’t have a body…therefore, God doesn’t live in a house or sleep in a bed…therefore heaven is not a real place, but a word we use to describe that God is everywhere…and food is necessary as energy for bodies, so God doesn’t eat Cheerios or anything else.”  

The questions are generated by the students, through a discussion with the teachers in preparation for our meeting.  The teachers help the children formulate their questions, and sometimes even have to ask on their behalf when the children get too shy.  That doesn’t stop the children from chiming in about which one has a cat or a dog, when I say that “God is different from humans, animals and plants, because God is different from anything else we know.”  One of the most interesting follow-up questions from a child was “does God go to the bathroom?”  I guess that is better than asking if “God goes to the bathroom standing up or sitting down.”  Almost always, one of the young students has already dealt with death in the family and will ask the question, “where do people go when they die?” 

Isidor I. Rabi, the Jewish Nobel laureate in physics who passed away thirty years ago, was once asked, ”Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?

Dr. Rabi’s answer was profound: ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me become a scientist!”

            Why am I talking about big questions this year and why is it a theme that will run throughout the year at Temple Aliyah?  Because of many of you.  In trying to reflect on our adult education program, Rabbi Goldstein and I began asking congregants many months ago, what would motivate you to come to the synagogue to study.  The most common answer we received was “I want to talk about the big questions.” 

As a result, I began to consider a sermon on the very topic of what are the big questions of life and what does it mean to ask questions in general.  The so-called big questions and what the answers mean to us, have motivated humans from the beginning of time.  I believe that the Torah itself, is the first Jewish book of why, trying to answer the big questions of life. 

Questions have always been at the center of Judaism and Jewish identity and today of all days we are supposed to be asking the big questions about our own lives.   So, before we embark upon the pursuit of the big questions, let’s explore the role of questions in general.

 

QUESTIONS PRECEED LEARNING

Every good educator knows that education is not about giving the answers, but rather it is about inspiring students to ask good questions.   More than 2,400 years ago Socrates knew this when he taught, “wonder is the beginning of learning.”  And in the words of Einstein “The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” 

During our lifetime we are presented with lots of facts.  We may even read many books.  You may even be one of those people who remarkably can memorize enormous amounts of data, but until that data is used to answer a question, it is essentially useless.  According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead we refer to such unused information as inert ideas.  It is the forming of a question and the search for an answer that turns inert ideas into meaningful data and allows us the ability to look at our lives and the world in a different way.

 

THE LOST ART OF QUESTIONS

            Unfortunately, from my personal experiences, it appears as if many people have lost the ability to ask the questions that help us turn our inert data into meaningful knowledge.  For some people the lack of question asking is related to their desire to not look ignorant about an issue.   Some people learned in school and even college that to ask truly probing questions that challenged teachers could result in a lower grade.  And others just adhere to the aphorism “curiosity killed the cat.”    

Not too long ago if we wanted the answer to a question, you would open up a World Book Encyclopedia.  But you would have to read a long article to try and figure out the answer and it wasn’t always the exact question you were trying to answer.  More recently you could do an internet search to find appropriate articles that were more specific to our question.

And today?  Today all you have to do is ask Siri or Alexa.  It is interesting how popular Siri and Alexa have become in answering our questions.  In part, it is so easy, but also people don’t feel stupid when asking a question of a machine.   Siri or Alexa will never respond to you, “how could you not know that!” 

            A month ago, I asked Alexa the following question, “what is the meaning of life?”  To which she responded with a very definitive “42.” I was amused that Alexa had read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the number 42 is offered as the meaning to life, but wanted to know what she really thought, so I asked again… she responded “the traditional answer is 42.”  When I pushed her a third time, she answered, “the answer is 42, but the question is much more complicated.” 

When I asked the same question a week ago, she responded “The meaning of life depends upon the life in question, but a good approximation is 42.”  When I asked again, she offered me a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt which focused on living a life of meaning. 

I believe that the programmers of Alexa and Siri are validating the fact that what we call the big questions of life have no empirically correct answers.   Therefore, when it comes to questions like this, Siri and Alexa are programmed to entertain us rather than search the internet as they do for other questions.  By the way, perhaps this response is no different than some adults who don’t wish to explore these answers because there truly is no “Answer” with a capital “A”. 

For a number of the people I encounter, the lack of interest in exploring the big questions is related to the inability to come up with empirical answers.  To think about these issues, without the possibility of coming up with THE answer can give many people a headache.  Why waste time on the pursuit of answers that we can’t prove?  As a result, many people simply opt to avoid the headache all together.  We must therefore change our orientation of what it means to explore these questions, and why these answers are different from the other answers we pursue. 

In the Jewish tradition, questions, and hence learning, are always considered in relationship to other people, rather than simply searching for the answer.  When it comes to the study of Torah or Talmud, the preferred form of study is in hevrutah– with a haver, the Hebrew word for friend.  It is understood that true learning only occurs when you have someone else to bounce ideas off of and to challenge us on our own ideas.  It is written in the Talmud, “Two scholars sharpen one another.”   In fact, for many generations in the Talmudic period, there were two distinct schools of thought that argued against each other in each generation.  Each one had a different view of the world and hence how we should act accordingly.  And so, in a discussion about the great debates that took place between the rabbis Hillel and Shammai, trying to determine who was right, the Talmud tells us that finally a Heavenly voice proclaimed “elu v’elu divrei Elohim hayim”- “both of them are the words of the living God.”  This is the beauty of Judaism, you can have two conflicting views that are both recognized as possible ways to look at the world.

This is the nature of the big questions, there are multiple answers.  The big question really is, “which answer speaks to you?” and what can you learn from an answer that is not really THE answer.   For the big questions of life, we don’t turn to Alexa and Siri, we turn to our fellow travelers in life, to other people, to see what they have learned, to see what answers they have found.  The challenge is finding the right people and asking the right questions to have these discussions.

 

FIRST QUESTION ASKED BY GOD        

            The first big question of all time is asked by God.   According to the Torah the first time that God and people engage in a true interaction is when God asks a question of Adam and Eve.  It is after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and try to hide from God, that God calls out to them and asks, “Ayeka– where are you?”.   

            Why does God call out to them, “where are you?”.  Isn’t the very essence of the Biblical God knowing something as easy as where people are?  According to the 11th century commentator Rashi, of course God knew where they were, but poses a question in order to engage them in dialogue. 

But, why did they hide to begin with?

The assumption of most readers of the text is that they hid because they had violated God’s command to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge.  But is this really the reason?

Adam responds to God’s question by saying, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

Rather than condemn him for eating the forbidden fruit, God then asks Adam two more questions, “who told you that you were naked?  Did you eat of the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat?”

Adam doesn’t answer the questions.  Instead Eve blames the serpent and Adam blames Eve for their predicament.  Rather than learning from their experiences, Adam and Eve play the blame game; have humans really evolved that much?

In my opinion, this is really a case of Adam not understanding what to do with his first learning experience.  The questions frighten him because they are forcing him to reflect on his experience.  He has knowledge, but can he learn?

It is one thing to realize that you are naked, it is quite another thing to understand what that means.  It is in the second question that God is trying to help Adam learn, “who told you that you were naked?”  In my reading of the text, Adam really doesn’t know how to answer this.  How did he come to understand that he was naked if no one actually told him?

“Where are you?” seems like a simple question to Adam, but only because he doesn’t get the gist of it.  Let me phrase it in the colloquial language of the seventies, “where are you man?”  God’s question is not one of physical location, it has implications for where Adam is in his growth as a human being.  Where are you Adam in your process to learn and grow as a human being?  Just take a moment to think about the implications of what just happened.  God told Adam he would die if he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  Adam eats the fruit of the tree but doesn’t die.  Shouldn’t this have created theological questions in Adam? 

The first big question “where are you?” is part of the High Holy Days experience.  Where are you in your spiritual growth?  Where are you in your desire to be a better spouse, parent and sibling?  Where are you in your desire to make a difference in this world?  These are some of the big questions you should be asking.

 

PASSOVER AND QUESTIONS     

            One of the earliest examples of the role of questions in teaching is, of course, found in the Passover seder.  Dating back to at least the year 200 C.E. the Mishna states, “They pour a second cup of wine for him. And here the son questions his father.”  What is the son supposed to ask?  We want him to ask about the importance of the evening apparently. 

The Mishna continues, “And if the son has insufficient knowledge his father teaches him”… the Mishna then proceeds to enumerate The Four Questions.  “Mah Nishtana HaLaila ha’ze.”  The whole meal is designed to inspire wonder in children about the unusual items on the table.  “Why do we eat matza?” and “Why do we dip twice?” are not limited to the facts of the meal, but rather the meaning of the experience.  The questions from Dr. Rabi’s Jewish mother, that inspired him to become a scientist, were more than two thousand years in the making. 

If you ever wondered how tradition teaches values, you need look no further.  Judaism teaches each generation the importance of asking questions.  To tell the story of the Exodus in each generation is a mitzvah.  To do it through the Socratic method of provocative questions is genius.

 

WHY VS HOW

            We generally view a why or what question as one of the big questions of life.  “What is the meaning of life?”, “What happens after we die”, “Why is this happening to me?” are just some examples of people’s big questions.    

            Think of a big question that you have.  What word did it begin with?  Why?  What? When?

            I want to suggest that the real big questions of life don’t begin with why, what or when, but rather with how.  How do I live a meaningful life?  How do I find appreciation in my everyday experience?  How will I make a difference in this world?  How do we recapture civility in our society?  So many big questions.  The use of the word “how” to formulate the question transforms the answer from a theoretical one into a practical, relevant one.  An answer for the sake of an answer is meaningless.  In the Jewish tradition, it is about a life dedicated to the practicality of action and so we want our big questions to translate into action. 

Rabbi Naomi Levy and I were discussing this issue lately, when she shared with me her approach about questions.   She said, “People always ask why, the question I try to ask back of those who come to me with their questions is how.  How can I live the most meaningful and fulfilling life in the face of all the whys that will never be answered?”

 

THE ANSWERS CHANGE

            The other very important fact to know about the big questions of life is that at different stages of life, we will ask different question and even if the question is the same, the answer will be different.

            From Shakespeare to psychologist Erik Erikson, to the writer Gaily Sheehy, the author of the classic book Passages, it is clear that we ask different questions at different stages of our lives.  “What does success look like?”  is going to be answered very differently by a 25-year-old than a 70-year-old.  “What is the meaning of life” when asked by a 30-year-old, is a different question when asked by an octogenarian who is trying to come to terms with the question, “was my life a well lived one?”. 

            All this means that we must continue to ask questions throughout our lives.  Sometimes it will mean coming up with new questions and other times it will mean reflecting on the same questions and finding a new answer for your current stage of life.

 

DO YOU SHARE THE BIG QUESTIONS WITH OTHERS?

            I imagine that some of your ask these big questions to yourself, but do you have a hevruta– a study partner or group in which you can explore these questions?   Whether with a spouse, relative or friend, are you able to dialogue about the meaningful and ultimate issues of life?  If not, you need to figure out how to do so.  So often, at a family dinner or getting together with friends, we speak about the most mundane of issues.  We, of course, catch up on family and even the events of our lives, but what else do we talk about?  For many people it is not about politics, unless they have chosen to sequester themselves from people of the opposite political persuasion- which itself is another problem.  Discussions about the big questions are not designed to be shared with all groups, but you need at least one person that you can explore these issues with.

            Jewish tradition knew the importance of exploring these questions in hevruta– do you have a hevruta partner? 

           

RECOMMENDATIONS

            If you don’t yet have a hevruta partner, what else can you do explore the big questions?

            Rabbi Goldstein and I will be running a monthly program on the Big Questions.  Our hope is that is that you will come to these sessions to explore these important issues.  I encourage you to attend as we attempt to guide people through an exploration of the big questions. 

            At Rosh Hashana many of you received a booklet created by our Communications Director Ben Vorspan that can become a journal for exploring the big questions.   You should be able to find some on a table in the Frank Galleria.   You can either bring this booklet with you to the monthly programs or you can just reflect on these issues in discussions with other people and write down your own thoughts.  Remember, this is not an exercise to be done alone, but rather in dialogue with someone else.  If you look at the booklet you will also notice that there are pages without pre-written questions.  These pages are for you to write your own questions and to discuss them with people.

 

CONCLUSION

            More than twenty years ago I received a voice message from a random caller.  When I listened to it, I heard the following message, “My name is John. I’m a Catholic, but someone said Judaism might be a better fit for me. What can you tell me about it?”  When I called John back, I asked him to tell me his story.  After listening to his quest for answers to his struggles with his upbringing in Catholicism and the answers that he was in search of, I responded, “I have bad news for you. We don’t have the answer.” After I laughed a little, I added, “Don’t get me wrong – we have answers. More than you can count. But we don’t have The Answer. On the other hand,” I continued, “if you’re looking for a place where you can ask life’s most profound, difficult and meaningful questions- be willing to accept whatever responses you get to them – then do a bit of studying, thinking and talking about them with others to formulate new questions – and have that be a way of living– maybe you’ll find a home with us.” 

            Shortly thereafter John started his studies for conversion and eventually converted.  But the story doesn’t end there, because John went on to rabbinical school and eventually was ordained as a Conservative rabbi.  John Crites Borak loves to tell this story about how his Jewish journey began.  When he tells the story, he will often emphasize the importance of returning phone calls, since I was the only rabbi of the five he called, who returned his phone call, but also, he loves this story, as I do, because it reflects the truth.  We are people of questions.  It is the questions that keep us going rather than the answers.  When we stop asking questions, when we think we have all the answers that is when we die as individuals and as a people. 

            Today, on Yom Kippur, we focus on death.  We ask the big questions like, “did I live a good life this past year?”  Today is the day of the biggest questions of all.

            May this be a year of big questions and great discussions.  May one question lead to ten more and thereby provide a quest of questions- a journey of meaning. 

G’mar hatimah tovah- may you be inscribed for a year of questions and meaning. 

 

Safety First at Temple Aliyah

Posted on February 28, 2018

As many of you know, we have a graffiti incident on our campus in December. The security of our students, congregants and staff are priority one at Temple Aliyah. As of the writing of this article, there has been no new information reported regarding the incident. . As previously reported, there was a similar incident (spray painting) in an alleyway in West Hills the same week.

Many of you have asked about the security measures that we do have in place and I wanted to list them for you here:

  1. During our security enhancements in 2016, twelve (12) security cameras were installed on campus.
  2. Every classroom has a “panic button” installed which sends a silent alarm to LAPD.
  3. Our Security Supervisor, Rick Hyman, continues to be armed. When Rick is on vacation, an armed, off-duty LAPD officer is subbed in for that time.
  4. During winter break, we installed motion sensor lights on the driveway security station. Additionally, the station’s internal light will be left on overnight.
  5. Prior to the upper driveway gate being installed, we put up a chain each night at the bottom of the entrance driveway. Since the incident, we have resumed putting up that chain each night blocking automobile traffic from entering our lot after hours.
  6. We have installed “24-hour video surveillance signs” throughout the campus.
  7. Immediately following an incident, or as soon as physically possible, the Temple will send out a “One Call Now” phone and text message to parents should an incident occur on campus in the future. This alert to parents will be followed up later in the day with an email to the congregation. To check if you are on our “Once Call Now” alert list – please contact Tia Roberts at the office front desk (troberts@templealiyah.org). 

During the month of January, “lockdown drills” were held on campus. These were unannounced drills so that our clergy, department heads, office staff, teachers, maintenance and security personnel reacted in real time. In the past, we have been able to lockdown our campus in 4 minutes. As of press time, I do not have the lockdown time for the January drills.

I want to thank David Brook, our Executive Director, for his efforts to make sure Temple Aliyah is secure and safe. David regularly attends conferences on synagogue security and is always in touch with the LAPD to make sure we are updated on any activity that may be a security concern. I am confident that with our LAPD partnership combined with David’s security knowledge, we are taking every precaution necessary to ensure a safe campus. Please feel free to reach out to David or me if you have any questions.

 

B’Shalom

Julie

This Year We Are Slaves, Next Year We May Be Free

Posted on February 28, 2018

I’m chuckling to myself as I write this article. For many of the past few years, I would sit in my office in NJ, watching the snow piled high, experiencing the cold and darkness of the winter, and pining for spring. I would write the bulletin article for March, hoping that it would be brighter and nicer than the world in which I found myself while writing.

With a relocation to Southern California, the end of Winter and beginning of spring has taken on a new meaning for me. Personally, even though it will be 80 degrees here today, and it doesn’t exactly feel like the winters of my youth, there is still a winter difference here in Woodland Hills. The days are shorter, and people are slogging through the next few months of school or work, looking forward to the spring and summer when things start to feel a little different.

In a few short weeks (about four from the time you’re reading this), it will be Pesach. We will gather around our tables and share the story of our people’s exodus from Egypt. While Passover is known as the holiday of the Seder and the exodus, it is also the holiday of spring. Every year (whether it comes “early” or “late”), Passover celebrates the coming of spring and the natural rebirth we witness all around. Pesach is an embrace of the buds of flowers, of the resurgence of animals and plants all around us, to come out from their winter hibernation and celebrate the longer and warmer days ahead. We see this manifested in many ways, including through the pesach Seder.

While many of us are familiar with the theme of the Exodus on pesach, it is actually intertwined with the theme of spring and rebirth. As a people, we actually experienced a rebirth, from slavery to freedom. In fact, that literal translation of the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, is “the narrow place.” When we leave Egypt, or the narrow place, we are reborn as a people.

“B’chol dor v’dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’elu who yatzah m’mitrayim.”

 In every generation, every one of us is commanded to see ourselves as if we had been slaves in Egypt. This commandment is the basis for much of the symbolism of the Seder. We are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus, not as a history lesson, but as our own personal narratives. Our autobiographies if you will. We might think that it is hard to truly live these words. After all, how can we relate to slaves who lived thousands of years ago? They didn’t even have iPads!

We start our Pesach seder in sadness dipping green vegetables into salt water and eating bitter herbs (not to mention waiting an ungodly amount of time to eat our meal). But as our seder progresses, due to the wine we are drinking or not, we get happier and happier. We end our seders by joyfully singing praises of God in the Hallel prayer. We see that even slaves who thought nothing could save them, were able to find salvation.

Many of you know that I used to work at Beit Teshuva, a residential treatment facility for addiction in Culver City. While I was there, I had the opportunity to work on an original play called Freedom Song. It tells the story of addicts who are trying to find their way in the world. While this show has been going for over ten years, it constantly changes depending on the cast, personalizing the dialogue with their own autobiographical information as they narrate their journey from addiction to recovery. The action takes place in two separate locations, one a meeting of addicts in recovery, and the other, a family Passover seder. In excruciating detail, they tell of what they went through, and what they put other people through, because of their addiction. These are people who understand what it means to say that they have been slaves. For them, it is not a stretch to feel as if they “had been slaves in Egypt.”

While not all of us are recovering addicts, we all know what it is to struggle and to suffer. We all know what it means to feel hopeless and lost. Someone once told me that the difference between an addict and a “normie” (their term for non-addicts) is that addicts know that they’re broken.

There are times when we all feel like things are beyond our control, when things are bleak and seem beyond hope. We can learn from our ancestors and from the residents of Beit T’shuvah that even in our darkest moments, there is still hope.  We know that even slaves can become free.

 As we say in the haggadah, this year we are slaves, next year may we be free. Whatever our slavery, whether it is physical, or psychological, next year may we be free. This year we are exiled. Next year may we all live free in the Promised Land.

 

The Seder As a Jewish National Mall

Posted on February 28, 2018

I love walking around the National Mall in Washington, DC. When visiting the monuments and memorials of great leaders like Jefferson, Lincoln, F.D.R. and King, you can read their words that inspired a nation. Whether the Gettysburg Address or a quote from the “I Have a Dream” speech, we can experience the words that helped shape a nation. One cannot help but be inspired by the history coming alive to remind us. But these monuments are more than just tributes to the past. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, they share our national narrative and remind us that we are a covenanted nation.

To understand the relevance of the quotes on the monuments in the National Mall, just look at the monuments found in London, and in particular in Parliament Square, as being quite different.  On the life-size monuments of David Lloyd George (Prime Minister during WWI), Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, the only words contained are their names. While this difference between the British and American monuments to our national heroes may not seem like much, Rabbi Sacks suggests that the differences reflect a fundamental difference between the “tradition-based society” of England and the “covenantal society” of America.   

Founded more than a millennium ago, as many people have experienced, England is a “this is how we have always done it” society and is a place where tradition holds great power.  Therefore, it is unnecessary to ask why. According to Sacks, “Those who belong know. Those who need to ask show thereby that they do not belong.” America, on the other hand, was founded as a covenantal nation. From the Pilgrims on, those who settled here did so by and large for purposes of religious freedom, personal autonomy from a monarchy and the rejection of a class system that benefited the elite. From its very beginnings, America was founded with a narrative of purpose and it is the sharing of that narrative that reminds us of our core values. Our earliest founders invoked the covenant of the Hebrew Bible as their mandate for creating a new order and such societies create narratives of purpose to tell the story of what they are about. When we walk the National Mall, we experience our national narrative and are reminded of the covenant that directs us toward a special purpose.

Approximately 3,500 years ago, the original inspiration for religious and personal freedom took place. It is the story of the Israelites who left the tyranny of Egypt to create a nation that was founded on principles quite different from anything else that existed at that time. While not the utopian society (slavery was still accepted and women’s rights still insufficient), it lived by a mandate that all people were made in the image of God. Other than a priesthood to lead the cultic life of the people, there was no distinction of classes; there was one law for all people. The Exodus is the foundational story of the Jewish narrative. It describes our struggle from slavery, the foundational structure of laws that reflect God’s will and the trials and tribulations that occurred on our journey to freedom.

While we invoke the Exodus in our daily prayers and it is a major theme of Shabbat, it is on Passover that we relive the experience. If the Jewish people were to have a National Mall, the Exodus would be the central feature. We spend time at the Passover seder not just reminding ourselves that we were slaves (this would be like the monuments in London), but rather we remember why freedom is important and what we should do with our freedom. Like the monuments on the National Mall, we tell our story. Passover is one of the key moments when we reflect on the Jewish covenantal relationship with God and with the world. It is no accident that we have so often carried the torch for religious and personal freedom. The Exodus has defined so much of what the Jewish people are about. Yes, it is a time for family, but more importantly, it is one of our covenantal ceremonies. The stories (and talking about the stories) are essential to the experience.

What does your seder look like?

Is it more like the monuments in London that remember the moment but not its significance? Or, is it like a stroll through the National Mall in Washington, DC that allows a reliving of a foundational experience? Without our covenantal narrative, we lose our sense of purpose, whether as Americans or as Jews.

In the coming weeks as you prepare for your Passover seder, may you reflect on ways to relive the covenantal experience at your meal. Tell the story of the Exodus in a way that will allow our national narrative to instill purpose into the Jewish people and to all those around your seder table. 

—Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel

 

Wrapping Ourselves Up in God

Posted on February 28, 2018

When I work with students the week before their B’nai Mitzvah, I teach them to put on tefillin. (BTW, a big yashar koach to the Men’s Club for their World Wide Wrap and work with SCJLL leading up to the event). I talk about the concept that putting on tefillin is a physical manifestation of what our relationship with God should and could be. We wrap ourselves up in God during the week—literally. Ukshartam l’ot—you shall tie a sign, al yadechah, on your arm. We wrap the retzuot (straps) seven times around our left arm (close to the heart). This is just like the Jewish wedding ceremony where the couple walks around each other seven times—seven days of the week we are wrapped up in each other. Just as our relationship with God should/could be. When we put on the “shel rosh,” the tefillin for the head, I point out the idea that the four paragraphs contained in the tefillin are placed in four slots (rooms) in the bayit (housing of the tefillin scrolls). It reminds us of the chuppah open on four sides, but if we looked inside the home of the future, it would have rooms, perhaps even four! As we continue to wrap the tefillin, as we make the “shin” on our hand, we say the words from the prophet Hosea who said: “I shall betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me with righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy. I will betroth you to me with faith and you shall know Hashem.” The final act of putting on tefillin contains Hosea’s words—as we wrap around the finger, symbolizing the wedding ring. We make the letter shin as we complete the name of God, Shaddai whose presence depends on us, as Jews, to accept and believe in something holy and greater than ourselves.  Betrothal, the first step toward erosion (marriage), is called kiddushin—from the word kiddush, holy. Marriage is by its essence holy and so are the mitzvoth that guide our lives.

Did you ever notice how the straps of new tefillin, stiff, shiny and just a little uncomfortable at first, loosen up over time? They become supple, smooth, pliable and comfortable. The more you wrap yourselves in each other, the more perfectly smooth and comfortable you become. It reminds me of a musical instrument that with time ages and allows the full spectrum of sound to speak through the wood and strings. It’s not easy—the wood has to vibrate and shake loose the finely packed particles that make up the grain—when that happens, it allows the wood to vibrate, creating harmonious overtones that impress the listener. 

With that said, I am happy to announce that Kelley and I have been betrothed for 40 years on the second of April. It is hard to believe that so much time has gone by. Three sons and three grandchildren later, we are still, and more than ever, wrapped up in each other. 

At the end of my lesson, I tell my students that yes, mitzvoth are important—but whether you put on tefillin every day is not as important as living by Hillel’s creed: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Yes, the most important thing that we can do as Jews is to care for others with righteousness, justice, kindness, mercy and faith—always.

That is marriage, that is relationship, that is love, that is 40 years.

 Hazzan Stein

 

 

Mordecai and joseph: Jewish leaders who save their countries

Posted on January 30, 2018

The question of what it means to “save” the Jewish people can have different implications.  For some it is about the observance of mitzvot as a way of preserving the Jewish message.  For others, it is providing financial support to Jewish causes that secure the future for the Jewish people.  For some, it is engaging in the world of politics to save the Jewish people.

The story of Esther has much to teach us about Jews in the world of politics and what it means to be Jewish.  While we tend to focus on the role of Esther in saving the Jewish people, we tend to diminish Mordecai’s role in the story (I encourage you to read the Book of Esther through this lens).   More than just the cousin of Esther who pushes her into a competition to become queen and later forces her to “out” herself to the king as a Jew in order to save the Jews of the kingdom.  At a first reading of the Book of Esther, we might ascribe the entire conflict to Mordecai.   After all, it is his clashes with Haman sets the stage for the entire plot and the motivation for Haman to want to destroy the Jews. 

But what about the episode in which Mordecai saves the live of King Ahashverosh against the plot of the Bigtan and Teresh, two of the castle guards?   What was Mordecai’s motivation?  Was it to get into the good graces of Ahashverosh?  Or perhaps, this is what it means to be Jewish.  Namely, to care about your country and your leaders.  While many people know about the part of the story in which Haman is forced to parade Mordecai through the streets of Shushan with Mordecai sitting on the King’s horse and dressed in royal robes, many don’t know about the fate of Mordecai at the end of the book.  Not only is he saved from the gallows that Haman had built for him (Haman is hanged on them himself), but he is eventually made Viceroy of Shushan.  The final verses of the Book of Esther provide a possible picture of where the kingdom of Persia is better off because Mordecai now is in a position of leadership.

Does this plot sound familiar?

Does it sound a bit like the story of Joseph in Egypt?   In the Book of Esther, it is the lives of Mordecai and Esther who parallel that of Joseph.

Like Joseph, Mordecai comes from a position of nothing, to become second in command of a great nation.  Similar to Esther’s identity hidden from the king, Joseph’s identity is hidden (although here it is hidden from his brothers).   Most significantly to the stories, it is Joseph’s rise to power that saves his family from the famine in Canaan and it is Esther’s rise to power that saves the Jews from the fate sealed by Haman.  But unnoticed by many is the important role that Joseph and Mordecai play in the lives of their adopted countries Egypt and Shushan.  In Egypt, Joseph is responsible for saving the lives of the Egyptians through his program of storing up food during the years of plenty before the years of famine hit.  Without him, the implication is that much of the country would have starved to death.  Likewise, at the conclusion of the Book of Esther we are told that new greatness came to Shushan because of Mordecai.

What is the great message about the stories of Joseph and Mordecai?

More than just viewing the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people, our ultimate goal is that we contribute to the betterment of the world; that is what it means to be “a light unto the nations.”  In this context, the question is not what it means to save the Jewish people, but what does it mean for the Jewish people to “save” the world.  In this context, the answer is not a theological one, but rather an existential one.  In the stories of Joseph and Esther, everyone is better off when the Jewish people are safe and secure.  In addition, it is through Jewish leadership that this utopian world is created.  Unlike the propogandist document of the Protocols of Zion, that imagined a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world for our self-interests, the stories of Joseph and Esther, share an acknowledgment that the fate of Jews is tied to the fate of humanity.  In the words of Supreme Court Justice Brandeis, “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews.” 

I aspire for a messianic image of the world in which all Jews are safe and secure in a world that knows only goodness and it is Jewish leaders who contribute to this betterment of humanity. 

Why We Remember

Posted on January 30, 2018

Mishanichnas Adar marbim b’simchah (Taanit 29). When we enter the month of Adar, we have great joy. After all, Purim will not be long after. This year, Purim is on March 2nd with Erev Purim on March 1st. It is not Purim that I am going to talk about in this piece. It is the Shabbat before Purim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of Remembering. It is on this special Shabbat that we remember what the Amalekites did to the Jewish people. The Torah tells us that the Amalekites attacked the stragglers from behind as the Israelites marched in the desert. But hold on, what is happy about this? Why in the month of Adar do we remember the ugly story and hear the commandment to remember and not to forget. 

First of all, zachor (to remember) is a central part of our Jewish DNA. We are certainly familiar with Yizkor on the holidays, we are used to telling the story of the Exodus every Passover and we tell the story of Esther and Mordechai every Purim. Some people ask why do we insist on remembering? Why don’t we just forget, and forgive? Teshuvah (atonement), an essential part of our religious observance, tells us that to perform teshuva, to get back on the right path, we must recall and face our experiences so that when faced with the same path, we can learn to avoid the mistakes of the past and do the right thing. Perhaps it is this path that Shabbat Zachor is reminding us about in this merry month of Adar. It is like stepping on the glass at a Jewish wedding. In the midst of our joy, we must remember that sometimes in times of sorrow, we reap tears of joy. As the psalmist writes: “You have turned for me my mourning in to dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness.” (Psalm 30). So, too, with Ta’anit Ester—we fast on the day before Purim to remember that the Jewish people fasted for three days after Haman’s decree.

So after Haman decreed, he de-cried, “Dee-plane, dee-plane” (it’s a little known fact that the rain fell on the plane). Speaking of hot air, did you know that the Shul of Rock is a shul that I never step my foot into. Unless of course, it’s Purim! You think Aliyah is up there wait until Mordechai climbs to the Top of Mount Rock? And then, of course, he and his cousin Ester, “Stick it to the Hay-Man.” So if you’re wondering, “Where Did the Rock Go?” tune in on March 1st Erev Purim and you’ll be “In the Band!”

Examining Rituals Passed on Through the Generations

Posted on January 30, 2018

Here we are at the beginning of February, about to celebrate one of the most unique of American “holidays.” On February 2nd, we will look to the prognosticator of prognosticators to tell us whether or not there will be six more weeks of winter. Sitting here in Southern California, it might not be as important as in other parts of the country, but I remember growing up in Rochester, New York, watching with baited breath news of Punxsutawney Phil. Even though I knew the outcome of Groundhog Day didn’t matter, I’d say a silent prayer—not about whether a rodent saw a shadow, but that winter would be over soon. Although we don’t believe in rodent-prophets, we trot out this groundhog to perform a ritual. The exercise of Groundhog Day brings up an interesting question. What do we do with rituals that have been handed to us by previous generations?

When examining a ritual, we ask ourselves many questions. We ask questions that demand that we assess not only the ritual itself, but also our relationship to the ritual and to the past and perhaps, our personal feelings surrounding the ritual as well. How difficult is the ritual to perform? Is it a burden on my family and I or is it something we do easily?

For example, even if we don’t like the ritual of dipping our apple in honey on Rosh Hashanah (and outside of allergy reasons, I’ve never heard of anyone not liking it), we know it is not a big deal to perform this ritual, and many people enjoy it. At the same time, because it is an easy and somewhat quick ritual, the dipping of the apple into the honey does not necessarily fill us with a sense of spiritual ecstasy.

In contrast, we might find that certain rituals have the potential to affect us in many significant ways. For example, the ritual fast of Yom Kippur has a profound effect on many of us. For many of us, it is very difficult to go 25 hours without food and drink. It is precisely because of the physical and mental toll it takes on us that we are able to find such meaning in it.

Given the above criteria, let’s examine one of the most prevalent practices in the Jewish religion. By all accounts, prayer is at the center of our Jewish existence. We gather together throughout the year. We pray to rejoice in our happiness and we pray through our sorrow. We pray as a way of saying thank you to God. We pray as a way of beseeching God for help in some aspect of our lives and we pray to praise God.

The rabbis tell us in order to be able to even begin to pray, we must have two simultaneous feelings in our hearts, joy and trembling. When was the last time you were at a prayer service that inspired you to feel even one of those emotions?

The truth is, I struggle with prayer as much as anyone. There are times when prayer rolls off my tongue as water flows from a river. There are also times when my mouth is stopped up by concrete and words of prayer are impossible to utter.

Prayer is simultaneously one of the most instinctive and inaccessible rituals in Judaism. We all find ourselves in moments when we need to talk to God, when we look for someone outside of us to help guide us. We know the prayers we say before we take a test, and before our sports teams take the field. We also know how much we struggle to search for help when someone we love is struggling. At those times, prayer flows from our lips effortlessly. We know what we want to say, and we know what is in our hearts, even if we find ourselves unable to utter them aloud.

But for many, prayer is also inaccessible. Most of our prayers are written in the poetry of ancient or medieval Hebrew. Forgetting the theological questions of prayer, when you add the fact that we are dealing with an entirely different language, it makes it that much harder for us to really feel like the prayers express what we are feeling.

If I am not alone, if many of us struggle with our desire to pray being mitigated by our lack of inspiration, then we should struggle together. No one is going to come into our lives and magically change the way prayer is done. No one is going to wave a magic wand and break the dam of prayer. It is up to us, as a community, to find ways in which prayer and worship can work for us, ways in which we can grow spiritually together. Whether it is through our traditional Shabbat services, or one of our alternative offerings, I’d like to invite you to explore prayer and spirituality with me here at Temple Aliyah. Together, we can create an environment and a service that allows us to feel fulfilled and is inviting to those who are eager to join.

Have a great month,
Rabbi Goldstein  

 

 

  • Calendar of Events

  • Shabbat & Holiday Services

    Friday, October 12, 2018

    • 7:00 PM - Fusion Shabbat

    Saturday, October 13, 2018

    • 9:15 AM - Shabbat Morning Service
    • Bar Mitzvah of Zachary Elbaum
    • Babynaming of Carlie Perryman
    • 10:00 AM - Shabbat Club
    • 4:15 PM - Shabbat Afternoon Service
    • Bar Mitzvah of Eli Rubel

    Sunday, October 14, 2018

    • 9:00 AM - Tallit & Tefillin Minyan
  • Parasha & Candle Lighting