Monday, April 28, 2008

High Holidays 2006 / 5767 Sermons

New Year 2006 / 5767 Sermons
Day 1
Day 2 Kol Nidre Yom Kippur

Rosh Hashanah Day One
"Time to Act"

It’s been a rough summer, rough all over the world. So rough in fact, that one night when Mara and I wanted some escapist pleasure for a few hours we decided to see the Al Gore documentary on global warming. Even before the missiles started falling all over northern Israel, this was one depressing summer.
And everywhere, people seemed to be sensing it. An online petition called “Stop it God,” read, simply, “Dear God, stop making bad things happen; it’s not funny any more.” And thus far it’s been signed by over 10,000 people. Concern is growing among spirituality and history buffs over the ancient Mayan calendar, which has been plugging along for nearly 2 million days and is set to end in 2012. And music buffs from the ‘60s will note that the year 2525 is’t too far beyond that. Newsweek reported this week that a small number of doomsayers have concluded that a life-ending cataclism is on the horizon.

Even Stephen Hawking has become despondent; the physicist who has himself overcome enormous physical disability now has doubts as to whether the human race can survive. In early July, he posted a question on Yahoo’s Q and A website, “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how will the human race sustain another 100 years?”

Within a few days, this question had generated about 25,000 responses. I looked at some of them. And while the general pattern was surprisingly optimistic, that optimism was often based on the idea that over the next century we’ll figure out how to populate Mars. Life might survive, but the earth is doomed. And this was in July, before our interplanetary options were reduced dramatically with the demotion of Pluto.

What does it mean for a Jew to have faith in a world as seemingly hopeless as ours? And how will the human race sustain another hundred years? How can we personally keep on going? What can we grab hold of? What can we believe in? I would like to present four Jewish responses to Stephen Hawking’s question over these next ten days. By the end of Yom Kippur, I hope that the question of waiting for the next bus to Mars will become moot; because we’ll already have decided not to give up on this grand, beautiful, blue oasis of an experiment that we call Earth.
And in responding to the Hawking challenge over these next ten days, I’m going to offer not only my own reflections, but some of yours well. As I was preparing these sermons, it occurred to me that I am privileged to say that this is my 20th Rosh Hashanah standing here on this pulpit. So to mark that milestone I looked back not at my words, but yours. I looked at many of the bar and bat mitzvah speeches given on this pulpit over the years and realized just how much our children have taught me. I apologize in advance if I misquote anyone.

And so, today, the first response to Hawking is in two parts: Live deliberately and act decisively. Our first mission, should we choose to accept it, is to slow down the torrid pace of life.

How do we do that?

First, we must recognize our problem: Our lives are spinning out of control.

Sorry (answer cell phone) What? I can’t talk now, I’m giving a sermon… Rosh Hashanah. The holiday with the horn…Except not today. Long story. Bye”

The pressures of multi-tasking particularly impact the kids. In her Bat Mitzvah speech in 1999, Cortney Rosenberg spoke of trying to juggle all of her activities, which included “Bat Mitzvah lessons, 3 or 4 skating practices per week and three competitions in a row, a band and chorus concert in which I was in the band and in the chorus, junior choir, Hebrew School, and, oh yes, homework and just having time to myself.” Her recommendation? A step by step approach to getting things done. “With skating,” she said, “you set small goals, reach them and then move on. My first goal was to be able to stand up on skates; then I moved forward, and then crossovers and three turns and my current goal is to do an axle.”

This past June, at his Bar Mitzvah, Alex Cooperstone took pride in his ability to multi-task, noting how Moses is a real role model for him. Within a few chapters, we see Moses playing several very different roles: parent figure and therapist for the children of Israel, prophet, and even a doctor, healing his sister Miriam.

(answer cell again) Sorry…Listen there are over 1,500 people here. .. No, I don’t own my home. Yes, I am a likely voter. Yes, I know I gave last year. I really don’t do this over the phone. Send me the information. OK Thanks. Mom, I’ll call you later. What?.... Yes, yes…”
(She was reminding me to eat my spinach).

Did you know that there’s actually an international competition for tossing these things?
Seriously. In Finland. This year’s winner tossed a late model Nokia nearly 300 feet.

"Multitasking hurts your performance," said James Johnston, a psychologist at the NASA Ames Research Center. It really took a rocket scientist to tell us that one! The problem is twofold: we compress time by multi-tasking, squeezing all we can out of each minute – then we stretch time by working longer hours. A recent report on “60 Minutes” spoke of how the 40 hour work week is now history and has been replaced, for so many, with the 60-80 hour work week. Recently Metro North announced that, by popular demand, the beginning of rush hour now officially has been moved back to an ungodly 4:45 AM. People are connected to work 24/7, wherever they are, even on vacation. The Blackberry now has the nickname “Crackberry” because it is so addictive. We could all relate to the scenes in this summer’s film, “The Devil Wears Prada,” where the boss calls at all hours and the job never ends. I looked around this summer at the beach with a sly smile. Rabbis have always had to be on call, wherever and whenever. Now everyone is. Everyone has become a rabbi! Lying on the beach has become just another ball to juggle in our faced paced lives. But it’s getting out of control. When family members now routinely e-mail and instant message each other from different rooms of the same house, we know it is getting out of control. Even as one who has long appreciated the more sublime effects of technology, there has got to be a time to turn it off.

When work becomes 24/7 we lose something precious. It’s like having a musical score with no rests. Everything is about speed and efficiency. It’s all about fast and faster. In the 60 Minutes piece, workers spoke about being praised by their bosses for responding to e-mail at 2 in the morning. I must admit it’s something I’ve done. But please don’t praise me for it! We all want to see people going above and beyond in their work. And as a rabbi, I’ve always enjoyed the flexibility of being able to work at home and at all hours. But we need to listen to the message of the shofar – which today is the silent shofar.

There needs to be a time to turn it off.

Imagine - not blowing the shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It’s like having a wedding but leaving out the bride. It’s the Seder without Matzah, Hanukkah without the menorah, the playoffs without the Red Sox (OK I said it). It just doesn’t seem right.

We aren’t blowing the shofar today, because it is Shabbat. This happens often, about 28% of the time, though in no particular pattern. Technically, one could make a good argument for sounding it anyway – it used to be done in ancient Jerusalem. Two Psalms hint to us why the shofar is silent today: Psalm 81 states: “Tiku ba'chodesh shofar, ba'keseh l'yom chagainu,” “Blow the shofar on the day of the new moon” - literally, “on the day when the moon is covered.” When you rearrange the first Hebrew letters of those words, something Kabbalists love to do, it spells “B’Shabbat,” “on Shabbat.” So on Shabbat, the blowing is done in a covered, hidden way. And Psalm 89 states, “Ashrei ha’am yodei teruah,” “Happy is the nation that knows the shofar’s sound, they walk in the light of Your joyous presence.”

The happiness doesn’t come from hearing it or blowing it, but from knowing it. And knowing often is best achieved in silence. For Shabbat gives us something even more important than the shofar. More important than the strenuous multi-tasking work of Teshuvah, there is the need to step back and rest. Consider today as the pause between the notes. We heard the shofar all month, and we’ll hear it again tomorrow. But today is Yom Zichron Teruah. Today is the time to reflect. The time to inhale. The time to wait. To live life in the slow lane.

I did something very exciting with my sons a few weeks ago. We boiled water. I figured this to be a survival skill needed for adulthood. And it got me to thinking, how many of us have taken the time to watch water to come to a boil? I usually make my hot cereal in the microwave, and we have a coffee maker. When we do boil water, we typically turn it on and multi-task our way to somewhere else. This was a big pot of water, for pasta – and it took a solid seven minutes. In other words… forever. And while we were doing that, I pulled another zinger: we waited for the oven to warm to 450. My God, I was thinking, did my grandmother do that? What did people do all day before there were microwaves? They boiled water and heated ovens.

You can tell I don’t live in the kitchen. So I read our marvelous new sisterhood cookbook from cover to cover, looking for the section on how to boil water, and then I boiled some and began to discover the hidden beauty behind it.

First, some ripples appear on the surface, with some puffs of steam hovering above. This is what the first instant of Creation must have looked like, I thought. And with those ripples the water glows with the reflection of all different colors, possibly caused by the residue of oil in the pot. And then the first tiny bubbles begin to meander up from the bottom, self consciously, like someone sheepishly moving down to the front row of the sanctuary during shacharit. Then bigger bubbles begin to appear, and more of them, many more, until suddenly the pot has become the Grand Central Station of bubbles on a hot summer Friday at 5, all racing mindlessly toward the surface to make their steamy departure, consummating their miraculous transformation from commuter to human being, from entrapped liquid to gas. It took my breath away. It takes a special effort to be able to watch water coming to a boil, the same kind of patience and imagination that enabled Moses to see the miracle that was in the burning bush. As Lawrence Kushner has pointed out, in order to see that it was not really burning up, he needed to stare right at it for a good, say, 5-7 minutes, as long as it took the water to boil.

I’m going to let you in on a little known secret of Hammerman history. On my wedding night, time stopped. That’s right, my watch battery stopped at some point and then restarted when I picked up the watch the next morning. So we went through our entire first day of marriage in a different time zone from everyone around us – we had brunch, spent the day at the beach - and didn’t notice it until we were eating dinner. We thought it was 8:00 PM but it was really only 4:30. We looked around in the restaurant and everyone seemed strangely old. The meal was very reasonably priced. Finally I asked the waiter what time it was.

We learned from the first moment of marriage how important it is to be liberated from the shackles of the clock.

In 2000, David Rich said in his Bar Mitzvah speech that when he was little, at an age when most kids dream of becoming firemen or police officers, he had a different wish. He wanted to be the guy who painted the white lines on the street. It always amazed him to see the guys on the truck slapping down the white paint, and how the white lines on the road never seemed to end. These guys were his role models.

“We need to discover all that we can about everything we can,” he added. “We can not allow even the smallest details to pass us by.”

We can do that only by slowing down. And we can do that only by, from time to time, reducing the multi-tasks to one simple one and, just occasionally, seeking out the road less traveled, the path of least efficiency. And once on that road, we need to notice the white lines.

"The more zigzag the way, the deeper the scenery" wrote the Chinese painter Huang Binhong. “The winding path approaches the secluded and peaceful place.” The human race will survive into the next century if we can all learn to begin living the Zigzag Life.

When the former refusenik Natan Sharnasky finally won his freedom in 1986 after spending years in prison camps and a lifetime in Soviet captivity, his first supreme gesture as a free man was to walk in a zigzag across the bridge, to the other side where his liberators awaited. One would think that he would have run across, given his intense thirst for freedom and desire for reunification with his wife Avital. Yet when a Soviet officer ordered him to go straight over the bridge and make no turns, Sharansky said, “Since when have I started making agreements with the KGB? If you tell me to go straight, I’ll go crooked!”

Sharansky knew that life is lived in zigzag. History moves relentlessly forward, but to be fully human and fully free means to have the cherished ability to transcend time’s arrow and decelerate its monotonous, torrid pace. It took the Israelites a long time to get to the Promised Land, in part because they took the least direct route, to avoid the Philistines in Gaza. Smart move. I wish the Israelis had taken it again in 1967. Freedom is about the choices we make, and the choice to take the circuitous path is a true declaration of independence from the rat race. It is about seeing every moment in life as the gateway to infinite possibilities. According to the 10th century Jewish leader Saadia Gaon, the Shofar’s sound is a proclamation of our freedom. Today’s silent sounding, then, is a proclamation of our freedom from proclamations!

So slow down. Have dinner with your family. In a June cover story, Time magazine cited studies showing that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use.

Judaism disdains fast food. Hey, even the most noteworthy fast food in our tradition, Matzah, baked in such haste, is eaten at the slowest meal of the year. This year I participated in a colloquium on Jewish eating, paid for, ironically, by McDonalds - as part of the multi million dollar response to a class action suit over misleading labeling and the furor caused by the film “Supersize Me.” What does it mean to eat Jewishly? It means to eat mindfully. It means to be conscious that what’s on your plate was once alive. It means to eat ethically. And it means to eat slowly.

Did you know that some sages of the Talmud felt that one who eats in a public marketplace, meaning one who eats on the run, cannot be a valid witness? They compared it to eating like a dog. The Talmud also states that one who eats slowly lives longer. How many of us make a special point of eating at least one meal a day with our families and having at least one of those meals each week be a slow meal, one that cannot be interrupted by the phone or the perils of the workplace?

Make it a slow meal – at least once a week. Hey, how about Friday night?

When I lift a wine cup on Friday night at 6:01 and finish the prayer sanctifying the Sabbath at 6:03, I’ve moved forward two minutes in linear time. But simultaneously I’ve tapped into distant memories of other Sabbaths: I see my late father’s smile as I chime in with the final verse, I see my great grandparents, whom I never met, singing the prayer with their grandson, my father, at their side; I see Moses at Sinai reading off the fourth commandment, and I see God at Creation’s twilight, replenishing the Soul of the Universe. While I’ve undoubtedly moved forward by those two minutes, I’ve also tapped into a timeless cycle of an ever-present Sabbath. Those two minutes have lasted an eternity.

So part one of my first response to the Stephen Hawking challenge is that we need to slow down and take control of our inner clock. Because only once we have slowed down the process of living, can we speed up the process of doing. And that is part two. We need to carve out more time to act - because it is time to act.

Great athletes often speak of being “in the zone.” When he scored 81 points in a game last year, basketball star Kobe Bryant said, “Everything was happening in slow motion for me, and you just really want to stay in that moment.” (If only he could have lived in the Zone off the court, it could have saved him lots of tzuris.) When we live slowly, we can act decisively. The torrid pace of life has paralyzed us at just the time when paralysis has become more dangerous than ever.

In his Bar Mitzvah speech two years ago, my son Ethan drew attention to the verse in Exodus where the Israelites pledge total, 24/7 commitment to the commandments just given to them at Sinai. They say to Moses, “Na’aseh v’nishma,” “We will act, and then we will understand.” The commitment is above all to action. Being Jewish has little to do with what we believe and everything to do with how we behave. And this verse is found, fittingly, in Exodus chapter 24 verse 7. 24/7. Serving God is our real full time job.

In her Bat Mitzvah speech back in 1997, Alex Stein creatively translated God’s first instruction to human beings as “be fruit-like and multiply.” She interpreted that as being a command to protect the world so that the world can continue to bear fruit. This afternoon when we dip our apples into honey, let’s go around the table and ask each person how our actions are going to bear fruit for the world this coming year.

We must act, and we must act fast: There is no margin for error. Each waking moment we all feel like we are behind a NASCAR wheel, continuously straddling the precipice separating life from death, constantly forced to make instant choices between too-hasty action and fatal inaction. Al Gore tells us that Greenland is melting and Roxbury Road will soon be waterfront property. Iranian calling cards are smashing into Nahariya, Safed, Haifa and Tiberias and soon they could have nuclear tips. Zero hour is fast approaching.

We are all that 37 year old Israeli in Nahariya rushing to get his family into the shelter door as the air raid siren sounded, only to be killed by a missile as he stood just feet from safety. And we are all that Israeli officer, seeing rockets being launched from a populated area of Cana, having to decide, in an instant, whether to respond, risking civilian casualties, or not, risking losing Israel’s precious power of deterrence against that despicable, inhuman practice of the terrorists, who cowardly hide behind human shields. Sometimes the decisions are wrong - but in these dangerous times the worst thing is not to decide. To stand still is to die. But that is precisely what the world is doing - again. An Iranian president who openly calls for Israel to be wiped off the map was courteously greeted this week by the Council on Foreign Relations. David Brooks wrote this week in the Times: “With America exhausted by Iraq, with the threat of Iranian sanctions dissolving before our eyes, Western policy is drifting toward the option that most resembles passivity. That is, containment - accepting Iranian nukes and trying to deter their use with our arsenal.”

I’ve developed a bi-partisan bias toward preventive and pre-emptive action, whether the enemy is Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Gore’s greenhouse gasses. In this age where a single person can cause instant, unfathomable destruction, the greatest plague is passivity.

Michael Levin, a rambunctious kid growing up in suburban Philadelphia, decided to put off college and opted for Israeli paratrooper wings instead. It was his lifelong dream. Levin settled in Israel, struggled to learn Hebrew and set about winning a coveted assignment in the Israel Defense Forces. His commanders told him he was too thin to make it as a paratrooper. But the young man everyone called "Mikey" would not be deterred. He bulked up, became a crack sharpshooter and made the cut. When the war in Lebanon began, Michael, now 22, knew where he should be - and without hesitation, he flew back to Israel. He was mortally wounded during a firefight with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon.

His devastated parents granted him his final wish: he was buried on Mount Herzl on Tisha B’Av.
"Michael did what we all wish we could do," said Ari Goldner, 23, a friend from New York. "He died a hero fighting for the land he loved."

Was Michael Levin right to act as he did? That is not ours to answer. What we can say for sure, is he heard the call of the silent shofar - he heard that call, and he responded out of deep connection and purpose; he lived life deliberately and responded instinctively, “Na’aseh V’nishma.”

I close with a poem written by a Catholic priest named Michael Quoist. It’s entitled, God, I Have Time.

I went out, God
People were coming and going,
Walking and running,
Everything was rushing: cars, trucks, the street, the whole town.
People were rushing not to waste time,
They were rushing after time,
To catch up with time,
To gain time
Good-bye, excuse me, I haven’t time.
I’ll come back, I can’t wait, I haven’t time.
I must end this letter, I haven’t time.
I’d love to help you, but I haven’t time.
I can’t accept having no time.
I can’t think, I can’t read, I’m swamped, I haven’t time.
I’d like to pray, but I haven’t time.
You understand God, they simply haven’t the time.
The child is playing…she hasn’t the time…maybe later
The student has schoolwork…he hasn’t time…maybe later
The athlete has her sports…..she hasn’t time…maybe later
The young couple has a new house…now a baby…they haven’t time…maybe later
The grandparents have their travels…their grandchildren…they haven’t time…maybe later
They are ill…they have their treatments…they haven’t time….maybe later
Too late! None of them have any more time.
And so all of us run after time, Eternal God.
We pass through life running—hurried, jostled, overburdened, frantic, and we never get there. We haven’t the time.
In spite of all our efforts, we’re still short of time,
Of a great deal of time.
God, you must have made a mistake in your calculations
There is a big mistake somewhere.
The hours are too short,
The days are too short,
Our lives are too short.
You who are beyond time, Creator of All, you smile to see us fighting time.
You know what we are doing.
You make no mistakes in Your distribution of time to humankind
You give each of us the time to serve you according to Your needs.
But we must not lose time, waste time, kill time,
For time is a gift that You give us,
A perishable gift,
A gift that does not keep.
God, help me to acknowledge that I have time.
I have plenty of time,
All the time that You give me,
The years of my life,
The days of my years,
The hours of my days,
They are all mine.
Mine to fill, quietly, calmly,
But to fill completely, up to the brim.

Here’s my first response to Professor Hawking. We are all put on this earth for a tiny speck of a speck of an instant. We need to recognize how agonizingly brief is our allotment of years. But the recognition that our time is short is also our greatest gift - because it forces us to squeeze every ounce that we can from each moment and to gain from each instant a taste of eternity. We must live deliberately and act decisively.
We NEED time to act.
Because it IS time to act.

Rosh Hashanah Day Two
"Power to the Person"
Each year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah we are exposed to one of the most compelling and at the same time revolting stories in the entire Bible: the sacrifice of Isaac, the Akeda. Abraham, commanded to take his beloved Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice, does not utter a peep in protest. Earlier in the same portion, when God wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities filled with total strangers and total depravity, Abraham cried out in their defense. When Abraham’s nephew Lot was taken captive, Abraham formed alliances and instigated a regional war that resulted in the rescue of Lot. But when God tells Abraham to take Isaac – not a peep. For me this has always been one of the most perplexing and most troubling chapters in the Torah.

I am not alone. For the past two and half millennia, this episode has inspired volumes of commentary. Some claim that God never really meant it and that Abraham knew that. Others chastise Abraham for actually failing God’s test – that God really wanted Abraham to cry out in protest. And others take the heat off of Abraham and point the accusatory finger at a Higher Authority. One popular kabbalistic view is that the story is meant not be read as history, but as metaphor. Abraham is the symbol of the divine attribute of mercy and Isaac represents stern justice. So when Abraham binds Isaac, the lesson is that mercy trumps harshness - it’s like a kabbalistic version of rock-paper-scissors.
A 19th century Hasidic commentary called the Tiferet Shlomo posits that the word for “test” ‘Nisa” is actually an acronym, for the Hebrew expression “somech noflim,” “lifting up the fallen,” the hidden message being that God’s intent was not to test the faith of his servant, but to reinforce the flagging spirits of the downtrodden.
You can see just how far commentaries will go to sidestep the question as to Abraham’s passivity here. Non Jewish commentaries have less of a problem with Abraham’s submission. The great 19th century existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, in his classic work, “Fear and Trembling,” considers Abraham a hero for NOT protesting. His faith in God is so absolute that he willingly suspends his own ethical standards to follow that divine call. I’ve always been a fan of Kierkegaard, but in an age of suicide bombers, this view is scary – that is the way of the terrorist, to suspend all bounds of morality in order to answer to a supposed higher authority. And blind obedience leading to the suspension of moral judgment is simply not the Jewish way.

There is another possibility here, one hinted at in Rashi’s commentary on the opening verse of this non-dialogue. God tells Abraham, “Kach na et bincha et yechidcha asher ahavta et Yitzchak.” 'Please take your son, the only one, the one you love - Isaac - and go away to Moriah, where you will bring him as a burnt offering.” Why doesn’t God just say, “Take Isaac.” Some might say God was displaying sensitivity - trying to break it to him slowly. That’s a bit of a stretch, given what is being asked. There is no way to break that gently. Rashi posits that Abraham actually did respond to God here, that there was a dialogue, but that Abraham’s part was removed. God says, (foreshadowing a Henny Yongman joke), “Take your son, please” and Abraham responds, “Which one, I have two.” God says, “The only one,” and Abraham replies, “Each is the only one to his mother.” God retorts, “The one you love,” Abraham replies, “I love them both.” Finally, God says, “Isaac.”

For centuries, traditional Jews have always relied on Rashi’s commentary to understand the text. Kierkegaard came at it from a very different perspective. It is instructive to know that the normative Jewish way to read this story is to see Abraham as someone who doesn’t take this sitting down. In fact, the very next word, of the next verse is “Vayakam Avraham,” “Abraham stood up.” For Jews, Abraham could remain a hero, a viable patriarch only by standing up for his moral principles even if it meant grappling with God.

I’m sure that comes as news to no one. To be a Jew is to wrestle with God. I have often pointed out that the very meaning of the term Israel is “God wrestler” and indeed that is what Jacob did to prompt his receiving that name. We are all God wrestlers. For many of us, the first Jewish sentence we utter is a question – four of them, in fact, on Pesach. When a baby looks at his mother and says “mama,” he’s actually asking a Hebrew question! “What? How?” Before a Jew even learns to walk she’s already internalizing our inherent cultural need to challenge all convention – to question all assumptions – to scrutinize all orders – even if they come from God.
Stephen Hawking would appreciate that questioning approach. But how can simple skepticism help the world survive another century? Here’s the answer – my second response to Hawking: The ability to question brings out that which is most Godlike in each of us. And it is the empowerment of the individual conscience that will save humankind.

In Genesis 1 the Torah tells us that man and women were created in God’s image, in Hebrew, “tzelem elohim.” But what is it about us that is Godlike? The Mishna amplifies, that “tzelem elohim” comes down to our recognizing three qualities that make us different from all other creatures. 1) Each human life is of infinite value. 2) All human beings are equal and 3) each individual is utterly unique. No two human beings are exactly alike. When we assert our uniqueness, which happens when we probe the conscience and challenge convention, we are asserting our tzelem elohim. “Tzelem elohim” is all about the power of the individual. So by challenging God we are actually bringing Godliness into the world. The more we do that, the better chance for long term survival.

If yesterday’s message was that it is “time to act,” today’s is that it is “time to ask.”

We do that a lot of that here in Beth El. So many of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah speeches over the past two decades have spoken of the need to question things. Some in fact have challenged Abraham himself for not doing so. In 1994, Bobby Silberman cited Maimonides on how it is permissible to disagree with those in authority and to express your disagreement, as long as you don’t carry it too far once a decision has been made. Bobby continues the story:

“Two months ago, I was in social studies and my teacher and my teacher told us that the largest desert in the world is the Sahara. One of my classmates pointed out to my teacher that Antarctica is the largest desert. My teacher disagreed. Then I raised my hand and said that my classmate was right. He said that he would check up on it. The next day, we came into class and he told us that we were right.

The moral of this story is: Don't hold back on correcting someone in higher authority, as long as you do it respectfully. After the incident, the matter was dropped. I didn't rub it in, because I wasn't trying to show him up. I'm glad I followed Maimonides' advice in the way I handled the matter.”

It reminds me of a joke, based on a real Talmudic story: Four rabbis have spent years engaged in theological arguments, with three always disagreeing with the fourth.

One day, Herschel Lipschitz, the odd rabbi out, decides after a lengthy debate to appeal to a higher authority. "Oh, God!" he cries, "I know in my heart that I am right and they are wrong! Please show me a sign, so they too will know that I understand Your laws."

It's a beautiful, sunny day, but the instant Rabbi Lipschitz finishes his plea, a storm cloud moves across the sky above the four, rumbles, then dissolves. “A sign from God! See, I'm right! I knew it!” Rabbi Lipschitz says - but the other three disagree, pointing out that storm clouds often form on hot days. So he asks again: "Oh, God, I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong. So please, God, a bigger sign." This time four storm clouds appear, rush toward each other to form one big cloud, and a bolt of lightning knocks down a tree ten feet away from the rabbis, then the cloud disappears. "I told you I was right!" Rabbi Lipschitz says - but the others insist that nothing has happened that can't be explained by natural causes.

A third time Rabbi Lipschitz begins to appeal to God when he is interrupted. The sky turns pitch black, the earth shakes, and a deep, booming voice intones, "HERSCHEL LIPSCHITZ IS RIIIIIIGHT!"

The sky returns to normal. Rabbi Lipschitz puts his hands on his hips and says, "Well?" "So?" another rabbi says, "Now it's three-to-two."

And at the end of the Talmudic version of this remarkable midrash, God is heard proclaiming, with pride, “My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!”

Jews may not have invented Chutzpah, but we have perfected it. In her bat mitzvah speech in 1994, Alyssa Rogol spoke of her experience of confronting her Orthodox day school teachers with questions about egalitarianism for girls. Just this week, one of our 6th grade girls asked me why only boys get to wear yarmulkes. I responded that we encourage girls to wear them too, and she did. And in 2002, Amanda Jablon said at her Bat Mitzvah:

“If you know me well, you know that I like to ask questions. Not just ordinary questions, but hard-to-answer questions. Just the other day I was asking the rabbi why we eat apples on Rosh Hashanah? Why not oranges? They’re both sweet. And why do we dip in honey? What about Chocolate sauce, or sugar, or maybe even whipped cream? Then I asked, “How do we know that we aren’t little puppets being controlled by a much bigger life form? How do we know that the Exodus really happened? How did we get last names?” Amanda had lots of questions.

In 1997, Amy Cohen asked about what God looks like, and decided that she sees God in the face of her dog, because she is so old. “A few weeks ago,” she wrote, “I was tucking her in one night and she just looked at me in a sad but loving way, and I saw God in that look.” John Grogan, writing at the end of the current best seller “Marley and Me,” says sort of the same thing: “A dog judges others not by their color or creed but by who they are inside. Give him your heart and he will give you his.” A dog points us to the things that really matter in life. Loyalty. Courage. Devotion. Simplicity. Joy. Maybe the image of God can be reflected even in the eyes of a dog.

Sarah Warren in 1993 had the portion where the ten spies came back with the negative report. She commented that according to the rabbis, even those who disagreed with the ten spies were condemned to die in the wilderness. “Why?” She wrote. “Because of their silence. Not having the courage to speak up is just as bad as not having the courage of your beliefs.”

We need that courage. What is the alternative? A world of conformity. When you trade in individuality for conformity, you risk becoming the Abraham of our worst nightmare: the Abraham who refuses to think for himself.

We know all too well that the 20th century was a disaster for the individual conscience. Far too many were silent. Mass culture produced all too many examples of that – and I’m not just talking about the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. I’m talking about America. Jonathan Alter’s new book on FDR, “The Defining Moment” makes the claim that in the throes of the depression, there was a strong push for the newly elected FDR to declare his government a dictatorship. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, says Alter, "privately suggested that a 'benevolent dictator' might be what the country needed." Newspapers all over the country openly discussed the d-word. But Roosevelt, thank God, opted to place his trust in the American people and in Congress.

The innate desire to relinquish personal choice is a dark part of human nature, a side that we need to recognize. A landmark Yale experiment in 1961 by professor Stanley Milgrom showed that most people will willingly pull an Abraham and freeze up when an authority figure asks them to. Volunteers were told they were observing a study on “the effects of punishment on learning.” They would watch as subjects were subjected to electric shock when incorrectly responding to questions. Those subjects were really actors, but the volunteers didn’t know that, and as the shocks and screams increased in intensity, most of the onlooking volunteers did not protest. In all, 62.5 percent of the group allowed the experiment to continue, even when the charge reached 450 volts. They were all too willing to believe the experts in the white coats, even as they saw human beings writhing in pain before them.

In Woody Allen’s spoof of the Akeda, Abraham believes that this outlandish order is coming from God because “it was a deep, resonant voice, well-modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that.” Later, when God tells Abraham it was only a joke, God adds, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

It’s a scary world when nearly two thirds of us will willingly suspend our own judgment if a guy in a lab coat tells us to, but that’s what Milgrom’s landmark study showed. Nearly two thirds of us will believe authority more or less without question. Think about it, a group of a hundred; all good, moral people except for one dictator, a Hitler or Ahmadinejad, Pol Pot or Jim Jones. And 63 of them won’t raise a finger. That leaves the other 36 of us to be the skeptics, to answer the questions, to challenge what we are told and to stand up for what is right.

Thirty six is an important number in Jewish tradition, by the way. Double chai – and there is a legend that in each generation there are 36 righteous people, the lamed vav (for the Hebrew letters for 30 and 6), who will save the world. In the Talmud, the sage Abaye says that there need to be a minimum of 36 tzaddikim in each generation, but later folklore had it that there are only 36 and that they don’t realize that they are the ones who are saving the world. The person sitting next to you could be a Lamed Vavnik. Or maybe it’s you. Stephen Hawking needs a really strong class of Lamed Vav right now. If we all have done our jobs right, not a single Jew will fall into the category of the 63 – and all will be among the holy 36. At the very least, the bar mitzvah speeches give me reason to believe that our TBE students will be among those unafraid to stand up and stand out.

David Aronica asserted the courage of his convictions in 2004, by explaining at his bar mitzvah why he was wearing a pink shirt, with palm trees on his tie and a tallis with purple stripes. In 1998, Becky Tomsky talked about fashion statements too. “Like Abraham,” she wrote, “I believe that sometimes the best fashion is the simplest one. He believed that one God was better than hundreds of gods, while I believe that one or two colors is better than the whole rainbow.” Alex Swidler, in a 1999 discourse on Cain and Abel, spoke of the difficulties of asserting one’s individuality as a middle child.
This year, Morgan Temple spoke of how hard it is to be a Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium and Jeff Cooper took a stand against the plethora of laws in our society that make no sense, like the ban on whale hunting in Oklahoma. And then, this past April, my own bubela Dan cited the example of King David dancing unabashedly before the ark entering Jerusalem as justification for his having expressed his own artistic individuality several years back by drawing Blue’s Clues paw prints on our family room wall.

No shortage of Godliness being expressed at TBE. Individual expression reigns supreme. And that’s a good thing. Because we have entered the era of the individual. Groupthink is yesterday’s news. Mass culture is over. Thomas Friedman proclaimed it in his recent book, “The World is Flat.” “It just happened – right around the year 2000. …people all over the world started waking up and realizing that they had more power than ever to go global as individuals.”

In the trend-setting new book, “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson writes of the marketplace, “The era of one size fits all is ending, and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes.” “The mainstream has been shattered into a zillion different cultural shards,” he adds. “This is something that upsets traditional media and entertainment no end…. (their) hits are suddenly not enough. The audience is shifting to something else…Increasingly the mass market is turning into a mass of niches.”

When I was growing up, there were basically three TV stations. We worked our schedule to be in front of the TV for “All in the Family” and “Laugh In.” Now there are hundreds of TV channels and the programs can be time-shifted for viewing at any time. But that’s just the beginning of it, because our children or grandchildren are more likely to be watching programs from millions of websites, including Youtube, which itself contains millions of homemade videos, some of which are quite good. Many of which are quite bad. But it doesn’t matter, because when there are millions of them, people will find the good ones. That’s the “long tail,” the unlimited number of choices, and the infinite opportunity each of us has to be heard, read and seen. At last month’s Emmy’s, Conan O’Brien quipped, that “at this very moment your kids are on YouTube watching a cat on the toilet instead of watching that footage where it belongs: on the Fox network.”

During the recent war, one image that circulated on Youtube was a home video of Israeli soldiers praying before their tanks crossed the border into Lebanon. It was one of the most moving scenes we saw – and it could not have been staged for Anderson Cooper on CNN. It was home grown and it was real. People are choosing to run from the corporate behemoths and are watching instead the handiwork of individuals. Newscasts from all over the world are now played alongside mom and pop videos. Famous journalists are quoting average Joes from the Blogosphere or podcasts. It is the mark of individual expression, infinite opportunity and of utter equality. These, you’ll recall, are the hallmarks of “tzelem elohim,” living in God’s image.
Choice can be a scary thing. The average Wal-Mart contains about 4,500 CD titles. That’s about as many as any store can hold. But go online and Amazon lists 800,000. With iTunes, you can download millions of songs. But rather than being intimidated by this avalanche of options, people are reveling in the many choices offered them. What we seek now is not to be told what to do, but to be given guidance in selecting from the myriad of possibilities. Hence the rise in professions like wedding planners. In 1981, the Association of Bridal Consultants had 27 members. In 2004, that number had grown to 4,000. As the choices proliferate, I’ve come to see the role of rabbi as sort of a “religion planner.” My job is to give people the spiritual tools to negotiate the multitude of life choices they now have – so many more than in the past. My aim is not to tell you what to think. My aim is to encourage you to think, to nurture your own power of conscience.

The disintegration of mass culture has brought us closer to a world imbued with Godliness. The “zillion cultural shards” mentioned by Chris Anderson brings to mind images made popular in the thinking of the great Kabbalist philosopher Isaac Luria, the Ari, who spoke of a sort of divine big bang resulting in shards of holiness to be found everywhere on earth – pieces of godliness, as it were. Each shard of divinity is itself a precious jewel – each expression of individuality – and each person is as well. We live in a dizzying world, a “flat world,” empowering the individual as never before in history. But each of us has a piece of God in us – each of us can now bring our godliness directly into contact with millions of people. Each of us MATTERS.

In an era of individuality, where one size no longer fits all, the religious community that embraces the power of choice and captures this new creative energy is the one that will rise above the rest in meeting the needs of its members, and attracting new ones. That is why, one month from this coming week, we’ll become the first synagogue in Lower Fairfield to introduce what is already becoming the next big thing in synagogue life: Synaplex.

Simply put, Synaplex is a way to celebrate simultaneously the many authentic expressions of Judaism - learning, culture and gathering as well as prayer. Jews have a multitude of ways to participate in Judaism and Jewish life; Synaplex brings them together in Jewish "prime time," that is, in the synagogue on Shabbat.

So there will be a Kabbalistic Yoga session here at Beth El, on a Shabbat. And there will be a meditative Shabbat service, and a learner’s service, and a discussion of Abraham Joshua Heschel over there, and a lecture on how to deal with aging parents over there, and a discussion on communicating with kids over there, and with your pet over there, all as a midrash on the Tower of Babel story will be acted out by Storahtelling in this room, and of course we’ll also have a traditional style service, and a bike ride – a Jewish bike ride, where the riders will say blessings over the wonders of nature, and the tots will have a scavenger hunt and sing with Nurit, and there will be dancing with Shmulik and of course the cantor’s fabulous Shabbat Unplugged. Something for everyone – including your pets, who have been cordially invited to my front lawn by my standard poodles, Crosby and Chloe. What we are bringing to Stamford next month is nothing less than the long tail of Jewish possibility. It’s the future of synagogues and we are bringing it here, right now. I hope you will volunteer, tell your friends about it, and COME.
When we were accepted into the Synaplex program, we were among about 50 pilot synagogues. Since then about 50 more have followed us through the pipeline and the program is now being rolled out everywhere. Someday very soon we will be extremely proud to have been the first to bring it to this area, because, mark my words, soon everybody will be doing it.

TBE will be issuing free tickets of admission - "VIP Passes" - for a multiplicity of gateways, many portals into the Shabbat rhythm. Our TBE Synaplex will blend our diverse paths, our many doors of entry - into a unified community. Synaplex is especially for our congregants, but there are also so many unaffiliated Jews out there who feel no connection to the typical suburban synagogue. Reb Shlomo Carlebach called them “the holy schleppers,” perennial outsiders. We need to embrace them all. To be Jewish is to BE a perennial outsider – that’s what keeps us asking the questions – that’s what keeps us challenging authority, that’s what keeps us expressing our uniqueness, our equality and our infinite value – that’s what keeps us Godlike! That’s what keeps us Jews. And THAT’S what will help us to keep the world spinning another century from now:

What’s the alternative? White bread June Cleaver Judaism. That is the 63. WE are the 36. We are the Lamed Vav. There are no more huddled masses, because each of us now breathes free. And each of us, no matter how big or small, can make all the difference. In what we do, in who and how we challenge, and how we reach out to help others and repair the world. For the world to survive, each of us must look deep inside and see, paraphrasing the words of writer Anne Lamott: that “You are not your bank account or your ambition.” You are not the car you drive or the clothes you wear. “You are not the cold, clay lump you leave behind when you die….You are Spirit.” You are the image of God, the divine footprint on earth. “You are love, and even though it is hard to believe sometimes, you are free.”

If the battle cry of the 20th century was “Power to the People,” the battle cry of the 21st is “Power to the Person.” But that has been Judaism’s battle cry all along.

We are each supremely empowered individuals, each of us imbued with a godlike understanding of what is right and what wrong. That is the ultimate lesson of the Akeda, for Abraham and for us. Yes, we have entered the era of the supremely empowered individual. But that can save the world only inasmuch as we use that power to connect with others and to protect the rights of every human being. Which is where we will continue our journey on Yom Kippur.

Kol Nidre
"The Compassionate Life"

Tonight, our third Jewish response to the challenge put forth by Stephen Hawking – how life on earth can be sustainable for another century. Last week’s responses called upon us to slow down life’s torrid pace, to act instinctively and assert our godlike gift of individuality. Tonight: compassion. We’ll explore the steps we can take to better love our neighbor as ourselves.
Maimonides advised that we look at our lives as being equally balanced, where one good act will tip the balance in a positive direction, not only for ourselves, but for the world (Laws of Teshuva 3:4). There is so much at stake. Each act of compassion on our part could be the one that can save the world.

Compassion begins with connection. Last week I mentioned that I would be quoting from Bar and Bat mitzvah speeches given from this pulpit, as my way of expressing appreciation for all that our children have taught me over the years, as I now begin my 20th year here. They’ve all been so special. But there are some that stand apart in that they convey a message so filled with love, revealing a connection that goes beyond the grave, giving us a glimpse into the soul of a child who is not really a child at all.

Allison Gulotta is one who stands out. Her time in this community was very brief, and in fact she returned here for her Bat Mitzvah after having moved to Prince Edward Island with her father and step mother, who are not Jewish. But she returned here in the fall of 1998 to complete a circle started by her mother, Jill.

Jill Gulotta had nearly died from a stroke back when Allison was born, and had lived the remainder of her life confined to a wheel chair, unable to communicate easily. Allison never knew her mother as the vibrant woman that she had once been, but her illness only brought out her inner beauty all the more. Jill had come to my attention when I received a call from her nursing home saying that they had a resident who wanted to become Bat Mitzvah. And so Jill was introduced to the team of Temple Beth El. With the patient tutoring of Rosalea Fisher and the help of Hazzan Rabinowitz, Jill realized her dream, right here on this pulpit, in one of the most inspiring services I’ve ever witnessed. Jill died a few years after that. Then, several years later, Allison followed in her mother’s footsteps onto this bima with these inspiring words:

“There is one person who is here today in spirit, who has influenced me more than even I know,” she said. That’s my Mom. I know… that I wouldn’t be up here today if it weren’t for her. I can remember holding the Torah at her Bat Mitzvah and when I was watching her I was kind of thinking, “That could be me.” I know that she wanted more than anything to set an example for me – and here I am.”

“As I’ve grown older,” Allison continued, “I’ve begun to find out more about my Mom, since I didn’t have the chance to know what she was like when she was younger. I’ve discovered that she used to love to take pictures and do graphic arts, swim and run, make clothes and go to the beach. At times people might have thought she was weak because she had physical problems, but she loved to prove them wrong. She was the strongest person I’ve ever known. She also loved to say what was on her mind. She also loved to laugh. I certainly can relate to those last two characteristics.

“She also loved being a Jew. She loved all Jewish holidays but Passover was her favorite. She also wanted to go to Israel. So do I. And when I go, I will put a little note in the Western Wall for her. … I think of all the things that she did to make me what I am today, and the person who she was, who will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.”

It’s been years since I last saw Allison Gullotta, but her words have become part of the tapestry of kindness and connection that, like the patchwork tallit you see in front of me, is emblematic of the spirit of our congregation.

All our kids are extraordinary, but some of our kids have demonstrated an ability to empathize that is astounding for people of any age: like Jeffrey Rich, who, this past spring, spoke of his extraordinary mitzvah project at the Rosenthal Hospice. His portion described the breastplate worn by the Kohen, which had twelve precious stones on it, with each stone representing one of the twelve tribes. “This teaches us that each tribe was unique and had something special to offer,” he said. In that way, every person is precious jewel, unique and special.” He then went on to describe his growing friendship with patients at the hospice – and he continued to visit, time after time, knowing that invariably the time would come when his new friends would no longer be there.

In a similar vein, in 2002 Erica Eber decided to reach out to a girl named Nina Kardashova from the Israeli city of Hadera, whose own Bat Mitzvah celebration had been attacked by a terrorist six weeks before. Six people were killed, including the girl's step grandfather and uncle, and many were injured. Erica and Nina exchanged several very moving letters, just as Michelle Greenman did this past year in sending holiday packages to Jewish soldiers in Iraq – something Aliya Boyer is also doing right now.

Compassion takes courage - the courage to care: It takes courage to take on a mitzvah project like these – or the several students who donated several inches of their hair to make wigs for cancer patients, “Locks of Love,” or the mitzvah project we heard about just a few weeks ago, from Rebecca Savransky, who played her violin so beautifully just a few moments ago. For her project, Becca is training a seeing eye-dog named Viva. All the while that she is doing this extraordinarily difficult work, she knows that success will mean losing a pet she has grown to love. But she is willing to make that extraordinary sacrifice to give someone else the gift of sight. Becca had us all close our eyes that morning, just to feel for ten seconds what it is like to be missing the gift of sight. Animals have a way of teaching us how to care, and dozens of our B’nai Mitzvah have spoken lovingly of their pets, like Heather Donner who, in 1995, shared with us how her hamster Seymour taught her about responsibility and Travis Kahn a couple of years ago, who volunteered in a wolf preserve, and several who have cared for horses.

In 2004, another great mitzvah-doer, Allison Greenwald, quoting the Torah scholar Yishayahu Liebowitz, told us, “There are two kinds of holiness: the holiness that we are born with – in other words, what we ARE; and then there is the other kind – the holiness that we strive to BE. That holiness comes through caring and connection.”

Long ago, across the world there was a moment in time when not only Judaism, but all major religions, had a recognition that the only way one could encounter God was to live a compassionate life. This period, roughly 25 centuries ago, has been called the Axial age by scholars, and it is the subject of a new book by bestselling religion author Karen Armstrong. This was the age of the Upanishads and Buddha in India, Confucius in China, Aristotle and Socrates in Greece and for the Jews, great prophets like Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. During this period, each of these cultures independently fostered almost identical versions of the Golden Rule, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Empathy was the watchword of the era.

When one looks at the Jewish sources from the period, a time that included the destruction of the first temple and exile to Babylon, it is simply amazing how a people so battered could turn out literature so compassionate. Out of that period came what was later called the P source, that strand of the Torah narrative that contains some of the Torah’s most universal and visionary material, including the Creation story. We’ve gotten so hung up on Darwin and dinosaurs that we fail to recognize just how revolutionary and amazingly beautiful the biblical Creation story is. On the last day of that creation, God looks around, sees everything that had been made – everything – “and behold, it was exceedingly good.” Then, God blesses all that was made – not just one people or one land – but everything – even, presumably, the Babylonians, the Jews’ arch enemies; and then God rested calmly on the Sabbath. The Torah’s P source focuses on the priesthood, hence the letter “P,” but not in an elitist way – for it calls Israel a nation of priests. The Jewish people, whose temple had been destroyed, could live on – through exile – in a state of holiness. This response to brutal exile was the affirmation of life – and the key to it all was compassion for the Other.

And so, if the key to changing the world for the better is empathy and compassion, how else can we become more caring?

Joseph Telushkin, our scholar in residence last March, published a landmark book on the very weekend he was here. It is volume one of his magnum opus, “A Code of Jewish Ethics.” This magnificent and very readable volume focuses on the small ways we can become more compassionate, one step at a time, covering everything from the obligation to be cheerful to the ways to criticize ethically. Of course it includes the laws of gossip – even telling us when lying is permissible. We are given clues as to how to reduce anger and envy, how to be more humble and thankful and forgiving and how to squelch that most destructive emotion of all, the desire for revenge.

This month I’ve been using this book extensively, at meetings, in classes and at services. I would like to make it a congregation-wide project to read it this year. I think it sets the tone we need to set – all year, every year, a tone of humility and spiritual growth, a tone of caring. I am willing to go just about anywhere to work with groups of congregants wishing to study this book together, at lunch and learns or desserts, morning, noon and night, in offices, homes, a park bench at the Cove, Stamford, New Canaan, Manhattan - St Croix - anywhere. This book is that good and that important.

Judaism is all about compassion; we literally worship compassion – one of our names for God is harachaman – the Compassionate One. Think about it: the great ages of compassion for the Jewish people have always followed national traumas. It’s counterintuitive. The magnificent Creation story was likely written during the Babylonian exile. When Hillel uttered his version of the golden rule, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others,” the Romans were as oppressive to the Jews as any nation ever was before the Nazis. When Rabbi Akiva repeated it, the temple was still smoldering in ruins. But still they loved. But still, they embraced their neighbor. And now, in the midst of all Israel’s struggles – they are the first to offer help to any nation after a terror strike or national disaster and to give shelter to their own people driven from their homes in the north.

The compassionate life starts with the little things. Like something Becky Rosenberg taught us at her Bat Mitzvah in 1997: something as simple as a Lost and Found bin.

“One day this past summer at camp somebody was putting a lost watch into that bin when I I took a close look at it and recognized a little dinosaur on its face. The watch belonged to a friend of mine. I returned it to my friend and thought nothing of it. That same day, only two hours later, I came to the Temple to discuss my portion and guess what we began to talk about: the laws of lost and found. It turns out that I did a mitzvah and didn’t even know it. Then I began to think: Someone wants me to write about this.

“The Torah teaches us how important it is to return any lost article,” Becky continued, “no matter how insignificant. This law is so important that we’re not even allowed to pass by a lost article if we know it is lost. Why does the Torah make such a big deal over what seems like such a little thing?” The answer, for Becky and for us all, was because it is all those little things that add up to a life of holiness.

One little known commandment comes from the heart of the Torah’s P source, the “Holiness Code” in Leviticus 19: it says, “In justice you shall judge your fellow.” This verse is understood in Jewish law as applying to everyone, not merely judges - because we’re all so quick to pass judgment on people, all the time. We are all so quick to pass judgment, and that stance is not compatible with a life of compassion. In his book, Telushkin shares this moving prayer sent to him anonymously:

“Heavenly Father,
Help us remember that the “jerk” who cut us off from traffic last night might be a single mother who worked nine hours that day and who is now rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the laundry and spend a few precious minutes with her children.
Help us remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young man who couldn’t make change correctly at the register today is a worried nineteen year-old student who is preoccupied with whether he passed his final exams and with his fear of not getting a student loan next semester.

Remind us, Lord, that the scary looking “bum” begging for money in the same spot every day is a slave to addictions that we can only imagine in our worst nightmares.

Help us to realize that the old couple walking so slowly through the store aisles, blocking our shopping cart, are savoring this moment, because they know that, based on the biopsy report she got back yesterday, this may be the last year they will go shopping together.”

Here’s another little tidbit of holiness. The 13th century book on Jewish ethics, Sefer Hasidim suggested, “When you hear a friend saying something you already know, don’t jump in and interrupt; rather, remain quiet.” Don’t you just hate when that happens? Especially when they completely misunderstand your intent. Jewish sources also speak of how it’s rude to enter someone’s home unannounced, to always greet people with a smile, and always complement another person’s new garment or hairstyle, even if you don’t like it.

It’s the little things that make for a life of holiness, all the little things - and one big thing. To be truly loving, the compassion can’t merely be directed at others. The commandment, after all, is to love our neighbor AS ourselves. So if we hate ourselves, then we can’t possibly love our neighbor. Compassion implies forgiving our neighbor her imperfections – but just as much, it means accepting imperfection in ourselves. Last week, when I was describing all the terrific things coming up in Synaplex, I inadvertently left out the teen service, and one of our teen reps to the Synaplex committee was not happy about that. Of course I apologized and assured him that it was not intentional. These things happen. I think he realizes that the apology was genuine, and thank God Ethan has forgiven me.

We live in an imperfect world. In 2003, David Rome drew a contrast between the real world we live in and the perfect world of his elaborate train set, where he could play God, by orchestrating every detail, right down to the peeing Dalmatian.

“In the world of holiness,” he said, “people don’t bear grudges, they don’t gossip, they don’t hate each other and they love their neighbor as themselves…. The difference between God’s world and my train world is that God can’t force us to be perfect. If we followed the Torah’s laws, then the world would be as perfect as my trains. But God set it up so that we would have free choice and we very often make the wrong choices. I can only imagine how painful it is to be God sometimes, when we make the wrong choice. I don’t know what I would do if the car refused to go through the car wash or the Dalmatian refused to pee.”

We don’t live in David’s perfect train world. But we do have something that they don’t have in perfect train worlds. It’s called teshuvah. And teshuvah, the ability to forgive and be forgiven, to set matters straight and move on, is the ultimate Jewish prerequisite for a compassionate life.
Jill Rothkopf delivered her Bat Mitzvah speech on the Shabbat of my installation, in 1992. She’ll find her way to the huppah this coming March, but back then she already knew the secret to a successful marriage - and a meaningful life: “I learned from my portion that no one is perfect,” she said, “even Moses, and sometimes it is better to make mistakes, but only if something is learned from them. As the High Holidays approach and I become a Bat Mitzvah, I look back at the things I’ve done and know that I am not perfect either. And now I know that being hurt from mistakes is not a punishment; it is a lesson.”

In 2000, human frailty was the hidden meaning that Alex Paul saw in, of all things, the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign. Alex, who had collected nearly 60 of the ads with the milk mustaches, concluded that people like to see celebrities in embarrassing poses. “It makes them more human, more like us,” he said. “Seeing the beautiful people in these funny poses tells us that even they aren't perfect. In that respect, all people are equal.”

“But our flaws, like our milk mustaches, can be wiped away,” he added, comparing it to the original celebration of Yom Kippur in ancient times, when a goat was sent into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the sins of the people. Kippur means, "to wipe away." The priest would then go into the Holy of Holies and pray that their sins be wiped away. Afterwards, everyone would feel refreshed and renewed.

Alex continued: “Yom Kippur reminds us that no one is perfect. We all have our flaws. But like the mustaches, these flaws can be wiped away, and once they are, we can get a fresh start, either by going into the new year as we do after Yom Kippur,” he concluded, “ or by drinking another cold glass of milk.”

Not all deeds can be wiped away as easily as a milk mustache. Last November, the day before Thanksgiving, I was visiting Stamford hospital and had seen a couple of congregants there but was in a hurry. I knew that another person was there, but I was in multi-tasking mode and had just seen her a few days before and she had seemed to be improving, so I decided not to put off seeing her at that moment – I’d catch her after the holiday. The following Monday, I got a call telling me that this woman was in failing health; by the time I got there, she was no longer responsive. The call had come from a lawyer who had been assigned her case – she had no family to speak of, had lived at the Y on her retirement and had been sick for some time with no one to care for her. Her only family, in reality, was Temple Beth El. She had no living will. As her rabbi, I was the one who knew her best and the doctors and lawyers were looking to me for any hint expressed on her part as to how to handle a situation like this. I could not recall any such instruction from her, but knew that she had always had a strong will to live. Had I seen her on that Wednesday before Thanksgiving, maybe it would have come up. After several excruciating days of deliberating, the machines were removed and she was allowed to die.

Her name was Gloria. She used to come to services often and was known for having the heart of a lion in a diminutive body.

Her funeral was very small, at our cemetery. A few of her old temple acquaintances came by as we laid her to rest. I later found out that in her will she left a good percentage of all she had left, several thousand dollars, to Beth El. I’ve been saying Kaddish for Gloria at minyan all year, because there is no one else. The temple family was her only family. But even saying the Kaddish all year can’t make up for the one visit that I missed, the one that could have made all the difference.

No, this isn’t David’s perfect train world and yes, Gloria was one of Jeff’s precious jewels and yes, at the time it seemed like one of Becky’s little unnoticed deeds that add up to a life of holiness, and yes, like Becca I could have closed my eyes and experienced her world and yes…and yes… when Allison’s mom Jill Gulotta wanted to see a rabbi I DID visit her, and look where that ended up; and yes, Jill Rothkopf reminded me to accept my own imperfections; And yes, as Allison Greenwald reminded us, “There are two kinds of holiness: the holiness that we are born with and the holiness that we strive to BE. That holiness comes through caring and connection.” And yes, this is the day when the milk mustache gets wiped away and the face is clean.

It’s been said that all we really need to know was learned in Kindergarten. Well, when it comes to living a life of holiness, all I need to know I’ve learned from our 7th graders.

We must never stop striving to be more compassionate!

We must never stop striving to be more holy!

And when the High Priest performed the Yom Kippur ritual, he proclaimed to the people, “Ki ba'Yom ha'Zeh Yechaper Aleichem... Lifnai Adonai Titharu!” “For on this day your sins have been wiped away, and before the Lord you are pure.”

Here’s the text of a greeting card I saw one day a few months ago:

“So far today, God, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper haven’t been greedy or grumpy, nasty or self centered. I’m really glad about it.

But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed and then I’m going to need a lot of help. Thank you.”

It is not easy to live a compassionate life. But let us resolve to do that, step by step, one small deed at a time. So that, at the end of this day, we will all be able to look around and proclaim, as did the high priest of old, “Titharu.” “Titharu.”


Yom Kippur
"The Pursuit of Happiness"

There is an ancient parable from India called “The Wise Woman’s Stone.” A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone in the wise woman’s bag, admired it, and asked the wise woman to give it to him. The wise woman did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the jewel was worth enough to give him security for the rest of his life. But a few days later he came back, searching for the wise woman. When he found her, he returned the stone and said, “I have been thinking. I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back to you in the hope that you can give me something much more precious. If you can, give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”

We’ve all seen this wise woman or man somewhere in our lives. And she is so easy to pick out: the one whose face never seems creased or cross; the one who doesn’t need prozac, or alcohol or meaningless physical relationships; the one who seems so happy but, on the surface, the happiness has nothing to do with anything she has. It has to do with…we’re not really sure what it is. But whatever it is, we look over at her and want to say to the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Something tells us that if everyone in the world were to become as happy as that woman, the human race would have no problem making it for another century.

So today we’ll look for the sources of true happiness, finding it somewhere in the nexus between hope and acceptance, suffering and purpose, togetherness, idealism and a very thick skin, all of which are key components to happiness.

It always amazes people when they hear that originally, Yom Kippur was the Disney World of the Jewish calendar, and Jerusalem was the Happiest Place on Earth. At this point in the day, in ancient times, the High Priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies and proclaim, “Titharu,” “You are cleansed.” And that would be it. What followed would be a celebration of rejuvenation and national renewal that would continue for many days, culminating in the weeklong pageant of wine and water, Sukkot.

Even later, in post temple times, when the rabbis took matters out of the hands of the priests and added the element of personal Teshuvah to the Yom Kippur mix, repentance was always rooted in optimism - the idea being that change IS possible. We can recognize sin, admit to it, change behavior patterns and root out evil from our lives, echoing God’s message to Cain in Genesis, “Sin crouches at the door...yet you can be its master.”

Judaism is a profoundly optimistic faith - once you get past all the kvetching. An informative and funny book about Yiddish language and culture, “Born to Kvetch,” discusses our proclivity to focus on the negative:

“A man boards a Chicago-bound train in Grand Central Station and sits down across from an old man reading a Yiddish newspaper. Half an hour after the train has left the station; the old man puts down his paper and starts to whine like a frightened child. "Oy, am I thirsty. . . . Oy, am I thirsty. . . . Oy, am I thirsty. . . ."

The other man is at the end of his rope inside of five minutes. He makes his way to the water cooler at the far end of the car, fills a cup with water, and starts walking back to his seat. He pauses after a few steps, goes back to the cooler, fills a second cup with water and walks gingerly down the aisle, trying to keep the cups from spilling. He stops in front the old man and clears his throat. The old man looks up in mid-oy, his eyes beam with gratitude as he drains the first cup in a single gulp. Before he can say or do anything else, the man hands him the second cup, then sits back down and closes his eyes, hoping to catch a bit of a nap. As he sits back, the old man allows himself a sigh of thanks. He leans into his own seat, tilts his forehead toward the ceiling, and says, just as loudly as before, "Oy, was I thirsty. . . .”

Author Michael Wex explains the culture of “oy” observing that kvetching is “a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire. Kvetching can be applied indifferently to hunger or satisfaction: it is a way of knowing, a means of apprehension that sees the world through cataract-colored glasses.”

Kvetching is nothing new. But despite the streak of negativism that has been a prevalent part of Judaism from the start, we could always fall back on the deep faith in the future that is at the Torah’s core. But now, kvetching has become the latest fad, as popular among non-Jews as Jews, following in the footsteps of Bar Mitzvahs and Kabbala. Pessimism is everywhere, personified in the Saturday Night Live character, “Debbie Downer,” played to pathetic perfection by a Jewish cast member, Rachel Dratch. Happiness and hope are nowhere to be found. In his newly released work, “Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit,” Joshua Foa Dienstag, a U.C.L.A. political theorist, makes the claim that pessimism is so seductive because, “the world keeps delivering bad news.”

In a New York Times commentary last month, Adam Cohen wrote, “Optimists see history as the story of civilization’s ascent. Pessimists believe in the idea that any apparent progress has hidden costs, so that even when the world seems to be improving, “in fact it is getting worse (or, on the whole, no better).” Polio is cured, but AIDS arrives. Airplanes make travel easy, but they can drop bombs or be crashed into office towers. There is no point in pursuing happiness. Cohen adds that pessimists make lousy politicians, because do not believe in undertaking great initiatives to ameliorate unhappiness, since they are skeptical they will work. They are inclined to accept the world’s evil and misery as inevitable.

We’ve got our work cut out for us. Because this is the view that is prevailing now, all across America and across the world as well. The great voices of hope of the previous generation, spanning the ideological spectrum from FDR to Ronald Reagan, all have been stilled. Bill Clinton was ridiculed for his hokey linkage to his hometown, “a place called Hope,” but he understood how, in Adam Cohen’s words, “instilling hope is such a crucial part of leadership.” And since he left office, hope has been all-but removed from the political lexicon.

And so, where can we look for inspiration to get us through troubled times? The Talmud states, “Much I have learned from my teachers; even more from my colleagues; but more than that from all of them did I learn from my students” (Taanit 7a). That’s why I’ve been quoting extensively from the hundreds of bar and bat mitzvah speeches given here over the past two decades. We have strayed far from the path of promise. Maybe our children can now show us the way back.

We’ve had a number of kids speak very movingly about how they had to overcome serious illness or disability to reach their big day. Although I am hesitant to quote from them here, some of their speeches were among the most moving ever.

In 1997 David Lane spoke of his love of chess as a means to restoring order in a chaotic world. “It is one of the few things in this world that is truly logical. Everything stays the same. Everything is black and white. Every piece knows its role. Every move is directed toward a single goal.” Two weeks ago Mitchell Berkoff talked about how he learned to lift his own spirits after 9/11- in the kitchen. He likes to cook and said, “I’ve learned how we shouldn’t cry over spilt milk, and when an egg breaks, you can make a great omelet.” For her Bat Mitzvah in 2000, Rebecca Fox wrote a letter to her children about the world she hoped they would someday grow up in. In 2003, Ryan Erskine wanted to be able to look at the Torah through fresh eyes, so one hour before our first session he went out and got contact lenses.

In recent years we have had some memorable examples up here of kids who “set the bar” in bar mitzvah very high, and they’ve inspired all of us. Dan Madwed spoke at his service in 2002 of how it is impossible for any Jew to fulfill all of the 613 mitzvot, but that it is good to keep the bar high because it is a goal that can drive us. He compared this to his passion for swimming and said “My goal is to go to the Olympics some day.” Talk about setting a high bar! And now that unreachable star is within his reach.

Believe it or not, some have set the bar even higher. At her bat mitzvah in 2003, Danielle Shapiro declared her candidacy for President of the United States, in 2028. “I think Americans are ready for a President who is... a woman, and a President who is a Jew!” she said. “ I’ve been president of my student council twice. I can multi task! I was just in the production of Grease all the while practicing for my Bat Mitzvah, dealing with schoolwork and going to dance three times a week. And at home, I make my bed every day, -- well, almost.” I am happy to report that Danielle’s political career continues to be on track and her youthful idealism remains unabated. She is currently a member of our USY board.

So, we can see how happiness begins with the purging the “oy” and replacing it with idealism and hope. But there’s more. The writer and pundit Dennis Prager lists 30 keys to happiness, here are some:

Don't aim for a happiness score of 10. Life is not a two-hour movie, rife with peak experiences. We have to make it last a long time, and so it has long stretches of blah. Aim for a solid 7.5 average, with a couple of nines and a lot of fives.

Comparisons. We destroy our own chances for happiness when we compare what we have with what other people have. The grass always seems to be happier on the other side.

"Missing tile" syndrome. You know how if you have a ceiling with one missing tile, your eye and mind tend to dwell on the one missing piece? Prager's advice: replace the tile or forget about it.
Equating happiness with fun. If you love having fun, forget about being happy, because fun is about what you are experiencing right now, whereas happiness is the longer-term outcome.
Practice self-control. You can't be happy if you can't control yourself. Our society is unwilling to come to grips with the fact that a lot of our bad stuff is inside us, not out there. Prager says that We should make a sign and hang it on our foreheads, facing toward us, and it should say: I AM MY BIGGEST PROBLEM.

Equating happiness with success: “If you equate happiness with success, you will never achieve the amount of success necessary to make you happy.” Prager adds, “People driven to succeed are never happy, by definition — it is not in their nature to ever be content. Jimmy Carter pined to be president, then found he hated the job.” I don’t completely agree with Prager on this, because a relentless drive to succeed can be fueled by a sheer passion for excellence, and even a humble quest to service God. The two athletes in the classic film “Chariots of Fire” both prove and disprove Prager’s point. Theorists also highlight feelings of competence as crucial for long term happiness, which is something we try to nurture during the bar mitzvah year. But I’m sure Dennis Prager would agree with me that this past week, when Cowboy receiver Terrell Owens denied reports of an attempted suicide, his publicist chimed in with one of the stupidest publicity statements of all time, “Terrell has 25 million reasons to be alive,” as if the degree of success implied by a 25 million dollar contract was a cure-all for suicidal depression.

Prager also insists that we have an obligation to be happy, because our happiness has impact on everyone around us, providing them with a positive environment in which to thrive and be happy themselves. That great philosopher of the funny pages, Charlie Brown, would agree: “HAPPINESS IS ANYONE AND ANYTHING AT ALL THAT'S LOVED BY YOU.”

Among Prager’s keys to happiness is a foundation of rooted-ness in one’s religious and national identity, a sense of purpose and pride, as well as gratitude. Pirke Avot agrees, asking “Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with what he has.” (“Ayzehu Ashir? Ha-sameach b’chelko.”)
And here is another very important component that Prager mentions - we often achieve happiness through the back door, through challenge and sacrifice. There is a whole school of thought in “happiness theory” that suffering is a prerequisite for happiness. And indeed there is a complex and vibrant relationship between happiness and suffering. The very fact that crying occurs both out of sadness and joy is a hint that the two are physiologically linked, like the words “oy” and “joy.” And remember, “oy” spelled backwards is “YO!” Ancient cultures understood that linkage - as in the Greek theater masks. But it goes beyond that.

It gets to the heart of why it seems that people in a place as perpetually tragic as Israel are in truth much happier than we are. Polls have shown it. In 2003, an Israel Bureau of Statistics survey caused a stir with its findings that a staggering 83 per cent of adult Israelis are satisfied with their lives. That figure surged to a giddy 89 per cent among the young, aged 20 to 24, while the happy meter dipped slightly to 75 per cent among those aged 75 or older, the “oy” generation. This from the people who invented kvetching! Last November, a similar poll showed roughly the same numbers - 82% of Israelis said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. This after five years of brutal terrorism, international isolation and an excruciating departure from Gaza. This despite a government rife with corruption, economic and social instability and the complete lack of a partner for peace. Oslo failed miserably but Israelis refuse to be miserable. In this summer’s Lebanon war they buried 116 more soldiers and 43 civilians (including 19 Israeli Arabs) – and still they are happy. Through their tears.

I watch Israeli TV regularly on satellite, and as I watch the open air rock concerts, biting comedy and an endless series of vignettes showing how life goes on, all during a massive bombardment of the north and south, I constantly catch myself thinking, “Waiter, I’ll have what they’re having.”
There was the florist in Haifa, who kept his shop open even during the days of the most relentless attacks. With Hezbollah rockets falling everywhere, he did not leave the store. Asked by an Israeli TV reporter how many customers he had had the prior day – said “one.” Then why stay open? He replied “So that if anyone in Haifa wants to buy a flower, they will have a place to go.”

There was a man of 105 in Kiryat Shmonah who was seen on Israeli television walking the nearly empty streets without a care in the world, as the rockets were falling everywhere around him. There was the philanthropist Arkady Gaydamak who built a tent city for 5,000 refugees from the north, complete with an activity center, counselors, buses for outings, a free phone center and a synagogue, where brisses and a wedding was held.

The Talmud says that when a wedding procession and a funeral procession cross paths, the wedding procession must be allowed to pass first. That’s what happened this summer, time and time again.

There was Amit bar Tzion, a 33 year old wedding planner, who arranged for a the most unusual wedding in Tel Aviv on August 10th on Tu B’Av, the Jewish Valentines Day. He found sponsors to subsidize a wedding celebration for 15 couples from northern Israel who had been forced to cancel their weddings while being confined to shelters. The Tel Aviv University student union provided flowers, photographers, hair stylists, makeup artists, a steak and salmon dinner, even fireworks. “This is the Israeli personality – we do,” Mr. Bar-Tzion said. “And we try to be happy even when it is difficult. It’s in our DNA.”

The Israeli writer Naomi Ragen also wrote of a wedding she attended in Israel this summer:
“And as I looked at the eclectic crowd that had gathered together to celebrate in the cool, perfect summer air of Jerusalem's hills,” she wrote, “I saw settlers mingling with five- star generals, secular Jews in form-fitting dresses next to wig-wearing religious matrons. And everyone dancing. And everyone so honored to be part of such a beautiful occasion. And underneath the joy, shining through, I sensed our real strength: our ability to keep on
loving despite all the hatred that comes our way. There is nothing - nothing!- that our enemies can do to stop real love in the world. Real joy. Real happiness. They simply don't have that power. As long as there is life in us, we will carry on, bringing up our children to be pure, and kind, and loving and warm. We will bring them to the wedding canopy and watch them bring children into the world who will in turn be strengthened and nurtured by these samebonds of love, for family, for country, for God, for all…”

“We're so lucky," she told her husband as she took his hand. “We are so very, very lucky. To live in such a place.”

I was not lucky enough to be in Israel this summer - which for me was very, very hard - but I got the impression from all the people I spoke to over there, that, while they were going through the hardest of times, we were the ones who were more depressed about it.

One of our most widely known prayers is the Ashrei: In English we could call it “The Happy Prayer.” Because that’s what the word Ashrei means. “Ashrei Yoshvey Veytecha, od yehallelucha selah.” Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they will forever praise You.” Those who are fortunate enough to dwell in the shadow of God’s house, in Israel, live lives of purpose, and have already given granted a special measure of divine favor. They are happy.
There is a kind of happiness that enables one to withstand weeks in a shelter and to emerge joking about it.

This is also God’s house - right here: synagogue, family and community. “Od yehalelucha selah,” they will forever praise you:” The Talmud. (Sanhedrin 91b), uses this phrase as a proof text that those who happily dwell in God’s house, who study and pray, and recite Ashrei three times a day, by the way, will merit eternal life - because they considered paradise to be a place where God’s name is eternally praised. I think that it is safe to say that people whose lives are immersed in the life of a religious institution are generally happier. Well, most of the time. At least they should be – and they will be. Someone just said to me this past week that she wants to start coming to morning minyan more because it makes her happy.

But finally, there is one more ingredient to happiness that might be the most significant of all. The most common Hebrew word for happiness is “simcha.” A while back there was an interesting archeological find in Elephantine, Egypt. A simple real estate contract from an ancient Jewish community, written in Hebrew. It read: "Upon prompt payment I deed you this land." And then a phrase that intrigued the scholars: "This simcha with joy, love, and happiness." They did a close comparative study of other such documents and concluded that the meaning of simcha here is not joy, per se, but acceptance. Sukkot, next week’s harvest festival, is called z’man zimchateynu, the time of our happiness; but coming as it does, during the fall, with leaves falling and nature dying around us, it seems oddly misplaced. Wouldn’t spring or summer be a better time for the happiest holiday of them all? We learn from this that the true Jewish path to happiness is simple acceptance, based in gratitude and faith.

So if happiness is our goal, we need to go step by step past idealism and optimism, self control and self esteem, with a firm sense of connection to our community, nation, family and faith - knowing who we are. And we need to be able to turn suffering into song, the oy into joy.
At the end of the Talmudic tractate of Middot, there is a story where Rabbi Akiba and some colleagues go up to Mount Scopus to gaze down upon the ruins of the Temple. Imagine staring at Ground Zero in Manhattan before it was cleaned up. For it was centuries before the Temple mount was cleaned and no Freedom Tower was on the drawing board. The rabbis all cried, except for Rabbi Akiba, who noticed a fox climbing on the ruins. Akiba laughed, recalling a complex series of interrelated verses from the prophets. He said that now that he had seen the fulfillment of a prophecy of destruction, he knew that Zechariah’s prophecy of restoration would also some day be fulfilled. The other rabbis were comforted by that statement. And Akiba was right. The temple has not been rebuilt, nor should it be, but the view today from Mount Scopus might just be the most beautiful vista in all the world. Akiba even died a happy man, although tortured by the Romans in a scene we will review in the Martyrology section today. As his skin was being flayed, he uttered the forbidden words of the Shma: “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad!” All his life, Akiba had known what it was like to love the Lord with all his heart and all his might – now he finally was experiencing what it was like to love God with all his being, with his very soul. And with his last breath, he uttered the the word “Echad,” “One.”

We are the descendants of Rabbi Akiba, inspired by his life and his death. But as we now give our final response to Stephen Hawking, let’s look at ourselves not as descendants but instead as ancestors. For we are the ancestors of the people who, living a century from now on this earth, will be so grateful to us for having done what was needed to ensure human survival. And the final response? To be perfectly Jewish about it, we’ll put our four answers into the form of four questions: 1) Do I act? 2) Do I question? 3) Do I care? And 4) Do I hope?

If we can say a resounding “yes” to all of those, if we can live deliberately and act decisively, if we can challenge convention and assert our individuality, God’s image within us; if we can reach out to our neighbor in love and compassion and if we can turn oy into joy in the pursuit of happiness, we are living a life steeped in Jewish values and human interconnection. And if enough of us do that, the world will do just fine.

All we need to do is cling to that tree of life, the Torah – “Etz hayim hee l’machazikim bo - v’tomcheha m’ooshar.” (Proverbs 3:18) “For it is a tree of life for all who grab hold of it – and all of its supporters are and - always will be - happy.”

A Happy Yom Kippur to all!


High Holiday 2007 / 5768 Sermons

New Year 2007 / 5768 Sermons
Jump to: Day 2 Kol Nidre Yom Kippur
for audio, go to

Rosh Hashanah Day One
From “i” to “wii”

(Sermon delivered with large cards as visual aids for key words.)

Our journey begins at the International House of Pancakes - earlier this year, up near Boston. I’m sitting at a table near the register, having breakfast with my brother, Mark. Belgian Waffles. He’s having scrambled eggs and a diet coke, which he downs right away. My mind is wandering. I looked at the IHop logo and shook my head at the amazing good fortune of this chain, that they had the prefix “I” long before it became cool. Long before iTunes and iPods and iBooks and iHome and iVillage and iSafe and iParty and iThis and iThat, and this summer’s sensation, the iPhones, there was iHop. Suddenly IHop, the most uncool place on earth, this side of Howard Johnsons, is reaping the benefits of its first letter.

We’ve gone from the “me” generation of the ‘70s to what now has become the “I” generation. One could easily make the claim that these have become, in fact, the iHolydays. We focus so much on our personal experience – and what God has done for ME lately. God and the temple. It’s all about me! Someone recently suggested that we repackage Shabbat as iPause.
So when, I wondered, will be begin the age of We?? I was looking for a sign.

And then my lucky day arrived. It was mid spring when my shipment came in. I stopped by EBX at Ridgeway on a whim and they just happened to have gotten it in, literally only minutes before. The box was not even open – but there it was - the Wii videogame system that my kids had been begging for since Hanukkah.

Was this a sign, I wondered? Are we finally beginning to go from “i” to “we?”

So I’m thinking about all these things and then the waitress at iHop does something that takes my breath away. She returns to the table with a smile, bearing an unsolicited refill of diet Coke for Mark. I didn’t ask for it. She just brought it. Just like that. A new cup. Filled to the top. Now my brother will often attract sympathetic attention because of his disabilities. But never, never before had anyone ever brought him a drink refill without first asking if he wanted it. Of course he wanted it, but that was beside the point. Do they always do this, I wondered – or was this waitress just being nice because of my brother? There was something that simply overwhelmed me at that moment – it nearly brought me to tears. I didn’t know this waitress from Adam, but I sat there wondering what drove her to an act of such pristine goodness. I tried to imagine her life. Five mouths to feed back in Southie… Dad at the VA hospital in Chelsea… The IHop gig is her first steady job in years. Got up at 4 AM to beat the traffic to Watertown before her shift begins.

But what drove her to show that little bit of extra kindness for my brother? Does her brother have Fragile X as well? Is it company policy? Was it for the tip? OK – I gave a nice tip. Or was being nice simply a marketing tool adopted by IHop in an age where we are all so desperate for a little human kindness, where all we want is for someone, somewhere, to take us from I to We.
This summer, a couple of weeks ago, it happened again. At a pizza place in St. Louis. And again. Free refills are not what I was looking for. They are a dime a dozen. Burger King now offers free refills. There’s even a website – a national movement for free refills. It’s free unsolicited refills that I sought. I know some people find it annoying to have waiters hovering over them, and parents certainly have a right to regulate what is offered to their children. But it is precisely that simple act of kindness that by its sheer simplicity helps to reverse the trend, and helps to get us from I to We.

Then the athletic director of Virginia Tech did just that. Before the team’s emotional home opener against Eastern Carolina, the campus’ first game since that unimaginably horrible day last April when 32 were mercilessly killed by a disturbed individual, Athletic Director Jim Weaver requested that all fans refrain from booing the opponents, because of the extraordinary support and kindness they had shown the university. Maybe we are turning the corner at last.
It’s hard to say. For this was not a good year for civility.

Let’s see…we’ve gone from Ihop to iPhone to I-MUS. This was the year when Imus crossed the line by calling the women’s basketball team of Rutgers something that I wouldn’t even call my poodles. He was called on the carpet and ultimately dismissed. One of his victims became his chief accuser – Gwen I-fil, the PBS reporter, who wrote in the Times that such brutish comments are no longer acceptable.

I grew up in a more genteel age. I tell my kids that there was a time when at the gas station they used to check the oil and wash the windshield. In the newspaper they used to have a section called “Lost and Found.” Now when something is lost, we just assume it’s never coming back. People used to look after each other. Now, no one even looks AT each other. Perhaps people would if eye contact were spelled “iContact.”

I took Dan to Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum in Times Square last spring and performed an experiment of lining myself to look directly into the eyes of some of the figures. I looked for someone my height – that left me with Napoleon and Shakira. Bob Costas is not yet there. It was uncanny. It was like they were looking directly at me and yet right through me. There is something about eye contact that goes beyond the physiological. Two souls touching. Though not so much with wax.

A few weeks later I was back in midtown Manhattan and tried it out on some real people. I looked into the eyes of everyone coming at me, just to see if souls could touch. And amazingly, every set of eyes looked right through me, just like Napoleon. They were looking at me – but not. It reminded me of how dehumanizing the city can be. I looked for any sign of acknowledgement. Finally, I ducked into a Judaica store – and even there, no one greeted me. No one looked at me. And I was wearing a yarmulke! At Virgin Records someone asked me the time. But that doesn’t count. Back out in the street, eye after eye, no one said hello, no one smiled. Finally, I saw someone coming at me, seeming to acknowledge, in some small way, that I exist. “Sir,” she said. Yes, she was going to speak!

“Sir…you dropped your umbrella.”

Indeed I had. It had fallen from my backpack. I smiled, thanked her and went on.
Eye contact is not merely an act of recognition; it is an act of giving. It is the sharing of one’s humanness. In the animal kingdom it may be seen as a threat, in some Asian and Middle Eastern societies as impolite. But people the world over have rituals expressing a desire for simple human connection. It reorients us - gets us from I to We.

In Africa, the ritual of a handshake is far more elaborate than anything we do. One Peace Corps blogger counted up to 28 mini handshakes in one encounter he witnessed in Gambia. And, with hands holding the other person’s wrist, the response to each of a series of questions is always, “in peace.”

"Peace be with you""Peace be with you""How is work?""In peace""How is the family?""In peace""How is the wife?""In peace""How is your brother?""In peace"

It’s interesting that Jews do something quite similar with our greeting, Shalom, which means peace. But it also gets both hello and goodbye over in one shot. And it reminds us that every hello has a little goodbye in it, and vice versa. It is wonderfully nuanced greeting.

I just love visiting day in camp. You get three hours of hello followed by three hours of goodbye. Somewhere in the middle is an hour of a a perfectly balanced “Shalom.” It’s really a paradigm for all of life. We spend the first half of it saying hello and the second half immersed in a long, endless goodbye. Until it ends – with Shalom, which we say as the coffin is being lowered into the grave. In any relationship, we never stop saying “Shalom,” so that we never completely give up the excitement of that first hello, even when we are saying goodbye.

The Talmud says of Yochanan ben Zakkai, the greatest rabbi of his era, that “no one greeted him first, even the Gentile in the marketplace.” He could have rested on his laurels and waited for people to come to him. He lived at a time when Jews were fighting Romans for survival – and, as always, Jews were fighting other Jews too. But it didn’t matter to him. Yochanan saw that every other human being is created in God’s image and he made it his business to greet them – and to
do it FIRST.

So maybe we’ve turned a corner, but the true test of that is what happens when we literally turn the corner – when we’re walking on the street and see people. In his masterful new book on Jewish Ethics, Joseph Telushkin cites Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, who told a young student who had moved to Vilna, “When I lived in a small town before I came to Vilna, I was very scrupulous to cheerfully greet every person I met on the street. But since I came to Vilna, I stopped this practice, because in the big city, it is impossible to greet everyone. Still it is appropriate to greet those whose eye we catch, and all of those whom we know, if only slightly.
Do we do this? Are we always smiling? On the subway? Do we look up? Do we acknowledge the basic humanity and godliness even of total strangers? New York is the ultimate test. If basic kindness can make it there, it can make it anywhere. This past year, we lost some long time, dear congregants, Joseph and Dottie Pullman. Joe had come to this area from a small town in Nova Scotia where his was the only Jewish family. When I was chatting with him a few years ago, he couldn’t wait to tell me the story of how, seventy years ago, he found himself in New York, the big city. He went into a Horn and Hardardt automat for lunch. There was a table for four and three seats were taken, by people – all total strangers to one another and one by one he asked them all, “Do you mind if I sit with you?” The people looked at him as if he were an alien from another planet. That was his first taste of New York, but that was also New York’s first taste of Joe Pullman. And he never lost that small town warmth, the politeness of the consummate gentleman. When I sat with his children to discuss Joe’s eulogy, they repeated the story, as if they were the students of Rabbi Yochanan.

Greeting is important. Educator Ron Wolfson speaks of the need to go from being synagogues of programs to synagogues of relationships. In his new book on the Spirituality of Welcoming, he talks of rabbis complaining to him, “Ron, my shul has 2,000 members but it always feels empty.”

He tells of Disneyworld, where you are greeted by an average of seven people from the Disney company before you ever get to the first ride. How many greeted you on your way in today? How many have greeted you since you took your seat? How many that you don’t know?
We all have to be greater greeters! Corporations understand that.

Nordstrom is great at this. Marriott puts an ironing board in your room before you ask for it. Ihop brings you that second coca cola. Triple A gives you those Trip-tiks that break a long journey into small steps – a great metaphor for what we do here. Go to Borders and ask them where a book is, they won’t just say, “Go to the third floor take a left at the 23rd book case and look at the bottom of the 17th shelf.” They’ll take you there! The same thing recently happened to me at the Ferguson library – which gives me a chance to mention Harry Bennett of blessed memory, whom we miss dearly right now, who lived that same philosophy and for whom, so appropriately, one of our libraries is named.

Rick Warren, the megachurch mega author, says that the key to growing a congregation is not to get two thousand people to know one another, but rather to get every member to get to know, really well, five other people. Community building, like customer service, is all about making real connections.

It is said that when Rabbi Joshua ben Levi saw a friend he hadn’t seen in at least 30 days, he would recite the Shehechianu blessing. Is there someone in this room whom you cherish that you haven’t seen in more than 30 days? This can be a great tool for Jewish guilt. Like the mother whose son calls and she says she hasn’t eaten in three days and he says, “Mom? Why?” and she says, “So that if you should call my mouth wouldn’t be full.” So this is a potent tool, this Shehechianu custom of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. When done in the right spirit, if you really mean, “Thank God I am seeing you again,” rather than “I haven’t eaten in three days,” it can be incredibly powerful. So let’s look at someone we haven’t seen in a long time, someone we are so happy to see, and recite the Shehechianu now:

So – we can ask, if we haven’t seen someone in a while, does a birthday card count? A phone call? An e-mail? In a way, yes. Whenever we somehow acknowledge the existence of someone, whenever we say, “You are alive and are noticed, we are saying, implicitly – therefore you are loved.” It all counts.

Rabbi Shammai was one of the most ornery people in all of Jewish history. He was famous for always being in a bad mood, often chasing people away when he was annoyed by their questions. So it is noteworthy that of all people, HE is the one who says in Pirke Avot, “Receive every person with a cheerful expression.”

And to that I will add the corollary – EVEN IF YOU DON’T MEAN IT! We all have our moods and that’s OK. But when you pass a person just at the moment you are thinking about last night’s horrifying 9th inning, and you make a face, that person will think you are upset with her.

As a rabbi I have become especially attuned to how people try to read my body language. But this is really for everyone. People who are naturally shy or just depressed may not realize that that scowl appears to others as standoffish and angry. We’re not very good at reading faces – we’re even worse at reading faceless letters and e-mails. When you can’t look into the eyes, you can’t really see into the soul.

The medieval Talmudist Rabbi Menachem ha-Me’iri said that even when we resent a visitor’s intrusion we should STILL act as if we are happy to see him.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th century founder of the Mussar movement, saw a scholar with a forlorn look on his face during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The scholar said he was worried because these are the days when God is judging us. To which Salanter replied, “But other people won’t realize that that’s what’s bothering you. They might think that you are upset with them.”

Moodiness affects everyone around us. Parents take work worries out on their children or spouse. Children are often less sophisticated at reading our faces, especially if there are conflicts in the home or a divorce situation. Kids will often blame themselves, when that is the last thing the parent really wants. Jewish sources are telling us loud and clear that our moods do not really belong to us. We do not have the right to say to the world, “Mind your own business,” because our business is their business too…as we journey from I to We.

Even God understands this. Jewish law permits us to interrupt prayer in order to return a greeting. Why? Because that person who greeted you is also a manifestation of the divine image. Either way, we are still talking to God.

Never ignore a greeting, the Talmud instructs us, for to do so would be akin to robbery – to have stolen from the other the pleasure of being greeted! This ethical quality of cheerfulness is considered one of the middot, a prime Jewish virtue.

So what can we do to bring this virtue into our lives over the next ten days? Six quick suggestions:

1) Become like Yochanan ben Zakkai. Make it a game – be the one to greet first. I can imagine a student pulling a prank on him, standing behind a pillar, jumping out and shouting, “Shalom, Rabbi! HA!” You don’t have to hide behind a big Greek column or jump out from behind the bananas at Stop and Shop. But don’t go the other way! We don’t have to be so dramatic, but let’s try to be as enthusiastic. Don’t wait to be greeted. Be the first.

2) And do it enthusiastically. Smile. The Talmud states, “The person who shows his teeth in a smile is better than the one who gives milk to drink.” From which the rabbis developed their “Got teeth?” marketing campaign and the ubiquitous Jewish smiley face.

3) When you shake hands, mean it. A Hasidic master named Reb Arye, when greeting another, used to take that person’s hands in his own and hold them in a loving, caressing way that his students said was “electric with holiness,” sending God’s energy directly into the other person’s heart. There should be a degree of Kavvanah, feeling, in every greeting, whether a big bear hug, a simple wave or a high five. We need to recall always that greeting someone cheerfully is a holy act. It’s a prayer! Every handshake is a prayer!

4) And every greeting should be a “Shalom.” As we shake or hug and as we lock eyes, the clasped hand is both pulling in and sending off. There is the excitement of greeting and the real concern about letting go, all in that word, all in that simple gesture.

5) Make no exceptions. Halacha is clear that we especially should be greeting cheerfully those who are the weakest. When the queen of England comes by, by all means greet her – a high five is not recommended (in last year’s beautiful film “The Queen,” the most moving scene was when Elizabeth finally went public to share the grief of her people after Diana’s death and took some flowers from a little girl and offered to place them on the pile outside the palace – and the girl said, “No – they’re for you.” Even a queen could use a little warmth from time to time. But we must also greet the poor, the downcast, the needy. Anyone here who has been to the homeless shelters when we’ve served dinner there knows exactly how powerful such a greeting can be.

6) We must understand that doing these things takes us one big step toward being our happier people, a more Sacred community and a repaired world. It is the first and most difficult step on the journey from I to We.

I recently was speaking with Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the Jewish Week, who told me about something interesting he had seen on the Upper West Side recently. Outside the Orthodox Lincoln Square synagogue was a big banner supporting the three Israeli soldiers being held hostage. And right nearby, at the Reconstructionist West End Synagogue, there was a large banner, “Save Darfur.” So what, I wondered out loud, would the banner at the Conservative shul say? “Big Kiddush This Shabbat?”

Here at Beth El, we have room for lots of banners. One banner most certainly should speak of our unbending support for Israel and its soldiers, and we’ll be having a trip there this January during this, Israel’s 60th year. One banner absolutely should cry out to all of us to support those who face genocidal hatred in Africa, flood damage in New Orleans and terrorism in the Mideast, as well as hunger and homelessness here at home. But the Conservative movement, which has now turned a corner, needs to become the “Mussar” movement, with its prime focus on social interaction, along with social action. As I’ll develop over the next ten days, we need to show that Conservative congregations, including ours, are congregations of inclusiveness, outreach and love – of mitzvah, in the most profound sense. And that begins with big Kiddushes and greeting lots of people. And that begins with the simplest gesture of welcoming our neighbor and acknowledging that that pain in the butt sitting three seats over was also created in God’s image.

It means getting the world from I to We. So I propose this banner:


And I propose that we experiment during the next ten day by greeting everyone we see, in the office, on the street, at red lights or in study halls, at the supermarket, on the playground or the parking lot. Everywhere – and try to be the first one, the initiator of the human contact. Try it for ten days – and let us know then how it has changed your life – and the world. I’ll be posting my six suggestions on or website this weekend.

And when we are here, it is up to each and everyone of us to be the greeter. Ask not what other congregants can do for you, but what you can do for them. When someone comes to your row, say Shana Tova or Shabbat Shalom, or whatever is appropriate. If the person looks lost, don’t just show her the page – give him your book, opened to the page. If they can’t find the kindergarten room or the bathroom, take them there. If he is biting your leg, smile and say, “What a lively youngster. Would you like me to help you find our children’s services?”

It starts with that…with the simplest of gestures. With the simple handshake or glance. It starts with no booing at Virginia Tech – and unsolicited free refills at your neighborhood IHOP. But it really begins right here. That’s where we go from “I” to “we” …and then that embrace can radiate outward…to Pacific House and Darfur, to New Orleans and to Israel.

We are going back to basics, so that we – and the world – can get beyond the lack of civility that is so pervasive, and the selfishness that has so paralyzed us, and rendered this the age of “I.”

We declare to the world that “We Care.”

WE CARE – about each other, the Jewish people and all humanity.

WE CARE – about our planet.

WE CARE – about all creatures, great and small.

WE CARE – about those who are left behind.

WE CARE – about preserving innocence.


It all begins with a simple greeting. And a smile. So simple.

With that simple smile, and one word, “Shalom,” our greeting becomes a prayer, and we can change the world.


"Invasions of Privacy"

This past summer, Mara and I had a little extra time on our hands, the kids were off at camp, so we did a little cleaning up around the house. Well, she did more than me… I don’t know about you, but for us things tend to accumulate. For one thing, we’ve built up quite a yarmulke collection. (Show three bags)

It caused me to do a lot of thinking about the yarmulke, some of which I’ve shared here and in print. The wearing of a yarmulke has absolutely no foundation in Jewish law, is never mentioned in the Torah (unlike the tallit) and, according to Leo Rosten, the Yiddish word, which means “skullcap,” has Tartar antecedents. It’s long been the butt of jokes, partly because the word itself sounds more like a Japanese motorcycle. Our ambivalence regarding this strange garment mirrors our ambivalence about Jewish identity– and our apprehension of acknowledging it publicly.

As easy as it is to poke fun at it, these days it is hard to find an object that defines Jewish identity more than the kippah. There is a yarmulke for every ideology and every hairline. Choices are not limited to styles but also to the location where it is worn on the head. Yeshiva “bochers” tend to like it to flop on the side, while many middle aged men put it directly over the bald spot. Some choose clips, others, like me, go for the more subtle bobby pins, others even use Velcro. What makes this object a perfect ritual object for post moderns is this infinite variety and the manifold possibilities for self expression. One size truly doesn’t fit all, and, although they are often mass produced, each Yarmulke tells a unique story. Tell me of another ritual item that resides in the glove compartment of every American Jew. Whenever I go to a home to lead a shiva service, there’s always a basketful of yarmulkes, collected like pre-pesach breadcrumbs from every cranny of the house. While we say Kaddish for Grandpa Joe, we might be wearing the kippah from his wedding, or from his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. The Jewish heritage of a family literally unfolds before us as placed these crumpled cloths on our heads. A yarmulke museum could easily be constructed within every Jewish home.

The yarmulke tells us so much about who we are – it helps us to define that and proclaim it publicly. But the beauty of the yarmulke is that it also is a symbol of the sharp boundary that Jews draw between what we proclaim to the world - and what we keep private. Some say the word stems from the Hebrew expression “Yiray Malka,” “fear of the king,” denoting the kind of respectful humility that this garb is meant to stimulate.
Jews express humility by covering up.

The yarmulke is perfect in that way, it tells people a lot about us, but it also says, loud and clear, that there are places that no one should see. There is always a need for private space. We might have reason to complain about the excesses that have driven ultra Orthodox communities to insist on women covering up from head to toe – but what seems sexist to many is something that we need to react to less emotionally. Tzniut, as the practice of modest dress is called, should apply equally to men and less radically to both sexes. It is based on a verse from Micah calling upon us – all of us- to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Throwing rocks at someone with uncovered shoulders hardly fulfills the “love kindness” part. On the other hand, we’ve seen some things worn on this bima that call into question a person’s respect for basic Jewish standards of humility.

There has got to be a middle ground between the burka and Britney.

When we are engaged in sacred activity, there is always some part of us that is covered up – and not just any part – but the head, the part that is closest to heaven. That is the beauty of the yarmulke – for men and for women, I must add. It reminds us of the steadfast Jewish belief in that need to draw boundaries between what is private and what is public.

And never before have those boundaries been in greater danger of erosion.

More even than that sacred line separating church from state, we are seeing – before our eyes – the obliteration of that sacred line between what is public and what is none of your business.
A Wall Street Journal poll conducted in the Fall of 1999 asked Americans what they feared the most in the new millennium. Privacy loss came out on top (29%), substantially higher than terrorism, global warming, and overpopulation (none higher than 23%).

And back then we could barely imagine the world we now live in. New York Magazine recently ran a story on how, as younger people reveal their private lives on the Internet, the older generation is looking on with alarm and misapprehension not seen since the early days of rock and roll. As journalist Emily Nussbaum wrote, “Even 9-year-olds have their own site, Club Penguin, to play games and plan parties. The change has rippled through pretty much every act of growing up. Go through your first big breakup and you may need to change your status on Facebook from “In a relationship” to “Single.” Everyone will see it on your “feed,” including your ex, and that’s part of the point.”

With my kids now in High School, we’ve let them sign on to Facebook. Periodically, I check the sites and have found out entirely too much information about some kids I thought I had known very well – including a few in this room (and you know who you are!!!) I noticed one young person was listed as “married.” How sweet! I discovered that Facebook marriages are somewhat less complicated than real ones.

Facebook profiles will let you know right away what your high-schooler is “looking for” and “interested in.” Rarely are the answers “good grades” and “chess club.” I was less than amused to discover, for example, that one recent bar/bat mitzvah student here is looking for “whatever I can get.” I suggest you check out what your kids are saying about themselves online – right down to how old they say that they are.

OK, so maybe I don’t get it – this whole youth culture of “hooking up,” but I take a look at the symbol of the yarmulke and it tells me that perhaps things that used to be private should remain so.

Of course, the kids are just imitating the adults.

We have become a society of exhibitionists. A guy in San Francisco, Justin Kan, wears a micro camera on his head wherever he goes. It is always on. You can view his entire life at I checked it out and now evidently Justin has hooked up with someone named Justine.

At Houston’s Minute Maid Park on August 20, a man paid upwards of $300 for a chance to appear on the stadium’s “Kiss Cam” and propose to his girlfriend in front of 30,000 people. He got down on a knee and produced a ring. According to the Houston Chronicle, the woman looked shocked, then upset as she got up and left the stadium – after depositing her popcorn on his head. He did not get a refund from the Astros.

A typical episode of Oprah begins: "Hello everybody. We are talking today about daughters who get pregnant by their fathers and have the babies. We're going to hear one story of a family where three sisters had 13 children between them. The father of all 13 of the children is their father." Oprah observes at the end of her program, "It's been a very difficult thing to talk about, especially before 20 million people."

Entirely too much information!

Celebrities have certainly seen that everything they do and every word they utter will likely appear on YouTube within a day. And you don’t have to be a celebrity. We now know everything about everyone, and whatever you do will stay with you forever.

To be is to be Googled.

Dov Seidman, founder and C.E.O. of LRN, a business ethics company, wrote a book called “How.” “In the information age,” he writes, “life has no chapters or closets; you can leave nothing behind, and you have nowhere to hide your skeletons. Your past is your present.” Each of us now has what Thomas Friedman has called a digital fingerprint. When you apply for a job, your resume is the last thing people will look at. “Love at first sight” is a thing of the past. Now, you meet someone on J-date, find out everything that has happened in that person’s life and then, maybe, following a thorough Googling, we’re ready to explore the mysteries of compatibility.

Not to mention the mysteries of mortality. The Internet is now filled with terrorist sites featuring grotesque invasions of privacy, we are reminded that privacy and dignity are intrinsically interconnected, especially when it comes to death. I can recall several years back when I was showing a new staff member around town and we stopped in at Gallegher’s funeral home. No one was at the front desk at that moment, so I took the liberty of showing her the various chapels they had there. Well, I opened the door to one of them and it turned out there was someone in the room -- a dashing older gentleman lying in an open casket. He looked quite content, but I quickly closed the door and told the staff member that the room was “in use.”

Jews have a hard time with open caskets. We just do. And we never have them at our funerals. And it’s all about preserving the privacy and dignity of the deceased. People of other faiths are constantly telling me how much they admire our respect for the privacy of the dead. In Jerusalem, where they don’t use caskets, the body is wrapped from head to toe in a shroud. No one is given the opportunity to gawk at the face of death. We don’t dress up our dead in finery like some Barbie doll. We don’t broadcast grotesque images of carnage, even when it could help us score propaganda points. And as the media now is becoming more and more bold in its display of these gruesome images, we have to ask whether, even as a means to a noble end, these intrusions on the privacy of grieving families are justified.

The rabbis wondered what was it that moved the Moabite prophet Bilaam to praise Israel in the book of Numbers, when his intent all along had been to curse them. They concluded that when he saw all the tents of Israel laid out, he was amazed that they were set up in such a way that no one could look into another person’s dwelling place. This breathtaking sight inspired him to bless them with the words that have come down to us as the Mah Tovu prayer…”Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’kov, mishkanotecha yisrael,” “How goodly are your tents, o Jacob, your dwelling places, o Israel.”

If you’ve ever lived in close quarters with other families i.e., if you have ever lived in Manhattan you know how hard it is to protect the privacy of your neighbors. In Jewish law, the domains are carefully delineated; one may not carry, for example, within a public domain or from private to public on Shabbat unless what is called an eruv has been constructed. This boundary allows an observant Jew to carry within a specified area on Shabbat. Sometimes it is marked by a natural barrier, like a body of water, and other times by some other marking, like telephone wire.

Liberal Jews would do well to reexamine the concept of eruv. But we need to reapply it – in light of contemporary needs, much as feminists have done for ritual immersion. Our need right now is to restore that crumbling line of separation. If Robert Frost were a rabbi, he might have said, “Good eruvs make good neighbors.”

The novelist Tova Mirviss wrote in a recent issue of Sh’ma, of how the lines of privacy are blurred in the city. “The act of walking in Manhattan always offers a spectacle. It’s a visual feast of strangers; there is no need to seek out the scenic route. There’s little foliage, little nature, but always on display in bright vibrant colors, are the people. On city streets, life is lived in public. People talk, argue, stop, stare. Even if we abide by the city’s safety rule, don’t make eye contact, there’s always the possibility of interaction, whether blatant or furtive. Perhaps,” she adds, “there is no such thing as private space…we encounter people ...we hear their creaks and groans even when we are in our private zones. …the city’s crush of people creates an epicenter of anonymity…our individual small lives add only a small dot to this already congested canvas. We convince ourselves that no one can see us, no one is watching. And even if they are, the intimacy is only from across the way, and therefore no intimacy at all. At eye level, we’re still strangers.”
But of course, people can see us. When I was in rabbinical school, I shared a suite with three other rabbinical students, and our kitchen window looked right into the kitchen of our neighbor, literally just ten feet away. For some reason, her budget was too tight to include shades or blinds, so in an age before webcams and reality TV, we were invited into the daily serial of her life. My suitemates and I never actually met her or spoke with her – we weren’t even sure which building she lived in – and I must say, at times we assumed that she was planted there by the rabbinical school’s administration as part of some warped test. She didn’t seem to care what we saw – fortunately, even on a students’ budget we could pitch in for a window shade in our kitchen. Well she taught us a lot about the importance of carving out private space in the midst of the city.

Privacy is so important. Based largely on the Mah Tovu verse, the Talmud came up with some important guidelines:

1) That a person should knock before opening a closed door, even in our own home. How many of us do that? By extension, a creditor is not allowed to enter the home of a debtor – he must remain outside and the person brings his pledge out to him.

2) That we may not put a window in the wall of our house if it looks in on someone else’s house. (Thank God we have screening here.)

3) And much later, in the 10th century, a sage named Rabbenu Gershom ruled that it is against halacha for us to open someone else’s mail. This was punished by excommunication – a very serious crime indeed. (Someone must have opened HIS mail!) And from this ruling is derived the general principle that we are not allowed to search out the secrets of our fellow. We can’t pick through someone’s garbage, we can’t do undercover work to discover trade secrets. What’s private must be respected.

Think for a moment about how much that one is violated. Not only with regular mail, but especially with e-mail. How often are we forwarded e-mail notes that were sent by a third party, without the permission of that third party? Our culture has just about obliterated the walls of privacy completely.

That’s why privacy’s significance in Jewish law is so timely. Even God deserves some personal space. The Mishnah declares that one who probes God‘s essence beyond what God has chosen to reveal to us should not have been born, for, as the Jerusalem Talmud explains, to know more about God than the Holy One chooses to reveal to us is an affront to God‘s dignity. As God keeps God’s own confidences, then, we too must preserve both our own privacy and that of others to enable us to be God-like.

Do you think God watches Big Brother? Do you think God has a GPS? I was thinking about that last week in the tunnel on the Wilber Cross up by New Haven. Even when I was under that mountain, the satellite knew exactly where I was. It was comforting on the one hand, and terrifying on the other. There is nowhere that we can go, it seems and be truly alone! I imagined Jonah in the midst of the whale, with his GPS still working. And that annoying voice telling him to take a U-turn, if possible. And if you are really afraid of losing track of someone, now you can put a homing device in their cell phone. Or better yet – implant a microchip under their skin. Big brother is always lurking.

Israeli law, by the way, follows the Jewish value system along these lines. On paper, Israeli law shows an inordinate respect for privacy, although many Israeli government officials, from the president on down, have had a problem keeping their hands to themselves. At least in theory, though, Israel gets it right. One may not enter someone’s house unless the homeowner invites you in. There is a whole body of doctrine generated by the concept of hezzek re’iyah, injury caused by seeing, limiting the use of surveillance devices and eavesdropping from a distance, even outside one’s home. This is going to be a very important issue over the coming years as computers allow for more and more intrusion into our private affairs. It comes as no surprise to hear from a recent survey that as much as 59 per cent of internet use at the office is estimated as not work-related. How much right do bosses have to monitor the private e-mails of workers? This is a key subject now of extensive halachic discussion.

The only thing that can stop Big Brother, it seems, is a Jewish Mother.

And speaking of mothers, it is peculiarly fitting that the basis for Roe v. Wade, the original Supreme Court decision advocating a woman’s right to choose was based on the principle of privacy. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis once wrote, "Privacy is the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." We now can begin to see why that is the case, and why the erosion of the wall between private and public is every bit as alarming as the crumbling of that other, more venerated wall of separation, between church and state.

It all comes back to the question of dignity. Whether dead or alive, every person has the right to determine what the world knows about us, and what the world sees and ultimately what happens within our bodies.

When Bilaam saw the people of Israel, he called them, “Am Levadad Yishkon,” ”a People that dwells apart.” That has been our blessing and our curse throughout the ages. Perhaps what has set us apart from other peoples most of all has been our willingness to set ourselves apart from one another as individuals, to give each person the space that we all need to grow, and the protective cover in which to nurture that growth. To respect privacy is to protect dignity. That is true for our neighbor… and that is true for ourselves.

So every time you put on a kippah, think of it as a fence. Holiness comes from making such a separation. The kippah tells us much about who we are – but it also reminds us that there is always a small part of each of us that must remain a mystery.

For Israel, the swearing in of a new president has rarely taken on such symbolic significance as that of Shimon Peres this summer. But in the wake of the scandals that have rocked Israelis’ trust in their own leaders, and in particular the disgraceful behavior of the prior president, the ascent of Peres was taken as a significant step in the direction of civility.

Peres’ speech was inspiring – it was the speech he had waited an entire career to make: It had its share of politics, but what made it stand out was the emphasis on simple kindess – derech eretz – as we call it – the way of the land.

He declared:

“Know that the President is not a governor, is not a judge, is not a lawmaker, but he is permitted to dream. To set values, to lead with honesty and with compassion, with courage and with kindness. There is nothing prohibiting the President from performing good deeds. He is entitled, and even obligated, to serve his nation, that is his people, to nurture love of the people, of the state, of all creatures. To draw closer those who are far away. To look to the faraway distance. To help the weak. To comfort the bereaved. To bring people together. To increase equality. To bridge differences.

And at his inauguration, a children’s choir sang some immortal verses from Psalm 34. As we conclude the Rosh Hashanah portion of our journey, one that began at an IHop near Boston and ends at the Knesset in Jerusalem – my two ancestral homes, let these words remain with us – for today, for this week, and forever:

יג מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים; אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב. Who is the one that desireth life, and loveth days, that he may see good therein?

יד נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע; וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה. Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.
טו סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב; בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
Simple words. Simple acts of kindness. A simple smile. A simple greeting. Simple respect for the dignity and privacy of all creatures.

May it come to be – for all of us, for each of us, for our world, speedily and in our day.

Kol Nidre
"Rules for the Road"

Tonight we embark on a 25 hour spiritual journey, to the Wilderness, where we’ll rediscover the God of Small Things and learn some Rules for the Road. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with a premise: Religion is in trouble. It hasn’t been a great year for religion. CNN ran a series recently called God’s Warriors, exposing the religious fanaticism that so frightens us all. I consider myself a different kind of religious person, by the way – I’m one of God’s Worriers! I worry that too many fanatics of all faiths are abusing God’s name to further their own extremist ends. If I felt that their version of religion were all there is, I’d probably join the growing legion of Americans who call themselves agnostic or atheist. This week, a state senator from Nebraska actually sued God. Ernie Chambers said in his lawsuit that God has inspired fear and caused “widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.”

Author Christopher Hitchens has had an especially enjoyable few months. Not only did he reap the profits from his best seller, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” but then in a Newsweek essay, he got to rip into Mother Theresa. It’s not every day that you get to trash a prospective saint. So Mother Theresa, in her newly released letters, admitted to having “dark nights of the soul,” as she called her severe bouts with depression and doubt. And it may not be so far off the mark for Hitchens to state that “the things that made Mother Teresa famous—the endless hard toil, the bitter austerity, the ostentatious religious orthodoxy—were only part of an effort to still the misery within.”

If anything, I believe that Mother Theresa has become an even greater religious role model from these posthumous confessions. The woman best known for loving untouchables in squalid cities, has now reminded us of the need to uproot ourselves from our own comfy chairs – to acknowledge doubt – EMBRACE it, and then to seek truth through life’s journeys. Our spiritual compass must ultimately push us all toward… the Wilderness.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “The Wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself. In the Wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.”

In the ancient Yom Kippur rite, the high priest would place his hands on the head of the goat and send it out into the Wilderness, symbolically carrying off into the unknown the sins of Israel. That was how atonement was achieved. “To make atonement over him, to send him away to Azazel into the wilderness.” לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו--לְשַׁלַּח אֹתוֹ לַעֲזָאזֵל, הַמִּדְבָּרָה

No one really knows the location of this place called Azazel. Commentators speculate that it was a mountain near Sinai, or a steep cliff. It was a medieval English Bible that first translated Azazel as Ez ozel – or scapegoat – the one that escaped. Azazel later garnered satanic associations, and in modern Hebrew it has become synonymous with Hell.

But in the Torah it is simply a mysterious place where the goat goes, the place in the Wilderness where we become cleansed of sin.

Like that goat, and like Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Miriam, Elijah, and all the Children of Israel, the Wilderness is where we need to head to become cleansed. This is a journey we can begin together – but ultimately, we must conclude it alone. So let’s head there...but first, before I send you off, I need to give you some provisions for the way, some advice for the road.
I’ve had lots of practice at sending off lately.

These past few months have been marked by several rites of passage for my family. Last summer Ethan went on an Israel teen tour, something that both Mara and I did as teenagers – so as he covered the country from top to bottom, from back here we followed every inch of his journey. Then, later in the summer we did our first real tour of college campuses. And last but not least, Dan just entered high school two weeks ago. With each new adventure I felt that same queasy feeling of letting go. Dropping Dan off on the first day of high school, I flashed back to his first day of Kindergarten, nine years ago. The feeling was strangely similar. My child – heading into the complete unknown, stepping out, closing the door, I drive off and he’s gone.

All these rites of passage. All this letting go. All at once. We send them off, like little goats, into the Wilderness.

Last winter, on various Shabbat mornings I shared with the congregation the running saga of Ethan’s turning 16 and getting his learners permit. Letting go is not easy for me, but teaching a child how to drive is by far the most difficult letting go of all. It’s an extension of the feeling one has letting go of a bicycle, counting the seconds until that first inevitable skinned knee. Many of you have read Wendy Mogol’s book extolling the virtues of the skinned knee; the blessings, as she calls them. She writes, “We treat our children's lives like we're cruise ship directors who must get them to their destination – adulthood - smoothly, without their feeling even the slightest bump or wave."

The first time out with Ethan in the car, I realized that my cruise ship directing days were over. The idea of a sknned knee suddenly seemed quaint. We decided to drive around the temple parking lot. (Things got a bit hairy at the front sign area. That’s the day that we nearly became “Temple Beth.”)

So we’ve sent him to driving school but I knew that ultimately it is my responsibility to teach him to drive. The Talmud instructs us that a parent is responsible for teaching a child how to swim. Swimming is a survival skill. The rabbis didn’t know from driving a car, but if they did they would certainly have included it, along with other survival skills that one should teach a child in this day and age – like how to say no to drugs and alcohol and how to balance a checkbook.

It is so scary to see your child behind the wheel. Some believe that 16 is too young, that a teen’s brain hasn’t developed fully yet, that the typical teenage demeanor is too combustible and too confident, too unaware of mortality, too oblivious to danger. In a series of recent ads, Allstate makes the case that 16 IS too young. In the decade between 1994 and 2003, over 57,000 teens died in motor vehicle accidents. No other kind of hazard comes close to claiming so many teenage lives.

It’s not just teenagers of course. The incivility that pervades our offices and homes has found a home on the roads, to the point where earlier this year the Vatican weighed in on the subject, issuing a “driver’s Ten Commandments,” including such pointers as: “On the road, protect the more vulnerable party; Don’t let cars become an expression of power and domination; Convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.”
With these commandments, I think we’ve found some common ground among the faiths. What a better world it would be if people followed them.

So I thought, in order to fulfill my Talmudic obligations, maybe what I need to be doing is writing a set of guidelines for my kids, and for you, as we embark on our Wilderness journeys.
Jewish law is filled with timeless advice for any driver: For instance, in Leviticus 10, God commands Aaron not to drink any intoxicant, “you or your children,” it says. “when entering the tent of meeting, that you may not die.” This commandment was given just a few verses after Aaron lost two sons to such a tragedy. And that tragedy in fact is recalled at the very beginning of the Yom Kippur Torah reading. It forms the backdrop to the goat’s journey. What was called the tent of meeting back then we might call the Merritt Parkway.

Here are some more of the Torah’s rules for the road. Deuteronomy 22:8 instructs us to build a guard rail on the roof of any new house, in order to relieve us of the responsibility of accidental death. I take this verse as a commandment to make sure everyone in my car is wearing a seat belt before I turn the key.

In Exodus we are instructed that when we see our enemy’s donkey lying under its burden, we have to help our enemy lift the animal. Similarly, when you see an accident, help out, even if only by calling 911 to make sure the police know about it.

We also read in Exodus, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We know what it is like to be lost, to be afraid, to be vulnerable. If ever there needed to be a biblical rationale to drive carefully and defensively, this is it.

There is so much advice I want to give before turning over the wheel, and these just scratch the surface… I hope my kids are listening. Here are some more rules for the road from your old man!

Speed Kills – What’s true in cars is also true in the rest of life. Whatever is worth doing is worth doing slowly.

Aim High – It’s something I recall hearing all the time at driver’s ed. The proper way to keep your vehicle going straight is to lift your eyes to that curve many yards away. If you continually aim high, your turns become more fluid –as you become one with the road.

The same is true off the road. When you set the bar high, whatever the pursuit, and you keep your eyes on the prize, the big picture, you’re much more likely to succeed.

Let the road take you – Trust your instincts as you become one with the road. All the car commercials play on our wanderlust, as we set out on roads through gorgeous mountain passes in the Rockies or Alps. As you go on your journey, let the road tell you its story. Let us listen closely for the bleating of that goat.

Be completely aware - In the Wilderness, there is a special kind of quiet. Everyone is completely aware of his surroundings. The bear is aware. The wolf is aware. We have to be aware.
Unfortunately, human beings are not bred for awareness. We are bred to multitask. So the other driver may not be aware. He may be eating, or switching stations on his satellite radio, or on the phone, or thinking that he is late – always late. We need to be aware.

And finally, the most important advice of all: Let the Wilderness change you.

When we set out on the journey, there is no way to know in advance where it will end.The Wilderness exposes us, clarifies our lives and our failings in the sharpest light. That is the essence of teshuvah.

Lawrence Kushner writes: “If you think you know what you will find, then you will find nothing. If you expect nothing, then you will always be surprised. So it is with setting out on the path of liberation, leaving everything.”

A midrash relates that Abraham was journeying from place to place when he came across a castle lit aflame, a birah doleket, which is where he encountered God for the first time. We don’t know what it was exactly that Abraham saw. Was it a castle radiating brilliant light? Or was it burning, completely enveloped in flames. One can interpret the word “doleket” either way. Rabbi Roly Matalon comments that these two very different impressions result from two very different ways of looking at the world, one emphasizing the world’s beauty and the other highlighting the potential for destruction.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “One may look upon the world with enthusiasm and absorb its wonder and radiant glory; one my also see and be shocked by its ugliness and evil.”

Heschel calls upon us to look at the world in both ways as we travel on our journeys – to see the beauty along with the violence, the joy as well as the degradation.

I saw a birah doleket this summer. Mara and I celebrated a recent big anniversary by taking a cruise to Alaska. Now it’s hard to speak of anything as an authentic Wilderness experience when the most excruciating existential choices we had to make each day took place in the buffet line. But never before have I seen such examples of God’s grandeur and human folly. We spent an inordinate amount of time watching glaciers calving. As each enormous chunk of ice broke off and hit the water, the sound of a muffled explosion reached our ears a few seconds later. There is no sight on earth so magnificent – and so alarming – as these burning, radiant castles of ice – each glacier a birah doleket. Alaska is gorgeous – and it is melting away before our eyes.
My children, as you find yourselves out there amidst the glories of God’s world, take with you this bit of advice for the road: maintain both an eternal gratitude for that beauty and a steadfast determination to repair those things that are broken.
But know also, that there will be things beyond our capacity to fix.

Why was the Torah given in the wilderness? Why does so much of the Torah take place there? In his book, “Will and Spirit,” Gerald May distinguishes between two different perspectives on life: Willingness and Willfulness. Willfulness is the notion that we are completely in control of our lives. Willingness suggests an acceptance of surprise and an openness to wonder. Our society tends to prefer the former. We delude ourselves into thinking we have things under control. But the spiritual life demands the latter, as we are guided by the mystery of it all. The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet notes that in the book of Numbers, one of the stops noted in the wilderness is called “Mattanah,” or gift. And he also notes that the word 'midbar' (wilderness) comes from a root meaning 'to rule.' The 'midbar' is one who submits to that rule, the person who negates his own self, realizing that he has no power to act without the life-flow of God, that all of life is a gift.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg comments, “The Torah invites us, again and again, to contemplate the nature of the Wilderness. We are asked to picture ourselves there -- in a place where we are lost and powerless and frightened. Into that core place in our lives comes the Torah, bringing divine truth and wisdom and perspective.”

The Torah was given in the Wilderness because it had to be. Mount Sinai belonged to no one nation, therefore it, and the Torah received there, was for everyone. But there is a more important reason: The Wilderness experience is precisely the model for a life of mitzvot. The new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen, has challenged us to get to the heart of what a mitzvah is and for rabbis to begin that dialogue on these high holidays.
Sometimes we mistakenly translate a mitzvah as a good deed. More accurately, it is a commandment, but that really doesn’t get to the heart of it. A mitzvah is an encounter with the God of Small Things. In his recent book, “A Wild Faith,” Rabbi Mike Cousins writes that it is in the Wilderness that we meet this God, the one that puts together all the tiny pieces of this magnificent puzzle, the God that is never spoken of in the CNN documentary or in Christopher Hitchins’ book.

Listen to this poem by one of our great contemporary spiritual poets, Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day.”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I
mean— the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down— who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

The commanding voice of Sinai is really the still small voice of your backyard on a Summer Day, asking us what we plan to do with our one wild and precious life. She is the God of those thousands of salmon I saw swimming against all odds upstream and then, at journey’s end, literally jumping out of the water into the paws of a waiting bear. I muttered to my guide something about the futility of it all – all that effort only to end in death. He said to me, “Why do you think the salmon swam up here?” To die! And then I realized. They had already spawned down below. Their race had been run. It was their mitzvah to go down in glory in the gullet of a grizzly. It was their most noble destiny. It gave ultimate meaning to their existence. It was nature’s perfect circle. It was amazing.

It all seemed so right. You know, the word halacha is so often mistranslated as “Jewish Law.” It comes from the word “lech” – to walk. To journey. Halacha is our pathway. Halacha is in fact our journey upstream. It is what we do naturally. Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. And Jews gotta honor parents, feed the hungry, clothe the needy, celebrate Shabbat and shun gossip and cheeseburgers. It began with Abraham and Sarah and the call to lech. Follow the way! And tonight their journey continues with us.

When we saw the glaciers calving – and walked on them as it happened before our eyes, I wasn’t thinking of Al Gore. I was thinking of God. I was thinking of the precious fragile world we have been given and the mitzvah of preserving it. In fact this year we’ve just entered is a special year to remind us of those responsibilities – a “Shmita” year – the seventh year, when the sacred land of Israel is to lie fallow. And as we recall our obligations to protect the land, we see the connection between that mitzvah and the other mitzvot of the seventh year, calling upon us to relieve the poor of their debts and to release indentured servants. They are all connected.

Every day as we navigate the wilderness of choice – at each fork in the road – we can choose an encounter with God – or not. Do we give this beggar a dollar or not? Do we stay at work that extra hour or catch the early train home to see the kids for dinner? Do we smile as that person approaches – or do we duck behind that tree? Every action is a spiritual fork in the road. This God of Small Things doesn’t really command or even suggest. This God writes the map, which contains the Rules of the Road. God sets out the way and hands us the wheel. We can choose to follow that path and be one with the road, or go off road and share the fate of that goat on the cliffs of Azazel. We can disregard the consequences of our actions or we can choose to aim high. We can speed past all the warning signs or we can slow down and enjoy the view.

And here in the Wilderness we can learn how to listen deeply to the Still Small Voice of the God of Small Things, and develop our own voice of conscience. For the word for Wilderness, Midbar, comes from the word Daber, to speak. When all the other voices are stilled, all that remains are the piercing stars, the cold breeze and the words we speak. Our prayers.

Our prayers.

And so we return, to Beth El, Kol Nidre Night, 5768. How fitting that a movie is premiering in theaters called “To the Wild.” For right here, in the grandest theater of all, the one called life, we too are setting out.

By the time we return from the Wilderness tomorrow evening, all the other voices will have been stilled. The map will be in our minds, the rules are in our hearts. The commanding voice of Sinai will have become the still, small voice of our own conscience. And then, we’ll prepare to set out again, in our journey upstream.

May these words rest easily on us as we set forth from this spot and into the dazzling array of choices that await us on the other side of this river in time, from now until sundown tomorrow, and then beyond, as we head out into the vast reaches and limitless possibilities of the New Year.

Yom Kippur
"A God of Love"
Last week, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the ethics of cheerfulness. With this parable attributed to a 20th saintly sage the Chazon Ish, we begin our climb on the ethical ladder, from greeting to greatness, the final step on the journey from I to We.

In a small town, a man once opened a grocery store directly across the street from another grocery. As soon as the old grocer saw the sign in the window announcing the opening, he went across the street and met the new merchant. He shook hands and welcomed him warmly, then sat down and taught him all the tricks of the trade: where to buy, how to buy and get the best value. When he was asked why he was being so hospitable to a future competitor, the grocer responded with a Talmudic quotation, “All the sustenance of a person is determined from one Rosh Hashanah to the next. Only God can take it away.”

For so many of us, the goal of life is to achieve, to win. For others, the goal is merely to survive. But the parable I just read teaches us the Jewish perspective: What matters is not to win - but to love. All that we possess is really God’s, not ours. And our neighbor is, like us, created in God’s image. To love our neighbor, truly, is to love God.

I believe in a God of love.

Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Ha-Din “Judgment Day,” but Yom Kippur is not – it is called instead “Yom Ha-Kippurim,” the day of cleansing. The day of getting things right. Atonement is at-one-ment, after all. We recite the divine attributes of mercy over and over, all day long, a passage that is 32 words long – and 32 is the numerical value of the word “Lev,” heart. We began these ten days with “din,” judgment, but in the end, mercy, “chesed” in Hebrew, gets the last laugh. It also gets lots of play. The word “hesed” appears a whopping 245 times in the Bible, and two thirds of the time, the text is describing God.

I believe in a God of love.

For far too long, the God of the Jews has been stereotyped as the “Old Testament God,” a vengeful, inflexible figure, always infatuated with chucking fire and brimstone. No doubt there are lots of stories in the Bible where God acts in that way. But there are many others that are quite different, and this vengeful God is not the Jewish God.

If you get a little restless in any service, whenever, weekdays or Shabbat, count how many times the word “love” appears in the siddur. It’s a lot. If you throw in “joy” and “light” and “happiness” and “salvation” and “hope” – we’ve come quite a distance from “the Old Testament God.”
Just as last week I spoke about welcoming. Today is about going beyond acceptance and tolerance. Last week was about respecting boundaries of privacy, today is about dissolving boundaries of exclusion. Last night was about caring enough to let go, this morning is about loving enough to bring someone in.

I’d like to tell you the story of a twenty two year-old Israeli named Yair. Yair and his father had made aliyah from Russia during the great immigration wave of the 90s. When he arrived in the Israel his greatest desire was to become Israeli. So he changed his name, which had been Sasha, learned Hebrew and gave up everything from his old life, from Tolstoy to the piano, He enrolled in a yeshiva, became observant and worked as a youth leader for B’nai Akiva, where he met and fell in love with a real shayna maidel named Dafna and the two became engaged.

But then something happened. Yair received a package from his aunt in the Ukraine, his late mother’s jewelry box – and his world turned upside down. For in it he found a gold pendant in the shape of a cross. Suddenly he was faced with the prospect that for his whole life he had been living a lie. He rushed to his father, who assured him that the pendant did not belong to his mother. No, it belonged to his grandmother. This was no comfort to Yair – because if his mother’s mother was not Jewish, it meant that he was not either. His bris had been done by the chief rabbi of Moscow, but still it didn’t matter. Halachically he was not a Jew.

He went to the rabbinical authorities who informed him that converting would be relatively simple. But it was not so simple for Yair. For a few weeks he got a glimpse of what it was to be held outside of the community he had so longed to be a part of. Not only was he exempt from performing mitzvot, some were forbidden to him, including Shabbat. In one of the more questionable halachic judgments in all of Jewish history, Maimonides ruled nine centuries ago that it forbidden for a non Jew to take on full observance of Shabbat. So the rabbi instructed Yair to light up a cigarette on Friday night, and turn on the lights. Dafna’s family treated him differently. He felt ostracized. He couldn’t concentrate on his studies or pray – especially that prayer thanking God for having not making him a Gentile (a blessing that has was changed long ago in Conservative prayer books).

Fed up and confused, Yair returned to his secular Russian friends and the nightclub scene of Tel Aviv – he returned to being Sasha.

Yair and Dafna are not real. They are characters in a film that was produced for Israeli television two years ago and has made the rounds of international film festivals, winning accolades and awards. You’ll be happy to know that in the film, “Green Chariot,” Yair and Dafna do get back together in the end, and he immerses himself in the warm Mediterranean Sea to officially convert, a nice Hollywood ending. But in reality, there are hundreds of thousands of Jews in Israel whose identity remains halachically questionable to some authorities, whether from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, India or Stamford Connecticut.

Jewish identity has become like the shifting sand. Boundaries have become almost impossible to determine. Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with someone whose wife had long since converted – by a Conservative rabbi in the proper halachic manner – but still he wondered if his as yet unborn children would also need to be converted in order to be considered Jewish by Orthodox relatives. The God of love calls out to us: Embrace them! Bring them in!
I believe in a God of love.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine that has caused quite a stir in the Jewish world, highlighted one man’s agony at having had his picture airbrushed out of a class reunion photo at his Boston area day school, the Maimonides School, simply because he attended the event with a non Jewish girlfriend. It matters not that Noah Feldman is a famous and brilliant professor at Harvard. What matters is that his old school had a chance to embrace someone veering toward the fringes of Jewish life and instead chose to show him the door.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who was Feldman’s rabbi when he was at Oxford, chastised the day school for their actions, writing a few days later in the Jerusalem Post, “My thinking was that Noah was far too precious to me and to the Jewish people to lose. If he was dating a woman whom he wished to marry, then it was our duty to try and expose her to the friendliness of the Jewish community with a view toward her exploring whether a serious commitment to our tradition was something that would suit her… Of course I had wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance during his two years at Oxford. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make.”

I’ve never been a great fan of Shmuley Boteach, but how can one disagree with someone who has introduced millions of Americans to Shalom in the Home. And Feldman is not faultless here: His article was unfair to modern Orthodoxy. Aside from Senator Lieberman, the only two modern Orthodox role models he chose to focus on were Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein, two cold blooded killers who in no way represent Orthodoxy or Judaism as a whole. In chastising his old school as he did, he also sounded every bit as self righteous in and narrow minded as his teachers did in blotting him out. And it is not just Orthodoxy that struggles with the dilemmas of shifting boundaries and interfaith households. Every branch of Judaism does. All across the board.

But the God of love is calling out to us – Love them! Bring them in!

1.7 million non-Jews now are living in American Jewish households — to put it another way, about 23 percent of those living in Jewish households are not Jewish. And that doesn’t even take into consideration patrilineal descent. There are indications that a growing number of non-Jewish spouses have become increasingly supportive of raising their children as Jews and possibly even converting. This is happening especially in communities, like Boston, where outreach has been ingrained into the culture. But the Maimonides School failed to get the memo, choosing to shun. They should have listened to their medieval namesake, the great sage Maimonides himself who said, “Just as God is called compassionate, so should you be compassionate.” If someone had reached out, perhaps this article would not have been written.
A poem I often quote at weddings goes like this: “He drew a circle that shut me out Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win; we drew a circle that drew him in.”

While I can’t perform an interfaith marriage, when I hear about one in the congregation family, I make it my business to reach out to the couple and let them know that they are wanted and loved here. While synagogue membership might not be affordable to many young singles and couples, many who grew up here, we try to send out the message, loud and clear, that we want them here. We’ve offered special incentives this year for the first time, trying to get that message across all the more urgently. We are also appealing to everyone who has the means to help us more this year so that we can begin to restructure the way we do business, as all synagogues must do, to be less reliant on dues.

Business as usual simply won’t do. The percentage of Jews among the American populace is now at its lowest point since 1890. We are, as Jonathan Sarna puts it, an endangered religion. If we are concerned about the spotted owl and the finback whale, then we should also be concerned about Jews. Try to imagine how impoverished the world would be with far fewer Jews. What can each of us do to ensure a vibrant Jewish future? We can promote families with a strong sense of Jewishness inside the home – and focus on growing self assured, proud Jewish children. For all our families, singe faith, dual faith, dual parent, single parent, three parents, two parents and a grandparent, traditional or non, we must send out a strong message about the urgency of having raising Jewish families. Some have taken up the banner of having more children as well. As one observant couple recently said, “four is the new three.”

A rabbi in San Francisco related the story of a couple sitting before him – he was Catholic and she was Protestant. He asked, why did you come to me to marry you?’ To which the young man replied, “We want to offend each side of the family equally.”

We need to get beyond all the family control issues that so often get in the way.

We must continue to draw those circles of inclusion that draw people in.

I believe in a God of love.

And so do so many others: Jews are disproportionally involved in causes that have noting to do with us, like combating the genocide in Darfur – which of course has everything to do with us - to the point where Darfurian refugees this summer began flocking to the borders of a little country we all know and love – to the point where Israel did not know what to do with them. These refugees had to literally retrace the steps of Moses to get there – trudging through the Sinai on foot. One of our bat mitzvah students this year raised money on her own personal website to save Darfur. She was inspired by the film “Paper Clips,” which she saw in our 7th grade, and by one haunting line from the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” “If people see this footage [of killing], they’ll say it’s horrible … and go on eating their dinner.”

Today we are giving up dinner, breakfast and lunch – today we rekindle our partnership with the God of love.

Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

It says in the Talmud (Brachot 34b) that a person may only pray in a room with windows. This is based on biblical quotes indicating that King Solomon built the first temple with latticed, recessed windows opening out to the heavens. Rabbi Melanie Aron writes, “When you pray you are not meant to be thinking only of yourself. Windows allow, even require that we look out. They insist that we take note of the community within which we live.”

Isn’t it wonderful to pray in a home – here – with windows? During the day we look out and see the exquisite beauty of nature. At night, we see human faces reflecting back at us. We see our community.

Targum Yonatan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, explains that the Temple windows were broad on the inside and narrow on the outside. This particular design was thought to provide the maximum amount of light from the outside while providing for the maximum protection inside. In contrast, Rabbi Levi said (in Leviticus Rabbah 31:7): that they were built narrow on the inside and wide on the outside, so that the light from inside would spread out into the world.

Our windows are wide on both sides. There is an openness on both sides. God’s light streams in - and we reciprocate by shining ours right back at ya’- in eternal openness and love.

And so we are in an age of transformation, where for Jews, as for the world at large, boundaries are shifting so dramatically and so constantly, that our religion must go from being one based on setting boundaries to one based on transcending them.

We’ve got to get away from drawing lines in the sand that will be washed away with the next tide. We must look toward finding that common ground between ocean and shore. It is time to stop building fences and to begin climbing down from them.

When I work with a student for conversion, I follow the traditional rabbinic practice of trying to talk the person out of it. But in some sense that is merely a formality. I tell them how hard it is to be a Jew, that at the moment they step from the mikvah, suddenly a billion people around the world will want them dead. And then I throw in the irony that a billion fanatics will want them dead, but an Ultra Orthodox rabbi down the street might not accept them as Jewish! But I also tell them that, most of all, that they will be accepted completely and lovingly here, and by most of the Jewish world – and by God…the God of love… the God who loved even the evil non Jewish city of Nineveh once they chose to repent. The God of Chesed.

The Jewish God.

This year, we along with all Conservative synagogues, have had to make choices, earth shattering choices, regarding inclusiveness and sexual orientation. The discussions that took place here and on a movement wide level have been widely documented and discussed. This is not the place to rehash them, but I encourage you to contact me with any questions or concerns. What’s most important to note is how the position we took was consistent with the overriding culture that we have nurtured here at Beth El, one of inclusion, embrace and love. And that means that those who disagree with it also have a place here. We draw no lines in the sand. We build no fences. We just climb down from them.

For me it could have been no other way. It was what I was taught by my mother and father. It was what I learned from my best teachers and camp counselors. It is ultimately what I learned from the Torah itself. For I have always believed in a God of love.

Maybe one reason for this is that I was born on Valentine’s Day. Or perhaps it has to do with a man who died many years before I was born. Let me tell you a bit about him.

Several years back I was riding shotgun in a hearse on my way to a burial, traversing Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens and its densely packed, soaring monuments - a mini Manhattan for the dead. The hearse turned a corner and there, in the front row, staring me down, was my name – the person for whom I was named – chiseled in eternity. I had never seen my great grandfather’s grave before. Talk about your life flashing before your eyes – at that moment I felt a rush of recognition, as if a past life was flashing before mine. So I decided to learn more about him.

Joshua J. Kastan, a saintly and strictly observant Hasid, fell in love with a woman named Mollie; but family lore has it that when they were about to be married, Mollie refused to shave her head. One can only imagine the hubbub provoked by this breach of traditional practice. Yet Joshua was no fence sitter – he stood by her and they were married, hair and all. He continued to love her through years of barrenness (attributed by detractors to her brazenness), and resisted the advice to leave her. Finally, miraculously, they had a daughter, my grandmother, Rebecca. To add one more romantic twist, Joshua and Mollie died on the same date (three years apart), August 19.

Rebecca married Samuel Hammerman and they had seven children, one dying very young. Their home was filled with music and laughter. They scraped by on Samuel’s income as a tailor. My uncle Zel has described their home as “wall to wall newspaper,” but filled with love. To help earn money, my father, who had a lovely tenor voice, began to sing professionally. Eventually, he and his two brothers became cantors. Their fondest childhood memories included spending Shabbat afternoon together with all the cousins, gathered in their Zeyda Joshua’s home. Rebecca and Sam had 16 grandchildren, and fully a quarter of them were named for Joshua Kastan, including me, my cousins Jan and Jules - and my older cousin Jeffrey.

Jeff, an aspiring actor and poet, was serious, soft spoken and strikingly handsome. When I came to New York for rabbinical school in the late ‘70s, I got to know him quite well. Jeff provided me a keyhole glimpse into some of the diversity of New York culture and, when he became HIV positive in the mid ‘80s, an insider’s view of AIDS’ devastation as well. At about the same time that I moved to Stamford, coincidently so did Jeff, with his partner.

In late 1993, Jeff, who hadn’t set foot in a synagogue since his Bar Mitzvah, shared his story from this pulpit. It was the kind of sermon our great grandfather Joshua would have admired.
He said, “The God that I learned about in my home was a God of love, understanding, mercy and reason. That God has given me real strength…His love for us is not measured by the absence of hardships. His love for us is the life he’s given us.”

Six years later, when I last saw Jeff in Hospice, curled up in a fetal position and barely breathing, I understood that no God of mine could have afflicted him so mercilessly. Rather, I sensed the sanctity in every heroic gasp of air, in each moment of survival. I reached back for every bit of Hesed I could summon and held his hand.

What I had grasped before intellectually, now was imprinted on every fiber of my being: This is horrible. This is desperately unfair. But this is no punishment. This is not what God wants. What God wants is for us to love all the more.

At his funeral, which took place here, I read a poem Jeff had written decades earlier, when he was a teenager, called “Valentine to Man.”

“I listened to the music –And it sounded so sweet that I shoutedup to heaven: “Let me love.”
And God spoke to me and He said…“You do love.
You feel the sun rise and exalt as it travels Its long journey over its old road.
You see the great green wonder rolling in and out,taking life form its depths ofturbulence to its shores of peace
You hear the music of nature singing to youRinging sweetly in your ears.
You laugh and you cry, small yet largeagainst the majesty of life.
And while there is no one, nothing –You do love…And you breathe and sing along with the awkward,
Beautiful melody…AND YOU KNOW ME,
And you love.”

I reflected on all these life lessons this year as the movement and our congregation grappled with such sensitive issues, and it was, in a way, for me, my final exam, as a rabbi, a believing Jew and as a human being.

Some come out of the closet. Others come off the fence.

Either one is a leap of faith an act of great courage. It is also an act of return, or teshuvah – for it is a return to your true values, to your deepest held beliefs, to who you were all along. And that leap of faith can only be made into the arms of a God of love.

Just after Passover, I brought Dan to Old Montefiore Cemetery for a family history project, and when we looked closely at my great grandfather Joshua’s stone, I noticed something I’d never seen before – something that shook me to the core. The Hebrew date of his passing was the 15th of the month of Av – also known as Tu B’Av – the Jewish Valentine’s Day.

In the strangest of ways, his yahrzeit became my birthday.

I close with more poetry from my cousin Jeff. As we approach his tenth yahrzeit, may his memory always be an inspiration for blessing on this bima, from which he once spoke:

We inhabit our lives
For but a speck –The eye of a needle’s space
Of time
Seeking, as we do –Each in our own way –Some greater speck,
Some greater space,
Some way to live beyond ourselves,
We live our lives.
Of all the acts seeking extension,
The giving of love is greatest:
Love does not crumble as marble,
Change as language,
Fall as empires;
It is absolute and breeds itself
And thus survives the giver.
This is the true road to immortality,You have taken – and shared it.
Jeffrey Avick z’l 1976

There are 32 words in the Attributes of Mercy – the God of Love has a human heart – a heart that can transport us from I to We.