Friday, September 26, 2008

Product Placement: a Rosh Hashanah Message

At this time of year, rabbis are inundated with e-mails, web links and superbly constructed PDF files, as organizations aim to get “air time” during our High Holiday sermons. See A Different Kind Of Kosher Sermon from the Jewish Week to get an idea of what I mean. As organizations have become more marketing savvy, they’ve come to recognize that the High Holidays are much like the Superbowl, the one time of the year when people of all generations come together, and therefore all demographics can be reached. Now if only we got what the networks get for a minute of air time during the Superbowl, we’d have it made.

Not only do we hear from national organizations, but many local institutions also get into the act. Some bring over pamphlets and flyers, others ask for an announcement to be made. Of course, these are often the same organizations that balk at promoting our events, but never mind. We’re community-conscious, so we do what we can.

And we get lots of freebies. calendars, circulars, canned sermons (some of them quite good) and books. Lots of books. I might get more than some of my colleagues because I also get review copies sent to journalists. If the book arrives on time (read: just a few hours before I hit the beaches on Cape Cod), a reference just might slip into one of my sermons. It’s not exactly Oprah’s Book Club, but everyone is trying to recreate the gold standard set by “The Red Tent,” Anita Diamant’s bestselling novel that was floundering on the shelves until someone had the bright idea to send it out to rabbis before the holidays. The rest is history. I can tell you that next week I’ll be featuring recent works by Natan Sharansky and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Stay tuned.

I was thinking that synagogues might want to utilize the same kind of product placement techniques that work so well in movies. Imagine, during a raucous, tear-jerking sermon, having your rabbi pause, reach for and gulp down an ice cold Coke. On Yom Kippur, we would have to be a little more creative. Maybe I could say something like, “This hour of fasting is brought to you by Tums, the perfect companion for those going out for Chinese food tonight.”

This year, the “hot” topics include, appropriately, global warming (and see a nice JTA article on the topic of the Shofar and Environmentalism). There is also the major new initiative of the Conservative movement calling for an ethical “Good Housekeeping Seal” alongside Kashrut supervision. See Hekhsher Tzedek Launches High Holidays Drive for more background, and Rabbi Eric Yoffe’s op-ed in the Forward, indicating just how much support the new initiative has received from other movements. Even the Orthodox are now following suit with something similar of their own.

Darfur remains a huge concern. This week a letter was released: 275 Rabbis Urge Secretary Rice to Expand Sudan Arms Embargo. See the letter here and note that I am a proud signatory.

One thing I have not signed on to is “Rabbis for Obama.” (see Rabbis Launch Pro-Obama Group). This unprecedented move has been a source of much discussion among rabbis. There are significant institutional risks for a pulpit rabbi who endorses candidates. I never do, although I have no problem calling it as I see it when the need arises (as happened this year in our local Democratic Congressional primary when one of the candidates was an out-and-out anti-Semite). I won’t hesitate to say publicly, for instance, that the anti-Obama smear e-mail campaign directed at Jews, particulary older Jews in Florida, is despicable, because it uses deception to push all the fear buttons. But that still is not sufficient reason to endorse a candidate. I also know that the Obama campaign hasn’t been completely innocent in its depiction of McCain’s record. I also know that Sarah Palin, unfiltered, pushes my fear buttons all by herself. No need for all the e-mails you’ve been sending me!

A prime concern, and for me THE prime concern, is the threat of a nuclear Iran. Israel is central to our identity and destiny as Jews and Israel and the world are in grave danger. I was at the anti-Iran rally last Monday and was disappointed in the canned nature of the presentations and the lack of real concern felt in the (not too large) crowd. Even leading lights like Sharansky and Wiesel seemed like they were giving the same speech for the umpteenth time, and all the speakers lacked passion, given the urgency of this moment. See more on this in the Jewish Week editorial, “Rethinking The Rally.”

All that having been said, don’t expect me to get overtly political next week. Certainly not partisan. Also, don’t expect me to dwell on this one cause or the other. Many of them are most worthy - and I’ve neglected to mention the victims of recent hurricanes and of course, the current economic crisis. I have prepared a Social Action packet dealing with some of these worthy causes, which will be available at services this weekend and next week. I’ll make passing reference to a few of these matters during the sermons.

But I’ve always felt that the High Holidays are about the Big Themes. They aren’t about single issues; rather they help us recognize the unifying threads of a much larger narrative. They are about Life and Meaning and Purpose and Hope. They are about Teshuvah – our annual return to what we thought we were and a chance to re-imagine the dreams of what we hope to become. They are about community coming together to define itself and refine its vision. They are about human beings reaching out to one another, masks off, vulnerable and shaky, with compassion and love. They are about seeking God and finding one another.

So there will be nothing canned coming from this pulpit, though I’m indebted to a multitude of teachers and sources for the ideas I will share. When I lift my voice from the pulpit next week (and speak into our amazing new sound system), there will be no commercials, no product placement, nothing fake. The only product that I will place before you is my life, the wisdom I’ve gained (much of it from you) and the visions that need to be shared.

My best wishes to you and your loved ones for a year of sweetness and fulfillment.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rally at the U.N.

I will be attending the UN rally on Monday and hope to see many of you there. The very real prospect of a nuclear armed Iran is a grave threat not only to Israel, but to the entire world. See the announcement below:

Iran’s President Ahmadinejad is coming to the U.N.

He supports terror networks around the world.
He calls for the destruction of the US and Israel.
He is developing nuclear weapons in defiance of the U.N.
He jails and executes women’s rights activists,
religious minorities and others in Iran.

Stand together and speak out against terror.
Join the
Rally to Stop Iran. Now!
Dag Hammarskjold Plaza (across from the United Nations)
Monday, September 22nd, 2008
11:45 am, rain or shine, 2nd Avenue at 47th Street
(Subways: 4, 5, 6, or 7 to Grand Central Station)

Yankee Stadium: An October Requiem

The world will say goodbye to the House that Ruth Built this weekend. It is a supreme irony that the place that was built for October will bid adieu in late September, as for the first time in a decade and a half, the Yankees will (likely) not see postseason action.

I have few positive memories of the place, but I must say that I took Ethan to his first major league game there, not Fenway. I was given the tickets by Yankee executive Arthur Richman, president of the team, following Mel Allen’s funeral in 1996. The funeral was one of Beth El’s most dramatic moments. I love pointing out to Yankee-supporting Bar Mitzvah students where Joe DiMaggio sat in our sanctuary, along with Steinbrenner, Berra, Ford and host of legends.

When I entered the stadium with Ethan for that day game, I was surprised at how awestruck I was at the simple beauty of the façade and the greenness of the field. Richman told me, “We’re going to win you over.” That didn’t quite happen regarding the team, but the stadium definitely did. And I must add that the team acted with great affection toward Mel’s family throughout that sad time and I was impressed by the dignified and professional way they do business.

My other main memory of Yankee Stadium is not so pleasant. I was at game seven of the 2003 ALCS, way up in right field. It was one of the most dramatic games in the history of the place and I was on the wrong end of it. When Aaron Boone hit his dramatic series-ending home run, I immediately went into survival mode. Everyone around was high fiving, so I high fived right back. The screaming did not end as everyone stood and screamed for a half hour before people finally started to make for the exits. The cheering lasted forever – or more accurately, almost exactly one year.

I picked the wrong Game 7 to attend. 2004’s was one that I savored, and still savor. It has a permanent place on my TiVo.

Last week’s Bar Mitzvah boy wanted me to talk about that Red Sox – Yankees rivalry. Since this young man, a huge Yankee fan, has never seen the Yanks fail to make the playoffs, I took the opportunity to perform a public service. I suggested some things that Yankee fans might do with all their extra time this October. It occurred to me that it would be only appropriate for a Red Sox fan to make these suggestions, since we’ve had so many empty Octobers (though not recently). I also thought that it would be nice to come up with 26 such suggestions, one for each Yankee championship banner, so I am calling upon the rest of you to help me complete the list.

There are obvious ones like “watch the Red Sox and Mets,” but that’s too easy. I’m looking for something more creative, like “Work off those Reggie Bars” or “Hit fungo grouders to Chuck Knobloch” or “Add monster seats to the Wall in Bucky Dent’s backyard.”

Please send me your suggestions at and I’ll share them next week – that is, unless the Sox collapse….

Yankee Stadium, thanks for the memories!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wailing Wall Street's "Days of Awe"

With less than two weeks before the Jewish Judgment Day, people on wailing Wall Street are already muttering, on a daily basis, “Who shall live and who shall die?” People are suffering greatly; many are losing their shirt, but the death sentence has been pronounced not on human beings, but on brands that for so long had been considered rocks of stability, companies like Merrill Lynch and AIG.

I’m no economist; balancing a checkbook is a major challenge for me. But real experts (even some not running for President) have told me that at the root of the current crisis is what Gordon Gekko, as played by Michael Douglas 21 years ago, in “Wall Street,” the movie, said it would be” – GREED.

“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good.
Greed is right.
Greed works.
Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

If the High Holidays have a theme, it’s that greed is not good – guilt is. Judaism acknowledges that some greed is necessary for the world to go round. Without selfishness, without a smidgeon of lust and the other seven deadly sins, we would never have children, never create new inventions, never excel over previous generations. Greed, to some degree, is good – but only when there is also guilt.

Judaism calls it “Yetzer ha’ra,” the evil inclination. As described succinctly in in this essay on, “Yetzer hara is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil, but rather a drive toward pleasure or property or security, which if left unlimited, can lead to evil (cf. Genesis Rabbah 9:7). When properly controlled by the yetzer ha tov (good inclination), the yetzer hara leads to many socially desirable results, including marriage, business, and community.”

But what keeps that greed from getting out of control. Nothing but good old fashioned, grandma’s-chicken-soup GUILT. We joke about the destructive nature of “ Jewish guilt,” but in fact, we too often fail to realize its healing potential, confusing it with the far more toxic Christian notion of sin. As Eliezer Shore writes in an article about R. Nachman of Breslov in the current issue of Sh’ma, “The problem of sin is never in the act itself, nor even in the damage it causes, which is always repairable….If our failures lead us to despair and hopelessness, then we have doubly sinned; if they motivate us to change, then they are redeemed.”

Jewish guilt can lead to change and ultimately to redemption. Christian sin can be redeemed only through belief in an intermediary appealing on our behalf. We Jews can redeem ourselves, on our own. Jews are always “pro choice,” not necessarily because of any convictions regarding abortion, but because the choice is always in our hand: good or evil, excessive greed or cleansing guilt, it’s ours alone to decide.

The degree to which the sin of greed on Wall Street can be redeemed now lies solely in the ability of those who have the power to make significant changes to do exactly that. If it takes a degree of Jewish guilt for that to happen, plus or minus the chicken soup, so be it.

TBE Bar/ Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Ariel Kobliner on Parashat Ki Tetze

My portion contains many different laws, and most of them teach us how important it is to not be indifferent – to care about others. I always try to be a caring person, and sometimes my friends come to me for advice. So I decided to make and advice column… so welcome to “Ask Ari!”

As you can see, I’ve already received a number of letters asking for advice, so let’s start!

(letter #1)
Dear Ari,
I have a friend that I have sort of grown apart from. She likes to gossip about my other friends and I find that annoying. I don’t know if I should drop her as a friend. What should I do?
Confused Friend

Ooh, that’s a good one.

Dear Confused,
In the portion Ki Tetze there are laws about marriage and divorce. One law states that that if two people are married and the wife falls out of favor and the man wishes to divorce her, the man should let her go with kindness so she can maintain her dignity. I know you’re not married to your friend, but the same principle applies in your situation. Instead of being mean and saying you never want to be friends again, just tell her that you need a little space. This way you will be happier, and maybe she’ll begin to understand what she did wrong.

Letter Number Two

Dear Ari,
When I was walking down the street I saw a dog on the side of the road. I noticed that it was the dog of someone who had been mean to me in the past. Should I tell her where I saw it – or should I just forget about it?
Doggie Dilemma

Doggone it, that’s a good question.

Dear Doggie,
In the portion Ki Tetze, the Torah says that if you find someone else’s possession, whether it be a friend’s or an enemy’s, you must return it. Although you might not want to do something nice for this girl, it is a mitzvah. Also in the same portion, the Torah says to be kind to animals. So this is another reason to return the dog. Maybe if you give back the dog your enemy will become your friend!
- Ari

Another letter! Who do these people think I am – Doctor Phil?
And here is one more:

Dear Ari,
I was sitting inside the classroom and I saw that someone had left a jacket. It was a really nice North Face jacket and I put it my locker because I didn’t know what to do with it. Should I return it or should I do what I want and keep it?
Finder’s Keeper’s

Dear Finders,
You should put the jacket in the lost and found or give it to a teacher. In the portion Ki Tetze the Torah advises that if you find a lost item you must return it. As desirable as it might be, the jacket isn’t yours so you should not keep it. Think about how you would feel of someone found your jacket and didn’t give it back!
- Ari

As you can see from these letters, a very important idea here is that we should not be indifferent. One way which I demonstrate my caring is through my mitzvah project. As many of you know, I was born two months premature, so I have a special concern for those who are in a similar situation. For my mitzvah project, I’ve been volunteering for the Tiny Miracles Foundation, which assists families with premature babies. I volunteered in the office, and next week, I am working at a carnival to raise money. Please come.

So that’s all we have for today. If you need any advice, just send your letters or emails to Ask Ari at

TBE Bar/ Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Justin Smith on Parashat Ki Tavo

It was a Monday evening this past June, under the lights at the Little League field on Vine Rd., when the coach gave the signal for me to come in and pitch the fifth inning. This wasn’t just any game – it was the semi-final game in the tournament of champions.

As I ran in from center field, I thought about the three previous years, when we lost in the playoffs. One year, we were up 4-0 in the final inning and lost. So here was our chance, at long last, to win a championship….AND IT WAS ALL UP TO ME.

With the tying run at second and two outs, 2 and 2 was the count. I was signaled the heat on the outside corner. I fired a fastball and blew it by him for strike three to end the inning. One inning later, I finished the game and we went on to win our first championship two days later.

I had been waiting a long time to win the North Stamford Little League championship. Then we got a bonus and won the city championship a week later.

At the end of the last game, the whole team ran onto the field to celebrate and then the North Stamford all stars ran out to celebrate with us. We shook hands with the losing team to show good sportsmanship and then we ran around with the championship banner.

These moments stay with you forever.

My portion has a ritual in it that is very much like what I experienced. The portion describes a special offering of first fruits brought by our ancestors to the Temple in Jerusalem, and with that offering they would recite a passage. The passage, which is also found in our Passover Haggadah, recalls how much the people of Israel suffered as slaves in Egypt before they were freed and were able to settle in the Land of Israel. By reading this passage, and by bringing this offering, they were less likely to take for granted the fact that they were so lucky to be living there.

The message is that when you want something so badly, when you get it, you’ll take it all in and enjoy the moment more than you would have otherwise. This was true for me with the championship especially because it was my last year in Little League, playing with Viking. Four other teammates are also moving on, so this was the last time we would all play together.

As a Jew, I know how important it is to treasure freedom, because my ancestors were slaves in Egypt. And it’s also important to be grateful for what you have and what you get in life, for family and for all the people you love.

When you appreciate all that you have, it makes you want to give more to those who are needy. For my mitzvah project I am collecting books to be donated to Stamford Hospital for adults and children.

In a way, my becoming bar mitzvah today is a lot like winning that championship game. I’ve worked so hard to prepare and today, after years of effort, it all pays off. And as I grow older and remember this day, it will inspire me to help people realize their hopes and dreams.

Friday, September 12, 2008

TBE Bar/ Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Anna Lipkin on Parashat Ki Tetze

My portion of Ki Tetze is filled with many laws about how people should get along. Some have counted as many as 72 mitzvot in this portion alone, far more than any other portion. Yet if you look closely at these laws, there are some common themes. Mainly, the laws are about relationships, and they help us to look for balance – especially the balance between compassion and strictness.

One of the laws even talks specifically about having balanced weights and measures. It’s talking about being honest in business but it says at the end that striking such a balance can give you long life. It’s a matter of life and death.

Last year, I wrote a poem using the image of a girl walking on a balance beam during the Holocaust. She is holding on to life by a thread, and only her ability to keep her balance saves her. At the end of the poem, she is still on the beam, hoping against hope to survive.

The kind of balance we strike is very different. The portion has several laws that appear very harsh. For instance, when a child insults his parents, he is supposed to be killed. I would never insult my parents, but I find that law to be overly strict. So did the rabbis of the Talmud, by the way, who said that this law was never enforced.

The portion also comes down very hard on the nation of Amalek, who attacked the Israelites in the wilderness. They didn’t fight fair, attacking from behind, harming women, children and the elderly. Because of that, we are instructed to wipe them out totally.

On the other hand, we are supposed to be very kind to animals, like the mother bird, whom we shoo away before taking her eggs, or the fallen animal, whom we help lift up before returning it to its owner. We’re supposed to be kind to people too, like the captive woman at the beginning of the portion or the widow whose garment should never be taken from her, or the poor person, who is allowed to glean from grapes in the vineyard and from the corners of the field.

In tennis, a sport that I really love, I’ve learned that balance is really important, and not just balancing on my legs when I’m about to serve. At times I need to be very competitive to be at my best. But at times, I can be more compassionate. There was one match where I was way ahead and my opponent started crying, so I have to admit, I let her win a few points. I still won the set 6-3, but she felt much better about it and in fact, now has gained some confidence and has become a much better player.

I’ve learned that in tennis, my greatest opponent is myself, not the person on the other side of the net.

For some people, the balancing act between life and death is a very serious one. For my mitzvah project, I am selling t-shirts for the Russian Gift of Life program, which brings people to this country from Russia for lifesaving heart operations.

As I become Bat Mitzvah today, I am coming to understand that I am like the girl in my poem, walking on that balance beam. As I grow, this balancing act will not get any easier, but with the love and support of my family and teachers and the wisdom I’ve gained from Jewish studies, I am confident that I will succeed.

TBE Bar/ Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Andrew Krowitz on Parashat Shoftim

My portion speaks about the importance of being fair and just, especially if you are a judge. The idea is never to favor one side over another but to be open minded and to make sure you base your decision on all the facts around you.

I can really appreciate that advice. Take sports, which you know is a big part of my life. You may not realize this, but you are looking at one of the very few people on Earth who takes this idea so seriously that I support the Mets, Yankees and Red Sox.

Yes, it’s true. Officially, I am a Mets fan, but I also root for the Red Sox and the Yankees. OK, I admit that I root for the Mets if they play the other teams and that I root for the Red Sox if they play the Yankees. But if the Mets and Red Sox are out of the playoffs and the Yankees are in, which the Rabbi said it is OK to admit happens once in a while, I still enjoy watching the playoffs and the World Series.

This confuses people, especially relatives who don’t know which jersey to get me for my birthday. It’s too bad they haven’t come up with a cap that has all three logos on it. But my point is that there are many sides to any situation and to be a good judge, or simply a good person, you have to look at all the reasons people have different views. And learn from them. Not just in sports, but in life. And I think when you look at life that way, you also are happier for it.

My portion also says that it is wrong to accept bribes and favor one side over another. Obviously, Moses never watched an NBA game.

Because I am a baseball catcher, I get to know the umpires very well and I know how hard they try to be fair – even if I don’t always agree with their calls. In baseball, every play is in the hands of the umpire. If there is even a hint of favoritism it can be very bad for the integrity of the game. I plan to be an umpire now that I have finished Little League and I know that not even a free soda or a chili dog will get me to change my call.

My portion includes that famous verse, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” The word “justice” is repeated twice. One commentator says that the reason it is included there twice is to remind us that it is important not only to seek results that are just, but to act justly in trying to get there. If an ump blows a call, the way to make it right is not to blow another call in favor of the other team. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

By judging sports fairly, it helps to make ours a more just society. It teaches kids about the importance of fairness, so that when they grow up, they’ll apply what they learn to the rest of their lives. For example, I can see how my rooting for the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox will, when I am an adult, help me to be more accepting of people with all different backgrounds.

I try to apply the lessons of my portion to my life already. One way is through my mitzvah project. As many of you know, I love all kinds of food, from sushi to every candy you can buy at the movies. But I also know that food is an example of how life is often not fair, because there are many people who live here in our community who do not have the choices that I have when it comes to what they can eat and who probably think that life is unfair because they often do not have enough to eat. That’s why for my Mitzvah project I am helping to organize food drives for Person to Person, an important agency in Fairfield County. Thanks to all of you who brought food donations with you today. I also thought it was very important to help another Jewish child become a Bar Mitzvah, so I am supporting an Ethiopian Jew in Israel become a Bar Mitzvah. It seems only just that I share some of what I have with others who are less fortunate.

I’ve learned about how to act fairly and justly as a Jew from my Jewish education here at Temple Beth El. And I have learned from my Aunt Stacey and from the Israeli soldiers who we meet every year here in Stamford how important it is to act fairly and justly even in the most difficult situations – even when fighting an enemy who is trying to kill them.

My family has inspired me to pursue justice. My dad was a lawyer for many years and my mom chose a career as a doctor where she helps other people every day. My family really does believe in doing the right thing even when it is not so easy, like when my Mom helps families in the middle of the night or on the weekends because they have a child who is sick. Many of you know how much my Papa Buzz suffered before he died this year. But you know, whenever we visited him at the hospital, he never complained that life wasn’t fair. He just kept working hard to get better and kept telling Zac and me that we had to keep working hard in school, do the right things in life and that if we did that everything would work out OK. I know that both my grandfathers would be very proud of me today.

Finally, since we will soon be voting for President, I think it is important to talk about how lucky we are to live in a country where we all get to decide who should lead us. I don’t get to vote but I have thought a lot about the election and have been supporting Barack Obama, but I know there are a lot of great and smart people out there who want John McCain to win (right, Cousin Fred?). There are very few places in the world where we could actually talk about these differences and that’s a big part of what makes the United States and Israel so great.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Spiritual Web Journey: What Is (Are) Selichot?

Elul is nearly half over, and the process of Teshuvah intensifies with the recitation of special penitential prayers known as Selichot. Sephardim have been reciting them throughout Elul, but for Jews of European (Askenazi) extraction, the custom is to begin reciting them at dawn on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. That time was moved up to midnight over the last century, to accommodate late-sleeping Americans. Some (like us) have moved it up even more, to just after Shabbat (next week), to accommodate babysitters. Whenever you do these prayers, the idea is the same – preparation to enter the New Year in the proper mood of humility and contrition.

According to an article at,, “the Selichot prayer service is patterned after a custom practiced by Jews in the ghettos and small towns of Eastern Europe. In those days, during the ten "Days of Awe" between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a representative of the synagogue would go from house to house at midnight to rouse Jews from their sleep. He would knock loudly three times upon the door with his wooden clapper, then sing in a traditional Yiddish melody, "O Israel! O holy people! Awake! Rouse yourselves! Get up for the service of the Creator" When the Jews reached the synagogue, they would recite Selichot, which are prayers asking God for forgiveness.”

Find out more about Selichot at, and The National Jewish Outreach Program has an excellent section on this at

Twice during Selichot, and again throughout the Days of Awe, we repeated the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy. Each of these qualities needs to be cultivated more within ourselves. More on the attributes can be found at The basis for reciting the thirteen attributes of mercy is found in Rosh Hashana 17b. "God passed by him and called..." (Shemot 34,6). R. Yochanan said: Were this not an explicit verse, we could not have said such a thing. It tells us that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself (in a talit) like the prayer leader (chazzan) and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever Israel sins, let them perform this order and I shall forgive them. "HaShem HaShem" - I am He before man sins; I am He after man sins and repents ... Rav Yehuda said: A covenant is made over the thirteen attributes, that they are never ineffectual, as is written, "Behold I am making a covenant" (34:10).”

This passage raises lots of questions, about why God had to don a tallit and show Moses how to recite the attributes. The aforementioned Web site covers many of these points. But the most important question is why recite a laundry list of qualities at all, rather than simply praying for forgiveness. From this we learn that the attributes of God, in Judaism, are not theology. They are revelations, manifestations of God's presence in the world. In other words, we need not waste too much time speculating on what God is – but rather on what God DOES, and how sanctity is made manifest in our world.

Maimonides listed the steps toward true Teshuvah as being:

Recognize and discontinue the action, which may be something as drastic as stealing or as common as losing one's temper.

Verbally confess the action, thus giving the action a concrete existence in one's own mind.

Regret the action. Evaluate the negative effects this action may have had on oneself or on others.

Determine not to do the action again. Picture yourself in the same situation and create a positive way to handle it.

Finally, here's a prayer for Selichot that I found on the web a few years ago that seems to have disappeared from its site, so I don't know who the author is:

DEAR GOD, forgive me for not being the best Jew I can be. Forgive me for pointing fingers at others who are less concerned with their Judaism than am I. Help me to do better in all things. Help me to be the best person that I can be.

I know that You, God, can only forgive me for those offenses I have committed against You. I must ask forgiveness directly of those people whom I have wronged in order for them to forgive me.

FOR OUR CHILDREN (of all ages), please forgive us for all the times we have yelled at you because we were angry at someone else. Forgive us for the promises we made and failed to keep. Forgive us for not understanding your inner hurts, and for the times when we were too busy to listen. Forgive us for all the times we said "No" for no reason. Help us to be better parents. Try to understand that parents often are selfish, and that they think of themselves first. Yet parents love you and want to teach you to love the world and all the people in it. We love you, and ask your forgiveness.

FOR OUR SPOUSES, please forgive me for the petty misunderstandings that have grown into large quarrels. Forgive me for not reaching out to you in your need when I was too wrapped up in my needs. Help me to be a better mate. Help me to learn to share more of my innermost thoughts with you so that you can be more receptive to my needs. Help me to appreciate our love to its fullest.

FOR OUR FRIENDS, forgive me for all the unknown hurts I may have inflicted upon you by not being aware of your needs. Forgive me for not sharing some of my thoughts and hurts with you. Help me to be a better friend.

FOR OURSELF, forgive me for all the times I did not stop myself from saying or doing something that may have hurt others. Forgive me for being too hard on myself and not seeing the goodness that is there. Forgive me for not allowing myself to grow. Help me to understand that before another can love me, I must love myself. Help me to enjoy life, love and the world.

FOR EACH OTHER, thank you for being patient with each other; thank you for caring about each other; thank you for being you and allowing each of us to be ourselves.

See you here for Selichot, Sept. 20 at 10 (preceded at 8:30 by the acclaimed film, "Praying With Lior")

Shofar, Sho-Good: part 2: Spiritual Web Journey

Here are some quick Web explorations on the Shofar, for those with enough RAM (sorry) to download them:

1) For the most complete (and somewhat overwhelming, for the uninitiated) compilation of source material regarding the shofar from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash and even the Encyclopedia Brittanica, go to You could stay at this site until Simhat Torah, so much is packed into it. Read this material and you’ll certainly be the “shofar maven” of your row at services.

2) We don’t blow the shofar on Shabbat. When Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat (thankfully not this year) That’s like inviting everyone to the Super Bowl and deciding not to use the football. But there are good reasons for this (not the least of which is to get you here on the second day!). Read explanations for this at (a Conservative perspective) and (a Reconstructionist view). Fascinating discussion.

For me it comes down to three compelling reasons why not to blow shofar on Shabbat:

a) To remind us that we live in unredeemed times, different from when the Temple in Jerusalem existed,

b) To remind us that Shabbat is a High Holy Day that occurs every week, and is even more important than Rosh Hashanah (and is a time when we learn to live and let live, not to change everything)

and c) To remind us that the two days of Rosh Hashanah are in fact to be considered one long day in our tradition, and that in fact the entire 10 days of Teshuvah are all connected.

3) Rav Saadia’s Top Ten List of reasons to blow the shofar

4) Hear a shofar! The Jewish Outreach Institute’s shofar page got thousands of hits when it was advertised in the NY Times a couple of years ago. Hear for yourself, at Compare that with the sound at

5) An article about the two sides of the shofar, the sobbing and the celebratory, at

6) Go to for some quick background historical material on the shofar but beware of links to “messianic” sites. The shofar is a key symbol for messianic “Jews” (e.g. the so called “Jews” for Jesus), because of its biblical connection to the Jubilee, the revelation at Mt. Sinai and fulfillment of messianic prophecies.

7) “The shofar is the voice of truth.” From the Breslov Hasidim:

8) A straight or twisted shofar? Here’s the answer, from the Bar Ilan Web site:

9) When you hear the shofar, what is that mysterious sound? Is it the voice of God? A crying infant? A sobbing mother? Some speculation, at and

Preparing for the Awesome Days

Here are some nice materials for us to look at as we do our spiritual preparations for the Days of Awe – “Heshbon ha-Nefesh” as it is called in Hebrew. A story on Heshbon ha-nefesh from Beliefnet.

Check out for lots of super articles about the High Holidays, including

Multimedia: How to listen to the shofar meaningfully

Guided Meditation: Focusing on the past year

Spiritual Preparations…
Here are five tips to help you get in the right frame of mind.

And Intention & Prayer How important is kavvanah--direction or intention--when praying?

On Teshuvah – from the Jewish Encyclopedia:, -- Rabbi Isaac Klein’s (Conservative) Guide to Jewish Practice – on Elul and teshuvah -- from the Orthodox Union -- a Kabbalistic approach

Blessings for a Hurricane (Jewish Week, Sept 12, 2008)

Did you know that there are blessings for a hurricane?

It seems rather strange that we should utter words normally reserved for expressing deep gratitude for something so destructive. After all, there is no blessing for an arsonist, mass murderer or for a bull in china shop.

I was thinking of this as I watched satellite images of the gathering storm known as Gustav recently, with Hanna and Ike waiting in the wings.

Insurance companies call them “acts of God” and so do we — but some take that notion too far. One right-wing rabbi recently noted that Gustav’s very name invokes the destructive Hebrew month in which it was born: the “Gusts of Av,” he called it. Then he went on to suggest that Katrina was a divine punishment for the Bush administrations’ support for the withdrawal from Gaza.

The appropriate blessing upon witnessing awe-inspiring natural phenomena is: “We are humbled by You, Source of Divine Breath, Ordainer of Eternity, who fashions Creation.”

This blessing is appropriate when seeing lightning, along with other extraordinary phenomena like comets, lofty mountains or broad rivers, or when experiencing an earthquake.

There is another blessing for thunder, also applicable to major storms: “We are humbled by You, Source of Divine Breath, whose Power energizes the Cosmos.”

After the storm, when we witness the results of that awesome destructiveness, we state simply, “Praised are You, the Judge of Truth.”

The question remains: Why all these blessings for such horrible scenes? Rabbi Harold Schulweis, having witnessed the horrible aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, distinguished between the two different elements of divine power manifested in the tremor: the natural power of the quake itself, as expressed in the divine name “Elohim,” and the human acts of love, heroism and healing, a manifestation of the appellation Adonai. So when reciting the blessings, we aren’t merely expressing humility in the face of cosmic fury, we’re channeling all the love and courage that we can muster, as we prepare to fulfill our task of promoting healing.

I like Schulweis’ approach, but it concerns me that his need to focus on the loving Adonai part betrays what almost seems an embarrassment at the awesome destructiveness of Elohim.

I have no theological problem with God being the author of these natural weapons of mass destruction. After all, the atom, the building block of Creation, has itself become a means for devastation. Creation and Destruction are ultimately one and the same. The terms “order” and “chaos” are just our arbitrary effort to place natural ferocity into human categories. But from a God’s eye view, there is really no difference. “From a distance, there is harmony,” penned Julie Gold in the song that eventually became a Bette Midler Grammy winner in 1991. This song, written by a Jew, echoes that most Jewish of hopes, for unity and harmony, a vision that grows in the heart of everyone who has ever recited the Shema. From a distance, it all makes sense, all of Creation is in harmony.

The same year that “From a Distance” came out, my first son was born. I can recall seeing the first ultrasound image of Ethan, five months in the womb. A living, breathing network of darkened circles, all surrounding a static black hole, which the technician informed me was his eye.

And now, as we look at the earth from a distance, what do we see? The image of swirling clouds taken from a satellite, with a static black hole in the middle: the eye.The baby and the hurricane, microcosm and macrocosm: they are mirror images. Each one breathes, each one exists only through the most extraordinary confluence of natural forces, each is born of warm water, each one is loud, demanding our full attention and capacity to love; each drinks voraciously — and then spits out. And each one lives out its lifespan, short but “heroic,” makes its indelible mark on the world and then moves on to the realm of memory.

The beautiful intricacy of the human organism is matched only by the equivalent beauty of the organism we inhabit: the system known as earth. That’s why we’ll say on the High Holy Days, “Hayom harat Olam,” “today the cosmos is conceived.”

Not made — but born.

In here. Out there.

The Christian theologian Sally McFague goes as far as to suggest that the world is God’s “body,” a notion echoed in kabbalistic sources. In that case, we are part of what makes God breathe: we are part of God. The earth is not the setting for the human adventure; it is the earth’s adventure that we are participating in, as extras. Each of us is a fleeting speck on its landscape, while the earth spins and dips its way through the eons for a purpose no mere human can discern.

The Breath of the Universe can flatten trees like tooth picks or cause a baby’s first gurgle. It is all the same, and it is miraculous. What evokes awe from a distance moves us to tears from up close. The Breath of the Universe flows through us.

And that is why we say blessings for a hurricane.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Veepstakes: Biden, Palin, Golda and the Jews

‘Tis time to vet the Veeps. And Golda.

Some have expressed concern over Sen. Biden’s occasional independent streak in Israel-related votes. See this week’s JTA article, “Biden on the line: Israel needs to decide on Iran, AIPAC does not represent the entire Jewish community.” Note that after that piece came out, an AIPAC spokesperson immediately issued this comment: “Joe Biden is a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship; he has been a staunch supporter of U.S. aid to Israel; he is a leader in the fight against Palestinian terrorism, and is a vocal advocate of the special relationship between the two democracies. We look forward to continuing to work with him in the Senate or in the White House.”

Gov. Palin is another matter. Since her views on foreign policy are virtually unknown, bloggers and news organizations have been working overtime to fill the information gap. Some articles that have appeared this week:

ANALYSIS: Sarah Palin . . . and the Jews The Jewish Journal of greater L.A;
Palin Nomination Stirs, Worries Jewish Delegates New York Jewish Week

She met with AIPAC leaders on Tuesday, after which an AIPAC spokesperson commented: "Gov. Palin expressed her deep, personal and lifelong commitment to the safety and well-being of Israel.”

It is not surprising that AIPAC would say that (they are not idiots - the woman may be the next vice president...and she packs heat - did you see that bearskin on her office couch?) and there are reasons to believe that her voting or veto record would be very pro-Israel, to the degree that Israel ever comes up in the Alaskan legislature. The Christian right is perhaps more solidly pro-Israel than even the Jews.

But there are lots of questions that will need to be answered over time, including whether she really did support Pat Buchanan, and whether, in JTA’s words she has a looming pastor problem because she listened without objection to a Jew-for-Jesus pastor about how terrorism was used against the Jewish people as divine sanction for their not accepting Jesus. (see also Palin And The Jews from The Atlantic Online)

I am skeptical about these rumors just as I was about all the Obama stuff that is still circulating. And I’ve never held people culpable for what they happen to hear a pastor say, even when it is their pastor. We clergy have been known to go out on limbs from time to time, but I certainly don’t assume blind acceptance, much less obedience, on the part of every congregant. (It would be nice though…)

I like Brad Hirschfield’s comments on Beliefnet. “There are real questions to be asked of the nominee, about many topics, but clouding that process with the fear and resentment that are evoked in so many Jews whenever anyone pushes the "Jesus button", is not going to help any of us get the answers we need.”

So we won’t push the Jesus panic button – yet – but she is clearly miles from the Jewish mainstream on social issues. One glance at that stuffed bear on her office couch pretty much told me that I would not be serving bean sprouts to her in my Sukkah. Creationism, gun control, environmentalism and choice are among the areas of greatest concern (along with McCain’s willingness to pander to a constituency that he had built a reputation for standing up to).

I think discussion of her parenting decisions is absolutely fair game. That's part of being in the public eye. I know full well that the decisions I make regarding my children have a public impact, which doesn't mean that I will seek to choose the path that "looks good" for me professionally. There are often uncomfortable compromises to make (I was once criticized for letting my kids celebrate Halloween), and I've always felt that family should come first and whenever possible, public people should protect their families rather than parade them. That applies by the way, to Hockey Dads as well as Hockey Moms. While I don't think the media should be digging for dirt on the Palin kids, their mom has put them in a position where that will inevitably happen, and at the worst possible time for one of them. The kids were front and center all week long, and that was by design.

Just as a presidential candidate can be judged on how he decides to select a VP, so can any public figure, male or female, be evaluated on big parenting decisions. Golda Meir was a horrible grandparent, who completely disowned her special needs grandchild (a cousin of mine - ask me about it some time, or read a new biography, "Wall of Iron, Heart of Stone.") It didn't disqualify her from being Prime Minister, but it is relevant information that, for the most part, Israeli voters didn't have. You'll be shocked when you read about why she did what she did: pure, selfish vengeance. When you are choosing someone who could send your child into harms way, you want to know all about that person, and if that person puts her own career ambitions over family, I don't want that person to be my President, Vice President, Rabbi, Mayor or Dog Catcher.

Sometimes, "putting country first" can be a surprisingly selfish thing to do - especially if it means subjecting one's family to a scrutiny that they might not be able bear. (Why do I keep coming back to bears??)

It’s nice to know that she has cordial relations with the Alaskan Jewish community. I was in Alaska last summer and wanted to meet the Jewish community, but he was busy that day.

The Jerusalem Post summarized the situation succinctly: "Picking through the trivia and smears for substance, there's this: Palin, 44, has genuinely warm relations with her Jewish constituents - 6,000 or so - and appears to have a fondness for Israel. She also comes down on the strongly conservative side on social issues where Jews tend to trend liberal."

Where this all shakes out will be, of course, in the most sacred shrine of all Jewish democracy: the voting booths of south Florida. If Sarah Palin can convince the Bubbes of Boca that she is Golda Meir on skates, then all power to her! Once you read about the real Golda, you might begin to agree.

You know what they used to say about the difference between Golda and a Pit Bull…. Well, let’s just say that she didn’t wear much lipstick.

Shofar, So Good (Spiritual Journey on the Web)

So much about the shofar can be seen – and heard – online.

Start as is so often the case, with Wikipedia – at There you’ll find out lots of fascinating tidbits, like why we won’t sound it on Shabbat, which is well explained here.

Also, go to The Shofar Sounder’s Web Page at, click on “Notable Shofars and you’ll see artifacts like a photo of a shofar sounded at the forced labor camp called Skazysko-Kamienna in Poland in 1943.

In the mood for fun? Try out “Shofar Idol” at, an “American Idol” take off. Then go to - Holidays: HowToShofar and then the Jewish Virtual Library’s piece at

Finally, there is a cyber shofar at Hear how it sounds.

So now that we've begun to hear those mysterious siren calls each weekday morning at services, we can also get our fill online of that curious instrument that some say is really the voice of God.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

TBE's New Logo...

Beth El's new logo was unveiled to the board on Tuesday night. It was developed with the help of local (and nationally known) artist Jeanette Kuvin Oren. You can click on the image to see it enlarged.

Those familiar with the story of Jacob know that his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder took place at a location he came to call "Beth El," "God's Home." A closer look at those verses from Genesis 28 helps us to understand the vision behind this logo (click to enlarge):

This logo tells the story of a community that is constantly ascending, striving together to reach a the loftiest of goals. This is an inclusive, embracing (but not suffocating) community, an egalitarian and diverse one (note the wheelchair, for example) but where all the generations (note the cane) are mixed. We are interdependent, always reaching out to help a neighbor.

We are also a participatory community. Some may be higher at the moment, but no one is holier. Everyone is at a different place on a personal journey, but all are on the same journey, headed in the same direction. One might say that "home" in this scheme ("Beth El") is the journey, rather than the destination. One congregant compared the rungs of the ladder to Reb Nachman's Narrow Bridge (Gesher Tzar Me-od), yet note how, no matter how perilous the journey. everyone is dancing, joyous. There is a dynamic energy to this fearless ascent, and what we see here is the essence of a sacred community. Our courage comes from our unity and our willingness to link hands.

There is also an authenticity, rooted in the use of Hebrew, along with the linkage to the Torah's story and imagery. We are tied to the past even as we march upward toward the future. The ladder is planted solidly into the grounding of TBE's own heritage, as well as the broader Jewish one.

Plus, with our website url proudly displayed, we signal our desire to be current and cutting edge in all respects.

Jacob awoke from his dream at dawn, the same time when, years later upon his return to the Land, he wrestled with his Higher Self (or an angel, or God). We, as children of the original Israel, are God Wrestlers as well, struggling to make sense of ultimate questions as we engage in spiritual ascent. We also recognize the need for Jewish literacy (hence the books), both to assist in our ascent and to help balance the see-saw like rungs. The lights of dawn illumine this logo; we are nourished by the rays of a rising sun and its promise of a new day. But that sun isn't blinding. The dawn is not only extraordinarily colorful, but it also reminds us that real life is not lived in the glare of noon or the blackness of midnight. Life includes all shades; we are guided by nuance and bathed by a light that changes by the second, an endless variety of color, along with all shades of gray.

This is also the world of pluralism, dialogue and humility. Morality and knowledge are not relativistic, neither is the truth "black and white." We are always climbing toward greater clarity, as our knowledge increases, but we never quite get there.

We looked at lots of logos of other synagogues for inspiration. Regretfully, not many were very inspiring. In choosing our logo, we could have gone the route of just about every other synagogue, contorting a star of David, twisting it like a pretzel into something that looks original. Or we could have taken a menorah, as so many do, to look traditional. We could even have looked for a new name. After all, how commonplace is Beth El?? Sometimes I feel that there are more Beth Els than Starbucks!

The point here, is that Beth El might just be the most extraordinary and awe-inspiring place found in the entire Torah.

Beth El: Population - 1 dreamer, a few rocks, a magical ladder and a band of angels.

We needed to find a spark of that amazement expressed by Jacob. By being TBE, we add a contemporary twist to an old name (and it makes for an ideal url) without having to give up that old name. To paraphrase Rav Kook, we took the old and made it new, and we took the new and made it holy. The logo speaks our eternal desire to break convention and find creative solutions to problems old and new. Complacency and stagnation have no place here. This is a logo set in motion, more a verb than an image. Tradition and ritual are crucial, but not when they become rote. Spiritual growth requires roots, but its greatest enemy is routine.

I've always been a fan of circles, but when I saw this ladder, I realized that it is right for us and for now. Barack Obama's acceptance speech included the imagery of the ladder, and it is increasingly being used as a metaphor for helping to lift others out of the depths of poverty and despair. I love it also because it makes it absolutely clear that no one is holier than another, as long as we are ascending - and dreaming.

The Conservative movement also increasingly uses the metaphor of the ladder in describing how we grow as Jews in the performance of mitzvot. It's never all or nothing - we ascend one rung at a time. And no really ever makes it to the top! In fact, there is no top rung. No false, cheap n' quick messianism for us. We just keep climbing.

As we ascend toward the new year, perhaps we can begin to think of each rung as a quality of Jewish life that we might begin to adopt - be it a value concept, a section of text or a series of actions - mitzvot - that will help us to ascend. During the upcoming holidays, I'll be discussing various options. Here's one schematic suggestion (again, click to enlarge):

Finally, where was Jacob's ladder rooted? In the soil of the Land of Israel, which he was just about to leave. We too are nurtured and held up by our deep connection to the land, people and history of Israel. But like Jacob, we need to set out on journeys that extend far from those sacred borders as we interact with the world. We seek the protection of angels on this perilous journey and wherever we go, we are energized by our love of our ancient homeland.

Still home is transportable. Like so many in this flat, postmodern world, we are mobile (1 in 5 Americans relocate every year), but we are not social climbers; rather we are Spiritual Climbers. It is in this chapter where Jacob utilizes the word "Makom," which literally means place, but is also a name for God.

"(Jacob) came upon the place (Makom)" (Genesis 28:11).

Rav Huna said in the name of Rav Ami: Why do we rename God, using the name "Makom?" Because S/He is the place of the world…"

For the Jew, there is no Place like Makom. Our home is everywhere we let God in.

“'How AWESOME is this place! This is none other than the house of God. And this is the gateway to heaven.'”

Hekhsher Tzedek

The Conservative movement has been in the news quite a bit lately (did you see the NY Times front page story last week?), regarding the new Conservative initiative regarding Kashrut certification and justice, called "Hekhsher Tzedek," especially as it relates to working conditions at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville Iowa. I discussed the matter in depth last Shabbat morning, in light of the fact that it was Labor day weekend and the laws of Kashrut were reiterated in the weekly portion. This coming Shabbat we read the immorta verse "Justice, justice you shall pursue," als an apporpriate time to reflect upon the treatment of workers. You can find several sources regarding this exciting new initiative at, including a resolution that is being discussed by our board.

Jewels of Elul

Welcome back from your summer journeys and begin a very different journey down the home stretch to the New Year. This weekend we begin the month of Elul, and we will hear the shofar's sound each morning as we begin the necessary process of introspection and "teshuvah."

TBE is an online partner of the Jewels of Elul project, created by musician Craig Taubman (who led a memorable Friday Night Live here several years back). Starting September 1, (1 Elul), 29 dreamers will share stories and inspirations, one a day throughout the month of Elul. This year's collection features a variety of leaders – from Senators McCain and Obama, to Olympic medalist Elka Graham, and philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, among others. Watch for the link on our website or go directly to the Jewels of Elul IV site at You can sign up on their site to receive them in your Inbox, as well.