Friday, September 25, 2015

Yom Kippur 5776-2015 – Feeling Abandoned and Afraid

On Yom Kippur Day, the traditional focus is on sinfulness and transgressions. This emphasis recalls the story of Noah and the Flood. We read in Genesis 6, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people in his time. Noah walked faithfully with God.” Then the Torah tells us that because the rest of the world was corrupt, God was bringing a flood to cover the whole earth. That is certainly divine punishment for sinfulness.

While on Yom Kippur day, our focus tends to be on individual sinfulness and repentance, we cannot forget the larger theme of human sinfulness. The story of Jonah, which we will read this afternoon, certainly brings up that idea as well. Yet the story of Noah and the flood is the prime of example of a time when God turned away, when blessings were removed and curses were all too present.

This morning, I would will talk about times when we feel abandoned and afraid. I will begin by going back to the story of the Flood and our relationship with God in the Jewish tradition. Then I will address times when we, as Jews, have been abandoned by other people in our time of distress. Finally, I will talk about times when we are left alone as individuals and how our tradition guides us in overcoming our fears at those times.

It is hard for us in the modern world and, particularly, as Reform Jews who emphasize reason in our understanding of Jewish texts to connect to a story as miraculous as the Flood narrative. We are more likely to joke about it. This is my version of one of my favorite flood jokes.

A New Flood is Coming

God reaches out to all of the major religious and political leaders in the world. The Eternal One has had it with how humanity is behaving. Promise or no promise, God is again going to bring a flood. People have a year to prepare for the deluge which will cover the whole face of the earth for 40 days and 40 nights.

Most of the world’s leaders simply panic, especially those who were surprised to find out that the Jews had it more or less right all along. They prayed for salvation and no few begin evangelizing in the hope that by getting others to believe in God and follow more religious laws and rituals, that God’s wrath might be turned.

“Repent! For the end is nigh!” signs begin to appear everywhere.

Jewish leaders, rabbis, politicians, businessmen, engineers and scientists all get together in Jerusalem at the invitation of the Prime Minister. The meeting begins with prayers of repentance.

After a few days of deliberations, the leaders emerge and hold a press conference. A huge crowd has gathered and people from all around the world watch on television, listen on the radio, and access the live feed via the internet.

“Surely the Jews will know how to respond to God!”

One of the scientists from the Technion in Haifa, an engineering professor, had been elected the leader of the group they were calling YaM, which was an abbreviation for Yehudim al HaMabul, “Jews about the Flood,” and came forward to address the media.

“We understand that there are calls for to build a new Ark or even several that would float upon the coming floodwaters, much like Noah’s Ark, except much bigger. Others call for a great space going vessel to take people and animals to colonize Mars or the moon. We know that other peoples are pursuing such efforts. But we Jews are unwilling to choose who shall live and who shall die. That is God’s work. There will be no Ark for us.”

There was a great rumbling of distress among the gathered media. Were the Jewish leaders simply giving up?

“Some have suggested that we should do our best to make God feel guilty about breaking the promise to Noah, that we should copy the argument used by Abraham avinu, ‘Adonai, what if there are 50 righteous souls among us? 40? 30? 20? 10?’ Perhaps, then God would relent? But who is truly righteous? Are we not all imperfect? Have we not all sinned? Such is the lesson of the Day of Atonement. How can we dispute it?”

“So you’re just giving up???” one of the members of the assembled press asked in no bit of distress.

“No, not at all!” replied the scientist.

“We’re all going to learn—how to live—underwater!”

The joke is, of course, about how we would deal with the fear of destruction on a large scale today. Yet in our people’s history, we have faced no few disasters and no little strife. We have had to learn to live underwater, to survive in the face of persecutions, invading armies, exiles and genocide.

We have certainly felt abandoned and afraid. But the reassuring words of Isaiah chapter 54 resonate through the generations.

Isaiah 54: 7-10

“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
    but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
    I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
    I will have compassion on you,”
    says the Lord your Redeemer.
“To me this is like the days of Noah,
    when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
    never to rebuke you again.
10 Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

We see these words in the Rosh Hashanah Shofar service, reminding us that even though seemingly eternally stable things like mountains and hills may be shaken and moved, neither God’s love for the people Israel, nor God’s covenant with the survivors of the flood, the Covenant of Peace, will end. God has compassion for us. God cares about us.

The rabbinic tradition argues that God’s presence is blessing and God’s absence is curse. For God to show us mercy and compassion, God must bless us with God’s presence first. This passage in Isaiah is the likely origin of this tradition. In essence, Isaiah informs us that God, who had abandoned us out of anger, hiding God’s face from us, and therefore allowing curses to happen to us, has decided to have compassion on us and bless us with God’s presence once again.

The concept that presence, that paying attention, can make a positive difference and bring blessings is not one limited our relationship with God. This summer, many of my rabbinical colleagues participated in a march from Selma, Alabama to Washington D.C. that was organized by the NAACP and supported by many other organizations including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. They called the march, “America’s Journey for Justice” and it was part of the NAACP’s “Justice Summer.” The goal was to raise awareness about issues of race and justice in America and in particular to raise awareness about attempts to limit voting rights.

Torah scrolls were carried by rabbis along the route and the idea of “praying with one’s feet,” recalling the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was stated time and again by rabbis discussing their participation in the journey. Those engaged in Tikkun Olam and particularly those engaged in ongoing advocacy for Civil Rights often recall the image of Rabbi Heschel participating in a similar march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

However, few remember that another Rabbi, Joakim Prinz, spoke in Washington D.C. immediately before Dr. King at the March on Washington in 1963. Rabbi Prinz had been a rabbi in Berlin during the 1930s and could not but place the discrimination that he saw in America into the context of that which he had seen in Nazi Germany. He felt obligated to speak out about prejudice and inequality. Serving as President of the American Jewish Congress, he represented the Jewish community as one of the organizers of the 1963 March. Rabbi Prinz’s words have not been quite as well remembered as those spoken by Dr. King that day, but they were quite poignant and should not be forgotten. Rabbi Prinz said:
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
To use the language of blessing and curse, Rabbi Prinz might have said that they hid their faces.

Among the things we learn in our tradition is that God acts through us. When we speak of God uplifting the fallen, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, it is we who do that. We reach out our arms and do the lifting. We provide food for the hungry. We donate clothing for those who do not have it. We do that. We pay attention. We bring blessings into their lives.

But we can also hide our faces. We can abandon those in need. We can become frustrated and hopeless and angry. We can give up. We can silently ignore with the best of them.

The question for us today is “will we?” Will we hide our faces and turn them to watch and act upon what we see? Will we help those who are alone?

Andrew Ferguson, in the last chapter of his book, Land of Lincoln, tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who visited Springfield, Illinois. This story was relayed by the manager of guest relations at the Hilton Hotel there. It seems that the man, whose name was Henri Dubin, who was quite elderly and frail at the time of his visit, was from Czechoslovakia. Evidently, he was having trouble entering his room.

Henri spoke broken English and the front desk attendant was having difficulty understanding him. So the manager came to help. That is what people in helping professions and hospitality services do, they pay attention. They help. When the manager, whose name was Frank, helped Henri into his room, Henri invited him in and showed him a letter from the mayor of Springfield.

The mayor had sent a letter to Henri thanking him for his interest in Abraham Lincoln and inviting him to Springfield as his guest. It said, “When you come here and see the home and the tomb and the Lincoln shrines as our guest, we’ll give you the key to the city.” The letter had been written in 1965. 40 years later, in 2005, the man was able to make the journey.

Frank said that the man suddenly stood up straight and said, he’d been in a concentration camp. Henri pulled up his sleeve several times to show the number on his arm. The man said he knew about Abraham Lincoln and George Washington when he learned about them as a child in school. And he told Frank that when he was in the concentration camp, without mentioning which one, he was all alone in his cell or perhaps feeling abandoned and afraid among others feeling the same, it was the worst time in his life and he didn’t think he could go on anymore. Then, Mr. Dubin said, Abraham Lincoln came to him.

Mr. Lincoln stood right in front of him, the man told Frank, and said:

You never forget: All men are created equal. This is true for all men for all times. And these men who would do this thing to you, who put you here, they’re no better than you. You are their equal, because all men are created equal. You keep remembering this, and you persevere, you’ll be all right.

Henri Dubin said that from that point onward, he knew he would be. And he vowed that if he ever got out of that concentration camp, he would come to Springfield to thank Mr. Lincoln, because he was so grateful. And he’d written a poem that he needed to recite for him. He needed to go to Lincoln’s Tomb to bring him flowers and to recite the poem.

Learning all of this, Frank went straight downstairs and called the mayor’s office and then the visitor’s bureau. Alicia from the bureau whose specialty was helping foreign tour groups reached out to Henri who was insistent that he visit the tomb that day, because he had to fly back home the next day.

Alicia responded right away. She came to the hotel and took him to the tomb in her own car. There, having looked at each of the statues and busts in the shrine, when he reached the tomb itself, Henri got down on his knees, placed the flowers there, and then stood up straight and recited his poem.

The next morning, he was taken to the airport, where he boarded a plane for his journey home.

Hope. When things are really bleak, we need hope. We need to know that others stand with us, that they will not be silent onlookers to our suffering, that we will not be abandoned and left alone. We need people not to hide their faces from us.

Being left alone is a primal fear. Our world, especially, in ancient times, was not a place in which being alone was safe, especially not as a child. While that feeling may attenuate as we grow older and stronger and become more independent, it returns at times of difficulty in our lives.

All of us would be afraid in the situation in which Henri Dobin found himself. While Mr. Dobin came to believe that the presence of Abraham Lincoln visited him to bring him hope, it is not difficult to imagine that others in similar situations might have believed that God’s presence came to be with them in different forms and different ways.

In our tradition, we often refer to God as a parent, as father, or in the form of the Shechinah, the embracing presence of God, as mother. When someone dies, we offer the prayer El Malei Rachamim, which asks that God receive the soul of our loved one into God’s parental grasp.

In the Jewish tradition, we regularly remind ourselves of God’s eternality in part because if God is eternal, we will always have a parent to watch over us; we will never be truly alone.

Bad things happen. How we respond demonstrates our character. In the words of Psalm 23, when we walk through our darkest valleys, we shall fear no evil, for you are with us.

At the end of the day today, as we stand before the open ark, before the presence, let us remember that whether we believe that presence to be real or symbolic, we have the ability to make our own presence felt in the lives of others.

In the coming year, if a flood should come into our lives, may we strive to live underwater, if we cannot find a way to swim or float.

And when we see that others live in fear, let us not turn our faces away or remain silent, but instead march beside them and speak out. That is what our tradition and our history teach us.

This Yom Kippur day, may we be reminded of the caring and compassionate people who have made themselves present in our lives and brought us hope, inspiration, guidance and blessings: our fathers and mothers, our friends and family members, our teachers and leaders and maybe even President Abraham Lincoln.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah!

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a good, sweet, and healthy new year!

Erev Yom Kippur 5776-2015 – Healing Relationships

Tonight, I’d like to speak about relationships and specifically about healing relationships. How do we go about healing our relationships with the divine, with other people, and with our highest selves, that part of us that expects the most and best of us? Let’s begin with a story.

The Whistle
It was late Yom Kippur afternoon, during the Ne’ilah service, the concluding service for the day. The synagogue was filled to capacity. Everyone in the village was there, praying intently. The Baal Shem Tov stood in the front of the sanctuary before the Holy Ark with all of his attention drawn toward heaven. The members of the community believed deeply in their hearts that even if their own prayers would fall short, the intensity and devotion of the great Baal Shem Tov’s prayers would make up for their own and the whole community would be blessed. “Su Shearim!” The people shouted. “Open your gates!”

At that moment a young shepherd, an orphan, was walking by the synagogue. He had just taken the sheep from the field and put them in the pen. Now, he was walking home. His family had not been particularly religious and he was not particularly knowledgeable about Judaism, yet the boy knew that this was the holiest of days. Others had told him. He wanted to experience it all. But every year, he had to work. The sheep needed tending. One could not pray and sing praises instead of caring for them! So while others went to the synagogue, Nachum, the shepherd tended to the flock.

This day, he had finished his work before sundown and decided to come to the synagogue. He had not been to a service before. He had not even been home to change from his work clothes. The sheep might not have noticed the smell, but those in the synagogue did. As he entered their midst, eyes turned from the Holy Ark, from the Baal Shem Tov, from the pages of the Machzorim and glared at the boy who came to the holiest of services dirty and smelly.

“Su Shearim!” The Baal Shem Tov chanted, but fewer and fewer voices were joining him as more and more attention was paid to the boy and more and more people were distracted as he wandered up the aisle and SAT on the top step of the bimah looking, not at the Ark, but at the Baal Shem Tov, then out at them! Mortified rumblings were growing louder.

Then suddenly, the boy took out a wooden whistle and sounded a few notes ending with a piercing shrill! The uproar grew! The Baal Shem Tov turned his head to look at the boy as two men rushed to grab his arms to carry him bodily away. “Stop!” the rabbi cried. “Stop!” “Dear friends, you have not turned, have not performed teshuvah, yet. You are too focused on your own purposes and your own ways. We have shouted our prayers with great intention to open the gates, but this boy, not aware of what we say or do, sounded a note that woke us from our slumber, opened the gates, and went straight to heaven, taking our prayers and our hopes along with his own.”

At the end of the service, the Baal Shem Tov invited the young man to join him at his table for the Break the Fast meal, an honored guest at his right hand.

[How much more focusing of our prayers on a day when we are bid to consider our mortality and to reach forth in earnestness was it to hear the words, “Call 911,” said in earnestness and to begin our service with an emotional Mishebeirach prayer?]

While the story of the shepherd and the whistle is about the worthiness of prayers and importance of intention and earnestness, it also reminds us of the fact that our tradition believes that God does not expect us to be perfect, to know our prayers and be able to recite them well, for our prayers to be received. The prayer that reaches God is the one offered with intentionality and fervency, not necessarily the one that is worded perfectly. Neither are we expected to be perfect in order to make an offering.

One need not look very hard at our tradition to see that even our tradition’s heroes are not perfect characters. We remember the story of Moses telling God that he has a problem speaking and we think of how that affected Moses’ ability to communicate with Pharaoh. But we forget that it did not get in the way of Moses’ communication with God. Moses doubts himself. “Why choose me? Someone who is not perfect?” we can imagine him saying. But God did choose him, imperfections and all.

And let us examine our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. How about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? None of them were exceptional parents. Abraham nearly sacrifices one son and abandons the other into the wilderness. Isaac is devoted only to Esau and blind to the needs of his other son, Jacob. Jacob favors Joseph so greatly that his siblings become extraordinarily jealous and hateful.

And the matriarchs? Sarah? How did she treat Hagar and Ishmael? She wanted them to be cast away.
Rebecca? How did she treat Esau, her eldest?
Leah? How did she treat her sister, Rachel, whom she knew wanted to marry Jacob?
Rachel? How did she treat her father, leaving his home have stolen his prized possessions, the family idols?
And shall we add in the pride-filled Joseph?
King David? The list is too long. Let’s just start with Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba.

We are spiritually descended from people who were imperfect. They harbored anger, frustration, jealousy, pride, zealotry. They playing favorites… Yet our tradition tells us that they had relationships with the divine. We are shown that we, who succumb to many of the same sins, also can have a relationship with the divine in spite of our imperfections.

However, when life challenges us, we still doubt. We ask ourselves questions much like Moses did before the burning bush.

Why me? What can I do? What more can I do?
Should I expect more of myself than I have become accustomed to accept?
Having transgressed, having sinned, having failed time and again…
Can I do it? Am I going to be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead for me?
If I stretch myself out,
If I yearn to reach out, to speak out,
If I step forward to try,
If I go before Pharaoh, me, not some mighty ruler with a great army, a mere mortal,
If I go back to the place and people from where and whom I have fled in fear,
If I am only myself as I always am, flawed and fragile, will I be good enough?

And often in Hillel’s words:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself, what does that mean for me?
If not now, at this moment, at this opportunity, when?

We especially ask these questions at this time of year as we look back on decisions that we have made and consider decisions we have yet to make.

Tonight, we are reminded of the generations of Jews who faced some of the hardest of challenges, many of whom were forced to make decisions that they did not wish to make, to say, “Yes,” when they very much meant, “No.”

Our Relationship with God and Ourselves
The Kol Nidrei prayer is about healing our relationship with God when we have said or done something to upset God, but we can see the prayer as it relates to how we act toward the world and ourselves as well.

Some of us have an easier time engaging in spiritual dialogue than others. The dialogue of prayer is traditionally one of relationship between an individual and God, but it can be an internal dialogue between ourselves as we are and the selves we wish to be, our higher selves. Again, much of our dialogue today involves questions and answers.

Have we sincerely made promises that we have failed to keep? Even though we tried our best? Or did we fail to give a good effort?
Have we relapsed into behaviors that we vowed to change?
Have we been too willing to abandon our convictions to make our lives easier?
Have we kept up traditions that we have promised to keep?
Have we sought out ways to make or keep Jewish traditions and practices a part of our lives?
Have we given real thought about how we live our lives and the ways in which what we do affects others?
Do we make time for things that keep us healthy? Emotionally? Physically?
Are we treating our body well?
Do we hold ourselves to high enough standards? Too high standards?
How have we done at meeting our goals?
Are we willing to commit ourselves to do better?
Will we be able to walk through the doors of the sanctuary next year feeling good about our efforts?

Healing the relationship between ourselves and God or between our actual selves and our higher selves, that part of us that expects better of us, involves admitting fault, turning, changing our direction, and seeking forgiveness. We cannot move forward in the best way carrying the baggage of disdain. Seeking forgiveness from God or from ourselves is a good beginning step. Repentance, atonement, in this regard would involve us meeting or at least sincerely trying to meet our newly elevated goals.

Our Relationships with Other People
While we are reminded that Yom Kippur does not atone for transgressions made between people, it is a time when we focus on healing our relationships with people. Those relationships impact not only our relationship with God, according to the tradition, but they certainly impact how others view us and how we view ourselves.

That said, another story.

The rabbi was an obsessed golfer, but average at best. In his regular foursomes, he rarely finished better than the third best and most of the time took more than a few more strokes than the others. Just once, he wanted to beat them. Just once, perhaps the ball would bounce just right and he’d hit a hole-in-one like they all had.

So it happened, one Yom Kippur day that the weather was just right, the sun shining bright, the wind all but absent. It was a glorious day for golf. The rabbi retreated to his office letting people know that he wished to sleep and not be disturbed until the next service time came around. But he couldn’t sit in his office on such a glorious day. He could leave. He could sneak out. Who would disturb the rabbi on Yom Kippur? They wouldn’t know. Then he snuck out of his office and went to play nine holes at the public course. Just nine holes. He didn’t have much time, but there would be hardly anyone else on the course with the Jewish members of the community having a holiday.

He’d never birdied a hole before. Even par was a goal rarely matched. So when through the first eight holes he had four birdies and four pars, the rabbi was ecstatic!

“Just wait until the people hear about this round!” he thought proudly to himself.

Then on the par 3 ninth hole, he hit his tee-shot badly. It was heading right toward the big tree behind the green. “Oh no!” the rabbi exclaimed. Just then the ball rebounded off of the giant oak tree, flew over the sand trap next to the green, bounded onto the green, bounced twice, hit the flagpole and fell straight into the cup. The rabbi shouted in joy, “A hole-in-one! A hole-in-one! Amazing!”

Somewhere up in heaven, the angels with God asked, “O Eternal one, surely you cannot reward a rabbi for leaving the synagogue and going to play golf on the holiest day of the year!”

It is said that God simply replied, “Whom can he tell?”

The joke is a meaningful one. We are reminded that sometimes what we desire most is not the accomplishment, but being able to share it and to interact with others about it. Yes, the rabbi might feel a sense of pride in himself for having done what he did, though he might later feel more guilty about it than prideful, but not being able to share it with people with whom he deeply wished to do so would be agonizing.

The rabbi in the joke obviously has the wrong priorities. Yom Kippur is a day focused on ourselves in relationship, not merely on ourselves alone.

On Yom Kippur, just as we say that God does in relation to us, we need to consider what we’ve said and done and to look at our year’s ledger. When we find red marks, things that we would consider deficits, something we owe someone else, we should seek to remedy them.

While in the service for children, we tend to stress telling others that we’re sorry, the concept in the adult service is about reaching out and seeking forgiveness with contrition. On this day, God’s gates of repentance may be open, but human beings’ gates of accepting forgiveness require our effort to open. And once we do that, once we are able to reach out to offer forgiveness, we are required to do more than that, to atone, to make amends, to try to repair the damage.

The Day of Atonement isn’t about arguing, however. It isn’t the time to debate whether or not your apology is sincere enough or your attempts to make amends good enough. Today is a time for you to turn, to change your ways. Slichah and Teshuva are about turning instead of banging heads. To use the terminology of the day, the goal is at-one-ment, making whole. And that is done between persons by healing and embracing relationships, not by winning any argument.

While the focus for most of today is on the sinner, this day reminds us of our opportunities to offer forgiveness, to accept repentance, and atonement. There is a mutuality to this process.

We cannot go through life, as Martin Buber might have put it, seeing everyone as an “it”, something to be utilized or put to a purpose, with ourselves as calculating observers of the relationship. We must understand that the other person is a “thou”, someone like we are, and we are involved. The ways we respond to others impacts us in many ways. The simplest question in this regard is “How do we want to be treated by others when we seek forgiveness?”

I have little doubt that we would want our partner in this relationship to reach out to us, accept our apology, be swift to offer forgiveness and embrace our change rather than avoid us or push us away.

It is our obligation both to try to atone and to accept a reasonable remedy by others. After all, just as we want God to be merciful and compassionate unto us, and would like other people to act that way towards us, so we must act that way toward other people.

Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erekh apaim v’rav chesed v’emet. Notseir chesed la-a-laphim, nosei avon va-fesha v’hata’ah v’nakei.

Adonai, Adonai, merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and truth, showing kindness to multitudes, and forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, while granting pardon.

As we ask that of God in relation to us, so we must ask that of ourselves in relation to others.

Bearing grudges and withholding forgiveness and love is what we loathe in others; let us not be guilty of those behaviors ourselves. In the coming year, may we strive to heal all of our relationships. Let us be slow to anger and swift to forgive, abounding in kindness and mercy toward one another. If we do so, we will live much happier lives and our world will be a much better place.

L’shanah Tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu.

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a good new year.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Faith, Trust, Skepticism and Doubt Rosh Hashanah Morning 2015-5776

In the middle of the night last night, I awoke to a story. I’m not sure if it was my subconscious saying, “You need a good story for your sermon” or perhaps it was my mother speaking to me. This is the kind of story she would have loved. It isn’t a true story. It didn’t actually happen in our household. It could have. But I had to tell it today, because it is the perfect introduction to a sermon about Faith, Trust, Skepticism and Doubt.

How many people here have at least two siblings? How many have at least three children? Everyone else, look at the nodding as I tell the story.

Sibling #2 would really like a big cup of hot chocolate but knows that there are only three packets and that mom and her siblings might want some.

“Mom, can I make hot chocolate? There are only three packets!”

Sib #1, “I’d like some too!” Sib #3, “Don’t forget me!”

Mom, giving up any hope for a share, responds by telling sib #2, “Make one for you and your brother and sister.”

Sib #2 complies. She takes up her own cup and places two steaming cups of hot chocolate with marshmallows pleasantly floating on their surface onto the table in her sibling’s traditional spots.

Sib #3 comes into the room, grabs his cup, and immediately starts drinking.

Sib #2, holding her own cup, picks up the cat and says, “Stay away from the hot chocolate!” just as Sib #1 enters the room.

“What happened?” Sib #1 says.

Sib #2 replies, “Well, our beloved cat just went to the bathroom and then jumped up on the table. I thought I saw him pawing at your hot chocolate. Maybe he was playing with the marshmallows or something.”

Sib #1 walks over and looks at the hot chocolate. “Really? There’s dark stuff on the marshmallow. Eeeewww! Well, so much for that.” Then she leaves the room.

Sib #2 puts the cat down, finishes the cup she’s holding, and puts it in the sink. Then she walks over and picks up the cup she made for Sib #1 and starts drinking it.

Sib #3 says, “Wait, I thought you said the cat messed with that right after going to the bathroom!”

Sib #2’s reply, “I don’t know about her, but I’m certain that I was just imagining things.”

There you have it; faith, trust, skepticism and doubt, all wrapped up in one story.

Why do we believe what we believe? This morning, I would like to talk a bit about faith and trust. I will speak about our Torah portion as well as about what Maimonides and the Rabbinic Tradition say about faith, about how our changing understanding of the world in which we live has impacted faith and trust in the modern world, and about the importance of questioning our assumptions.

“And after these things, Haelohim nisa et Avraham, the Divine tested Abraham.” With those words one of the most troubling texts in our tradition begins. I have spoken before on Rosh Hashanah about my own interpretation of the story; of how Abraham was doing what he believed was expected of him, while Adonai interceded and stopped the test by sending an angel and a ram. I would argue that this story, interpreted in this manner, is perhaps the very foundation of our people’s worship of Adonai apart from the divinities in which other people in ancient times believed.

I believe that in very ancient times, people understood that Abraham once had faith in those divine beings, or at least trusted this particular tradition connected with them, but he came have faith and trust primarily and then only in Adonai, the God who did not seek the death of his beloved son as a test. You won’t find that interpretation of the Akeidah explained anywhere else, because the Jewish tradition came to have faith in the ideal that Abraham was a monotheist long before the story of the Binding of Isaac. I contend, on the other hand, that what we see instead in the stories of Abraham’s life is the development of his faith in Adonai.

Maimonides says essentially that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you keep all of the mitzvot. Judaism for him was about practice, not belief. Yet even that practice depends on having faith in the revelation that has come down to us, primarily as expressed through the Torah and the Prophets. Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith include that we must have faith that the Torah, the Law of Moses, is of divine origin and is immutable, unchanging over time. This belief lies at the heart of Orthodox Judaism.

For most of our people’s history, people had two choices, have faith or doubt. Most of the time, they could not investigate. People couldn’t simply “Google” the history of their ancestors, look at maps, or even better, telephone, Facetime or Skype with someone across the world. Neither could they access scientific inquiry, archaeology, and a plethora of historical texts all of which could help in the decision. Add that deciding to deny what you were taught in times not too distant could have led to persecution, excommunication, or worse, and even asking questions could have been considered a matter of life and death.

There is a version of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles that is part of the traditionally daily liturgy called “Ani Ma’amim” which begins, “Ani Ma’amim, b’emunah shleimah,” “I believe with a perfect faith…” and then lists Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. The song Yigdal Elohim Chai, which is part of our High Holiday liturgy, is a poetic version.

Yet, doubt and skepticism were always present. We are the people whose own texts describe how, having seen miracles, we were skeptical, doubting, and rebellious. I say, we, and not them, because if you’ll remember your Passover lessons, we are to always act as if we ourselves were there as slaves in Egypt, freed by wonders and miracles.

Most of us don’t have perfect faith and trust in much of anything that anyone might want us to believe or do, especially not if they claim to be speaking in the name of a higher power. In our age of technology, if someone claiming to be a modern day Moses came down a mountain with tablets he claimed to be inscribed by the finger of God, someone would ask why he didn’t just use email. Someone else would snap pictures or post a video showing Moses shattering the first set in anger at the people who protested against Aaron and built the golden calf.

Doubt and skepticism, we have aplenty. Reform Judaism originated among those who were skeptical of the origins of the traditions that been handed down to us, including those in our sacred texts. The founders of Reform sought meaning and relevance and eschewed those traditions that required faith and trust without the support of reason and modern understanding. They believed that in the modern world, we were beyond simply trusting what we are told by a source claiming to know the truth.

In this, they were wrong.

While we may question truths shared by people in the name of a higher power, we are the people who, in modern times, too often believe that because something is on the internet and people are sharing it, therefore it must be true. Maybe not the whole internet, maybe just on Facebook or Twitter.

And while we may question the words attributed to Moses, we tend to imbue other fictional characters with trust and then act as if the actors who play them should be so trusted.

Many of us remember the “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on tv?” commercial. “So why then are we hearing your opinion on a medical issue?” We ask rhetorically. The answer is that we develop a sort of trust from watching characters on television and in movies. That ad campaign, for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup played upon the trust that we have for doctors, even fictional doctors.

How many products do we see advertised with someone claiming to be a doctor endorsing them? There is a massive industry of supplements and remedies. But that is not new. Coca Cola was introduced in 1886 as medicinal remedy containing cocaine, alcohol, and caffeine. It was originally called Pemberton’s French Wine Cocoa, but because of prohibition in many places, the alcohol was removed and a new formula introduced. Pemberton claimed that the formula cured many diseases including morphine addition, dyspepsia, headache and-you guessed it- impotence.

Woody Allen, in the movie Sleeper from 1973, made fun of our faith in health products. The doctors in the movie, Dr. Melik and Dr. Aragon, make fun of his character who wakes from cryostasis many years in the future.

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.

In this regard, I recently read an article about salads in the Washington Post. This quote caught me a bit off-guard. I expect it will impact many of you in the same way. After noting that lettuce is almost all water and has little nutritional content, the author stated that, “A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian (1-liter size: 96 percent water, 4 percent bottle) and is only marginally more nutritious.”

He added that:

Collard greens are 90 percent water, which still sounds like a lot. But it means that, compared with lettuce, every pound of collard greens contains about twice as much stuff that isn’t water, which, of course, is where the nutrition lives.

Meanwhile the author noted that:

Lots of what passes for salad in restaurants is just the same as the rest of the calorie-dense diabolically palatable food that’s making us fat, but with a few lettuce leaves tossed in. Next time you order a salad, engage in a little thought experiment: Picture the salad without the lettuce, cucumber and radish, which are nutritionally and calorically irrelevant. Is it a little pile of croutons and cheese, with a few carrot shavings and lots of ranch dressing? …Items labeled “salad” at chain restaurants are often as bad, if not worse, than pastas or sandwiches or burgers when it comes to calories. Take Applebee’s, where the Oriental Chicken Salad clocks in at 1,400 calories!

Why do we allow this to happen? Bret Thorn, columnist at Nation’s Restaurant News and longtime observer of the restaurant industry, said about salads that:
 Chefs are cognizant of what’s going on in the psychology of diners. They’re doing a kind of psychological health washing, not just with salads, but with labels like “fresh” and “natural,” and foods that are “local” and “seasonal.” “A chef is not a nutritionist, or public health advocate,” Thorn points out. They make food that customers want to buy.
And we want to buy things that are fried or creamy or salty or sweet, or all of those things. Which doesn’t mean that the right salad can’t be a good choice for a nutritious meal. It just means that it’s easy to get snookered.
The fried chicken finger salad covered in ranch dressing and cheese over lettuce and the giant taco salad, may be yummy, but they are not great dietary choices simply because they are called “salads” and have lettuce.

Meanwhile, with all of the options we have to get our news and analysis today, we often forget that a bit of skepticism is required there as well. Too often, we simply read the menu, order, and consume. Like our dietary choices, we tend to watch those stations that appeal to us. That may mean that we only access news sources that tell us what we want to hear and avoid the ones that make us question whether or not what we want to hear is correct. It is far too easy to be led astray, if we do that.

Let me suggest that the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, is the time when we should take the time to listen to contrary voices, voices that make us question. The Hebrew term “Noraim” has within it the root for the verb “to look,” ra’eh. In fact, one could see “noraim” as a sort of causative reflexive, something that could make the term Yamim Noraim mean something like, “The days that cause us to look at ourselves.”

During these days, “Why do we believe the things that we believe?” is an important question to ask ourselves. Why do we trust? Why do we have faith? Why are we skeptical?

Do we doubt a source’s information and opinions simply because they differ from ours? Because they’re found on the wrong TV network or the in the wrong newspaper or webpage? Do we seek tonics to dull the pain of the criticism, perhaps applying labels or broad generalizations that help us negate challenging arguments?

Do we have faith in arguments supporting the positions we already hold because just as we like salty, creamy, goodness and having it be organic and on lettuce make us feel better about consuming it, we’re willing not to question arguments that make us feel good about what we want to believe?

Even more problematic, are will willing to follow expectations without question, even ones we don’t like, and climb the mountain walking alongside our loved one carrying a knife and wood.

Or instead, do we seek to respond to challenges without trying to brush them aside, looking at the ingredients of the argument without the lettuce that works to convince us that it is all okay?

It isn’t just our stomachs and our politics that work to convince us to agree. We are experts at convincing ourselves that our habits are acceptable, that we need not change. The Yamim Noraim, these days of looking within, challenge us. The shofar blast tells us to “Wake up! Open our eyes! Challenge ourselves!”

It is time to question our assumptions and expectations. Do our actions match our goals? Are we willing to question how we interact with others, how we perceive the world, how we defend our vices, how we support our causes or fail to do so, how we find excuses not to give, volunteer, or make sacrifices to help? Are we quick to excuse ourselves for our failures while swiftly convicting others? Are we pretending to diet while eating fried creamy fatty decadence over lettuce? Are we living and acting in ways opposite to what we truly know to be right?

When we look at Abraham ascending the mountain, our thoughts are not of praise for his faith. We ask instead, “How could he?” Yet, we too often act without question, following expectations, whether our own or those of others.

Let the coming days be ones in which we perform Heshbon Nefesh, taking an accounting of our souls, of our desires and actions, of how we go about our lives. Let us turn ourselves in the right direction, performing Teshuva.

Our tradition does indeed stress having faith in the traditions and beliefs that have come down to us, yet may we not simply rise early to meet expectations and to unquestioningly follow our assumptions.

The shofar reminds us that we need to listen to challenging voices, “Avraham! Avraham!” and that we need to consider possible alternatives to our direction, to question whether or not we or others to whom we listen are just “imagining things.” A new possibility and better understanding may be just beyond the thicket, if we but consider it.

L’shanah Tovah

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2015-5776 Adapting to Change

At this time of year, and to a greater extent during the time between the Jewish New Year, tonight, and the Day of Atonement, ten days from now, Jews are expected to perform Heshbon Nefesh, an accounting of our souls. Heshbon Nefesh involves trying to look at our lives as God might look upon us. How are we living our lives? Are we fulfilling our promise, living up to our abilities? Are we striving to improve or falling back into bad habits?

Are we content with mediocre or accepting of the philosophy, “Happy is the person who is content with his or her lot?” Or do we interpret the latter statement to mean that we should strive to achieve betterment so that we may become content? And if we are discontented, perhaps, because changes in our lives brought with them chaos and disorder, challenge and uncertainty, how will we confront them? Sometimes, the challenge is simply to go on with our lives.

The Jewish New Year is a day of celebration, of renewal of the cycle of life, but it is also a time to confront the reality of our lives, a time when the realities and opportunities of change are placed before us.

Tonight, I would like to share a story about change with you and then to help you consider two things, first, how we might respond to changes that happen in our lives to which we must adapt, and second, how we might elect to make changes when the opportunity arises. Of course, not all of those changes are difficult decisions or painful ones, but change always brings challenges with it.

There are many versions of this story. I have entitled my adaptation of it, simply, “A Story of A Cow.”

In an isolated place, on land where there were no crops and no trees, a young man lived with his wife, three young children, all with long drawn faces, and a thin, tired cow. The man, whose name was Samuel, had purchased the cow when it was but a calf, having labored long and hard to earn enough to do so, in order that he might offer a marriage proposal to his beloved Rachel. Samuel was an apprentice cobbler. Each morning, he walked to the small village nearby, returning after dusk. Samuel earned little, but learned much. Someday, he would have his own shop.

Now though, he barely earned enough to keep his family fed. The family once had a pair of goats in addition to the cow, but during last summer’s drought, when the price of food rose, they had to be sold so that the family had enough to eat. Samuel felt badly about that now. He knew how much Rachel enjoyed goats milk and cheese.

It so happened that a rabbi and his disciple, hungry and thirsty, and a bit lost, were traveling by the home as Samuel cut the grass among the bushes, seeking more to feed his underfed cow. Samuel didn’t have much to offer, but he didn’t hesitate to invite the rabbi and his student to come inside for a rest and bit of refreshment in the heat of the day.

The pair stayed for a couple of hours, eating and then dozing off for a nap. At one point, the sage asked Samuel: “This is a place in which it would seem difficult to live. It is far away from other people. You have no trees or crops. How do you survive?”

“You see that cow? That’s what keeps us going,” Samuel said. “She gives us milk; some of it we drink and some we make into cheese. When there is extra, we bring it to the village and exchange the milk and cheese for other types of food. That and what I can afford with my earnings as an apprentice cobbler is how we survive.”

The sage thanked them for their hospitality, vowing to repay it when he could, and then he and his disciple left. When they were out of the hearing of the family, the disciple asked “Rabbi, why do they live like that? Surely, they could move somewhere more hospitable. This is no life.”

The rabbi thought about a story similar to our Fiddler on the Roof and about how life sometimes is truly like that, so easy to fall. It was obvious that the cow would not be long lived and then what would happen to the family? They could starve, but perhaps they would be able to move on and live a better life somewhere else.

The rabbi and the disciple continued on their journey, but neither could forget the family. The disciple, who was traveling with the rabbi on his way to be installed as the leader of a new school, went on to have disciples of his own. Some years later, he travelled to visit his beloved teacher and passed by the place where the run down shack had been.

Upon rounding a turn in the road, he could not believe what his eyes were showing him. In place of the poor shack there was a beautiful house with trees all around, and children were playing in a lush yard.

The heart of the disciple froze. What could have happened to the poor family? Then he remembered the sickly cow. It must have died. Without a doubt, they must have been starving to death and forced to sell their land and leave. At that moment, the student thought: they must be begging on the street corners of some city. He approached the house and asked the man on the front step what had happened to the family who used to live there.

“We are still here,” he said. The disciple was dumbfounded. He went over to Samuel and asked: “What happened? I was here with my teacher a few years ago and this was a miserable place. There was nothing. What did you do to improve your lives?”

Samuel looked at the disciple, and replied with a smile: “I remember you. Back then, we had a sickly cow that barely kept us alive. She was all we had. Not long after you left, your rabbi came back. He brought a man to teach us how to grow crops and even planted a couple of trees for us. There wasn’t much at first, but when our cow died the next year, there was enough to keep us going. To survive, we had to start doing other things, develop skills we didn’t even know we had. We planted more trees and crops, then traded crops for chickens, and chickens eventually for a healthy cow. I bought materials to make shoes as well. Now, we live so much better with crops, chickens, and cows. We sell produce and shoes in the village, enough to turn our shack into a house. Life forced to come up with new ways of doing things, and because your rabbi thought to prepare us by teaching us how, we are now much better off than before.”

The moral of my version of the story is that not only might we be better off trying to do something new and different to succeed instead of merely trying to get by, but we should help others learn to do so. We understand that we should be helping others adapt to the challenges that life may bring. When we teach about Tsedakah, we often think, “Give someone a fish, they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Thus, we are people who work with charity after charity. We work with organizations helping battered and abused women, immigrants, the homeless, big brothers and sisters and so many more groups, helping others to change and improve their lives.

But how good are we at seeing personal challenges and adapting to them? How are we at setting new goals and seeking to achieve them? That is, to an extent, what we are tasked with doing during the high holidays each year. And the Torah portion that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon tells us, “It is not too distant from you.” We can change.

There are years when we come into this sacred space at this sacred time amid changes that have happened to us, our lives tossed and turned. Other years, changes brought us increased joy and happiness. Sometimes, we enter this space, this place and time, at a loss for what we should do.

Sometimes, We are Forced to Change

Going back to our story. Sometimes, the cow dies, whether we are prepared or not. We lose our job, our health fails or that of a loved one. Life can come at us pretty hard. We can be tossed into the deep end or even tossed about on a stormy sea.

In the original Story of the Cow, the sage demands that his disciple push the cow off of a cliff in order to force the family to abandon its struggles right away rather than continuing to merely get by until the cow inevitably died. The family simply wakes up one morning to find the cow dead.
This narrative doesn’t work in a Jewish version of the story, of course. In our religious tradition, taking and then killing the cow would be stealing, destruction of property, not to mention a violation of the directive to care for defenseless animals, and in this case, endangering the lives of the whole family as well. They could just as easily have starved as succeeded in their efforts to change. So such a sage’s advice wouldn’t be very Jewish advice.

The moral of the story as it is traditionally told is that sometimes our dependency on something small and limited is the biggest obstacle to our growth. We can cling to something that sustains us, but also limits us. Overcoming that dependency can be daunting, hence the version of the story in which the family is forced to change by the death of the cow, but once we are willing to change, we can improve.

Yet, the traditional story is also often closer to what happens in life. Sometimes, we wake up to changed circumstances. What we’ve relied upon to help support us is simply gone. At this time of year, we are particularly mindful of times of loss, of the people who are no longer sitting beside us reaching out to hold our hand.

Certainly, during this High Holiday season, my family and I are particularly mindful of that as we mourn the loss of my mother.

Yet, we are also particularly mindful of new hands that are present in our lives and new responsibilities that we have. There is an appropriate cruder version of this statement, but for Rosh Hashanah, let’s just say, “Life happens.”

Being able to adapt is the key to thriving and often to survival.

Charles Darwin once stated, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” This is true in regard to evolution, but also to success and happiness in life.

A few weeks ago, I attended a program about Israel’s response during times of major disasters around the world. Two young Israelis spoke about their experiences in Nepal right after the massive 7.8 on the Richter scale earthquake wrought havoc across the nation, killing over 9,000 people. One of the Israelis, Avi, had just finished his IDF service and was planning to hike through the mountains with three friends.

When the earthquake struck, Avi and his friends realized not that they were in the wrong place and the wrong time, but that they were in the right place and the right time. Their hiking trip wasn’t going to happen. That was obvious, but they knew that they could help and headed to Katmandu, straight into the heart of the disaster to seek out ways to do so, eventually working with the IDF disaster response team that arrived shortly thereafter, helping to distribute food and blankets to hundreds of people over the next few days.

The second Israeli who spoke was Tal. Tal is a nurse serving with Magen David Adom and in the IDF reserves, who aspires to become a doctor someday. She was at home in Herzliya, having dinner with her parents and watching television when reports of the earthquake were broadcast on the news.

Tal said that her father asked, “So are they going to send you?” “Maybe,” she said. It was nearly midnight. A few minutes later her cell phone rang. Within the hour, her unit was at the home of the doctor who runs the medical clinic that gives immunization shots for those traveling to foreign lands. The clinic was closed, but that wasn’t going to stop anyone. The doctor’s wife brewed coffee and the soldiers were lined up at the kitchen table to receive their shots. By the end of the next day, Tal was in Nepal, one of the first foreigners to enter the country after the quake.

When Tal’s unit arrived at the main hospital in Katmandu, eight stories tall, they found everyone from the hospital, doctors, nurses, and patients, sitting in the parking lot. All of the staff were working out of a batch of hastily assembled tents. The hospital building was unstable and there were powerful aftershocks.

Tal was informed that there was one particular patient, a premature baby born to Israeli parents, for whom she was especially to look to help. She couldn’t imagine where the baby was. The child needed to be in an incubator on oxygen with IVs. This was a tent city with little or no electricity.

Tal related that she looked around and there in the middle of the tents was a running car. They wandered over to see what was going on; perhaps they were using the car for electricity or lights. Instead, the hospital staff had realized that they needed a controlled environment amid the chaos. They turned the car into an incubator. An oxygen tank was outside one window and an IV pole was outside the other. Inside, on the backseat in a bassinet was the baby.

As Tal said, they made do with what they had. When asked why Israelis do these things, why they were there so quickly with no hesitation, she said in essence, “It’s what we do. It’s who we are. We just go and do it, no matter how difficult. We try. We believe in Tikkun Olam. We repair what’s wrong in the world. Anywhere we can. It’s what we believe in as Jews. It’s what we believe in as Israelis.”

And I would suggest, that attitude is plays no small part in the narrative of how our people has survived so many trials and tribulations through the generations. When we must adapt, we adapt.

Electing to Change

While life does regularly tell us, “Lekh Lekha,” “Go forth,” like Tal’s commanding officer did, and gives us no choice but to comply, often, we have the opportunity to make a choice.

In our High Holiday liturgy, we read of the Gates of Repentance opening this evening and closing at the end of Yom Kippur. Our tradition urges us to feel a sense of urgency and to seize the opportunity to change our direction in life, to perform Teshuvah, literally returning to the path.

The High Holidays remind us that we have it in our capacity to change ourselves and our relationships. There is no promise that it will be easy. We do need to understand what we can and cannot change about ourselves and to know the difference. The High Holidays are a time when we are reminded that we can change our relationship with our tradition and with the divine, but also that it is not beyond us to heal and improve other relationships, to seek forgiveness, to express love and caring, to act differently.

Sometimes Both Happen at the Same Time

Sometimes, we may find ourselves both forced to change in some ways and elect to change in others. Major changes in our lives can also force us to confront the possibility of making other changes.

It is best for us not to wait until the cow dies to adapt the possibility that it will. Neither is it good for us to endure suffering rather than seeking a better situation. We are the people whose tradition tells us that we wandered forty years in the desert to find the Promised Land and whose national history is of living in the Diaspora for nearly two millennia before being able to return to our homeland. Electing to deal with some hardships, while seeking something better is very much a part of who our ancestors were and of the tradition that they passed on to us.

Some days, it does indeed feel like the world is testing us, that we not only have to ascend a mountain, but know that what we face when we reach our destination is going to be a greater challenge still. Perhaps, a new alternative will arise, a ram will emerge from the thicket, on a very rare occasion someone may step in and help us, our angels, but most of the time, it is up to us to build up the courage to overcome the challenge.

Like Abraham, we may find ourselves all prepared to continue with the task, the expectation, whatever we’ve been planning to do, and then think to ourselves, “What am I doing?” Sometimes, knife in hand, we realize we’re on the wrong path and a voice inside of us speaks up and then calls out, “Avraham! Avraham!” We suddenly see what we’re doing and where we are. We decide to change. We turn. We find a new way.

That process of making changes, of turning and returning, of Teshuva, repentance, is what the High Holidays are all about. May each of us be open to change in the New Year.

L’shana Tovah!