Archive | September, 2013

Cantor Andrew Bernard’s Yizkor D’rash 5774

16 Sep

Yizkor D’rash 5774
September 14, 2013
Cantor Andrew Bernard

Of all the relationships we have, the ones with our parents might be the most complicated. We choose our friends; we choose spouses. We don’t choose our children, but we choose to have them. We don’t choose our siblings — but we don’t rely on them the same way we rely on parents. When we come into this world, we are 100% dependent upon our parents — for food, for shelter, for safety, and…ideally…for nurturing. As we grow older, we gradually gain the ability to see to our own safety, our own food, our own shelter. Nurturing, however, is something we continue to count on throughout our lives, even though the form it takes changes as we move through childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, and eventually into maturity. But not all parents are created equal in that department.

Working at the Children’s Hospital, I’ve learned that some parents need to put so much energy to managing their own needs that they have little left over for anyone else. They’re not bad people; as adults, they simply lack the personal resources — the personal bandwidth, if you will — to nurture another. Yet children who can’t count on adult nurturing still crave that parental presence. There are chronic illnesses that result in frequent hospitalizations if the child does not receive adequate care at home. I used to work with one such child. Even at a young age, she knew she wasn’t being properly taken care of. But she would shut down completely when questioned by the social worker about her home life. Even as she grew old enough to understand that her lack of care could be life-threatening, she would fiercely defend her mother without hesitation if anyone tried to probe. Even though that maternal nurturing was more wishful thinking than reality, the need to hold on to that parent-child bond remained paramount.

My mother was the nurturer throughout my life. When she died six years ago yesterday (thanks, Mom), it was, in many ways, simpler. I was very, very sad. The grief weighed on me. She was not only a steadfast nurturer herself, but she taught it to me. In fact, I stood on this very spot six years ago today and spoke about how I learned pastoral caregiving from her example. At that moment, it was a bit surreal in light of her death thirty-some hours earlier; but it also felt right speaking publicly about the gift she had given me.

My father’s death last month is a little more complicated. He was in many ways the stereotypical father of the 50s: it was his job to go to work and provide for the family, while my mother stayed home and cared for me and my siblings. And this worked well, because — as much as I believe that he wanted to be a nurturer
— his own insecurities, sometimes spilling over into paranoia — made it difficult for him to be the anchor I needed as I grew up.

I learned a great lesson about the role of the adult when I was at a conference in Southern California. The hotel was a short stroll from a marina where sea otters played between the wooden piers. In the center of this small inlet, wooden pylons driven deep into the ground below stuck up above the water so boats could tie up. As the sea otters swam every which way, chasing each other through the water, every so often one would pause, momentarily sticking its head above the surface to look around and get its bearings. I realized that the adult’s job is to be that fixed pylon. In the turmoil of growing up, kids’ emotional needs change constantly — sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly, sometimes, it seems, every hour. Yet wherever they are, kids need to be able to pause every so often and look up, and be able to count on a steady adult as their point of reference. Adults who are not themselves anchored can’t provide that vital source of security and emotional stability.

All the lessons we learn from our parents can be valuable — whether they are lessons about what to do or what not to do. From my mother, I learned how to care for others. From my father, I learned fear and self-doubt. I grew up outside of New York City. Any trips us kids made into The City made my father very nervous, and he insisted that every detail be planned. Years later a few weeks after I first moved to Seattle, I needed to go to a music store near the Seattle Center. To get there from the University District, you had to take a bus downtown, and then transfer to another bus up to the Center. I got my bus maps and studied them meticulously. I knew where the stops were, the routes, the schedule, the transfer point. I had exact change for the bus fare and knew I needed to get a transfer from the driver. It was a carefully planned mission. I executed the mission perfectly. And when I got home, I collapsed, sleeping several hours recovering from the stress. Looking back on that now, I just laugh. These days, I head to the corner — bus pass in hand — and jump on whatever is heading in my general direction. But it took years and hard work to unlearn that fear.

A decade or so after moving to Seattle, I decided to explore the fall New England foliage. A couple of days after Yom Kippur, I flew to Portland, Maine. All I had was my plane ticket, a rental car, and my bed-and-breakfasts-in-New-England guidebook. About half way through my drive each day, I’d consult the guidebook and call ahead to book a reservation for that evening. My father would have been horrified if he’d known. Overcoming that fear was a huge personal victory.

I remember as a teen riding with my father one night into New York City. He owned a store on 5th Avenue, and he couldn’t remember if he’d locked the gate and set the alarm when he’d left earlier that day. So we drove the 20 miles at 8:00 that night to check. Of course he had locked the gate and set the alarm. But that nervous feeling of having to check and double-check that I’d locked up when I left somewhere haunted me for years. It came to a head in college when I sometimes found myself paralyzed for 10 or 20 minutes, unsure of whether my dorm room door was really locked. I’d stand there frozen, checking and rechecking the door. One day I decided that the toll this was taking on my life far outweighed the consequences of having my room robbed and — with great effort — started closing the door and walking away. It was terrifying at first; and then ultimately liberating.

Because of my father’s insecurities, he had difficulty connecting with other people. Attending his funeral was his family, his caregivers, and my siblings’ friends and coworkers. But no friends of his. He never seemed to want friends; he just wanted controlled interaction with those few people around him in the safety of his own home. And while he’d been a successful enough retailer to provide for his family, neither of the businesses he built still exist. So what does remain?

People have often asked me how I can cope with the deaths of children. I tell them that I not only see examples of extraordinary strength and courage in the children and their families, but those children manage to have an impact on a great number of people, even at such a young age. In fact, I say, they have more of an impact on the people around them than some 80-year-olds I know. What I never said out loud was that I was thinking about my father. What legacy would he leave? After he was gone, would there even be a footprint showing that he’d been here? Yes, his children have gone on to do important things in each of their worlds. But those are our accomplishments. Would he have anything of his own? It’s an idea that made me profoundly sad.

My father did have a talent for building furniture. He was the slowest furniture builder in the history of the world. He would consult the drawings (usually done by my mother), take the piece of wood and make a measurement. Then he’d check the drawing once or twice more before making a pencil mark on the wood. He’d re-measure. Then he’d have a cigarette and stare at the wooden board. He’d check the drawing again, check his measurement again, and finally make a cut.

That could take an hour. He didn’t care because everyone left him alone to do his woodworking. And we had no expectations on when a piece of furniture would be completed. The grandfather’s clock he made took two years. He carved the moldings by hand. My mother embroidered the face. The mechanism that they bought no longer works, but this beautiful piece still stands in their living room.

Talking with my siblings the day before my father’s funeral, I found myself preoccupied with what would happen to that furniture. I didn’t need to have any of it myself, but I was surprised at how important it was to me that it remain in the family with one of them. I puzzled over this obsession for several days, finally realizing that this was his footprint — the lasting evidence that he had, indeed, walked on this earth. It is personally important to me that there be enduring physical proof of his place in this world — of his place in my world. My mother gave me the gift of nurturing- but it was an easy gift. All I had to do was open my eyes to it. My father gave me the gift of self-assurance. It was a gift I had to work hard to acquire. In some respects, because I had to work so hard, it is the greater gift.

Regardless of the relationship, we find it essential to be able to hold fast to that bond with our parents. Perhaps those we have loved did not always live up to our expectations. But they shaped our lives in profound ways, and their enduring legacy — its physical existence, and its place in our hearts — is a gift for which we are eternally grateful.

As the Gates Begin to Close – N’ilah 5774

16 Sep

Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

September 14, 2013

There is a propensity to love the service of n’ilah, these final moments of Yom Kippur prayer said as day turns to dusk. Here at Beth El, our “purple” service (hold up book) is most beloved throughout the year. Rabbi Alan Lew writes that people “throng” to his synagogue for n’ilah, even after praying all day long.

We Jews the world over are pulled to this service.

Personally, I am viscerally drawn to this hour, this service of n’ilah, (and it is not just because I’m eagerly anticipating the best night’s sleep I get all year awaiting me when I get home). While I am most profoundly moved by the words and music of this service, I have some continuing struggles with one of the central images of n’ilah. Each year at this time I work hard to peel away layers of my own discomfort, uncovering new understandings about the wisdom of our tradition as I do.

So, what is my problem with N’ilah? Isn’t the beautiful poetry and majestic music enough? My struggle is with the word n’ilah, itself, which means locking. Calling a service n’ilah instructs us that something is about to be closed off, something is about to be locked away. Each year I ask, what are we locking? And why does it need to be locked?

Tradition says that Sha’arei Hashamayim – the Gates of Heaven are open wide during the Days of Awe.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that when Sha’arei Hashamayim are open during the Days of Repentance, it is not only so that our prayers might enter more readily, but also so that we might receive Heaven more freely. You see, he teaches, that when the Gates are wide open, bits of Heaven flow towards us here – there is a subtle, special energy that pervades our world these Ten Days. When the Gates begin to close, as they do now, they push back against those bits of Heaven seeping toward us. And this energy, otherwise relatively imperceptible, becomes concentrated as it rushes through the ever smaller space between the closing Gates.

I imagine this flow of glistening energy as water. I imagine the pressure on that Divine energy as the Gates close as a parent might hold their hand over the end of a garden hose to spray children playing in the yard, to see them squeal and delight in this playful affection. It is as if Avinu Malkeinu, our heavenly parent, is showering us with love as we stand in the Divine courtyard.

What might the consequences be of a Divine energy pouring toward us for Ten Days? Perhaps this flow of Heavenly energy is what gives us the strength to do the hard work of this season. Perhaps this is the potential energy for the year to come sustaining our hopes and dreams. Perhaps, we are the recipients of even more Divine love fueling our innermost longings. Perhaps what pours forth from Heaven at this hour is our spiritual sustenance for the year to come. Perhaps it is giving us the material with which to build our lives this year.

The word for material – for stuff – in Hebrew is “chomeir.” There is a beautiful liturgical poem that we do not recite here at Temple Beth El called “Ki Hinei Chachomeir”; it is found in our High Holy Day prayerbook on page 381 and it is sung like this: Sing first stanza.

This first verse can be translated: As clay in the hand of the potter, to be thickened or thinned at will, are we in You hand. Continue to sustain us with your gracious love. Recall Your Covenant, not our imperfections.

This text portrays a somewhat unusual theology for Judaism. It seems to suggest that we the chomeir – the material – can be shaped and altered at the will of our Creator. As Jews, we are a people of deed and not creed; it takes much more than belief to be Jewish, we must be active in our Jewishness. It is not enough, as some of our neighbors might say, to simply give ourselves over to God for molding and shaping. We must be our own molders and shapers.

Each stanza of Ki Hinei ChaChomeir ends with the same refrain – Recall Your Covenant, not our imperfections. This sentence is much more familiar. Remember Your promises to us God, Remember us despite any wrongdoings for which we now repent.

There is a mystical teaching about the nature of our Covenant with God. It explains that we are in partnership with God to sustain the world at every moment of every day. Should one of us cease to uphold our end of the bargain, the world would no longer be. We are inextricably bound to God and God is to us at each moment and every moment of our existence.

Is it so hard then to imagine that God might give us a gift during these days of Awe? It is a gift to share a festive meal (though today’s has yet to come) with friends and family; it is a gift to be guided to examine our character and our behavior; it is a gift to take the time to look backwards and forwards at what we have done and what we hope to accomplish with our lives. Could it then be that God also gives us a gift at this season of the year of just a little bit more palpable taste of what it means to be holy with the Gates of Heaven wide open, God’s loving warmth spreading forth to us?

I do not know the answers to these questions. I only know that for me, there is beauty in the longing to be near to our Creator and comfort in the imagining that our Creator longs for us as well.

We are drawn to N’ilah, we are drawn towards the last moments of the blending of Heaven and Earth, as Divine light pours forth from the Gates as they begin to close. Let us, Clay in the Hands of the Divine Creator, find warmth and comfort in that radiance as the Gates begin to close.

Reb Nachman’s Chair and Something To Hold On To

16 Sep

Reb Nachman’s Chair and Something To Hold On To

Yom Kippur 5774

Rabbi Judith Schindler

I’m not a collector. At heart, I am a traveler of the world. I don’t like things to weigh me down. Stamps, baseball cards, and coins don’t interest me much – though I always keep Israeli change in my wallet.

I’m not a collector but there are one or two trading cards I’d invest in. I don’t believe they would ever increase in value over time to anybody but me.  Just like there are baseball trading cards, apparently there are Rabbi trading cards. I have never seen them.   Yet according to a sales website three million Rabbi trading cards have been sold internationally and they are acclaimed by Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated and the Library of Congress.

The first Rabbi trading card I would buy would be with my father’s face on it but that doesn’t exist. The traditional Jewish company that creates rabbi trading cards wouldn’t view a liberal rabbi as being a gadol, a great.   The other Rabbi trading card I’d buy is that of Reb Nachman of Breslov. There are no rabbinic teachings that speak to me more than his. Yet I am uncertain that there is a rabbi trading card of him either because there are no photographs of him. I guess I am out of luck.

We collect things that inspire us, that stir our memories, and that have value perhaps not monetarily but sentimentally. In life, we need things to hold on to – especially when times get tough.

Reb Nachman’s teachings give me something to hold to.  Apparently I am not alone. Last week for Rosh Hashanah, 24,000 Jews traveled from twenty four countries to make pilgrimage to Reb Nachman’s grave in Uman which is in the center of the Ukraine. Reb Nachman was a mystic, a tzaddik, a teacher who could lift up despairing souls. While there are no photographs of Reb Nachman, there are abundant pictures of the chair in which he sat.  Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells one of the many legends, a midrash, about the chair’s fame.

In the early 1800’s, a butcher from the town of Teplyk gave Reb Nachman a gift — an exquisite hand-crafted chair. Everyone who laid eyes on this chair knew that it was something special.  Reb Nachman loved the chair and sat in it all the days of his life. When he died, his disciples kept the chair in his memory and placed it in a most important spot — right next to ark.

When the Nazis invaded the Ukraine, Reb Nachman’s followers realized that to save themselves they would have to scatter, but how would they save the chair? It was too large for any one person to carry alone.  They decided to cut up the chair and give a piece to each of Reb Nachman’s followers.  They made a promise: after of the war, they would meet up in Jerusalem and reassemble the chair.

The Holocaust was a horrific time in history. Few Jews escaped unharmed. Yet every person who carried a piece of that chair survived and made it to Jerusalem. There they reassembled the chair. It looked exactly as when Reb Nachman sat in it.  You can see it today in the Bratslav synagogue in Mea Shearim right next to the ark.

When times get tough, we need something to hold to.  During the Holocaust, Reb Nachman’s followers held onto pieces of his chair and survived.  Today’s liturgy gives us something to hold on to.

The central prayer of these High Holidays is the Unetaneh Tokef. It affirms that on Rosh Hashanah is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many shall be born and how many shall die, who will be tranquil and who will be troubled.

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with this prayer. We ardently argue against the theology of a God who sits on high and judges, yet we do not deny that our fate for the coming year is uncertain. In our congregation there will be painful divorces, life altering diagnoses, untimely deaths, and economic hardships. There could be floods and fires, falling and failing.

Some of our realities we will have had a hand in making — through our neglect of ourselves or our relationships. Other circumstances will be mere fate.  Many of the cancers that could come our way are triggered by genetics, or by causes beyond our control. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s most famous book is not called Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, but When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

When bad things happened to Reb Nachman’s disciples they held fast to pieces of his chair which gave them strength to endure the unendurable.  The Unetaneh Tokef prayer gives us three paths of purpose to which we can hold fast:

Utshuvah utefilah utzedakah maaveereen et roah hagezerah.  Repentance, prayer and charity will lessen the harshness of life’s decree.  Relationships, spirituality and generosity will enable us to weather life’s storms.

Teshuvah, repentance, is the first component of our life survival kit.

Reb Nachman taught: “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.”

In London when you are riding the subway called the Tube, at many stops the conductor will caution, “Mind the gap,” which in our English means “Watch your step.” Watch out for the space between the subway car and the platform. We don’t want you to fall. 

This day calls us to do the same. It calls us to “mind the gap,” to be cognizant of the distances we have created between ourselves and those around us.  When the hardest times of life hit, we need others to get by. If gaps exist in our relationships, we will fall farther than is necessary.

Today we are called to do “teshvuah” to return, to repair, to reconcile, to turn things around. Our making teshuvah is not for God but for us.

On Labor Day Weekend, nearly sixty Beth El congregants enjoyed a retreat at Wildacres. When reflecting on our Jewish goals for 5774, many participants chose to work on menuchat hanefesh – tranquility. Making peace with the pain of the past helps us to be calm in the present. Making peace with those around us restores relationships that can lift our lives.

One simple key to having others there to lift us up, is for us to lift others up.  Reb Nachman taught: “Criticising others, giving them an unwelcome feeling, can be done by anyone. Uplifting them, and giving them a good feeling – that takes a special gift.”

Let us make a commitment to use positive words about, and with, others. When we have negative things to say, let us say nothing.  

Reb Nachman prayed: Teach me dear God to make a fresh start; to break yesterday’s patterns; to stop telling myself I can’t – when I can, I’m not, when I am, I’m stuck, when I’m eminently free.  (Likutey Maharan 1:76)

Tefillah, prayer, and connecting with God is the second component of our life survival kit.

Reb Nachman taught that life makes warriors of us all. To emerge the victors, we must arm ourselves with the most potent of weapons.  That weapon is prayer.

Three weeks ago, I was called by a Presbyterian chaplain to visit an elderly, and destitute, woman.  Although she had grown up in a traditional environment, and never met a female rabbi, I gained her trust. She said, “Rabbi, pray with me in English; I’ve forgotten all my Hebrew.”  

Many of us, similarly, do not know how to pray.  We have forgotten Hebrew. We never knew Hebrew. The prayers don’t speak to us.  God doesn’t speak to us. We don’t speak to God.

When tough times come, we need the strength to stand alone to face tests and treatments or late nights of sleeplessness and sorrow.

The Talmud teaches that when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, there was a process for bringing sacrifices. The pilgrims would enter through the right gate, walk in a counterclockwise direction to deliver their sacrifices, and exit through the left gate. Yet three categories of people did the opposite. The mourner, the person confronting serious illness and those seeking a lost object would enter through the left gate and walk clockwise with their offerings.   The pilgrims on the regular path would offer words of healing, “Hamakom y’nachem etchem… – may this place bring you comfort.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner notes that one can understand the actions of the persons who were mourning or confronting serious illness, “But why would a person who simply lost something have to walk in the opposite direction?” And he responds, “I can think of two possible answers.  One is the feeling we all have when you’re looking for something and can’t locate it.  You’re sure you put the car keys right there a few minutes ago, and now you’re running late and you can’t find them. The second possibility is that the lost object the passage speaks to isn’t just any lost object, your glasses or your keys, but refers to something specific, to a person who has lost his or her faith and comes to the Temple hoping to find it there.” (Faith and Family: Favorite Sermons of Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, 2007)

Many of us have lost our faith, or perhaps we never had it to begin with. Today we come to find it, for we know we need it.

Reb Nachman found God in the sanctuary of nature.  He taught that we should pray to God by going on solitary walks through fields and forests. We should hear the songs of the plants and trees — each one singing its own melody to God and we should pour out our hearts.  When we do, Reb Nachman tells us, the prayers of the plants will enter and intensify our prayers. We will take in the air of paradise with every breath and return home with the world renewed in our eyes.

Reb Nachman prayed:

God, grant me the ability to be alone;
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the trees and grass – among all growing things
and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer,
to talk with God.

And may all the foliage of the field –
all grasses, trees, and plants –
awake at my coming,
to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer.

In our life survival kits we need to hold on to people and in our life survival kits we need to hold onto faith.  At times, we will be alone. We can strengthen ourselves by committing to a prayer practice: in nature, in meditation, in yoga, in the sanctuary, and in life. We are here to help.

Tzedakah, charity, is the final component of our life survival kit.

How paradoxical — that giving gives us something to hold onto!

Reb Nachman taught to give tzedakah with both hands. Not halfheartedly thinking about ourselves as we give to others but wholly.

Proverbs teaches that “tzedakah saves from death.”  Tzedakah doesn’t literally save the giver from death, though that would make our Temple fundraising a lot easier. Tzedakah saves the recipient from death – from hunger, from freezing, from sweltering, from despair. Tzedakah saves the giver from spiritual death.  If we observed the pain of others and did not respond, our hearts would become so hardened we would be spiritually flatlined.

A friend of mine who spent a lifetime amassing resources recently realized she has more than enough. She now has made philanthropy a daily activity researching causes for which she has a passion.  I asked her how she feels and she remarked “It’s a lot more fun than shopping.” Retail therapy is nothing compared to righteous therapy — a regular routine of exercising our generosity of time and talent.

In the Midrash, Rabbi Hillel asks his students: “If I have one thousand dinars, and give away three hundred of them to the needy, how much do I have?” The students answered: “Obviously, you have seven hundred left.”

To which Hillel responded: “No. “Your math is good – but you do not understand tzedakah. I don’t really have the seven hundred dinars – I could lose it by accident, or in a business venture, or, with luck I might be able to leave it to my children. But — for the rest of my life – I know I have the three hundred dinars.  Even at the moment of my death, I can look back on those three hundred dinars I contributed to tzedakah and know I helped the world.  So the answer to the question is: if I have one thousand dinars and give away three hundred, the amount that I most truly “have” is three hundred dinars.”

At the end of our days, we are measured not by what we have but by what we gave. Giving time and talent are also worthy legacies.

Reb Nachman prayed: “O Life of the World, grant me a full life – a life which may be considered long because it has been filled with right living, and considered rich because it has been filled with holy acts.” (Likutey Moharan, 1:60)

Reb Nachman indeed lived a long and rich life even though he died of tuberculosis at the young age of 38.

As a child, I didn’t enjoy services.  The High Holidays were most dreaded (not in the awe-filled sense of the word). I counted the page of the prayer book praying they would quickly pass.

I am not alone. A little boy once asked his rabbi about the large plaque in the foyer covered with engraved names and American flags. “What are these?” the child asked.

And the rabbi responded, “It is a memorial for all those young men and women who died in the service.”

“Which one?” The boy inquired “The Rosh Hashanah or the Yom Kippur service.”

Dr. Joel Hoffman compares services to long flights. Flights can be delayed, canceled, misrouted, turbulent, or uncomfortable. And in his eyes, services can be long and frequently boring. The climate control might not be set to his preference, the music might not be to his liking, or the sermon could be a repetition of something he has heard before. But Hoffman keeps coming back. He compares the Unetaneh Tokef  to  a long flight, whose value lies not in the experience but in where it takes him. (From Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef by Larry Hoffman, 2010)

These Days of Awe captured through the Unetaneh Tokef can take us to better places.  “Let us acknowledge the power of this day, for it is awesome and full of dread. For in truth God, you are Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness, Author and Sealer. You open the book of our days that bears the signature of every human being. You decide the end of all creatures. Uteshuvah utefillah utzedakah maavirin at roah hagezerah, yet repentance, prayer and charity will lessen the harshness of life’s decree.

When the first blast during the Boston Marathon occurred, an elderly runner, Bill Ifrig, was knocked down by the power of the explosion.  He says his legs “just started going like noodles.”   As emergency workers jumped into help, the 78 year old retired mason, just got right back up and stumbled to the finish line. He had trained hard. He had persistence, endurance, and hope.

We need to train hard for the marathon of life for we will fall and we will get back up again. Yet renewing our relationships, engaging in a routine spiritual practice and giving tzedakah will help us find the strength we need to face life’s storms.

My father had a special chair. It wasn’t quite like Reb Nachman’s chair, but it was special. When he was travelling, even if we had many guests for a meal, no one could sit in his place. When he died, the chair was painfully empty.

May we each live that makes a difference so that when we die the emptiness of the chairs in which we sat at home and in this sanctuary will be felt. May the lessons we live give our loved ones something to hold onto. Amen.

[Note: Though Reb Nachman’s chair has many legends associated with it, the story was originally set in times of the Cossack raids and pogroms of the early 1920’s.]

Writing Our Books of Life

14 Sep

Writing Our Books of Life
Yom Kippur Morning 5774
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Shlomo Carlebach used to tell a version of this story:

Imagine, you’re on the light rail in Uptown Charlotte, and you realize that your soul-mate, your “beshert”, the one intended for you, and you for them, is standing right next to you.

You are stunned, overcome with both love and disbelief. Suddenly the doors open, and your beloved is walking off the train car, into the world without you, and all you can manage to ask is, “What’s your phone number?”

You hear an area code and a few digits, and then the doors close.

As the train slides onward to the next stop, you madly dial every combination that completes the phone number, with no success. You run to the parking lot and get in your car, race back to the last station and begin driving around, searching, frantic. You get more and more desperate, fearing that you have lost this person forever, and begin driving recklessly, starting and stopping, running red lights, hoping to catch a glimpse of your beloved anywhere.

Before you know it, you get arrested, held overnight in jail, alone, and await your hearing.
You prepare for the moment of judgment, terrified. You know you have done wrong, and have no real defense for it except that you were chasing after your dearest love, from whom you had only received a few digits.
You enter the courtroom and look up to see that the judge is in fact your soul mate, the one you had been chasing, the one whose absence made you stray so far. Your soul mate says the words that change your life, “I know that you’ve made mistakes. That doesn’t matter now. Right now, I just want to be near you.”

[Thanks to Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herman for leading me to that story.]

On Yom Kippur we imagine that we stand to be judged – before our consciences, and before God. There is the great and awesome view – we hold our selves up to high standards, and below a judge on very high. On the other hand, God is also our nearest companion, our dearest love, our consciences reside in the closest places of our minds and souls.

And even on this day – perhaps especially on this day – we imagine that God wants us to draw near. We approach God so that we can be understood by someone who knows who we truly are. We stand in front of a judge who has total understanding of our inner spirits, knowing that we are always doing our best, even when we fall short.

We must closely examine our deepest and most hidden places. We must look at the stories of our lives.

The stories that we tell about God help us tell our own stories. When we talk about God, whom we can’t really know, we really talk about our deepest senses of who we are at our cores, and how we are connected to the world.

When we write a story about God, we begin to write our own stories.

We get to edit these stories, update them, add new chapters to them, and even rewrite them. The story about God and us helps us tell a better story about us, and helps us write our own Books of Life.

There once were two brothers – Adam and David. Their parents loved them very much and wanted them to succeed in all that they did. Adam was the oldest, and his parents fell in love with him right away. Adam’s mother saw in him amazing physical skills. Adam climbed out of his crib on his own, he walked earlier than all the other kids, he was fast on his feet, quick with his hands, and strong. As he grew his mother always said, “Adam, you are a great athlete.”

When David was born his parents also fell in love with him right away. They noticed that he looked around differently than Adam, and seemed interested in investigating things more than moving them. They challenged him with infant and toddler puzzles and introduced him to reading early on. He showed a great love for taking things apart, and eventually for putting them back together. David was handy with devices and a self-learner. As he grew his parents would always say, “David, you are a great scientist.”

When we define others, we change them. Even in the smallest of ways. A recent study tested third graders of about the same level. After being given an easy test, half were told that they did well because they worked hard, and half were told that they did well because they were smart. The students received a second more difficult test, and the differences were amazing. The students who were told they worked hard significantly out-performed the ones who were told they were smart. When given a third even more difficult test, the hard worker crowd did even better. When we think we are smart, we are more likely to believe that we can do well easily, because it comes naturally, without effort, and so we give up more quickly. When we think we are hard workers, we will work harder believing that our efforts will pay off.

We don’t want to be defined by others’ definitions no matter how lovingly they give them. We want to hear them, be grateful for their advice and their compliments, and then use those words as opportunities to write our own stories. We can rework those defining words. David and Adam are great at different things, and they can be great at other things too. We can hear “you are a great scientist” and still go and do well in sales or as an accountant. We can hear “you are a great athlete” and still go and do well as a poet.

The heroes of our stories redefined themselves all the time. Jacob started as a man of the tents, a bookish person, and when he wanted to impress Rachel, he went and moved a stone that normally took a whole group of shepherds to move. Joseph started out as an obnoxious brat, flaunting his dreams about the future to his brothers, and became a humble interpreter of dreams to Pharaoh, and then saved all of Egypt, and his family, from famine. David started as a shepherd, became a warrior who killed Goliath, and then a king.

We rewrite our stories all the time. We will not be defined by others’ ideas. We are the people who persist even when no one believes that we can.

We are the authors of our own books of life.

As authors of our books, we have help with the words – the words of this season offer us writing tools.
We say: “L’shanah tovah” – for a good year.
We say: “G’mar chatimah tovah!” May we be finished for a good inscription in the Book of Life
And in our prayer book we ask: “Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim” – write us in the book of good life.

Isn’t this odd?

We could say: have a great year! May you be written for an excellent life! May you be awesomely inscribed!
Instead, we aim for good.

In this, we take the hint from the original author, from God.
Looking at creation over and over, we hear: “God saw that it was good.” When God finished, and felt that all was thoroughly done well, the last verse of Genesis, Chapter 1 (Gen. 1:31) says:
Now God saw all that God had made, and here: it was very good!
“Tov me’od” – very good is as good as it gets for God.

Yet we are so hard on ourselves.

Good is never good enough for us. Our standards are so high.

We want perfect.

My wife Ginny used to listen to me compare myself to professional cyclists and runners – “I’m not really doing well in this marathon, after all, the ‘real’ runners beat me by almost two hours. I’m not even half the runner that they are!” She reminded me that I’m a rabbi, who occasionally runs marathons, not a marathon runner.

I’m sure that we all can think of times when we have held our selves up to unfairly high standards.

Rabbi Zusya was one of our greatest rabbis, and he was upset. His students gathered around him, concerned about his obvious anxiety and said, “Rabbi Zusya, what troubles you?”
Rabbi Zusya eyed his students sadly and said, “I worry about how God will judge me”.
His students were shocked. “Master, how could you possibly be concerned? You are as great a teacher as Moses!”
Rabbi Zusya answered, “That may be. Still, when I go before the Judge of judges, at my final reckoning, the question asked will not be, ‘Were you as good as Moses?’ But, ‘Were you a good Zusya?’”

The goal is to be good. We must aim to be a good representation of our inner self, not some external standard, not some comparison to others.

Why should we aim for good and not perfect? Perfection is a trap – it is beyond us, and unreasonable to even reach for. The world is filled with opportunities for improvement, for doing better. Perfection is not of this world. Those closest to it in our tradition, angels, don’t get the same privileges as we do. Our place in this world is to aim for good, our weaknesses, are our assets.

The Talmud tells a story (BT Shabbat 88a):
At the time that Moses went up to Heaven, the angels said to God:
“Master of the Universe, what is that son of a woman doing among us?”
God told them, “He has come to receive the Torah.”
The angels said to God, “The Torah, the most desired one, the one with whom you created the world – now you are going to give her to flesh and blood? What are humans that you should be mindful of them, and this child of Adam that you should listen to him?”
God told Moses, “Answer them!”
Moses said to God, “O Ruler of the Universe, I am afraid that they will burn me with their breath!”
God told Moses, “Hold on to my Glorious Throne and respond to them!”
Moses said, “Ruler of the Universe – the Torah that you are giving me, what is written in it?”
“I am Adonai your God, Who took you out of Egypt…”
Moses said to the angels, “Did you go down to Egypt? Were you slaves to Pharaoh? Why do you need the Torah? What else is written in it?”
God: “You shall not have any other gods before me!”
Moses: “Are you living among the heathen nations? What else is written in it?”
God: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy!”
Moses: “Do you work that you have to cease? What else is written in it?”
God: “Do not take…”
Moses: “Do you give and take? What else is written in it?”
God: “Do not murder! Do not commit adultery! Do not steal!”
Moses: “Do you have envy? … Do you have an evil impulse?”
They immediately thanked God…right then every one became a fan of Moses and gave him a gift.

One of my teachers, Ari Elon, taught:

“The angels finally accept that the Torah was not for them but for human beings in the real world, who have fathers and mothers, who work and envy, and who struggle with evil impulses.

“The Torah is for humanity, for human beings are the ones who can accept their weaknesses. Those who see themselves as perfect and cannot accept their weaknesses are angels who are not suited or able to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.”

Let us work to improve because we accept with love our imperfections. Let us embrace them as the reason we are here. Only because we not perfect can we relate to the real world and work together to make the world and us better.

We teach practices of prayer and thought to help us review and revisit. The entire idea of t’shuvah – returning to our deeds to make amends, with others, with ourselves, and with God – asks us to engage in thoughtful and compassionate reflection on our stories so that we can rewrite them for a better new year.

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman describes the process of t’shuvah:

“T’shuvah ought to transcend the motivation of fear and instead be motivated by an inner vision of our selves and who we believe we ought to be. This is the idea of t’shuvah out of love. In this t’shuvah, memory still plays an essential role but it ‘s no longer God’s memory, it’s our memories. Rosh Hashana as [a day of remembrance] is not the day in which God remembers but the day in which we are challenged to remember.

“The ability to change requires a leap of faith, a faith in our selves, that we can begin anew, that who we were need not determine who we will be. We need to free ourselves from our past, to delete it, so that a new story, a new journey and a new person can emerge. To learn from the past often entails getting stuck there. A healthy revolution needs to be gradual but it also needs a moment of radical departure, a break, and t’shuvah is nothing less than a personal revolution.”

A personal revolution – a return to the past to edit our stories and write new ones for the future – let us enter this new year as writers, let us move from asking God to write us into the Book of Life, and instead write our own books of life. And so we go from the passive object of “kotveinu” – please God write us! – to the active “nichtov” – we will write!

We are the people of books – many books, not just one. And these books are the ones we write about the People Israel, the ones we carry on our backs, and they are the books we write about ourselves, the libraries in our hearts.
Every year we come with here with our books. As we seek to be written for the next year, so we seek to rewrite. We come here as authors and editors, with laptops and red pens. We reflect on what worked and what didn’t and we embrace the mistakes, the imperfections, the weaknesses, as the gifts of a creation that is good, that allows us the chance to improve and fulfill our roles as works in progress.

As works in progress let us be compassionate to each other and our fragile souls.

As authors of our Books of Life, let us write good stories for the year to come.

Let us be our own creators, let us look at our work and say, this is very good.

Let us take this pause on Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, to accept our imperfections, and so make the improvements we need to make this year a better year for us all.

We start these holy days here:
Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim – Please write us in the book of good life!

Let us finish them here:
Nichtov atzmeinu b’sefer chayim tovim – We will write ourselves in the book of good life!

Source of image:


The Numbers of War and Peace: My Kol Nidre Prayer

11 Sep

The Numbers of War and Peace:

My Kol Nidre Prayer

By Rabbi Judy Schindler


Consider the numbers linked to war

and the numbers allied with peace.

The Syrian numbers of strife:

100,000 killed

4.25 million displaced inside the country

Every 15 seconds a Syrian becomes a refugee

Adding up to 2 million forced to flee

1400 killed in a sarin gas attack,

among them

400 children.


Sarin, the deadly nerve gas

developed by the Nazis in 1938.

Sarin, used by Saddam Hussein

to kill thousands of Kurds in 1988.


The numbers of concerned neighbors and world citizens:

8 hours in an Israeli line to get a gas mask

2 more Iron Dome defense systems deployed to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

25 nations supporting a strong international response .


The numbers connected to our past:

11 million murdered, among them

6 million Jews, among them

1.5 million children.


And then there are the numbers of peace:

One God, one soul,

One man, one woman, one child


In Judaism, counting people is prohibited.

Numbers dehumanize,

Every soul is one.


When that one Syrian child asks,

“Where was the world?”

May we have an answer

that is worthy in God’s eyes,

and in our own.


Grant us wisdom,

grant us compassion,

grant us peace.

Hear Our Voice: A Petition for Pluralism

6 Sep

Rosh Hashanah 5774

Hear Our Voice: A Petition for Pluralism

Rabbi Judith Schindler

Those of you who drive may know this awful feeling.  You’re driving in your car listening to your music with your mind wandering about life, when suddenly a police car pulls up behind you.  Your heart sinks. Your mind races with questions: “Was I driving too fast? Did I fail to signal correctly? Did I cut somebody off?”  

That anxiety of being watched by law enforcement was the feeling I had when I prayed with Women of the Wall in the summer of 2012.  As women, only once a month, on the new moon, can we join together at the Western Wall for communal prayer and sing out in a loud voice. I was thrilled to be a part of it.

Yet as I rejoiced, I also had fear.  A police woman, standing less than twenty feet away was videotaping us the entire time. Israeli Law Enforcement wanted to ensure our safety on one hand and to ensure that we were law abiding on the other.  That summer, women were still being arrested for wearing a tallit at the Wall.

Given that my boys were sleeping peacefully in our rental apartment, I chose not to wear a tallit.  I was not concerned that an arrest for wearing a prayer shawl would negatively impact my professional future. I was concerned that such an arrest would take some time and didn’t think it wise to be separated from my kids in a jail cell. Yet with the camera upon me, I asked myself in irrational paranoia: “Was my dress too short? Was my voice too loud? Was I doing anything that would lead to me being detained?”

I have never been arrested. Generally speaking, I follow rules. Yet when the rules are wrong, I am unafraid to challenge them. Civil rights, human rights, and Jewish rights are all worth the fight. I can’t help myself. I inherited that legacy from my father and grandfather.

The Midrash teaches that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah and that there were 600,000 souls who first stood at Sinai.  Hence, the Rabbis conclude that the letters of Torah can be likened to the people of Israel. When you write a Torah every letter must stand on its own, no letter of the Torah can touch its neighbor, and every letter is essential. When one letter is missing, the entire Torah is unusable. So it is with Klal Yisrael, the people of Israel. To be complete, every Jew is needed to stand up on his or her own and every Jew is needed to stand together.

Yet today, there is a metaphoric mechitzah, a wall of separation, dividing the Jewish people – especially in Israel. The denominations of Judaism do not stand as one.  There is animosity between them.  The stereotypes remain strong as captured by this satirical expression: Reform Jews are lazy, Conservative Jews are hazy, and Orthodox Jews are crazy.  

Shema koleinu – hear our voice,” we call out on these Day of Awe more than any other.  

“Hear our voice,” we pray to each other.  May we overcome the distance of misunderstanding between us.

“Hear our voice,” we petition the Jewish people. In the coming year of 5774, may no Jew be devalued or disempowered. May every Jew be celebrated for his or her strength for we are far stronger as people when pluralism is our path.

A Jewish man was stranded on a desert island. When years later, the rescuers found him, they saw that he had built not one but two synagogues. When he was asked why, he responded, “The first one is the synagogue I go to and the second one – that’s the one I would never be caught dead in!”

While is it true that as Jews we’ve built tens of thousands of diverse synagogues across the globe, there is one sanctuary that unites us all: the Western Wall. It is to that holy site where Jews from all places for all time have made pilgrimage.

Even Abraham, in today’s Torah reading, took a three day journey to that sacred site.  It was there on the Temple Mount, on the rock that still remains under the golden dome, where Abraham was stopped from sacrificing his son, Isaac. The shofar will soon be sounded to reind us of the ram and to teach Jews of every generation that worshipping God should never involve violence or human sacrifice. 

It is the Western Wall of the Temple Mount to which our congregants continually make pilgrimage. For some of our congregants, such as Linda Bass, who was on our Interfaith Trip in March, the moment was mystical. As Tim Funk, the Charlotte Observer journalist who traveled with us reported, “As Linda rested her head against the cold white stone, she thought about her parents who had grown up in poor Eastern European shtetls … Though they immigrated to America working at first in sweatshops to survive, they had managed to make it to the Holy Land and stand in that spot. And she thought about her grandchildren, Asher who is four and Meyer who is one, imagining that they too would one day make it to that very same spot.”

Sadly, for other of our Beth El travelers, the Western Wall leaves negative memories.   Betsy Rosen who traveled with us last July remarked, “I have never been so alienated from a place my forefathers had been. I was sequestered to a smaller area. I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing.  It was individualistic. The men, on their side, prayed in community. They were swept up by fellow Jews in celebration.”

On the women’s side, Besty noted that there was no communal prayer. She didn’t feel like a real Jew standing there.  She was expecting to find guidance and comfort. Instead, she felt alone.

The Western Wall is the central sanctuary of our people, yet it does not reflect the pluralism of our people.  Judaism is not monolithically made up of men in black hats and women in ankle length skirts.  These deeply observant Jews are simply one small part of the beautiful diversity that makes up our people. Yet we, also, are essential fibers in the fabric of Jewish peoplehood. Without Orthodox Jews, without Reform Jews, without all Jews taking our place, the threads that bind our people together would unravel.

The Western Wall, once a sanctuary and symbol of unity, has become a disturbing center of disunity.  Each month, as Women of the Wall, many of whom modern Orthodox, gather for peaceful prayer, their experience has been anything but that. There is no Jewish law prohibiting women from wearing tallises, reading Torah and praying aloud amongst themselves, yet these simple acts of faith have led to Women of the Wall being spat at, having eggs thrown at them, being arrested and treated harshly.

Sinat Chinam – causeless hatred threatens our people. The Rabbis of the Talmud teach that it was because of such sinat chinam – causeless hatred that the Second Temple was destroyed.  Here’s the outrageous story:

In the first century of the Common Era, according to the Talmud, there was a wealthy man who decided to throw a party. He sent his servant to invite his good friend named Kamza to the event.  But his servant erred and mistakenly invited the host’s enemy, Bar Kamza.

When Bar Kamza arrived at the party the host was indignant and told Bar Kamza that he must leave. Three times Bar Kamza asked to stay. First, he offered to pay for his own meal. Next, he offered to pay half of the expense of the party. Finally, he offered to pay for the entire party. Yet still, the host humiliated him and sent him on his way denying hospitality.

Bar Kamza was enraged, especially because the rabbis who were present did nothing to defend him or appease the situation. Bar Kamza vowed revenge.  He went directly to the Roman Caeser and reported a Jewish rebellion.  A chain of events to challenge this theory was sabotaged by Bar Kamza, causing the Romans to siege Jerusalem, demolish the Temple, and exile our people.

Sinat chinam – senseless hatred led to our lowest moment in history.  These were the elements of that led to the destruction of our Second Temple:

  • a mix up between a friend, Kamza, and an enemy, Bar Kamza
  • a harsh neglect of hospitality
  • the Jewish leadership being complicit to sin through their silence
  • bystanders saying and doing nothing
  • outsiders witnessing our Jewish disunity
  • enemies seeing out shortcomings and stepping in to take full advantage of them

 Today, again, in that same holy city we are witnessing sinat chinam:

  • There is hatred of  segments of the ultra-Orthodox community towards Jews who pray and live differently
  • There is a harsh neglect of hospitality
  • The ultra-Orthodox leadership is complicit through their silence
  • The world is witnessing our divisions through instantaneous social media and forming negative opinions of who we are

We love Israel.  We want Israel to be its best. We want the world to see Israel at its best.   Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel taught: “The Second Temple was destroyed because of causeless hatred. Perhaps the Third will be rebuilt because of causeless love.”  While I do not yearn for a Third Temple to be built with a reinstitution of animal sacrifice and a classist system of leadership, I do yearn for the messianic promise of ahavat chinam – causeless love.

Ahavat Chinam – causeless love can heal our people. We are moving forward on that path.  Natan Sharansky, Jewish Agency Chairman, along with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of our Reform Movement, and other world Jewish leaders, are developing a plan calling for a renovation to the Western Wall plaza to expand the area of prayer. The idea is to create a platform over Robinson’s arch in the Davidson Center archeological site so that there can be multiple areas of prayer with one unified entrance. There would be a traditional section and an egalitarian section.

Imagine… that one day we could journey to Israel as a congregation and worship at the Western Wall as we do today at Temple Beth El — with men, women, children, with all of us, joining together in song and prayer.  Imagine… that one day our children, like the Orthodox, could become Bnei Mitzvah at that holy site.

For twenty five years, the courageous Women of the Wall have paved the way for this dream to be a reality: for Women of the Wall to have a place of prayer and for all of us to have a place of prayer.  On the new moon of Kislev, on November 4th, they will celebrate their milestone anniversary.  I have helped organize delegations from across our country, of men and women, clergy and congregants for a mission to celebrate Women of the Wall’s 25th anniversary and to support pluralism in Israel.  I invite you to join me. There is a four day core trip or a weeklong trip for those who have more time.  Just think how many frequent flyer miles you could earn?

Ahavat sinam – causeless love is needed not only in Jerusalem.  We need it here as well.  Let us be honest, most of us know our liberal Christian neighbors far better than then we know our Orthodox brothers and sisters.

In Munich, Germany, my grandfather belonged to two synagogues: one Orthodox and one, Reform, so it made sense for me to do the same.  I belong to synagogues of all streams.  The Jewish world is stronger when all of the denominations thrive.

In 5774, let us strengthen Jewish pluralism. I invite you study with us at our Jolts of Judaism at Caribou and at our Shivtzes ‘n’ Learns in Freedom Park as you run and explore sacred texts with Rabbi Freirich. I invite you to take part in our Tanach study and Torah Yoga.  I also encourage you to attend classes and cultural events at Temple Israel and at Congregation Ohr Hatorah, our Conservative and Orthodox counterparts, for they are us, and we are them, and we are one.

Can you imagine two more different human beings?  A Reform woman rabbi, almost 5’2’’, who fights for social justice, preaches and teaches in churches when asked, and supports LGBT equality. And a Lubavich Rabbi with a long beard, peos, and always garbed in a black kippah and dark suit.  It was with trepidation that eight years ago I got the courage to approach Rabbi Groner with my question.  He’d studied with Rabbi Bennett, my predecessor: would he study with me?  To my surprise he said “yes,” and became my teacher with whom I have had many honest debates and meaningful dialogue, and for whom I have the deepest respect. Walls of mistrust are crumbled when we see the heart of the Jew sitting across from us.

 Rabbi Dr. Abraham Levy, who was until recently the Sephardic Rabbi in London remarked in the book Who is a Jew? Conversations Not Conclusions, “When you are dealing with faith, no one is right.”  Our wrongs, as Jews, are found in our narrow mindedness. May we open our minds and hearts by opening our circle beyond the liberal and secular Jew.

The story is told of Yeshiva University’s new rowing team. It was the embarrassment of the entire sports department (which wasn’t so hot to begin with!) They not only finished dead last in every competition, but consistently crossed the finish line many minutes, even hours, after their opponents. Finally, they sent Goldfarb to spy on the Harvard Crew team, in the hopes of gaining insights. Lurking in the Cambridge boathouse, Goldfarb watched the team practice in the Charles River for several days.

He returned to New York, where his teammates gathered anxiously to hear his report. “I figured out their secret! They do it just the opposite way that we do it. They have eight guys rowing, and only ONE guy yelling!!”

While Judaism is a religion built on the learning that comes from arguing with God, with our texts, and with each other, sometimes we take it too far. This year may we propel ourselves forward by working with those denominations who will work with us and thereby show the world what it means to be Jew: to bring holiness and healing to our lives and our world.

In this New Year of 5774, we pray, “Shema koleinu – hear our voice.” This year may we overcome the distance of misunderstanding between us.

“Hear our voice,” we petition the Jewish people. May we value all Jews for who we are, and may our behavior inspire others to do the same.  

 “Hear our Voice.” May sinat chinam – causeless hatred disappear and may ahavat chinam ­– causeless love reign.

 Kein y’hi ratzon – may it be it God’s will and may it be our will. Amen.

Reform Judaism is Traditional Judaism

5 Sep

Erev Rosh HaShanah – 5774

Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

“Hineni,” I am here.

I am present, in this moment, to celebrate the New Year, atone for the mistakes of the past year, and turn towards the future ready to do better. I am present to connect with my self, the people around me, and with our God.


We are present to begin our holy days together.

This sentiment of presence at this moment connects us to historical and traditional Judaism – the traditions of Jews for thousands of years.

Though we call ourselves Reformers much later, reform in Judaism has been with us from the beginning. The principles of reforming – individual choice, creativity, innovation in the face of change, the use of wisdom from all sources – all have been present in the Torah, and in Judaism, from the start.

We evolve, we think about the future and how to respond to it, we respect each other’s differences, we create priorities among values, so that some, like compassion and hospitality, come before others, like keeping kosher and laws of purity.

We follow very closely in the footsteps of our ancestors in the Torah, in the Talmud, in the Middle Ages. In this way we are like Jews have always been.

Most Jews coming to synagogue tonight will say or hear this word “Hineini”, “Here I am”.

These are the words of Abraham, the first Jew and the first Reform Jew. At the beginning of the Binding of Isaac God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham responds,

Hineini, “Here I am”.

We all know the story…

God tested Abraham.

We are left to figure out exactly what the test was. We say it was a test of faith and obedience. Will Abraham sacrifice the child promised to him, the child through whom Abraham’s reward from God – a great nation – will emerge?

Every year we return to Binding of Isaac and every year I try to find a new take on it. In this way, we are like Jews throughout history trying to figure this story out. This year, reading through some of the Hebrew commentaries on it, I found one small comment by a 12th and 13th century scholar, Rabbi David Kimchi. Rabbi Kimchi noted that if this had been about obedience alone, wouldn’t God would have told Abraham, “Do this now”? But no, God said:

Go to the land of Moriah…

Moriah was far away. God asked Abraham to take a three-day journey. Abraham was eager to obey. He got up early and went, avoiding Sarah, knowing that what he planned to do would upset her, to say the least.

Rabbi Kimchi said that God meant to send Abraham on a long walk, to allow him “l’hitbonen”, “to gain insight for himself”. Obedience was not the whole test. God also tested Abraham’s ability to think, reason, and learn. God intended Abraham to deliberate as much about the life of his son, as he did about the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, for whom he argued with God.

Then, along the way Isaac stopped and said:


And Abraham answered: Hineini/Here I am, my son.

First Abraham was present for God, and now Abraham was present for Isaac. Abraham showed us that we must be present for God AND for our families.

Isaac suspected something. He said: “Hey Dad, looks like we are going to go make a burnt offering – what’s on the menu?”

They had been on the road for a few days, Abraham pondered God’s demand, and had some doubts when Isaac asked this question. Obviously, he could not be upfront with his son about the idea of offering him up as a sacrifice, so Abraham decided to express trust in God – God would see to the offering.

At first Abraham was eager, and now, in the middle of the journey, perhaps less eager. Our classical rabbis didn’t like to imagine Abraham boldly lying to Isaac, so they note that Abraham knew that things would work out differently, since what he said, that God would see to the lamb for the offering, was pretty close to how the it ended up.

In no time we have Abraham holding the knife over Isaac. At this instant, God’s messenger, called out to Abraham from heaven, and Abraham again responded,

 “Hineini/Here I am”,

ready to hear you. And this moment of hesitation, brought on by Abraham’s doubts from the long walk to Mount Moriah, let Abraham lift up his eyes, and see the ram caught in the thicket, and then offer the ram instead of Isaac.

Abraham listened. He obeyed one command. And then Abraham didn’t say to God, “Hold on, I’m in the middle of doing your command.”

Instead, that still small voice of his conscience held his hand, gave him pause, and allowed him to lift up his eyes and see the ram that had been there from the start. Abraham’s openness to change, to an actual change what God wanted, and Abraham’s devotion to the value of all life, saved Isaac.

We do what Abraham did.

We look at our actions and think about them. We do not obey without question.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud were reformers of the most radical order – they created new traditions and institutions when Judaism faced the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. In fact, they had been crafting a new Judaism for over 200 years before the destruction of the Temple, and so were best prepared to propose something new that could survive the loss of our center.

The famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai lived long before the destruction of the Second Temple, and already they developed and debated home observances like Chanukah and Shabbat, and worship outside the Temple. Synagogues and Houses of Learning were built far from Jerusalem long before the Temple’s destruction. We don’t have to rely on our rabbis’ memories of these buildings, many of us here have visited the remains of ancient synagogues throughout Israel, including the synagogue at Masada, many of them dating to over 100 years before the common era.

In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, with some places of learning and practices already established, our ancient rabbis began centuries of conversations about how to live their new Judaism, and wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud. These rabbis wrote the first book of the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, the Chapters of the Ancestors, and explicitly connected the giving of Torah to Moses at Sinai in a line of transmission of scholars all the way down to the themselves. Our ancient rabbis wrote themselves into the Torah! What chutzpah!

 “Hineinu.” The rabbis were present.

They were present for to make the changes that helped Judaism survive.

Abraham became present and opened up to the change that a long walk might offer him. The rabbis who created our Judaism opened up all Jews to new ideas: the synagogue could evolve from the Temple, prayer could evolve from sacrifices, and books could contain our legacy of wisdom.

The rabbis of this early Rabbinic Period revitalized Passover, and made it into a home observance. They promoted the head of household into the master of ceremonies for the Passover Seder, which they created to celebrate one of our most central holidays. They took things out of the Temple court and made them part of our home lives.

When faced with a need to change and evolve, these early rabbis rose to the occasion and spent 500 years crafting a process for figuring out how to do Jewish – today we call the record of that work the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Not only did they create new Jewish rituals and institutions, the rabbis also knew that they couldn’t push it too far. At one point in the Talmud’s discussions of Shabbat they actually admit that they could derive more restrictions for Shabbat than they could convincingly ask Jews to observe. The rabbis knew that our opinions mattered too. Our Talmudic rabbis were present for the what Jews cared about.

 “Hineinu.” We are present to learn from everyone.

Like our reforming ancestors before us, Reform Jews today revere knowledge from all sources. We aim to incorporate any wisdom that seems to work.

Maimonides, one of the most important Jewish scholars in our history, wrote in the 12th century that should the popular understanding of the creation of the world ever differ from the one described in Genesis, then we Jews should read our story as a good story, not a description of reality. We have been a scientifically minded people for a long time, always attempting to find a path that includes our historical writings and the truths of the times we live in.

Maimonides was also an esteemed authority in secular learning – he was revered by non-Jews as a doctor, as an astronomer, and as a philosopher. Before Maimonides, the rabbis of antiquity incorporated Greek philosophy into the Talmud. After Maimonides Renaissance commentators on the Torah used the same psychological thinking that informed Shakespeare. We love to learn, and we love to learn from any source.

The Torah is the symbol of our wisdom, not the entirety of it.

We Reform Jews understand this, we have been present for it, and we follow along paths that were well-trod long before the founding of the Reform movement.

“Hineinu.” We are present to learn from any and all sources of wisdom.

Our modern Reform Judaism emerged when 19th Century German Jews needed an authentic Jewish experience that connected them to their pasts and also allowed them to say,

“Here we are,

in a synagogue with others who share our values.”

Jews with secular educations began to succeed and live well in German cities of the early 1800’s. The Judaism they found there reminded them of the little synagogues in the shtetls that their grandparents had left behind decades before. They no longer dressed, spoke, worked, or lived like people from the country, so the religion from the country no longer spoke to them either. They began with a few simple innovations: a prayer book written with German translations, a sermon given in German instead of Yiddish. Tthey followed the teachings of the Talmud, that emphasize that prayer must be said in a language that people understand.

These urban Jews spoke German and not Yiddish, and needed to understand the holy words of their prayers, and the sermons of their leaders.

These early Reformers met their new needs. With thought and deliberation, over time, they followed Abraham’s model of “l’hitbonen”, to build insights for themselves, and in turn to build a Reform Judaism out of the Judaism of the past, using historical values and principles and applying them to their new situation, exactly like the rabbis of the Talmud.

Reform Judaism is mainstream, traditional, and historical Judaism. When we innovate we respond in a traditional and evolutionary manner to changes in our situations.

The reaction against these innovations became Orthodoxy.

Yes, that’s right – Reform Judaism came first, and the reaction against it, Orthodoxy, second. And in perfect Jewish form, early Orthodox Jews felt Judaism was in crisis and created a new idea about Judaism, a rigid conservatism, a resistance to change that in and of itself was a new form of Judaism. Judaism reacts to the times, and we often come up with different reactions.

 “Hineinu – here we are!”

         We Reform Jews are heirs to a long line of Jews who took reforming seriously.

We are here and present to listen and learn from our ancient traditions, and see how best to apply them to our situations today.

We are here to learn from each other, from other Jews, and from the best that science and human thought has to offer.

We are here to be present for each other as Jews who care deeply about who we have always been, and who we may yet become.

We are here, and we stand between the rich history of the Jewish people, and the promise of a future that we will build together.

Hineinu – we are present.

         Like Abraham, the ancient rabbis, and all of our sages:

We are present for God, we are present for our families, we are present for our greater communities, and we are present to be Reform Jews.

L’shanah Tovah, a good year, a year of growth and reform, a year of authentic Judaism which is ours to make, a better and brighter 5774 for us all.