Friday, December 12, 2014

Why I Won't Show The Red Tent At Shul

Earlier this week, Lifetime television presented what I am calling a micro-series. It was a two-night version of Anita Diamant’s first novel, The Red Tent (St. Martin’s Press, 1997). It was a timely production because just last week we read the biblical account around which this story is formed. I remember reading The Red Tent soon after it came out. I thought it was a fantastic take on the biblical narrative.

In Genesis 34:2-4, we read:
Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the local prince, saw her; he took her, lay her down, and raped her. He was then captivated by Jacob’s daughter Dinah and, falling in love with the young woman, spoke tenderly to the young woman. So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get this girl for me as a wife.”

Jacob agrees to the marriage only if the Hivites would circumcise themselves so they would be worthy of Hebrew daughters. They agreed, and while they writhed in pain from their respective surgeries, Shimon and Levi killed all of the Hivite men, including Shechem and Hamor, and took Dinah back home. In the entire biblical narrative, Dinah never speaks. She does not take part in the drama that unfolds around her and Shechem. Like so many women of the Bible, she is silent. The difference between Dinah and all the other silent women of the Bible is that Dinah is named, which draw attention to her and her plight.

In Judaism we have a rich tradition of creating stories based on the biblical text. We call them midrashim, which really means “explanations,” because they all serve the purpose of answering a question. When Anita Diamant wrote The Red Tent in 1997, the question she wanted to answer was, “What would Dinah have said if she was given a voice in this story?” In a world where women are often silenced, it was a noble attempt to write Dinah’s side of the story. In 1997, we reveled in the creativity of this modern midrash. We marveled at the powerful storytelling of this author who had previously written only Jewish handbooks on Jewish life and baby namings.

Today, however, the story is tainted by the shadow that lies on our news cycle. And frankly, it is tainted further by the horrible production that Lifetime put together.

I want to take a moment to look at some of the differences between the book and the movie. Now, it has been a long time since I read the book, but I seem to remember that the copy I read had two different fonts. The normal font for normal storytelling, and either bold or italicized for the actual biblical text. This does two important things for a reader. First, it serves as a constant reminder that most of what is in the novel is midrash—an add-on to the biblical narrative. Diamant very skillfully weaves between the text of Genesis and her own creation. This is a very important skill as a writer of modern midrash, because that is exactly what the homiletic midrashists have been doing for centuries. They weave their tales so skillfully into the Torah, the line between original text and midrash can become blurred.

I would often ask my 6th grade Bible students in Miami to find the story about Abraham smashing the idols in the Torah. I would tell them, “Abraham is born at the end of Genesis 11, and told to leave his father in Genesis 12, so please look for the famous story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop.” They would look and look, turning back and forth between the two chapters, sometimes flipping ahead and hoping for some sort of flashback. But it was a trick question, intended to teach them the difference between the biblical canon and the midrashim. Some of them become so engrained in our teachings that we do not always realize that they are midrashim, like the story of Abraham and the idols.

The rabbis who have been telling these stories to one another for centuries did not have this problem. Midrashim were written specifically for an audience who knew the text backwards and forwards. They never wondered which parts of the homilies were added and which came from the text. It would be like someone writing a whole new Star Wars story about Luke’s journey in between episodes 5 and 6. Many of us would know that it is not from the great and holy Lucas story, but who knows? It might be a very entertaining story that explains something the readers have always wondered.

And that is the second thing the different fonts do for the readers of The Red Tent. It helps the uninformed reader make the distinction. It prevents the problem of “I don’t remember that from the Bible,” and gives us a visual clue as to what she is creating and what is sacred text. That is also the first problem with the movie.

The movie version of the book could have been terrific if there was some sort of explanation about the concept of midrashim and the role it plays in Jewish teachings. There was no such explanation. Only a tag line that said, “My voice will finally be heard.” It makes people who saw the movie come to me all week saying things like, “I didn’t remember all of that from the Bible. I’m going to have to read it again.”

Now, that statement is a double-edged sword. Of course, I want you to read the Bible. I want you to be as familiar with the text as the ancient rabbis, and as familiar as Anita Diamant surely is with it. The other side of that is, in the words of my father, “You need to know the rules before you can break them.” In other words, reading midrash is a skill that comes from an intimate familiarity with the text. Understanding the intent of the authors of these stories is meant to be done in study, with groups of people, explaining and debating. When The Red Tent came out, guides were published for book clubs and classes that were reading the novel.

The micro series that aired this week provided no guidance. Viewers sat at home alone or with family, watching the story come to life on the screen. And most Americans are ignorant. Most people watching this movie were Christians with no concept of midrash, and no reason why they should have such a concept. Among the Jews who watched this film, many of them have no concept of midrash. The movie presents as an authoritative view of the Bible, when it has no authority except that of the author.

Now add the horrifying news we have recently learned about Bill Cosby. At this point, 19 women have come forward to say that he took advantage of them sexually. We don’t need to go over the details, but suffice it to say that over the last 20 or more years, Bill Cosby has forced women to do things they did not want to do, either by using drugs or by convincing them because, after all, he’s Bill Cosby. He has made settlements with some of them, and some have simply been silent for years. Sadly, there is a statute of limitations on any crimes he could be accused of, which has run out at this point in time. So there is nothing to be done legally if he were proven to be a criminal abuser. Nevertheless, the victims deserve to be heard.

In an article written this week called Carlebach, Cosby, and Separating Art from the Artist, Asher Levy eloquently describes the struggle between remembering The Cosby Show and the hours upon hours of laughter provided to him as a young man and the horrific actions of this man he once thought was so funny. He describes the Shabbat celebration of Shlomo Carlebach’s music, while, “A battle was raging in my head: How can you sit there and listen to this when you know what he really was, and what he did to those women?”   

You see, after Shlomo Carlebach died, allegations emerged that he was abusive to women he knew. He was seen occasionally fondling inappropriately, and it was brushed off as being swept up in the holiness of the moment and not being aware of his actions. But there were things he did behind closed doors that were worse. Women who came to him in his private study, seeking guidance and support from this holy man, were instead treated with “sexual therapy” under the guise of something kabbalistic. Wielding his holy power over these helpless women so that he could satisfy his own base urges.

I have heard the claim that some of the women who have come forward are “jumping on the bandwagon” to try and get something from Mr. Cosby or Rabbi Carlebach. Of course it is possible that one or some of these women is not being entirely truthful. If even one of these women is telling the truth, that is too many. And frankly, that’s not the point.

The point is that all too often, men of power get their way with women who have less power. Whether that power is physical or financial, based on fame or the ability to be spiritual guides, it is abuse.

In Levy’s article he says that these men got away with what they did for so long precisely because the fans allowed it. We say all too often, “But he created so much laughter,” or “But he moved so many people with his music and spirituality.” Whenever we say that, we continue to silence the women they abused. Whenever we watch a rerun on Nick at Nite or play a familiar melody on the bimah or go see a Broadway show based on their life, we perpetuate the power over women that these men had. Levy quotes blogger Elan Morgan, who writes, “We cannot separate the men from their art when they used their status from that art both to commit and conceal their violent behavior. To continue to share their art is to continue to share one of the weapons they used to commit their crimes.”

How many of us have stopped watching Mel Gibson movies because of the deplorable things he has said about Jews? We have so little tolerance when it comes to anti-Semitism, and we are in the right! So why is it that we cannot offer that same venom to those who are anti-women?

Going back to the biblical text, there is the possibility of ambiguity with the Hebrew word innah, which is translated as “raped” in the Dinah story. It could mean “violated,” which could be construed as “took her virginity.” The problem for me is not the one word, it is the context. If we read the string of verbs here we can replace it with something euphemistic or innocuous and still get the same result. Shechem saw her, took her, lay with her, vay’anehah—and had her. Then, after the deed is consummated—after his animal impulses are satiated—only then does he notice her and ask his father to make her a bride.

Friends, this reads to me like a classic case of “I did it because I loved her.” Dinah never gets to speak in the Torah. She is tossed around like property, and largely forgotten. It is up to the midrashists to give her a voice. It is up to the educated to say, “No! Shechem should not have used his royalty as power over a young shepherdess!” It is up to us to support the silenced and stop making excuses for the Shechems and the Carlebachs and the Cosbys in this world.

It is unacceptable to keep letting men of power write the narrative of the women they abuse. It is time to listen to their true voice. It is time to say that we have had enough. It does not matter who the prince is. He must treat her like royalty. It does not matter how the music has moved us. This is not harmony. It does not matter how much we have laughed. This is not funny.

It is time for us to stop taking other people’s word for it, and listen to the real stories.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Kol Nidre 5775

Shanah Tovah!
It is always wonderful to see so many of you here on Yom Kippur.  As we begin what is considered the holiest of days, we treat ourselves a little differently tonight.
On most days we take good care of our bodies.  On Yom Kippur we fast, refraining from food and water for our insides, and soap and water for our outsides.  Yom Kippur is a day of abstention.
Most days we wear whatever we find in the closet.  Tonight we pay attention to how we look.  Some of us wear white, some will not wear leather, some even wear a kittel, the traditional garb worn on only three occasions: under the Chuppah when getting married, in the coffin when we are buried, and under the lights of our sanctuary when greeting God on Yom Kippur.  Many of us will wear a Tallit and Kippah, perhaps for the only day this year.  Yom Kippur is a day of mindfulness of our appearance.
Most days we find ourselves focused on the events of the present.  We focus on our immediate goals and how we can accomplish them as fast as possible so we can move on to the next goal.  But not Yom Kippur.  Tonight we reflect upon the past.    We take stock of our shortcomings and we pray for a better year than the year that just ended.  We think carefully on how we can improve ourselves to make this year a year of blessing.  We apologize for our past misdeeds, and we work to improve our bad habits and imperfections.  Kol Nidre is a night of reflection, while Yom Kippur is a day of repentance.
Most days we spend our time at work.  On this High Holy Day we spend time with family and community.  We turn off our cell phones and disconnect from the professional world.  We focus on our spiritual gains and we pray.  We spend our time in synagogue instead of the office or classroom.  For 364 days out of the year, we focus on the routine; but on Yom Kippur we focus upon the Divine inside us all.
You know, Yom Kippur is kind of like Shabbat!

In fact, the Torah describes Yom Kippur as a day of complete rest: Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths.  On Yom Kippur we read Torah and Haftarah just like on Shabbat, and the Haftarah includes this pericope:
If you restrain your foot because of Shabbat, from pursuing your business on my holy day; and call Shabbat a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable; and shall honor it, not doing your own ways, nor pursuing your own business, nor speaking of vain matters; Then shall you delight yourself in the Lord; and I will cause you to ride upon the high places of the earth... (Isa 58:13-14).
The reminder from Isaiah to “call the Sabbath "delight," that we read on Yom Kippur helps remind us of the similarities the two holidays have. On Shabbat we rest to recharge from the week and take in the holiness that the day has to offer. On Yom Kippur we take a break from the year and try to focus completely on the holiness that we have inside us, yearning to come out.
Where Shabbat does differ from Yom Kippur, though, is in oneg Shabbat, the joy of Shabbat.  On Shabbat we enjoy Challah, wine, meals with family and friends, a mid-day schluff, and of course the double mitzvah… (You laugh, but it’s in the Talmud!)  On Shabbat we increase our bodily pleasure so that we can increase the pleasures of our souls.  We are told to remember Shabbat, honor Shabbat, and keep it holy.  Like on Yom Kippur we are not to work on Shabbat, but with a slightly different impetus.
When Moses explains the holiday calendar to the Israelites in the book of Leviticus, Yom Kippur is described as Shabbat shabbaton lachem, the Sabbath of Sabbaths for you (23:32).  Earlier in that same chapter, Saturday is called Shabbat ladonai elohecha, Sabbath for Adonai your God (ibid. 3). The Day of Repentance is a personal day of reflection. So Yom Kippur is a day for you, for us. We focus on our personal sins, trying to improve ourselves, making ourselves better for the following year. We are encouraged to approach people we may have wronged and ask forgiveness. One on one, a personal connection. A day for you.
Shabbat, on the other hand, is a public, communal day of celebration. We gather for prayers, for meals, for study. We spend time with our family and friends. We have fun, but this fun is not frivolous. The joy and laughter that Shabbat brings is an expression of the holiness within every member of the community. By increasing each other's joy, we are illuminating the Divine Presence that exists within each of us. We might not be aware as we celebrate how holy we are behaving, but when we celebrate Shabbat we are enjoying time with our community that, in turn, allows us to connect with God. Every Friday night as the sun sets, we sanctify a moment in time that serves as a declaration of our faith in God.
In the 2nd chapter of Genesis we first hear of Shabbat.  God spends the first chapter of the Torah creating.  Light and darkness, earth, water, sun, moon, stars, plants, and animals.  In six days God creates heaven and earth.  On the seventh day God rests.
Genesis 2:3 explains, “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation.”
And there, in the second chapter of the Torah, God creates the weekend.
I have taught before about an interesting trait of our secular calendar.  With the calendar we measure time through planetary movement.  In one day the earth rotates on its axis once.  In one month the moon revolves around the earth once.  In one year the earth revolves around the sun once.  And yet there is nothing in the cosmos that delineates a week.  We have to work out weeks on our own.  The week is the only calendrical measurement of time that is not determined by movement of astrological objects.  The only one!
That means we can observe days, months, and years.  There is ebb and flow to them.  It gets dark and light.  The moon grows and disappears.  The planet gets colder and warmer. Even in Southern Califonria we can see and feel these units of time expressed physically in the universe.
We cannot observe a week happening.  No star or planet makes it clear that a week has gone by.  We have to pay attention to know what day it is.  How many of us went back to work on the Tuesday after Labor Day and said, “Today feels like a Monday!”  Even with the calendar in front of us it is sometimes hard to keep track.  
This is because the week is not planetary time…it is God-time.  God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  A week is a Torah-mandated measurement of time!
So celebrating Shabbat becomes a declaration of our faith in God.  We stop working because God stopped.  And God stopped because God wants us to stop.

My friend Brian joined the US Army after he graduated college.  Years later he would describe with great agony some of the perils of Basic Training.  Of course, in Basic he had to do a lot of push-ups.  He told me that unlike the movies they didn’t have to do 50 or 100 push-ups at a time.  They had to do push-ups to Muscle Failure.  His drill sergeant would make them push until they were unable to push any more.  They would fall on their faces, exhausted, and do it again the next day.  
This is exactly how many of us work in our professional lives.  We push and push until we cannot so much as open an email, then we drive home, collapse, wake up, and start all over again.
If we keep it up we will cause problems worse than muscle failure.  We will have mental and spiritual failure.  Eventually something has to give.  If we refuse to take time, time will find a way to catch up to us.
In his book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the daily human quest as a conquering of space.  Heschel describes how we build things and acquire things, and these things take up space in the world. We understand our achievements through how we have used our space.  Look at what I have built, look at what I own, look at what I can buy.  Often we conquer space at the expense of time.  We use our days to the fullest of their capacity.  In conquering space, we lose time.
Heschel eloquently calls Shabbat a palace built out of time. I love this phrase. The metaphor reminds us that Shabbat stands separate because we stop taking over the space in the world. It also implies that Shabbat is a time for lavishing ourselves with comfort and tranquility. A palace is a grand place that serves as a beacon to travelers--we live here. Inside you will find protection, comfort, and friends. On Shabbat we find the same. We are protected from the need to keep working and moving, we are comforted by the rest and relaxation, and we do it all as a community.
The Torah commands us not to work on Shabbat.  Outside of the restriction against kindling a fire, it does not teach us much more than that.  Honor it, remember it, sanctify it, and don’t work.  What does that mean?
In the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat lists 39 malachot—39 activities that are not allowed on Shabbat.  No plowing, grinding, tearing, writing, baking, cutting, lighting a fire, etc etc.  You can probably find a complete list on Wikipedia.  These 39 malachot are derived from the work done making bread, making clothing, tanning animal hides, and building the Temple.  In strict practice today you either find behavior tailored to allow following the rules, or acrobatic manipulation of the law.
For example, in Israel most hotels place what looks like a mini-package of tissues in guest rooms on Friday afternoon.  These are not for blowing your nose, but for use after relieving yourself.  Pre-measured toilet paper prevents the observant Jew from tearing on Shabbat.
Some people will put timers on their lights, water heaters, and televisions.  That way they can derive the benefits from light, hot water, and their favorite program without actually flipping the switch on Shabbat.
Perhaps we think of these as silly and/or hypocritical.  Why waste material and packaging just to not rip toilet paper on Shabbat?  Isn’t being environmentally conscious more important to us today?  And a timer seems like a waste of energy.  If we are not home, the lights still go on.  More to the point, why is it ok to use the electricity if it is not ok to turn it on?
These manipulations of everyday activities are not done to skirt halachah.  The special toilet paper, Shabbat timers and elevators, walking from place to place, not carrying things, and everything we do or do not do on Shabbat serve to make Shabbat special.  This is sanctifying Shabbat—making it Holy.
Perhaps this is not what works for us, but to the Ultra-Observant Jew it makes perfect sense. We might hear about Shabbat toilet paper, Shabbat lamps that cover the bulb, Shabbat elevators that stop on every floor, Shabbat timers for electricity, and even an eruv--a border around a community that allows for carrying--and think that they are silly. Why spend all this time retending to follow the rules when you are actually doing everything you can to break them by finding loopholes in halachah? Why not just admit that this is not a Shabbat restriction that is meaningful to you anymore? They would answer, because we are making Shabbat holy. Our task, then, is to find ways to make Shabbat meaningful for us. If we are going to drive and turn on our lights and use electricity, it becomes more significant when we, as Heschel puts it, stop taking up space and start building with time.
In November, 2007 at the URJ Biennial convention in San Diego, Rabbi Eric Yoffe, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, offered some of his thoughts on Shabbat and how to make it Holy again.  Shabbat worship is an integral part of our week.  In Rabbi Yoffe’s words,
Reform Jews [keep] Shabbat because they need Shabbat.  In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating….  For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah’s mandate to rest looks relevant and sensible.  Our tradition does not instruct us to stop working altogether on Shabbat; after all, it takes a certain amount of effort to study, pray, and go to synagogue.  Be we are asked to abstain from the work that we do to earn a living, and instead to reflect, to enjoy, and to take a stroll through the neighborhood….  We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.
He explained the centrality of Shabbat worship to Judaism, especially to Reform Judaism.  We have a need to focus less on the restrictions of Shabbat, and more on the joy, celebration, and worship.
When I think back to some of the most special Shabbat celebrations in my life, they are almost always in Israel. My friends and I would spend the day preparing part of a Shabbat meal, then we would meet at someone's home and walk to a synagogue from there. After services we would walk back, sit down at the Shabbat table, and take turns doing the brachas, the prayers before the meal. We would start with the candles, move to the wine, and bless the challah and the meal. After we ate we would do a raucous Birkat Hamazon, and that would begin the zmirot, the singing. Most of us were camp people, so we would sing camp songs, other Jewish songes we knew, and generally have a great time singing together in celebration of Shabbat. We would spend the evening together, chatting, singing, and enjoying our time together until we got tired and went home. On Saturday morning we would all go in separate directions, some of us preferring a more Orthodox Saturday morning, while others liked the Reform services.  We all spent time enjoy Shabbat our way.
In 1991 the CCAR Press published Gates of Shabbat, a Guide for Observing Shabbat.  In this book, Mark Dov Shapiro describes three types of Shabbat worshippers, three examples of how to take a break on Shabbat and make it holy.  He calls them The Walker, The Museumgoer, and The Painter.  The Walker serves as the more traditional Shabbat observer.  He spends no money and uses no technology.  He will go to the park or take his canoe out on a local river.  He will picnic at the beach or study with a group of friends.  The Walker “puts aside the so-called necessities of modern life and uses Shabbat… [to do] something positive through thought, leisure, and friendship….”
The Museumgoer also stays away from work on Shabbat. No chores or errands are allowed, but she is willing to drive and spend money, though she puts limits on how her money will be spent.  For example, she will not go shopping on Shabbat, but she will drive to and pay the admission for a day at a museum.  Shabbat for the Museumgoer is made holy through freedom from necessity.  Her activities increase in holiness when she shares them with her family and friends.  Of course, these activities can all be done on a day that is not Shabbat.  For Reform Jews, what makes these activities special for us is the intent as we do them.  We honor Shabbat by refreshing and giving new life to our soul.  
The Painter is a very different example of a Shabbat observer.  God stopped the work of creation on Shabbat and rested.  We are to follow God’s example with our rest.  Painting can be considered a form of creating, so how does the Painter justify his Shabbat ritual?  He uses the book of Deuteronomy, in which Shabbat is described as a reminder of our liberation from Egypt.  Therefore, it makes sense to the Painter to allow himself to feel liberated as well.  An activity like painting, even though it is not halachically shabbes-dik, can be the perfect restful antidote to the meetings and appointments of the work week.  As long as the activity is not something we get paid for during the rest of the week, engaging in some form of art allows the mind to relax while the hands move the brush.
There are many ways to honor Shabbat and sanctify our day of rest.  The Walker, the Museumgoer, and the Painter all have ways of making Shabbat a personal experience. While they may or may not be observing the Talmudic restrictions against the 39 malachot, they are creating sacred time. They are making Shabbat meaningful. I know that Shabbat is meaningful to many of you here at CBT. We have talked about your Shabbat rituals. I know that some of you turn off the news and turn on music. Some of you go out of your way to eat every meal on Shabbat with your family. A friend of mine, who absolutely loves cookies and cake and had to stop eating them during the week, chooses one treat during Shabbat oneg, and that is the only sweet he eats all week. For him, Shabbat is literally time for sweetness.
If something happens to you on a particular Shabbat that makes you aware of its holiness, tell us. If there is something that you do on Shabbat that makes it a Palace in Time, send me an email describing your ritual. If it is something unique, perhaps I will share it in a weekly email. Shabbat is about the community, and we want to involve as many people as possible in our joy of Shabbat.
Let me start by sharing with you what happens in my family on Shabbat. On Friday nights, as we gather around the table, we are enveloped in an aura of pure....chaos. Natalie and I are both rushig in different directions trying to get to our respective Shabbat services. Our children, feeling the energy emanating from us, tend to jitter with energy they don't know what to do with. It takes everything we have to keep them still enough for the four blessings that precede the meal, and then we eat in a rush, half standing and half sitting as we shovel into our mouths and swallow. If there is a Family Shabbat at one of our congregations we add to the struggle, trying to get the kids washed, changed, and fed in a mad, Flight-of-the-Bumblebee frenzy around the house that leaves us feeling anything but peaceful as Shabbat begins.
I imagine we are not alone in this. Families have told me throughout the year that it is not easy to get everyone ready for Family Shabbat, and that 7:00 is too late for them to get here, or too early for them to be ready by then. If they only had a little more time....
So this year we are taking Shabbat back. Starting November 7, our Family Shabbat will get flipped on its head. Family Shabbat will continue to be a come-as-you-are, casual Shabbat experience. We will keep the musical energy and the camp-like melodies in place. We will keep the story-instead-of-sermon MO that we have built over the past year. But we will change the schedule. Only a little bit, but this little shift will allow all of our families to enjoy our time together on Shabbat.

Instead of rushing to CBT after dinner, come before. We are going to move Family Shabbat services back to 6:30. Our goal is to keep service under an hour, which will give families time to have dinner after services instead of before. For those of us who cannot wait that long to eat, we will offer a pre-Shabbat oneg from 6 to 6:30. This will be a small offering, nothing major. Wine and cheese, juice and veggies, just a little something to tide us over until dinner after services. As often as we can, we will have Shabbat dinner together, in the Social Hall, immediately after services. These will either be pot-luck, where everyone who wants to have dinner with us will have to bring something to share, or we will ask for a donation to offset the cost of catering a Shabbat dinner. For the first dinner, on November 7, we will be catering. Watch for the November bulletin, and of course emails and the web site, for details.
Instead of rushing through dinner on our own, we will have time to enjoy a Shabbat dinner with no obligations afterward. We will have time to sit down, relax, and enjoy the company of our warm and welcoming community. Ginger Shulman has been planning our Shabbat dinners, and she plans to continue doing so for as long as she can. Of course, the more volunteers she gets, the longer she will be able to do it because many hands makes light work.
Now not all of us fall into the "family" demographic. Some Shabbat experiences are geared toward a more mature Shabbat mindset. For this group we will offer a different flip. We are also going to move one of our "regular" Kabbalat Shabbat services to 7:00, to give the rest of our community that same opportunity to have a snack before services and dinner after. Now, 7:00 is one of those middle-of-the-road times. People who eat early can get through dinner before services, and people who eat later can easily dine after. We are planning to keep the oneg after these services at this point, but we are willing to play with it and see what works for us as a community.

We are also hoping to learn more about what other congregations are doing on Friday nights. As I have mentioned before, we are trying to put together a Jewish Living Committee, who will be tasked with, among other things, elevated the sanctitiy of B'nai Tzedek's Shabbat experiences. They will be asked to celebrate Shabbat somewhere else, where they will learn from the best practices of Shabbat worship and report back to the rest of the Jewish Living Committee.  We will then weave the suggestions we like into our own Shabbat worship experience.
The more we experience Shabbat, the more we will understand how Shabbat rest can be liberating.
Tonight is Kol Nidre.  It is a night full of spirituality and meaning.  Our challenge is to bring some of the Kavannah—the intention—of Kol Nidre to our souls every week.
Tonight we think about the vows we have broken and those we have renewed.  Let us make a communal vow to make Shabbat observance, in some way, a central part of our Jewish identities for the coming year.
Tonight we dream.   We remember the past and dream of the promise of a rich future.  Our dream tonight is of a meaningful Shabbat.  Shabbat for us will be a day of rest, a day of revitalization, a day of connection with our loved ones.
On this Yom Kippur, this Shabbat of our souls, we embark on a journey of many chances to experience Shabbat Kodesh, the Holy Sabbath, every week.

So again, I bid you all Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Elul 28, 5774

It is Never Too Late, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis 
The last word has not been spoken,
the last sentence has not been written,
the final verdict is not in.
It is never too late to change my mind,
my direction,
to say no to the past and yes to the future,
To offer remorse,
to ask and give forgiveness.
It is never too late to start over again,
to feel again
to love again
to hope again....

Elul 27, 5774

Growing up, video game play was taboo, and my parents drilled into my head that they were a complete waste of time. Of course, that didn't stop me, because I knew I was the Mario who could save the Princess. As it turns out, businesses that are hiring young employees like to see some time in front of the screen with thumbs twitching. They consider it an asset when as applicant spends about 30 minutes a day playing video games, because video game players are used to failing.

It is not that businesses want their employees to fail; it is that they know they will. Everyone does, from time to time. The question is not whether they will fail, but how they will react when they do. More often than not, a person who plays video games is used to seeing the big, red GAME OVER sign on the screen. When they do, they simply start over and try a different tactic. There is no crying, no complaining that it isn't fair, just reset and try again.

While we don't often get Nintendo-charged chances to immediately reboot and start again, we always have a choice about how we react to failure. We can get upset and kick and scream at our misfortune, or we can dust off, get up, and try a new tactic, hopefully having learned from our failure.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Elul 26, 5774

David Foster Wallace wrote this story: There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the heck is

We are like those fish, going through life without understanding, without gratitude, without introspection. Our High Holidays help us to better understand our world, our religion, and most importantly, ourselves.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Elul 24 and 25, 5774

Tomorrow night is S'lichot, the holiday when we "officially" begin the High Holy Days. If you are lucky enough to receive these Elul Reflections, you have been preparing since late August. Nevertheless, tomorrow night is the kickoff. It is a long, slow trek from S'lichot to Yom Kippur and on through Simchat Torah. It all starts tomorrow.

Meanwhile, enjoy the double portion of Elul Reflections:

Elul 24

At the start of moments that are incredible, weddings and baby namings and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, we turn to words of liturgy: May God bless you and keep you; May you always draw comfort from a close relationship with God; May a loving God guide your steps and inspire your decisions and may our lives be filled with peace.


Now we gather at the twilight of this year, and I can borrow language from Jewish liturgy to capture this moment: "I confess that I have left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did and the good that I tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven." How have your acts of goodness, as opposed to errors, given meaning to your life in 5774?

Elul 25
Three Questions

I once heard a story about a rabbi who was stopped by a Russian soldier while he walking in his shtetl. The soldier aims his rifle at the rabbi and demands, "Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you going there?"

Completely calm and unfazed, the rabbi asks, "How much do they pay you?" A bit surprised, the soldier responds, "Twenty­-five kopecks a month." The rabbi pauses, and in a deeply thoughtful manner says, "I have a proposal for you. I'll pay you fifty kopecks each month if you stop me here every day and challenge me to respond to those same
three questions."

Elul 24, 5774

At the start of moments that are incredible, weddings and baby namings and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, we turn to words of liturgy: May God bless you and keep you; May you always draw comfort from a close relationship with God; May a loving God guide your steps and inspire your 
decisions and may our lives be filled with peace.
Now we gather at the twilight of this year, and I can borrow language from Jewish liturgy to capture this moment: “I confess that I have left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did and the good that I tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be
forgiven.” How have your acts of goodness, as opposed to errors, given meaning to your life in 5774?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Elul 23, 5774

In the 1998 movie The Prince of Egypt, one of my favorite scenes is where Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) approaches the burning bush. A voice comes out of the bush voiced by...Val Kilmer. The same casting decision was made in 1956 for The Ten Commandments, in which both roles are played/voiced by Charleton Heston. This casting choice is also a theological choice. It says, in essence, that when Moses hears God's voice, he hears his own voice. In other words, God's voice is not the cinematic presentation of a booming, masculine voice from the clouds. It is the still, small voice within us. This is why the Hebrew word l'hitpalel, "to pray," is a reflexive verb. We do not direct our prayers outward; we direct them inward, to the Divine Spark nestled deep in our soul.

When I am reading or thinking and I "hear" words in my head, the voice of those thoughts is my voice. I assume it is the same with all of us. Who knows? Maybe we all hear God's voice, disguised as our own. Perhaps what we call the voice of conscience is that same voice that Moses heard at the burning bush, that all the Israelites heard at Mt. Sinai, and anyone can hear if we are able to recognize our own connection with God.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Elul 22, 5774

The Sling by Rabbi Hirshy Minkowitz
Question: Imagine you are right handed and you suffer a bad fall on your right side. You end up with torn ligaments in your shoulder and the doctor says you need to wear a sling and cannot use the arm for a week. You are right handed so now it becomes difficult to write, drive, text, email, etc.
How are you supposed to go on with your regular day to day functioning with your primary arm immobilized?
I thought about this all week since a fall last Wednesday put me in this exact predicament. And of course the allegory and metaphor associated with this was swimming in my mind all week. What does one do when their figurative right arm is unavailable? When the thing they rely on most for so many of their basic functions and survivals is simply not there? How is it even possible to continue?
My life the last four months was relived in a metaphoric microcosm the last eight days.
And then I discovered the answer, it was a very simple and short one, and it applied to the last four months as it did to the last week.
Answer: You learn to use your left arm.
As you consider the year that is almost passed, how have you “learned to use your left arm?”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Elul 21, 5774

We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as Hayom Harat Olam, the Birthday of the World. We read the story in Genesis that tells us that Shabbat began when "...the heaven and the earth were completed and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that God had done" (Genesis 2:1­2). And yet, Creation never really came to an end. In the prayer Yotzer Or, we praise God every morning as the One who in goodness renews the work of Creation every single day: uv'tuvo m'chadeish b'chol yom tamid ma'aseh v'reishit.

Over 30 years ago, Rabbi Harry Danziger spoke to his congregation on Rosh Hashanah Eve at Temple Israel in Memphis, TN. He said "When God finished creating the world after those six days, He left a lot of unfinished business...You and I have the power to do God's Unfinished Business." With that sermon, God's Unfinished Business, or GUB, began as an outreach network within Temple Israel to help connect members with one another, to provide help and support to each other at different moments in life, and continues to offer many services today.

Each day we have the power to take up God's unfinished business, to complete one more part of the acts of
Creation. In the year to come, what talents and skills can you lend to completing the task?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Elul 20, 5774

From Rabbi David Wolpe: We have all been saddened by times of war and loss. May we remember during these moments that each day, millions are patiently building, working, creating, dreaming, and rescuing others. Do not despair; the human heart has hidden resilience and secret hopes.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Elul 19, 5774

Think about one thing that you wish you had done differently in the past year. Now, I ask you to imagine what it would look like for you to do it differently. Perhaps you wish you were nicer to a family member. You may wish that you were kinder to an employee, or that you gave more of your time to volunteer efforts. Judaism teaches us that these thoughts can be more than wishes ... more than good intentions. As we approach the High Holidays, start by doing just one thing differently, they way that you wished for in your thoughts. Lao Tzu said, "Every journey begins with a single step." Before the High Holidays start, take that one step.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Elul 17/18 5774

Again, a double portion as we prepare for Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom!

Elul 17

When Moses encounters God for the first time, God immediately commands Moses to take his shoes off because Moses is on "holy ground."

What might be a connection between bare feet and holy ground?

I like to think that God's command reminds all of us of unnecessary barriers. Just as Moses' feet needed to feel the ground, we need to feel the pains and joys of others, increasing our empathy and caring for one another.

Often times, we may encounter holiness but our senses are not attuned enough to feel the sacredness of the moment. DuringElul, let us metaphorically take our shoes off ... we are standing on holy ground.

Elul 18

Today is my 40th birthday, though I am rarely one to focus on my age. How many trips I have taken around the sun has never been a number that deserves my attention. People have told me that how we feel, or how we act (which would lower my number significantly) is more important than the number. After all, it is not like last night as the clock moved from 11:59 to 12:00 I magically aged exactly one year. I have gradually been moving toward 40, month by month, day by day, second by second. Perhaps this is why age as a number is rarely something that I consider.
It is better to think of aging not by numbers but by connections. In my time here I have experienced great joy and terrible loss. All of these moments are because of how significant other people are to me. My parents, grandparents, wife, and children have been and remain some of the most important people in my life. Other relatives, friends, and colleagues keep me laughing, crying, and holding on to precious moments, good and bad. Congregants and students who need me in a particular role keep me strong and make every day an adventure.

So as a birthday gift to me, please reach out to someone and tell them how they have made your time matter. Tell them what their connection means to you and do what you can to keep it strong.

Elul 16, 5774

Lilla Watson wrote, "If you ever come here to help me, you're wasting our time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together."

During this time of Elul, we must realize that our lives are bound up with one another. By doing acts of T'suvah and repentance, we take these words seriously, acting them out through our actions as well as believing them in our hearts. My redemption is bound up with yours. Let us work together.

Elul 7, 5774

A man once cried to God, “Lord, the world is in such a mess – everything seems wrong.  Why don’t you send someone to help and change the world?”  The voice of Adonai answered, “I did send someone.  I sent you.”
This is a time to ask for forgiveness, seek mercy, and pray for life.  We ask God for a year of health and holiness and joy.  This is also a time where we do more than ask because we have work to do.  We work to reflect deeply on our past, we work to bring healing to ourselves; we work to find a true sense of wholeness and completion in our lives.  During this month of Elul we work to understand that God has sent us.  It is up to us to help and change the world.  This is a time to accept this sacred task.