Thursday, October 13, 2016

Is It Ever Too Late to Repent? (Kol Nidre 5777)

Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan are an unlikely team of Talmudic rabbis, and they are two of the greatest. Yet they could not be more different from one another. While both are known for their scholarly acumen, Rabbi Yochanan is also known for his great beauty, and Reish Lakish for his great strength. Rabbi Yochanan comes from a venerated family of Torah scholars, and shined as a prince among the most learned of our ancestors. Reish Lakish comes from a tribe of wandering thieves, and as the biggest and strongest he was their leader. Yet these two were fast friends, brothers-in-law, and even study partners.

This pair studied together as the perfect example of what we call machloket in Hebrew. It is the word for how the Talmud is set up, with educated Jews arguing. But it is more than that, because it acknowledges that in order to better understand your own opinion, you must find a study partner who has very different opinions from yours. It's a two-party system of learning, and it works because the two sides have great respect for one another. Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan’s arguments appear throughout the Talmud on a variety of topics.

One day they are discussing something relatively mundane, and they get into an exchange of insults that leaves both of them angry. Before they can make amends, Resh Lakish falls ill and dies, and Rabbi Yochanan goes crazy out of sadness and mourning, and he starts searching the streets, calling out for his friend, inconsolable. Eventually the other rabbis pray for God's mercy, and Rabbi Yochanan dies, tortured over not having fixed their relationship, over missing the chance to repent (B. Baba Metzia 84a).

So it clearly can be too late to repent.

For Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan their deaths prevent repentance, and it is a tragic tale of what-if-I-had-only-repaired-my-relationship, which reminds me of a teaching you might recognize:
Rabbi Eliezer taught, “Repent one day before your death.”
His disciples asked him, “But how does a person know on what day [they] will die?”
Rabbi Eliezer answered, “All the more reason, therefore, to repent today, lest one die tomorrow. In this manner, one’s whole life will be spent in repentance” (B. Shabbat 153a).
God willing we will all live to 120. God knows this is not likely to be the case.

We read a very disturbing passage in our High Holy liturgy called Unetaneh Tokef, which makes the ominous proclamation that:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
who shall live and who shall die;
who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
who shall perish by fire and who by water;
who by sword and who by beast…
Taken for its literal meaning, Unetaneh Tokef seems to tell us that in these Ten Days of Awe it is determined if this year is going to be our last year. We could interpret this as understanding that our fate is sealed, and what we do after Yom Kippur does not change that.

We would be mistaken.

Unetaneh Tokef is liturgical poetry. As such, we need to understand that it might not mean it is determined that we will literally live or die. But, and this should be no less bothersome, every year, we all have moments when we live and when we die. When we feel every year of our age, and when we are struck with youthful vitality. When we are burned and when we are drowned. The answer to every phrase of, “Who shall A and who shall B?” is: I will. At some point this year I will experience all of these things.

The message of hope comes in the next line which reminds us of the tools we have to mitigate the severity of the decree, and the very first one is T’shuvah, repentance. We spoke about T’shuvah a bit on Rosh Hashanah, but to serve as a bit of review I will quote our very own Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, who lists the five R’s of Repentance: Responsibility, Recognition, Remorse, Repair, Resolve. In other words, we must:
1. Take personal ownership over our actions
2. Admit what we did and to whom we did it
3. Share how we now feel about what we did
4. Make restitution and reparations to those we’ve injured
5. Commit to a change in behavior to not repeat the act.
Responsibility, Recognition, Remorse, Repair, Resolve
Even with the powerful apparatus of repentance at our disposal, we might be too late for it to be effective. If we do not make it through those steps, either through our own death like Resh Lakish, or through the death of the one we wronged like Rabbi Yochanan, repair can never be achieved, and our repentance is incomplete.

So repent today. Do it now. Make the call, tap the person on the shoulder, and repent. Make t’shuvah so that you can temper the severe decree that awaits us all at the end of Yom Kippur. And on the flip side, tell people who have wronged you that you are awaiting an apology from them. Let them know you are hurt so they can begin the process of t’shuvah.

Of course, sometimes the sins we have committed, by their very nature, make it too late to repent.

A collection of Midrashim called Pirkei d'Rabbi Natan enumerates a list of five people who cannot be forgiven: One who is forever repenting, one that sins excessively, one that sins in a righteous generation, one that sins with the intention to repent, and one who profanes God’s name.

The one who is forever repenting is the person who always seems to be saying they’re sorry. They do something wrong, “I’m sorry.” They make the same mistake, “I’m sorry.” One of my college roommates seemed to always be yelling at her girlfriend and saying very mean things. I asked once how they stay together with all the things she says, and she smiled, put an arm around me and said, “I’m a great apologizer.” Unfortunately, as Pirkei d’Rabbi Natan points out, that is not the case. Whether someone is a great apologizer or always says “sorry,” eventually it gets old. I tell my own children that after a while, “sorry” isn’t enough until they change their behavior.

Sinning excessively reads as subjective. What is excessive? In Hilkhot T’shuvah 4:3 (Mishnah Torah), Maimonides notes that some misdeeds by their very nature preclude the possibility of repentance. He mentions one who curses an entire people, one who shares stolen property with a thief, one who finds lost property and does not look for its rightful owner, one who abuses the poor, the orphan, and the widow, and one who takes bribes to subvert justice. Maimonides could not have comprehended the possibility of the horrors of the holocaust, but surely he would have included them in his list had he lived centuries later.

An excessive sinner is also the person who makes excuses for their sins. Whether we say them out loud or to ourselves, we might say, “I’m only speeding because I’m running late.” “I’m only cheating so I can get into a good school.” “I’m only gossiping so you’re aware of what’s happening.” Taken on their own they might not seem that bad, but like the stone at the bottom of the lake, we have no idea where the ripples of our actions have gone.

One that sins in a righteous generation is the foil to Noah, who was noted as a righteous man for his time, which is often interpreted as being an ok guy in a time where everyone else was awful. He was chosen to save the world because when everyone else was behaving badly, Noah raised the bar. Sinning in a righteous generation may not sound like it applies to us at all, but if we replace the word “generation” with “community,” it absolutely does. When we are surrounded by good people and we decide to do bad things, we not only lower the bar, we encourage bad behavior among those who would not otherwise do so.

One that sins with the intention to repent seems even worse. This person understands that they are sinning. They do it anyway, figuring they can sin with impunity if they repent later. However, the last R of repentance is Resolve: resolving to change our behavior should we encounter the opportunity to make the same mistake again. Believing we can later repent and doing it anyway subverts that resolution. If we were truly to be repentant, we would never commit the act in the first place because we know it is wrong.

One who profane’s God’s name, or in Hebrew Hillul Hashem, appears again and again in the Talmud. Rabbis are lauded for enduring torture rather than denouncing God. Because he declares that God does not exist, Alisha ben Abuya is never referred to by name. When an argument of his is cited, he is referred to only as Acher, “the other.” Today we do not seem to care if people are faithful followers or devout atheists. While I respect the opinions of those whose beliefs are different from my own, there is something deeper here than a declaration of faith. Hillul Hashem can also be interpreted as profaning God’s presence that exists in every human being.

We often point out that human beings are created betzelem elohim, in the image of God (Gen. 1:23). When we denigrate another human being, we desecrate God’s presence that exists within them, and thereby profane God’s name. Whether we make fun of someone’s disabilities; judge someone for their skin color, religion, or country of origin; deny the rights of the LGBT community; or engage in bullying of any kind, we are guilty of hillul hashem. It is unforgivable, and it must stop.

Tonight, Yom Kippur begins. This is our chance. Tonight, the gates are wide open, and we can do more than say we are sorry. We can both try to eradicate feelings of hate, anger, envy, and greed that can lead us to commit these heinous acts, AND we can demand that our friends and loved ones do better. Yom Kippur is our Day of Repentance, and we can go back to Resh Laskish who said, “the greatness of repentance lies specifically in its ability to take willful acts of disobedience and transform them into merit” (B. Yoma 86b).

This is our chance to turn our sins into virtues. In masechet Brachot, it says that “even the righteous cannot stand where repentant sinners stand” (34b). The merit of those who repent is superior to that of those who never sinned, for the former had to exert greater effort in suppressing their impulse to turn away from God’s law.

Rabbi Israel Salanter tells the story of walking into a shoemaker late in the evening. He saw the shoemaker working as he leaned over a flickering candle. When he asked the man why he didn't stop working and go to bed, he replied, "As long as the flame burns, it is possible to mend."

This is our chance. It is not too late. The flame still burns. If we do this right, if we truly repent, we can turn from our habits that may be unforgivable and become among those who are the most righteous.

May this be, for all of us, the year we stop worrying about whether it is too late because we have made repentance. May this be the year we have no regrets, the year we have left nothing unsaid. May this be the year we are all truly written in the Book of Life.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

Yom Kippur 5777

I love it when a band puts out a “Greatest hits” album.

Say what you will about having the original recordings or the song as the band intended it, some of my favorite albums are compilations like The Beatles 1967-1970 (aka The Blue Album), The Rolling Stones’ Jump Back, Ben Fold’s The Best Imitation of Myself, and Red Hot Chili Peppers What Hits!? I even love the Greatest Hits of the 80’s and 90’s albums that Billboard or whatever production company puts out.

Listening to a greatest hits album helps me remember some of why I like a band in the first place, with all of my favorites in one place. It’s like an hour of sing-along joy, and even taps into memories of moments with these songs in the background. Greatest hits can sometimes help get me into a band I’m less familiar with, or even convince Natalie to like one of the bands I like (except Frank Zappa. She just doesn’t get him.), because all of their very best are condensed into an album without ever having to hear songs like Number 9.

Today our Torah reading features excerpts from Deuteronomy 29 and 30, out of Parashat Nitzavim. This morning’s reading coupled with this afternoon’s reading from Leviticus 19 could easily be called The Torah’s Greatest Hits. Deuteronomy 29 and 30 remind us of our covenant with God. We are reminded that all of Israel, past, present, and future, are bound by this covenant, no matter if we are a community leader or a wood cutter. We are reminded that Torah should not be too difficult for us to go after, because it is neither across the sea nor in heaven, but in our own hearts. The choice, we are told, is always before us: life and good, death and evil. We are to choose life, with heaven and earth eternally serving as our witnesses, and we will be granted a long life in return.

One of the greatest greatest hits is Deuteronomy 30:12a. Lo bashamayim hi, “it is not in heaven.” It seems like a simple explanation, that the Torah is not far away, and none of the Israelites, famous for complaining, would be given the opportunity to complain about Torah being too far away to get. But rabbis throughout the centuries have loved parsing this verse.

The great 11th century French Rabbi known as Rashi explains this line simply, saying, “we don’t have to go to heaven to learn it.” He seems to be alleviating worry that only those who die will ever fully understand Torah. It is not up in heaven, because anyone down here can access it. All we have to do is learn it. The 15th Century Italian rabbi Ovadia Sforno explains that this means no prophets will be necessary to teach Torah to us. But the Talmudic Rabbi Yehoshua flips this verse on its head in one of my favorite Talmudic stories.

In an argument over whether or not a particular oven is kosher, Rabbi Eliezer believes one way, and everyone else believes another. He declares, “Let this tree prove it if I am right!” and the tree moves. The others say, “You cannot prove Torah law with a tree.” So he says, “Let this river prove it if I am right,” and the river flows backwards. Again they say, “You cannot prove Torah law with a river.” So he says, “Let the walls of this study hall prove it if I am right,” and the walls begin to cave in. At this point, Rabbi Yehoshua says, “Don’t interfere with scholars engaged in debate,” and the walls freeze, leaning in. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer says, “If I am right, let the heavens declare me so!” and a voice from heaven calls out, “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters Torah law agrees with him!”

Rabbi Yehoshua is not happy about this, and he points up and says, lo bashamayim hi, “It is not in heaven! We do not need to pay attention to a Heavenly Voice, because you gave the Torah to us!” That’s right! Rabbi Yehoshua yells at God, telling the One who gave us Torah not to butt in when they are talking Torah! Later, when Elijah is encountered in the marketplace (which happens often in the Talmud), he tells another rabbi that when Rabbi Yehoshua yelled, lo bashamayim hi, God laughed with joy, saying, “My children have bested me! My children have bested me!”

This section of Torah that tells us we have the power to interpret the laws and allow the majority to decide the best course of action. Especially when the majority is a group of learned individuals who have dedicated their lives to study of Torah, sometimes even when someone is right, he is also wrong. We need to study Torah, take in its commandments, and interpret them so that they can best guide us in our lives today.

Actually, the fact that we read Deuteronomy today is proof that the Reform movement believes this. In non-Reform circles, the Yom Kippur reading is from Leviticus 16. That section is about Temple sacrifice, with Aaron making expiation for the sins of the Israelites by taking two goats, one as a sin offering on behalf of the community, and the other set free. The one that he sets free is first taken into the Tent of Meeting, and Aaron confesses all of the sins of the people onto this goat. He then lets the go go into a designated area of uninhabited wilderness. This goat that is allowed to escape, as it were, is where we get the modern term, “scapegoat,” by the way.

According to his daughter Rabbi Shira Milgrom, Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, z"l, taught that the Torah was the revolution of priestly theology. Before the Torah, sin was viewed as a demonic force. If someone did something wrong, they would explain that a demon had made them do it. The demon would be exorcised, and the sin purged. In the priestly view, sin was not a demonic force, but of human volition—human beings bring sin and goodness both into the world. They believed that sin in the world was a pollutant, so to speak. It would seep into the people, into their homes, creating tzora’at and other ailments, and it would seep into the holy of holies if the sin was particularly bad. The sin offerings were part of a ritual that cleansed the Temple of the polluting effects of their sins. The biblical ritual of Yom Kippur was structured to cleanse the Holy of Holies—once a year—from the effects of this contaminating moral pollution. Were the Temple not cleansed of the effects of our wrongdoing, God's Presence would not be able to abide among us.

By reading Leviticus 16 on Yom Kippur, non-Reform congregations preserve the centrality of the Temple Yom Kippur service. However, this does not work for many of us, because we want Yom Kippur to be about personal renewal and atonement, not about sacrifices and ancient cleansing rituals. We need to be reminded that we are as close to the Divine Presence as reaching out. That God's instructions are not too difficult to follow or to understand, because as it says in the very last line we read this morning, "The word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it" (Deut. 30:14).

"To do it," is the key.

On Rosh Hashanah I mentioned our 40 favorite things about Judaism. So many people answered under what I ended up calling "Deed Over Creed." A.J. Jacobs would agree with all of them. A.J. Jacobs is the author of The Year of Living Biblically, in which he spends a year trying to follow the laws of the Bible. Jacobs was raised Jewish, but he describes himself as being, "As Jewish as Olive Garden is Italian." He had a vague familiarity with what the Bible is, but he needed to read it carefully so he could follow its laws.

He did not just follow the laws as we know them, though. He followed them as literally as possible. He wrote the words of ve'ahavta on his doorpost in wax pencil. He wore clothing that had corners so he could attach fringes to them. He did not shave any part of his beard because he couldn't figure out where the corners are. He even threw pebbles at a man who admitted to committing adultery so he could claim to stone an adulterer!

I had the opportunity to hear him speak at a conference several years ago. Someone asked what most surprised him during this year-long religious experiment. He spoke about the Biblical injunction to tithe, giving 10% of your yield away to the poor. His answer went something like this:
I felt like I had to follow this law, even though I didn’t want to. It’s in the Bible, and I committed myself to obeying all of its commandments for one year. So I did it. And I found that when my year of living biblically was over, I was more generous and giving. I actually wanted to give 10% of my earnings away. I used to think that my thoughts are what influenced my behavior, but I discovered the opposite. My behavior influenced my thoughts and feelings.

His behavior influenced his thoughts and feelings. Not just deed over creed, but deed motivates creed. He first spent time studying the text, making it as close to him as his heart and mouth, making it feel like it was not in heaven nor across the sea. Then he starting acting as he was instructed. By behaving as the Bible commands, he became more generous, more thankful, and a self-ascribed better person.

This afternoon when we read from Leviticus 19, we are reading what is known as the Holiness Code. Honoring our parents, keeping Shabbat, and avoiding idolatry begin the list. There are rules for agriculture like leaving gleanings in the field; rules for treating people honestly, be it the neighbor you pass on the street or someone with whom you do business. We must treat others with respect, even if—nay especially if they are lesser-able than we. We are commanded not to hate, seek vengeance, or oppress the stranger. We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourself. All these things make us holy, and most of them are accessible to us at any moment in our everyday life.

This morning is all about choosing to live a good life as a member of the community of Israel, and this afternoon gives us some of the specifics for how we do that. Once we know that we should choose deed over creed, we are given some specific tasks that we can accomplish in order to make our self-improvement a success.

Lo bashamayim hi. ​"It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? But this word, [this instruction, this Torah] is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to do it (Deut. 30:11-14).

May we all learn the greatest hits of our tradition, so that we can find the ways to better ourselves and do it.

G'mar Chatimah Tovah.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Shalom in Israel and the World (Rosh Hashanah 5777)

David and Goliath might be one of the more famous Biblical stories in our cultural repertoire. You might remember it as a wonderful story of the little shepherd defeating the mighty warrior. We read it in I Samuel 17. Israel and the Philistines are each camped on either side of a valley, which is set to be the scene of a great battle. Before it begins, Goliath comes out. He is described as being six cubits and a span tall: a little over nine feet. He is decked out in a bronze helmet, a coat of armor weighing over 400 pounds, bronze greaves on his legs, carrying a spear with a 50-pound tip. This guy is a monster. He taunts the Israelites, saying that if any can kill him, the Philistines will surrender.

David comes in to the battle as an accident. Three of his older brothers are serving in Saul’s army, and their father Jesse sends David into the field with some food. Upon David’s arrival, he hears Goliath’s taunting, and he makes fun of him to his brothers. Word gets to Saul about this little boy taunting the giant, and he sends for him. David explains to Saul that he has killed a lion and a bear, and he is confident that God will save him from this Philistine monster.

Saul equips David with a suit of armor and helmet, but David takes them off and goes to face Goliath with only his staff, his sling, and five stones. David and Goliath square off, insult one another, and David runs toward the Philistine, reaches into his bag to grab a stone, and slings it, scoring a perfect bullseye on Goliath’s forehead. After one shot, Goliath falls down dead. David then takes Goliath’s sword and cuts off his head. The Philistine army runs away, defeated, and Saul takes David in as his new general, beloved by all of Israel and Judah.

It’s a classic. The unlikely hero faces insurmountable odds and prevails. We read this story all the time. So many characters in pop culture remind us of our very own King David: Arthur Pendragon, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Ender, Katniss Everdeen. And of course, the State of Israel.

So often the story of Israel is compared to that of David. An Austrian journalist named Theodor Herzl dreams up a homeland for the Jews. Der Judenstaat, or “The Jewish State,” as he calls it in 1896. 50 years from then, a ragtag band of fighters known as the Hagannah help defend what was then Palestine, while inspired settlers work the land and ready themselves for statehood.

In 1948, Israel declares its independence. A tiny nation smaller than New Jersey, surrounded on three sides by nations that want to destroy it and that deny its right to exist. A country attacked the day after its founding, at war for 68 years, and surviving again and again. Israel is often seen as the David in a land populated by Goliaths.

There is a relatively famous story about a Jewish cadet at West Point in a class about the history of military strategy. As the semester is drawing to a close, he asks his teacher about the curriculum. “We have looked at major and minor battles all over the world to analyze their strategies, but we haven’t looked at Israel at all. Why is that?” His teacher tells him to see him in his office later that day. When the cadet shows up, his teacher has spread out a map of the Middle East with figurines of different colors all over it.

He shows the cadet the formations for the War of Independence in 1948; the Six-Day War in 1967; the Yom Kippur War in 1973; all of Israel’s wars laid out on a map. Every war was ended with an Israeli victory or with a ceasefire. After going through all of these wars, the teacher asks the cadet, “So let me ask you: Why didn’t I teach any of Israel’s military strategies?” The cadet stares at the map for a few moments, and then in a stunned whisper he says, “Because they never should have won.”

Like the young shepherd David, Israel’s strategy is not what has made it a success. It is Israel’s faith in God, and perhaps even Divine protection.

But it is not only militarily that Israel has had success that belies its size. Israel has been home to 12 Nobel Prize winners (including Shimon Peres z”l, who sadly died last week). Israel is a global leader in environmental science with its irrigation and water-saving technologies that have brought water to every corner of a country that is 2/3 desert. Israeli companies supply irrigation, water conservation and greenhouse technologies to other countries. A team of 50 Israeli scientists work full time at CERN, the organization that operates the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Israel’s technological innovations are too numerous to list, but I will mention that the flash drive was invented there, and The Weizmann Institute of Science and the Technion are counted among the top 20 in the world. Innovations in Medicine, Aeronautics, Engineering, and so many more come out of Israel what seems like daily.

All of this from a tiny, 68-year-old country whose population is barely double that of the city of Los Angeles.

But perhaps we have thought of them as David for too long.

Many in the press have tried to flip the David and Goliath narrative, showing the Palestinians as David and Israel as Goliath. And Israel's actions have helped them do it.

In 2008, Operation Cast Lead began. As a response to the rockets fired from Gaza, Israel launched a coordinated air, sea, and ground effort against Hamas. Hamas losses totaled around 1300, while the Israeli death toll was 13. The three-week offensive did cause a decline in rockets fired from Gaza, and even though the UN’s Goldstone Report suggested war crimes on the part of Israel, Goldstone himself later withdrew his baseless accusations. Nevertheless, Israel flexed its military muscles in an unprecedented display of power then.

Israel has long been a nuclear power in the Middle East, and with last year’s Iran deal on the table, Israel’s worst-kept secret moved into the realm of common knowledge. Israel’s nuclear reactor was built in the late 50’s with the help of France, and remains outside of Dimona, where only one test was ever seen by anyone outside of Israel’s nuclear agency. With somewhere around 400 nuclear warheads presumed under Israel’s control, Israel is certainly a giant in the region as far as being a nuclear threat. All of this is assumed, of course, and Israel’s reaction is to never confirm nor deny that they have nuclear weapons.

This July, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved an increase in settlement building in the West Bank, allowing construction on 800 new housing units behind the green line. This expansion comes despite advice to the contrary from Israel’s strongest allies, including the United States. Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank could be one of the biggest deterrents to the peace process.

So is Israel David or Goliath?

The biggest problem in discussing what we know as hamatzav, the situation in Israel, is that we try to classify Israel as either David or Goliath. This creates what Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute in his TED talk this year calls “political moral asymmetry.” This is the notion that we believe what we are doing is for the sake of goodness and love, and what our opponents are doing is out of evil and hate. In Brook’s words, “You can’t progress as a society when you have this kind of asymmetry.”

For peace to be achieved, we must understand that this kind of David vs. Goliath rhetoric does not help. Instead of looking to mythological stories of shepherds and giants, we need to look at what it means to make peace.

Peace in Hebrew is shalom, which I hope you knew already, but it means much more than that. In the Torah, the first appearance of the word shalom is in Genesis 29 when Jacob finds a group of people by a well, and he asks if they know Laban, his mother’s brother. They say they do and he asks, hashalom lo? “Is he well?” They answer shalom, “He is well.” So in the early parts of our Bible, shalom is not peace, it is the condition of another human being.

This concept is not antiquated. We still use it in Hebrew today. Think of how we might greet someone in Hebrew: Mah shlomchah? Mah shlomchah is translated as “How are you?” probably because that is more common in English than the literal “What is your state of being?” or “What is your shalom?”

This means that if we are to have any sense of shalom, we must have a sense of the well-being of other human beings. Our first step toward peace, then, is our understanding of the one with whom we would make peace. We need to know their shalom.

Later in the Bible, the last verse of the 29th Psalm flips the meaning of shalom on its head. This verse might ring familiar, certainly if you attended Jewish camp and ever sang Birkat Hamazon: Adonai oz le’amo yitein, Adonai yivareich et amo vashalom, usually translated as, “Adonai will give strength to our people. Adonai will bless our people with peace” (Psalm 29:11). Taken out of context, that’s lovely and wonderful. Looking at the rest of Psalm 29, however, we get a totally different image.

The other verses in Psalm 29 speak of God’s great power and strength. It says God’s voice thunders across the waters; it breaks giant cedar trees; divides flames; shakes the wilderness; and strips forests bare. This is how God blesses our people with shalom. By a great show of force and strength. By giving strength to us, we will be blessed with shalom. Adonai oz le’amo yitein, Adonai yivareich et amo vashalom.

Shalom here does not mean peace in the way we think about it, it means totality, in the sense of total victory. Here, shalom is the dominance of God. So sometimes shalom does not mean holding hands and singing hinei mah tov with our enemies. Sometimes it means being strong.

This is evident in the Talmud when teaches us to do things we normally would not do in order to pursue peace. It is very clear according to Jewish tradition that if someone is pursuing you to kill you, or even if they are breaking into your home and there is a likelihood they will hurt you, it is ok to use lethal force to stop them. We can use lethal force to maintain our own shalom, our own well-being.

If this is true, the same might be said for war. If we can use force to protect ourselves and the people we love, how do we think about protecting our own nation that we love? In Deuteronomy 20, we read instructions about when we go out to battle against another nation. The general is commanded to tell all those who have built a home but not dedicated it to go home. Then all those who have planted a vineyard but not eaten from it are commanded to go home. Same goes for anyone who had been betrothed but not yet married. War may seem like the opposite of peace, but in our sacred texts war is designed to maintain the things that our society values. War maintains domestic tranquility. War maintains the possibility of planting and tending a vineyard. War maintains the possibility of keeping a family. Defending ourselves is not about violence, it is about maintaining that which is important to our society.

The text also commands the soldiers to try to make peace before going to war. If there is any opportunity to keep peace and not fight, we should take it, but if not, then we are permitted to go to war.

Sounds kind of like the last 68 years for the Jewish people, doesn’t it?

Let’s go back to I Samuel 17. If you recall, I mentioned that Israel and the Philistines were camped on either side of a valley. That valley is called the Valley of Elah. Just southwest of Jerusalem near Neve Michael, it is a gorgeous, lush area full of wheat fields and vineyards, and dotted with terebinths and oak trees. The Israelite army camped on a mountain on one side of the valley, and the Philistines camped on a mountain on the other. Militarily, they were at a stalemate. If either side were to charge the other, they would first have to go into the valley, and then make their way up to the other side’s encampment. There was no way to attack successfully.

This is where we find ourselves today. We are on one side of a beautiful land. Israel, to me, is the most beautiful place in the world. It is so much more than gorgeous valleys and pretty things to see. It is a place where we can stand in 4000 years of history. It is a land where we are free to be whoever we are, especially as Jews. It’s not perfect, but its splendor defies description. It is a place for which we must seek shalom, peace.

The Talmud (B. Berachot 64a) teaches, “The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says, ‘And all your children shall be taught of Adonai, and great shall be the peace of your children’ (Isa. 54).” If we are wise enough to see beyond rhetoric and asymmetry, we can begin to build peace for future generations.

At its core, shalom is also related to the word shleimut, which means wholeness. There is no shalom, no peace, without creating a sense of wholeness.

In Likutei Etzot, a collection of speeches by Rabbi Nachman of Batslav, he says: “The essence of peace is to bring together two opposites. Don’t be alarmed when you meet someone whose opinions are diametrically opposed to yours, causing you to believe that it is absolutely impossible to live with him or her in peace. Similarly, when you see two people of extremely contrasting natures, do not say that it is impossible to make peace between them. On the contrary, the very essence of peace is to strive for harmony between opposites.”

As we enter a new year, we pray for shalom in Israel. We pray for the wellbeing of all her people. We pray for wholeness, for the coming together of both sides of the conflict. We pray continually for peace.

40 of Our Favorite Things About Judaism (Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777)

40 of Our Favorite Things About Judaism
IHO our 40th Anniversary

1. Shabbat
2. Rosh Hashanah
3. Yom Kippur
4. Sukkot
5. Simchat Torah
6. Chanukah
7. Tu B’shevat
8. Purim
9. Pesach
10. Shavuot
11. Counting the Omer
12. Yom Ha’atzma’ut
13. Jewish Geography
14. Jewish Summer Camp
15. “Traditions”
16. How we keep it real
17. Clergy support
18. Sense of belonging
19. Food
20. God
21. Observing our Children’s Jewish practices
22. Community
23. Torah
24. Social Action
25. Choosing to be Jewish (every day)
26. Family
27. Tzedakah
28. Study and Learning through questioning
29. Reform Jewish Values
30. Israel
31. Jewish Humor
32. Kindness (G’milut Chasadim)
33. Jewish Music
34. Deed over Creed
35. Culture
36. Life Cycle Events
37. Yiddish
38. Jewish History
39. Talmud
40. Gematria

These 40 things, according to Facebook polls and conversations with many of you, are 40 things we love about Judaism.

40 is an important number in Judaism. It is the number of days and nights it rained in the Great Flood. It is the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai writing the Torah. It is the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert. It is the number of years of King David’s reign. His son Solomon also ruled for 40 years. Elijah walked for 40 days until his experience in the cave where he encounters God.

40 also happens to be the number of weeks for human gestation, and according to the Talmud (which is not a medical document), the number of days between conception and viability of a fetus (B. Yevamot 69b). A mikvah is required to have 40 seah’s of water in it (a seah is a liquid measurement), and 40 is the age that a person attains understanding, according to Pirkei Avot 5:26. Because of that passage, age 40 is when a person is traditionally allowed to begin study of mysticism, what we sometimes call Kabbalah. The letter mem in Hebrew represents 40, which happens to be exactly the center of the Hebrew alef-bet. It is said that mem is in the center because when you take the first, center, and last letter of the alef-bet you get emet, which means "truth."

Remember, in the Torah, Talmud, and other sacred texts, numbers are not math. They are symbolic, representative of an idea, or simply used to mean, “a lot.” In the case of the number 40, it represents a great transformation. The Great Flood, Moses’ time on Mount Sinai, the Israelite’s time in the desert, and all the other Biblical references to the number I just mentioned were moments of transformation for our people.

And now, here we are, celebrating 40 years of Congregation B’nai Tzedek. Last month we had a wonderful Shabbat service honoring all five of CBT’s rabbis, and in three weeks we will gather for an amazing Gala at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach. Four other Shabbat services will be held celebrating different aspects of CBT: Social Action, Music, Education, and our Future.

If you are not aware of these amazing celebrations, I encourage you to pick up a bulletin and save the dates on your calendars. Rose Lesser and Debbie Biebelberg have been working tirelessly for over a year and a half planning these amazing celebrations along with their enormous crew of dedicated volunteers. I know I speak for everyone here tonight when I say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

If you, like me, would still like to celebrate our 40th anniversary on more occasions, tonight is our lucky night. As you should know by now, it is my custom to use Erev Rosh Hashanah as an opportunity to announce the year’s study theme. Education is so important to CBT, and starting the year off with study helps us all get in the mood for the many learning opportunities we have in the coming year. This year our study theme is a list of “40 of Our Favorite Things About Judaism,” that I will speak on throughout the course of the year in honor of the 40th Anniversary.

They are listed on a poster in the lobby as you may have seen on your way in, and as we discuss them, we will check them off, ending hopefully by next Rosh Hashanah. By the way, the topics will not necessarily be in the order they are on the poster. Upcoming topics will be announced through our one-way texting system, and anyone who wants a copy of the materials studied will be welcome to them if you miss a topic you are interested in. Ending by next Rosh Hashanah gives us 50 weeks to discuss 40 topics. Some of these will be discussed in classes on Tuesday evenings or on a Sunday morning or afternoon. Some of them will be discussed in sermons as I am going to do right now, starting with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Just about every holiday was mentioned by those who were asked. Add that to the fact that many people on their High Holy Day review forms last year asked that I discuss the holidays themselves during sermons, so it feels appropriate to discuss Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur today. So here we go:

Our 40 favorite things about being Jewish, topic #1: Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah means "head of the year," and it is one of four new years on the Jewish calendar, according to the Talmud in tractate Rosh Hashanah. We have a new year for animal tithes, a new year for kings, and a new year for trees in addition to Rosh Hashanah. The new year for trees we call Tu B'Shevat, and we'll get to that one in January, and the new year for tithes and kings we don't celebrate anymore, but it is interesting to note that the new year for tithing usually falls around mid-April. I have no idea if that is why the IRS chose April 15, but it wouldn't surprise me.

There are many traditions on Rosh Hashanah that help encourage us to have a sweet new year. We dip apples in honey. We eat round challah, preferably with raisins in it. The round shape of the apple reminds us of the circular nature of then year, and the shape of the challah reminds us of a crown, that this should be the year the Israelites are crowned with glory. Remember, at that time crowns were not gold and jagged, they looked like a bedazzled turban. So the dough is the turban, and the raisins are the jewels.

There are some stranger customs. You may have heard of eating a fish head on Rosh Hashanah. If you think that is strange, it is a Sephardic custom to eat a sheep head on Rosh Hashanah. This is based on Deuteronomy 28:13, “Adonai will make you the head and not the tail…” The idea is that we should be at the front of all of our endeavors throughout the year, and never lagging behind anything we set out to do.

The holiday itself comes from the Torah, as it says in Leviticus 23:24:
Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of horns, a holy gathering.

Hopefully you heard that and thought to yourself, "What? The seventh month? How can the first day of the year be in the seventh month?" The Jewish calendar is a fascinating and often confusing thing. Suffice it to say that in the thousands of years between the writing of the Torah and the canonization of the current Hebrew calendar, the way we count the months has changed.

So letting that go, that leaves us with what we do: have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing horns, a holy gathering. The Torah gives us no other instructions for celebrating Rosh Hashanah. It doesn't even call it Rosh Hashanah. That name comes from the Talmud. The Torah has plenty to say about Yom Kippur, but only those three phrases for today.

So let's break them down:

Have a sabbath.

A sabbath is a day of rest. Usually we think of a sabbath as a cessation. In Hebrew the word Shabbat is the same root as the word shvittah, meaning a workers' strike. This also makes us think of a sabbath in terms of what we don't do. We don't go to work, we don't light fires, we don’t do any of the halchically restricted activities. That can make it sound like a boring day, but there are all kinds of things do on a sabbath. We spend time in prayer and study. We gather with family and friends. We can go on a hike or have a picnic or play cards. There are all kinds of things to do to designate a sabbath, both on Rosh Hashanah and every Shabbat. Of course, the most important thing is to attend services. So I’ll see you all tomorrow morning. But I’m sure that afterward many of you have plans to share a meal with friends and family. That’s a big part of what this holiday is about.

Next, a memorial for blowing of horns.

This might be the defining moment for Rosh Hashanah celebrations. Blowing the shofar. Everyone I know grew up with a bal tekiah, a “shofar blower,” who was absolutely amazing. This is especially true for those of you who are growing up here with Joel Rosen. There is something fascinating about using a ram’s horn the same way the Israelites did thousands of years ago. It connects us to a long chain of history and peoplehood. But it is meant to shake us up, too.

Let’s be honest. The shofar is not like a trumpet or a saxophone. It does not produce a beautiful, melodic sound. It is harsh and jarring. It is meant as an alarm, both in the sense of something to wake us, and in the sense of something to make us aware. We are not only to listen to the horn, we are to have a memorial for blowing of horns. We are supposed to remember something. Perhaps it is that visceral connection to our ancient roots that we are supposed to remember. Perhaps it is our upbringing and listening to the shofar every year for however many years we have been here.

Perhaps we are supposed to remember why we are here in the first place. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the year, and a chance for a new beginning for each of us. The shofar’s blast is a way of grabbing us by the ears and yelling, “Remember what you have to do this year!” Not for our job or our home, but for our soul. The shofar is our spiritual alarm clock. It calls us to action, so that by Yom Kippur we are ready to make ourselves better.

A holy gathering.

This one is easy. Here we are, together at CBT. It’s a holy gathering!

In our Saturday morning Torah study we have just gotten to Leviticus 19, the beginning of the Holiness Code. The Torah portion that this is connected to is called Kedoshim, and we mentioned that it is much easier to translate the word Kedoshim to the English “Holiness,” than it is to define holiness.

Often people will say that holiness is godliness, but that isn’t exactly a precise definition. God is certainly holy, and God is often referred to as HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One of Blessing. But that still doesn’t define the word holy.

I like to think of holy as meaning separate and on a higher plane. All of the things we do to designate ourselves as Jewish—how we eat, how we dress, how we worship, how we treat others—all of these things can be holy. We do it differently, and in a way that elevates each other. Separate and on a higher plane.

So when I look around here and see us gathered to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, I do see a holy gathering. We are here to make ourselves better people, surrounded by people we love who are working on the same thing. By being here tonight we show that we are a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. By being here for 40 years, producing excellence in education, social action, and matterness, we continually show that any gathering with CBT members is a holy gathering.

All the more so tonight, as Rosh Hashanah begins, we are gathered for sacred purpose. We have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of horns, a holy gathering. All of which help us understand why Rosh Hashanah is one of our 40 favorite things about Judaism.

Topic #2, Yom Kippur.

Where the Torah is lacking in instruction for Rosh Hashanah, it makes up for it with how to commemorate Yom Kippur. In the same chapter I mentioned earlier from Leviticus describing Rosh Hashanah with one verse, we get six verses about what to do on Yom Kippur. It is to be a complete sabbath, a Shabbat shabbaton, a day of afflicting our souls, a day of sacrifice, day of atonement, a day where all work is forbidden, and anyone who does work is threatened with ostracism (Lev. 23:27-32). Earlier in Leviticus we read about the expiation of sins ceremony that the High Priest did for the entire Israelite community on Yom Hakippurim. In Numbers these instructions are repeated, and specific sacrifices are delineated.

Yom Kippur is referred to in our liturgy as yom hadin, our day of judgment.  On Yom Kippur we spend the day in prayer and study to repent for our sins.  We actually have an opportunity to do this every day during the prayer service, but if a Jewish person is going to go to synagogue only one day in the year, this would be the day. We fast, abstain from bathing, stay away from perfume and deodorant, all to help us focus on our spiritual needs instead of our bodies. We might wear white or avoid wearing leather. Some will even wear a kittel, a white robe that is only worn on one’s wedding day, in one’s coffin, and on Yom Kippur. All of this helps with our main goal for the day: making tshuvah.

Tshuvah shares its root with the word lashuv, to turn.  The prophet Jeremiah uses this word to describe the best possible relationship between God and the people of Israel.

Im tashuv Yisrael, If you return, O Israel–declares Adonai—Im tashuv eilai, If you return to Me, If you remove your abominations from My presence And do not waver,  and swear, "As Adonai lives," In sincerity, justice, and righteousness -- Nations shall bless themselves by you And praise themselves by you.

Jeremiah describes returning, or repenting, as the tool by which we will merit the respect and admiration of other nations.  Other people will look to our example and live by it.

Tshuvah meaning “return” means we return to God and faith, to the best version of ourselves we can be, before we were corrupted by prejudice and negativity.

Tshuvah means more than just returning, though. It means repentance.

Judaism acknowledges that human beings are not perfect.  God created imperfect beings that do good and bad.  We try to do good.  We try to react positively and work toward the best things in the world.  It doesn’t always work that way. We make mistakes. We sin. We miss the mark.  T'shuvah is the device God gives us to fix our mistakes and make good on the times we have missed the mark.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in his book The Thirteen Petaled Rose, writes, “Repentance is not just a psychological phenomenon…it is a process that can effect real change in the world, in all worlds.” We can, together, change the world through the power of t'shuvah.  Repentance is the device by which we end the cycle of “an eye for an eye,” and begin the process of healing ourselves, our families, our nation and our world.

It might be a little odd to describe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as one of our “40 Favorite Things About Judaism,” because the heaviness of the day does not lend to the feeling of describing something as a favorite. But if we do succeed in our process of t'shuva, we might find that our atonement creates a feeling of at-one-ment, a feeling of togetherness with our community. After a day of truly repenting and taking steps toward perfecting ourselves, we hear that final blast of the shofar that heralds the end of the Holy Day, and we could find ourselves in a kind of euphoria, at peace, and ready to be better.

May this High Holy Day season come to be one of our favorites, and may we find our celebrations of the 40th anniversary be blessed with fun, safety, health, and peace.

Shanah tovah umetukah! Wishing you and yours a happy and sweet 5777.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

1 Tishrei 5777: Rosh Hashanah

We hope that you have enjoyed this past month of emails for our Elul Thoughts in the last month of 5776. As we begin 5777, we want to wish you and your families the sweetest of years.

May 5777 bring you love and friendship, health and prosperity, joy and peace.
May the mistakes of the past be forgiven, and may your plans for the future come to fruition.
May this year be a year of success for you, your family, your community, and for all people.

Shanah tovah!

Rabbi Bradley Levenberg, Atlanta, GA
Rabbinical Student Alex Kress, Los Angeles, CA
Rabbi Eric Linder, Athens, GA
Rabbi Daniel Treiser, Clearwater, FL
Rabbi Alan Litwak, North Miami Beach, FL
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, Colleyville, TX
Rabbi David N. Young, Fountain Valley, CA

Saturday, October 1, 2016

29 Elul 5776

The Six Elements of an Effective Apology

Following research done by Ohio State University, published a list of six elements of an effective apology.  At this season of self-reflection and reconciliation, these are good reminders that saying “I am sorry” is only this first step.  Here are the six elements:

  1. First, an "expression of regret." In other words, say you're sorry.
  2. An explanation of what went wrong.
  3. An acknowledgment of responsibility: "It's my fault."
  4. A declaration of repentance – "I won't let it happen again."
  5. This is another big one: offering to make it right.
  6. Lastly, a request for forgiveness.

If you would like to see the whole story, here is the link: