The Gift of Shiva
A little story about being fully present:
A young man left his younger brother’s room in the hospital and headed home for some desperately needed rest. He had been at his brother’s bedside for 48 hours straight. The worst was hopefully over. His brother’s condition had been critical but was now, thank God, stable. Time for some rest.
He had felt helpless and frustrated the whole time he was in the hospital because there was nothing he could do to help. All he did was sit there. He couldn’t even think of anything useful to say. He just sat in the chair next to the bed, held his brother’s hand and murmured, “I’m here, I’m here . . .”
Early the next morning he returned to the hospital and found his brother smiling, sitting up, with good color in his cheeks. The worst truly was over. The younger brother looked up at him and said, “Thank you, thank you so much!”
“What’d I do?” he asked his brother. “I didn’t do anything.”
The younger brother answered, “You were here. You were here with me. I knew that. And that made all the difference.”
An ancient story of being fully present: The Binding of Isaac. When God calls out to Abraham at the beginning of the saga, before even knowing what it is that God wants, the old patriarch replies, “Hineini.” “Here I am.”
Hineini – a contraction of the words, “I” and “here”. It’s a challenge to translate because it means much more than the simple statement of the fact, “I am physically here.” Because it is never used casually. If the teacher is taking attendance and calls your name, “Hineini” would be a bit over the top.
It’s a word used only 12 times in the entire Tanakh, throughout the entire Hebrew Bible. Half of the time it is used by God, and half of the time by human beings.
When God says, “Hineini”, it is never casual. God uses the term only at the most important moments. In the story of Noah, just before the great flood begins, God declares, “Hineini, behold, here I am, I am about to bring the flood upon the whole earth.”
When the word is used by human beings, it is likewise never casual. When God called upon Abraham, and Abraham answered “Hineini”, he was saying, “All of my being, my love and my faith, and my full attention are here for you now.” And when, later in the story, the boy Isaac – obediently following his father up the mountain, curious about the true intent of their journey, he asks, “Father?” Abraham replies, “Hineini b’ni”, “here I am my son.” That is, “I am here for you with all of my heart and all of my being.”
In the hospital, when, for all of those hours, the older brother was fully there for the younger brother. That was a time of profound Hineini.
One of the most beautiful ways that we as human beings and as Jews can embody the essence of Hineini with the simplest of actions: making a shiva call.
As rabbis and cantors one of the unique circumstances we encounter is that to and from funerals we are often sitting quietly in front seat of the limousine. And that means we hear some very sweet and moving conversations from the seats behind us.
The subject of the conversation in the back seat is almost always the same: Who came, who was there, who took the time to show up for the funeral or the shiva.
They don’t talk about what people said to them, or what people brought or what they wore. They are deeply moved by those who took the time to be present. And that brings much comfort.
This is what you hear in the shiva home when everyone leaves:
- Did you see Cousin Fred drove overnight from South Carolina? That’s so special.
- How sweet that Jordan’s college friends drove from school upstate to be at his grandpa’s funeral.
- Uncle Dan was there, even though his sciatica is really bad these days. He didn’t have to do that.
- Look at all the people who came from work?
We are simply so moved by the people who show up.
There’s wonderful wisdom in our traditions of mourning. During the few days following a funeral it’s so important to have these guidelines and this structure to provide the many ways for people to be there for us; and to keep us busy and occupied.
To just come home after a funeral alone; or to just go right back to work or school the next day, gives us no time to mourn. And people have to mourn.
Those first few days are so critical; we’re often so vulnerable, emotional, confused, overwhelmed, in denial, angry, numb . . . or most likely some combination of all of the above.
Joseph Telushkin, in his book on Jewish Ethics gives us a straight forward definition: “According to Jewish law, seven days of intense morning, Shiva – from the number 7 – is observed by the deceased’s seven closest relatives: mother and father, sister and brother, son and daughter, or spouse.” (Pg. 116-7)
The guideline is 7 days; but for some one day is sufficient, and for others 3, and for some, the entire 7 days.
And for some of our families, 7 will make perfect sense. People coming from faraway places; family tradition; having different nights in different family member’s homes who may not live close to one another. The 7 of Shiva can make sense.
For some of us, based on the make up of our families and where we all live, 3 days may be perfect.
And in other circumstances, 1 may be just what we need. (Shira, David and I are more than happy to help you navigate that question if the time comes.)
Whatever its length, gathering for shiva brilliantly provides a loving embrace by our friends, family and community, so that we might manage those first few days; those first few tentative steps forward into our new reality.
Shiva is so important; Shiva is so healthy; and it’s so wise.
Sometimes though we get in our own way and prevent ourselves from either helping others in their mourning; or from letting others help us in our mourning.
The reasons are understandable. There are some very real concerns that can get in the way of making that important visit.
These are some of the reasons we may hear:
- Things about death make me nervous.
- I don’t know what to say.
- What if I say the wrong thing?
- I’ve never been to one before and I’m not sure what to do.
- I’m not Jewish, should I go?
- Do I need to know Hebrew to make a shiva call?
- I’m not sure I know the family well enough to even go?
Maybe tonight can help us overcome some of those concerns.
Do you have to be Jewish to make a shiva call? Of course not. The power of your presence knows no specific language or religion. You don’t have to know Hebrew or any Jewish prayers. During the short service that takes place, you are participating in the most beautiful way possible, just by being there.
The biggest worry is usually “What am I supposed to say?” “It’s so awkward!” “What’s the right thing to say?” “What’s the wrong thing to say?”
Don’t be so hard on yourselves. There are no right words. Somebody just had a death in their family. They are going to be sad for a while. There’s nothing you can say that will make go away. You are greeting them in their sadness. No magic words exist. And the mourners aren’t expecting any.
As a matter of fact, having nothing to say is often the best move. Silence. Just a hug or a nod.
Joseph Telushkin explains (Pg. 119-20) “The tradition of not having to speak at a shiva call comes from the Bible in the story of Job’s three friends who come to comfort him after the death of his children. The Book of Job says, “Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar ‘met together to go and console and comfort Job. When they saw him from a distance . . . they broke into loud weeping; each one tore his clothes and threw dust onto his head. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him, for they saw how very great his suffering was” (Job 2:11–13)
What mattered was that Job’s friends were fully with hm, not that they tried to comfort him with words at the time he felt anguish beyond words. Their Hineini was silent.
Telushkin shares another more recent story of silence at a time of shiva: “Rabbi Jack Reimer was with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when they heard of the death of Rabbi Wolfe Kelman’s sister. Rabbi Heschel insisted that they go to visit Rabbi Kelman and his family immediately: “We went to the airport, we flew to Boston, got into a cab, and went to the house. Heschel walked in, he hugged the mourners, he sat silently for an hour. He didn’t mumble a single cliché. He just sat there for an hour. And then he got up, hugged them, and we left.” (pg. 120)
So, if there are no words, what can we do? During that period of time, the friends and community and co-workers of the mourner can do so much to relieve the mourner of everyday tasks and worries.
- We can make sure meals are taken care of,
- When we pick up a relative or one of their kids from the train station.
- When we clean up after a meal.
- If we are a coworker and we make sure the office won’t bother you for those few days.
- If we are a neighbor and we put their trash cans on the curb for pick up.
- We can offer to print up copies of the directions to the cemetery to hand out at the funeral service.
- When we help take care of your little ones.
You don’t need Judaic scholarship or any expertise to help.
Lisa Borowitz heads our wonderful – but I must say small – team of people who do an amazing job of leading shiva services in people’s homes when we rabbis and cantor are spread too thin. Lisa recently shared with me and Shira and David, that fewer people than in the past are observing shiva services in their homes following funerals.
That’s such a shame because shiva services are so helpful.
We can get a little confused about the mood of this Shiva thing. Sometimes you hear a lot of laughter and food is being served and sometimes there’s liquor. People often ask themselves, is this supposed to be a party?
But when you gather for Shiva, some laughter can be quite lovely and even helpful. Certainly, if the laughter comes from a wonderful story about the deceased, or you’re remembering what used to make them laugh.
So, if it’s feeling a little party-like, a beautiful balance occurs when we pause for the 10 or 20 minutes for the service. Because then there is a clear focus as to why we’re all here, why we’re all gathered in that living room, in that home. The service embraces everyone into the same emotional locale. And it is indeed comforting for the family.
I know hundreds of you have had this experience.
Let me end with a story from a shiva that took place in our Kol Ami community in early August. Our congregant Stephen Weisglass had lost his mother. He gave me permission to share this.
I was invited to the home to lead a Shiva service.
If I or any one of the many friends who gathered at his home were not exactly sure what Shiva is all about, Stephen helped us to see its essence that evening.
When Stephen greeted me at the door, with perfect honesty he said, “You know I don’t really think we need to do a Shiva service tonight. Besides,” he continued, “you know I don’t really consider myself a religious person. But tell me what you have in mind.”
That was up to him. I told him that I could drone on for a couple of hours, if he wanted. I did go to rabbinical school, after all. I’m a professional. (That didn’t seem to be what he had in mind.)
I told him a shiva service is usually very brief.
And that if he wanted, we could pause in the middle of the service for anyone in the family to share a story about his mother.
Though he didn’t necessarily feel connected to the worship part of the experience, he said he’d give it a shot. And he added that he probably would not be sharing any comments.
When everyone was gathered in the living room, we had begun our Shiva minyan. After a few minutes there came the time for anyone from the family who wanted to share.
There was a moment or two of quiet, with Stephen sitting on the couch looking around the room filled with friends who really care for him and were there for him at that important moment in life.
And in that silence, you could hear this big beautiful “Hineini” emanating everyone there.
Then, Stephen stood up to speak.
“All of you know that I’m not exactly a religious person. You know I didn’t have great experiences as a child in Hebrew school. Pretty much the opposite. They didn’t seem to want me there and I didn’t want to be there either.
Everyone in the room smiled and understood.
Then he choked up a bit, and his eyes filled as he looked around at his many friends and his precious family.
He continued: “Now you know that it doesn’t have anything to do with Judaism or religion, but I can’t tell you how moved I am, and how much it means to me that all of you have come to be here with me at this difficult moment, with the passing of my mother. Having you as friends and having you here means the world to me. I can’t thank you enough.”
Everyone in the room was silent. Everyone in the room was powerfully present and listening and hearing. And Stephen clearly felt the warmth and embrace of that loving circle of family and friends.
Stephen, I disagree with you on one point; that it all had nothing to do with being Jewish.
I think that’s exactly what Shiva. Over many centuries the Jewish people have wisely and lovingly molded that moment to be exactly what it was for you.
And I thank you so much for so beautifully articulating the essence of Shiva at that evening in your home.
“The brother had felt helpless and frustrated the whole time he was in the hospital because there was nothing he could do to help. All he did was sit there. He couldn’t even think of anything useful to say. He just sat in the chair next to the bed, held his brother’s hand and murmured, “I’m here, I’m here . . .”
The younger brother answered, “You were here! You were here with me. I knew that. And that made all the difference.”
“We come on the Sloop John B
Around Nassau town we did roam
Drinking all night
Got into a fight
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.
So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.”
On August 1, 1492, when Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, Jews were on the move over land and sea. Jews had lived for centuries – more than 500 years – under Muslim sovereignty in what is known as the Golden Age of Spain. But now, with the Christian Reconquista, ethnic cleansing was the order of the day. Of the 250,000 Jews still alive in Spain, faced with the choice between conversion or expulsion, more than 100,000 converted under duress to Catholicism. Some embraced Catholicism; others went underground with their Judaism, becoming crypto-Jews. The rest left Spain, escaping to Holland, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and the New World. Aboard Columbus’s ships were known Jews, and hidden Jews.
Some fled to Portugal. Abraham Zacuto was among them. Already prominent in academic circles (he was a mathematician, physician, professor of astronomy, historian and rabbi of his community – somewhat like my own credentials), he was invited by King John II of Portugal to the court and nominated as Royal Astronomer and Historian, a position he held until the Inquisition erupted with all its ugliness in Portugal as well. The navigational instrument that Zacuto invented and created, the astrolabe, was carried by Vasco de Gama and Amerigo Vespucci, among so many others, in their explorations of the far seas and their search for a passage to India.
“So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.”
Jews and Muslims both were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, and together, a group of them established a town in the Rif Mountains of Morocco. Chefchaouen, established by these Jewish and Muslim exiles from Spain in 1471, prohibited any Christian from entering the city until 1927 – so great was the lingering fear of the Inquisition.
Stories of crypto-Jews are everywhere. You have heard about our encounters in Missoula, Montana – in Izmir, Turkey – in Santa Fe, New Mexico – even in Jerusalem. Two years ago, David and I traveled to northeastern Portugal to see for ourselves the village of Belmonte. I need to remind you that the tentacles of the Inquisition were long and vicious. Jews – in particular hidden Jews – were searched out by the Inquisition, interrogated, terrorized, tortured, publicly tried, and burned at the stake. Even remains of Jews were exhumed and burned – and their property, bequeathed to survivors, confiscated. No one quite understands how the small Jewish community of Belmonte survived. Known by their neighbors as different Catholics, they kept apart, married one another, attended Mass weekly – and secretly preserved and passed on their particular customs. Lighting candles on Friday inside clay buckets; eating unleavened bread during Easter Week, and fasting at a time in the fall, near (but not on) Yom Kippur. Some kept a light burning in their homes in the seven days following a death in the family. They lived in isolation and secrecy – among their neighbors, who never turned them in – for 400 years. A Jewish Galician mining engineer, Samuel Schwartz, working in Belmonte in 1917, suspected that they might have a Jewish story. They refused to engage him in any conversation. Secrecy, after all, was an essential part of their identity. It was only when he recited the Sh’ma – Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad – it was the word Adonai – that they first realized that they were not the last Jews on earth. On December 5th of 1496, Portugal issued its own Edict of Expulsion. 500 years later, on December of 1996, Belmonte dedicated its new synagogue. The plaque in front of the synagogue, Bet Eliyahu, reads:
“Here in this place, the chain of our tradition has not been severed… As a result of government decrees, the Jewish residents of this village, like other Jews throughout Spain and Portugal, were forced to publicly deny their Jewish religion. But they maintained their Judaism in their homes. Here the candle of Jewish light was never extinguished. For a period of 500 years… in the homes of this village the Jewish commandments were secretly performed, the tradition was transmitted from parent to child in hushed tones, the Sabbath was sanctified in hiding while Sunday was celebrated before the eyes of the neighbors. They made blessings over the halla and the wine and mumbled words of Hebrew prayers in the darkness. Here the Jewish soul was never lost. Here the Jewish soul remains forever…”
Not all crypto-Jews went underground in quiet secrecy. Some vowed revenge. They had witnessed the terror of the Inquisition. Their parents, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, had been hunted and tortured. And they sought revenge. The age of exploration gave them a different route through the high seas: they became pirates – can you imagine that, Jewish pirates -and they set out to sink the Spanish Armada.
- Sinan sailed under the Ottoman flag of Haryeddin Barbarossa. Fighting against the Spanish, he was known as the famous Jewish pirate.
- Samuel and Joseph Palache would go from commanding pirates to building the Jewish community of Amsterdam.
- Moses Cohen Henriques, a pirate of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish origin, operating in the Caribbean, helped the Dutch West India Company capture the Spanish treasure fleet in the battle of the Bay of Mantanzas in Cuba.
- In the early 1600’s, the fledging Jewish settlement in Jamaica conspired with England and Holland to overthrow the Spanish, in exchange for religious freedom. Tombstones in the old Jewish cemetery still carry signs of the skull and bones.
- The Jewish pirate of New Orleans fame, Jean Lafitte, raised by his Sephardic grandmother, always carried with him the Hebrew Bible she had given him. On the flyleaf he wrote, “I owe all my ingenuity to the great intuition of my Jewish Spanish grandmother.” Raised on stories of the Inquisition, Jean Lafitte vowed, “So long as I live I am at war with Spain.” [Jean Lafitte’s original manuscript of his journal (in French) on display at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center, Liberty, Texas]
“We come on the Sloop John B
My grandfather and me
Around Nassau town we did roam
Drinking all night
Got into a fight
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.
So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.”
Where does this drive come from? The drive for religious freedom? The belief in human dignity? The dream of a world redeemed and perfected? And the willingness to fight for it.
This dream has been bequeathed to us through the gift of Torah. Written by hand by a scribe, with a feather quill, in ink composed of vegetable dyes, on animal parchment, this scroll contains the stories that changed human history and shaped our destiny. You might think that this mighty scroll would belong to a privileged few, to an elite group of scholars or rabbis. But no! It is the provenance of each of us, the critical rite of passage of every Bar and Bat Mitzvah, as they in turn read from the Torah and claim it as their own.
Every Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
Joachim Joseph, born in Berlin and raised in Amsterdam, had watched with interest as older boys in his neighborhood celebrated their bar mitzvahs. His father, a lawyer and businessman, was not religious, but several uncles were, and they frequently took Joseph and his younger brother to synagogue.
Then the Nazis came to power.
“The family was sent to a Dutch prison camp, Westerbork, late in 1942. A year later, the Josephs were brought to Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp in the Lower Saxony region of Germany where 50,000 died, including Anne Frank. Joachim’s father and mother were sent to different sections of the camp. He and his younger brother ended up in a barracks with Simon Dasberg, a 42-year-old rabbi who had been deported two years earlier, when he was chief rabbi of the Netherlands.
“When Rabbi Dasberg learned that Joachim was 13, the age of bar mitzvah, he asked if he could teach him to read from a miniature Torah he kept hidden in the barracks. They studied together secretly at night.
“The bar mitzvah took place before dawn on a Tuesday, in March 1944, deep inside a barracks at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Those men who were strong enough covered the windows and doors with blankets, and stood watch to make sure the SS guards weren’t coming. Four candles, scrounged from somewhere, gave off enough flickering light for Rabbi Simon Dasberg to unfurl his tiny Sefer Torah — the five books of Moses, handwritten in Hebrew on a parchment scroll only 4 1/2 inches tall.
“Thirteen-year-old Joachim Joseph chanted the blessings just as the rabbi had taught him, and he chanted aloud from the ancient text in the [beautiful Torah chant that you know well] that has been passed down for hundreds of years.
“There were people listening in the beds all around,” Joachim recalled as an adult, describing the narrow, triple-decker bunks where the Jewish men and boys were forced to double up. “Afterwards, everybody congratulated me. Somebody fished out a piece of chocolate that he had been saving, and somebody else fished out a tiny deck of playing cards. Everybody told me, ‘You are a bar mitzvah boy now. You are an adult now.’ And I was very happy.
“And then everything was taken down, and we went out to morning roll call.”
Dasberg also gave Joachim a gift: the miniature Torah scroll, covered in a red velvet wrapper and tucked into a small green box. “He said: ‘This little Sefer Torah is yours to keep now, because I’m sure that I will not get out of here alive. And you maybe will. I give this to you on one condition,’ he added, ‘that you must tell the story.”
“Joachim used rags to wrap the green velveteen box that held the Torah, and stuck it deep down in his pack. It stayed there, undetected, as conditions in the camp grew grimmer. As he approached his 14th birthday, he weighed just 42 pounds. His feet, protected only by rags, rope and two chunks of an old tire, froze in the winter cold.”
A series of miracles led to the freedom of both brothers and their parents, all emaciated and near death, and they made their way out of Germany on a convoy with Allied POW’s whom the Germans hoped to exchange for their own prisoners. They made their way to British Mandate Palestine – now Israel.
“For the next four decades, Joachim said nothing about his experiences. He wanted to stop the nightmares he kept having. He wanted to move on.
“I screwed it down, deep down,” he says. “I managed to forget it.”
He studied atmospheric physics, receiving a doctorate in 1966. He pioneered experiments in how dust particles in the atmosphere affect the climate.” Working with him on these experiments was fellow scientist and astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Ilan spotted the small Torah on Joachim’s shelf, and Joachim told him the story. Ilan (whose own mother was a survivor of Auschwitz) asked Joachim if he might take the Torah into space with him, to honor his country and his people.
Rabbi Dasberg had given the 13-year old Joachim the tiny Torah on the condition that he tell the story. And on January 21st of 2003, that story was told to the world when Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon held the scroll aloft during a live teleconference from the far reaches of space, aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle
“This,” Ilan Ramon said to the world, “was given by a rabbi to a scared, thin young boy in Bergen-Belsen…It represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive. From horrible periods, black days, to reach periods of hope and belief in the future.” [excerpted from Debbi Wilgoren, The Washington Post, February 19, 2003] This little Torah had flown from the depths of despair to the heights of the universe – to the heavens.
To the heavens. Eleven days later, on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, the Columbia space shuttle exploded and disintegrated – killing Ilan Ramon and the other six astronauts aboard. The Torah, too, was destroyed. But not the story.
On that cold March morning in 1944, the morning of Joachim Joseph’s Bar Mitzvah in Bergen Belsen, as Rabbi Dasberg handed that small Torah to Joachim Joseph, in a barracks nearby was another young boy, a red-haired, freckle-faced six year old, my cousin Henry Fenichel. In another story of miracle and escape, a story I hope that he will tell you himself this year, Henry made it out of Bergen Belsen with his mother. What are the chances? That he too survived. That he, too, became a physicist. That he, too, received a gift later in his life – a tiny Torah, sister to the little one that went up into space with Ilan Ramon. Henry, whose family went from Europe to Palestine to America, began in earnest to tell his own story only in these last decades – bringing together Jewish and non-Jewish children, anxious to teach them about hatred and its consequences – about tolerance, about courage and hope. On a chance video conference between Israeli and American children, connecting the two continents, Henry was on one end in his Cincinnati home – and sitting with the Israeli children was Rona Ramon, the widow of Ilan Ramon. Her eyes fell on the little Torah sitting on Henry’s shelf that she could see so clearly on the screen. Henry said, “When Rona learned that yes, there was another little Torah, belonging to another child survivor of Bergen Belsen, who also became a physics professor, she requested permission from me to allow my Torah to be sent on a flight into space, in order to bring some closure to that part of Ilan’s mission”. [Richard Tenorio, Times of Israel, December 20, 2016] She asked with hesitation. Knowing the risk. Knowing that it might not return.
He didn’t hesitate.
That little Torah soared into space in September of 2006, circling the planet 187 times, traveling 4.9 million miles, landing back on earth thirteen years ago today, Rosh Hashanah.
Torah gives us a language of dreams. It gives us a way to “proclaim liberty throughout the land”; it calls us to tithe our earnings and leave the corners of the field for the poor. It gives us the poetry of suffering and even the language of the broken heart. The motel in Memphis from whose porch Martin Luther King was assassinated bears a plaque with a single verse from the Torah (from the story of Joseph and his brothers): “For lo, here comes the dreamer. Let us kill him for his dreams.”
Torah gives us the language of dreams. The language of justice, of sorrow and pain, of compassion. Written by hand by a scribe, with a feather quill, in ink composed of vegetable dyes, on animal parchment, this scroll contains the stories that changed human history and shaped our destiny. We will watch this story literally unfold before us this year, as we are giving ourselves the gift of a new Torah scroll. With your help, we will have one of the rare Torah scrolls in the whole world written by a woman. Our scribe, our soferet Julie Seltzer, is one of five women world-wide trained and certified to write a sefer Torah. You will have the chance (if you haven’t already) to meet her in the Atrium outside. Introduce yourself. Tell her about your own relationship to Torah; she will tell you about hers. You will have the chance this year – if you take it – to write with her a letter in this Torah. Yes, to write a letter. To write yourself into this story.
Torah gives us language for justice; it gives us a poetry of sorrow. Torah also gives us a mandate for joy. “V’samachta b’chagecha – v’hayita ach sameach. You shall rejoice in your holiday…and you shall have real joy.” [Deuteronomy 16: 14-15] Torah – the study of Torah – like Jewish life, needs to connect us to joy.
“We come on the Sloop John B
My grandfather and me
Around Nassau town we did roam
Drinking all night, Got into a fight
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.
So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.”
Those Jewish pirates of the Caribbean.
1 ounce mint leaves
2 ounces fresh lime juice
1 and half ounces white rum
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
4 ounces club soda
Shake, serve with a lime wedge.
And study Torah.
Mojitos and mezuzahs.
It turns out that each Jewish home has a tiny Torah. Not the whole Torah. One magnificent section. Sh’ma yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad. The Sh’ma – the verse that gave the Belmonte community of hidden Jews the clue that they were not alone. The Sh’ma and the following paragraph. We invite you to gather with friends this fall – old friends or new ones – to connect in the joyful study of Torah, the text of the mezuzah.
Torah will renew in us the dream of justice. Torah will connect us more deeply to joy. Torah will connect us with our past and with our destiny. Torah will bring us closer to one another.
Torah will bring us home.
“So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.”
[For this Rosh Hashanah day, the Torah will be unfurled in front of us – a magnificent white sail and a sea of black letters. Please remain seated.]
Four generations. We were setting the table in my mother’s home in Jerusalem this summer. My mother, Savta Jo, drew one of the placemats closer. On it was a replica of an ancient map of the world. Savta Jo explained to her great grandchildren: “This map was drawn 500 years ago by a Christian traveler on a religious pilgrimage. Notice how this map looks like a three-leaf clover. One leaf is Europe; one is Asia; the third is Africa. The center that he drew,” she explained to them, “is Jerusalem. The sacred center.”
That sacred center, the Old City of Jerusalem, is filled with ceramicists, but there is only one “Jerusalem Potter.” The Christian Armenian family of Stephan Karakashian was brought to Palestine in the early 1900’s to help repair and replace tiles in the Muslim Dome of the Rock. Following the 1967 war, he was asked to create the tiles – the street signs – that grace every alleyway and path through the Old City – in Hebrew, Arabic and English. I left his shop on the Via Dolorosa many years ago, stepping out into the maze of alleyways. “Can you give me directions to the Jaffa Gate?” I asked. “Can I give you directions?” he said. “I made the signs.”
On one of our many visits to Jerusalem, David and I bought my parents a beautiful bowl from the Jerusalem Potter. I was surprised on a subsequent summer visit to find it missing from the shelves. My mother explained: it was dropped on the counter, cracked – and known to not throw out anything, my mother brought it back to the potter, and asked if he might repair it. Which he was happy to do. “That was November,” my mother said. “I haven’t had a chance to go back. “Would you mind picking it up for me?”
I was happy to have an excuse to visit him. I found my way there, explained that my mother had brought the bowl to him back in November. Did he by chance still have it? After all, this was now the middle of the summer. “Come with me,” he said. I followed him to a side room, and sitting on top of a huge kiln was the bowl. I remembered it perfectly. He took down the bowl and took out the note, in my mother’s handwriting, that was sitting inside. The note was in fact dated November – three years earlier.
I gasped, “You are so faithful!”
He said, “This is nothing. Around the corner is my friend, the shoemaker. In 1947, a Jewish customer ordered a pair of sandals. Then the war broke out, and the city was divided for twenty years. In 1967, the customer came back to pick up his sandals.”
Kiryah ne’emana. The faithful city.
2,800 years ago, the prophet Isaiah described Jerusalem as the faithful city. For three thousand years, she has been the faithful center. Even in the worst of times. And two thousand years ago, it was the worst of times.
Please. Imagine that the year is 72 CE – almost 2,000 years ago.
Only a few years earlier, the Romans had laid siege to Jerusalem, murdered priests and teachers, burnt the Temple to the ground. So many Jews were sold into slavery that you could buy a slave for the equivalent price of a nickel. Jewish life as we knew it was over. But from this cauldron, a new Judaism will emerge; it is the Judaism of the rabbis, our Judaism, the Judaism that has sustained us for two thousand years. The great Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai secretly calls fellow Jewish leaders to join him to plan a Jewish future. Imagine this gathering on the coast of Israel – in an academy called Yavneh.
Speaker #1 (Shira to center podium)
Friends, fellow rabbis, colleagues and students. We are gathered together in dangerous times. Our beloved Israel is in a precarious situation. As Jews, we are besieged from all sides. Our community is deeply divided; we can hardly talk to each other, much less listen. And so I implore you to set aside some of your deeply held beliefs, if only for these minutes. Our community is at a crossroads; it’s hard to know what path to walk down; it’s hard to know what God and Jewish destiny are calling us to do.
I hardly need to remind you that we have to build from the ashes of the destruction of our people. Some of you are here because you escaped this inferno. Yes, some of you are survivors. Some of you had the good sense to flee earlier – to the caves of the Dead Sea, or the desert plateau of Masada. Some of you have survived by adapting to the ways of our neighbors. And some of you have chosen to continue to fight, at all costs. I want to hear from each of you. Our survival as a people hangs in the balance.
It will be easy for us to walk out on each other – or to be offended by what our friends (or former friends) may say. Those who speak to us today have taken great risks to travel here today. You can imagine how unsafe the roads are; there are soldiers and terrorists and zealots everywhere. Again, I implore you to listen. What they say is likely to reverberate for thousands of years. Who knows, thousands of years from now, we may hear the echoes of these thoughts
First, from hiding in the caves of the Dead Sea, we invite a member of the Qumran Community. Please, tell us about yourself.
[Dead Sea Sect]
Speaker #2: “The first thing I want to say to all of you is that you are the cause of the destruction of the Temple. Because you didn’t follow God’s commandments, because of your sinful behaviors, Jerusalem was destroyed.”
Shira: Whoa. Could I ask you to lower the rhetoric. Perhaps you might tell us more about yourself, and not about the rest of us.
Speaker #2: “Okay then. For decades now, my family has seen the corruption in Jerusalem. We have seen how our people have given up on observance and mitzvot. It is impossible to preserve the essence of our Jewish way of life living among the Romans and the heathens and the Jews who want to be like them. And so we made the decision, along with a few hundred other families, to leave Jerusalem and to head out for the desert. There we have lived in isolation, protected from the contamination of a culture of entertainment and frivolity. We live in piety and purity. We only admit the purest of our Jewish brothers and sisters into our community. The survival of the Jewish people will depend on us – for we are the distillation of the holy and the pure.”
Speaker #3: Hah! You think you’ll survive in the wilderness? That the Jewish people can survive on holy fumes? I heard that a few years ago, one of your settlements was attacked on Shabbat, and what did your community do? Rather than desecrate the holy Sabbath, you laid down your arms. Did God come to your rescue because of your piety? Right. The Romans couldn’t have cared less. Everyone man woman and child was massacred.
If you ask me, the only answer is to the fight the Romans to the death. They only understand force; in fact, the whole world only understands force. We have always needed a strong army. And now we need to re-arm ourselves. Every person needs a weapon. You are probably wondering who I am. My name is Eliezer and I have also come here from the desert – but not from some pure and pious settlement – oh no. I have escaped from the mountaintop of Masada. It’s true – I have also seen the brutality of the Romans. We’ve been holding the mighty Roman army at bay for years. We will never succumb to the power of Rome; we can never allow ourselves to be sold into slavery, or to be seduced by their ways. As far as I can tell, you all are traitors – I stuck a knife in my “fellow” Jew who thought we could make peace with the enemy. The only way to be Jewish is to live as a free people in our own land. The only answer is to continue to fight. Down to the last man.
Speaker #4: Don’t knock being seduced. Judaism may be beautiful, but how many Shabbat candles are you going to light if you’re dead? At least if you’re alive, you can give thanks to God in your heart. You can marry and love and have children and raise them to be decent human beings. You think being Jewish is the only way to be a good human being? And you people think that the only language you can pray in is Hebrew. God hears us whatever language we speak. We can bring our Jewish values and ethics to Rome and merge into the greatest human enterprise the world has ever known.
Speaker #2: Rome? There is no Jewish life outside the land of Israel. It is only in Israel where we can be fully ourselves, where we can live a fulfilled Jewish life.
[Aveilei Tziyon – mourners of Zion]
Speaker #5: I really don’t get the rest of you. We are living in an age of total destruction. Yes, there is a Jewish community in Babylonia, and in Egypt – but almost all the Jews of the world were living here. Can you fathom the destruction of millions of our people? There is really no way now to even think about regrouping. You know the words of Ecclesiastes, “There’s a time to be born, a time to die, a time to dance and a time to mourn?” Well, now is the time to mourn.
Speaker #6: Oh Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn. God hasn’t abandoned us, my friends. God is giving us a message. The Old Covenant with the people of Israel has been shattered, but God has given us a New Covenant – a New Testament. We don’t need laws and mitzvot; we need faith. You don’t have to be born of the Jewish family to be Jewish; you only need the spirit. Keeping kosher was part of the Old Covenant. God doesn’t care what goes into your mouth, only what comes out. And bringing sacrifices to the Temple to atone for our sins? God ended that with Jesus. God allowed Jesus to be sacrificed for our sins. Now and forever. Everyone who believes can be part of this new Church. God has sent us a New Testament and a redeemer. Born is the King of Israel.
Each of these voices – each of those communities – was lost to the Jewish story. The Dead Sea sectarians died in their purified isolation, refusing to welcome the diversity of the Jewish people. The fighters on Masada ended in mass suicide; the military and nationalist revolt against Rome failed – as a result, there was no independent Jewish life remaining in the land of Israel. The world may have been enriched by those who were once Jewish, but those who assimilated were lost to our community. And the followers of Jesus became Christian.
But something else amazing, and radical, succeeded. It is the Judaism we live. Judaism became portable. Instead of the Holy Temple, each home became a holy temple, a mikdash me’at – a sanctuary in miniature. You know that priestly benediction – may God bless you and watch over you? Who says it today? Who are the priests of today? We are – each of us – as parents, as grandparents, as friends. God blesses us through one another. And instead of one holy ark, every community has a holy ark, with Torah in its center – the ongoing interpretation of the Divine hope for the Jewish people.
But even as we became portable, we never lost our connection to the land of Israel. In the midst of our joys, we remembered. Every wedding ended with the smashing of a glass, a reminder of the shattering of the Temple – and the hope of rebuilding a world of joy. Every Passover Seder ended with “Next year in Jerusalem.” Every grace after meals. Every day. Jerusalem remained the sacred center.
But again, we are at a crossroads. Again, staggering after the massive, nearly incomprehensible destruction of Jewish life, this time in Europe. We are still wide-eyed at the miracle of the reborn State of Israel. And yet, again we are fighting about what it means to be Jewish, and about our connection to the land of Israel. The voices are back.
Speaker #2: They are not Jews, I tell you. They desecrate the holy name. I saw them at the Kotel, the Western Wall. Men and women praying together. And singing! The voice of a woman is an abomination. Men without kippot. Women wearing a tallit. I could not believe my eyes. I had a shopping bag filled with groceries. Thanks to God I had something to throw. Eggs, fruit – I would have thrown stones if I could have found them quickly enough. They are not Jews and their Judaism is not Judaism. We must burn this evil contamination from the midst of our people.
Speaker #3: Let’s face it. The whole world wants us dead. How many resolutions have been passed by the United Nations? And how many of them are against Israel? Gimme a break. Like there’s no violence or corruption or human rights violations anywhere else. Not the Congo, and not South Sudan, and not Saudi Arabia, and not Afghanistan and not Venezuela. And we’re surrounded on every side by hostile Arabs. And frankly, even on the inside we’ve got hostile Arabs. It’s a mistake that we ever gave them the idea that they could be equal citizens of Israel. We finally passed the new Nation-State Law. Now they know which way we’re headed. And any Jew who supports them is traitor, an enemy of our people. We are Jews. Words like ‘equality’ and ‘democracy’ are out of the picture. This is a Jewish State.
We gotta do what we gotta do to survive.
And what we gotta do is have a strong army. Yeah, sometimes it means terrorizing people. It means innocent people are gonna get hurt. It means building a wall and putting people through checkpoints. It’s tough. But what’s the choice. And if our boys who have served in the territories think they have the right to speak about what they did? And threaten the Jewish State? They call themselves “Break the Silence.” Well, I’ll tell you what I would break.
Leave me alone already. I really find this whole conversation boring. I am happy to just be an American – the movies I watch, the language I speak, my friends, the values important to me are universal– What I really care about, the issues that concern me, are not over there, they’re all around me here, the poverty and racism right here at home.
I’m a proud Jew with a deep love for Israel. I’ve got a lifelong résumé of engaged Jewish activism to prove it. But in today’s Israel, that may not be enough to let me in the country. I was born and raised in an AIPAC-loving, liberal American Jewish Zionist family. At 19, I was arrested at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., while protesting for the Soviet Union to free its Jewish citizens. I attended Jewish Agency meetings and advocated for Ethiopian Jews to be returned to Israel. Later, I made aliyah. I took Israeli citizenship. I learned fluent Hebrew. I made Israel my home. I lived through wars and terror attacks and intifadas, just like other Israelis. (continued on next page)
This, too, is my résumé: I spent several years working for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, working for women’s rights, equality for Arab citizens of Israel, LGBT adoption rights, freedom of expression and human rights education – all of which has been challenged in these last weeks. And now, people like me – who love Israel and who love democracy – are being held at the border for questioning.” [adapted: Hadar Harris, Haaretz, August 23, 2018]
We are at a time of crisis – a crossroads. Sometimes, Israel feels so distant, even for those of us who return to Israel often. It feels like we are losing our connection.
According to all the polls here in America, the younger we are, and the more progressive we are, the less likely we are to feel connected to the land of Israel. My own children are in this cohort. They are young and they are progressive. They grew up in our home – Zionist, Hebrew-speaking. They can sing the songs that form the heartbeat of the Israeli story from before they were born; they spent countless summers in the land of our ancestors. Yet, Israel sometimes feels very distant.
This sermon originally had a different ending, but it changed this summer. This summer, with four generations, brought me home to the sacred center. The last time Yaron was in Israel was ten years ago, to introduce his first baby to his great grandparents, my mother and father. But this summer my mother turned 90 – and Yaron decided to meet me, with his two older children, Cruv and Rimon – in Jerusalem. Four generations. Yaron copied me on his note to my mother, on his return to San Francisco.
I was not in the pictures I took. But as we touched down in San Francisco, emails [and pictures came in.] And there I was, in the alleys of the Old City and on the walls of the David’s Tower, as an Abba, in my late thirties, with children. And, somehow, I was surprised.
In the ancient city, in your timeless home, and with you and your ageless vitality, I thought I would look different in the pictures. I would be seven, racing up the stairs…I would be eleven, sitting on the mirpeset as the birds welcome the sun…I would be thirteen, rounding the corner to the “Pita Man” of the Jewish Quarter. I would be nineteen, challenged and challenging ancient texts. Even with my children, with my beard, with your walker, with artisanal ice cream and craft beer…even as Saba is no longer there and his desk is in the corner, it was, at moments, as if I were a boy, a teen, a young man, and a grown Abba, as if I could bend thirty years of time.
If I could bend time, I would have bent our five days into…. I don’t know how long would have been enough. I don’t know how long the glow would have lasted. Being with you, in your gentle hand, in your home, in your city, reminded me how much I miss the sacred center,…yet I rarely go. That I have not nourished the part of me that could feel the bend not only of thirty years, but the bend and embrace of three thousand.
It was not a sure bet two thousand years ago that we would survive. At the beginning of the first century, it is estimated that there were 7 million Jews worldwide; by the year 500 we numbered less than half a million. In between was the loss of the Jewish state.
So much these days seems to hang in the balance – so much of what we value. We can take none of it for granted – including the State of Israel. We need to be better advocates for Israel here at home. Criticism of Israel, in places all over the world, but even here in Westchester, is morphing into anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric. That is hatred and bigotry that endangers every one. On the evening of October 11th, David Elcott will lead a session: “Don’t Walk Out on Israel: advocating when it’s complicated. An interactive training.”
And on October 20th, Shabbat morning one month from now, we will have the exceptional opportunity to study with Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a champion of religious pluralism and civil rights in Israel.
And in November, Kol Ami is heading out on an extraordinary pilgrimage to Israel. Based in Jerusalem, our sacred center, we will connect more deeply to the complex narratives of Israel. There are still a few spaces left on this trip.
What we have is precious. The Torah, the sacred story we brought to the world, changed human history- that human beings were created in the Divine Image, b’tzelem elohim, that God moves through liberation, and that each of us is here to bring our own and unique blessing to the world. We were named Yisrael, God wrestlers, taught to take on any authority, even God, in the fight for justice. We dared to believe that the world can get better.
And you have a part in that story. The voices that sustained our people through that crisis were not the voices of ultra-Orthodoxy, or zealotry, or exclusion or intolerance. Our voices, our Reform, progressive Jewish voices, are needed now more than ever. Those of us committed to justice and human rights for all citizens of Israel must not cede the space to those who are not.
Our voices are needed now more than ever.
Speaker #7: I bring my voice, our voices. I come today to sing – Of you, the faithful city. To pledge our faithfulness.
Jerusalem of copper, of gold, of light. Lest I forget thee, Jerusalem.
Im eshkachech yerushalayim asher kula zahav
Yerushalayim shel zahav, v’shel n’choshet v’shel or,
Ha-lo l’chol shirayich ani kinor.
A long, long time ago, when I was a newly minted rabbi, the way we prayed in a Reform service was really different from what we’re doing here. The guiding principle of Reform Jewish Worship of the day was “decorum.” “Behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety.” Being decorous was expressed with our clothing (formal); our language (almost entirely in English and very little Hebrew); musical instruments (only the organ and the human voice); our expressions of emotion should be kept to a minimum, except of course for some occasional righteous indignation!
“Spirituality” believe it or not, was not thought to be very decorous. Spirituality could be messy, emotional, uncomfortable and unpredictable. (When I went to the Hebrew Union College for my interview for rabbinical school in 1978, I was strongly advised NOT to use the word “spiritual”. It could make the committee uncomfortable. They might think you’re some kind of meditating, spacey, hippie or something.
I was once chastised for wearing brown shoes at services. We were warned against “osculation” on the bema. (Kissing someone “Shabbat shalom”). Not tolerated were the sounds of young children; the sight of an open collar with no tie; guitar playing; facial hair, etc. It was a different world.
We’ve come a long way. (Last Friday night at services I happened to have on a suit and tie. More than one person came up and asked, “Why are you so dressed up? What’s the occasion?”)
We also didn’t talk about God all that much. Even on the bema. Especially from the bema.
Now take this as a compliment, because it’s meant as one: you Jews today are much harder to please with prayer and worship than the Jews generations past. And that’s a really good thing. Truly a complement. Much was left unquestioned in the decades of the past. People excepted the music they’d always heard, people recited the prayers more out of habit, without great concern for their meaning.
But today, so many of our people, of all ages, want to understand what we’re saying. We want to ponder who that God is that’s being addressed on these pages. We want the words we say to be authentic and ring true.
These changes are wonderful! And they go way beyond the sanctuary.
Weddings are really different: What people look for in a ceremony has changed dramatically over the years. Most of the couples who came into my office in the 80s or 90s all said the same thing to me: “Rabbi, if you could not use too much Hebrew, and please don’t make it too Jewish; and if you could keep it really short.”
It’s so different today! Couples now come in with incredible curiosity about each little part of the ceremony, sometimes wanting to revive old traditions, sometimes wanting to create new ones.
And these same conversations are equally interesting whether it’s two Jews, or with an interfaith couple, or with LGBTQ couples, or folks who converted. We all want to understand what we are saying and to Whom? People want to be very careful with the God language in their weddings; they put a lot of thought using only words they actually believe.
(BTW: One thing hasn’t changed. Everyone still wants it short. No one has ever, ever come up to me and asked, “Rabbi, could you please make our wedding ceremony really long!”)
Folks as young as our 12 and 13 year-olds can be wonderfully demanding too in wanting to understand this “praying stuff” and “this God stuff”. It used to be rare for a bat or bar mitzvah kid to think so deeply about God. Now a good number of these young kids have serious and brilliant God questions.
More than a few times a year David, Shira or I will get a call from a parent who’s a little embarrassed to tell us that their daughter or son isn’t sure they want to have a bar mitzvah because they don’t believe in God.
But please don’t be embarrassed or feel awkward to tell the rabbi or cantor that your kid is not sure he or she believes in God. Cause that’s a really cool kid! Our response to you is “Good for you, good for your kid!” Most of us don’t think much about prayer and God issues until we’re well into adulthood!
So if you’re lucky enough to have one of those kids who is curious, and asking hard questions, and is even a bit strident in their thoughts, then Mazal Tov! You have a thinking caring soul on your hands. And we all look forward to engaging in good discussion with them.
Many of our 15 year-olds have deep and serious questions. Every year when we prepare for Confirmation our 10th graders have a sheet of sentence completions that they fill out.
The place I feel most comfortable is . . . ?
When I grow up I would like to . . . ?
If I could change one thing in the world it would be . ?
My favorite Kol Ami memory is . . . ?
I’ve used the same sheet for many, many years.
Then all of a sudden a few years ago one sentence completion became very contentious.
“A time I felt close to God was . . .” Complete the sentence. That one used to seem kind of innocuous; pretty straight forward. Bur recently they began to find that sentence very presumptuous; a question that a) presumes you believe in God, and b) presumes that there was a time when you felt close to God. That’s a lot to presume.
And the kids are asking, “Hey, what if I’ve never had a time where I felt close to God. What if I don’t believe in God? Am I still a part of this?”
We’re not in the business of telling young people what to believe; rather our job is to give them the tools and the spiritual vocabulary to engage in their own life long journey; wherever it takes them. And most often it takes them to good places.
So what’s the modern Jew supposed to do?
There’s this great little morsel of wisdom that may help: May have been written a few centuries ago, but it certainly helpful for us here today with our really hard God questions.
“Pray as if everything depends on God;
and act as if everything depends on you.”
[St. Augustine or from Reform Prayerbook, Mishkan Tephillah.]
In this teaching you have the praying and the doing.
What do we pray for almost every time we gather?
We have that prayer for healing,
the prayers for peace,
the prayer to bring comfort to someone who recently had a death in the family,
the prayer about feeding the homeless or clothing the naked,
the Amida in which we have now fully embraced the mothers of our tradition equally with the fathers of our tradition.
“Pray as if everything depends on God; and act as if everything depends on you.”
It doesn’t say “or”. It doesn’t say “act OR pray”! How brilliant that it says both:
Pray AND act!
It’s like a redundant back up system. Think of yourself sky diving; you’re never going to jump out of that plane unless you have both your parachute AND your emergency chute. Pray and act.
How do we Jews pray AND act?
The Prayer is the Mi Sheberach: we sing the prayer for healing. The Action? When we visit people who are ill, when we call them, when we check in on them or make a bowl of soup.
The Prayer Oseh Shalom: Maker of Peace: The Action? Any time you have eveworkedin your life to prevent war, or protest, or write a letter, or supported a war you thought might bring peace; or when you have meeting with elected officials?
The Prayer to console the bereaved. The Action: when you show up for shiva, and give that hug.
The Prayers about feeding the homeless and clothing the naked. The Action: When we create and sustain a Food Pantry on our own property; when we have bags in the Atrium filled for us to take to someone who could use it; When we create a magnificent Thanksgiving dinner for the people from the Coachman.
(Do you know what our kids will be doing across the way tomorrow morning?: They’ll be praying and acting. After a Yom Kippur service they will be packing up donated food for the homeless, as we do every year with Feeding Westchester. Kol Ami is one of their largest donors, giving each year literally thousands of pounds of food for hungry people. Our kids . . . praying AND acting.
The Prayer, the Avot and Imahot, in which we now fully embrace the mothers of our tradition equally with the fathers of our tradition. The Actions?; when we fill up busses to go to DC, or NY or White Plains to act for Women’s equality.
Singer Sam Smith recently wrote a beautiful song that captures our dilemma: Smith is a British fellow who’s about 26 years old. His first songs were mostly love songs. But a couple of years ago he travelled to Iraq with a charity called War Child, an organization that works to provide assistance to children living in war zones.
Smith says that he “…spent five days in Mosul and came back embarrassed that [he] had known so little about the world and other people’s lives.” He was deeply conflicted about what to do? And with this song he captures the essence of these hard questions: When should I pray? Do I believe? Are You there? Where do I start? I’m confused!
Sam Smith’s song, Pray:
I lift up my head and the world is on fire
There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones
And I just don’t know what to say
Maybe I’ll pray
I have never believed in you, no
But I’m gonna pray
You won’t find me in church reading the Bible
But I’m still here and I’m still your disciple
I’m down on my knees, I’m beggin’ you, please
When I try to explain, the words run away
That’s why I stood here today
And I’m gonna pray (Lord), maybe I’ll pray
Pray for a glimmer of hope
Won’t you call me?
Can we have a one-to-one, please?
Let’s talk about freedom
Oh, and I’m gonna pray,
Pray for a glimmer of hope
Maybe I’ll pray,
I’ve never believed in you, no, but I’m gonna pray
(Pray by Sam Smith. Sung by Melanie Barest)
“Mirror mirror on the wall
Who is the fairest one of all?
Slave in the magic mirror
Come from the farthest space
Through wind and darkness I summon thee
Let me see thy face.
Magic mirror on the wall
Who is the fairest one of all?”
We are asked during this season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to take a good look at ourselves – and I trust, that if you are like me, that you have checked yourself out carefully in the mirror before you came here this evening. In fact, I have found myself thinking about mirrors a lot. There are two mirrors in my bedroom (one was there before we moved in) and three in the bathroom. And another two mirrors in my study here at Kol Ami (both of which preceded me.) And I find that I look different in each of them. How do I know that? Because I look at them all! Mirror mirror on the wall!
In 1990, the first of the major losses hit our family. Mutti – the beloved matriarch of the family – died. You heard how my mother-in-law escaped from Nazi Germany as a teenager, and subsequently rescued her mother and father and sister. Mutti was the mother she rescued. Mutti was my husband David’s grandmother, his tether in the universe. Mutti was the great grandmother of my children – each of them known and loved by her. Mutti lived a long and loving life and her death was not a tragedy – but our loss is often commensurate with our blessing, and the family was sunk in loss. We gathered our young children around us and prepared to fly to Los Angeles to bury her, together with the rest of the family. My sister-in-law Diane was preparing her home for our sitting shiva. “Do I cover the mirrors?” she asked me on the phone. I thought to myself: the family doesn’t keep kosher, they don’t belong to a synagogue, they don’t observe a traditional Shabbat. “No,” I said. “You don’t need to cover the mirrors.”
Diane didn’t listen to me. Thankfully. I learned a few things. I learned that it was relief to get up in the night and walk down the hall and to see that the physical world around me had changed. The world didn’t look the same. And because our world had changed profoundly – that everything felt so different – it was a relief that it also looked so different.
And I also learned that I look at mirrors all the time. Because every time I walked down the hallway, I turned my head to look at what was the mirror, but now was only a blank sheet of white.
Blazing white. A bolt of lightning and rumble of thunder. The Israelites gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and “as morning dawned there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain a very loud blast of the shofar. [Exodus 19:16] All the people saw the thunder and the lightning and the blast of the shofar and when the people saw it, they fell back in awe.” [Exodus 20:15]
What is it that they saw? Sacred traditions tell us that they came into direct encounter with God’s Presence. They saw God’s Presence. Like the movies: you’ve seen it: Lightning, thunder, dark clouds, drama. The rabbis of old offered a different take: they suggested that God appeared to them as a mirror. [Rabbi Levi, Pesikta de Rav Kahana, piska 12] What a strange and wonderful image.
I have found myself thinking about mirrors a lot.
Once there was a princess who had never cried. Princess Elinor had never had anything to cry about. Everything she wanted she got. One day, she said to her father, the king, “Father, I want to see God.”
“See God?” he bellowed. “No one has seen God.”
“That is precisely why I want to see God,” Princess Elinor replied.
I am reciting to you practically verbatim one of my favorite stories, told by Molly Cone in a collection about the Ten Commandments. You can find the story in its full original on our website – the link for Rosh Hashanah resources.
The King did everything he could think of to show God to his daughter, but having never looked for God himself, he was at a loss for what to do. In exasperation, he wandered out of the palace onto a country road where he came across an old man planting a tree. The king sat down, exhausted, looked at the old man, and at the sapling, and said (not too kindly), “Say old man, do you ever expect to see the fruits of that tree?”
“No, of course not,” the old man replied. “But perhaps my children will, or their children, God willing.”
The king perked up. “Did you say ‘God’? Do you know God?”
The old man looked quizzically at the king as the king continued: “My daughter wants more than anything in the world to see God. Do you think you can show God to her?”
The old man had heard about the princess who had never cried. He thought for a moment and said, “Perhaps I can.”
He followed the king back to the palace and stood before Princess Elinor. She looked doubtfully at the old man and said, “Can you really show God to me, old man?
“If God wills it, I will.”
“And if God doesn’t, you’ll be sorry.”
“But first you have to do one thing for me,” the old man said. The princess raised an eyebrow. “You have to come with me to visit someone you don’t know.”
The old man led the princess out of the palace, through surrounding farms and down an old dirt road. They came to the side of a shack and stopped. The old man motioned the princess toward the doorway. She hesitated, bent down and stepped into the shack. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, and she made out a young girl seated beside a low table. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of something cooking on the stove.
“I am Princess Elinor,” she said. The girl lit up. “You’re supposed to get up when you meet a princess.” The smile slipped off the girl’s face.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “I never could.” She lifted her skirt.
The princess looked, quickly turned around and stepped out, blinking back the bright sunlight. “Are you ready?” the old man asked.
“Ready – for what?” the princess asked.
“You are ready,” he said. He handed the princess a small mirror, and said to her, “Hold the mirror in your hand and close your eyes and look deep into yourself.”
The princess took the mirror in her hand and closed her eyes. Suddenly, big fat tears started to roll down the face of the princess who had never cried. “Why are your crying?” he asked.
“I have seen so little,” she said. “I have only seen myself. I have only thought of myself. Do you think it would help if I brought her good food to eat, maybe a new dress? Do you think it would help?”
The old man took the mirror from her hand. “My child,” he said, “You have seen God.” [Molly Cone, Who Knows Ten]
Mirror mirror on the wall.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav taught that a person reaches in one of three directions: inward – to oneself; out – to others; up – to God. He added: when we reach (or see) deeply in any one direction, we touch all three.
In, out, up. Each facet is a mirror. How we see ourselves in others affects how we see ourselves. How we see God affects how we see ourselves. David and I are the parents of four and through them, grandparents of ten. Some of you knew me as the parent of young children; some of you know me now as the grandmother of my delicious grandchildren. Over the years, our children have taught us so much. Our eldest, Talia, kept a little black notebook, a running list of all the things we did wrong. We didn’t always know what it was – but something would happen that would prompt a furtive look, then pulling out that little black book, writing some notes and quickly closing it. We figured it wasn’t fair. Someday we’d be in therapy together, and she would be the only one with the notes.
Sometimes what we learned was in a momentary exchange. Like the time our youngest, Liore, was two and a half. – a story some of you know. David was giving her a bath, and out of the blue, Liore turned to him and said, “Abba, God likes boys better than girls.”
I know exactly what I would have said had I been there. I would have definitely said, “That is SO not true.” But David was much wiser. He asked instead,” What makes you think that?” Liore said, “Well, God has a penis and boys have a penis, so God likes boys better.”
There were two amazing things to learn from this moment. The first – and most obvious. Why did my daughter think that God had a penis? (This in a family where it’s her mother who is the rabbi!) Many of you have been to my home (and those who haven’t, I would love to invite you for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Please talk to me.) You won’t see any portraits of God in my home – and certainly none of God with a penis. So what made her say that? Don’t doubt for a moment the power of the pronoun. Liore had heard God described as He – He and His. With two brothers and a father, she knew what a ‘he’ looked like. But the more subtle and the more profound lesson was something else: because Liore imagined God as male, she imagined herself – in a cosmic way – as worth less. How we see God affects how we see ourselves. We are reflected in the Divine Mirror.
You never know looking at someone what mountains they have to climb. Learning to love is my mountain. I have had many teachers along this way. You have been among them. We have created a community of love. But it is in the simple and pure and unencumbered moments with my grandchildren that I know, for sure, that I have learned to love.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting with my 4-year-old granddaughter Maya, helping her wash up. (My grandchildren call me ‘Imama.’) She turned to me and said, “Imama, you are like a grandmother.” I said to her, “I am a grandmother.” She said, “Ohhh my God!”
I can’t believe it myself. I am getting old. I am happy and grateful to say that. And though getting old is beautiful, it’s not always pretty.
Mirror mirror on the wall. I open the door to my bathroom in my Kol Ami study (yes – I have my own bathroom) – and ten inches in front of my face are the mirrors of the medicine cabinet, lit up by ferocious fluorescent lights. It’s beautiful getting older – but it’s not always pretty. And then I came up with a brilliant plan. I have covered the mirrors with photos of my grandchildren. Now, I open the bathroom door and break out into a huge smile.
We need to be seen deeply. Not just by our color, or our age, or our ethnicity, physical ability or occupation. In the world around us, we are assaulted daily by messages that denigrate human dignity, and ethnic, racial and religious uniqueness. Now, more than ever, our eyes need to welcome everyone who enters this sacred space. Even here, at Kol Ami, we have assumptions of what it looks like to be a member of the community. I have overheard members of our community, people of different colors, being greeted by:
- Excuse me, this is a synagogue. Can I help you?
- Are you one of the custodians?
- Or, overheard at a barbecue for the Coachman Shelter families we host here at Kol Ami, said to one of our incredible Kol Ami volunteers: And how long have you been at the Coachman?
Everyone needs to be valued and cherished as part of this sacred community not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are. Not in spite of our limitations, our abilities or vulnerabilities, our connections or our aloneness, our age, our color, our partners, our faith traditions, our ethnicities – but because of it, all of it, because of who we are. We are all facets of the unfolding Jewish story.
Outside in the Atrium is a spectacular gallery of faces of Kol Ami, a glimpse into our multi-faceted, diverse glory. There is room for you in this gallery of photos. Please let any of us know if you would like to be part of it.
When the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, God appeared to them as a mirror. Thousands of people looked – and they each saw themselves reflected. One mystical mirror; thousands of refractions of light. Each of us is a unique refraction of the Divine Presence. Each of us harbors within a spark of divine presence. But we don’t see that divine spark looking at a mirror. We see it reflected in the goodness we do; we see it reflected in the eyes of others. It really matters how we are seen by the people around us. What you reflect in your eyes tells others how they are valued, how they are accepted, and respected, and welcomed and loved. God has no eyes except yours. The way you look at others will give the people around you the chance to see themselves reflected in love.
No mirrors in my nana’s house
And the beauty that I saw in everything
Was in her eyes.” [Isaya Barnwell No Mirrors in My Nana’s House]
“The world outside was a magical place.
I only knew love.
I never knew hate,
and the beauty in everything
was in her eyes…”
In your eyes.
Whether you count with 5,779 years of Jewish mythical reckoning; or the 4 ½ billion years of scientific reckoning . . . today we Jews celebrate the birthday of the World.
The Mystics teach us that God’s act of Creation was never fully completed. Something was left a bit broken, unfinished. They explain that to repair and complete Creation, we human beings would have a role to play: that through our best moral actions, we can help complete God’s work.
In 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. commented on the unfolding of this Creation’s history: He famously said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Today I want to share with you three broken places in this creation that need our help; our acts of Tikkun Olam; places we can help to bend that arc of the moral universe towards justice.
The first broken place:
In February of 1972 I was one of 150 enthralled teenagers, sitting on the floor of the rec room at a camp in Connecticut. Speaking to us was Deborah Lipstadt, our regional Youth Director, who had just returned from a harrowing, secret mission to the Soviet Union.
She was not yet Professor Deborah Lipstadt, renowned Holocaust scholar. She was grad student Debby, youth group advisor Debby. And we 16 year-olds were spellbound with the idea that our Debby had just come back from a truly frightening “clandestine” mission on behalf of the Jewish people.
She had travelled to the USSR to visit Refuseniks, Jews who were denied permission to emigrate by the authorities. The term refusenik comes from the “refusal” to let them go, handed down by the Soviets.
(The following based on her telling of the story in her book, History on Trial.)
Before she and a fellow grad student departed on their mission to the USSR, Deborah was quietly given special instructions on what to bring, who to visit, what to say and not say . . . all this, to keep herself and the refuseniks she encountered safe.
She writes, “We were to bring one family medication for their child. And for others, books to distribute on the Jewish holidays, tradition, and history, and souvenirs from Israel, including a number of small Jewish stars on a chain.
“Our primary goal was to let these Jews know that Israel and world Jewry had not forgotten them and were partners in their struggle.”
She spent Yom Kippur at the synagogue in Moscow. She wrote, “Later that afternoon I returned. I saw the old woman from the morning standing at the back of the sanctuary. I handed her my small leather-bound prayer book. Unable to read it, she seemed proud just to hold it. When people walked by, she showed it to them.
Suddenly, the relative calm of the moment was broken. The synagogue sexton, [a Jew,] who, it was commonly assumed, reported all unusual activities to the KGB; he burst in and accused me of being a provocateur, a serious charge by Soviet standards. When he saw that the old woman had my prayer book, his face grew bright red. Sputtering in a mix of Russian and Yiddish, he grabbed it and accused me of distributing religious items. He then disappeared down the street with my book in his hands.
The next day we were waiting in our hotel lobby to depart for Kishinev. Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by men in trench coats who identified themselves as KGB. Had I not been so frightened, I would have laughed aloud at the predictability of their dress. I lost any inclination to laugh when I saw that they had my prayer book as well as a list of every home we had visited.
“When they questioned us, they used traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, describing the Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union as part of an international cabal. . . They kept asking who sent us. We kept insisting we were just tourists. I suspected that the exercise was designed to frighten us. The Soviets knew precisely who had sent us.
“After a long day of strip searches and interrogation, my traveling companion and I-who were kept apart the entire time-, were accused of spreading lies about the Soviet regime. We were “invited” to leave the country and, in the dark of the night, placed in an empty train car with an armed guard. [They didn’t tell us where we were going.] Many hours later, after a long and circuitous route, we were let off the train. We found ourselves in Romania.”
That was a visit to a broken place. But that was 46 years ago That’s a long time! Moscow is far away! And the perpetrators were part of an evil Empire that no longer exists.
The KGB, indiscriminate interrogations, going through your bags to find propaganda materials; questioning you on your motives and your politics and your affiliations. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. Our world is a more benign and friendly one.
One would hope.
Yet, here’s another story about interrogation, intimidation, and the questioning of politics and beliefs and intentions. But this one was not long ago, and for us, the Jewish people, it was not far away.
It was July 16th, a few weeks ago, at 1AM. Sam Sussman, a writer and activist, posted the following:
“I just spent a deeply disturbing hour being questioned about the books in my suitcase by security officers at Ben Gurion airport. “Why are you reading this?” the officers asked again and again. I had Amos Oz’s memoir, Saed Kashua’s last novel, a religious tract on Hasidism and Kierkegaard, Bernard Henry-Levi’s ‘The Genius of Judaism,’ a history of the Communist Party in Mandate Palestine, two novels about the Iraq War by writers with distinctly Arabic names, a novel by a left-wing Israeli writer, a collection of short stories about the occupation edited by Michael Chabon, and four short collections of testimonies from Breaking the Silence.
For a full hour the security guards held up one book after another. “Why are you reading this?” “Where did you get this?” “What is this about?” “Tell me again: why do you want to read this?” “You know Breaking the Silence is against Israel? You know Breaking the Silence opposes the Army?” “Who told you to read this?” After a full search of my suitcase, the security officers found the business card of the director of B’Tselem בצלם. “Why do you have this? You know B’Tselem? You know they are against the Army?”
Sam continued, “I cannot explain or justify this as a security practice. My luggage had already been cleared when the first “non-kosher” book was discovered. This was a political exercise. It’s deeply disturbing to me that airport security officers are using their position to defame Israeli human rights organizations and question readers of Palestinian authors. Imagine if you landed at JFK and for an hour security officials insisted that Iraq Veterans Against the War is against America, questioned why you were reading books written by minorities, and asked why you had a business card from the ACLU.”
(From the JTA) Meyer Koplow – the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Brandeis University – and a longtime donor to pro-Israel causes, Koplow was delayed by a security agent at Ben Gurion International Airport a few weeks ago before being allowed to board his flight. He believes he was called for questioning after security personnel found a brochure in his luggage titled “This Week in Palestine,” which he had picked up in a Bethlehem hotel lobby.
The JTA reported that Koplow said, “The best way I can describe it is a badgering form of questioning where before you finish giving one answer, you’re being asked the same question again as if what you said is not credible. She asked what purpose could possibly be served by people visiting the territories. She asked that several times.”
Koplow said he appreciates Israeli personnel checking luggage for the purposes of security, but he feels that the questioning he experienced “goes a level beyond that. . . Why would you do that other than to send a message that the government doesn’t welcome your engaging in any kind of inquiry.”
Koplow was disturbed as well by “the manner of the continued implication that I wasn’t telling the truth or all of the truth,” he said. He added that describing his past involvement with Jewish and Israeli causes did not change the tenor of the interrogation, which was conducted in public view.
In addition to his position at Brandeis, Koplow is a board member of the UJA-Federation in New York and has served as the president of his synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle. He told the reporter that he has given millions of dollars to Israeli causes.
Koplow said “The most disturbing question she asked me, and she asked me more than once, was what was I going to do with the information I learned in the territories.”
“What business is it of security at departure as to what I’m thinking or what I might say?”
Something is broken in the universe when a long ago interrogation by the KGB in Moscow has even the slightest resemblance to the questioning of passengers at Ben Gurion Airport.
A second broken place: Destroying Families
A broken place in the history of Australia is a government program in which Children were stolen from their parents; they were taught to reject their Indigenous heritage, and forced to adopt white culture. Their names were often changed, and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages
Official government estimates are that in certain regions between one in ten and one in three indigenous Australian children were forcibly taken from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970.
In our own country’s past “the U.S. government forcibly removed tens of thousands of Native American children from their homes and families to attend “assimilation” boarding schools in the late 19th century.
U.S. cavalry captain Richard Henry Pratt, who opened the first such school in Pennsylvania infamously said, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
(From The Washington Post, Haley Sweetland Edwards. June 14, 2018) Earlier this year, a young Honduran woman named Mirian gathered her 18-month-old son into her arms and walked across the bridge between Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, where she presented herself to U.S. border agents to ask for asylum. Mirian and her son spent the night in a detention facility. The next day, officials told her to put her son into a car seat in the back of a government vehicle. Her hands shook as she buckled him in. The officials wouldn’t tell her where they were taking him, only that she would not be allowed to go with him.
As the car pulled away, she could see her baby looking back at her through the window, screaming.
Immigrants’ advocates offer wrenching accounts of how, exactly, federal authorities remove children from their moms and dads. On some occasions . . . kids are pulled, sobbing, from their parents’ arms. On other occasions, agents have allegedly lied. “They say, ‘We’re just going to take your kids to have a bath,’” “But then they don’t bring them back.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a letter noting that taking a child from a parent can do “irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health.” (The above appears in the June 25, 2018 issue of TIME.)
And then there are the hundreds who, due to a fundamentally evil policy, bad planning, lost records and ineptitude, will never be reunited with their families.
Someone commented on the radio the other day: “When we go to the dry cleaners with a shirt, they make sure that we get a receipt, that little claim ticket that guarantees that of the thousands and thousands of shirts they process each week, that my shirt will get back to me.
Hundreds of children were taken from their parents at our border without even a claim ticket!
How broken that is. (Journalist: Annie Correal)
The third and final broken place: For most of our lives, at dark moments in our nation we have been able to turn to our country’s president, of either party, in the hope of hearing comforting and inspiring words that speak to our higher selves.
55 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson, addressed the nation on the occasion of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was in the midst of a very difficult time in our modern history.
He said, “Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect our freedom. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders. We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”
With those words and those laws, LBJ did indeed place the not-insignificant weight of the American Presidency firmly against that long arc of the moral universe.
Following the racial violence and death in Charlottesville last August, two more US Presidents weighed in: (Maya Rhodan, August 16, 2017)
Both presidents Bush released a joint-statement saying: “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are all reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.”
Voices of moral clarity.
Alas, here is the third broken place; the response of our current president to the anti-Semites, the racists, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who gathered in Charlottesville.
He said that counter-protesters deserve an equal amount of blame for the violence. “What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right?” “Do they have any semblance of guilt?” “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me,” he said. “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” Trump said. “The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
“You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he said.
As former President Obama commented on that infamous moment on Friday when he asked: “How hard can that be?! Saying, “Nazis are bad!”?
What are we to do during these dark times? What role can we play in this Tikkun Olam, in the fixing of these broken places?
Presidential historian Jon Meacham reminds us that we’ve been here before. And for similar reason: Fear. Economic fear and fear of the other.
He reminds us that the irrational fear of the emancipation of blacks and of immigration in the 1920’s created a KKK that was so much more dominant than we now remember.
Like today, he continues, it was all about economic transition, uncertainty, a fear of the other, that somehow or another people who didn’t sound like us or look like us – then meaning white Anglo Saxon Protestants – were going to take those jobs, were going to take over the country.
That was the 1920s. And here we are again. The same fears. And same ugliness arises. We become ugly at our borders, ugly with our nationalism, ugly with our racism.
The question Meacham asks is the question we need to ask right now:
Since we have been here before, how did we get through it? What did people do that turned things around?
There was one essential element , one common denominator, was that the people themselves were relentless in saying that, “This is not who we want to be. This may be who we are sometimes, but we don’t want to be that. And if we can get to 51% of our better angels, that’s a pretty good day.’
The Mystics taught us: Tikkun Olam is not something we observe passively from the sidelines as we watch others do the work.
Martin Luther King reminds us: Our task is not to sit by with folded arms, and admire others, as they work to bend Martin Luther King’s moral arc.
May we be relentless in letting the world know that “this is not who we want to be!”
With our votes
With our voices
With our presence
Today with our prayers
In the days to come with our actions!
In 1935, Solomon Perel was a 14 year-old Jewish teen, living with his parents and older brother in Germany. As Nazism swept across the country, the Perel family went east, seeking refuge in Poland. Solomon and his brother ended up separated from their parents, and in the ravages of war, the two brothers became separated from each other. Solomon found shelter in a Soviet communist orphanage, until the Germans moved into Soviet-controlled Poland. “When the Germans came,” Solomon said, “they forced us to stand in line. I heard talk that they would not take Jews alive. I buried my papers and Communist youth card in a hole in the ground I dug with my foot. When my turn came, I said I am Volksdeutsche– a German.” He was, of course, a native German speaker. He assumed a new identity as Joseph (Jupp for short). He became an interpreter in the Wehrmacht unit that adopted him, and soon after was sent to an elite Hitler youth training school back in Germany. “I believed I was Joseph–a German,” Solomon said, reflecting on his complicated life. “The Jew began to disappear…Solomon, the Jew, was almost forgotten. He became just a little part hidden away in me. I never hated Jews. But I, Jupp, accepted Nazi ideology. The Germans were superior and the Jews subhuman.”
Solomon’s story was made famous in the film, Europa Europa. You may recall the central panic of Solomon’s disguise as a non-Jewish German, the fear that he would be caught naked, circumcised. In an interview from his Givatayim apartment in Israel, as a 65-year old, following the release of the movie, Perel acknowledged that his circumcision almost cost him his life, but, he added, reflecting on the powerful and seductive pull of Nazism, “but it saved my soul.” For had he been able to become fully Nazi, he would have.
In 1990, David and I and our children traveled with 35 other Kol Ami members to Prague, Budapest and Israel. We went with prayer books and Torah commentaries to help fortify a fledgling Reform congregation in Budapest. Two young men met us to receive the books. “Tell us about yourselves,” we asked – and how is it that you are leaders of this small community?” As it turned out, both young men were raised as Communists; neither knew that he was Jewish. “So what happened?” we wanted to know. They each had a story, of course, but one in particular has stayed with me. “I came home from school one day,” he said, “I was a teenager. And I boasted to my parents that I had helped beat up a Jewish child.”
What do parents do in a moment like that? The mother and father had each lost their entire families to the Holocaust. They were the sole survivors. And they had made a pact that the suffering they had experienced would end; that they would not pass on their Jewishness. And so they had protected their boy from knowing that they – or he – was Jewish. Now what do they do? As the young man spoke, I imagined to myself in a flash of pain that the parents felt they had a stark choice to make: they would have to choose: either their son would be a victim, or an oppressor. And they chose: he will not become an oppressor.
We will be reading today from the Torah one of the most troubling stories in our sacred canon. “Take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” The Torah is unrelenting in its drumbeat: “Abraham built the altar – arranged the wood – bound Isaac his son – laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham reached out and took the knife to slay his son.”
What a terrible story. And of all the stories in the Torah, why choose this one for Rosh Hashanah, for the beginning of the year? Why this one? “I hate this story,” I said to David years ago. And David said, “What Abraham didn’t have to follow through with, (an angel stayed his hand), countless other Jewish parents did.” David reminded me that during the years of the Shoah, the overwhelming number of Jewish parents continued to circumcise their boys – for sure, a mark of vulnerability, putting them in the path of danger.
We do everything to protect our children – like that mother and father in Budapest. Why bring them up as Jews?
In preparing sermons for the High Holidays, I give a lot of thought to the music that becomes part of the sermon, or that concludes the sermon. What am I going to do for a sermon that features circumcision. Maybe this one. [Beatles – It won’t be long now.] I know it’s irreverent, but good religion needs to be a little irreverent – and these are dark times, and we need to laugh, and we need to laugh at ourselves.
We don’t have to go as far back as the Shoah – or as far away as Budapest – to remind ourselves of the risks we take marking ourselves as Jews. Some of us are non-Jewish members of Jewish families; some of us have chosen Judaism along the path of your life. And so this exercise may mean different things to different people. Please imagine for yourself a time that you were part of a conversation, part of a group of people, in which no one knew that you were Jewish or married to a Jew. And you decided that that was fine – that you would pass. And then someone says something that’s not okay – and you decide to come forward with your Jewishness. Can you remember a moment like that? What does it feel like? Does it feel that you, even for a moment, let in an edge of vulnerability, or risk? This is part of being Jewish. It’s not only what we believe, it’s not only what we stand for, it is who we are; being Jewish and part of a Jewish family is in our being. In its most perverse form, Hitler understood that it would not be enough to get rid of Jewish books or Jewish ideas. For him to accomplish the evil he intended for the world, he needed to get rid of Jews. We stand in the face of evil. We stand against bullies, against racism, against oppression and bigotry. In our very being.
The story is told about a Jewish merchant in America in the early 1800’s, peddling his wares in the South. “Triebwasser, a twine merchant from New York, was trying desperately to sell some of his goods in Louisiana. But wherever he went, he kept encountering anti-Semitism. In one particular department store, the buyer taunted him: ‘All right, Jake, I’ll buy some of your twine. As much as reaches from the top of your Jewish nose to the tip of your Jewish prick.’
“Two weeks later, the buyer was startled to receive a shipment containing eight hundred cartons of Grade A twine. Attached was a note: ‘Many thanks for your generous offer. Invoice to follow. [signed] Jacob Triebwasser – residing in New York, circumcised in Kiev.’” [Novak and Waldoks, The Big Book of Jewish Humor, p.83]
God to Abraham about Isaac: Take this child, whom you love, and bring him up to make a difference. Tell him that the world is filled with injustice. Tell him that it’s hard to be a human being, and that it will be hard for him as well. That he will fail in his work, and stumble as a human being, and disappoint in his relationships. That growing up takes courage and fighting for a better world will mean taking risks.
Parents invoke this covenantal moment between God, Abraham and Isaac at each birth ceremony – each brit. Brit – or bris – is the Hebrew word for ‘covenant.’ It does not mean ‘circumcision.’ We bring our children into the covenant when they are born and named – boys and girls alike. So many parents, in speaking to their little one, have expressed the hope that “more than anything, we hope for you that you will be happy.” We imagine that we will create a world in which we can shelter our children from pain, or suffering, or illness, or death, or disappointment. Not only is this unrealistic, but it also renders our children helpless and powerless in the face of life’s challenges. Keeping them away from sorrow and pain will rob them of their humanity and of their power to comfort and to heal.
I have been privileged to stand with so many of you – parents, grandparents and great grandparents – as you welcome children into the world. And I have learned from you. Zachary Mazin, a young Kol Ami father, knew that in speaking to his children, he would not be able to wish them a life of uninterrupted happiness and success. He said to them:
“I hope you never have to experience heartache. But when you do, I hope you have dear friends to comfort you.
“I hope you’re never mean or vindictive. But when you are, I hope you have the capacity for remorse.
“I hope you never fail to accomplish something you set your mind to. But when you do, I hope you have the persistence to try again.
“I hope you never betray someone’s trust. But when you do, I hope you have the integrity to admit it and make it right.
“I hope you never shirk responsibility. But when you do, I hope you work extra hard to become someone who can be relied upon.
“I hope you never fail to consider the effects of your actions on others. But when you do, I hope you find the capacity for empathy and humility.
“I hope you never forget to engage in the work of repairing the world. But when you do, I hope your relationship with God steers you back toward helping to improve the lives of those around you.
“I hope you never have to go through loss, or behave poorly or finish second in a race or are unhappy for any reason whatsoever. But when all these things happen, and they inevitably will, I hope you find strength from within and solace from without.”
Beyond being happy, there is something else we need. We need to know that we matter. We need to know that we are alive for a reason. Now, more than in a long time, our lives as Jews and as members of a Jewish community matter.
God to Abraham about Isaac: Put down the knife. Do not lay a hand upon the boy. Life is way too precious. And there will be never be another child like this one. Each one is unique. But do not leave this place relieved. Whew! We escaped danger. It is not enough just to be alive. You must be alive for a reason. Do not squander the gift.
We have been given the gift of life. We have been bequeathed a covenant as Jews and as members of this Jewish community. It is a covenant of vulnerability and courage. We will stand up wherever there is hate – and we now know that there is more hatred in our country than we ever imagined.
From the moment our people was called into being, we have been asked to stand in the face of injustice, by virtue of our differentness to witness to the deepest religious truth that each of us, in our very difference and diversity, is created in the image of God. During World War II, in ways both told and forgotten, Jews resisted the hatreds of Nazism. Among the ways not well-known is the physical resistance against the Nazis. You will find an exhibit in the Petschek Gallery of 60 photographs from World War II, documenting Jewish resistance against the Nazis. The exhibit is called: “Resistance is the Lesson.”
“Amos Oz” – Israeli author – “said that there are a number of ways to respond to calamity. Take the example of a fire. What can you do? You can run away. You can write an angry letter. Or you can bring a bucket of water to throw on the fire. ‘If you don’t have a bucket,’ he adds, ‘bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, bring a teaspoon. Everyone has a teaspoon. I know a teaspoon is little, and the fire is huge, but there are millions of us and each one of us has a teaspoon.’
“Bring your teaspoon and pour water on hate and fanaticism.”
[Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, January 21, 2017]
On your way out of the sanctuary today, as we begin a new year, you will find boxes of beautiful signs you can post on your lawn. What makes them beautiful is what’s written on them: “Hate has no home here.” The signs are not in democrat or republican. The signs are in English, Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. We have 200 of them. If we run out today, we will buy more for Yom Kippur. You are invited to leave a contribution to help defray the costs of these yard signs. You are one person, or one family, one home. We are one congregation. But each of us matters. And it will take each of us – and a sea of signs on the streets of Westchester – and Putnam and Dutchess counties and across our country – to turn the tide of hatred.
We are Jews. We know about hatred and bigotry – and we cannot let it happen to anyone. We have been given the gifts of vulnerability and of courage. “Listen to Me,” God said to Isaiah, “you who pursue justice. You who seek the
Lord. Look to the rock you were hewn from. To the quarry you were dug from. Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him. But I blessed him and made him many.” [Isaiah 51:1-2]
I made him many – I made him you. We stand together for Avinu Malkeinu.