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Friday, October 14, 2016

Yom Kippur Sermon 5777/2016

While High Holy Day tickets for Temple Kol Emeth may be the hottest ticket in Atlanta, everyone wants tickets for “Hamilton,” the musical.  If we do a simple search on google for “price of Hamilton tickets,” the lowest prices we would find are several hundreds of dollars.  The most expensive tickets are in the thousands!  Hamilton the Musical is so popular that Steve Harris rapped a Bat Mitzvah presentation to one of the songs from Hamilton earlier this summer
The musical tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life; however, it is the final act of Hamilton’s life that people often remember.  With so many amazing successes in his life, it is sad that many focus on his final act – the duel with Aaron Burr.  If you remember your history, Aaron Burr was also very successful in his life.  And, yet, Burr is most remembered for his final act as well – killing Alexander Hamilton.  To quote from Hamilton, Aaron Burr laments in song, “He may have been the first one to die.  I survived, but I paid for it.  Now I’m the villain in your history.”
          While Hamilton the Musical is based on the real lives of Alexander Hamilton and others, the stories we glean from the play are, after all, the point of view of the playwright, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and of the author Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton inspired the musical.  What does this mean?  Well, we must realize that the stories told in this musical and in the biography are told from the perspective of someone other than those who actually lived these moments.  Even auto-biographies are suspect to interpretation.  Think about it for a second.  How many times have you told a story from your life?  And, how many times has someone else who was in the story responded, “that’s not how I remember it?” 
          The stories we tell in our lives change, depending on where we are in our lives.  While we sometimes might think to ourselves, “I have heard that story before…” (especially when one of the rabbis is telling a story), the truth is there are details – even the most minute – that change every time we tell a story.  And, depending on which audience we are speaking to, those minute details may become major discrepancies.  For example, think about the Biblical Stories of Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah.  Those stories have very different meanings for us as kids than as adults.  The stories have not changed (at least in the Torah), but the way the stories are told have been changed.  When we tell our personal stories, the changes and ways we tell the stories are much more personal.
            Best-selling author and social scientist, Brene Brown, teaches about the “Rising Strong Process” in her 2015 book, “Rising Strong: the Reckoning, the Rumble and the Revolution.”  Brown writes, “This process teaches us how to own our stories of falling down, screwing up, and facing hurt so we can integrate those stories in our lives and write daring new endings.”[1]  In order to live a more whole hearted life, it is up to each of us to own our stories through this process.  “The goal of this process is to rise from our falls, overcome our mistakes, and face hurt in a way that brings more wisdom and wholeheartedness.”[2]  Let us explore these three steps together.
          The first step in owning our stories is The Reckoning.  Recognizing how we are feeling and what emotions are coming to the surface is very challenging; however, if we are able to recognize the triggers that cause our buttons to be pushed, we are beginning the process.  After being able to recognize our emotions and what is causing them, it is our curiosity about what is happening and how our emotions are connected to our thoughts and behaviors which enables us to then engage in this first step of the process – our reckoning.  When we are engaged with our emotions, we are then able to walk into our stories.
           The second step is The Rumble.  To quote Brown, “By rumble, I mean they get honest about the stories they’ve made up about their struggles and they are willing to revisit, challenge and reality-check these narratives as they dig into topics such as boundaries, shame, blame, resentment, heartbreak, generosity, and forgiveness.”[3]  When we are honest with our struggles, we are able to gain a deeper understanding of our thoughts, feelings and all of our behaviors.  It is in this step, the Rumble, in which our change begins.  We have recognized our challenges and began the very difficult task of reconciling what really happened with what we may have earlier stated or misstated.
          The third step in this process is The Revolution.  The change in us that began in The Rumble is now going to fundamentally transform our thoughts and beliefs.  We are now able to own our truth as we may have been unable or afraid to admit before.  Now, we rewrite our stories with a more courageous and truthful ending – thus completely changing how we engage with others and with the world.  What may seem like such a simple set of tasks actually is not so easy.  Transforming the way in which we view ourselves and others in our stories greatly affects our relationships with our families, our co-workers, the organizations we are affiliated with and our communities.  
          One of the strongest parts of Brown’s book is how she uses stories from her own life as examples.  She tells one of her own stories, a disagreement she had with her husband while swimming in a lake at her family’s lake house, and then breaks it down according to the “Rising Strong Process.”  The reader is able to see how she models the process and then apply it to his own life.  When we tell our stories over and over, the details that change can also change the way we present ourselves in a variety of ways.  Brown’s process enables us to own our stories – giving us the power to tell our story the way it really happened, rather than the way we may have “made up our story.” 
          When we fall down, it is not always easy to gather ourselves and get right back up.  However, by owning our stories, we are doing just that.  In Brown’s personal story, she says something to her husband and does not receive the response she wanted or needed.  This caused her great pain and frustration – which could have led to a terrible argument as it had in the past.  However, by owning her story, she has now been able to retell the story, recognizing where her faults were as well as being able to reconcile with her husband what she perceived as his faults.  This can be a truly eye opening and heartening experience! 
          The stories we tell in our lives change, depending on where we are in our lives.  It is our struggling with our individual truths that allows for us to grow and mature.  If we begin to tell a story in order to attract attention or to make ourselves seem “better than others,” how do we expect for others to see us?  Yes, our egos play a major role in how we see ourselves AND how others see us as well.  When our egos control our words and our actions, we are not owning our stories – rather we are being owned by our stories.
          Brown’s “Rising Strong Process” teaches us how we may begin to take back control of our stories – eventually owning them.  When we are able to be truthful with ourselves, when we are able to overcome our egos, the truth speaks for itself.  Before we can own our stories – and of course this means our falls, our faults and our struggles – we must recognize where we fell, where we are wrong and where are struggles are.  This is certainly not easy.  Brown writes, “the reckoning is how we walk into our story; the rumble is where we own it.  The goal of the rumble is to get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives…”[4] 
          The stories we tell in our lives change, depending on where we are in our lives.  Perhaps you have heard that prior to Yom Kippur we are required to seek out those whom we have wronged.  We are required to ask for their forgiveness – and we are to give forgiveness to those who seek it from us.  Maybe one of your stories played out differently for someone else than you remember it.  If you are unaware of your need to seek forgiveness, how do you reconcile that?  Truth be told that one of the hardest things to do in life is to grant forgiveness.  However, it can be just as hard to ask for forgiveness.  This is why it is of vital importance that we learn how to own our stories – we may find where we need to seek forgiveness and/or give forgiveness when we are able to truthfully tell our stories.
          Today, Yom Kippur, the longest day of the year – we are standing together, in our greatest act of humility, asking God for forgiveness.  We stand together because each of us needs the forgiveness.  Each of us has wronged another.  Each of us has been wronged.  According to our Yom Kippur liturgy, God will not forgive us of sins against God until we have reconciled our sins against other human beings.  The sinner and the forgiver – this applies to all of us.  Each of us must forgive and each of us must be forgiven.  Then, and only then, are we to seek God for God’s forgiveness. 
When we pray the words of the Al Chet in our Yom Kippur liturgy, the section entitled in English “Our Failures,” do we actually just read for the sake of reading?  Thinking about Brown’s model – how do we walk into our stories of the past year?  Do we pause long enough during this long list of missing the marks of our actions and deeds - of all of those Al Chets that resonate with us, that we are accountable for…
Just listen and think about these for a moment:
“We sin against You when we sin against ourselves, for our failures of truth, O God, we ask forgiveness.” 
“For deceiving ourselves and others with half-truths, and for pretending to emotions we do not feel.”
“For using others as a means to gratify our desires, and as stepping stones to further our ambitions.”
          “The sin we have committed against You by malicious gossip,” and
          “The sin we have committed against You by our arrogance.”
Do we actually own our failures or do we cast them onto others? (PAUSE)
 We should pause and actually allow these prayers to resonate with us – allowing for our own vulnerability to show us where we were at fault and how we can own them, and then change for the future. 
          The stories we tell in our lives change, depending on where we are in our lives.  We are quickly approaching the end of Yom Kippur.  Are the personal stories we tell at the end of Yom Kippur the same as the ones we told on Erev Yom Kippur or even at the beginning the High Holy Day Period?  Have we struggled to recognize our falls, gotten up, dusted ourselves off and rewritten our stories?  It is difficult, but it is possible and we must be able to do so in order to own our stories.  Brown teaches, “…transforming the way we live, love, parent, and work requires us to act on our vision: the rising strong process is nowhere near as powerful as the rising strong practice.”[5]
          When we are truly able to rumble with our faults, rumble with our falls and reconcile these difficulties – then the rising strong process becomes practice.  This has to be a part of our daily lives.  We reckon, we rumble and then the revolution occurs.  When we own and embody what we find in our struggles, that’s when the change occurs and we really begin to own our stories.  The “rising strong process” is there to help us achieve our true potential.  Remember, when we are able to tell stories packed with our truths, then our fears disappear, and our falls just become a part of our stories, not what defines our stories.
          In 5777, let everyone of us here begin the process of owning our stories.  Let us struggle with our falls and our faults.  May we begin the sometimes very difficult process of forgiving others – and of course this begins with our being able to forgive ourselves for our faults.  Stand up, dust yourself off and remember that we own our stories and we are able to make the impact to change ourselves and others.  It is my hope that this year will prove to be a truly awe inspiring and uplifting year for all of us.  Remember, as I have stated a number of times in my sermon today - The stories we tell in our lives change, depending on where we are in our lives.  Let us be the change in our story – and let us help others to do the same!        
On behalf of the entire Boxt family, I wish for every one of us in this room an easy fast.  May we all be written in the Book of Life and may each of us have a wonderful 5777.  Good Yontif!oHowHowe

[1] “Rising Strong: the Reckoning, the Rumble and the Revolution,” Brene Brown, 2015, pg. 39
[2] Ibid, pg. 40
[3] Ibid, pg. 40
[4] Ibid, pg. 77
[5] Ibid, pg. 255

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon - 5777

          Too many times in our lives, we find ourselves dwelling on the negative experiences in our lives.  We come to the end of a year and we hope that we will do better in the year ahead.  Perhaps we should also consider the amazing opportunities that await us in the upcoming year.  5776 may be ending, but 5777 has, as the Carpenters told us, “Only just begun…”  Yes – take a minute and sing that song – the rest of it – to yourselves!  So, while some of us are dwelling in our feelings of anxiety, there are others, I hope many, many more, who are grasping at the chance to do more…to do better. 
          There was a beloved Rabbi – one of the great Hasidic masters – Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol.  Many stories are told of his travels and his great abilities to help others.  One story, “The Recipient,” delivers a message that is very apropos:
A man who lived in Hanipol saw that Rabbi Zusya was very poor.  Each day, he put twenty pennies into his Tefillin bag, so that Zusya and his family might have the necessities of life.  As he gave more and more money to Rav Zusya, he became richer and richer.  The more that he gave to Rav Zusya, the more he had.
One day, though, when he realized that Rav Zusya was the disciple of a great, righteous man, he decided to give Rav Zusya’ master the presents originally given to Rav Zusya.  When this man journeyed to and met with Rabbi Baer, he induced him to accept his gift.  From this time on, though, his means shrank and shrank until he had lost all of the profits he had made before when he was giving gifts to Rav Zusya.
The man approached Rav Zusya to find out why his fortunes had turned drastically bad for him.  Rav Zusya replied, “Look!  As long as you gave and did not bother to whom, whether to Zusya or another, God gave to you and did not bother to whom.  But when you began to seek out especially noble and distinguished recipients, God did exactly the same.”
          We can certainly learn a lot from our Hasidic Masters, especially from Rav Zusya.  In this particular story, we learn it is not only important to just give to our community.  We should also make sure to care for those in our communities that have less or have fewer opportunities.  Charity for the sake of charity is the best kind of charity…  (PAUSE)
          Temple Kol Emeth is so many things – a building, a place for spirituality, a place to learn, a home, a family – all in all, an amazing place.  We love together; we cry together; we work together; we give together.  Just a couple of months ago, many of our TKE family came together and prepared over 600 meals for those less fortunate.  Over the summer, we began yet another Habitat for Humanity Build.  Throughout the Holy Day period, we will be collecting donations for Operation Isaiah.  Yes, we do so much as a congregation…as a community.  Therefore, let me point out one other way that we give…and give, every year. 
          I am speaking about Camp Jenny.  Founded in 1987, Camp Jenny is a camp for underprivileged children in Atlanta.  This year, a staff of around 250 welcomed approximately 130 students from FL Stanton Elementary School to Camp Coleman on Memorial Day Weekend.  These students work very hard all year on behavior and grades just to be able to have the opportunity to attend Camp Jenny.  While at Camp Jenny, these young people from inner city Atlanta get to experience camp just like our TKE kids do while at Camp Barney or Camp Coleman, including 3 meals a day + snacks, sports, arts and crafts, science, ropes course and water play!   
Every year, our youth groups, in particular our senior youth group, KEFTY (Kol Emeth Federation of Temple Youth), donate thousands and thousands of dollars to support Camp Jenny.  However, it is about so much more than the money.  We send a group of KEFTYites to be leaders and teachers at Camp Jenny.  We also send adult volunteers to serve in a variety of capacities from photographer to sports specialist.  How amazing it is to watch our high school students interact with these kids from FL Stanton.  Seeing firsthand the transition from the campers skeptically holding their counselor's hand on the way to the cabins on Friday afternoon to not wanting to let go on Monday morning was truly a blessing and gave me a lot of hope for the future our children will live in.
The lessons learned while attending Camp Jenny are meant to connect our Jewish community to a community very different from our own.  If you sit down and speak with one of our senior youth group members who have attended Camp Jenny, ask them to describe to you one or two things they have learned.  Or, even better, ask them to tell you a story or two from Camp Jenny.  Be prepared to spend some quality time with them!!  As a matter of fact, 3 of the previous Camp Jenny Directors are a part of the TKE Story – Dr. Julie Worly in 1993, Jody Gansel in 2004 and Zoe Light in 2015.  If my math is correct, that means that TKE will supply the director again in 2026 (11 years after Zoe Light)! 
  While Camp Jenny is a HUGE part of the TKE story, it is only one part.  There are so many other wonderful aspects of our family here.  One giant way that TKE has become a “major player” in the greater Marietta and Atlanta community has been our Ecumenical work.  What comes to mind right away is our very successful yearly Ecumenical service – when we open our doors and welcome a variety of religious and spiritual groups to come together in prayer.  Just 2 years ago, on November 20, 2014, we invited, Montaser, a Palestinian Muslim to speak about his experience with Kids4Peace, a youth movement for Christian, Jews and Muslims.  Yes, here speaking from our Bimah was a Palestinian who spoke about peace and how important it is for all of us, no matter who we are or where we come from.  Let us not forget the Ecumenical service begins every year with the Muslim call to prayer.  I am pretty certain we are the first synagogue in the world to host the Muslim call to prayer!
Our Habitat for Humanity group is an interfaith group, which allows for clergy from all representative groups to give a prayer as the build begins and as the new home is dedicated at the conclusion.  What about our work with MUST Ministries?  This is also an outreach to not just Jewish members of our community, but all members of our community.  And, there are many more examples of this important piece of the TKE pie.  It is vital that our children and grandchildren learn the value of what it means to be a Jew and an American. 
Just this summer 10 members of our TKE family journeyed to Israel – OUR homeland.  While in Eretz Yisrael, we joined up with another Temple – Congregation Schaarai Zedek – and Palma Ceia, a Presbyterian Church, both from Tampa, Florida.  It truly was awesome to watch as our 3 congregations became one family for 10 days.  We joined together in prayer…in song session…and in fellowship at meals.  Now, Temple Kol Emeth has made an Ecumenical imprint outside of Atlanta – all the way to Tampa. 
At the closing dinner, Rabbi Richard Birnholz, Cantor Deborah Cannizzaro, Pastor John Debevoise, Pastor Nicole Abdnour and I joined together to recite and chant the Priestly Benediction.  Pastors John and Nicole recited the English translation; Rabbi Birnholz and I recited the Hebrew text; Cantor Cannizzaro chanted the ancient Hebrew blessings.  In a room filled with around 100 Jews and Christians, we joined together as one large group in prayer.  The love and emotion in that room was contagious and overwhelming.  This was a true ecumenical moment shared by TKE and the members of Schaarai Zedek and Palma Ceia.
          When 7 families came together so many years ago to create Temple Kol Emeth, they were looking for a Jewish experience that would be open and welcome to all kinds of Jews in East Cobb.  30 + years later, we have become such an important part of the East Cobb community – and really the greater Atlanta community as well.  Through our youth groups and their work with Camp Jenny (as well as their participation in local, regional and national events) we have created safe places for our future generations to be Jewish and proud.  Camp Jenny is of course only one aspect of the work that KEFTY does – but what an important aspect it is.  Our interfaith/ecumenical efforts have given us the opportunity to show leadership to other congregations in Atlanta.  And, of course, it is our adult lay leadership that provides an example for our young leaders who will eventually become the adult lay leadership. 
          We have all heard the expression – “it takes a village…”  This is usually in reference to the upbringing of our little ones.  While this is true, at least for our sake, this also refers to anything and everything that happens here at TKE.  Do not get me wrong – we have a great staff.  Denise is the backbone of our staff – often times keeping us going forward when we get curved in the wrong directions.  Evy is the “keeper of the rabbis,” as they say.  Her work enables both rabbis to do what we need to do.  Pam keeps up with our books – not an easy task, I assure you.  She works diligently to make sure our bills are paid and our heads are above water, at least financially.  Besides keeping the coffee company in business, Carol does an amazing job with our religious school records and of course her work with the Voice is immeasurable.  Becca is helping TKE to become the Religious School of the future.  Her ideas and leadership are second to none.  And, of course, Ezra – the youth and family director dude…his fresh and new ideas are really helping to bring in young couples who are looking for a spiritual home. 
          There is one other group that deserves a huge amount of thanks – that is our beloved and devoted maintenance staff: Marc, Diego, Richard, Nick and Godolfredo.  These gentlemen are not only great at keeping TKE running, but they also work with our youth serving as amazing role models.  It is impossible to see one of these guys without at least one member of KEFTY hanging out with them.  They really do care about TKE, our image and our future.  Our maintenance staff are beloved members of the TKE family.
          So, yes, our office and maintenance staff is amazing.  However, those who never get enough credit are our lay leadership and our office volunteers.  What you may not know is that everyone who comes to TKE (except for the paid staff) are volunteers.  Whether you serve on our board or you work in the office – your volunteer hours and dedication to TKE are extremely valuable.  The value cannot be measured…and I speak for both Rabbi Lebow and myself when I say thank you so much for all that you do.  You truly do allow us to be rabbis…and that is an amazing and holy feat.
          In my sermon this evening, we have touched upon three of the most important aspects of the TKE experience – KEFTY and the work it does with Camp Jenny, our Ecumenical work here and abroad, and the leadership and volunteerism of our members.  Rabbi Lebow taught recently that Judaism is a religion of the head, a religion of the heart and a religion of the hand.  At TKE, there are opportunities in abundance to get involved in many different ways.  Religion of the mind – get out there and learn, think, teach.  Religion of the heart – work with someone who is suffering or just needs comfort or support.  Religion of the hand – join our Habitat for Humanity build, go to Camp Jenny as an adult volunteer, or teach in our religious school.  Trust me when I tell you that if you want to do something or you want to do more – we will find a place for you.
          It is my hope that in 5777, each of us will find a way to connect to Temple Kol Emeth and our Jewish community in a different way.  If you need help learning how or where to begin, come to my office, and let’s have a chat.  I am sure I can help you find something.  I pray we are all able to wake up sometime very soon and see that the leadership we have taken in our community leads others to enjoying the same success as we have – not just here in Atlanta, but everywhere that there is a child learning about the ways of the world.  May God bless each and every soul that sits here this evening.  May we walk together, humbly before God…
L’Shanah Tovah