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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Yom Kippur Day Sermon 2013

Dear God,
I am sure you might be wondering why it has been so long since I wrote last.  Well, to be honest, I have been pretty angry at you. You see, I have been in this position for only a short amount of time and I have seen so many negatives.  Too many people have been punished for things they should not have been punished for.  Good people, really righteous people have left us, Lord.  I have been really confused.  I guess you could say I have lost my belief in You.  After all, why should I believe when my prayers go unanswered?

Just a short time ago, I was visiting with a very sick individual. This very brave man explained that he was ready to die.  He was no longer afraid…he was no longer angry or confused.  He told me it would be ok because his family would no longer suffer.  I felt so small.  After all, I was the one who was supposed to be strong. Instead, I was torn up inside and this brave man was being strong – he was comforting me.  It was supposed to be the other way around.

You see, God, he died…just like so many others.  Why?  That is the question I keep asking.  I live a good life.  I do all the things I am supposed to do.  Truly.  And, yet, my prayers just do not get answered. How do you explain the loss of life of a child?  How do you explain the loss of life of any young person? What about sudden deaths?  I just don’t get it God…can you help me out?

Oh, one other thing.  You have asked me to do some pretty interesting things.  You have asked me to warn people of the bad things that will happen if they do not listen and follow your rules.  I just do not know how you expect me to give this message.  After all, bad things happen anyway, and I have no explanation. Tell you what, you show me a sign…anything.  Make a rose bush grow outside of my home.  Help me to become a rich man, anything that will prove to me you are there.  If you do this, I will be reassured you exist and I promise that I will continue to spread the message.  Otherwise, I just do not feel like I am qualified any longer to do this.

***PAUSE***

***Look out to the congregation and make eye contact***

Raise your hand if you have ever felt anything expressed in the letter I just read.  Have you ever just felt, “Dayeinu?”  Well, I am here to tell you that none of us in this room can ever truly understand God’s plans. Yes, this may be frustrating – I can assure you it frustrates me.  After all, as humans, we have a desire to do what it takes to be successful in life.  We expect doctors to be able to cure disease.  We expect lawyers to be able to get justice for their clients.  We expect rabbis to be spiritually uplifting and help us with our life struggles. Do we expect too much of ourselves?  Or, what about the opposite: are we too dependent on God?

As a clarinet player, I was always instructed to practice like I wanted to perform.  That way when it was time to perform it would feel as if I was just practicing.  Or, if we practice like we want to perform we might be able to actually hit that note perfectly every single time we play.  What about that football kicker that practices the same 35 yard field goal over and over…hitting it every time?  Then, he gets to the game and misses the 25 yard field goal.  How do you explain that?  Is it only up to us?  Is there luck involved?  Is it God’s design that we have some limited control on our outcomes?

Rabbi Lebow has brilliantly expressed to us over the past 10 days that sometimes we just have what we have.  Other times we must remember how lucky we are to have what we have.  And, there are other times when we are not able to realize what we have.  If good things happen, we often say, “Baruch HaShem,” or “Thank God.”  However, what about when bad things happen?  Do we dare say, “How dare you God?” “God, why did YOU let this happen?”  Rest assured my family, I think it is extremely important to thank God for the blessings we have in our lives and even to thank God for the opportunities to learn and grow when we make mistakes or bad things happen.  It is also ok to be angry at God…after all, being angry at God is still being in communication with God.

However, the point is that WE are also a part of this.  Remember the Brit between God and Abraham?  God created the world and has always expected us to play an equal part.  If we assume God is the only player – what is our purpose?  Are we to just sit back and let things happen without any input or without having an impact?  I think not.  I believe it is vital for us to realize our own impact on the world around us.  I also believe it is possible to believe in B’sheret, “fate,” while at the same time believing in free will.

Yes, as humans we make mistakes.  We fail.  WE fail.  Let me repeat that again – WE FAIL.  I know…if we are in partnership with God, than what part does God play in our failings?  Where is God when bad things happen?  When a doctor loses a patient…is it only the doctor’s fault?  Or does God have a part in that?  What about when that same field goal kicker hits a record breaking field goal?  He points to the heavens and thanks God.  Did God kick the field goal?  What part did the kicker play?

These are some difficult questions my friends.  No one ever said religion was easy.  Heck - there is not much in life that is easy. What is essential is that we realize and recognize how important we are AND how central God is in our lives.  I can hear it now – Rabbi, what about those who do not believe in God?  Where do the Atheists fit in this equation?  What about someone who believes in something, maybe God, but is not sure – you know the Agnostics? Let me take a small break from my sermon to address this:

Here is my opinion – I believe Agnostics are not so different from me.  After all, I am, even today on my own religious and ideological journey.  I am certainly not in the same place I was a year ago, and I am sure I will not be in the same place next year.  There have been times in my life in which I was not sure of what God is or was.  But, I did believe in something.  I guess you might say that sometimes I would call myself a Jewish agnostic!

As far as the Atheists go – well, I have said this before and I will say it again.  Atheists do believe in something.  Nothing is by definition something – the lack of something.  Therefore, I can say that even those of us who are more agnostic or those of us who are less agnostic…there may have been times when we also were Atheists…maybe confused Atheists, but Atheists none the less.  I am sure there are some of you out there who disagree with me…after all, this is a Synagogue.  However, nothing that I write or say is meant to judge. I believe the TKE tent is big enough for all of us – no matter where we stand in our beliefs.

Ok, back to the crux of my sermon.  Throughout the Jewish year, we are constantly hearing about and studying a variety of stories and topics.  What I can say for sure is that every class I have taught at some point brings us back to a few realizations: 1) The Bible and all Jewish sacred texts have different meanings for every one of us; 2) Everyone has the right to be a part of the conversation, regardless of their individual beliefs; and 3) Whenever we find THE answer to anything, we will find it extremely difficult proving ourselves or getting others to agree!  That’s the nature of being Jewish in the 21st century!

In the beginning of this sermon, I read a letter written to God.  Well, you know what?  That letter was written by someone other than me. You might be surprised to know who wrote the letter.  Jonah.  Yep, that’s right. The same Jonah that traditional synagogues read and study on Yom Kippur…the same Jonah we will be studying later today. The same Jonah that every young person knows: the story of the whale swallowing Jonah after he is cast into the ocean. You see, Jonah was a prophet who was sent to prophesy in the name of God, and not just the one time in the Book of Jonah we all know and love. Actually, Jonah, according to one Midrash, was sent 3 times to prophesy in the name of God.  It was in the Book of Jonah, the third time, in which he struggled with his required prophetic responsibility. When he first was asked to do so – prior to this story, back in the book of 2 Kings – he did so without any question.

According to Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, an aggadic-midrashic work on the TaNaKh, Jonah’s arrogance and fear of being regarded negatively caused him to run away from God’s command:

Why did he run away?  The first time, God sent him to restore the territory of Israel and His word was fulfilled, as it is stated: ‘He [Jeroboam II] restored the territory of Israel from Lebo-hamath [in accordance with the promise that the Lord…made through His servant,…Jonah son of Ammitai]’ (2 Kings 14:25).  The second time, He sent him to Jerusalem to destroy it.  Because [its people] repented, the Holy One Blessed be He acted in accordance with His great mercy and repented of His fatal intention and did not destroy it. Thus Israel called him a ‘false prophet.’  The third time, He sent him to Nineveh.  Jonah reasoned with himself, saying, “I know that this nation is quick to repent. Now they will repent, and the Holy One Blessed be He will dispatch His anger against Israel.  Is it not enough that Israel calls me a false prophet, but idol-worshippers will do so as well!  I shall run away instead…” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 10)

The mystery of the story of Jonah is not so different from the mysteries and struggles we face every day. When we find ourselves in troubled times, it is easy to curl up on our beds, cover our heads with our blankets and hide from what might be the inevitable.  Other times, we may find ourselves embracing what will be…and still other times we rise up to make change.  Sometimes we succeed…and other times we do not. What does this all mean?  Well, I believe the message Jonah finally understands from God applies to us as well. And, although the message is not always easy to hear or accept, it is right in front of us:  Sometimes all we can do is enough and sometimes it is not.  It is during those times when we feel it is not enough that we must work even harder to try to understand – maybe not the outcome or the result.  What we must try to understand is how we can and will continue our lives from that point.

The end of 5772 to the beginning of 5774 has brought a lot of great moments…and many challenges for us. It is my hope that we can learn from this that just when we think we know all the answers, it is time to take a deep breath and relax.  Shabbat comes every week – are we doing enough to appreciate the Sabbath?  Do we find ourselves overworking or just doing enough to get by?  My friends, when you find yourselves in your darkest moments, find someone to share the burdens.  When you find yourselves in your highest moments, share with someone else…we have to do this together. After all, as a family we love, cry, celebrate and mourn together.

5774 brings to us so much possibility: may we move forward with every intention to improve upon ourselves, sharing our successes, our happy moments, and even our darkest moment with each other, and let us always remember God’s presence even if we do not appreciate it.  We may not always appreciate or even admit that God is there with us, but it is important nonetheless to have a relationship with God…regardless of whether it is a “good” or “bad” relationship.

My dear TKE family – my wish for each of us is that we are able to find our own personal Dayenu this year. May we be inspired by something greater this year…and may this inspiration be contagious, affecting every one of us here today.  G’mar Hatima Tovah – May each of you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a wonderful and healthy 5774!

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2013

Good evening and L’Shanah Tovah!  It is so wonderful to see so many of you here this evening.  I hope that every one of you has had the chance to reflect over the past year.  Where did we make mistakes?  What were our successes?  I always find one of the most difficult tasks is to recognize and admit our mistakes. However, the difficult task of doing so brings with it a reward – the chance to learn from our mistakes and move forward.  In the past 12 months (or less as Rosh Hashanah is soooo early this year!), we have grown in many ways as a congregation.  We have cried, laughed, argued and agreed. At the end of the day, we are a family here and that means that we appreciate each other – even with our disagreements and differences!

As a part of the family, I bring to the table my own ideas, values, etc.  One of the most important issues to me is my relationship with Israel.  I am a Jew…the Land of Israel is my homeland.  I learned this at a very early age, even though I had never been to Israel.  As a kid, I supported Israel blindly because it is what I thought I was supposed to do.  As I have aged, my thoughts regarding Israel have changed.  I have been frustrated by Israel at times…I certainly have not agreed with every experience I have had with Israel. However, one thing that has never changed is my deep loving relationship with Israel and my desire for Israel to continue to be a place for the Jews – a homeland.

In December, 1999, I journeyed for the first time to Israel.  I was a staff member for a Birthright Israel trip. Having led several trips since 1999, I can tell you they do not let 1st timers lead these trips anymore for obvious reasons!  I was so enamored with Israel during that short 12 day trip.  When we returned to the States, I quit my job and immediately moved back to Israel to work as a Madrich (counselor) for a High School in Israel program.  It was during that 4 month period in which my love for and relationship with Israel really began to mold into what it is today.

Although I yearned to return to Israel, life happened and my next return trip to Israel was for my first year in Rabbinic School, summer of 2007.  This trip was different – I was moving to Jerusalem with my wife and daughter…and we would live in Jerusalem for a year.  As a quasi citizen of Israel, we had to learn how to pay bills, shop for groceries and everything else that one does in their daily life (many of which we take for granted)!  The major difference was that we were learning Hebrew and companies’ “customer service reps” really do not like talking to non-native Hebrew speakers!

Shortly after we arrived in Jerusalem, I heard about a program called Encounter.  Encounter is an organization with the following mission: Dedi¬cated to strength¬ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc¬tive agents of change in trans¬forming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I really did not know anything about Encounter, but one of my closest friends (Rabbi David Spinrad of The Temple Downtown) convinced me to look into it.  What I found was a group of rabbinic students from all of the streams of Judaism who were interested in learning together about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These willing participants had the same philosophy – peace was possible and we had to learn about each other to attain this peace.

After a few orientation meetings in which we learned about effective listening, we were given time to reflect with our fellow students of our fears, pre-conceived notions, etc.  The next part of the experience was the one that at first gave me the most fear – we would be venturing into Bethlehem and spending the night.  We were given the choice of either staying at a hotel or with a Palestinian family.  Well, David convinced me to stay with him at the home of a Palestinian Christian family.  This was one of the best decisions I made that year as I learned so much from this family!

During the second day of our stay in Bethlehem, we met with a prominent member of the Fatah party of the Palestinian Authority.  I was prepared to hear him speak negatively about the Israelis.  I was prepared to hear him tell all of these future leaders of the Jewish community how terrible life was for the Palestinian people and how Israel was responsible for it.  I was ready to hear a tremendous amount of negativity about Jews and Judaism.  What I did hear, however, was a man who spoke about peace efforts and about his desire to live side by side with the Israelis in harmony.  To say I was confused would have been an understatement!

When we returned back to our homes on the other side of the wall, I was immediately in a state of deep thought.  I wrote several blogs and articles about my feelings and confusion.  A few days after I returned, I was speaking with one of my neighbors about the challenges of living in the Middle East.  This neighbor spoke about his time in the army and all of the terrorists he had killed.  When I remarked I had spent a night in Bethlehem, he literally spit on the ground in front of me and threw me out of his apartment.  To say I was confused then would have been an even larger understatement.

Here is the question I faced: How should I respond to my neighbor?  I had another 6 months of living in the apartment building and I knew that eventually I needed to face him.  When I sat down to think about it, I came up with 3 possible solutions:

1) I could approach him in anger and frustration explaining to him the other side of the picture.  I could try to relate to him the stories of those with whom I had come in contact while in Bethlehem.

2) I could ignore him and hope that he eventually calmed down and we could return to whatever relationship we had prior to the argument.

3) I could allow him to cool down and then try to have a conversation with him regarding his anger…really listening to what he has to say and attempt to understand his plight just as I had listened to the Palestinians I encountered in Bethlehem.

Think for a moment how you would have responded.  Before I tell you how I reacted to my neighbor, let me ask just a couple of simple questions.  Which of the above solutions is most supportive of Israel?  Which solution makes you seem more like a Zionist and which solution makes you seem like less of a Zionist?  (***PAUSE***)

Continue to think about these questions as I read a few quotes:

“The relationship of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is itself living history.  Just as ardent love between human beings can be real and powerful even though they don’t dwell together on one spot in space, the love of the Jewish people for the land is an ongoing, powerful being together even when living at a distance, a real link, a being at home spiritually, an embrace that never tires, a hope that never ceases.”  

“While American Jews across the political spectrum can vigorously debate Israeli policies, Natan Sharansky (Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, and former K’Nesset Member) has identified three “D’s” that distinguish constructive criticism from the destructive criticism that has become the new anti-Semitism. The three “D’s” are: delegitimization, including denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state; double standards, so that Israel is accused and judged by a standard expected of no other nation; and demonization through lies and half-truths that ignore or minimize Israel’s achievements and the context for Israel’s actions.”

“Democracy in the United States means that we needn’t agree with every single action taken by President Barack Obama, or by President George W. Bush before him.  Yet, when it comes to Israel, we are asked, sometimes instructed, to put aside all critical thinking and simply support any and all actions taken by the government – any government.”

“Ours was a unique light shining in antiquity.  The first Jewish Commonwealth was not unlike other nation-states of the time; it knew political intrigue, it knew corruption.  Yet the spirit of the consecrated people could not be broken.  Rooted in the soil of the Promised Land, Israel and Judah discovered a prophetic zeal. With sublime passion the Jewish prophets challenged their strife-ridden people with demands yet unheard in the annals of man.”

The previous 4 quotes presented different views and ideas regarding what it means to support Israel.  On one hand, the Jews remain connected to the Biblical Land of Israel as one is connected to a loved family member.  Even when we are apart physically, we yearn for each other.  For those who have never had the opportunity to visit and experience Israel up close have just as deep a connection to Israel as those who have been to Israel multiple times.

On the other hand, we should also constructively criticize Israel when needed – as long as the criticism does not hold Israel to a higher standard.  Some may actually say we should hold Israel to a higher standard – that is a different sermon for a different time!  Basically, when we do discuss Israel, even in disagreement, we should hold Israel as we hold our brothers and sisters – with love and support, even while we argue with Israel.

Now – back to the solution I chose: It may surprise some of you to know that I chose to ignore my neighbor.  After all, he spit at me.  It was not that I was angry with him (I was, though)…it was I was frustrated that he would not even have a conversation with me or possibly acknowledge the plight of the Palestinians.  Several weeks passed by and finally I arrived one Friday afternoon to my apartment with a note inviting my family to his home for Shabbat dinner.  I was a little unsure of what to do.  Eventually, however, Batya and I decided to join his family for Shabbat dinner.

What happened at dinner was and continues to truly be one of the most amazing memories of my life.  When we entered through his front door, we were met by his wife and friend.  What was interesting about this friend was (as we found out later during dinner) that he was an Arab Israeli who was born in Bethlehem.  His family had moved to Israel when he was 4 years old.  This man still had many family members who lived in the West Bank.  It was truly a wonderful dinner and the conversation was enlightening, to say the least.

Let me now tell you what happened to my neighbor that brought on this drastic change.  As it turns out, my neighbor was really taken aback by my attempts at avoiding him.  He and his wife had many conversations about what had happened between the two of us.  So, at some point, she introduced him to the husband of her Israeli Jewish friend – this new friend we had been acquainted with at Shabbat dinner.  Their story was truly amazing – this friend’s wife had actually met him while working for an Israeli/Palestinian Peace program.

They had fallen in love at first sight…and it took them almost 3 years to convince their families of their desire to be together as man and wife.  Their story is rare to say the least…however, in the Middle East (especially in Israel), you can never be too sure that up is up or down is down!  As a matter of fact, so many things about Israel are too hard to explain unless you have had the chance to experience it: some things as simple as the true meaning of the word “S’licha,” (loosely meaning Excuse me) and some things much more difficult – like trying to understand a point of view from anyone in Israel.

In June, 2014, the Boxts will be traveling to Israel, leading a TKE congregational trip to Israel.  While we will be celebrating the B’nai Mitzvah of several of our congregants, we are truly traveling to Israel to reconnect.  If you have never had the opportunity to visit Israel, please consider very strongly joining us…if you have been to Israel before, you know the importance of returning and renewing our strong connection to the people, the culture, the religion and the Land.  Israel is more than just a culture and religion – it is a Land where we can all be Jews.

At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned that we were a family here at TKE.  Each of us has our own ideas, loves, passions and dislikes.  However, one thing we should agree on is that Israel is vital to the continuation of the Jewish people.  One look at history will remind us of the significance of having a “Jewish” homeland.  We may disagree politically (even about Israel), but we must agree that Israel is vital and of immense importance for every one of us.

To quote my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Lebow, “Israel exists in order to defend all Jews.  The Jews exist in order to defend Israel.”

Dear TKE family, it is up to us to support and love Israel – the people AND the Land.  Temple Kol Emeth is a vibrant, growing and loving community of people who are more than just neighbors and congregants. We are a family and families look out for each other.  It is of the utmost importance that we take the amazing wonders of our congregation and extend it out to all of our brothers and sisters in Israel and everywhere in the world.

It is my hope that in this New Year, we will not only continue to work together to make our family the greatest Jewish family in Atlanta. Let us strive to welcome in many, many, many more family members in the next year.  And, if you are looking for a way to connect or reconnect to Israel, please consider joining us next year as we travel to Israel.  May God bless each and every soul that sits here this evening and spread God’s warmth and loving embrace outward to all of those in our world who are in need of it.

L’Shanah Tovah!