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Erev Rosh HaShanah 5776
Sunday, September 13, 2015
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina
by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
I actually began to think about this talk in the Spring, when I heard a podcast by one of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, called “Kabbalah and the Big Bang”. When I looked at talk I had written, inspired by Rabbi Artson, I was crushed. I had put together a science lecture, not a sermon. In order to get to this talk, I had to break what I had written to begin with. And it turned out that in doing this, I also found the central message for tonight - that brokenness is the start of creation. Brokenness is not a problem, it is the beginning.
Which makes sense, since on Rosh HaShanah we celebrate the beginning of everything. Here’s the scientific part, so bear with me a bit. We start with a question:
“How big was the Big Bang?”
In 1964, two physicists, Alpher and Herman, who had already come up with an answer to this question, also figured out that the Big Bang was so big, that it would have left a faint residue, an after-glow, that could still be detected today, fourteen billion years after the original explosion. Being scientists they called this after-effect something official sounding: “Cosmic Background Radiation”, and calculated exactly how intense it is right now.
Around the same time Bell Labs in New Jersey built the Horn Antenna, which was the largest of its type - it would listen farther into the universe with greater accuracy and sensitivity than ever before. As the lab started using this antenna, no matter what they did, they couldn’t get rid of some background noise, a hum that made the researchers think their new antenna wasn’t quite right. They cleaned it, chased off any birds or animals that might be soiling the surface, rewired it, and they still couldn’t get rid of that hum.
Eventually, these technicians at Bell Labs complained about this persistent noise that they couldn’t get rid of, and Alpher and Herman heard about it. They drove up to the lab from Princeton, tested the frequency of this hum, and found that the persistent noise exactly matched their calculations of the current intensity of the Cosmic Background Radiation, that echo of the Big Bang. In other words, entirely by coincidence, the Bell Labs people developed the means by which they could actually hear what the Big Bang still sounded like, fourteen billion years later.
Now, here’s the really interesting part - this sound, this original echo of the Big Bang, was the same everywhere. No matter where they pointed the antenna the same, steady, constant sound could be heard. What’s weird about this is that we don’t live in a universe that makes a steady, constant, sound. Our universe is incredibly varied, with different types of matter and energy and lots of space in between it all. It looks different, and sounds different, everywhere.
This is a problem. The original thing that exploded out - the reality that came out of the Big Bang - exploded outward with perfect consistency. One big uniform ball of energy, matter, and space, without any variations. That’s what they heard and proved from the evenness of the sound of the explosion detected at Bell Labs. So, when did that big ball of consistent and unvaried everything turn into the beginnings of the very uneven universe that we recognize today?
We don’t find out until 1989, when a research satellite detected faint ripples of intensity in this Cosmic Background Radiation - variations in the constant noise that is that echo of the Big Bang. These faint ripples showed the first appearances of areas where matter came together unevenly, leaving other places where things were spread thin, creating the variations in everything that would become galaxies, stars, solar systems, and planets. These faint echoes picked up within the background noise didn’t occur until 300,000 years after the Big Bang.
Sir Roger Penrose, a physicist who works with Stephen Hawking, said: “From the view of modern physics the entire world can be seen as the manifestation of a broken symmetry. If the symmetries of nature were actually perfect we would not exist.” Symmetry, that evenness, orderliness, and sameness in all places, prevented the creation of anything at all. When the universe became irregular, matter and energy came together and became galaxies and stars, eventually creating us. All of this depended on a break in the evenness in which everything began.
George Smoot, a researcher who helped discover this irregularity, said: “If you’re religious, it’s like looking at God.”
All of this research happened decades after the Big Bang Theory was proven.
In 1929 Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding, and then figured out exactly how long it has been expanding, leading to the proof for the Big Bang as a description of creation. In all the science about the Big Bang there is a point in time, near the moment of explosion, before which physicists cannot understand anything because nothing works in that space and time according to any rules anybody can figure out. When we look backward into time around the Big Bang we run up against a wall of mystery, a thing called a singularity, before which, nothing can be known.
This barrier of knowledge is so serious that Penrose, that brilliant physicist, wrote: “Space-time singularities are regions where our understanding of physics has reached its limits. If one is trying to be scientific, it is understanding that appeals, and here, at the singularity, you just have to give up.”
From a scientific point of view then, the story of creation sounds like this: a point of infinite density, a singularity, which we can’t even begin to understand, exploded, also for no reason that anyone can ever understand. Exploding outward evenly, that ball of everything got big enough and cool enough over a long time, three hundred thousand years after the original explosion, so that irregularities emerged in the unvaried state of everything, allowing clumps to form, and gather together, into the beginnings of what things look like today.
Here is how we normally begin the Jewish story of Creation, and we’re going to look at it almost word-for-word:
Gen. 1:1 At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth,
2 when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters-
3 God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
4 God saw the light: that it was good…
Later, after two days of creation, the Torah continues:
Gen. 1:14 God said: Let there be lights in the dome of the heavens, to separate the day from the night…
And then we hear all the details of the creation of the sun and the moon and the stars. What happened to the light from Day One?
The Book of Genesis describes three days of creation, including the creation of Light, and “and there was evening, and there was morning, Day One”, then Day Two then Day Three. After that, on the Fourth Day we get the sun and the moon as if there were not already light. We could focus on this as an inconsistency, an error in an old story, or even a reason to dismiss Torah entirely.
A Jewish way of reading says that this apparent inconsistency hints at a deeper truth, that we have to read between the lines and the letters. We use this as an opportunity to tell a story behind the story. This is when we create midrash, and imagine answers to questions in the text. The text is not broken, it is demanding interpretation.
We can answer the question, “What happened to the Light of the First Day of Creation?” by retelling the story of creation from God’s perspective.
Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, a Jewish scholar of the Bible and teacher at Pardes in Jerusalem, observed that all motivation comes from needing something - we notice something is missing and we work to fill the absence. From this perspective, Jewish mysticism suggested that God began to create because God did not want to be alone. God was lonely and wanted to fix it. Later in Genesis, God expressed this sentiment by sympathizing with Adam’s loneliness. God says: “It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make him a helper corresponding to him” (Genesis 2:18).
God was everything and everywhere, infinite, and alone. In Jewish tradition, God the infinite is entirely unknowable. According to the Zohar, the unknowable infinite God decided to become smaller in order to create and share reality with some company. God shrunk into an infinitely tiny point, and from that point, poured divine energy back into the empty space that God had left so that there would be room for creation. When God starts sending divine power into the world, that is the first creation of light, and it is the light of God’s unfiltered raw creative essence. God forced all that power into spaces, newly created vessels that were no longer made of God. These vessels couldn’t contain God’s energy, and they shattered, spreading shards containing the bits of the essence of God throughout the universe.
Instead of a tragedy at the beginning of time, this enabled God to be present in all Creation as slivers, remnants that we uncover when we create, when we work together for a higher purpose, when we participate in repair of the universe.
The shattering of the vessels explains where the original light went and why God needed to create smaller sources of light, the sun, moon, and stars, later in the creation story.
A Late Medieval mystic, Menachem Azaria of Fano explained this need for things to break in order to create, in this way: “Just as the seed cannot grow to perfection as long as it maintains its original form, growth coming only through [the breaking of its shell]. So [creation] could not become whole as long as [it] maintained [its] original form, but only by shattering.”
What makes a seed grow is that it breaks open. The breaking of the seed’s shell is the beginning of the growth of the plant. This allows a root to emerge from the seed into the soil and stretch towards the sun. An intact seed, one that never breaks open, will never grow.
Our universe, like a successful seed, broke, and thus grew. It had to be broken, it had to have irregularities, in order for creation to happen and our familiar world to emerge.
The mystical version says we are created in the divine image because everything is from God. Everything is filled with the shards of God.
Two parallel stories. Unknowable infinite points burst into reality spontaneously, meaning we have no idea why it happened, creating all that exists in the process, and only became recognizable as something like our world when wrinkles of brokenness, errors, entered into what was originally a flawless expression of power and energy. The brokenness in the stories is not a problem, rather it is the reason that everything can exist.
We are the stuff thrown out from flaws that entered into the original explosions that created time and space. We developed the mindfulness, the awareness, to understand that we are made of that stuff from the stars. The mistakes in God’s perfection are us, and we evolved into souls who can look out and up at each other and the world and offer praise for the mystery at the core of everything. The story that we use to explain our Jewish texts helps bring meaning to the science that we use to describe the world.
We need both versions. I know that the medieval Jewish Kabbalists did not come up with the Big Bang Theory. These are two separate stories. We need them both because the poetry and power of the mystical narrative that places us in relationship with the source of all things helps us find the ethics and the meaning in the poetry and power of the scientific narrative that shows that we are made of the same stuff as all things. No matter how amazing the work of Newton and Einstein and Hawking and their students and colleagues, taking the implications of their teachings and communicating them to the world in a way that emphasizes the behavior that responsible people might aim for, still remains the work of those of us outside the labs and observatories. We must take these insights about the way things work and transform them into inspirations that help all of us work together, better.
At the heart of all of this lies the connection between creation and being broken. At this time of year, and on this day celebrating creation, when we turn towards the image of God as sovereign of all the universe, who brings order and crafted beautiful stable substances out of the tohu va’vohu, the “wild and waste” of early Genesis, we might get disheartened, thinking, “It took God to bring order. So much of my life feels broken. I can’t do what God did, I can’t do anything to fix it”.
When we look at these two stories we realize that brokenness is not a problem, it is the beginning. Nothing begins from a sense of completion. All our motivations come from our recognition that we must do something to fix things.
We are not the only people to think this way either.
Japanese culture has the concept of Kintsugi, which is the art of repairingbroken pottery with a lacquer dusted in precious metals. The method, which results in beautiful pieces like this one,
is supported by a philosophy that treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.
Everyone of us is broken. We all bear scars, some internal and some external. We are all broken vessels containing shards of the divine. We all bear the history of our difficulties, our conflicts, our struggles. We do this as individuals and we do this as the people Israel. Israel is the name we bear from Jacob who earned it by struggling with an angel and walking with a limp from that experience for the rest of his life.
From each moment and encounter of breaking we can create. We are the seeds that grow from broken shells. We bear the elements of broken stars that exploded and spread through the galaxy billions of years ago. We see with reason, feel with poetry, and bring them together to build a better whole. We are the remnants of shattered vessels from which we gain the strength and inspiration to participate in the completion of all creation. We can become the partners that God sought by helping alleviate loneliness around us.
On this birthday of the world, as we celebrate the creation of all things, let us remember that everything starts by being broken. Our brokenness is part of the universe, part of God, and it is our strength for entering the year to come as a partner in Creation.
Please listen to the entirety of Rabbi Artson’s talk here: http://www.zieglertorah.org/2015/04/14/kabbalah-and-the-big-bang-rabbi-brad-artson/ - his work was the Genesis of almost all of this talk, and the source of any unannotated quotes as well.
Biblical translations from Genesis adapted from Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses, (Schocken - 2000)
Aviva Gottleib Zornberg's particular insight herein comes from this book, The Beginnings of Desire, (Schocken - 2011), particularly the chapter on Lech L’cha.
One of our many chants yesterday, "This is what hope looks like...", referring to our twenty-thirty people marching on America's Journey for Justice with the NAACP, from Selma, Alabama, to Washington DC, was repeated often.
This photo illustrates another dimension of what that chant means:
Three rabbis, the president of the NAACP local chapter in Camden, South Carolina, and a significant contingent of our sheriff's department escort, who were with us almost the entire day.
When the NAACP organized America's Journey for Justice, and when we march and post photos, we almost never see the unbelievable efforts of law enforcement to make it happen smoothly and without incident.
On a two-lane road we were accompanied by at least five patrol vehicles, directing and redirecting traffic, so that everyone could get around the one lane of traffic that we blocked with our walking. Walking with us all day were a few plain clothes State Police people. Their vigilance was astounding.
We were verbally harassed in a few places (someone did yell "White Power" at us out a passing car window). The dedication of our escort to the Journey for Justice's safety and success yesterday was best illustrated when the law enforcement personnel went into high alert, moved our march slowly into the center lane of a five-lane road, and placed patrol cars between us and a suspicious looking package near an unoccupied building.
The last year has highlighted some of the fundamental tensions in our society, and yesterday was an amazing reminder of the ways in which we are all in it together and dedicated to our shared safety and well-being.
May our anecdotes and experiences of trust begin to prevail so that we can continue to make America a place where justice prevails for all.
The Jewish Spring brings opportunities for reflection and celebration. Starting with Passover, the big splash of home holiday and ritual requirements we then move into Omer Counting, Holocaust Remembrance, Israeli Memorial and Independence Days, an Israeli bonfire and cook-out day on the 33rd of the Omer, and at last Shavuot, the celebration of our covenant.
This week we commemorate and celebrate in two amazing days – Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day – Yom Ha-Zikaron and Yom Ha-Atzmaut – joined together as one two-day event. The first day solemn, and then a switch gets flipped at sundown and Israel goes into national party mode.
What a great lesson this is – make sure to see the price of our freedom paid in the lives of our loved ones and ancestors before celebrating with abandon.
In this way Israelis embrace some deeply rooted Jewish ideas about celebrating without ignoring the world in which we celebrate. Even Jewish weddings include a glass-breaking moment so that one of our most beautiful celebrations contains a reminder that the broken world will still need our attention after the party ends.
Reflect and be merry – find joy and remember things that make our celebrations possible.
Happy Spring, Israeli Style!
Temple Beth El, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775, Wednesday, September 24, 2014
We are a wilderness people – our covenant was crafted at Sinai, a mountain in the desert, and our sense of peoplehood has been sculpted by years of homelessness. Most of our history has led us away from home, often as refugees.
We are a people who worry about our security.
We tell stories of our loved ones who keep bags packed, just in case. We worry if we have enough, or if we do enough – for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for the world.
And now, in the face of all of our concerns, I am going to ask us to do something differently. I would like us to celebrate Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, as a real holiday of joy.
Even more than that, I will suggest that this season that leads to Rosh HaShanah, and emerges from it, can be one focused on bringing more celebration into our lives.
Now, I realize that this may be a tall order. The Jewish New Year is not a typical celebration. We don’t pop any bottles of champagne, and we have no festive countdown.
In fact, our encounters with Judaism at this season of Days of Awe can seem grim. Apologies, confessions, the lifting of our vows from the past year, God as merciful ruler accepting our transgressing selves back into God’s favor after prayer and fasting – a little apples and honey and the sounding of the shofar hardly make up for all of these serious and somber themes.
And who could blame us?
Our calendar feels like we go from tragedy to tragedy – we jest that the general Jewish holiday can be described most succinctly as: “They tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat.”
With all of our running and fleeing, and then thriving, we always hope, that for just a little while, we may have finally reached a place of safety. Maybe this time we won’t have to pack up our families. Maybe this time we are proven to be too nervous when we always have our passports up to date.
Let’s admit that while our tradition insists on calling this a celebration – this New Year’s Party that we have all shown up to this evening – this Rosh HaShanah – we have resisted its call to be joyful. A couple of millennia of homelessness, some truly unspeakable centuries of oppression, and then the last decades of unbelievable turnaround, about which we feel admittedly a little guilty – this history has led us to experience this holy day as darker than it was originally intended.
Embracing this Jewish journey is all about finding the little sources of joy around us. We Jewish people have been coping with our sense of permanent exile for two thousand years, during which we have created a whole year’s worth of holidays and countless daily and personal practices that are meant to offer us ways of emphasizing the rhythm between a low point and a high point. We descendants of Israel who grapple with loss on the scale of generations and continents must also figure out how to highlight the good times.
Let’s start with the basics – our lives and the world are miraculous. Jewish tradition as represented by the great Nachmanides reminds us that we must not rely on miracles in our everyday life, and we must acknowledge that we are constantly surrounded by the miraculous.
We are the people who notice small miracles in the littlest of things. We must be. How else could we have survived the last two thousand years with a sense of hope that things will turn out better? When we look closely at the world, we can immerse ourselves in an ocean of reasons to wonder.
To look at the world through thoughtful, Jewish eyes, is to stare with awe and gratitude, and indeed joy, at creation.
To awaken to the morning in a Jewish manner is to begin with words of thanks.
I aim to follow a rhythm of life that brings little pieces of joy into my consciousness every day. Each morning I gather our family together to sing the Hebrew words of gratitude, the song Modeh Ani, as a way of starting the day with thanks. Some days it works really well. Last week all four of us were up in time to gather together. Ginny, Jude, our seven-year-old, and I sang our morning song, and Sadie, our almost ten-month old, crawled from Ginny’s lap towards Jude and me, adding her voice to our song. We were all singing, in our own way, and definitely feeling grateful.
It was wondrous. Even though the morning still had its struggles, the memory of those moments of grace is still sustaining a week later.
Many of you may have noticed that I share my regular runs via social media.
Let me tell you, I do not have an easy time dragging myself out for a run in the morning: no matter how good it is for me, no matter how much better I will feel about life, the universe, and everything, afterwards.
So I make sure that I get my mind into a grateful place when I am done. I am grateful that I managed to do it. I am grateful that Ginny took care of Sadie while I was gone. And then I am grateful no matter what my times and distances were. Maybe I was supposed to run ten miles and I only had time for six – doesn’t matter! I got to run, and that was a blessing, even a source of joy.
All of this reminds us that Jewish traditions ask us to act in a way that we may not feel, so as to create the emotion we hope to have. Judaism recognizes that the mind-body connection works both ways – when we force ourselves to do something we create some momentum towards feeling differently too. Even more simply, it is a life-practice of “fake it ‘til you make it”. The system of Jewish practices, applied, experimented on, reinterpreted, and reapplied in our own lives and in our own ways aims to help us find regular moments of little joy.
Some days I can’t fake it so well. Some days I am too, whatever, and usually the ones who suffer the most are those closest to me. On those days we can take a little advice from a non-Jewish thinker, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, who talks about non-toothache days.
Non-toothache days. We must always be grateful that today is a non-toothache day.
Happiness is enjoying what we have.
We try to see the small miracle even when a whole host of things cloud our vision of the wonder of the normal.
As we find our own ways to acknowledge and celebrate all of those daily blessings, so we can find high points in our weeks and seasons.
We are a people who come together regularly to enjoy a good nosh, and a little prayer service.
Every week we have an excuse to create “delight” – to practice Shabbat is to remember to find some joy at least once a week. Think of Shabbat as a reminder that if the week has dragged us down, sapped our “fake it ‘til we make it” batteries, that we have an excuse to recharge our celebratory engines. When we accept Shabbat as an opportunity for that stop, that necessary break, then we can embrace it as joyful.
Shabbat happens when we make it happen. In our household, some weeks we get to make Shabbat at 3:30 on Friday afternoon. My break in the week happens on Thursday, or on Saturday night, or for an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon, maybe, if I’m lucky during a Panthers game.
Find a time, make Shabbat – when we can.
It definitely works better when we do it with our family and with our community at the time when we all try to make Shabbat.
Let’s aim to find the time, once a week, to inject a little “delight” into our lives, and take a break from the normal.
Now, this may come as a surprise to us all – our traditions teach us that the joy in the observance counts more than the observance itself.
Really – joy counts more than the details.
In Deuteronomy we find words that seem to say the opposite:
Cursed be the one that does not fulfill the words of this Torah, to observe them!
From this, we could get the idea that observance is all that counts. And yet here is a Hasidic teaching about this very verse in Deuteronomy.
[From Arthur Green, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Volume 2, pp. 128-129]
Fulfilling all of the commandments, which the Torah seems to say we must do in order to avoid getting cursed, only seems like an impossible task. First, everyone knows that no one can fulfill all of the commandments. The Hasidic teaching goes further, and says that each commandment can be viewed as containing all of the commandments.
So, if this teaching is true, then why does the Torah read that we get cursed for not fulfilling all of them? The Torah can’t have an extraneous teaching. The curse is there to remind us that joy is the key to fulfilling the commandments – to achieve one commandment that fulfills all of them, we must start with joy.
The teaching continues:
“’Prayer without inner direction is like a body without a soul.’ The letters of Torah and prayer, as well as the fulfilled commandment, are all the body; the soul is the inner direction and the joyous thought we have in doing God’s will.”
All of the commandments are separate when we do them physically – when we do a commandment with a joyous thought all the commandments become united. This is why later on in Deuteronomy it reads that we will be cursed:
(Deut. 28:47) because you did not serve Adonai your God in joy and in good-feeling of heart out of the abundance of everything.
Don’t worry about the details of the commandments for Shabbat. Find a place and time to do a bit of Shabbat with joy.
We are a people with a lot of holidays.
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes about the journey through our holiday year:
“…the key to a successful journey is not reaching the promised destination, but rather being aware of every moment on the journey. To be successful [we] need to rejoice, to travel with simcha, ‘joy’.”
We are not a people who arrive at final destinations, we are a people who journey.
As we plot our course through our holy days we also do not reach an ending place.
There are at least four different new years – Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the creation of the world; Simchat Torah, the celebration of the completion and restarting of the cycle of reading the Torah; Tu biShvat, the New Year of the trees; and the first of Nisan, the first month of the year, the month of Passover, when the natural world is renewed in Spring.
With all these festival beginnings we have many starts, and no finishes!
Regularly, people say to me, “You Jewish people – what’s with all the holidays?”
I need to start responding: “You bet – we are a people who love to have an excuse to have a celebration. These holidays are reminders to bring joy into our everyday lives every month of the year.”
We celebrate AND we apologize.
We take a full month before Rosh HaShanah to work on repenting. What’s the connection between apologies and a New Year celebration?
Our son Jude once asked: “Why don’t people apologize? It makes it stop hurting.”
Apologies clear the way for celebrating.
When we apologize, when we make amends, we put down the burden of needing to know everything, of being in control.
When the High Holy Day season asks us to do tshuvah, to make amends, we can let go of the burden of having done wrong, once we apologize, make it right, then rejoice in the liberation from it.
We didn't know better, we didn't mean it, we thought it would be better, we didn't think enough, we’re doing what we can to make it better, forgive me, now let’s have a Happy New Year.
This celebration that we arrive at may not be stereotypical – we may not find the joy that we see depicted in a movie or an advertisement. Joy happens amid all the other things going on – we find it on the upside of our rhythms. We must have non-joy in order to fully experience joy. We must notice and celebrate the difference in order to fully celebrate at all.
This means finding some authentic joy, not manufacturing it. This won’t be Madison Avenue's joy. It's our own thing: personal joy from self-knowledge and self-exploration, which we found by clearing the way with apologies.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, said that the worst thing we can do, is to worry too much about our mistakes. Too much guilt keeps us far from God. Apologies act as a release valve for the guilt. In joy and wholeness, we fully feel God’s Presence, the miraculous nature of our existence. As long as we are at war with ourselves, we have no room in us to make a dwelling place for God. The main focus is on loving God, sharing that love with God’s creatures, doing it through joy and celebration of life.
[Arthur Green, Ehyeh, A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, p. 125]
Our God and God of all ages, please be mindful of Your People Israel on this Day of Remembrance, and renew in us love and compassion, goodness, life, joy, and peace.
This day remember us for well-being.
This day bless us with Your nearness.
This day help us to live, and live with joy and celebration.
Let us join together in joy for this New Year.
Celebrate more, and find ways to do it that are more authentically us.
[I delivered this on Friday, August 29 with the wonderful people of the Transfaith Conference here in Charlotte, NC]
אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא
My God, the soul you have given me is pure.
As we look out upon this day, among these beautiful people around us, let us acknowledge the shining purity and beauty of the spirits we find around us this morning.
Let us revel in the light that we bring to each other and share with one another.
In Jewish traditions we begin our mornings in gratitude - first for our bodies, may they work well enough so that we can offer praise and thanks. Then we notice that our spirits still reside within us, and that that essence is pure, and we celebrate the return of our souls into our bodies after that absent time during our slumbers.
Each morning we look out upon the world and offer up gratitude because a day that begins with gratitude is a better day. A day that we transform with words of thanks in turn transforms us into grateful people.
I am so grateful to be among all of you today.
So I offer you another blessing from the opening prayers of a Jewish morning service:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָשַׂנִי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים
Praised are You, the Infinite source of a miraculous creation, who made me, and all of us, in the divine image.
Each and every one of us here today reflects another gorgeous facet of the image of the divine. To be in the image of the infinite is to be infinitely varied.
Let us begin our day in praise of the purity of our inner spirits, and in awe of the beautiful variety of our outward appearances.
Let our time together be filled with soulful beauty, and pure diversity, and let us say: Amein.
Gems in the Torah, by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
Message for Interfaith Worship Service “Treasured Jewels, Reflections of the Divine”
Sunday, August 10, 4:00 PM, Caldwell Presbyterian Church
Some comments inspired by Deuteronomy, Chapter 4:15-19a:
"Now keep close watch over your selves - for you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you at Horev from the midst of the fire - lest you wreak-ruin by making yourselves a carved form of any figure, the pattern of male or female, the pattern of any animal that is on earth, the pattern of any winged bird that flies in the heavens, the pattern of any crawling-thing on the soil, the pattern of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth or lest you lift up your eyes toward the heavens and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the forces of the heavens, and be lured-away to bow down yourselves to them and worship them…"
These verses, from the Torah reading yesterday [Saturday, August 9], warn us against idolatry.
“Oh yawn rabbi, more about idolatry – really, who is worried about praying to statues?” I can hear you all thinking that, and why not? What possible relevance could this ancient prohibition of Judaism, one enthusiastically included in Christianity through the Ten Commandments, have for us today, as we celebrate the opening of Pride?
We do still suffer in the throes of idol-worship. Only our idols are far more sinister and subtle now than ever. Body-image, gender-image, heterosexism, and homophobia – these are forms of idolatry. They take a graven image, usually one air-brushed, or unrealistically depicted without nuance, or one constructed out of fear of the beauty of diversity and complexity in humanity, and hold it up as one we should all aim for.
Let us not “wreak-ruin” upon ourselves by holding up any carved form in the pattern of male or female as one that we must all universally adhere to!
We must instead embrace the idea of God from these verses as beyond depiction. We must remember the poetry of identifying our humanity as a reflection of that form that cannot be described, that infinite within each of us, and burst open those graven images and instead see in each other the jeweled facets of holiness, the depth and beauty of something that can never be captured in a piece of sculpture, art, or photograph. We cannot be contained in a graven image.
When we gaze upon our selves and each other with reverence, seeing in one another the beauty that comes from a reflection of God’s infinite diversity, we get to stand in awe of our shared humanity. In doing this we fulfill another sparkling jewel of wisdom from yesterday’s scriptural reading:
Deut. 4:29 "But when you seek Adonai your God from there, you will find God, if you search for God with all your heart and with all your being."
A key aspect to avoiding the pitfalls of idolatry is to avoid complacency – we must continue to seek with all our hearts and all our beings. When we don’t understand someone, when we are frustrated by someone’s actions, when we feel hurt or wronged, yes, we must stand up for justice, and even more, we must seek in the object of our difficulty for their humanity. When we go beyond the conflict and connect on the grounds of our infinitely varied humanity, we offer others that opportunity too.
In this we see that seeking that divine spark within all people, within even all things, gives us this opportunity to overcome the complacency of idolatry, that thinking that says, “I know what I need to know.” Let us accept that our knowledge can always be expanded so that we can continually search for greater insights into the people around us.
One more shining thought from this biblical selection. Moses reminded the People of Israel that:
Deut. 5:2-3 "Our God cut with us a covenant at Horev/Sinai. Not with our ancestors did God cut this covenant, but with us, yes, us, those here today, all of us (that are) alive!"
We are all responsible for upholding the good teachings of our multitude of teachers.
We are all part of a contract between us and creation – to see deeply into our surroundings and celebrate the facets of the divine in everyone and everything.
Each of us contributes, and each of us plays a part.
As we celebrate our Queen City’s Pride this year, the crown jewel of Charlotte, shine up the faces of our gems, share them with each other, and take moments to notice even the diamonds in the rough.
We all get to shimmer together with Pride.
I could not be more honored than when I got to help Steve and Jefry celebrate their wedding at Temple Beth El last week. It coincided with their 25th anniversary of being together, and completed the Jewish part of their legal wedding that took place in Washington DC last fall. I am so grateful that TBE made them feel so welcome that they thanked all the TBE staff, saying they never felt like we treated them as anything but a normal couple, which of course, they are!
Except for the fact that they are exceptional and wonderful individuals :-)
A quick look back on the last week at Temple Beth El tells you just how vibrant our Jewish community is:
- We had our weekly events - Shabbat evening and morning - including two B’nei Mitzvah, Anniversary Blessings, Torah Study, FIJI Class, and Tot Shabbat too!
- We celebrated: two baby-namings and a same-sex marriage ceremony.
- We mourned our losses and comforted our mourners with two shiva minyanim and a memorial service.
- We had some intriguing conversations about tattoos, organ donation, marijuana, the novel The Golem and the Jinni, Taste of Judaism, The Porch Torah, and even Talmud, in a myriad of locales including the Temple Beth El building, at The Village Tavern, Whole Foods, and at the Bechtler Museum Cafe.
- We ate together at a SPICE Potluck on Shabbat, and shopped together at our Attic Sale.
- Our Annual Congregational Trip to Israel returned with Rabbi Judy - everyone had an amazing and meaningful adventure, and four kids became Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
- And even though it is summer, B’nei Mitzvah preparations continue with a full schedule of training for our soon to be Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.
I hear that other Jewish communities slow down in the summer.
I feel so honored and blessed to be part of our Temple Beth El family, to be all together so often for important times and moments of thoughtful discussion.
Looking forward to a great summer!
Check out the next book we will read for our August Book Club, or enjoy the last - links below:
Next book for August 3, 11:00 AM:
Last book, a fun summer read:
Thank you to all who served and still serve our country in our military.
Thank you to all of your families.
Comfort and sympathies to all those who have lost a loved one who served.
A meaningful Memorial Day to all Americans.
A reading for Shabbat B'midbar - the Sabbath of the reading of the first section of the Book of Numbers:
In the desert simmered a small miracle,
a bush that burned and was not consumed.
The prophet was moved by awe,
and removed sandals going barefoot.
When the noises of our minds settle,
and we notice the wonders of the world,
when our eyes clear so that we can see,
and focus on the sparks in all creation,
then our hearts may expand in thanks,
and our breath speak words of praise.
Here is why I am a student of Kaplan, and continue to be so:
"Reconstructionism is a method, rather than a series of affirmations or conclusions concerning Jewish life or thought. Whatever I am about to state concerning my conception of God is Reconstructionist, only in the sense that I have arrived at it through the application of the Reconstructionist method. I do not, by any means, claim that it is the only legitimate conception, even from a Reconstructionist point of view. Nor should it be regarded as a Reconstructionist conception of God. It is not within the province of the movement to pronounce any one theology as truer than another.… As far as Jewish religion, with its teachings and rituals, is concerned, it matters very little how we conceive God, as long as we so believe in God that belief in Him makes a tremendous difference in our lives."
(Mordecai M. Kaplan, Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers, 1956, pp. 81-86)
Kvetch, defined by the OED as:
to complain habitually, gripe; as a noun, a person who always complains,
describes our people from the start. After our liberation from slavery in Egypt we complain:
“Freedom is nice. Where’s the water? Where’s the meat? Slavery had better accommodations.”
As we read Exodus this month and next, I am newly inspired to leave the kvetch behind and embrace instead our expressions of enthusiasm, our words of welcome, our voices of celebration.
This past summer Rabbi David Wolpe offered a giant complaint about a Bar Mitzvah celebration that went way over the top. Rabbi Wolpe called the celebration, in which young Sam Horowitz descended on stage amid Las Vegas style showgirls and danced in front of all the guests at his reception: “egregious, licentious, and thoroughly awful.” He then ranted for multiple paragraphs about the great tragedy this was for contemporary Judaism.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson publicly disagreed with Rabbi Wolpe in an open conversation before Rabbi Wolpe’s congregation. Rabbi Artson reminded us that it is a good thing that Judaism doesn’t demonize materialism. And then he asked us to imagine ways to teach the Jewish message of an over the top celebration.
He concluded that as this kid’s rabbi he would offer:
“Remember that when your parents chose to do this over the top celebration, they did it for your Bar Mitzvah, not your twelfth birthday, not your fourteenth birthday. They did it because however far people drift from piety and religion, saying ‘Our kid is connected to Torah’, is even for ostentatious Jews, still important.
“Now let’s build on that. Why is it that specifically your ‘Torah birthday’ is the one when people go over the top? Then we could segue into: Are there other ways that we could celebrate that in ways that might be more compatible with standard and traditional Jewish values?”
Rabbi Wolpe’s kvetch feels a lot like many Jewish reactions to the latest Pew survey.
Or like calls from Jews worried about the Jewish identity of kids and grandkids because the kids don’t observe Judaism like their grandparents. They fell in love with and married Jews and non-Jews and almost all of them have vibrant Jewish homes where they raise their kids as Jews. They don’t keep kosher the same way though.
In response to these concerns and others, I would like to follow Rabbi Artson’s example - let us offer some reasons to celebrate.
In the wake of the last century, that Jews have become desirable spouses for non-Jews is a victory. That Judaism has become a desirable path for non-Jews, even those not married to Jews, is also a victory.
When we find creative and new ways to support each other with our Judaism - through our synagogues and communities - we succeed.
Our Judaism thrives and grows and evolves when we open doors.
Our ancestors took risks - they braved the desert, they entered into a contract with the universe to pursue life, and they built a Judaism that survived exile. In the last hundred years we have built a new nation and multiple enthusiastic reactions to a changing world.
In this season of celebration, let us liberate our voices of celebration.
Our fates rely on each of us caring for our selves and our whole community.
Every person is touched by the fate of everyone else,
and so we must pursue compassion for all.
A Jewish tradition imagines each and every one of us as a reflection of God.
We are all unique echoes of the infinite.
We must aim to engage with every person as we would with God.
I must try to revere God who I find in everyone I talk to.
We must have compassion for each other as reflections of the most sacred.
I must care for each person because we are all holy sparks.
Let the embers of God that live in all of us inspire every North Carolinian to come together.
Let us care for the sacred warmth in each of our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies.
Let us act out of our passion for a creation that relies on us as stewards.
Let us be moved by the strength of our combined spirits to care better for each other, and let us say, Amein.
Erev Rosh HaShanah – 5774
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
“Hineni,” I am here.
I am present, in this moment, to celebrate the New Year, atone for the mistakes of the past year, and turn towards the future ready to do better. I am present to connect with my self, the people around me, and with our God.
We are present to begin our holy days together.
This sentiment of presence at this moment connects us to historical and traditional Judaism – the traditions of Jews for thousands of years.
Though we call ourselves Reformers much later, reform in Judaism has been with us from the beginning. The principles of reforming – individual choice, creativity, innovation in the face of change, the use of wisdom from all sources – all have been present in the Torah, and in Judaism, from the start.
We evolve, we think about the future and how to respond to it, we respect each other’s differences, we create priorities among values, so that some, like compassion and hospitality, come before others, like keeping kosher and laws of purity.
We follow very closely in the footsteps of our ancestors in the Torah, in the Talmud, in the Middle Ages. In this way we are like Jews have always been.
Most Jews coming to synagogue tonight will say or hear this word “Hineini”, “Here I am”.
These are the words of Abraham, the first Jew and the first Reform Jew. At the beginning of the Binding of Isaac God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham responds,
Hineini, “Here I am”.
We all know the story…
God tested Abraham.
We are left to figure out exactly what the test was. We say it was a test of faith and obedience. Will Abraham sacrifice the child promised to him, the child through whom Abraham’s reward from God – a great nation – will emerge?
Every year we return to Binding of Isaac and every year I try to find a new take on it. In this way, we are like Jews throughout history trying to figure this story out. This year, reading through some of the Hebrew commentaries on it, I found one small comment by a 12th and 13th century scholar, Rabbi David Kimchi. Rabbi Kimchi noted that if this had been about obedience alone, wouldn’t God would have told Abraham, “Do this now”? But no, God said:
Go to the land of Moriah…
Moriah was far away. God asked Abraham to take a three-day journey. Abraham was eager to obey. He got up early and went, avoiding Sarah, knowing that what he planned to do would upset her, to say the least.
Rabbi Kimchi said that God meant to send Abraham on a long walk, to allow him “l’hitbonen”, “to gain insight for himself”. Obedience was not the whole test. God also tested Abraham’s ability to think, reason, and learn. God intended Abraham to deliberate as much about the life of his son, as he did about the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, for whom he argued with God.
Then, along the way Isaac stopped and said:
And Abraham answered: Hineini/Here I am, my son.
First Abraham was present for God, and now Abraham was present for Isaac. Abraham showed us that we must be present for God AND for our families.
Isaac suspected something. He said: “Hey Dad, looks like we are going to go make a burnt offering – what’s on the menu?”
They had been on the road for a few days, Abraham pondered God’s demand, and had some doubts when Isaac asked this question. Obviously, he could not be upfront with his son about the idea of offering him up as a sacrifice, so Abraham decided to express trust in God – God would see to the offering.
At first Abraham was eager, and now, in the middle of the journey, perhaps less eager. Our classical rabbis didn’t like to imagine Abraham boldly lying to Isaac, so they note that Abraham knew that things would work out differently, since what he said, that God would see to the lamb for the offering, was pretty close to how the it ended up.
In no time we have Abraham holding the knife over Isaac. At this instant, God’s messenger, called out to Abraham from heaven, and Abraham again responded,
“Hineini/Here I am”,
ready to hear you. And this moment of hesitation, brought on by Abraham’s doubts from the long walk to Mount Moriah, let Abraham lift up his eyes, and see the ram caught in the thicket, and then offer the ram instead of Isaac.
Abraham listened. He obeyed one command. And then Abraham didn’t say to God, “Hold on, I’m in the middle of doing your command.”
Instead, that still small voice of his conscience held his hand, gave him pause, and allowed him to lift up his eyes and see the ram that had been there from the start. Abraham’s openness to change, to an actual change what God wanted, and Abraham’s devotion to the value of all life, saved Isaac.
We do what Abraham did.
We look at our actions and think about them. We do not obey without question.
The rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud were reformers of the most radical order – they created new traditions and institutions when Judaism faced the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. In fact, they had been crafting a new Judaism for over 200 years before the destruction of the Temple, and so were best prepared to propose something new that could survive the loss of our center.
The famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai lived long before the destruction of the Second Temple, and already they developed and debated home observances like Chanukah and Shabbat, and worship outside the Temple. Synagogues and Houses of Learning were built far from Jerusalem long before the Temple’s destruction. We don’t have to rely on our rabbis’ memories of these buildings, many of us here have visited the remains of ancient synagogues throughout Israel, including the synagogue at Masada, many of them dating to over 100 years before the common era.
In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, with some places of learning and practices already established, our ancient rabbis began centuries of conversations about how to live their new Judaism, and wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud. These rabbis wrote the first book of the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, the Chapters of the Ancestors, and explicitly connected the giving of Torah to Moses at Sinai in a line of transmission of scholars all the way down to the themselves. Our ancient rabbis wrote themselves into the Torah! What chutzpah!
“Hineinu.” The rabbis were present.
They were present for to make the changes that helped Judaism survive.
Abraham became present and opened up to the change that a long walk might offer him. The rabbis who created our Judaism opened up all Jews to new ideas: the synagogue could evolve from the Temple, prayer could evolve from sacrifices, and books could contain our legacy of wisdom.
The rabbis of this early Rabbinic Period revitalized Passover, and made it into a home observance. They promoted the head of household into the master of ceremonies for the Passover Seder, which they created to celebrate one of our most central holidays. They took things out of the Temple court and made them part of our home lives.
When faced with a need to change and evolve, these early rabbis rose to the occasion and spent 500 years crafting a process for figuring out how to do Jewish – today we call the record of that work the Mishnah and the Talmud.
Not only did they create new Jewish rituals and institutions, the rabbis also knew that they couldn’t push it too far. At one point in the Talmud’s discussions of Shabbat they actually admit that they could derive more restrictions for Shabbat than they could convincingly ask Jews to observe. The rabbis knew that our opinions mattered too. Our Talmudic rabbis were present for the what Jews cared about.
“Hineinu.” We are present to learn from everyone.
Like our reforming ancestors before us, Reform Jews today revere knowledge from all sources. We aim to incorporate any wisdom that seems to work.
Maimonides, one of the most important Jewish scholars in our history, wrote in the 12th century that should the popular understanding of the creation of the world ever differ from the one described in Genesis, then we Jews should read our story as a good story, not a description of reality. We have been a scientifically minded people for a long time, always attempting to find a path that includes our historical writings and the truths of the times we live in.
Maimonides was also an esteemed authority in secular learning – he was revered by non-Jews as a doctor, as an astronomer, and as a philosopher. Before Maimonides, the rabbis of antiquity incorporated Greek philosophy into the Talmud. After Maimonides Renaissance commentators on the Torah used the same psychological thinking that informed Shakespeare. We love to learn, and we love to learn from any source.
The Torah is the symbol of our wisdom, not the entirety of it.
We Reform Jews understand this, we have been present for it, and we follow along paths that were well-trod long before the founding of the Reform movement.
“Hineinu.” We are present to learn from any and all sources of wisdom.
Our modern Reform Judaism emerged when 19th Century German Jews needed an authentic Jewish experience that connected them to their pasts and also allowed them to say,
“Here we are,
in a synagogue with others who share our values.”
Jews with secular educations began to succeed and live well in German cities of the early 1800’s. The Judaism they found there reminded them of the little synagogues in the shtetls that their grandparents had left behind decades before. They no longer dressed, spoke, worked, or lived like people from the country, so the religion from the country no longer spoke to them either. They began with a few simple innovations: a prayer book written with German translations, a sermon given in German instead of Yiddish. Tthey followed the teachings of the Talmud, that emphasize that prayer must be said in a language that people understand.
These urban Jews spoke German and not Yiddish, and needed to understand the holy words of their prayers, and the sermons of their leaders.
These early Reformers met their new needs. With thought and deliberation, over time, they followed Abraham’s model of “l’hitbonen”, to build insights for themselves, and in turn to build a Reform Judaism out of the Judaism of the past, using historical values and principles and applying them to their new situation, exactly like the rabbis of the Talmud.
Reform Judaism is mainstream, traditional, and historical Judaism. When we innovate we respond in a traditional and evolutionary manner to changes in our situations.
The reaction against these innovations became Orthodoxy.
Yes, that’s right – Reform Judaism came first, and the reaction against it, Orthodoxy, second. And in perfect Jewish form, early Orthodox Jews felt Judaism was in crisis and created a new idea about Judaism, a rigid conservatism, a resistance to change that in and of itself was a new form of Judaism. Judaism reacts to the times, and we often come up with different reactions.
“Hineinu – here we are!”
We Reform Jews are heirs to a long line of Jews who took reforming seriously.
We are here and present to listen and learn from our ancient traditions, and see how best to apply them to our situations today.
We are here to learn from each other, from other Jews, and from the best that science and human thought has to offer.
We are here to be present for each other as Jews who care deeply about who we have always been, and who we may yet become.
We are here, and we stand between the rich history of the Jewish people, and the promise of a future that we will build together.
Hineinu – we are present.
Like Abraham, the ancient rabbis, and all of our sages:
We are present for God, we are present for our families, we are present for our greater communities, and we are present to be Reform Jews.
L’shanah Tovah, a good year, a year of growth and reform, a year of authentic Judaism which is ours to make, a better and brighter 5774 for us all.
Check out Ginny Reel's amazing coverage in the Huffington Post - she is one of the only Ketubah artists who creates a real wedding contract for same-sex couples. Just another reason why I love and respect her so much! (I am so thrilled that she consented to marry me).
Ginny will offer the advocacy clause from below as an option to include in all Ketubah texts too!
From the article:
A company called Ketubah-arts.com has gone so far as to include the option for a couple to affirm their commitment to equal marriage rights along with their commitment to each other:
"We promise to work to reform the laws of our country so that our marriage, and the marriages of others who come after us, will be recognized by law, not just by our community, friends, and families," one template reads.
Many of us are list-makers. I imagine I am not the only one who thrills in checking items off of those lists. We get to bring some order to our worlds that often seem out of control when we take all those things we have to do and itemize them. Then, with some sense of small victory, we concretely show that they have been completed with the stroke of a pen.
The Torah offers us the same kind of teaching this week in Parashat Pinchas. Two full chapters – Numbers chapters 28 and 29 – itemize the holidays of the year, from daily offerings to New Moon offerings, to all the celebrations around each holiday.
In these directions we see the need to establish regular customs and practices, expected times of gathering and prescribed things to do at those moments. So our ancient Israelite ancestors developed a structure to their lives and the calendar, allowing them to see the scope of the year in acknowledged weeks, months, and seasons.
However we manage to encounter a world that may often feel like mayhem, Judaism offers us frameworks in the calendar as models of breaking things down into smaller bits that may help us handle the whole more easily.
Happy list checking!
Today is the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz – one of a series of holidays in the summer that most Jews have never heard of.
This one begins a three week period remembering the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem that culminates in the observance of Tisha b’Av – the 9th of Av – arguably the worst and saddest day in Jewish history. On this day both Temples were destroyed, the First Crusade started, the Spanish Expulsion began, and more.
Why fast and/or maintain these days when we have Israel, when perhaps the reasons for our fasting – the longing for a return – may be obsolete?
Tal Becker reminds us in the article below that longing for a repaired world is part of the fundamentals of the Jewish psyche, and I agree – the metaphor of being lost and needing to find our way, to repair ourselves and our community, may not be removed from our Jewish consciousness.
Thanks to Rabbi Judith Schindler for pointing out this piece, and don’t forget to join us for a detailed discussion of this and other topics around the 9th of Av on Monday evening, July 15 – a pre-fast dinner and start the fast learning starting at 6pm at Temple Beth El in Charlotte.
On why we should explore Judaism beyond what we learned in Religious School before our Bat or Bar Mitzvah, and how much more there is out there than what is read in the headlines about Judaism...
Not liking one philosophy class or professor doesn't make all philosophy classes or professors not to our taste. Pop culture headlines do not define a culture. I wouldn't trust my views alone, anymore than I would trust pop culture, anymore than I would dismiss a large set of ideas based on a small sample size. How much time have you spent looking at "progressive Judaism"? Jews NEVER read the Hebrew Scripture alone - we always have read it with commentary and interpretation. We never lived it literally (I mean really, executing people for Shabbat violations and for disobeying parents - we are a small group, and that would explain our extermination more than our small size). The Torah is meant to be the beginning of conversations not the end of them. The same with the Talmud. Judaism has undergone radical changes in the last 175 years - most of them from the side of radical reactionary movements, not progressive, secularist, reformers. The changes to the Judaism on the right have been far more dramatic than any on the left. How could anyone have afforded 6 sets of dishes (or two dishwashers!) in the shtetl?