Small Efforts Make a Big Difference

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780
Monday, September 30, 2020
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

On December 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy”, the United States military didn’t have enough rifles for the soldiers in the Army. We had no tanks and the soon-to-be-manufacturers of tanks didn’t even know what they were yet.

On June 17, 1942, only six months later, Vannevar Bush, no relation to any presidents, got President Roosevelt to sign onto a budget for a project that was so secret this was the only paper record of it. The President wrote “OK FDR” on the budget, and the Manhattan Project was born.

Like many of you here, I too have a small connection to the war effort, a massive undertaking that involved the everyday efforts of millions of real people. In 1944, my grandparents, may their memories be for blessings, moved from New York City, to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My grandfather Jerry was a graduate student in Chemistry at Columbia University and his entire department got reassigned. Jerry occasionally commented about that time, saying that he worked on some obscure processes having to do with compounds or isotopes. He never knew any details and tended to talk about the work as a detour from his studies more than part of a massive patriotic effort.

In that small town in Tennessee that went from hundreds of residents to 85,000 in a matter of months, there were engineers and scientists, thousands of people doing every kind of work, and almost no one knew what they were working on. They were all part of the community that helped build the first atomic bomb that would eventually help end the war with Japan.

Looking back at American involvement in World War II, a mere three years and eight months - our country became the industrial behemoth that not only won a global conflict but also sowed the seeds for scientific, economic, and social advancement for decades to come. While we might be able to look back and see some grand plan at work, there really wasn’t one. There were many people with plans, and many people helping everyone they knew try everything they could. What made the biggest difference were the individual efforts of millions of people who knew that each of their small parts could make a difference. The world needed every person and everyone knew it.

As a people Jews have always taught that each and every single individual matters. Divine sparks, shards of God, are in every particle and in every person’s soul. We must reclaim the conviction of our Jewish teachers and the faith embedded in our American spirit: every one of us not only possesses potentially infinite value, but also each of us can make a difference every day. The smallest of our efforts directed in the right way, guided by good values, and coordinated together with others, can move the world. We know this as Jews. We know this as Americans.

The current events each day can confront us with a seemingly ever-expanding list of insurmountable challenges. We often feel helpless. It seems that an individual’s actions don’t matter, that history will proceed forward and things will get better or worse, and they can only be influenced by great events.

It feels like progress towards one idea or another is inevitable. We are mere cogs in the great engine of the world and really, what can one cog do to alter the direction of the ship of state, or the engine of progress?

We can succumb to the idea that great events are need to make great changes.

If only we can find the right leader.

If only we can win the War on Terror or the War on Poverty, end Racism or anti-Semitism, found the State of Israel, build the Great Society, enact the Great Leap Forward, then…

Then we would still have a lot of work to do.

This feels like too much. It is not inspiring to feel that the work will never be done. The bigger the universe gets in our minds the bigger our problems. The more people who live on the planet the more overwhelming our challenges. This is a source of our modern paralysis.

And yet, in a Jewish text from eighteen hundred years ago, our sages wrote:

You are not obligated to complete the task, nor are your free to abandon it. [Pirkei Avot 2:21, translation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro]

By thinking that our problems are totally unprecedented, we also allow ourselves to think that they are unsolvable. If they are truly unsolvable then we don’t have to do anything about them.

Our Judaism defies this.

The world has always felt too big and we have always felt too small.

Jews have always responded with a call to action, understanding that the smallest of efforts can still make the biggest of differences.

A Hasidic teaching: the universe is so finely balanced between creation and destruction, that our own personal actions, even though they are little more than grains of sand, can still tip the balance one way or another. In the face of a vast and impersonal universe we respond with chutzpah. The chutzpah that claims that even the smallest act of kindness or defiance, the smallest extra effort can transform a cog into an essential part that makes all the difference.

While we dream big, and hold ourselves to high ideals, we know that the work takes concerted effort, in small steps over time.

As I mentioned last night, while Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about the lofty ideals of praying with our legs, he still had to walk in the march one step at a time.

Moses had the faith to argue with God for the Jewish people and then had to cope with the fact that he was only going to be part of the beginning of the project. He would never enter the land that was promised. Even Moses didn’t get to finish the job.

The long-term goal of the Jewish project - namely a community of fairness and justice that participates in the improvement of the world - does not demand an all-at-once solution for difficult situations. The American project - our aim to build a better country, one that provides justice and prosperity for all - has shown us that the path of progress does not actually work in grand gestures. Look closely at all of the progress that we have made as Jews or as Americans and we can see among the efforts of countless people putting in hours over the course of weeks and months and years, the individual stories of struggle and tragedy, triumph and experimentation. The massive effort to vanquish tyranny and oppression in World War II happened relatively quickly but was only effective because it was so many individual people working together.

Even a small crisis can motivate us.

Many years ago, as a college student, I saw this first hand. I volunteered on a kibbutz, in the Western Galilee. As volunteers we got to do the jobs that the Kibbutz members didn’t want to do. We washed dishes, mopped floors, shlepped bundles of bananas from the trees to the tractor cart, and did any other menial labor that, literally, fell down the hierarchy to us. Our volunteer morale was little more than the “misery loves company” of the downtrodden at the bottom of the totem pole. We did not see ourselves as taking part in the grand project of the Kibbutz.

A small crisis changed all of that.

A brush fire struck the Kibbutz and the surrounding region during my second week there threatening the agriculture of the entire region and the fate of the Kibbutz. Everyone rushed into service. Some of us went through the rows of banana trees beating out small embers and little fires with shovels. Others made way through avocado groves with water tanks on their backs attempting to put out any small fires that were catching there. While the main effort was with tank trucks and irrigation hoses, everyone knew that each of us was performing an essential task, because any ember could burst into a bigger uncontrolled blaze.

In following days no one complained about washing dishes. We knew that we were all in it together. Kibbutz members and volunteers newly understood we were all on the same team. A crisis united us. Or, we could say that a crisis sped up the normally slow process of community-building that is usually required to get people to trust that we share the same goals and mission.

Each of us can look around and see embers that might turn into wildfires. Each of us, with what we already have in us and between us, can stifle those embers. We are fighting this brush fire together.

The Hasidic teaching that the world is so finely balanced that all our actions can make a difference is borne out by some science as well. Chaos theory was beautifully expressed in the idea of the “butterfly effect” - that the “flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas”. We are more thoughtful than a butterfly, and we believe that the conscious application of our efforts can make a much more positive, and much more powerful impact, than any tornado.

Here are three opportunities for us to make a difference.

In Western New York an amazing effort to make our city more equitable, fairer, and more just, started only three years ago. It is called the Racial Equity Roundtable, and it is a project of the Community Foundation of Western New York. Focusing on creating real change - in the lives of Western New Yorkers and in the systems in which we learn, live, and work - the Roundtable has improved the way employers hire, the way young people make their way through schools, and even the justice system. By the end of 2018 more than 1,200 people from more than 80 organizations have participated in the Racial Equity Impact training that shows how a more equal society provides real economic benefits for everyone. The efforts of the Roundtable were inspired by a national study showing that cities with greater equality among all ethnicities provide better living for everyone, rich and poor, from all backgrounds. In only three years, the use of one compelling piece of research, connections between a few people who cared deeply, all led to the coming together of hundreds of people in our community to make a real difference. 

I am one of the members of the Racial Equity Roundtable, along with TBZ member Lana Benatovich. We facilitate Racial Healing Circles that are part of the grassroots effort to connect people from different communities so that top-down systems changes are matched by real connections in our hearts and minds. Please let me know if you will join in the efforts of the Racial Equity Roundtable - I can connect you directly. We can make a real difference in our city.

Here at Temple Beth Zion a few congregants connected our synagogue to the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement and its efforts in New York. We are handing out a survey asking all of you which cause you would like to help us take a stand on. This is a local effort, connected to a statewide effort, that has already brought real results in Albany. We can play an important role because our state’s politics are not decided on the fifty-something floor of a skyscraper in Manhattan. These things are decided through conversations between real people and our New York legislators here in Western New York who then go to Albany and know that we care. We can make a real difference in our State.

Advocacy is only one aspect of the efforts of Reform Jews in New York and the world. Please join us this December at the Biennial of the Union of Reform Judaism, from December 11-15, in Chicago. Thousands of Reform Jews learning from one another, getting excited about what we can do in our home synagogues and together, and then sharing the biggest Reform Shabbat in the world - that’s 5,000 Reform Jews in the same room. If there’s a project that you think Temple Beth Zion ought to undertake, come to the Biennial and find out how other Reform communities have pursued it, or, perhaps even more importantly, come and get inspired about what is possible when we work together. Connect with amazing authors, like A. J. Jacobs and Sarah Hurwitz and our own Cantor Barbara Ostfeld. Meet experts on Israel, like Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Anat Hoffman from Women of the Wall, and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who runs the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. Of course, all of the national leaders of the Reform Movement will be there too. We can make a real difference as Reform Jews.

This year we must take actions together. We must be more than butterfly wings affecting the weather. We must find ways to take small steps that bring all of us closer to a better world.

Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and prominent abolitionist, most famously quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about the arc of the universe bending towards justice.

The universe needs us to bend its arc towards justice.

I have faith in the power of the Jewish people to take small steps together that will have lasting effects for ages to come.

Believe in us, called by God, to act together.

Believe in the power of all of us working together.

Let’s get started.

What God Asks of Us

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5780

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

An end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with wrongdoing…here, I am about to destroy them, along with the earth. (Genesis 6:13)

This is what God said to Noah.

Noah did what he was told, built an ark, gathered the animals, lined everyone up just like God told him to do, and let everyone else and every other animal die.

Noah didn’t say a thing.

Noah never spoke back to God at all.

We are not the People of Noah for good reasons.

We are the people of Abraham.

When God said, “I am going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah,” Abraham asked, “But God, are you going to kill them all? The good ones too? Is that what the God of Justice does? Kill the righteous along with the evil?” (Genesis 18:23-25)

Fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten - at what we now define as the number of people defined as a community, as a minyan - bit by bit Abraham haggled with God over the lives of strangers.


We are also the People of Moses.

Moses fought to save Hebrew slaves from oppression, not as the liberator appointed by God, but as the Egyptian Prince who still hated injustice. Before he even knew his heritage Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave.

Moses confronted his own adopted family, the people who raised him, and brought down the plagues upon them, fighting against the greatest Empire of the ancient world on behalf of an enslaved people and a God that almost no one remembered. Because it was right and it was just.

And then, after leading us out of Egypt, after confronting Pharaoh and the Egyptian chariots at the Sea of Reeds, at Mount Sinai, when we the Israelites turned away from Moses and our God who saved us and worshipped a false idol, then Moses stood up to our God for us too. Because it was right and it was just.

We are not an obedient people.

When confronted with a world that seems unfair, we challenge the world and we challenge God.

We defy our fate, we defy our destiny, we stand up for ourselves.

We are more than a stiff-necked people.

We are a people who constantly overturn expectations.

We are the forgotten ones who keep on turning up and surviving and thriving when no one expects it. And then we help others too.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I am not talking to you about the dangers of climate change, or the perils of our current politics, or the crisis that may or may not be facing our Constitution, and how we are going to solve it all. These urgent questions, much on all of our minds, are not what we are here for right now.

Instead, I have another question for us:

What kind of God would put up with us?

Why does God allow Moses to save us time and time again?

We are so difficult, rebellious, grumpy, and let’s say it, kvetchy.

The give and take, the back and forth, the arguing seems to be what God wants.

The rabbis of the Talmud argue with God and God loves it, laughs at them, and congratulates them.

God is asking us to do for ourselves, to argue with God, and to know that when we argue, when we take a stand, especially when we cry out for justice from the universe and from God, then God will be with us.

God wants independent partners.

If God wanted people who took orders and stood in line, God would have called us the People of Noah.

And we are the People of Abraham. The People of Israel the God-wrestler. The followers of Moses who stood up for us to God.

Knowing that we can stand up to God, we can stand up to anyone.

Being this people, the ones who stand up to God, the ones who stand up against the oppressor has been hard.

The ancient stories of our rebellion and stubbornness are small comfort in the face of thousands of years of tragic struggle and loss.

And how have we responded when the world turned against us?

In the face of the Romans we rebelled and suffered and fled and survived and created a Judaism that sprang forth in books and minds and hearts. Our Judaism lasted longer than our Temple in Jerusalem and then we the Jewish people took it with us to all corners of the world and outlasted the Roman Empire too.

Centuries of European persecution of our people resulted in the worst of tragedies. We cannot count the losses that our people suffered. We cannot ever count ourselves made whole for those lives that are beyond replacing. While Europe sought to erase us, we were also laying the groundwork for a national and cultural revival that has never been seen before or since.

A people scattered and destroyed struggled and emerged and flourished again.

Against all odds we created a new nation in the Land of our ancestors. We have always known that God wanted us to be there. We know, and if we don’t, our Israeli family and friends will tell us, that there was no way we were going to build a homeland by asking nicely and following everyone else’s rules. As lovers and builders of Zion we defied history. We defied every prediction and every expectation. We are the people who will not quit even when it seems like God may be against us.

With our backs against the wall and the world against us we often have the greatest sense that God is with us. In our darkest hours the still small voice in the quiet of the cave in our hearts can be heard encouraging us to seek what is just and what is right.

Meanwhile, for those of us here, in the American version of the Promised Land, we fought for and achieved prosperity. We repeat at every Passover Seder that our freedom is incomplete as long as anyone is still oppressed. And we see that our lives here were bound up with the lives of all Americans and knew that just as God had always called us to argue with God against oppression, so we must advocate on behalf of all our neighbors as well.

We see injustice and we try to correct it. We have not yet done enough and we know that there is still more to be done, but we heed the call of God to not allow the status quo to persevere.

Susannah Heschel wrote about her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his time marching for freedom:

He said it reminded him of the message of the  prophets, whose primary concern was social injustice, and of his Hasidic forebears, for whom  compassion for the suffering of other people defined a religious person…

When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote:

“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Rabbi Heschel’s voice rings out as a clarion call for our struggles - our God demands that we march. The prayers of our lips are not enough. We must pray with our legs too.

Last week Alex Borstein won an Emmy for her work in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and after cracking some jokes she got serious and honored her mother and grandmother - Jewish immigrants and survivors. She retold this story about her grandmother during the Holocaust:

My grandmother turned to a guard. 

She was in line to be shot in a pit.

And she said: ‘What happens if I step out of line?’

And he said: ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will.’

And she stepped out of line.

For that, I am here, and my children are here. 

So step out of line, [ladies].

Step out of line!

God has been asking us to “step out of line” from the very beginning.

We live in unprecedented times. So much so, that the word “unprecedented” seems broken.

The world has always confronted us with skepticism. Who is this small people who argue with God? How dare they presume to stand toe-to-toe with the Creator of the Universe? Don’t they know? Can’t they understand? God’s directions are simple?

We are quite certain that what God asks of us is not simple. To figure out what is just, and what is right, to figure out how to fight for it and still preserve what is just, and what is right, for everyone - this is not simple. We know this. And we know that there are many in the world who understand this too and that God is asking us to reach out to them and work together as well.

We have faith that our God is asking us to do more and to do better.

We are a responsible people. We know that at any time we must be the ones who stand up. There is no one who will do it for us. There is no higher authority that’s going to step in on our behalf. God demands that we reach up and stand up and demand justice because if we must step out of line with God then we must definitely step out of line with the people who offer oppression instead of freedom.

Abraham and Moses and the rabbis argued with God. Jacob wrestled with God and got a new name - one who struggles with God - Israel. And so we are the People of Israel - the God-wrestling nation.

As Jews who know where we come from and what we have suffered, as Zionists who pioneered in and then fought for a new nation on our ancient homeland, as Rabbi Heschel and all those before and now who march for and fight for equal rights and justice for all - as a people who argue with God throughout time, we all know that no one fixes problems for us. There is no trusting in someone coming to our rescue. We are the ones who will be doing the rescuing.

Alex Borstein’s grandmother knew that there would be no higher up coming to save her. There would be no higher authority at that moment, while she was in line to be shot, who would politely demand, “Please, this is unjust, there has been a mistake. Stop shooting the Jews.”

She had to step out of line then. And we have to step out of line now. This is what God asks of us.


“See something, say something,” is real for us. Only for Jews it is more. It is “See something, say something, do something, God demands it.”

And then we will argue with God about how to go about it, and how to include everyone it making it right, and making it just.

We are the ones, the light unto the nations, the bearers of traditions of holy chutzpah, the heirs to God-wrestling and standing up and stepping out of line.

This has always been what God asks of us.

This is our eternal charge.

Now is our time.

Not "just us"

Friday, September 6, 2019 - 2 Elul 5779

A Torah Cover from the Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh will join us this High Holy Day Season when we celebrate S’lichot as a progressive Jewish community in Western New York at Congregation Shir Shalom and during Rosh HaShanah at Temple Beth Zion.

Cantor Penny Myers’ connection with Tree of Life’s Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers goes beyond their shared family name. Their relationship as colleagues brings this important symbol of community connection to Western New York. We remember the tragedy that occurred at Tree of Life on October 27, 2018, and we turn towards a shared future with hope and determination.

This week we read the famous phrase: tzedek tzedek tirdof– “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” – in Deuteronomy 16:19. The repetition of the word “justice” calls out for interpretation.

We can say that justice must always be pursued by stepping out of our selves. We must connect with those who are not like us, who live elsewhere, who seem different, in order to truly pursue justice – because it must be more than justice for “just us”.

We connect with our fellow Jews in Pittsburgh, and we are called to connect with our fellow Western New Yorkers from diverse ethnicities and religions. We must sympathize with people who come from similar backgrounds and neighborhoods and extend ourselves to find common ground with those who seem foreign to us.

Even more, the repetition of “justice” reminds us that we cannot understand what justice means on our own. The concept of justice itself requires conversation with others so that we can explore how each of us define it in our own way.

Only when we come to a broader definition, one that stretches our minds, hearts, and souls, can we embark on a journey of justice for all.

Jews Must Stand Up For Everyone

Taste of Torah - Shabbat Re’eih
August 30-31, 2019 – 30 Av 5779
Torah: Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5, 66:1-24 

Blessings and curses – often the counterpoints coming from our ancient Torah readings, like they do this week, and often our question as we attempt to understand the news coming our way.

Last week the news was harrowing – accusations against the Jewish people from high office holders and politicking about visits to Israel and more. Members of the TBZ community were quick to contact me and chat with me about what we should be doing and saying in response.

We are blessed by our diversity. Jews are loyal Americans who vote on every side of every issue. We have proven our loyal citizenship in almost every country of the world in the millennia of our exile and alas, we have suffered the curses of being punished despite our devotion to the countries we live in.

Now we must actively advocate for a society that calls out those who speak words of hatred and organize around hatred. American society truly depends on our voices. The blessings we seek and the curses we hope to avoid will come upon us based on our behavior. The message of our teachings is clear, we cannot wait for anyone to save us, our fates depend upon our own actions.

Wishing everyone a better week,

Summer's Moods

Friday, July 5, 2019 - 2 Tamuz 5779

 School is out, summer festivals and garden walks erupt throughout our region, and it seems like everyone gets a little extra down time. Summer in Western New York provides an abundance of opportunities for joyful gathering!

 The Jewish Calendar and Torah reading cycle seem out of step with all of this celebrating. Soon we enter into the Three Weeks commemorating tragedies throughout our history and we are in the middle of the Rebellion Narratives in the Book of Numbers.

What can we do about this disconnect between the enthusiasm for summer in Western culture and what seems like a season of discontent and lamentation in Judaism?

This week in the Book of Numbers we read again about the special role of the Levites in ancient Israelite society – their elevated status as attendants to the Tabernacle on the one hand and their restrictions with regard to land ownership and choice of profession on the other. Most situations provide both upsides and restrictions.

So, it is with Summer as well. The historical Jewish understanding of summer months has been governed by the challenges of summer weather in the Eastern Mediterranean, namely the possibility of oppressive heat, and the fact that Summer was the season of waging war for civilizations in their region. The traditions we developed around this season reflect this somber attitude.

Still we can do more than one thing at a time! A Jewish strength is our ability to hold in mind multiple not always easily reconcilable ideas.

May our summers be ones of joy and reflection, leisure and remembrances of past difficulties.

May our activities renew us, and our learning deepen our experiences.

Wishing everyone a Happy July and a Shabbat Shalom!

Holocaust Remembrance - using the past to build a better future

Today is Yom Ha-Shoah – Holocaust Memorial Day.

Recently I saw these estimates:

In 1939 there were 2.3 billion people on the planet and 17 million Jews.
Today there are 7.7 billion people on the planet and 15 million Jews.


We cannot calculate the immensity of our loss as a people.

We cannot imagine what was lost to our world without 6 million more Jews. 

We must make sure that their memories serve as constant reminders for us to make the world better.

We must fulfill our calling and be a light unto the nations. We must be like Aaron in this week’s Torah reading following the death of his sons. As he sanctified himself to enter the Holy Tent in the desert, so we must sanctify ourselves with the teachings of our traditions and become holy.

How can we become holy?

Leviticus answers this question too. The holiness code that comes next week, directs us.

-      We must care for the poor and the dispossessed

-      We must not steal or deal deceitfully or falsely.

-      We must pursue a society of fairness for all.

 On this day, in these times, and at this time of year our mission as Jews continues to be crystal clear – take care of one another and the entire world – pursue justice.

 Hoping that on this day of remembrance of the worst tragedy to befall our people in the last century, on this week of mourning for another despicable act done against us, and during this season of contemplation, we may still turn our mourning into a spark that kindles our inspirations to seek repair for everyone.

The Omer and the State of the World

Even in the wake of our tragedy this past week, we are called to an ancient tradition of daily mindfulness – the Counting of the Omer.

 What is this?

 In the Torah the Omer are the forty-nine days between the Second Night of Passover and our next festival – Shavuot. We count them because Shavuot, which means “weeks”, is reached when we finish counting the seven weeks’ worth of days. Shavuot was not given a date in the Torah so that we would have reason to count towards it.

 Every year I look forward to this season. It is meaningful to take a moment every evening to note and count the day.

There are apps to remind us when to count, and books and reflections to help us find intellectual, spiritual, and emotional depth in this season of counting.

Here are a few great Omer resources:

-      Counting the Omer App,

for iPhones: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/omer-count/id311719474and

Androids: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.cooplogic.omercounter3

-      Counting the Omer reflection for today the 13thof the Omer by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat: https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2015/04/day-13-of-the-omer.html

-      Omer: A Counting, by Rabbi Karyn Kedar: https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B00O2AMUBQ&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_j8gYCb2C2TCQN

When we feel minutes, hours, and days slipping through our fingers in the rush of life, counting each day gives us a minute or two to keep track, to notice, and perhaps to turn our attention to Jewish values and practices that might enhance our lives in small and large ways, in moments both normal and sacred.

 The foundations of our Jewish communal life knit us together through shared cultures and religious traditions and help us cope, connect, and change the world for the better.

Missing Lincoln, missing America

A little more than a week ago I was listening to the final chapters of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, as I ran in the darkness of a Buffalo early morning, and found myself in tears, as I crossed Lincoln Parkway and heard this passage below.

Last week, with Congressman Higgins, Erie County Legislature Majority Leader April Baskins, Reverend George Nicholas of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, Richard Lipsitz, the President of the local AFL-CIO, and Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin, we reflected on addressing intolerance, hatred, and incivility, and Lincoln’s words and life arose in the conversation numerous times.

We need the spirit of our most brilliant ancestors to inspire us to new actions, greater humility, broader understanding, and a more effective dedication to equality for all.

Here are the words that both inspired me and brought me to tears as I jogged in the pre-dawn darkness of autumn in Buffalo:

“In 1908, in a wild and remote area of the North Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy, the greatest writer of the age, was the guest of a tribal chief ‘living far away from civilized life in the mountains’. Gathering his family and neighbors, the chief asked Tolstoy to tell stories about the famous men of history. Tolstoy told how he entertained the eager crowd for hours with tales of Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon. When he was winding to a close, the chief stood and said, ‘But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock....His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.’

“‘I looked at them,’ Tolstoy recalled, ‘and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning. I saw that these rude barbarians were really interested in a man whose name and deeds had already become a legend.’ He told them everything he knew about Lincoln’s ‘home life and youth...his habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength.’ When he finished they were so grateful for the story that they presented him with ‘a wonderful Arabian horse.’ The next morning, as Tolstoy prepared to leave, they asked if he could possibly acquire for them a picture of Lincoln. Thinking that he might find one at a friend’s house in the neighboring town, Tolstoy asked one of the riders to accompany him. ‘I was successful in getting a large photograph from my friend,’ recalled Tolstoy. As he handed it to the rider, he noted that the man’s hand trembled as he took it. ‘He gazed for several minutes silently, like one in a reverent prayer, his eyes filled with tears.’

“Tolstoy went on to observe, ‘This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become. Now, why was Lincoln so great that he over-shadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skillful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.

“‘Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country - bigger than all the Presidents together.

“‘We are still too near to his greatness,’ Tolstoy concluded, ‘but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.’

Doris Kearns Goodwin continues:

“His conviction that we are one nation, indivisible, ‘conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,’ led to the rebirth of a union free of slavery. And he expressed this conviction in a language of enduring clarity and beauty, exhibiting a literary genius to match his political genius.

“With his death, Abraham Lincoln had come to seem the embodiment of his own words - ‘With malice toward none; with charity for all’ - voiced in his second inaugural to lay out the visionary pathway to a reconstructed union. The deathless name he sought from the start had grown far beyond Sangamon County and Illinois, reached across the truly United States, until his legacy, as Stanton had surmised at the moment of his death, belonged not only to America but to the ages - to be revered and sung throughout all time.”

[Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, pages 747-749

Forgiving the Unforgivable

“Forgiving the Unforgivable”
Rosh haShanah Morning
1 Tishrei 5779
Monday, September 10, 2018
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

Every year at this season people come to rabbis asking this question: “How can I forgive this person who has done the unforgivable to me?” How can we forgive those who don’t seem to even know how much they’ve hurt us? This turns out to be the same question. In both cases we are dealing with situations when no apology is likely to arrive or ever be good enough. How do we forgive without apologies?

Earlier in this season of repentance, I was reading about John McCain’s life, in the wake of his funeral. Charlie Pierce told this particular story as he reflected on the Senator’s life:

In 1998, when I was traveling with McCain for a profile in Esquire, I asked him if there was anyone involved with the Vietnam War that he couldn’t bring himself to forgive. By then, he had made his peace with the antiwar movement; he delivered the eulogy for an antiwar activist whose speeches from Hanoi had been piped into his cell. He – along with John Kerry – had succeeded in normalizing relations between the United States and Vietnam. He had taken Walter Cronkite on a tour of his old prison. He’d even forgiven the guards who’d beaten and tortured him. A couple of years earlier, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the architects of that bloody misadventure, had written a memoir in which he confessed that he'd known the war was un-winnable as early as 1967, but that he had kept his mouth shut while the country slid more swiftly toward disaster. As it happens, October 26, 1967 was the day that John McCain's fighter jet had taken an anti-aircraft missile over Hanoi. So, I asked him if there was someone he couldn't forgive, or at least talk to, about that awful time. He got all quiet and took a long time to answer.

“McNamara,” he finally said. “That's the worst to me—to know you've made a mistake and to do nothing to correct it while, year after year, people are dying and to do nothing to stop it, to know what your public duty is and to ignore it. I don't think any conversation we could have would be helpful now.”

[From “John McCain’s Funeral Was a Council of War – Just as He Meant It to Be”, by Charles P. Pierce, appearing in Esquire, September 1, 2018]

What about McNamara - did he ever try and apologize? In the Fog of War, a 2003 documentary he said: “I'm very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things, I've made errors.” As annual Season of Atonement visitors to the art of apologizing, all of us here do not count this as an apology.

While he never issued any other formal apology for his role in the quagmire, McNamara, who died in July 2009 at age 93, made clear he was haunted by the blunders made under his watch that cost the lives of thousands of U.S. troops. “People don't want to admit they made mistakes,” he explained to the New York Times. “This is true of the Catholic Church, it's true of companies, it's true of nongovernmental organizations and it's certainly true of political bodies.” We can see him continuing to not apologize here by explaining it away instead of owning his part and his responsibility.

Here, on the scale of thousands of lives, is a massive mistake, a transgression that hurt so many people - how is this different from what we’re asked to do on this day, at this season, by our tradition?

Maimonides makes the clearest and most thorough Jewish description of atonement. The process starts with confession, leads to a sincere apology, culminates in an agreed upon course of making amends, that finishes up with atonement, the return to a state of peace between the wronged and the transgressor. The transgressor’s transformation needs to be significant and remarkable so that when faced with the situation a subsequent time the mistake is not repeated. The person who is wronged needs to believe this in order to participate in granting full atonement. Atonement is the arrival at a new state of repair and wholeness after the tearing apart that happens with an injury done by one person to another.

This time of year asks a lot of us. Just look at the to-do list even before we get to the prayerbook and its lists of confessions:

        • Prepare our nice clothes

        • Put in the brisket

        • Get or bake challah

        • Ask for forgiveness from everyone I wronged.

We really want to fit forgiveness into a list - it would be so convenient if we could check it off.

Since there is an expiration date on this command to seek forgiveness - we’re supposed to get it done before we come back to worship together on Yom Kippur - the calendar itself may help us reinforce the idea that there is a storehouse of forgiveness that we can easily hand out to people offering a steady supply of apologies from their own box.

Our feelings are not commodities. There is no storage cabinet containing trust, forgiveness, friendship, sisterhood, or brotherhood to dispense at will. And since there’s no storehouse, and while we give ourselves these rigorous times and dates to try and make it all work better, there is no neat and comfortable working out of emotional difficulty.

And this is really very difficult.

The transformation that is required of the transgressor is difficult, and so is finding a way for the wronged person to feel forgiveness towards even a sincere seeker of apologies. When the transgressor comes to us, hat in hand, confessing, apologizing, and offering a path of making amends, it is still difficult to forgive. What do we do when no one comes apologizing, and for all we know, they never will?

You can’t go to someone and say “I’m sorry you made me so angry, apologize, and I will forgive you.”

When you can’t do anything about the person who has wronged you, you feel powerless. You feel cut off from any sort of relating. Again, you are not being asked to apologize in this situation - you want to receive an apology.

We are not commanded to go to someone who has wronged us and ask them to apologize because we did nothing wrong. It’s not our responsibility. Still, you suffer the injury as the person who was wronged.

In order to re-establish our sense of self, our sense of control, we want to reach out and confront that person.

Otherwise, you are stuck with unresolved feelings.

And while the High Holy Days ask us to take responsibility as a transgressor - a doer of wrongs - we who feel wronged are left with a passive role. We are non-actors in a drama that seems to keep on picking on us.

We need to retake control of this story. 

We cannot forgive someone who has not apologized.

Forgiveness, like trust, is not a gift. We cannot open up a box a forgiveness and give it away.

What we can do is explore our anger and our hurt.

We may be attached to the idea that we have to give forgiveness because we want to reassert some control over whatever happened. We want to stop feeling resentful, upset, hurt, and offended. We want our minds to rule over our hearts which continue to feel even when we know it is irrational and we should just heed everyone’s good advice and let it go, let bygones be bygones, and admit that we cannot make changes to relationships and interactions by ourselves.

What we’re looking for is some internal relief. We may call it forgiveness but forgiveness is about the progress between two people not the progress inside my soul. I want to feel “not powerless “ in the face of my own sense of being wronged.

On the other hand, forgiveness could actually be the right word. Maybe we have been applying forgiveness in the wrong direction.

I don’t have to forgive the person who never comes and apologizes.

I have to work on forgiving myself in the face of my own powerlessness.

This is the act of forgiveness I need.

If the formula for atonement requires confession plus apology plus making amends and then leads to atonement, to becoming whole, and we are on our own for the whole process - we are stuck at confession - then we have to work this process in a different way because the expected partner, the transgressor, is not participating.

We start here. We confess to being hurt. We own our own sense of injury.

We apologize to ourselves for judging ourselves so harshly. We didn’t deserve the injury. It came from outside of us. And while we may have been victimized, we don’t have to be victims. 

Think of John McCain - may his memory be for a blessing. He made his peace with the anti-war movement, normalized relations between the United States and Vietnam, and then he resolved to not allow this to happen to other people and fought for it. McCain turned his victimization into a campaign against torture in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when many people all over the political spectrum were entertaining the idea of “enhanced interrogation” as justifiable. McCain stood up as a former victim on behalf of other victims.

To turn our injury into making amends with the world creates a process of atonement, of forgiveness, that liberates us from the person who did us wrong.

Between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur we say that our fates are written and sealed for the New Year. We are in the in between time when we still can make changes before they get sealed, and the gates close at the end of Yom Kippur. I can’t help but feel that we need to give ourselves a little bit more time, and a lot more personal power, to take over this process.

We can be the ones who author our own fates.

Our personal growth and progress is independent of other people’s inability to take responsibility for their actions, and how they impacted us. Let us free ourselves from the people who hurt us.

We can begin this by changing our seasonal greetings a bit.

Instead of “may you be written and sealed” I offer you, “may you find ways to write yourself a better year.”

May we all take control of our stories, find the forgiveness we need for ourselves, and create a narrative that gets us past the people who will never apologize.

May we write ourselves a better book of life, for a better New Year.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Are we there yet?

Rosh ha-Shanah Evening
1 Tishrei 5779
Sunday, September 9, 2018
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Torah opens with God speaking the world into being:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִי־א֑וֹר וַיְהִי־אוֹר:

And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

God’s words bring the universe into being, and God’s words banished Adam and Eve from the garden, but then God’s words could not prevent Cain from murdering his brother.

God sets things in motion with words and then the effect cannot be undone by words. We know that we cannot control what happens after we have spoken, and we also know that we cannot avoid the responsibility for the impact of what we have spoken. We are powerful creators when we speak, and limited when trying to control what we have done with our words. We know we are responsible and that we cannot undo what we have spoken.

The truth of communication is that as soon as we speak, gesture, or release anything into the world - written word, video, audio, image - then we no longer control what it means. People read into words and images things that the artist or author or director or actor never intended.

Today, instead of having a public conversation about the power of speech and its impact and the frequent difference between intended meaning and the meaning heard, we face a dire problem.

We currently suffer from a persistent, pervasive, and nearly absolute refusal to understand that what we say makes a difference. Public figures regularly deny that saying something to get attention in the moment makes irreparable ripples that we cannot undo. Our leaders must now address so much more than politics. We have reached the point when we need bold and honest and public conversations about what is right and what is wrong - what is moral and immoral - what contributes to the downfall of our country or lifts it up. 

Let us be thoroughly clear: this is not about red or blue or green affiliations. This is not about right or left. This is about what we as Jews and Americans must bring to our public discourse so that we will have a future.

Heinrich Graetz, Nineteenth-Century Jewish Historian, observed that, “Judaism is not a religion of the present but of the future,” which looks “forward to the ideal future age…when the knowledge of God and the reign of justice and contentment shall have united all men in the bonds of brotherhood.”

As Jews we need no reminder of the power of words to incite violence. Admittedly, we can be oversensitive. There is no denying that our experiences give us good reasons for our sensitivities.

More than our history makes us sensitive. Our central teachings demand that we pay attention.

We are commanded to listen to God’s words, to strive to understand them, to grapple with them, to turn them into a good way of living and being together.

שְׁמַע | יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ | אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְיָ | אֶחָד:

“Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”

When the rabbis who fashioned our Judaism began to craft the customs and traditions we follow, they started here, with these words.

“Listen Israel, pay close attention…”

In the Torah scroll, two letters in Sh’ma visually stand out. The last letter of the word “Sh’ma-Listen”, the “ayin”, and the last later of the word “Echad-One”, the “daled”, are written much larger than the rest of the letters of the Torah. These two letters form the word: “eid-witness”. One message of Sh’ma is “bear witness”, pay close attention, listen and then decide what should be done in response to what we hear, see, and notice.

I cannot tell you what we need to bear witness to - there is no easy list of signs of wonders and offenses that we must notice. Rather I appeal to our consciences to trust our communal norms and refer back to them and each other. We witness together, and must turn to each other with our questions about what we notice.

And, we must do more than notice.

When is the right time to raise the alarm? I worry about this because I wonder if I am just being an oversensitive and paranoid Jew.

We know that our survival relies on paying attention. We all have heard the stories of Jews who listened and figured out how to leave in time. We hear the Holocaust survivors noting that the current rhetoric reminds them of what they heard in Germany in the 1930’s.

No matter how much we want to ignore the signs, we are unable to do so. We ask ourselves, over and over again: “Are we there yet?”

At the time of the Civil War anti-immigrant hostility raged, Jews were suspected of treason, of profiteering with the South, and expelled from the Union Army in the West. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the main promoter of American Reform Judaism, and the man whose visit inspired Temple Beth Zion to become Reform in 1863, publicly hedged on supporting abolition because of concerns that if America stopped persecuting African-Americans, then Jews would be next. Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise was clear about the wrongness of slavery, still Rabbi Wise was realistically afraid that the oppression and persecution of the Jews in this country would come as it had in Europe.

As North and South argued the questions - especially whether or not to expand slavery beyond the original slave-holding States, civility was abandoned entirely. In 1856, a Southerner responded to insults and anti-slavery rhetoric by physically beating Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of Senate. Sumner’s injuries were so severe that he could not serve in the Senate for three years. The North proclaimed Sumner a hero and the South proclaimed the violence against him both warranted and insufficient.

The United States that Abraham Lincoln faced four years later was even more divided. Lincoln was the moderate candidate, the reconciler, and his mere election was enough of an excuse for the Southern States to secede and begin the Civil War.

And still, with all of that, in the face of anti-immigrant fervor towards others, the overt anti-Semitism by the North, and the violence everywhere, we careful and oversensitive Jews stayed here.

Is there something so much more alarming today?

Should my sense of alert lead me to abandon our home and drive across the bridge seeking refuge in Canada?

Are we at a new point of alarm that must spur us to action, or have we passed the point of effective action so that we must instead be silent, like Rabbi Wise, for our own safety?

Our public discourse is in a state of failure not unlike the one that allowed violence to erupt on the floor of the Senate more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Irresponsible leaders choose to embrace positions solely to grab headlines. We the public must remind them that they were elected to pursue principles and policies, not “likes” and Twitter followers.

Leaders shout the most outrageous things in public now and then later claim that what we heard was not what they meant. That what they said meant something else. This is worse than an argument. This is absolutely demeaning to every person who listens and every convention about shared meanings that makes society possible.

Judaism demands that we learn and teach. The verses that follow Sh’ma Yisrael, “Listen Israel”, command us to “place the words on our hearts, ,teach them to our children, speak them in all places and at all times, bind them and write them.” We understand this as a commandment, an imperative, to internalize meanings so as to better understand and develop and clarify words and transform them into meaningful actions.

The claim that I can say something and then, tomorrow, with all of you as witnesses, claim that I said something that meant the opposite of those plain words - this claim destroys the very foundation of the language and speech upon which civilization is based.

We knew this long before we could turn to a video record of every word uttered in public. We knew this because we listened, learned, wrote, and then rewrote - such is the Jewish project. Turn words into teaching, teaching into practice, and practice into a better society.

We stand today as Jewish sentinels on the threshold of a New Year looking out and seeing and remembering and knowing that violence lays just beneath the surface of human society - held at bay by the thinnest of community agreements on civility and law.

In this time of seemingly shifting and emerging facts, of perspectives and opinions constantly claiming firm ground on insubstantial foundations, I struggled to bring words before you today. How could I possibly think that something I wrote yesterday, or last week, or last month, would still be relevant, meaningful, or even truthful in the next minute?

I imagine that being a border guard during a time of relative peace can be stressful - soldiers often speak of guard duty as a battle with boredom and the difficulties of maintaining vigilance. We are in a different place altogether. Each day, gazing out at the potential maelstrom, wondering if warning is needed, half-deafened by a tumult that only seems partially real - would any warning I could offer be heard? And if so am I justified in crying out or merely crying wolf?

We know that there is substance to be found beneath the noise. Principled and foundational teachings still help us sift through the overwhelming volume of questionable data thrown at us every day. We use these foundations to aid us in deciding: have we reached the precipice yet?

So we listen and bear witness.

Our witnessing demands knowledge and memory - we bear witness to a history filled with tragic terror a good deal of which has been directed at us. Our witnessing demands that we fulfill the commandment from Leviticus [19:16]:

לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ

Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed

We must interfere. We must prevent bloodshed. We must stop the violence. And there is bloodshed, and violence is here.

To witness is to take responsibility for what happens in our presence.

We are responsible, one for another, as Jews, as Buffalonians, as Americans, as Humans, as inhabitants of this planet. We are all interconnected and we must remember to act with conviction to threats to the entirety of our existence together.

Attention seeking leaders stand in front of us every day, saying that they uphold principles, and turn around acting in total disregard of everything they claim.

We must call this out. We must demand reason when nonsense is put forward as justifications for injustice. We must call out bigotry when it is expressed.

We can stand aside no longer. If for no other reason that if we stand aside, then history has shown us that we are next.

The Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri offers us this advice:

“A nation is shaped by the stories its children are told. A nation is sustained by the stories it tells itself. The good stories can liberate its potential, it helps it face the dragons of its evils.”

The story we tell as American Jews can start with the words of George Washington to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island: 

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

[“Letter to the Jews of Newport”, 18 August 1790, Washington Papers, 6]

We remember what it is like to be welcomed as good citizens and so we welcome others, newcomers like us.

Unlike everywhere else we have been, when our history followed the brutal pattern of persecution, pogrom, and expulsion, here we are not outsiders. Yes, we face challenges and anti-Semitism, and yes, we are concerned, but we are truly both American Jews and Jewish Americans - we are part and parcel of the struggle to make the United States both complicated and beautiful, truly “e pluribus unum” - “out of many one”.

After centuries of horror in Europe, after our unsure stance during the Civil War, we here in this country stood up for our fellow citizens. As co-founders of the NAACP, as freedom riders, and as advocates for equal rights, civil rights, and voting rights, we have known when actions were needed, and taken them.

Our story as Jews is an American story, perhaps best expressed by the words of hope spoken by Lincoln in his First Inaugural address, words that still cry out to us today as we attempt to bridge the gaps between us:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

This is a story we can tell to each other, to our children, and to their children.

Ben Okri also wrote that “the true storyteller works with the future.”

We retell and repeat, reinterpret and reimagine, the stories of our Torah, and the stories that become our Torah, to remind us what to do in every age, and in the face of every crisis so that we can build the future.

How will we tell the story of these days?

Were we silent when we should have spoken up?

Were we seated when we should have stood up?

Did we stand idly by as blood was shed?

I may yet be wrong. This may not be the moment of action. I am not advocating we all cross the Peace Bridge never to return. We stayed through the Civil War, and we should stay now. We are needed more than ever.

We must not allow our country to get there.

I believe in us, and I believe in America. America needs us to do more than believe. We must participate. We must vote and get out the vote. We must hold our leaders accountable. We must unite around the principles that make this place a miracle for Jews and so many others.

We cannot wait.

We must make this year a good year so that there can be more good years.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Numbers and Israel and Gaza

Shabbat B’Midbar
May 18-19, 2018 – 5 Sivan 5778
Torah: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22

What a week in Israel – the recognition of a fundamental truth that everyone already knows – that Israel’s Capitol is in Jerusalem – and deadly days on the border with Gaza.

Meanwhile, we read from the opening chapters of the Book of Numbers, reminding us of the need to count people for the sake of fielding a military, and the hazard of viewing people as mere numbers and not unique individuals at the same time. Instead of numbers of people Moses takes a count of names. While we end up with a final tally in numbers, the counting itself was much more personal.

How do we calculate the difficulties that our Israeli family faces?

In a world filled with tyrants and terror, the United Nations Security Council observed a moment of silence for those killed on the Israeli border with Gaza when they threatened another country in an act of war, disguised as an act of protest.

Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, dismantled Israeli Settlements and instead of peace and partnership the Gazans chose war and terror, resulting in blockades and shortages.

Here is an article that offers this struggle from the perspective of an Israeli, by Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-moral-challenge-of-gaza/

I wish I had easy answers for the situation. I ask that all of you join me in learning more. Connect with Israelis, visit Israel, explore our heritage and our homeland. Sit down with Israelis, Jews and Arabs, and listen.

Maybe if we can get beyond the numbers, and recognize the people, the persons, involved, then we can begin to make progress and find hope amid difficulties.

Wishing all of you a good week, and a Shabbat Shalom to come,

Jonathan

The Mind-Body Connection is a Two-Way Street

Shabbat Parashat Tazria-M’tzora
April 20-21, 2018 – 8 Iyar 5778
Torah: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: II Kings 7:3-20

The mind-body connection is a two-way street.

In this week’s two Torah readings we grapple with the issues of unknown diseases that even infect houses. Our ancient ancestors tended to connect behavior with health, without any evidence, and we still do the same thing.

The “positive thinking” movement has many of us believing that if we only have the right attitudes, then our health will follow. (For more on the pitfalls and the history of American ideas of “mind over body” take a look at Barbara Ehrenreich’s fascinating book, Bright-sided: [See Bright-Sided on Amazon]).

I believe that most of us recognize the terrible harm in this idea. When we struggle with our health or our health is good, our outlook and our attitudes are as much affected, if not more, then the degree to which our positive outlooks might influence our physical health.

In other words, we need to remember not to blame our minds, hearts, and souls, for our physical ailments and struggles.

Can we do things with our habits and attitudes to influence our health? Absolutely!

Can we control our health with our minds? Absolutely not.

Let us ever work to inform ourselves with the best teachings from our traditions and current scientific understandings.

Wishing everyone a healthy week, in body and mind, and hoping that the season will soon help improve our moods soon!

Jonathan

Try it! Experimenting is Jewish!

Shabbat Mishpatim

In the middle of receiving numerous and varied mitzvot, commandments, concerning everything from ethics, civics, and even rules about witches – appears one of the most profound statements made by the People of Israel. Here is the full verse:

"Then [Moses] took the account of the covenant and read it in the ears of the people. They said: All that God has spoken, we will do and we will listen!" (Exodus 24:7)

In response to hearing the entirety of all that God demands of us, our ancestors said something like, “We will do it, and then we will hear about it!”

We are a people who, even with all of our focus on learning and education, still understand that “doing” is the thing. Let’s try it. Let’s see how it works. Let’s listen to the responses to what we tried. And then, let’s figure out how we can do better next time.

This attitude of experimentation, trial and error, has served us well for millennia. It allows us to adapt. It allows us to overcome the “my way or the highway” thinking that often makes situations so hard to figure out.

And we know that all of our decisions to act may only work for a little while before we have to revisit, update, and try again.

This is one of the Jewish gifts to the world – let’s experiment, keep our minds open, and see how we can make every day a bit better than the last.

Have a wonderful end to your week and Shabbat Shalom!!

Jonathan

Kvell!

Shabbat B’shalach – Shabbat Shirah
January 26-27, 2018 – 11 Shevat 5778
Torah: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Judges 4:4 – 5:31

God said to Moses: Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Israelites and let-them-march-forward! (Exodus 14:15)

We are eternally the people who kvetch (Yiddish for “complain, whine”).

Miracles done on their behalf never gave our ancient ancestors real faith that Moses and God would get them out of their immediate difficulties. God advised Moses to solve his own issues with the Israelites in the quote above, saying, “Let them take care of it themselves!”

We can do this ourselves, instead of kvetchin, let us kvell instead!

To kvell in Yiddish is literally to “well up” in delight and pride – to joyfully celebrate our blessings.

This week, I am “kvellen” about being a Jew at TBZ. Worshipping, learning, attending to our Torah scrolls, and even mourning, as a member of our Western New York Jewish extended family in the last two weeks all have truly been a “welling up” of connections and meaning, and even joy.

This week I attended the funeral of the mother-in-law of the rabbi who officiated at my Bar Mitzvah. Gathered around to mourn Ida Baumgarten (may her memory be for a blessing), I offered sympathy to a family filled with people I have known and gotten to know over the last three and a half decades. Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman placed his hands on my shoulders, and looked me in the eyes, offering me his blessing, something he had last done on the pulpit of a synagogue in Manhattan in May of 1983.

Thank you, all of you here in Buffalo at Temple Beth Zion and beyond, for welcoming us into the TBZ family and the Jewish Community of Western New York.

May we all find opportunities to kvell this week and every week,

Jonathan

The Story of Dinah is Still Our Story

Shabbat Va-Yishlach
December 1-2, 2017 – 14 Kislev 5778
Torah: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1-21

Now Dinah, Leah's daughter, whom she bore to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land.
And Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her: he took her and lay with her, forcing her.
But his emotions clung to Dinah, Jacob's daughter – he loved the girl, and he spoke to the heart of the girl.
So Shechem said to Hamor his father, saying: Take me this girl as a wife!
(Genesis 34:1-4)

In these days, at this time, our reading of the Torah turns us to “The Rape of Dinah”.

Whatever we want to say about this story, at the heart of it is the power that men arbitrarily assert over women and over other men.

This should be a story of our ancient past. It is in fact still a story of the immediate present.

We can say that the core teaching of Judaism comes from this verse: “A sojourner, you are not to oppress: you yourselves know the feelings of the sojourner, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

We empathetically understand the feelings of those who have been abused by power. Every day we must work ever more diligently to make sure that none feel that oppression.

Wishing everyone a wonderful week and a meaningful Shabbat,

Jonathan

Share our Stories, Heal the World

Shabbat Va-Yeira
November 3-4, 2017 – 15 Cheshvan 5778

Torah: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37

“Indeed, I have known him, in order that he may charge his descendants and his household after him: they shall keep the way of God, to do what is right and just, in order that God may bring upon Abraham what God spoke concerning him.”
(Genesis 18:19)

This pivotal weekly reading comes during another difficult week in our State of New York and our country.

As our hearts go out to our family, friends, and fellow New Yorkers in the wake of yet another act of violence against humanity, I continue to ask: How can I fulfill the promise of doing “what is right and just”?

Hatred and intolerance seem to swirl around us. Scratch the surface and our personal and communal insecurity can quickly turn to anger. I know that I must take my elevated heart rate, my visceral responses, and turn them into expressions of my experiences that others can hear without recoiling.

We must turn our concerns and our worries into stories that connect us to one another. Yesterday, a teacher of reconciliation, Terry Cross, shared this piece of Native American wisdom with the Racial Equity Roundtable: “The shortest distance between two people is a story”.

Our stories are filled with our strivings to do righteously and live justly. Let us figure out a way to share what we’ve lived so that others can view us as companions.

May your week and Shabbat be filled with stories that bring us together,

Jonathan

Give Away the Woes of the World

Kol Nidrei - 10 Tishrei 5778 - Friday, September 21, 2017
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - may we be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life.

A fortuneteller was walking between town fairs. On the road he met an old man driving a noisy cart. The cart-driver stopped and said, “We seem to be heading in the same direction, rest your feet and join me on the wagon.”

The fortuneteller considered the caring eyes of the older man, and said, “Thank you! I have little to spare to pay you for your trouble, and I don’t want to take advantage of your generosity.”

With a smile the driver replied, “Maybe you have something to trade?”

“I can tell your fortune.”

After a pause and a deep look at the fortuneteller, the older man smiled again, and agreed, “Done. A fortune for a ride.”

The fortuneteller gazed deep into the light gray eyes of the stranger and was drawn in, seeing depths and mysteries - he saw no glimmer of the futures that normally came so easily to him.

“I see nothing, no fortune at all. I can’t accept your ride.”

“I have no fortune that you can see, good enough. Join me. You’ve earned your spot.”

They rode together. The hooves of the donkey keeping time with a sound that emerged from inside the wagon.

“That sound, what is it?” asked the fortune-teller.

The old man sighed, “The woes of the world, my friend.”

They made good time and reached the town’s fair. Setting up next to each other, the fortuneteller saw that the old man was a peddler of precious stones. White, pink, blue; brilliant and pale, polished to perfection. The old peddler kindly kissed each stone before placing it into a buyer’s hand.

The fortuneteller saw clearly. Through his clients’ eyes he sampled despair.

The peddler sold amethyst, “a regal stone”, to a mother for her newlywed daughter.

The fortuneteller looked into a young woman’s eyes and saw her heartbreak on the horizon.

The peddler sold fiery opals, “a stone of the heart,” to a young man for his first love.

The fortuneteller looked into a father’s eyes, and saw his loss around the corner.

The peddler sold topaz, a gift to lift a friend’s spirit.

The fortuneteller looked into a well-dressed woman’s eyes, and saw the betrayal before her.

“It’s been a good fair,” the peddler said as he packed his booth. “Let me give you a stone for my future. Perhaps you will see more this time.”

“Why should I see more this time than the last? Why should you lose a stone?”

“I cannot lose a stone. I can only give it away. Which will you take?”

The peddler spread quartz, sapphire, and topaz before the fortuneteller. It was a green tourmaline with striations of anguish that held the teller.

“It is yours,” the peddler said. He kissed the tourmaline and placed it in the fortuneteller’s hand. “Now, what is my fortune?”

The fortuneteller gazed into those kindly grey eyes, seeing depths, mystery, and beyond them only light. “I see no future, only the present,” was all he could say.

“Such a gift you have, to speak the truth. Well worth the stone. Shall we ride to the next fair?”

The teller wondered, “We seem to be going the same way, to the same places, and still I have never seen you.”

“We’ve been traveling different circles,” the peddler said. “My path now seems linked to yours.”

As they rode on, the peddler asked, “How long have you been traveling?”

“Two years now. Two years since my family died.”

The fortuneteller didn’t intend to say so much.

The noise from within the wagon was louder this time, and again the fortuneteller asked, “Such noise back there. What is it?”

“The woes of the world. How did you lose your family?”

In two years, he had never spoken of it.

“In a fire. I was a broker of land. We had a wonderful home. I traveled to close a deal. When I returned, my life was ablaze, my family trapped inside.”

The continued on in silence.

After the next fair, the noise from within the cart was louder than ever. “The woes of the world”, again explained the peddler, and asked, “How did you come to be a teller of fortunes from being a broker of land?”

“The loss of my family opened my eyes. Before I could see only happiness. At weddings I used to rejoice for the bride and the groom. Bur after the loss of my family, I saw not only the happiness, but also the pain and the sorrow. I saw one dying first and the broken heart of the other.

“It used to be when a child was born I would rejoice. But after the loss of my family, I saw the joy the child would give, but also the heartbreak.

“No longer could I see only happiness. I saw the other side as well, and what I saw was what would be. I saw the truth. So I went on the road to speak the truth. My friend, it’s easier to sell stones than to speak the truth. You get repeat customers, I do not.”

The peddler made a turn away from the next town.

“The fair is the other way,” the fortuneteller said.

“We have a stop to make first.”

The wagon climbed the hills into the night. Dark as it was, the peddler did not stop.

Where were they going?

“Here,” the peddler said, answering the unspoken question.

He stopped the wagon, lit a lantern, drew the cover back from the wagon bed. Within was machinery the likes of which the fortuneteller had never seen. A contraption turned by the power of the wagon wheels to do some work within a closed box. The peddler opened the box, removed polished stones, each glowing its unique color in the lantern light. He added them to his inventory, one at a time, each with a kiss and a thank you. “Thank you,” he said to the agate. “Thank you,” he said to the amethyst. “Thank you,” he said to the aquamarine.

When the box was empty, he handed the fortuneteller a shovel, and took a strainer for himself.

“What are we doing?” the fortuneteller asked.

“What is necessary,” the peddler said. He walked to the side of a hill, held out the strainer, and motioned to the fortuneteller. The teller drove his shovel into the side of the hill, the grating of metal against rock echoing into the distance. He struck again and again. Sand and earth sifted through the strainer leaving behind a pile of jagged rocks.

“What are these?” the fortuneteller asked.

“These are beryl and chalcedony, citrine and emerald, garnet and jade. All the precious stones of the world. All exist everywhere at all times if you just know where to look.”

“All I see is rocks.”

“You are a teller of fortunes,” the peddler said. “Look more closely and see again.”

The fortuneteller looked into the rocks and saw - buried within - moonstones. And opals. And turquoise. He saw the tumbling each would endure to allow its beauty to shine. He saw that some would shatter and never emerge, but others would be polished to perfection.

“A stone for my fortune,” the peddler said. In his hand was a shard of rock. The fortuneteller saw within it the stone it would become.

“Why should I be able to see a fortune where I never saw one before?”

“Because you’ve tumbled to this place,” the peddler answered. He kissed the stone, and placed it in the peddler’s hand.

Deep in the eyes of his friend, the fortuneteller looked into the light and saw a man, once in pain, a man who had lost his own family decades before. A man who ever after knew the truth and wandered from place to place until he encountered his own vendor of precious stones. He saw the eyes of a man who had risen from despair to beauty and hope.

“Yes, you see,” the peddler said. “I’ve been waiting for you quite some time. Quite some time. Thank you for receiving my stones. They and the wagon are now yours.” The peddler smiled as he surrendered his burden.

The fortuneteller saw his friend buckle at the knees. He reached for him, embraced him, kissed his cheek as his life expired.

The fortuneteller cried for his friend. He cried for his family. He cried for the woes of the world. He buried his friend by the side of the hill. He said Kaddish, for his friend, and then, at last, for his family.

The rough rocks he put into the box in the wagon bed. As he drove on he heard tumbling behind him all the woes of the world. Ahead was the fair and the customers waiting for polished stones, each stone to be given with a kiss and words of comfort.

This is a story inspired by one of my favorite teachers and mentors, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz [from his book, The Curse of Blessings, “Polished Stones”, pp. 29-37]. I have taken his words, adapted them, rethought them, and tumbled them to make them my own. Mitch tells us to do this with all stories.

On Rosh ha-Shanah we make t’shuvah - we return and make amends.

On Yom Kippur we confess and atone.

The list of our transgressions is long, but we are more than what we have done, We are also our feelings about what we’ve done and what has been done to us.

We are people who have been rumbled and tumbled, sometimes not so kindly, by and through the world.

We focus so much on our guilt. And then our tragedy, anger, and resentment remain in our vision.

We are transgressors.

But we are also heroines and heroes, the protagonists in our stories. It is only natural for us to feel more as if we are wronged than the wrongdoer.

On this day of all days we are more than one thing.

And so are the woes of the world.

The entire world seems to spiral with suffering and misfortune, resentment and alienation. We see tragedies befalling people everywhere, divisions that erupt in our country and in our families, the deep hurts of understandable outcries, the simmering and pent-up resentments, offenses taken, blames assigned. More misfortune than anyone deserves, dragging us deeper each of us into our own isolated selves.

Can we climb out?

We see so clearly all the problems. Can we see the goodness too?

Everyone has suffering, how do we overcome the woes of the world?

We must remember that we are more than either wronged or wrong-doer. We repeat our confessions so many times to remind ourselves that no matter how wronged we feel, no matter how heroic we are, we are all together in doing good and doing wrong.

john a. powell, who writes about the roots of racism, wrote: “We must begin to work for a new set of arrangements that will support a new way of relating, a new way of being.” [Racing to Justice, pages 158-159]. In this he echoes the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, who teaches that only by encountering every person as a fellow teacher, will we truly relate to one another. Both scholars are asking us to remember that we live in a world filled with main characters - each of us is deserving of being a hero in a story that we all share together.

Each of us must recognize that we are not alone in our troubles. That by remembering that we are all wrong-doer’s we can also encounter everyone else as fellow travelers. That by remembering what we can do, what we can give, instead of what can be taken from us, we empower ourselves and overcome our impotence and silent suffering.

Our sages give us a Jewish answer to suffering, to resentment, to the loneliness of a world filled with personal and communal hardship. This answer is simple and difficult: give.

Give until the world feels a little bit more like we hoped it would. Give until we feel a little bit more like the person we hope to be.

Everyone must give tzedakah - no one is too poor to fulfill the obligation of giving to others. We are taught that even the poorest person must still give something. We are taught that giving is for the giver.

When we focus on the action, the doing of something kind, the giving generously, we can begin to cope with the harshness that we cannot solve. Our response to unfairness, from bad fortune or the hurt we feel, instead of turning inward to blame, anger, and resentment, must be turn outward, foster kindness, create sympathy, connect with generosity.

Find something of value, share it with a fellow traveler.

We do not need to find forgiveness for people who have not apologized, and, we must not cope with all the woes of the world by trying to find someone to blame. These are both dead ends.

Easing the weight of trouble must be our goal, not just for other people, but for ourselves. We ease the burden, see past the trouble, when we give.

Giving is for the giver.

May our Yom Kippur be one where we find kindness within ourselves the most valuable thing we each have, in limitless supply, hiding in plain sight, and share it with one another, those in need, all of our fellow travelers.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - may we be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life.

“We are called to live with chutzpah”

Rosh ha-Shanah Morning
1 Tishrei 5778 - Thursday, September 21, 2017
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

Shanah Tovah - a good, and God willing, better New Year for all of us.

Under normal circumstances I would never present something mostly from another source. These are not normal circumstances.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis crafted a united message for us to adapt and offer, to bring to our congregations in One Voice, as a Reform Movement and as Reform Rabbis. The events of the last year demand that we come together as American patriots for the sake of our American Union, and for the sake of the Jewish people.

Here is our “One Voice” message as American Reform Rabbis:

The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One bold medieval commentator taught we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”

Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of our leaders, even when it may be our President, when they fuel hatred and division in our beloved country.

We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Rosh Hashanah is Yom T’ruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar. Its piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears, and especially in these times compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.

We sound the shofar with: T’kiah [a single shofar blast]

This is the Sound of Certainty.

As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations in every accent of America to declare in unison: we will not tolerate acts of hatred, intimidation, and divisiveness. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets, and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. We call on our political leaders; conservatives and progressives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all [men] people are created equal. We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance.

We sound the Shofar with Sh’varim [3 separate shofar blasts].

This is the Sound of Brokenness.

Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. The wound reopened when anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, racist, and homophobic graffiti appeared again, and then again, on the grounds of two of our local elementary schools, Windermere and Maple East - even after we had thought such displays done with last fall.

How much more vandalism, how many clashes, which other cities? We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles.

Let us never grow numb to the brokenness. Let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests and with public calls for healing, yes, and even more by building alliances and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities. Neither silence nor complacency nor waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event are options.

Not for us.

Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unfathomable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward any. Let us fulfill the call of our Psalm, let us strive to:

רֹפְאֵי לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב

“healers of the broken-hearted”

and

מְחַבֵּ֗שִׁים לְעַצְּבֹותָֽם

“binders of their wounds.”

[Psalm 147:3 הָ֭רֹפֵא לִשְׁב֣וּרֵי לֵ֑ב וּ֝מְחַבֵּ֗שׁ לְעַצְּבֹותָֽם]

We sound the shofar with T’ruah [9 short staccato blasts].

This is the Sound of Urgency.

The events of the last few months have been a wake-up call.

Racism is wrong whether or not it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism. The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.” But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, and starkly remind us again: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.

We sound the shofar with T’kiah G’dolah [a long single blast].

This is the sound for the Endless Pursuit of Justice.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity, to fairness for everyone. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in our city and in our country -- in this New Year, and in every year.

 

That was my adaptation of the statement from the CCAR. Not surprisingly, I have a few more things to say.

A few years ago, one of my students attempted to end an argument by saying “That’s just an opinion, not a fact.” He thought that would end any reasonable debate. The rest of the Seventh Grade class supported their peer and lectured me on their rock-solid assertion that there are only two options: “opinions and facts”.

Strange. These were Jewish students - how could any one of them think that merely calling out: “That’s an opinion!” would somehow defeat an argument?

The rest of the class then instructed me about the basic differences between “opinions” and “facts” and the clarification that everything seemed to fall into these two categories and they were quite sure of this because they had all successfully passed the tests on these topics as taught in their schools according to the National Common Core curriculum.

Googling “fact and opinion common core” leads to links and lesson plans, including a summary for Sixth Graders that talks about facts, which can be proven true, opinions, which as they are a person’s feelings or views, cannot be proven true, and reasoned judgments, which are a mix of the two. The students didn’t remember the bit about “reasoned judgments”. It is easier to retain the “either-or” proposition so they got opinion vs. fact, and left out the interesting middle of “reasoned judgments”.

I then asked the students about laws - were they facts of opinions? They thought about it, and then quickly agreed that, since they were made up by people, laws must be opinions.

“What about ‘Thou shall not murder’?” I asked.

This got them talking about the middle ground - the area between facts and opinions, and the students eagerly embraced a more complicated understanding of things.

The really interesting thing about all of this is the way the students forgot all about the alternative to the easier view - the “reasoned judgment” fell away in face of a convincing “fact vs. opinion” alternative.

Psychologically, we have an intuitive preference for an easy answer. If we can find an easier story to explain everything, that’s preferable to a more difficult explanation, even if the easy story ends up being inaccurate, or even wrong.

Our minds have an intuitive preference for easy solutions and will even come up with a false answer to avoid working on the longer, more complicated, question. I am beginning to believe that all of us, all of American society, have fallen into this way of thinking.

I think this may be one of the difficulties of the past year that inspired Reform rabbis to offer today’s message in One Voice.

Here’s a big part of it.

We start with the idea that anything I say is an opinion. If I say it, it’s my perspective, it’s an opinion. Notice how stuck we become here. As soon as I say it, somehow it is no longer a fact. It can be challenged as an opinion.

Even when we admit the middle ground, the reasoned judgement that those Seventh Graders had forgotten, there are still opinions in there. If there’s an opinion we can cast doubt on the whole thing. After all, it’s only an opinion, and everyone has one.

Everyone has an opinion, and there are no facts.

If there are no facts, then what happened to truth?

Think about this.

It is terrifying.

In some ways, this is worse than the big lie.

This undermines the very idea that we have common ground, that there is truth that we can all agree about. If nothing is true, then we can never even have a real conversation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” - Thomas Jefferson understood with these words that only when we agree on certain shared ideals can we then go ahead and discuss the details of how we will put them into place together.

In order to make progress, in order to work together, we have to agree to common ground. We must accept that there is some idea, some assumption, some basic framework that all of us can agree is true.

As Jews we will argue the very nature of truth. What we can often agree about is that when we say “true”, what we may really mean is “too important to ignore”. And that the start of the discussion, the very foundation of why we care about each other’s truths, is that we see each and every one of us as potential speakers of truth. The Talmud teaches that respectful disagreement is useful, even more than that, it is a holy cause, literally, “l’sheim Shamayim”, for the sake of Heaven.

It’s why I reacted so strongly to the idea that an argument could be defeated by calling it “just an opinion”. I am my opinions. The good ones, the well-thought out ones, the less-thought out impassioned wrong ones, all of them. My truth is in my opinions.

We have majority and minority opinions in Judaism, like the U. S. Supreme Court. We know how to share an opinion, argue an opinion, and give ground when a better idea comes along. This is what we have to offer our fellow Americans.

We American Jews have a mission - we must bring our respect for each other’s opinions, for our individual truths, back to the public conversation about who we are as Americans.

We are experts at living with and learning from people with whom we disagree.

In a beautiful collection of stories, Rabbi Goldie Milgram teaches that “we stretch each other with our differences”, and continued:

“Loving our tradition while wrestling with it through changing times is how the Jewish people has continually functioned - as a research and development team on behalf of the Jewish and human future in every generation.” [Mitzvah Stories, page 5]

On of our most important contributions to American civilization must be the reawakening of real discussions about issues. We know how to acknowledge a good idea, and give ground when it comes from someone else, even from someone with whom we have historically disagreed.

On this holy day, on Rosh ha-Shanah, we encounter one a central question of Jewish civilization: the idea of sacrifice. What does it mean to give up something that we value? Whatever we feel about Abraham and Isaac, we learn from Abraham and from the rest of our Torah, the importance of giving something up for our community - to sacrifice for the greater good.

For me this includes a Jewish idea about a most difficult sacrifice - giving up my own belief that I am correct.

The key to progress everywhere may be accepting that we must occasionally, even often, retreat from the place where we are always correct, as one of sages of modern Israeli poetry, Yehuda Amichai wrote [The Place Where We Are Right]:

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a courtyard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

Some of you may come to me, later today, tomorrow, or next year, and share your concerns with me about what I have said today. Please continue to trust me with your heartfelt and deeply concerned disagreement with me. Please don’t hesitate. I am so honored by your trust, especially when we disagree.

The Talmud says that “Chutzpah is effective, even towards Heaven” (BT Sanhedrin 105a).

We are called to live with chutzpah. 

We must be bold in the face of injustice, and bold in the face of authority.

We must even be bolder in the face of our own convictions. When we look inside and with chutzpah say, “You know, they may be right, and I may be wrong?”, then we may plant the seeds for a better year, and a better future, for us all.

Shanah Tovah!

Sacrifice, Creation, Instruction - Shalom to 5777 and 5778

Rosh ha-Shanah, September 20-22, 2017 – 1-2 Tishrei 5778

Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return - September 22-23, 2017 – 3 Tishrei 5778

Parashat Ha-azinu
Torah: Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10

As we enter the New Year, 5778, we celebrate and learn with three important stories:

-       the Binding of Isaac on the First Day of Rosh ha-Shanah at Temple Beth Zion, both at 805 Delaware Ave., and at Becker Farms;

-       the story of Creation from the opening of Genesis on the Second Day of Rosh ha-Shanah – I will join Congregation Beth Abraham to talk about this on Friday morning;

-       and the powerful final poem of Moses in Deuteronomy – Rabbi Scheldt will lead study and worship for this beautiful text for the Shabbat between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, on Friday evening and Saturday morning.

Sacrifice and Creation, Instructions and Farewells – we find in these readings an abundance of themes as we reflect on the year gone by, and look forward with hope to the year to come.

In order to make the coming year a better one, filled with greater reverence for all aspects of Creation, what will we give up? Conservation of Energy and conventional wisdom agree, there is no free ride, we cannot get something from nothing – what will we sacrifice to make things improve in the year to come?

As we say goodbye to the things we leave behind, let us embrace good Instructions, good “Torah”, about what we build next.

May our thought and attention be applied to the creation of sound and supple structures.

May we find ways to balance our needs and desires as we work together to change things for the better.

Wishing everyone safety, comfort, and inspiration as we enter the New Year.

Torah and Action

For the Shabbat of September 15-16, 2017 – 25 Elul 5777
Parashat Nitzavim - VaYeilech
Torah: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

I call as witness against you today the heavens and the earth: life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; now choose life, in order that you may live better… (Deuteronomy 30:19)

As we finish reading Deuteronomy, we also come to the end of the Jewish year and enter into our Days of Awe, Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.

This is when we attempt to figure out how to better “choose life” for the year to come.

Let us choose life for those in need.

As our worries about the lives of our family, friends, and fellow citizens, in the paths of Harvey and Irma subside, let us contribute to help those whose livelihood and homes have been drastically impacted.

TBZ is collecting gift cards to send to our Jewish communities affected –Home Depot, Target, Walmart, and local grocery stores (H-E-B and Kroger in Texas, Publix and Kroger in Florida) – please send or drop any cards with Becky. We will send them to the local Federations in the impacted areas.

There will be a mission to volunteer our assistance in person in November – we will pass along details as they emerge.

Let us choose life for our community.

Joining together for the High Holy Days helps energize us and our connections with our extended Jewish Family. Please check out this video about the URJ Biennial. December 6-10 in Boston will be the biggest gathering of Jews in North America, and the most exciting way to find Jewish inspiration in the New Year.

I hope that all of you will join us in helping those in need, gathering for our High Holy Days, and making the trip to Boston for the Biennial.

Wishing safety, comfort, and inspiration as we enter the New Year,

Jonathan