Talk to Strangers

Rosh HaShanah Morning - 1 Tishrei 5777 - Monday, October 3, 2016
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

L’Shanah Tovah! A good New Year to all of you.

Here is a translation of the Binding of Isaac, which we have already heard beautifully chanted in Hebrew today.

God tested Abraham.
God called to Abraham saying: Abraham!
Abraham said: Here I am!
God said: Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac.
Go forth to the Land of Moriah, and take him up there for an offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.
Abraham got up early the next morning and loaded up a donkey with all that he needed for the offering. 
He took two servants with him, and Isaac, and departed for the place that God talked about.
Three days later Abraham saw the place from far away and told the servants to stay there with the donkey while he and his son would go up, make an offering, and then both return.
Isaac said to Abraham his father: Father!
Abraham said: Here I am, my son.
Isaac said: here is the fire and the wood, where is the lamb for the offering?
Abraham said: God will see to the lamb for the offering.
Then the two of them went on together.
They came to the place that God had spoken about.
Abraham built the altar, arranged the wood, and bound Isaac his son, and placed him on top of the wood.
Abraham stretched out his hand, he took his knife to slay his son.
But God’s messenger called out from heaven and said, Abraham, Abraham!
He said: Here I am!
He said: Do not lay a hand on the young man, do not do anything to him!
For now I know that you are in awe of God. You did not withhold your son, your only one, from me.
Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw: here was a ram caught in the thicket by its horns.
Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as an offering in place of his son.

Like many of you, I am troubled by this story. We read this every year on Rosh haShanah.

Why? Shouldn’t we be reading the opening chapters of Genesis, the story of the Creation of the World as a way to celebrate the birthday of the world?

Many years ago a congregant explained this to me. We Jews keep the stories that raise questions. We need stories that make us think. And so instead of the story of Creation, we read the Binding of Isaac, which forces us to ask this central question, “What was Abraham’s test?”

We ask this question on Rosh haShanah because how we answer it determines how we see God, religion, parenting - the sum total of Judaism in one single question.

Traditionally, we are told that this was a test of Abraham’s faith - will he blindly do what God told him to do?

I refuse to accept that God wanted to see if Abraham was willing to kill his son.

I refuse to accept that the point of the story is proving that we are willing to do something abominable in the name of God.

If this is not the test, then what is it instead?

I just finished Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, Here I Am. He focuses on the idea that when we call out to one another, we should follow the example of Abraham and say, “Here I am”. Abraham had to pass the test of being present.

Think about that.

Someone calls our name, doesn’t have to be God, can be a friend, a child, a spouse, a co-worker. What is our initial response?

How often do we look up from the thing we are doing and say, “Yes?” “What can I do for you?” Or sometimes more brusquely, “What do you want?”

What happens if instead, the next time someone calls our name, we say or fulfill the idea of, “Here I am.”

“Here I am” - to listen to you, to see you, to be here for you, to be present and not multi-task while talking to you.

The test that Abraham faced was how could he be truly present for God and Isaac his son. God called Abraham and Abraham responded: “Here I am”.

God’s request was terrifying and made no sense but Abraham felt that he had to follow it through - he was present for God.

Isaac interrupted their journey, called out to his father, and Abraham again responded: “Here I am”.

Isaac asked, reasonably, for clarification, “Where is the lamb?” Abraham had to be there for his son too, and placed his hopes and faith in it all working out in the end by saying, “God will see to the offering”.

And finally, on the top of the mountain, with the knife in his hand, Abraham has to be present for both God and his son Isaac. When he responds to God’s messenger “Here I am!”, Abraham is able to see the ram, and see his way to being there for both God and Isaac.

At no point in this narrative did Abraham respond to these interruptions with anything but his fullest self. The Torah doesn’t portray our ancestor as impatient or bothered by either his son or God in those moments.

Abraham offered full attention. “Here I am! Ready to listen to you with my full being.” Abraham was present and attentive to Isaac and to God. Abraham never turned away from facing the people who demanded his attention.

Abraham passed the test of full attention. He showed up fully, and, so what? We are still left asking: What kind of God asks this? What kind of father considered it?

We are not the only ones who ask, and asking is an age-old Jewish practice.

In the Middle Ages, Rabbi David Kimchi wrote that Abraham should have heard God say about Isaac: “take him up for an offering event” instead of “take him up and offer him”. The test is one of listening comprehension - can Abraham accurately understand what God is asking of him?

This is the rest of Rabbi Kimchi’s interpretation of the story.

Abraham originally misunderstood God and set out to take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice.

As he got closer to the event, Abraham had his doubts. Isaac asked Abraham along the way, “Here is the fire and the wood, where is the lamb for the offering?” Even though Abraham may not have thought through what would happen, he responded with a true vision of the future: “God will see to the lamb for the offering.”. This is what would eventually happen!

We can imagine Abraham’s distraction as he planned this terrible act. Abraham faced the horror, and went on with only those thoughts in his mind. He didn't even notice the ram that was already there caught in the thicket by its horns. It was that moment with the knife over Isaac, when Abraham hesitated and heard God’s voice saying, “Do not lay a hand on the young man, do not do anything to him!” In that moment he raised up his eyes and saw the ram.

In that instant Abraham understood God’s real message. Abraham understood the wrongness of what he thought he had heard, and allowed himself to learn what God had originally asked him.

Abraham becomes a model for learning to do better, as opposed to a parent applauded for his willingness to murder his son. Abraham is a model of growth. He starts out misunderstanding God’s demand, along the way he hears his son’s protest, and at the end, he stops himself from committing a calamity.

Meanwhile, we also redeem God through this reading. God is no longer a malicious deity trying to gauge Abraham’s devotion by asking him to do something vile. Even in the face of not being understood, God gave Abraham more opportunities to do the right thing. Rather than shame Abraham as a murderer, God offered him an explanation that allowed Abraham to learn and grow. God didn’t say: Abraham, your barbarian, you misunderstood me! God said, “Now I know that you are so in awe of me, you will run and do something that I never intended”.

When someone has power over us, we may listen too closely and hear things that weren’t in the message.

Listening requires more than hearing, and learning requires more than following the directions. We need to look more deeply for real communication.

One of the most central prayers in Judaism is Sh’ma: Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. After that opening line we continue with the paragraphs that start with “V’ahavtah” - You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your spirit, with all your being”. 

“Listening” closely was the lesson of Abraham, the first part of Sh’ma - “Listen up Israel!”

When Abraham paid attention he learned. The learning took place because Abraham also fulfilled the idea of the second part of Sh’ma - he listened, he loved, and he allowed what he heard and who he loved to change him.

Rabbi Zusya was the greatest and most righteous scholar of his time and he lay upon his deathbed, surrounded by his students and family. Rabbi Zusya looked around at all of them, and then began to cry. His wisest student asked him, “Master, why are you sad? You have lived a full life, touched so many lives, made such a difference, you have been like Moses to all of us.”

Zusya patted the extended hand of his student, reassuringly, and said, “That’s exactly what worries me. When I am judged at last, I will not be asked, ‘Were you as good as Moses?’ I will be asked, ‘Were you a good Zusya?’”

Zusya’s challenge was to be fully present at his death - not only for his loved ones and students who tell him how wonderful he is, but most importantly for himself.

How often do we turn away? How often do we let that moment that demands our attention pass?

Zusya’s question, “Am I a good Zusya?”, is our question during these holy days. Can I be the best even when faced with the worst? Can I show up for the demands of myself, my family, my community, my world, and be changed by them?

On this day when we celebrate the creation of everything, when the Shofar sounds to awaken us to our place in creation, our memory of who we are, and our task to make it all better, we must devote our full attention to being present, in the moment, no matter how difficult. We must allow ourselves to be changed and learn.

We have to be like Zusya when he worked to be present for himself. We have to be like Abraham when he allowed love to transform him. Self, parents, children, siblings, friends - we know that we need to do this in our close circle.

I am asking us to take this a step further and admit that we live in a world shared by one family - that we are all related and that if we follow the fundamental teachings of Judaism, that we are all created in God’s image and likeness, then we must aim to include everyone we meet in that close circle. We must be present for every person we meet.

Hard as this may seem, this is our task, we must save the world by being present and learning from everyone around us: one thought, one feeling, one conversation, one encounter, one relationship at a time.

We must overcome one of the first lessons we learned as children going out into the world - we must talk to strangers.

We must overcome our fears and reach out and be present for the person we will meet when we leave here today.

We get to be good people when we work on our relationships and when we reach out to the stranger. The stranger is the friendly person at the supermarket and the person whose presence makes us so uncomfortable that we normally ignore them.

We must be the people who break down the barrier between us and them.

This may be our mission, to be a light unto the nations as the smallest nation willing to reach out to everyone else.

The central message of the Torah is “Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt”.

We know what it is like to be oppressed, and even if we don’t remember it ourselves, we remind each other of it every year at the Passover Seder.

When our prayers remind us to “Hear O Israel!” and “Love God!” we must show up, pay attention, and be transformed by our love.

Say, “Here I am.”

Talk to strangers.

Our love and attention transforms the world.

L’shanah tovah.

A call for real unity from Ezekiel

The Haftarah today, the reading from Ezekiel, provided some food for thought. Early on, when Ezekiel asks for unity in the bringing together of the different staves, or even trees of the tribes, he wrote:

37:17 Bring them close to each other, so that they will become one staff, and they will be one in your hand.

The word “one” for “one in your hand” here is plural, which seemed odd, since the intent of the prophet was to create a unity out of many.

This gets more interesting when compared to the way Ezekiel reports God talking about this unity a few verses later:

37:19 (excerpts) “Thus said God, here I take the staff of Joseph…and of the tribes of Israel, his companions, and place them upon the staff of Judah, and make them into one staff, they will be one in my hand.”

Here, in God’s voice, the “one in my hand” is singular.

This offers us a beautiful teaching on the idea of pluralism and unity. From our perspective, as humans who are in the middle of trying to come together around difficult issues, any consensus, any unity, will be a coming together of many ideas, a compromise of sorts. Often this will feel incredibly frustrating as the give and take to create a common ground among many differing viewpoints can be totally exhausting. And yet, there is a greater purpose afoot.

From the top down perspective, a “God’s eye view” as it were, our unity really means one-ness. We can easily get lost in the notion that common ground still leaves us a good distance from each other - we may be stuck in our singular perspective at that point - we are merely a “one” among many “ones”. And still, when we take a step back, or take a deep breath and raise ourselves above the immediate give and take, we can see the unity of the community that has come together around a common cause.

Creation Starts With Brokenness

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5776
Sunday, September 13, 2015
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

    I actually began to think about this talk in the Spring, when I heard a podcast by one of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, called “Kabbalah and the Big Bang”. When I looked at talk I had written, inspired by Rabbi Artson, I was crushed. I had put together a science lecture, not a sermon. In order to get to this talk, I had to break what I had written to begin with. And it turned out that in doing this, I also found the central message for tonight - that brokenness is the start of creation. Brokenness is not a problem, it is the beginning.

    Which makes sense, since on Rosh HaShanah we celebrate the beginning of everything. Here’s the scientific part, so bear with me a bit. We start with a question:

    “How big was the Big Bang?”

    In 1964, two physicists, Alpher and Herman, who had already come up with an answer to this question, also figured out that the Big Bang was so big, that it would have left a faint residue, an after-glow, that could still be detected today, fourteen billion years after the original explosion. Being scientists they called this after-effect something official sounding: “Cosmic Background Radiation”, and calculated exactly how intense it is right now.

    Around the same time Bell Labs in New Jersey built the Horn Antenna, which was the largest of its type - it would listen farther into the universe with greater accuracy and sensitivity than ever before. As the lab started using this antenna, no matter what they did, they couldn’t get rid of some background noise, a hum that made the researchers think their new antenna wasn’t quite right. They cleaned it, chased off any birds or animals that might be soiling the surface, rewired it, and they still couldn’t get rid of that hum.

    Eventually, these technicians at Bell Labs complained about this persistent noise that they couldn’t get rid of, and Alpher and Herman heard about it. They drove up to the lab from Princeton, tested the frequency of this hum, and found that the persistent noise exactly matched their calculations of the current intensity of the Cosmic Background Radiation, that echo of the Big Bang. In other words, entirely by coincidence, the Bell Labs people developed the means by which they could actually hear what the Big Bang still sounded like, fourteen billion years later.

    Now, here’s the really interesting part - this sound, this original echo of the Big Bang, was the same everywhere. No matter where they pointed the antenna the same, steady, constant sound could be heard. What’s weird about this is that we don’t live in a universe that makes a steady, constant, sound. Our universe is incredibly varied, with different types of matter and energy and lots of space in between it all. It looks different, and sounds different, everywhere.

    This is a problem. The original thing that exploded out - the reality that came out of the Big Bang - exploded outward with perfect consistency. One big uniform ball of energy, matter, and space, without any variations. That’s what they heard and proved from the evenness of the sound of the explosion detected at Bell Labs. So, when did that big ball of consistent and unvaried everything turn into the beginnings of the very uneven universe that we recognize today?

    We don’t find out until 1989, when a research satellite detected faint ripples of intensity in this Cosmic Background Radiation - variations in the constant noise that is that echo of the Big Bang. These faint ripples showed the first appearances of areas where matter came together unevenly, leaving other places where things were spread thin, creating the variations in everything that would become galaxies, stars, solar systems, and planets. These faint echoes picked up within the background noise didn’t occur until 300,000 years after the Big Bang.

    Sir Roger Penrose, a physicist who works with Stephen Hawking, said: “From the view of modern physics the entire world can be seen as the manifestation of a broken symmetry. If the symmetries of nature were actually perfect we would not exist.” Symmetry, that evenness, orderliness, and sameness in all places, prevented the creation of anything at all. When the universe became irregular, matter and energy came together and became galaxies and stars, eventually creating us. All of this depended on a break in the evenness in which everything began.

    George Smoot, a researcher who helped discover this irregularity, said: “If you’re religious, it’s like looking at God.”

    All of this research happened decades after the Big Bang Theory was proven.

    In 1929 Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding, and then figured out exactly how long it has been expanding, leading to the proof for the Big Bang as a description of creation. In all the science about the Big Bang there is a point in time, near the moment of explosion, before which physicists cannot understand anything because nothing works in that space and time according to any rules anybody can figure out. When we look backward into time around the Big Bang we run up against a wall of mystery, a thing called a singularity, before which, nothing can be known.

    This barrier of knowledge is so serious that Penrose, that brilliant physicist, wrote: “Space-time singularities are regions where our understanding of physics has reached its limits. If one is trying to be scientific, it is understanding that appeals, and here, at the singularity, you just have to give up.”

    From a scientific point of view then, the story of creation sounds like this: a point of infinite density, a singularity, which we can’t even begin to understand, exploded, also for no reason that anyone can ever understand. Exploding outward evenly, that ball of everything got big enough and cool enough over a long time, three hundred thousand years after the original explosion, so that irregularities emerged in the unvaried state of everything, allowing clumps to form, and gather together, into the beginnings of what things look like today.

    Here is how we normally begin the Jewish story of Creation, and we’re going to look at it almost word-for-word:

Gen. 1:1 At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, 
2 when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters- 
3 God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
4 God saw the light: that it was good…

Later, after two days of creation, the Torah continues:

Gen. 1:14 God said: Let there be lights in the dome of the heavens, to separate the day from the night…

And then we hear all the details of the creation of the sun and the moon and the stars. What happened to the light from Day One?

    The Book of Genesis describes three days of creation, including the creation of Light, and “and there was evening, and there was morning, Day One”, then Day Two then Day Three. After that, on the Fourth Day we get the sun and the moon as if there were not already light. We could focus on this as an inconsistency, an error in an old story, or even a reason to dismiss Torah entirely.

    A Jewish way of reading says that this apparent inconsistency hints at a deeper truth, that we have to read between the lines and the letters. We use this as an opportunity to tell a story behind the story. This is when we create midrash, and imagine answers to questions in the text. The text is not broken, it is demanding interpretation.

    We can answer the question, “What happened to the Light of the First Day of Creation?” by retelling the story of creation from God’s perspective.

    Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, a Jewish scholar of the Bible and teacher at Pardes in Jerusalem, observed that all motivation comes from needing something - we notice something is missing and we work to fill the absence. From this perspective, Jewish mysticism suggested that God began to create because God did not want to be alone. God was lonely and wanted to fix it. Later in Genesis, God expressed this sentiment by sympathizing with Adam’s loneliness. God says: “It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make him a helper corresponding to him” (Genesis 2:18).

    God was everything and everywhere, infinite, and alone. In Jewish tradition, God the infinite is entirely unknowable. According to the Zohar, the unknowable infinite God decided to become smaller in order to create and share reality with some company. God shrunk into an infinitely tiny point, and from that point, poured divine energy back into the empty space that God had left so that there would be room for creation. When God starts sending divine power into the world, that is the first creation of light, and it is the light of God’s unfiltered raw creative essence. God forced all that power into spaces, newly created vessels that were no longer made of God. These vessels couldn’t contain God’s energy, and they shattered, spreading shards containing the bits of the essence of God throughout the universe.

    Instead of a tragedy at the beginning of time, this enabled God to be present in all Creation as slivers, remnants that we uncover when we create, when we work together for a higher purpose, when we participate in repair of the universe.

    The shattering of the vessels explains where the original light went and why God needed to create smaller sources of light, the sun, moon, and stars, later in the creation story.

    A Late Medieval mystic, Menachem Azaria of Fano explained this need for things to break in order to create, in this way: “Just as the seed cannot grow to perfection as long as it maintains its original form, growth coming only through [the breaking of its shell]. So [creation] could not become whole as long as [it] maintained [its] original form, but only by shattering.”

    What makes a seed grow is that it breaks open. The breaking of the seed’s shell is the beginning of the growth of the plant. This allows a root to emerge from the seed into the soil and stretch towards the sun. An intact seed, one that never breaks open, will never grow.

    Our universe, like a successful seed, broke, and thus grew. It had to be broken, it had to have irregularities, in order for creation to happen and our familiar world to emerge.

    The mystical version says we are created in the divine image because everything is from God. Everything is filled with the shards of God.


    Two parallel stories. Unknowable infinite points burst into reality spontaneously, meaning we have no idea why it happened, creating all that exists in the process, and only became recognizable as something like our world when wrinkles of brokenness, errors, entered into what was originally a flawless expression of power and energy. The brokenness in the stories is not a problem, rather it is the reason that everything can exist.

    We are the stuff thrown out from flaws that entered into the original explosions that created time and space. We developed the mindfulness, the awareness, to understand that we are made of that stuff from the stars. The mistakes in God’s perfection are us, and we evolved into souls who can look out and up at each other and the world and offer praise for the mystery at the core of everything. The story that we use to explain our Jewish texts helps bring meaning to the science that we use to describe the world.

    We need both versions. I know that the medieval Jewish Kabbalists did not come up with the Big Bang Theory. These are two separate stories. We need them both because the poetry and power of the mystical narrative that places us in relationship with the source of all things helps us find the ethics and the meaning in the poetry and power of the scientific narrative that shows that we are made of the same stuff as all things. No matter how amazing the work of Newton and Einstein and Hawking and their students and colleagues, taking the implications of their teachings and communicating them to the world in a way that emphasizes the behavior that responsible people might aim for, still remains the work of those of us outside the labs and observatories. We must take these insights about the way things work and transform them into inspirations that help all of us work together, better.

    At the heart of all of this lies the connection between creation and being broken. At this time of year, and on this day celebrating creation, when we turn towards the image of God as sovereign of all the universe, who brings order and crafted beautiful stable substances out of the tohu va’vohu, the “wild and waste” of early Genesis, we might get disheartened, thinking, “It took God to bring order. So much of my life feels broken. I can’t do what God did, I can’t do anything to fix it”.

    When we look at these two stories we realize that brokenness is not a problem, it is the beginning. Nothing begins from a sense of completion. All our motivations come from our recognition that we must do something to fix things.

    We are not the only people to think this way either.

    Japanese culture has the concept of Kintsugi, which is the art of repairingbroken pottery with a lacquer dusted in precious metals. The method, which results in beautiful pieces like this one,

is supported by a philosophy that treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

    Everyone of us is broken. We all bear scars, some internal and some external. We are all broken vessels containing shards of the divine. We all bear the history of our difficulties, our conflicts, our struggles. We do this as individuals and we do this as the people Israel. Israel is the name we bear from Jacob who earned it by struggling with an angel and walking with a limp from that experience for the rest of his life.

    From each moment and encounter of breaking we can create. We are the seeds that grow from broken shells. We bear the elements of broken stars that exploded and spread through the galaxy billions of years ago. We see with reason, feel with poetry, and bring them together to build a better whole. We are the remnants of shattered vessels from which we gain the strength and inspiration to participate in the completion of all creation. We can become the partners that God sought by helping alleviate loneliness around us.

    On this birthday of the world, as we celebrate the creation of all things, let us remember that everything starts by being broken. Our brokenness is part of the universe, part of God, and it is our strength for entering the year to come as a partner in Creation.



Please listen to the entirety of Rabbi Artson’s talk here: - his work was the Genesis of almost all of this talk, and the source of any unannotated quotes as well.

Biblical translations from Genesis adapted from Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses, (Schocken - 2000)

Aviva Gottleib Zornberg's particular insight herein comes from this book, The Beginnings of Desire, (Schocken - 2011), particularly the chapter on Lech L’cha.

The Israel Season – Joy with Depth

The Jewish Spring brings opportunities for reflection and celebration. Starting with Passover, the big splash of home holiday and ritual requirements we then move into Omer Counting, Holocaust Remembrance, Israeli Memorial and Independence Days, an Israeli bonfire and cook-out day on the 33rd of the Omer, and at last Shavuot, the celebration of our covenant. 

This week we commemorate and celebrate in two amazing days – Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day – Yom Ha-Zikaron and Yom Ha-Atzmaut – joined together as one two-day event. The first day solemn, and then a switch gets flipped at sundown and Israel goes into national party mode.

What a great lesson this is – make sure to see the price of our freedom paid in the lives of our loved ones and ancestors before celebrating with abandon.

In this way Israelis embrace some deeply rooted Jewish ideas about celebrating without ignoring the world in which we celebrate. Even Jewish weddings include a glass-breaking moment so that one of our most beautiful celebrations contains a reminder that the broken world will still need our attention after the party ends. 

Reflect and be merry – find joy and remember things that make our celebrations possible.

Happy Spring, Israeli Style!

The Joy of the Jewish Year

Temple Beth El, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775, Wednesday, September 24, 2014

We are a wilderness people – our covenant was crafted at Sinai, a mountain in the desert, and our sense of peoplehood has been sculpted by years of homelessness. Most of our history has led us away from home, often as refugees.

We are a people who worry about our security.

We tell stories of our loved ones who keep bags packed, just in case. We worry if we have enough, or if we do enough – for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for the world.

And now, in the face of all of our concerns, I am going to ask us to do something differently. I would like us to celebrate Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, as a real holiday of joy.

Even more than that, I will suggest that this season that leads to Rosh HaShanah, and emerges from it, can be one focused on bringing more celebration into our lives.

Now, I realize that this may be a tall order. The Jewish New Year is not a typical celebration. We don’t pop any bottles of champagne, and we have no festive countdown.

In fact, our encounters with Judaism at this season of Days of Awe can seem grim. Apologies, confessions, the lifting of our vows from the past year, God as merciful ruler accepting our transgressing selves back into God’s favor after prayer and fasting – a little apples and honey and the sounding of the shofar hardly make up for all of these serious and somber themes.

And who could blame us?

Our calendar feels like we go from tragedy to tragedy – we jest that the general Jewish holiday can be described most succinctly as: “They tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat.”

With all of our running and fleeing, and then thriving, we always hope, that for just a little while, we may have finally reached a place of safety. Maybe this time we won’t have to pack up our families. Maybe this time we are proven to be too nervous when we always have our passports up to date.

Let’s admit that while our tradition insists on calling this a celebration – this New Year’s Party that we have all shown up to this evening – this Rosh HaShanah – we have resisted its call to be joyful. A couple of millennia of homelessness, some truly unspeakable centuries of oppression, and then the last decades of unbelievable turnaround, about which we feel admittedly a little guilty – this history has led us to experience this holy day as darker than it was originally intended.

Embracing this Jewish journey is all about finding the little sources of joy around us. We Jewish people have been coping with our sense of permanent exile for two thousand years, during which we have created a whole year’s worth of holidays and countless daily and personal practices that are meant to offer us ways of emphasizing the rhythm between a low point and a high point. We descendants of Israel who grapple with loss on the scale of generations and continents must also figure out how to highlight the good times.

Let’s start with the basics – our lives and the world are miraculous. Jewish tradition as represented by the great Nachmanides reminds us that we must not rely on miracles in our everyday life, and we must acknowledge that we are constantly surrounded by the miraculous.

We are the people who notice small miracles in the littlest of things. We must be. How else could we have survived the last two thousand years with a sense of hope that things will turn out better? When we look closely at the world, we can immerse ourselves in an ocean of reasons to wonder.

To look at the world through thoughtful, Jewish eyes, is to stare with awe and gratitude, and indeed joy, at creation.

To awaken to the morning in a Jewish manner is to begin with words of thanks.

I aim to follow a rhythm of life that brings little pieces of joy into my consciousness every day. Each morning I gather our family together to sing the Hebrew words of gratitude, the song Modeh Ani, as a way of starting the day with thanks. Some days it works really well. Last week all four of us were up in time to gather together. Ginny, Jude, our seven-year-old, and I sang our morning song, and Sadie, our almost ten-month old, crawled from Ginny’s lap towards Jude and me, adding her voice to our song. We were all singing, in our own way, and definitely feeling grateful.

It was wondrous. Even though the morning still had its struggles, the memory of those moments of grace is still sustaining a week later.

Many of you may have noticed that I share my regular runs via social media.

Let me tell you, I do not have an easy time dragging myself out for a run in the morning: no matter how good it is for me, no matter how much better I will feel about life, the universe, and everything, afterwards.

So I make sure that I get my mind into a grateful place when I am done. I am grateful that I managed to do it. I am grateful that Ginny took care of Sadie while I was gone. And then I am grateful no matter what my times and distances were. Maybe I was supposed to run ten miles and I only had time for six – doesn’t matter! I got to run, and that was a blessing, even a source of joy.

All of this reminds us that Jewish traditions ask us to act in a way that we may not feel, so as to create the emotion we hope to have. Judaism recognizes that the mind-body connection works both ways – when we force ourselves to do something we create some momentum towards feeling differently too. Even more simply, it is a life-practice of “fake it ‘til you make it”. The system of Jewish practices, applied, experimented on, reinterpreted, and reapplied in our own lives and in our own ways aims to help us find regular moments of little joy.

Some days I can’t fake it so well. Some days I am too, whatever, and usually the ones who suffer the most are those closest to me. On those days we can take a little advice from a non-Jewish thinker, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, who talks about non-toothache days.

Non-toothache days. We must always be grateful that today is a non-toothache day.

Happiness is enjoying what we have.

We try to see the small miracle even when a whole host of things cloud our vision of the wonder of the normal.

As we find our own ways to acknowledge and celebrate all of those daily blessings, so we can find high points in our weeks and seasons.

We are a people who come together regularly to enjoy a good nosh, and a little prayer service.

Every week we have an excuse to create “delight” – to practice Shabbat is to remember to find some joy at least once a week. Think of Shabbat as a reminder that if the week has dragged us down, sapped our “fake it ‘til we make it” batteries, that we have an excuse to recharge our celebratory engines. When we accept Shabbat as an opportunity for that stop, that necessary break, then we can embrace it as joyful.

Shabbat happens when we make it happen. In our household, some weeks we get to make Shabbat at 3:30 on Friday afternoon. My break in the week happens on Thursday, or on Saturday night, or for an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon, maybe, if I’m lucky during a Panthers game.

Find a time, make Shabbat – when we can.

It definitely works better when we do it with our family and with our community at the time when we all try to make Shabbat.

Let’s aim to find the time, once a week, to inject a little “delight” into our lives, and take a break from the normal.

Now, this may come as a surprise to us all – our traditions teach us that the joy in the observance counts more than the observance itself.

Really – joy counts more than the details.

In Deuteronomy we find words that seem to say the opposite:

(Deut. 27:26)

Cursed be the one that does not fulfill the words of this Torah, to observe them!

From this, we could get the idea that observance is all that counts. And yet here is a Hasidic teaching about this very verse in Deuteronomy.

[From Arthur Green, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Volume 2, pp. 128-129]

Fulfilling all of the commandments, which the Torah seems to say we must do in order to avoid getting cursed, only seems like an impossible task. First, everyone knows that no one can fulfill all of the commandments. The Hasidic teaching goes further, and says that each commandment can be viewed as containing all of the commandments.

So, if this teaching is true, then why does the Torah read that we get cursed for not fulfilling all of them? The Torah can’t have an extraneous teaching. The curse is there to remind us that joy is the key to fulfilling the commandments – to achieve one commandment that fulfills all of them, we must start with joy.

The teaching continues:

“’Prayer without inner direction is like a body without a soul.’ The letters of Torah and prayer, as well as the fulfilled commandment, are all the body; the soul is the inner direction and the joyous thought we have in doing God’s will.”

All of the commandments are separate when we do them physically – when we do a commandment with a joyous thought all the commandments become united. This is why later on in Deuteronomy it reads that we will be cursed:

(Deut. 28:47) because you did not serve Adonai your God in joy and in good-feeling of heart out of the abundance of everything.

Don’t worry about the details of the commandments for Shabbat. Find a place and time to do a bit of Shabbat with joy.

We are a people with a lot of holidays.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes about the journey through our holiday year:

“…the key to a successful journey is not reaching the promised destination, but rather being aware of every moment on the journey. To be successful [we] need to rejoice, to travel with simcha, ‘joy’.”

We are not a people who arrive at final destinations, we are a people who journey.

As we plot our course through our holy days we also do not reach an ending place.

There are at least four different new years – Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the creation of the world; Simchat Torah, the celebration of the completion and restarting of the cycle of reading the Torah; Tu biShvat, the New Year of the trees; and the first of Nisan, the first month of the year, the month of Passover, when the natural world is renewed in Spring.

With all these festival beginnings we have many starts, and no finishes!

Regularly, people say to me, “You Jewish people – what’s with all the holidays?”

I need to start responding: “You bet – we are a people who love to have an excuse to have a celebration. These holidays are reminders to bring joy into our everyday lives every month of the year.”

We celebrate AND we apologize.

We take a full month before Rosh HaShanah to work on repenting. What’s the connection between apologies and a New Year celebration?

Our son Jude once asked: “Why don’t people apologize? It makes it stop hurting.”

Apologies clear the way for celebrating.

When we apologize, when we make amends, we put down the burden of needing to know everything, of being in control.

When the High Holy Day season asks us to do tshuvah, to make amends, we can let go of the burden of having done wrong, once we apologize, make it right, then rejoice in the liberation from it.

We didn't know better, we didn't mean it, we thought it would be better, we didn't think enough, we’re doing what we can to make it better, forgive me, now let’s have a Happy New Year.

This celebration that we arrive at may not be stereotypical – we may not find the joy that we see depicted in a movie or an advertisement. Joy happens amid all the other things going on – we find it on the upside of our rhythms. We must have non-joy in order to fully experience joy. We must notice and celebrate the difference in order to fully celebrate at all.

This means finding some authentic joy, not manufacturing it. This won’t be Madison Avenue's joy. It's our own thing: personal joy from self-knowledge and self-exploration, which we found by clearing the way with apologies.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, said that the worst thing we can do, is to worry too much about our mistakes. Too much guilt keeps us far from God. Apologies act as a release valve for the guilt. In joy and wholeness, we fully feel God’s Presence, the miraculous nature of our existence. As long as we are at war with ourselves, we have no room in us to make a dwelling place for God. The main focus is on loving God, sharing that love with God’s creatures, doing it through joy and celebration of life.

[Arthur Green, Ehyeh, A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, p. 125]

Our God and God of all ages, please be mindful of Your People Israel on this Day of Remembrance, and renew in us love and compassion, goodness, life, joy, and peace.

This day remember us for well-being.

This day bless us with Your nearness.

This day help us to live, and live with joy and celebration.

Let us join together in joy for this New Year.

Celebrate more, and find ways to do it that are more authentically us.

Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, gathers for Tashlich in Freedom Park, on Rosh HaShanah, 5775-2014  Thanks to Ginny Reel-Freirich for the photo!

Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, gathers for Tashlich in Freedom Park, on Rosh HaShanah, 5775-2014

Thanks to Ginny Reel-Freirich for the photo!

A morning blessing at the Transfaith Conference

[I delivered this on Friday, August 29 with the wonderful people of the Transfaith Conference here in Charlotte, NC]

אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא

My God, the soul you have given me is pure.

As we look out upon this day, among these beautiful people around us, let us acknowledge the shining purity and beauty of the spirits we find around us this morning.

Let us revel in the light that we bring to each other and share with one another.

In Jewish traditions we begin our mornings in gratitude - first for our bodies, may they work well enough so that we can offer praise and thanks. Then we notice that our spirits still reside within us, and that that essence is pure, and we celebrate the return of our souls into our bodies after that absent time during our slumbers.

Each morning we look out upon the world and offer up gratitude because a day that begins with gratitude is a better day. A day that we transform with words of thanks in turn transforms us into grateful people.

I am so grateful to be among all of you today. 

So I offer you another blessing from the opening prayers of a Jewish morning service:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָשַׂנִי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים

Praised are You, the Infinite source of a miraculous creation, who made me, and all of us, in the divine image.

Each and every one of us here today reflects another gorgeous facet of the image of the divine. To be in the image of the infinite is to be infinitely varied. 

Let us begin our day in praise of the purity of our inner spirits, and in awe of the beautiful variety of our outward appearances.

Let our time together be filled with soulful beauty, and pure diversity, and let us say: Amein.

Gems in the Torah - for Charlotte Pride

Gems in the Torah, by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Message for Interfaith Worship Service “Treasured Jewels, Reflections of the Divine”

Sunday, August 10, 4:00 PM, Caldwell Presbyterian Church

Some comments inspired by Deuteronomy, Chapter 4:15-19a:

"Now keep close watch over your selves - for you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you at Horev from the midst of the fire -  lest you wreak-ruin by making yourselves a carved form of any figure, the pattern of male or female, the pattern of any animal that is on earth, the pattern of any winged bird that flies in the heavens, the pattern of any crawling-thing on the soil, the pattern of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth or lest you lift up your eyes toward the heavens and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the forces of the heavens, and be lured-away to bow down yourselves to them and worship them…"

These verses, from the Torah reading yesterday [Saturday, August 9], warn us against idolatry.

“Oh yawn rabbi, more about idolatry – really, who is worried about praying to statues?” I can hear you all thinking that, and why not? What possible relevance could this ancient prohibition of Judaism, one enthusiastically included in Christianity  through the Ten Commandments, have for us today, as we celebrate the opening of Pride?

We do still suffer in the throes of idol-worship. Only our idols are far more sinister and subtle now than ever. Body-image, gender-image, heterosexism, and homophobia – these are forms of idolatry. They take a graven image, usually one air-brushed, or unrealistically depicted without nuance, or one constructed out of fear of the beauty of diversity and complexity in humanity, and hold it up as one we should all aim for.

Let us not “wreak-ruin” upon ourselves by holding up any carved form in the pattern of male or female as one that we must all universally adhere to!

We must instead embrace the idea of God from these verses as beyond depiction. We must remember the poetry of identifying our humanity as a reflection of that form that cannot be described, that infinite within each of us, and burst open those graven images and instead see in each other the jeweled facets of holiness, the depth and beauty of something that can never be captured in a piece of sculpture, art, or photograph. We cannot be contained in a graven image.

When we gaze upon our selves and each other with reverence, seeing in one another the beauty that comes from a reflection of God’s infinite diversity, we get to stand in awe of our shared humanity. In doing this we fulfill another sparkling jewel of wisdom from yesterday’s scriptural reading:

Deut. 4:29 "But when you seek Adonai your God from there, you will find God, if you search for God with all your heart and with all your being."

A key aspect to avoiding the pitfalls of idolatry is to avoid complacency – we must continue to seek with all our hearts and all our beings. When we don’t understand someone, when we are frustrated by someone’s actions, when we feel hurt or wronged, yes, we must stand up for justice, and even more, we must seek in the object of our difficulty for their humanity. When we go beyond the conflict and connect on the grounds of our infinitely varied humanity, we offer others that opportunity too.

In this we see that seeking that divine spark within all people, within even all things, gives us this opportunity to overcome the complacency of idolatry, that thinking that says, “I know what I need to know.” Let us accept that our knowledge can always be expanded so that we can continually search for greater insights into the people around us.

One more shining thought from this biblical selection. Moses reminded the People of Israel that:

Deut. 5:2-3 "Our God cut with us a covenant at Horev/Sinai. Not with our ancestors did God cut this covenant, but with us, yes, us, those here today, all of us (that are) alive!"

We are all responsible for upholding the good teachings of our multitude of teachers.

We are all part of a contract between us and creation – to see deeply into our surroundings and celebrate the facets of the divine in everyone and everything.

Each of us contributes, and each of us plays a part.

As we celebrate our Queen City’s Pride this year, the crown jewel of Charlotte, shine up the faces of our gems, share them with each other, and take moments to notice even the diamonds in the rough.

We all get to shimmer together with Pride.

Let's bring God into our midst

This week, in parashat T'rumah, Exodus25:1-27:19, the Torah details the commands for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernace, or portable Temple. We can understand about the need to bring God into our presence, even today, when we imagine God to be beyond the ideas of a tent or an ark of the covenant that might actually contain God. After all, there are moments in our lives when we feel God much more powerfully, and there are places we go in order to experience God more fully too. Life cycle events, Shabbat services, holidays, family get-together's – we often identify these times as filled with greater meaning, and even the presence of God. Synagogues, holy places, sites of tremendous natural beauty – these loom large in our mind as places where we might feel connected to God.

The Israelites in the desert, after the encounter with God at Sinai, where God visibly showed up in an impressive array of special effects, built a Mishkan, literally a dwelling place for God. Do we think that they really imagined that the entirety of God could fit in a little box inside a tent?

I don’t think our ancestors believed that, and I certainly don’t expect all of you to believe it either. Rather, I think that they understood what Abraham understood before them. Abraham knew that the presence of God entered into a place when we behaved in a certain way – in his case, when he welcomed strangers into his tent. The ethic of hospitality brings the presence of God into our midst. The Israelites understood that when they worked together to build something, when they came together for the improvement of the entire community, that God would dwell in their midst too.

In this way, we read the building of the Mishkan, the bringing together of many different items from many different people with many different skills and advantages, as a way of uniting to transform the Israelite community into something better. The actions of the people of Israel united behind a common cause and helped them overcome their difficulties from the past – like grumbling about being brought out of Egypt, and building the Golden Calf.

To bring God into our midst means acting in a way that transforms people from individuals with different desires and agendas into a community, united around projects and causes that bring benefits to everyone.

While we no longer build a Mishkan and all of its ornaments, including the ark of the covenant, we do reap the rewards of united actions. We come together to pray and to learn, to celebrate and to mourn, and to mark the end of the week and the beginning of Shabbat.

I wish that all of us take moments on this Shabbat to come together with each other, to find family and friends and do something that we couldn’t do on our own. Celebrating Shabbat in community transforms our time together, and brings God to dwell in our midst.