Monthly Archives: September 2015

YIZKOR SERMON FOR YOM KIPPUR 5776

YOM KIPPUR YIZKOR 5776

REMEMBERING –AND APPRECIATING- EVERYTHING

It is Yom Kippur in ancient Israel.

The High Priest stands alone in the inner sanctum, the Kodesh HaKodashim Holy of Holies of the Temple.

He stands alone with the spiritual fate of the people hanging in the balance.

Our rabbis painted the scene for us: the Kohen Gadol performs the atonement sacrifice and then recites aloud a verse from the Torah: ki bayom hazeh yichapayr Aleichem litahayr etchem mikol hatotaychem lifney ado–nai “for on this day, atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all of your sins before God”.

He draws out that name of God using a unique pronunciation of the name used only at this moment.

And when the people hear the name said in this way, they prostrate themselves and respond Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed. Blessed be God’s glorious kingdom forever and ever.

When the High Priest hears the people’s response, hearing them acknowledge faith in God only then he would conclude the verse with the divine promise, “titharu”, you will be cleansed.

What a cathartic moment this must have been. The moment that atonement takes affect and the burden of guilt is lifted from the shoulders of the people.

But it was also a cathartic moment for a reason that might not occur to you. There was always a persistent, fear that the Kohen Gadol, God forbid, would make a mistake in the ritual thereby preventing atonement. The first chapter of the Mishna for Yom Kippur contains a detailed explanation of the preparations for the day including instructions that the High Priest rehearse the ritual in front of the elders over and over again for seven days before Yom Kippur to make sure he didn’t make a mistake.

When the ritual was completed, the people realized that nothing had gone wrong. The High Priest, their spiritual father, had done his job perfectly. Repentance had been accepted and the rest of Yom Kippur turned into a day of confidence and even, in some rabbinic descriptions, a day of celebration.

In our day, our shlichei tzibbur, our hazanim, our Torah readers and Haftarah readers practice, as the kohen gadol did, before coming up on the bima to conduct part of the service. We try very hard to be perfect, but none of us are. We all will make a mistake or two. And yet, as you have heard me say before on the High Holy Days, we don’t believe that occasional liturgical mistakes undermine the power of the ritual or the relationship built up with the congregation. No one is perfect. When we get things wrong, we assume that people still love us and respect the ritual and we believe things are ok with God.

Going back to the idea that the moment I described was a cathartic moment, I have a question to ask: When, in our observance of Yom Kippur, do we have such a cathartic moment, a moment in which our fears and our concerns vanish, yielding to a sense of satisfaction for a job of repentance well done and atonement achieved?

That time does not come until the blast of the shofar marking the conclusion of the fast. We think of neilah, the concluding service, the service of the closing of the gates, as the last opportunity for teshuva, repentance in the context of Yom Kippur. Until the shofar is blown and the gates are closed we still have the serious work of confession and repentance to do and that is reflected in the saying of the selichot, penitential prayers, right up until the end of the day.

But, clearly the mood of our synagogue lightens a bit as the day goes along and certainly that is true at Neilah here when this congregation engages in uplifting, powerful, confident and yes, even joyous singing. So, I’ll rephrase my question: when is the watershed moment for us on Yom Kippur, the moment that divides what came before from what potentially lies ahead, the moment when the burden of the day begins to lift? We are approaching that moment now. It is that moment when the divine gift of memory draws out the tears and the soft smiles which, once released, leaves us feeling a burden lifted from our shoulders.

That cathartic moment is Yizkor.

This is the moment. This is the pivotal moment and the most difficult moment of Yom Kippur in so many ways. It is so hard and at times, so painful. But, it is the one that we must experience and move on from in order to truly find the uplifting mood waiting for us as the gates begin to close.

This year, I want to give you something to think about as we enter into this critical moment in our day. This year, I want to share with you a simple thought to accompany this transforming moment of Yizkor. It has nothing to do with the High Priest or the sacrifice but you may find some foreshadowing in my description of the ritual with which I began.

I want you now to think about a beloved person, from an older generation, that you remember at Yizkor today, someone who taught you: a role model whom you still cherish today for the lessons that he or she shared. For those for whom this applies, I expect many will choose a parent or a grandparent. Some will choose someone else and I fully understand that. I will leave that to you but please permit me to talk generally about parents knowing that some of you will be thinking about someone else.

I want you to think about a specific lesson that this person taught you which guides your life to this day. Take a few moments to think. The more specific you can be the better.

Now, let me share with you an excerpt from an essay written by the author Verlyn Klinkenborg. It appeared in the New York Times on March 1, 2010. The essay was called “Sometimes the Smallest Things”.

“Lately I’ve been thinking of the things my parents taught me — all those habits that were handed over to me one by one when I was a child. These are the sorts of thoughts I always have when I’m teaching writing, which is partly the act of revealing bad habits to their surprised owners. What got me thinking this time was the discovery that I’ve been tying my shoes wrong for more than half a century.

I’ve been tying a granny knot in my laces, a lopsided knot that tends to come untied even when doubled. It’s the knot my mother taught me. But thanks to a tip on the Internet, I learned that if I wrap the lace around the first bow the opposite way, I get a reef, or square knot, which lies evenly across the shoe and doesn’t come untied.

I believe that if my mother had known about the reef knot, she would have taught it to me. What mother wants her child’s laces to come undone?”

The author then goes on to point out that his father taught him to adjust the car mirrors in a way that unfortunately led to an increased blind spot. He didn’t realize this until he saw a piece on the Internet about safe driving that taught him that he had been doing it wrong for 40 years.

He concludes by saying: “I’ll discover more, I’m sure — slight, but somehow significant adjustments to the things my parents taught me, the deep habits of a lifetime. Something has changed, and I welcome it.”

When I first read that piece five years ago, I immediately thought about how my father taught me to shoot a basketball. My dad had actually been a basketball coach for a small high school in Vermont at one time- it was a really small school and I think he was the only male teacher. And, he taught me that he shot a basketball like this, with his elbows right up against his body, and that I should try it too. I took his word for it. After all, he was my dad and he was the coach. I soon realized how foolish it looked and how it really didn’t work besides. Maybe that’s why basketball is the one sport I really never liked to play.

But, when I read the essay again a few months ago, I didn’t think of basketball but of the bigger picture courtesy of one of the most powerful scenes I have ever seen on television.

In a classic episode of the iconic TV Series; All In the Family, an episode called: Two’s a Crowd, Archie Bunker and his son in law, Mike, have accidentally locked themselves in a storeroom overnight and must wait to be let out in the morning. Over a bottle of brandy these two classic antagonists talk with each other through the night in a way that they never had done before.

At one point, Archie starts to reminisce about his days in elementary school, revealing to Mike his childhood nickname: Shoebootie, for the fact that his family was so poor he had only one mismatched pair of footwear to wear to school. All that he has heard from Archie brought sympathy to Mike and that sympathy continues until Archie mentions one African American child, Winston, who Archie says used to beat him up in school. When Mike asks why, Archie says, no reason. But, then he casually mentions that he used to call Winston by a certain well known racial epithet. And Mike says: “Well that’s the reason”. And Archie says that’s no reason everyone called him that.

Archie says then: “That’s all my old man used to call them.”

Here is the rest of the dialogue and I’ll do my best to do it justice.

Mike looks at him and says: “Archie, your father was wrong.”

“No, he wasn’t”.

“Yes, he was. Your father was wrong”.

Archie then says; “Don’t say Your father was wrong! Don’t tell me my father was wrong.

Let me tell you somethin’ Father, who made ya? wrong? Your father the breadwinner of the house there. The man who goes out and busts his butt to keep a roof over your head and clothes on your back? You call your father wrong? Hey, hey.

Your father. Your father. That’s the man that comes home, bringin’ you candy? Your father’s the first guy to throw a baseball to ya? And take you for walks in the park? Hold you by the hand?

No, he says, don’t tell me that my father was wrong.”

And this dialogue goes on but here it needs a Rashi. It needs a commentary.

Archie, I’m glad you remember all those right things your father did for you. Life is so deeply enriched when we have such good memories. This would be a far better world if everyone could talk as glowingly about their parents.

But, Archie, your father was wrong for using that word. He was so, so wrong even if people didn’t know it then. He was wrong.

But that’s no surprise because all parents are wrong on occasion. And, admitting that and recognizing that and changing the way they taught us to do things from tying shoes to adjusting mirrors to shooting a basketball to talking about people does not mean we don’t love them or respect them. When we realize they were wrong and change the way we do things, it is simply called growth.

Assuming they truly loved us and embraced us and sought to be good to us, the fact that our parents were occasionally wrong must not change the way we honor their memory and hold them in our hearts and in our minds. We can love them. We can honor them but as we do, it is all right, in fact it is critical, that we also remember those inaccurate, frustrating, embarrassing, infuriating things they that taught us or made us do. They were human beings and human beings aren’t high priests on Yom Kippur. We’re all sometimes wrong.

We must embrace the fact that they were sometimes wrong just as we must accept the fact that our children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and students will, if they haven’t already, realize the same thing about us one day and they will be right too.

There can be no progress in our world or in our lives unless we are willing to say it: “Our parents were sometimes wrong”. If people hadn’t been willing to say that, a confederate flag would still be flying over the capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina. If we hadn’t been willing to say that, marriage would still be denied to same sex couples who love each other so deeply. If you and I don’t occasionally say that, we would still be tripping over our shoelaces, missing free throws and living our parents’ lives not ours.

When we are old enough, and be careful kids and listen to those words: when we are old enough to decide to do things differently than our parents do, to see life differently, or to do a simple task in a different way than our parents taught us, we become the people that we need to be, people who find our own way in our world.

So, before we start Yizkor, we’ll take a moment for you, if you haven’t already, to think back to the person you thought of so lovingly a few minutes ago and think of something that person taught you that you always knew or more recently learned was just plain wrong- something that they told you that you do not follow today, something that through change has made you less likely to trip over your own feet or fall victim to a blind spot in your life.

Then, after you’ve done this, celebrate their memory with a full heart: cherish their memory as a person you learned from. Learning from the right most of the time and learning from the wrong occasionally.

When we say the memorial prayers, I hope that you will realize that of all the things that we have to thank those who came before us for, we should remember to thank them also for the things they taught us that we now know were wrong. Because it is only by recognizing and acknowledging and changing things which turned out to be wrong that we become the grown ups we yearn to be: the grown ups they wanted us to be.

Archie, let me tell you: my father, whose 15th yahrzeit will be observed this year, a man whom I loved deeply and whose memory I honor today and every day, was wrong about more things than basketball. I know it now even if I didn’t know it then. And all of our children and our grandchildren will inevitably someday say that about us and like we do today for our parents, I pray that after saying it, they will still love us and honor our memory all the same as they become the adults we want to them to be and that they need to be:their own people in their own world.

Take a few moments to think and then we will begin Yizkor that cathartic moment: the moment when we remember the people whom we will always love, including, for many of us, the people that taught us how to tie our shoes.

Take a few moments to think and then we will begin Yizkor that cathartic moment: the moment when we remember the people whom we will always love, including, for many of us, the people that taught us how to tie our shoes.

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ROSH HASHANA SERMON 5776: THE NEXT 100 YEARS

I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation, Ann Arbor, Michigan on the first day of Rosh Hashana:

This morning, I want to teach you or remind you of a simple Hebrew word. The word is spelled Mem, Alef, Hey: Meah.

Meah means 100.

Today, as we gather on this first day of our 100th year as a congregation, it is a word that we should all become familiar with.

This is such an important milestone and cause for saying the Shehecheyanu. We will say it often over this year so let’s start our year of “meah” by saying it together now.

Last night, I spoke about the importance of the members of the Congregation. This morning, I want to talk about Beth Israel as an institution and to address a question that I have been thinking about for several years now.

To begin: an apocryphal story.

A minister was teaching a Sunday School class of 7 year olds. He asked the children: “What is it that is grey, has a bushy tail and runs around the park collecting nuts for the winter?”

None of the children raised their hands so the minister asked the question again: “What is it that is grey, has a bushy tail and runs around the park collecting nuts for the winter?”

Finally, one of the children timidly spoke up: “Reverend, I know the answer must be God…but, it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”

I’ve known that story for years and used it as the beginning of a d’var Torah I gave at a Rabbinical Assembly Convention some years ago. That day, I urged my colleagues to recognize the importance of teaching our young students to answer our questions honestly and to not simply say what they think we want to hear. I also stressed that we, as rabbis, had to answer questions concerning faith and the realities of life honestly rather than rest on simple platitudes as our students and congregants of all ages might expect to hear from us.

While I certainly still endorse those messages, that Sunday school story speaks differently to me today. Today, I hear that simple story in the context of the question that I referred to earlier.

The question is simple: What are we doing here? What is the role of a synagogue in an American Jewish community in the 21st century? To put it slightly differently: what is our niche among the growing number of Jewish organizations responding to and focusing on different aspects of what it means to be a Jew?

The question is a critical one for us to consider today. In recent years, we have seen great changes in the structure of Jewish communities, both globally and locally. Impressive and critical Jewish organizations such as Federations, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Family Services have grown, occasionally taking on roles which once were the province of the synagogue. This reality demands of us that we seriously consider our role as an institution.

And, this is a critical question for us to ask here and now. As we at Beth Israel celebrate our 100th birthday as a congregation, it is vital that we consider where we have come from, where we are now, and most importantly, where we are going.

To begin to answer this question, I want to share with you a selection from a book that I have mentioned previously from the bima. The book is entitled: The God Letters. Written by Paul Rifkin, it consists of responses the author received to questions he sent to famous people from all walks of life. The questions: “Do you believe in God? And, if so, how has God made his presence known to you?”

In order to assure that the answers were honest and uncomplicated, Rifkin identified himself as a 5th grade student doing research for a school project.

One of the answers he received came from Joseph Papp, then the theatrical director and producer of the New York Shakespeare festival. Papp wrote the following:

“When I was your age, God was to be found in the synagogue, a small storefront shul in Brooklyn. He was everywhere: in my father’s tallis, in the tefilin that appeared on my father’s arm and forehead every morning, in the cracked voice of the neighborhood cantor who was a glazier by trade, in the chanting of the small, poor devoted congregation…Today”, Papp concluded, “I still find God in shul…”

I have read that answer countless times over the years. I find it to be of the utmost importance to who I am as a rabbi and who I believe we must be as a congregation. And, as our community changes, as our world changes, the words are increasingly meaningful.

“I still find God in shul”.

The concept of God dwelling in the synagogue is childish and limiting. We know that. We have known that since the beginning. When God commanded the people to build the Mishkan, the sanctuary in the desert, God tells Moses, “v”asu lee mikdash v’schachanti bitocham” “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them” not within the sanctuary, but within the people. God cannot be limited to a physical structure. The structure is a symbol of God’s presence in the lives of a community. It is misleading to think of a synagogue as the “house of God”.

But, as our Jewish community changes, as more and more institutions dot our landscape all legitimately looking for support and involvement from members of our community, thinking of the synagogue as a house of God is not misleading but it is right on target.

When thinking about the role of the synagogue in a Jewish community, I have to begin with the words of that honest 7 year old, “I know the answer must be God.”

The purpose of a synagogue in the 21st century, amidst all of the critical, successful and impressive organizations that have developed in this Jewish community and in others, is that the synagogue is the place where God’s presence in sought and felt in every celebration, in every interaction, in every educational effort, in every social action project, in every gathering.

The role of the synagogue is to foster an approach to Judaism from a spiritual perspective, one in which God is present in all of our questions and hopefully in our answers as well. The synagogue must be the place that inspires us to question what it truly means to be a human being and inspires us to be a more caring, more loving human being in a world of justice and equality. We do this best by remembering always that we are creations of God: a God who created the human being with a purpose in mind; a God who created a world where through the random magic of biology, you and I have come into being and entered this world with a n’shama, a soul and a mind: possessing the tools to leave this world better than we found it; a God who, through the mystery of revelation which I can’t even begin to understand, initiated the process of imparting wisdom through sacred texts which have inspired us for centuries as we have sought to find our true way in the world; and a God who, again through a process that I can’t adequately explain inspired ethical standards and ritual traditions which are our hallmark as a people.

The synagogue must be a place which guides Jews in reaching out to that force that created us and teaches us and sustains us in good times and bad, urging us to persevere, encouraging us to elevate life and to view our world and its temporal issues from a spiritual and ethical perspective. It is that force which demands that we commit ourselves and those who come after us to bringing the world to perfection. It is that force that reminds us always that that perfection, redemption, is attainable. This story we are writing can have a happy ending.

Now, let me be clear to offer two explanations before I continue.

As I have said many times, there are no theological litmus tests to join or participate at Beth Israel. Our synagogue would be significantly changed for the worse if those of you who consider yourselves atheists or agnostics felt you weren’t welcome and didn’t participate actively. Please don’t think that for a minute. And, don’t think for a minute that I’m closing any doors or endeavoring to convince people to believe in God. That is your choice. But, at Beth Israel, everyone is welcome because in the end, what matters is not whether we say we believe in God but whether we act like we do.

And, remember that Jews do not profess particularly dogmatic beliefs about God. Each of us is entitled to our own personal conception of the word: “God” and no one should feel forced to squeeze their beliefs into one box or another.

But, given those disclaimers, I stand by my statement. “I know the answer must be God”.

I am not at all suggesting that we limit our mission as a congregation. We must continue to reach out to our congregants in times of need through deep friendships, congregational efforts and through appropriate and critical rabbinic pastoral support. We must continue to address the global issues and social justice concerns that should concern us deeply, such as poverty, gun violence, racism and others through education and advocacy programs, volunteer opportunities and sermons and presentations from the bima. We will continue to stand with our people throughout the world and work for their safety and security. We must continue to create social opportunities for our members through our programming as well, but we must always remember that those are reflections of the ultimate purpose of our synagogue not the goals in and of themselves.

The synagogue must be the place in the community that not only talks about Jewish values but wrestles with what calling a value Jewish really means. The synagogue must be the place that urges people to look at their lives and their newspapers as well through the lens of hope and faith and mystery and awe and wonder. The synagogue must be a place where prayer matters, not just for the sake of tradition, but for the sake of elevating ourselves through a connection with our source. The synagogue must be the place where we can open a traditional Jewish text and temporarily suspend the rational, academic world in which we live, immersing ourselves in a world of mythic beliefs about our origin and our destiny as human beings.

But, as nice as all of that sounds, I know that it is not always a popular idea in our world.

Last May, when our son, Avi, graduated from Emory University, the commencement address was given by Sir Salman Rushdie. It was a brilliant commencement address. But one line caused many in attendance and certainly the graduates of the school of Theology, whom we were sitting close to, to audibly gasp. Rushdie was talking about changes the graduates could make in the world and he said about belief in God: “It’s shocking how many Americans swallow that old story. Maybe you’ll be the generation that moves past the ancient fictions.”

I was beside myself. To tell graduates that faith in God which can be the foundation for the spiritual, communal, and traditional aspects of their lives doesn’t matter was a terrible message and I say that fully acknowledging the events in Rushdie’s personal life that might have led him to that conclusion.

The synagogue must fight tooth and nail against calling belief in God outdated. While many religious people in the world, sadly some Jews included, express a belief in God that justifies unspeakably horrible violence, or profess a faith that is divisive or infantilizing, those with a more constructive, ennobling and elevating approach to faith, have the responsibility to keep belief in God alive and to do so, and please listen to me clearly: despite our frequent inability to put what we believe into words and despite the significant doubts we all have at times. And here, let me add an aside, I wish I could be among those who welcome Pope Francis to the United States this coming week. Despite our obvious theological and ideological differences on key issues, I believe that he represents the type of religious leader we need so deeply. I said that in a sermon a few months after he was named pope and he hasn’t disappointed me since. His work echoes the exhortation that Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed in the famous interview we showed and discussed a week ago before Selichot services: the idea that rather than being people who turn our personal needs into ends, religion’s goal is to turn visionary ends, goals, dreams into needs. That is what makes us human beings.

And those ends, those goals, of embracing what it truly means to be a human being and helping to bring redemption for the world are what it means to be a person of faith. And if we don’t keep a vision of faith alive, we will be denying an essential part of our lives as Jews and human beings. And, if we don’t keep a vision of faith alive, there will be no need for a synagogue in the not too distant future, let alone 100 years from now, because other institutions will offer all that a Jew needs.

Imagine for a moment a Jewish community without synagogues.

Earlier this summer, I read an essay written by Nathan Lopes Cardozo. It was called: “God is Relocating.”

Cardozo began his piece with an anthropomorphic description of God preparing to leave a synagogue. He talked about God standing in the doorway, dressed in a coat and ready to go.

When I read this far, I thought that the author was going to lament, as I have, the fact that too many synagogues push God off the agenda and worship other gods: the god of political influence, the god of “Jewish continuity” or even the god of the state of Israel. All of those are critically important elements of our lives as Jews but none of them are God.

I was ready to pat ourselves on the back as I began to read the article because while we work in all of those important areas as a congregation, I believe that we approach them from a more spiritual, values based perspective and, of course, we care about God as we are very serious about prayer and still fill this building every Shabbat morning.

But, then I read on and realized Cardozo was going in a different direction in talking about God relocating. Suddenly, I felt a bit less sure he wasn’t talking about us.

He was not addressing synagogues that were abandoning God. He was addressing synagogues that were paying lip service to a belief in God rather than looking for ways in which Judaism could matter on a spiritual level, appealing to the soul. He claimed this was more likely found in other places: secular yeshivot in Israel, college campuses where students talk through the night about serious questions, board rooms of corporations which struggle with ethical issues.

And, that is when I started to think again about where we stand in our role as a spiritual institution.

Let me be clear: I am so proud of this congregation for so many reasons. We study Torah seriously, we engage in critical social action efforts, we address significant issues from the bima- I spoke about Iran a few weeks ago and the sermon is on our website- we fill this room with song, our children are engaged in so many ways in our religious school, our high school madrichim do service projects in Ann Arbor, Detroit and far beyond, our Women’s League and Mens Club support our shul and inspire our members.

We are justifiably proud of what we do in so many areas.

But, this article about God relocating reminded me that we must go further in one key way. We must remind ourselves at every moment that we do these things with a greater foundation and a specific perspective: that of fulfilling the responsibilities that God expects from us.

So, this year keeping in mind the niche of the synagogue as an institution imbued with the spirit that nourishes the soul, we will be embarking on some new efforts to make sure that God doesn’t sneak out the back door despite our accomplishments and successes.

We will, as you have heard, be offering a new class from the Hartman Institute on the subject of the dilemmas of faith, what it can mean to us, what it gives us and how we address the dilemmas faith in God presents in today’s world. This will be an opportunity for participants to re-open the search for a meaningful faith in God in your lives. We hope that many of you will engage in this effort as we strive to understand what it means to be a person of faith in contemporary times. This is an extraordinary opportunity. Please consider joining us on Monday evenings at dinner time for this program.

We will continue to study Torah through a class in Midrash in Hebrew and our Shabbat Limmud early morning Torah study.. Our tradition holds that studying sacred texts are a form of worship, and an opportunity to tap into the deep questions that our rabbis wanted us to ask about our lives and our relationship with God. In both of these groups, we will, as we did this past Shabbat morning, begin each session with the b’racha for Torah study to emphasize the sacredness of learning.

We will again offer a course in mussar, which encourages participants to improve their lives by focusing on middot, soul traits, which can transform our lives into ones of greater and deeper meaning and help us to transform the world through our actions.

But, learning is only one way to address the question of faith. There have to be other as well. So, we will, as a response to suggestions made by members of our taskforce on spirituality this past year, be instituting a monthly opportunity for contemplative prayer called Sounds of the Soul outside of the regular structure of our services. Rabbi Blumenthal, working with congregants has developed this effort and the first of these music, chanting, and inspiration filled gathering will take place on October 13.

And finally, while we will honor our commitment to traditional prayer and not aim to fix what isn’t broken in our Shabbat services, we will continue to consider ways to invigorate them and give opportunities for people to find more spiritual depth that our tradition has always offered but that has, through the ages, sometimes become hidden behind our commitment to ritual.

While searching for a stronger connection with God, we can not and will not abandon intellectual honesty. We will never waver in our commitment to care for the welfare of our members. We will not stop engaging about and supporting Israel, or caring about Jews throughout the world or those in need in our Ann Arbor community. Those are also sacred responsibilities.

But, we must be sure that this remains God’s house where doing these things is reflected in our hearts and in our souls and in our dreams as well as in our minds and in our hands.

Several years ago, on the first Rosh Hashana after our sanctuary and social halls were renovated, I spoke about the Hebrew word: Mah. Mah means “what”. But, it also serves as a primal expression of wonder. Mah Nishtanah: How different this night is from all other nights! Heenay Mah Tov: How wonderful it is to sit as brothers and sisters together! And, Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov. How beautiful are your tents of Jacob!

We should all be full of wonder at what has been built over the last 100 years. We should all look and say: “Mah” with wonder and awe and appreciation at what goes on in this building and throughout our community under our auspices.

But, let me share with you a thought as we embark on our 100th year. The word Meah is spelled just like Mah but with an aleph in the middle. The alef is the silent letter, the letter of beginnings, the letter of mystery, the letter of the still small voice. It is, the first letter in anochee, “I” as in I am the Lord your God.

I believe that Beth Israel will flourish over the next 100 years if we remember that our existence as a congregation depends upon our keeping that aleph, right in the center of everything we do. And if we ever stop searching for the real meaning of that aleph, if we stop taking leaps of faith, if we stop nourishing our souls, we may find in fact that this aleph has left us and if that happens: Mah?, what will we be left with?

I pray that the next century will be even more beautiful for our shul than the years that have passed. They will be if we remember why we are here and if we continue to focus on our faith and our souls as we do what no other Jewish institution can do, base ourselves on the truth that little girl expressed so simply:

“I know the answer must be God”.

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A Prayer for the New Year

Most years, I write an original prayer to share with the congregation on the first night of Rosh Hashana.

I try to base the words of the prayer on something that has occurred during the past year or something that we look forward to in the year ahead. Occasionally, my prayer is in tribute to a person who died during the previous year and that was the case this year.

There were many influential people who died during 5775. Names such as Oliver Sachs, Sarah Brady, Leonard Nimoy and Theodore Bikel immediately come to mind.

But my prayer this year is a tribute to a man who died this past spring whose name is perhaps not quite as well known as the others I mentioned, but one whose work has touched me and I imagine many others, deeply over the years. His name is Ben E. King and he is best known for co-writing and performing a beautifully touching song with the simplest of melodies which has become a personal favorite of so many.

The song is entitled Stand By Me.

Stand By Me is so well loved that it has been “covered” by more than 400 musicians including John Lennon, Tracy Chapman (who performed it on the David Letterman show just a few weeks before Mr. King’s death), Ike and Tina Turner, and last but not least, Timon and Pumbaa from the Lion King.

Inspired by a Christian spiritual and by the words of Psalm 46, the song speaks of the power of loyalty and confidence inspired by loved ones and by God. As such, it seems perfect as a setting for my original prayer.

As we enter into 5776, I hope you will find the prayer meaningful and inspirational and I would not be surprised if you break into song upon reading it:

 

When the night has come

And the land is dark

                           And the moon is the only light we’ll see.

                           No I won’t be afraid, I won’t be afraid

                           Just as long as you stand by me.

As we gather together at the beginning of this New Year, O God, help us to stand through the days and months ahead.

         Help us to stand by our family and friends, to share their joy and comfort them through sadness.

         Help us to stand by and for our people and our faith. Let us express the pride we feel in our tradition, our history and our commitment for our future. May we always remain connected and committed to our people throughout the world.

         Help us to stand by the values You and our great teachers have instilled in us: values which compel us to search endlessly for peace and justice and to hear the cries and concerns of all people everywhere: the hungry, the oppressed, the refugee, the unfairly and unjustly imprisoned and to those who live in danger and isolation. May we hear their cries and reach out a hand to help them.

         Help us to stand by our hopes and our dreams. Help us not to give up the wild, revolutionary and authentically Jewish idea that the world can be a place of perfection if we join hands with all throughout the world to make it so.

         And, O God, stand by us as we navigate this frustrating, difficult, maddening and so, so beautiful and sacred world. When the night has come and the land is dark, help us, O God, to find the moon and stars to guide us one step at a time to fulfill our responsibilities and embrace our world with confidence and hope.

         May we stand by those we love and may they and You, O God, always stand by us as this New Year unfolds.

Shana Tova

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Rosh Hashana 5776: Music and Memories

I had two experiences this week which involved music and memory. They were two vastly different experiences but each made me think about the High Holy Days and the experiences that the Holy Day services bring.

The first experience took place one afternoon this past week when I turned on my car satellite radio to the 60’s station. I tuned into the station in the middle of a song and the melody of the song that was playing was immediately recognizable to me. It was the melody to one of my favorite songs from the late 60s but the words weren’t right. I had heard the song so many times but these words were unfamiliar. I was absolutely mesmerized as I listened to the end of the song.

When I got to my office, I did a quick search and found out, in fact, that there was an “extended” version to the song which wasn’t played very often. I found the extended version on youtube and played it over and over again for the next few days and found that the new words added so much to my enjoyment of the song. Now, I can’t think of the song without thinking of the “extended version” which keeps playing in my head.

The second experience came courtesy of my colleague and friend since childhood, Rabbi Josh Hammerman, whose father, Cantor Michal Hammerman Z”L was the hazzan at the shul I grew up in: Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA. Rabbi Hammerman posted a recording of his father chanting the Rosh Hashana service.

Listening to Cantor Hammerman brought back so many fond memories of my childhood at KI. He was such a wonderful hazzan  and such a mentsch and listening to his beautiful voice just was such a treat.

But, what really made it so significant to me was that I heard a melody to one of the prayers that I had been trying to think of for years. We sing a different melody to this prayer at Beth Israel and over the years, I had forgotten the melody that I had grown up with. Hearing it sung by Cantor Hammerman was like recapturing a piece of my past. Now, I have that melody stuck in my mind too and it is vying for space in my head with the Top 40 song whose additional verse I heard for the first time.

As we enter into the High Holy Days, I hope that everyone who attends services will have experiences like these.

May we all hear words which open up a vast treasure of memory, from our childhood or later in life which brings warmth and a sense of “home”.

And, may we read or hear words that we never noticed before, words which will continue to echo in our minds as a new found treasure. May we find those words so unexpectedly meaningful that they remain in our mind and continue to inspire us through these holy days and beyond.

May these holy days bring great meaning to all who celebrate them and may the New Year be a year of peace, inspiration and song for all.

Shana Tova.

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