Choosy Mothers Choose… a sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776

Shanah Tovah u’metukah.  I wish you each a happy and sweet New Year.

Do you like creamy peanut butter or crunchy? That was always the debate in my house growing up. My mother was big on creamy JIF peanut butter. You remember. Choosy mothers choose JIF?  She was big on  the dreaded Concord grape jelly.  To this day I will not eat grape jelly nor will my sister. That was the only kind of jelly my mom would buy.

Same with the peanut butter. Only creamy. I wanted chunky and I dreamed of having Skippy peanut butter. Today I don’t eat that at all preferring healthier natural almond butters or cashew butters. Without those homogenized trans fats but the battle between creamy peanut butter and chunky peanut  butter was epic in my family’s home!  But I think my mother liked the tag line. She was being choosy. Meaning she had the power to make the decision for our family. . In this case it was about peanut butter. But symbolically being a choosy mother was much much more. And it relates to his season of the Jewish year. Laid before us each are many choices about our lives.

Tonight is Rosh Hashanah. The old year is behind us and we give thanks that we are here to celebrate the rebirth of the world!  We made it another year.  We give thanks that for the next 10 days of this holy season that we will rebirth our souls and ourselves.   But this is also a time of choosing.  Of choosing to become the person you have always wanted to be.  Of choosing to face your faults and errors. Of choosing to confront the sins and choosing to make teshuvah and choosing to grow and change

It is not as simple as choosy mothers choose JIF but it is the time of year when we pray, reflect, confess, and forgive others, and ourselves for failing to choose to do our best. This is the time of year when we stand before God and our own vulnerabilities to choose life and to give life to our greatest selves.

It takes 9 months for a fetus to grow into a child and for a human mother to give birth.  It is still one of the planet’s holiest miracles. In the ideal from an act of love and intimacy a new human being comes into this world 9 months later.  But it takes a lifetime to give birth to the person you are to become.  It takes a lifetime of experiences, of growth, learning, and development to gain wisdom.  It takes a lifetime to be you; for we are always growing, changing, learning, unlearning, and developing throughout the course of our lives until the last breath we shall take. But each and every day we face many choices.

Even as we grow into adulthood and get settled in our ways of being, the human challenge, the spiritual and religious challenge is to pay attention to whom you have become and to turn from our moral failures and our character flaws.  Our challenge is to become the best you; the better you. Our challenge is be born anew. We choose on this New Year to enter into this 10 day of repentance chamber. That begins with Rosh Hashanah tonight and ends with the last blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur day.

That is why the Shofar sounds so plaintively on Rosh Hashanah.  That is why we usher in this New Year.  The Jewish people long ago recognized that to truly live b’tzelem Elohim; to truly live in the image of God- and to be in the image of God – to find the Divine in you-you must recognize your capacity to change the way you do things, to change your mind.  One of the great gifts of humanity is that we can choose to change!

God’s mind changes a number of times. It is one of the great ideas of Judaism. That God is influenced by human action and words. So Moses can plead with God to not exterminate the Israelites after they sin at the Golden Calf.  And the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that God can be influenced by repentance and of course that is one of points of the story of Jonah that we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon, that the people of Nineveh can repent from their sins and God will save the city from doom!

My friends, this is a profound and amazing idea—to be created and live in the image of God-b’tzelem Elohim – our human task is to be able to change our selves and change our world for better.  We can not only change our minds, we can change the way we do things. We can make a repair in the world at large and the world of our interior.  This is tikkun. – Repair. This is  Tikkun olam.  Repairing our holy world inside and out.

This Holy Sacred Season of Awe – from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is to mark the birth of the world and the rebirth of you.  A chance to repair our inner world so that we can repair the outter world we live in.  We are God’s hands, God’s feet in this Tikkun HaOlam- in this Repair of the world and the repair of you.

From the wisdom of our Sages and ancestors- It only takes  ten days-to cleanse your soul, make teshuvah, and be reborn for the New Year- spiritually pure and with all the potential for doing things right this year.  But let’s be honest sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes it can take years to forgive others and forgive ourselves.  But during this 10 days- we can dedicate it to making atonement. Offering up or regrets, our sins, so that when the Gates of Repentance close at the end of Neilah—we have put ourselves back on the path toward wholeness and holiness.

From now until the final sounding of the Shofar on at the end of  Yom Kippur –we Jews are tasked with re-aligning our spirits, a tune-up for our intentions, a yearly spiritual examination of our words and deeds and our time together will include some of the prescriptions needed to lead a healthier life, a moral life, a stronger ethical existence, a deepening of your Jewish heritage.  This is what we do together as a community.

Because the truth is we are not monks, living an acetic life. We Jews have always lived in the world.

Recently in the New York Times there was an article about the monks of Shaolin in China.  This group of Chinese Buddhist Monks is famous for their dedication to Buddhism and the Martial Arts. This group of ascetics, teach their famous acrobatic warfare from teacher to disciple and they live a life of celibacy, vegetarianism and martial arts.  These monks throughout Chinese history have despite Buddhism’s emphasis on non-violence been some of China’s fiercest warriors, defending different princes and dynasties, as well as fighting outside invaders at times. Depending on the century and the dynasty, the monks thrived or were almost destroyed but they kept their traditions alive passed from generation to generation. The Shaolin monks exist today as a strong bearer of Chinese culture.  The monks who mostly live in the Song Mountains of China, at the Shaolin Temple lead an ascetic life focused on their Buddhism and Martial Arts.  They have received much criticism of late because their leader- has marketed the Shaolin way to the world.  He has franchised the name and their brand of martial arts. He has created a tourist site in China for the curious to visit and other sites in China to learn the martial arts of the Shaolin.  He has licensed the name for movie making and even tried to offer stock in the monastery. The leader of the monks-who once led simple lives drives a fleet of fancy cars and has evidently taken lovers who he supports in Australia. I believe that the temptations of the world for this group of ascetics have overwhelmed their ideals because they withdrew so much from the world.  They lacked balance.

But for us Jews, we are of the world.  We don’t have monasteries to escape to, or ashrams of silence; we have synagogues abuzz with sound. We have a Beit Knesset, a house of gathering where we come together not only to give voice to our hopes and dreams, not only to study and pass on our traditions, but to gather as a Jewish people. Our history has shown that we have balanced our communal needs as Jews. We Jews build a Jewish community while engaging with the world. Even in Medieval times or earlier during Roman times, going way back in our history, we Jews balanced our engagement with our own and the outer world.

The danger for all of us now and the elixir of our time is that we are too much in the world.  We as a people are losing our balance. We leave behind the synagogue, our ancestral place of gathering because it isn’t enough of the world. It seems too parochial.  It seems to no longer speak the language we can relate to; religion seems increasingly superfluous in these days and times. And of course if you have no faith only a rational view of the world, and only see the world and life in black and white-then hope is dead along with God. So why bother to tie yourself regularly to the Jewish community, the synagogue?

But the great friend of the Jewish people, Pope Francis wrote profound words:  Faith is not a light, which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.  During these next 10 days, faith in God and faith in our tradition as Jews will help carry you and cleanse you on this holy journey.

So this time of year is our ingathering- our journey.  Rosh Hashanah is our time of rebalancing our worldliness and our Jewish teachings, the pressures of earning a living and the sweetness of the Torah. This day that we celebrate, Yom Harat Olam, the birth of the world- is our time of reconnecting as Jews- and at a time more than ever before when we –the Jewish people come together- to heal ourselves of the hurts, disappointments in ourselves and the world around us and to try and turn to a more holistic way of being in the world than the year before.  We don’t choose to simply turn inward.  We turn around.  We do teshuvah.

Because after the ten days of Awe we will go back out into the world and have to manage and grow and deal with our homes, our families, our children, our businesses, our studies, our successes, our failures with the possibilities that we can with the help of our Jewish community and family and OUR congregation, overcome our past transgressions to reveal a new strengthened voice together.

Rabbi Albert Lewis, z’l who headed Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles for many many years- shared the following story.

During his lunch break at work, Joe took a seat on a bench next to a fellow worker and began rummaging in his brown paper sack.  He pulled out a sandwich, examined it and again muttered in disgust, “Ugh, peanut butter!”  He opened the next sandwich, examined it and again muttered in disgust, “Ugh, peanut butter!”

Joe left both sandwiches uneaten.  His buddy, who was greatly enjoying a cheese sandwich, sympathetically asked, “ If you don’t like peanut butter sandwiches why don’t you ask your wife to fix you some other kind?”

Joe frowned at him and said, “Wife? I packed these lunches myself!”

Like Joe, many of us are constantly complaining about problems and conditions that we have packed into our own lives, And like Joe, many of us are just not willing to face up to the fact that we ourselves made the sandwich.  If we are upset about our spouse, or if our children seem to be inconsiderate, or if we are angry with another person, we regard them as the cause of our problems. Right?

The answer is sometimes “wrong!”  It is true that there are some areas of our lives over which we have little or no control. But many of us have fallen into a routine, a habit, a way of living that is our doing not someone else’s.  Every day we as it were pack our own sandwiches and then complain that we don’t like them.

It is this season of the year that reminds us that we can change the pattern. We can if we are so inclined, choose and change the contents of our sandwich to something more tasty, more meaty, more healthy, more enjoyable, more moral, more ethical, more spiritual.  Or we can end the year complaining “Yich! Another peanut butter sandwich!” and then start the New Year over again with the same menu.  That’s fine if you are satisfied with only peanut butter. But then accept that you like being stuck in your ways.

This is our eternal challenge. How can we use this New Year season to become the person you have always wanted to be? Our history, our heritage asks of us to take a deep look at the recesses of our existence. Even the places we would rather ignore. And you know what they are. Even if you would rather live in denial deep down you know what you must confront. This is the time to do so, this is the season. This is when we Jews seek to rebalance our inner and outer lives. When we are called by God to change for the better. When we make teshuvah by examining our spiritual selves and trying to renew our faith in ourselves and in God.

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Harat Olam, the day of the world’s birth, humanity’s birth, your rebirth, gives each of us the opportunity to start afresh, to acquire new tastes, new ways of living and to Choose to be different and it teaches us that, more often than we are willing to admit, we pack our own lunches in  this world.  (Rabbi Albert Lewis, The World of the High Holy Days, Jack Reimer, ed. Vol 1. P. 37 adapted).

May this New Year be the year of being choosy for you and your family. Choosing the best Jewish practices so that these ten Days, the Yaamim Noraim, these ten day of awe will be the time and the year that you really choose and commit to and act upon the changes that will bring you the positive outcomes and the moral reboot that you have needed and have wanted.  May this be a year you choose and commit to balancing your Jewish life and the life of the world around you. May this be the year you will bring you outer world and inner world into harmony and balance.   That is what we do here together seeking peace and harmony in our world and ourselves.And choosing to change. I am glad you are here for the next ten days of the holy journey choosing to move toward a harmonious and balanced you! Ken yehi ration so may it be God’s will.

Planting Seeds…. a Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning

The following is my Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon for 5776

Shana Tov.  Boker Tov.  Good morning and Happy New Year everyone.

Character.  It is the template of a good person.  When we say a someone has character, We mean they are upright; Trustworthy and honest.  When we describe a person of character we see someone who can overcome hurdles, tough situations with grace and discipline.

We admire people for these kinds of qualities. Precisely because not every one can live up to such high standards.

Someone with character is devoted to their family and/ also to their work.  We use it in so many different ways.  When we say someone has character. We are describing someone who can perhaps tough out a difficult situation through discipline, fortitude as they live out their ideals.

Recently, author and New York Times columnist David Brooks latest book, The Road to Character, discusses this in detail.  He presents many stories of American heroines and heroes who possessed the qualities of selfless devotion to their families, work or vocations as examples of character and how we might begin to examine our own lives for these traits.

One of the most interesting aspects of Brook’s book emphasizes the teachings of one of the greatest 20th Century Jewish thinkers and theologians, Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik.  Rabbi Soleveitchik wrote a very important book in the 1965 called “The Lonely Man of Faith”.

In it and Brooks explains Soloveitchik’s teaching very well.  The noted Orthodox rabbi talks about two archetypes or people – Adam 1 and Adam 2.  Remember the word Adam in Hebrew means human being—(besides being the name of the first human being in the Torah). And Rabbi Solveitchik’s idea is that the two creation stories in Genesis teach very different messages about human nature.

Brooks explains Solveitchik like this:

“Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature…external Adam, resume’ Adam, Adam I wants to build, create, produce and discover things, He wants have high status and win victories.” (p. xii)

While, “Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world.”  “Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities.”  (p. xii)

“…Adam 1 –the creating, building, and discovering Adam –lives by a straightforward utilitarian logic.  It’s the logic of economics. Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self- interest. Maximize your utility, impress the world”

“Adam 11 lives by an inverse logic,” Brooks writes.  Adam II lives by “…a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave…. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses. (Ibid.)”

Oh it’s not very in fashion now.  In our world today having character, being ethical, trustworthy and honest seems old-fashioned.  It doesn’t comport with the outrageous behaviors we see all around us; the often-shocking language, comportment and behaviors of those in the public eye. Of course there is the mean spiritedness of politics and reality television (often one cannot tell the difference between the two); the kind of selfishness of our economic theories that put the corporate fat cats above the communal good.  And don’t forget the increasing income gap in our society between the 1% and the rest of us.  This emphasis on the rights of the commercial corporations over people is an example of the lack of character and the denigration of character ideals in our country.

When Corporations matter more than people then the ideals associated with having character like selfless devotion to the community and to humanity, then we know this is not among society’s values.   When leaders pit one group against another as a way of retaining power- without an outrage then this is a how you know that the ideals of character are not among society’s values.  When all decisions are based on what feels good to me-rather than considering the impact not only on self but also on family, friends and community-then the notion that living a life with character is no longer seen as positive. We live in an Adam I world.

But on Rosh Hashanah we Jews come together to try to restore our character.  Our Jewish responsibilities, our mitzvot, are designed to help each and every adult live a life with dignity and to live a life filled with character.  The mitzvot of our tradition teach us to be honest and trustworthy. Our mitzvot speak to us of caring for our family even when they are annoying: we are taught to honor our parents, not love them.  The mitzvot of our tradition try to shape us into living up to our title- as being created B’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God.  Our tradition, our Judaism (which is Solveitchik’s point) helps us to aspire to live lives like Adam ll.  Rosh Hashanah in particular and these ten Day of Repentance and Yom Kippur remind us to seek out the Adam ll parts of our being. These holy days remind us to aspire to live lives of holiness-Be holy for I Adonai your God am holy.

In society that surrounds us we are subject every day to images and sounds that eat away at our souls.  More cars and hamburgers are sold with an appeal to our base natures.  And for most of us-even those of us responsible for the creative material that is used across media platforms are forced by the powers that be to deal at the level.  Sell more product- buy more just to have more.  All you have to do is feel good.  Now there is nothing wrong with nice things-or feeling good but if this is our main goal and society’s emphasis then we are missing the point of living a life of meaning and a life lived with character. We are missing the meaning of a life filled with holiness.

I contend that this lowering of the human endeavor, this emphasis on corporate greed has translated into making us little better than the animals themselves.  When we human being operate at that level-we lower our standards and add to a world that is desensitized to human pain and suffering, that is desensitized to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, we ourselves withdraw.  We say I am only going to be concerned with myself and my family.  Selfishly we protect what we have because of course someone else is after it.  And the structure of a society that cares for its own is destroyed.  My friends, we are close if not already at that point.  When we see the body of three year old Syrian boy wash ashore because no one will address the crisis of those fleeing war and turmoil in Syria-we are barely hanging on to the lowest rung of humanity.

Yes there is the occasional outpouring of caring-a hurricane in the Philippines, an earthquake in Nepal or Haiti but it is driven by emotion-not discipline.  And so Haiti is still in deep trouble all these years later-and Nepal? Who is really helping out there still?  Noblese oblige—the nobleman and women who take pity on others to help out occasionally is so different than our notion of tzedakah—of righteous giving.  For tzedakah is a discipline.  Tzedakah is not charity.  It is righteousness.  Tzedakah is not something we do only when we are moved to but a discipline we must engage in each and every day.  Being called to righteousness develops character-rather than pity in those less fortunate than ourselves.  Tzedakah is yes a moral obligation. Not something that gives you just a tax break.

Rosh Hashanah morning and the sounding of the shofar is calling you to say – it is time to rebuild your character. The Shofar is reminding you to live a life as Adam ll. Teshuvah repentance is about recommitting your life to ideals of our Jewish tradition.  Of examining where you strayed- yes where you sinned and renewing your ability to live a life of character.  The High Holy Days is our time as a Jewish community to say we can do this together!

The Shofar this morning is calling you to look toward your God, your Higher Power, to fall in love again with the Divine Spirit of Universe and to cleave to God as the kabbalists would say.   To know before who you stand on this holy day. This is the season that is urging you to take responsibility for nurturing the Adam ll in you.

The sound of the Shofar is calling the Jewish people together to become a force for good in the world.  A force that helps society at large live lives filled with character.  We used to call that Or LaGoyim—to be a light to the nations.  We used to believe that Jews had a mission in this world—to live by ideals of Torah- I am not talking about rituals tallit and tefillin or even kashrut)  I am talking about the mindfulness that Judaism calls us to live by-in how we treat our neighbors, how mindful we are about the widow, the stranger and the orphan in our midst,  the mindfulness to remember that we were slaves in Egypt-and that we can’t, we mustn’t treat others as slaves.   Not our gardeners, nannies or housekeepers or teachers.

Sadly, our society treats us all as slaves-slaves to the corporate bottom line—with only a lucky few who get to have a piece of the pie.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that this is the season of change.  This is the season when we can affect our community.  This is the season when you can turn toward God and living a life of holiness.  Repentance, Teshuva is just that—sin drives us away from godliness, holiness but teshuvah helps us draw near again.  Rosh Hashanah is Yom Harat Olam, the rebirth of the world.  What will it take for you to be reborn this holy day season-and live your life with character rather than as a character?

The great neurologist, and psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankel wrote in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

We who lived in concentrations camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a person but one thing, the last of the human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance to choose one’s own way.

And there were always choices to make, (he writes).  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would become a plaything of circumstances, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate or whether you would choose instead to be free.

Today on this day of rebirth, renewal and repentance you can choose as well.  Will you freely choose to change the course from the wrongs of the past year?  The habits that hold you back?  Will you choose dignity, responsibility and living a life of character or will you choose instead to remain the same.  Repentance indicates change.  A change of attitude and action. A commitment to live with ideals and repentance indicates a turning toward living a life of holiness.

The shofar sounds for you to remind you of today’s task.  Dignity. Nobility. A sense of life’s purpose and meaning.  A deep and profound connection to our God and to the Jewish people. The shofar is calling you to be a part of something bigger than yourself. And calling upon you to choose to live a life of meaning.  The Shofar is calling you home-to live out the holy responsibilities of being Jewish. The Shofar is calling you to be a part of your synagogue that stands for these ideals and to support the synagogue—a holy place that reminds us to live lives of Adam ll rather than continue to reinforce the lives of Adam l.

Ask yourself what the Shofar is calling you to do and to become today?

A successful businessman was growing old and knew it was time to choose a successor to take over the business. Instead of choosing one of his directors or his children, he decided to do something different. He called all the young executives in his company together.

He said, “It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO. I have decided to choose one of you.” The young executives were shocked, but the boss continued, “I am going to give each one of you a seed today – one very special seed. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from the seed I have given you. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next CEO.”

One man, named Jim, was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly, told his wife the story. She helped him get a pot, soil and compost and he planted the seed. Everyday, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow.

Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by, still nothing. By now, others were talking about their plants, but Jim didn’t have a plant and he felt like a failure.

Six months went by — still nothing in Jim’s pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Jim didn’t say anything to his colleagues, however, he just kept watering and fertilizing the soil. He so wanted the seed to grow.

A year went by and the CEO asked the young executives to bring their plants to work for inspection.

When Jim told his wife that he wasn’t going to take an empty pot, she asked him to be honest about what happened. Jim felt sick to his stomach, it was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life, but he knew his wife was right. He took his empty pot to the board room.

When Jim arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives. They were beautiful – in all shapes and sizes. Jim put his empty pot on the floor and many of his colleagues laughed, a few felt sorry for him!

When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives. Jim just tried to hide in the back. “My, what great plants, trees and flowers you have grown,” said the CEO. “Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!”

All of a sudden, the CEO spotted Jim at the back of the room with his empty pot. He asked Jim to come to the front of the room. Jim was terrified.  He thought, “The CEO knows I’m a failure! Maybe he will have me fired!”

When Jim got to the front, the CEO asked him what had happened to his seed. Jim told him the story.  The CEO asked everyone to sit down except Jim. He looked at Jim, and then announced to the young executives, “Behold your next Chief Executive Officer — Jim!”

Jim couldn’t believe it. Jim couldn’t even grow his seed. “How could he be the new CEO?” the others said.

Then the CEO said, “One year ago today, I gave everyone in this room a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds; they were dead – it was not possible for them to grow.

“All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you. Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive Officer!”

If you plant honesty, you will reap trust

If you plant goodness, you will reap friends

If you plant humility, you will reap greatness

If you plant perseverance, you will reap contentment

If you plant consideration, you will reap perspective

If you plant hard work, you will reap success

If you plant forgiveness, you will reap reconciliation

So, be careful what you plant now; it will determine what you will reap later.

Sometimes the sins, the failures we encounter along life’s path are the holiest of moments when we can turn it around, learn to surrender to living honestly.  Just as Jim seemed to fail, the truth literally set him free.  He lived his life with nobility, dignity and honesty.

This year you can plant within your soul the seeds of character. And you can nurture all year long a life that calls you to live in this way.  And this year we need you to help our synagogue remain healthy and strong by planting seeds for its future. Because if we keep living lives of Adam I,the synagogue and Jewish life will be doomed because Jewish ideals and mitzvoth are based on the life of Adam II.

It’s Rosh Hashanah the time of year where we repent and ask God and our fellow human beings to forgive us from our sins.  It is a time of starting over with a clean slate.

Hear the call of the Shofar to plant within your own soul a commitment to a life of integrity and character.  Indeed you will reap a life of meaning and blessing.

As my gift to you—on your way out today- the ushers will distribute-a packet of sweet basil seeds.  No they are not boiled—but hopefully you will go home and plant them and nurture them and grow luscious sweet basil for your cooking and your home.  The sweet basil I hope will remind you to live a New Year with sweetness and responsibility.  A New Year filled with living a life of character.  Plant goodness, honesty, trust, hope, ethical living and mitzvoth in 5776.  Happy Planting.  Ken Yehi ratzon.

Where Have I been

Dear Friends and Readers

I have been a bit AWOL as 2015 begins.  That’s because I have been busier than ever!

Kol Ami is growing and program-wise thriving!  Our building is getting refreshed and I am so exicited.  Here is the an article that appeared in WEHOVILLE  about the amazing refurbishing and renewal at Kol Ami!  Come by for a visit.

This week alone is an amazing program on Thursday night about Jews from the Middle East  cosponsored with JIMENA–with a panel about Jews from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and their traditions.

Friday night for Shabbat evening services we will be blessed with the amazing poetry of Alden Solovy who is one of the most interesting people. He is from Jerusalem. He is a poet and prayer writer.  Here is the link to his wonderful spiritual blog. And he will be bringing his insights to us as a way to touch our deepest spirits.

Saturday night you don’t want to miss our Cabaret, fundraiser headed by Glenn Rosenblum, David Kaminski and others….

AND on Sunday if you are in your 20’s and 30’s our Kol Atid group is having an OSCAR VIEWING Party at Kol Ami
And then Purim on March 7 at 7;30 pm with our annual crazy Purim Schpiel….. So get ready to roll to an reinvigorated, dynamic Congregation Kol Ami–where there is something for everyone!

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Reflections of Israel on the 40th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War

Yom Kippur Morning – Reflection of Israel on the 40 Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War

Boker Tov, Good Morning.Gmar Chatimah Tovah. May you all be sealed in the Book of life.

As many of you know this summer I completed my Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative and graduated as a Sr. Rabbinic Fellow of the Jerusalem based Institute.  The Shalom Hartman Institute is a place of higher learning, teacher training; it is a Jewish think tank and research institute, a place of rabbinic leadership and Jewish communal lay leadership training. It is a place where academics from all nations gather to discuss Israel, Judaism and modernity, and religious ethics.  The Hartman Institute runs two Orthodox High School one for boys and one for girls, trains IDF, Israeli Defense Force officers in Jewish ethics and the ethics of warfare, and provides an opportunity for North American Rabbis of all denominations to gather to study in a free-wheeling Yeshiva setting, encountering the texts and philosophies of our Tradition and apply them to the contemporary world.
It is important that you know my three years there were sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.  They underwrote my learning and travel to Israel for the last three and half years.  I would be remiss if I didn’t give a public thank you to the leaders of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, the Shalom Hartman Institute and all of you who continue to support the Jewish Federation Council.   I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank you, our congregation and our staff for supporting me in this opportunity to broaden my learning and vision and engagement with Israel and the texts of our tradition.

My encounters in Israel these last 3 ½ years have only made my love for our ancient land grow deeper. I have learned to see a different Israel; a more complex and mature Israel than the naïve Zionism of my childhood. And it has changed my heart. As the medieval poet Judah HaLevi wrote  “My heart is in the east, but I am on the edge of the west.”   This morning, as we commemorate 40 years since the Yom Kippur war, my heart is turned eastward to Eretz Yisrael and her neighbors.

I don’t know about you, but in 1973 I still remember as we exited the grand sanctuary of TempleIsrael in Memphis, TN. (after counting the pipes of the organ all morning) everyone was standing on the steps outside and the foyer worrying and talking.  The Rabbi had announced at the conclusion of the morning service that Israel had been attacked that day.  Everyone was so upset.  I remember the following days as the casualties grew and the fierceness of fighting continued as Egypt and Syria kept making incursions into Israeli held territory. It would be almost three whole days until Israel could muster enough of its forces to begin to hold off the combined Arab armies.

Somehow this war would be a different war than 1967’s six day rout by Israel.  Fierce fighting continued for three weeks.  Ending only by diplomatic cease-fire and when Israeli troops had made their way within 25 miles from Damascus in Syria and crossed the Suez Canal encircling the city of Suez and Egypt’s entire Third Army and the Israeli army was only 63 miles from Cairo.  Despite the UN Ceasefire there were skirmishes between the Egyptian army and Israel until January of 1974 and on the northern front with Syria until May 1974.

But the 1973 war was different.  Despite many warnings as early as Rosh Hashanah that both the Syrian army and Egyptian army were amassing troops and tanks, the high level military commanders in Israel did not believe that the Arab armies would strike out against Israel post 1967.  And in papers recently released then Prime Minister Golda Meir, admitted she knew war was imminent but could not call a preemptive strike. This left the Israeli army very unprepared for the attacks on Yom Kippur Day 1973.  They were taken by surprise.

That war also almost led to a real confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviets.  In those years Egypt and Syria were client states of the former Soviet Union. Both were armed by the Soviets and its officers trained by the Soviets.  Throughout the war as tension increased the US and the Soviets almost entered the war. In one naval battle, Israeli and Soviet gun ships exchanged fire off the coast of Syria.  Luckily Henry Kissinger’s brilliance saw this encounter as a way to woo Egypt from the Soviet sphere. And today Egypt still receives serious financial and military aid from the U.S.

Five years later-the Camp David Accord of 1978 would bring peace between Egypt and Israel and the price was the return of the Sinai Peninsula.  But the Yom Kippur war changed something in Israel and her soldiers and the country.  For the first time they were defending the territories captured in 1967.  And Israel came within hours of losing the entire country and using nuclear weapons.  The losses were great for Israel during that war 40 years ago today.  And for the first time Israelis began to question their own governmental and military tactics in a new way.

And that questioning that began there 40 years ago today-is never more apparent than in Israel than now.   What kind of state should Israel be?  As it in now 65 years old, what kind of Jewish Democratic Israel should unfold?

Israelis have had enough.  There is an important debate that is going on in Israel about the role of public and governmental Judaism.  As the Haredim, the ultra Orthodox communities continue to grow through tremendous birth rates, traditional and secular communities in Israel have become embittered at the public control of the Chief Rabbinate over daily life and the lack of involvement in the State by the Haredi communities by paying taxes, and being part of the workforce.  Hence the recent law that passed the Knesset requiring Haredi Ultra Orthodox men to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.  I have to admit when I spent a day at the officers training headquarters this summer I was stunned by the number of Hareidi Jews black hats, knee briches and arba kanfot flying as they walked briskly through the corridors on their way to army offices.  This is a definite change. While not all Hareidim are supporting this change and several Haredi soldiers have been beaten up as the came home on the weekend to their ultra-observant neighborhoods, increasingly this compulsory service will indeed change the Hareidim-it will help them adjust to modernity and force them to learn a trade and it will change the Army and all of Israel as secular Israelis and Hareidim meet and must work side by side.

This questioning and protests within in Israel has been a fascinating progression in the life of the Jewish state. Just a couple of months ago –there were elections for the New Chief, Ashekenazi and Sephardic rabbis of Israel.  For the first time ever, more moderate Religious Orthodox Jews ran against the Haredi rabbis.  While they didn’t win this time they came very close.  There have been many reports and questions even asking why there still is a chief rabbiniate in Israel controlling such areas of life, including marriage, birth and death and conversion and Kashrut.  These have been questions Reform and Masoriti communities have long asked and fought for, now it is being asked in many other corners of Israel and within the Israeli government itself!  In Jerusalem in Machne Yehuda, the large central market, a group of restaurateurs have gathered to create their own certificate of kashrut, rejecting the Jerusalem Chief rabbinates’ certification and the fees and often outrageous rules they must follow. This is but one example of the pendulum swinging and people asking for themselves: “What kind of Israel do we want?”

And many of you no doubt have followed the news stories about the Western Wall and the efforts of Women of the Wall to organize its monthly women’s prayer service there.  I have spoken about it before on the High Holy Days.  Again this summer I went in July for Rosh Chodesh Av to pray in the early morning service at the Kotel.  It was really different than previous summers, because this year group leader Anat Hoffman recently named Person of the Year by Haaretz Newspaper in Israel and the Women of the Wall group sought a new court ruling from Jerusalem District Court about the ability to pray at the Kotel.  It used to be that the police would arrest the Women of the Wall for praying there. Now the police have been charged with protecting the Women of the Wall in prayer.

We gathered at 6:30 am at Gan Hapamon, Near the Inbal hotel 350 women and 100 men boarded buses and were now escorted by police into the OldCity. Now the police was protecting us from the angry crowds of Haredim.  When we arrived we were ushered into the KotelPlaza without a hassle but we didn’t make it very far.  For the Heads of the Right Wing Yeshivas had called on the young women age 12-17 to arise even earlier and more than 5000 young girls blocked our way by filling the women’s side of the Kotel.  And stuck in the upper plaza we faced a line of young Charedi teenagers in their streimels and payot yelling obscenities at us while old women blew whistles.  The police would not let us try to push forward near the Kotel and so we led our joyous Rosh Chodesh service in the back of the plaza-with the Charedim, screaming at us, and throwing water bottles and eggs and the many us who had gathered. There were lots of N.American women rabbis in this gathering in July because all of us who were at the Hartman Institute this summer had joined together in solidarity for these Rosh Chodesh prayers. One young pregnant rabbi was hit by a water bottle.  Luckily she was okay. But it was disheartening. The man was arrested.  Here we had changed the way the police acted toward Women of the Wall but we were outnumbered and outgunned by the Yeshiva students.

Last November, the story and the momentum began to change-when the police arrested Anat for wearing a tallit during prayer at the wall.  They arrested her as they have before. But this time they stripped searched the former city council woman, and threw her in a cell with several prostitutes naked until the next morning.  Usually she would be charged and released in several hours.  After the outcry from within Israel and from liberal Judaism here in North America the Israeli government officials had to take note.  They were embarrassed but still the following months the police under orders of the Kotel rabbi arrested several prominent Reform women rabbis as well for carrying their talitot into the KotelPlaza.

Again the cry of Diaspora Jews was beginning to be heard.  I worked closely here in Los Angeles with our Counsel General here in Los Angeles to create a Rabbinic Task Force.   I knew that we had a unique opportunity to influence Israel and to convey the urgency to the Israeli government that squelching the prayers of women dedicated to prayer, and continuing to empower Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz the rabbi of the Kotel to have the police act like thugs would only aver to damage Israel further in the larger Jewish community outside of Israel.  On that task force are Rabbi Laura Geller and I,  Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Eddie Feinstien,  Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David Judea,Rabbi Kalman Topp modern Orthodox rabbi of Beth Jacob, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin Modern Orthodox rabbi of Agudath Yisrael of Century City,  Rabbi Yitzhok Adlerstein of the Wiesenthal Center-who represented even more right wing Orthodox movements, Rabbi David Eliezeri of Chabad of Orange County, and Rabbi Judith HaLevy and Rabbi Steve Carr Reuben of the Reconstructionist movement.  It was a group that never had sat down before. We began to talk about the Kotel and what does it mean for the State of Israel to discriminate against some Jews.  It has been an interesting roundtable.  Not that we always agree. But unlike the Board of Rabbis where some of these further to the right rabbis won’t participate, they all do care about Israel, and what kind of Israel is going to exist!

Over the last year, we have met several times. Including a private meeting with Ambassador Michael Oren, scholar Michah Goodman, Rabbi Rick Jacobs,  the president of our Union for Reform Judaism and of course Natan Shransky who was charged with solving the situation at the Western Wall and the ability of WOW to be able to pray and the issue of egalitarian prayer.—Men and women together.

There have been ongoing negotiations at the highest level. In Jerusalem, in Washington, D.C. and New York, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movement and Modern Orthodox movements here in the Diaspora have been heard. And when recently the Minister of Religious Services and head of the Israel Beytanu Party, Naftali Bennett  tried to do an end run around the compromise that has been reached, again the voices of North American Jewry spoke out and were heard.

But the compromise that has been reached is as follows: Women of the Wall are allowed to pray with their tallitot, in the manner of their custom, with their prayerbook at the Kotel, but also eventually there will be adequate facilities in another area of the Kotel, near Robinson’s Arch that will be open 24/7, and that will be entitled for liberal prayer, including Reform and Conservative prayer of men and women together.  There are more than 100 torah scrolls owned by the State of Israel at the Kotel, but so far Rabbi Rabinowitz has refused WOW access.  The new compromise will allow access to the Torah scrolls and prayer books.  But this plan will take time to make happen.  And much remains to be seen as to how the interim is handled!  Women of the Wall had a beautiful and successful Selichot service at the Kotel including the sounding of the Shofar on Sept. 1.  So it remains to be seen how on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan the story will unfold.

But a significant part of the compromise is that for the first time Reform and Conservative Rabbis will be recognized by the State and there will be a new configuration of the foundation that controls the Western Wall Heritage Site, including liberal Jews and women who will make up the group!

Israel is changing in many positive ways.

But Israel won’t change if we just walk away.  If we simply opt out and say we don’t care.  We American Jews, we have a stake in Israel. Even if we don’t make aliyah, move to Israel.  Israel is our homeland. It is the land of our heritage, our roots as a people.  Even if you as a Jew have yet to visit there, Israel belongs not just to Israeli citizens, but to the Jewish people. The land of Israel is a pillar of our faith, God Torah, and Israel.  The land and the people of Israel-the People of Israel is not a political message but a spiritual one and include each of us here.  We are Am Yisrael. I want to encourage each of you-to visit Israel. To understand the place you have there, can only be if you visit there. And revisit there.  Going to Israel is even if it is your vacation-is different than a trip to China, or Greece, France or a Caribbean Cruise. A trip to Israel is a spiritual pilgrimage because it is a visit to the land of your ancestors.

The conversation in our country these last few weeks of the horrors endured by the Syrian people, and the potential for strikes against Israel by chemical weapons of Syria or the nuclear weapons of Iran should give us all pause.  It is not if Iran might make a nuclear bomb it is only when.  And the brilliant tactics that they have used agreeing to engage in talks and disarmament only to ramp up their spinning centrifuges should make us wonder at this new offer by Russian and Syria to engage in disarmament of chemical weapons when we have been trying for years to have this happen, only to be blocked at the UN Security Council by Russian and China!

We Jews have strived to learn from our history.  We Jews have said “Never Again”. Never again will we let a Dictator round us up and gas our people.  What about our obligation to other people? Will we stand silently by? As our Torah portion this afternoon asks of us?   Will we stand silently as Israel faces a chemical and nuclear threat? Or a barrage of rockets from Hizbollah or Hamas?

Will we stand silent when we seek an Israel that is more just and more democratic, when it fails to be? Will we stand silent or will be as members of the Jewish world, be willing to raise our voices for Israel?  In good times and in bad? We can argue Israeli politics, just like we argue politics here in the states.  But Israel is more than its politics. It is a place of complexities, and irony. It is a place of contradictions, and history, the home of many peoples and our Jewish home as well.

My experiences at the Shalom Hartman Institute have taught me this: We Jews are all a part of Israel.  We have a stake not only in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel but whether we live in the modern state of Israel or not, we Jews around the world have a stake in the success of the nation of Israel and we have a voice there as well.

In November I will return to Israel to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Women at the Wall along with a number of women rabbis. We will help usher in Rosh Chodesh Kislev. While we are there we hope to continue to uplift our voices that Israel matters not just to Israelis but to give evidence that Israel matters to all Jews everywhere and the right to pray and to practice Judaism in our custom is a powerful testament to our Jewish values and faith.  Israel is a precious place not just for Israelis but for you and me.  Use your voice as a voice for Israel, now and always. Use your miles to get there.  It is making a difference both here and there.

May Israel continue to flourish in this New Year.  And may we help to bring the bonds of friendship between America and Israel even closer in this year ahead.  Protect her and all its residents.  And let the gift of peace flow upon Israel as a nation as she seeks peace with the Palestinians and all of her neighbors.

The Bluebird of Happiness

Below is my Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon for 5774.      



Shanah Tovah u’metukah-I want to wish each of you a happy and sweet New Year!  Tonight we have begun our New Year’s observance with exuberance, with music and song, and reflection.  Thank you to Cantor Saltzman to our student Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel and our musical director Lisa Sylvester and are musicians. You have helped us create a place of pure happiness, especially as we live in a world of chaos.  

As this holiday arrives we wish one another Shana Tovah tikateivu. We wish one another Happy New year and good inscription in the Book of Life.  This is our way of saying we hope it is a good year for you. We hope it is a happy year for you.  The New Year comes with a promise, a hope, a dream of happiness.

Our Declaration of Independence declared that each citizen shall have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! This perhaps more than many other written guidelines have defined the American ideal.  Each of us as citizens, whether native born or naturalized has, as the founders of our Country held, has the God-given right to these three things. 

          Tonight as the New Year begins I want to focus on the pursuit of happiness. This wish we give one another to have a happy life.   It is our entitlement, our right as Americans to have the liberty and freedom, to pursue our happiness.   After all isn’t living a happy life our goal? We all want to be happy.  Even the philosopher Aristotle wrote so long ago:  Happiness then, is the end of action… –the whole point of life!

Many of us spend our own lifetimes trying to search out what will make us “happy”.  Sometimes it is a new car. Sometimes it is a special vacation. Sometimes it is pursuing an educational goal.  Sometimes happiness is sought through finding the right relationship. It is different for each one of us. It is personal. It is unique.

But the Pursuit of happiness certainly has defined our American ideals. And perhaps just perhaps, it is simply an important part of being human. 

For many of us the wonderful decision that brought an end to DOMA-the defense of Marriage Act and the Supreme Court Decision that threw out Prop 8 on an issue of standing-brought a kind of happiness that many of us could have only dreamed of.  It was a day of joy; the ultimate expression of our humanity to have a relationship solemnized and to be formally recognized as a family by society.

To be really able to marry the one you love for so many of us has been fleeting.  And now that avenue of the pursuit of happiness is available.   Will all of you who are getting married or have gotten married since Prop 8 was overturned please stand?


We wish you blessings of peace and joy, health and yes, happiness. May your lives together be entwined with patience and caring through sad times and time of joy. And May you create a home filled with reverence, faith, laughter and hope.  Let us all say Amen!  (You can be seated)


Now that was a happy moment.  But happiness is a state of being not just a state of mind.  And there is science to back that up!

Years ago an experiment was conducted in which test subjects were asked to mimic facial expression for six different emotions; happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. According to the researches when the subjects showed fear, their skin temperatures dropped and their heart rates increased. Appropriate physical responses were recorded for each of the remaining expressions.

So wouldn’t it make sense to act happy, confident and positive as often as possible? That’s not to say you won’t have sad days or experience any negative feelings. It simply means that by making a choice we can embody and manifest the absolute best for ourselves. 

 Finding the key to your happiness is not just a matter of your attitude but your health!


As Daisaku Ikeda a Buddhist teacher said: One thing is certain; that is that the power of belief, the power of thought, will move reality in the direction of what we believe and conceive of it. If you really believe you can do something, you can!

You can pursue happiness.  And Act happy.

     On this first day of the New Year, we Jews are so lucky. We can toss out the past behaviors, errors and sins that block our road to happiness and contentment and we have rituals that are designed to help us move toward greater happiness.  We are encouraged to confront the transgressions that muck up our relationships and to sort through them.  That’s not always happy business. But the goal during these High Holy Days of our tradition is to lead you through a process that will restore and purify your spirit, purify your soul in an effort to create a space of spiritual contentment. Rosh Hashanah and our traditions try to restore the balance in your life – so that you can be happy.

          Judaism recognizes that contentment and peace are huge part of the happiness equation.  If you are content with your lot in life, the Mishnah teaches you are rich indeed.

          In Jewish tradition that is why we say 100 blessings a day. We try and frame our day with a certain kind of mindfulness. A deep sense of gratitude for everything; from the food we eat, to the ability to get up in the morning, to move your bowels, and to have the chance to learn something new! Everything has a bracha, a blessing.  Not to be cumbersome-but to remind you of how much we have to be grateful for each and every day.  And the blessing, the bracha, is a way to take an inventory and remind yourself; how happy you should be given the many blessings in your life.  The blessing is the antidote to difficult moments. And if you are affirming the goodness in your life, well then you tend not to focus on the irritations and setbacks.

          This isn’t to ignore existential pain, physical pain or suffering. These are real and disrupt our inner and outer worlds. And yet even when we are faced with such overwhelming grief or distress, to continue with life we must “count what blessings we have”.  Appreciating our blessings, even if they seem few in number help lead us on a path toward greater contentment and the ultimate gift of peace and happiness.

          There is a great emphasis on mindfulness meditation.  Time and again people are telling me that their doctors and psychologists are recommending they take mindful meditation classes to help with everything from their high blood pressure to their anxiety disorders.  This is exactly what prayer is about.  We are here these 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to engage in mindful meditation about our lives and how to restore our souls and our bodies to a state of equilibrium!  We do this each week as Shabbat services.  And in truth if you pray daily as a Jew this is the goal! We Jews wrote the book on mindful meditation and how prayer can lead to a fuller, happier life.

A sign in a pet store read, “If anybody has seen the Bluebird of Happiness? It used to live here but seems to have flown away.  The bluebird of happiness supposedly flies over the rainbow somewhere, elusive at best.  But when we can find it, all happiness and joy can be ours.

     But Joy and happiness are not always the same things. Happiness can be thought of as more of a temporary, emotional condition, often based on outside circumstances. Joy, on the other hand, is deeper. It is often contentment in spite of the unsettling present. We can be basically joyful, regardless of a particular unhappy situation that we may be enduring. It is sometimes just a matter of keeping perspective on our troubles, and especially when those troubles seem to be in long supply.

You may know the story of the man who had a marvelous way of keeping joy in his life. He was a carpenter (No, not that carpenter.). He followed the same ritual every day when he came home from the job. He stopped by a small tree in his front yard and placed his hand on a couple of branches. Then,

when he walked into his home, it was as if a magical transformation had occurred. All of a sudden, the stress was lifted from him. He became energetic and joyful, dare I say happy, able to fully interact with his children and his wife.

He explained it this way: “That tree is my trouble tree. When I come home I stop by the tree and, just like I leave my tools in the truck, I leave my troubles outside of my home. I hang them on that tree before greeting my family. Anything that does not have to come in my house stays outside. Anything that I do not have to deal with at home, I leave on that tree. And in the morning, I stop by the tree and pick up the troubles I left there in the evening.”

       Then he adds, “It’s a funny thing, though. Every morning I always find fewer troubles remaining than I hung the night before.”

     Here is a man who has no doubt seen the Bluebird of Happiness.

Chances are it is nesting in a tree just outside his home. 

     For most of us we too get so caught up in the things that drag us down during a day that we forget to leave our troubles outside our home.  The ancient tale of the bluebird of happiness teaches us that happiness is often found just near our own homes! Happiness and contentment is close to home, with our family and friends who add meaning to our lives.

     But studies show one more thing-and that is happiness changes over time—we are not static in our desires and dreams-rather our sense of self and our needs change as we change, as we age.  What made us happy at 21 is different than at 40 and different yet again at 70 or 90.   We are different people in the course of our own lifetimes. 

      The Grant Study was a longitudinal study of 238 men who graduated Harvard University in 1938-1940, of course this study might be flawed because it contained no women and tracked college graduates. Nevertheless, it does give us a glimpse into a long time over 75 year study of a group who was monitored and checked with over the course of their lifetimes.  And the universality of the results were astounding. There are five lessons that come from this study, (

Love is all that matters, being a part of supporting and caring relationships is the most important factor in this study. But equally important is not pushing away love. Moving from the narcissistic self, focused on the “me”, and being able to move to care deeply about others also was an important factor.  We call this maturity.  Connections with other people are a must especially as we get older. As we age our circles of people who cared about us gets smaller and so for our own longevity, and reduction of stress we need other people.   Money and Power was not the key to happiness, it contributed something to the equation but when measured against the full life, the biggest factor was contentment at work.  You can make a lot of money but be miserable at your job and the money isn’t comforting in the end. It might make things easier but true contentment and peace comes from the satisfaction you get from your work. Finally, the ability to change your perspective-make lemonade out of lemons is crucial. These five factors were the results of this long term study.

     But how do we get there? What tools do we have for helping us find the secrets to a happier life? Many Jews look elsewhere, they seek it out in Buddhist practice, they explore political philosophies and politics as if it is their religion. They try new age spiritualties as an authentic expression that they can relate to.  I went to a service at Agape with a friend not so long ago and there were more Jews sitting there than here tonight! 

  My dear friends, I want to let you in on a secret.  Judaism is an age-old recipe for living a life of happiness.  Perhaps you don’t know it well.  Perhaps you didn’t have a strong Jewish education, perhaps the Hebrew has been a barrier or you think the only brand of Judaism that is authentic is an Orthodox one. And you say to yourself I can never do all those things like stop driving on Shabbat or wear those clothes or only eat kosher. I know more people in this room that limit their kind of food in one way or another-some of you are vegan, or gluten free, or carb free, or dairy free. You have the discipline and capacity to live out your values in your food consumption.

  But if you look at contemporary Judaism, even as we age and our focus on what makes us happy as human beings, Judaism is really a constant. It reminds us that we ought to live in a moral universe and we human beings ought to live our lives no matter what age we are—seeking contentment and happiness through the goodness of our character and, as the Grant study at Harvard showed the relationships we build.  .

Judaism teaches us happiness comes not from things but from relationship.  Just a tree blooms and bears fruit from the watering of stream as it says in the first chapter of Psalms, a person has contentment when they have right relationships with people and with their Higher Power-that we Jews call God. When we water and nurture our spirits and our good character then we are on the path toward happiness.  For these next ten days we are focused on getting right in our relationships. This is a time to own up to your mistakes, this is time to make amends. These next 10 days are part of your natural Jewish path towards a life of happiness, contentment and peace.

      Our tradition –teaches happiness is not found in external things but within ourselves-

“A truly happy person does not allow his happiness to be dependent on any external factor over which he may not have control.” (Chochmah Umussar, vol.2, pp.331-2) Teaches an ancient Jewish text.

The happiness factor in Judaism comes not from how much money one has or how big a home, because our tradition teaches that things are fleeting. As the book of Ecclesiastes taught us that everything, all labor can add up to is nothing but vanities—one day we are have money and the next it can be gone with the whims of the market.  We all sat here at Rosh Hashanah 2008 in panic because the accounts we had were tanking. Money comes and goes, jobs are not forever but to be truly happy is to be content in yourself.  That is the key to happiness according to Jewish tradition is to be someone who is just and kind and moral.  Be a person who is a mensch.   Then we will know true happiness because we will find that contentment comes when we have made peace with ourselves, peace with our loved ones and peace with God.  

The key to happiness is not out there.  But in Here.  In You.  The key to happiness can begin on this Rosh Hashanah and help you re-order, re-prioritize and return to yourself.  That is the nature of Teshuvah. It helps us return to the pursuit of happiness grounded in our authentic selves.  Thus equipped we can through the process of these High Holy Days, seek authentic relationships, feel love, feel our own worth, and remember that God made you just as you are. The Sound of the Shofar is calling to you to remind you of that spark inside you that is God’s presence and can radiate through you into the world.  When you let that spark shine through your actions, your mitzvoth, and your attitude it will change you for the better. There was a boy, whose family was very wealthy. One day his father took him on a trip to the country, where he aimed to show his son, how poor people live. So they arrived at a farm of a very poor family, as he considered. They spent several days there. On their return, the father asked his son, did he like the trip. “Oh, it was great, dad” – the boy replied. “Did you notice, how poor people live?”. “Yeah, I did” – said the boy. The father asked his son to tell in more details about his impressions from their trip.

     “Well, we have only one dog, and they have four of them. In our garden there is a pool, while they have a river that has no end. We‘ve got expensive lanterns, but they have stars above their heads at night. We have the patio, and they have the whole horizon. We have only a small piece of land, while they have the endless fields. We buy food, but they grow it. We have high fence for protection of our property, and they don‘t need it, as their friends protect them.”

The father was stunned he could not say a word. Then the boy added: “Thank you, dad, for letting me see how poor we really are.”

This story shows that the true wealth as well as happiness are not measured by materials things. Love, friendship and freedom are far more valuable.  And it also shows us the very point of the Grant Study-that our perspective and attitude and ability to make lemonade from lemons is the greatest measure of attaining happiness.

In other words, our attitudes and our outlook matter in the pursuit of happiness.  So how in this year of 5774 will you be engaged in the pursuit of happiness?  Will it merely be acquiring more things? OR chasing after vanities? Or can you shift your perception to include a focus on your inner being, your character, your attitude of gratitude in the world?  Can you use these High Holy Days to enhance the pursuit of happiness, the meaning of life and your Jewish birthright to lift you to higher planes of spirituality, contentment and peace? 

     Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Harat Olam, The day the world was born.

Is it literally the birthday of the world—exploding into a new year-a new time, this is the chance to have tonight, Rosh Hashanah be the beginning of a new world for you.  So sound the Shofar at the arrival of your re-birth.  Sound the shofar that the new you is soon arriving.  Sound tekiah in welcome of a commitment to a new way, a change in our attitude, healing our relationships with self, and one another and God and yes connecting in a community built on Jewish ethics and values that guide us today and into the future as well.

Ken Yehi Ratzon so may it be God’s Will



#Israel at 65

This sermon was given Friday April 12, 2013 at Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood CA.

Israel at 65

Next Week we celebrate Israel’s 65th birthday!  Far from retirement-Israel is just getting started.  It is a nation in progress.  Who would have dreamt 65 years ago-from the grief of the Shoah and the grips of a World War, a glowing shining nation-state would arise in the lands of our ancestors.   Who would have thought that after 2000 years the age-old dream of L’shanah HaBaha B’yerushalyim would have manifested itself after centuries of longing, hard work and yes, war into the modern state of Israel? Medinat Yisrael.  So tonight we celebrate this miracle in our lives.

I am not ashamed to say I am a Zionist.  I grew up a Zionist.  Belong to Zionist youth groups like Young Judea, B’nai Brith Youth, NFTY and worked closely in college with  consortium of Zionist groups working on aliyah to Israel. But it is not fashionable to be a Zionist or pro-Israel today.

But as you know Israel is under attack.  Yes we know about Hamas and Hezbollah.  But Israel is facing even more difficult attacks in the BDS movement.  Perhaps you have heard about it.

The BDS movement sweeping across universities and in mainline churches such as the Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians is an anti-Israel movement that would urges divestment in Israeli corporations .  The BOYCOTT, DIVESTMENT And SANCTIONS group is a Palestinian based organization that has been very successful in attacking Israel world wide.  Most recently the US Mennonite Church pledged to divest from any Israeli companies that are in its portfolio.

And only this week the Student Assembly at the UCSB,  University of California Santa Barbara voted down a proposal for divestment after the incredibly hard work of the Jewish students and Rabbi Evan Goodman who is the Hillel Rabbi there.

The BDS movement is strong across this country.

Fueled by lots of money from Arab countries including Iran the BDS movement has activated thousands of Palestinian and Arab students in University settings across the US. Academic communities including faculty in many of America’s and Britain’s prestigious universities have called for boycott of Israeli scholars, ended cooperation with Hebrew University and the Technion and Tel Aviv University, and some have stopped their year in Israel or semester in Israel programs. While others have urged divestment of University funds in Israel in protest of Israel’s lack of progress in peace negotiations.  The latest ploy is to bring Israel and its leaders up on charges in the International Court in The Hague  turning the imagery of the Nazis the greatest perpetrators of Anti-Semitism upon Israel itself.

As we gather to celebrate Israel’s 65th birthday, we do so against this world background of increasing Anti-Semitism in Europe in Greece and Hungary especially as right wingers demonstrate in the streets and this surge of Anti-Zionist and Anti-Israeli fervor.  That is why Israel needs us more than ever.

As Jewish Americans our support of Israel should be paramount.  But let’s be honest for many of us there is a disconnect as well. We think that Israel ought to have settled its differences with the Palestinians. Perhaps it shouldn’t be building settlements on disputed lands.  Perhaps we have issues with the rabbinate there-that puts our style of Judaism, liberal Judaism on unequal footing.

Even this week as Women of the Wall led Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel as it has for the last 25 years on the morning of the new month. Five  leaders were arrested for wearing a tallit during prayer. But this time it was different. For the first time they were released by court order written of course of by a woman judge.  And after prominent American women rabbis were arrested over the last several months Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered Natan Sharansky head of the Jewish Agency to find a solution to the dilemma of prayer at the Western Wall which has been given over to the Orthodox as a synagogue.

In high level meetings with American Jewish leaders including Rabbi Rick Block president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Rabbi Rick Jacobs president of the Union for Reform Judaism, as wellas Conservative and Orthodox movement leaders, Sharansky unveiled a plan to create better egalitarian worship space at the Kotel.  This would include major renovations to the Robinson’s Arch area and the ramp that goes up to the Temple Mount controlled by the Islamic Waqf-religious police that control the Temple Mount.  But it would be a vast improvement over the present situation.  What is remarkable is that the Rabbi of the Wall Rabinowitz has agreed in principle to this compromise when President Peres called him this week to remind him that all Jews have a place at the Kotel and in Judaism.  The President of Israel stood up for pluralism and for you and I who live outside of Israel!

My friend at teacher Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit Halachmi who is on the staff of the Shalom Hartman Institute and will soon be a faculty member of Hebrew Union College-our seminary recalled in a recent article that:

in an address in 1956 on Yom Ha’atzmaut – (Israel Independence Day, in an essay later called “Kol Dodi Dofek – “The Voice of My Beloved is Knocking”) Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik – the Rav -taught about two kinds of covenant: a Covenant of Fate Brit Goral, and a Covenant of Destiny, Brit Yeud. For the Rav, the sense of a Covenant of Fate is based on the experience of our shared suffering, and this shared memory generates shared responses and the behaviors of mutual responsibility. A Covenant of Destiny, Brit Yeud, on the other hand, wrote the Rav, is one which emerges anew because of the rebirth of the State of Israel. Israel is an opportunity for the Jewish people to become actively engaged in shaping our future, rather than only responding to our past.

Because of the State of Israel we can now respond to the call of the future collectively and actively with a new consensus about our shared sacred purpose.

As Dr. Sabath Beit -Halachmi states:

But, if we are honest, we must admit that today Soloveitchik’s notion of a dual covenant -while inspiring – is at best [only] an aspiration. In fact, one might argue that while Israel unifies the Jewish community in times of crisis, on an ongoing basis its complex realities often confuse, distance and divide world Jewry. No single aspect of the Jewish reality today challenges Jewish peoplehood and the possibility of a Covenant of Destiny more than the realities of the State of Israel.

We learn from this and from efforts to stop the BDS movement. Israel needs us as much as we need Israel. Israel the land of our ancestors, Israel the glorious miracle is not without her warts and problems. But the Israel of today needs Jewish Americans to remind Israelis we are still One People even with our disagreements over religious practice. Israel needs us to help her continue to thwart efforts to delegitimize it.  Israel needs us to remind it of equality between men and women. Israel needs us to help it remain Jewish and Democratic and not succumb to fundamentalist trends. And  We need Israel because it shapes our Jewish identity.

As Rabbi David Hartman said in his book “A Heart of many Rooms” Israel is too important to leave to Israeli’s”

In most places in the world-even with full citizen ship rights- Jews are a very separate group.  In America-we have moved beyond for the most part the quotas and CCR’s that kept us from schools and certain neighborhoods.  We have integrated fully in this culture so much so that many through intermarriage, or emphasis on secularism have been lost to the Jewish people.  But Israel provides for many American Jews their thread of connection.

As we celebrate Israel’s 65th birthday this Tuesday, let us pray for peace for Israel and her neighbors.  Let us pray for Israel’s internal strength to thrive and remain a Jewish Democratic state so that the destiny of covenant will be the inheritance of us all.