Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Jews, Christians, and Muslims – Looking at the Big Picture©

Jews, Christians, and Muslims – Looking at the Big Picture©
Parashat Toledot 2014/5775, Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

On Wednesday morning, I got off the subway stop at 116th Street and Broadway, as I had done hundreds of times in the past.  It was a familiar walk, but now, I’m over five years removed from my time at JTS.  But there was something that caught my eye that shocked me:  a man holding a sign that said “Google it:  Jews control Congress.” 

As my friend Steve Laskowitz wisely said, “If we actually did, then things would get done!” 

I don’t remember if I saw such blatant anti-Semitism that often when I used to get off on that subway stop, but after the events of this week, it stood out to me as a reminder that the hatred of the Jewish people is still alive and well in the world.  The events of this week were horrific in so many ways, but I think for most of us, it was the idea that a Mikdash Me’at, a small holy place, a synagogue, was attacked during prayer and five men were brutally murdered, four of these men, Rabbis still wearing their talit and tefillin.  For most of us, in conjured up scenes of the Holocaust, of Nazi soldiers murdering men in their talit and tefillin. 

As Jews we might think – what’s new here? The pessimist in us says, “the world will never change – we will always be hated!  We are a people that are destined to dwell apart – just accept it!”  But sometimes, it’s important to look at the big picture – to zoom out, rather than focusing on the man with the sign, or the brutal attacks this week, what’s the big picture? 

After seeing this sign, walking up to JTS, I realized that it was the sixth year anniversary of my senior sermon, where I talked about Parashat Toledot.  During that year, I ran a teen interfaith program which brought together teens from synagogues, churches of various denominations, and mosques to explore their faiths together.  I worked at the multi-faith center at Auburn Theological Seminary, and my time there, working with righteous Christians, Muslims, including an Israeli-Arab who worked and had a leadership position at the only Holocaust Museum in Israel outside of Jerusalem called the Ghetto Fighter’s House Museum, and the director of the Multi-Faith Center, the first Jew (and rabbi), hired for this position in the seminary’s history.  My time there deeply affected how I viewed the religious other and it gave me hope for the future, even in the darkest of times. 

I want to put things into perspective to how far we have come.  On Monday evening, I’ll be participating at our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.  If you told my grandfather when he was a young man that his grandson, a rabbi, would be speaking from the pulpit of a church, or that a Christian pastor would eat in our Sukkah with our community, and would publicly apologize on behalf of all Christians for thousands of years of persecution and abuse against the Jewish people, he would call the mental institution and have you committed!  The times we are living in today are not the rule, but the exception.  But it all began thousands of years ago, with the birth of two boys. 

In this week’s parashah, we are introduced to two figures who become the leaders of their respective peoples – In Genesis 25:23, God tells Rebecca, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will depart from your innards; and one nation shall grow stronger than the other nation, and the elder shall serve the younger." This is the beginning of Jacob and Esau, two men who are destined to be the representatives of their peoples, Jacob, the father of the Jews, and Esau, the father of the Edomites.  Edom was a nation that bordered Israel, but the Rabbis looked at Edom as more than just Israel’s neighbor – Edom eventually become Rome, not just a people, but a religion, Christianity. 

Before they were born, these two nations or faiths, were destined to be in conflict with one another.  We all know the story of Jacob and Esau – how Jacob tricked Esau into selling the birthright, and how Jacob dressed like Esau to receive the blessing from Isaac.  After this episode, we read: "Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him and Esau said to himself, Let the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob."  (Genesis 27:41)

Our rabbis did not look kindly upon Esau.  They viewed Esau as someone who could not control his animal instincts and therefore was more prone to evil. 

Rabbinic tradition actually speaks of two kinds of evil actions by human beings.    Rabbi Michael Gold recently wrote, “There are people who act l'teavon, because they cannot control their appetite.  This includes someone who hurts someone else while drunk or steals because of out-of-control greed.  There may be regret and room for repentance afterwards.  Then there are people who act l'hakhis deliberately and wantonly.  The act is motivated by pure hatred, with no regret.  After the murders in Jerusalem, there was joyful dancing in the street to celebrate among many Palestinians.”

After this week’s events, we have to confront the fact that all humans are created in the image of God, but many humans also have evil within them.  In fact, we read an ominous line from the book of Genesis (8:21), when God says, "the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth."

The relationship between Christianity and Judaism has been a rocky one, just like the relationship between Esau and Jacob, but we have seen great changes in the last half of the century.  Jews and Christians have learned to set aside their differences, respect one another and work together.  Although there are pockets of hatred, it is nothing like the past.  Jacob and Esau, the brothers who were forever fighting, have begun to get along.

We cannot take this for granted; rather, we must celebrate it. 

In times like these, when we are attacked in our synagogues, our sacred and safe places, we are tempted to put up the walls, to turn inward.  But what gives me hope is the scene from this week in Israel – the funeral Master Sergeant Zidan Saif.  Sergeant Saif was one of the first responders to Har Nof this week who was shot in the head as he protected the Jews in the synagogue on that horrible day.  He was part of the religious minority, the Druze, that are ethnically Arab, but serve both in the army and police forces of Israel unlike the Arab Israelis.  Many Druze have paid the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for the state of Israel.  

What surprised me, in a good way, was to see who came to his funeral.  The Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox population, is surely not monolithic, but one of their defining characteristics is that they turn inward.  Needless to say, Ultra-Orthodox Jews are not typically found at an interfaith Thanksgiving service. But this week, things were different.  A call on social media went out to the Haredi population – come to the funeral of this brave Druze man.  And they did – thousands of Haredi men and women attended, and the community even arranged free transportation to the funeral.

Risha Segal (28), a Haredi student and activist, who lives near the Har Nof neighborhood in Jerusalem, was one of the people who posted the online initiative calling for the Haredi sector to join the mourners.  "We are calling for widespread solidarity throughout Israel, with an emphasis on gratitude," he said. "We will not be ungrateful and will show our thanks for those who sacrificed their lives for us. This is one of the most important principles in Judaism."

At his funeral, the President of the State of Israel said, in a choked voice. "To the Saif family - I stand in front of you shaken and pained.  Terror has struck Jerusalem once more. Terror that does not distinguish between people. Terrorists turned a house of prayer into a house of slaughter. Your son did not hesitate or waver . . . He stood fearlessly against the terrorists and risked his life to protect the people of Jerusalem.  He acted according to the values he was raised with - courage, heroism, and self-sacrifice." What will we tell a five-month-old baby who will never know her father, who has been orphaned? We will tell her that her father was a hero."

Master Sergeant Zidan Saif was a Druze man, but he was buried with the Israeli flag, with the Magen David on it, and although he wasn’t Jewish, he is a Jewish hero. 

Jeff Jacoby, in an article he authored titled, “The Jewish state’s newest hero wasn’t Jewish” wrote - “For all the savagery of the terrorism that has sent so many innocents over the years to early graves, though, the funeral of Saif is poignant evidence that peaceful coexistence is not only possible in the Jewish state, it’s a daily reality, woven into the warp and woof of Israeli life.” 

In the end, what gives me hope is that I believe there are more people who have come around to us, and that the guy holding the sign is looked at as an outlier, not the majority. 

What gives me hope is that relationships can be repaired.  In the coming weeks, we will read about how Esau and Jacob come together again, and mend their broken relationship, just like Christianity and Judaism have done. 

In the Torah, we read how Ishmael, the father of the Muslim faith, and Isaac, the forefather of the Jews, had deep hatred between them.  But we also see that they come together again when their father Abraham dies, and put aside their past conflicts. 

I pray for a day when the children of Ishmael stop their hatred of the children of Isaac.  I pray for the day when these two Abrahamic religions can learn to respect and even love one another.  Yes, we must confront evil and defend ourselves.  But also, we must pray for that day when evil will finally disappear from the earth.  Let’s take the charge from the widows and orphans of the four rabbis who died this week to heart – to “come together so that we may merit mercy from Heaven, and let's accept upon ourselves to increase love and comradery, between each individual and each community.  Let’s turn this Shabbat into a day of unconditional love, a day during which we will refrain from words of disagreement and division, from words of gossip and slander.

May God look down from the heavens, see our suffering, wipe away our tears and put an end to our tribulations.

Monday, October 6, 2014

For The Spiritual But Not Religious...and The Religious But Not Spiritual©

For The Spiritual But Not Religious...and The Religious But Not Spiritual© 
 Kol Nidre, 5775/2014
Rabbi David Baum

Tonight, we cancelled out all Nedarim, all vows, that we will take this year, but I want to tell you the story of a Neder, a vow, that I took 18 years ago.

At the time, I was a college student at the University of Florida.  I was very active in Jewish life in high school, some might say, I was a Super Jew, but I thought that I wanted to take a break from it for a year, and take a break I did!  My Beit Knesset, place of gathering, became house parties, night clubs, and the football stadium.  One Friday night, I was approached by a friend of mine in the dorms asking me if I wanted to go to Hillel with her.  I looked at her, in a condescending way and said, “No thank you, I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” 

So where did I go instead of Hillel that Friday night for my spiritual journey.  An Ashram?  Lake Alice to meditate?  The Hare Krishna house? 

No, I went to a night club, I mean, it was Friday night after all. 

I will remember that night for the rest of my life, not because I had a good time, but because I came to a realization that evening. 

I held my plastic cup with a carbonated beverage, surrounded by young men and women seemingly having a great time, and I took a last gulp. 

And I looked down into my empty cup, and I felt that was something missing.

The cup was empty, and so was I, more empty than I had ever been before.  I was surrounded by people, and yet, I was utterly alone. 

Sure, I had been looking for moments of spirituality for months, but they never quite came to me. 

The neder I took that year led me on the path to become a Rabbi.   

I meet a lot of different people around town – and often times, the conversation changes when they find out that I’m a Rabbi. 

I get a couple of different reactions –like, the apology – I’m sorry I haven’t been to shul, I promise I’ll go to one soon! 

But sometimes, I’ll get the person who looks at me the same way that I looked at my friend – “Oh, you’re a rabbi…well, I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”

The spiritual is the soul – the neshamah, and the religion is the body, the guf.  This is what I want to talk about tonight, and it’s the perfect night to discuss this. 

If I were to have met college aged self, I would offer him words from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:  a body without a soul is a corpse, but a soul without a body is a ghost. 

Here is what I’ve learned about this phrase – Judaism doesn’t really separate the two – if you want to spiritual, you have to be religious, if you want to be religious, you have to be spiritual. 

There is a teaching from Pirkei Avot (2:4), the Ethics of our Fathers, that many of you might be familiar with:  Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibbur – You are not allowed to separate yourself from the community.  When I took that neder, I was going against this teaching.  But my question is, if you’ve never been part of a spiritual community, then how can you separate yourself from it? 

This is the reality for most Jews out there in the world. 

People often ask me, what motivates you to give sermons over the high holidays?  My answer:  Franz Rozensweig.  Not necessarily his teachings, but one day of his life. 

In October of 1913, Rozensweig was a 27 year old, child of wealthy and very assimilated German parents. 

Ten days before Yom Kippur, Rozensweig attended Rosh Hashanah services with his parents in his hometown of Kassel. A few days later, he went to speak with his mother, who was aware of the struggle he had been going through and already knew what he wanted to tell her. "You want to be baptized." Rosenzweig nodded his head and pointed to the Christian Bible he held in his hand. "Mother, here is everything. Here is the truth. There is only one way: Christianity." His mother asked him, "Weren't you in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah?" He answered, "Yes, and I will also go on Yom Kippur. Until I convert, I am still a Jew."

Why did Rozensweig feel this way?  Up until this point in his life, he knew very little about Judaism.  His parents wanted him to be Jewish, but they didn’t do any of the things that Jews do.  For example, he didn’t know what Shabbat was until he went to University.  He was a man of reason, and Judaism was an antiquated way of being for him.  His parents were Jewish in name only, and that wasn’t enough of a reason for him to continue their path. 

101 years ago to this day, Rozensweig went by himself to Kol Nidre services in a small synagogue near Berlin.  It was during that service that something happened to him that he never fully explained to anyone else. He wrote a friend: "After prolonged, and I believe, thorough self-examination, I have reversed my decision ... I will remain a Jew." For the rest of his life, Rosenzweig devoted himself to Jewish study and teaching, and became one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.

Without that experience, we would not have his famous work, the Star of Redemption, and others. 

I work my hardest on this day because when I look out in the crowd at the young and unfamiliar faces, I see that 27-year-old young man staring back at me.  I see my college self-staring at me. 

I see a soul without a body giving us another chance. 

The 27 year old Rozensweig’s of today is the spiritual, but not religious. 

They aren’t joining a church, or a cult; in fact, they aren’t joining anything. 

The Pew Research Center has revealed that the fasting growing movement in Judaism is not any denomination, rather, it’s the nones – Jews of no religion, and the highest concentration of them are Jews in their 20’s and 30’s. 

But this is not the full picture.  These same Jews perform some Jewish practices; they just do them alone.  They are proud to be Jewish, but do not surround themselves with other Jews. 

Religion has gotten a bad wrap over the years, and rightfully so.  Some Pastors, priests, Imams, and Rabbis have done things they shouldn’t have, embezzling money and abusing children.  Many have lost faith in organized religion. 

But this is not religion. 

Combining spirituality and religion is not easy, but here’s my definition of the ideal state of being a Jew – being spiritual, together. 

Here’s my advice to those who are spiritual, but not religious.  I will not quote the line from Pirkei Avot, Do not separate yourselves from the community, but I will quote an older line – Kedoshim Tihu, Ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Elohechem – I translate this phrase as a command - You all MUST be holy, for I am the Lord your God am holy.

The grammar here is interesting – it tells us that each one of must be holy, but we must also be holy together, all of us. 

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say – we may think we are searching for God, but as much as we search for God, God is searching for us. 

Can you pray alone?  Of course you can, but when you only pray alone, you lose something. 

There were moments of pure religion and spirituality this summer, when we collectively searched for God.  In response to the kidnapping of three boys by Hamas terrorists, their was a mass prayer vigil at the Kotel.  The parents of the boys asked the entire Jewish people to pray for the safe return of their children. 

During one of these prayer vigils, at the Kotel, some young girls approached one of the mothers of the kidnapped teens, Racheli Fraenkel, and asked, we are praying for the safe return of your son, but what if he doesn’t come back alive, do our prayers matter?  She answered them in the following way:  God doesn’t work for us.[1] 

She later explained what she meant, “Just because I’m praying with all my heart. It might help. I believe it could help, especially when thousands and millions are praying. They are. But nobody owes me anything. And if tomorrow, God forbid, I hear the worst news, I don’t want you to feel:  where did all my prayers go?  Prayer is very powerful but it’s not a guarantee for anything.” 

Prayer did not bring her son back, but it did unite a people.

She’s right, prayer is very powerful, and I think it’s heightened when we pray together.  God was searching for us, and we found each other.

Not only do religious practices help us connect to each other here, but they help us connect to our ancestors in the past, and our descendents in the future.  My brother came to me with a question – friends of his, two Jews, were getting married, but they were going to have a justice of the peace perform the wedding.  His friend asked for one thing though, a ketubah.  They didn’t know what the ketubah was for, just that it is a part of Jewish weddings.  I contacted them and told them about our rituals of marriage, how it connects us to the first couple Adam and Hava, and how they can bring God and community into our lives.  They agreed – and after the wedding, the couple thanked me with tears in their eyes.  They had no idea how beautiful our religious practices could be and how spiritual it could make them feel. 

Do you know what one of the most spiritual moments of the service can be – the prayer for healing.  I get calls all the time from the spiritual but not religious asking me to pray for their sick loved ones, as if my prayers will make a bigger difference.  The only reason they make a difference is because I pray with others who are also praying for the healing of their loved ones. 

You can’t get that feeling if you are only spiritual – being religious and spiritual means that you come together for one purpose, at a certain time, on a certain day.

It means that even though my day off from work is Monday, I share the Sabbath with you and the entire Jewish people on Saturday. 

It means that although I’m sure bacon might be delicious, full disclosure, I’ve never had it, I don’t eat it, because I’m both religious and spiritual – I believe that God wants me to eat in a certain way.  God also wants me to bless the food before and after, heightening my awareness to the food we eat.  In spiritual speak, it’s called mindful eating – pausing before one eats, savoring the food, thinking of who was a part of making the food we are ingesting.  God also wants me to share my food with those less fortunate, the most vulnerable in society.  That’s why when I go gleaning in the fields with my congregation, I am engaging in a deeply spiritual and religious act.  I’m providing vegetables for those who cannot afford them. 

So to those who are spiritual but not religious, I ask of you one thing of you– open your hearts to us, to our tradition and to our people, past, present and future, bring us into your lives, and we will bring you into our lives – take the vulnerability of today and bring it with you for the rest of the year.  In this coming year, do something different – journey on a path to holiness with us in this coming year.

Of course, there is another side – those who are religious, but not spiritual.  For some, the spirituality word is scary.  But it shouldn’t be.  Who doesn’t want to connect to the dimensions of our existence beyond the material?  Who doesn’t want to see that the universe is more than matter in motion?  This is part of what it means to be spiritual. 

For many, the High Holidays are coming home.  We want the familiar tunes from our youth because it brings us back, but the problem is, we do not grow.

If I could add an Al Chet to the list, it would be this – Al Chet SheChatanu Lefanecha…we all have sinned against you by not making the old new, and the new holy. 

This is a powerful statement by Rabbi Avraham Kook, one of the few ultra Orthodox Rabbis who embraced modern Zionism in the early 1900’s.  Rabbi Kook went against his community by serving the secular kibbutzim in Tel Aviv, reaching out to those who rejected Jewish religion.  I think he did this not just to teach them about religion, but because he knew that the religious community can learn from others, and we can all renew ourselves.

I hope you will forgive me if I make another confession:  The Slichot service of the past has never really done it for me.  Sitting in shuls across the world, in New York, Jerusalem, and South Florida, listening to the Hazanim chant the beautiful, but at the same time, too familiar tunes without offering any of my own prayers, acting as a bystander, no longer moved me.  I saw this too in our attendance.  Over the years, less and less people came.  We tried showing movies, adding Jewish learning, bringing in speakers, but none of this connected us to the idea of Slichot – pouring our hearts out to God and beginning the process of tesuvah.

I thought about Rabbi Heschel’s plea to the Rabbinical Assembly from 1953 – He warned them, “The dead do not praise God.  Those who are spiritually dull cannot praise the Lord.  That we sensed that this was a problem, namely, of how to increase synagogue attendance.  A variety of suggestions were made, to bring the prayer book up to date making the prayers shorter, inviting distinguished speakers, panels and symposiums; to celebrate annual projects such as “Jewish Cultural Sabbath, the Jewish War Veterans Sabbath, Boy Scouts Sabbath, Interfaith Sabbath – then he adds a vital question – “Why not a Sabbath Sabbath!”  Well intentioned as these suggestions may be, they do not deal with the core of the issue. 

Spiritual problems cannot be solved by administrative techniques.[2] 

I took his words to heart. 

Making the old new, and the new holy is vital to our future.  It is why our congregation is embarking on a new initiative partially funded by the South Palm Beach Jewish Federation called Shal’Ohm’ – Synergizing Judaism and spirituality. 

Say it with me – Shal “OHHHM”

For Slichot this year, we went to the beach, when it was still dark.  Amy Pessah, Cantor Hadash and myself planned a service that brought in Yoga, chanting, music, and of course, the traditional texts with explanations.  Honestly, I did not know who would show up, but I when I came to the beach, I saw 20 faces staring at me, most of them who had never been to a slichot service before.  All of us experienced something we hadn’t before, we were moved – it felt like the Ruach Elohim, the spirit of God, entered us and filled us up as we started this season.  There is nothing like seeing the sun rise as you thank God for being the creator of light and thanking God for renewing creation for us daily and recognizing this great miracle with our own eyes. 

I would not have gotten to this state alone, I had to be surrounded by our community, I needed the words that our ancestors gave us, and it all needed to happen at the right time, but I would not have gotten to this spiritual place without making the old new, and the new holy. 

For those who are religious, but scared of being spiritual, I say be a little vulnerable.  Open up your hearts to Torah, God and community.  Come to our Jewish meditation course on Monday evenings, come to our healing services which will be offered during the year, come to us. 

I’d like to end with a story.[3]  There was once a young man born to Jewish parents who felt empty inside, so he went from city to city, from priest to imam to guru, asking the same question, “Where can I find God?”  They all gave him different answers:  “Pray my son, and you’ll find God.  Meditate my son, and you’ll find God.  Study my son, and will you find God.” 

None of these answers satisfied him, he did not know how to pray, or what he was praying to, or how to meditate, and the studies seemed dry to him – how could he experience God only through pages in a book?  So he went to see a rabbi.  The rabbi said, “Forget your quest my child.  God is within you.”  This was perhaps the worst answer he had heard! 

The years passed by, but he decided to give it one more shot, and renewed his quest, traveling to different parts of the world.  One day, he went to a small village in the middle of the forest.  He met a woman tending to chickens, and she welcomed him to their small village of mostly Jews, and she asked, what are you doing here in our village?  Who are looking for?  He told her, I’m looking for God.  “Oh, you’re looking for God?  I’ll take you to him.”  So she took him to a house, and knocked on the door, and there he was, the rabbi who told him to forget his quest!  He thought, here we go again, I know, God is within me, but the rabbi told him something different – my child, God is in this village.  Why don’t you stay for a couple of days?  You might meet God?”  The man thought, what’s another couple of days to prove the rabbi that he’s wrong.  So he stayed.  The man searched every corner of the village, asking the villagers if they knew where God was that day.  They would only smile and invite him in for a meal.  Every evening, the rabbi would find the man and ask, “Have you met God yet my son?”  Not yet rabbi!  But he really enjoyed living in this little village, so he stayed for a month.  After a while, he became part of the village life, sharing in activities.  He actually went to shul on Friday night and prayed with the rest of the community, something he had never done in his life!  He would join families he didn’t know for Shabbat dinners, and they talked about God.  But he still had not found God in the village, even though everyone else had found God.  But after a while, he started feeling something he had never felt before – he started seeing glimpses of God in the village.  He realized that there was something about his tradition that wasn’t like the others, because it was his tradition.  One day, the rabbi came to the man, “I see something different in you…you’ve met God haven’t you.” 

The man replied, “Thank you Rabbi, I think I have, but I’m not sure why I met God or how or when.  And why is God only in this village?” 

The rabbi replied – God is not a person, my son, or a thing.  You cannot meet God in that way.  You were so caught up in the question that you have not hear the answers.  Now that you can find God, you can return to your city, if you wish.”  So the man went back to his town, and God went with him.  And the man prayed, meditated, studied, and shared it with others, and he knew that God was within him, and within other people.  One day, a young man approached him, “Where can I find God?”  And the man told him, “You have come to the right spot, God is within you, God is within me, God is in this place.”  And they journeyed, together. 

18 years ago, after I stared at that cup in that night club, and I realized how empty I was, I sulked for a week.  And then, as Friday evening approached, my friend again knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted to go to Hillel with her, and this time, I went.  When I entered those doors for the first time, I met a rabbi who embraced me and taught me Torah.  I saw familiar faces who prayed, sang, ate, and danced with me.  I experienced different types of prayer services that I had never experienced in my home town.  And after a couple of weeks, I found God, and God was within me, and within them, and in that place the entire time. 

To the spiritual but not religious I say – Kedoshim Tihu, Ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Elocheichem –  This year, You all MUST be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

To the religious but not spiritual I say – this year, You all must make the old new, the new holy.

And to all of us, on this day when we empty ourselves of the worldly pleasures, of food and drink, of oils and perfumes, of sexual relations, and of comfortable shoes I say what the prophet Ezekiel told us thousands of years ago – “Make for yourself a new heart, and a new spirit.”

Open your heart to God, and take some chances and open your heart to your tradition, and take some chances.  Open yourselves up to new experiences, but do them together with others. 

God is here, God is waiting, God is in this place; all you have to do is open your heart. 

Shannah Tovah, may we all journey together from here on a path to holiness. 

[2] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer”
[3] Story adapted from From Generation to Generation by Debra Orenstein and Israel Mowshowitz

Being The Giver and The Receiver – Yom Kippur 5775

Being The Giver and The Receiver© – Yom Kippur 5775/2014
Rabbi David Baum 

How many people in here have lost someone close to them? 
I am sure you have experienced immense pain from these losses.   
How many people would want me to take away your pain?
Here’s the catch – the only way I can do it, is to take away your memories.
Do you still want me to take the pain away? 
Every year, we make this choice – do we choose the pain of memory, or the comfort of forgetting?  Do we choose the joys of love but along with it the pain of heartbreak; or do we choose a life free from pain, but devoid of feeling and connection?  Do we choose brokenness or what seems like perfection? 
This is the premise of the book, the Giver, written by Lois Lowry in 1992 and adapted to a movie, that has become a favorite for teens for some time now. 

The movie offers a possible future scenario.  A society strives to eliminate war, bloodshed, violence, and all pain, but in order to achieve this; they have to eliminate certain aspects of life.  The memories of the past are taken away from them.  They are assigned spouses.  Their children are born through surrogate mothers and assigned to families so their children are not really theirs.  They are assigned jobs and purposes in life.  They get daily injections which dull their emotions.  Even the temperature is controlled.  Snow is eliminated so they can have ideal growing conditions for crops. When someone is too old to function in society, they are released into a place called Elsewhere, and their lives are celebrated in a ceremony.  In Elsewhere, no one will see the elderly in pain as they end their lives.    
On the surface, it looks like a perfect society.  The philosophy of the city is Sameness because differences bring conflict. 
But it turns out that they need memory for the society to function, so one person, called the Receiver, holds all of the memories of human history.  The hero of the book, Jonas, is to become the new Receiver, so the old Receiver becomes the Giver. 
As the story progresses, the reader or audience sees the faults of this society.  Everything looks to be in black and white, devoid of color.  When the elderly or sick are released into Elsewhere, they are actually euthanized because a quick death is better than a life of pain. 
As Jonas receives memories from the Giver—memories of pleasure and pain, of bright colors and extreme cold and warm sun, of excitement and terror, hunger and satiation, and love and heartbreak—he realizes how bland and empty life in his community really is. The memories make Jonas’s life richer and more meaningful, and he wishes that he could give that richness and meaning to the people he loves. But in exchange for their peaceful existence, the people of Jonas’s community have lost the capacity to love him back or to feel deep passion about anything. Since they have never experienced real suffering, they also cannot appreciate the real joys of life, and the life of individual people seems less precious to them.
Jonas sees this, the connection between joy and pain, but no one else can.  Jonas feels joy and pain, but no one else can.  Jonas sees color in the world, but no one else can. 
As I thought about this society, I realized how seductive it could be, not to feel pain.  How many of us try to take the pain away?  Some of us use substances, drugs, whether legal or illegal and alcohol, some of it necessary, and some not. 
There are times when I feel we are the people who surround the Receiver and the Giver– comfortably numb, and tranquillized – devoid of pain, but also devoid of joy.  We are so afraid of pain that we avoid it at all costs, even at the cost of feeling joy. 
The pain might go away, or at least, we think it goes away.    
When I was a rabbinical student, I once visited a substance abuse recovery floor as part of my hospital chaplain.  In the beds were men and women, young and old, and they were extremely emotional.  I saw 40 year olds acting as if they were 14 year olds; people would start sobbing and laughing at the drop of a hat.  It was the most emotional space I had ever been in – and I wondered why? 
The doctors explained it to me – these people have been medicating themselves for so long, that they haven’t allowed themselves to feel anything, so they’ve reverted back to the emotional state they were the first time they used.  That’s why that 40-year-old woman is acting like a 14 year old – because that’s when she started using.  That’s why they are laughing and crying so often – because they haven’t let themselves feel emotion in years.” 
It’s not just drugs that we use to numb the pain.  Some of us use food, we over eat, or we under eat, some of use sex, and for some of us, money or greed, or work are our drugs of choice.     
We think the pain goes away, but it doesn’t, it lays dormant until we choose to let it out. 
Thousands of years ago, the Rabbis read Leviticus 16:31, describing Yom Kippur as - Shabbat Shabbaton hi Lachem Vinitem Et Nafshotechem Chukat Olam – It shall be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for you all, you all shall afflict your souls – this is an eternal law.  They interpreted afflicting your souls’ to mean that you must practice self-denial, abstaining from food and drink, sexual relations, anointing ourselves with perfumes and oils, wearing leather shoes which is a great luxury, and bathing – you shall make yourselves empty and pure and only then can you feel affliction, the pain you’ve been avoiding all year, but also the potential of future joy. 
Today, on Yom Kippur, is when we let ourselves feel the joy of being alive, but also the pains of life.  Today, we choose to afflict our souls. 
Some use substances to take the pain away, others choose another method – they opt out of relationship. 
The movie, Good Will Hunting, tells the story of Will Hunting, a janitor at MIT who is actually smarter than the professors but no one will even so much as look at him because he’s a janitor, which is just the way he likes it.  One day, his secret is discovered and after getting into trouble with the law, he is forced to learn with a professor who thinks he is going to change his life for the better, but he must also meet with a psychologist played by the late Robin Williams.  As the movie progresses, we learn that Will grew up as a foster child – and he went from home to home, abused at almost every stop. 
How does Will cope with this pain?  He avoids meaningful relationship, and the ones he has are superficial at best.  Will immerses himself in books and knowledge, but he never gets too close to any living person.   
One day, his therapist, played by Robin Williams, confronts him on a park bench in one of the most famous scenes of the movie: “If I asked you about women you'd probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites. 
But you can't tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. 
I ask you about war, and you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? "Once more into the breach, dear friends."
But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap and watched him gasp his last breath, looking to you for help.
And if I asked you about love you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone could level you with her eyes. Feeling like! God put an angel on earth just for you...who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn't know what it’s like to be her angel and to have that love for her to be there forever. Through anything. Through cancer. You wouldn't know about sleeping sitting up in a hospital room for two months holding her hand because the doctors could see in your eyes that the term visiting hours don't apply to you.
You don't know about real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you've ever dared to love anybody that much.
In Psalm 23, we read the famous words, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”  The valley of the shadow of death is a real place that everyone in this room has been in. 
When we lose someone, we feel as if we are in the valley of the shadow of death. 
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes:  “There are times when the shadow that death casts over our lives is not the prospect of our own death but the death of people close to us, people we love.  They die and the sunshine goes out of our lives.  All we can see is the darkness.  The pain and grief we feel at a time like that is the price we pay for having loved.  If we didn’t love people that much, it would not hurt nearly as when we lose them, whether to death or to other circumstances.  To love someone is to make yourself vulnerable.  It means taking off the armor you habitually wear to protect yourself against the forces in the world that would hurt you. 
To love someone is to say to that person, being close to you is so important to me that I will give you the power to hurt me because I trust you not to use that power.  Sometimes people do take advantage of another’s vulnerability – spouses and lovers who grow angry at each other, parents who abuse their children physically or verbally, children who find ways to hurt their parents by hurting themselves with drugs or alcohol or by their choice of a career or a marriage partner.  And of course, everyone you love will hurt you, or be hurt by you, when they die, or you die.”[1]
I have built my rabbinate on the premise that relationships build better spiritual and religious communities, and better and more meaningful lives.  It’s a risky thing to build your rabbinate on.  We live in a society where fewer people are choosing marriage, and if they are choosing to be with someone, they choose to be together, but without the commitment.  We are having fewer kids than we used, or choosing not to have kids, perhaps so they won’t hurt us later with the choices they make that are out of our control.  We might have many Facebook friends, but the we see fewer and fewer people face to face. 
Through the years, I have asked you all to build relationships with each other, but I haven’t told you one thing – that you might experience real pain because of it.  Being in relationship with others might be one of the riskiest things you do in life.  As Rabbi Kushner said, eventually, you will be hurt, eventually, you will feel pain, but we need pain to grow. 
In the Yom Kippur liturgy, there is a beautiful, powerful, and some would say scary poem called Ki Hinei KaChomer – As clay in the hand of the potter, who thickens or thins it at will, so are in Your hand, God, Guardian of love. 
A story is told of an Eastern village that, through the centuries, was known for its exquisite pottery. Its urns were the most beautiful; high as tables, wide as chairs, they were admired throughout the country for their strong form and delicate beauty.
Legend has it that when each urn was apparently finished, there was one final step. The artist broke it – and then put it back together with gold filing. An ordinary urn was thus transformed into a priceless work of art. What seemed finished wasn’t, until it was broken.[2]
So what do we do with our scars?  What do we do to become whole again?  
When I was a child, my father used to make me leave the sanctuary during the Yizkor service, and I always wondered what I was missing out on.  I remember the first time I went to Yizkor without my father, who is very much alive and well, excited to see what I had been missing, what magic happens in Yizkor.  The rest of our services are packed with words and songs, piyutim – beautiful poems, even times when we prostrate ourselves on the floor, but Yizkor is only seems to focus on one paragraph of text – We ask God to remember the souls of our departed loved one, and then we say, “I pledge tzedakah to help perpetuate ideals important to them.  Through such deeds and through prayer and remembrance, may their souls be bound up in the bond of life.” 
Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig writes, “When we plead for God to remember the soul of our loved one, we are not asking God simply to open the Book of Memories and read what has been inscribed there, but to take note of something that hasn’t yet happened, something that has yet to be inscribed:  some concrete acts of ours that will change, if ever so slightly, our relationship with our lost loved one and their impact on the world.”[3] 
When we remember our loved ones, a part of us becomes broken again – we again feel the pain we felt when we lost them, we become broken again, but tzedakah is how we make ourselves whole, how we add the gold to the clay pot thereby transforming it into a priceless work of art. 
On June 7, 2007, the Levine family, long time members of Congregation Beth Tikvah, lost their daughter and sister, Emily Rachel Levine, in a tragic car accident very close to our shul.  Emily was just 18 years old at the time, about to go to college and start her life as an adult.  The Levine family was one of the core families of Congregation Beth Tikvah, just as they are to Shaarei Kodesh today, and were, and continue to be loved by so many.  Emily’s death not only broke them, but it broke an entire community.  This community who watched Emily grow up, who watched her become a bat mitzvah, who saw her through her teen years, who thought they were sending her off to college.  The loss of a child is perhaps the worst loss a family can encounter.  I cannot fathom what this felt like for the Levine family.
It was at that same exact time, the two communities Shaarei Kodesh and Beth Tikvah formally merged.  I asked one CSK member, what was it like?  She described going to the shivah home to this family who she had never met, but they were now tied to and thinking:  I’m going to visit them and open my heart, because they are part of my community now.  
A broken community became a little more whole, but the Levine family was still utterly broken. 
I knew Emily’s family through her sister Shoshanah at Camp Ramah Darom, and I’m sure I met Emily before as well.  But I have gotten to know Emily through her legacy, Emy’s Promise, a foundation created by Emily’s family two years ago. 
It is our goal to keep Emy’s spirit and memory alive by connecting with disadvantaged girls in the foster care system who do not have the comfort and guidance of a loving family to support them, as Emily did. Emy’s Promise is OUR promise to help young women aging out of the foster care system surmount obstacles to become strong and confident. Emy’s Promise, through grants for education and training, will bridge the wide gap from obstacle to opportunity for these young women.
But here’s the most important sentence on the entire site: 
And with every girl we help, we do so with love and respect for our beloved Emily Rachel.
Emily’s spirit will live in others through acts of tzedakah.  The Levines are utterly changed by the loss of Emily – and that part of them will remain broken forever, but through these acts of tzedakah, with each girl they help, they become a little more whole. 
Tzedakah is more than charity – tzedakah is a vehicle to bring righteous to the world, to help heal a broken world.  
We are all clay in the hands of the potter. Broken by hardships, disappointments and tragedy, we can become discouraged and cynical. But we do not have to remain broken forever, we can begin to mend.  We can put back ourselves back together, but we will never be like we were before. 
Like the urns in that Eastern town, the damaged pieces of our lives can be reassembled with a golden bonding of patience, love, and righteousness that can help reform us into exquisite masterpieces.  It is as if people have to be broken before they can become more whole and complete.
That’s why I want you to stay for Yizkor.  Each one of you has someone to remember, and with that remembrance comes pain.  In these shorts moments of remembrance, you will become broken again, taken back in time to that moment of loss and pain, but moving forward from here, you will become whole through building new relationships, and honoring the relationships of the past through actions in this world, mainly, tzedakah. 
During this New Year, I want each one of you to be two things:
I want you to be Receivers – I want you to love someone new this year, and to deepen the love you already have, thereby making yourself more vulnerable. 
I want you to take off the armor you habitually wear to protect yourself against the forces in the world that would hurt you. 
I want you to say to someone close to you – you are so important to me that I will give you the power to hurt me because I trust you not to use that power.   
I want you to be Givers – I want you to give that love to others, but to try your hardest not to hurt the people who let you into their lives.  I want you to give to bring righteousness to the world not just for yourself, but for your loved ones who are no longer here, and when you give, you will bring their presence back into the world.
Life and death, giving and receiving, the broken and the whole – that’s what our existence is all about.  Let’s make the most of it
To those who are still with us, to the people I speak to today, to the broken people, I say this:  If you feel broken remember that you are a work of art. As a work of art, you may never be finished, but that is the process of a lifetime. And your very brokenness serves a purpose.

Remember this, too: Every time you decide to mend, you become a little more complete. And a little more beautiful.

[1] Rabbi Harold Kusher, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-third Psalm.
[2] Story from Steve Goodier at
[3] Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig DD – “For I Pledge Tz’dakah on Her Behalf

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Two Facebook Friends I Lost This Summer: Finding the Balance Between the Universal and the Particular©

The Two Facebook Friends I Lost This Summer: 
Finding the Balance Between the Universal and the Particular©
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Second Day of Rosh Hashanah 5775

I want to begin today by telling you about two friends I lost this summer.  Let me just make something clear – these two guys are very much alive and healthy, and may they both be written in the book of life!  I lost these friends on Facebook, they both De-Friended me over the summer. 

My first friend is named Shmuel.  We were friends in high school and connected through our synagogue youth group, USY.  Shmuel was the head of the social action/Tikkun Olam committee and it was his passion.  He organized food baggings for our local Jewish Family Services, volunteering opportunities at nursing homes, and other projects – he was a real blessing for us.  We kept in touch after high school, but we drifted apart.  Six years ago, I ran into Shmuel in New York, but he looked a lot different.  He wasn’t wearing a kippah anymore, nor was he keeping kosher.  When I greeted him, he told me to call him Sam, because Shmuel was a little too Jewish for him.  Sam took his passion for social justice to the next level, working for a non-profit that deals with conflict resolution in the African American community.  Sam is doing amazing work in the world and living his dream.  At the time, I was a rabbinical student, following a different path, but with the same goal in mind – to leave the world better off than it was before.  We became Facebook friends and kept in touch that way, that is, until this summer. 

When the war in Gaza broke out, I posted my support for the state of Israel against Hamas, posting images and videos of Israeli civilians hiding in bomb shelters, but his posts were different – he posted scenes from Gaza with the hashtag #freegaza.  Then, I saw a video of Sam marching in a demonstration in the diamond district of New York.  He had a sign, #FreeGaza, and he was chanting along with his fellow protestors, Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.  I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer, what happened to my friend Shmuel from USY?  I messaged him.  After some pleasantries, I had to ask him the question:  “Sam, how could you march chanting, Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea?  Don’t you know that this means an end to the State of Israel? 

He wrote me back, “let me ask you something Rabbi Dave – as a so called religious Jew, how can you support Israel, a state that does not accept anyone who isn’t Jewish?  If we are all made in the image of God, B’tezlem Elohim, how can you not mourn the dead of Gaza along with the dead of Israel?  How can the people of Never Again perpetuate a genocide in Gaza?!? 

My answer:  “Sam, I feel terrible for the innocent Gazans dying, especially the children, and in fact, I posted about it, but at the same time, I don’t blame Israel for these terrible losses – I blame Hamas who used its own people as human shields, who teaches their people hate of not only Israel, but all Jews.  Don’t take my word for it, read Hamas’s charter.  In the face of rocket attacks and terror tunnels, Israel has to defend herself, and Israel used every possible way to warn civilians to leave areas which Hamas was using to fire rockets.” 

He answered me, “What about Rabbi Hillel’s teaching - “U’ksheani le’atzmi, mah ani?” – If I am only for myself, what am I?  Don’t you remember that class from Hebrew school, when the Israelites were freed from Egpyt, it wasn’t just them, but a mixed multitude.  Rabbi, you are stuck in the Jewish ghetto – but I am free.  We don’t have to worry about anti-Semitism anymore, it’s not the 1930’s.  The only reason why people hate Jews is because of your precious Israel.  To be honest Rabbi, I can’t be friends with you anymore – goodbye.” 

Following that conversation, he ‘de-friended’ me. 

Shmuel, or as he calls himself, Sam, is not here today, but I wish he was.  I want to talk to him and really understand where he’s coming from, but I know that you have a Sam in your life, and maybe we can begin to understand him today.

I have another friend who I once knew a while ago with named Mitchell.  We went to college together, and I was always trying to get him to come to Hillel with me, but he never would.  He was never really into Judaism until our senior year when something in him cliqued.  Mitch started going to the Orthodox minyan at our Hillel, and then, he started dressing differently.  He put on tzitzit and a kippah and wore them everyday, and then, he made aliyah.  He went to a Yeshivah for a year, met a nice young woman, and after three weeks of seeing each other, they married.  His name was no longer Mitch, but now, he goes by his Hebrew name, Mordechai.  Mordechai and his wife Rivka live in a settlement in the West Bank, or as he calls it, Judea, with their seven children.  Although Mordechai isn’t wealthy, he gives tzedakah to many Jewish causes that help Jews not just in Israel, but around the world.  Mordechai and I kept in touch over the years as we both share a deep love of both our people, and the land of Israel. 

This summer, I posted my anger at the vicious murder of Muhammed Al Khdeir by Jewish terrorists on my Facebook wall.  He messaged me, and told me that he no longer wants to read any of my posts and told me he is going to de-friend me.  

He asked me, “How can you mourn over the death of an Arab – aren’t they all guilty?  How can you place them above your own people?!?  Didn’t Rabbi Hillel say, Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li – I am not for myself, who will be for me?  Don’t you remember the teaching from the Torah of Amalek – we must blot out their memory, men, women and children!  I for one refuse to mourn for the death of a child who will become a terrorist one-day!  I can’t be friends with anyone who disagrees with this core belief of Judaism.”  

And then, Mitch, or Mordechai, de-friended me. 

Mordechai, is not here today, but I wish he was.  I want to talk to him and really understand where he’s coming from, but I know that you have a Mordechai in your life, and maybe we can begin to understand him today. 

That feeling, torn between being Jewish and being a part of the larger world is the condition of the Jew in the modern age.  Both Sam and Morderchai, when it comes down to it, want the same thing – to make the world a better place after they have left it.  Sam and Morderchai represent two types of people in a phrase coined by the author Yossi Klein Ha-Levi - Pesach Jews, and Purim Jews. 

He writes:  Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: “Don’t be brutal.” The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: “Don’t be naive.”
The question is – can both types of Jews be members of the same tribe?

My answer – yes, and more than that, these Jews live in the same person – there are very few of us who are pure Sams, pure Pesach Jews, and few Mordechais, pure Purim Jews – but there’s a bit of Sam, or Pesach in me, and Mordechai, Purim, in me, and I bet there might be a bit of them in you as well.

Let me first talk to the Sam in us, the universalist, the one who took takes the idea of Btzelem Elohim, that all humans are created in God’s image, very seriously.  And since today is Yom Harat HaOlam, the day that humanity was created, this might be a great place to start.  It’s true, we learn in the book of Genesis, that God created Human in God’s own image, and the midrash expands on it, telling us that God makes each person unique, and every person must say that the world was created for my sake…but, we don’t read this section from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah.  We actually read about the first Jewish family – Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac.  Sure, they may be imperfect, but it’s the story of the first Jewish family, which was how we started – as a people.  We don’t exist in a vacuum.  We are surrounded by other nations, but we are unique, just as they are unique.  In the Zichronot service which we will shortly read, we tell how God remembered Noah with love, remembered Lot, both of whom aren’t Jewish, but we say with pride – God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob – the message is clear - God has a covenant with the Jewish people, and it is special. 

Avraham Infeld, the former international director of Hillel, has devoted his life to the idea of Jewish people hood.  He often says, we have been taught that Judaism is a religion, but before it is a religion, we are a people.

Ruth, the first convert to Judaism, the great-grandmother of King David, the forerunner to the messiah for both Jews and Christians once said, “Your people shall be my people and your God is my God.  The order is not accidental. If I want to become Christian I would say, “Your God is my God,” but when it comes to Judaism, I cannot first say, “Your God is my God” until I say, “Your people is my people.”[1]

Rachelli Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three boys murdered by Hamas terrorists this summer said this about her ordeal:  “People from all over were saying these are not just your boys, these are our children. Sometimes I ask myself was this just an illusion? I have this image of a person walking in the dark and it’s raining and their stumbling and they’re figuring out their way.  They don’t see anything and then for a second there’s lightning and in that lightning they see the reality of their surroundings. It helps them guide their way. We had days and days of lightning. It’s no illusion what we saw there, ourselves. We’re part of something huge. We’re part of a people, of a true family that’s for real.”

So to Sam, I say, yes, you are correct, if I am only for myself what am I, but I cannot get to that point of being for others, if I am not for myself at all.  That’s why Hillel starts the quote, Im Ein Ani Li – If I am not for myself, who will be for me? 

Sam – that’s part of my job – to be here for you.  You might have a lot of places where you hang your hat, but you have only one home, only one place where you can be yourself, and loved unconditionally.  The Jewish people are your collective home, and we will be here for you whenever you are ready to come home. 

To the Mordechai in us, who only focuses on Im Ein ani li, mi li, if I am not for myself, who will be for me. I have to say that you are missing a big part of Judaism. 

Today is not Yom Harat HaAm – the Day the Nation Was Created, It’s Yom Harat HaOlam!  Sure, we read about the story of Abraham, the first Jew, but our prayers are about standing with all the nations of the world being judged by God.

There is a big difference between Noah and Abraham –Noah cared only for his family, he never questions God before the flood, before the destruction of humanity.  Abraham cared for all – when God says he’s going to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, Abraham argues with God – Ironically, Abraham the father of the Jewish people, stands up for those who are not part of his tribe, and Noah, the new Adam, stands up only for his relatives.  You are a son of Abraham – who stood up for other peoples – and Abraham is not just our father, but the father of other people’s, the Christians and the Muslims. 

In the book of Isaiah, we read about a time when the Temple will be turned into a Beit Tefillah, a house of prayer, for all peoples, not just us. 

It’s not just in the Bible, but even in our law codes.  We read very specific text telling us that we must visit the non-Jewish sick along with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead we find, just as we bury the Jewish dead – for the sake of the ways of peace.

The Alenu prayer was written just for today, but it became so popular that it was added at the end of the every service.  In Alenu, we say that one day, the world will be perfected, healed, and all humanity will call on Your name.  God is melech al kol ha’aretz – God who rules over all lands, and all the peoples, not just us.  In the Zichronot, we learn that God remembers God’s covenant with us, but also with other peoples. 

Even Zionism, which began as a secular movement, was an attempt to create a country for the Jewish people, was an attempt for our people to re-enter history and to stand along side the nations of the world. 

After 2000 years, we FINALLY have a place at the worlds table again.
We are a nation apart from others, but we are to be a light unto the nations, an Or LaGoyim. 
Jews don’t hide their light – we share it with the world. 

We believe in Tikkun Olam – healing the world, not just ourselves. 
We have something beautiful to share with the world – we can’t be scared to share it. 
To Mordechai, I ask, do you criticize Israel when she helps feed Gazan civilians?  Did you criticize Israel when she sent hospital units to Japan following the earthquake and nuclear fall out, or to Haiti following the earthquake, or to any number of areas of disaster?  Do you criticize Israel when it comes up with ways to help the entire world – like clean energy, security, and technological innovations?    

As Jews living in the modern world, we have to hold the universalism of Sam, and the particularism of Mordechai in the same hand.  We have to celebrate both Pesach, a celebration of freedom for all the oppressed of the world, and Purim, the warning of Jewish vulnerability. 

I want to end by telling you the story of Steven Soltloff, a reporter beheaded by ISIS terrorists this summer.  When he was being held captive, it was unclear as to who Steven really was, which was intentional – you see, Steven was from Miami, Florida, and he was a Jew.  His grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and he attended Jewish day school at Temple Beth Am in Miami.  His parents feared that Steven would meet the same fate as Daniel Pearl, another journalist who was kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan because he was Jewish.  So they tried to remove any references to his Jewish background from the internet.  In the end, it was all for naught, but I found his life, short as it was, to be inspiring. 

At his memorial service, his rabbi, Terry Bookman, said:  “Steven believed deeply that all people were created in the image of God, the One God of all humanity.  We may call him Adonai, while others call upon him as Jesus or Allah. But Steven knew we all have one Father, which makes us one family on earth.”[2]
But his rabbi also added, “Steven was a proud and committed Jew, a loyal American and a citizen of Israel.” 

While in college, Steven went on Birthright, and he moved to Israel, studying counter terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.  He kept in touch with his Jewish friends and I’m told cared deeply about his Jewish identity.

In his short life, Steven Sotloff found the balance – between being a Jew who cared about his people, and human being who cared about all peoples.  May we all find that balance – of being a citizen of Israel, and a citizen of the world. 

On this holiday, we stand on the peak of the world – looking out at the year ahead.  We see each unique person and the contributions they give to the world, but we see our own people a little more brightly.  We see a beautiful tapestry of humanity.  Each thread representing a person, each patch a people, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 
Rosh Hashanah is a time to balance each other out – to focus – are we moving too much towards being only a Pesach Jew, or only a Purim Jew? 

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman asked a very basic question – Why be Jewish?  His answer:  We Jews are a people who stand not only for ourselves and our own destiny but also for the greater purpose of humankind as a whole…We have a mission to the world, not to convert it but to better it; to help it remember the God whom we discovered at Sinai but who, we believe, is available in one form or another to all humankind.  This is our reason for being.”

When you see yourself only fighting for others, while ignoring your people, I want you to think about Hillel’s line – If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

When you see yourself only caring about Jews – I want you to think of Hillel’s next line – if I am only for myself, what am I?

And when you get an email asking you to bag food for Jewish families in need, and another email asking you to glean food for all families in need - don’t say you do not have the time to support others - I want you to ask yourself, if not now, when? 

Being a Jew also means that we hold all of these ideas in our hands and hearts.  We stand in the middle, holding our hands out to the Sam’s and Mordechai’s in our lives; bringing them closer to us, to their home.