Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Vayigash: The Redemption of Darth Vader… and Others

Vayigash:  The Redemption of Darth Vader… and Others
December 19, 2015/7 Tevet 5776
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

These words began a phenomena in America and around the world. 

Why did Star Wars become such a phenomena?  Special effects?  Not really – there are plenty of movies out there with special effects that bomb, and many that do well, but Star Wars is different.  I remember in college, I had a friend that would watch Star Wars every weekend – I thought it was a little crazy – he memorized lines and would recite them over and over: 

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

“You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? … It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.”

“You don’t need to see his identification … These aren’t the droids you’re looking for … He can go about his business … Move along.”

And of course: 

“May the Force be with you.”

What made Star Wars so enduring weren’t the special effects; it wasn’t the great acting. 

The Torah has it’s own special effects: Splitting seas, lighting and thunder, fiery mountains, magic burning bushes, clouds of fire, the earth splitting and swallowing people whole – what’s not to like?

But the Book, didn’t become the Book because of special effects – plenty of other books had those. 

What makes both the Torah and Star Wars are the compelling personal stories that we can relate to. 

The main story of the Star Wars narrative is the story of Anakin and Luke Skywalker – the fall from grace, and the eventual redemption.

Our story, the story of Joseph and his brothers, is the same story.

Joseph – thrown into the pit (called a Bor in Hebrew) – not just by his brothers, but the prison in Egypt is also a Bor. 

Finally, he is taken out, given power, but one thing stands in his way – his past.  In our parashah, Vayigash, we see the climax of this story.  But it’s not just Joseph who needs redemption, it’s his brothers. 

Last week, we read the following:

“For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Recalling the dreams that he had dreamed about them, Joseph said to them, “You are spies, you have come to see the land in its nakedness.”

Why does Joseph put his brothers through this torture?  One might think it’s because of revenge, and that might be right, but I like to look at it differently.  The most compelling reason I heard is from Nechama Lebowitz who gleans this idea from other commentators:  Joseph put his brothers through this ordeal in order to give them the opportunity to do tesuvah. 

Maimonides (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1) notes that one’s teshuvah is not complete until one is presented with the same situation that one was in previously, and resists the temptation.

In this week’s parashah, the person who does the tesuvah is the person we are named after, Yehudah. 

In our story, the Viceroy wants Benjamin, the second son of Rachel – would the brothers give him up, throw him in the proverbial pit like they threw Joseph in?  Judah recaps the story, and reveals that they had a brother who died – and Benjamin is the only surviving child from Rachel.  But instead of giving Benjamin up, Judah offers himself. 

“32 Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ 33 Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.”

This is when Joseph sees his brothers have changed, and so has he.  All of them are redeemed.  Joseph is no longer the selfish boy who expects everyone to bow to him – thinking this is his destiny, as he says, ““I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. 5 Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. 6 It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. 7 God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. 8 So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”

In Star Wars, in the end, after all that evil that Darth Vader, formerly Anakin Skywalker has done, he repents with one act.  When his son Luke is about to be killed by the Emperor, Vader kills him, and as he dies tells his son: 

Anakin: Now... go, my son. Leave me.
Luke: No. You're coming with me. I'll not leave you here, I've got to save you.
Anakin: You already... have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister... you were right.

In our tradition, there’s a similar story of redemption, of someone saving another, in the Talmud.   

Rabbi Hananiah Ben Teradyon has been sentenced to death, by burning at the stake, with wet wool over his heart so he will die slowly. The Roman executioner is impressed by Teradyon’s faith and determination and asks “If I increase the fire, and remove the wool so that you die, will you take me to eternal life with you?” Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon replies “Yes.” The executioner ends the rabbi’s torture, and himself is engulfed in the flames, as a heavenly voice cries out that both rabbi and executioner are welcome in the world to come.

This is one of three examples in the Talmud of koneh et olamo b'sha'a achat – someone who acquired a portion in Olam Habah because of one act in one second. 

What the Talmud, Star Wars, and Joseph and his brothers teach us is that no matter how low we are in the pit, one act of righteousness can redeem us. 

This can be an especially powerful message for those who have committed crimes, or those who have hurt their families due to substance abuse or other vices – we can come back. 

Judah does this by giving his life for his brother Benjamin.
The executioner did this by giving Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon a quicker death, and giving up his own life in the process.
And Darth Vader does this by saving his son and turning his back on the dark side. 

If these people could be redeemed after the terrible things they did in life, then maybe each one of us can also come back from our own shortcomings. 

May the Force of all Creation be with you all, and Shabbat Shalom may you have. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vayetzei - Living Between Two Worlds - Syrian Refugees and Us©

Vayetzei - Living Between Two Worlds - Syrian Refugees and Us©
Rabbi David Baum - 5776/2015

Last week, I did not here the news about the terrorist attacks in France until I arrived to shul on Friday evening so I did not have the opportunity to go on social media until Shabbat. When I logged on to Facebook and Twitter, I was amazed with how so many of my friends knew exactly how to handle the situation of the Syrian refugees which became a bi-product of the attacks.

To those who had your minds made up right away...I truly envy you.

It took me time to understand my perspective, to understand a Jewish perspective – I was stuck between my heart, seeing the suffering of the refugees, and my head, which is aware of the potential dangers of the refugees.

We had a shocking Shabbat that is becoming all too familiar. Another terrorist attack in Paris, this time, much deadlier than the last. I remember living after 9/11, going on the city bus in Gainesville the day of 9/11, and actually feeling fear. I remember what it was like to live in Israel during the 2nd Intifada – the fear I felt walking around, dodging buses and cafes. It gets you questioning everything in your life, questioning everyone.

In our parashah this week, Vayetzei, we see a Jacob who is running away from his family, scared for his life. In some ways, he was the first refugee of our forefathers – a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” if he returned, which is the definition of a refugee according to our government. As he is escaping Canaan for Haran, he comes to a certain place, actually it’s called, BaMakom, literally a place, and he sleeps there for the night. He’s in no where’s land, between a world of terror, where he knew the players, and an unknown world ahead of him, where he knew no one.

It’s in this place where two worlds suddenly appear in front of him: the world as it is, and the world as it should be. The world as it is dark and lonely, full of fear – that’s the world that he falls asleep in; but the world as it should be, in the very same place, a world of angels, of a comforting, is where he wakes up.

Genesis 28:12:

וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹ–קים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃

12 He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.

And suddenly, Jacob realizes that he is not alone, in fact, God is standing there next to him, and actually talks to him. He wakes up and proclaims how great and awesome this place is, that God was there and he didn't even know it.
Immediately after this incident, the Torah tells us:

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב רַגְלָ֑יו וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ אַ֥רְצָה בְנֵי־קֶֽדֶם׃

And Jacob lifted his feet and came to the land of the Easterners...

Literally, Jacob lifts his feet, a phrase that appears no where else in the Bible – The Jewish Publication Society commentary, based on a collection of classical commentators, give us three possibilities for this phrase:

  1. The going was now easier
  2. He directed his feet, that is, he went with resolve and confidence,
  3. He had to force himself to leave the site of this holy revelation

Jacob realizes that the world as it should be, this world of angels going up and down, where God is literally next to him blessing him, is fleeting – it's not something that can exist forever, if ever, in this world. But, at the same time, the world of darkness and loneliness, the world as it was to him, is also not something that can last forever. His task is to live in tension between these two worlds, and when he does this, he lives with purpose – the world as it is can be a stepping stone to the world as it should be. He lifts up his feet, forcing himself to leave the world as it should be because he knows he has to enter back into the world as it is, a world of periodic darkness, and yes, fear.

We are also in this place, between seemingly two choices: the world as it is, and the world as it should be.

Our task is to bridge the gap between to the two worlds.

First, we must open our hearts and empathize, we must be able to see ourselves in the story of others. The story of the Syrian refugees should hit close to home for us, not just because we are Jews, but because we are Americans. Every one of our ancestors came here by boat, or recently, by plane. They were all looking for a better life – some had choices of where they could go, others didn’t.

My grandparents, my mother’s parents, lived in Communist Poland after they were liberated from Auschwitz. They went home, and lived life as they did before the war, except for one main thing – they hid their Judaism. My grandfather became a factory foreman in a coat factor, but in order to make extra money, he tailored these coats, which were one size fits all, in his apartment to passersby. In Communist Poland, this was illegal. He was arrested several times, and his family wondered after every stint in jail: would he come back next time? But it wasn't just his tailoring, but the family's religion. For years they had to hide their Judaism. My mother, aunt and uncle only knew they were Jewish because my grandmother took them out of class when the priest would teach the class Catholicism. In the early 1960’s, my grandfather saw his chance for freedom – it was only a matter of time until the next time he got arrested, that he wouldn’t come home; or if someone found out they were Jewish who could hurt them. They left Poland for America, on a boat, after a deal was struck between America and Poland, they told me they traded wheat for skilled workers. Here was the catch: they could only take $5 per person and they had to fit all of their possessions in a large wicker basket.

My story isn’t that unique – I’m sure all of you have relatives with similar stories. Think about the story of Jacob, Rachel, Leah and their children as they flee Lavan, gathering what they can – Rachel taking Laban’s gods, a reminder of a home she will never return.

And this story is playing itself out here in Florida with Syrian refugees. Rather than focus on the estimated 10,000 refugees from Syria that we are debating about now, I want to focus on the mother of one family, Amal Saleh, whose family recently settled in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida from Syria. The family was screened before their arrival in Istanbul, Turkey. After the family home in Aleppo was destroyed — one they had bought just a few weeks before — they paid about $200 each for a smuggler to take them to the Turkish border. Her husband, who suffered multiple strokes after Syria's civil war erupted, was unable to walk by that point. After waiting for a Turkish police patrol to move past, the family rushed across the border, a friend carrying her husband on his back.

They reached a small city and bought bus tickets to Istanbul, where they spent the next 21 months trying to find a home. They were let into the U.S. after six interviews as a family and individually where the government officials knew strange specific information about their lives in Syria; after fingerprint checks, and more.

Now, they live in Florida, and they are scared of Americans because of the rhetoric her family has heard in recent days, she said: "The same way that Americans are afraid of us, now we are afraid of them. She continued, “I would tell them that we, the Syrian people, are very peaceful. These are children, women and elderly who have no blame for what's happening. We have been vetted very thoroughly. We deserve to live."

Properly vetting these refugees is vital, it's where we access our heads, it's where we stand with one foot in the world as it is, and the heart calls out to us, God calls out to us, to climb the ladder to the world as it should be.

Before Jacob grows into the Jacob we know, he was a scared boy fleeing his home land. When he comes the well in Haran, again knowing no one, he says, “My brothers, where are you from?”

He calls them, “my brothers,” as a way of establishing commonality—a 14th century Turkish commentator Moshe Al Sheikh says this means, “You are people of equal value to me.” Then he asks where they are from—again to establish connection.

It shows me what most refugees want – not our jobs, not to terrorize us, but a new beginning, to be our brothers and sisters, to establish a common connection – to be equals.

It's a scary time – it's times like these when we are stuck in the world as it is, a dark world, a lonely and fearful world – but we have to remember that refugees are also living in the same world. The question is, how can we move to the world as it should be? We have to bridge the gap between to the two worlds. We have to use our heads, but at the same time, never close our hearts.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Shabbat Message - A Shabbat Of Solidarity With Israel

Shabbat Shalom Shaarei Kodesh,Rabbi Baum
This week, our people celebrated the new month of Marcheshvan.  I wrote about the interesting name given to this month in a blog posting that I hope you read (click here to read Why I'm Wearing Blue on MARcheshvan).  The name Marcheshvan is actually one word, but some have separated the name into two:  Mar (bitter) Cheshvan.  Some say that it is bitter because there are no Jewish holidays during the month, but many others disagree.  As Jews, we celebrate each month, regardless of what will happen.  When we announce the new month, as we did last Shabbat at Shaarei Kodesh, we proclaim as a community:  “May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to reawaken in us joy and blessing in the month ahead.”  During this holy time as we take our Torahs out of the ark and the community stands, we pray for peace, goodness, and blessing.  Finally, we pray for a time when all of world Jewry will return to Israel. The literal meaning of this line is that we physically return to the land of Israel, but there might be another way to look at this prayer.  
Perhaps it’s a message to us:  let the entire people of Israel return have a spiritual return to the land of Israel. 
I spoke about Israel twice on the high holidays.  In one sermon, I spoke about the importance of Jewish Unity (click here to read) and in the second sermon I spoke about remembering that Israel always chooses life when faced with evil, death, and terrorism(click here to read).  Little did I know how relevant these words would be so soon after the high holidays. 
As I stated earlier, the term Mar, or bitter, Cheshvan seems much more timely as witness the terror attacks that are happening in Israel at this time.  Innocent civilians are being murdered and wounded in stabbing attacks, amongst other means of violence.  I have heard from friends and family in Israel who are scared to leave their homes. 
We prayed last week for a ‘return’ to Israel, so now we must actualize this prayer.  This Shabbat, I invite each one of you to join us both in celebration of our B’not Mitzvah, but also, in solidarity with Medinat Israel, the State of Israel.  This Shabbat, Shaarei Kodesh will be joining synagogues from all movements across the country in a Shabbat of Solidarity with Israel.  This Shabbat, we will come together to recite a special prayer written by Rabbi David Wolpe for our Israeli cousins living through terror:
El Maleh Rachamim -- Compassionate God,
We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred.
Not to destroy sinners but to lessen sin.
Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one
Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks
Or children orphaned by blades glinting in a noonday sun.
Help us dear God, to have the courage to remain strong, to stand fast.
Spread your light on the dark hearts of the slayers
And your comfort to the bereaved hearts of families of the slain.
Let calm return Your city Jerusalem, and to Israel, Your blessed land.
We grieve with those wounded in body and spirit,
Pray for the fortitude of our sisters and brothers,
And ask you to awaken the world to our struggle and help us bring peace.

Next Thursday, I invite you all to hear from Rabbi Sam Kieffer who will be speaking about living in the REAL land of Israel.  During this evening, we will raise money for two organizations who are helping victims of terror in Israel (CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION) .

Let us pray for a return to peace in Israel, and pray for a world free of war and bloodshed. 
Rabbi David Baum

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Why I’m wearing Blue on Rosh Chodesh MarChesvan

Why I’m wearing Blue on Rosh Chodesh MarChesvan
By Rabbi David Baum

By Rabbi David Baum

Rosh Chodesh is supposed to be a happy time – but this month, is kind of bitter.  Today is Rosh Chodesh Heshvan but the month is commonly called Marcheshvan.  The month is related to an Akadian word which was the 8th month of the Babylonian calendar.[1]  
There is a tradition in Judaism to emphasis the bitterness when we say Marcheshvan, Mar, the bitter, and then Cheshvan – the bitter.
The rabbis say it’s bitter because there are no Jewish holidays in the month.  But to be honest, as rabbi of a busy shul, maybe it’s good to have one month without a Jewish holiday! 

There are other explanations for the name of the month, and I think it’s important to highlight them at this time. 

The Pri Chadash (Even Ha’ezer 126:7) offers the only explanation that I have found for calling this month by the two-word name Mar Cheshvan.  He suggests that the name Mar Cheshvan is based on the fact that it is the beginning of the rainy season.  The Targum Onkelos translated mar as tipah, a drop, in the verse “Hen goyim k’mar midli — Behold, the nations are as a drop of [water from] a bucket” (Isaiah 40:15).  As such, the name means the “rainy Cheshvan,” and far from mar meaning bitter, it connotes a month of blessed rain.

If we take it from this perspective, this is a month that we focus our energies and thoughts on day-to-day living in Israel, a month without holidays, that is seemingly mundane, and yet, there is an underlying struggle of life and death.

So on this Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan, I am wearing blue, to remember the life and death struggle of water in Israel, and to remember that Israelis are once again in a period of extreme fear with the rampant stabbings of Israelis by terrorists around the country. 

Rosh Chodesh is a happy time, but we see that even within the Hallel that we sing in the morning service, there is still angst, especially in Psalm 118. 

“5 In distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and brought me relief.”

Metzar is a narrow place – it’s not just a physical place, but a spiritual place, or a state of mind.  I can tell you, living first hand through terrorism in Israel from 2002-2003, it can feel like a narrow place.  I lived through bus bombings on a weekly basis.  I will never forget that ‘narrow place’; that narrow place that was far from buses, or restaurants, running away from them lest there be an explosion. 

And no matter what security measures are in place, you never feel quite secure….

“8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in mortals;”  Which is why you ultimately feel, better to depend on God that to trust in mortals. 

And as you live through it, you feel as if you are being ‘surrounded and encircled’ (verse 11).

And so on this Rosh Chodesh, we acknowledge the bitter during a happy time.  We pray for the ending of metzar, the narrow, to Merchav, opening and wideness, in other words, physical, mental, and spiritual freedom. 

As a Jewish community living outside the land, we play a special role.  We are a place where Israel matters – where we educate about Israel, like our License to Chai class, or our 70 Faces of Israel initiative from last year.  It’s a place where we support Israel, through advocacy, like AIPAC, or monetarily, through Israel Bonds. 

Israel is part of the fabric of who we are. 

It’s a bitter time, but we pray for sweetness. 

The Bnei Yissaschar (2:56-57) Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov relates a beautiful midrash about the future of Marcheshvan indicating that the dedication of the Third Temple will occur in Marcheshvan, removing any doubt about it being a bitter month.

The Temple mount is a battle ground today – let’s pray for a future where all people’s come together, as we read in the book of Isaiah:

7 I will bring them to My sacred mount
And let them rejoice in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
Shall be welcome on My altar;
For My House shall be called
A house of prayer for all peoples.”

But before we see the Messianic age, let us pray for a return to normalcy, a return to a time when Israelis no longer live in fear, when they go from narrow straits to wide open freedom.  

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheshvan

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sukkot Chol HaMoed Message

Moadim L'Simcha, 

There was a moment in my life that I will never forget.  It was the 9th of Av 5769 (or 2009), two days after our first son, Avi was born.  As we know, the 9th of Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, and yet, I could not help but smile as I walked inside our sanctuary.  Even as everyone was sitting on the floor, and reading megillat Eicha, I could not help but be elated because of the birth of our first child.  There are times in our calendar when we are compelled to feel a certain way.  On Tisha B’Av, it is sadness, but on Sukkot, we are commanded to feel the complete opposite of sadness:  Simcha, or happiness. 
On Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot, we will be reading from the book of Ecclesiastes, which famously states in chapter 3, “There is a season that is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven - A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing.”  When I stepped into the sanctuary that day, the 9th of Av, it was a time for wailing and weeping and yet, I was smiling and happy.  Our holidays are moments in time when we, as a spiritual community, come together to experience certain emotions.  This week, we are commanded to be happy, and yet, we are surrounded by so much sadness.  This week, we witnessed two horrific events:  the murder of two parents in front of their four children by Palestinian terrorists, Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin; and the senseless murder of 10 people (and 7 injured) in yet another mass shooting at the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

The question is, how can we be happy as we enter into our Sukkot?  How can we force ourselves to be happy when we are surrounded by sadness?  Unfortunately, there is no one good answer to this question, but something that I take solace in is how our people have viewed this holiday for thousands of years, dating back to the time of the Holy Temple/Beit HaMikdash.  On Sukkot, we learn see that there were 70 bulls in total that were sacrificed during the holiday of Sukkot.  Our rabbis teach us that these sacrifices represented all of the nations of the world.  In other words, we offered sacrifices, not just for us, but for the whole world; we cared for others, not just ourselves.  This open-heart approach is beautiful and rewarding, but when there is heartbreak in the world, whether to our brothers and sisters, or to others, we are left vulnerable.  It is in this vulnerability, in our Sukkot, a flimsy structure by nature, that we seek happiness and solace.  And so, with a full heart, we enter into our Sukkot this Shabbat, and we force ourselves to look at the beauty that surrounds us.  This Shabbat, we welcome the new souls who have joined our congregation on our journey.  We will welcome them with love and an open heart.  On Sunday, we will celebrate the last day of Sukkot together at our annual Membership barbeque.  Together we will see each other and eat in joy and gladness. During these times, we force ourselves to look at the good in our lives, while also remembering that there is pain in this world, and that healing must occur, but we must be a part of this healing.  May God comfort those who have lost loved ones this week, and may God bring joy and happiness to our broken world.
Moadim L’Simcha and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Baum

Friday, September 25, 2015

Neilah - Go UP!©

Go UP!© - Neilah 2015/5776
Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

This year, my siblings got me a new gadget for my birthday, something called a Fit Bit. 
You know you’re getting older when you get exercise trackers for your birthday. 

But I am getting to an age where I do need to take better care of myself, to exercise more, and this device helps me become better because I can keep track of my steps.  Now, instead of sitting on the couch at night, I’ll be pacing in my house at night if I’m close to 10,000 steps.

But Fit Bits are all about reaching that goal, 10,000 steps a day.  When you reach that goal, your arm starts vibrating – it’s like your arm is cheering for you – you’ve accomplished the goal.  But what happens when you don’t reach that goal?  I was recently at my doctor’s office and the nurse said, “hey, nice fit bit, do you like it?”  I answered, yes, and she continued, “I used to have one, but I never got up to 10,000 steps, so I took it off.” 

In Judaism, we have 613 mitzvoth or commandments, but if we translate the word mitzvah in Aramaic it means connection – they are actions that connect us to God.  Mitzvoth are acts, like the steps we take in a day, so the question is, if we don’t get to our goals, should we give up? 
Franz Rosenzweig, a German-Jewish philosopher and theologian from the late 1800s, answered this question.  One time, someone asked Rosenzweig whether he wore tefillin.  He replied, “Not yet.” 
Rosenzweig did think that he would one day become a fully observant Jew, but believed in the gradual approach in which the observances slowly made their impact by “ringing a bell” for him.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is all about keeping track.  In the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Amidah we say -  Ki Zocher kol HaNishkachot Attah - Because You are the One who remembers for all eternity all that has been forgotten, and there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory – our deeds are recorded. 

On Rosh Hashanah our deeds are written, and on Yom Kippur, our deeds are sealed.
It seems that if our prayers are right, we wear a mitzvah Fit Bit, and yes, each step matters.  I know that this might be a scary thought for us – especially since more and more our actions are being recorded online.  But, there’s a different way to look at. 

The Talmud tells us that we need to see ourselves as half-guilty and half-innocent at all times, and Mitzvah Ahat, performing one mitzvah, can tip the balance in our favor for the year ahead.  And the Talmud goes on to say something even more profound:  One person’s actions, a mitzvah one person performs, can tip the balance for the entire world.

There’s a famous prayer that we say on these days that typify these holidays – the Unetaneh Tokef – and it contains this famous line from the Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah: B’Rosh Hashanah Kol Baieh Olam Ovrin L’fanav K’VNEI MARON – our translation – On Rosh Hashanah, all those who dwell on earth, not just Jews, but every single person, passes before You, God – like a flock of sheep. 

But the Rabbis weren’t sure what this meant.

A famous scholar of the Talmud, Reish Lakish, says Kivnei Maron are like the people traversing the elevated paths of the Maron area, a mountainous part of Israel.  In Maron, there is a path where only one person can walk at a time and there are steep drops on both sides, again, they are alone, but they are going up.  And this is the important part of the interpretation – going up. 

Aliyah – it’s what we say when we come up to say the prayer before we read the Torah; it’s what we do when we move to Israel.  Going up. 

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we go up before God, and we’ve been climbing ever since then, until this moment – Neilah. 

Our service culminates with the whole community GOING UP before the Torah. 

But the going UP cannot end here, tonight.  So what does it mean to GO UP?

Rabbi Richard Agler, a friend and colleague, often talks about getting an injection of Vitamin J, J for Judaism.   Vitamin J isn’t a vaccine – it’s a vitamin, you need it everyday to stay healthy and grow. 

Reish Lakish, the famous rabbi who gave us this interpretation of going up, was on the path of stopping his spiritual rise.  He was a guy didn’t care at all about Judaism, didn’t learn a thing, and in fact, he was once a gladiator, the equivalent of a MMA fighter, and he also robbed people. 

But that all changed when a famous Rabbi named Yohanan challenged him as he was about to rob him:  Your strength should be for Torah.  Stop robbing, start learning, start doing, and GO UP. 

So here’s what I want you to do – set a goal for yourself – in addition to 10,000 steps, I want you to perform 10 mitzvoth a day:  say a bracha/blessing in the morning when you wake up; say hamotzi before you eat bread; call a friend who is sick; go to a Jewish website and read one article a day; donate $2 to a Jewish cause; kiss a mezuzah when you walk into home; give someone standing on the corner begging for money a couple of bucks on Friday before Shabbat.  The great thing about mitzvoth is that there are so many of them, so many opportunities to tip the balance for the entire world. 

10 mitzvoth a day – commit to it – write them down everyday, and by this time next year, you will have something to be truly proud of. 

I’m sure there’s an app for it also. 

And what happens if you don’t get to 10?  It’s ok, just tell yourself what Rozensweig once said, one day, I’ll get there, but I’m not there YET.   

For those who are looking for a way to strengthen the Jewish people this year – become more Jewish yourself – go up, for yourself, for your community, for Israel, for the whole world.  Even one mitzvah can change the course of the world. 

It all counts. 

In a couple of moments, the congregation will rise up from their seats, and get in line to stand before the Ark, before God.  You are going to go up – but God wants to see you again after this moment, and so do I. 

This year, my prayer for you is that you GO UP, that you take steps that will make you a better person, and a better Jew. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Holiness of Glass Blowing – Part 2 –Two Cups: The Broken and The Whole©

The Holiness of Glass Blowing – Part 2 –Two Cups:  The Broken and The Whole©
Yom Kippur Day, 5776/2015
Rabbi David Baum

Last night, I told you the story about the glass cup I created, well, now’s the time for you to see it, but here’s the thing – there’s two of them.

Confused?  Let me explain.  When one makes something out of steel, you finish the product by dipping it into water so it cools.  But you can’t do that with glass.  After it becomes formed, you have to take the glass and put it in a special vessel where it is gradually cooled over 6 – 10 hours.  This is necessary because if you cool it too quickly, the glass will shatter, but if you put it in a hot place, the glass can melt. 

The next morning after I made my beautiful glass cup, I was expecting to have my creation in my hand, ready to show off to my friends.  I went to the glass blower and asked him when I could pick it up.  He looked at me and said, “Well, we had a problem – your glass cup was great, truly it was.  The problem is, there’s a crack that developed in the cup.  I thought you might be disappointed, so I made you a new cup, with the same colors, but it also needed time to cool.  If you come by later and you can pick it up.” 

I was excited – a new cup made by an expert glass blower!  It’ll probably look a lot better than mine, and it won’t have a crack – it’ll be perfect.  So the question I asked was, which one do I want?  The imperfect glass with a crack in it, or the perfect and round glass? 

There’s one more lesson about my glass cup that I need to teach you – a lesson I learned, and a lesson that has helped me become a better person. 

Remember when I told you what gift we received on Yom Kippur?  The second set of tablets – the whole ones.  The first set were shattered by Moses on the 17th of Tammuz, 40 days and nights earlier, when the people were worshipping the Golden Calf.  40 days and nights later, after Moses had his alone time, he brings down two new tablets.  So what happened to the first set of tablets?  Did he throw them away?  Use them to make the new ones?  Where did they go?

This is where the midrash steps in to fill in a hole in the Torah’s account of the Tablets – the rabbis tell us that the first set were not lost; they weren’t thrown away; they weren’t the building materials for the second set – they remained broken and shattered, and they were placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the whole tablets.  The tablets that were in the Ark of the Covenant became the focal point of the camp – the people surrounded the Ark, it was the heart of the camp – when it moved, so did the people.  When the Holy Temple was built, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh HaKodeshim – it was the heart of the Israelites. 

The question is, why did they keep the brokenness and imperfection of the first set of Tablets with them, both in the Wilderness, and then eventually in the Temple, when they had perfection at their center?  Why keep the broken and the whole together? 

Today, I want to talk about this idea – the two glass cups, the two tablets – the whole tablets, and the broken tablets – the whole things in our lives, and the brokenness that we carry with us in OUR hearts. 

We live in amazing times.  Do you know what’s interesting?  There are fewer and fewer repairers in our country.  It used to be that there was a shoe repairer on every block, but now, who needs to repair shoes when you can just throw them away and buy a new pair?  Extended warrantees for most electronics are a joke – why repair it when you could just buy a new and more improved electronic item?  Why try and fix my old iPhone 5 when I can get a new iPhone 6? 

But there are some things we cannot just throw away, even if we want to so desperately.

I had this very real moment with my parents during the 10 Days of Tesuvah that I want to share with you.  They asked me about my Middle School experience which I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, they said, “we never knew you felt this way, why didn’t you tell us?”  For so long I had never told them the truth, but now was the time, it was part of my Tesuvah process.  I told them that it was difficult for me to share these things – I was picked on a lot and bullied because of my size, I felt incredibly lonely, I couldn’t get anyone, and no one could get me.  It wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, but it was the first time that I experienced brokenness in my life, and I didn’t know how to handle it. 

Who in here hasn’t had a couple of years that they wish they never had? 

In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we read a powerful line, “humans are like shattered pottery…”  We are, aren’t we?  Being broken is not something we strive for, or a badge of courage.  In fact, people will do anything to say they we are perfect, but that’s not who we are on the inside.  It’s when we are alone, those moments that we hate, when we acknowledge the brokenness, and we think we are weak or imperfect for having them. 

There were so many times when I wished I could forget those years, to pretend like they never happened, to forget how I felt, but I never can, I will never be able to – they will stay with me, like those broken tablets with the whole tablets.  Those broken pieces are literally a part of me.

And that’s what being a Jew is all about, it’s what this holiday is all about – acknowledging the brokenness. 

The brokenness I experienced during those two years of my life made me into the person I am today, and I am grateful for the person I am today – I became a kinder person, looking out for other kids who might be alone and scared - and I’m not the only one.

I met Rabbi Charles Sherman during my second year of Rabbinical school.  Rabbi Sherman was the long time rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, New York.  But I didn’t know him as Rabbi Sherman, I knew him as Chuck, an awesome father, and a passionate fan of the Syracuse Orangemen who sat behind Coach Jim Boeheim at almost every home game.  I became good friends with his son Erez, and I met his dad when they visited him in New York.  I had never met a happier guy than Chuck.  He was always smiling, always laughing and making jokes, “Hey Dave, how about your Gators?  You think they can be half as good as my Orangemen?”

He was so deeply proud of his son Erez, but as I soon found out, Rabbi Sherman has another son, that I dare say, he might be even more proud of:  Eyal.  Erez and I remain close, and he even married a good friend and classmate, Nicole Guzik, and they work as rabbis at one of the most prestigious Conservative Synagogues in North America, Sinai Temple.  They have two beautiful children, and one on the way.  Can you imagine having a son who is that accomplished, and who has given you two beautiful grandchildren, and you can have another son who you might be more impressed with?!?  Eyal didn’t go to rabbinical school, but he did graduate from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree, but he was 28 at the time.  Eyal isn’t married, doesn’t have a job, and he’s in his 30’s and still lives with his parents. 

Something doesn’t quite add up here, right? 

Eyal had a much different path than his brother Erez.  In July of 1985, the Sherman family, Chuck, his wife Leah (who was pregnant at the time with their daughter Nitza), their daughters Nogah and Orah, their son Eyal, a 4 year old, and their youngest son, Erez, age 3, were taking their annual summer vacation in Elm Beach, in the Poconos where they owned a vacation home.  The sun was shining, the kids were playing, and little Eyal was gulping down chocolate popsicles – life couldn’t be any better.  Elm Beach was their family’s happy place – there were no cell phones or email at the time – Rabbi Sherman could just be Chuck, and his family, just another family enjoying the summer and the lake.  Chuck loves this memory and he writes about it in the book he wrote about his life – there, at that moment, his family was whole.  Eight months later, on a cold March night in Syracuse, Eyal woke up crying.  Rabbi Sherman sees his four year old son Eyal on the floor crying, his Sesame Street blanket rolled into a ball, his pillow on the floor, and he had a raging fever.  This was the beginning of their new lives, they just didn’t know it yet.  After visiting numerous doctors and hospitals, they finally received a diagnosis:  Eyal had a lesion the size of a golf ball intertwined in his brain stem.  Their doctors told them, “Take him home, enjoy whatever time you have left, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a year.  More likely, just weeks.” 

The Sherman’s weren’t ready to see their son die.  After months of searching, they found a surgeon in New York willing to operate on Eyal.  The surgery was successful, their hope in having a whole life was restored, they were whole again.  But, a few days later, Eyal had a brain-stem stroke; he slipped into a coma for four months.  Finally, Eyal woke up, and his mind was there.  He remembered his family, he could mouth words, and he even made a couple of jokes.  But his body was broken.  He became a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, dependent on a vent to breath.  It was at that moment that they realized, their lives would never be the same again.  Only a handful of children with Eyal’s physical challenges had ever survived more than a couple of years, but Eyal has beaten the odds.  Eyal has always struggled physically – his life has not been easy, and his family has been there every step of the way.  But despite it all, not only has Eyal lived, but he graduated from Syracuse University after twelve years of study with a degree in Fine Arts, and he’s become a painter.  Thanks to the internet and a computer he controls with his chin, he keeps up with what’s happening in the world, he makes his own decisions, what he’s going to wear, what he wants to do, and who he wants to interact with.  Travel is not easy, but he travels, and I held Eyal’s hand when his younger brother Erez was ordained as a rabbi at JTS in 2009. 

He’s not a 4 year old anymore, now, he’s 33; and his life is a miracle.  But his life took his family in a different direction.  Rabbi Sherman likely could have left the small city of Syracuse and gone to lead one of the most prestigious synagogues in North America.  He was on his way to have the “perfect family”, where his children would all graduate from college, fall in love, find meaningful work, and build strong Jewish families of their own. 

Remember those first set of Tablets that Moses broke?  After liberating his people with God’s help from Egypt, after splitting the Red Sea by God’s hand and leading them safely through the waters, after being with God for 40 days and 40 nights and literally bringing down Tablets that God Godself made, Moses finds that the people have forgotten about him, forgotten about God; they were worshipping a golden calf, degrading themselves.  Moses couldn’t take it, and he broke the Tablets – the vision of his and his people’s life would never come to fruition.  Both Moses and God forgave the people, and a new set of tablets were made, but the first set, the broken set, always remained with them – imperfection always remained with them. 

There’s an old Yiddish expression – Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht - Man plans, God laughs.  It’s a cruel expression, I know.  It’s kind of like that expression that you may hear when something terrible happens to you, “Everything happens for a reason.” 

I have a confession to make, I hate the phrase, everything happens for a reason.  Ok, maybe ‘I missed this bus and found my wife or husband’ everything happens for a reason.  But, my wife made the flight, and she was died in a plane crash – everything happens for a reason? 

Please God, take your reason and give me back my wife, my husband, my brother, my sister, my child.  Please God, save the comedy for us, stop laughing.

But perhaps we can look at this expression, and the brokenness that we all experience in a different way.  Perhaps we can make beauty and meaning out of the broken things in our lives? 

Perhaps we can make reason.

There is an old story told by the Maggid of Dubno, a famous Hassidic rabbi and storyteller who lived in the 1700’s.  There was once a wealthy king who had it all – a loving family, a glorious kingdom, gold piled high to the ceiling, beautiful tapestries, you name it, he had it.  But his most prized possession was a diamond he owned – not only was it the largest in the world, it was the purest and most flawless diamond ever found.  He would stare at it, day after day, hour after hour.  One morning, he took the diamond out of its box, and he noticed something that startled him:  the diamond had a huge scratch in it – it was no longer perfect.  He was dismayed, how could this happen?!?  So he called the greatest stone cutters in the land to his court.  One by one they came to inspect the diamond. Each looked at it closely and then sadly shook his head. The scratch was too deep. If they tried to polish it they might break the diamond into pieces.  Finally one last diamond carver came before the king. He looked at the diamond closely, gazing at it from every angle.  He took the diamond for two weeks, and the king could not wait.  Finally, after two weeks of work from sun rise to sun set, the diamond carver brought the treasured diamond back to the king. 

"Here it is, your majesty," he said. With a flourish he opened the cloth and presented the diamond.

The king gasped at what he saw. Where there had once been a scratch, a horrible flaw in his precious diamond, there was now an exquisitely beautiful flower carved into the diamond. Unable to polish the scratch out of the diamond, the diamond carver had instead turned the flaw into something beautiful.  The king loved his flawed diamond more than ever. Now when he went to hold it in his hands and gaze upon it, he was reminded that even something imperfect could become something exquisitely beautiful if you work on it. 

Today is the day when we show God our broken tablets, our hearts, just like Moses showed to God when he went back up the mountain.  And today, when we are at our most vulnerable, God helps us put the pieces back together, God helps us make reason out of everything that has happened to us, but we have to work on it. 

On Rosh Hashanah, our fates are written, on Yom Kippur, they are sealed.  With God’s help, we seal them, with God’s help, we put the broken pieces back together, but the scars remain forever.  

I see a lot of broken people out there – and thank God that I do, because you, those who are standing here today, have tried to put the pieces back together, and you know how I know?  Because you are here with open hearts.  Some have more work to do than others, like Eyal Sherman and his family, but the more work they do, the more beautiful their lives become.  The more work we do, the more beautiful our lives become. 

Eyal wrote the last chapter in Rabbi Sherman’s book, The Broken and the Whole:  Discovering Joy After Heartbreak.  He writes about getting into the wheelchair for the first time at age 5, going back home, and making a decision:  “Do I sit and look at the walls all day, or do something with my life.”

He decided to do something, to expand his horizons.  It had a snowball effect on him, and others.  One thing lead to another.  He ends the book with these words, “When I see people doing all kinds of things, it makes me have the urge to do what they are doing, too.  What I’ve learned is there is more to life just sitting in a wheelchair.  Eyal penned a short poem:

It isn’t fair
I’m in a wheelchair,
But I can do things that you wouldn’t dare
If you see me rolling by,
Just give a smile and say Hi!

He continues, “I have a dream, that someday I will be able to walk and overcome all my disabilities and God shall answer each and every one of our prayers, and when that day comes, it will truly be a miracle.” 

So which cup did I choose, the broken and imperfect one; or the whole and perfect one made by the skilled hand of a professional?  I kept both, but my favorite one is the one with the crack, the broken one, because I made it, with God’s help, and with God’s help, I found the beauty in it.  And so, I ask of you on this Day of Atonement, to embrace the broken things in your lives, and work to make them beautiful, knowing that they will never be quite as whole as you envisioned it. 

But remember, it’s yours, you made it, with God, and maybe, just maybe, one day, your dreams will come true, and when that day comes, it will truly be a miracle.