Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sukkot 5771

Dear Friends,

Wednesday night marks the beginning of our harvest festival, Sukkot. On the one hand, Judaism frames Sukkot as "He-Chag," THE Festival par excellence, the culmination of joy in celebrating the fall harvest.

On the other hand, Rabbinic tradition also designates Sukkot as a time to contemplate themes of fragility, mortality, and impermanence, as suggested by the flimsy sukkot or Nature huts in which we dwell.

The study-text I'm providing for your consideration this week, a provocative and brilliant bit of Chasidic wisdom, falls into the latter category. I look forward to reading your reflections, reactions, and related comments.

Happy Studying!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov [Chasidic, 1783?-1841]

B’nei Yissaschar: Ma’amarei Tishrei 10:19

Job was complaining about his suffering, but when he saw that the third wall of a sukkah need be only one tefach (handsbreadth) wide, he immediately felt better.

Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov explains: We read in Psalms, “See, You have made my days like handsbreadths” (39:6). This teaches that the dimensions of the sukkah allude to the types of activities in which one engages during one’s life.

How so?

A person’s activities can be divided into three categories:

1. “Tov”: that which is good for him or her;

2. “Mo’il”: that which is helpful to him or her; and

3. “Arev”: that which is desirable to him or her.

A person may engage in the first two categories as much as s/he wants, writes Rabbi Zvi Elimelech, but the third category should be used only as necessary. This is alluded to by the minimum design criteria for a sukkah. A sukkah must have two complete walls, plus a third wall which is a tefach [handsbreadth] wide. This alludes to the fact that a person may engage in a full measure of those activities which are “tov” [good] and mo’il,” [helpful] but should engage only in a small measure of those activities which are “arev” [desirable].

In order for us successfully to limit participation in the third category of activities, we must realize that our lives in this world are fleeting. This is alluded to by the sukkah, which must be at least seven tefachim wide by ten tefachim high [approximately 28 inches by 40 inches].

After Yom Kippur, when we have repented, we move into the flimsy sukkah to demonstrate our awareness that during the seventy (7 x 10) years of a person’s life, one should not feel at home in this world, but should feel like a traveler passing through.

When Job learned this lesson, it made his suffering easier to bear. Once one recognizes that this life is only a way-station, one does not expect it always to be comfortable or pleasant.

Sunday, September 19, 2010



Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Westchester Reform Temple

A husband confronts his wife one day and says, “Whenever I get mad at you, you never fight back. How do you control your anger?”

“I clean the toilet,” she says.

“You clean the toilet? How does that help?”

“I use your toothbrush,” she says.

This is a sermon about anger and anger management.

I offer it because, as I have tried to put my finger on the pulse of our country, all I can feel is blood boiling, pressure rising, a great seething anger roiling underneath the skin.

Oil belches into the Gulf while we watch in horror and stew in an impotent rage.

Plans for a Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan unleash a wave of vitriol, drowning out not only the project’s supporters, but also those whose reasoned critiques come from a place of even-tempered thoughtfulness. Opportunistic politicians stoke American rage to solicit votes.

Speaking of votes: the Tea Party’s unrelenting anger seems to have struck a chord. Yet as an unwanted side- effect--and much to the chagrin of its organizers--the Tea Party has inadvertently rallied some of the most unsavory elements of American society: foaming-at-the-mouth White supremacists, garden-variety bigots, and more than a few anti-Semites!

Liberals are angry too--angry at the President--and why? Because, no matter how bad it gets, the President never seems to get ... angry! They’re wondering, “Doesn’t he care?”

Anger has seized the whole political spectrum. Consider the fight over health care--more bloodbath than debate.

So here we sit, having sweat out a sweltering summer, soaked in anger. A lot of people lose control when they get angry, lose their ability to reason and focus. Our country has become kind of like the man who said, “I’m so think, I can’t mad straight!”

Anger, most destructive of all character traits, has undone many a great one. Moses, let us remember, had an anger management problem. Exasperated at the Israelites who, believing themselves stranded in the desert, cry out for water, Moses totally loses it. “Listen up, you rebels!” he screams. “Shall we get water for you from this rock?”

Taking his staff--once the crook of the gentle shepherd, once the staff upraised to part the Sea--Moses strikes the rock, once, and again, his staff now nothing more than a blunt instrument. He loses his temper... and also, his job. God tells him: not you, but your successor Joshua will take the Israelites into the Promised Land. End of story.

Now even if we grant the Torah’s depiction of the Israelites as--shall we say--hard to please, can you imagine what would happen if every Jewish leader totally lost it every time an Israelite came forward with a kvetch?

And Moses wasn’t the only one with a problem. The Bible’s Prophets--while filled with passion and inspiration--often spoke from anger and their message fell on deaf ears. We even have a word that’s come down to us in English, jeremiad, which means a long, bitter diatribe, named for the angriest of the Prophets, Jeremiah, who, by his own account, spent the final years of his life in exile in Egypt, trying in vain to convince his people to renounce their sinfulness and return to God.

But why am I talking about figures shrouded by time and geography when I could be talking about us? For there is not a person in this room whose life has not been touched by anger, and surely many of us would like to do a better job managing our own.

We know that anger takes a toll on us. It hurts our health. Physicians believe that anger contributes to cardiovascular stress and puts us at risk for early death. It hurts our relationships. Our loved ones recoil when we lose our tempers and then we have to find a way to do “damage control.” And it hurts our sense of self: we don’t like how we look, we don’t like how we feel, we don’t like how we sound, when we explode in anger. Long after an outburst we may feel consumed with remorse.

I have heard that when a rattlesnake is cornered, it can become so frenzied that it will accidentally bite itself with its deadly fangs. When we harbor anger, we often end up poisoned by our own venom.

Two rabbis, Elazar and Yossi, once became so angry during a debate over a minor point of Jewish law, that a Torah scroll got ripped up. A third rabbi who witnessed the argument commented, “I would be surprised if this synagogue does not become a house of idol worship,” and that, the Talmud reports (Yevamot 96b), is exactly what ended up happening, because where anger holds sway, Reason and Wisdom and Mercy and God have no dominion.

The Talmud also tells us that Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel had such a hot temper that his servant eventually ended up serving him unkosher meat because he felt too afraid to tell him that the house had no kosher meat left.

You may have experienced this harmful side-effect of anger. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin reminds us that “the most common reason children lie to their parents is that they are afraid of what might happen if they tell the truth.”

And yet anger comes with our humanity. Never to feel anger, never to lose one’s temper, would be unnatural and, in some cases, inappropriate. Maimonides wrote that a person without the capacity for anger resembles a corpse (Hilchot De'ot Ch.2). Sometimes anger is not only justified but necessary.

An insufficiency of anger has led to terrible decisions. Who among us would not prefer the rage that Winston Churchill felt toward Hitler to the ameliorating goodwill of his predecessor Neville Chamberlain? Abraham Joshua Heschel said that to suppress anger “in the face of outbursts of evil may amount to surrender and capitulation.... The complete absence of anger stultifies moral sensibility (The Prophets, pp. 280ff.).

Even Moses, whose anger eventually undid him, as a young man grasped its occasional necessity. Witnessing an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave within an inch of his life, Moses slays the oppressor to save the victim in a strategic display of rage.

Reasons for justified anger abound. I for one would submit that we have a Jewish responsibility to feel anger that in a nation of supermarkets overflowing with food, more than a million American children will go to bed hungry while we’re breaking fast. When religious officials violate a sacred trust, a sexual boundary, we ought to respond with anger. We should feel anger at willful ignorance, particularly when exploited for political gain. Not to feel anger is sometimes to abdicate moral responsibility.

Further, the Rabbis noted that anger and creativity often spring from the the same primal impulse. A world without anger would mean Picasso without Guernica, J.D. Salinger without Holden Caulfield, Spike Lee without Do The Right Thing, The Beatles without John Lennon.

And there will come times when--as parents, children, siblings, spouses, and friends--we will need to express anger. I consider it no indicator of future wedded bliss when, in pre-marital counseling, a couple boasts, “we’ve never had a fight.” A Chinese proverb counters, “If you haven’t fought with each other, you do not know each other.” Holding anger inside can actually hurt us. An inability or unwillingness to display it sometimes results in it eating us alive.

The late Princess Diana brought global attention to land mines buried in battlegrounds long ago, that continue to kill and maim. Yvon Bouvet, who heads a French government team that defuses explosives from World Wars I and II explains: “Unexploded bombs become more dangerous with time. With the corrosion inside, the weapon becomes more unstable; the detonator can be exposed.’” The same holds true for buried rage. It can explode when we least expect it.

Yet few of us have mastered how to express anger in a constructive way that would allow our relationships to grow as a result. “Anger doesn’t automatically dissipate by being unleashed,” notes one expert. “We rarely experience catharsis. Venting... only increases the intensity of the feeling. Anger often feeds on itself" (“The Downside of Anger,” Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today, July/Aug 2003).

Moreover, what really deserves our anger and what should we let go? It’s often hard to know. A Jewish tradition imagines that even God struggles. When God prays, how does God pray? The Talmud says, like this: “May My capacity for mercy overtake My capacity for anger.” (Bavli Berakhot 7a). This is really hard work, for everyone.

Yet our anger can teach us much about ourselves. If you want to tackle it, begin with Rabbi Telushkin’s exercise in self-awareness. Ask yourself:

When I’m angry, do I overreact and inflict pain on others? Or will I deny that I am angry while treating others with coldness, disdain, or annoyance? Do I speak curtly, making people feel that I have no time for them? Do I convey my anger to the right people, or take it out on the wrong people? Am I moody? Do I make people around me feel responsible for my moods? (Questions paraphrased from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Reform Judaism Magazine, Spring 2006, and A Code of Jewish Ethicas, Vol. I: You Shall Be Holy, p. 260).

If the answer to any of these is “yes,” then there’s still work to do. Fortunately we have received much practical wisdom when it comes to anger management, helping us to use our anger as a strategic tool and not as a blunt weapon.

It starts with a realistic goal. Pirkei Avot teaches, “Be slow to anger and easy to pacify" (5:14). Not, “never get angry,” but rather, work on that short fuse. Start by surrendering your most petty annoyances--like going ballistic when you can’t find the pen you swear you left on your desk, or flying into a rage at every inattentive driver on the road, or losing your temper with a child who habitually refuses to take a bath.

Taking a “time-out” after an upsetting incident also helps. Waiting to respond for at least twenty-four hours after a provocation can really take the edge off.

Cultivating a state of mindfulness is beneficial. Some do it through exercise or yoga. And although the idea was lampooned in an episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza’s dad would yell, “SERENITY NOW!” every time he felt upset, many have found reciting a mantra to have a calming effect.

Unless under the influence of mental illness or mind- altering substances, we almost always can control our impulses. For instance, when we sense a clear and present danger, we tend not to explode. Few of us would voice our inner rage if held up at gunpoint. And if we had positive incentives, like a monetary reward, for every time we exercised self-restraint, would we not quickly learn to control our anger? Or “positive disincentives”: I know some people who have imposed a fine on themselves, a contribution to tzedakah, every time they lose their temper.

Many have benefited from giving anger an outlet that will neutralize it before it can hurt someone. Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, once felt angered by an army officer who accused him of favoritism. Stanton complained to Lincoln, who suggested that Stanton write the officer a sharp letter. Stanton did, and showed it to the President. “What are you going to do with it?” Lincoln asked. Stanton replied, “Send it.” Lincoln shook his head. “You don’t want to send that letter,” he said. “Put it in the stove. That’s what I do when I have written a letter while I am angry. It’s a good letter and you had a good time writing it and [you] feel better. Now, burn it, and write another.” How much the more do we need Lincoln’s advice in our era of impulsively sent e- mails?

Finding compassion for the person provoking us can also supply an antidote. Rabbi Noach Weinberg points out that if we were standing on a street corner and someone pushed us into traffic, we would understandably feel infuriated. But if we turned around and saw that a blind person had bumped us, our anger would dissolve into compassion. We need to remember that many times, the culprit in our dispute is, in a way, blind--honestly blind to how he or she has hurt us--and while we need to protect ourselves, compassion provides a better response than anger (Ibid, pp. 270-271 (paraphrased)).

Don’t assume that this work is best done alone. Many individuals and couples have coped successfully through the assistance of a therapist. Even a friend can help. When you need to vent, choose a fair- minded person who can calm you down and see both sides of a dispute.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, who a century-and-a-half ago founded the Musar Movement, a spiritual discipline focusing on personal ethics, liked to say that “the loudest sound in the universe is the breaking of a bad habit.” We know how difficult it can be to choose a softer path when old ways have become hardened. But what relief when we do!

Take it from Moses. The youth who used his anger to rescue a defenseless slave grew up into the man who lost everything in his rage. Now he has heard the final summons. He knows that he will die soon, will see the Promised Land but never enter. In that moment, this is what he says to his people--words taken from the Yom Kippur Torah portion--

U’vacharta ba-chayim. “Choose life.”

In spite of life handing Moses the ultimate disappointment in the final inning, Moses managed not to die an angry old cynic.

Look, he could have said, “Despite all our best efforts, life is unfair and the best advice is not to expect too much.”

Instead he said: “Choose life.”

Every day we choose how we will live. Yes, much comes to us without our choice or control. But we get to control how we will choose to respond.

The classic Barry Levinson movie Avalon depicts a Jewish family growing up in Baltimore. At Thanksgiving one year, the family waits and waits for habitually late Uncle Gabriel. Exasperated, they start without him. He finally shows up hours late, just in time to utter the movie’s crucial line: “You cut the turkey without me?! I can’t believe you cut the turkey without me!” Soon enough, we stop laughing, as his rage turns into an estrangement that permanently severs two branches of his family.

Do you know the Talmudic definition of an “enemy?” An “enemy” is a person you haven’t gotten along with or spoken to in three days. (Bavli Sanhedrin 27a). Do you get the implication? It teaches that when a person hurts us, offends us, disappoints us, we may need to feel angry for a day or two, but we will have to find a way to deal with it, fast, or pretty soon it will grow, take over, rupture our relationships, make enemies of friends. A friend of mine describes the choice to persist in one’s anger, to nurse a grudge, as “performing CPR on a grievance that otherwise would have died of natural causes.”

I do not minimize that many of us have real grievances over real wounds. I know that among us, trusts have been violated--between parents and children, between siblings, friends, business partners, lovers and spouses--and that hopes and expectations have been bitterly disappointed. Our religion does not teach that we should hand out forgiveness casually. And surely there exist some forms of abuse that make forgiveness impossible. Nor does Yom Kippur have any power to erase the old hurts; it just reminds us that we need to work on earning forgiveness through sincere efforts to do better.

But when sincere efforts have been made, and forgiveness earnestly sought, we need to work on granting forgiveness--freely and sincerely. It starts by letting go of anger. I ask you: Can you, this Yom Kippur, let go of some of the anger in your life?

Yes: people have let you down. People have wounded you through what they did or said or what they failed to do or say. They are imperfect and this is what imperfect people do. But if you found a way to put some of the anger aside, could you clear the record ... this Yom Kippur?

It really can happen, if we choose.

You know, and I know, that life is too precious to squander on hard feelings and built-up resentments. Don’t let your anger get the best of you, because it costs too much of your best self.

Don’t say, “What’s done is done; I cannot change it.” We can choose the lives we wish to live. We can choose to become the people we want to be. Starting today. Why wait?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

L'Shanah Tovah - Sermon by Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5771


a sermon about cliques, mobs, and congregations

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, New York

Senior year, my high school presented Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In retrospect, putting me in the title role seems an inspired bit of typecasting, but I assure you, at the time, Jewish leadership was the furthest thing from my mind. Before I became a rabbi, before I fell in love with a musical theatre performer, I was just a kid who felt at home on stage--a musical theatre nerd, it’s true.

As we prepared for the show, the dynamic among the brothers in the Joseph story played out in real life.

You know the story. Joseph comes from a big family, twelve brothers, and little Joe gets special treatment. He wears a fancy robe, a sign that Daddy loves him the most. As a result, he becomes a bit full of himself. He dreams about rising to power over his brothers and rubs it in their faces. One day they spot him and say, “Here comes the dreamer.” They hatch a plan: kill him. Then Reuben, the first-born, stands up and says, “No, don’t kill him! Just throw him in this pit while we come up with something less violent.” The brothers break for lunch. Afterwards Judah proposes selling Joseph into slavery. They drag him out of the pit, sell him to a hairy bunch of Ishmaelites, fake his death and split. Classy bunch of guys, these brothers.

So picture me, rehearsing for Joseph. As the weeks wore on, I found myself eating more and more meals by myself while the eleven brothers formed their own little group, hanging out and laughing it up, probably, I concluded, at my expense.

If you’ve ever been treated as an outsider by a clique, you’ve met Joseph’s brothers. If you’re the lone musical theatre nerd crossing the section of the lunchroom where the jocks eat, you’ve been Joseph. Better to stay in your own territory, with your own kind. Or avoid embarrassment and just eat quietly by yourself. “After all,” Joseph must have thought, hearing his brothers laughing over lunch ten feet away, “at least down here in the dark no one will bother me and I can dream my dreams in peace.”

I don’t need to hang out at Middle School or High School to see this scene played out week after week; I need only look around. Every Wednesday at 6:30, in a room of 200 teens eating pizza, somehow one table seems always to have one kid, maybe two, eating alone. It’s that deep, dark pit right in the middle of the room. More will roll in at 7:00 just in time for class, in order to avoid the “Social Hall” which to them must seem anything but. In a B’nei Mitzvah class of 100 students, somehow a few will go through all of seventh and eighth grades without a single invitation to a classmate’s party. And I will tell you straight up that some of our best and brightest students, who are thoughtful and kind on their own, nevertheless fail, in a group setting, to remember the vulnerable kids. And some of our best and brightest, thoughtful and kind on their own, become downright mean in their cliques.

Cliques, starting as early as fourth or fifth grade, demand conformity and suppress individuality. Wearing the same clothes, using the same language, listening to the same music, all provide a sense of safety in numbers. Much better to be a brother than to be Joseph, with his special talent and his flamboyant outfit.

Psychologist Michael Thompson, who has written about grade-school cliques, observes that “the message of the group is this: You have to look and act this way or else we’ll reject you.

And we might reject you even if you do it right.... [D]efining other people as ‘different’ or ‘not like us’ helps their own group cohere. That’s why friendship groups turn into cliques, and why cliques can be mean.”

Even the kids with a conscience have a hard time standing up to the clique. That’s why Reuben and Judah failed. They wanted to rescue Joseph but they couldn’t look like losers in front of their brothers. They made a choice: not to do follow their conscience, but to follow the crowd.

“Tell me who you go with, and I’ll tell you who you are.” I first heard this proverb spoken by Jeanette Eichenwald, the educator at my temple growing up. The daughter of survivors, Jeanette taught us about the Holocaust. Asked to explain how countless ordinary folks from Germany and Poland and all over Europe could have stood by, even assisted the Nazis, in the deportation and killing of six million of our people, she would say: “Tell me who you go with and I’ll tell you who you are.” We become like the people with whom we associate. And human beings acting as a mob can do the unthinkable.

The Torah tells us that when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Commandments, the people grew impatient. “Vayikahel ha-am”-- “and the people assembled themselves.” In

other words, they became a mob. Imagine countless ordinary folks all of a sudden willing to do violence. So assembled, they intimidated Aaron into making an idol. Aaron caved and fashioned a golden calf. When Moses returned, “the people were out of control.” Surely some were individuals of conscience. But in the crowd they surrendered their will to speak up. “Tell me who you go with and I’ll tell you who you are.”

On Thursday, August 7, 2003, five hundred people converged on the Fifth Avenue Toys-R-Us Store. Directed by an e-mail from a man calling himself “Bill,” they spontaneously began to bow down before the life-sized animatronic T-Rex in the middle of the store. Before security could figure out what on earth was happening, they vanished. The participants in this social experiment known as a “Flash Mob” had never before met.

“Bill” happens to be my college friend Bill Wasik, a journalist who has parlayed his little stunt into a nifty career studying mob behavior by creating mischievous “social experiments.” Flash Mobs have taken on a life of their own, with spontaneous gatherings popping up all over the world. Hundreds of people arrive at exactly the same time, do something totally random--like ride the subway in their underwear or perform a synchronized swimming routine in a public fountain--and then scatter. With his invention, Bill demonstrated that a mob takes on a life of its own--mindlessly following orders to do something completely meaningless. Individuals lose themselves in a mob. Whether goose-stepping in tandem at a Nazi rally; or trampling innocent spectators at soccer stadiums; or bowing down before a giant plastic dinosaur, or a golden calf, the common thread is a basic human craving to go with the crowd. The mob itself becomes the attraction.

Now if at this juncture you think that you have figured out

my message--beware of the crowd; watch out for the influence of the bad guys; and be a better, more upstanding person--you are only partially correct. If that were all I wanted to say, I could myself “cave to the will of the crowd” and simply stop here.

But there’s one final thing we need to address tonight. For if the best way to live a good and meaningful life meant that each of us should go it alone, then we’d have no reason ever to join a congregation--no reason to be here.

You have chosen to become part not of a clique or, God forbid, a mob, but a congregation, to join yourself and your family to the mission of Westchester Reform Temple and the Jewish People. And that choice says a lot about you.

I meet a lot of people--congregants and non-congregants alike--with a lot of baggage about congregations. “Rabbi,” they say, “I’m all for spirituality but I dislike organized religion.” I understand what motivates them. With a huge majority of the ugliest behavior coming from a tiny minority of synagogues, churches, and mosques, it’s easy to conclude that “organized religion” deserves the blame.

And yet--mixed feelings or not--here you are.

Tell me who you go with and I’ll tell you who you are.

You have chosen to go with a congregation.

And yet... we hardly know one another!

Here, in a congregation of 1,200 households, a family can still end up sitting alone at a fifth grade dinner or the sixth grade retreat. It is true, our greeters embody the Bible’s teachings about hospitality and love of neighbor. And yet somehow more than a handful of worshippers will leave any Shabbat Service without having been welcomed by anyone but

our greeters. So two new rules for the new year.

One. No one sits alone at a temple function--a dinner, a service, a special event. Ever.

Rule number two. No one leaves tonight without meeting the people in your row. And the row in front of you. And behind you. Maybe we could do one better than Congress and even shake hands with someone across the aisle.

When you joined WRT, knowingly or not, you chose to become part of a covenant which is a fancy word for a contract. A covenant turns a mob--an ordinary group of people--into a

congregation. A mob bands together for no good purpose; a congregation bands together to multiply the good that any one of us could do alone.

Alone you can read a book; as a congregation you can study Torah. Alone you can write a check to tzedakah; as a congregation you can create a fund that lets everyone contribute. Alone you can visit Israel; as a congregation you can travel together to present a Torah scroll to a grateful congregation in need. Alone you can whisper a prayer to God; as a congregation you can sing in harmony. Alone you can feed a table of hungry people; as a congregation you can stock the county’s Food Bank.

When you joined WRT, knowingly or not, you chose to go with a community of people who share our core values. You did not choose to go it alone. Knowingly or not, you chose to experience the most important moments of your lives not alone but together.

And yet many of us still view those important moments as private life-cycle events--bris and baby naming, Bar and Bat Mitzvah, wedding and funeral. In a congregation that necessitates pairing most students for B’nei Mitzvah, still far too many families sharing a date interact only at the Sixth Grade Retreat and not again until the week of the celebration. Some of us may chafe at the way in which WRT cares about how we celebrate Bar/Bat Mitzvah: that we insist on a dress code, urge tzedakah, require mitzvah projects and disapprove of socially exclusionary party favors like personalized sweatshirts. But, you know what? That’s what it means to be part of a congregation.

Tell me who you go with, and I’ll tell you who you are. You chose WRT to be your congregation. In Hebrew we call a congregation a kehillah. It is almost exactly like the word kahal which can refer to any large assembly of people including a mob. But the word kehillah adds two little letters, a yud and a hei, which spell out Yah, one of God’s many names. A congregation is what you get when you take a regular group of people, a kahal, and add God, add Yah. You get a kehillah -- a sacred community.

The Jewish People experiences its transformative moments in community. When the Israelites crossed the sea to freedom, Miriam took up her tambourine and all the women began to dance. After all, friends, you can’t dance the horah alone.

Some of us have had a year filled with joy. Children have stood at the chuppah, ascended the bimah as Bar and Bat Mitzvah, graduated from school. Parents have celebrated milestone birthdays and anniversaries, careers found new life and possibility. We come here tonight because we can’t dance the horah alone.

Others have had a year filled with tears. Loved ones have taken sick, or died, or moved away. Friendships have been tested, marriages strained or severed. Work has been frustrating and a good job hard to find. Children have endured untold private pain. People we care about have let us down. But we come here tonight because we don’t want to cry alone.

The rest us have had a mix of it all, ups and downs and in- betweens, and we need to share it, because only together, only in this place, does it all fit. We are here for a reason, and, by God, we need one another to make sense of our individual lives. We need one another, if only to remind ourselves that--whether life hands us joy or sorrow or all the mess in between--we can’t go it alone.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

L'Shanah Tovah Tikateivu - May you be inscribed for a good year.

Dear Friends:

I just wanted to take a moment to wish all of our readers a sweet and blessed new year.

The sermon that I will offer at WRT will be posted here before Shabbat!

L'Shanah Tovah Tikateivu,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Guest Blogging for NITZAVIM - and L'Shanah Tovah!

Dear Friends,

It gives me great pleasure to present remarks for this week's parasha penned by way of a High Holy Day sermon by my friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman who is one of the rabbis at Temple Brith Kodesh in Rochester, NY. Rebecca originally offered this sermon in 2006 for Yom Kippur, but as the Torah portion for this week is the one read on Yom Kippur morning, I found her words the perfect introduction to the Days of Awe. Please read it and share your responses in the comments ledger.

L'Shanah Tovah Tikateivu - may 5771 be a year of hope and openness for us all.
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman

Yom Kippur / Parashat Nitzavim - 2006

God we stand in awe before your deeds… as the gates begin to close.

We’ll say these words later on today during Neilah, our concluding service. We’ll say them repeatedly, as a matter of fact. As the gates begin to close. There will be a gentle, almost hypnotic rhythm as we say the words. Our voices will be heavy with the fatigue of the day, and at the same time, will quicken at the realization that as the gates begin to close … the breaking of the fast begins to seem not all that far away!

When I was young I had a very specific image of these gates. I imagined that they looked exactly like the heavy, wrought iron gates of the park at the end of our street. Taller maybe, but other than that they had the same formidable feel. As they slowly creaked open, then closed again, they made the same slightly rusty sound. At dusk, the same chain would be used to loop through the slats and lock the gates tightly together, to keep the big kids from sneaking in after dark and playing on the swings. If you got to the park early in the morning (and much to my mother’s chagrin, that was often our preference), the early light of the day might filter through the trees and hit the gates at a certain angle – and somehow when you pushed them open you had the feeling you were entering into so much more than another day’s play.

On Yom Kippur, the last light of the day might filter through the synagogue windows at a certain angle; I would gaze up… and up… picturing those gates closing in slow motion, sure that now was the time. In these last moments, I knew I had to push every ounce of repentance, every shred of humility – in short, every deep thought – through those gates before they clanged closed. And stayed closed… until next Yom Kippur at least. At no other time during the year did I feel openness quite like that openness: standing there in those moments and saying those words: God we stand in awe before your deeds… as the gates begin to close.

For us in these moments now, all that is yet to unfold. We stand here with gates thrown open, walls thrown open: here, there and everywhere (gesture). If you’re not sure about that, just look behind you! Yom Kippur means to open those gates, to penetrate those walls, within and without… as we balance holding ourselves accountable for our actions, with forgiving others in a way that is thoughtful and authentic. Standing here means standing up to the work of accountability and self-scrutiny. On this day, we are like the gates themselves. For some of us, opening to the intensity of the season may come more naturally. For others of us – many others --we find we need to brace ourselves and push through our carefully erected barriers. Fortunately, the rewards of putting some muscle behind this process are immense.

Unfortunately, openness of self and spirit is some of the very hardest work we are called to do.

The words from the Torah portion Nitzavim, read each year on this day, call us back to a time when our people stood together with their entire future opened out before them. They also call us forward, for each year on this day, as we hear the words anew, we make them our own. For this covenant, we are told, is made not just with those present on that day, but also with those who are not there. That’s where we come in – each of us here not on that day, but here on this one. We are their descendants: inheritors and shapers of this extraordinary covenant for all time.

Or at least that’s the widely understood reading. … vacharta bachayyim/ l’ma’an t’hiyeh atah v’zaracha / … choose life: so that you and your descendants may live. I wonder each year though, if these words are hinting at something else as well. They evoke not only the generations of the future, but also those of the past: the ones who did not live to witness this moment. The ones who never made it out of Egypt. The ones who fell in battle, or perished during the years of wandering in the desert. And if that’s true, then nearly everyone standing there that day had lost someone. There they were, being addressed as a people unified and whole – being asked to be their strongest, most capable, most open selves. What a moment to suddenly be reminded of the absences in their midst, and in their hearts.

It is in that way, most of all, that they are just like us. We too stand here today all missing something. For some the loss was of one who was dear to us … and there it remains. For others… loss of livelihood or of health. We have experienced the painful dissolution of relationships, and in the void that follows, the question: where on earth to now? And how? Other losses are of the sort that are intertwined with blessings. I have a friend expecting her second child who in the midst of her excitement and joy, looks at her young daughter and aches at times, knowing that Tali’s days of being the sun around which the planets of parental attention revolve are numbered. And then there are the losses that are less concrete. The loss of a sense of predictability – of a sense of how things were supposed to happen, of how life was supposed to turn out. Loss of the ability to absorb news of the world we live in with even a modicum of optimism. The loss, even temporarily, of hope. I wish this weren’t true, but it is: there are years that take from us more than they give.

And so we stand here, each in our own ways wondering perhaps, how to open to another year, knowing all too well that, as this morning’s passage goes on to describe: both blessing and curse, life and death lie ahead. How might we step through the gates, knowing that the unknown awaiting us, is invigorating sometimes but downright terrifying the rest of the time? When life demonstrates, time and time again, that in the words of writer Anne Lamott: suffering is such a large part of what it means to be human, how do we open to more life?

How do we do it… particularly when we live in a culture that offers an endless array of ways to numb ourselves to that call to openness? Nearly every good thing can be taken to excess: food, drink, exercise, work. Nearly every technological means of staying entertained, staying in touch with each other and with the world can become frenetic and obsessive. Opportunities to respond to life with apathy or cynicism abound; and when we’ve been burned by openness one too many times, those responses begin to feel like they make sense.

So how do we do it?

To paraphrase Sholom Aleichem’s beloved character Tevye the Dairyman, “I’ll tell you. I don’t know.” I don’t know how it happens. Only that it happens. I wish you could see what we see, as we all stand here today. I wish you could see yourselves – a ongoing part of the community of Israel -- living proof that the call to open up to all of it – pain and fear and blessing and joy and loss – can still be heard above all the other sounds. It can still be heard, and it can still be heeded.

Now it’s possible that it’s instinct in part; like plants reaching toward the sun or bodies fighting off illness, ordinary life does fight for itself. It’s possible too that there’s a sense obligation to the ritual at play here. I know. But more than both of those things accounts for your standing here today. Without saying a word, your presence speaks volumes to the possibility that we still take our actions in this world seriously. The possibility that the courage to pause and face all we are, and all we are not, lives in us. The possibility that the willingness to contend with our hurts and our shortcomings and all we meant to do but didn’t over this past year rests not in the heavens or beyond the sea, but is so very near to us. The possibility that this Covenant is made and remade with us right where we stand, just as we are – with all our gifts and all our faults. With all we’ve lost, and all we have. And when part of what we have is the ability, however worn around the edges, to turn – to change – to allow ourselves to be marked by life -- to rediscover the nourishing properties of hope --– well that’s what moves us away from all that holds us back, and calls us forward into what Judaism calls mayim chayim: living waters.

God we stand in awe before your deeds.

Our liturgy speaks of the Divine spark that makes us human. I look at you and I stand in awe of that intersection – that point where the ideal meets the real and somehow… somehow once again, we rise to that call to become more than we are. I stand in awe before your deeds. You’ve weathered change. You’ve survived the loss of something that defined you and found new ways to make meaning. You insisted on working for change in this world. Sometimes you wondered whether these ideas were quaint, or passé, and sometimes you thought how much easier it would be to close your heart. Sometimes you did. Maybe you had to. But life called to you again, and you answered. You answer still.

And I pray you will find that, in the words of writer Martha Beck, you’ll never be as hurt by being open as you have been hurt by remaining closed.

Pitchu lanu sha’arey tzedek – open for us the gates of righteousness … and we shall enter.