Friday, September 30, 2011

Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah Remarks

Just follow this link.

Wishing all of our readers a very sweet and meaningful new year.
L'Shanah Tovah!


Friday, September 23, 2011

Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5771

These are the remarks I will deliver to the congregation at 7:45 services this evening. If you'd rather hear them there, then stop reading!

Shabbat Shalom,


The double portion of Torah we read this week, the last one before the Holidays, is called Nitzavim-Vayeilech. The portion frames some of the most inspirational verses in all of literature including the stirring passage that we will read in our community on the morning of Yom Kippur, in which Moses concludes the covenant between God and the People of Israel.

This has been a most special week for me and for Kelly; just Tuesday night I accepted the invitation of the congregation of Westchester Reform Temple to serve as its next senior rabbi, an honor held by very few rabbis in the 58-year history of this distinguished congregation, and most recently (meaning, the last 50 of those 58 years) by only two rabbis, two of the greatest rabbis of their respective generations, two men I am proud to call my rabbis, Jack Stern of blessed memory, and Rick Jacobs who has taught me so much. Really, this is, in more ways than one, kinda like trying to follow Michael Jordan after he left the Bulls. (I mean, Rick even taught me how to use a sports metaphor in a sermon! How’d I do, boss?)

As I considered the Torah portion this week, my thoughts raced from one idea to another. So many things to talk about, so many ideas I am eager to share with you! The portion begins with an image of all the people in the Israelite community standing together: “You are standing here today, all of you, in the presence of Adonai your God, your officials, your tribal heads, your elders, your magistrates, every Israelite person; your young ones, your women, and the stranger who resides among you, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water…” so maybe I could talk about my vision of an inclusive community here at WRT.

It includes my favorite pep talk about the Jewish people’s encounter with our sacred tradition: “See, the Instruction I command you this day is not too wondrous for you, nor too far away. It is not in the heavens… nor is it across the sea; no, it is so very close, in your mouth, and in your heart, and you can do it”; so maybe I could talk about my vision of sacred study and sacred action here at WRT.

Or, maybe I could try to come up with something to say about the second half of this week’s reading, in which Moses announces that he’s about to depart, and that leadership will be handed over to his successor, Joshua. Moses leaves much parting wisdom for his people and his successor, three times exhorting them to “be strong and courageous.” He even puts in place a kind of transition plan, which includes downloading a lot of advice to Joshua and reminding the people to study and follow the Torah. It’s kind of like that wonderful scene in the Coen brothers’ recent movie A Serious Man in which the wizened old Rabbi Marshak whispers his final word of advice to the nervously expectant Bar Mitzvah: “Be a good boy.”

But as I read this section, I began to lose courage, especially when I got to the very end of the parasha in which Moshe Rabbeinu, the departing leader, the outgoing rabbi, as it were, says to the people that, after he leaves, “you will surely become corrupted, and deviate from the way which I had commanded you. Consequently, evil will befall you in the long run, because you did wrong by God.” Yikes.

So instead I took a deep breath and looked again at this double-parasha, and stopped short, actually, right at the title. Nitzavim - Vayeilech. As I contemplated these two words, I realized that the entire message I wanted to share with you tonight is encapsulated in these two words. Nitzavim - Vayeilech. The first word, Nitzavim, means to stand still. The second word, Vayeilech, means to go forward. It occurred to me: so much of living a meaningful life is about knowing when and how to stand still, and when and how to move forward.

I am reminded of an old teaching that compares these two dimensions of living to two different forces observable in Nature. One is the power of the wind that can sway the mighty oak. This is the power to move forward, to push things forward. The other is the power of the oak that can withstand the power of the wind. This is the power to stand still, even in the face of mighty forces.

Moving and standing still, standing still and moving: the twin dynamics of our lives. I have met rare individuals who excelled at both; people who, for instance, could stop and grieve a beloved spouse who died too soon, give thanks for the blessings of their years together, and then, when the period of their mourning had come to an end, their period of standing still concluded, somehow summoned the courage to move forward with their lives and even find happiness again, in work or play or relationships or all of the above.

Standing still and moving forward, Nitzavim-Vayeilech: the ability to stop and appreciate where you are, when you are there, before moving on to the next thing. The Torah tells us that God summoned Moses up Mount Sinai with an unusual phrase: Alei Eilai ha-hara, v’heyeh sham. Come up the mountain to Me, God says, and be there. The apparently redundant phrase--“and be there”--puzzled the Rabbis who believed the Torah to be perfect and therefore incapable of carrying extraneous words. I mean, after all, where else would Moses be after coming up the mountain? Would he not already “be there?”

Examining the phrase closely, the Kotzker Rebbe (so named for his town of Kotzk in Poland), taught that even if a person strains to climb all the way up a high mountaintop, and reaches the summit, it is nevertheless possible for him or her not to be there. “Even standing on the very peak itself, one’s head may be somewhere else.” What the Kotzker was saying is that getting up the mountain is often the easy part. The hard part is standing there, Nitzavim, not being distracted away from that place and that moment.

One of my favorite writers, the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was interviewed not long ago in the New York Times. He said, “In the 60’s, there was a famous slogan, ‘Be Here Now’…. Today, with the cellphones, the fax, the Internet, the whole schmear -- the slogan you have today is ‘Be Somewhere Else Now.’” How true! How many of us can’t even make it through dinner with our families without stopping to check our cell phones, our e-mail, the Dow Jones? How hard we sometimes find just being here. Nitzavim then Vayeilich. Stand still, then move forward.

In the coming weeks and months, together we will do both: stand still and move forward. These activities do not mutually exclude each other. Actually, if we do it right, they will reinforce each other.

We will stand still in order to discover who we are, where we are, right now. Our exceptional lay leaders have already begun this process by conducting a series of Community Visioning Conversations, hearing from congregants how they feel about WRT right now and what they might hope for the future. I will need to stand still--not only to collect my thoughts--but also to encounter who we are and what this congregation is, with open eyes, and, especially, to encounter you anew. Kelly and I are eager to be introduced and re-introduced and I look forward to sharing with you the ways in which the temple will provide such opportunities for our congregants. We will need to stand still in order to honor the two decades of devoted service that Rabbi Jacobs has given to this congregation, and to acknowledge what it feels like for all of us simply to be here after his tireless efforts to bring us up the mountain. The view is already spectacular. Nitzavim, we will stand still.

But standing still does not mean to stagnate. We will move forward. We will not fear change the way so many synagogues fear change. We will discover new ways of praying together; experiencing Shabbat and holidays together; learning Torah together, becoming an ever more inclusive and caring community, encountering our neighboring Westchester communities of faith; traveling to places in the world in which the Jewish people have made their mark; doing God’s work on earth in our commitment to a more just and equitable society; exploring the intersection between Judaism and the arts; creating a synagogue whose vitality and vibrancy continues to set a benchmark for the Reform Movement and for progressive synagogues everywhere. Vayeilech, we will move forward.

Each one of these ways of moving forward represents a piece of the vision statement for Westchester Reform Temple that I have already shared with our search committee and that I look forward to sharing with you. On selected Friday nights and at other times throughout the coming months, I will be exploring and expounding different elements of my vision for Westchester Reform Temple. Some of my words may lift you up; some may bring you down; and some may bore you to tears. But I hope to offer all of them in the spirit of what it means to be a rabbi: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. (More of the former, I promise.)

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: standing still and moving forward. I am overjoyed (and not a little bit overwhelmed) to accept your invitation to be here, with you, as we undertake the two dimensions of our sacred journey... together.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Remarks Upon Accepting the Congregation's Vote


acceptance of congregational vote

Next week we will enter a new year, a year we call 5772, adding another chapter to our storied history. I cannot say what the year will bring for the Jewish People entire, but if the proceedings before the UN this week give any indication, it will not always be easy. I do know it will be a dynamic year at Westchester Reform Temple.

For eight years I have experienced the joy of serving this kehillah kedosha, this holy congregation. Being invited into the sacred moments in our congregants’ lives has helped to cultivate within me compassion, humility, and wisdom day by day. From you I continue to learn “living Torah.” I consider it the most rewarding of blessings to accept your invitation to serve as Westchester Reform Temple’s next senior rabbi.

More than eleven years ago, I became a rabbi because I believed then as now in the power of progressive, organized religion--call it Enlightened Faith--to respond the needs of a hurting world, to imbue individual lives with purpose and sanctity, to create inclusive communities of compassion and purpose, and to bring us closer to God. Enlightened Faith, Reform Judaism in particular, gives us a powerful set of tools to transform the world from the way it is into the way it ought to be. Life is messy. Excruciating challenges and exceptional opportunities upend our expectations at every turn. Yet our continual engagement with the Jewish tradition helps to feed our souls, create space for the holy, and make meaning out of this exquisite and exquisitely complicated world.

In the coming weeks, months, and years, I look forward to sharing with you my vision for the future of WRT--both on and off the bimah, starting with the D’var Torah that I will offer this Friday night. My vision has coalesced here, in a congregation distinguished for its commitment to excellence, its wariness of complacency, its eagerness to explore new and exciting ways of being Jewish and bringing the values of our faith into the world. Loving relationships with exceptional colleagues and congregants, lay leaders and mentors, have nurtured this vision. My rabbi and cantor friends lovingly (and some not so lovingly!) covet my good fortune to work with the most exceptional clergy team in America, with Jill Abramson, Dan Sklar, and Mia Fram Davidson.

No rabbi has influenced my outlook more than my friend, my rabbi, Rick Jacobs, whose vision for WRT has inspired my own. Imagining what this congregation will become after Rabbi Jacobs departs is very hard for you as it is for me. At the same time I feel relieved that the incoming President of the Union for Reform Judaism has already agreed to take my calls. I know that you join me in wishing that God’s choicest blessings will accompany Rabbi Jacobs in his undertaking. As for me: what an incomparable honor to accept this position, standing as I do on the shoulders of Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Jack Stern of blessed memory -- two giants of Reform Judaism (one literally and both figuratively so).

I want you to know that the way in which the Search Committee fulfilled its responsibilities provided not only an opportunity for the congregation to share its hopes and dreams for the future, but also proved catalytic for my leadership. I am grateful for the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of their work, and especially for prompting me to articulate my outlook for the synagogue, my core convictions, and the spirituality that animates my rabbinate and my life. The process was fair, transparent, and deeply respectful of the congregation and of me. Moreover, the search process has provided me with unprecedented professional and personal growth. WRT is blessed to have capable and dedicated volunteer leaders whose love for the congregation translates into so many labors of love on its behalf--on our behalf.

Kelly and I have shed tears of joy in embracing the opportunity to continue to call WRT our home. We look forward to being introduced and re-introduced to you in the weeks to come. We happily anticipate much growth together on the journey ahead. On a personal note, I give heartfelt thanks to Kelly for her unceasing devotion. From the very first she has embraced WRT and has done everything possible to support my service to this congregation that we love so dearly, all while going full steam ahead in her extraordinary career. The Rebbetzin McCormick is a blessing not only to me and my family, not only to our WRT family, but really as an exemplar for the Jewish world.

In my innermost prayers I often return to a line from the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible: “Unless the Eternal One builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (127:1). My prayer for the coming year is that we will unite in our willingness to become instruments of the Most High. May 5772 fill us with a spirit of collaboration and hope.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011





I’ll say to you what I said when I appeared before the Search Committee to interview for the job: thank you for this opportunity to introduce myself.

Only superlatives featuring the prefix “over-” suffice to convey the depth of my feeling at receiving this opportunity and this welcome. Overjoyed, overcome with feeling, not a little bit overwhelmed. It is no overstatement to say that Kelly and I are overflowing with gratitude. What’s more you’ve given my mom and dad something to kvell about over and over again, so thank you.

It’s tempting to interpret your invitation to serve as the next senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple as a vote of confidence in the last eight years … which have nurtured my rabbinate inestimably. I choose, however, to accept your invitation as a challenge, a summons to new dimensions in my leadership and in the possibilities for this congregation. Let your vote of confidence be in the rabbi I hope to become.

As for what lies in store for us on the journey we will take together, I am inclined to repurpose words that a groom composed for his bride at the wedding I officiated just this past Sunday:

“There will, no doubt, be detours, wrong turns, even five-car pile-ups along the way. Our intended destination might change—heck, I don’t think I either of us knows what it is yet or ever will—but I can’t wait to hit the road.”

I became a rabbi out of a desire to immerse myself in the literature of sacred Jewish tradition but it is the life of sacred Jewish connection that keeps me going. Moments like the one I shared with bride and groom this weekend, on the bimah with B’nei Mitzvah, in hospital rooms, standing by the grave--these intimate encounters are where ordinary life touches the numinous. How blessed I feel to be invited into them every day.

We live in a society that zealously protects the privacy of the individual and the part of us that cherishes our freedoms should give thanks for that; but one of the sadder trade-offs of this arrangement is that very few Americans today get to see life the way a congregational rabbi does, in all its sacred, beautiful messiness.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Our parents and grandparents lived in more intimately interconnected communities, where one person’s business often agreeably commingled with another’s, a world of mom-and-pop stores and lunch-counter conversations, where, for instance, Bar Mitzvahs were community affairs, not private life-cycle events. I say this not to romanticize the old ways, only to illustrate some of the harder compromises attendant to our pervasive pursuit of privacy.

The Torah portion this week, called Ki Tetze, shows us that the Jewish tradition seeks to find points of intersection between private and public in ways that reinforce each dimension of living, as individuals in the context of a Jewish community. Two notable examples, one negative and one positive, stand out:

The first is the infamous case of the “wayward and rebellious son,” a child so unrepentant in his bad behavior that his parents have deemed him beyond hope of rehabilitation. The Torah instructs the parents to take said wayward and rebellious son before the elders of the community, publicly declare him to be a “glutton and a drunkard,” after which all the people of the town would assemble to stone him to death. The Rabbis pay special heed to the public nature of the punishment in contrast to the private nature of the offense. This is, first and foremost, someone’s child, and what he has done only the parents know. Instead of giving him a time out or grounding him, taking away his camel for the week or whatever, the boy must appear in public and if the community wishes to dispense with the rotten egg altogether, they must join forces and cast the stones as one.

The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) further suggests that no child ever went so far as to prompt the punishment, and no community could ever in good conscience have brought itself to perform their responsibility, so, crisis averted. But what endured was the understanding that in Jewish communities what one person does touches on everyone else and that kol Yisrael arevin zeh ba-zeh, each of us is responsible for every other.

In the second example, our portion permits a person to stroll into a neighbor’s vineyard or cornfield, pluck grapes off the vine or ears off the stalk, eat as much as he or she pleases, until feeling completely stuffed, so long as one stops shy of putting the grapes in a basket or taking a sickle to the corn. Can you imagine this flying in our world? But the Torah’s world envisions an ethic of “What’s mine is mine, but what’s mine is also yours,” an attitude the Rabbis would later define as the essence of religious piety (Pirkei Avot 5:14).

For me, this is what being a rabbi, and, more to the point, being a Jew is really all about: giving a community context for all the sacred, intimate, private experiences of our lives, and making every community gathering into an experience that moves us privately to the core of our being, that allows us to emerge from a prayer service, a Torah class, a social action engagement, internally transformed in the most intimate of ways.

To know that I get to do this work here, with exceptional collaborators in you, our temple leadership; and with our amazing clergy, professional, educational, and administrative staff; with the peerless wisdom that my cherished friends Rabbi Rick Jacobs and, indeed, Rabbi Jack Stern of blessed memory have imparted to me--well, that is the greatest blessing of all.

Kelly and I are so grateful to embrace WRT--the community as it is and as it could be--as our spiritual home. Thank you!

Parashat Shoftim: Blogging by WRT's Own Rabbi Dan Sklar - Last Week's D'var Torah

I'm happy to post (belatedly) this d'rash by our own Rabbi Dan Sklar.

Happy studying!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake


09.02.11 - Rabbi Dan Sklar

I know it’s been a rather dull week. Not much going on in these final dog days of summer. Not much except for an earthquake and a once in a hundred years event known as Hurricane Irene. Whether you thought all the coverage was much ado about nothing, or if you have iReporting relatives upstate or in Vermont, you know from the coverage of the aftermath that we dodged a bullet. My wife and I didn’t have power in Connecticut until Tuesday but the house was intact, everyone was safe and we counted our blessings. I must say that between our isolation in the woods, our well, and a delivery of a cord of firewood, I felt a bit of the pioneering spirit this week. I’m not sure that spirit would hold out very long against another nor’easter or the first frost of winter, but stacking the firewood transported me back a century or two and the whole experience has given me a greater sense of awe concerning the powerful forces of nature. It’s humbling, but even in our whizbang world of electronic gadgetry, we’re still utterly lost when the power goes out. Even with advanced weather prediction systems and satellite imagery, we still couldn’t help but whisper a prayer of protection for our loved ones and our homes. Can you imagine what the destructive force of nature must have seemed like in biblical times?

We don’t have to look very far to see the inextricable link between God and nature in the worldview of our ancestors. Our new prayerbook, Mishkan Tefilah, has even gone so far as to readmit the phrases Morid haTal and Mashiv HaRuach uMorid haGashem in the Amidah prayer- each in their season. The phrases defer to God’s power to make the winds blow and the rains fall. But the editors of the prayerbook were still disinclined to include the second paragraph of the shema that our conservative and orthodox co-religionists recite quietly at every service. The excised paragraph from Deuteronomy explains the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” approach to God and the weather. If we’re faithful and dutiful Jews, God will provide rain and a bountiful harvest. If we’re not: drought and famine. Not so subtle subtext here- our own morality and good or bad deeds directly impact the weather. The Reform movement decided long ago that this cosmology was too problematic to include in our daily prayers and simply removed the offending passage.

But the desire to hold God accountable for the weather runs deep. Polytheistic cultures living alongside Jews had a certain advantage over monotheism. They could assign all manner of natural phenomena their own gods. Zeus himself was known for throwing lighting bolts from the sky. Judaism sought to conflate the properties of many gods onto the one God of the heavens and the earth. But the Greco-Roman influence was strong and some of the oldest synagogue floors we have yet uncovered bear witness to some old habits that were hard to break. The mosaic floors at the 4th century Hamat Tiberias synagogue and the 6th century Beit Alpha synagogue contain Jewish elements that we all know well. A scene depicting the Binding of Isaac, a seven-branched menorah and a Holy Ark. But the lions’ share of both floors is occupied by none other than a zodiac, with Hebrew names for the twelve signs and the sun god Helios smack dab in the middle of the floor. Old habits are hard to break.

The Torah portion this week Shoftim cautions any who might be tempted to worship other gods, specifically the sun or the moon or any other astrological deities. The penalty for such a transgression is, you guessed it, death by stoning but as with many of the exhortations and commandments of the Torah- if the good book says “thou shalt not...” we can bet dollars to doughnuts that many of the people were doing just that. Polytheism was popular because it was convenient. The sun god holds sway during the day, the moon god by night. If you’re traveling by sea, you appeal to the good graces of Poseidon or Neptune. It may seem to us overly simplistic, but it was orderly and it certainly made sense. Monotheism’s greatest challenge was to explain a beneficent God responsible for all- good, bad and indifferent. The prophet Isaiah didn’t mince words, yotzeir or- I form the light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil- ani Adonai oseh chol eileh- I the Lord do all these things. This statement is the dark underbelly of the shema prayer. If God is indeed one, then God is responsible for all.

But again, the liturgist stepped in to soften this severe decree. In the morning prayer Yotzeir Or, which begins with the famous line from Isaiah, the word evil is replaced so we don’t have to face this grim prospect each morning we recite the prayer. The statement, I make peace and create evil became I make peace and create everything. The change is welcomed by every denomination and is part of the traditional liturgy but those in the know, know the original verse and the word replacement is a subtle wink that is to say, of course you know what “everything” entails. The message of our portion and of our liturgy is clear: as tempting as it may seem, don’t look to other gods- our God is one. The portion goes on to prohibit consulting with soothsayers and fortune tellers. Our Torah has no patience for other gods and it isn’t in the business of telling the future, despite what the Bible Code enthusiasts would have you believe.

We’re not so different from our biblical ancestors. Psychics and Tarot card readers abound and people today as in the past are still hungry for news of the future. But today, as in the past, the future is not ours to know. Even in an age of sophisticated weather prediction systems, we still don’t know precisely the path a storm might take until it is just about upon us. Make no mistake, the evacuations this past weekend were necessary and could well have save lives, even if our region didn’t bear the brunt of the storm. Technology is a tool, but it is not a crystal ball. Medical screenings can tell us part but not all of the story. When we say the words, Who shall live and who shall die in the Un’taneh Tokef prayer in just a few weeks time, we feel a kinship with our ancestors when we ask the really big questions and come up wanting. The Torah knows full well that it is simply unhealthy to fixate on what will be. Better to make good use of the time we have and to work for a better future. In the words of another great sage, Doris Day, “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, que sera sera.”