Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rosh Hashana Evening Sermon 2011: Finding the Innermost Point in the soul of the Synagogue

Rosh Hashana Evening

A rabbi assumed the pulpit of his new congregation. As he was speaking with the leaders of the congregation he was asking questions regarding the congregation’s minhagim or customs on the High Holy Days such as blowing the Shofar during the preceding month of Elul after the morning minyan. This custom is about helping the congregants to prepare for their prayers and getting ready for the penitential season. The Rabbi commented to the leaders, “We have to have everything in place. The synagogue must be ready too. All the chairs and tables must be set in their place. The building committee must oversee all the details to make sure it all runs smoothly as Rosh Hashana arrives. “But even with that kind of preparation”, the Rabbi continued, “there comes Satan into the congregation and he extracts from the soul of the community, the innermost point. Everything remains as it was and the wheel keeps on turning only that the innermost point is missing.”   The rabbi spoke passionately when he raised his voice and exclaimed, “But, so help us God, we cannot ever let that happen here!”
Who knew that Judaism had its own character of Satan? Yes we do and while Satan, as defined by Jewish tradition, does not resemble the Christian concept of Satan,  yet, the Jewish view of Satan can upset the spiritual equilibrium not only of a person but of an entire community on multiple levels. We know of and quite possibility belonged to such congregations in our lifetime. A beautiful edifice and talented clergy with capable and savvy leadership should be all that it takes to make a synagogue successful. Yet quite often it is not that simple because a synagogue or temple can be dragged into matters that can distract and move the community away from ever touching souls.
 So what does the term ‘innermost point’ mean and how does it directly affect us as a congregation? How can we hold onto to that point in our congregation especially as we celebrate Beth Yam’s 30th anniversary? What I see here is that there is a spirit in this congregation of great talent and devotion. Our challenge is to tap into the souls of people in ways that bring us to experience Judaism in ways we would never have imagined. We should be creating an environment that says stretch ourselves educationally and spiritually and don’t be afraid to grow in our feeling towards Judaism and its people. We are doing this already by producing our new Torah Shelanu book. We have other projects that keep our hand on the pulse of the innermost point. It requires us to understand how heart, memory and conscience work together and balance the normal focus on the upkeep of our congregation. We want to continue to help our congregants to have choices to grow themselves educationally and spiritually.
Judaism typically portrays the High Holy Days as people making choices between behavior that is either good or not. God opens three books and we, through our prayers and actions, will determine whether or not God will inscribe and seal us into the Book of Life. But think about a different set of choices. Suppose the issue is not about good versus bad behavior. Let’s imagine that the innermost point that Satan would steal from a community was forgetting about the spirit or the values that makes for a healthy and vibrant temple. Maybe the synagogue where the temple organization works but the spirit is dormant is exactly what the rabbi in the story was afraid could happen to his new community. It is possible that the story is teaching us that we need and want stability in our lives and in our temple too. But when we focus exclusively on the structure and lose perspective about what makes a community sacred then the innermost point the rabbi referred to is missing and then we may remain in a limbo rather than being sealed in the book of life.
I feel confident that that this past year our temple made great strides in keeping that Satan from stealing the innermost point from us at Beth Yam. We commissioned the writing of a brand new Scroll of Esther as well as purchasing and refurbishing a beautiful Torah. We had learning sessions with our scribe Neil Yerman and we dedicated it and wrote the holy letters in the Torah.  We also embarked upon a special project which you have received tonight. It began with about 18 adult writers and we learned for three sessions engaging in creative writing exercises based upon a theme in the Torah. It was an intense and for some mystifying experience, particularly  for those who had no prior experience in studying Jewish texts let alone trying their hand at  creative or spiritual writing. The group of truly faithful students created a momentum and produced a collection of poems, memoirs, essays and even a recipe. They were amazed at the effort that they could never have imagined doing in their lives. But the circle grew and we invited visual artist in the temple and they began to create their art. The circle widened even further and we engaged teachers and children in the religious school to do their writing and behold we now present you with the “Torah Shelanu” Our Torah representing Congregation Beth Yam’s efforts to capture and hold onto the innermost point of the Temple Community.
I do not believe that if we had never done this project our temple would have been any worse for it. No one would have missed it. We would be carrying along with the same momentum we are used to doing here at the Temple. But this project did happen and it involved many generations of people from all over the world that belong to our Temple. I hope you will peruse and eventually read the book. We had participants who spoke of their experiences immigrating to this country, the aftermath of the Holocaust growing up in the Bronx, mourning an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon, straddling between living Jewish life in New York vs. the low country. The project involved tapping into people’s memory and trying to make sense of their lives in the here and now. We know these people, but, did we realize what was in their souls. Did they themselves understand what they would find? That sense of reaching inward and discovering not only what we could write or what visual art we could produce is exactly what the rabbi was talking about when he spoke of the innermost point in the temple. It is the spark, the creative spirit the ability to surprise ourselves by what heart, memory and  conscience can reveal to us.
This project also taught us that it takes an ability to remember how small things often reconnect us to the big picture of the temple and preserving Judaism. I think we need more opportunities to stretch our vision and give people the chance to shine and to learn new skills no matter their age. We also should be more in tune with sustaining our temple’s reputation with doing new and creative activities that are outside the box. Our work in social action and Outreach to the interfaith and the national awards we have received should be a continuation of a culture at Beth Yam that is building a spiritual infrastructure that is as beautiful as the physical infrastructure that envelops us when we enter this temple.
If any temple or our congregation focused only on the mechanics of operating a congregation and that became the center of our focus then, symbolically speaking, the presence of Satan has prevailed. Satan, in rabbinical thought, does not challenge God for supremacy, but, likes to dislodge us and distract us from fulfilling the commandments of the Eternal. We see many rabbinical stories about Satan. Even one of the most famous has Satan trying to prevent Abraham from taking Isaac to Mount Moriah when God commands him to sacrifice him. Satan represents not the personification of evil or the devil but rather a malaise, a single minded conformity, the resistance to grow in knowledge and spirit not just for a person but for a community. That is what the rabbi was thinking about when he exclaimed, “But we will not let that happen here!”
If we take out the Torah Shelanu book and examine the verse that we chose to inscribe on the front cover, we will see its message for this day of Rosh Hashana. We chose Genesis 2:9 When God exposed Adam and Eve for violating his command of eating from the fruit of the forbidden tree. God goes directly to Adam and asks him, “Ayechah” where are you?” Did God mean to ask if Adam knew where he was literally? What did God mean from that question, Where are You?”  Scholars have been interpreting that question since the beginning of Torah.
But I will give you one story that exemplifies that “Where are You, “applies to each of us. Almost two hundred years ago Rabbi Schner Zalman was arrested and jailed in St. Petersburg. Actually his own people accused him of instigating Jews to more spiritual growth and it threatened the Orthodox authorities who went to the gentile authorities and had him arrested. 
While the rabbi was sitting in his cell, the guard spoke with him. The rabbi could see the distress in the face of the guard and how he was afflicted with many concerns. The guard started to ask the rabbi questions that he had always wanted to understand about Scriptures. Finally he asked the Rabbi, “Why did God ask Adam, “Where are You’ in the garden of Eden?”
“Do you believe,” answered the rabbi, “that the Scriptures are eternal and that every era, every generation, and every person is included in them?”
“I believe this,” said the guard.
“Well then,” said the rabbi, “in every era, God calls to every person:  “Where are you in your world?  So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?’
The guard smiled and said, “Bravo Rabbi! Then his heart trembled.”
This story can speak to us because ‘Rosh Hashanah is challenges us to ask this question ‘, Where are You?’ And to ask this question that God asked Adam is to admit we need to make a change and think carefully about how we are living. It is the same question that the writers of the Torah Shelanu project asked themselves. It is the question that every temple should pose when evaluating how well we are doing as a congregation.

And as we celebrate our temple’s 30th  anniversary we can ask this question of ourselves. I am personally happy and pleased to be continuing with you in the years to come and I look forward to joining you in the continuing saga of finding, and preserving that innermost point of this congregation. It brings us all great satisfaction when we can embark on projects that brings out the best in people, when our members who are sure what the end is but have faith believing that the vision will become clear. And that is what happened in Torah Shelanu and often times in life that kind of faith is necessary to meet life’s challenges.
Thirty years old means a person who is old enough to make it on their own and reflect upon their past enough to understand how they want to live in the future. So to it is with us. Where are We? How do we want to go into our thirties and build the congregational family that will bring us nachas and preserve the innermost point of the congregation’s soul?  This congregation has so much to give to itself and to the community, locally and nationally. We have already done so. Now we move forward seeking a deeper understanding of who we are and ultimately securing the attention of god and being sealed in the book of life. May it be God’s will that we find that innermost point for us and for the future of Jewish life in the low country.
Shana Tova.

Rosh Hashana Morning Sermon 2011

Rosh Hashana Morning: The Challenge of Israel Pursuing Peace
Over sixty years have passed, since Israel was created, and although Israel is a country of slightly more than seven million people, it no doubt receives more than its fair share of media attention. I don’t know about you, but I wish that Israel received a lot less media scrutiny, or perhaps those that are scrutinizing it were a lot less biased than they are.
The recent drama leading up to the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly is a case in point. Everything leading up to speeches by President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu and PLO Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas quickly became a form of political theater, and once again we were obliged to watch as Israel emerged isolated on the world stage.  What with its rapidly deteriorating relations with Turkey Egypt and even Jordan, the same old scenario seems to playing itself out again, and what history seems to be teaching us is that, frankly, we Jews will have to depend on ourselves if we hope to survive.
 Those of us who live in the Diaspora find ourselves watching know full well that our fate and Israel’s are inextricably bound together.  We feel inside us the historic and spiritual bonds that tie us to Israel’s fate, and we fear that if Israel were to decline the future of our community would be in jeopardy as well.   History has taught us that much, for what happens to Jews in one part of the world ----and especially Israel—happens to us all.   
The question I raise is what is the spiritual big picture that we should remember when we are watching such a rapid degree of change going on around us with Israel and its Palestinian neighbor? The answer is that we cannot forget the lessons of history. When Jews win the peace, and even make sacrifices for peace, they have protected their long term security. Rising above the fray of international isolation and holding on to the moral imperative of Israel’s pursuit for peace are the two values that have sustained us in history and today. Remember when we recite the Unetaneh Tokef we affirm that prayer, repentance and tzedakah are all values that we affirm to make a difference in our lives. Similarly, Israel and the Jewish people worldwide will rely upon these values too in order to meet the challenges of its international relations, its domestic challenges and its mission to have its own security as well as to find a pathway to peace with its Palestinian neighbors.
  In the Midrash Rabbi Meir told the story that illustrates the tension we have withstood dealing with superpowers when our fate was in their hands. For in ancient times God showed our biblical patriarch Jacob the prince of Babylon going up and coming down a ladder. Then God showed him the prince of Media, Persia, going up and coming down. Next God showed Jacob the prince of Greece going up and coming down and then the prince of Edom which in Rabbi Meir’s time meant the empire of Rome going up and going down.  Then the Holy One said to Jacob, You, too, go up.  In that instant our father Jacob grew fearful and said, “Perhaps, God forbid, as there is a coming down for these nations, there will be a coming down for me as well. God replied, “Fear not for though you go up, you will never experience a coming down.” (Leviticus Rabbah)
We have lived with this perennial fear that, despite God’s promises to us, we would fall prey to the Great Powers who dominate the world, and who care little for our survival. The truth is that God’s promise was only half true. We did rise as a nation in ancient times, but, those nations did disperse us and scatter us throughout the world. At the same time we outlasted these great empires. Still we have risen again and bear witness to the ancient promise that God made to our ancestors fulfilled. Nevertheless we can empathize how Jacob feels with regard to the fear he experiences because we feel it too today.  It is the fear of isolation. It is the fear of standing not only before the world but against the world as if we were being judged unfairly by the entire world community.
And yet what makes this political drama so gut wrenching is the fact that Israel’s adversary and neighbor, the Palestinian Authority, is attempting to imitate what Israel did back in 1947 when Israel made its appeal to the United Nations for recognition as a country. Instead of the victim of hatred and bigotry that we experienced during World War Two that helped propel Israel to statehood, now after a long term Palestinian propaganda campaign over many years has been in operation, Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians are the victims. Even Israeli public opinion is divided on that issue as is Jewish opinion around the world. What else is new?
I have no intention to speak directly about the politics and policy issues surrounding the current situation at the UN. Instead my concern at the High Holy Days is about reinforcing our moral and spiritual focus when these dust storms of politics, especially this seemingly perfect storm against Israel, arises and attempts to discredit Israel and the Jewish people.
I want to share a story about how hard it is to remind our own people, let alone the rest of the world,about the big picture of making trade offs for peace. In the 2nd century of the Common Era when Rome ruled the land of Israel, the Roman government decreed that the Temple in Jerusalem which had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE was now to be rebuilt. An enemy of the Jews went to king of Judea and said that the Jews were going to kill him and that he should let Caesar know that the Jews were going to rebel against the king. So the evil man counseled the Jewish king of Judea, a protectorate of the Romans that he could rebuild the Temple in another place or simply add a few more cubits to the original measurements of the planned renovation knowing full well that even a minor change in the design would nullify the religious sanctity of the structure.
Once the decree was issued to change the measurements of the new Temple everyone knew that it was impossible to accept and that, in effect, the project to rebuild the Holy Temple was cancelled. The people gathered together and began to weep and then get angry and begin to contemplate rebelling against Caesar.
The rabbis got wind of the politics and the potential repercussions of insurrection against Rome. So they sent Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah to meet with the assembly of outraged Judeans. As he stood before them he told a fable. As a lion was devouring his prey, a bone stuck in his throat. He wailed saying, “I shall give a great reward to anyone who removes it!”  An Egyptian heron which has a long beak, came forward, plunged his beak into the lion’s throat, pulled out the bone, and demanded, “Give me my reward.”  The lion roared, “Move off!  Go boast, prattling, ‘I entered a lion’s mouth in peace and came out in peace.’  You can have no greater reward than that.”  So too, it should be enough for us that we entered into dealings with the Roman people in peace and have emerged in peace. (Genesis Rabbah)
I don’t see this story as simply about the Jewish people or, in a contemporary setting----Israel, submitting to the whims of a superpower. It is about staying above the fray and keeping one’s focus on the really important priorities and values.  The lesson that this tale teaches and that we have learned from the modern state of Israel is that achieving peace is always a painful and frustrating process. Israel feels as if they are giving up so much and they want and deserve a big reward for the sacrifices Israel gives up for peace. It can push Israel to the edge of its national and political sanity. Despite the feeling that Israel is giving up more than it receives in peace negotiations, in the end, peace is always Israel’s greatest victory.
Historians comment on a related  story of the Cuthean who advised the Romans not to rebuild the Temple because  it might lead to a rebellion against Roman rule—which is precisely what happened in 132 C.E.  when the Jewish general and (would be messiah) Bar Kochbah  led his countrymen in a disastrous revolt against Rome that ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of lives and put an end to any Jewish self governmental presence in the land of Judea until 1947.
Israel’s will to endure has been tested too many times in the previous century, and because of its military and moral discipline it has prevailed against the existential threats to its national existence. It is not the perfect state. Many Israelis disagree with its policies and have recently protested in unprecedented numbers for their country to address the most serious social and economic issues impacting the ability of Israelis to live above the poverty level. The fact that they did this and there was no -Jew against Jew violence- reflects that moral discipline. They all understand that no matter how angry they are at the current practices of the government, only peaceful means of protest were tolerable, and that civil dialogue was the only way to resolve problems for long term prosperity and for the security of the state of Israel itself.
And when it comes to the process to achieve peace with its neighbors, Israel’s moral discipline is often stretched to the limit. Once again Israel will have to make sacrifices for peace.  The so-called Arab spring is certainly a test for Israel’s strategy in the Middle East. It requires Israel’s best judgment and wisdom in the long term and short term. We watch to see the ups and downs of the process of realignment noting that in the Middle East alliances go up and down with the desert winds. At the end of the day are we bystanders to this continuing saga of Israel at risk in a hostile world?
 Of course the answer is no. But there is more that we can do for the Israel. We must all follow the tenets of our faith’s teachings on these high holy days. May we maintain that moral discipline now for the sake of our progeny who do not realize as we do that everyone has a role to play in keeping the peace for Israel. That is part of the reason why Congregation Beth Yam is sponsoring a trip to Israel next month. It is our duty to travel there and visit the country, speak to the people and listen to the issues. We are involved and engaged as supporters with a fervent commitment to do what we can to support Israel’s bid for peace and its work for economic and religious freedom.
Again, the Jewish people will sacrifice for peace as it did when it gave up the Sinai and parts of the West Bank and Gaza for peace. It is painful now just as it was painful for the Jews to accept the Roman decree to abandon the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. But peace had to prevail and that is the same lesson today. Shalom is the central value that Judaism teaches for civilization to endure. For that reason, I pray, Israel will endure.
This is how keeping our sights on the big picture resonate for Israelis for when they read the torah portion of the Akedah that we read on Rosh Hashanah morning. They see themselves in this story and living it in a way that is direct and raw. When families see their children off to serve in the armed forces they feel as if they are taking their own to the mountain as Abraham did to Isaac and offering them up as a burnt offering. The potential price for preserving peace and security chills the bones of a parent. Yet they do it because it is necessary and essential for the people to have peace. 
May it be God’s will to imbue the leaders and the people of Israel with the spiritual and moral strength to find the pathway to a negotiated settlement and usher in a new era of peace. It may appear to be unrealistic but can we ever give up on the hope and prayer for peace?

Fourth HIgh Holy Day Poem-Chapter Four Book of Ecclesiastes

This is the final poem in this series. Thanks to everyone for their comments. I wrote it not only because of my reading of Ecclesiastes chapter four. A part of this poem is a memory from a man I once knew who recently died. He had achieved great success in business but poor health followed him for years even as far back as the mid 1980s. I hope you will comment.

Chapter four Ecclesiastes

I built my company
A tower piercing
 Through the dense clouds
And when I sold it
 I received a seat
A golden chair
At the table of monarchs.

I liked to walk
In my sculpture garden
Where Henry Moore and friends
Gazed upon me
And I upon them.
Ah the beauty of success!

My back began to hurt
Pain rushed through my bones
Moving me to distraction
Which I could no longer bear.
Then a surgery I never recovered from
In a reflection I could no longer
See myself which is when  
My descent began

I died a few weeks ago
And now all I do is reflect:
Eyes see time in reverse
The moments of the past
The quietude afforded me
Now which I ignored in life
The thoughts I left behind
They were too shy
To visit me in the previous world.

I found a companion here,
Kohelet, I read his book
And I felt the emptiness
The” sacrifices of fools.”

What is wisdom?
A mirage, the worship of work
The deity of my hands?
Or was it
A gust of wind that
Pressing against my face
Left without fanfare?

I read Kohelet’s book
And looked into a mirror
Of memory hearing
 The tumult of sounds and voices  
Wisdom is sight
Without eyes,
Listening without ears

I remember the house I lived in
And the house of God
I never entered.
Wisdom is a prayer
For the unborn
The youth who will
 Pick up a smooth round
Stone by the riverside
That fits perfectly
Into a hand
Whose snap of the wrist
Will cast it across
 The serene waters
To behold the ripples
That propels the stone
To its many destinations.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Part Three: High Holy Day Poem Inspired from Chapter Three of Ecclesiastes

You will surely recognize the attempt in this poem to play off of the famous passage in chapter three beginning with the phrase " To everything there is a season."

To every insight in the world
There is a question that precedes it.
Questions that refuse to disappear
Which rankle us like a stone
Inside our shoes
Or irritate us like a mosquito bite
Just ask the question
And relief will dull the pain.

Questions of doubting and questions of believing
Questions of living and questions of dying

Questions of searching and questions of discovering
Questions of writing and questions of speaking

Questions of children and questions of parents
Questions of praying and questions of silence

Questions of tearing garments and questions of sewing garments
Questions of humility and questions of pride

Questions of fear and questions of faith
Questions of Jews and questions of others

Questions of God and questions of questions

Questions of forgiveness and question of stubbornness
Questions of returning and questions of leaving

Do we ever tire of asking questions?
Take comfort
Remember that answers are no better
For your life is a tapestry of questions
No longer fearing them
But embracing the possibility of being
And it is this reality
That is your calling.
Are you ready?

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Poem for the High Holy Days

This is the 2nd in a series of high holy days poems. I hope you read it and consider this poem in your thoughts of reflection as we approach Rosh Hashana this Wednesday evening.
L'shana Tova Tikatevu
May you  be written in the book of life.

Chapter Two Ecclesiastes
I am all the ages of human kind
Voices and wisdom of the years
Speaking through the languages of man
I once inhabited
And have since forgotten
Because what I only
See is what I am
And that dear friend
Is the folly of my life.

Was work my wisdom or
The jobs I had
The friends who
Surrounded me
And their rancor
Or my own indulgence
Which set me on a crooked pathway:
At times lost
To the truth
And to what end?

Now I search for the smallest things
The morsels of insight
I desire and no longer
Shall I wear the crown
A diadem of a good name
Or the garments of pride
Which glistened with the
Wisdom I thought was mine.

My bones ache
And I walk haltingly
My eyes dim
And I hear sparingly
My back is curved
And I stretch hesitantly
But my appetite
For truth does not abate
For I have learned
That the service
I perform next
To the altar of confession
Has become the sacrifice
I offer to the Holy One
And the work of my conscience
Is my day of atonement
Where the fast of my soul
Restores the years I once lost

Which I gather in the harvest of this lifetime.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

High Holy Days Reflections

Last night was a beautiful Slichot service and educational program. I am thankful to our Cantorial soloists and musicians and to all the writers and visual artists who participated in the program before the services.
Over the next few days leading up to the High Holy days I will be posting a series of four poems I wrote based upon my reading of the first four chapters of the Book of Ecclesiastes. As I age I am beginning to see the wisdom of Ecclesiastes or Kohelet in a way that I could not grasp as a younger person. You will find that the theme of work and career are part of what Kohelet devotes his attention to in trying to teach us how we waste so much time when we go overboard and practically deify the word of our hands. There is a balance here and where that is largely depends on each of us. But this is a wakeup call kind of sacred text and I am inspired by it. So these poems I shall share will hopefully give us something to think about and imagine how we might change our pathways or decided what we learned from our strengths and our failings.
I wish you all a Shana Tova u Metukah. A sweet and happy New Year.

 Chapter One

The stone craves eternity
Lying peacefully near a cactus
Biding its time
Until a desert wind swirls through
Carrying it to another hopeful spot.

The stone sees that the sun still shines
The waters of a nearby stream smile
And mountains whose peaks point
Towards heaven become sentinels
Steadfast and sage- like
While looking down upon creation.    

The future will not forget this stone
Nor will I release it from my grasp
Or cast it into another garden of forgotten
Stones waiting for deliverance.

Creation is a circle without beginning
Or an end  
When memory understands
That the repetition of time is the breeze
Backtracking through a sacred canyon.

Listen, dear stones, certainty
Is an idol perched upon an altar
Made of you
And the wisdom you seek
Is an illusion carved into
Your crevice by
By my own breath.