Erev Rosh HaShanah 5774
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Gate of Opportunity is Open for You
By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Congregation Or Chadash
Friends, as we begin our New Year, we need to open our eyes and gaze on new opportunities ahead. At the end of the High Holy Days, during the N'ilah service on Yom Kippur there is a dramatic image: "the gates begin to close." The question we ask at the beginning of the High Holy Days is, "What are the gates that are opening up for us?" Perhaps it is a way of redefining ourselves or rediscovering our true definition.
Let me share with you a story.
A few years ago, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh spoke at UCLA before an audience of 3,000 psychologists. He told them a story about his mother, who had died when he was only twenty-one years old.
The day my mother died, I wrote in my journal, "A serious misfortune of my life has arrived." I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died. When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me. I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tenderly, very sweet... wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. I further knew this body was not mine alone but a living continuation of my mother and father and my grandparents and great-grandparents and all of my ancestors. These feet that I saw as "my" feet were actually "our" feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil. From that moment on the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. 
This is a story about a mystery, a story told to help those therapists understand their connection to their patients and their connection to their very being. I share this story with you on the eve of our New Year to help you understand your personal mystery: connection to the present, to this place and to this moment.
For some of you, Rosh HaShanah is a moment on the calendar. It represents a time and a place for you. It was this time and this place last year. It was this time and this place the year before. It is on the calendar, so here I am keeping my appointment.
For others, this is what your parents and grandparents did. This is what generations of our family have done, year after year. Perhaps you never asked, "Why?" This is just what your family does. And so, I am following a family tradition.
Perhaps you are here because your heart is broken, your footsteps are unsure, the suffering is so great that perhaps entering this sacred space, during this most sacred time, listening to this sacred, moving music, you will find the joy returning to your soul. Possibly, you may read something, hear something, which will help you find love, give love and receive love.
For all of us, we create together a haven filled with dignity and respect, protecting us, for a few hours at least, from a world filled with conflict, racism, violence, unrest, and unease. Tonight, tomorrow and through these Days of Awe you might discover for yourself a path, an idea, a value which will help you walk beyond these sacred moments and live more courageously in a world which so easily disturbs the very core of our being.
Tonight, I would like to help you grasp what Thich Nhat Hanh took a year of suffering to grasp: unraveling the mystery of your incarnation. The mystery begins with our true sense of identity. Can you honestly answer the questions: "Who am I?" and "Who am I in relationship with others?" The gates that open on Rosh HaShanah become an opportunity for us to take an honest look at ourselves. This is not so easy. We tend to look at ourselves only in how we respond to people and circumstances. Of course, it is those very people and those surprising circumstances that raise our blood pressure and lead to our anxieties and distress. It is no wonder that we view our world as out of control, when in fact, this world and these people just are the way they are; what is out of control is our reaction to it. We are unable to define ourselves by what we value. We define ourselves by the burdens placed upon us by others. By reacting to others rather than responding as ourselves means that those negative circumstances and those negative people are defining us through their negativity. Why is it so difficult to let our true nature respond? Where is our sense of identity? Where is our foundation? Where are our values?
Your opportunity on Rosh HaShanah is an opportunity to think deeply about who you are and what you truly value. Tonight we begin to think about our continuum between generations of our family and how we can be more present.
Perhaps we can learn during the next ten days about looking within to find our true identity that has been slowly covered up since birth.
There is a tradition that comes from India that inside the womb a baby sings to itself: "Do not let me forget who I really am." The moment that child is born, it sings another song: "Oh dear, I am forgetting already."
Tonight I ask you to walk amongst your tea plants, with your ancestors, as they did on Rosh HaShanah generations ago. Look at the imprints in that soft soil, yours and theirs, and perhaps you will find some answers as to how to enter into the New Year a bit differently.
A few weeks ago I spoke about a mystery of identity that should be familiar to you all:
When you enter the land, take every first fruit, put it in a basket, go to the priest: My father was a fugitive Aramean, went to Egypt in meager numbers, sojourned there, Egyptians oppressed them, we cried to God, God freed us, bringing us to the place of milk and honey, and now I bring to You the first fruits of the soil you gave to me.
This passage is familiar because it is read during Passover as a reminder of avadim hayinu, "we were slaves in the land of Egypt." It is read during Shavuot as a reminder to give our first fruits to the priests and to God. And then it is read again just before the High Holy Days. Most commentaries focus on our appreciation of God for saving us and the importance of being charitable; but for me I found something curious in referring to ourselves as "fugitive Arameans." Then it hit me. Throughout all of our sacred stories, almost everyone has been a fugitive. Our mythology is based on running away.
Tomorrow morning we read a story about our patriarch Abraham, who ran away from his parents' home, his homeland, his culture, his religion, and everything that was familiar to him.
Jacob became a fugitive from his father and from his brother, who wanted to kill him.
Joseph was a fugitive from his brothers and when he had an opportunity to return, as a rich and powerful man, he chose to remain a fugitive in Egypt.
David, the future king of Israel, was a fugitive from his mentor and king, King Saul.
You can go back to the very first holy story of Judaism: Adam and Eve were forced out of paradise, fugitives from the Garden of Eden.
It is not just our sacred literature that depicts us as on the run; in reality, we, as human beings, seem to be always on the run. In fact, if we are honest and aware of our deeds this past year, we have to admit we have run away from circumstances and people that are too difficult to face.
My friends, the High Holy Days provide you with the gates of opportunities to stop running away, and to "turn" and face your true identity, and to "turn" and face your God. Teshuvah: "Return" from where you are running from.
We have fooled ourselves that the battle is with individuals or the battle is with institutions; in fact, truth be told, the battle is within. We are fugitives from our true nature – the element in our souls which can find improvement in our lives, the lives of our families, and make improvements in the communities in which we reside. I am asking for you to be courageous this year. It will not be easy to face your demons, your adversaries. When God gave the Promised Land to the Israelites, it was not handed to them on a silver platter; they had to fight for it. Reading the books of Joshua, Judges, and Kings, not only did they have to fight for it to settle there, but for hundreds of years they had to defend this new homeland. The prophets cajoled the people for centuries later to maintain their principles, to fight for the values given to us by God in order return to a place of stability and peace.
We too need to carry our banner into battle to return to our own place of peace and stability. This is not a battle against others. This is not a war against an institution. This is a confrontation with our own very being (essence?) to become the best we can be.
One of my favorite reality shows on TV is called "Restaurant Impossible." The host of the show, Chef Robert Irvine, is invited by owners to discover why their restaurants are failing. Some of these restaurants have been in existence for decades. Every single time, the owners are guilty of the same thing. These restaurants are failing because they continue to serve the same food they served thirty years ago, the decor has not changed in decades, and the customer is never right. Why? Because this is the way they have always done it.
My friends, we need to stop blaming others for burdens we bear. We need to stop using the excuse, "That's just the way I am." Or, "I am right and you are just wrong." Your lives won't improve unless you make the commitment to make things better yourself. You have to shed the old way of doing things and see that there are new gates of opportunity open to you, if you are willing to take a step in a different direction.
One of my favorite lines from Mark Twain is, "Some of the worst things in my life never actually happened." Friends, you do not live in a real world. You only live in your perception of it. That perception is often leading you in the wrong direction, a direction that will leave you bankrupt – like many of those restaurants would have been if they had not taken Chef Irvine's suggestions to improve by doing things differently.
The path through that gate of opportunity is found in the mystery of the Thich Nhat Hanh story I told you in the beginning. You must first realize that you are connected to everything. Fugitives are disconnected. You need to work on "returning" – reconnecting and believing ...
I am the first and the last;
the silence and the sound that is everywhere;
I am modesty and boldness;
knowledge and ignorance;
I am unlearned and yet know all.
I am what I receive and I am what I let go.
I am the one who cries out and the one who answers;
I am what is inside of me and what is outside of me.
Awaken and there I will find me.
Let your heart soften. Quiet your mind and find the freedom that allows you to cease your old way of being. Cease your grasping and your greed. Cease your hatred and your aversion. Begin to let go of the emotions that give you an excuse to run and is the impetus for others to run from you. The world will open when you approach it with this loving awareness. Stay dedicated and present and trust.
I close with a story of a Lakota Sioux medicine man, Black Elk. At the end of his life, he called his friend, John Neihardt to join him as he ascended Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota for the last time. In his youth he had climbed that peak and had a vision that it was up to him to save his people. He told Neihardt that if the Great Spirit had approved his life rain would fall. On the day of his climb, he was an old man. He wore his red leggings, his feathered war headdress, and a pair of moccasins. As he climbed he was oblivious of the stares of the tourists. When they had reached the summit, Neihardt commented, "You should have chosen a day when there was one cloud in the sky." "Rain has nothing to do with the weather," Black Elk responded. He lay down under a blue sky. A few clouds began to form over Black Elk, and a soft rain began to fall. Black Elk wept with relief. Even though he had not succeeded in his vision, the Great Spirit was signaling him that he had done his best.
So you, too – offer yourself to these High Holy Days, as the gates of opportunity open for you, to do your best. Offer yourself with the devotion and presence – not to perfect yourself, but with a loving awareness and a deep trust in the mystery of your own incarnation – to no longer be a fugitive to who you truly are.
 Excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear.
 Based on Deuteronomy 26:1 - 10
 Story from John Neihardt's, Black Elk Speaks.
Categories: 5774-2013 HHD Sermons
Reform Judaism: Compassion vs. The Law
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Congregation Or Chadash
Ron Guidry was a pitcher for the Yankees. In 1976 the Yankees' organization sent him back to the minors. He was crushed and he was thinking of quitting the game. As he and his wife drove back, drove away from New York, his wife turned to him and said, "You are a great man. You've got what it takes to be the very best." Finally she said, "It's going to bother me to think that you will never know whether you could have made it in the big leagues." And so he turned around. He went to the minor leagues. He worked ever harder. He was brought back to the majors in 1977 and in 1978 he was the unanimous choice in the American League for the Cy Young Award for the best pitcher that year.
My question for you today is, if success is defined, in part, by hard work and dedication, how do you define your success by calling yourself Jewish? What is the hard work you need to be doing to be a successfully religious person? The answer most often given is: Mizvot! To be Jewish means you follow the mitzvot, the “commandments.”
“Rabbi, aren’t there 613 commandments?” Well, no, there are 613 commandments in the Torah; but you gave authority to the rabbis and we created thousands of more commandments, rules, and obligations, which, for some Jews, made your lives more cumbersome and more miserable. Why did we do such a thing? This was done to “build a fence around the Torah” – insure that the edicts from the Torah would never be violated. An example of this is that Shabbat candles are to be lit 18 minutes prior to sundown, so that you do not accidentally light candles once Shabbat has begun. And then the 18 minutes is added back on Saturday night to ensure that you observed a full Sabbath day.
So, for over two thousand years, rabbis have interpreted Torah laws and extrapolated from basic principles of the Torah to make it clear how to live every aspect of your life through God’s laws. There are laws about caring for your farm animals, laws regarding your family, and your property. There are laws that cover civil law and criminal law. There are laws that instruct you about fair business practices, including fair wages and moral practices regarding customers and employees. In the Koran we are called the “People of the Book.” The reference is partly due to the sacred stories we share in common. But to a greater extent it refers to Torah as a book of “Instruction.” The way these instructions work is, if you follow the rules, everything will be fine. If you don’t, there will be certain punishment. If this defines the entirety of our religion, then I think there is something very much lacking in it.
Laws, laws, and law – certainly there is value in having a legal system. However, defining religion through categories of laws seems somewhat cold. Now, don’t leave here today and tell your friends, “Rabbi Louchheim said we don’t have to obey the laws anymore.”
Well, few of you follow a great many of these laws anyway. There are some who have defined Reform Judaism as minimalistic – less observant than those Conservative and Orthodox Jews. And many of you are thankful for not being required to keep kosher, pray three times a day, or wear tzitzit daily.
Herein lies the problem. If we define ourselves (as we do) as “not so religious” or “not observant,” in relation to the laws, what are we saying about what our religion means to us – Not too much!
Being good at anything does require hard work, whether you are Ron Guidry, a lawyer, a doctor, a mechanic, a teacher. Often a routine is helpful. Those of us who understand the importance of good health recognize that to have it requires us to be observant or religious about our diet and our exercise. There certainly are some of you that are “religious” about it for yourselves, being “observant” about what you are doing every day. For others, if we can do it once a week, every few days, we are content and it does help. But being an “observant” and “religious” Jew is not the same. If you pray with us once a week on Shabbat, you are a religious Jew. If you join us or have family gatherings during Passover and Chanukah, you are a religious Jew. Perhaps your routine as a “religious Jew” is to attend High Holy Day services once a year. I know that I have not seen some of you in 364 days. For you, that is a routine, a ritual. To me you are religious and observant in that aspect of Judaism.
Look at all of you gathered here today. Some of you only come to Or Chadash once a year during the High Holy Days. Our last estimate of the Jewish population of Tucson was 25,000. Less than 20 percent are affiliated with the Jewish community. In comparison to you, there are 8,000 Jews in Pima County who are at home or at work during the High Holy Days every year. They would define your presence here as your being observant. In comparison to those who do not support synagogues, Jewish agencies, and Israel, you are very religious.
I have had to teach every shaliach who has come to Tucson from Israel that they are dati, “religious.” They observe Shabbat at home with their families, they keep a level of kashrut observance, and they celebrate the Jewish holidays. Everyone in this room would define those behaviors as “religious.” And yet, their definition is that the only way you are a religious Jew is if you are Orthodox. The normative definition of our religion has placed value on us discharging specific and definite acts and the ultimate reward that results. The prayers we offer prior to participating in those acts reinforce this archaic definition. Before the Torah can be read we say, in part, Asher bachar banu, “God, who has chosen only us to do this….” Before lighting candles on Shabbat or on the holidays or before most mitzvot we are partaking in, we say, “Asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v'tzivanu …”, “…who made us holy by being commanded …” to do specific things.
God may have “chosen us” from all other peoples to be observant in this way; but for many of us we “have chosen to do something else.” A generation ago, many Reform rabbis enjoyed the play on words by suggesting to their congregants that they are not the “Chosen People”; rather, we are the “Choosing People.” Reform Judaism became a sect of Judaism where the “Choosing People” chose to do less.
But the very foundation of Judaism should not be in how many mitzvot you obey or how often you come to services; rather, religion is defined by what values you uphold. A few weeks ago in our Torah portion Moses asked God a simple question, “Who are you? What is your name?” Not, “what do you demand of me? What do I need to do to make you happy?” Rather, he asks, “What is your name?" God responds, Adonai, Adonai, Eil Rachum v’chanun – “I am the compassionate and gracious one." God did not say, “I am the God who took you out of Egypt.” God did not say, “I am the God who commands you to do all the mitzvot.” Rather, God said, “I am compassion and graciousness, I am slow to anger, abounding in kindness, extending kindness to a thousand generations, and forgiving iniquity.” That is the soul of what Judaism should be for each and every one of you! Your success should not be graded on how many laws you follow or how many services you attend, but on how you are embodying that name of God.
The embodiment of your identity as a Jew is not found in a daily practice. Rather it is found in the values that are embodied in God’s holy name. But to take on God’s holy name is not easy. No one’s life is without pain or anguish. Just because you love another does not mean you are exempt from grief. In a world of suffering there is a need for compassion and kindness. To be compassionate is difficult. A community that cares for others through their struggles is not an easy thing to achieve. It requires great effort on our part to embrace another person who is in pain.
Perhaps that is why those who wish to identify Judaism with “the law” are so willing to do so. It is not difficult to do that. You just need to follow orders. You wake up, you place your left foot on the floor first, you put on tefillin, tzitzit, go to three daily minyans, keep kosher. This is not hard. If that is the foundation of your Jewish identity then you are minimizing our religion’s value to you. The costs are so minimized in order for us to follow the law. Laws are there to protect the innocent, the property of others, to secure the general welfare of the community. To have such laws means to minimize the sacrifice for most of us. But compassion, generosity, kindness demands so much more. It demands reason and time. Most importantly it demands a change in your moral direction, a change from your normal attitude.
Let me give you an example of a true definition of being “religious.” Over and over again, the Bible repeats, “And the stranger shall you not oppress. For you know the heart of the stranger, for you were a stranger in the Land of Egypt.” The Torah tells us this seventeen times! In fact, one of the times we read this is just prior to the High Holy Days every year.
What kind of argument is that? In fact, it is a very good argument. It is a call to memory. Remember who you are and who your ancestors were. We sing with our children during the celebration of our freedom. On Passover, we sing, “Avadim hayinu” – “We were slaves.” It is a call to remember how bad it was for you, so do not let that happen to others. In ten days you will fast on Yom Kippur. It is to remind you of the strangers in your community who need your help. To feel the pain in your stomach is a reminder not to forget the humiliation of the poor, of the unemployed, of the fired, of the immigrant, of those on the bottom of the heap, the refugees. Why? Because they were you! You were refugees thousands of years ago. Don’t forget that memory because that is a motivation to heal this world!
Shver tzu zein a yid, “to be Jewish is hard.” It is not because of the laws: keeping kosher, going to services daily, following the laws which are too numerous (613) and too arduous. Judaism is hard because you have to fight your instincts to care only for yourself; to care only for your family. Judaism demands that you broaden your perspective and consider others. You have to remember the poor, the stranger; you have to fight for those incapable of standing up for themselves. It is hard because your religion demands that you struggle against self-absorption, narcissism and selfishness.
God’s name, Eil Rachum v’chanun – compassionate and gracious – is your Torah, your “instruction” to gladden the sorrowing heart, lift up the downtrodden. To be Jewish is to accept God’s name as your name; to be rachum v’chanun – compassionate and gracious, for without it our community dies and civilization perishes.
I am reminded of a story of a man who had never traveled outside his village. He decides to see a bit of the world and takes his horse-drawn cart and travels to a village a few short miles away. He admired how everyone wore beautiful well-tailored clothing. They looked so dignified and refined. He was envious. He went into a tailor shop and bought a suit and had it tailored to fit him perfectly. He set out that afternoon to return home. He rode into town so proudly in his new suit. He was sure everyone would admire him. Well, in fact everyone treated him rather peculiarly. Not a single person said anything about his suit. When he questioned his friends about it, they certainly admired the textile; but for some reason the clothes were ill fitting on him. Perhaps the tailor did not fit the clothes very well. As one of his friends examined the suit he finally discovered what was wrong. He looked up and said, “The problem is you are wearing your new clothes over your old clothes.”
This year, I want you to wear a new set of clothing. Religion is supposed to give you a connection to your life beyond a causative reality: “Do this mitzvah and something good will happen.” Or, “Do this mitzvah because your parents or other Jews do this mitzvah.” Religion, at its core, helps open the veil of mystery of our world and gives insight to making your world better.
Rituals and mitzvot have an important place in our religious practice. Observance of Shabbat, holidays, and kashrut, make connections to family, to other Jews. These rituals, when done with the proper intention, provide you with a tranquil place, bring balance into your lives, and draw families closer together. But do them in a way that is transformative for you. These acts can ennoble your lives and inform you in special ways about what are the true priorities in your life. If you can make them into a routine, yes, you will benefit from them as you do from regular exercise or always keeping your bank accounts in balance.
At the same time, be religious and observant Jews by changing into a new set of clothes, discarding the old clothes, by acting in a way that will make a difference. Act like that better person. Do the things that you would do if you were more loving, open, trusting, more caring and more courageous. And if you think that you are not ready to do those things, then pretend. Pretend you are ready to do those things now. Don’t use excuses like, “I will do it when I am ready.” You will never be ready. When you bring warmth and care and connection into the world, you will receive it in turn. This simple act makes your world a better place to for everyone. Pretend to be the person you want to be. Don't worry that your heart is not into it at the moment. I guarantee your heart will follow.
Israel: Written in Sand and Stone
Yom Kippur 5774
September 13, 2013
Rabbi Thomas A. Louchheim
Friends, I would like to begin this evening’s sermon with a story.
Long ago there lived two merchant traders, Yossi and Elazar, who set out together in a caravan with camels, horses and servants. They headed into the mountains of Northern Persia and soon came to a river that was swift flowing, muddy and dangerous to cross. Yossi, being the younger of the two, offered to go first. He started across the river holding a rope to guide the rest of the caravan. Halfway across he stumbled, lost his footing, fell into the swirling waters, and dropped the rope. Elazar did not hesitate. Immediately he jumped into the river and was able to reach his friend and pull him ashore. Upon reaching safety, Yossi carved these words on a large rock nearby: “Traveler! In this place, Elazar risked his life and saved his friend Yossi.”
The merchants traveled for many months and eventually returned to this same river crossing with loads of tea and silk. This time the water level was lower; the crossing was easy. Yossi and Elazar sat and talked by the stone cliff where Elazar's heroism had been recorded. As they sat and spoke, a difference of opinion turned into a quarrel. Words were exchanged and in a fit of anger, Elazar struck Yossi. Yossi picked himself up, took a stick, and wrote these words in the sand: “Traveler! In this place, Elazar, in a trivial argument, broke the heart of his friend Yossi.”
When I first read this story, I thought about my subject tonight and the hero that has saved Judaism over the millennia. Interestingly, the hero of Judaism is not a particular person. Yes, we have great heroes beginning with Abraham and Sarah, who were responsible for the formation of Judaism. Of course, Moses and Miriam not only rescued the Israelites from their Egyptian enslavement, but also brought them to the Promised Land. When Judaism should have all but been destroyed, it was Yochanan ben Zaccai, against the advice of the zealots, who was secreted out of Jerusalem. He asked permission from the Roman authorities to set up academies of learning. With that act, Rabbinic Judaism was given the mantle of authority to raise Judaism to a higher level.
We have had great teachers and thinkers who have been our saviors throughout the ages, like Maimonides, Rashi, Buber and after WWII, it was Rabbi Leo Baeck, who walked out of Theresienstadt and taught us about commitment and humility. Yes, they are all heros. They are great preservers of our faith.
But etched in stone there is a place – Israel.
From the beginning of our journey four thousand years ago, this was Abraham’s destination. It was the promise that sustained our enslaved ancestors in Egypt for four hundred years of slavery. The divided tribes were united by King David three thousand years ago by this place and in its city – Ir Shaleim – Jerusalem. When the Babylonians carried the remnants of our people off 700 years later, it was the Prophet Jeremiah who gave them comfort in their exile that they would return to this land of promise:
Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears;
For there is a reward for your tears, says the Lord;
And the people shall return from the land of the enemy.
And there is hope in your future, says the Lord,
And the children shall come back to their own land. (31:16-17)
Even when the Temple was destroyed a thousand years later, and some Jews remained while many others were scattered, it was the return to this sacred homeland that secured their hope and sustained them. For two thousand years, on the holy day of Passover, we repeat those words, as our parents, our grandparents and their parents before them have, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
In 1948 a two-millennium dream was realized with the creation of the political state of Israel. And from its beginning there has been trouble and sorrow, violence and death. For 65 years it has seen only moments of quiet and glimpses of peace.
Ahad Ha-Am, in my mind one of the greatest Zionist thinkers of the late nineteenth century, grew very concerned about Palestine. He frequently visited Israel and in 1891 he reported on hunger, on Arab dissatisfaction and unrest, on unemployment, and on people leaving Palestine. He was a proponent of Cultural Zionism. He attacked Zionism as it was being practiced in an article called, Lo Ze Ha-derech, “This is not the way.” He argued that the land could not absorb the Jewish Diaspora, the physical condition of Eretz Yisraeil would discourage Aliyah, and the desire just to move to the land would not solve the “Jewish Problem.” He arguably wielded his greatest impact in the 1890s and the first years of the twentieth century in one of his more influential essays dating from 1904, Shilton Ha-sekhel, "Supremacy of Reason." He utilized his understanding of the teachings of medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides to highlight how at the core of work and at the center of Judaism down through the ages were ongoing, persistent values: spirituality over materialism; genius over political dexterousness; a hierarchy of learning, not a leadership of the wealthy. He advocated a revival of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture in order for it to survive and for its achievement to radiate to all the world.
Today Israel is a place of many achievements:
Its Jewish cultural advances have been an inspiration to world Jewry:
As many of you are aware, we are planning our first congregational mission to Israel. We will have informative meetings each month prior to our trip both for those who are going and for those unable to join us. I hope many of you will attend. Our first gathering will be Monday, September 30th. Our featured speaker will be Oshrat Avitan Barel, our new shlichah, Director of the Israel Center.
On our trip in March, we welcome a return to our Jewish roots as we walk in
Yes, part of what we will see – and for those who will not be joining us on this mission, part of what you know – is that etched in stone in Israel are the heroic accomplishments (some of which I mentioned earlier). We will revel and celebrate that. Tonight, on Kol Nidrei, we also know of the broken hearts, the shattered dreams of Jews, Arab Israelis, Christians, Druze, Bedouins, and Palestinians. Tonight we pray for a restoration of those broken hearts. As one of my colleagues wrote earlier this month:
May we understand that there is room to bring Jews to the Negev and foster green development without dispossessing the Bedouin. May we understand that we can build a healthy economy which also cares for the weakest and poorest among us. It is possible to nurture a Jewish society without closing our borders to asylum seekers. It is possible to live full and meaningful Jewish lives in our ancient homeland without oppressing the Palestinian people. It is not only possible, but we must ask ourselves what kind of Judaism are we living if we do otherwise. (Rabbi Arik Asherman, Sept. 2013)
By the way, I did not tell you the end of the story of the two merchants, Elazar and Yossi. You remember that after he had an argument with his friend, Yossi picked himself up, took a stick, and wrote these words in the sand: “Traveler! In this place, Elazar, in a trivial argument, broke the heart of his friend Yossi.”
His servants came up to him asking, "Master Yossi, why did you carve the story of Elazar’s heroism in stone, whereas you wrote of his cruelty only in the sand? Yossi responded, “I will always cherish the memory of how my friend Elazar saved me in a time of danger. But the grave injury he just gave me – it is my hope that I will forgive him for it, even before the words fade from the sand.”
My friends, there are extremists who wish to etch every harm, every indiscretion, every violation and every death in stone for all to see permanently and forever. And then, there are those who are ready to interact and have empathy for the other; those who are willing to have a conversation, willing to listen carefully who will make advances toward peace. They understand that the approach to the answer in Israel is found during Passover. Have you ever really thought deeply why Passover is not simply a celebration of our freedom? If that was truly what Passover is all about, then there would be no need to eat bitter herbs. Ever think of that?
What celebration requires the celebrant to eat something they do not enjoy? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Yes, the smart alecks in the room want to yell out, “So we remember the bitterness of slavery.” Why? “So we don’t forget?”
In fact, it is not that you will forget your history. Even though we may be free, in order for others to be free, we have to eat the bitterness of compromise. No one can have it all.
We talk of Yerushalayim shel mala and Yerushalayim shel mata – the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem. The heavenly Jerusalem is the city of hoped-for-peace; the reality of earthly Jerusalem is radically different. Earthly Jerusalem is vibrant, thriving, alive, but far from perfect. What links the two is human action and human hope. So while it is wonderful to see an Israel relatively safe, secure and productive, in our heart of hearts we know that peace in the Middle East, in Israel, in earthly Jerusalem, will only exist when it is the will of all that there will be peace.
And the process of peace will only begin when we decide to write all of the grave injuries done to us … in the sand and not in stone!
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