SERMON - YOM KIPPUR MORNING - 5779
RABBI BRUCE ALPERT
When you and I travel to Israel next summer, we will, of necessity, visit Yad VaShem - Israel’s Holocaust Museum. We will enter the rich and vibrant world of European Jewry that thrived at the beginning of the last century, and then, through the museum’s powerful yet somber architecture, descend into the hell of that civilization’s premeditated destruction. At the end of that horrific journey, we will emerge into the light of the Jewish State - a state whose purpose is to declare to all the world: “this will never happen again.”
Perhaps, along our tour, we will encounter groups of young Israelis in military fatigues. They will be there as part of their army training - learning that in defending the Jewish State, they are defending the Jewish people who were once defenseless because they had no state. As Israelis this purpose will become part of their very identity and it will define how they view the world - including their fellow Jews who live beyond their country’s borders.
But for you and I, as American Jews, the great challenge to our identity will come at our next stop - just three miles away at the Israel Museum. There we will enter the Heikhal Ha-Sefer - the Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. At the very center of that display we will find the Great Isaiah Scroll. 24 feet long and inscribed on 17 sheets of parchment, it is the oldest, virtually complete copy of the book of Isaiah in existence. The scroll has been dated to some time between 100 and 350 years before the common era.
The scroll is written in a more primitive form of Hebrew calligraphy than that to which we are accustomed, but we know our alephs and our bets and we will be able to make out the words with minimal difficulty. And there, in the second column, ten lines from the top, we will find these words:
לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל-הַר-יְיְ אֶל-בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב, וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו, וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו:
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob. And we will learn from His ways and we will follow in His paths.
And the next words will be even more familiar to us, because they are inscribed above our ark:
כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה, וּדְבַר-יְיְ מִירוּשָׁלִָם.
For out of Zion will come the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
If you want to understand the justice of the Jewish people’s claim to Jerusalem, look no farther than this scroll. There, in words that anyone with a cursory familiarity with Hebrew can read, is a document whose existence predates Christianity by at least a century and which clearly identifies the sanctity of that city with the people of the God of Jacob.
A commonplace in our collective dialogue is that Jerusalem is holy not only to Jews and Judaism, but to Christianity and Islam as well. While this is true, I would like us to take just a moment to understand from whence this shared holiness comes.
Its origins lie in the Roman conquest of that city in the year 70 CE. The Jews defended Jerusalem and its temple so fiercely and so tenaciously, that the Roman general Titus was forced into a protracted and costly seige in order to conquer it. When he finally did so, as punishment for the tenacity with which the Jews fought, he laid the city to complete waste.
The early Christian fathers, as they are called, saw in this complete destruction a sign that God had indeed withdrawn His covenant from Israel, bestowing it on them. Their claim to Jerusalem rests directly on their claim to have superseded Judaism, just as Islam’s claim to the city rests on its claim to have superseded Christianity.
In recounting this history, I am not denying that thousands of years have made this city a holy land to both Christians and Muslims. I understand this from personal experience. Last December I visited Israel with my mother-in-law and father-in-law and with a family friend who has become like an adopted daughter to them. She is a Christian and while the rest of us toured other parts of the Old City, our tour guide took her to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the site of crucifixion and tomb of Jesus. She returned to us some time later with tears in her eyes. Which is to say that, for me, there is no question as to the sanctity of Jerusalem to other faiths. But other’s claims to sanctity do not diminish the Jewish claim to primacy. Jerusalem is sacred to Christians and Muslims because it was first sacred to Jews. And it is as sacred to us today as it was when that nameless scribe copied the words of Isaiah onto seventeen pieces of parchment, more than 2000 years ago.
Which leads me to this plea: I know that for many, any action by President Trump is of dubious legitimacy. But he was right to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US Embassy to that city. It is Israel’s capital and no other people in existence have as long or strong a hold on it as the Jews. This is crucial. The claim made on Jerusalem is fundamentally not an Israeli claim. It’s a Jewish claim. And as such, it is as important to you and me as it is to any Israeli.
To understand why this is, you need to be willing to ask yourself a very hard question. Like all hard questions, its one most of us seek to avoid if we can. But I would be failing you as your rabbi and I would be failing this community and what we are seeking to build here, if I allowed you to do so.
The question is this: what would you do if you could no longer be Jewish here in America?
Now this may seem like a ridiculous question to you. After all, has there ever been a country where Jews have prospered and flourished as we have here in America? Though only about 1.5% of the US population, Jews are pandered to by politicians of all stripes. Jews make up a fifth or more of the student bodies of practically every major college and university in this country. Jews make up three of the currently eight US Supreme Court justices. Jews have helped secure American dominance in science, in technology, in business, in art. The United States has won 371 Nobel Prizes. Nearly a third of them have gone to Jews. Sports might be the only area of American endeavor where Jewish achievement doesn’t vastly outstrip Jewish numbers. And haven’t Jews always been in the forefront of zealously and jealously protecting religious freedom in this country - the very freedom that guarantees that we will always be allowed to be Jewish in America?
Well, it pays to recall that, seventy years ago, on the eve of Israel’s founding, the Jewish population of the United States was about what it is today. Back then we weren’t 1.5% of Americans. We were nearly 4%.
For many, many Jews, America’s religious freedom has not meant the freedom to practice Judaism but rather the freedom to walk away from it. For them, the price of being Jewish is the cost of being different. And that is something they are unwilling to pay.
Those of you who are here today are here because you were willing to pay that price. You are here because you know that there is something in Judaism that justifies the steep toll in terms of time, in terms of learning, in terms of the social isolation our faith imposes on us.
But what if that price got even steeper? Steeper in terms of monetary costs, to be sure, but more than that: steeper in terms of inconvenience to maintain your Jewish practices; steeper in terms of the estrangement you felt from your friends and neighbors? How much more would you pay to be Jewish when the alternative is practically free?
I don’t know how each of you individually would answer this question, but I know how I would answer it, and I know how I would want you to answer. I told you last week when I, quite subversively, told your children that the greatest gift you have given them is the gift of being Jewish, because the gift of being Jewish is the gift of being who they were meant to be. If being an American meant I could no longer be Jewish, then it would mean I could no longer be who I was meant to be. If being an American meant I could no longer be Jewish, then I would no longer be an American.
And then, where would I be?
This is what I mean when I say that the claim to Jerusalem is not an Israeli claim, its a Jewish claim. Because if a Jew has no claim to Jerusalem, if she has no claim to that small piece of this earth that her people have declared holy longer than any other people has even existed, then she has no claim to any place.
Sadly, we live in a time when this simple truth has been lost on too many of us. It has been lost on Israelis who, stung by the criticism of the world and especially by fellow Jews, are turning their backs on their brothers and sisters, whose needs are the true justification for their claims to the land. And it has been lost on Americans who greet the claims of Israel’s enemies with too much credulity and the hopes of its citizens with too much cynicism. Both Americans and Israelis forget that when Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, it does so in the name of all Jews. And Americans in particular forget that without Israel, they would have no one to make the claim for their only holding on this earth whose title only God can revoke.
This is a complicated issue, I know. In asking you to think about what you would do if you could no longer be a Jew in America, I know I am asking you to struggle with something you might rather avoid. But until you know you would sacrifice to maintain your Judaism, you cannot appreciate all you must do to preserve it.
Judaism, I believe, is strong enough and true enough that it can be adapted to meet the needs of Jews, wherever they may be. It can adapt to meet the needs of Jews in Wallingford Connecticut. Our prayer habits can change; they can even yield to the desire to study. Holidays can take on new meanings and new forms of observance. Our understanding of commandedness can lead us to new forms of action and new senses of responsibility. Secure in the truth of our faith, we even have the power to fulfill the Torah’s command כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם, וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ the sojourner among you will be to you as the native born; you will love him as yourself. Looking out this morning, I see many a sojourner among us whom we love deeply and who have made us a stronger, Jewish community because their presence.
Yet for all the bending and adapting our faith can do to meet our needs, ultimately it demands of us that we know that we are covenantaly bound to each other and to God. The strength of this American Jewish community is only enhanced when we know what we are willing to sacrifice to go on serving God as Jews. And where better to do that than in the land of our birth?
And so this is what I would truly love us to do. I would love for us to travel to Israel together next summer. I would love for us to sit, as a community, with Israelis who can tell us of their loves, their passions and their struggles - including their struggles with us. I would love to walk the paths of the mystic city of Tsfat with you, where even now our brothers and sisters are crafting the new ark curtains that will hang before us next Yom Kippur. I would love to visit Ben Gurion’s home in S’de Boker and then travel on to his namesake university’s water research center to learn how they are making the desert bloom. I would love to see your children’s faces as they float for the first time on the Dead Sea. I would love to see your faces as you stand atop Masada and contemplate what it means to sacrifice everything for who you were meant to be. Mostly, I want to hear our voices, singing our prayers in our fashion, together at the Western Wall and know that wherever we stand, we stand before God.
Travelling to Israel would be a big undertaking for a small community such as ours. And it will be expensive. But I can pledge to you two things. First, that I will use every resource I have at my disposal as your rabbi to allow anyone who wishes to make the trip able to do so. And second, that you will leave Israel a different person then you entered. You will leave knowing that there will always be a place for you and your children in this world of ours.
This, then, my prayer: that we will heed the anciently inscribed words of Isaiah; that we will, together as a community, go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the place where God revealed the Divine presence to Jacob. And there we will learn God’s ways and follow in God’s paths. For when we truly know in our hearts that from Zion comes the Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem, we will know what we need to do to make that word echo clearly in this beloved sanctuary of ours.
SERMON - YOM KIPPUR EVENING - 5779
RABBI BRUCE ALPERT
Both my Rosh Hashanah sermons this year began with a song. So I would like to begin with a song this evening. Unlike those others, this is one that most of you probably know:
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
My own imagining is that most of you to recognize John Lennon’s song, Imagine. And I am further imagining that what I am about to say concerning that song will offend some and perhaps many of you. The song has me in something of a quandary. I really want to hate. But there’s something so cliche and so trite about it that hating it seems like more effort than it’s worth.
I suppose that what I really hate about the song isn’t so much the song itself, but people’s reaction to it. People love cliches, I think, because they are a way of sounding profound without actually thinking. But I want to invite you to indulge this song’s cliches for just a moment or two. Imagine a world which had nothing in it that you were willing to defend. Imagine a world in which there was nothing for which you were willing to die. Imagine a world very much unlike the world we are called upon to imagine today: one in which every detail of our lives - even the smallest of them - is worthy of being recorded and judged by a heavenly court. Is that really the kind of world any of us wants to live in - a world without great love, without great passion, without great ideals and without a sense that our lives and the choices we make with them matter?
What got me thinking about this song was its call to imagine a world without religion. That sentiment was echoed recently in a legal dispute that wound up being settled this summer by the United States Supreme Court. You probably heard about the case of the Colorado baker who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a gay couple on the grounds that doing so violated is religious and artistic liberties. People were expecting a landmark ruling on the extent to which those liberties can be used to justify commercial discrimination. But the court never got to that question. What they said instead was that in the case’s original argument before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, that body failed to give the baker a fair hearing. The court cited as evidence of this bias against the baker and his religious freedom claims, the following statement by one of the commissioners:
Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.
The central idea here is similar to that in the Lennon song. But where I find the song cliche and trite. I find this statement cliche and pernicious. To blame religion and the exercise of religious freedom on slavery is to ignore the crucial role that religion played both in the abolition and the civil rights movement. But to blame religion for the Holocaust is simply libelous. The Nazis did not murder Jews as a religious rite. Nor did they even murder Jews on account of their Judaism. They murdered them because they wanted to rid the world of what they saw as a weak, mongrel racial stock.
But what really gets me about this statement is the context. Have cliches against religion become so commonplace and accepted that they can be expressed by a civil rights commissioner in the context of a hearing on discriminatory behavior and it takes the US Supreme Court to notice the irony?
I want, though, to take up one more example of religious cliche. This one, however, comes at the problem from a somewhat different angle. It comes, in fact, from the Torah itself.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest… you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another… You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.
While I quote here at some length, I have, for the sake of brevity, left much more out, thus diminishing the full beauty and full majesty of these words. They are part of what is known as the holiness code because they are introduced with the words “You shall be holy for I, the Lord God am holy.” These simple, declaratory statements, punctuated by repetition of the phrase “I am the Lord,” have a sweep and drama that inspires and awes.
For many years, I considered these words to be the quintessence not only of the book of Leviticus, but of the entire Torah. I saw significance in the fact that they appear fairly close to the Torah’s center - in the middle of its third of five books. And I have pointed to these words with pride in my faith for having given this very definition of morality to the world.
And then, one day, someone challenged me on it all. “Really?” I was asked. “What kind of sick person would curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind? Do we really need God to tell us not to engage in such antisocial behavior as lying, stealing and murdering? Do we even need to God to teach us to be charitable to those who are poor or outcast? Don’t we have a natural capacity for empathy and sympathy that tells us to do that? And if all this behavior constitutes holiness, isn’t that kind of a low bar for so lofty a goal?”
All of which got me thinking: beautiful and powerful as this passage may be, is it too a cliche? Often cliches become so because they are true. Is my Jewish pride stimulated here by something that is plain to anyone endowed with a conscience? And if so, when I say this is holiness, am I really saying anything at all?
I will leave these questions aside for the moment. Instead, I want to turn to another passage from the Torah that I know for sure is not cliche. I know this because in the dozen years I have been teaching Torah in this community, never has it passed without extended comment and argument.
If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, "This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard." Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.
Say what you will about a biblical passage that details the conditions under which parents can have their son put to death: that it countenances a truly unnatural form of cruelty; that if confirms every aspersion cast upon religion in general and Judaism in particular. One thing you can’t say about it is that it’s cliche.
And there’s another thing about it that you cannot say: that our faith ever allowed it to happen. Because to really understand this passage, you have to understand how Jews are taught to read it. And we are taught in the Talmud to read it, not as a law to be enforced, but as an intellectual exercise to be solved and understood.
Start with the words “defiant son.” That automatically means it can only apply to males. It also cannot apply to minors as they cannot be held liable for their actions. Nor can it apply to adult children as they are no longer under their parent’s control. The Talmud thus understands the Torah to limit the applicability of this penalty to the time between when the son begins to grow pubic hair up until all that hair has developed, a period of about three months.
Since the passage says the son is a glutton and a drunkard the Talmud sets minimum quantities of meat and wine that must be consumed before this charge can be brought. He can only be drunk on wine, and not some other kind of intoxicant, because a passage in Proverbs links such dissolute drunkenness specifically to wine. In fact, the Talmud limits his consumption to Italian wine since that is known to be a particularly strong intoxicant.
Moreover, this 12 to 12-and-a-third-year-old son, who is stuffed with meat and drunk on Italian wine, could not have gotten in this condition in celebration of a religious right, because if he did, he would be disobeying not his parents, but God. His parents cannot have any physical deformities, such as a missing finger, because they then could not take hold of him, as the Torah requires. Nor, for various other reasons - all gleaned directly from the Torah’s words - can they be deaf, blind or mute. Finally, since the Torah says that the parents must mutually declare their son to be defiant, he cannot be deemed to be so unless the parents are alike in voice, appearance and stature.
The Talmud thus concludes its discussion with this observation: that the case of the rebellious and defiant son never happened and never will happen. Why, then, is this law written? So that we may study it and earn a reward for doing so.
Think about that for a moment. What the Talmud is telling us is that the Torah’s teaching on the rebellious and defiant son has absolutely nothing to do with parents or children or drunkenness or stubbornness. It has nothing to do with punishing or in any way hurting others. Instead, it is all about this teaching. It is all about this learning. And teaching and learning, as Rabbi Sommer loves to say, is all about relationship.
This is the very heart of religion and it is the very heart of Judaism - the relationship we share among ourselves, and the relationship we seek with that which goes beyond ourselves. Its the reason why those verses in the holiness code - even if they are obvious to anyone with a conscience - are so stirring; they remind us that the relationships we have with one another are the foundation - not the summit - of holiness. And its the reason why imagining a world where, above us is only sky, is so dismal: for what, then, can we seek that transcends ourselves?
Religion, at its essence, is the ground on which humans seek that transcendence. And Judaism is the way of living in which continuous learning seeks the knowledge of the world, the knowledge of others and the knowledge of ourselves that we need to reach toward God. And Torah is God reaching back toward us.
This reaching out is very hard. Because it is so hard, we often miss. Because it is so hard, we often don’t try. When we miss, it is tempting to reduce the religious experience to pious sounding cliches. When we don’t try, it is tempting to reduce it to cliches of superstition or prejudice. But religion, because it seeks to unite our particular being with that which is eternal and everlasting, can never be cliche. It is always unique and always profound.
And thus the truly awesome power and magnificent beauty of this day. For Yom Kippur is the very essence of the religious experience. It achieves its holiness not through magical incantations or mystical experiences, but rather by coming to us at the culmination of a month of reflection and ten days of repentance. In that time, we have prepared to reach out toward God by learning more about ourselves, about others, and about our world. We have done so trusting that, if we did our work thoughtfully and diligently, God will find us worthy in our strivings and grant us forgiveness for our failings. May this day bring each of us the sense of having reached out to the Holy One, and may God reach back to each of us and seal us for goodness and blessing in this new year.
SERMON - SECOND MORNING ROSH HASHANAH - 5779
RABBI HESCH SOMMER
A Darkness So Thick …
Humor me for a moment. If, this morning, I offer the greeting to you of “gut yontif,” how would you respond? (wait for response). And those are reasonable responses. But, if this morning I were to say to you “good evening,” then,how would you answer? I am guessing that someone this morning is saying to themselves, if not out loud, “ We are in for trouble if Rabbi Sommer doesn’t even know what time of the day it is…
Here is my point, our greetings of one another have a contextual basis. We acknowledge the time of day, we acknowledge the time of year, because it puts us in a time frame which makes sense. Think about it: when the High Holy Days begin early in September, we say, “They came really early this year.” Or, if they begin late in September or early in October, we say that they are really late. Yet the reality from our Jewish calendar perspective is that R.H. is always on the first of Tishri! Just a few days ago we were saying to each other, “Feels more like summer than fall” even though the leaves have already been starting to turn color and fall from the trees.
Think about our holiday calendar cycle and what we say to prove my point. For Rosh Hashanah we would say “Shanah Tovah” , literally “a good year.” But for the harvest festival of Sukkot which comes soon after our High Holy Day period, we say “Chag Sameach” literally “happy holiday.” So let’s extend our experiment out just a bit further.
Projecting ahead to the coming springtime and our festival of Passover, I anticipate a delcious second night seder at Beth Israel and I greet a member of this wonderful community with “Shanah Tovah.” (a good year). What do you say in response, what are you thinking, and what do you do?
All good responses, but you know “Shanah Tovah” is a traditional greeting on Passover because biblically it was understood as the beginning of the new year of harvests. The first (spring) harvest of the year!
While Passover is the beginning of the New Year biblically, reflecting on the agricultural first harvest, Rosh Hashanah introduces a different kind of newness with its opportunity to refresh and renew ourselves spiritually. But I think we err when we draw too fine a distinction between these two important moments in our calendar year because the newness of Passover does offer us an important message about a reawakening of the soul as much as it does about the spring harvest.
Take for example, the ninth plague mentioned in the Passover Haggadah: the plague of darkness (Ex.10:21-23):
(21) And the LORD said to Moses: ‘Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt.’ (22) And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days; (23) they saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days...
There is an insightful chasidic 19th century reflection offered by Rabbi Hanoch of Alexander. He tells the story of a student who asks his teacher about the nature of this plague because the student queries, “couldn’t they have just kindled lamps like they did on every other night so that they could see despite the darkness? The teacher responded that the darkness which they suffered in Egypt was a special kind of darkness. It was not a darkness which affected the eyes, it was a darkness which affected the heart. Physically, they were able to see, but they did not feel for each other; they did not care for one another. They had become blind to each others needs. Each person saw only him or herself.
We live in a time of enveloping darkness. In Pirke Avot (4:12) we learn “mitzvah goreret mitzvah, avera goreret avera” (that one good deed leads to another while one misdeed sets the stage for another misdeed). Following the horrific 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings, I expressed my greatest fear to an Interfaith prayer gathering in Guilford that we would become numb to this kind of tragedy and that its reoccurence would envelop us in the darkness of rationalization: it’s not my community; kids with problems: what could we do?; it’s someone else’s concerns. Since Sandy Hook there have been more than 200 school shootings and the loss of more than 400 lives. When we allow ourselves to be numbed to the pain around us, we cloak ourselves in a darkness which is suffocating. We remain locked in place, believing that change is beyond our ability. We succumb to self-delusion that we are impotent in the face of horrors, that there is no possibility of change.
There is a fascinating discussion in the Talmud, Tractate Berchot (9b), if you are into that stuff, about the question of timing to say the Sh’ma in the morning. The underlying issue is when you can distinguish between the remaining night’s darkness and the appearance of first light. Some rabbis known collectively as the Acherim, the Others (in essence the later writers, as the Talmud is a collaborated text gleaned over a five century period) offered this insight: the appropriate time to say the morning Sh’ma is when you can see a friend from 4 cubits away (about six feet) and really recognize him or her. For these writers, it is time to welcome a new day when we affirm our relationship with another. For only when we allow ourselves to dispel the darkness of isolation, which all too often overwhelms us, can we truly enter into an honest and caring relationship with another and rejoice in a new day.
The darkness of our time is born of a selfishness. It is an attitude of “what’s in it for me?” rather than a sense of “what might I contribute to make myself and the world around me better?” As we begin anew one, of our responsibilities is to do an act called “Chesbone HaNefesh” (an accounting of the soul). We are called upon, if we in any way take this New Year thing seriously, to examine the qualities which are important to live a good, ethically sound life, qualities which are known in Jewish tradition as “middot.” In the ethical text, Orchot Tzaddikim (The Ways of the Righteous), the middah, the quality of living which is considered one of the highest, one of the most significant is “Ahavah” (love). The text says that “the quality of love involves more deeds than any other moral attribute.” What kind of love might the text be referring to? It is not speaking, I believe, of self-love in the sense of selfishness, rather it is addressing deeds which extend our love of self through acts of love and compassion to others, both our companions and the strangers we encounter each and every day.
Love is more than an attitude or an inclination. It is the deed which is at the heart of our existence, our very well being. If we are to dispel the darkness of our time, we must begin by planting the seeds of love, of caring and of kindness. That is the link between Passover and Rosh Hashanah and the reason why their holy day greetings are similar. The act of planting, whether in the ground or in the heart, is an act of faith and hope. We can turn arid soil into nurturing beds for seedlings by proper care and horticultural knowledge. Is it really any different with an arid soul? Proper care, a determination to make things better can nurture better living and well being for all. As Dinah Craik once said, “there never was a night without a dawn.” And as the Mamas and the Papas once reminded us, “the darkest hour is just before dawn.” May this New Year offer us a new dawn to vanquish the oppression of our darkness.
SERMON - FIRST MORNING ROSH HASHANAH - 5779
RABBI BRUCE ALPERT
My message this morning is for Hannah and Jaedan, and Leah and Galina and Erica and Zev and Abe and Ethan and Ethan and Sophie and Garrett and Gabriel and Jasen and Tobias and Maya and Joshua and Michaela and Selina Jean and Abigail and Emily and Sam and Colby and any other folks out there who are between kindergarten and college. I want to talk to you about how you see the world and how your parents see it. Its something I started thinking about when I was your age and one I thought about more when I became a dad myself. Now a lot of you have sat through sermons that I wrote for your parents and I am sure some of you thought those sermons quite boring. So to make sure your parents don’t get bored while I talk to you, I want to tell them a little story first.
The story comes from a book called the Talmud. The Talmud was written about 1500 years. The book is so long that it took about seven hundred years to write it. It was started by a group of rabbis more than two thousand years ago and it was finished by the generation of their great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren.
The story is about a man name Honi. Actually, he is usually referred to as Honi Ha-M’agal or Honi the Circle Maker. I will tell you why a little later.
One day, Honi saw an older man planting carob trees. Now carob is a lot like chocolate. You can grind its fruit up and mix it with sugar and it makes a delicious snack. But carob trees take a long time to grow and bear fruit. Honi asked the man how long it would take before the trees he was planting would bear fruit that could be enjoyed. The man said 70 years. Then Honi asked the man what I consider to be a rather indelicate question: one a young child is more likely to ask then a grown-up, He asked the man do you think you will still be alive to eat that fruit? The man said he did not think so. “Then why do you do it?” Honi asked. And the man responded “Just as I have, in my lifetime, enjoyed the fruit of so many trees that were planted by people who lived before me, so do I plant trees for people who will live after I am gone.
This synagogue, I hope, is a garden. Your children are the carob trees. The conversation I want to have with them today, I hope, is the water that will help those trees to root and grow. I don’t expect to enjoy all the fruit that they will yield in my own lifetime. But like the old man in the story, you and I too have come into a world filled with fruit bearing trees.
But enough talking to your parents. Like I said, I want to talk to you about how you see the world and how grown-ups see the world and how the two are different.
I’ve actually been thinking about this question for pretty much as long as I’ve been thinking about anything. And I’ve thought about it because when I was a really little kid, I had a record album that had on it a song about how kids see the world. It told its story by talking about different baby animals whose parents try to keep them from acting like themselves. One verse goes like this:
There once was a beagle, Happy little beagle, following his tail around
But his mother said “Go straight to bed and don’t make a single sound!”
What happened to the beagle, Happy little beagle, who never learned to bay?
Some burglars came and to his shame he turned tail and ran away!
And the chorus of the song goes like this:
What we’re saying is
Hey Jimmy Joe John Jim Jack,
Even little beagles lose their knack
When somebody twice their size
Can’t see the world through children’s eyes
I don’t know if all of you know what a knack is. It means a special ability or a special talent. A beagle has a knack for baying - which is a long bark that can scare away a burglar. The song goes on to tell of a baby tiger who never learns to roar and a little bunny who never learns to hop. Because they never learn these things, they never learn to be that special thing that makes them who they are.
The song’s last verse doesn’t talk about baby animals. It talks about kids who never get to be kids because somebody is always telling them to stop doing what kids do. It goes like this:
Don’t do this, don’t do that
You might as well just be a statue
That’s how children lose their spark
But if grown-ups would take part in things that children have their heart in
We’d never end up hiding in the dark
What we’re saying is.
Hey Jimmy Jack John Jim Joe
When you have your own kids let them know
Even though you’re twice their size
You see the world through children’s eyes.
This song has, I think, a very beautiful message, but one that I find a little complicated to understand. It says that childhood is all about discovering your knack - that thing that makes you special and unique. And it says that parents play an important part in helping kids find their knack. But then it says something very curious. It says that parents help their children find what makes them special and unique by being, at least a little bit, like children themselves - seeing the world through children’s eyes. So if a parent is like a child, it must mean that they too are learning about what makes them special and unique. In other words, learning is something you do throughout your entire lifetime.
Now, in order to learn, you need teachers. Your job as a child is to learn and so you are surrounded by teachers: math teachers, science teachers, language arts teachers, history teachers, music and art teachers. As your education continues, you will learn, more and more, what interests you and what you are good at. These will help you develop your knack; maybe as a builder or a dancer or a mechanic or a rabbi or an engineer.
But learning what you will do for a living and how you will do it is only a part of the learning you have to do. And it’s not even be the most important part. More important is what kind of person you will be. Will you be wise? Generous? Kind? Caring? Brave? Those things need to be learned too. So you will need teachers for those as well. And for that learning, your most important teachers are your parents.
In Judaism, the idea of being a parent pretty much means the same thing as being a teacher. Parents are obligated to teach their children Torah. Not only that, but anyone who teaches Torah to anyone else is considered to be like a parent to that person. Which is why on the day when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I feel so much pride in each of you.
So our parents are our teachers. And our rabbis become like parents to us by being our teachers. But Judaism tells us that we have yet another parent, and so we have yet another teacher.
A while ago, before we read Torah, we read a special prayer which we only say on great holidays like this one. In it, we called God Avinu Malkeinu - our parent, our king. We think of God as our king because we think God judges us based on how we behave. But we also think of God as our parent. And as our parent, God is our teacher. And God’s teaching is the Torah. That is what the word Torah means - teaching. And in fact, it’s not just on the high holidays that we think of God this way. Every day, in the prayer we say before saying the Shema, we call God our Compassionate parent and we ask that God give us the understanding to learn and to teach all of the Torah’s ways with love.
Learning Torah is the job of a lifetime. We Jews have spent so many thousands of years learning Torah that we have written thousands of books about what we have learned from learned from learning Torah. Perhaps the most important book of such learning is the one I talked about with your parents - the Talmud. Just as Torah means teaching, the word Talmud means learning. The Talmud is filled with wonderful stories - like the story of Honi the Circle Maker. And it is filled with wonderful puzzles in which our ancient rabbis seek to understand God’s ways exploring the words of the Torah closely, carefully, logically and creatively. The Talmud is a book from which you could spend a hundred lifetimes learning and still marvel at its wisdom and insight. It is, in other words, a book meant to be read through children’s eyes.
But before we get to the Talmud, let us spend a few more minutes thinking about your first teachers; your parents. I know your parents. I know that they have given you so many gifts in your young lives. They have clothed and fed and loved you. They have kept you safe and taught you. But they have given you other gifts as well - opportunities and experiences, that have made you want to learn more and more.
Now if you ask your parents what is the the greatest gift they have given you, what might they say? Maybe they will say it was the piano lessons that made you love music. Maybe they will say it was the special summer program where you learned that you’re really good at soccer, or that you want to build giant machines when you grow up. Maybe they will say it was that trip to France where you discovered the beauty of another culture and language and another way of seeing the world. Or maybe they will say it was all those long weekend afternoons that were spent just being a family together.
Your parents may not know this, but the real greatest gift they have given you is raising you to be Jewish. Because in raising you to be Jewish, they have raised you to spend your entire lifetime learning about who you are and what is expected of you. In raising you to be Jewish, they have raised you to keep looking at the world through children’s eyes - through the eyes of someone who is always in the process of becoming more of who you are supposed to be.
And with that, I want to go back to the story of Honi Ha-M’agal. Ha-M’agal means “the circle maker.” He is called Honi the Circle Maker because there was once a terrible drought in Israel. The people came to Honi and asked him to pray for rain. He prayed, but no rain came. So Honi drew a circle on the ground and he stood inside it and he called to God and said “God, Your children asked me to pray to You for rain. They asked me because they know I am like a son to You. I swear in Your great name that I will not leave this circle until You show mercy to Your children.” And it started to rain - lightly. And Honi cried out, “This isn’t the rain I asked for! We need rain that will fill the wells and the ditches and the caves.” So God brought down a torrential, driving rain and Honi again cried out “This isn’t the rain I asked for either. Bring us a rain of goodness and blessing.” And with that, God brought a rain of goodness and blessing that continued to fall until Honi had to pray for it to stop.
Now think about that story for a minute. Honi at first prays for rain, but God doesn’t answer that prayer. By not answering that prayer, Honi became Honi Ha-M’agal - Honi the Circle Maker. So Honi draws his circle and demands that God make it rain. Does God give him what he wants? Yes and no. Yes, God makes it rain, but no, God sends the wrong kind of rain. God sends the wrong kind of rain twice. God is teasing Honi and teaching Honi. The problem isn’t that God doesn’t know what Honi wants. God knows exactly what Honi wants. The problem is, Honi doesn’t know how to ask for what he wants. He needs to learn how to ask for goodness and blessing in order to bring goodness and blessing into this world. When he does, and when he prays again - this time that the rain should stop - his prayers are answered.
May all of your parents continue to see the world through your eyes. May you learn from their continual learning and, with Torah as your guide, may you grow to be sources of goodness and blessing in this world. And, one day, when you are blessed with children of your own, may their teaching be your lifetime of learning.
SERMON - ROSH HASHANAH EVENING 5779
RABBI BRUCE ALPERT
When Terri and I were just dating high school kids, her parents decided they didn’t want their tickets to the latest production at the Yale Rep and inflicted them - I mean gave them - to us instead. The play was titled Ubu Rex and it was an adaptation of a 19th century French absurdist comedy. In the middle of the play, a character wearing a military coat comes on stage and starts to sing
My jacket has one button
My jacket has one button
He then sings that his jacket has two buttons. Then three, then four and so on, up to ten. Then he started counting the number of buttons on his jackets by tens, then by hundreds, then by thousands. The choruses kept mounting along with the number of buttons which eventually totalled into random numbers in the millions.
The song went on for half an hour and over that time a fascinating phenomenon occurred. At first, the song was a bit of a curiosity. But as it went on it became hysterically funny - until it wasn’t. Then it became annoying and tedious - until it became funny yet again. And that is how the half hour played out - periods explosive laughter followed by periods of seething anger.
I propose to test that phenomenon here this evening. I am going to teach you a song and I am going to go on singing it for the next half hour. The only way I will stop singing before that is if all of you sing along with me - with the joy and good humor this song requires. It goes like this:
עִבְדוּ אֶת-יְיְ בְּשִׂמְחָה; בֹּאוּ לְפָנָיו, בִּרְנָנָה.
A number of years ago, my dear friend Beryl Bloch paid me his ultimate compliment when he told me that my singing was improving. I was touched by his words which indicated to me that my singing was just about right for my purposes. You see as a rabbi, I have no desire to have a good voice - one that anyone particularly wishes to listen to. Instead I want a voice that’s good enough to teach a tune, but then bad enough to want to drown out. If I can do that, then maybe I can get my congregation singing.
The words I have just taught you - עִבְדוּ אֶת-יְיְ בְּשִׂמְחָה; בֹּאוּ לְפָנָיו, בִּרְנָנָה - are from Psalm 100. They mean Serve God with rejoicing; come before Him with a ringing cry. Liturgically, they are from the part of the morning service known as Pesukei d’Zimra which is Aramaic for Verses of Song. Pesukei d’Zimra is that part of the service that is meant to be sung. Its purpose is to prepare us to say the Shema and the Amidah with the proper kavannah: the proper frame of mind: the proper intentionality. And what might that kavannah be?
Well, these words of Psalm 100 - עִבְדוּ אֶת-יְיְ בְּשִׂמְחָה - are themselves an echo of an admonition found in the Torah where God promises punishment for those אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת-יְיְ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּשִׂמְחָה - who do not serve the Lord your God in joy. I think that is the kavannah God expects us to bring to His worship - a kavannah of joy. The purpose of Pesukei D’Zimra is, as I see it, to help us find in ourselves the joy that we feel in being God’s chosen people. We are to take this joy into our recital of the Shema and the Amidah, and we are to allow animate our sense of ourselves and our identification with the Jewish people.
And herein lies the quandary that is at the heart of my style of worship and what I am seeking to do here at Beth Israel.
When I came to this community twelve years ago, I found a lot of wonderful people with a strong sense of Jewish identity, but lacking in a sense of their place within the greater Jewish world. Though no longer affiliated, members still considered themselves more-or-less in the Conservative camp. Still, if there were strong prayer traditions within the community, no one felt comfortable or confident enough to instruct me as to how to put those traditions into practice. On Friday nights I led - and still lead - a fairly traditional Kabbalat Shabbat. On these holidays, Nancy guided me through the services and I did my best to interpret her leads into the prayer experience you expected. I got some things terribly wrong that first, year, but I tried to fix them in subsequent years.
Eventually, I felt empowered to move the prayer experience in the direction I felt the synagogue needed to go. Friday nights have stayed pretty much as they have always been. The liturgy is reasonably short and limited and there really is very little to change, except perhaps the balance between English and Hebrew or the number of prayers recited silently as opposed to communally.
For these services, I cut out repetitions as much as possible. That has meant one shofar service rather than two, reading from one Torah scroll rather than two, and leading one Amidah rather than four. I also rearranged prayers to provide a more continually engaging experience. If the resulting service is somewhat shorter, I hope it is, nevertheless, responsive to your spiritual needs.
But what has been missing from this synagogue has been Shabbat morning worship. Though the 20th century saw the rise of the Friday night service as an alternative to Saturday morning, in truth that is like trying to substitute an energy bar for a four course meal. The Shabbat morning liturgy is the most extensive and extensively engaging we possess. It stands at the heart of Jewish literacy. One who understands the elements and the structure of a Shabbat morning service, understands the elements and structure of all other Jewish services.
The question is, how does one bring it back?
When I first came here, I was saddened to think of this place as being locked up tight on Saturday mornings. So we started with Torah study and in a very short time we built a loyal following of close to two dozen people who will spend their Shabbat mornings, munching on bagels and engaging the great questions each weekly parashah raises for us.
Leading Torah study here is not merely one of my great joys as this community’s rabbi. It’s one of my great joys in life, period. It has pushed me to grow and to learn and expand my understanding of our faith as nothing else has. It has, for me, proved the insight of Rabbi Chanina who said “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.”
But as fulfilling as Torah study has been from me, it has not proved a substitute for prayer. While I pray pretty much every day, alone in my tallit and, more and more often my tefillin, it’s kind of weird singing כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה, תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ when you’re all alone. Yet building a prayer community has proven to be a lot harder than building one for study. In addressing the question, ‘how does one bring prayer back to a congregation,’ one must begin by acknowledging that difficulty. In its light, a traditional, two-plus hour service hardly seems like the place to start.
In fashioning a Shabbat morning service that can be conducted in under an hour, I started with everything I thought was essential and eliminated everything that was repetitious extraneous or, to be perfectly blunt, boring. I have little doubt that many of my more Conservative colleagues would be appalled by what I have left out of this service. And they might be even more so when these cuts are viewed in light of what I have chosen to not only to leave in but to actually expand. I have expanded the one part of the service most of my colleagues would tell you is truly extraneous - Pesukei d’Zimra.
Why have I made this choice? Quite simply because I believe that, for most of you, if given the choice between praying for an hour with joy, or praying for three hours with legal completeness, you would choose the joy. More than that, if you really ask me what I think God wants of us, I would tell you that Psalm 100 doesn’t say “Serve God with precision.” It says serve Him with joy.
Beginning here in September, I will be leading two Shabbat morning services each month running from 9am until around 9:45, with Torah study to follow. Unfortunately, Psalm 100 is only part of Pesukei d’Zimra on weekdays so all that effort we put into learning it will not help us much. But I can supply lots of songs for many of the other pesukim. What I can’t supply are the voices to drown out my own. Those have to come from you. Please: help me build this congregation into one that prays with the greatest kavannah. Let our voices lift you up and carry your heart and mind to a place near the Holy One. Let it be said of this congregation that - for all its limitations and for all its rabbi’s strange ideas - we know how to serve God with joy.
D’VAR TORAH - PARASHAT PINKHAS
RABBI BRUCE ALPERT
Merely to have survived is not an index of excellence,/Nor, given the way things go,/Even of low cunning./Yet I have seen the wicked in great power,/And spreading himself like a green bay tree./And the good as if they had never been;/Their voices are blown away on the winter wind.
Those familiar with the old Reform mahzor, Gates of Repentance, will recognize these lines from the poem “Words for the Day of Atonement” by Anthony Hecht. They remind us that, even if lacking in other virtues, survival itself is the necessary component and, at times, a lofty enough goal.
Mere survival is the underlying theme of this week's parashah, Pinkhas. The various threats to that survival that have arisen over time – the sin of Ba'al Peor, the sin of Moses, Korach's rebellion, the strange fire of Nadav and Avihu – are cataloged here. Most particularly, the sin of the spies is recalled in the census that captures the changing – and in most cases decreasing – numbers among the tribes since their arrival in the desert forty years earlier. We have come a long way from the single, extended family that, in the course of four generations, grew into a mighty nation that could threaten the world's greatest military power.
But of all the Israelite sins of which this parashah reminds us, the one that struck me the hardest was the oldest. From the census: “The sons of Judah were Er and Onan. And Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan.” (Numbers 26:19)
I had always thought of the story of Er and Onan, as told in Genesis 38, as the prelude to the more important story of Judah and Tamar. Yet seeing this single verse. amid the counting of all the other tribes and clans that made up the Israelite nation, impressed upon me the dimensions of their misdeed. Er and Onan are cut off from history; their lines, their heritage, whatever good was in them lost for all time. How might the tribe of Judah been different – and with it, all of history – had they but survived?
At first, I had a hard time figuring out why that might be relevant. After all, where are the Zephonites of the tribe of Gad, or the Jachanites of the tribe of Simeon, or the clans of any of the other tribes now lost to history? Does it really matter if one disappears now or twenty generations hence? And besides, did not Er and Onan make a more enduring name for themselves through sin than their cousins through continued propagation?
But then I realized, were it not for Shelah – Judah's youngest son – we would not remember any of this. Lost would be Er and Onan, together with Zephon and Jachin and all the rest. Lost would be the Jews themselves, and with them, the Christians and the Muslims. As Hecht quotes Isaiah,
Except the Lord of Hosts had left unto us/A very small remnant, /We should have been as Sodom/We should have been like unto Gomorrah.
There is no joy in this week's parashah, but neither is there the longing and the murmuring that has marked the various rebellions that have kept Israel in the wilderness for a generation. Instead there seems to be a hardened, almost grim determination – both on the part of God and the Israelites – to achieve their destiny. An entire generation may have died off; twenty-four thousand may have fallen in the latest plague; their leaders – Miriam, Aaron and now soon Moses – may have departed. None of that seems to matter any more. Only one thing remains: survival.
Of course, merely to have survived is not an index of excellence, or even of low cunning. But at times survival is all we can manage. And it is the necessary precursor to any good which may yet happen. The Jews are a great people; perhaps the greatest the world has ever known. And the source of that greatness is an endless discontent with the world as it is. Our nature is to strive continually to make this world more just, more compassionate, more wise, more caring. And perhaps the greatest testament to that nature is our determination – when none of those lofty goals is within our grasp – to survive. We survive as our ancestors did: stubbornly, even at times angrily and spitefully. But we survive because we will never give up on the faith that life is worth living and it is our duty to see that our children live it better.
D’VAR TORAH - PARASHAT VAYIKRA
RABBI BRUCE ALPERT
Egg yolks, oil, water, flour, sugar, and yeast. For nearly twenty years I have been adding these ingredients to my bread machine on Friday morning. When I return home in the afternoon, I have dough with which to braid and bake challah.
The bakers among you may notice that I have left out an ingredient; by far the smallest of all. Yet that one teaspoon of salt is the difference between a challah that tastes rich and sweet and one that is poor and flat.
What got me thinking about challah and salt are the detailed descriptions of meal offerings and their preparation in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra. I was struck particularly with this verse: “You shall season every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13).
This verse points me toward an understanding of something that perplexes me, not only about this parashah, but much of the book Vayikra. This parashah goes into great detail concerning the offering of sacrifices: how they are slaughtered, their blood dashed about, their innards washed, their fatty parts burned up. How can something that is so literally visceral leave me so cold?
Looking to the Rishonim, I find their commentaries only deepen my challenge. Rashi speaks of a covenant God made with the waters of the sea for them to be offered in the tabernacle. Salt, the residual of evaporated sea water, is the fulfillment of that covenant. For Ramban, covenant is the salt of the world, by virtue of which it either comes into existence or is destroyed.
For me, both these commentaries make this subject all the more obtuse. I have a hard enough time relating to tabernacles and priests, guilt offerings and peace offerings. All this commentary on water and covenants merely adds another layer of abstraction to what is already distant and foreign.
But this much I do know: salt is what gives my bread taste. So if God commands us to always add salt to our bread, it must be because God wants our bread to taste good. This strikes me as the obvious purpose for the commandment. And this purpose has its impact not to our intellect, but to our senses.
For many years, I have tried to read this parashah with my intellect: which types of offerings require which types of animals prepared in which manner. Such a reading has always proved cold and unmoving. But if I try to read this parashah through my senses, the picture is much different. I see actions motivated by powerful emotions of peace, sin and guilt. I feel the power of both life and death placed quite literally in our hands. I see violent sights and I smell intoxicating aromas. And in so doing, I am reminded that this faith of ours, which typically expresses itself in the intellectual activities of fixed prayer and study, is truly intended to be very tangible and very sensuous.
We are now in the weeks leading up to Judaism’s most tangible and sensuous of holidays. Not relying on abstract notions of freedom or deliverance, what makes Pesach by far the most observed of the festivals are the sights, sounds and smells, the feelings and the tastes in which it is observed. We actually taste slavery’s bitterness and sorrow’s tears. We feel our joy diminish as our wine clings to our fingers and drips on to our plates. Aromas trigger memories formed in childhood as do the sounds of our favorite tunes for Had Gadya and Adir Hu.
The message that I take from this parashah is the same one I take from the romance that engulfs my Pesach preparations: that Judaism is intended to appeal to our senses as much as it does to our intellect. Indeed, it must do so. As it expands our minds and deepens our understanding, it must also minister to us in the ways in which the sacrifices detailed in thisparashah are intended. It must answer our emotions and instill in us a sense of awe at life’s miraculousness and its fragility at our hands. It must, like the salt in our bread, add the flavor and richness and depth sought from a life lived not only in the mind, but in the heart.
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778
By Rabbi Alpert
In Hebrew, the word is קהילה .It means community. In the more than hundred years this congregation has existed, much has changed. We have gone from Orthodox to Conservative to God-knows what. Our method of Shabbat observance is totally altered. Our standards of kashrut are looser and our attitude toward interfaith marriage has undergone a complete reversal. I view all of these changes as good. And I view them that way because they have preserved Beth Israel’s most important function: as a קהילה - a community.
Last year on this day, we unveiled plans to rebuild this synagogue of ours. My cousin Jay’s model - now on display in our lobby - inspires our members to work toward its realization, and speaks to potential members of our hopes and dreams. What remains is to instill in all of us not merely the beauty of our vision, but its importance as well. That importance rests in our being a community. Each of us needs a community: a place where we can stand face-to-face, arm-in-arm, and hand-to-hand with others who share our journey. Beth Israel is such a community. And to watch it work - as I am privileged to do - is an inspiration. I see how the groups that make up our community - our children, our parents, our empty-nesters and our elders - each play a different yet vital role in the lives of all the others. Growing through these roles becomes an ongoing source of purpose and fulfillment that graces our days with meaning.
For those of us who did not grow up among the proliferating forms of social media - Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest - the idea of a virtual community is a contradiction in terms. To us, physical presence is what makes a community a community. We know how hard it is to be physically present in someone’s life - especially when that someone is sick or scared or grieving. Yet knowing how important that presence is in precisely in those moments, we face our own fears and show up anyway. In doing so, we comfort others, and strengthen ourselves. I worry that our younger generation, for whom the virtual world is native ground, are not being pushed to learn how to be present in the lives of others. And this is where I think that the importance of what we do here rises to the beauty of the physical space to which we aspire.
This past Spring, I met with some of our parents to brainstorm ways in which I could broaden the exposure of the school and the shul to the unaffiliated Jewish community in Wallingford and beyond. One of our parents, Lauren, told me that she and her daughter Galina spend a lot of time in the public library and suggested that I look into doing some kind of programming there. Perhaps something on parenting, and she recommended a book that I might want to look at. The book is entitled The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings To Raise Self-Reliant Children by Dr. Wendy Mogel. For fifteen year Dr. Mogel was a practicing child psychologist dealing with troubled children and, to a large extent, their equally troubled parents. Then she had two kids of her own and, between parenthood, marriage and career, she found herself frenzied and exhausted. A chance invitation to join a friend for Rosh Hashanah services at a nearby shul turned her life around. Convinced from childhood that she didn’t like synagogues and didn’t like rabbis, she couldn’t believe that the service moved her to tears. She returned on Yom Kippur. And then she started attending Friday night services. And then she and her family started lighting candles on Shabbat. And eating dinner in. And avoiding shell-fish.
Some time later she decided to take a year off from work to explore her Judaism in depth. These studies would coalesce into a theory of child rearing drawn from Jewish practice and Jewish ethics. The book’s title provides a beautiful understanding of the most common of childhood experiences. The skinned knee is a blessing when it teaches our children a degree of personal strength and courage. Dr. Mogel draws a parallel between this common childhood trauma and God’s call to Abraham to leave behind everything he knew to pursue his mission in life. “Unless your child ventures forth into the world,” she writes, “he won’t get a chance to learn how to master it and find his place.” This is but one of the many lessons Dr. Mogel believes Judaism teaches us about raising children.
In the Torah’s command to honor one’s father and mother she sees the need to provide our children with role models and the expectation that they will treat their elders with respect. In Judaism’s teachings on the human struggle between our good and bad inclinations, the טוב יצר and the הרע יצר ,she sees the need to teach our children the difference between what we need and what we want - cultivating a sense of gratitude toward the one and blessing toward the other. In Judaism’s laws of kashrut and its many blessings over food she sees the opportunity to raise our children’s consciousness about what they eat and encourage moderation. And in Judaism’s sanctification of time she sees an opportunity for family members to slow down and be present in each other’s lives. In relying as she does on religious teachings, Dr. Mogel rediscovers, I believe, some essential truths about parenting. Looking back at our own skinned knees - which my brother Jay and I earned together trying to jointly coast a tricycle down Saddle Ridge Road’s steep and curvy hill - I suppose we did learn something about carrying on in adversity.
But while I agree with most of the lessons she draws about child rearing, I feel she has missed the larger context into which they are intended to fit. The problem is evident in her subtitle: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. Ultimately, the purpose of Jewish teachings is not to raise self-reliant children; it is to raise Jews, and Jews have a very different take on self-reliance. As I got deeper into the book, I had the increasing feeling that something was missing. Where was the synagogue? Where was the community? My answer came four pages from the end of the book. Here is what she writes: despite the fact that bringing Judaism into my life has yielded astonishing blessings, I have not achieved unambivalent enthusiasm for organized religion. I still carry baggage. It bears the labels “Dislikes being part of a group,” “Squirms when sincerity verges near the corny,” and “Finds getting through the day hard enough hard enough without extra restrictions or obligations.” Sometimes the goodness of the congregants at my synagogue makes me feel venal, cynical and selfish by comparison. Sometimes the idea of ritual and religious obligation annoys or exhausts me.
I am sympathetic to Dr. Mogel’s plight and to the baggage that weighs her down. But if her much desired self-reliance has left her unable to cope with others’ emotions or her own sense of ritual inadequacy, what is its point? The truth is, for Judaism, the idea of “self-reliance” makes no more sense than that of “virtual community.” Judaism emphasizes personal responsibility and moral accountability and it does so precisely because it recognizes that we all need each other. Judaism is not about living alone. The divine covenant - membership in which is what makes us Jews - is not between God and each of us, but between God and all of us. It is between God and the entire nation of Israel. The bulk of Judaism’s laws that remain operative since the destruction of the Temple deal with relationships between and among people.
As it happens, these are the lessons our kids need the most today, for reasons having to do mostly with a three-by-five rectangle of glass and metal we implant in their hands right around the time they hit adolescence. Dr. Jean Twenge has dedicated her twenty-five year career in psychology to studying the changes among the generations. Using data that have been collected on teenagers since the 1930’s, she has been able to monitor differences in such things as self-perception and social interaction. Generally, these differences have expressed themselves as gradual changes from year-to-year.
Then, beginning in 2012, they became large and abrupt. Not coincidentally, 2012 was the year that smartphone ownership crossed 50% of the US population. Some of these changes are positive. Teen birth rates last year were down 67% from their peak in 1991. Today’s teens are significantly less likely than their parents to get into car accidents, and they have less of a taste for alcohol. This is the positive side of what has been, essentially, a drastic fall in the actual face-to-face interaction between and among teens. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of kids spending time each day with their friends dropped by 40%. 12th graders in 2015 went out less often than 8th graders in 2009. High schoolers wait longer these days to get their driver’s licenses, and fewer of them take part-time jobs to earn a few bucks for themselves.
Rather than date, kids “talk” which is actually a euphemism for sending text messages and Snap-chatting each other. 56% of today’s high schoolers go out on dates compared with around 85% two and three generations ago. So if kids aren’t driving and aren’t dating and aren’t seeing their friends, what are they doing? “They are,” writes Dr. Twenge, “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.” She reports that the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future report - which has surveyed high schoolers since 1975 - finds that all screen related activities make kids more unhappy, while all non-screen related activities make them more happy. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook can all exacerbate feelings of isolation and being left out. The statistics are devastating. From 2012 to 2015, depressive symptoms in boys increased by 21%. In girls, they increased by 50%. And between 2007 and 2015, twice as many 12 to 14 year old boys and three times as many girls committed suicide.
My daughter Sarah, who brought Dr. Twenge’s work to my attention, explained it to me this way. “The lives of the people I know,” she says, “have become performances. They go on Facebook and their friends are all posting picture of their vacations and the parties they are going to and the food they are eating and my friends ask themselves, ‘Why am I not enjoying life like they are?’ So their own Facebook posts become a performance to convince themselves and others that they are as happy as everyone else seems to be.” This is obviously a major challenge to parents and to our society as a whole. I am not here to tell you that church or synagogue membership is a cure to the isolation and depression that is at the heart of this problem. But I am here to tell you that this synagogue’s very existence is built on the idea of community involvement and caring; that to live a fully and meaningfully Jewish life requires that you interact personally and directly with others.
This synagogue, in the year just past, offered each of us the chance to put up our sukkah with Larry Hyatt and to put out our candles and challah with Tammy Kahn; to allow a new family observe Pesach, and to allow an old friend say Kaddish; to help Bob Gross bury old siddurim and machzorim and to help Shirley Glasner send out happy birthday or anniversary wishes; to give Jack Huber one last hug and to give Nancy Huber or Mimi Bloch one more hug; to have a slice of lox with the Torah study crowd and to have a slice of birthday cake with Saul Freilich; to explore the meaning of love on Shavuot and to explore the meaning of loss on Tisha B’Av; to plan a celebration with Phyllis Gordon and Sue Burt; to celebrate with Ethan Thomaswick and Josh Rodriguez. Each one of these actions is a mitzvah in the truest sense of that of that misunderstood word. As such, they are not incidental to this synagogue’s existence. They are the very reason for it. To bring your children up as participants in such a community is to necessarily raise their gaze beyond the glow of their smartphone screen. Some of the things a community asks of its members bring great joy. Others are painful and scary. Each exposes us to a new person or a new experience or a new idea - and so each forces us to grow. And each implants within us a sense of meaning in our lives. That is what Beth Israel is all about. Achieving that is what makes us worthy of the noble designs standing before us.
For all the changes that have taken place in this synagogue over its long history, we have remained a קדושה קהילה - a holy community. We are present for each other and interdependent on one another. As this community has been there for each of us as we have progressed through this lifelong journey of ours, so, with God’s help and our own dedication, may it be there in the lives of our children - to instruct them in their youth, to gain strength from them in their vigor, and to honor them and draw wisdom from them in old age. This is the noble task of our community. Our ancestors’ work, and God’s blessing, have given it to us as an inheritance. For our children’s sake, may this community grow and thrive and be stronger for having been in our care.