Thursday, October 27, 2011

A New, Dangerous Behavior

The following is the text of a column I was asked to write for this week's Bowie Blade-News... I am NOT including the link to the video, deliberately, as it becomes a "how-to" guide for the curious... A must read for parents and grandparents with Halloween approaching...

Halloween is Coming – Parents (and Kids) Beware

As I watched the television news story that had been sent to me by a professional youth worker within our Reform Movement, my mouth hung open in disbelief. How could something like this be going on without my having the slightest inkling? After all, I have a college freshman and a high school freshman of my own. I spend most of my time off during the summer at two different summer camps, work with our own youth groups, teach our B’nai Mitzvah and Confirmation students. If teenagers are doing it, watching it, talking about, I am usually aware of it.

But there, in front of me, was the latest method sweeping through our teenagers’ world – the latest way to get alcohol past unsuspecting adults. And if I was unaware, what were the odds that most of the rest of our area was as well?!

Turns out, the odds were pretty good, as a couple of quick phone calls confirmed. My phone call to Chief Nesky, at the Bowie Police, revealed that the police are not only aware of this new phenomenon, but planning their own efforts to alert the public to the danger. But calls to other community leaders, PTSO leaders, fellow clergy, other parents, even to a local newspaper editor demonstrated the need for us to bring this information into the public square.

So now, here I am, writing this column, at David Emanuel’s invitation and request, to catch us all up. With Halloween coming. Without creating an undue panic. And without allowing this warning to become a spur to our young people to experiment and learn how to make their own potentially toxic treats. Sure – no pressure there!

Especially since the newest receptacles are those cute, colorful, rubbery little snack animals and shapes. They started as Gummi Bears ™, and have morphed into 100s of shapes in dozens of colors – all designed to attract kids’ attention and interest. They are everywhere – and often sold loose in candy stores.

Turns out, they are pretty good at absorbing alcohol – they don’t melt or lose their shape. Unless you get suspicious and hold them up to your nose, you are unlikely to smell the alcohol. A couple of handfuls will get you pretty close to the legal limit for driving. And you, your child or grandchild might not even be aware that the candies they are scarfing down have been tampered with!

Fortunately, to spike them in bulk requires them to be repackaged afterwards or distributed individually and unwrapped, although I am sure we will hear eventually of truly malignant souls finding other ways to endanger us with these candies.

Best advice? Same as we give and get every Halloween. Only accept candy that is unopened, that comes from sources we know and trust. This year, be particularly careful of these gummis. If your child or a friend suddenly starts eating a lot more of them, ask them to share, and sniff before eating, to check for alcohol. And look for those telltale signs of substance abuse.

I could write more. But to do so would risk encouraging copy cats, or to make the danger seem greater than it probably is. But our community has lost too many of our young people already, some to deaths that could have been avoided. And therefore, keeping quiet was not an option either.

Sad to say – but necessary. Be safe and smart this Halloween season. And make sure that those you care about most are made aware of this latest behavioral trend.

--Rabbi Steve Weisman is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel, the Jewish congregation in Bowie. He serves on the faculty of the Union for Reform Judaism’s 6 Points Sports Academy and Camp Harlam, and has twice been awarded life membership for his work with the North American Federation of Temple Youth.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rejoicing with the Torah, and Gilad Shalit

The following were my remarks during Simchat Torah services last night. They are a refinement and expansion on my blog from yesterday, and I am indebted to the many who shared their thoughts on all sides of this complicated and painful issue who helped me to define my own.

Comments for Simchat Torah (for the start of Yizkor)
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD October 19, 2011

On Sukkot, we talked about Gilad Shalit. I promised that, if events played out the way they were supposed to, tonight would be a special night. And now, they have.

Maybe it was a good thing that I forgot to pick up the lulav and etrog, so that we could not wave them last week. Maybe we needed to wait to have our z’man simchateinu – our season of rejoicing – fully celebrated, until Gilad Shalit was free to celebrate with us. Certainly, as we begin to read Torah anew this year on this Simchat Torah, Gilad and his family begin to live their lives again anew. And so, as Sukkot ends with our celebration of Simchat Torah tonight, we wave the lulav and etrog now. [recite blessing, wave lulav and etrog]

After more than 5 years of being held hostage by terrorist kidnappers, Gilad Shalit is now free and at home. He was taken captive on the very first day of our last congregational Israel trip. Because of that, his kidnapping became personal. When our Israel committee offered the chance to purchase dog tags for us to wear, so that he would not be forgotten, I, like many of you, bought one. For almost 5 years, I have dutifully worn mine, anxiously awaiting the day that I could take it off, after his, hopefully, safe return.

And so, tonight, with great joy, I bring the celebration of Gilad Shalit’s freedom home to us, as I remove his dog tag from my neck. [remove tag]

But tonight is not only about rejoicing with the Torah, and at Gilad’s return home. For on that dog tag, there were the names of THREE Israelis, all hostages, the other 2 taken by Hisbullah from the north of the country. Sadly, both Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev have already returned home. Sadly, because they were not as fortunate as Gilad – they did not return alive. Even as we rejoice for Gilad and his family, we must remember that pain of these losses that is still felt by the Goldwasser and Regev families.

And, we must also remember the pain being felt by many other Israeli families on this otherwise joyous day. For Gilad’s release did not come easily, and it did not come cheap. Almost 500 Palestinians, each convicted in Israeli courts of crimes as serious as involvement in terrorist acts and murder, were released yesterday as well, to allow Gilad to come home. Another 500+ will be released in the coming days. The victims of their crimes, and those victims’ families, now are forced to relive their pain and loss, because those responsible for inflicting unimaginable pain upon them have now been set free.

Some say the price of Gilad’s freedom was too high. And there is some truth in that. 13,509 Palestinians have been released in 9 exchanges over the last 54 years in return for only 16 Israelis. That is roughly 800 to 1! On the other hand, what price is too high to pay in order to see a son return home alive to his country, his home, his parents?

I choose tonight to look at the responses to Gilad’s release. In Israel, these families of the victims were free to file appeals to the Supreme Court, free to ask to have the release of some of the detainees stopped, and in the process, free to risk Gilad’s safe return. Some appeals were filed, but many chose not to file, putting aside their personal pain to allow a neighbor, a brother, to come home alive. The country debated and agonized over a difficult decision. The courts ruled. The prisoners were pardoned and released. The democracy worked.

In Egypt, before he could be turned over to the Israelis, before he was allowed the joyous reunion with his family, Gilad was forced to endure an ugly television interview, with an armed Hamas guard noticeably standing right behind him; forced to say that he hoped ALL Palestinian prisoners held in Israelis jails would soon be freed. The man, held not by a sovereign state, but by terrorists, denied due process or even visitors throughout his captivity, humbly did what his captors demanded of him. His interviewer claimed she was doing a fair interview, and said she was unaware of any coercion. No Egyptian official apologized for this last indignity. Even in Gilad’s release, the differences were stark and clear.

In Israel, an excited nation rejoiced at the return of one innocent man, and then, after he hugged the Prime Minister and his father, and humbly made a few public comments, allowed him to walk away quietly, to try to return to a normal life. Because to Israelis, the value of life goes beyond simply continuing to breathe. In the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, the allegedly “moderate” head of a wannabe nation, led crowds in a raucous celebration of the return of their “heroic freedom fighters.” This is the man with whom Israel is expected to negotiate for peace, who seeks independence for his country not through negotiated compromise and agreement, but rather by fiat at the UN. And in Gaza, a female suicide bomber, alive only by the grace of Allah that her bomb failed to detonate when she pushed the trigger, who, to the way of thinking of those who celebrated her release, failed in her mission, was not only welcomed home a hero, but she encouraged the children who gathered to praise her to follow her example! Again, the contrast spoke volumes. Israel mourned the cost of a single life – Palestinians celebrated the taking of lives, and sought to up the ante.

Golda Meir once famously stated that “Until they start to love their own children more than they want to kill mine, there will never be peace in the Middle East.” Rarely, if ever, has the enduring truth of that assessment been more obvious. A democratic state, seeking peace with her neighbors still, welcomed home a single kidnapped son, whose ransom they willingly overpaid, all while grieving anew their previous losses, and thereby demonstrated the importance they place on a life. A totalitarian regime built on violence and hate celebrated the wholesale return of her failed terrorists, lawbreakers and murders, and vowed to take more Israeli prisoners until all the Palestinians were freed, and in the process, celebrated death, and showed how much their own people are merely pawns to be sacrificed to achieve some narrowly defined “victory,” achievable only through the annihilation of another.

Let me make clear – despite these comparisons and criticisms, I want peace for the Palestinian people as much as anyone, and not merely because it is essential if Israel is ever to enjoy peace herself. The Palestinian people have the right to self-determination every bit as much as every other person on this planet. And therefore I mourn for ALL the victims of the terror – not just those who died or lost loved ones, but those who are kept from achieving their self-determination by their leaders’ callous use of violence and terror against innocent targets. Only a true and lasting peace that allows all people to live free from fear and with the dignity that comes with independence will achieve the end that I, and so many others, dream of. Only such a peace will allow the families of 1402 Israeli terror victims in the last 11 years [flip the poster over to be visible] to ever have any sense of order in the chaos and doubt that came, uninvited, with their losses. Only such a peace can allow Palestinians and Israelis to live freely.

Our liturgy on this night changes from the joy of summer, in praying for the dew of the dry season, to the gloom of the rainy season, while acknowledging that in that gloom come life-giving rains. Our celebration of Simchat Torah moves from our joy of dancing with the Torah to the painful memories evoked by Yizkor. So must our focus on this night change from the joy of celebrating the safe return of Gilad Shalit, back to the hard work of comforting the victims of those released and their families, redoubling our efforts to bring about that peace which will make the suffering end.

On this night we remember, and begin the work to allow both the shark and the fish that Gilad wrote about at age 11 to live in peace and safety together, not just in a child’s story, but in real life. Amen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

He's home! He's free! Now what!

"Eema -- Ani ba!" "Mother -- I am coming home!" screamed the Hebrew language headlines this morning. The proof we had awaited as we posted our "Gilad still lives!" bumper stickers was now at hand. Five years after he was kidnapped, on Israeli soil, by Hamas terrorists intent on finding a hostage to trade for their convicted and imprisoned terrorists and murderers, Gilad Shalit, is, thank God, home with his family and safe on Israeli soil. A little malnourished, but after being held for more than 5 years and denied the basics that any other prisoner in the civilized world takes for granted, what did we expect?

We knew the price would be exorbitant -- and it is -- 477 of those convicted murderers and others tried by courts and found guilty of crimes against the state of Israel released today before Gilad was released, another 500 + to be released in the coming days and weeks. The human calculus is staggering. And it is telling. Israel places that much value on a single soul. Hamas, and based on the reaction of Abbas, hailing the released as heroes, Fatah as well, treat there own as chattel in a war of attrition to destroy the state of Israel, mere pawns to be sacrificed in a greater cause.

It is easy to be euphoric for the Shalit family, and proud of Israel for bringing him home alive. However, as with all things in the Middle East, easy is rarely the way things go.

I present below links to two very opposing articles -- both of which I believe to be true. Such is the nature of being an Oheiv Tzion -- a lover of the State of Israel, in these complicated times. I feel the pain of Koby Mandell's parents, every bit as much as I did a decade ago when he was killed -- and the murderer of their child wasn't even amongst those released today! I share his mother's anguish that her therapeutic efforts to make his death mean something positive are made harder today, even as I can barely imagine the emotions that she cannot even share with the rest of us, even a decade later.

But I also share the pride that an Israeli government that I spend far more time criticizing than lauding, was able to bring Gilad home, and willing to do so, even at this too-high price. This, truly is the embodiment of the call that "Torah shall go forth from Zion, the word of God from Jerusalem" -- that Jewish values still matter, even in the most inhumane of circumstances; that life matters.

I share the concerns that the release of this many of this kind of prisoner must, somehow, weaken Israel's defenses. But at the same time, I acknowledge the truth in the words of a colleague -- that it may very well come to pass that many, if not most, of those released in exchange for Gilad Shalit will come to realize that, no matter how badly off they were in Israeli jails, the reality that now faces them may very well be worse. And honestly, both of those realizations make me sad, and make me even more committed to working to find the miracle app that will bring peace to the region in our lifetime -- so that concerns like these and the devaluing of human life need NEVER be glorified again!

So please, read both articles carefully. Celebrate for Gilad and his family. Rejoice in Israel's sticking to their values. But do not kid yourself that somehow this is the end of anything but one young Israeli's horrifying ordeal.

and a later addition -- a third article by my teacher, Rabbi David Ellenson, making the Rabbinic case for each side of the argument, and some history that may have swayed this decision:

and, as an added bonus, I share with you as well the remarkable story that I shared with my congregation on both Sukkot AND Shabbat, of the hope for peace, written by an 11 year old Israeli boy named Gilad Shalit (!) over a decade ago:

Monday, October 10, 2011

High Holy Days 2011 - 5772

Yes, I know that I have fallen woefully behind... in keeping with the tone of the season, I humbly beg your forgiveness... I will be trying to catch up and keep up as we move forward.

For those who missed any or all of the three, here, in a single entry, are my three High Holy Day sermons for this year. While they should work (as apparently they did in real time) standing alone, together, I think the best results may actually be achieved by giving a quick reread to last High Holy Days' efforts (just scroll down)...

As always -- all feedback is welcome... more than usual, my words this year are meant to incite discussion and debate, and lead to meaningful action and growth. Shanah tovah!

High Holy Days 5772

Ayecka? Hineini! Aval Eifo Zeh? Toto…?!
Looking Backwards, Forward, and Around to Find Ourselves
In and At the New Year
A Sermon Series
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Rosh Hashanah Evening
Ayecka? Where are We? And How Did We Get Here?

We begin tonight, as we have begun in past years, by looking at the calendar. For 12 High Holy Days seasons now, you and I have shared a simple perspective-shifting truth – that regardless of the vagaries of the secular calendar, Rosh Hashanah (and indeed, all Jewish holidays) actually arrive right on time every year! But even I have to admit, that arriving right on time on the first of Tishri on the Hebrew calendar FEELS awfully late this year, given that it is the 28th of September!

But more than that, on Rosh Hashanah, we focus on the item that IS changing – the year itself. As a puzzle person, and would-be post-modern mystic, I love to look at the letters we use to denote the new year, to play with them, trying to find hidden meaning. In MOST years, even to me, the results of those efforts can seem somewhat forced and contrived. However, when I sat down to play this year, I was genuinely EXCITED by what I saw!

(TAKE OUT GRAPHIC #1) Our New Year, 5772, is written in Hebrew characters as tav shin ayin vet. The 5000 is assumed (sort of like the thousands place was assumed in referring to years in data storage on our computers prior to the Y2K hysteria!). Tav = 400, Shin = 300, Ayin = 70, and Vet = 2 – giving us the remaining 772.

Take those letters, shift them around a little, and you get (GRAPHIC #2) Sin (same as Shin in writing and numerical value), Vet, Ayin, Tav. Savata – an actual Hebrew word, and one, if we are good detectives and Hebrew students, that should actually sound familiar. We say it every time we recite Birkat HaMazon – the “grace after the meal.”
In fact, savata is a Biblical word, and the line that we sing in Birkat HaMazon is the repeat of that Biblical verse in which the word is found, which turns out to be the very reason why we recite Birkat HaMazon in the first place! The Biblical verse is Deuteronomy 8:10. Add the word “kakatuv” in front of this, and start humming to yourselves, and you may very well recognize it:

“V’akhalta v’savata, uveirakhta et Adonai Eloheikha – al ha’aretz hatovah asher Natan lakh.”

Sound familiar? Good. But now, what does it mean? Usually, we translate it something like this: “When you have eaten, and been satisfied, bless Adonai, your God, for the good land that God has given you.” Given this translation, we can easily see both how and why the verse inspired the tradition of Birkat HaMazon, and came to be included as part of the text.

However, there are a couple of issues with the usual translation, and what I think the verse really means happens to take us EXACTLY where I want us to explore and find ourselves on these Holy Days. Wait a second, Rabbi – are you telling us that your annual tenuous word play on the new Hebrew year actually is CONNECTED to the message you were going to preach anyway? What a shock!

I AM saying that – the connection is actually at the CORE of our discussion! One of the problematic words is savata. That is the word translated in the passive voice – “and been satisfied” – even though the verb is grammatically in the active voice. AFTER we do what we need to do to survive by feeding our hunger successfully – taking care of our animal needs – the text wants us to recognize that we still have one more task. We still need, at that point, to remember both our role AND God’s role -- as our Creator, and the source of our sustenance -- in the meal just completed! In other words, even as we remember to thank the true Source of our food, we are embracing being ACTORS in this drama we call life and survival, and acting to fulfill our needs ourselves!

Therefore, the voice we use SHOULD BE ACTIVE! But our translation is passive – we are being satisfied! But, grammarians, how do you make this verb active? “When you satisfy yourself?” Hebrew uses a different form for reflexive cases like this, and it is NOT used here! “When you satisfy?” Usually refers to others. Aha! This may be part of the issue.

Eating is intensely personal. So is the act of praying and thanking God for the food we have eaten and been satisfied by and asking God to send us other blessings (the OTHER problem with the usual translation – we do not bless God, who is the “Source of blessings,” rather” God blesses us; our prayers, our b’rakhot instead express our praise of God, our thanks to God, and our requests from God). Therefore, it would be natural to understand savata, falling between the other 2 verbs, in a similarly personal way. And there would even be great value in the use of the passive voice here, if it reminds us that ultimately we did not act to feed and satisfy ourselves, but rather, that it came from God!

But that important realization blinds us to the equally important reality of the Hebrew text, that the passive voice translation of savata fails to pick up for us – namely that our personal satisfaction and fulfillment when we eat cannot be separated from that of others. Before we can be satisfied ourselves, in the passive voice usually used in this verse’s translation, we must first satisfy – others – to make the grammar and mood of the verb and verse work! And to fulfill what is expected of us!

In this dichotomy, we get to a struggle which is moving to the front burner of the discussion of American spiritual life in general in our own time, namely, the phenomenon of the individualization of religiosity. I realized just how widespread this issue truly is, when I read an essay last month, written by a female Church of Christ minister, bemoaning the developing cliché in her life that is the response when people she meets casually, often on airplanes or at social events, find out that she is a minister. She summarizes this reaction as follows: “I am not a terribly religious person myself… I find God in a sunset.”

And then she went off on the response. I felt she was correct in both of her points. First, do people who feel this way about organized religious groups and practices really believe that we DON’T find God in a sunset when we gather to pray? And second, where is the challenge in embracing a spirituality, much less a theology, that is internally based, that you never take out in public to have challenged or have to defend?

Last High Holy Days, we used our three sermons to develop a new model and metaphor for the necessary role of the synagogue in our post-modern world. Its foundation was built on two triangles. The first, the traditional, particularistic Jewish “trinity” of the embrace of God, Torah, and the people of Israel as central in our unique Jewish identity. The second triangle, a more universal statement of human needs, that any group needs to help its members embrace and address in providing order and meaning for our lives. That triangle comprises legacy – the sense of building or being part of something that will outlast us and let those who come after us know that we were here; love – the awareness that we are respected, and cared for and about, and valued for who we are and what we believe and do; and relevance – that what we do here, and throughout our lives, has meaning and order because of our involvement here, and the way this colors our experience.

Assumed in that discussion was this more recent discussion that there actually IS still a value to participation in “organized religion.” I believe personally that this model we created last year demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that such a value still exists and is recognized by some, hopefully many. But this newer discussion may help those of us who understand better the value of belonging, to begin to see why this position does not yet enjoy wider acceptance from others.

And it is central as well to any meaningful discussion or application of the practical implications of our new model. To be able to offer our model to others, we cannot use “insider” language that we understand, but which those on the outside may not. We need to be able to translate our thoughts and beliefs into THEIR experience and language, to help them recognize that there is value TO THEM in getting involved with us.

In discussing this model throughout the year, I have come to realize that those who embrace it understand and value four particular concept words far better than those who find little or no value in the model. Those four concept words, therefore, become critical to our success in creating a working model of meaningful religious community for our time. That is the good news – we have identified the words.

Now for the bad news – we have a great deal of work to do to bridge the gap in our understandings of these words, and their importance and place in our lives; to be able to positively use them in conversation with other Jews to make our congregational family stronger; to demonstrate them by our actions. The reasons for the enormity of the challenge are not hard to find. Two, perhaps three, of these concept words will likely first strike our ears and our guts as sounding “Christian.” Two of them, for different reasons, have simply become “dirty words” in our day.

The words are (GRAPHIC #3): mission, service, sacrifice, faith. Each of these deserves its own sermon (and if these sermons ever get published, they will each get a chapter!) – helping us to understand what the words really mean in a religious context, particularly in a (Reform) Jewish one, and how they apply in our lives.

In the time I have left this evening, I would like to give a condensed version of those points for each word, to help us begin to reclaim them as the critical vocabulary by which our own personal religiosity can grow, and through which we will enlarge and strengthen our communal identity as a congregational family.

Mission has become a “bad word,” I believe, in large part because of its usage in business jargon, and the appropriate scorn THAT usage has received at the hand of the cartoon strip “Dilbert.” In other words, the reason we shrink from using this word in its proper Jewish religious context is because of how it has been misused elsewhere!

But, have we ever stopped to consider why a “mission statement” is called a mission statement? It tells others what those involved in our group think we are doing, and why we are doing it! As we will see, this is not far from the understanding we need to get back to!

For that matter, why is a (usually Christian) trip to an exotic locale called a Mission? I know, many of us think of Mormons with this usage of the word. The word is used not just because they are being sent out from their home base, but really because once they arrive, they are doing work connected to the group’s mission. Or try the language of John Belushi in the Blues Brothers, and we get even closer to where we need to be – “We’re on a mission from God – we can’t be stopped!”

And then go to the Hebrew – to be sent on a mission is to become a shaliach – to go on shlichut. The root is the same as the one Moses spoke over and over to Pharaoh – shalach et ami – best understood as “send my people out, so we may serve our God.” There are two kinds of shlichim – the ones sent from Israel to the diaspora to teach us about and better connect us to our spiritual homeland – their actions match those of the Mormon college kids “on mission.” The others are the Chabad, whose actions often seem to us to be more insidious, but in fact, are equally centered on sending out emissaries to spread the teachings of and connections to their community.

We Reform Jews may be scared away from embracing a sense of mission, because we don’t want to seem like Chabadniks or Mormons, who are usually seen as proactive proselytizers. But Rabbi Alexander Schindler, of blessed memory, gave us the proper example of Reform shlichut early in the development of outreach, a huge part of his personal legacy to the Jewish community.

He taught that we should not be standing on street corners, trying to bring in converts to the cause. But, he also hoped that we would all be so comfortable with our own identity as Reform Jews, and our understanding of the world, that we would be willing and able to share these with anyone who expressed a desire to learn more or to join us, because they felt THEIR religious identity did not provide this strong foundation in their lives.

Our historic mission is the prophetic mission. The prophets of the era of the Biblical kings and later were seen as being God’s mouthpieces, speaking a message of morality directly to the people, rather than through the priesthood or the kings. We, as Reform Jews embrace those prophetic messages, and seek to speak to the moral souls of our fellow Jews and human beings. This must be a process of active engagement, rather than passive, and in order to succeed, we must have that deep level of comfort in our Judaism.

Sacrifice has become a dirty word throughout society, but is best seen on the baseball field. Now that “Chicks dig the long ball” and home runs make the highlight reels and 9 figure contracts go to the guys who score the runs and knock them in, the strategy and skill of sacrificing your at bat to advance a teammate already on base, so your next teammate has a better chance of scoring him, long ago became a lost art.

Worse, too often in our modern world, an accurate assessment of how the Biblical system of sacrifices was supposed to work leads to a cynical misunderstanding that actually encourages the personalization of religiosity, rather than combating it. We explain the physical offerings of cattle or produce to God as being done to appease God, or to thank God, but with the ultimate goal of convincing God to give us something different of equal or greater value. That just sounds too close to the modern “What’s in it for me?” mentality we are trying to overcome.

No, sacrifice here simply means being willing to give something of ourselves for the “greater good” of something larger than ourselves. To do something that, in keeping with the Hebrew root meaning, draws us closer – to each other, to God, to our ideal selves. Sacrificing time away from family, or personal pursuits, to help our community grow, or even to improve our skills so that we have more to offer our community – these are the modern forms of sacrifice.

In truth, those who are able to do this personal, but selfless, calculus so that it makes sense, recognize that, as in the Biblical system, we ARE getting something better in return – a sense of contributing to the success of a community which gives meaning and value to their lives and supports them in good times and bad. BUT, that “internal only” understanding doesn’t translate well to the outside, in the “real world.” But, right now, I AM talking to us, the insiders, and this truth is perhaps the best way to help us to see the true value involved in sacrifice.

Service is another one of those words that sounds Christian to us from our own lack of usage, and is subject to misinterpretation. We think of the “Service hours” our children and grandchildren are obligated to do for school or scouts, of churches that advertise being “in service to the community.” We may even think about our own worship services, and too many of us think those drag on too long!

To better understand the Jewish concept of service, we have to look at Jewish history and the Hebrew language. Before there were worship services, there were sacrifices to God. Led by the priesthood, who served God. It was their work. Before there was a dynastic priesthood, there was a priesthood of the first-born of each family. And even after, Isaiah and others reminded us that God expects us all to be “a nation of priests, a holy people.”

The common root in all of these concept words is the Hebrew root for work. It is also the word for servitude – Moses is referred to, with this same root, as a “servant of God.” And HERE is where our Jewish understanding of service should be based – in acknowledging our need to find an outlet through which we feel that we are doing “God’s work,” to improve ourselves and the world around us. Even in a post-slavery era, where we are very glad to no longer be in servitude, we need to act more like we still are willing to serve God freely.

And finally, Faith. This may be the most difficult and controversial of all. It is certainly the most personal, and for that reason, needs to become a conduit for moving us back from ourselves into the life of the community. We watch Christians, especially Evangelicals and Catholics, even Muslims, willing to stand up and publicly proclaim their faith, or act on it, and that makes us even less comfortable doing the same.

But I believe our more basic discomfort comes from a general uncertainty in what we, both individually and collectively, believe about God, and how we believe IN God. Instead of acknowledging that human uncertainty, in ourselves and in others, many of us run from it. In the process, we run from God, just as Jonah mistakenly did, with equally empty results. And worse, that abdication leaves a tremendous void, which many of us choose to fill in the “church of the self.”

..We need stronger faith – in ourselves, in each other, and in God.
..This, in turn, will lead us to be more comfortable in feeling that we are acting in God’s service, and not just for our own narrow self-interests.
..That will allow us to be more comfortable making true sacrifices for the good of others – in ways that really WILL bring value back to us.
..And all this will give us a better sense of mission in our lives, strengthening our collective identities.

We stand here tonight on the edge of the new year, looking back at how we got here, and what we have learned along the way. May we come to recognize in the coming year that our ability to enjoy all of God’s gifts, and truly be satisfied by them is based in strengthening our embrace of these four truly core Jewish values, and sharing them with others. Only then can we remember to make sure that we are working for the satisfaction of the needs of others as well. Only then will we remember to thank God for all God’s gifts to us. Only then will the fulfillment of our hopes to be inscribed for another year in the book of blessing truly have value. KYR

Kol Nidre – Where are We? Finding Our Way in the Moment

It happened again this year. It is not the first time, by far. In fact, for those of us who pay close attention, it seems to happen more often than not. In the weeks leading up to our High Holy Days, we were visited first by an earthquake of almost unprecedented size; then by the remnants of a hurricane, and finally by the flooding connected to one of the rainiest Septembers in our region’s history. This is not the first time that natural disasters have dominated the headlines as we prepared ourselves to enter the sanctuary during our period of atonement seeking. Perhaps they struck a little – okay, a LOT – closer to home than usual. But the phenomenon is not new to us.

Every time it happens, my mind goes to the same liturgical text, and, as always, this time, I was repulsed in larger parts of my being. But this time, the discussion ALSO happened on the internet, where an atheist friend challenged me, the day after the hurricane passed, when I said I was sitting in my family room, watching out the back sliding door, admiring both the power and beauty of God manifest in nature.

By the time that dialogue was finished, I had been pushed to justify how I could believe in the beauty of God’s presence in nature, without also seeing the raw power as having some punitive aspect, in much the same way as some politicians claimed to be joking about God sending messages through these disasters to other elected leaders. Because of my annual struggle with our Holy Day liturgy, and particularly the Un’taneh Tokef that is the centerpiece added onto our T’fillah in the morning and afternoon services, I felt like I had an unfair advantage.

You all know exactly which words I struggle with, because many of you struggle with them, too. They are a part of those several paragraphs of English, with a couple of cantorial pieces thrown in as counterpoint, that begin “Let us declare the greatness of this day – it is awesome and full of dread.” And specifically, in the third of those paragraphs, after we listen to the soaring melody once again:

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed –
how many shall live, how many shall die;
Who shall live, and who shall die –
Who shall see ripe age, and who shall not.”

This concept, for many of us, as for my atheist friend, is difficult enough. On the one hand, the idea of God acting in all the roles of the court, as the liturgical poem lists off – judge, jury, prosecutor, and witness – is so central to our understanding of why we come into the sanctuary on this day, seeking to earn the Heavenly Court’s blessing for another year of life, that we are reassured of the legitimacy of the prayer.

But on the other hand, we apparently are then forced to confront, in these last words and those that follow, the idea that there is a converse to our desired outcome – that if we are judged unworthy, the opposite of continued life and blessing must become our lot. Even for the minority of us who do not have difficulty with this as an empirical truth – just as we accept that an essential element in recognizing our mortality is that we must, someday, die – adding a temporal frame and a clear sense of causality can and often does become hugely problematic.

I can accept that I will die, someday. I can admit that, as a human being, I am imperfect. It gets a little harder when I am asked to accept that the first truth might be a consequence of the second. It gets harder still when I am asked to accept that by a certain date and time, if I do not show sufficient improvement, I am condemning myself to that death in the coming year.

And yet, I think we CAN be a little more comfortable seeing these words as a product of an earlier time, even if, in doing so, we acknowledge that we find little personal meaning in them for our day. We can even identify the historical period in which these words found their liturgical relevance – Germany of the period of the Crusades, roughly 1000 years ago. And recognizing the historical setting, we can even, perhaps, understand the hyperbole of the words that follow in the liturgy – words which I have chosen to skip over for the last several years.

The words I, and we, now leave out are the litany of HOW those who are destined to die will die. “Who by fire, and who by water, who by sword, and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake, and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning…” Assuredly, for all but the most traditional of us, this is NOT our theology, not our world view.

The last thing we wanted to confront in the aftermath of an earthquake that literally shook the foundations of our creature comfort, was the possibility that the cause of the seismic event was God seeking to carry out one of the sentences of last Yom Kippur – if not on us, then on a neighbor. Likewise as we waited for the power to return, or struggled to bail out the water from our basements after Hurricane Irene, or the later week of torrential rains. Even less so, as we demonstrate our worthiness to be granted another year of blessings through such selfless behaviors as participating in the annual High Holy Day food drive, are we comfortable even considering the possibility that those most in need of the help we are providing are suffering because of Divine punishment for their misdeeds! Or worse, that others, like us, suffer for their acts!

In truth, if these words ever DID make sense of the senseless suffering of our ancestors nearly a thousand years ago, clearly they have lost most of their power over us today – even if the tag line that follows these most difficult verses still DOES work as a positive guide for us. For indeed, our presence here, our annual struggle with this prayer text, surely IS the proof that we do still believe that t’shuvah – the act of seeking atonement from each other and God, t’fillah – our ability to enter the sanctuary and offer sincere prayer from our heart and soul, not only today but throughout the year, and tz’dakah – our charitable behaviors based in our acceptance of God’s commanding role in our lives – can at least lessen the impact, if not spare us completely, from God’s negative verdict.

Simply put, while we find enough in this liturgical poem that still makes sense in our lives, the pieces that no longer do make sense miss so badly that they force us to question, and have forced me to edit, albeit uneasily. And the reason for this complex theological struggle is equally simple – the words that trouble us do not represent the world we live in or the lives that we seek to live TODAY.

More than anything else, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters occurring in close proximity to these days – in our present tense – remind us how these words are not reflective of our present reality. And more than anything else, our focus tonight is on the here and now.

On Rosh Hashanah, our hope for the year still unknown pushes us to look back to the year we now can evaluate. As we move further into this Day of Atonement, our hopes rise for another year, and we begin to look forward to what might be. On this night, we are between those two, locked into admitting who we are, warts and all, AT THIS MOMENT.

Un’taneh Tokef IS so challenging that my teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, has written and edited an entire volume of struggles with these 39 verses. I highly recommend it, as much for what it teaches us about not being alone in our struggling, as for the incredible diversity of voices expressing how they try to address the challenges of this text.

In his introduction, Hoffman raises a somewhat complex, but intriguing approach, developed by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. According to Ricouer, for most of us, our religious sophistication and understanding are on a primary level. Perhaps we have come to recognize, as we have with this prayer, that it no longer works for us. Our natural reaction is to begin to question, in a more wholesale manner, whether ANYTHING in liturgy still works for us. But how many of us have worked through our natural wholesale skepticism, and brought our more sophisticated adult world view back to these texts we came to doubt, to develop a “more mature understanding of religion.” Ricouer calls this level a “second naivete,” to distinguish from the “first naivete” of that primary level at which we started to understand religion.

One of the examples Hoffman brings may make this even easier for us to understand and embrace. A child begins with a dependence upon and worship of their parents, which is eventually challenged by the awareness that our parents are NOT perfect. In adolescence we rebel, often ignoring or even trashing our parents, undervaluing their knowledge and experience, sometimes even their love and caring for us. Hopefully, eventually, in a healthy relationship, we reach that mature “second naivete” in our relationship with them, growing to understand them, and put our faith in them once again.

Remember this concept, as we move forward. For on this night, as we begin to make our individual cases before God for continued life and blessing – even if we are still in a rebellious phase of our religious formation, and have some questions about God’s role – we must, as a matter of consequence, also answer collectively for the state of the world in which we live.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that God created us as part of the Creation, but gave us, as human beings, an exalted role as shepherd and superintendent over the rest of Creation. This is a great responsibility, but also a singular honor. And therefore, it seems to me, part of what we assuredly are judged on, in addition to our individual actions on a personal and interpersonal level, is our role, our personal actions and inactions, on a global scale as well. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, of South Africa, one of the clearest moral voices of our lifetime, once said, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Surely that statement was significantly influenced by his personal experience on the wrong end of the rod of apartheid. But equally clearly, his words confirm that we do all have a role in what we as Jews call tikkun olam b’sheim Adonai – the repair of our world in God’s name. Furthermore, his words indict us for our silence and inaction at those times when our hearts and souls cry out that something needs to be done.

A look at the daily headlines makes pretty clear to us that there is much in our world today that needs to be changed, many areas in which our relative inaction must be atoned for, and seen as continuing, if not contributing to, the problems. Just 2 Friday nights ago, I again brought to the attention of our community the case of Troy Davis, who was executed for supposedly murdering a police officer in Savannah, Georgia. In a case in which there were large questions raised from the very moment of his being named as the leading suspect, when no murder weapon was found, no DNA evidence gathered, exculpatory evidence was not shared with his lawyers, when it was ASSUMED that he did it, rather than questioned as to whether he did, and when 7 of the 9 alleged eyewitnesses whose words convicted him later recanted their testimony, each claiming they were threatened with arrest on perjury charges if they changed their stories – despite all these glaring questions, and 21 years since his conviction to allow a thorough review, which apparently never occurred, no justice of the Georgia Supreme Court or the Supreme Court of the United States found a reason to intervene and stop his execution. When I first brought his case to our attention, several years ago, there was time for people of conscience to act – and many of us did. Two weeks ago, I was mourning his execution, and the fact that even if what seemed obvious to me and a million others could now be proven true, it is too late to bring justice in the case.

Cases like this suggest to me that part of the reason that most of us do NOT do more to live up to Archbishop Tutu’s words, to the ideals of our tradition of tikkun olam, is that most of us are in that adolescent rebellious state of formation when it comes to issues like this on the national or global scale. We have recognized that the system no longer works as it should, and worse, had too many examples like this where even the best efforts of too many good people go for naught, that it causes us to doubt if the system can even be salvaged. We have not yet reached that “second naivete” in which our mature world view allows us to come back to what we have been forced to abandon from our rosy childhood view, and find value and chances for resolution.

We vote for candidates that run on platforms of “change,” because we recognize the desperate need for change in how our country is run and does business, and cares for our citizens. But we feel helpless to otherwise bring about change where it is needed – in the systems that lead to stalemate instead of solutions, that block new ideas that allow us to grow and evolve. We feel powerless and small in the face of international corporations and billionaires, whose money and power give them access to influence those who are supposed to be working for our best interests. We watch politicians play political games of chicken that risk plunging our nation and our world into the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression, while claiming to be acting for that greater good – as only they and their rich and powerful supporters see it – instead of seeking real and needed solutions.

And as a result, it is easy to point the finger of blame at others, to feel that there is nothing we can do, to curse the darkness, rather than looking for the light. Justified response, to be sure, but not terribly useful in actually improving the situation. And one which is an abdication of our responsibility as Jews.

How can a fellow Jew look the innocent victims of Hurricane Irene square in the eye and insist that before they can get the FEMA assistance they need in order to recover, that so many others have benefitted from in the past, equivalent savings must be found in the government budget? How can a fellow Jew insist that those funds be taken from other social safety net programs, because “when we have a problem in our families, we tighten our belts and deal with it”?

Yet, when Rep. Eric Cantor said those very words, where were we, as Jews, standing up to speak truth to power? Or calling his threatening of others’ recovery in this way the violation of the commandments we will reread tomorrow that it surely is, namely not to place a stumbling block before the blind, or stand idle while our neighbors bleed, especially after fighting harder than anyone else to get that same FEMA money when it was HIS constituents that needed it? Or making clear that, in OUR family, when someone is in need, we first ask what we can do, and only THEN figure out how to pay to make the help real? And more than that, where were we demanding ACTION, and not just decrying the iniquity?

And when, as so tragically happened just this week, in an Israel that tonight, more than perhaps EVER before, needs our support, understanding, and effort on the world stage, people who call themselves Jews, who frequently challenge the legitimacy of other forms of Jewish belief and practice, attack a Muslim mosque, and burn it to the ground, scrawling words like “revenge” on it first, or attack Israeli soldiers sent to keep the peace, where are the Jewish voices decrying these as the pogrom and sacrilege they most certainly are? I am proud of the leaders of our Reform movement for decrying the attack on the mosque, prouder that we have set up a fund to help rebuild the mosque as a symbol of our support for innocent victims who are not Jews. But somehow, even this does not seem to be enough of a response for me.

In his letters from the Birmingham Jail, at the height of the civil rights movement in this country, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people." Sadly, it appears that his words, like those of Desmond Tutu, still ring true and unanswered in our day.

And yet, on this night, I stand before you, extremely concerned, but not without hope. Since last we appeared before God on Yom Kippur, our world has witnessed the so-called “Arab spring,” still ongoing in many places, in which, simple people like you and like me finally stood up and demanded an end to tyranny and repression, insisted on having a voice that leads to action in determining their own fate in their own countries. The efforts of that “Arab spring” transferred over within Israel to a summer of grass roots protests that started with college students and recent graduates, demanding more affordable housing options, and spread at its height to a half million Israelis, speaking Jewish truth in search of better treatment by their own government.

And now, with the arrival of fall, it seems as if that frustration that led and is leading to violence in the Arab world, and to peaceful, if mostly ineffectual, protest in Israel, may now have arrived on our shores. What started as a movement to “Occupy Wall Street,” by individuals upset that the needs of Main Street are being sacrificed to protect the entitlements of Wall Street, is spreading to Washington, DC and other areas of our country. It is still too early to know what, if any, meaningful change this effort may achieve, or even how the movement will evolve. But it is a start, and therefore I am hopeful.

However, if the banner I saw being carried by one young woman protestor is any indication, there is more than reason for hope. The banner read “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” I believe the quote is actually a lyric from Jimim Hendrix. So hopeful, so positive, so seemingly simple and obvious. Has this woman reached her level of “second naivete” before the rest of us when it comes to such matters? Or has she not yet fully left behind her “first naivete”? We cannot be sure. But we can take pride that, even as we sit here tonight, in the comfort of our sanctuary away from home, Kol Nidrei has been chanted, and Yom Kippur services have been held out on the street as part of the Occupy Wall Street protest demonstrations. Maybe we as Jews do have a leading role to play in reclaiming America for all Americans!

So as we struggle tomorrow with the words of Un’taneh Tokef, as we struggle to express our true contrition and atonement, and to grant forgiveness to those who seek it from us, in this moment of the here and now, let us remember to look beyond the walls of our own congregational life. Let us pledge not to be dismayed, not to lose faith, and if we do, to struggle to regain a more mature faith that leads us toward reaching a level of “second naivete.” One that is achieved by learning from the past, and rediscovering faith and hope for the future. One that allows us to work for meaningful and needed change not only within ourselves, our liturgy, and our community, but indeed, for our nation and our world. Nothing less can ensure that the life that we hope to be blessed to continue enjoying in the coming year will have the meaning we want and need it to have. KYR

Yom Kippur Morning – Where are We? Where are We Going? And How Do We Get There?

So, here we are, once again. It is Yom Kippur morning – continuation of, arguably, the holiest day of our year. Even more assuredly, for most of us, today is the most physically challenging day of our year, as we fast, in an effort to purify our bodies as well as our souls, as we stand before God to make our case for inclusion in the Book of Life and Blessing for another year. Both needing to make that case, as well as making the case itself, make this as spiritually challenging a day as it is a physical challenge.

So, naturally, I want to begin today by talking about weddings. Oh, and Chanukkah, too!

As a Rabbi, I have the privilege of sharing in the lives of an incredible group of individuals – the members of the Temple Solel “family,” their extended families and friends. This sharing comes on both the communal level, on occasions such as this Yom Kippur day, and also on the individual level.

Sharing on the individual level takes many forms. It can be benign – running into each other in the supermarket, or while listening to the Crayfish. It can run in one direction, when I call upon a member of the congregation for their expertise, or in the other, when one of us brings a question to their Rabbi. It can come on the most difficult days of our lives – as we sit with a sick friend or relative, or, God forbid, as we mourn their passing. But it can also come on the best days – the birth of a child or grandchild, or celebrating as they become bar or bat mitzvah.

Or – at a wedding. My role on those days is to perform the ceremony, and provide just enough gravitas, so that the state will recognize the couple’s union, and their family and friends will know that they truly are married, before going off to celebrate appropriately. And I often join in that mitzvah of rejoicing with bride and groom after the ceremony.

When I sit with a couple to plan their joyous day, I run through the basic service. I explain to them, as I explain during the service, that the ritual basically has three parts. The first part celebrates the path that has brought them to this moment. The exchange of rings and vows is the here and now. The last portion looks to their future as a family.

These High Holy Days work similarly. On Rosh Hashanah, indeed for all of the month of Elul that precedes it, as we prepare ourselves to seek atonement, we look back and evaluate where we have been - what we have done in reaching this season. Last night, as we listened to the lofty melody of Kol Nidrei – more than just an insurance policy against human failings in the year to come, in that it is also our admission of the human frailty and imperfections we live with daily -- we were very much thinking and acting in the present tense. On both of those occasions, the power of the moment, and our needs, can make our mood more pessimistic than we might otherwise be comfortable with, as we struggle to work through our needed atonement efforts, and our admission of our human flaws. Seeing clearly what we have done or not done that has harmed others, or admitting our imperfections, not as some abstract concept, but in real time, can have that effect.

But now, this morning, even as our ultimate fate in the New Year may still be in doubt, we already look into this New Year, at the future that awaits us. Our mood becomes more hopeful as the vision takes shape.

And so it is that, on this Yom Kippur morning, I want to turn us to our collective future. In early 2012, roughly mid-year of this 5772, Temple Solel will mark the 48th anniversary of our beginnings as a congregation. Which means that 5774 will mark our congregation’s Jubilee year, our 50th anniversary. A time worthy of great celebration, to be sure. And, to be sure, we will celebrate extensively throughout that year.

We read, in Leviticus 25, all about the rituals of the Jubilee year. In Biblical times as well, every 50th year was a huge communal celebration. It was a time in which even the land was given a break from working, when even those in servitude were released from their bonds. THIS is the context of the quotation from Leviticus 25 that is famously found on the Liberty Bell, at the insistence of America’s Founding Fathers: Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.

The Jubilee year was proclaimed on Yom Kippur of that year, by the sounding of the Shofar. Since we have a significantly larger crowd at this moment than we will at the conclusion of the N’eilah service later today, forgive me please if I move forward the pronouncement of the beginning of our Jubilee celebration by a few hours in the day!

But wait, I can hear you saying – why should we care about a few hours when I am also moving that announcement forward by a full two years. I do so with solid grounding and motives. As we note every year on Rosh Hashanah, in the old days, even after our religious leaders had the experience along with mathematical and scientific awareness to accurately forecast the arrival of the NEXT New Year’s moment from the knowledge of this year’s, they STILL required that the new moon of each month be witnessed, reported to, and affirmed by the Sanhedrin.
That obligation, which limited the lead time on announcing and planning of holy days, is no longer observed, allowing us to start earlier.

Furthermore, as we start to think about what the celebrations of that 50th year will look like, the wedding model comes back to mind. We will, of course, celebrate the occasion in fine style. But, in getting there, wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate the moment by looking back in pride to how we got here; by looking with hope to a bright future? It seems to be the perfect time for us also to stop and figure out exactly who we have been, who we are, and who we wish to be as a congregational family, as part of that celebration. That effort will be extensive, and assuredly will require more than a single year to complete properly. And since that effort will embrace both our history and our dreams of the future, and not merely the celebration of the moment, why not start a couple of years early, and plan to extend a couple of years beyond our 50th as well.

And so, this morning, we begin an undertaking that our leadership has called “Mission 50.” It will be a 5 year effort, designed to evaluate who we are, what we do, how and why we do it, as a congregational family. We will look at our history, to understand what has been, even as we dream of what we hope our congregational family will become.

At the center of this effort, lighting the spiritual guiding light of each of the focal points that will make up Mission 50, is that 50th anniversary itself, the joyous celebrations of who we are and what we have already accomplished. In that respect, our Jubilee will serve the same function as the shammash – the candle that lights the others on our Chanukiyot each winter! The one which, by sharing its light in a meaningful way, allows the physical and spiritual light to increase throughout our celebration of Chanukkah. And wouldn’t you know that Mission 50 just happens to have 8 distinct points of emphasis!!

Just as the shammash lights the way, giving life to the other lights of the Chanukiyah, and in the process, has its reach broadened, its spiritual power increased, it is our hope that Mission 50, triggered by our Jubilee celebration, will ring as loudly and clearly as the Liberty Bell rang in the new era of Independence for the colonies; ushering in a time of spiritual growth for each member of our congregational family, and for the congregation as a whole. By choosing to include in our celebration the opportunity to redefine who we are and what we seek to achieve and be, we hope to make our 50th anniversary that much more of a legacy to the first half century of Solel’s life, a more loving and meaningful celebration of whom and of what we have already become.

The 8 focal points of Mission 50 have been identified over the course of many years of efforts and energy on the part of the leadership of this congregation. There is no correlation between past efforts or lack thereof, or their success or failure in any of these areas, and their inclusion as part of the plan. Indeed, in many cases, we have deliberately chosen to take areas that are working, and attempt to build from strength to even greater strength.

The 8 “candles” of Mission 50, as we visualize it at the start, will be:

1. Mission and Vision – Our leading efforts in this area will include: reviewing our current Mission statement (copies of which are available on the table outside with other important materials); updating it 11 years later to catch up with changes that have already occurred and those we deem to be needed; fleshing it out with greater detail and specifics that will make it easier for us to utilize the document as a practical guide to all that we do programmatically, spiritually, educationally, communally, and even administratively and fiscally.

2. Governance and Leadership – Beginning from two points of reflection, we will work to improve the quality of our congregational leadership. We will undertake a review of our board and committee structure, to make sure we are best utilizing our human leadership resources, and to ensure that the “system” doesn’t interfere with our leaders’ ability to lead. This will include exploring ways to strengthen ALL our auxiliary groups and tighten our working relationships, to remove redundancies and points of contradiction. And we will develop an organized system to identify and train future leaders BEFORE the nominating committee calls them and asks them to serve as leaders, so our leaders are better prepared to lead.

3. Finance – We will undertake a comprehensive review of our finances from top to bottom, including our fundraising efforts, to improve and streamline our practices and policies, and make sure that we are on solid financial footing for the future, while also making sure that we are placing appropriate expectations on ALL members of our community to support ourselves as best we can.

4. Education – This is one of those areas in which we are building from strength. It is also an area in which much has changed around us, and will be changing, beyond our ability to prevent it from doing so, in how we do what we do so well. We will continue to evaluate our curriculum, and our teacher recruitment and development, to make sure that we have the best teachers utilizing the best techniques and materials. We will examine the evolving role of a supplemental Reform religious school like we run here, to see what else is possible and necessary without watering down what we are doing well already. We will emphasize the development of a “youth culture” that extends beyond the classroom and coordinates formal and informal educational opportunities, like junior choir, camps and youth group programs. We will rededicate ourselves to the active pursuit of the goal of lifelong Jewish learning, creating opportunities for every member to participate at a comfortable and appropriate level. And, we will look at how we can continue to provide these essential programs and services, affordably, under the best leadership possible, while keeping a finger on the pulse of the ever-changing world of Jewish education.

5. Membership – We will continue to explore how we can best get our “brand” out there in the forms and locations that are most likely to be seen by those who will become our future members. We will develop strategies to help all our members become more comfortable in their membership, more willing to give back through greater involvement; and learn to “close the deal ” better with more prospective members. This effort will also work closely with the effort to evaluate our…

6. Communications – Here, we will look at how we can best get our activities out into the public eye, and how we communicate with our members and prospective members directly and most effectively, particularly in the ever-evolving realm of technology. As part of this effort, we will look at those areas of the larger community in which we are already involved, and recognized for our involvement, as a way to leverage that involvement to create more awareness of Temple Solel.

7. Facility – None of this can happen unless our brick and mortar home is strong, and appropriately maintained and equipped. The focus here will be on evaluating whether we are currently best meeting our need to do so, and what it will take in the short, medium and long term to get up to speed and stay up-to-date and up to code. Among the items that we expect to confront in this area is how we can better utilize the building, both as a source of revenue, and as the setting for our growing programs, given the limits of our physical space.

8. Program – This last area (not temporally nor in importance) will evaluate and co-ordinate the entire overall program of activities at Temple Solel for balance, and to identify areas which we have been overlooking or underserving. It will look at both the macro and micro issues of our program, as well as finding the balance between specifically Jewish programs that only we can provide, and broader external programs in which our involvement and support would further our mission. As the only Jewish institution in Bowie, the only Reform congregation in Prince George’s County, serving a larger membership circumference than ever before, we need to find ways to become the “virtual JCC” that we often talk about being without weakening our existing strengths and programs, and within the realities of our tangible resources.

In short, when fully realized, Mission 50 seeks to ensure that our Jubilee anniversary celebration is both spirited and spiritual, that the congregation that emerges from that celebration is even stronger than the one which will begin it. We seek to build on the literal foundations that are the legacy of our founders and the first two generations of our leadership and members, to build a spiritual communal home that, even more than it already does, will work to make sure that our children and grandchildren, along with every one of us, feels the love and appreciation from being involved, gains the sense of order and relevance from our participation, and has the opportunity to leave behind something of ourselves as a legacy for those who will follow after us. A community and congregational family that fosters Jewish wellness, that embodies Isaiah’s clarion call to us to be a “light unto the nations” through our involvement in programs that better the entire community of which we are a part, and that uniquely and without question is identifiable as not only being Jewish, but as acting on the teachings of Judaism for EVERYONE’S betterment.

This will not be easy. But it can be done. All it will take is every one of us buying into the vision, every one of us committing to the effort, every one of us finding the niche within which we want to make our involvement felt – both in the work of Mission 50 over the next 5 years, and in the congregation that emerges from our efforts.

I am happy to announce today, as well, that the first piece of this complex jigsaw puzzle, the “Mission Statement Review Committee” will be forming in the coming weeks, under the leadership of our Executive Vice-President, Gary Worthman. I also expect that we will all soon be hearing officially from the members of our Board of Trustees, who will be in contact with us to get our initial commitment to be involved in one of the 8 candles on Mission 50 menorah, as we seek to celebrate rededication to our synagogue as our communal home, much as Judah Maccabee and his followers did over 2000 years ago.

In this way, the marriage between our congregation and our individual members will grow from strength to strength. I can think of no better way to demonstrate to ourselves, to our children, to each other, and to God on this Atonement Day that we are serious in our commitment to growing from the actions of our past, atoning for any mistakes we have made, and working hard to correct ourselves in the future. KYR

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Time to Heal, A Time to Mourn ... Even if Not the Death of an Enemy

A Time to Heal, A Time to Mourn… Even If Not the Death of an Enemy

My 17 year old daughter came bounding downstairs at about 10:45 PM, which was the first hint that anything was out of the ordinary. “Why aren’t you watching the news? Something big is going on…” Even she did not know exactly what yet, even though her cyber-world (I thought she was sleeping!) was already abuzz….

She grabbed the clicker, and flipped to Fox News – not for political reasons, but because it was the one station showing news at that hour in the regular listings. I chuckled to myself in amazement later when I remembered this moment – that with all she has lived through in her own life, with the political awareness about news media that she gained during the last presidential campaign, it STILL didn’t dawn on her that if whatever was going on really was that big that EVERYONE would have gone to news reports, and she did not need to turn to Fox (and did they REALLY misspeak at one point and refer to the death of OBAMA!?). But also, that NEITHER of us, at that critical moment, instinctively turned to the internet, or even CNN! Broadcast network news was the choice…

Within a minute, we heard the words that neither of us could have imagined. “Osama is dead.” Very few words passed between us, as we both struggled to process what we were seeing and hearing, awaiting the official word from the President. We remarked at the irony of the raid coming on the anniversary of the “Mission Accomplished” speech 8 years ago. We wondered how this would affect the troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and their mission. And before I get into the deeper issues, let me say this up front – major kudos to those who planned and implemented this raid so successfully. It is nice to be able to be as proud of a well-done American military action as I have many times been of their Israeli counterparts! And by extension, let this serve as a reminder for us to thank ALL those who serve to protect us!

I could be wrong, but I believe she was struggling as I was, looking for the proper emotion in that moment. Clearly, this will be one of those touchstone moments that she already has too many of in her life – 9/11, the snipers shooting Iran Brown in front of Tasker MS in Bowie in 2002, Obama’s election and inauguration, and now this. It will, no doubt, be seen as significant, even if history comes to recognize how little real impact it may have as we move forward. Symbolic value is important, and valuable at a moment like this in our nation’s history. The closure bin Laden’s death represents for many is a large part of their, and our national, healing. However, it was necessary for a REAL life to be taken by force in order for this sense of pride to be brought to the surface.

Clearly, it was correct to be happy and proud. After all, our country’s foreign policy for nearly the last decade has been predicated on finding and removing this man from influence, as we have been told that he was responsible for planning and ordering the events of 9/11/01, and the deaths of some 3000 innocent Americans.

In the 10 years since, hundreds of thousands of American’s lives have been directly impacted, as they, or their friends and family, have been sent overseas to participate in the search, and the corollary military activities connected to it. Many have died, more have been injured. Families have been separated, lives have been changed by the experience. This mission, and its success – especially with no apparent collateral damage to our own operatives or innocent bystanders -- were the ultimate vindication of their sacrifices and efforts.

And yet, there was no obvious way to express that pride, that relief that the long-awaited outcome had been achieved. And there was a tinge of pride in my own heart when I thought I recognized Emily’s struggle as well. After all, how do we rejoice at a death, even of one as despised as bin Laden? (Sadly, I was only partly accurate in judging WHY she struggled to find the right emotion, but if anything, hearing her share her own reasons only STRENGTHENED my own difficulty!)

Don’t misunderstand me. I am as proud for my country as anyone who spontaneously chanted “USA” during the critical moments of a baseball game last night, as the news spread like wildfire through the stands, passed from one smartphone to another (another sign of just how much our world has changed, foundationally!), shared by fans who otherwise had spent the entire game not talking to each other; as instinctively as glad as anyone who joined the flash mobs outside the White House and at Ground Zero (and apparently, on college campuses across the country) in the middle of the night -- that bin Laden will no longer be able to influence others to hate Americans for being Americans.
However, I hope I am not the only Jew who remembers Palestinians cheering the SCUD missiles as they flew towards Israel, or American who watched as Arabs in many countries cheered as the Twin Towers burned and collapsed. We bristled at their callous disregard for human life when the celebration was at our expense. How we can we ignore the truth that there is some similar element that, if not intended by our celebrations, certainly will be perceived by our enemies in our joy.

One of my colleagues (who I like too much as a person to identify by name here) has posted about our celebration of Chanukkah, “We have an entire holiday celebrating the destruction of the Greeks - it's called Hannukah! We may not celebrate our enemy's death, but we sure celebrate the end of their life! I am joyous about OBL's end of terror as I was about Arafat's, Hussein's, Pol Pot, etc.”

Those of you who know me well know that I disagree completely with his reading of Chanukkah’s message, and even with his assertion that it is about the “destruction” of the (Syrian-) Greeks. I DO, however, accept and agree his last statement – I am just not sure how he gets there from what comes before it. And, in the process, he shows what can happen when we fail to learn the lessons of our tradition…

Maybe it is the close calendric proximity to our annual Passover seders that made my mind jump so quickly to THAT festival instead, but the death of an enemy, even one so despised and seemingly deserving as bin Laden, is STILL the death of a human being. And THAT is made clear at the seder! We spill 10 drops of wine, more than symbolically, in the midst of that annual participatory drama, to remind ourselves that the death, even the suffering, of others MUST limit our own rejoicing, EVEN AT ACHIEVING FREEDOM from the oppressor!

As my friend Stephen Brickman reminded his many friends on Facebook at the height of the celebrating (and took a huge amount of heat for doing so!), our Jewish tradition tells a remarkable story about the celebration at our Redemption at the Sea. The men began to sing and dance a song of praise to God for their deliverance – we sing it still today as part of our liturgy as “Mi Khamokhah.” The Biblical text, usually silent on the behavior and words that came from the women, here tells us that even the women, following the lead of Moses’ sister, Miriam, sang and danced and played instruments in praise and joy as well.

Seeing this, the Rabbinic midrash picks up the story, God’s ministering angels began to sing and dance as well. God immediately chastised them, reminding them of two critical truths. First, that the angels were not, themselves, saved at the Sea like the people were, so that their own lack of personal investment did not justify their singing and dancing in joy. Even more so as, second, because of their position and detachment, the angels should have realized that the deaths of the Egyptians which were necessary to achieve this result SHOULD have prevented them from rejoicing.

The moral of this story is clear – those who have been delivered, whether from slavery or danger, DO have the right to celebrate their own personal salvation. However, even those closest to them – removed either by physical or temporal proximity – are expected to maintain perspective and respect the loss of life involved.

It was my colleague and friend, Rabbi Peter Rigler, who pulled and posted the quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that came even closer to what I was feeling…

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

As I read those words that I had learned before, I began to pull into focus the several items that were bothering me. None of which, by the way, was that bin Laden is dead, although, perhaps, it should have been.

I understand that we, as Americans, are better off for having killed him than we would have been if we had captured him alive, as we did with Saddam Hussein. The questions of where and how to bring bin Laden to trial, where to keep him incarcerated for his safety and that of innocent others, the likelihood that someone would eventually be motivated to try to either kill him themselves or rescue him need neither be asked nor answered this way.

However, there are a couple of issues that MUST be answered before I, and other good people, can be completely comfortable with what has happened. First and foremost, the same level of professionalism and commitment to task that was shown in killing bin Laden yesterday needs to continue to be shown by ALL those on the front line – including TSA and Homeland Security -- as we brace for the inevitable backlash. And that includes all of us as Americans. “See something, say something” must become more than a cute catch phrase, but rather, a natural response. If we believe what we have been told for several years, that al-Qaeda today is far more diversified and decentralized, then even bin Laden’s death does NOT put them out of business. However, it COULD easily set in motion plans that have been long-practiced for what to do in response to his death….

Second, we need to hear, in clear and unambiguous terms, why it was necessary to issue a kill order that was carried out within the borders of a foreign sovereign nation. We need to hear that it was carried out with the full knowledge, if not cooperation, of the host nation. Otherwise, we need to hear conclusively why gaining their involvement and support would have endangered our mission. And, while we are at it, when the dust settles, we probably need to re-evaluate our relationship with the host government, given where and at what level of luxury it turns out bin Laden was living this whole time, as we searched the rugged hill country for him. It now seems highly unlikely that his whereabouts were totally unknown to our alleged allies….

Third, in order to maintain good will with the Islamic world, which is already predisposed to lean away from America, and to avoid widespread conspiracist speculation about wagging the dog, we need to be provided with incontrovertible proof that the person we killed really was Osama bin Laden, and that Osama bin Laden really is dead. Here, especially, the kill order works against us, as it denies us the undeniable proof of watching his “perp walk” into custody.

Again, I understand why we felt it necessary and valuable to immediately bury bin Laden at sea. By doing so, we avoid the potential nightmare of an organized raid succeeding at capturing his body, and by dumping him at sea, we remove the potential of any land area becoming a shrine to his martyrdom (assuming that there will be no tangible remnant left at the site of his compound, and that it will be turned over to others to rebuild and repopulate). How ironic that the comparison here is to the death and burial of our own Moses!

And I appreciate our government’s claims that the sea burial was done according to Islamic law and sensibilities. However, like a sea burial within Judaism, such an action is NOT the norm, and leaves our government and military open to complaints that we failed to respect sensibilities, even as it seems clear that we DID try to act with respect in death to one who showed none to us in life.

It also raises the possibility of increased questioning of whether the body that was weighted down in a shroud and “eased into the sea,” was, in fact, that of bin Laden. And lest this sound like I am endorsing the conspiracy theorists of both extremes, with whom I rarely seek or find common ground or comfort, let me point out that the voices I am hearing raising these concerns already are NOT extreme voices. They are well respected mainstream voices.

But worst of all, I have an abiding concern that no one can now address because bin Laden is dead. Even greater than the REAL source of Emily’s discomfort – which she claimed is a cynicism as to whether his death will actually change anything (I AM so proud!).

Because she followed that answer with a resounding “He needs to be dead.” And in that sentiment, expressed equally unequivocally by so many in these first 24 hours, lies my worst fears. It is an embrace of the Wild West mentality that was at the heart of the “Bush Doctrine” that guided the search for bin Laden. We were told in the first hours of the “War on Terror” that bin Laden was wanted, in the words of the cliché, “dead or alive.”

Rather than following the teachings of Judaism and of Dr. King, we have played into emotion and pandered to our least common denominator reactions, lowering ourselves to the level of those who would attack us, rather than maintaining the high ground and behaving in a way which would make western democracy something to be respected and copied, rather than targeted.

Rather than trusting the court of law, we sent out a posse to enforce the verdict of the court of public opinion. We have been told from the beginning that Osama bin Laden, as the leader of al-Qaeda, was responsible for the events of 9/11 and many other atrocities. However, HOW DO WE KNOW that this is an accurate claim? After all, at the risk of stooping to what some might claim is a cheap shot, those making the claim of bin Laden’s culpability are the same folks who wanted the world to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq!

And now, a kill order, successfully carried out, and a burial at sea of the body, have removed ALL chances of any normative investigation of the man or his actions. While I will NOT go so far as some of my colleagues have, and completely ignore what has happened since 1993 (the first attempt at taking down the Twin Towers), or bin Laden's public posturings of hate directed at America and the West that are a total abomination of the Islamic tradition he purported to respect and follow, by including his name in our prayers for the dead this week, I am, nevertheless, deeply concerned that our own response -- in our public behaviors AND our government's official responses and actions -- needs to be EXACTLY right. And so far, it has not been. This is NOT America’s finest hour, and I do not need Dr. King or the sacred texts of my tradition to know that, and to know it clearly enough to be willing to stand up and say it loudly and clearly even while the visceral celebrations are still dying down.

Therefore, we NEED our government, now that bin Laden IS dead, to publicly present the FULL case that they would have presented in a court of law to gain a conviction of bin Laden for crimes against our country and against humanity. NOTHING LESS will stand a chance of succeeding in winning the battle in the court of public opinion, which is the only possible venue remaining in which this case can be made.

In saying it, I do NOT disrespect the military folks who did their job and did it well. I do NOT belittle the sense of closure that bin Laden’s death (I pray) brings to every survivor of a victim of 9/11, every family member who lost a soldier in the War on Terror or who is nursing one back to health, and to our country as a whole. Those are two categories of my fellow Americans who continue to be in my prayers every day.

In saying it, I refuse to take sides in the inevitable battle over political legacy as to just whose victory this is. Because the truth is that this victory is NOT George Bush’s. NEITHER is it Barack Obama’s. The truth is, that we do not even know yet just how significant a victory this will turn out to be in reality, or even if it will be! But whatever victory it is needs to be a victory for the IDEALS that America was built on, the VALUES that make us strong, or else it is no victory. It needs to be a victory for America and ALL Americans!

And I say it to question where we, as a country, lost our moral compass. Where we went off the tracks and became no better than those who would attack us. I say it as the inheritor of the generation of protestors in the 60s who spoke out to criticize our government as a statement of our respect and love for what our nation and our government are suppose to represent and believe, with the hope of getting us back ON track! I say it as a proud, but troubled American, who believes “My country, even WHEN it is wrong!” rather than “My country – right or wrong!”

Of course, I recognize that simply by saying it, I can fully expect to draw the wrath of those whose chauvinism and jingoism has replaced their moral compass, those whose myopia and ego have lessened us in the eyes of the rest of the world as a country, a world power, and a force for good and justice, and, in the process, severely weakened us in reality; those who think character attacks and yelling can drown out reasoned and principled argument and debate.

And that is a price that I am more than willing to pay, in part because if I am not willing to do so, then no one else should or will be either. Because, in this case, the Bush Doctrine’s Wild West mentality is correct – if I am not part of the solution, then I am part of the problem.

And while only time will allow me to know for sure just how big a moment Sunday night really was, I know with an absolute certainty that as Yom HaSho’ah – Holocaust Memorial Day – drew to a close at sunset, that I wanted, no – I NEEDED – to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. Nothing else is good enough!

And I am incredibly relieved that as Tuesday morning has dawned, the tone is already changing. Jingoistic shouts of joy at the death of an enemy are being replaced, slowly but surely, by expressions of recognition of the complexities of the moment, and laments of just how much America and Americans HAVE been changed – and still are – by 9/11, as reflected in our public responses to bin Laden’s death

So celebrate a proud moment of closure and a “victory” for our country if it feels right. But remember what it took to achieve that victory, and look at that not only through our eyes, but through those of others. And move past the visceral reaction that blocks our ability to follow our true selves in our hearts and souls as quickly as possible. Then, when the celebrations die down, join with me in the REAL battle for America’s future – the internal one that only we can wage for our nation’s soul. The victims of 9/11 and their families deserve no less. The brave men and women of our armed forces and first responders and their families deserve no less. Our children and grandchildren deserve no less. WE deserve no less!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Responding to the Irresponsible -- Beck PT I

The following text appeared on my facebook page today -- Thank you to Joel Wanger for posting it for his friends to see:

Jewish Funds For Justice: Glenn Beck's Apology Is "Not Enough"
February 24, 2011 12:46 pm ET by Media Matters staff

Jewish Funds For Justice today released the following response to Glenn Beck's apology for his attacks on Reform Judaism (I apologize that, as usual, the links did not transfer -- I HIGHLY recommend that you DO follow Beck's advice this far, and "do your own homework" -- go to my facebook page,, where this link is now my status; click on the link to the JFJ response, and then click on the links to find the original slur, the responses, and Beck's "apology"):


Glenn Beck's apology for comparing Reform Judaism to "Radicalized Islam" is welcome but incomplete. While we are heartened to hear him recognize his ignorance, he still has not acknowledged that the letter signed by 400 rabbis and organized by Jewish Funds for Justice represented a cross-section of denominations, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal rabbis.

Glenn Beck's characterization of Reform Judaism is in keeping with his longstanding hostility toward people who see their faith linked to pursuing the common good. This was made clear in March of 2010, when Mr. Beck advised people to leave their churches if their clergy spoke about social justice.

Mr. Beck's demonization of his political opponents is a regular feature of his radio and television shows. This problem is systemic. His remarks about Reform Jews are only the most recent example of the attacks that occur daily on Beck's show.

We reiterate our call for Rupert Murdoch to end Mr. Beck's tenure at Fox News and for Salem Communications to commit not to add his syndicated radio show to their New York stations. Anything short of this reflects an unwillingness to take seriously the harm Mr. Beck causes to many in our community and beyond.

And they are right -- he KNEW he had to apologize, and as you listen to (or even read the transcript of) his words, it is CLEAR that he is not apologizing for what he said, or slandering people in their beliefs and actions, but making excuses for himself and WHY it happened. He NEVER uses the word Reform, never makes a positive or accurate comment to countermand the lies of the other day. Contrary to his contention, this is the radio equivalent of burying it on page 2 -- if you didn't here the original or know the context, you would have no idea wtf he is apologizing FOR! In the end, he apologized to Abe Foxman!! Who was not slandered in the first place, but provided yet another subtle Beckist jab at his "favorites" if you have followed the story.

To do, accurately, what he did, possibly by mistake the other day, this "apology" is the equivalent to the bad old days when Arafat would mutter the right buzzwords in English, and the Arabic, in context, was clearly inciting his followers to keep up the good fight!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

In Their Own Words -- Again

Since I didn't preach (at least, not officially) last Shabbat, and I am trying to give my readers what to read anyway, here are two VERY different essays worthy of our thoughts and consideration.

The first is an extremely thought provoking piece about the state of life and the economy in America today, and how we got to where we are today. Regardless of whether you find this amusing or a cheap shot, I challenge you to move beyond the biases of your own positions and contemplate the data presented carefully:

The second is not as universal in scope. But it will probably hit those of you who are part of a religious community, especially a synagogue (like mine), just as hard as the first. Again, it is easy to throw counter arguments to almost every point. I would love to see some empirical evidence that embracing this philosophy in practical terms DOES lead to the desired results. But again, move past the biases and listen to the words....

And please -- the fun in blogs like today's comes from the thoughtful exchange of reactions -- it is called debate, and it leads us to fine tune our own thoughts and ideas :)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gifts from the Heart

Gifts of the Heart – A Sermon for T’rumah February 4, 2011
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Of course, it happened again. It always happens! Just never like this!

Those of you who were here last Shabbat heard my admission of a near faux pas of major proportion, when I realized, at 6 PM on Friday at the conclusion of a long and challenging week, that the sermon I had written was actually based on the WRONG Torah portion (the one we read tonight, not the one for last Shabbat!). I promised that, since the other materials I included were not time bound, that I would give that sermon this Shabbat. A sermon entitled “On Being Prepared, Not Rushing In, Gifts of the Heart, and the Power of Words.”

Shoulda known better! EVERY time I have a sermon done in advance, something comes up and makes me chuck the original right out the window. The handshake on the White House lawn. September 11. The DC sniper. But NOTHING could have prepared me for this week’s version of the Rabbi’s corollary to Murphy’s Law. NOTHING!

When the phone rang at about 1 PM on Tuesday, and Elizabeth told me it was Emily, the odds were real good that something was wrong. She was in the middle of student teaching – she shouldn’t be calling. Even with that awareness, confirmed when I heard the shaking in her voice even before I heard her say a word, the words still struck me like a ton of bricks. “Koomar just called. Mitch died this morning.”

Koomar (NOT his real name, but a beloved nickname – no slur here) is a friend from camp. Mitch is as well. The son of two Rabbis of whom I am quite fond. The best friend of Emily’s boyfriend. A really good 17 year old kid. The kind who, if they found him dead with an empty bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, and an empty pill bottle in the other, your first reaction would be to ask whose idea of a sick joke was it to put those there, rather than inferring cause and effect. NOT the subject of a sentence whose predicate is “died this morning.”

This was every parent’s nightmare; every Rabbi’s challenge. Inconceivable. Impossible. And, as I discovered after making a few phone calls as Emily drove to the Temple, absolutely true. Apparently, he was discovered unconscious that morning in his home. As the autopsy seems to have confirmed, without warning, his heart just stopped beating.

There was, plain and simply, absolutely no way to make any sense of this moment. No chance of finding words to comfort my somewhat hysterical daughter. Not as a Rabbi, anyway. I resorted to Dad mode, as I held her tight, and shared her pain, and helped her deal with the news herself, even as she tried to help Kumar and Sam deal as well. For that moment, it was all I had to offer. I hoped it was enough.

So, there I was yesterday morning, driving with Emily (and Evan and John, who also knew Mitch) to northern New Jersey to say goodbye and help bury Mitch. To help his parents and family deal with the inconceivable. To be the Rabbi Steve that the Harlam family needed me to be, and that I needed to be to get some sense of normalcy back. All while I silently struggled myself to make sense of it all, and continued to fail miserably.

The turnout was predictably overwhelming. Camp friends. Fellow Rabbis. His school friends. His parents’ work colleagues. Family friends and relatives. All, it seemed, going through the same struggle – HOW? WHY?

Major kudos to my colleague – Rabbi Steve Kushner – for handling the impossible challenge of this funeral. His eulogy was BRILLIANT – it clearly showed his close relationship and sincere affection and respect for Mitch; it started, in some small way, to put Mitch’s death, and life, into some perspective; it allowed us all to begin to heal a bit. As I said to a couple of friends afterwards, “I hope, when I grow up, to be able to deliver a eulogy that powerful – once.”

Part of his message was to tie his eulogy to our Torah portion, T’rumah. To note, very accurately, how much of Mitch’s life was a display of his willingness and ability to share freely the gifts of his heart, just as the start of our portion instructs Moses to have the Israelites bring the gifts of their hearts in order to build God’s house in our midst. In that single, insightful teaching, Rabbi Kushner also provided the ironic twist that made all the rest of his words work, that at least for me, began the process of understanding and healing, at least of providing context and an ability to believe that there could have been order in all this.

Why were there upwards of 900 people sitting and standing to hear these powerful words? Many, to be sure, were there because of the impact Mitch had had on them, even in his short life of 17 years. Many were there, offering the gifts of their hearts to his grieving family. But almost all of us were there, at least in part, seeking a sense of meaning in this tragic, inexplicable death, for ourselves.

If Judaism’s teaching is correct, and I still believe that it is, that death is simply the last act of our life on this earth – unavoidable, and not to be feared – then what more profound proof of God’s order and presence, even in the seemingly incomprehensible moments of confronting loss, than to have the circumstances of one’s death mirror how they lived their lives. If Mitch had to die at 17, after giving so much from his heart, how else should he go than by having his heart just stop? No matter how non-sensical it seems to the rest of us!

And Rabbi Kushner shared one other piece of wisdom as well. He acknowledged that many of us were mourning the premature passing of a young man with such potential for a future that now would not be. Without criticizing us, he reminded us how much Mitch had achieved, even in such a short time, and encouraged us to focus on the accomplishments that were real, rather than the fantasy of what might have been had he lived. He redirected us to Mitch’s life, not his death! And he did so as much or more with his example as with his words!

As I drove home, I pondered the power of that truth. I tried to find a way to distill that piece of wisdom out, as a valuable teaching for this Shabbat. I came up with the following:

[take out bottle] I place before us, for all to see, this bottle, with some liquid in it. Deliberately, the amount of liquid is well less than half the capacity of the bottle, lest we fall into the classic philosophical debate as to whether the bottle is half-full or half-empty. Because Kushner’s truth, demonstrated by Mitch’s life, is even more profound than that!

Most of us would either dismiss this bottle, especially if it were one of many in the refrigerator, for one of two reasons. With no label, it is unclear what the contents are. It might turn out to be a flavor we don’t like, or even, possibly, something not intended for consumption. But even more likely, most of us would dismiss this bottle, as lacking enough content to be able to serve the needs of quenching our thirst.

In the latter case, whether we realize or not, our perception of what IS in the bottle is shaped by what is not. In the former case, the inability to identify the contents is the key to our behavior. In the case of the death of a 17 year old, we naturally focus on what is not – the expected life that will not be lived – at the expense of the what is. We have difficulty fully identifying his ability to quench our thirsts and satisfy our needs for failure to comprehend exactly what he was and what he offered.

But, suppose I place this same bottle in front of a homeless person on the street, or a wanderer stranded in the desert or on a deserted island? Will either of those concerns that inhibited us from drinking the contents of this bottle apply in that case? Probably not!

We simply didn’t allow ourselves to fully recognize the gift that Mitch was in life. Not even those of us who admired and respected and knew him so well. Because none of us expected that Monday would be his last day among us! It took his death to shake our reality, and make us question so much, before we could be fully open to seeing what was in the bottle of his life as valuable. We needed Rabbi Kushner to focus us back on what was – his life, and not on what wasn’t – his death!

Wednesday night, as I taught our Confirmation class while still attempting to make sense of Mitch’s death, I was somewhat unfair to our kids. I held them up to Mitch’s example. I used his death in juxtaposition to their lives, as I asked them to try to express who they are as Jews today. Of course they came up short – because why should any of them sense the urgency of that moment? I am fairly sure Mitch didn’t spend Monday any differently than most other days. How many of us know when our last day will be? None of us! Isn’t that the point of Rabbi Hillel’s injunction to repent on the day before our death? That BECAUSE we don’t know when that will be, we should end each day with our karmic and cosmic accounts in order, in case it IS our last? And therefore, by extension, seek to accomplish all that we can each day!?

But was I really being unfair? As the Harlam family shared a meal after the service, to help each other adjust to the new reality of life after Mitch, I sat with the supervisor of our CIT program this summer – the program Mitch was in last summer. We know that we need to address Mitch’s death at some point, and how we could teach positive lessons from it. We began to form the outline of something that could keep Mitch’s memory alive and positive in the camp family.

By the time I got home, I had decided what I needed to say tonight. I needed to share with my Solel mishpachah the lesson I was blessed to learn with my Harlam family yesterday about the giving of gifts from the heart, and the beauty of being able to do so every day of our lives – for as long as we are fortunate enough to have our lives last.

But, I also remembered something else, which I offer as just ONE example of how some of us already DO both offer those gifts from our hearts, and get something back for our sharing as well. I remembered that I promised our Torah study group that I would take advantage of tonight being the night when we lap our Jewish selves for this year. When our continuing exploration of the Torah text, in serial fashion, picking up each week where we left off last week, and letting the discussion take us WHEREVER it will, is caught and passed by our annual cycle of weekly Torah readings in the sanctuary.

Because two weeks ago I challenged them to reach out, and bring even more people to the table. Not because we NEED greater numbers. But rather, because those who have become the core regulars get so much out of our participation, and we recognize the value of what we gain and its potential to empower others in our family, and seek to share.

For me, the beauty and power of our Torah study group is its mechanics. A group of us get together every Shabbat morning, and sit around a selection from our sacred text tradition. We do not listen to our Rabbi spout his wisdom (or demonstrate his lack thereof). Rather, we each bring to the discussion our own knowledge, experience, and world view. We do not always all agree. We do, however, all respect the opinions of the others, and their knowledge and experience – the gifts of their hearts and minds that they freely share with us. Our ultimate understandings, and our ability to apply what we learn to the lives we are trying to live, are shaped far more by these gifts brought by the group members, than they are by those specifically brought by me.

This example, this model, is powerful in its own right – hence our desire to share the experience with others. Please, do not let the fact that there is a core of regulars scare you off! Do not be afraid that you are jumping into this in the middle of something, that you start at a disadvantage. The more voices we have at the table, the greater the depth and diversity of experience, the more gifts being offered freely from more hearts, the more likely we all will be to benefit from what emerges.
And this model is also what we should be aiming for in all that we do together as a congregational family. It is already how we come together on Shabbat in prayer – sharing our unique experiences, needs, and desires with others, to help them, even as in so doing, we help ourselves. We do so in our social action work, in even more obvious and tangible ways. Let us also strive to do so in our membership recruitment and integration, making newcomers feel welcome at the table by sharing ourselves with them, and valuing what they bring to us.

As Rabbi Kushner taught us all yesterday, what we need to strive for is to be Mitch – not by seeking to take the place of one who has now been taken from us, but rather by following his example. By smiling – always. By being ourselves – our best selves – and seeing others as being their best. By sharing the gifts of our hearts, freely, willingly, in all that we do. Not by trying, but by being.

As a congregation, by finding more metaphorical tables to sit around together with others. More texts – both those written in sacred scrolls and those written instead by the blood, sweat, laughter and tears of our real life experiences – to gather around and grapple with together.

And to be aware in our lives, without being overwhelmed by the darkness of this awareness, that none of us knows when our last day will be on this earth. And therefore, to live our lives, especially our Jewish lives, with a little more urgency, a little more intentionality, a little more passion, a little more awareness of who we are as Jews, and what makes us Jewish.

If THESE are the gifts of our hearts that we share freely, then the structure we build in our midst to parallel the Tabernacle of our Torah reading for this Shabbat, the one that allows God to dwell both amongst us collectively, and within us, individually and collectively, will be one that strengthens all our lives, and the lives of those around us. In good times and in bad.

Thank you, Rabbi Kushner, for guiding me to this understanding, as you helped us all to deal with Mitch’s life and death appropriately. Thank you Mitch, and by extension to your entire family, for living your life in a way that is now a text for all of us to learn from. I am only sorry it took not being able to thank you in person for me to learn this lesson. KYR