Rosh Hashanah day 1

RH Day 1 5778 2017 Rosh Hashanah

Sep 21, 2017

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation Agudas Israel

A few weeks ago, our nation was seemingly united. All around the country people were making plans for a big event. People drove hundreds of miles to find the perfect spot. They woke up early, with tremendous enthusiasm to get to where they wanted to go–to get into the path of totality–to see a total solar eclipse. While those looking for the eclipse are not exactly the same as Abraham and Isaac, I think there are a few parallels. Over this season, I will use the phases of the eclipse to think about the phases of our lives and the impact we can make on the world and ourselves this holiday season. This morning, I think about our preparations. How do they inspire us? How do they help us find our passions amidst the noise of this world.

I admit, I’m not an astronomer, but like many of you, I dabbled a little bit this year. I learned that there are several phases. The eclipse begins with first contact, when the moon starts blocking the disk of the sun. It continues to totality/maximum eclipse. The eclipse ends followed by the end of the partial eclipse. As I thought about these phases, I thought how it really describes our decision making processes, and our lives. The eclipse is really a microcosm of our world and our lives.

In our Torah reading this morning, God kept a promise with Abraham and Sarah. They were blessed with a new child, Isaac. Tomorrow we read of the Akedah, how God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Yet today, we find Sarah asks Abraham to sacrifice his son–Ishmael. Both times Abraham takes his son out early in the morning. The rabbinic commentators use this to remind us to be eager to do mitzvot. We should not wait until day’s end. We should pray at the earliest opportunity. We should offer our thanks at the earliest opportunity. We should offer our praise and love to others at the earliest opportunity. Maybe we should have our coffee at the earliest opportunity!

The big preparation for most of us was finding eclipse glasses. We all know that looking at the sun is bad for our eyes, that it can cause permanent damage, but the challenge is that during an eclipse, we might not feel the pain that we feel when we normally look at the bright sun. There is no physical reminder to look away opening up the possibility for real, permanent damage. Yet for some, there was more than just the glasses. They booked special trips–even the Secretary of the Treasury realized it would be a good day to visit Fort Knox–and just happened to have time to check out the eclipse with Senator McConnell.

Towns and cities in the path of the eclipse saw huge spikes in interest and potential revenue. Farmers rented their fields out for tremendous sums as eclipse viewing spot. Even my father’s patients called their appointments that day to ensure that they would be able to see this “once in a lifetime experience.” A couple towns almost made themselves eclipse tourist venues, hoping for a shot at revitalizing lackluster towns but then realized they had no hotels to house guests, no restaurants to feed them and no police to protect their citizens. For other places, it was a frenzy.

It is not just the eclipse though. Last week Apple announced a whole slew of new products. How many of us will be getting them when they are made of available? How about Samsung or Microsoft or Tesla or BMW or Mercedes? We love the newest and greatest. We love to show that we are part of the IN crowd. We all love to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Because at the end of the day, these things really are like religions. They can become are our idols. Think how much we, our children, our friends look up to our teenage musical idols–whether they are the Beatles, Billy Joel, or whatever it is the kids these days listen to!

I have to give a lot of respect to Fiona Apple. At 19, in 1997 she gave a very strange Best New Artist speech at MTV awards. Speaking about her fellow pop idols she said, and pardon my french, “This world is bullshit,” she said. “You shouldn’t model your life on what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself.” And then she thanked her mom.

Now I know nineteen year olds are known for calling out the emperors with no clothes, but her words still resonate today. They make me wonder about the difference between the frenzy and real passion, real drive, real motivation. How do we know the difference between the fad that will quickly burn out and that which truly lasts?

As Jews, we have signs that tell us the difference between this year’s’ Beanie Babies or Fidget Spinners and the Torah. One is the Torah itself! We have been given the greatest gift the world has ever known–no, not the iphone X. The Torah, our established Jewish traditions, are a tremendous gift to humankind and to us. Helping create a moral foundation, reminding us of the importance of respect, humility, humanity and treating the stranger and immigrant well.

No less than thirty-six times are we commanded not to ill-treat the stranger. No less than thirty-six times are we required to look after those around us. Is it any surprise that the community that has been kicked out of more countries looks out for refugees? Is it a surprise that the community that has been poorly treated by so many around the world is the first to show up at every disaster? Is it any surprise that rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and Jews from all across the country are the first to call out hatred, bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiments in our beloved United States of America.

Israel has a plane fully loaded with supplies ready for any natural disaster. It can be wheels up before the storm has passed. While now called simply HIAS, the organization began as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, looking out for Jewish refugees from Europe and around the world. Today it uses its expertise to make a difference for anyone in need of help. Why do these organizations exist? Why does Israel help anyone and everyone?

Because these are Jewish values. This is our Torah. We are commanded to keep kosher, to keep Shabbat, to come together today. We are also commanded to love our neighbor, to help the stranger, to protect the widow and the orphan. These commands are not either/or. Simplistically, we live in a world where some Jews are focused on one set of those commands and some are focused on the other. To be a CONSERVATIVE JEW, is to know that BOTH are relevant to us.

We were founded to CONSERVE our traditions but also to modernize them. Our forebears knew that talking about waiting three hours after eating meat before dairy wasn’t going to win them tons of new adherents, but that discussing eating a salad in the diner might! We are Jews who do not desire to live in ghettos or in isolated communities. We want to be among and a part of our broader communities. Yet we cannot forget our stories. We cannot forget what makes us unique.

Here our Torah values our somewhat countercultural. They tell us that it is not enough to fight for justice for all. It is not enough to fight for Israel. We must fight as Jews. It is not enough to eat matzah ball soup. It is not enough to pay Chabad to do Jewish for us. We must play a role ourselves.

Our American society tells us that we are bunch of disparate individuals, but our Jewish roots teach us that we are all connected. We are a nation of peoples, with traditions and customs to share. Right now we live in a time of great division, yet our Torah teaches us the importance of unity. This past week, Rabbi Freedman, Stefanie Kostenblatt and I, worked hard to demonstrate that. Rather than our traditional Selichot service, we invited the entire community to join us. We heard from pastors and ministers, chaplains and teachers. We had an imam share words from the Muslim tradition, a voice from the Bahai, and even a gospel choir on this bimah. Afterwards, barriers were broken over cookies and cake. It was not just a kumbayah moment. It was a powerful lesson of what we can accomplish together–and of our Jewish leadership. We organized this to protest racism and hatred, to acknowledge that we all have a role to play in allowing it to fester. As Jews, we must speak out. We spoke out BECAUSE of our Torah.

קידושין מ׳ ב

היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד

נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול

נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול נענה ר”ע ואמר תלמוד גדול

נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza’s house, in Lydda,

when this question was raised before them: Is study greater, or practice?

Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: “Practice is greater.”

Rabbi Akiva answered saying: “Study is great, for it leads to practice.”

Then they all answered and said: “Study is greater, for it leads to action.”

Study is greater because it leads to action. We cannot be ignorant. We must know our texts. We must know our history. We must know and live our Torah. Yet, we cannot just sit inside these walls. We must go out and share the love we learn. We must go out and teach. We must go out and work.

This is the seventh time I stand before you. In the last few years we have accomplished much together. We have found new connections to our tradition. We have learned about Jewish law. We have studied Torah and our ancient traditions. We have discussed what ancient practices can bring meaning to our lives. Most importantly, I have seen a real growth in the connections between members and a great improvement in our prayer lives.

What are our hopes for the next seven years? Membership growth is always important, but I want to see growth of our members. I want you to feel more connected. I want you to know that you have partners in the other members of the community. I want you to have the ritual skills to feel comfortable walking into any synagogue in the world and not to feel out of place. I want you to be voices of peace and love in our local community and on the national stage. I want you to know that you are never alone as a Jew, that from birth to death and beyond you are a part of something greater. I want you to know that whatever your thoughts on the Holy One, God is the Most Moved Mover, ready to hear your voice and to respond–although not always in the ways you expect. I want you to know that no matter what today or tomorrow looks like, we live in a world of miracles, that hope is essential the the Jewish neshama, to our souls and to our lives. I want you to know that passion for our traditions will inspire every aspect of those lives, that Jewish ritual, ethics, ideals are not just some fly-by-night internet guru, but a source of love, hope and meaning, now and always.

Lshanah Tovah!

Inclusion is a Jewish Value

This morning I studied Mishnah Rosh Hashanah at my favorite local cafe– 2Alices Coffee shop.  I met friends from our community and around the county to discuss Torah and think about the upcoming holidays.  Of course, every Tuesday when we meet our conversation expands beyond the texts, but sometimes I am struck by the depth of these primary sources.

The first chapter of Mishnah Rosh Hashanah begins with a discussion of the various New Years on the Jewish calendars, but then digresses into the procedures for recognizing and announcing the new month.  While less relevant today with a fixed calendar, the principles are fascinating.  Since an accurate calendar determined whether fast days and feast days were at the appropriate time, one could even violate Shabbat to get to Jerusalem and inform the Court that the new moon had been spotted.  The last (ninth) mishnah of the chapter opens with a powerful point about equality:

מִי שֶׁרָאָה אֶת הַחֹדֶשׁ וְאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לְהַלֵּךְ, מוֹלִיכִין אוֹתוֹ עַל הַחֲמוֹר, אֲפִלּוּ בְמִטָּה.

One who has seen the new moon [on Shabbat], but is unable to walk [to the court to give evidence], must be brought mounted on an ass or even [carried by others] in a bed.

(Text from Sefaria.org)

 

The permission to travel on Shabbat, to be a witness, is not limited to the able-bodied.  ANYONE and EVERYONE who saw the moon MUST go to Jerusalem.  Everyone has a voice.  Any technology they need to assist them–donkey, carrying by others–is permitted and required to be used.  These technologies are not seen as violating Shabbat but assisting the person with the mitzvah.

It does not take a rabbinic genius to see the connection to the modern world.  An electric wheelchair, a hearing aid, other mobility implements are all clearly permitted on Shabbat.  A sacred priniciple in our tradition is kvod habriot, respect for others.The particulars of each of those cases are even discussed in Orthodox halachic literature.

For example: http://www.zomet.org.il/eng/?CategoryID=198&ArticleID=409 regarding electric wheelchairs and http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/english/journal/sandler-1.htm regarding hearing aids.

One organization that has worked very hard for inclusion for people with disabilities is the Ruderman Foundation: http://rudermanfoundation.org/programs/disability-inclusion/  Partnering with United Synagogue, they have helped many communities evaluate their physical structures and community attitudes to be more inclusive: http://www.uscj.org/LeadingKehilla/Accessibility/InclusionInitiative/defaulhttps://photos.google.com/photo/AF1QipMlY51hHGuantWrQHvBzIbxGQYetJGDTHl8oQVSt.aspx

At the end of the day, I return to the beginning–what can we do to ensure that every person who enters our doors has access to our community and is truly welcomed?  We know we have work to do.  I look forward to continuing the process of inclusion with you.

Elul continued

Every day is a winding road, said Sheryl Crow and the Beatles.

 

Life changes in ways we are never quite prepared for. As a hurricane visits friends and family, making their lives more challenging, it reminds us of the hurricanes we have overcome.

 

When tragedy strikes what do we do? Do we hide or fight? Do we help or ignore? It is interesting that some senators and representatives who did not want to support Hurricane Sandy relief suddenly want federal help for Harvey. Should we ask our representatives to ignore them or offer our assistance? As much as revenge is a dish best served cold, I think there is only one answer. We must do the right thing. We must offer our hand to our neighbors and friends. Should they be punished for having representatives who make cruel and vicious choices?

 

In this time of hope, as we march towards Rosh Hashanah, we must try to forgive.

 

I’d love your thoughts. Please respond in the comments-as long as you aren’t selling viagra!

The true meaning of Shabbat

We are blessed to be having company for Shabbat dinner this week.  We will be asking our guests questions as part of https://onetable.org/togetheratthetable/

We will find a positive spin on the craziness that has been this week.  Shabbat is a gift to us.  It is an opportunity to be apart rather than a part of the regular news cycle.  It is a time to separate from all that drives us berserk and allow ourselves time to recover.

This week let us find calm.  Let us find peace.  Let us find Shalom.

The root of Shalom is Shalem, שלם meaning wholeness.  When we find true peace, we feel ourselves a little more whole.

Tonight we are having a dinner that blends east and west.  We will have Sesame Chicken, Veggie Lo Mein, challah, brownies.  The recipes are Americanized versions of Asian, Jewish, and wherever brownies came from cuisine.  I think it will be delicious.  When we come together, we can create new opportunities.  Blending these different elments and flavors is not just a hodgepodge, but a statement of identity.  It is a reminder that we all look different.  We all come from different places, but we can find ways to sit down together.  We can talk to one another.  We can love one another.

Shabbat Shalom!

Working and celebrating together

This past Friday night we celebrated Aloha Shabbat together.

With the support of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, the Newburgh JCC organized a beautiful Shabbat dinner. Grilled chicken skewers, salads and more helped bring TBJ and CAI together. Beautiful music from Ross Levy inspired us all.

Rabbi Freedman reminded us what a blessing it is to work together. Too often we live in a society divided. Politics, religion and stubbornness push us apart. We forget our shared values-even among Am Yisrael-among the Jewish people.

Yet here in Newburgh, we find ways to work together. We celebrate our differences and even find time to pray together!

Across our denominational lines, we made beautiful music. We recognized the unity of the Holy One. We sang; we danced; we ate!

Thanks to the blessing of all coming together, finding a moment of unity in a seemingly discordant world. These are the moments that will help us build a peaceful future. When we can come together under one tent, we can find beauty and love.

The world really does change in a moment-and you are a part of it!

Comfort my people

Nachamu, Nachamu Ami…
Listen here for Neshama Carlebach's beautiful rendition of the opening of this week's haftorah:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFAFOQlBCmw&list=PLPQFCYsbHfHEawXD4VCyKZS8eVyvIz57j

Comfort me, comfort my people opens this week's haftorah. After Tisha B'Av, we remind ourselves that we are counting down to Rosh Hashanah, to the opportunity of redemption, repentance, tshuvah, and the resulting forgiveness. How often do we think about our capability for change?

So often we live in a world that assumes our own immutability. We see the world around us and even ourselves as static. We say you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

And yet, and yet, and yet our tradition says the opposite. Our counter-cultural Jewish tradition reminds us that we ALWAYS have the capability to change. It doesn't matter if we are 4 or 104. We can choose our destiny. We have the free will to create new opportunities for ourselves. We can hit reset-right now.

As you listen to Neshama's beautiful rendition of her father's song, think about what you are going to work on this year. Don't get trapped into thinking your life is what it is today. What small steps will you take? What big steps will they lead to? Are you satisfied with yourself and the world around or can you make new partnerships to improve both?

Shabbat shalom a wee bit early!

Destruction and rebirth

Observing Tisha B'Av and its accompanying fast is far too rare in this modern world. It is a commemoration observed mid-summer, when people are away and children are at camp. In fact, it is only at camp that many Jewish children ever hear of this holy day. Yet the day can be one of the most meaningful, giving us a time to mourn the losses of our history.

Tisha B'Av commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. Remembering the holy site where the Jewish people once had the opportunity to unite and worship together, we read the Book of Lamentations by candlelight. Sitting on the floor we find the past feels more present. The mournful chanting of the short book, of Eicha, shows us how brutal and terrible life can be. Yet when we look around the world, we see that for too many, the world is still brutal and terrible.

For almost two thousand years, it was incredibly difficult for Jews to return to their holy cities. Israel was off limits for most Jews. The journey was too difficult; the conditions too challenging; the borders closes.

Today we can book a flight and stay in five star hotels. Jewish sovereignty seems reborn. It is incredibly hopeful.

Yet we still see violence. The last few weeks have seen great contention at our most holy sites. Peace still seems distant, yet calm appears briefly.

As we fast (or not) tonight and tomorrow, let us pray for peace. Let us hope that the days to come will see true cooperation. The glimmers of hope are there. Redemption seems possible. Let us play our roles and work toward it.

Peace will come with faith and work.

Vows and Oaths–the Israeli Dream edition

Note: These were my notes for Parshat Mattot-Maasei.  The spoken version rarely coincides with what I wrote, but it should give you an idea of my thought process!

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה Hashem׃

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the LORD has commanded:

אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽHashem אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃

If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

 

Our parsha opens with these sacred words.  The rabbis are very concerned about vows and oaths.  They strongly discourage us from taking them, noting in the Talmud that the Nazir, like Samson, the one who refuses hair cuts and wine, must offer a sin offering at the end of his vow.  The following verses detail how women’s vows are limited; that fathers and husbands can annul their daughters’ and spouses’ vows.  While patriarchal and seemingly sexist, it shows a deep discomfort with the concept of vows themselves.

 

While in other weeks, I have spoke about the concept of shalom bayit, of peace in the home, and how that might seem to occasionally supercede complete honesty; the arc of our tradition shows us over and over again that words matter.  Unlike many of our politicians who seem not to know truth if it smacks them in the face, who make campaign promises they have no intention of keeping, our Torah teaches us that our word must be true.

 

Words are incredibly powerful.  According to Bershit, it is with words that the Holy One created this world.  There are Talmudic stories of people who throw themselves in fiery furnaces to avoid embarrassing another person with their words.  There are many books on Lashon Hara and Motzi Shem Ra, discouraging us from gossip or even sharing painful truths about one another–words are powerful.  All these books show us that even a flippant comment can be dangerous to the wellbeing of others–I know I can be guilty of this!

 

I have been told that in the diamond district, many deals are sealed with a handshake and a “Mazel and Brocha”.  No contract need be signed, because the trust in that community is so strong, the word of one Jew to another is inviolable.  While I cannot attest to the reliability of those deals, I have heard that these words are stronger than any contract.  Is the same true for us?
This week we conclude the wanderings in the wilderness.  Next week we read from Devarim, as Moshe Rabbenu will help us be sure of our commands before we enter the land.  The parsha opens with concerns about vows, with concerns about words and their power.  As we prepare to enter Israel, we are envisioning a perfect society.  As such we are building it peacefully with a reminder of the importance of the truth!  We must be honest!

How do we soar?

The Blue Angels flying over my house during the 2017 NY Air Show

Some weeks just knock you for a loop. This week I found myself in the ER, in pretty terrible pain. Family members had major medical procedures, kids were sick. In between moaning on the couch, I officiated at three different funerals this week. One I had to ask for help–I just couldn’t move.

How do we know when to ask for help and when we can fight through the pain? While it is a judgement call, I see Parshat Pinchas offering us a little help. Pinchas is most well known because of a particularly violent act. He took justice into his hands and killed two people who were flagrantly violating communal and Gd-given laws. When the parshiot were divided, this act was separated from the parsha that bears his name. The rabbis were uncomfortable including it there. Instead, the parsha opens with a ceremony around his covenant of peace, a peace that is not perfect, because of the violence he had committed.

Our tradition believes in the rule of law–but this rule includes the right to a fair trial. Too often we hear stories of vigilante justice, of someone who took the law into his or her own hands. That is a tragedy for all involved–both for the one who tried to bring justice and the one who was harmed. Our American system works when we all have trust in it. For that to work, we must all believe we have a fair stake, a fair shot.

When everyone has opportunity to live their lives, to not be afraid, then we are truly making progress. Then, we can all soar!

Pinchas’ mistake was not asking for help. When he took matters into his own hands, he did not give the community time to act together. Maybe it was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t the right way to do it. The criminals deserved a fair trial. Pinchas denied that to them.

In our own lives, how often do we ask for help when we need it? How often do we wait until we absolutely have no other choice?

I know that I am guilty of this.  I frequently do things myself that I should delegate.  The personal events of this week remind me that we ALL need help.  None of us can act alone.  That’s what it means to be part of a community.  That’s how we can soar.

Gratitude: the intersection of faith, politics and psychology

The other day I was catching up on my podcasts, listening to Freakonomics with the title “Why is my life so hard?” http://freakonomics.com/podcast/why-is-my-life-so-hard/

Using psychological research called the headwinds-tailwinds asymmetry, they spoke about how many people find their lives more difficult than they need to be. We frequently discount the positive factors in our life and focus on the negative. While evolutionarily this might have had some use, ensuring that we are aware of threats to our existence, in our modern lives this can be a challenge. The result is that we all carry an unnecessary burden. We assume our political party is handicapped by the electoral college. We imagine our team’s schedule disadvantages them. We protect ourselves in work or school by claiming we didn’t have enough time or study enough.

Amazingly enough, there is a very simple solution:gratitude. Keeping a gratitude diary, meeting weekly with someone to share our written thanks can change everything. When I think of my faith, much of the effort is on reminding us of the importance of giving thanks. We are encouraged to say one hundred blessings a day, to find gratitude from the biggest things to the smallest. To appreciate our family,  to appreciate our very existence. To notice the flowers in bloom, the sun shining, the water flowing.

Some days the world can seem dark.  The news can seem uncertain, yet even in the depths of our despair, there is much to be grateful for.  This gratitude may even inspire us to action.  How can we ensure that those who do not have enough to eat are supported?  How can we help the homeless find a place to live?  How can we help those without medical care have it?  We might be reminded by the dozens of time in the Bible where it says variations of “do not mistreat the stranger” or “love the immigrant” because “you were strangers in Egypt”.  Every single human being on this continent came from somewhere else–whether 1 year ago or 50,000.  The gratitude that we should feel to those that came before us just might make us appreciate those trying to survive here now.  

 

Gratitude can change our lives–but appreciation can help us transform the lives of others!