After a week of unseasonably warm weather, we find ourselves again in Winter. How do we cope with these rapid changes? How do we find ourselves in Spring, Summer and Winter all in the same 10 days?
Our tradition offers us suggestions. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. Megillat Esther shows the repetition of history, the challenges of anti-Semitism and how the Holy One can be found in even the darkest moments. This week’s parsha of Ki Tissa shows us the power of artists, the sin of the Golden Calf, and the Holy One’s promise to allow repentance. We’ve got a lot going on!
What do these three sources have in common? All show that we have been there before and we will likely be in those places again. Our history is full of joy and gladness. It also had many moments of darkness and challenge. Most importantly, it tells us that we all have a role to play. It teaches that we have choices. We choose how we react. We can make positive or negative choices. We can react with enthusiasm or despair.
Is snow an inspiration to you or a loss? For me, I’m sitting and writing as my children watch Sesame Street. It’s going to be a challenging day to get work done, but it will also be extra family time. It’s going to be noisy and we will all get stir crazy, yet we will also hopefully have a lot of fun.
What will you do today? How will you use this time when the roads are dangerous?
Sunday afternoon, do we have a treat for you! Join us at 2PM for a fascinating talk from Eddy Portnoy.
He will be sharing crazy and interesting stories from the Yiddish press:
“Stories abound of immigrant Jews on the outside looking in, clambering up the ladder of social mobility, successfully assimilating and integrating into their new worlds. But this book is not about the success stories. It’s a paean to the bunglers, the blockheads, and the just plain weird—Jews who were flung from small, impoverished eastern European towns into the urban shtetls of New York and Warsaw, where, as they say in Yiddish, their bread landed butter side down in the dirt. These marginal Jews may have found their way into the history books far less frequently than their more socially upstanding neighbors, but there’s one place you can find them in force: in the Yiddish newspapers that had their heyday from the 1880s to the 1930s. Disaster, misery, and misfortune: you will find no better chronicle of the daily ignominies of urban Jewish life than in the pages of the Yiddish press.”
How do we support one another?
On November 19, on Benkard Ave, I stood with a dozen local clergy members and almost 100 members of our Newburgh communities. At St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, we heard beautiful music and had fellowship together. We heard words from Isaiah, Psalms, and Corinthians–from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures. We sat and stood and sat and stood together. We reminded ourselves that no matter our faith, we are one city.
Amidst these messages of peace and love, we shared good will. We collected food and financial donations for Loaves and Fishes, which will feed over 1000 families in the City of Newburgh this year for Thanksgiving. Thanks to donations from those attending, from supermarkets and the broader community, this miracle comes to pass every year. Yet this miracle takes a lot of work to happen!
Every year it is down to the wire. Every year, they do not know if they will have enough. Usually, they find a way to make it work. The families depend on the support of Loaves and Fishes. Without it, they would have no turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and more. While it is just one place where the fixings for a meal are available, we know that across the city, churches, synagogues and social service agencies are ensuring that families have what they need.
My question is about the rest of the year. What are we doing then? Sure, I schlepped some heavy potato sacks this week, but how will I help next week? Or in July? I can see the appreciation when I had someone a turkey, but how do I help so they do not need one next year?
Recently, I have seen political, racial, religious divisions run deeper than ever before. I have heard and seen hate against virtually every segment of our population. My faith teaches that we are all created in the Image of the Holy One. I pray that these small acts of kindness for Thanksgiving will inspire us to work together throughout the year. Let us hire people for our businesses who don’t look like us. Let us invite people for coffee and dinner who talk differently than us. Let us remember that no matter our politics, our faith, our color, we are all one. Let us be thankful for the blessings we share. When we share a smile and a thank you, it’s a lot harder to find hate. As Father Bill Damroth shared with us in the words of William Watkinson, it is “far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.” Happy Thanksgiving!
On November 12 we will have Jen Glantz. You can read about her here: https://www.jenglantz.com/
It will be a blast!
YK Yizkor 5778 2017 Yom Kippur
Sep 30, 2017
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation Agudas Israel
In 1965 John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote:
There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all
Copyright John Lennon and Paul McCartney, https://www.thebeatles.com/song/my-life
In a few minutes, we will recite Yizkor.
May God remember the soul of my ____________ who has [have] gone to his [their] eternal home. In loving testimony to his life [their lives], I pledge tzedakah to help perpetuate ideals important to him [them]. Through such deeds, and through prayer and remembrance, may his [their] soul[s] be bound up in the bond of life. May I prove myself worthy of the many gifts with which he [they] blessed me. May these moments of meditation strengthen the ties that link me to his [their] memory. May he [they] rest in peace forever in God’s presence. Amen. (Machzor Lev Shalem)
Today is a complicated day, emotionally. We are thinking of our own lives. We confess our sins. We beat ourselves up. We consider where we have been and where we want to go. At the same time, we think about those that came before us. This ratchets up the emotions, as well. I am very pleased that in our Yizkor booklets this year we have two special additions–one that is for a difficult parent–how do we honor their memory when they caused us so much harm? The second is for those who are fortunate to have living parents and offers thanks to God for that blessing.
Using my eclipse theme of the last few days, I wonder how does the eclipse change us and our views of the universe? How do we look at the world differently, seeing that even the sun can sometimes be hidden from sight?
In a way we find ourselves in two separate timelines–one is our own and one is that of the people we remember. With both we are looking backwards. We need eyes in the back of our heads, but we cannot forget the eyes in the front! Looking forward is essential also. If we spend the entire day (or our entire lives) beating ourselves up for the past, we cannot move forward.
In Masechet Sanhedrin 37a, we study a powerful Mishnah: we discover how the court interrogates witnesses. This is not a simple affair. They do not just swear to tell the whole truth. In a capital case they are reminded that someone’s life is literally in their hands–if their evidence helps convict someone–they are the one who must help with the execution!
Several stories on the page draw my attention. The first is of Rabbi Zeira. He always saw the best in everyone. (I have spoken regularly about the importance of that noble trait!) When he was presented with thieves, he tried to help them repent.
הנהו בריוני דהוה בשיבבותיה דר’ זירא דהוה מקרב להו כי היכי דניהדרו להו בתיובתא והוו קפדי רבנן כי נח נפשיה דר’ זירא אמרי עד האידנא הוה חריכא קטין שקיה דהוה בעי עלן רחמי השתא מאן בעי עלן רחמי הרהרו בלבייהו ועבדו תשובה:
The Gemara relates: There were certain hooligans [biryonei] who were living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Zeira. He brought them close, i.e., treated them with friendship, in order to cause them to repent of their sins, but theother Sages disapproved of his actions. When Rabbi Zeira died, those hooligans said: Until now, there was the short one with singed legs, i.e., Rabbi Zeira, who would pray for compassion for us. Who will pray for compassion for us now? They thought about this in their hearts and repented. Ultimately, Rabbi Zeira’s actions were proven correct, as they repented.
What does this say about how we interact with one another? What kind of world do we live in if we judge each other in the most lenient ways, if we expect that others are doing their best? We are all flawed. We are all imperfect and if we remember that about the other, how much more positive will our interactions become?
I know how difficult this is! There are many lessons in our tradition that are regularly repeated. The importance of fair judgement is one of those. We are told to favor neither the rich or the poor, nor our friends. We are told to judge others for merit, for good, to see the best in one another. If something has so many reminders in our tradition, you can be darn sure that we NEED the reminder. Elsewhere in Sanhedrin we learn that there is no unnecessary repetition in the Torah–if something is repeated, there is a reason! We NEED the repetition not to judge each other harshly. We NEED the repetition to treat one another fairly. We are inclined to favor those who will favor us. Depending on the moment and circumstance, we may favor the more well off or the less well off–whether for personal reasons or communal ones.
Returning to our text: the second story is part of the intimidation and interrogation of the witnesses. There they are reminded that saving one life is saving an entire world and ending one life is ending an entire world.
לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא
The court tells the witnesses: Therefore, Adam the first man was created alone, to teach you that with regard to anyone who destroys one soul from the Jewish people, i.e., kills one Jew, the verse ascribes him blame as if he destroyed an entire world, as Adam was one person, from whom the population of an entire world came forth. And conversely, anyone who sustains one soul from the Jewish people, the verse ascribes him credit as if he sustained an entire world.
Finally the third is about how we are all created by God from one ancestor–maybe not genetically–but so that no one can claim their father is greater than another.
ומפני שלום הבריות שלא יאמר אדם לחבירו אבא גדול מאביך
The mishna cites another reason Adam the first man was created alone: And this was done due to the importance of maintaining peace among people, so that one person will not say to another: My father, i.e., progenitor, is greater than your father.
If we see ourselves as coming from a common spiritual ancestor, we see that we are all one family. Looking at our world today, we can use this reminder. Whether our skin is light or dark, we come from one ancestor. Whether we like low taxes or high taxes, we come from one ancestor. Whether we believe that government is a force for good or a force of bureaucracy, we come from one ancestor. Whether we are right or left, love Israel or do not care, we come from one ancestor. If I believed it was acceptable for me to have a tattoo, I might put these words on my forehead! We must see the commonality in one another, the humanity and the Divinity in one another.
What is it about these texts that draws me back again and again: the importance of relationships; the importance of continuing to work on our relationships; the importance of recognizing that others are ALSO working on their relationships.
Ok, I want to see if you are awake for a moment. I’m going to ask you raise your hands. How many people here email? text? Do you ever talk to people on the phone? On facetime? In person? Now I need a shout out, which of those options creates the least amount of confusion? Probably in person. Yet how often do we use other forms. They are substitutes, and important substitutes, but how often do we misconstrue and misunderstand. We write a message with love and kindness, expecting someone will read it that way. Yet how often is a message hastily sent, responded to in haste? How often do we read a message and think someone is annoyed with us–and find ourselves completely wrong! Tone, body language, facial expressions are essential to our communication–yet we are missing those so often. I know I have this challenge, and I bet you do, too!
This is clearly not a new problem–well maybe the texting or snapchatting is–but as I shared from the Talmud–we have been having unnecessary disagreements forever!
It seems one of the main tasks of this time of year is attempting to repair relationships. That works fine if the other party is on the same page, but what happens when they are not. Not everyone is open to renewing relationships. Not everyone is capable of it. Some people just are not ready. Some situations are not meant to be reconciled–if someone was abusive–neither side may find reconciliation productive–and it can even be harmful. If we are the damaging party, we may ask forgiveness, but we are not guaranteed it! If we are the injured party, we may forgive if asked, but we are not 100% obligated to do so.
Earlier this week, I met with my Tuesday morning Mishnah group. We looked at a tshuvah, a rabbinic answer, of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, may his memory be a blessing. He was asked could one write a letter of apology before Yom Kippur, if one was too embarrassed to go in person. While his answer strongly implied that going face to face was best, he implied that we should do whatever we can to repair what he have broken. We learned that while we must make at least three attempts to ask forgiveness from a friend, from a teacher we must ask even 1000 times! Yet in our conversation, we wondered about the broader implications. Few relationships are broken through the fault of only one side!
What happens if someone is gone? If they are dead? In these cases, expressing our feelings in other outlets can be productive. We can write a letter, an email, speak to a rabbi, a friend, a therapist. If we give ourselves outlets to discuss these losses, we may find ways of working through them that did not seem open before.
But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you.
And these mem’ries lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new.
Tho’ I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before,
I know I’ll often stop and think about them,
In my life I love you more.
The way we move forward is by having these conversations–before it is too late as often as we can. Our biggest failure is thinking we cannot change–and neither can the ones we love. We think we and they are immovable and inert. The holidays, the shofar come to blast us out of this fallacy. We can do it. We can improve ourselves, our relationships. Last night I referenced the Unetanah Tokef, reminding us that we can be alive, but we have the choice of existing or living. The central line of that prayer is that
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)
deflect the evil of the decree.
In many ways THIS is the lesson. THIS is how we can react. THIS changes our fate–or at least how we understand it. We CAN change. We CAN pray. We CAN help the world. If we make those choices, our world is a better place–not in some future time, but NOW. L’shanah tovah. We now open our yizkor books.
Machzor Lev Shalem
YK Kol Nidre 5778 2017 Yom Kippur
Sep 29, 2017
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation Agudas Israel
On the day of the eclipse, we were in Montreal. The kids were playing in a playground, because when you plan a trip with museums, great restaurants and interesting activities, the most fun children will have is always where you least expect it! Other than a slight temperature change, one would not notice that anything different was happening. We did not have eclipse glasses, so the main goal was making sure the children didn’t look up! Rebecca managed to take a couple selfies and magically make the sun appear, but that seemed like it for us. Then as we were walking towards our car, some lovely Montrealers asked if we wanted to see the eclipse. They handed us the glasses and suddenly a whole new world appeared. The glasses revealed the form of the moon blocking more than half of the sun. It was incredible.
It was truly a miraculous moment and Hannah and I discussed what blessing we should say. Out of deference to Rabbi Hannah, we said, Shehecheyanu, grateful that we were alive to that day to witness the moment of blessing. What really struck me was how a slightly different perspective, how putting on those glasses changed everything. Without the glasses, it was a normal day. With the glasses, we had access to a whole new experience.
It made me think about another recent experience. This summer, we spent time with my parents in Atlanta. After several false starts, we finally made it to the Atlanta Children’s Museum. What really impressed me was an experiment on the second floor. There they had a small device that was a microscope attached to an ipad. The ipad was the screen and showed significant magnification, whatever the small device was touching. I felt like Robert Hooke looking at the cells in cork, a whole new world was opened. Looking at strands of hair, the palm of one’s hand, and various other things, it was truly an invitation to the microscopic world. While the girls were interested for a moment, to them, the pretend supermarket and hospital were far more interesting. This goes to show that what seems miraculous to one does not always seem the same to another.
Where else do we have these discoveries? Where do we find a new window into the lives around us? For me, I see this all the time. We may know each other for years, but suddenly an experience is shared that deepens our relationship. A story is shared that opens a door into our souls. A friend of mine recently shared about the loss of one of his teachers, his rabbi, who gave him advice on his wedding day. Rav Pesach told him that he should never be complacent, that he must remember that there is ALWAYS new things to discover about your spouse. He said that even after 40+ years of marriage, he was always learning new things about his wife.
That may not exactly sound like advice, but it is an important reminder. No matter how much we think we know one another, there is always more to learn. The same is true for ourselves, as well. We can always discover new reserves, new strengths. Some of you may watch American Ninja Warrior. On it, ordinary people perform extraordinary acts. They seem to fly from trapezes, run up walls, jump across “rivers”, and show incredible grip strength. While some of them were marathon runners, gymnasts, skiiers before, many others were ordinary people who were inspired to get in shape by the show. They transformed themselves and their muscles and coordination through extensive practice. They saw within themselves the capability and turned it into a reality. What would we find if we looked into ourselves? Are we living up to our capabilities?
In our own tradition, I think of numerous second career rabbis. They started out doing something else, but then discovered their true calling. Not only do they have the wisdom of our tradition, but they also have the life experience of their prior careers. You may think this is a new idea, but the Baal Shem Tov, the very first Hasidic rebbe, started out as a teaching assistant, eventually became a shochet, and managed a tavern before his reputation of wisdom and mystical powers became widely known.
Rabbi Akiva is one of the most famous sages of the Talmud, of rabbinic literature. He taught incredible teachings and was known for his wisdom. Yet until the age of 40, he was illiterate. He and his wife made incredible sacrifices as he learned Torah. By the time he was murdered by the Romans, he had established yeshivas and taught thousands of students. At just the right moment, he learned to look at the world a little bit differently.
In our own lives, we can all think of new things we have learned, new ways of looking at things, that inspired us, opened us up to our depths, to our core. I stand here as a failure. I have not succeeded in getting every one of you to open your souls to Torah. Yet I also stand here as a success, because for many of you I have. I have shown that one can strive to be a mentsch. We can fail some days and succeed on others, but we can keep plugging along. We can keep discovering the world around us, using the lens of Torah.
I am inspired by liminal moments, by those moments of transition, when we suddenly realize that everything is different. For many, these moments are around birth, death, marriage, divorce, moments of family transition. When our lives change there, we find new opportunities to connect and grow. Once we open one door, another window opens, another shade is pulled. In those moments we can rediscover what has always been in front of us.
In many ways, the Jewish calendar works exactly the same way. I get stressed at this time of year. How can I be prepared for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah all in the same month!? Yet by overwhelming us with holidays, we create multiple access points, many places for us to connect. If the formality and splendor of Yom Kippur does not connect you to our traditions, then perhaps the joy of Simchat Torah will! (Hint, hint, come back next week! We will even feed you.)
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die. In our machzor, around the Unetaneh Tokef, there is a beautiful poem:
When we really begin a new year it is decided, And when we actually repent it is determined:
Who shall be truly alive and who shall merely exist; Who shall be happy and who shall be miserable;
Who shall attain fulfillment in their days And who shall not attain fulfillment in their days;
Who shall be tormented by the fire of ambition And who shall be overcome by the waters of failure;
Who shall be pierced by the sharp sword of envy And who shall be torn by the wild beast of resentment;
Who shall hunger for companionship And who shall thirst for approval;
These days crack open our souls. They wake us up. The sound of the shofar blasts us from our daily life and says that we are not alone. We are a part of the world around us. We are a part of God’s creation. We ARE God’s creation. Then in the days to come we connect to the land. Sukkot forces us outside. We breathe the air. In Israel we harvest the crops–in NY it’s apple picking time. The leaves change. We are forced to confront that our existence is precarious–just like the sukkah in which we dwell. On Simchat Torah we unroll the Torah, completing our reading and beginning again. In a way it is like the concept of gilgul hanefeshot–like reincarnation–that we are made new again.
What happens to our soul in these moments? It all depends on our perspective. If we open our hearts and open our souls, to the words of our mahzor, our prayerbook. If we listen to the rabbi, to the cantor, to one another, we may find ourselves just a little bit different. If we choose to look up, we can raise ourselves up–with the support of those around us.
With all of these openings, with all of these opportunities, there is one big challenge: fear of change. We love our routines. Heck, our tradition encourages routine. We say the same brachot; we offer the same prayers regularly; we use the routine to elevate our souls. Yet if we get too stuck in the keva, the routine, we may lose our kavannah, our intention. If we love the way things are too much, we miss these spiritual openings. We miss the opportunities for positive change.
In the world around us, there is a great need for positive spiritual change. Far too many people in this magnificent country are disheartened. They are afraid. They fear the Other. I know I have those moments. I wrote some of these words in a new coffee shop names “blacc vanilla” on South street across from the former St. Mary’s Church. The coffee was great, the clientele representative of the artsy Newburgh scene–yet I still wondered if my car would remain where I parked it. Is that racist? Classist? Or just pragmatic? I know that I cannot be a successful rabbi or human being if my circles look only like me. I need to be a part of the community as a whole! I need to open my eyes to the wealth and poverty here–and work to improve it.
On Rosh Hashanah I mentioned that more than 36 times our Torah commands us to Welcome the Stranger, to not mistreat them, to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. We are reminded over and over again of the humanity and Divinity of others. One of my favorite teachings is the opening of Bereshit–where we discover that we were all created in the Image of God. This creation was not just Jews–it was all people. As such, we are obligated to look out not just for ourselves, but the entire world. We cannot stay silent, when we see hatred and bigotry–as you may have heard at our powerful Selichot program last week.
We must continually be looking inwards and outward. We must be looking at this beautiful country and fighting for it to be its best self,: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” AND we must continually work for our own communities. It is not enough to fix the City of Newburgh, we must strengthen our Jewish community. We must support our Jewish institutions and populate them! We need your support each and every day. We need your regular presence. I’ve told the joke about the guy coming to services on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi says we are all in the army of God and you should come more often. Guy responds–I’m in the secret service. We need more foot soldiers and fewer secret service members. We need you.
What we do here is truly transformational. If we take the words of our prayers seriously. If you listen to me once in awhile. We work together to build our souls and our community. You cannot walk away from them and not be touched.
Every day I strive to look through the eclipse glasses, to look through that microscope, to open our prayer book and our sacred texts. What will you do this year?
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!
As we enter into this Shabbat, let us take a quick moment to pause and reflect.
What has this week brought us? Has it brought us joy? Has it brought us sorrow? What do we hope for in the week to come?
Let us pray for a week of peace!