How can we change? Yizkor 5778

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,


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

What do you see in your eclipse glasses? Kol Nidre 5778

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.

Rabbi Weintraub Speaking at Community Selichot Program



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?


Rosh Hashanah Day 2: How will you face tomorrow?

RH Day 2 5778 2017 Rosh Hashanah

Sep 22, 2017

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation Agudas Israel

No matter if you’re born

To play the King or pawn

For the line is thinly drawn ‘tween joy and sorrow

So my fantasy

Becomes reality

And I must be what I must be and face tomorrow

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend

My life will never end

And flowers never bend

With the rainfall

In 1966 Simon and Garfunkel released “Flowers never bend with the rainfall”. Many discuss it as a parable for depression, or a treatise on existential philosophy, yet I see it as an argument for hope. Yesterday I spoke of our hope for the future, thinking in the frame of the eclipse about planning ahead and considering our passions. Today I think about the eclipse itself. What do we do when things get darkest?

This year I became a board certified chaplain. In the last few years, I have spent thousands of hours meeting with you and with others in my office, in the hospital, in hospice, and in your homes. I have spoken to you in good times and bad, celebrated joyful moments and cried with you as things got tough. To become board certified, I had to write a spiritual autobiography and an essay demonstrating how I met dozens of competencies. The essays were theological, intellectual, and attempted to think deeply about the emotional and spiritual well being of myself and others. Yet when I sat for my board interview, sitting with a panel of already certified chaplains they asked very little about my essays. Over and over, they asked how I FELT about things. They asked how I dealt with my feelings, what coping methods I used.

I must be what I must be and face tomorrow

I spoke of the miscarriage we suffered, how we shared the loss with you, and were blessed with love and support back. I shared how writing, speaking, very occasional exercise–I know, I know it should be more–and even watching TV were helpful to me. When thinking about Rebecca’s upcoming surgery, I know that we have a powerful community, people who have gone through the same and those that have not, yet all who want to help us get over this brief speedbump in our lives.

Our attitudes toward life are so impactful. How we react to the world around us speaks volumes about us, but also about our history. Do we fight or do we flee? Do we hide and cower and pretend or do we acknowledge and make a plan?

Jeremy Brown, an ER physician and researcher at NIH also keeps a Talmud blog. He shared that in the Talmud,

Succah 29a: תנו רבנן: בשביל ארבעה דברים חמה לוקה: Our Rabbis taught: A solar eclipse occurs on account of four things.

Without going into the details of the sins, the rabbis saw an eclipse as a bad omen. Yet how can it be a bad omen if it is a naturally occurring and predictable event? How do we solve this problem?

The Maharal of Prague (d. 1609) has a lengthy explanation in his work Be’er Hagolah which, for the sake of clarity, we shall summarize. The Maharal acknowledged that an eclipse is a mechanical and predictable event but he further suggested that if there was no sin, there would indeed never be a solar eclipse. G-d would have designed the universe differently, and in this hypothetical sin-free universe our solar system would have been created without the possibility for a solar eclipse.

Another attempt to explain the Talmud was offered by R. Yonason Eibeschutz (d. 1764). In 1751, R. Eibeschutz was elected as Chief Rabbi of the Three Communities (Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek),…[and] gave a drashah in Hamburg in which he addressed the very same problem that Maharal had noted: If a solar eclipse is a predictable event, how can it be in response to human conduct? His answer was quite different. The Talmud in Succah is not actually addressing the phenomenon that we call a solar eclipse. According to R. Eibeschutz, the phrase in Succah “לוקה שהחמה בזמן “actually means “when there are sunspots.”

Yet today, many found the eclipse a cause for celebration. What a blessing to be able to see an amazing natural phenomenon. Looking at more recent rabbis, some were asked if one could say a blessing. Both the last Lubavitcher Rebbe and Hayyim David Halevi, a prominent former Chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv, may both their memories be a blessing, said it was inappropriate to say a blessing–how can we add to the Torah? If the Talmud did not say a bracha, we cannot either.

While I am far less prominent than either of them, I would have to disagree. There is a blessing for seeing natural phenomena–lightning, mountains, oceans, earthquakes, meteors and comets etc.:

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם עושה מעשה בראשית – Baruch Atta Adonay Eloheinu Melech HaOlam Oseh Maaseh Beresheet. Some might even say Shecheyanu, thanking God that we are alive to see this day. My teacher, Rabbi Josh Heller, wrote in a tshuvah for the Conservative Movement’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards that we should say

Blessed…Whose strength and Power fill the world

בָּרּוְך אַתָּה יְיָּ אֱֹלהֵינּו מֶלְֶך הָּעֹולָּם, שֶכֹּחֹו ּוגְבּורָּתֹו מָּלֵא עֹולָּם

We can debate about the proper blessing, but my desire to say a blessing on the eclipse speaks to my philosophy of Judaism and of life. Reiterating, how we react, says much about us. Is the Judaism, is the life we want, one where we are afraid of the world around us? Are we looking for terrible omens and signs that the world is coming to an end? Or are we looking for the good, are we looking not just to survive, but to thrive.

There is a story in Talmud Brachot 60b: “Rabbi Akiva was accustomed to saying “Everything Hashem does is for the good”. Once Rabbi Akiva was traveling with a donkey, rooster, and candle and when night came he tried to find lodging in a nearby village only to be turned away. Although Rabbi Akiva was forced to spend the night in the field, he did not lament his fate. Instead his reaction was “Everything Hashem does is for the best”. (It is interesting to note the difference between Rabbi Akiva and us. If for example we were learning for a long time, and we couldn’t find a place to sleep wherever we were, we would have complaints against Hashem that this is the reward we get for learning?! Yet Rabbi Akiva who obviously learned more and better than us had no such feelings). A wind came and blew out his candle, a cat ate his rooster, and a lion came and ate his donkey, and again Rabbi Akiva’s reaction was “Everything that Hashem does is for the best”. That night a regiment came and took the entire town captive, while Rabbi Akiva who was sleeping in the field went unnoticed and thus was spared. When Rabbi Akiva realized what happened he said, “Didn’t I tell you that everything that Hashem does is for the best”?” Rashi explains that if the candle, rooster or donkey would have been around, the regiment would have seen or heard them and would have also captured Rabbi Akiva.

How many of us would react like Rabbi Akiva? Would we thank God that we had survived an attack? Or would we be angry at the loss of our possessions? In recent weeks, we have seen disaster after disaster, floods, fires, storms and more. What is amazing to me is the variety of ways people react. Some are despondent, yet they have lost very little. Others who lost everything, who start with nothing, are filled with gratitude. I spoke recently with Rabbi Hirshel Jaffee, a former rabbi of TBJ. He shared with me some of the tsurris that has been in his life–numerous cancers, the recent loss of his daughter–yet the heart of our conversation was about his deep optimism, his view that hope always remained.

No matter if you’re born

To play the King or pawn

For the line is thinly drawn ‘tween joy and sorrow

Every one of us has faced adversity. Every one of us had great joy and life experiences. Some of us have had far more on our plate, some of us have had less. Too often we hear “God only gives us what we can handle”, which while might sound consoling is rarely positive in the moment. Rather, we might discover that listening to one another’s trials and travails is far more effective. The meaning we find from suffering is far more powerful when discovered individually than imposed by others. Yes, our tradition can offer ideas, yet it is not the exclusive answer. Our tradition brings us both Job and the rabbis of the Talmud with a diverse set of answers!

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend

My life will never end

And flowers never bend

With the rainfall

Simon and Garfunkel give us an out. Yet their idea is based on our Jewish traditions. We can live “As if” things are better. We can live “AND”, knowing that we are not limited to a single emotional state. We can be Happy and sad. We can celebrate AND grieve. We can recognize that the world is not only what we see, but what we make of it. Our tradition teaches us the importance of greeting one another with a cheerful countenance AND that we can reject suffering as a theological concept.

Over the last few years, I have reminded you again and again that our lives are a series of choices, of decisions great and small. How we react to adversity, how we react to one another, greatly determines how we feel about ourselves and the world around us. This is not just pop psychology, but the wisdom of our tradition.

Using the frame of the eclipse, we know that the darkness of the eclipse is only temporary. It is not permanent. The sun is not disappearing forever. It is a moment of time. As another voice in our tradition says, gam ze ya’avor, this too shall pass. If we remember the moments to come, sometimes they can help us in those difficult moments. We know that some sorrows are so great they need more than platitudes, yet the power of our community can help in matters great and small.

As we continue these High Holy Days, let us find the strength to react well, to react strongly and decisively, and to bring love and kindness to our reactions.

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!