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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

https://play.google.com/music/preview/Tsnydxl4rl572mwahajkvaiuddu?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-songlyrics&u=0#

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 is coming, but first Selichot!

Sephardic Jews begin their preparations for Rosh Hashanah when Elul begins.  In addition to the daily blasts of the shofar, they begin waking up early and reciting Selichot, prayers of forgiveness and atonement.  They ask the Holy One to remember Her conversation with Moshe after the golden calf, to remember the 13 attributes of mercy, that Gd is gracious, merciful, forgiving of sin, etc., etc.

Ashkenazi Jews also blow the shofar every morning, but they do not begin their Selichot until the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah (most years).

This year, my colleague Rabbi Freedman of Temple Beth Jacob, Stefanie Kostenblatt of Newburgh JCC, and I (Rabbi Philip Weintraub) of Congregation Agudas Israel, wanted to figure out how to inspire more people this time of year.  How do we get people excited for Rosh Hashanah, while also considering a public response to the growing hatred and violence in our nation and around the world?  How can we speak out against hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic, anti-LGBTQ, anti-American, and even Nazi/KKK propaganda? After some brainstorming, we decided that Selichot was an incredible opportunity, a tremendous gift.  It was already a time for repentance, to discuss areas of growth.  If we opened that to the community, we could find new ways of talking about race, hope, love and their opposites in this country.

We invited everyone we could think of, but until they started coming in, we did not know what our numbers would look like.  Approximately 200 people from across the City of Newburgh and its surrounding municipalities came.  We saw Mayor Kennedy, City Councilpeople and Town officials.  It was a truly pluralistic event.  We had a gospel choir from Ebenezer Baptist Church.  And the words from their Senior Pastor, Bruce Davis, Sr. were incredible.  He used the Bible to teach an important message of appropriate outrage AND cooperation.

Chaplain Patt Kauffman joined us on the 16th anniversary of her ordination and her reading of the Psalms was truly inspiring.

 

 

 

We heard a message of love and peace from Imam Rashada, of Masjid Al-Ikles in Newburgh.

I think it was probably the first time on our bimah we heard the Muslim Call to Worship AND a song about Jesus.  Some might find that theologically challenging, but to me, it is a tremendous blessing.  We shared our space with our friends and neighbors.  We called out to Gd and created a sacred moment.  We did not try to blend our traditions, but to hear from the best of all of them.  We learned about one another and saw the beautiful parallels we share.

 

We heard voices from the Catholic tradition, saw friends in all sorts of elegant clerical garb, and truly reflected on our place in the universe.

 

 

While we asked everyone to limit themselves to 6 minutes, I may have used a little more time–but I did try to capture the lessons that each spiritual leader had shared before me.

My words from tonight's incredible evening.

Posted by Rabbi Philip Weintraub on Saturday, September 16, 2017

Rabbi Freedman got us all to think about the Al-Chet, and what we should be asking forgiveness for today. His reminder that we all need to be a bit more “uppity”, that we must not stand by when we hear racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, or any other hurtful -ism brought people to their feet.

I didn’t list everyone here, but it was a beautiful night.  Many thanks to Stefanie Kostenblatt and Rabbi Larry Freedman for their organizational abilities, beautiful teachings and cooperation in this beautiful night.  As I go into the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days, I am inspired, uplifted and sure that through our cooperation, we can do amazing work.  Our country is a very special place, where people can come from all different backgrounds, faiths, and traditions and work together to build community.   Hallelujah!

Thank you very much to Caryn Sobel for her beautiful photography.

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.