Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Erev Yom Kippur


I don’t know the reason why Rome fell. I don’t the reason why the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the British Empire or even the Soviet Union fell. To be more precise, I don’t know the reasons they told themselves their great empires collapsed. What I do know is the reason we told ourselves as Jerusalem fell and the Temple was destroyed first by the Babylonians and then 650 years later by the Romans.


The year: 586 B.C.E. Imagine yourself sitting atop the roof of your home in Jerusalem watching as the Babylonian army breeches the city wall, sacks and loots first your home, and then God’s home, the sacred Temple built by Solomon. Gazing at the destruction about to engulf you a verse from Psalm 22:2 comes to mind: אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?


See yourself now sitting in exile on the banks of the Tigris. The head of your community rises and expounds, echoing the message of the great Biblical prophets: “God did not forsake us, rather we caused the destruction of our Temple, we caused our own exile because we sinned. What were our sins: עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים - idolatry, sexual impropriety and the spilling of innocent blood.” And so you and your community make a vow: “If we are allowed to return from exile, reestablish our Temple and our lives, we will change our ways and teach our children to avoid these sins through which we brought destruction upon our heads.”


A few generations pass. Picture yourself looking down from above as you see your descendants return from exile, rebuild the Temple and reestablish Jewish life in Jerusalem and Israel. Look with pride at how your children’s children’s children seem to remember the lesson you taught and avoid those 3 great sins that brought destruction so many years before: idolatry, sexual impropriety and the spilling of innocent blood.


A more generations pass and you again look down to check in on your descendants. There you see your, well who knows how many greats, grandchild sitting on top of a roof, just like the one you sat on, watching the Roman army breech the city wall, sack and loot first her home, and then God’s home, the sacred Temple built by the returning exiles from Babylonia. As she sits gazing at the destruction about to engulf her that same verse from Psalm 22:2 comes to her mind: אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?


Confusion envelops her mind. How could this be? We heeded the warning of our ancestors and have, for the most part, avoided the 3 great sins.


See your descendant sitting in exile on the banks of the Tiber. The head of her community rises and expounds, echoing the message of the great Biblical prophets: “God did not forsake us, rather we caused the destruction of our Temple, we caused our own exile because we sinned. What was our sin? Yes we avoided the sins of our ancestors but we have our own single sin equivalent to all 3 of theirs: שנאת חנם - Baseless hatred, hatred for the sake of hatred, hate with no thought of the cost or consequences of that hate.”


How do I know these were the reasons we told ourselves about the two destructions of Jerusalem and our exiles? Because our Talmudic and Medieval rabbis continued to teach them to us! In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma - the tractate discussing this great and awesome day of Yom Kippur - we are taught: “But why was the Second Temple destroyed as they studied Torah, followed the Mitzvot and did Gemilut Chasadim - Acts of Loving Kindness? Because within it was שנאת חנם. This teaches us that שנאת חנם is the equivalent of all three sins (that caused the destruction of the First Temple) - idolatry, sexual impropriety and the spilling of innocent blood.”


The ancient Rabbis not only proclaimed שנאת חנם to be the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple, they told us how שנאת חנם spread. Tractate Taanit teaches: “And the second interpretation of the language of retort, hints at the sin of the Second Temple שנאת חנם, which comes from lashon hara - malicious speech.” The great Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague in his compilation of ethical laws from the Talmud, Netzach Yisrael wrote: “And thus they said that שנאת חנם is equivalent to the 3 sins (for which the First Temple was destroyed) for שנאת חנם defiles and causes chaos within the entire human soul. But the 3 sins only defile one part of the soul each while שנאת חנם defiles the whole soul in its entirety, because the essence of the human soul is wholeness, it is singular and all of the strength of life that exists. Hatred tears the soul apart and this is against the essence of the soul.” He continues: “All of Israel was like a single person when there was one altar... By means of שנאת חנם and hateful language, the city and the Second Temple were destroyed.Using hateful language, splits and destroys unity.”



Each year, multiple organizations beseech rabbis to speak to their particular issue on Yom Kippur. They know that this night, more of you will hear our words than any other single occasion during the year. This year, advocates for health care reform, ending the wars, ending hunger, GLBT rights, and a plethora of other causes have sent me mail: postal service mail, email and voice mail literally begging me to speak on their behalf. But as I considered each, one theme kept coming back to me - שנאת חנם.


Many have called for a return to civility in our public discourse but I believe that the issue is deeper. We have devolved into a culture of hate. Politicians, preachers and commentators not only vehemently express their disdain for positions other than their own, they call upon their listeners and followers to hate those with whom they disagree.


It is easy to find their words. A quick Google search produced Rush Limbaugh calling for a reinstitution of segregated buses, a Baptist pastor expressing his hatred for President Obama, encouraging his congregation to take loaded weapons to the President’s appearances and saying that killing the President would not be murder or even a sin, two sitting governors, a gubernatorial candidate and several state legislatures calling for secession from the United States (an issue I thought was settled with the blood of over 700,000 Americans spilled in the Civil War) plus thousands of other hits about our supposedly respected leaders promoting the hatred and demonization of others. We are a country that allows free speech and I am glad we do. But, as we all know, our words can heal or hurt, cause our souls to soar to the heavens or draw us into the depths of evil.


In ancient times, we committed the sin of שנאת חנם by using language to debase and divide, not build up and unify, and thus were the Romans able to take advantage of our divisiveness to conquer and condemn us to exile.


The Rabbis, who valued debate and disagreement so much they respectfully include even losing positons in their literature, understood that sowing hatred was inherently different. They knew that after true debate and disagreement, once a decision was made, all came together to support it. Once they even punished the head of the great Sanhedrin for publicly humiliating another Rabbi who had disagreed with him. We are taught in Tractate Berachot: “ Rabban Gamaliel remained sitting and expounding and R. Joshua remained standing, until all the people there began to shout and say, Stop! and he stopped. They then said: How long is he [Rabban Gamaliel] to go on insulting him [R. Joshua]? Come, let us depose him! ” And depose him they did.


So what are we to do? It is incumbent upon each of us to stand up and call out the haters and promoters of hate for what they are, in fact we are commanded in tomorrow afternoon’s Torah portion to do so! Lev. 19:17-18; “You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart... You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai.” It is also incumbent upon us to follow the law just a few verses earlier: “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people; nor shall you stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds; I am Adonai.” Our Rabbis equated שנאת חנם with the spilling of innocent blood, with murder, and where blood is being spilled, we cannot stand idly by.


This past Friday, members of Westboro Baptist Church came to Park Slope in Brooklyn to stage one of their hate filled protests in front of tour sister Congregation Beth Elohim. Westboro is located in Topeka, Kansas and its pastor, Fred Phelps, and members travel the country protesting at the funerals of patriots, prominent people, the victims of disaster like our neighbors on Flight 3407, soldiers killed in Iraq and Afganistan claiming that these heroes, our honored dead, are burning in hell because God killed them and was punishing them for the sin of America tolerating Gays, Lesbians and Jews.


During the protest, church members held up signs saying “The Jews killed Jesus” “God Hates Israel” and “Anti-Christ Obama”. Members of Beth Elohim gathered in front of the synagogue as their Rabbi, Andy Bachman, blew the shofar. The sound of the Shofar drowned out the hate filled shouts of Phelps and his congregants. The sound of the Shofar calls up so much in our being - it is a call for freedom for all, a hope for the coming of Messianic times and this past Friday in Park Slope, a call for us to stand up against those who promote שנאת חנם with their words and deeds.


The choice is ours: Will we allow the haters to go unchallenged and risk the breech of our walls and the destruction of all that we hold as sacred? Or will we hearken to the sound of the Shofar and work to keep those who preach and practice שנאת חנם from destroying us all?


The choice is ours.



Monday, September 21, 2009

Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon - How to Pray



I have spent the past several months looking for the perfect, inviting, captivating, exciting, interesting, and engaging opening for the sermon, all to no avail. And so I’ll begin with a seemingly obvious and easy question; “why are we here”. Or to put it another way “what do we want to hear?”


There is that beautiful passage in our prayer books: “each of us enters this synagogue with a different need...” But the answer to most of the needs listed; gratitude and joy, sorrow, healing, support, frustration, understanding, and warmth can be found in many places. Why then do we come to the synagogue, this place of worship, each year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur like swallows returning to Capestrano?


Could it be as it says in the prayer “ some spirits hunger?” Our souls hunger, and if so his this the place we feed them with our prayer? We listen to music, hear and read words passed down through the centuries. But as we sit and listen to the music and the words of the prayers, as we sing and read aloud melodies and words both familiar and strange, are we praying? What does it even mean to pray? How does one pray when the words are are not ours? How does one pray ideas and theologies blatantly at odds with what we believe or want to believe?


Our liturgy on these Days of Awe includes what may be the most theologically challenging of all our prayers, the U’netaneh Tokef. “Let us declare the sacred power of this day... On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die... who by fire and who by water, wo by sword and who by beast; who shall be poor and who shall be rich; who shall be humbled and who exalted...” For the Yom Kippur afternoon I will lead an in depth examination of this prayer. But for now, suffice it to say that even if what I have always taught is true, that prayer should be seen as poetry to be interpreted, not prose merely to be accepted, the U’netaneh Tokef’s image of God sitting in heaven and writing our fate in the Book of Life challenges our sense of the world. Our experience teaches us that the world does not work this way. The righteous do not live longer and better than those who stray from the path God laid out for us. The good die as young or old as the wicked. Some of the kindest amongst us possess the least and the meanest possess the most.


So again I ask: “Why do we use words we do not understand and concepts we do not accept as truth?” If the prayers do not touch our soul, where does the responsibility lie? In ourselves? In the leaders of the service? In the prayers themselves?


In a recent article in the Journal of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Joel Mosberger wrote: “the challenge in our lives is to find ways to put our whole selves into the prayer experience whether that is as a part of ritualized communal prayer or daily as we go about our lives.” Rabbi Mosberger sets for us a challenging goal, but how do we accomplish it?


Perhaps the words of our great medeaval philosopher Bachya Ibn Pakuda can help us find the path: “The words of prayers,” he says, “are like the husk covering the grain, and reflection on their meaning is like the kernel. Prayer itself is like the body, and reflecting on its meaning is like the spirit. If we merely utter the words of prayers while thinking about matters other than prayer, it is like a body without a spirit, a husk without a kernel, the body is present but the mind is absent.”


From this we can see that the way to meaningful prayer lies not emotion alone, but rather in thought. As we know, the only person who can truly focus your mind is you yourself. The Talmudic rabbis taught that we are to pray with Kavanah - intention. And while we usually define intention as an emotional process, for the Talmudic rabbis, like for the mystics of Jewish, Christian and eastern traditions, intention encompasses clearing one’s mind of all else other than the prayer we are praying and through contemplation, active thinking, finding meaning in the words we read and hear.


As I have said from this bema before, much of my personal spirituality is embodied in the sounds and rhythms of the prayers and the music. As Mary Travers, aleha l’shalom, sang: “music speaks louder than words.” But in reality, our liturgical music serves merely as a conduit allowing the words to infuse our minds like an IV facilitates medicine entering our bodies.


If we do not connect with the words, perhaps it is our focus that is askew. Dr. Max Arzt of blessed memory used to tell this story: “A group of tourists were going through the Louvre making superficial comments like: ‘what do you think of this one’ or ‘this one is nice’. The guards at the Louvre are not everyday run of the mill guards. Guarding the Louvre is not their job or their career it is their passion. One of them finally said to the tourists: ‘I think that you should know that these paintings have been here for a long time. They are no longer on trial. Instead, they judge the people who come to look at them.’”


The same is true with our prayers. The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, actually means judgement. And the verb to pray, l’hitpaleil, means to judge oneself. Thus we find the entire task of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Hebrew word for prayer. As we pray, we examine where we have been and how we have behaved. This gives us the foundation to determine for ourselves, how we, not God sitting on a throne writing in an actual book, will write ourselves into the book of life and deeds through our actions and our thoughts.


Prayer, our minds evaluating ourselves and finding meaning in the word can be, and in this age often is, one of the hardest things we can do. Oh, if we are in crisis prayer becomes easy. But because we, who so value intellect and thought, focus instead on the emotionality of prayer, we build ourselves a barrier that is too high and too wide and block ourselves from truly praying. We set ourselves up to believe that prayer must provide us with an emotional high to be considered meaningful. Rather, meaningful prayer must lead us to a finding of the self.


Twelve years ago, in 1997, I took my first online Judaic studies course. The topic, prayer. The instructors, Rabbi Reuven and Barbara Sutnick taught in that class: “‘We live in an age when it is not fashionable to pray’ observes Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin in his book To Pray As A Jew. Perhaps we are too spiritually ‘arrogant’ to pray; for prayer requires a measure of awe and modesty and a sense of gratitude for what we have in life. Could it be that modern men and women have been so successful in building a wall of sophisticated civilization around themselves that they attribute all that they see to their own efficacy and power? Perhaps there are those who DO appreciate the power of the natural world yet choose not to pray because they have difficulty believing in the existence of a God to listen to prayers.” They go on to write: “everybody has SOME NOTION of what prayer is AND EVERYBODY HAS DIFFICULTY WITH PRAYER.”


The Sutnicks are correct. Each of us has difficulty with prayer at some time or other, at some level or other. A difficult prayer like the U’netaneh Tokef or a seemingly straight forward statement like the Shema can stymie our best efforts to pray with “all of our mind, all of our strength and all of our soul.”


Further, most of us have never been taught how to pray! We’ve sat through services. We’ve learned the words in religious school. We’ve even prayed our own spontaneous prayers. But, how to pray with intention, challenging our minds and the recesses of our souls is at least as difficult as the hardest subjects we studied in school. Yet, we haven’t taught or been taught how to pray. That is our failure and our responsibility as the religious and educational leaders of this congregation. And while our individuality demands personalized lessons in praying, that is no excuse for why before this evening, we really haven’t spoken of how to pray.


My friend and colleague, Rabbi Norman Hirsch of Seattle, taught me how to pray. In each service, whether leader or congregant, whether alone or as part of a minyan, Rabbi Hirsch finds a sentence, a phrase, a word and like the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, he focuses his mind on understanding it fully. His mood, his recent and life long experiences, that is his soul, inspires which sentence, phrase or word speaks to him that day. But his mind finds the meaning. Perhaps then, while we find ease and comfort in our method of praying with everyone on the same page at the same time, the orthodox custom of each person praying at his or her own pace as Rabbi Hirsch does, is more conducive to praying with kavanah, with focused minds.


To this day, I never know going into a service what prayer my soul will send to my mind. If I try to predict what it will be, I am inevitably wrong. The unknown, this unpredictability constitutes the wonder and awe of a praying experience.


The early Chasidic masters understood what the Sutnicks describe as the difficulty of prayer. From the Baal Shem Tov through the first three generations of Chasidic Rebbes we learn story after story about just how hard it is for people to pray. They tell of uneducated Jews whose prayers consisted of reciting the aleph bet with the confidence that God would take the letters and put them in the proper order. I love the story of the boy whose prayer of playing the flute on Yom Kippur being recognized as the most meaningful prayer in the shul, because it was the only way he knew to pray and the music came from his soul.


Further, the Chasidic Masters tell of the times their minds were not able to handle the intellectual part of prayer. Even the greatest of Rebbes knew that at times, like the rest of us, all he could do was sing a niggun, dance a few steps, listen in silence to the rhythm of the Hebrew, or pray from his feelings. Professor David Ariel in his book Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart & Soul to Jewish Life expresses it thus: “If the words of the prayer book, someone else’s words, are not adequate, we can find our own words. Even if we sit or stand silent in the synagogue while everyone around us is reading, reciting, or chanting, the thing that truly matters is what we experience in our privacy.”


So please do not hear that I do not value the emotional component of prayer. As I look out at the congregation at each service, I see the emotion, the experience of privacy most especially during Kaddish. Few people ever take the time to read the English translation of the Kaddish let alone think about its meaning. It is the sound and rhythm of the words, it is the strength of being part of a congregation that moves each person We on the Bema also have the privilege of seeing in front of us at each service, the heart of the prayers expressed through beautiful movement; from bodies swaying with the music to out and out soulful dance.


So this year, let us accept this challengeduring these Days of Awe. do not rush. Stop and think about a prayer without worrying that the rest of the service passes you by. If your mind won’t or can’t engage, only then let the words or music infuse your heart and impact your soul. As Rabbi Larry Kushner says: “Prayer is like the hokey pokey. We have to put our whole selves in.”


May the words of our mouths and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.