Thursday, October 13, 2016

From Where Do My Values Come YK Morning 5777 Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld

In case you missed the memo, I am from Cleveland, Ohio. While many of you think of it as the “mistake on the lake” or the place where rivers burn, and take great delight in questioning my dedication to the Browns, I think of it differently. Those of us from Cleveland have great perseverance, faith and profound hope. We hale from a place where people never give up. Even this year with the championship Cavs and the surging Indians, we pray for a 500 season for the Browns. We Clevelanders understand that LeBron James is a great basketball player but that does not make him a hero. What makes him a hero is using large portions of his wealth to elevate and give hope to others. This man, who never went to college, committing $41 million dollars to send Northeast Ohio children to college make him a hero. His ability to inspire hope in others qualifies him to be admired. While his talent to place a ball in a hoop, or prevent someone else from doing so, is at times wondrous, it is by no means heroic.

Likewise, the Reform Rabbi Leo Baeck was not a hero because of his extensive Judaic knowledge. He was a hero because of how he used that knowledge. Born in Germany in 1873, Leo Baeck became not only the leading Reform Rabbi in Germany but the recognized head of the German Jewish community. Even the Nazi’s recognized his status and his greatness. It was not until 1943 that he was sent to die in Theresienstadt. There he became the official and spiritual head of the Jews, protecting as many as he could from death and offering comfort to those he could not. He not only survived the death sentence of the camp but more than a few survivors credit his regular lectures with giving them the strength, hope and faith to walk out of Theresienstadt and move forward to create new and productive lives. His risking all to inspire others to live elevates him to the echelon of heroes.

But his time in Theresienstadt was but a natural extension of his heroism. In 1936, Leo Baeck stood up to challenge the Nazi regime’s treatment not just of Jews but of all Germans. He wrote:

Above all the other tasks of the state are its human and social responsibilities. The common ground which supports us and our fellow man is the basis of our responsibility toward him [sic]. Living together involves an ethical bond which gives to all human groups the true meaning of both their individual and common lives. Only on this basis is the state granted ethical existence before God. 
For the true State is the State of Tzedakah… that civits dei, in which everybody, no matter who was his father, can and is to have his place. Whoever lives in the land is to live with the others and they with him.
… thus is created the ideal and true conception of society in which every human being is an ethical entity and every individual is regarded as a member of a human community.

Baeck’s words challenged the nearly all powerful Nazi Government to transmute itself from an entity of pure evil into one that understood “every human being is an ethical entity and every individual is regarded as a member of a human community.” Baeck’s ability to challenge an evil regime in the midst of trying to dehumanize its minorities to find its human soul and understand its obligation to care for each of its citizens, whether Gentile, Jew, Roma, black, or LGBT, with no hope of succeeding, is true heroism.

To be honest, I do not know where LeBron James learned his values including the importance of helping lift up those who need a hand. But Leo Baeck’s values? Those came from our mutual ancient tradition, including this morning’s and this afternoon’s Torah portions. This morning we will read in N’tzavim: “You are standing this day ALL of you before the Eternal your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders your officers, EVERY person in Israel. Your infants, your wives and the stranger among you, from the hewer of wood to the water drawer.” And from this afternoon’s portion Kedoshim: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

These passages would have also contributed to the formation of Baeck’s values:

Proverbs 14:31 
He that oppresses the poor blasphemes his maker, but he that is gracious to the poor honors God.

Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 
Therefore only one person was created to teach you that whosoever kills a single soul the Bible considers to have killed a complete world. And whosoever sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world.

Pirke Avot 2:5 
Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”

Gittin 61a 
Our Rabbis taught, “Give sustenance to the poor of the non-Jews along with the poor of Israel. Visit the sick of the non-Jews along with the sick of Israel. Bury the dead of the non-Jews along with the dead of Israel. [Do all these things] because of the ways of peace.”

Jerusalem Talmud Demai 4:1/ Gittin 61a 
In a city where non-Jews and Jews live, the tzedakah collectors collect from Jews and non-Jews and support Jewish and non-Jewish poor; we visit Jewish and non-Jewish sick and bury Jewish and non-Jewish dead, and comfort Jewish and non-Jewish mourners, and return lost goods of non-Jews and Jews, to promote the ways of peace.

Midrash Tehillim 82:3 
Defend the poor and the orphan; do justice to the afflicted and needy.

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin (18th Century) 
If you want to raise a person from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to keep standing on top and reaching a helping hand down to the person. You must go all the way down yourself, down into mud and filth. Then take hold of the person with strong hands and pull the person and yourself out into the light.

So I ask, do you know where your values come from? Whether we own a business or not, all of us participate in commerce. When we sell or buy, do you think about our Jewish values that teach us to use honest weights and measures? Or do you not steal just because the government says not to?

I know the answer when it comes to most corporations. They follow the governmental law to avoid penalties. But what about a Newman’s Own that contributes all its profits to help kids? Or a Costco that refuses to open on Thanksgiving so its workers can celebrate with their families? They do not just follow the law, they follow their deeply ingrained values to do more than required.

But what about you? Do you think about and apply the values, ethics, and commandments that we read today in our Torah portions, Haftarot and the machzor - the prayer book itself when you walk out the doors of the synagogue? Or do the words stay in the scroll when we return it to the ark or in the machzor when you put it back on the table or cart?

Being Jewish is not coming here on these holy days. Being Jewish is how we live each day. Being Jewish is understanding that our drive to help others comes from our commandment to not stand idle while others bleed. Being Jewish is filling the synagogue with food for the Food Pantry and Food Bank because we are not farmers and do not have our own fields to leave to the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger to glean. Being Jewish is emulating Leo Baeck and standing up for those who are threatened. Being Jewish is emulating LeBron James by making sure everyone has the opportunity for an appropriate education. LeBron has his reasons, we Jews do it because of the high value we place on education.

This year, are you going to take the words of the Torah, the Haftarot and the machzor and leave them sitting here in this building or are you going to carry them with you and consciously apply them to your life each and every day?


Two Stories of Creation - One Integrated Whole Erev Yom Kippur 5777 Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld 5/5

I have been rereading some classics I have not picked up in years including The Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, originally written in 1965.

Soloveitchik, became the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Boston in the late 1930’s, a position he held to his death in the 1980’s. Known simply as “The Rav,” Rabbi Soloveitchik was not only America’s greatest Talmudic scholar but he also studied philosophy, modern critical study of religion and texts, and the physical sciences. He saw both Judaism and the world through unique eyes.

The Lonely Man of Faith reframes the two stories of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 by drawing upon traditional Jewish understanding of the text and philosophical principles. The Rav writes: “the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition but in dual man… in a real contradiction in the nature of man. The two accounts deal with two Adams, two men, two fathers of mankind, two types, two representatives of humanity.

Calling them Adam the first and Adam the second, the Rav describes them thus:

“Adam the first is aggressive, bold and victory-minded. His motto is success, triumph over the cosmic forces. He engages in creative work, trying to imitate his Maker (imitatio Dei)…. He fashions ideas with his mind, and beauty with his heart…. His conscience is energized not by the idea of the good, but by that of the beautiful. His mind is questing not for the true, but for the pleasant and functional, which are rooted in the aesthetical, not the noetic-ethical, sphere.”

“Adam the second is… also intrigued by the cosmos… However…[he] responds to the call of the cosmos by engaging in a different kind of cognitive gesture. He does not ask a single functional question. Instead his inquiry is of a metaphysical nature and a threefold one. He wants to know: “Why is it?” What is it?” “Who is it?” (1) He wonders: “Why did the world in its totality come into existence? Why is man confronted by this stupendous and indifferent order of things and events?” 2) He asks: “What is the purpose of all this… and what does the great challenge… mean?” (3) Adam the second keeps on wondering: “Who is He who trails me steadily, uninvited and unwanted… and vanishes into the recesses of transcendence the very instant I turn around to confront this numinous, awesome and mysterious ‘He’... he wants to understand the living, “given” world into which he has been cast…. He encounters the universe in all its colorfulness, splendor, and grandeur and studies it with the naïveté, awe and admiration of the child who seeks the unusual and wonderful in every ordinary thing and event…. he establishes an intimate relation with God.”

What the Rav describes here draws upon the traditional Jewish understanding that each of us has two parts: our material, creative side and our spiritual, reflective side. In the language of Maimonides we are to balance those two sides. Both necessary. Both essential to our human-ness.

God commands Adam the first to “subdue” the earth. . . ותדשהו - Subdue is a harsh word implying a hierarchy in the relationship between humankind and nature. Adam the first’s nature is to create and cure, use and destroy. We strive to create using our understanding of how the world works. We use that knowledge to discover ways to cure disease, provide economic opportunity, cope with the harshness of nature, feed the hungry and clothe the naked. In doing so, we use the resources of the world to help our creative endeavors make the world better. In the process, we destroy those resources and often change the world in negative ways we could never have predicted. Using fossil fuels pushes carbon into the atmosphere warming our climate, something the early adopters of oil and coal could not foresee. 

Switching to wind or solar power helps reduce the use of carbon resources. But it is only a reduction. It takes carbon resources to manufacture the solar panels and wind turbines. When did someone realize that windmills would pose a hazard to migrating birds? A lesser hazard perhaps than a warming climate, but still a hazard. Our Adam the first has to constantly decide is the hazard worth the gain? But he is not complete enough to make that decision. Left on its own, the part of us that is Adam the first will ultimately destroy the world as it is.

The Rav points out that Adam the first is created as a multiplicity. Genesis 1 tells us that God created the human being man and female. From the start, Adam the first was never alone and the first command to them was to multiply and fill the earth with other humans. The endeavors of Adam the first are communal not solitary. While a single scientist may discover the cure for an insidious disease, it takes thousands of clinicians, patients and evaluators to bring the cure to those who need it. The inventor who discovers “clean energy” cannot bring it to the world alone. It will take a community of people to bring the clean energy to the world.

It is with Adam the first that we in 21st Century America more easily identify.

Adam the second is different. He is created alone and not realizing he needs others. It is God who ultimately decides it is not good for Adam the second to be alone. He is commanded to cultivate and tend the garden and commanded to partake of what naturally occurs and, unlike Adam the first, a restriction is put on him - do not eat from the tree of knowledge. Adam the second lives in a perfect world, all his needs met.

This Adam’s first job is to name the animals. Naming something, or someone, requires not just creativity but, insight into the thing or the person and insight into yourself. To draw from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Adam the second has his basic needs met so he is free to think at a different level, to see into his own soul and the essence of others. The act of naming involves asking the questions the Rav writes of “Why is it? What is it? Who is it?”

Yet, perhaps out of profound loneliness Adam the second feels the need to defy God’s command and eat from the tree of knowledge. The heavenly beings respond by worrying that Adam the second and Eve will also eat from the tree of life and become gods themselves. Their punishment is to become more human by having to have to figure out how to create. 

The part of us that is Adam the second longs to individualize the spiritual experience. The part of us that is Adam the first that sees we need community structure to fully appreciate the spiritual realm and thus create congregations and communities.

Adam the first compensates for Adam the second by understanding that without a community, we are not only alone but lonely, directionless and risk following paths that will lead to spiritual emptiness or self-destruction. Just as Adam the second reins in the destructive nature of Adam the first, Adam the first keeps Adam the second from descending into a spiral of deepening loneliness.

Clearly we need both Adams within us to be fully human, an integrated whole; driven to create and be in the community, while having the understanding to ask the deeper questions and see that humanity’s actions have consequences that cannot be foreseen and which need to be dealt with as they occur.

I see Shabbat as the time this unification of Adam the first and second is seen. On Shabbat we set aside some of our Adam the first and allow more of Adam the second to emerge. We pause from our creative work to allow our contemplative selves to appreciate and evaluate our creative work. We understand that without the creativity of the week, Shabbat would be a hungry time. Without Shabbat, a spiritual break from the week, we cannot fully appreciate what we have created and the world around us.

Our tradition calls Yom Kippur Shabbat Shabbatot, the ultimate Shabbat. Again, using the Rav’s lens, Yom Kippur calls us to subsume as much of our Adam the first as possible by fasting and setting aside as much of our material needs as possible, while still coming together in community, as a congregation. This allows our Adam the second, our introspective spiritual, religious, lonely person of faith to fully emerge. This skewing of the normal balance allows us to delve as deeply as possible into ourselves and ask those three questions about ourselves: Why am I? What am I? Who am I? and then re-ask them in the future tense: Why will I exist? What will I become? Who will I be?

If we find only a smidgen of the answer to any of these questions today and tomorrow, N’ila - our closing service will truly be a time to rejoice and rebalance our two Adams.

כן יהי רצון So may God, and we, make it so.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777

Growing in Wisdom

The saddest part of this morning’s Torah portion occurs at the end. After nearly slaughtering Isaac, an unrepairable yet understandable rift occurs between father Abraham and, as beginning of the portion calls him, his beloved son. While Isaac survives, the bond between father and son, patriarch and inheritor, is shattered and never again do the two meet in life. It is only with Abraham’s death do his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, each with his own deep hurt, come together to bury their father.

Abraham ascends Mount Moriah with Isaac but he descends alone. We can only imagine the thoughts and feelings coursing through their hearts. Isaac, obviously feeling betrayed by a father who professed such love for him. We understand and feel his pain. He did not lose his life. He did lose his father.

But what of Abraham? God asked him to do the unthinkable, to kill his son, and then stopping him from performing horrific deed. Abraham knows he has lost Isaac, and I imagine, he feels used and betrayed, by God. Isaac lives but Abraham knows he is lost to him.

What is it they have lost? Isaac lost not just a father but an elder, a mentor. Abraham lost an heir for his life’s experience and wisdom. Would Isaac been able to better navigate through Esau’s and Jacob’s rivalry if he had a respected elder to help guide him. As we age, we seem driven to share our life’s journey and its lessons. Abraham lost that opportunity with Isaac. 

Thinking back in my own life there is so much I wish my father and mother had lived long enough to teach me. I know when I was young and then as a teen they told me things and, more importantly, showed me by example. But, I cannot parse out those particular lessons. After my mother died and I was an adolescent I perfected my eye roll  for whenever my father would yell his lessons at me. (I can still do it, although it’s more subtle when needed.) But by the time I was old enough and ready to learn, he had died and with him his wisdom.

At each stage of life our skills are different. Younger we are imbued with more energy. Older we have less energy but more experience. Younger we dream big dreams. Older we dream but more realistically. Younger we strive more for fun than meaning. Older we strive more for meaning than fun. Younger stress is more debilitating. Older stress is more motivating. Younger we strive for happiness in the moment. Older we strive for prolonged happiness. Younger we work to build memories. Older we still work to build memories but we worry about how much longer we will have them. Younger we work to acquire. Older we work toward Erik Erikson’s 7th stage of life - generativity, instead of working to acquire, we begin to invest outward.

Barbara Bradley Hegarty in her book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife writes: If you want a healthy glow and a happy midlife, here’s a secret. Give it away: your time, your money, whatever is at your disposal, give it to someone else. Especially your time. Volunteering prolongs your life. It makes you happier and spares you depression. And heart attacks. It helps you stay sober, and boosts your immune system. It cures burnout. It fires up your dopamine system, giving you chemical rewards. It lowers your stress level and reduces chronic pain. It gives you purpose in life.”

But developing wisdom does not have to wait until we are in midlife. Some people are old souls when they are young. In the mid 1990’s a 12 year old girl came to me with her mother and told me she wanted to convert to Judaism. We talked about the whys and hows. I told her that we would welcome her full participation in the community but that her conversion would have to wait until she was older. She was wise enough to know what she wanted and was willing to wait. She entered our school of Jewish studies, participated in NFTY, began introducing Shabbat and holy days into her family’s life. Three years later her family moved and I never knew whether she followed through or not.

A few years ago she tracked me down and asked me to do her wedding. At 25 she formally converted. She became a pharmacist and joined the army. We made the arrangements and I flew in to do the wedding. A year later, in her early 30’s she left active duty and entered the reserves so she could go to medical school. A few months ago I saw this on her Facebook page:

“Alright. Screw it. Let's do this! Taking a leap of faith and consciously constructing a life I love. Big deep breaths.”
I PM’d her (that’s is Facebook speak for sent her a private message) and asked what that meant. This was her response:
when I returned to the US  I linked up with a primary care doc to shadow. Actually my husband’s doc since he was young. Great doc, great guy. Was shadowing him for awhile when we had a serious talk. The gist of his message was "I absolutely believe you can get into med school, and would make a fantastic physician. However being a physician (and putting medicine first) ruined my first marriage. You have to think about what you and your husband want". 
So my husband and I had a really long honest talk. And we both decided we didn't get married to spend the next 10 years apart (between med school and residency). And that we wanted to start having a family soon. I've experienced too many lost family members in life to think work is the end all be all, life is too short for that.”

Here is an example of wisdom passed on in the best way; through conversation and questions, not with thou shalt, or thou shalt not or even thou should.

Isaac, his father no longer available to him and his mother dead needed, like many of us, to find others to mentor us, advise us, and help us continue our growth. Reading the stories about the rest of his life, I doubt he did.

At each stage of life we draw upon the wisdom passed down to us when we were younger and new wisdom we gain from are own life experiences and others’ life experiences. Recently someone asked me if rabbinic school taught me how to be a rabbi. When I finished laughing I replied: “rabbinic school made me a rabbi. My rabbi growing up, my senior rabbi in my first pulpit, my older colleagues, years of experience, and to this day my rabbinic coach are still teaching me how to be a rabbi.”

I could say the same about life. My parents gave me life but they, Michele, and all the other important people in my life plus the wisdom I’ve gained through studying those who came before me and my actual life experiences taught me how to live.

Judaism teaches us how to gain wisdom, how to learn to live well with one seemingly simple phrase - קני לך חברacquire for you self a חבר. The Hebrew word חבר has 3 different meanings and in this phrase they are all present. The 3 meanings are:

1) A teacher - find someone or a few teachers who can convey to you the wisdom you need to thrive and to grow.

2) A friend - a true friend whose love is unconditional and who you trust at the deepest level to always tell you the truth, even when the truth hurts. And you know what they tell you comes from a place of kindness and love so that you can both grow. And 

3) A magician - people who can help you transform from and into each stage of life. From childhood to adolescence. From adolescence to young adulthood to adulthood to middle age to becoming an elder in your own right. Even with the teacher of wisdom and the true friend we still need a bit of magic to combine it all into a successful life.

May this year be for you a year of wisdom, filled with teachers, friendship and magic.

כן יהי רצין - So may it be God’s will. Shanah Tovah.

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon - 5777

And The Stairs Came Tumbling Down

Today marks a milestone in our congregation’s history. For the first time, with this lift, our bema is accessible to all who want to ascend it. From now on, anyone who is leading part of our service can literally make aliyah - they can come up and lead our prayers or bless the Torah in the same space as everyone else. The portability of the lift allows us to move it to the chapel, our only other non-accessible space. Stairs are no longer a barrier as they have been for millennia all the way back to the days of Solomon’s temple. And, God willing, by next Rosh Hashanah we will have a ramp from this level all the way up to the ark.

This lift both literally and figuratively shows us how many מדרגות - how many stairs have served as a barrier to people being able to fully participate in our worship. The מדרגות we remove with this lift are not the first barriers to be lowered to allow more people to fully participate in Jewish worship, nor will they be the last.

In the time of the patriarchs only the head of the family could build altars and offer sacrifices. Jacob built several. Isaac offered sacrifices at the altars Abraham built and Abraham - tomorrow morning we will read of him being willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice, his son on an altar he built. As was the custom at the time, those altars were built atop high places. In addition to the patriarch of the family being the sole practitioner of sacrifices, to worship one had to climb a hill. If the patriarch lived long enough he would have been unable to make the climb and the responsibility would pass to the head of the next generation or not be done at all.

As we left Egypt, traveled the Sinai, conquered Canaan and established our own kingdom, we developed a broader cadre of men who could lead worship, a clan in the tribe of Levi, the Cohanim - the priests. Whether we learned to create a priesthood from the Egyptians or the Midianites in the Sinai, or the people of Canaan, matters not. God designated, or we delegated to the Cohanim the right and the obligation to perform our sacrifices and rituals. Perhaps because of the Golden Calf where the Israelites panicked during Moses’ long absence and demanded a pagan ritual to keep them safe, or we simply emulated those around us, this system of the Cohanim, priests, broadened the numbers of those who could fully participate in the worship while still restricting it. And where did the Cohanim eventually perform these rituals? At the altar in the Temple which was built on a high place and elevated further by being placed on a platform. Torah specifically talks about the priests having to wear special clothing so as the climbed the מדרגות - stairs they would maintain their modesty as the Israelites below looked up at them.

With the destruction of the first Temple those exiled to Babylon had no Temple and thus no particular need for a priesthood. They established the synagogue as the place of prayer. Who led the service was not determined by familial right but rather only those men who proved themselves capable of creating this new form of worship led the prayers. Another stair came down.

Returning from Babylon the rebuilt Temple and the synagogue existed side by side. But while the Temple entrenched itself in the old priesthood, the synagogue expanded who could fully participate in worship. Now no special training was needed. The service coalesced and when the second Temple was destroyed, the synagogue survived. Openness survived and thrived. Even Maimonides himself hoped the priesthood would never be reestablished. Another stair is removed.

Through subsequent centuries the system remained the same until the Reform Movement decried separate seating. Our founders declared that women, men and children could all sit and pray together. Slowly, very slowly women began leading prayers in public. First candle lighting and then more. In 1922 Judith Kaplan was the first woman to celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah in a public service. Eighty one years ago Regina Jonas became the first woman we have a record of being ordained as a rabbi. In 1972, Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained as a rabbi in America and in 1975 Barbara Ostfeld became the first woman known to have been formally invested as a cantor. The barrier was broken and another stair fell away.

In the 1980’s the Reform Movement began ordaining lesbians and gay men as rabbis and cantors. Certainly gay men and lesbians had been ordained for centuries. But they had to remain closeted, hidden like Jews trying to avoid the Inquisition. Open ordination felled another barrier and more מדרגות were removed. A few years ago the first trans rabbi was ordained and another stair disappeared.

During these past few decades we chipped away the מדרגות that kept non-Jewish partners of Jews out of the synagogue and off the Bema. You men and women who bless us by your commitment to raise Jewish children now stand by your children as they enter religious school, celebrate becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and rejoice with them under the Chupah.

And now, in our synagogue another 3 מדרגות have literally been jackhammered out, and everyone can access our Bema, lead prayers and bless Torah where all can see.

 Yes, this lift is not pretty. Yes, it is noisy. But for now that is good. Because every time it is used, we will see and hear it allowing someone who could not previously ascend to do so. This lift will remind us of how far we have come and challenge us to remove the מדרגות that still remain.

How appropriate it is that we dedicate this lift on Rosh Hashanah - our new year, our time of reflection. A time we look back to see how far we have come as people and Jews as well as how far we have yet to grow.