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High Holy Day Sermons 5774/2013

Rabbi
James Prosnit
Rabbi
Evan Schultz
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The Power of Sacred Time
Rabbi James Prosnit dddd Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774

One thing nice about having the Holy Days so early is we get to say good bye to the year just ending sooner than the more typical timing.  It has been a difficult year here in southern Connecticut – both Mother Nature and the worst of human nature took its toll on the region – so with the setting sun this evening, while it is sad to say goodbye to the summer, I have a hunch few of us will mourn the passing of 5773.

Still the earliness of the Holy Days is a bit disconcerting. Labor Day just past and here we are.   The next time things line up this way it will be 2021 – or should I say 5782.

Actually if we saw the world exclusively through the lens of Jewish time there would be no issue.  Today after all is the first of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, the day on which Rosh Hashanah always falls.  It’s September, that is early this year.

Such a vantage point is hard for most of us.  Our lives are shaped by the world in which we live.   Be it a three day weekend which ends the summer or the start of the school year, ours for the most part is a secular calendar.  We tend to mark the seasons and cycle of the year more by the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup than Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot.

But Judaism has a lot to teach us, and the world about the holiness of time and Jewish teachings can remind us of the importance of these touchstones and markings we call holy days.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath, the Jewish cathedral, a cathedral in time.  This an acknowledgement of the importance of marking moments and making them breathtaking and magnificent.  When Jews were expelled or chased from country after country they had to leave their buildings behind, but the calendar in its entire splendor — that was transportable.  Knowledge and observance of the holidays is crucial to a positive Jewish understanding and provide vital links between past and future generations.

True, there are festivals in American life.  But they for the most part have been “malled!” Our national days of observance have in the main become excuses for sales. Our commitment to capitalism is best seen in what we’ve done to our holidays.  Each and every one is an excuse for shopping.  Ask any young person about what Labor Day is all about and I would be very surprised if any would see it as a day to honor the struggles of our nation’s workers.  Labor Day is back to school sales, new jeans and the latest Nikes.  Maybe a last vacation or barbeque for some, but full steam ahead at the malls and on Main Street for many.

Skip ahead to Thanksgiving. If there is one sacred, spiritually based holiday in the American year this is it. But what are the primary communal events of this most American of day?  Football and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade! And how does the parade end? With Santa and his reindeers, reminding our Christian neighbors that there are only so many shopping days before Christmas. By the way – this year things are so early for us that we had better do our Chanukah shopping before we taste any turkey. The first candle is lit on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.  I’m told the hottest selling item on Kickstarter these days is a menurkey – a menorah shaped like a turkey.

 

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have been turned into huckster for automobile sales that may have lagged during the winter.  And if it weren’t for the Black Church, Martin Luther King would soon be made a spokesman for Killington or Mount Snow.

I am waiting for Weight Watchers to proclaim Yom Kippur as national start your diet day or for Purim to be co-sponsored by Jack Daniels to beef up sagging bourbon sales.  No, fortunately our holy days are still holy (with exception of the menurkey)! Perhaps there aren’t enough Jews in the world to make our liturgical calendar marketable or profitable.  Or better yet, perhaps despite the pressures of the prevailing culture, we Jews still intrinsically understand the importance of sacred moments in insuring our continuity.

There is a story which I’ve heard attributed to the great tenor Enrico Caruso, but I am aware that some tell the same story attributed to other musical luminaries.  Caruso was asked the secret of his success.  What made him the best tenor of his time?  He answered, "many others have voices as good as mine, and can even produce more beautiful notes, but I, I have mastered the pauses between the notes."  Think about the great musicians or popular singers, the classic comedians and actors, who we revere because of their sense of timing.

Judaism enables each of us to perfect our timing.  For we know that time without pauses is like a train without a schedule or without stations — a journey without markings along the way. Without regular and recurring stops we cannot fully appreciate the journey.  Rabbi Irving Greenberg calls our Holy Days “the unbroken master code of Judaism. Decipher them and you’ll discover the inner sanctum of this religion. Grasp them and you will hold the heart of the faith in your hand.”1 

It’s the Guggenheim ramp. Each year as we move up its spiral; we pause and look down at last year and forward to next year at each curve on the journey.

For Judaism sees life as a combination of lines and circles. Perhaps best a spiral.  We have our histories, our communal one, our family one and our personal one.  As we move linearly towards some destination in distant time, we spiral higher and gain new insights as we confront familiar places from different vantage points of age and maturity.  It’s the Guggenheim ramp. Each year as we move up its spiral; we pause and look down at last year and forward to next year at each curve on the journey.

There is power and meaning to all this. And in a vast world where individuals can feel so powerless, these precious moments can be reassuring and vital.  Our holidays provide us with the markers by which we can examine our lives, take stock of our family, reflect on our goals scrutinize our values. 

This is the reason why I believe so many Jews throughout the world show up on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is what makes these the High Holy Days.  Cynics give all sorts of reasons why we’re here.  To please parents, departed or alive; out of habit; to be seen…etc.. But I don’t think that’s it. Filial piety, conformity and social pressures are not sufficiently strong in our time to warrant an expedition to the synagogue.  If these were the main reasons people would be picnicking at the beach this evening instead of praying. And many of our college students wouldn’t have turned around and come back home a week after they left for school.  Something of mystical proportions is going on and it goes on every year at this time.          

One of the blessings for me is to have stood on this bimah, now for the 24th New Year.  On one hand not so long in the span of a 154 year old congregation  - but still a pretty long time for a rabbi.  Some of my religious school students are now congregants in their own right with their own children and children I gave Hebrew names too are becoming brides and grooms.

But as you and I pause on this Rosh Hashanah to count the blessings and the celebrations, I also look around and see besides some of you empty places filled at one time by those you loved.  Some were devoted leaders of this congregation who I remember every year at this time.  On Yom Kippur it will be hard to hand out Torah scrolls to past presidents and not be able to give one to Jim Abraham or Arnold Kaplan.  There is a bittersweet, melancholy nature to Jewish Holy Days.  Over the years some have even professed an inability to be at services, to sit in a room that not long ago included a loved one’s casket.  That makes me incredibly sad, as I for one see this place, as a place for both joys and sorrows – a place where we can put the totality of our lives into perspective. 

Sacred time is serious time and that’s also what sets these days apart from the secular.  The complexities of family life, of life and death, divorce, retirement, moving  - the joys and stress of it all weave themselves through these days making a quilt of meaning and memory.

One intriguing name for Rosh Hashanah is yom harat olam – the Birthday of the World.  A midrash likens the shofar blast to a woman in child birth.  Ninety – nine moans and then the 100th -- the tekiah gedolah is the sound of a baby’s first cry; the beginning of new life the birthing of the world. It’s interesting that tradition calls today the world’s birthday because in truth Jewish tradition, Jewish texts are really not all that concerned with the matter.  There’s not a single Jewish birthday celebration in the entire Hebrew Bible.  As we know, Christian scripture focuses big time, but for Jews the day of one’s birth is relatively insignificant.  There’s a midrashic tradition about when Moses was born, but that came much later.  Otherwise we have no reference to anybody’s birth date or birthday celebration.

But on the other hand, one yearly anniversary has long been of crucial importance – the yearly anniversary of one’s death day. In spite of its later Yiddish name the observance of yahrzeit is deeply rooted and profound.  In the Jewish way Yahrzeit candles are far more important than that those that light up a birthday cake.

Rabbi Mark Berkson wonders, “Why would the rabbis have come to see Rosh Hashanah as a birthday celebration?  What would have led them to connect such an important Jewish day to such an insignificant or even nonexistent observance?  And the best way to answer the question is to ask another.  Which of our important Jewish days is connected not to our birthday but, if you will, to our death day?  Yom Kippur, of course.”

I have, several times, shared with you how Yom Kippur is our haunting dress rehearsal for death. The titles we use, the words we speak, the actions we take tell us so.  From the Viddui, the confession we offer on Yom Kippur and on our deathbeds, to the unetane tokef, the words acknowledging the sacred power of this day-”Who shall live and who shall die.”  One more year of our lives has disappeared and we are now one year closer to our end. 

As we move toward Yom Kippur it is as if we are living a lifetime.  It is not a morbid experience, however, because the encounter with each day is to renew our appreciation of life.  If we focus on the opportunity and power of these days it’s as if our whole life flashes before our eyes during these peak moments of our calendar year.  And then, tomorrow and again with Neilah on Yom Kippur we’ll hear the sound.   Tekiah gedolah- that final cry as we emerge reborn, inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.2

It is a fantastic – holy, sacred experience that we begin tonight.   Shanah Tovah

1 Greenberg, Irving, Summit Books, New York, 1988, p.17

2 Berkson, Mark, quoted and adapted from his sermon -- http://ceebj.org/rabbis-sermons/happy-birthday/

 

 

Stepping Back
Rabbi James Prosnit dddd Rosh Hashanah Morning 5774


Please rise — no I’m just kidding!  You’ve done enough standing and sitting for one morning!

While we’ve gotten used to standing at certain parts of the service, I don’t think the sermon has ever been one of them. Prayer choreography is, however, part of the worship experience.  And while early Reform Jews did away with most forms of movement within a service, preferring to be the “frozen people” instead of the “chosen,” they did find ways to highlight certain prayers and minimize others by posture. 

They, as we stood for the shema to highlight its centrality. They, as we do not, sat for the amidah –ironically named the standing prayer, because they did not feel comfortable with some of its petitionary nature. Making requests of God may be part of the liturgy –but you could do that maybe more unobtrusively from your seats.

Other forms of prayer choreography are also noticeable— we bow during the aleinu; turn and face the rear of the sanctuary on Friday nights at the end of lecha dodi to greet the Sabbath bride. Some of us stand on tip toes each time we say the word kadosh.  Kadosh kadosh kadosh –elevating ourselves in the quest for holiness –or as someone once taught to enable the angels to fully encircle our bodies when we say those mystical words. Some explanations to our movements are more understandable than others.

For me one of the most meaningful examples of prayer choreography is connected to recitation of the kaddish at the end of the service.  And I’m not talking about our decision to stand as one community as opposed to more traditional congregations where it is customary for only mourners to rise. I’m speaking of a lesser known tradition that instructs us to take a few steps back and turn to the left and right when reciting the kaddish’s final verse.  Oseh shalom

Now as in much of Jewish tradition there are a variety of explanations for why we perform certain rituals.  Some suggest we back up three steps as if we’re in the presence of royalty.   When meeting a king or queen one doesn’t just leave by turning and walking to the door, but rather backs up facing the monarch until he or she is out of sight. Therefore when we take leave from our King of Kings, we walk backward and bow to the various directions as a sign of respect.

But the explanation I prefer is connected to the words we recite as we are stepping back.  Oseh shalom b’mromav — a request to God –as you make peace in the heavenly worlds, in the orbits of stars and planetary objects (maybe even among the angels) can you also help make peace for us down here?

Notice that included in this request for peace is those three steps backwards. We learn from this that the first thing that must be done to achieve peace down here is for us to step back.

So this morning I’d like to talk about peace making, about the complexities and challenges of backing off.  In the interest of peace — when should we stand our ground, when should we intervene and rush right in — and when should we shrink a bit from our initial instincts, pause and choose instead to back away from a confrontation? 

It seems to me that some of the most challenging headlines this year can be linked to these very questions. Let me bring a few of them to the fore, while also recognizing that the same questions are not just topics in the news, but also part of our daily lives in the relationships we foster with family, friends and co-workers.

As guidance let’s go back for a few moments to Father Abraham.  Not necessarily to the image of Abraham that we just read.  The zealous Abraham of the Akedah seems not at all ready to take any steps back when God calls on him to sacrifice his son, but the Abraham of a few chapters earlier in the text. 

Abraham, the one who leaves his native land and journeys to Canaan with wife Sarai and nephew Lot.  We learn that in a short time Abram, as he was called then, prospered in his new land. He was rich with cattle, silver and gold. Lot did well too.  So well in fact, that the land could not support them staying together. 

Quarreling began between the herdsmen of Lot and the herdsmen of Abram.  So the text says, Abram said to Lot, Let there be no strife between you and be, between my herdsmen and yours… Let us separate if you go north, I will go south and if you go south, I will go north.  

Lot agreed – but first he surveyed the land and determined which he thought would be the most prosperous and he moved his tribe in that direction.

Abraham stepped back, showed magnanimity and a willingness to give in, to compromise for the sake of peace.

We can learn a lot from the Abraham of this narrative.  Whether it’s allowing another to merge easily into our lane in a traffic jam (even if the idiot zooms up on the side and tries to cut in at the last minute) – or a willingness to give up some land for peace as is being discussed among Israelis and Palestinians at this very time, stepping back can be an essential strategy in limiting  both road rage and war.

While I don’t want to make this a sermon about Middle East politics I should probably pause a moment and reflect on that last sentence.  For Israel the issue of stepping back to achieve peace does have existential consequences.  Ten days from now we will remember the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.  A time in the nation’s history when in the first couple of days after that surprise attack, her very survival was in question.  Then as now Israel was surrounded by nations that would not accept her sovereignty or existence. 

Can you step back in the wake of such hostility?  In intervening years Israeli governments have stepped back, withdrawing from Sinai  -- and that led to peace with Egypt, fragile but still peace.  But Israel also withdrew from both Lebanon and Gaza and those separations led to Hezbollah and Hamas –to continued warfare and constant threats to its security.

Stepping back is a good strategy – sometimes!

As an island of relative democratic tranquility in a sea of horrific violence, can Israel still afford to make compromises for peace? Without a formal recognition of Israel’s sovereign right to exist by the Palestinians and her neighbors that seems like a dangerous action.  But without the willingness to compromise on land, as Abraham did, will the other side ever agree to that recognition. 

The five central areas of debate — recognition, security, borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees add up to a seemingly intractable conflict that has been both simmering and exploding for a lot of years.  Long standing attitudes of hatred and distrust make some conclude that Secretary of State Kerry’s recent overtures are doomed from the start. 

But perspectives do change and enemies have become allies. At some point, perhaps when the status quo seems untenable or when Israeli and Palestinian leaders look beyond their borders and see the regions chaos and violence, perhaps the time is right to move beyond the intransigence and distrust that has existed for so long.  The challenge is to see one another not as “the other,” but as children of Abraham, half brothers, neighbors with common hopes, fears and aspirations. 

There are a surprising number of grass roots organizations on the ground throughout the region where such dialogue and peace building does take place already.  In the Middle East series we sponsored this past year with Trinity Church and Fairfield University some remarkable speakers across the spectrum shared their stories and the hopes that come when we open ourselves up to diverse perspectives.

But while shalom is the ideal, Jewish tradition is not pacifist and is aware of the need for self defense.  According to the sages the Torah was given to us in order to bring peace to the world. But Jewish law mandates self defense. The Talmud (Yoma 85b) states, “if someone comes to kill you arise early and kill him first.” While rodef shalom, pursuer of peace, is a classic Hebrew idiom (as well as the name of many synagogues), in the laws regarding the “rodef,” the pursuer,  one who witnesses another being attacked physically or sexually is obligated to intervene in order to save and protect the victim, using any and all force that is necessary (Sanhedrin 73a). 

I suspect that is a powerful teaching when we weigh the morality of our choices regarding intervention in Syria.  War weary and wary to be sure, but as Jews, when we see images of children gassed to death, can we stand idly by without remembering all those nations who stood by as it was happening to us.  Ignoring an atrocity anywhere is abhorrent; ignoring an atrocity in the Middle East is an invitation to chaos and mass murder.

When do we pursue –and when do we step back?  A true moral dilemma! When should we arm ourselves and when should we disarm.  That debate has waged for a long time. The Early Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky won a lot of followers in the 1920’s by ardently suggesting that good marksmanship was necessary in a world hostile to Jews. Some decades later this kind of thinking was endorsed by the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane who advocated “for every Jew a 22.”

Of course as many of you, know I find such attitudes in this day and age, in this country horrific, short sighted and dangerous. It is in the best interests of all citizens, including Jews to restrict the availability of firearms.  In a year that has seen the devastation of Newtown and continued violence in our cities the idea of mass marketing assault rifles is unfathomable to me. There are too many, easily available dangerous high powered weapons capable of taking precious lives. And it has been shown over and over again that guns in a home are far more likely to harm someone in the home than to stop an intruder.

It is after all a sermon about the central commandment in our tradition – to love our neighbor as oneself –and the challenge inherent in doing that.  It’s a sermon about peace making and the decision to step back in order to achieve it. 

But just as this is not a sermon on Middle East politics I also don’t want it to be a sermon about gun violence – as passionate as I may be on that subject.

It is after all a sermon about the central commandment in our tradition – to love our neighbor as oneself –and the challenge inherent in doing that.  It’s a sermon about peace making and the decision to step back in order to achieve it. 

As we saw this year in a much debated story and verdict there are real and tragic consequences to standing one’s ground.  Judaism does not believe in vigilante justice.  Permission to kill or harm a person plotting against you is granted only when the threat is imminent and no proper authorities can forestall it. Any other action runs counter to the mitzvah of loving a neighbor as oneself.  

Of course, it’s really hard to love your neighbor as yourself when the sight of your neighbor strikes fear and suspicion into your heart because you believe the prevalent stereotypes about their particular racial group. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that a young Black man in a hoodie posed a threat to the neighborhood, what if George Zimmerman recognized that his own gut reaction was a product of widespread stereotypes about young men of color?

It’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself when you assume your neighbor has no voice worth hearing, no contribution worth making, no value to society. What if George Zimmerman knew that when he has such a gut reaction (which many people of all racial identities admit to having), it is unfair of him to act on it because he has no idea who this person is or what his intentions are.  What if, in that moment when he first saw Treyvon Martin, George Zimmerman recognized his own capacity for racial stereotyping and took a few steps back.

The Martin case resonates for many of us as it did, not only because it once again exposed the racial divides in our society, but it heightened our concern for these stand your ground laws that  exist in various states.  Shooting an unarmed black teenager may have been determined to be legal by a jury in the state of Florida, but morally, it seems to me to be a bad and dangerous law. A “No duty to retreat” defense is more of a return to the ways of the old west, as portrayed in some of those classic films like Shane and High Noon, where retreating in order to avoid violence is considered not the commendable act of a prudent man, but the act of a coward.

It might be better for a state legislature to pass a three steps back law.  Before you assume the worst, before you prove your manhood, take steps to de-escalate the situation;  pause for a second to contemplate a peaceful way out.

Aristotle once wrote, “Anyone can become angry.  That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way—that is not easy.  Even in ancient days the challenge of picking one’s battles was well known.

I know nothing of martial arts, but what I do sense in some, is the dynamic to use the other person’s aggression against them – as a way to have an advantage in a conflict. The next time someone comes to you in a fit of anger, and your gut reaction is to give it back to them with just as much anger, try backing off a bit or using some humor. It might be disarming and just might change the calculus of a troublesome altercation. Some of the worst arguments take place when we act instinctively — interrupt, belittle, disregard or disrespect the other person. 

Of course it’s hard not to go into protective mode or to refrain from lashing back when we feel we’re being criticized or attacked.  According to Daniel Kahnemann in his book Thinking Fast; Thinking Slow our brains are wired in two ways. We have two interrelated systems running in our heads. One is slow and deliberate and the other is fast, associative and automatic.1 

Both may be essential for our survival, but conflict resolution, requires not just rushing in to stop a fight or stepping in to make peace when there is a battle raging, but most importantly taking deliberate steps to avoid the conflict in the first place.   

Stubbornly adhering to long established patterns may be part of our human nature, but a willingness to compromise is crucial to standing in relationship with others. If we each took three steps back perhaps the new vantage point would enable us to see the situation through a different lens and an open mind. Maybe it would even enable us to see that the other person just might have a valid point of view. It’s an exercise we can try at home.

So important is the pursuit of peace that our sages are clear – there are times when peace is more important than truth; more important than principles.

Rabbi Simeon b. Gamliel said: Great is peace, for Aaron the [High]Priest was praised only for peace; for he loved peace, pursued peace, greeted with the salutation of peace and responded with it, as it is stated, ‘He walked with Me in peace and uprightness.’

If he noticed two persons at enmity one with the other, he used to go first to one of them and say to him, ‘Why do you hate So-and-so? He has already come to my house, prostrated himself before me and said to me, I’d really like to make amends.’

Next he went to the other’s home and fabricated the same conversation, and so made peace, love and friendship between the two who were at odds.

What is written subsequently? Great is Aaron for he is the messenger of God.’ 
(
Kallah Rabati/Chapter 3 Law 1)2

The midrash places social harmony over truth, when it comes to bringing two disputing sides together to resolve their conflict.  And while I trust our conflicts do not have the violent components that make the nightly news, few of us are free of the estrangements, bitterness and excessive pride that weigh so heavy and affect our relationships.

While my remarks this morning have been generated by some of the headlines from the past year the goal of making peace is timeless.  A year’s end provides not only an opportunity to reflect on past events, but to focus on personal behaviors. The Jewish New Year especially, asks us to look at our personal ledgers and consider the times when we jumped to conclusions and saw the worst in others; and the times when some noble act propelled us to compromise and kindness; the times when prejudice, aggressive and boorish action brought us low and when making peace and loving a neighbor as oneself helped us transform the world in which we live.

These are the days when we most believe that transformation is possible.  In the year ahead with a commitment to seek peace and pursue it; let’s neither stand pat nor lurch forward, but rather let’s step back so we can all move ahead.


1 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/opinion/brooks-who-you-are.html

 

 

Together, Together
Rabbi James Prosnit ddKol Nidrei/Erev Yom Kippur 5774

There is a power and solemnity to this night that never fails to inspire and touch me.  Images of Jews whether in Bridgeport or Buenos Aires, Johannesburg or Jerusalem, London or Lagos Nigeria,  as some of us saw on the night of Selichot, Jews returning to synagogues of differing shapes and sizes intoning with differing melodies the same traditional prayers of confession and repentance. Passover may draw our families together around a seder table, but Ha lilah ha zeh nishtanah – this night is truly different.

There is a central paradox to our presence on Yom Kippur.  A sanctuary filled like no other time in our calendar year.  But the meaning of the day hinges on the moments of enforced solitude and reflection we experience ourselves. We sit in a room with many others, but our prayers ask us to search out our heart of hearts and to focus on a very personal process of self scrutiny called heshbon hanefesh – done in the context of a worshipping congregation.  Seated among family, neighbors, friends and strangers we seek the holiness imbedded in our souls.  And we assess the quality of our lives as only we can know it.  It’s a profound process, safe even from NSA surveillance — I trust.  It’s a private search during a very public occasion. 

All this is reflected in the public and communal nature of the confessions we recite both tonight and tomorrow.  The premise is that our short fallings impact the body politic, the community, rather than just the individual. While we are expected to make our private confessions, coming to terms with God for our own sins, Judaism is not just for individuals on their own, but for individuals as members of communities.  To assure a just society, all of us must be held at least partially accountable for one another.1 The Yom Kippur paradox of being alone together. 

Sure we can have reflective moments during a walk in the woods or soaking in a hot bath.  Some over the years have told me that they find greater spirituality on Yom Kippur reading a good book in their back yard than they do surrounded by 1000 others.  Why bother with the hassle of parking, the crowd and a prayer book that doesn’t always resonate. It’s a point of view, I admit, and one no doubt held by more than just a few. 

But it’s missing something. There is something about the nature of the Jewish people and the essence of Judaism that fails to materialize when we privatize our spirituality in such a way. Judaism is born in community, and it remains a steadfastly communal pursuit.  It’s not good for man to be alone God told Adam, which writes Rabbi Janet Marder, conveys a basic moral lesson: “human beings cannot be good in isolation; without the ability to give to others and care for others, our potential for goodness cannot be fulfilled.

“The Hebrew word for community, 'kehillah,' widely used in the Bible, comes from a verb that designates the act of bringing together an assembly. We hear inside the word kehillah the root from which it grew —  “kol” — the voice. Kehillah is the group that is called together by the sound of a human voice; it is the gathering created by our human impulse to respond to another’s call.”2

But today, the autonomous seeker draws away from community.  There are fewer moments when we can connect and share our stories and actually hear one another’s voice. And while Mindy’s Rosh Hashanah message reminded us so clearly of the power of listening to each other’s stories we know we live an era when communal bonds are eroding. Given the pace of our lives and the technology available it’s not what they once were.  We run frenetically, seldom having time for a genuine conversation. This lifestyle leaves little room for civic engagement or public relationships. As scholar Robert Putnam has noted, “Americans in massive numbers join less, trust less, give less, vote less and schmooze less.”3

A few moments go I used the phrase “alone together” to describe the power of this sacred night. Alone together an oxymoron, but as suggested it does capture some of the essence of this day.

But it’s also the title of a very provocative book by MIT professor Shirley Turkle. In her view, however, being alone together is anything but spiritual. The sub title of the book, Why we expect more from technology and less from each other4 speaks to the challenges of modernity.  We’re linked in all the time, yet feel increasingly isolated. Some of us have more and more friends through social networks, but fewer friends that we actually have the time to sit and talk to face to face.

So here’s the scene at breakfast the other morning at our house.  How wonderful it was to have a couple of sons home along with nephews and wives newly added to the family mix.  But at the kitchen table amid cereal bowls and left over round challah were six lap tops and six young adults focused on their email, instagram pages, news blogs and youtube videos.  Something of me longed for the days when they were fighting over who got the sports section first.

Or perhaps you read Frank Bruni’s piece in last week’s Time’s, titled “Traveling without Seeing.” He writes from Shanghai and says, “I’m half a world from home, in a city I’ve never explored with fresh sights and sounds around every corner. And what am I doing? I’m watching a TV show I downloaded before I left New York.  I’m haunted by how easily a person these days can travel the globe, and travel through life in a thoroughly customized cocoon.”

We customize who we talk to.  We screen our calls and rarely pick up for a number we don’t recognize.  I find I don’t talk to my mother in law as much as I used to. When she calls I see who it is and say Wendy it’s for you – not because I have anything against my mother in law – I love her and enjoy talking to her – I just anticipate she’s calling for my wife.

We customize our music our net flix, our politics – most of us read only articles and blogs that fit our already established points of view.    When I log on to my Amazon account it’s almost as if the computer is saying, “welcome back Jew, here are some books that people like you find of interest.” And I was concerned about loss of privacy to the NSA — I think that ship has already sailed.

Not long ago I was taking a walk around Lake Mohegan and when I came out of the woods along Morehouse Highway, Ellen Kadden happened to be driving by.  I had my head phones on and Ellen slowed down to say hello and said, “You should be listening to the birds.”  My first reaction was how did she know that one of my Pandora stations was set to Mr. Tambourine Man — but then I realized she was talking about the natural world I could have been enjoying along my walk.

Professor Turkle has a similar warning. She writes, "I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices."

We see it all over — children after scoring a soccer goal look up, trying to make eye contact with mom or dad only to find their parent’s eyes in their laps responding to email on their smart phones.  And those same children who some schools say must keep their cell phones in their lockers report feeling it vibrate–almost like a phantom limb.  Will kids ever learn the art of conversation when every communication is a text message or a 140 character tweet?  Can my Fairfield University students really be learning from my fabulous lectures when they’re supposed to be taking notes on a lap top, but multi-tasking on their Facebook page? 

Can we be reflective with our own creative thoughts and attentive to the beauty of the natural world when we’re on line 24/7?  Is serendipity ever possible when we’ve customized our world? We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we never learn to be alone, or teach our children that it’s okay to be alone, unconnected — we are far more likely to be lonely.

I am well aware that we all have to live in the world and in the generation in which we live. We cannot roll back the clock to a simpler pre smart phone time, but we can create boundaries for us and our children so that we use these devices rather than have them use us. Device free times and places like the dining room, after school pick up, Shabbat or bed time. Pauses, where we are fully present for each other and ourselves, when we can listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.

The good news is that I think many people, many of you, sense that something’s amiss.  Something has tipped out of balance and we need to re-calibrate to get it right. 

And so we return to the themes of this day – and the message that we can take charge of our world and make changes in behavior – so we can be together, together.  And that’s where Jewish values have a lot to teach us, beginning with those confessional prayers we find in the plural.

We are a people hopelessly communal and by that I mean we lose something of the essence of our faith when we choose to go it alone. 

And so it is a Kehillah k’dosha, a sacred community that we so desperately wish to create here at B’nai Israel. In my annual meeting address at the beginning of the summer I spoke of my pride in how we came together in response to both the devastation caused this past year by mother nature and the worst of human nature.  Before and after the storms of last fall and winter we tried to reach out to congregants who lived at the beach or who lived alone.  Once the Temple’s power was restored we became a warming and cell phone charging haven and we hosted a Shabbat dinner where those with power provided dinner for those who were still without. 

And after the heartbreaks of Sandy Hook we sought solace in prayerful gatherings and solidarity in marching together for safe gun legislation.  Clearly and importantly technology and the power of social media helped bring us together as would have been impossible in the past,  but the power of individual relationships made the efforts a success.

That’s the Kol in the Kehillah, that’s the kehillah’s voice that should resound during times of crises, but at other times as well.  That’s the kehillah’s voice sounding when a shiva call is paid to someone just because you’re part of the same congregation or when a new family is welcomed into a sukkah.  It’s the voice that’s heard when a regular who hasn’t been at services for a couple weeks is called and told that they are missed or when a stranger enters the sanctuary and someone leans over and helps them find the page in Mishkan T’filah, the new prayer book.

Did we turn to the individual or couple next to us when we took our seat tonight and use that voice to wish them a shanah tovah?  It’s amazing how little it takes to enhance the sense of community --  how a word or gesture can be so significant and how that can lead to a shared conversation and a shared bond.

The Hebrew word for single is yachid.  The Hebrew word for together is yachad. Only the tiniest letter of the alphabet, yud separates the two, yet the two words are worlds apart. The task of the congregation is to bridge the gap between the two. Can the yachid, the one who tries to go it alone, at some point become yachad.

Of course not everyone wants this from his or her synagogue.  Some need the Temple only as place to hear Kol Nidre, say kaddish or provide a decent religious school education for a child. I understand that, but at the same time wish to remind you that we have room for your gifts, your talents and your voice.  Especially in the complex isolating world of today, this kehillah can provide a pathway to evocative, compelling and diverse spiritual experiences that enhance lives, give those lives meaning and draw us nearer to God.

A number of years ago I remember a conversation with a now former congregant who actually came to synagogue and Torah study pretty regularly for about a year.  When I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks, I called to be certain that everything was okay.  “Oh, everything’s fine,” he said, “it’s just that last year I was into Shabbat, this year I’m into biking.  I got out of it exactly what I had been looking for, but now I'm on to other things.”

“Now I’m on to other things,” reflects the language of individual autonomy and customized Judaism. Again Rabbi Janet Marder writes,  “And more than that; it envisions Jewish acts as temporary forays we engage in; as a kind of exploration or dabbling, flitting, like spiritual butterflies, from one pretty flower to another.

“To be in a kehilla k’dosha implies a very different frame of mind. It is to invest yourself fully; to know that you’re here for the long run, and to devote yourself to the future. Not just your own personal future, but the generations to come – children whose faces you will never see, strangers whose names you will never know. A sacred community is oriented towards the future because its members know they belong to something that transcends the limits of their own lives.

“In return, we are blessed with the knowledge that the community goes on, even when our own lives end, and that what we have helped to build will enrich those who come after us.”

I believe that it is in community, with communal rites and rituals that we can best heal the soul, ease the inner pain and help repair a shattered world.

So tonight we can be — alone together, reciting the prayers of the past, letting go of the mistakes that we’ve made, resolving to take charge of our lives so we can connect to forces greater than ourselves, for God’s sake and for ours. 


Hoffman, Lawrence paraphrased from an interview Reform Judaism, Fall 2013

Marder, Janet, http://www.betham.org/sermon/seven-blessings-community

Putnam, Robert and Feldstein, Better Together: Restoring the American Community, (Simon & Schuster, 2003)p.4                                                         

Turkle, Shirley, Alone Together, Basic Books, New York, 2011

Bruni, Frank,. https://www.google.com/#q=Bruni%2C+shangai+

Turkle, Shirley from a podcast On Being with Krista Tippet, http://www.onbeing.org/program/alive-enough-reflecting-our-technology/63

Ibid (paraphrased)

Marder, Ibid

 
 
 

Lean In – God Isn’t Everywhere
Rabbi Evan Schultzdddd Rosh Hashanah 5774


There are certain things that define summer when you grow up in Boston.  Fourth of July fireworks along the Charles River, ice cream in Faneuil Hall, and of course, going to Fenway Park for a Red Sox baseball game.  

For my family, it was annual tradition to attend at least one Red Sox game every summer.  As a kid, it was the thing I looked forward to all summer, we would take the T to Fenway, enter into the proud old ball park, and take our seats in the bleachers just beyond the outfield.  I felt tough in the bleachers, sitting in the direct sunlight for hours on end, hearing more curse words in one afternoon that I would hear anywhere else in an entire year, cheering on our beloved Red Sox with the true fans of the Fenway bleachers.

“Let’s go Ortiz,” “C’mon Varitek,” and other phrases I can’t repeat here at synagogue would be spewed onto the field, we would shout, hoping that those players way down on the field would by some small chance hear us way up there in those Fenway bleacher seats.  

Fast forward to college, I get a call from my friend Josh. “Hey want to catch the Red Sox game tonight?  I have my friend’s dad’s season tickets – third row right next to the Red Sox dugout.”

Needless to say, that as a lifelong Red Sox fan, there were few things that would have prevented me from saying “yes” to Josh’s request.  I remember that evening game, as the ushers guided us to our seats, walking closer and closer to the field.  There they were, the players were right there, in front of us – those fans in the bleachers seemed miles away in little Fenway Park.  

It was as if being physically closer to the players automatically created a more intimate relationship with them...

As the game started, I noticed something else – the fans in those seats referred to the players by the first names, rather than their last names – “Let’s go David,” “C’mon Jason”  It was as if being physically closer to the players automatically created a more intimate relationship with them – somehow the fans felt the comfortable calling them by their first names – whereas in the bleachers you would probably get beat up for doing something like that.

The experience of the baseball game has led me to think more deeply about space, more specifically the ways in which our physical proximity to something or someone can transform the way we experience the world and those around us. Just think if you’ve ever sat in the front row at a Broadway show, sporting event or concert rather than row Z in the upper balcony.  Up close you can see the players, their faces, and expressions - from afar you can see the entire stage or court, the meta view of the action. Both are valid, yet as we sit closer to the stage or field, we develop a deeper sense of intimacy with the players in front of us.  

I recently started to think about this idea as it relates to sacred space. Just like a baseball game or broadway show, is it possible that where we choose to sit in prayer services might impact the way we experience worship, community, and even God?  

Can we actually get physically closer to God?  

I was always taught God is everywhere - in the heavens above, the earth below, and everything in between -  but I am beginning to question this idea - is it really cohesive with our own experiences?

Perhaps we can, to borrow Cheryl Sandberg’s term, Lean In — perhaps God is not everywhere, but rather,  like the childhood game of hot and cold, there is way for each of us to draw physically closer and deepen our experience and connection to the divine.

Thus the trick is for each of us to find that place, or in Hebrew, makom.  Our makom is that spot in the sanctuary or in the world that when we find it, we may profoundly connect to  to our history, to community, to ourselves, our Judaism, and to God.  

I first started to think about this idea of makom, of place, as a 2nd year rabbinical student at my student High Holy Day pulpit in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Over the course of the High Holy Days I observed two things regarding the dynamics of sacred space.  

First, for the most part, hardly anybody wants to voluntarily sit in the front row - this is also known as the the age old rabbinic conundrum. It turns out, that God may actually dwell closer to the front row.  

According to Dr. Richard Vosko, an expert on sacred space and design and participant in Synagogue 3000, “People believe, either consciously or subconsciously,  that the closer you get to the front of the sanctuary, the closer you are to God – and there is a discomfort with getting that close to the divine.”  Whether we are aware of it or not, believe that God dwells somewhere near the front of the sanctuary.

Secondly,  I experienced that  worshippers generally seem to have a certain spot in the sanctuary where they like to sit.  In the little sanctuary in Arkansas, some people even “claimed” certain seats by leaving personal items - tallit, prayer books, even blankets - in those seats.  It became their place, their spiritual spot, a makom, in the sanctuary.

Here too, at B’nai Israel, on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, I have a good sense where most congregants like to sit.  I don’t think it is a coincidence - there is a real power to space - the right spot, or makom, can have a profound impact on us and our connection to God.  

In thinking about this, I approached several congregants and asked them if there was something to this idea of makom; to share with me reflections on their experience of space in the sanctuary.  I received some beautiful responses that speak to this idea of makom and would like to share with you just a couple of their reflections:.

“I can only pray from the right,” says Amy Rich, “I always say, if someone asks where I’d like to sit as we walk into the sanctuary. Toward the front, closer to the side than to the middle aisle. Close enough to see the faces of the people on the bima, but far enough back to look around and see who is joining me in prayer. It’s a spot that allows me to connect not only to the community, but to the past and to the world beyond. From where I sit I can see the old eternal light hanging on the wall, and the new boards for memorial plaques with the recently added names. And I can look up through the windows, where I can see trees and sky and the occasional bird. It’s a spot where I can find – at least sometimes – the still, small voice within.”

Michael Weschler shared:
“I am aware that each seat has its own unique feel and offers its own unique experience, as well.  On Friday nights, when I have just gotten off of a train and the workweek is still on my mind, I like to sit closer to the front, on the rabbi side.  The proximity to the bimah, along with the direct line of sight to the service leader, helps to take me into the moment and lets Shabbat flow over me.
On Saturday mornings, my spot is in the back row, on the side.  I sit with friends, resulting in a more social feel to the service.

“Shabbat is a celebration, and I like celebrating with friends.  It is a time and place to reconnect with each other and show off the new harmonies we have been working on.  Although we pray seriously, we certainly enjoy ourselves.

“When I am going through a hard time, I find it very important to have a combination of both experiences.  I have felt a need to sit up front, perhaps closer to God.  I have also felt the need to be surrounded by friends, as a way to feel their support.  Sitting up close, giving me the feeling of one-on-one with the rabbi, yet surrounded by my close friends and community, has gotten me through those tough times.”

As I reflect on these words, I think – doesn’t this seem counter to what I learned about God growing up, that God is everywhere? Well in fact, this was not always the way we Jews thought about God’s physical presence.. The theological idea of God’s omnipresence only came about as a response to the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, when the Jews were dispersed into the wilderness of Babylonia.  Prior to that moment, Jews of the biblical era did believe that one could physically encounter and draw closer to God.  

One of the earliest, and most powerful examples of this is found in the book of Exodus, chapter 34. Following the incident of the golden calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets, Moses returns from Mount Sinai with a second set of tablets.  Verse 29 reads, “So Mose came down from Mount Sinai.  And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with God.”  

Following the construction of the Mishkan, or the Tabernacle, Jews believed that God in fact dwelled within an inner chamber inside the tent, in an area called the Holy of Holies.  Later, once the more permanent Temple structure was built, only once a year did a human enter into this chamber- on the holiday of Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter this space, with a rope tied around his leg just in case he fainted from the experience of encountering God at such a close proximity.  

However, when the Temple was destroyed, so was the Holy of Holies.  The Jews, and God, were dispersed across Babylonia – and thus the God narrative shifted – God was everywhere, mourning in exile for the Temple that once stood alongside God’s people.  

As I think about my own experiences, resonate more with the biblical idea that I, like Moses and the ancient Priests can physically, draw closer to God.  For me, there is a comfort in that, my relationship with God becomes a little more real, there is an intimacy when I find my makom, that place in which I feel closest to God.  

As a rabbi, I dont often get to choose my seat in the sanctuary, but I do have a makom.  It’s at the point in the service, right before the start of the Amidah prayer,  As we recite the words, Adonai s’fatai tiftach, ufi yagid t’hilatecha, I take the traditional three steps back and three steps forward.  In doing this, I feel as though I am entering into a closer space with God, like the Priest who entered the Holy of Holies, with those three steps forward I’ve entered into God’s presence, I speak with God intimately, I feel a power to the space as my feet shuffle forward.

In the book of Genesis, as Jacob has left home following the deception of his father to receive his brother Esau’s birthright. Chapter 28, verse 10 reads, “And Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran.  Vayifga bmakom, coming upon that place, he passed the night there.” The word Vayifga, from the root PAY GIMEL AYIN, translated as coming up, can also mean to encounter, or to meet.  Our tradition also explains that the word Makom, which I have translated as place, has a second meaning - makom is another name for God.  Thus one might translate the verse as, “Jacob encountered God in that place.”  When we find our makom, our place, we too encounter God.

Rosh Hashanah is a time of connecting and encounter...

Connecting with ourselves, our past, future, members of the community, with our Judaism and with God.  For some of us, God may be everywhere, and for others, perhaps a return to the Biblical conception of God, that we can physical draw near to God in a multiplicity of ways, will enable us to connect with the divine in new and profound ways.  

Just think for a moment about what brought you to this space this morning - why the tent as opposed to the sanctuary?  Was it an arbitrary decision, or does this space enable you to connect in some way on Rosh Hashanah - perhaps being outside, or the intimacy of it, no big screens, no bimah or robes - the experience of prayer is about more than the words on the pages of the prayerbook - it is a multi-sensory, multi-dimensional experience - and our physical space can have as much meaning and impact as the liturgy, community, music, and time of year.  

May this holy day be an opportunity towards finding your makom, that place -  for each of us the possibilities are many.  Just as Jacob, Moses, and the ancient Priests drew near and physically encountered God, we too each have the opportunity to play that game of divine hot and cold, to seek out the place which helps us to connect, to draw nearer to God, to develop a deep relationship with the divine, and to ultimately bring us to better understand that which God seeks of us in this world.

Shanah Tovah


 

Who Is Wise?
Rabbi Evan Schultzdddd ddd Yom Kippur Morning 5774

Who is wise?
You are.
Well, at least you have the potential to be.
The fate of the world depends on it…
Ok  - perhaps a little dramatic –
but it’s Yom Kippur, this whole day is the ultimate drama.  
And I meant what I said –
the world has some serious problems
that are in need of some creative solutions.
 Thanks Captain Obvious, you may say to yourself –
 I didnt have to come to Yom Kippur services
 to be told the whole universe is a mess.
No, I’m here to recruit each of you to help fix it - and how?  
With good old fashioned wisdom.  

You may say to yourself, me? wise?  You must be kidding me.
Sure, I say the word wisdom and for many of us
it conjures up an image of an ancient old rabbi,
nearing the end of his days,
whispering the secrets of life and Torah
into the ears of his students.

Or perhaps the words from the book of Job -
But where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
Man does not comprehend its worth;
it cannot be found in the land of the living.
God understands the way to it
and God alone knows where it dwells”

There rabbi, see - it’s right there in the Bible –
wisdom is unattainable in our lifetimes,
it is one of those lofty virtues
that one can never actually reach.
Sure, that’s one way of looking at it.

But what if I told you that there is more than one
definition of wisdom found in the Jewish tradition –
an alternate way of understanding wisdom –
one that is accessible and attainable,
and requires only minor changes to your daily lifestyle –
would you be interested?

Consider this definition of wisdom written by Eliyahu Kitov,
a rabbi, activist and writer who lived in 20th century Poland.  
He explains-

"God gave man three precious gifts which distinguish humans from the animals: knowledge, understanding and wisdom.  Knowledge is information that one gathers from the world, and from other people.  Understanding is the power to analyze information, distinguish things, and place them in their proper order and perspective.  Wisdom is the ability to summarize such knowledge and understanding and use one’s intellectual powers creatively in order to accomplish concrete goals.  

Wisdom is the power to digest one’s knowledge and understanding, and put these faculties into practice: a person tests his understanding in real-life situations, and sees that he has reached the truth.  Until a person has wisdom, though, he cannot really be thought of as a creator and former of worlds.  Knowledge can deceive and understanding can be incomplete, but once a person has acquired wisdom, he qualifies
to be a “partner” with God in the process of continuing to create the world.  Just as God creates things that survive and flourish, so, too, does a person who has acquired wisdom."

In other words, wisdom can also be understood
as the act of creating anew- birthing new ideas,
for example, or asking interesting new questions.  
God, for reasons unknown to us, purposely left the world incomplete-
and chose us, human beings, to act as partners with God
and continue the work of creation each and every day.  
Without wisdom, the ongoing work of creation stalls,
and we are left with a world permanently covered
with scaffolding and nobody doing the work.  

One of the real impediments to truly engaging
in this work of tikkun olam, or repairing the world,
is that many of us have convinced ourselves
that we’re already busy in the work of bettering the world.  
We believe, incorrectly, that knowledge is the key
to solving our difficulties, not wisdom.

You see, we live in an age of mass quantities of knowledge,
or information, all available right at our fingertips.  
The term, “Information Age” is an understatement –
we have become a society of,
in the words of NYU Professor and social critic Neil Postman,
"information glut, information as garbage, information divorced from purpose and even meaning.”  
This may sound harsh, but it’s Yom Kippur,
the day of facing difficult truths about ourselves.  
I’m certainly guilty of it - turning on my iPhone
and opening up one of my favorite apps, Flipboard,
in which in which I can quickly read headlines
from every major news outlet,
from the New York Times to the Economist,
Runner’s World to The New Yorker,
trying to soak up as much information as possible
about world events, Washington politics,
the Arab Israeli peace process
and the latest injury prevention techniques.  
I lose myself in this app, flipping and flipping
with my thumb through seemingly infinite headlines –
I want to know what’s going on, when it’s happening,
who its happening to and where it’s taking place.  
If an article seems particularly interesting
I’ll click on the headline and read it through,
but like many in this day and age, I’m busy busy busy,
running running running, and want to soak up as
much information as possible in the shortest amount of time.  
At the end of the day, I feel pretty knowledgeable
about what's going on in the world.

Chances are that I am not alone in these feelings.  
I recently saw a headline saying that
The New York Times is preparing to offer a digital,
daily “Need to Know” subscription:
the title really says it all- we live in a digital information age,
so the folks at the New York Times will
parse the information down for us,
providing us with exactly what we need to know right now.

Of course social media, such as Twitter and Facebook,
which Rabbi Prosnit spoke about last night in reference
to the phenomenon of living alone together,
provides a similar platform for individuals
to share the “Need to Know” of their personal lives.
I can scroll through literally hundreds of posts on my phone,
to find out, for example, who is on vacation where,
what sites they just visited, and when they’ll be coming home.  
It is the means by which I learn who recently had a baby,
got married, had a birthday, or got a job.
And for some reason it is so addictive!
In fact, a recent study conducted in the UK claims that for some,
quitting Facebook is harder than quitting
smoking or alcohol addictions!  
But - at the end of the day I feel pretty knowledgeable
about what's going on with my friends and community.

We are a society, that, as a whole,
is perhaps more knowledgeable and filled with information
than any generation in history.  
But there is a danger in this, says explains Langdon Winner,
Chair of Humanities and Social Sciences
at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
“we have created a myth for ourselves that more information will solve all of our difficulties – social, political, ecological, psychological.  Solve the problem of inner city crime – we need more information!  Our schools are failing – give us more data!  World hunger, we need more statistics!”  
This is a potentially dangerous myth
that we have created for ourselves.

This is perhaps what Eliyahu Kitov alludes to when he says,
“Knowledge can deceive and understanding can be incomplete.”  
If there’s one thing I’ll pound my chest for this Yom Kippur,
its for the sin of information gluttony,
and convincing myself that being a knowledgeable person
is good enough.

It is a bad habit we’re in, but the good thing is,
it is not too hard to break it.  
As our fellow congregant Richard Walden said
in a Saturday morning sermon just a few weeks ago-
the High Holy Days is not about huge, major changes,
but small shifts in our action that ultimately can have a big impact.  

Attaining wisdom is one of those small shifts –
it’s a change in behavior, in attitude,
in challenging ourselves to do something with all this knowledge
that we have acquired.  
I don’t necessarily agree with Job when he says
that wisdom is not found in the land of the living,
that only God understands the path to it.  
We all possess a mind and two hands –
and that’s all we need to exercise our creativity,
to acquire wisdom.

Consider the most famous “wise man” in all of Jewish scripture –
King Solomon.  In the book of I Kings,
we read of two young women who lived in the same house
and both had an infant son.  
They approached King Solomon for a judgment.
One of the women claimed that the other,
after accidentally smothering her own son while sleeping,
had exchanged the two children to make it appear
that the living child was hers.
The other woman denied this and thus both women claimed
to be the mother of the living son
and said that the dead boy belonged to the other.

After some deliberation, King Solomon called for a sword
to be brought before him.
He declared that there was only one fair solution:
the living son must be split in two, each woman receiving half of the child.

Upon hearing this terrible verdict, the boy's true mother cried out,

"Oh Lord, give the baby to her, just don't kill him!"

The liar, in her bitter jealousy, exclaimed,

"It shall be neither mine nor yours—divide it!"

Solomon declared the first mother as the true mother
and gave her the baby. King Solomon's judgment
was considered an example of profound wisdom in Jewish tradition.

Consider for a moment Solomon’s great wisdom –
he acquired the information about the situation –
and what did he do?  He asked a new question –
he approached the situation from a different angle.  
“Wisdom means knowing what questions to ask about knowledge,” says Neil Gilman.

Sometimes wisdom can be a powerful response to tragedy.  
Consider the powerful story of one of our congregants from this past year, Nancy Lefkowitz, and her friend Meg Staunton,
who in response to the December tragedies in Newtown,
sat down at a kitchen table and asked the question,
“what can we do to prevent something like this tragedy
from happening again in the future?”  
After looking at all the information in front of them
they had their moment of wisdom –
a push for sensible, common sense gun laws in our country.  
From their conversation a movement was born, March for Change, inspiring thousands, including a bus packed to capacity from B’nai Israel, to travel to the capitol building in Hartford
and demand change from our state lawmakers.  
Certainly March for Change was one of the catalysts
 for the stricter gun laws enacted by Governor Malloy this past spring.  

Nancy and Meg Postman had the capacity to know
what body of knowledge was relevant
in working towards a solution to gun violence in our country.  
Wisdom does exist in the land of the living –
we all witnessed it first hand through this inspiring story.

I found another powerful example of wisdom last week
in an op-ed piece by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times
in response to the ongoing situation in Syria.
In his column entitled, “Arm and Shame,”
Friedman challenges Obama’s strategy to attack Syrian military outposts, writing,

 “We need a policy response that simultaneously deters another Syrian poison gas attack, doesn’t embroil America in the Syrian civil war and also doesn’t lead to the sudden collapse of the Syrian state with all its chemical weapons, or, worse, a strengthening of the Syrian regime and its allies Hezbollah and Iran.
However, I think President Obama has the wrong strategy for threading that needle. He’s seeking Congressional support for a one-time “shock and awe” missile attack against Syrian military targets. The right strategy is “arm and shame.”

Friedman goes on to explain his strategy,
Which we may not all agree with,
And he even admits that it is not perfect-
Yet to me that while many in Congress want more and more
Information and data on this conflict,
Friedman asserts that is more about finding
the right pieces of information, asking different questions,
and bringing new ideas into the fold that may be relevant
towards working on a solution to this very complex situation. 
This is what I want from my journalists, our leaders,
to set that example for the rest of us
to shift our traditional thinking and old questions
in solving complex problems.

March for Change and Syria
are two more major and complex examples of wisdom,
yet there are small things we can do on a daily basis
to manifest wisdom in this world –
simple shifts in our language and questions that we ask.  
How many of us, when we get home to our families ask the same,
tired old question –
how was your day?  What did you do today?  
What if instead we asked each other –
 what is something you created today?  
What is a new question you asked today?  

There is a well-known letter to the editor
written by a man named Donald Sheff
, in the
January 19th, 1988 issue of the New York Times,
He wrote:

“Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics who died Jan. 11, was once asked, ''Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?''

''My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions -made me become a scientist!''

Dr. Larry Hoffman, liturgy professor at Hebrew Union College
and consultant for Synagogue 3000,
once told us that so many of us ask the same old, tired questions,
 and usually they are the wrong questions.  

We need more people to put together new sentences,
to build new questions if we want to progress.
Wisdom is asking the right questions,
and each of us is capable of doing it.

Surely the world is in need of some serious change,
and it can feel daunting to tackle some of these problems.  
However, acquiring more and more knowledge is not the solution –  we can no longer fool ourselves into thinking that being a knowledgeable person is good for the world – it is only the first step.  

We can get into the habit of seeking wisdom – it is not only in the realm of God, we are equal partners in creation.  

We have the minds, the bodies for wisdom,
 to create anew, to dream, build, think, and ask new questions.
 It is our Jewish mission, our purpose as humans
created by God and placed here on this earth.  

The continuing work of creation falls upon us –
to climb up upon the scaffolding, perhaps push ourselves
out of our comfort zone, and fill this world with wisdom.  
As I said earlier, the fate of the world depends on it.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.

 
TBA
Student Rabbi Ethan Prosnit
2nd Day Rosh Hashanah 5774


 

 

 
 
 
 

 
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