Standing Together, Sparks Flying – Yom Kippur Sermon 5783

When I was in rabbinical school, my friend and mentor, Zach Shapiro, over at Temple Akiba, told a story about a trip to his student pulpit:

“When I got off the plane for my first visit, the president and her four-year-old daughter were there to greet me. 


The daughter whispered something to her mother, who in turn began to laugh.


”What’s so funny?” I asked.”


”My daughter said, ‘I didn’t know boys could be rabbis?!’


His predecessor had been a woman.


The path to a world where rabbis come in all genders and sexualities wound through the desert before reaching the promised land. This year we celebrate 50 years of women in the rabbinate. Fifty years. To me, that seems all too recent and honestly, a significant departure from the essence of Judaism we read in our Torah this morning. As the Israelites enter into Covenant with God, we see a beautiful, inclusive vision of what could be. We read: “Atem Nitzavim – You stand this day, all of you, in the presence of Adonai your God—your tribal heads, elders, and officials; every man, woman, and child of Israel; and the stranger in the midst of your camp; from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water” (Deut 29:9-10).  


It’s a powerful image – one that tells us that every single person has purpose and value in living out the Jewish covenant and upholding our obligations as the Jewish people. As Reform Jews in 2022, it’s easy to read this text and feel good about ourselves. We are part of an inclusive movement, one that doesn’t always succeed, but one that strives to be welcoming, inclusive, and representative of our LGBTQIA+ community, Jews of color, interfaith families, families with special needs, and women. Though this effort towards inclusion is modern – and we know of longstanding practices of gatekeeping and discriminating against these groups within and beyond our movement – we see a vision in our Torah of a different path, a path where we all share an equal part of Judaism, of community, of leadership.   


As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s ordination – the first female rabbi ordained in the United States – I want to share with you the all-too-recent story of the struggle for women’s equality in our movement and what we can learn from it going forward. And as I begin, I want to thank some of my dearest rabbis in Philadelphia – Rabbi Stacy Rigler and Rabbi Lance Sussman – who’ve shared similar teachings this year and helped me bring this important story to you today.


In 1890, an educator and journalist named Rachel “Ray” Frank wrote a quippy reply to The Jewish Messenger, a national Jewish publication that was seeking answers to the question, “What would you do if you were a rabbi?” In her response, “What a Jewish girl would not do if she were a rabbi,” she writes: “I would not, if I were a rabbi, endeavor to impress the nature of my calling by loud and shallow words, …I would not say to my fancied inferiors, I am the rabbi, and you must therefore do this and that; but I would reach their actions through their hearts…It is, indeed, difficult nowadays to note the difference between the rabbi and his friend the clothier, or the broker; his dress, his diamonds, his language, his very walk is not bookish but business; is not piety but pence.”


That year, Frank traveled to Spokane, Washington to lead a Kol Nidre service for the local community that didn’t have a permanent synagogue. She was the first Jewish woman known to deliver a formal religious sermon in the United States, and was subsequently dubbed the “Girl Rabbi of the Golden West.” Though she never sought or attained formal ordination, Ray Frank sparked an important conversation on female clergy in America.


In the coming years, the Women’s Suffrage movement gained traction across the United States. Alongside that national push for the right to vote, calls for female ordination grew louder in some Jewish communities. The 19th Amendment’s ratification in 1920, which guaranteed women the right to vote, propelled women’s groups to go on and fight for educational access and job opportunities as well. 


That same year, the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, a local paper in Kansas, announced that Martha Neumark would become the first female rabbi. After three years of study at the Reform Movement’s seminary – Hebrew Union College (or HUC), Neumark petitioned the faculty in 1921 for a High Holy Day pulpit. As HUC faculty debated their path forward, the professional organization of Reform Rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis or CCAR, began discussing the ordination of women at their annual gathering. 


Rabbi Louis Witt, a leading Reform rabbi, raised his voice in support: “We have witnessed the revolution in the status of women. Five years ago, I had to argue in favor of women’s rights when [women’s suffrage] came up in the Arkansas legislature, but I did not feel that there would be need to argue that way in a liberal body of men like this…I believe that this body of men should do nothing that would stand in the way of any forward movement on behalf of the womanhood of America. I cannot believe that a religion that is so splendidly spiritual and forward-looking as our religion will stand in the way of such a movement. I feel that this Conference can only act in one way, and that is to fall in line with what is the destiny of the women of the future.”


However, on June 29th, 1922, the New York Times reported that the conference attendees opposed the resolution. But the all-male-conference did a surprising thing – they then invited the women present – mostly rabbis’ wives – to join the discussion. After hearing the voices of their guests and tabling the conversation overnight, the CCAR voted to affirm, in principle, the right of women to become rabbis. HUC, however, refused.


Earlier that same year, as Rabbi Carole Balin wrote, “Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan introduced bat mitzvah for his daughter, Judith…at his Manhattan synagogue known aptly as the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. He regarded the ceremony as a corrective to girls’ exclusion from Jewish education but not bar mitzvah’s equal. Judith was allowed to read from her Chumash, a book containing the Five Books of Moses, rather than the Torah scroll as the boys did. Rabbi Kaplan reserved that honor for himself.“


“As hundreds followed in Judith’s footsteps,” Balin continues, “girls began to expect — even demand — to do what boys did. Sparks began to fly…when post-bat mitzvah girls petitioned to carry the Torah. They believed they were at least as strong as “those old men” who were allowed to march with the scrolls on the holiday of Simchat Torah. After winning that battle, they set their sights on regular ritual honors. What was the point of all that religious training if the bat mitzvah ceremony was one and done?” The ball was rolling.


While the debate of the religious participation of women and their ability to be ordained continued in America, Rabbi Andrea Weiss writes that, “the time for the first female rabbi finally ripened in Germany in 1935,  when Rabbi Max Dienemann privately awarded a rabbinic diploma to Rabbiner Doktor Regina Jonas. Jonas taught Torah and comforted people in Berlin as the Nazis rose to power. She was deported to [the] Terezin [concentration camp] in 1942 [and] was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.” 


In her rabbinic thesis, Regina Jonas referenced the idea from our Torah portion this morning that all people stood at Sinai and received the Torah together. She writes, “If I confess what motivated me, a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of humans. God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender.” 


God certainly planted in the heart of America’s first female rabbi the skills and vocation of a truly special clergy person. Sally Priesand first visited the Cincinnati campus of HUC as a high school student on a NFTY youth group trip. She raised her hand and asked a simple question: Can a woman become a rabbi?  She received an ambiguous response, only saying it hadn’t happened yet. Soon after, she enrolled in the Rabbinic program.


She later wrote, “When I entered Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I did not think very much about being a pioneer, nor was it my intention to champion women’s rights. I just wanted to be a rabbi.” Rabbi Priesand persevered through her education at HUC, a verifiable boys’ club, to become the first female rabbi in America in 1972. Her ordination was rightfully received with much fanfare and press, but privately Rabbi Priesand endured many challenges. 


After leaving her first position at the Steven Wise Free Synagogue she could not find another position for several years. Ultimately she landed at a solo pulpit in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey where she stayed for the rest of her career. She speaks publicly about her decision not to marry or have children, and though she doesn’t focus on the sexism and adversity that she experienced, we know that Rabbi Priesand and the first female rabbis that followed her faced numerous, significant obstacles.


A few years after Rabbi Sally’s ordination, an HUC professor wrote about the decision to ordain women rabbis. “Reform Judaism,” he said dismissively in 1975, “tries to be all things to all people, and must, therefore, take up every fad which comes along.” Still ten years after her ordination, Reform congregations across the country said hiring a female rabbi would be a controversial choice. Though it was clear in 1890 and affirmed in 1922 that women could and should be rabbis, and that our religion would greatly benefit from their leadership, fear of change and deeply rooted prejudice kept the leaders of the Reform Seminary and Reform Synagogues from embracing a more inclusive future. We are so lucky to have Rabbi Priesand as a model of determination and perseverance. Though we’ve made many strides in the past 50 years, and many of my own classmates at HUC were women, we have a long way to go. Rabbi Priesand’s model of leadership is one we will need to continue in our journey towards a just, inclusive movement and society. 


Our movement today prides itself on being “audaciously hospitable” and emphasizes the inclusion of Jews of Color, individuals of varying abilities, interfaith families, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+. The problem, as we see in the relatively recent story of women seeking the rabbinate, is that words on paper don’t immediately change the world around us. Words must inspire us to change the world with our hands, our actions, our insistence. As our tradition teaches, “We are not required to complete the work, nor are free to desist from it.” Whether or not we have leadership roles, our voices and our actions are critical to building a better future collectively. We must do the difficult work of ensuring racial equity, gender equity, sexual equity, class equity…in our movement, here in our congregation, and in all of our communities. We might not see the fruits of our labor come to fruition immediately – there’s no Prime shipping on equity – but we have the power to ensure a better future for the generations to come in which all voices will be heard and valued. I always smile when I think of that little girl’s innocent surprise that “boys could be rabbis.” I see that innocence and sense of openness in my kids, too. And I hope for the day when we can approach difference with such open arms, open minds, and open hearts.  


In the 1980s, poet Merle Feld wrote a poem about our Torah portion this morning called, We All Stood Together:


My brother and I were at Sinai

He kept a journal

of what he saw

of what he heard

of what it all meant to him


I wish I had such a record

of what happened to me there


It seems like every time I want to write

I can’t

I’m always holding a baby

one of my own

or one for a friend

always holding a baby

so my hands are never free

to write things down


And then

As time passes

The particulars

The hard data

The who what when where why

Slip away from me

And all I’m left with is

The feeling


But feelings are just sounds

The vowel barking of a mute


My brother is so sure of what he heard

After all he’s got a record of it

Consonant after consonant after consonant


If we remembered it together

We could recreate holy time

Sparks flying  


As we enter a new year and reflect on the challenges we’ve faced personally and as a society in the past few years, may we create – together – a beautifully diverse community in which everyone has a part to write. Then, perhaps we might recreate holy time. We might let sparks fly. We might live up to the dreams in the Torah.


Gmar Chatimah Tovah!


No Limit to Concern – Kol Nidre Sermon 5783

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of subbing for our sixth grade class on Sunday morning. Eitan had given me a lesson plan, but, as Rabbis often go rogue, I wanted to discuss three big questions. First – very important – what did they do this summer? Second, do they believe in God? And third, were they interested in learning about the Holocaust this year?   

 

As for their summers – Wow… you planned amazing summers for your kids and I wish I could swap places with them. Do they believe in God? They have remarkably sophisticated understandings of God, in ways far beyond what you might expect for twelve year olds. (And I encourage you to follow up on this, parents.) And finally, are they interested in the Holocaust? At that question, every single student jumped to share their families’ stories, to ask question, to learn more. It was a familiar reaction because I too was once one of those kids.   

 

I read every Holocaust book I could get my hands on and watched every Holocaust movie, perhaps seeing Schindler’s List and The Pianist a bit young. I met Holocaust survivors – a group of individuals that is rapidly dwindling – and listened to their stories. As a teen I visited The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. with my synagogue – something our community will bring our teens to do this winter. During our tour, I remember when our guide pointed out the famous author Elie Wiesel on the bunks at Buchenwald. Staring at his emaciated face, then and now, I think of his teachings on indifference: “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference…..And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Wiesel focused not on the Nazis or Hitler, but on those who didn’t even lift a pinky to resist one of recent history’s most egregious moral catastrophes. Wiesel was a voice of the victims – crying out – why aren’t you helping us?!  

 

Moved by the promise of Never Again and perhaps guilted by my own indifference, I got deeply involved in the Save Darfur campaign as a teenager. One Tuesday night at teen programs, I naively asked my rabbi, “Who’s Darfur?” Referencing the green ‘Save Darfur’ bracelet he wore on his wrist. I felt foolish when I received the answer.  How could I not have known about a government-sponsored genocide in Africa? I quickly hatched a plan and created a fundraiser with some friends, helped educate my community, even brought a Darfurian refugee to my high school who spoke to us and helped direct our giving. He said their greatest needs then were flip flops and clothing. With Old Navy’s help, we donated hundreds of pairs of flip flops. One day, I was walking through the cafeteria trying to drum up support for our cause, and a kid I knew responded – “Why would I help? We have enough problems in America.” I’ll never forget that.  

Shortly after, I traveled to Israel to study on Kibbutz Tzuba nestled in the hills outside Jerusalem. On our Reform Movement’s semester-long program for high schoolers – now called Heller High – I visited Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum. I remember so clearly weaving through the impactful museum with my classmates. We eventually stopped at a photo. I remember the docent’s indignation with clarity: Here is an aerial photograph the United States had of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 over a year before the war ended,” she said. The rail lines, the barracks, the gas chambers, the crematoria – seemingly everything to make the moral argument to strike. “Why,” she asked, “did the US do nothing?

 

One of the most significant ethical questions we face in life is the tension between “Why aren’t we helping to address a moral catastrophe we know is happening?” with the impulse to respond, “why would I help – my small slice of the world has enough problems.” Thanks to globalization, the internet, and the reach of social media, we have access to a staggering amount of information at an instant. 

 

So, what do we do about the tragedies of the Uyghur Muslim people, oppressed by the Chinese government and forced to endure cultural “reacclimation” to erase their identity? But our streets of Santa Monica are filled with unhoused neighbors amidst an unsustainable housing crisis. What do we do when Russia attacks Ukraine unprompted and rains war on innocent civilians? But there are still cities across our country without clean drinking water. What do we do when the Taliban retake Afghanistan and families are forced to flee? But what about the unabated racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, etc. within our communities that we still haven’t begun to remedy? This, as you know, is a false dichotomy. We can, and must, care about both. 

 

Ken Burns’ new documentary “The US and the Holocaust” deals directly with the tension of  “Why isn’t the US helping to address this moral catastrophe they know is happening?” and “why would the US help – our country has enough problems and we don’t want yours.”  The documentary spotlights the US reaction to the Holocaust in an incisive and insightful three part series that I hope you will all take the time to watch. One of my first reactions to the series brought me back to Yad Vashem all those years ago and the docent’s question: Why did the US do nothing?   

 

In the first 100 days of Hitler’s rule, American Papers published 3000 incidents detailing the alarming nature of Nazi power. American indifference in 1933 was not due to a lack of  information. That year, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise pleaded with Americans: “The time for prudence and caution has passed…What is happening in Germany today may happen tomorrow in any other land on earth unless it is challenged and rebuked. . . . We must speak out.”  

 

But in Hollywood, the opposite happened. Between 1933-1939, not a single word was uttered on screen against the Nazis. The German Vice Consul in Los Angeles had the power to approve or disapprove scripts before production – wielding the lucrative German market. But then Kristallnacht happened on November 9, 1938 – the night of broken glass – a pogrom destroying Jewish businesses, attacking Jews on the streets, a wave of arrests of 30,000 Jewish men simply because they were Jewish, and, after the violence calmed, the Nazis assessed a billion Reichsmark “atonement tax” on the Jewish community for inciting the pogrom against them.

 

American Newspapers covered Kristallnacht closely, making the front page and shocking Americans. How could a civilized country like German do this? As FDR remarked, “I, myself, can scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization.” Two weeks after Kristallnacht, a poll of Americans asked if they disapproved of the Nazi pogrom – 94% did. They were then asked if America should let in Jewish victims of Nazi aggression. More than 70% said no. 

 

After Kristallnacht, Nazi efforts intensified to find a solution to their so called Jewish problem and began imprisoning and killing Jews. In early 1942, the Wannsee Conference made official the Nazi’s “Final Solution” to annihilate European Jewry. That same year, a representative of the World Jewish Congress, Gerhart Riegner, sent a telegram to Great Britain and the United States sharing his discovery of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate Jews, explaining that between three and a half and four million Jews in Nazi-occupied territory “should after deportation and concentration in east [be] at one blow exterminated in order to resolve once [and] for all Jewish question in Europe.” Riegner, unaware that mass murder was already taking place, sent word that the campaign was planned for the fall, and that the Nazis were considering the use of prussic acid [likely a reference to Zyklon B] to gas Jews. 

 

“In mid-March 1942 some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while 20 to 25 percent had perished. A mere eleven months later, in mid-February 1943, the percentages were exactly the reverse” As Deborah Lipstadt, the historian and US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism says, “The time to stop genocide is before it happens…when Hitler is speaking out and saying these horrendous things and Germany is disenfranchising Jews and conducting things like kristallnacht – that’s the time to take action.” 

 

When people tell you the evils they want to carry out, believe them – and work to stop them. Both Judaism and Islam famously teach that, “to save one life is to save the entire world.” Repeatedly, though, humanity fails to take action to save even one life. 

 

A few years after the war ended in 1949, sociologist, author, and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois traveled to Poland & Germany for the third time in his life. After his trip, he wrote: “The result of these three visits, and particularly of the Warsaw ghetto, was not so much clearer understanding of the Jewish problem in the world as it was a real and more complete understanding of the Negro problem. In the first place, the problem of slavery, emancipation, and caste in the United States was no longer in my mind a separate and unique thing as I had so long conceived it. It was not even solely a matter of color and physical and racial characteristics, which was particularly a hard thing for me to learn, since for a lifetime the color line had been a real and efficient cause of misery. It was not merely a matter of religion…No, the race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching, and human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people and caused endless evil to all men. So that the ghetto of Warsaw helped me to emerge from a certain social provincialism into a broader conception of what the fight against race segregation, religious discrimination and the oppression by wealth had to become if civilization was going to triumph and broaden in the world.” 

 

I think Du Bois’s revelation in the Warsaw Ghetto about hatreds cutting across “lines of color and physique and belief and status” is neatly summarized in a poem of the same name by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (vees-lava sheembozka): 

See how efficient it still is, 

how it keeps itself in shape— 

our century’s hatred. 

How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles. 

How rapidly it pounces, 

tracks us down. 

 

It’s not like other feelings. 
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself 
to the reasons that give it life. 

When it sleeps, 
it’s never eternal rest. 
And sleeplessness won’t sap its strength;
it feeds it. 
One religion or another – 
whatever gets it ready, in position. 

One fatherland or another – 
whatever helps it get a running start. 
Justice also works well at the outset 
until hate gets its own momentum going. 
Hatred. Hatred. 
Its face twisted in a grimace 
of erotic ecstasy 

Oh these other feelings, 
Listless weaklings. 
Since when does brotherhood draw crowds? 
Has compassion ever finished first? 
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble? 
Only hatred has just what it takes. 

Gifted, diligent, hardworking. 
Need we mention all the songs it has composed? 
All the pages it has added to our history books? 
All the human carpets it has spread 
over countless city squares and football fields? 

Let’s face it: it knows how to make beauty. 
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies. 
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns. 
You can’t deny the inspiring pathos of ruins 
and a certain bawdy humor to be found 
In the sturdy column jutting from their midst. 

Hatred is a master of contrast- 
between explosions and dead quiet,
red blood and white snow. 
Above all, it never tires of its leitmotif – 
the impeccable executioner 
towering over its soiled victim. 

It’s always ready for new challenges. 
If it has to wait awhile, it will. 
They say it’s blind. 
Blind? It has a sniper’s keen sight 
and gazes unflinchingly at the future 
as only it can.  

Dr. Du Bois concluded his essay by suggesting the response to such bitter hatred is joining together to reassess the problems of our day “whose solution belong to no one group.” In other words, the answer to stemming the tide of apathy and indifference to rising hatred and human suffering – both domestically and internationally – is exposure and engagement with others. The answer to bigotry directed to individual groups isn’t to turn inward and burrow ourselves in a silo, but rather to reach our hands outward and stand with others through their moments of trauma. When we leave our comfortable bubbles, we exercise our empathy muscles and build relationships that broaden that provincialism, Dr. Du Bois speaks of. The answer to hatred – be it antisemitism, islamophobia, anti-black racism, AAPI hatred, homophobia, transphobia, or any other irrational hatred – is to build bridges with allies of different worlds, to break bread together, to sing together, to claim our rightful seat at a long table of people who have rightfully claim theirs. 

This year, our calendar at Beth Shir Shalom focuses on just this – on building meaningful lasting bridges with as many people of different lived experiences as possible – and in fact we’ve already started.  This past year, our community created a HIAS Welcome Circle for a beautiful family fleeing Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Ejaz, Marjan, and their baby Mahya made it out on the last plane from Kabul and were welcomed into a foreign land by the beautiful people of our community: particularly Jeff & Layne Lepes, Ellen Satkin, Terry Silberman, Ari Hahyar, & Lisa DeMattia, amongst others and many of you who donated to help them. The bond built was so strong that they consider them family and even call Layne grandma.  

As we look to our calendar for this coming year – and I do hope everyone got our beautiful new program book that was put together by our past president Natalie Rothenberg – we invested a lot of time in building bridges, both internally with things like our progressive dinner for our community to get to know each other, but also externally, like our new four part series with First Presbyterian. Reverend Tim Vance and I will each teach two sessions where Beth Shir Shalom visits their church for the sessions I teach and First Pres will visit our synagogue for Reverend Vance’s sessions. I’ll be teaching the first one on Oct 9th – please join us. This winter our teens will travel to NYC and Washington, D.C. to explore new cities, meet new people, and be exposed to new ideas. In the spring, we are leading a trip to Mississippi and Louisiana to explore Civil Rights, learn about Southern Jewry, and spend Shabbat with the small town Jews of my student pulpit in New Iberia, Louisiana. And in 2024, we are planning a community trip to Israel to build bridges with our homeland and its people as well as explore its many challenges.  

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”  

Being a member of Beth Shir Shalom means that we know we are responsible – it means we can never settle for indifference – and it means we must advocate loudly for our Torah’s vision of a just society for all. Being part of our community means we build bridges – as Rabbi Neil has done for his entire rabbinate, a torch I proudly carry on. Being a member of our community means we can and must care both about our neighbors in Santa Monica and those suffering across the world.  

 

We’re told every year at Passover that each generation must see itself as if they themselves came out of Egypt. The seder is our annual empathy exercise, encouraging us to use our story of fleeing persecution to defend the vulnerable in our day and stand with the oppressed in their darkest moments. This too is the lesson of the Holocaust – not to retreat inward, isolating ourselves and our community from the world. Instead, the lesson of the Holocaust – and the failure of the Allies to intervene in time – is what Rabbi Heschel said: “there is no limit to the concern we must feel for the suffering of others.” Our response to antisemitism in our day must be to continue to care deeply, to reach our hands outward, and to work in messy coalitions striving for a world of justice and equality.  

 

In This House, We Believe – Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783

In this house, we believe:

Black Lives Matter / Women’s Rights Are Human Rights / No Human Is Illegal / Science Is Real / Love Is Love/ Kindness Is Everything.

There are other lawn signs of this ilk out there as well – some with universal messages, and sadly others with hostile and provocative messages, even occasionally funny ones like: “No lives matter. You all suck equally.”

With these and other messages in mind, I contemplated how we might inspire one another in this longed-for and incredible in-person ingathering. That, in turn, brought up some fundamental thoughts about what being part of our temple community is really about for me. And that caused me to recall the first time I walked into our building at 1827 California Ave. It was just after the ratification of the merger between Beth Sholom Temple, the oldest synagogue in Santa Monica, and Temple Shir Shalom, then renting space in the basement of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Mar Vista. I was the founding rabbi of Temple Shir Shalom, and I’d spent twelve years in an office in the church’s basement. When we did Shabbat services upstairs in the sanctuary, we respectfully shrouded the large cross behind the altar, brought up our portable ark, and plugged in our eternal light (clearly not eternal!). So, on that first day after the merger, when our Office Manager and I walked into 1827, I exclaimed, “Barbara, it’s a JEWISH building!” Among the identifying markers were a Jewish star, a Magen David, a Jewish star on the railing of the steps to the front door, a mezuzah on the front doorpost, and mezuzot on the inside doorways as well. Adorning one wall were photos of confirmation classes dating back to when…Moses’ kids were confirmed. A classically fashioned, Ashkenazi-style ark set deep into the raised bima, the pulpit, and a Ner Tamid, a permanently lit eternal light, hung suspended above. In the rear of the sanctuary was a “Yahrtzeit Wall,” with most of the memorial plaques already engraved or reserved for the future. Even though it was my first day as the rabbi in our building, it felt familiar, comfortable, venerable, home. 

What about all those sacred signs and symbols that made 1827 a “Jewish building” for me? Some of you have heard me pass on a teaching from my liturgy professor, Rabbi Dr. Larry Hoffman, who said, “The phrase merely symbolic should be stricken from the English language. Things are symbolic, or they’re not.” He firmly believes that once an object or a place is long-vested with specific symbolism, either by an individual, a family, or a group of people, especially if customs and rituals re-enforce them, others could not blithely strip that symbolism away. So it was for me at and within 1827 California. 

The Torah contains a story about the earliest distinguishing of Jewish spaces. The story concerns a non-Jewish soothsayer named Balaam, whom a king hires to curse the Jewish people. He blesses our homes instead. He does not do so of his own volition. He hears the voice of God within him, and the Voice mandates that he substitute the curse with a blessing. The words of the blessing are equally well-known, perhaps to some of us here. The blessing says, 

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃, 

Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob your dwelling places O Israel.” 

Many synagogues have these words written on a wall of the sanctuary, indicating that the place is also a “goodly tent,” a descendant of the tents Balaam viewed as he proclaimed the blessing. While we don’t have the phrase on our walls at 1827, I hope that many, if not most of us, feel our building is a “goodly tent.” 

Our tradition says we can “turn” the words of the Torah over and over, and we can always find something new in them. This year, I saw something new in this Torah story. I realized the famous words of Mah Tovu were not the only blessing given to the Jewish people by Balaam. The Moabite king, Balak, took him to three different vantage points overlooking the encampment of the Israelites just outside the king’s realm while encouraging Balaam to invoke a curse. Each time Balaam filled his words with praise and adoration for the Jews and their God. Each time the king’s fury grew hotter, and each time Balaam said,

 “I can only repeat faithfully what יהוה, Adonai, puts in my mouth.” 

There was, of course, a reason why King Balak desired a disabling curse upon the Jewish people. He feared them. The text recounts he knew well of our liberation from Egypt and how God cleared a path for us away from the Egyptians and enabled us to defeat many other kings and kingdoms along our journey. Balaam clearly states to Balak that this will be Balak and Moav’s fate as well should Balak try to oppose the Israelites and יהוה, Adonai. After the second curse that became a blessing, Balaam describes our ancient Israelite ancestors saying, 

“Lo, a people that rises like a lioness/Leaps up like a lion/Rests not till it has feasted on prey/And drunk the blood of the slain.”

Before we become too outraged about what the text tells us about that early history, let us remember who this text’s real audience was. It wasn’t Balaam and Balak. The target was the fledgling Jewish people who needed to be assured that God would be with them through their wilderness pilgrimage and beyond. 

Still, I assume some, if not many of us, don’t resonate well with a text telling us our ancestors drank the blood of their vanquished enemies! Further, for some, our theologies are tainted by cynicism in the wake of the Holocaust, other world events, and personal tragedies. We have difficulty believing in a God who defeats our enemies and is the omniscient and omnipresent guardian of the Jewish people or anyone else. 

The dissonance produced by the clash of our mores with those of our ancestors might cause us to ask, “What can an ancient tale like this do for me in 2022, in the midst of a persistent pandemic, the planet teetering on the edge of climate disaster and too much of the world in or near the folly of war?” The answer both stares us in the face and hides in plain sight, much like a lawn sign we see and forget.

We find that answer in the words that Balaam kept saying each time he ignored King Balak’s command to curse the Jewish people, 

“Only that which the Eternal designates for my speech must I heed and speak.” 

However, just before the final blessing, Balaam changes his phrasing, saying, 

“But I told you: Whatever יהוה says, that I must do.” 

In this instance, Balaam goes beyond merely reiterating God’s dictated words of praise and admiration. Now, he’s talking about how he feels he must behave. Proclaiming a moral message verbally – or on a lawn sign – is one thing. Acting in a spiritually inspired manner is quite another. Balaam declares he feels a holy mandate to conduct himself in a particular fashion. 

Holy mandates of conduct have been the Jewish people’s way of being since Egypt. As you probably know, we call them mitzvot, commandments. They define who we are for ourselves and the world at large, but I believe we have a misperception of the source of those mandates. 

The traditional perspective is that God gives those commandments, and we, the Jewish people, fulfilling our part of the covenant, respond. In turn, God protects. However, when we see horrible calamities crashing in upon the lives of innocents, a challenge arises, especially for Reform Jews, between the tradition of “Commander and commanded” and the world around us we understand all too well. God command//we follow/God shelters-and-defends doesn’t seem to work. We can either face this challenge or walk away. Many of us have already thrown up our hands in frustration, even anger, at a theological construct that appears unfair and harsh. We feel no obligation to adhere to what the tradition says are divine mandates because divine recognition for our compliance seems completely absent. Moreover, the dense shadow of the Holocaust shatters the belief that fulfilling the commandments translates into God being our shield. How many thousands of observant Jews did the Nazis slaughter whose faithfulness should have saved them? 

However, later Jewish tradition argues that we should not expect a response from God when we light candles for Shabbat or decide not to have a bacon cheeseburger. In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Sages, we are advised that our actions will not result in some sort of compensation. (1:3) Antigonus of Socho, speaking from the teachings of Shimon the Righteous, says, “Do not be like servants who serve a master in the expectation of receiving a reward…” (2:1) Yehuda haNasi says: “…You do not know the reward for the fulfillment of the commandments…” 

Finally, (5:23), a rabbi with the great name of Ben Hey Hey goes even further, saying: “Effort is its own reward.” For one of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, this means: “The reward for your effort is the effort itself. Do not imagine that you will earn something at the end of your life; your life itself is the gift. There is no point to living; living is the point. There is no purpose to living; living is the purpose. As long as you imagine that doing leads to getting, you will never appreciate the act of doing.”

Here’s an example from my rabbinate’s early years of the kind of “reward” Rabbi Shapiro elucidates. In 1987 then-Governor George Deukmejian signed a bill granting tax rebates to Californians totaling $1.1 billion. As soon as I became aware of this windfall we were all about to receive, I asked Temple Shir Shalom whether they would join me in signing over their checks to the temple so that we could, in turn, give the money to the homeless and poor. A significant percentage of our members did so, one of whom, Leonard Vine, volunteered to make a giant “Publishers’ Clearing House-style” check to present to a local agency. Shortly thereafter, we handed that check to a local social service organization during a Shabbat celebration.

Such a “reward” happened again three years later, almost immediately after the merger. Two long-time Beth Sholom members, Doris and Norty Smirlock, who volunteered weekly for “Meals on Wheels,” approached me with a concern. They said Meals on Wheels did not operate on Christmas Day and thought the newly formed Beth Shir Shalom should take over. So we did, and so we’ve continued to do for thirty-one years. Why did we do these things? That California tax rebate was rightfully ours to keep and spend individually. No one “told” us to give the funds away. Instead, we did it because we felt an internal spiritual and social mandate. Likewise, Norty, Doris, and the countless volunteers over three decades who made a Christmas Day meal for Meals on Wheels clients felt a call from their kishkes. The soothsayer Balaam might say, “God told them to do it.” I don’t think that all, or even most of those who gave and continue to give, feel that. Instead, a sense arose in this community, creating a determination that something barely seen as a possibility needed to become a must.

That legacy rests on our shoulders and hearts. What are our “musts?” Where are the places we must show up? What are the actions we must take, the petitions we must sign, the letters we must write, the social responsibilities we must take on? 

We may look no further than a lawn sign for the answer, but there’s a Jewish version of these notions that, I believe, should be the lawn sign of our building at 1827 California and perhaps our homes as well. Our version comes from a Mishnah, our oldest rabbinic Torah commentary. Versus the now ubiquitous emblem, this lawn sign doesn’t say what we believe. Instead, it declares what we do. So, the sign I envision would say: “These are our actions. Their value is priceless. In and outside this house we:

Respect the past and, in it, implant new seeds. 

Act with loving kindness. 

Engage in lifelong education. 

Welcome the stranger. 

Celebrate all loving families. 

Honor the circle of life. 

Pray with our hands, our hearts, our breath, our minds, our eyes, our ears, our mouths, and our legs.

Much as I felt the impact of those Jewish symbols that first day at 1827, I was wrong. What defines Beth Shir Shalom as a Jewish community is not the various accouterments and accessories commonly extant in Jewish buildings. It’s not our beliefs either. It’s what we do. Our synagogue isn’t a “goodly, Jewish tent” because we’re in it. Our tent is “goodly” because of how we choose to behave in it and what we do from it – outside its walls. 

Here, in this beautiful moment, as we meet in person for the first time in two years for our holiest days, we lift up our values and mandates and commit ourselves to the actions that make us a Jewish community, the Beth Shir Shalom community. 

From the depths of my heart and soul, I wish you a good year – reflective, fulfilling, and healthy. Shana Tova

On River Crossings – Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783

Growing up in Philadelphia made me feel close to history. If you’ve ever visited the Old City – or seen the movie National Treasure – you’ve seen the *riveting* Liberty Bell, inscribed with the words of Leviticus. Across the street, where the bell once rang, is Independence Hall – the site where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted. There’s the reconstructed foundation of The President’s House where George Washington & John Adams lived when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, and Elfreth’s Alley, one of the oldest continually lived on residential streets in America adorned with cobblestone and all. Philadelphia is even home to the oldest, continually operating synagogue, Mikveh Israel, which has been active since 1740.

But living in Philadelphia also means your life sometimes coincides with history. My mom’s family celebrated Christmas and so, we too celebrated at my grandmother’s in New Jersey. Every Christmas evening, on our way home from the festivites, we’d cross the Delaware River and some years as we did I thought about how George Washington had turned the tide of the Revolutionary War by doing the same on the same day in 1776. Some years as we crossed, I thought – yikes, this weather is atrocious. I cannot imagine being in a little ferry crossing the ice-choked waters of the Delaware. Some years as we crossed, I thought – Washington would’ve loved this 65-degree Christmas. 

Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware River was an important turning point in the Revolutionary war. In November of 1776, the Continental Army didn’t have much of an army left. They were soundly defeated in New York and limping their way south through New Jersey. More New York and New Jersey colonists were signing up for the British army than George Washington’s. The remaining troops were exhausted, demoralized, and low on resources. 

Luckily for Washington, one gentlemanly custom of 18th-century warfare was a solid Winter Break (much longer than UCLA’s); the armies did not fight during winter. This opened up an opportunity for Washington to plan a surprise attack, the first time in the war that the continental army went on the offensive. The first step in Washington’s meticulously planned attack was for four units to cross the Delaware River and attack Trenton on December 25th, 1776. 

A frigid storm that evening made the journey particularly perilous; only one unit succeeded in crossing the icy river as freezing rain pummeled the soldiers. Once across, Washington’s troops surprised the Hessian soldiers fighting for the British and quickly overtook the city. A few weeks later, Washington did the same in Princeton. These victories began to change the tide of the war, and they started with Washington’s bold move to cross the river.

Rivers in general, but in American History, particularly the Delaware River, provide a powerful metaphor for liminal space & for transition; for opportunity & for danger; for forward movement & for the unpredictable, uncontrollable unraveling of life. Rabbi Alan Lew teaches that, “Rivers only run one way. The home we leave to begin [our] journey [through life] is necessarily a different place than the home we arrive at in the end.” 

Our patriarch Avraham, the midrash teaches, gained the nickname Avram Ha-Ivri – the one who crossed the river. His biblical journey begins when God tells him, “Lech L’cha!” Go forth – or more literally – go to yourself. Leave this place, God tells Avram, so that you might find yourself, your destiny. Leave your father’s home and set out.  Cross the Euphrates river away from here to a land and a future that I will show you across another river, the Jordan river. But Avram Ha-Ivri & Sarai are not the only patriarch & matriarch to meaningfully cross a river in the Torah. 

When Jacob flees his home after stealing Esau’s birthright and blessing, he heads to Haran and leaves across the Jordan river. Like his grandfather, he journeys away from home to mature and discover. After twenty years away, he returns a different person. No longer is Jacob the meek, conniving, domestic, indoor kid. Now Jacob has journeyed hundreds of miles, wrestled with the divine and acquired a new name, Israel. He’s been married and had children. He’s acquired herds and wealth and aged. As he returns homeward, standing again at the Jordan, he notes the transformation:

“With my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.

Rabbi Ayala Miron teaches that, “Before crossing back, [Jacob had] to go through three confrontations: with his deceiving uncle and father-in-law [Laban], with his deceived brother Esau and with the angel of God, or [perhaps] with his higher self. She says then, that, “Crossing the river means leaping into a new stage in Jacob’s spiritual life: leaving his evasive nature to develop the courage to confront – to stand face to face against danger, against injustice, against his innermost feelings. It means becoming Yisra’el- the one who struggles- rather than Ya’akov, the follower. Crossing the Jordan thus represents transformation.” 

Consider the well-known saying, “You never step in the same river twice,” which is often used to refer to the changing nature of the world, and the water beneath our feet. But that’s only half the quote, and half of the meaning. The full adage, attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, is “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” 

A little over a year ago I found myself sitting alongside the other Philadelphia river, the one outsiders have a hard time pronouncing: the Schuylkill. Like others before me, I was in liminal space – amidst a transition – my life on the verge of massive transformation- and somehow, unintentionally, I had landed at a river. As the world shut down in March 2020, a cancer diagnosis rocked my world. The experience uncovered needs I didn’t know I had and changed my priorities overnight. In the same period, my experience of Judaism in our world was upended and reshaped into something new. And divorce loomed. Everything in my life seemed controlled, predictable, rosy – until it wasn’t. 

Two years, four surgeries, a global pandemic, and a divorce later – my journey through life is much different than I could’ve ever anticipated. I am so different physically, mentally, and spiritually than I could’ve ever anticipated. I’ve failed in ways I never thought I would and loved in ways I never thought I could. I’ve reached heights I yearned for and lows I that seemed inescapable. Life, it seems, runs much more like a winding river than the straight line Hollywood suggests, our one-way path chiseling the landscape beneath our feet. 

For some of us, Abraham’s path rings true. We were spared trauma in adolescence but crossed rivers in adulthood. After Abraham leaves home at 75, he experiences famine, marital strife, the birth of his son Ishmael with Hagar and their exile, the birth of Isaac with Sarah and the trauma of his near sacrifice.

For some of us, Jacob is a more appropriate fit. We crossed rivers early in life, persevered through adversity in adolescence. Once Jacob leaves home at 17, he dreams of a ladder to the heavens and has a religious revelation. He is deceived repeatedly and saddled with the consequences. He is married twice and has thirteen children in seven years. He wrestles with God, himself, and his faith, an experience so pivotal that he changes his name to “the one that wrestles with God” – Israel. 

The rivers we cross – whether shallow or deep, raging or trickling, anticipated or unexpected, literal or figurative – offer a powerful lesson for all of us trying to traverse the terrain of our lives. 

How many of us have had our lives radically changed in the past year or two or five? OK, perhaps the better question is, who has NOT? Who has welcomed new life into the family? Who has lost a parent or sibling or friend? Who has been married or divorced? Who has been diagnosed with illness,hospitalized, or cured? Who has lost their job or financial resources or come into wealth and stability? Who has escaped a challenged relationship or found their bashert? 

The river Jordan, our Talmud tells us, originates in Gan Eden – the garden of Eden, in paradise – and “tracks its endpoint to the time of redemption.” Somewhere between those points, then – perhaps at a particular river crossing – is revelation. Theologian Martin Buber teaches that, “Creation is the origin, redemption the goal. But revelation is not a fixed, dated point poised between the two. The revelation at Sinai is not this midpoint itself, but the perceiving of it, and such perception is possible at any time.” 

Perhaps on the shores of the Delaware George Washington had a revelation “that the entire movement for American independence was on the verge of extinction” and he needed bold action. Perhaps crossing the river was the first act towards the redemption of the American dream. Perhaps Avram’s revelation in which God told him “Lech L’cha” was made real when he crossed the Euphrates river of his home and set the entire Jewish people on the path towards their future, towards a new home across a new river. Perhaps Jacob’s revelation had to happen after he crossed the Jordan a first time, and perhaps his personal redemption had to happen after he returned 20 years later to cross again. Or perhaps, the physical act of crossing a river in our narratives as Americans and Jews simply serves to mark the moments we move towards our destiny – towards our becoming – towards redemption. And we leave the previous chapters behind. 

“It is said that before entering the sea a river trembles with fear,” Poet Khalil Gibran writes in his poem Fear. 

“She looks back at the path she has traveled, 

from the peaks of the mountains, 

the long winding road crossing forests and villages. 

And in front of her, she sees an ocean so vast, 

that to enter there seems nothing more than to disappear forever 

but there is no other way. 

The river can not go back. 

Nobody can go back. 

To go back is impossible in existence. 

The river needs to take the risk of entering the ocean because only then will fear disappear, 

because that’s where the river will know it’s not about disappearing into the ocean, 

but of becoming the ocean.”

We must not fear becoming…growing…changing…evolving. For we are but sticks in a stream, borne along by a current we cannot impede. Sometimes becoming means we must leave the comfort of home to find a new home.  Sometimes growing means we might hurt others and get hurt along the way. Sometimes changing means we can no longer live up to promises we once made and must chart a new path. Sometimes evolving means we must adapt after failure and learn a new way forward. In other words, sometimes – perhaps often – we’re human. 

The Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – provide us with a moment to confront that humanness, that fallibility. We pause every year at this time to do cheshbon hanefesh – to do an honest accounting of our soul – and acknowledge where we were human, where we weren’t our best selves, where we failed. This afternoon, Jewish communities like ours will perform the ritual of Tashlich, casting our sins into the water and marking the transition to the new year. Most congregations meet at a creek, or a river – and don’t have the privilege of the Pacific outside our front door.

But whether we stand physically or spiritually on the riverbank of the year to come, we seek revelation from God, our tradition, and ourselves in order to cross the river towards redemption. As we move into a New Year, may we approach the crossings to come with humility and openness. May we embrace change and evolution in 5783. And may we take steps, together, toward who we becoming in the year ahead. 

Shana tova!