Erev Yom Kippur - 5776
Many years ago, I was lucky enough to observe a public master-class being taught by the renowned violinist Pinchas Zuckerman. A young man from Russia – he couldn’t have been sixteen years old – played an arrangement of Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch. The student gave a marvelous performance, and both Zuckerman and the audience were quite taken with him. In a thick Israeli accent, Mr. Zuckerman told the student that he had played beautifully, but could he tell the class what he was thinking while he played. The student replied that he thought of the notes and the phrasing. Zuckerman agreed that the notes and the phrasing were very important, but could he tell the class what he was feeling when he played this music. The student hesitated before answering that the music was full of sadness.
Zuckerman nodded, as if to say, ‘perhaps,’ and then said: “Do you know what this music is? [Pause] It is Jewish! … What do you think of when you think of ‘Jewish’?” Oh this poor kid. He didn’t know what to say. So he just shrugged at the master violinist, obviously taken aback. Zuckerman then turned to face the audience with a twinkle in his eye. “Eh? Do you know?” (Pause) “Then I will tell you … It is guilt! There is nothing like Jewish guilt…” The laughter in the audience was quickly replaced with a collective sigh as Zuckerman whipped out his violin to play the opening bars of the chant. Every note was an anguished sob, and the guilt seemed to literally drip off the strings.
Rosh HaShanah Morning - 5776
We were deep in the rural south marching double file behind the American flag and the Torah. Black people, white people, Jews, Christians and Muslims – perhaps thirty of us in all. I had never been to South Carolina before, and had no idea what to expect. We had travelled about an hour by bus to the side of some road in the middle of nowhere, to begin that day’s trek of 16 or 17 miles. Most of the people we encountered along the way were in cars. Some looked confused, and some looked angry, but most smiled, honked and waved. The leaders of the march would often shout out, "We're marching for you! Come and join us!"
I grew up learning about the Civil Rights Movement and how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Dr. King. I was captivated by Heschel’s interpretation of his action as “praying with his feet,” and I have quoted him often in my own sermons and stories. Never, ever, did I expect to literally follow in his footsteps. Yet this summer, along with my daughter Stephanie and our member Phil Glick, that is exactly what I did. Together we proudly represented you in America's Journey for Justice.
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5776
Good yontif! You know it’s hard to believe that an entire year has passed since we last gathered as a community in this magnificent sanctuary. Yet, it is very clear that our world is not the same. One year ago how many of us were thinking about a nuclear agreement with Iran, or rising anti-Semitism in Europe, or a tsunami of human suffering in a rapidly expanding refugee and migration crisis? One year ago how many of us thought that the Supreme Court would legalize gay marriage, or that the clear Republican front runner for president of the United States would be Donald Trump?
Today is Tu B’Av, a day for lovers in Jewish tradition, a day filled with weddings! Tomorrow morning for Shabbat we will chant the Shema and V’ahavta from parashat Va’Etchanan, the quintessential passage from Torah about our love for God.
It makes sense that both of these happen soon after Tisha B’Av, our painful commemoration of many of the worst tragedies that our people have faced throughout our history, and survived. We must acknowledge our pain, and let ourselves grieve, but then we must pick ourselves up and embrace life. Grief, anger and pain cannot be the building blocks of our lives, or of our civilization. Rather, light should follow darkness, and our response to our suffering should be love. For us, that is the purpose of this time, the cultivation of love for each other and for our God.
We were heartbroken by the news from our beloved Israel this morning of several heinous acts of hatred and murder committed by extremists who are also Jews. Yesterday, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people at a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem. This very same man attacked marchers at the 2005 Pride parade, and was just released from prison.
Then, at four o’clock the next morning, two Palestinian homes were firebombed in the West Bank village of Douma. The words “Long live Messiah the King” and “Revenge” were painted on the walls. An 18-month old baby was burned to death, and its 4-year old brother and both parents are fighting for their lives in the hospital, burns covering most of their bodies. The language on the wall makes it clear that people who claim to be religious also committed these crimes.
We condemn these senseless acts of violence, and repudiate their perpetrators. They have cultivated hatred in place of love, and have chosen destruction, assault and murder as a result. We are outraged by their twisted acts, mourn for the dead, and sit in solidarity with the victims. They DO NOT represent Judaism or the Jewish people, and in committing these crimes they have violated us all.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are commanded to love God, but just before that we are commanded to listen, with the Shema. Love begins with listening, with allowing room for another (whether it is God or a person or group of people) in our lives. We cannot commit violence against anyone we love; violence requires disassociation, the separation of ourselves from the other. We all have been suffering for far too long, and the cycle of hate and violence is only repeating and intensifying. And it is not just in Israel – racial tensions continue to grow here in the United States.
Without listening to each other, we will never be able to heal. Without healing, we will never be able to love. Without love, we will have no future.
Shema Yisrael! Listen O Israel! Let us love God with all of our hearts, our strength and our souls! And let us begin today – not tomorrow – with love for each other.
Here is a downloadable version if you prefer to read offline
Yesterday was the first of Av. Av is a unique month in the Hebrew calendar, in that it is a time for focused sadness, it is a month for wailing. In just over a week Jews all over the world will commemorate Tisha B’Av, a day in which we remember and mourn some of our most tragic historical low points. On Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) in 587 BCE the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and on the same day in the year 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Second – effectively beginning 2000 years of Jewish exile. Several other collective tragedies also occurred later in time on this date, such as the expulsions of the Jews from several European countries over the centuries and the adoption of the Final Solution by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Yet, while we have experienced triumphs and great loss wherever we have lived, Tisha B’Av focuses our attention on Jerusalem.
Reform Jews do not want to pray for the re-establishment of a Third Temple, run by a hereditary priesthood that revives the ancient Jewish sacrificial cult. We do, however, mourn the loss of life and the destruction. Just two weeks ago I stood with members of our Buffalo Jewish Community in Jerusalem right over the ruins of the city wall destroyed by the Babylonians; and at the base of the Temple Mount I touched the only walls remaining from the Roman destruction.
Yes, Av is a month for wailing, and for the past few days, you should know that I have been wailing. I have been wailing not about the past, but about the future. I have been wailing about the proposed Nuclear Agreement with Iran. Now, a great many people, really intelligent people, have been hailing the agreement as a triumph of diplomacy in the avoidance of war. I vastly prefer successful diplomacy to war, so I want to applaud the Obama administration for using diplomacy in the pursuit of peace. In Deuteronomy, we are taught that before attacking a city we are required to first offer peace, and if our enemies accept our terms then we must grant that peace. (Deut. 20:10-12) The administration has said that this agreement has likely prevented a war, and that now we have the ability to prevent Iran from nuclear breakout to a bomb for ten years or more. They remind us that ten years is a long time in the Middle East, and that much can change in that time. This is certainly true, for the Middle East has changed dramatically over the past ten years.
The supporters of this deal also observe that an influx of economic support may bring Iran more into the community of nations, because even if the mullahs do not moderate their own plans for regional and global Islamist hegemony, the people on the street will be less likely to follow because of their own self interest. To be fair, there is evidence that this is already working on a smaller scale with Palestinians living in the West Bank, who seem much less interested in pursuing acts of terrorism than their brothers living in Gaza under Hamas. I hope and I pray that this assessment turns out to be true and lasting. I really do. But I think it will not, and because of this deal, I think the world has just become a much more dangerous place.
Rosh HaShanah Morning - 5775
Two years from now, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of our magnificent sanctuary. When it was built, this space represented a new start for our congregation, and every detail of its construction was carefully considered. The result is compelling not only for its beauty and its ability to inspire, but for the values represented by it in art and architecture. I know of no other place like it anywhere in the world.
In every sanctuary, we surround ourselves with symbols and objects to inspire us to live rightly, and to stay true to our tradition. But here we have some unusual and special additions, such as Ben Shahn’s stained glass masterpiece framed by the immense tablets behind me. I sure would hate to carry those down the mountain!
These behemoths were created to inspire awe: awe for our tradition, awe for the law and awe for the Creator. The Ten Commandments, perhaps more than any other passage in the Torah, guide and even define us as a Jewish community. Ben Shahn crafted these particular tablets to look larger than life, because for us, they really are larger than life. Hear the words of the Eternal!:
I, the Eternal, am your God who led you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
These are the watchwords of our faith and this sanctuary is specifically designed to remind us to of our connection to them. Yet, these Ten Commandments do not stand alone. Altogether there are 613 commandments in the Torah, – and that is what brings us to our topic this morning.
Rosh HaShanah Morning 5774
I love Western New York. I love living here, the sense of community, the arts and culture and sports and architecture. I love the warmth (even when there is snow on the ground), the ease of accessibility (as in everything is no more than a 20 minute drive), the diversity and the opportunity. I may not be Buffalo born and bred, but I sure can appreciate what this city and this region have to offer. The Pokras family didn’t come back to Buffalo because we couldn’t find anything better, we came back because this is exactly the place where we can put out a shingle that reads: “Home Sweet Home.”
This is a great place to live. Our economy seems to be turning a corner, and despite our current unemployment numbers, there are hundreds and possibly thousands of skilled jobs that are open and remain unfilled. Don’t believe me? In December 2012, CNBC rated Buffalo-Niagara the number 2 best place in America to relocate to. Also in 2012 we were named the 3rd best performing Metro by Business Insider. Even more, we were also ranked by the Brookings Institution as 2nd nationally and 4th globally in comparative income growth. And for those of us who live in the burbs, Amherst was also singled out as one of the best places in the country to live. Business and industry are moving in, and with them opportunities for the economic well being of many of our citizens.
Yet, amidst great prosperity and opportunity, deep poverty exists and persists.
As Richard Tobe, Deputy County Executive of Erie County and TBZ member puts it, our problem is not average poverty or average wealth or average employment. Rather, it is the deep disparity that exists across our community, with severe concentrations of poverty and all that goes along with it. These large pockets of poverty persist especially among the elderly, recent immigrants and minorities, among which African-Americans are hardest hit. None of these groups are being touched by our newfound prosperity in any significant widespread way. To quote Rich Tobe one more time, “We do not all rise or fall together, and a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some are anchored to the bottom on short heavy anchor chains and cannot rise with the tide.”
Rosh HaShannah Morning 5772
Last night I spoke about fear, and how to overcome our fears through faith. Today I want to share something really scary with you. As many of you already know, I did something this summer that my rabbinic friends and colleagues around the nation think is just crazy. At our annual golf tournament, I auctioned off complete and total control over the topic of one of my High Holy Day sermons. Who does such a thing?! I thought it would be fun, and it would guarantee that at least one member of the congregation would be interested in at least one sermon I offer over the holidays.
Well, after a short bidding period, your president, Howard Rosenhoch won the prize. This was a good thing because I had heard that another person (you know who you are) was determined to pick the New York Yankees as my theme. This would have been my worst nightmare, because sadly for many of you, I am not a Yankees fan. By contrast, Howard was taking the responsibility he won seriously, and even wrote about it in his president’s column. I told my colleagues it was all working out fine.
Then I get this e-mail from him. One simple little e-mail. ‘Rabbi,’ he writes, ‘I couldn’t come up with a topic, but as I was cleaning out my desk I found this article. Maybe you can do something with that. I’m sure there are lots of topics you can find there.’
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras