On Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about truth, memory, and the process of teshuvah to help each of us make the most of these Holy Days; and I challenged us to look at our perceptions and actions through the eyes of others as well as our own so that we could build better selves. Tonight, as Yom Kippur arrives, let’s expand our focus and explore the Torah on how to build the kind of community, the kind of nation, we are supposed to create.
In Deuteronomy we read:
“Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery … You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ … If you ever forget the Lord your God … I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.” [Deut. 8:11-19]
With these words, Moses throws a gauntlet down before the Israelites, in effect saying: ‘Do not think that the forty years of wandering is the hard part, that once you settle the land your problems will be solved. The hard part will come afterward, when you feel safe and secure in your land, and the memory of your wandering becomes distant. Only then will your real spiritual trial begin.’
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “The real challenge is not poverty but affluence, not insecurity but security, not slavery but freedom. Moses, for the first time in history, was hinting at a law of history.” What is this law? Simply this: complacency and self-satisfaction are the beginning of the end of any civilization.
Complacency and self-satisfaction are the beginning of the end of any civilization.
What will this decline look like? Sacks continues:
“Inequalities will grow. The rich will become self-indulgent. The poor will feel excluded. There will be social divisions, resentments and injustices. Society will no longer cohere. People will not feel bound to one another by a bond of collective responsibility. Individualism will prevail. Trust will decline. Social capital will wane.”
It happened in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Greece and Rome, in Renaissance Florence and monarchal France, and in the British and Russian Empires. It is happening now.
Moses saw it all, and audaciously taught that it is possible for us to succeed where everyone else fails. While every great civilization throughout history has followed the same arc of growth and decline, we can do better. The book of Deuteronomy dares and challenges us to build a nation strong enough to overcome the very laws of history.
This is the great spiritual challenge we face – not just reaching the Promised Land but keeping it.
Today we see the signs of decline in both the United States and in Israel. Yet none of this is inevitable. There is a way forward, which Moses delineates carefully throughout the book of Deuteronomy.
First, we must remember the Source of our bounty and cultivate both humility and gratitude. I know that many of us are uncomfortable with this, with the very idea of God. We say we are spiritual, but not religious. Some of us find our conception of God to be incompatible with our sense of personal agency, or with science, or with whatever else we may place on a pedestal before us. I respect that, and you, and I struggle alongside you. Indeed, our tradition has revolved around the idea of challenging authority and struggling with God to serve the greater good. Yet, when we go so far as to remove God from our midst, when we assume that human agency is the only power in the world, then it is a short leap indeed to societal decline. For we will worship something in place of God, we always do. Moses reminds us to stay connected with God, lest we do the unthinkable, and begin to think that we ourselves are gods. We are not. We are human, imperfect, fallible.
Second, if we put ourselves in God’s place, and assume that we are the ultimate authorities, then to whom shall we be accountable – ethically or otherwise? Torah exists to teach us that there is a higher authority, and a higher ethical standard. To beat the laws of history, we need to stay true to the ideals and values of Torah; we must hold ourselves accountable to that standard and teach our children to do so as well – even when it means swimming against the current. If we are going to be honest, we can do a better job here. Staying true to Torah requires more than just generalizations like “be a good person” – we need to teach our children better, with specifics. And I don’t mean religious school here. I mean what we teach as parents and grandparents. To do this effectively, we need to study and learn the details ourselves. We need to know Torah.
Here is just one example. In Deuteronomy, we learn how our leaders must lead. In most countries, the king was the law, but not in Israel. Torah teaches that when we have entered the land and decide that we want to appoint a king over ourselves, that the king must follow the same Torah as everyone else – he cannot be above the law. This is an amazing and radical idea. Even more, he is to be chosen from among our brothers, and must be subject to three specific restrictions: he may not multiply his horses, his wives or his gold. On the surface this seems a little archaic. I assure you it is not.
Rabbi Jack Reimer, one of the leading orators in the Conservative Movement, reminds us that in the rest of the world kings are generally seen as “above” the people, but not in Israel. In Israel, they are chosen from among our brothers. The term achi (my brother) is only used in the Torah to describe one other kind of person besides the king: the poor man. For us, for our government, for any community built on Torah, the king is not some god or almighty ruler, but a human being – just like us – and must keep our interests in mind. As for the horses, the wives and the gold — calvary were the equivalent of tanks in the ancient world. Reimer teaches that Torah limits the military might of the king – he can have enough to defend, but not to conquer. The second limit, on wives, should make us uncomfortable for a lot of reasons. However, in the context of the monarchy, marriage was a form a diplomacy, a way to build alliances. By limiting the number of wives a king may have, Torah limits the king’s diplomatic influence – so diplomatic coercion as well as conquest is removed from the king’s power. The final limit, on gold, is especially emphasized in the Hebrew. How did a king acquire wealth? Through taxation. The king must not over tax the people, taxes should only be levied for what is needed to support the government as it serves the people.
Taken together, these details paint an extraordinary picture about the kind of nation Torah expects from and for us: leadership as national service not self-service, power calibrated to the minimum necessary to protect and serve the people, and protections so that the people may not be taken advantage of or oppressed by their government. Our goal is not conquest, but the establishment of a just community. And, these are just some of the specific values of Torah designed to help us beat the odds and prevent our civilization from decline.
Finally, when we remember that God is God and we are not, and when we collectively work to build our lives and communities with Torah, then we can pursue justice not only for ourselves, but for all people. One of the most famous verses in all of Deuteronomy is: “ צדק צדק תרדוף – Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” [Deut. 16:20] Since Torah is incredibly economic and efficient with its language, why is the word “justice” repeated here? There are many interpretations, but my favorite is this: we should read the passage as “Justice, justly, shall you pursue.” In other words, finding justice does not mean justice for ourselves alone. True justice requires us to see not only through our eyes but also through the eyes of others, and maybe even through the eyes of God.
When we try to see through the eyes of God, we try to see the bigger picture. Astronauts, looking down on our planet, have reported how this difference of perspective has caused them to see the pettiness of some of our personal, or even national, disagreements. When we see through the eyes of God, we see that there is a higher purpose to our lives. In Deuteronomy 6:18 we are commanded to do what is right and good in the eyes of God. Doing right and good in the eyes of God means asking ourselves, based on everything we know of our tradition: what would God think of our choices? Are we pursuing our own personal agendas, or are we pursuing the greater good?
Of the three key components to creating a sustainable, ethical and just community, I think that Beth Ami is programmatically strongest here. We are known in the community for our commitment to social justice through our tikkun olam program and our Critical Issues Forum. What you may not know is that we have just been awarded the prestigious Fain Award by the Union of Reform Judaism because of the extraordinary work both of these groups continue to do. In addition to recognizing our many, many tikkun olam volunteers, the Fain Award highlights a major achievement of the Critical Issues Forum: the enactment by the Maryland legislature of the Summer SNAP for Children program – which was mostly written right down the hall with our partner congregations. We can take great pride in our achievements in this area, even as we recognize that there is still so much more to do.
This year, we are also founding members of the first annual Harvest against Hunger competition – a high holiday food drive to help fill Manna’s new warehouse so that they can feed 10,000 more hungry people here in Montgomery County. We are competing with some of our neighbor congregations to see who can increase their giving the most over last year. Please be generous and check the list of nutritional foods they are seeking from the materials we have provided. The drive continues through Sukkot, so there will be a chance for us to see how we compare after Yom Kippur. What a great way to help the hungry, and win a real-life trophy shaped like a can of food!
Our efforts to feed the hungry, help refugee families, and support those in need are important, meaningful and necessary.
And … they are not enough.
Moses knew what he was teaching.
On this Yom Kippur, let’s instill these words of Torah in our minds, our hearts, and our souls. Let’s think of them on our way and when we are at home, when we rise up and when we lie down. For, taken together, the practice of humility and gratitude (God is God and we are not), accountability to a higher standard of behavior (Torah), and the pursuit of justice beyond our own agendas – these are the building blocks of an enduring and life-affirming culture, and a society built to withstand the ravages of history. And, like so many concepts in our tradition, they represent a series of successive steps, each one dependent on the last. If we will not recognize the Source of our bounty and our own limits, then we will have no motivation to learn Torah. If we do not learn Torah, then we will have no motivation to see the world through God’s eyes and pursue the large-scale justice that is beyond our own personal agendas. Many nations have risen and fallen since Torah was first given and received at Sinai, yet our success as a people and a tradition is directly connected to those times when, despite every force in the world pushing us to do otherwise, we have kept faith: with ourselves, with Torah, and with our Creator.
Today is no different.
There is still time for us to act.
Good yuntif! It’s so wonderful to be together to welcome in the New Year. No matter how good or how difficult the past year has been, I pray that the year 5780 will be a better year … for all of us.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to read a collection of science fiction stories by author Ted Chiang. Sci fi is my favorite “downtime” genre because of the many ways it can raise meaning-of-life philosophical questions. Plus: spaceships and lasers! From the moment I began Chiang’s story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” I knew I needed to share it with you. In it, he asks: what would it be like if we could implant a chip in our brains which recorded everything we saw, heard and did, and which was easy to index so that we could have perfect recall without having to rely on our less trustworthy brains? And, what would it be like, if we could share those memories with anyone who also had a chip?
According to the 9/11 Memory Project, we remember far less accurately than we think. Under two of the world’s leading memory experts, Bill Hirst of the New School for Social Research and Liz Phelps of NYU, 3246 people were asked the same three questions about 9/11 for ten consecutive years, beginning right after the event itself: where were you, who were you with, how did you feel? To my surprise, they tracked an average 60% decline in memory consistency over ten years. The level of detail, however, would sometimes grow. Even more, the subjects remained highly confident about the accuracy of their memories over time. When confronted with what they had written in previous years they could not understand why they would have presented answers which they knew were wrong because they were in conflict with what they clearly remembered now. You see, how we rehearse our memories, external influences like social contagion, and conflation of different memories, all influence our memory recall.
Ted Chiang’s story challenges us to imagine a different reality, one where we have perfect recall of the facts, on demand. Not the narrative we attach, but the actual repetition of what happened, which we could play over and again in our minds, or perhaps even on screens.
How would you act if you knew that absolutely everything you were doing was being recorded?
What would happen to our society?
What would happen to our relationships?
Not that we should all get these chips (assuming they actually existed). Like any technology, they could be used to affirm life or to destroy life. However, this idea raises important questions for these holy days, and for our lives. How much do we change what we remember to fit a more satisfactory narrative? Which memories do we emphasize, and which let go?
In other words, how honest are we, really, about ourselves with ourselves?
That’s the question.
How honest are we, really, about ourselves with ourselves?
The Mussar tradition, a Jewish ethical piety practice, teaches that we each have a series of soul or character traits, like patience, humility, courage, gratitude and many more. It also teaches that most of us are out of balance, each in our own unique ways. While each soul-trait is connected to the others, one of the most central is ‘truth.’ If we are not honest with ourselves and with each other, we will never correct our imbalances.
We all have our own ways of distorting or even manufacturing the truth. Alan Moranis, the founder of the Mussar Institute, links dishonesty to fear. We manipulate or manufacture the truth because we are afraid: maybe I won’t get the job, maybe I won’t pass the test, maybe they won’t like me, or I won’t like them, maybe they will judge me. When we are truly honest with ourselves, we confront the underlying fears which get in our way, in deed and in memory. Most of the time, we discover that our fears are more trivial than we thought.
While our tradition generally condemns lying, we are Jews, so it gets complicated. The famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai asked, “What do you say to a bride who is not beautiful?” Shammai taught: do not lie, ever; instead of commenting on her beauty, search until you can find something else that is true and positive, and if you cannot find something, try harder. Hillel taught: every bride should be complimented as being “beautiful and gracious.” Hillel teaches that we should be more concerned with how our words impact another person than with how our words correspond to our perceptions of reality. For him, kindness is a higher truth than a personal opinion, and the preservation of human dignity is higher still. In other words, not all “lies” are false.
Similarly, not all “truths” are true just because we say they are. We should question our biases and opinions if we seek true honesty.
And we should especially avoid distorting the truth for personal gain or satisfaction. Our tradition understands that, more often than not, our lies will eventually catch up with us. Yet, even if we don’t get caught, we still damage ourselves through dishonesty. Moranis writes:
“Deceit undermines the soul of the person who is not dedicated to truth. When we habitually lie, flatter, boast, cheat, and otherwise deny truth, the impact registers at our deepest internal level. Soul-traits that are out of balance are kept that way, or driven even further toward pathological extremes. In The Path of The Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato tells us that lying is a spiritual illness. Ultimately, contact with the soul is lost completely. It is taught in the Talmud that a habitual liar is unable to perceive the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) [Sotah 42a].”
On Rosh HaShanah we consider the truth of our lives as we have lived them over the past year. Shammai teaches us to use our personal perceptions as our guide to truth. Hillel, challenges us not only look through our own eyes, but also through the eyes of the other people who “were there.” Hillel teaches that we are not the singular arbiters of truth, and that speaking accurately is connected with seeing accurately – which brings us back to the primary question before us.
How honest are we, really, about ourselves with ourselves?
Have we recognized our wrongs, felt regret, attempted to make amends? Have we determined not to repeat our mistakes, and considered how we might act differently under similar circumstances? Are we really performing teshuvah?
Sometimes, I think that it’s just too hard. How can I remember a whole year in a day? How can I trust that I haven’t re-framed what I do remember? In the end, we can only do what we can do, for we are imperfect beings. Yet, while we Jews always begin with memory, we end with hope. I have hope in “us.” I have faith that if we put our minds to it, that we will remember at least some of the past year. I have faith that if we put our hearts in it, that we can become more honest with ourselves. I believe that we are capable of becoming more than we are now.
That said, hope does not replace action. So I would also like to offer something practical that you can take home with you. Literally. It is printed on a refrigerator magnet which you can take on your way out today.
Since it is difficult to remember a whole year at once, I adopted a practice, years ago, which I try to do every Shabbat. I figured that since Yom Kippur is called Shabbat HaShabbatot, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, that I could use Shabbat as a weekly check in. After all, a weekly check in is much easier than waiting until the end of the year. So I took a page from one of my teachers, Rabbi Levi Kelman, who began each Kabbalat Shabbat service at his synagogue in Jerusalem with a review of the week. Let’s try it together right now.
If you are comfortable, I’d like to invite you to close your eyes. If not, then please at least let your eyes go out of focus, so that you are not looking at anything in particular. Let’s go back in our memories one week, to last Monday. Try to remember where you were, who you saw, what you did. If it is difficult, that’s ok. That’s just a sign that we aren’t paying as much attention to the lives we live as we think we are. It gets easier with practice. Sometimes, it helps me to think about what I ate. Then everything else seems to fall in place. In any event, work your way through the day in your memory, starting with waking up. Did you leap out of bed to greet the day or did you groan, roll over and cover your head with your pillow? Try to remember your day in the order that you lived it. Each activity, each person you saw or spoke with. What did you do that evening? What was the last thing you said before going to sleep, and to whom did you speak those words?
Then day by day, continue to work your way through the week. And, while you are doing it, try to identify three kinds of memories. If you want a deeper challenge try using Hillel’s frame – looking at your week through more than just your own eyes.
The first kind of memory is something that you did, which you think you got right – in your eyes and in the eyes of the people around you. Something, that you would do exactly the same way the next time around. It is important to celebrate our good choices, and remembering them with intentionality reinforces this behavior.
The second is something that you did, but wish you could get a do-over. Think about the mistake you made, and how you would handle it differently if the opportunity arises – which it will. It is important to consider how we can make better choices in order to improve our chances for the future.
The third kind of memory is something, someone, some moment, for which you are grateful. Even if it was a difficult week, try to find those moments, and label them, and then offer your thanks heavenward. Regardless of how we did this past week, we should always count our blessings. This reinforces and strengthens our sense of hope and satisfaction.
Perhaps now it is Thursday …
Taking time each week to think about how we have lived in these three ways helps us to cultivate greater awareness of how we move through time; how we impact the people around us; how we use the precious time we are given. It helps us to feel good about the positives we bring to the world, and helps us correct ourselves along the way. It is Jewish mindfulness at its best.
Perhaps now it is Sunday. Yesterday. Think about where you were, who you saw, what you said. Think about the beginning of Rosh HaShannah last night. Did you celebrate at home, here in the synagogue or both? Or were you distracted? Or did other pressures of life take precedence? Whatever is true, this is what we should recall, note, acknowledge, and consider for the future.
Now it is this morning. We are waking up, getting dressed, and coming here to synagogue to bring in the New Year.
Take a deep breath … and slowly open your eyes.
Hineynu. We are here. It is a New Year. May we use this precious gift to look inward with honesty, so that we can grow in spirit and in love and do our best to make the year 5780 a year filled with success, meaning and joy.
 I first learned about the 9/11 Memory Project from Malcolm Gladwell’s Podcast: “Revisionist History” (Season 3). I highly recommend episode 3, “A Polite Word for Liar (Memory part 1)” and episode 4, “Free Brian Williams” (which is part 2 – they need to be listened to in order). Much of what I included here comes from these podcasts first, and then my review of the actual 9/11 Memory Project report second.
 Hirst, William and Elizabeth Phelps (et al), “A Ten-Year Follow-Up of a Study of Memory for the Attack of September 11, 2001: Flashbulb Memories and Memories of Flashbulb Events,” Journal of Experimental Psychology (American Psychological Association): General 2015, Vol. 144, No. 3, p. 604-623.
 Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 16b-17a [The literal question is: “How does one dance before the bride” but the meaning is as stated above.]
 Moranis, Alan. Everyday Holiness, Trumpeter Press (Boston and London: 2018), p. 168. [translation of Luzzato by Feldman, p. 94]
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 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras