Shabbat Parah: Clean Hands and a Pure Heart

March 26th will be the first day of the month of Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs.  That means that next Shabbat, March 21, is Shabbat Mevarchim, the Shabbat on which we will officially announce and pray for the new month.  Reverse engineering, that makes this week Shabbat Parah- one of the most mysterious, least understood Shabbatot in the entire calendar!  Shabbat Parah is one of four special Shabbatot in the 6 weeks before Passover.

We know what Shabbat is; what is Parah?  Parah is a cow.  But not just any cow!  The special, extra, maftir, Torah reading for this morning is from the book of Numbers, chapter 19, verses 1-22.  You can find it on p. 1145 in your chummashim. 

With Passover looming on the horizon, the concern was to remind the people that only those who were ritually pure could enjoy the Passover offering.  And how does one become pure again after defilement?  By the ritual described in this chapter, the red heifer, whose ashes were combined with water to purify those who were defiled.  So Shabbat Parah is essentially a public service announcement- Pesach is coming and it’s time to get cleaned up and ready!  “Clean hands and a pure heart”- a verse from Psalms, and (Psalm 24:4), never more relevant than in this  moment!

The haftarah, Ezekiel 36:16-38, also deals with issues of being cleansed from contamination, but the impurity in this case symbolizes human sinfulness. Just like physical impurity, sins, spiritual impurity, according to the prophet,   CAN  be overcome. As God says in Ezekiel 36:25,26: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes [idolatrous practices]. And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you.”

Is this confusing?  Well, if so, you are in good company.  No less a brilliant mind than that of King Solomon was reputed to have said, “I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah but as soon as I reached this chapter about the red heifer I searched, probed and questioned, I said I will get wisdom, but it is far from me”.” (King Solomon, as quoted in Yalkut Shimoni 759)

The Sefer haChinnuch, an anonymous text from 13th century Spain, writes as follows-  “My hands grow feeble and I fear to open my mouth at all, even with the plain meaning.  For I saw that our Sages of blessed memory spoke at length of the profundity of its mystery and the greatness of its theme. . . “

The requirements for the red heifer are that it be completely of one color, (some say it is brown), and that it had never been yoked.  This symbolizes a sense of freedom.  The animal was sacrificed and its ashes dissolved with water and sprinkled on someone in need of purification. The priest who will deal with the ashes lived separately for 7 days, he was quarantined!, and was sprinkled daily with some of the previous ashes. This time of alone-ness for the priest to come into a sense of purity is a reminder to each of us that introspection and alone-ness may be an important part of our own spiritual development.

There is a middah of silence/hitbodedut.  Silence is necessary in order to hear and to learn; silence is necessary to cultivate our internal life and learn to shut out the distractions of the world.  It is for good reason that we include a period of silence in every service- the Amidah. A chassidic commentary, quoted in our chummashim, notes that,  “The red cow was to be without blemish and without having borne a yoke.  Similarly, if a man thinks he is without blemish we may be sure he has never accepted the yoke of Heaven.  For if he had he would know that he had many faults.”

Shabbat Parah reminds us that Passover is coming.  The holiday of Passover means that it has been 6 months since the High Holidays.  Perhaps, maybe likely?, we have gotten off track?  Whatever our resolutions were for 5780, perhaps we need a reminder?  Shabbat Parah offers us the opportunity to reflect on where we need to do teshuvah?  Where do we feel a need for purification in our own lives?

Shabbat Parah reminds us that however far we have strayed, we have the power through the choices that we make, to purify ourselves. 

We all make mistakes, we all do wrong, we all hurt each other and ourselves.  We pray, “V’taher libenu lavdecha b’emet- purify our hearts to serve You, God, in truth.”  As Reb Nachman of Bratslav put it, “If we are not better tomorrow than we are today, than what do we need tomorrow for?”

We can no longer rely on ritual sacrifices for our own purification- now- the choice is in our hands!

I Know That Valentine’s Day is NOT a Jewish Holiday. . . .

I remember a few years ago- I was standing in the lobby, having just returned from a period of military service. I think I might have even been in uniform. I was definitely still in Army/Colonel mode. I sort of barked at one of my colleagues in a way that surprised even me as I heard the tone of my voice and the words that came out of my mouth. I remember feeling taken aback at my own harshness and immediately requested the opportunity to retract my words and try again.

I recalled that moment last week when Ron called in the middle of the work day, something he does not often do. I felt my heart skip a beat at seeing his name on the caller ID, and had the opposite experience of that moment in the temple lobby. This time, I was taken aback at the softness in my voice, as I transitioned in a nanosecond from “being in the office” mode to “speaking to my beloved” mode. I wondered about that. I wondered what it would be like if I could be in touch with that gentleness and kindness, that love, all the time, or, at least, more often? What the world needs now is love, sweet love? What if we could ALL live more in a place of love and less in a place of harshness in more of our interactions with each other?

Jews don’t necessarily make a big deal out of Valentine’s Day, yet, today is certainly an appropriate day to reflect on how we might bring more love into all of our relationships, from the most casual to the most intimate. Love is kindness in action. It is being attuned to another person’s needs without their having to articulate them. It is being fully present. We have been reading in the Torah for the past few weeks about the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. Love is about opening, softening our hearts. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler teaches that, “If you make an effort to help everyone you meet, you will feel close to everyone. A stranger is someone you have not yet helped. Doing acts of kindness for everyone you can fills your world with friends and loved ones.” He reminds us that the personality infused with chesed is not concerned with what he or she can take from the world, but is, rather, focused exclusively on giving.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translates the word chesed, lovingkindness, as, “love expressed as deed.” It is love beyond the level of feeling, it is love as doing. The word chesed appears 245 times in the Torah. The Midrash (Sotah 14a) suggests that the Torah begins and ends with acts of chesed, opening with God clothing Adam and Eve and concluding with God burying Moses. The Torah is filled with acts of chesed. On this day, especially, we remind ourselves to fill our days with acts of chesed.

The prophet Micah (6:8) suggests that there are really only 3 things that God wants from us- one is to do justly, one is to walk humbly, and the third is to love chesed, to love loving acts of kindness. Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness. Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin said that “A day that a Jew does not do a kindness is not considered a day in his life.”

At Thanksgiving time, we often reflect that, really, EVERY day should be “Thanksgiving,” a day filled with gratitude and appreciation of our many blessings. What if every day was “Valentine’s Day,” filled with acts of love and kindness? “A physician once said, the best medicine for humans is love. Someone asked, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ He smiled and said, ‘Increase the dose’.” “The world,” writes the Psalmist, (89:3), “is built on kindness.” Olam chesed yibaneh. Feb. 14th seems to be a good day to renew our own commitment to build OUR world on chesed. Olam chesed yibaneh- I will build this world on love. .

Locusts, Trees, and Tu Bishvat

Did you know that the word Elohim, God, and the word ha-tevah, nature, have the same numerical value in Hebrew?  While Jews are not pantheistic, that is, we don’t believe that nature IS God, we certainly sense the deep and intimate connection between the Creator and the creation.  Rabbi Joseph Leib Bloch taught that, “(a good Jew) will be filled with wonder and excitement at the sight of the glories of nature. . . and will know how to use these feelings for the sublime purpose of recognizing the Creator.”  Nature may not BE God, yet, we experience God’s presence in nature, and, when we hurt the environment, we imagine that God feels that pain.

         This week’s Torah portion, Bo, describes the devastation of the land caused by the plague of locusts.  We read this warning to Pharaoh- (Exodus 10:4-5)- “If you refuse to humble yourself, every tree will be destroyed.”  The text continues, (10:15), “(the locusts) ate all the grass of the land and all the fruit of the trees left behind by the hail, and there did not remain any green of the tree and grass of the field in the whole land of Egypt.”  Yet Pharaoh hardened his heart.  It’s easy to judge Pharaoh for his hubris and his insensitivity to the environmental threat concerning which he had been duly warned. 

         And what about us?  What about our lack of humility, the hardness of our hearts, as we stand idly by the destruction of the environment that sustains us?  We have been warned of the threat to our environment- how are we responding? 

         The Midrash, written two thousand years ago, depicts God as warning Adam, Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah (7:13) – “When God created Adam, God led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God told him, ‘See how beautiful and praiseworthy are all of My works. . .  do not corrupt the world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.'”

         The rabbis were ahead of their time; millennia ahead of their time.  They understood our responsibility to care for the earth, that we are but custodians of God’s gift to us.  They established the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, which we will celebrate later this month, the new  year of the trees, a time to reinforce our role as guardians of nature.

         Rabbi Rachel Barenblat reminds us that the word for human, Adam, is the same as the word for the earth.  She writes that, “The first human was called Adam: earthling. We can never leave that original name. All

that we are, all that we are made of, all that we live on, comes from the earth. We may try to separate ourselves from the rhythms of the earth. We may heat and air condition our houses and cars, but we cannot live outside the earth. We may shape the earth but we can never completely control it. We belong to the earth; the earth does not belong to us.”

         The second paragraph of the Shema contains yet another statement that, based on human choices, the earth can and will be destroyed with no opportunity to be restored to balance.  We have the power to create and we have the power to destroy.  The Medibozer Rebbe expressed it like this, “God placed sparks of holiness within everything in nature.”  Our task as humans is to sense and protect that spark.

         I’ll conclude with the beautiful story of Choni, as told in the Talmud, “The Rabbis tell the story of Choni, who one day saw a grandfather and his grandchild planting a carob tree. Choni laughed, “Foolish man, do you think you will live to eat the fruit of this tree?” The old man replied, “My grandparents planted for me, now I plant for my grandchildren.”

Weary from the heat of the day, Choni laid down for a nap. The nap became a sleep of many years, and when he awakened he did not know that his hair was white as snow.

Choni returned to the spot where the old man had planted the sapling. He was surprised to see a full grown carob tree, and an elderly woman giving its fruit to the great grandchild of the man who first planted the tree.

Choni then realized what had happened to him, and he told the woman and the little girl how God had taught him that one must plant not only for himself but for future generations as well.  (Taanit 23)  We are all Choni.  We must care for the earth, our gift to the generations to come.

         And a final word from John Wright, “Let the trees be consulted before you take any action.  Every time you breathe in, thank a tree.”   As we read about the plague of locusts, as we heed the warning that, in fact, the earth is a perishable commodity entrusted to our hands, as we prepare for Tu B’Shevat, let us humbly renew our commitment as Adam, as human beings to guard and protect ha-Adamah, the earth.

Judaism By The Numbers

Talk delivered at Community Church of the Verdes, 27 January, 2020, Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

         Well, it is a daunting task that you have set for me.  “Judaism.”  Not- Jewish Ethics, the Jewish Lifecycle, Jewish Holidays, Jewish Texts, Jewish History- all of it!  Five thousand years in 45 minutes.  The story is told that Rabbi Hillel was approached by a person who wanted to know everything there is to know about Judaism while he stood on one foot.  Anyone out there want to stand on one foot while I speak?  Anyway, Hillel’s classic response was, “That which is harmful to you, do not do to another.  The rest is commentary- now, go and study.”  (Shabbat 31b)

Thank you very much- are there any questions?

         Seriously, I was not sure how to approach such an overwhelming request, so I am framing my comments as, “Judaism By The Numbers.”  We’ll look at 10 basic concepts and then, of course, I would love to respond to any questions that you may have.  One of the important things to know about Judaism is the high value we place on asking questions.  The classic joke is, “Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?”  “Why not?” 

         When Isidor Rabi won the Nobel prize in Physics, he was asked,  “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”

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

  1.  GOD- Number One is for One God

          Judaism is founded on the principle of ethical monotheism, that is, the idea that there is one and only one God, and that that God demands ethical behavior from humanity.  We imagine God as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  That said, there is a saying in the Jewish world, “Two Jews, three opinions,” and nowhere is this more evident than in how we understand God.  In our prayers we say, “God of Abraham, God of Sarah, God of Isaac, God of Rebecca, God of Jacob, God of Leah, God of Rachel.”  Why the redundancy?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to just say, “God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, etc?” 

      The traditional response to this conundrum is a recognition

that each person has their own concept of God, and that, in fact, our concept of God can and will likely change throughout life’s journey.  Classically, we have 70 names of God, and we may connect with a different name, a different aspect or understanding of God, at different moments.

Questioning God, challenging God, these are hallmarks of the Jewish faith, going back to Abraham’s argument with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The first thing Abraham does after entering into a relationship with God is to challenge God with the words, “Should not the judge of all the earth do justly?”   We call ourselves “the people of Israel.”  The word “Israel” is translated as “one who wrestles with God,” based on the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel when his name is changed to Yisrael/Israel.

“A Jew,” writes Elie Wiesel, “can love God, a Jew can fight God, but a Jew may not ignore God.”  Rabbi Aaron Zeitlin expresses this reality powerfully in his classic reflection:

Praise Me, says God, and I will know that you love me.

Curse Me, says God, and I will know that you love me.

Praise me or curse Me. And I will know that you love Me.

Sing out My graces, says God.

Raise your fist against Me and revile, says God,

Sing out graces or revile,

Revile is also a kind of praise, says God.

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God,

If you look at the stars and yawn,

If you see suffering and don’t cry out,

If you don’t praise and you don’t revile,

Then I created you in vain, says God.

  •  Jewish Values- Number Two is Dedicated to Jewish Values and the Balance Between Humility and Arrogance

There is a teaching variously attributed to at least two different rabbis that goes like this- Each of us should have in our pocket 2 slips of paper.  On one should be written, “The world was created for my sake.”  On the other, “I am but dust and ashes.”  The secret of wisdom is knowing when to read each message.

Humility is a priority Jewish value.  Humility is defined as occupying, “No more than my place, no less than my space.”  While it is important to understand our own worth, it is more important that we constantly remind ourselves that every human being is made in the image of God.  Thus, we are to honor every person and care for their needs.  In fact, Rabbi Israel Salanter suggested that, “Another person’s physical needs are our spiritual needs.”  Ritual observance is a foundation of Jewish life, yet it is meaningless unless it is accompanied by righteous behavior.  We read in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, as I, God, am holy.”  Holiness in action is the Jewish way.  When we do good in the world, we bring holiness to God’s name.  When we do wrong, we bring discredit not only on ourselves but on the Jewish people as an entity.

          Among many, many, other values we emphasize kindness, generosity, compassion,  responsibility, equanimity, faith, and, fundamentally, gratitude.  Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes that, “Living with gratitude elevates your entire life.  You become a more spiritual person.  You become a more joyful person.  You become a kinder and more compassionate person.  You become a calmer and more peaceful person.  You become a person who lives in greater harmony with others.”

The Hebrew word for a Jew is “Yehudi,” which comes from the same root as the word, “thank you.”  To be a Jew is to live your life focused on cultivating gratitude for all of our blessings and for the very gift of life itself.  Gratitude is the foundation of Jewish spirituality.

  •  The Three Festivals- Three is for the Three Festivals

          The Jewish year begins in the fall with the High Holidays, the Days of Awe- Rosh HaShanah, the new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Jewish people observe the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals- Passover, Sukkot/the Feast of Booths, and Shavuot/the Feast of Weeks.  Each of these three festivals has both an agricultural and a historical significance.  In between, there are Purim and Chanukkah and a whole host of other celebrations and fast days that you may not have even heard of.

         We have a full schedule of holidays.  It wasn’t until I was in an Army Reserve unit and found myself telling my Group Commander that I couldn’t make it to our weekend drill- yet again!- because it was yet another Jewish holiday, that I realized exactly how rich and full is our calendar.  The cycle of the holidays brings structure and meaning to our days, and as the year flows, we experience every human emotion and connection to our history and to the rhythm of nature.  The Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, with a correction added for the 11 day difference between the solar and the lunar years.  That is why Chanukkah might be around the same time as Thanksgiving one year, and it might be around the same time as Christmas the next year, but it will never be in August!

There are times of meditation and introspection and times of raucous celebration.  The Passover seder meal is one of the most widely observed of our festivals.  Families gather to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt through the use of ritual foods and a text called the Haggadah.  More than any other mitzvah, any other commandment, in the Torah, we read 36 times that we should have one law for the native and the stranger.  Passover is an annual reminder that we know what it is like to be the outsider, we were slaves and we must be sensitive to potential abuses of power.

Through the ritual of the Passover seder, we teach that value to the next generation, emphasizing our responsibility to care of the disenfranchised.  It is no wonder that Jews have always been disproportionately represented in movements for social justice.

  • Matriarchs- Four Represents the Four Matriarchs

The Jewish story is the story of a family, Avram and Sarai, who

come to believe in one God and become God’s emissaries to the world.  Number 4 is for the 4 matriarchs- Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel.  Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac marries Rebecca.  Their son Jacob marries Leah and Rachel.  Jewish women have played a vital role in the development of the Jewish tradition, often behind the scenes.  Four matriarchs- Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. 

 In the Biblical text, women often resort to subterfuge in order to accomplish their goals.  As Judaism evolves, women are placed on a pedestal, albeit in the context of defined social roles.  The rabbis of 2,000 years ago enacted protections for women in the case of divorce, and there are a small number of women quoted in the Talmud in their own names.

         Throughout the Middle Ages, it was often the women who knew the language of the land, and women who engaged in commerce to support their husbands, while the men were devoted to prayer and learning.  However, the synagogue was clearly the realm of men.  Women were permitted to participate in prayer, but were not required to do so.  Thus, women were excluded from leadership roles until the 20th century, when the first women were ordained as rabbis. 

         In 1972, Sally Preisand became the first female Reform rabbi.  Reform Judaism is the most liberal of what you might think of as Jewish “denominations.”  It is important to note the spectrum of observance among these various denominations within the Jewish community.  Within Conservative Judaism, which is more traditional, women did not graduate rabbinical school until 1985.  While women in Orthodox circles are emerging as community leaders, they have yet to achieve the same status and titles as men.  In 1981, I had the honor to become the first female rabbi to serve in the United States military. 

  • Torah- Five is the Five Books of the Torah

          The Hebrew Bible consists of 3 parts- The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.  The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is read and studied every year throughout the Jewish world.  We begin in the fall with these 5 books- the book of Genesis,  proceeding through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Jews are rightly known as “The People of the Book,” for our devotion to learning and the priority value placed on study.  It is considered to be a religious obligation to study on a daily basis.

           The Torah begins with the story of creation.  The history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham and Sarah, and the Torah contains the story of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, the enslavement in Egypt and Moses as the vehicle for liberation, the wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, and the foundation of the Jewish way of life.

          The 5 scrolls- Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations are read on various holidays throughout the year.  Selections from the prophets are part of each week’s focus, and selections from the Psalms are included in the liturgy. 

          Study, in Jewish tradition, is a vehicle of spiritual expression.  It has been suggested that, “When I pray I talk to God, when I study, God talks to me.”  Reverence for learning and esteem for teachers is reflected in the fact that the word rabbi translates to “my teacher.”  It should be noted that Jews tend to avoid the term, “Old Testament,” in favor of The Hebrew Bible.

  •  Books of the Mishna- Six is the Six Books of the Mishna

          Besides, the Bible, the most significant source of Jewish wisdom is the Talmud.  After the completion of the Bible, rabbis continued to debate and discuss how to apply the Biblical text in our lives.  In the year 200 CE, these teachings were collected and published as the 6 books of the Mishna.  Another 400 years of conversation ensued, resulting in the Talmud.  The Jewish people read the text like it was a love letter- Why did he use this word not that word? What did he mean by that phrase?  No single word, no single letter, is insignificant; all is open to interpretation.  It would be rare for Jews to study Bible without including a broad variety of commentaries from every era- ancient to contemporary.

         It’s fascinating that the rabbis assume their right to interpret the text, even to override God’s specific intervention in the discussion, as evidenced by this classic Talmudic story.  (Baba Metzia 59a/b) There is an argument about a relatively obscure legal point, and there is unanimity on the correct response, with the exception of one person- Rabbi Eliezer.

On that day, we read, Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but they were rejected. He said: “If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it.” The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. Others say, 400 cubits. His colleagues said to him: “One cannot prove anything from a carob tree.”

Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “If the law is as I say, may the aqueduct prove it.” The water in the aqueduct began to flow backwards. The sages replied:  “One cannot prove anything from an aqueduct.”

Eliezer continued: “If the law is as I say, then may the walls of the house of study prove it.” The walls of the house of study began to cave in. Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls, “If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?” The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there at a slant.

Finally Eliezer said: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer — the law is as he says…”

Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “‘The Torah is not in heaven!. We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, God, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to ‘follow the majority.'”

         Later on, a prophet was asked, “What was God’s response to all of this?”  The reply- God is depicted as laughing and saying, “My children have defeated me.”

  •  Shabbat- Seven is for Shabbat, The Sabbath Daay

       The Sabbath is the foundation of Jewish family and communal life.  “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” is the only ritual law in the 10 commandments.  The Sabbath is built right into the foundation of the creation story.  On the 7th day, the creation is not complete until NOT creating has been created.

         Ahad Ha-Am observed that, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.”  Beginning on Friday night and until 3 stars are visible in the sky on Saturday night, the Jewish focus is on family and community, on disconnecting from the commercial and renewing our commitment to the spiritual.  We light candles in our homes, enjoy a festive meal, come together for worship, and remind ourselves of the need to nurture our souls.

         In a traditional home, no electricity is used, no cars are driven, devices are turned off.  In the non-Orthodox world, the day is devoted to family and friends.  In my own practice, we don’t, for example, watch television of Shabbat, yet we might drive to the park to play with the grandkids.  In our incredibly overprogrammed lives, Shabbat has never been more important.  Listen to how the great 20th century philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel described it-“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

         We hold services in the synagogue on Friday night and Saturday, Shabbat morning, coming together as a community to provide support through all the vicissitudes of life, to study and to pray together.  Jewish services are always open to anyone who chooses to join us.

  •  Chanukkah- Eight is for Eight Days of Chanukkah

          The 8-day holiday of Chanukkah, while well known in contemporary America, is among the most minor of holidays  on the calendar.  Chanukkah commemorates the successful revolt of the Jewish people against the oppressive forces of the Syrian-Greeks in the year 165 BCE.  Legend has it that, following a 3 year battle, the temple was rededicated- the word “Chanukkah” means “dedication.”  There was only enough oil to light the menorah, the candelabrum which illuminated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, for 1 day, and yet, miraculously, the oil lasted for 8 days.  Thus, 8 days of Chanukkah.

         Chanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates a military victory.  As a retired US Army chaplain, following 38 years of service, the holiday is especially meaningful as a celebration of the right to freedom of religious expression.  Judaism is not a pacifist tradition; we DO recognize a right, and some would say, an obligation, to self-defense.  The Psalmist (34:18) tells us to, “Seek peace and pursue it.”  Prayers for peace are part of every worship service.  And yet, we acknowledge the reality of evil and our role in fighting it.

         Part of the genius of Jewish tradition is how it can be re-interpreted and renewed in every generation.  In the Middle Ages, during times of intense persecution, the stories of martyrdom associated with Chanukkah brought solace to an oppressed people.  In our own culture, Chanukkah is a necessary counterpoint to the overwhelm of Christmas, and a reminder to treasure our freedom of religion, a gift that Jews never take for granted.   In the State of Israel, the spirit of the Maccabees is a time to celebrate the strength and courage needed for the tiny Jewish state to survive in a sea of adversaries, to celebrate the victory of the few against the many.   Israel was born out of the devastation of the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews, including 1 ½ million children, were murdered by the Nazi machine.  The contemporary State of Israel provides refuge for Jews fleeing persecution around the world, and stands as a steadfast reminder that “never again” will the Jewish people be defenseless or homeless.  Chanukkah is a small holiday with a big message.

  •  Months of Childbirth- Nine is for Nine Months of Childbirth and the Jewish Life-Cycle

          From birth to death and everywhere in between, the Jewish people have rich and full opportunities to commemorate every aspect of our lifecycle experiences.  Following the 9 months of pregnancy, the birth of a boy is celebrated with a ritual circumcision on his 8th day of life, while a girl will be welcomed with a naming ceremony held either in the synagogue or at home.  The childrens’ Hebrew names are announced at this time- it is customary that Jewish children have both an English name and also a Hebrew name that will be used in synagogue ceremonies.  Eastern European Jews typically name their children after deceased loved ones, while those of Spanish origin honor the names of living relatives.

         Bar or Bat Mitzvah takes place, traditionally, when a girl turns 12 or a boy turns 13, though it is the Reform custom to hold both ceremonies at age 13.  Bar/Bat Mitzvah means “son or daughter of the commandments,” and it symbolizes the child’s acceptance of responsibility for their own religious life.  By the age of 13, children are expected to know the difference between right and wrong and to have the self-discipline to choose to do what is right.

         We imagine that each individual has a good inclination and an evil inclination.  Our character is formed by the repeated choices we make of right or wrong.  Until the age of 13, it is the parents’ responsibility to guide their children.  Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the time when the child is considered to be an adult in the eyes of Jewish law, responsible for their own religious life and their own choices.

         You are probably familiar with much of the rich symbolism of the Jewish wedding from depictions in various media.  The wedding canopy, the exchange of rings, a written marriage contract expressing the commitment the couple are making to each other, and the breaking of a glass, all make Jewish weddings deeply meaningful celebrations.  And, sadly, when marriages end, there is a specific Jewish ceremony of divorce as well.

         Nowhere is the genius of Jewish tradition more evident than in matters surrounding death and dying.  Although it is not well-known, there IS a Jewish “death bed confession” which I have always found to be a profound opportunity to help both the person who is dying as well as the family, find peace at that difficult moment.  In ground burial is preferred, though more and more Jews ARE choosing to be cremated.

         In general, the burial takes place as soon as possible, followed by 7 intense days of mourning, during which friends are charged to visit with the family in their home and provide meals, prayer, and emotional support.  Graduated stages of 30 days, then 11 months, then an annual remembrance of the day of the death, help the mourner honor the memory of their loved one while re-integrating into the community.  Services are held in the synagogue 4 times a year during which we remember all who have passed away.

  1.  Community- Ten is for the Minyan and Jewish Community

Judaism is a faith tradition rooted in community.  The synagogue is known by 3 names- it is the house of prayer, it is the house of study, and it is the house of assembly.  It’s the place we get together to remind ourselves of our history and values, to educate ourselves and our children, to pray and to support each other in good times and bad, and to join together in our efforts to make the world a better place.   It is for this reason that our ancient teachers told us: Do not separate yourself from the community.  It is for this reason that our tradition establishes a minyan, a gathering of ten Jews, to symbolize communal support.  We need a minimum of 10 Jewish adults in order to hold a complete prayer service.  We may make each other crazy, yet, Jews understand the need to be responsible for each other wherever we may find ourselves.

The story is told of a young Hassid who complained to his rebbe that he was depressed. He feels alone, there is illness and a business setback in his family, and he is afraid that God doesn’t care about him. The man is sitting with the rebbe, his rabbi and teacher,  in front of the fireplace, and the fire is just about to go out. There are only scattered embers in the fireplace.  The rebbe takes the poker and stokes the embers into a heap. There is a burst of flame and new warmth emerges from the fire.  “You see?” the rebbe asks as he gently stokes the fire. “Do you see what happened when I gathered the embers closer together? The fire came back to life. But when the embers were scattered and separated from each other, they weakened  and  almost died out.  It’s the same with people, you know, the rebbe continued.  When we are alone and separated or disconnected from each other, our spirits are in danger of dying out. But when we huddle together, we receive warmth and comfort from one another, and our hope is renewed. ”  

I pray for all of you that you experience warmth and comfort from your beautiful community, and the restoration of hope in the year ahead.  Thank you so much for this blessed opportunity to be with you, and I am delighted to try to answer any questions that you may have.

Vayigash: “Being Right/Being Happy”

A couple of weeks ago, Ron and I were pondering a challenging situation, and he said something that I can’t stop thinking about.  His comment was-  “I don’t need to be right, I just want to be happy.”  Personally,  I so resist this wise perspective.  I DO need to be right- I want to stomp my feet and pound my fist and argue fiercely until you are CONVINCED that I am right, until you scream it from the rooftops.

         Okay, it’s hard for me to let things go.  And yet, I have to admit that, ironically, Ron IS right- in many cases, maybe even in most cases, the better part of valor is to just let it go.  When I counsel couples, I often advise them as follows:  When you have a disagreement, ask yourself, “How much does this matter to me?  How much does it matter to my partner?”  If your level of caring is a 3 and theirs is an 8, let it go.  Save your energy for engagement for those moments where you both care about something passionately, and even then, consider the question, “How much will this matter in 5 years?”  Perhaps you can, after all, let it go.

         I think about the story Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to tell about the poor peasant schlepping along the road with his heavy pack.  Along comes a nobleman who invites the peasant to ride in his carriage.  The poor man gratefully steps into the carriage, still holding his heavy bag on his shoulder. He can’t, or won’t, let it go. The nobleman suggests, “You’re riding in the carriage anyway, why don’t you put down your pack?”  “It’s enough,” the peasant replies, “that you’re carrying me.  Why should you carry my pack as well?”  The tale is a metaphor for our relationship with God.  If we’re already in the carriage, that is, the world, why do we carry our burdens with us?  Why not put them down and let God give us a ride? 

         It’s hard to let go.  It’s hard to let go of all of the cares and troubles and concerns and rationalizations that we carry with us.  Somehow we think that we are so important, that our cares and our perspectives are so vital, that we can’t possibly put them down.  As we enter a new year, it occurs to me that this is a good time to reflect on what we are carrying into the year ahead, and what, perhaps, we might be able to let go?  The year 2020 invites us to think about putting everything that we are carrying into sharper focus.  What is our vision for the year ahead and how can we lighten our load with an eye towards greater happiness?

         In this week’s parshah, Vayigash, Joseph is, finally, reunited with the brothers who wanted to kill him and who sold him into slavery.  Joseph, clearly, had a lot of anger he might have carried.  He easily could have stomped his feet and banged his fist and hit them over the head with his own righteousness and their grievous error.  Joseph does none of that.  Instead, as he reveals his true identity, he cries with relief and with joy, “I am Joseph; does my father yet live?”  (Genesis 45:2)  Joseph doesn’t need to be right, he just wants to be happy.  He puts down the heavy burden of his anger and resentment and righteous indignation  and embraces his brothers. 

         As we enter the year 2020, can we all shift our perspective on what is truly important and reflect deeply on what we actually need to carry with us and what we might be able to let go?  Do we need to be right in every instance?  Perhaps we just be happy?

The Opposite of Thanksgiving

      Yesterday we celebrated Thanksgiving, the quintessential American holiday focused on gratitude and based on the Biblical holiday of Sukkot. What destroys gratitude more than anything else? Envy. There’s a good reason that the 10 commandments prohibit coveting, that is, desiring, that which belongs to others. It destroys our souls and defeats happiness. Gratitude is the foundation of the Jewish spiritual path. The very word “Yehudi-Jew”- comes from a root meaning thanks. To be a Jew is to be thankful. Envy is the opposite of gratitude.

      Envy says, “I am NOT content with what I have; I want more, I want what my neighbor has.” “Envy,” according to Pirke Avot, “is one of the 3 things that drive a person from this world.” (Pirke Avot 4:28- other two are lust and honor) Envy consumes our being. There will always be people who have more than we do, so, if our happiness is contingent on having as much or more as others, we have set ourselves up for a lifetime of unhappiness.

      When the Israelites are about to enter the land of Canaan, Moses begs God to allow him to join them. Having devoted his life to schlepping the people for 40 years of wandering, how can it be that he will be deprived of the opportunity to see the fulfillment of the dream that has sustained the community? He pleads with God to even turn him into an animal, just so that he can touch the holy land. God denies that request, allowing Moses only to ascend a mountain and view the land from a distance. Moses makes a final offer- he will appoint Joshua as his successor and defer to Joshua as the leader. God then addressed Joshua in front of Moses, and Moses is anxious to hear what God said. Joshua rebukes Moses- that was not the deal- you had your private time with God and I didn’t ask you, “What did God say?”, now, it is MY turn. In that moment, Moses comes to understand the destructive nature of jealousy. Moses relents from his demand and makes peace with his own death. He is depicted as saying- “I’d rather die than live with this feeling of envy.”

      How can we make peace with our own sense of jealousy? It is perfectly normal to want what others have. In some ways this is not a bad thing- when we look at people who are exceptionally pious or devoted students, it can be motivating to us to feel a little envious. The real question is, what is the object of our envy? Is it in the material realm of the spiritual?

      Rabbi Laura Geller writes, “Coveting only occurs when we compare ourselves with other people. It can lead to resentment, anger, jealousy, and judgment—attitudes that constrict our lives and keep us from being free. The tenth commandment raises the question that Pirkei Avot does: “Who is rich?” and challenges us to be able to answer truthfully: “I am, because I am grateful for what I have” (Pirkei Avot, 4:1). The Torah is replete with examples of the pitfalls of envy. Cain murders his brother Abel because he is jealous. Rachel envies Leah and all of their children envy Joseph. King Saul envies David and tries to kill him.         The destructive power of envy is well-documented. Thanksgiving is the antidote to envy. Let’s take the spirit of Thanksgiving into every single day of our lives, focusing on our many, many, MANY blessings. Let’s make every day Thanksgiving.

Two Inspiring Stories

SAM AND DEDE/LAURAL AND ARNIE This is the story of Laural and Arnie Sigal and Dede and Sam Harris- how they became friends, how that friendship grew, and how we can all be inspired by their story. Making guests feel welcome is a fundamental Jewish value. In Hebrew we call it, “hachnassat orchim.” We see this value evidenced in the earliest chapters of the Torah, when Abraham runs to greet his visitors. Various midrashic sources suggest that Abraham and Sarah specifically designed their tent to be open in all 4 directions so that they would never miss an opportunity to welcome guests. The Talmud (Brachot 17a) praises Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai for the fact that he was always the first one to offer a greeting to anyone he encountered, and Pirke Avot (1:15) reminds us that we should always receive people with a pleasant expression. “Hachnassat orchim, welcoming guests, takes precedence over welcoming the Shekhinah, God’s Holy Presence.” (BT Shabbat 127a)

         Making people feel welcome is a foundation of community life. Rabbi Dan Alexander writes of his challenge to greet as many folks as possible at Shabbat services, recognizing “the potential power of a mere greeting.” “A greeting,” he writes, “underscores the essential worthiness of that person.” Wow- that IS powerful. Laural and Arnie exemplify this principle of hachnassat orchim. They are always among the first to reach out to visitors, ask their names, and learn their stories. I personally lean on them when I see someone I don’t know, and ask them to help me welcome our guests. Thank you, Laural and Arnie! So, once upon a time, Arnie was attending a Shabbat morning service when Dede and Sam Harris walked into Temple Chai. As is his way, Arnie introduced himself and engaged them in conversation. When he asked if they had plans for Thanksgiving, the couple was surprised. “Don’t you need to check with your wife?,” they inquired. Arnie replied, “No, I don’t- I know my wife and I know that she would love to have you join us.” Now, how many of us, honestly, would invite people that we had just met to join us for Thanksgiving? I’m guessing not too many. Yet, from that seed of an open heart and a deeply generous welcome, grew a profound friendship.

         Laural and Arnie learned Sam’s story, as a child survivor of the Holocaust and now the driving force behind Chicago’s Holocaust Museum, where Sam is featured in a hologram answering questions about his experience, a hologram that will ensure his enduring legacy for many generations. Laural and Arnie’s hospitality, Sam and Dede’s generosity, these inspire us with a vision of the best of humanity. But it doesn’t end there. Among the many things I have learned from these two couples is the value of caring concern among friends, as well as the value of lifelong open-ness to learning from every situation. Last year, the two couples honored us with their presence at a Kabbalat Shabbat service, with plans to continue their time together over dinner. When Laural and Arnie did not arrive at dinner, Sam and Dede were, naturally, quite concerned. Dede reached out to me and I was able to let her know that, in fact, Laural had not felt well and the couple had gone to the emergency room. Thank God Laural was okay, and the next morning I called to share the good news with Dede. Here is where it gets profound for me. With the greatest of humility, Dede shared that, actually, she already had heard the happy news. She was chagrined that SHE had not called ME to let me know that our beloved mutual friend was well.

         Here is what she said, that touched my heart and I hope touches yours. Dede is not a young woman. She is a mature woman of age, experience, and wisdom. And yet, her immediate response was, “I guess I am still learning.” What a remarkable example to still be growing spiritually, to still be learning at every possible moment. I was overwhelmed by her example and wanted to share this story today. Welcoming guests, Caring hearts, Generosity, Life-long learning- what an inspiration as we enter this new year.

YONA WEITZNER Yona Weitzner was my children’s Hebrew teacher when they were growing up. I hadn’t seen her for many years until she recently moved back to Phoenix and began putting her talent on the accordion to use playing music with my husband Ron and his friends. We were all guests for Shabbat dinner at the home of Dr. Michael and Livia Steingart, and, following the meal, was spontaneous music and singing. Yona shared a song that reminded her of her family lore, and told us this remarkable story of courage and survival. We can only pray to have the strength to make impossibly challenging decisions as was demonstrated by Yona’s mother, even as we pray that, God forbid, we should never find ourselves in such extreme circumstances.

         The story takes place in a small town in Poland, some time in the 1940’s, where Yona’s parents, Adella and Avram lived with her grandparents, Ora and Chayim, and her siblings, Miryam, who was then 2 years old, and Tzvi, who was one. Every Monday and Thursday, her father, Avram, would take the 3-hour carriage ride to Krakow to sell eggs in order to support the family, while Adella and her mother ran a fabric store from their home. It happened while Avram was away. Adella dressed in Polish attire and spoke Polish well enough to pass as Polish. She engaged some local German soldiers, who informed her that, as of tomorrow, the town would be Judenrein, that is, free of Jews, as the entire Jewish population of 150 souls was to be rounded up and transported to a concentration camp. They would “go away and never come back,” he said with satisfaction.    

          There was no time to think. Adella packed a few valuables and gathered the family to hide in the cellar, covering the opening with a carpet. They huddled together at the sound of heavy boots and the menacing words, “Juden raus- Jews, get out.” In the dead of winter, with snow up to their waists, they fled to the woods. Ora and Chayim died of exposure within a few days, while Adella struggled to reach the Russian border with her two young children. When Yona’s father Avram returned from the market, the house was empty and a neighbor warned him to flee immediately. He miraculously survived as a partisan, fighting in those same woods for 4 long years, alongside two Russian comrades. His friends said, “You are our brother,” and the 3 partisans found their way to a work camp in Siberia.

         Adella survived her camp by claiming to be a cook, smuggling food to sustain her starving co-workers. One day, Adella’s friend was allowed to visit the work camp down the road to see her own husband. She spotted Avram, who said, “I thought you were dead.” No, the friend replied, not only am I alive, but your wife and children are with me only a few miles down the road. The couple were reunited and Yona was born in a refugee camp in Austria sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee. The family settled in Israel, where, as Yona put it, her dad went, “From the boat to the battlefield.” The family survived and triumphed- what incredible role models! Think about it. A young wife and mother, her husband away, having to make the heart- breaking decision to run for her life.

         I am reminded of the midrash of the Israelite slaves, poised on the edge of the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit. The rabbis teach that the waters of the sea did not part until one courageous individual, Nachshon ben Aminadav, strode into the waters. When the waters reached his nostrils, it was only then that the miracle occurred. When Alex Borstein was awarded an Emmy several weeks ago, many of us were touched by her words, “My grandmother turned toward a guard — she was in line to be shot into a pit — and said, ‘What happens if I step out of line?’ and he said, ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will.’ And she stepped out of line,” Borstein explained. “And for that, I am here. And for that, my children are here. So step out of line, ladies. Step out of line.” We live our lives from day to day, oblivious to the great challenges we may face. Tests of courage come in many forms- a frightening diagnosis, the loss of meaningful work, the tragic death of a loved one. The heart knows its own pain; each of us has our own struggles and our own journey. We never know what tomorrow may bring We pray that the challenges be few and far between, even as we pray that when we need strength and courage, when we need faith and perseverance, when we need to step out of line, that we may plunge forward into the waters like Nachshon ben Aminadav, and cling to the inspiring vison of young Adella’s amazing legacy.

Mussar and Mindfulness

           Rosh HaShanah- what a gift! What a luxury! What a joy! Looking around this room, we are each so grateful for the blessing of our physical well-being that enables us to be here, and for the blessing of community- sharing the start of this holy season with friends and loved ones. Tonight we begin a 10-day journey exploring the state of our souls and our relationships. Throughout the year, we are overwhelmed by the busy-ness of our lives and our many commitments, made exponentially greater by the miraculous technology that eases our lives as it simultaneously consumes them. During these Yamim Noraim, these awesome Days of Awe, our focus turns inward. We remind ourselves of the spark of the divine, our holy essence, the soul which gives ultimate meaning to our days. We remove the dust that has accumulated during the year and polish our soul so that it radiates light once again. Jewish tradition teaches that we each have a yetzer ha-tov, a good inclination, and a yetzer ha-ra, an evil inclination. We need to be vigilant each and every day in reinforcing our yetzer ha-tov and resisting the yetzer ha-ra. Our souls are kind of like a garden- if we are not watering them and removing the weeds, the garden will not flourish.

         There is a story of a deeply pious individual who, upon awakening in the morning, heard an inner voice- his yetzer ha-ra, tempting him, “You are such a tsaddik, isn’t it okay if you just rest in bed- it’s so early.” Responding to his evil inclination, he said, “Well, it can’t be that early if you’re already up!” Tonight we remind ourselves that the choice between sin and holiness is in our hands. We take stock of who we are and renew our commitment to who we want to be. We truly have amazing power to grow spiritually and thereby bring blessing to the world. Rabbi Israel Salanter taught that another person’s material needs are our spiritual needs. Learning to focus on the needs of others is fundamental to our own spiritual growth.

         Oren Jay Sofer, in his book Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication offers 3 basic steps to effectively communicating with and truly hearing the needs of others. They are: 1. Lead with presence. 2. Come from curiosity and care. 3. Focus on what matters. Let’s explore what he means and how we can use this wisdom to deepen our connections with each other in the year that is just beginning. I mentioned the many distractions of contemporary life. It is not so easy to focus on just one thing. I, for one, would never consider JUST eating without reading or looking at my computer or the phone.

         The idea of “leading with presence” is not so easy as it sounds. What does it mean to be fully present to another? What does good conversation look and feel like? We intuitively know- there is eye contact and head nodding, deep breathing and moments to pause before responding. Wouldn’t you just love to be heard and understood by someone who was fully present in the interaction? Wouldn’t the gift of being fully present be an amazing gift to give to others? Noticing our breath, slowing down, exploring nature together- all of these are ways to become more aware and be more in the moment. It may be helpful to remind yourself of this acronym for the word WAIT- “Why Am I Talking?” Listening to others is a balm to their soul and can actually alleviate pain and suffering. Remind yourself- it’s okay to pause, take a breath, and formulate your thoughts before responding, especially in difficult conversations.

         The second critical element is- coming from curiosity and care- Blame, shame, and judgment are natural, visceral responses. It has wisely been said that no one cares what you know until they know that you care. No wonder the rabbis teach us to give others the benefit of the doubt, to judge favorably. If we truly take the time to understand the perspective of others, it will go a long way towards alleviating conflict and misunderstanding. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Our tendency is to avoid challenging conversations because we want to avoid conflict. We fear that we will alienate others and cause more harm than good. Yet, the message of these High Holy Days is that we need to find gentle ways of renewing our connections with each other, even if that means addressing difficulties or challenges. If we can’t find a way to be honest with each other, we must reconcile ourselves to only the most superficial relationships. It is an act of love and trust to navigate relationship challenges. Resentment will leak out one way or another, and poison our connections. “Intimacy,” writes Sofer, “is born in conflict. Difference can bring us together and help us to know one another.” Bringing with us the intention to understand is a huge part of conflict resolution. He reminds us that, “Curiosity means that we are interested in learning. Learning requires humility; we must be willing to not know. To understand means “to stand beneath.” To comprehend. . . we need to be open to new ways of seeing.” Coming from curiosity and care means letting go of our own needs and understanding the needs of others, it means to “stand under,” to truly listen with open-ness and humility.

         In his book, Sofer tells the story of a former Marine who was studying Aikido. Despite the fact that Aikido is supposed to be peaceful, this individual was most anxious to test his skills in a combative environment. He thought he had an opportunity on a Tokyo subway, when a drunk day laborer entered a subway car, hurling insults and curses. The Marine was about to leap into action, when a little old man called to the laborer from the other side of the car. “Hey! Come here and talk to me.” “Why should I talk to you?” the man replied? “What have you been drinking?” the elderly man persisted. “Sake, and it’s none of your goddamn business.” The wise elder persisted, engaging the laborer in conversation. He shared how much he and his wife loved sitting in their garden at sunset and sharing a little bottle of sake. “I’m sure you have a lovely wife too,” he said. The laborer’s eyes teared up- “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, no job, no money, nowhere to go. I’m so ashamed.” The story ends with the laborer’s head in the old man’s lap, allowing his matted hair to be stroked and his soul to be comforted. Such is the transformative power of coming from caring and curiosity. Lead with presence. Come from curiosity and care.

         The third step is focusing on what matters. Focusing on what matters is the primary task of the High Holidays. Our needs, the needs of others, everything we say and do is an attempt to meet needs. Focusing on needs is focusing on what matters. When we see others as, just like us, images of the Holy One struggling to survive and to meet their own needs, we nurture empathy and build bridges. Sometimes it’s not easy to articulate our own needs, nor is it obvious what needs are motivating others. It’s good to practice seeing the world through the lens of needs. Asking ourselves the question – what matters most to me? What matters most to someone else?- will help us connect to fundamental values. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying that, “When you count others’ happiness as your own, your chances of being happy increase six billion to one.” Recognizing the universality of needs and coming to peace with unmet needs is vital to our spiritual growth. We have a much better chance of getting our needs met when we are clear about what they are and when we can ask in ways that are non-threatening and demonstrate that we understand and have empathy for the needs of others.

         Sofer quotes Marshall Rosenberg’s advice, “Ask others to meet your needs like flowers for your table, not air for your lungs.” One of my teachers, Nancy Weiss, uses the expression to “pet your heart.” I love that image of comforting ourselves and feeling empathy for our own needs and feelings. So, the lesson is that we can actually becoming better people- kinder, more patient and caring, generous and compassionate, just by working on it. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s why we have these Aseret Y’may Teshuvah, these 10 Awesome Days. Just by opening our hearts, by being fully present, coming from a place of care, and focusing on what truly matters. The High Holidays are a blessing, a gift, a luxury- let’s use this time wisely to dust off our souls and renew our commitment to our highest and holiest selves.

Remember Me Like This

            We could all die tomorrow, or, in fact tonight. The reality is that we don’t know and so it is easy to avoid thinking about. On this holiest of nights, we peel back the façade and take a peek at our lives as they will appear in the rear-view mirror. What is it we see? What is it that we HOPE we will see? And what are we doing about it?

         Lives end suddenly, as with the person who turned onto Marilyn Rd. to attend this very service a few years ago and was killed in a car accident. Lives can be extended beyond meaning, robbing us of the core of our being, our memories and connections with loved ones. And sometimes there’s a life-limiting medical diagnosis. No, you are not going to die right now, maybe not in the next 6 months, but you are ill, there is no cure, and your end is in sight.

         I was speaking a few months ago with a beloved friend who is facing his own mortality in this very real way. Not as a theoretical possibility in the distant future, but as a diminution of well-ness that is with him daily. Since he is a passionate Type A person, I asked him the question that I ask myself routinely- “Have you written your own eulogy?” I was kind of shocked that he said no, that this person, who has always lived large and in charge, was ready to let go and let others discern his legacy and how best to honor it, once he is gone from this earth.

         Not me. My beloved grandfather and I, Papa Hymie, alav hashalom, collaborated on his eulogy for a decade or more. He had a huge binder of cards that he had received, poems he had written and those written for him, articles of interest, and he used to routinely pull out that binder and review with me precisely what he wanted me to include when the time came. Naturally, I honored his request, though I’m not sure he requested the opening line, “Only the good die young!” He was 93 and a notorious character. Papa Hymie and I are not the only ones. Mickey Greenberg, Aunt Mick in honor of her niece who was my very close friend, penned a letter that she wanted read at her own funeral. A writer by trade, she began as follows:

          Wow! If you are reading this I must be dead! Dead – that’s a powerful word. It means that my life is finished and I never finish anything (except butterscotch sundaes). There are so many things I meant to finish – cleaning closets – straightening drawers – putting pictures in albums. I always meant to do these things “tomorrow” and now there will be no more tomorrows. That’s what happens when you are a procrastinator. I am sorry my loved ones will have to figure out all the things I didn’t finish. The 12 files folders marked “misc.” contains papers I meant to define. It probably doesn’t make any difference now. I’m sorry about all the other things that remain undone. The books I didn’t read: the letters I didn’t write; the stories I didn’t commit to paper. But most of all I regret the words which were never spoken. Words to express my love for my family and friends; words to ask forgiveness for hurt I may have caused others; words to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt me. Aunt Mick goes on from there.

I am writing my own eulogy in my head all the time, and it occurs to me that I really ought to write it down- get it out of my head and onto paper so that, perhaps, I can let it go and find some peace. Yom Kippur is the exact moment when we each should be thinking about our own eulogy and our own legacy.

         So here goes- Rabbi Bonnie Jane Koppell (Okay, that’s a true confession. Yes, Jane is my middle name- I never liked it and I don’t particularly care for Bonnie either. That’s part of the reason that I much prefer being called Rabbi Koppell rather than Rabbi Bonnie; but, I digress). Rabbi Bonnie Jane Koppell was born in Brooklyn, NY, the eldest of Sandy and Leo’s 3 children. She is survived by her 2 brothers, Michael and Philip. (Okay, obviously I’m projecting here but why not protect my younger brothers?) She described her childhood in Brooklyn as “idyllic,” a loving family, grandparents close by, a great Jewish community, lots of friends, safety and security to enjoy the culture that the city had to offer.

          What’s important in life? For me- family is number one. Sitting with bereaved families preparing for a funeral service, I often ask, “What were the values that animated this person? What were their top priorities?’ The answer is, almost always, “family, first and foremost.” Would you give the same answer? If so, how are you expressing this value while you still have the opportunity to do so? A couple of weeks ago I had to be in NYC for a meeting. As you can imagine, this is a fairly busy time of year for rabbis, and I was concerned about being away. My 85 year old mom lives in NY, and this was also a great opportunity to spend time with her. I thought hard about taking an earlier flight home, and decided that it was more important to spend the time with my mother; I don’t have plans to see her again until January. What a great decision! We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon together, a day that, one friend noted, I will remember 20 years from now. I was inspired by someone who shared how his mother used to almost beg him, “Why do you never visit? Don’t you have half an hour to stop by?” Now that he is older and she is gone, he understands the depth of her pain, longing for a connection to her only son. How he wishes he could travel back in time and prioritize spending time with her! We can’t travel back in time, we can only move forward. If we are fortunate enough to be blessed with a loving family, how can we prioritize time with them in the year ahead?

            My eulogy might continue like this- Bonnie was also blessed by many close friends. Many. It might seem impossible to have SO many genuinely good friends, but Bonnie really worked hard to maintain relationships. She was the catalyst who made sure that connections were strong, that the next date was scheduled. She was rewarded by a strong community. It’s true. I DO feel blessed to have so many people I enjoy being with and who love and support me. And it DOES take effort. If you want to have friends, you must be a friend. Close friendships have been shown to be an important factor in our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Is there someone you love, someone you keep meaning to reach out to but just haven’t made the time? You know those friends who, time passes and yet when you get together, you have an immediate connection? NOW is the time. Is there someone you’ve been thinking you’d like to get to know better? Make that phone call and reach out. You may be richly rewarded as I was. A number of years ago, Sharona Silverman convened a remarkable group which she called, “Women in Transition.” Women of a certain age, gathering to share life’s lessons and life’s journey. When the group ended, I called one of the participants and invited her to meet for coffee. We met, and at the end of the hour she asked, “Why did you want to get together?” I replied, because I didn’t get enough! I took a risk, and gained a best friend, along with evidence that it is never too late to make new relationships. Family, friends, work is the third component that adds meaning to my life. I was blessed to serve in the military for 38 years, and touch so many lives. As a rabbi, my days are filled with a sense of purpose, providing an abundance of opportunities for constant learning and my own spiritual growth. Viktor Frankl noted that one who has a why to live can bear with almost any how. Being a rabbi has certainly given me a why to live. A good eulogy is honest. It speaks to the essence of a person, not just the public persona they wished to convey. And so my eulogy includes these words- She was aware of her many flaws- her impatience primary among them. She struggled with how to honor every human being, and knew that sometimes she could be defensive. On this Yom haDin this Day of Judgment, yes- I judge myself. But that judgment is not only to induce a sense of shame. It is to prod me- and each of us- towards cheshbon ha-nefesh, spiritual accounting. We hold ourselves accountable, and we renew our commitment to our vision of our highest selves.

       Well- I’m not sure how this eulogy ends. I hope that it will end with a peaceful and painless death, at a ripe old age. I have made every provision to ensure that my end of life wishes are well-documented, and I will never cease encouraging you to do the same.

        So what will be your legacy? How do you want to be remembered? Save the date for our Feb. 23d workshop on the theme of “The Next Chapter,” where we will share resources for creating legacy videos, ethical wills, end of life planning, and generally holding each other’s hands as we confront the prospect of our own inevitable demise.

         Rabbi Daniel Cohen, in his book What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone? Creating a Life of Legacy, suggests the notion of “reverse engineering” your life, that is, starting with the end in mind and consciously living in such a way as to bring our vision to reality. He writes about the gift of choice and how we exercise that divine capacity each and every day. Do we choose the path of kindness? Of goodness? Of meaning? The path of lifelong learning and personal growth? Do we strive to see the holiness in each person we meet, and the potential for holiness in every moment, or are we too judgmental and just too distracted? “When we die,” he warns, “we won’t be judged against someone else’s life but against our own potential.” Rabbi Cohen says that, “When I wake up in the morning, I not only declare my belief in God but God’s belief in me.” Writing in “The Atlantic,” Arthur C. Brooks suggests a “reverse bucket list.” In an article ominously titled, “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” he writes, “What I need to do, in effect, is stop seeing my life as a canvas to fill, and start seeing it more as a block of marble to chip away and shape something out of. I need a reverse bucket list. My goal for each year of the rest of my life should be to throw out things, obligations, and relationships until I can clearly see my refined self in its best form.” He quotes E. M. Forester- “Death destroys a man,” but, “the idea of Death saves him.” Brooks recommends a number of strategies as we focus our perspective on living lives of meaning. Surprisingly, he begins by suggesting that we explore our spiritual selves. As a rabbi, I have to love that. He also notes that happiness throughout our lives is “tied directly to the health and plentifulness of one’s relationships.” It strikes me that he did NOT say “the plentifulness of our bank accounts.”

       If only we could believe in ourselves as much as God believes in us. If only we could live in awe of each day and its potential for goodness. If only we could reverse engineer our lives and live so that every decision we make move us towards that goal of how we want to be remembered.

        On Rosh HaShanah we read, (p. 290)- “Let us treasure the time we have, and resolve to use it well, counting each moment precious- a chance to apprehend some truth, to experience some beauty, to conquer some evil, to ease some suffering, to love and be loved, to achieve something of lasting worth. There is promise within each of us that only we can fulfill. Let us live our lives so that someday it will be true to say of us: the world is a little better, because, for just one moment, they lived in it.” What a legacy that would be! One of the things that touches me most in the Yom Kippur machzor are the words-“Yom Kippur is meant to be a near-death experience.” What does that mean? What does it mean to you? Are you read for a near-death experience in these next 24 hours? What will your eulogy say, what will your legacy be, and how do you want to be remembered?

Neuroscience and Happiness

Perhaps you have had an MRI to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of a serious medical issue? Through the miracle of this technology, neuroscientists have been able to analyze the patterns in our brain in order to understand what makes us happy.1 Looking to increase the happiness quotient in your life in 5780?

Here’s what neuroscience tells us: 1. The Most Important Question To Ask When You Feel Down – As Jews, there is no surprise here. “. . .guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center.”2 Is that why participating in Yom Kippur services is so important to so many of us? Apparently, worrying about our problems feels like we are doing something about them, and it feels good! Yet, “guilt, shame and worry are horrible long-term solutions.”

Instead, we should be asking the fundamental Jewish question- “What am I grateful for?” I love that quote from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, “What could I be grateful for now if I was grateful for something?” What is really amazing, is that, scientifically, you don’t even have to come up with an answer. Apparently our brains respond positively to simply seeking an answer.

2. Label Negative Feelings – In the story of creation, Adam is tasked with the responsibility of naming every creature. Knowing, naming, what we are dealing with, is deeply empowering. I hope that you have never had to wait for a medical diagnosis, yet, if you have, you might have had that experience of a sense of relief in knowing what you are contending with. Knowledge is power. On Yom Kippur, we recite the Viddui, naming all of the ways we have gone astray, and we gather for Yizkor, acknowledging and sharing the pain of loss. Neuroscientific research validates that “consciously recognizing emotions reduced their impact.”

3. Make That Decision – When the Jewish people fled from Egypt, Moses stood at the Red Sea and pleaded with God for help. God’s response was that there is a time for prayer and a time for action, and this was the time to move forward. It was, famously, Nachshon ben Amminadav who courageously plunged into the water and led the people to safety. Turns out that a “good enough” decision can be more than enough! “Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb sums it up nicely: “We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.”

4. Touch People – We are all rightfully cautious of being respectful of people’s boundaries. We are sensitive about unwanted touch. It is a good practice to ask, “Can I give you a hug?”, rather than assuming that everyone is longing to be enveloped in our embrace. Yet, physical touch is so powerful that it can actually reduce pain. “Research shows getting five hugs a day for four weeks increases happiness big time.”

Join us at services for Yom Kippur. If you ask, I am confident that you will leave with enough oxytocin in your brain for a sustaining level of happiness. Ask – What Am I Grateful For? Label Negative Emotions Decide Hug, Hug, Hug You are on your way to a happier new year!

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

[1]Barker, Eric, “New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy,”, May 19, 2017

[2] You can read the article itself for all the scientific references to “the dosomedial prefrontal cortext, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens.”

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