If you are looking for High Holiday Sermons, please click here.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Rabbi Susan Leider
Cantor Magda Fishman
Rabbi adam kligfeld
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Shabbat Sermon - September 24th
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Shabbat Sermon - July 16th
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Shabbat Sermon - June 11th
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Shabbat Sermon - June 3rd
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Shabbat Sermon - May 28th
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Shabbat Sermon - May 21st
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Shabbat Sermon - March 26th
Rabbi susan leider
Rabbi Susan Leider Shabbat Sermon - August 29th
Rabbi Susan Leider Shabbat Sermon - August 13th
Rabbi Susan Leider Shabbat Sermon - July 9th
Rabbi Susan Leider Shabbat Sermon - June 25th
Rabbi Susan Leider Shabbat Sermon - March 19th
cantor magda fishmanCantor Magda Fishman Shabbat Dvar Torah - August 6th
High Holiday Sermons
We will be updating this page after the sermons are delivered for each service. Audio files of the sermons (listed in each Rabbi's section and at the bottom of the page) are available to download for your listening convenience.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Jack Pressman
Rosh Hashanah Audio Sermons
Yom Kippur Audio Sermons & Speeches
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Yom Kippur Sermon - September18th
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Rosh Hashanah Sermon - September 9th
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Erev Rosh Hashanah Remarks - September 8th
Yom Kippur Drash
Shabbat shalom, everyone! The last few weeks I've been thinking about what things I want to discuss with you tonight. Some things that I discarded, you should know, are the spiritual impact of new rugs in sacred space. I chose not to speak about the proper way to communicate the clergy search in order to thoroughly confuse a congregation and also the idea that if my sermon was not good, I might be referred to as the Rabbi Demeritus! But the topic that I needed to talk about was clear. The topic that I've been thinking about all year and I think many of you have been as well, is "change". Change in self, and change in community, and I've been hearing from many of you throughout the year, questions like, "Rabbi, when are we going to change this and when are we gonna change that?" Alongside with, "Rabbi, how do you expect me to handle so much change?" The topic of change is out there, acting on people's mind, beyond shul life, in our short and mortal lives. What we ought to be thinking about on Yom Kippur should be about how much we change and how quickly we change as the subtext of every prayer and every meditation. So let's talk about it. Last week, if you'll remember, we spoke about failure and how we deal with it. The topic of failure is essentially an idea that looks backwards, retrospectively on what took place. That was essentially a sermon about hindsight and as we discussed the mirror image of failure is not success. It's rather looking forward to the future, and usually with some change in store. So tonight I want to look forward into our own lives and also into the life of this community -- name what changes might be in store, what they'll feel like and how we should react as a community and as individuals to them, because as we know, change is inevitable except from a vending machine. I want to start personally. I know that this last year was literally convulsive for this community and it makes sense... my God, it had been a quarter century since there was change up year on the bimah. And it was convulsive for me and to and our family. So for everyone in the room and in the institution who are struggling with some of the changes that were embodied and stimulated by me, I not only empathize, I identify. Getting used to something, someone, some tune, some space that is new, it's just hard and that truism is both the crux and the rub of the season. Our eyes dart over prayer after prayer about the new year and restarts and better decisions and changing our ways. Our psychological gyroscope resists that. We know we need a new path and a new purpose and a plan, and we are also so darn comfortable, exactly as we are, exactly as flawed as we are. Change frightens us, sometimes even more than our mortality and sometimes, they're inextricably linked. We have close family friends going back to my when my father was doing his residency in Cincinnati during the 1970s and both families end up in Connecticut. The kids were about the same age. A few years ago, their eldest daughter, Becca, became sick with leukemia. She battled hard. She actually seemed to be defeating the disease, but the medicines battling the cancer got her heart as well. She died about 18 months ago. Recently I spoke to my parents about how Aaron, her father and one of my father's closest friends, is doing. My father said every time he speaks to Aaron, he begins the conversation by saying, "She's gone and she's not coming back." My father's read on Aaron is that he is conveying something beyond indescribable grief. He's conveying the aspect of grief that often does not get sufficient attention. When you confront the death of a loved one, part of the pain is the loss of the life itself. Part of it is more subtle, it can take more time to realize and has to do with getting used to a different life, a changed reality without a father or a spouse or a daughter. The mundane matters scream out our discomfort with such a change. Suddenly, a family goes from two careers to one, dealing with the logistics of the home with one less parent. Or on "Wednesday night at 7 PM I can't call my daughter Rebecca because she's gone, and she's not coming back and my life is going to be very different."
Death is the extreme example when we revolt at change that is foisted upon us. But even when we ask for change and rushed towards it, it can be very discombobulating because we are creatures of habit, we like things the way they are, and getting used to a new anything, let alone a self, is a great challenge. And if it weren't, we would all ace Yom Kippur, get an A+, change on the dime, and wake up tomorrow brand-new people. You want to grade yourself now on that potentiality? But our tradition nudges us towards change, despite our reluctance. Not only that, our tradition itself is changing constantly. That's one of the tenets of our approach to Judaism. We believe that the static nature of ultra-orthodoxy is actually antithetical to the our tradition. Perhaps no century in Jewish history changed more and more quickly than the last one. According to Rabbi Ed Feinstein, that rapid change began with Fiddler on the Roof. What did he mean by that? He said that Judaism changed around the same time that Tevye realized that choice matters, sometimes more than the word of the Papa. Judaism changed when Fyedka came into the picture. He still hadn't mastered how to handle it. Judaism changed when love trumped faith, when our heart melted more at Tevye and Golde's intimacy then Tevye's hurried Shabbat davvening. And more the hundred years later, the Jewish world continues to change very rapidly, and that reality poses real challenges to communities like Temple Beth Am. We should say it out loud. we are a shul with rich history and abiding tradition. We have a significant portion of our membership who have been part of Temple Beth Am for thirty, forty, fifty years. That's an amazing legacy. It is a testament to the leadership of my predecessors and previous generations of lay leaders and to the centripetal forces keeping this community together. It also makes change harder. Being appropriately sensitive to what this community has been, makes it more delicate when we try to imagine what the synagogue can be. That is what we must be doing to succeed. In a brand-new shul, there is not a beloved tune to Y'aleh that if you changed would make people feel less at home. I know that such changes here make many of you feel less at home. Hear me well. I say this not to belittle, God forbid, the constancy, the familiarity, the sameness that makes religious life or any life for that matter, comfortable. I have my favorite tunes as well. And I know that every change impacts people, particularly the bigger ones, like moving the shulchan, the reading table, off the bimah to the center, which we did last year. Some loved it for its intimacy; some bemoaned it for it seemed to eschew the grandeur of the room. Every change matters. Even the one we made to replace bimah flowers with Sova food baskets. We made a choice to use fewer funds in a stressed budget to beautify our bimah with the value of feeding the hungry, rather than with flowers. We received e-mails last week, applauding our values and our moral statement, and we received impassioned feedback from those who missed the shul looking like what they've expected it to look like for decades. Every change hurts a little bit and not all change is good. Which reminds me of my favorite joke about body odor in the Navy, among many jokes about body odor in the Navy. They are on a boat and the ship captain Is inspecting his sailors and afterwards he tells his chief officer that he noticed that the men smelled bad. He suggested that perhaps it would help if the sailors would change their socks occasionally. The chief responds, "Aye aye, sir, I'll take care of it." He gathers his men, collects his sailors, and announces, "Listen up! The captain thinks you guys smell bad and wants you to change your socks...Jones, you change with Pittman...McCarthy, you change with Kowsky, and Brown, you change with Schultz." It is true, some changes accomplished little or make situations worse. And as much as I talk about about change being built into the DNA of Jewish life, go back to "Fiddler"... so is tradition. Not every change is worth making and most things about our wonderful community will stay exactly as it has been. But let's also acknowledge that change is the engine that drives progress. We need to open our eyes to the Jewish world our children will be inheriting and start to build the infrastructure that will embrace them...all of us, whether we are in our fourth decade or ninth decade of life, whether we remember Rabbi Pressman's installation (as I know at least some Beth Am members do) or whether we join the shul this year. We need to ask ourselves where we want to be vis-à-vis the wave of change in the Jewish world. Do we want to be riding out in front of it or underneath as it crashes? There's change all around us. A generation ago, synagogues didn't need to market themselves so much. You were Jewish in the 70s, you wanted a Jewish life, you were a card carrying member of some denomination, you joined "the shul." It's just not so anymore. Not in this open-source Wikipedia Internet age of blogs and independent minyanim and anti-establishment feelings and à la carte options all over the place. Shuls need to be out in front to sustain themselves, let alone grow. And one of the changes out front is in the realm of music and a whole approach to the Jewish spirit. Some of you have expressed concern to me and to the leadership of the synagogue about our own direction on this topic. "How valuable is it really to search for Rabbi or a Hazzan or some combination thereof? Let's just hire a Hazzan and move forward?" I'm proud to say that on this axis, we are way out in front, riding the wave. The conversation we are having in this congregation anticipated, without even knowing, conversations that are taking place in the rabbinical school and the cantorial school of the Conservative movement, which are now merging as the institutional leaders try to find a way to envision creating Jewish clergy and leaders that can invigorate our communities. They are developing a vision for future inspiring Jewish leadership and congregations around the country are listening to what's happening in New York and making changes accordingly, and we had the conversation first. This is our chance to set an example and lead with vision and this is our challenge. I know it's not easy to make this space and this community comfortable and meaningful for our current membership, for you, who have gone to such lengths to support us and get to this point and yet also take those risks which can be uncomfortable... to find the Jews out there who haven't yet joined, but might when they learn of our spirit and our look to the future.
I began with a cataclysm of change that I know I represented when I arrived here. I want to mention also the thoughts that occupy most of my emotional energy when I think about my work at Temple Beth Am. I want to go on record as saying that I don't think that they are radical. They represent what moves me and what my passions are. I want to put them out there and name them and perhaps demystify them. One of them is that I want us to embrace sweaty Judaism. And you heard me right , and it has nothing to do with socks and a Navy ship. "Sweaty Judaism" is when we are comfortable being Jews, when we move our bodies and when we sing, and when we dance and when we close our eyes and we let ourselves go and we sweat. It's the Judaism that makes Ramah unique and important. It's the Judaism that connected me to my soul and my identity. It's the Judaism that kids want, that adults need even if they don't think they do, and that communities will thrive on. When I try to bring us closer and more intimate in a big room like this, when I introduce a new tune that I think can touch the soul, when I grabbed your hands and dance, I'm asking you sweat with me. I want you in that circle with me, literally and figuratively, and I understand that you might be reticent to join me... that you might not be used to it, and I'm asking you to give it a chance.
The second thought I want to share is that I want to be a community with more permeable boundaries, strengthening our entirety even as we strengthen each component part. I was recently at a daily minyan, a Mincha service on a weekday, sitting next to a longtime member whose in shul every week and many individual days, and another person walked in -- a person whose face I recognized as another long-time regular, but who happens to daven at a different minyan than the person sitting next to me. I forgot the name of the person who walked in and so I whispered to the person next to me to remind me of his name. "No clue," was the answer. I'm just not willing to accept that even in a synagogue of a thousand families, there will be regulars who've never met and don't know one another's names. How will we know who the new family is at tashlich – that you should immediately meet and introduce yourself to, even the regulars look like faces. So when I ask to join together occasionally for Kiddush, when I encourage the gabbaim to work together on combined services, when I almost feverishly introduce a new member of YABA, our young adult group, to the sisterhood president from the 70s, or a daily minyan regular to a family picking up their child from religious school. I'm trying to make us smaller. Cross our boundaries, help build us to one community. It's not a new idea, but I know it feels like change and I asked that you be in touch with what that change feels like for you... to talk to me about, and help me build our future. Synagogues as strong as ours and people as strong as I know you all are, are resilient and can weather change, and Judaism actually canonized societal change as a rationale for adapting religious law. Written into the Talmud in the codes of halacha (Jewish law) is the concept of shinui i'tin...a changing of times. To prevent calcification and obsolescence, our great sages permitted and at times they demanded that we insular Jews look outside to see what the world is like, and when times change so must the system and the tradition. How much of it and how quickly -- those are great questions and those answers make up the denominational spectrum in Judaism. But without that sensitivity to shinui i'tin, we have no women on the bimah, we have no mothers and fathers sitting next to one another in shul -- that was a change once, too. Without shinui i'tin, we don't have the revolution in the 19th century synagogue architecture towards cathedral-like seating that makes the change back to davvening-in-the-round seem radical. Without an appreciation for and the need for change built into Jewish life, today's Judaism wouldn't even be medieval... it would be biblical, an antiquity, a relic, a dusty old thing. I want us to have a deep and abiding connection with our people's past and our community's history, and I want us to be vivacious and pulsating and alive and growing, and I hope you want that as well in your synagogue community and in your very soul. I thank Alan Broidy, a Beth Am member and chair of our clergy search committee, for the following analogical insight with which I close. How do we greet one another this time of year? After shul when we see one another on the street, we say to one another, "Shana tova," meaning a good year? No, not so fast.... Shana is one the most plurry potent Hebrew roots because shana from sh'naim from mishneh means two, it means a repeat, it means another one. Shana Tova means "a repeat" of all that was good last year. But shana from l'shanot, from shinui means change. Shana tova means a good change...an appropriate amount of newness. And I lied, there is one more meaning, too. Shana from v'shanantem from the v'yahavta prayer means to learn and to teach. From this balance of what must be repeated and what must be renewed, we learn and we grow. So, my community, I do indeed wish you a Shana Tova. I promise a year in which much will be the same, much will be repeated, and I promise a year in which some will change as we look towards the future; throughout it all, I hope we learn about ourselves, about our community, about our world together. Shana tova.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Last year I stood here and smiled out at sea of faces, that for the most part, were still only faces and, even with that unfamiliarity, it was a very sweet moment for me. This year, year two, I look out at faces that have become friends, faces that have become my partners, faces on people with whom I shared moments of joy and sadness, with whom I have strategized, with whom I have worked and with whom I have grown to love and care about, and however sweet Year #1 was, Year #2 is an entirely different category. I am so very grateful to be here with all of you today and I mean it seriously when I say that for those of you whom I have not met one-on-one beyond a handshake in the court or the hallway, I really do hope and expect to meet all of you and to have you become part of my life and press to share our community together.
I want to start today with a question and the question is whether Armando Galarraga succeeded or failed. And for those of you who don't know whom I'm referring to and who are not, like myself, a baseball addict, Armando Galarraga is a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who earlier on in the season was very close to joining a very small group of people who are on the list of baseball players who have pitched a perfect game, faced 27 batters who all got out on a very short list. But what some of you may remember is that a ball was hit out, the player picked it up, and threw it to first base. The replay showed very clearly the ball got there before the runner did, the umpire called him safe, and a perfect game was over. Did Armando Galarraga fail or did he succeed? According to those persnickety rules of baseball, he failed at pitching a perfect game, even though we all saw with our eyes that he actually accomplished it...but he succeeded at almost everything else that he was endeavoring to do in that moment. He got the next guy out, so he got the win. He pitched the one-hitter, but more deeply than that, when the entire baseball world was up in arms about this man's chance at history being stolen from him, he was humble and he was quiet with circumspect and he didn't issue even one complaint. The same can be said for the umpire who blew the call...and he blew the call and we knew he blew the call...Jim Joyce... did he succeed or did he fail? He failed at getting the call right; he succeeded at being a compassionate human being and reaching out to the pitcher whom he had wronged and made a friendship. This is a story, based on a sport in which failure happens all the time. You are in the Hall of Fame in baseball if you fail seven times out of 10 to do what you're supposed to do when you come up to bat. It raises the question for me about what failure actually means. The relationship between success and failure; how we confront the failures in our lives; and how we confront the failures in our life. It is on my mind a lot, failure is a ubiquitous reality. Right? Raise your hand if you haven't failed at something this past year, and during this time of year when we take stock of what we are attempting to bring into the new year, it's an even more present reality. And it's also a Jewish idea built into one of the core texts of our machzor. In a few minutes, we will say several times throughout the machzor, the three words hayom harat olam... today is the day we celebrate the birth of the world. We celebrate the creation of this world and this reality that God made. If you follow the story of the creation of the world in the Torah, how did God do? Within one generation we, the pinnacle of creation, and Torah make it very clear that human beings are at the top of that pyramid... within one generation, we have lying and disobedient; within two generations, we have murdered, within 10 generations, we have so much deception, sexual depravity and immorality that God called for the first do-over in human history. We learn as we move from the creation story to the story of the flood, God looked at what God had done and regretted it. God looked at the world God created and judged it as a failure. That root vayinakhem is a tricky root, we normally pull out of that root nechama, which means compassion, which means being gentle towards. God somehow needed to be gentle towards himself for having messed up in creating the world as God did. You should know the rabbis of the tradition are uncomfortable with the idea of a God who is perfect who can mess up and so when they come to comment on that word, they say it's not really that God regretted – how could God regret?... it's not really that God made a mistake, but, the Torah used a language that helped us to understand when we are in similar situations. But God regretting? Not so much. What we find in the midrash on that verse and opening up the possibility that there was remorse, there was regret by God. The midrash has a non-Jew poking at Rav Yehoshua ben Karcha, a common theme in midrashic literature where non-Jews come poke holes in what is considered their perfect text. And they say to Rav Yehoshua ben Karcha, what does this verse mean, how can you have a God that is omniscient...who knows exactly what is going to happen before it happens...how can such a God be disappointed? And how can you have a God that is supposed to be the emblem of perfection somehow feel bad about what God created? "There is a hole in your text, Rav Karcha." Rav Yehoshua ben Karcha says the following: "You want to know if God knows the future. I'll answer it in the following way... have you ever had a son?" the Rabbi asked non-Jew. He said "Yes, I've had a son. "And when he was born, what did you do?" The man said, "I rejoiced. I rejoiced at this new life." Rabbi asked, "Did you not know that in the future one day he would get sick and he would die? How did you rejoice?" The man said that at times of joy, I rejoice, and at times of mourning, there is mourning. The Rav said that the same is true with God. God created humanity with Adam, even knowing that Adam would fall and be flawed but rejoiced at that creation, nonetheless. This midrash doesn't go as far as we'd like it to go. It throws it back on us, but it is a model that suggests that God regrets... that understood that everything wouldn't be right the first time. When the Torah introduces us to this world and to life, it introduces us to a world of failure...with do-overs. And with the recognition that humanity was created to emulate all of the aspects of God, including regret. According to Prof. Diane Sharon who teaches Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the clue is in that word v'yinachaym. It doesn't just mean offering compassion, it means instituting a change of attitude in response to a failure. That's what God did when God saw his first attempt at the world was not so good. Failure can be wasted some time. We mess up and we do nothing better as a result. But I want to share with you two main approaches...two paradigms... that are shades of one another but are sufficiently different, that we can apply towards the failures in our lives, because we'll all make them. The first approach I name "reframing your failure as a kind of success." This is a serious version of spin-doctoring as exemplified for me in a wonderful commercial that has been on TV recently. It's such a good commercial but I don't have a clue as to what it's for. The commercial begins with a boy in his backyard holding a bat and ball (here I go back to baseball!). He says to himself, "I am the greatest hitter in the world!" He takes a mighty swing and misses -- strike one. He is not cowed, and repeats, "I am the greatest hitter in the world!!" He throws the ball up in the air, and he hears a whoosh, mutters to himself "strike two." He is not going to be disappointed. He says to himself with even more strength, "I am the greatest hitter in the world!" He throws the ball up in the air, he takes a mighty swing and he misses, and he says to himself, downcast, "strike three." Then something switches and he says, "I'm the greatest pitcher in the world!" The serious version of that can be an extraordinary response to our failures and to others' claim about our failures. Thomas Edison once replied, very snarkily and very appropriately, to someone who was needling him about the hundreds and hundreds of times he had failed in trying to make the first incandescent light bulb. He said back to the person pushing him, "I have not failed 700 times... I have not even failed once. I actually succeeded--in proving that these 700 ways will not work. And when I have eliminated all the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will. This is more than a sound-bite. When we fail or stumble in a moment of a relationship with a loved one, a spouse, with a friend, with a child... and we walk away demoralized at how we acted... how stupidly we lost our patience... how quickly we let anger rise in our voice...how we fell into a trap that we fall into all too frequently. There is a remarkable difference between walking away from that moment downhearted, feeling awful things about ourselves versus walking away from the moment and saying, "I have just succeeded in showing myself that bringing this part of myself to that kind of moment will not work." That's a success if I choose to identify it in that way. It's only a failure if the next time I do it exactly the same way. If I can reframe my tripping and falling as successfully filling the ways and pathways that I should return to the next time around, than every failure is a success. I had a version of this happen to me personally a couple years ago. Like many Americans and citizens of the world, I have been in a up-and-down, love-hate relationship with my own body and my own relationship to food since I can remember. After having lost a significant amount of weight when at the time I was an overweight chubby 12-year-old, having lost that weight in the middle of the summer in the 1980s, I spent most of the subsequent 25 years, battling, going up, going down, and all the time bludgeoning myself with messages that I don't care to repeat. About how I fail, how I can't get over this hump, how I don't like the way I look, I don't like what I see and how I'm not happy about it. It's a terrible thing to be telling that to yourself over and over again. And a few years ago (and I can't even tell you how it happened but I am certain that it did) I had an Edison-like epiphany, like that boy with the baseball bat. And something hit me and I realized that all these years that I had been trying to bludgeon myself into a point where I would eat in a way that really reflected what my body needs, I had succeeded in showing myself that that way would not work. And every day since then (and I'm not saying to you that it still isn't a struggle, because it is, it will probably be a lifetime struggle) I have refused to go back to that modality, to that pathway where what I say about myself and think about myself is negative or angry or caustic. I have proven that doesn't work. And that is a success. When we can reframe our failures as a success, we bank them and can go back to them and use them. A second approach to the failures of our life is when we can use failure to identify what needs to be built and where we need to begin building. I once read a study that was comparing the top 1% against the bottom 1% of the neurosurgeons in the American medical culture. And the way they identify the top 1% and lower 1% was based on things like statistics of patient deaths, promotions, being let go. And they wanted to figure out what determines who is in the top of his or her profession as a neurosurgeon and who will end up towards the bottom. They did experiments with a control for every single variable and they learned that neither SAT scores nor MCATs nor the person's innate sense of compassion, nor their empathy, nor their background nor their religious culture or their other cultural heritage, could be any serious indicator when they went into school, whether they were going to be at the top or the bottom of their class. The one factor that consistently showed up in the study was the following. Those in the bottom 1% were certain that when the surgeries had gone wrong, there was a reason for it that had nothing to do with themselves. Of course they had failed because the operating room was too cold... the lighting was poor... the nurses were not up to par... they shifted the blame, they learned nothing, they descended. And those who would find themselves in the top 1% of all neurosurgeons in America, when they messed up, they read more books, they scrutinized every detail of the surgery, they prepared for the next time, they learned something. They saw as their failure as an arrow pointing at the very thing that they needed to build in order to get the next level. This is hard to do... inspiring when we do it. I have a close friend in the rabbinate who, when you speak to him one-to-one over a cup of coffee around the table, one of the first things that you notice about him is that he stutters. Many Americans do. He's not a failure in the classical sense, in that he did nothing to bring this stutter upon him, but he did have this message going through his mind throughout childhood and adolescence that he failed, in ways that seemed so easy to other people to communicate naturally and fluidly, and with an impact. If you heard this rabbis speak from the beam, you have no idea that he stutters. And the reason is that he made a decision at some point in high school to take his vulnerability, and rather than be whacked by it, to use that as the place where he would begin building the influence he could have on his life. And he transformed himself into a stirring and emotional and impact-bearing speaker. He decided that that soft spot...that failure, so to speak...would be the singular way through which he would have an impact on his world. He's a delightful writer; he's an even more impressive speaker and I think of him every time that I fail. I refer to this approach to failure as the fontanelle approach to failure. Raise your hand if you know what a fontanelle is? I learned about the fontanelle on that crazy day of my life when Havi and I were to take home our first child from the hospital. First of all, it is insane that the hospital let new parents ever go. I remember turning to Havi and saying, "What were they thinking?? Letting us walk out of this hospital WITH A BABY?" I somehow wrapped my mind around how to swaddle. I figured out how to get that motze, that pacifier, in her mouth. I could change a diaper with a pro. But where I got stuck was when the nurses were preparing to discharge us, they said, "Just so you know, there's a place on the baby's head that has not fully fused...and there's an opening there...no bone...don't press hard." I drove away from the hospital with these nightmares of Little Jack Horner...somehow without thinking about it plunging my thumb into my baby's head... into that soft spot called a fontanelle, and we all have them even after our skulls fuse and protect our brain from trauma. We can ignore our fontanelle's...we can deny them... we can turn from them, be scuttled by them, be angry at them, or we can identify them as the place that most needs our shoring up and our reconstruction and our building. I know that when I speak of it, it can sound easy. When confronting it, it can be one of the hardest things. I think that part of dealing with it, is giving yourself permission to feel bad at times, and just to sit with that feeling. Sometimes we have epiphanies and our fontanelle's can be regenerative and sometimes not. And I know there are people sitting in this room who are struggling with intractable difficulties, failures in their lives, things that they think they have failed at because others have told them so. And maybe things that they actually failed at...things in the realm of health or finances or other of the more serious parts of life. One answer beyond the theories is to sit next to such a person and be with them as they tried to confront their failures. I feel the personal impact of this topic especially this year. This past year has been a year of experiment for me and for this congregation. It's been a year of some successes that I and we are proud of. And a year of failures where we tried things that haven't worked. I've tried to be patient with myself and I so appreciate the patience of this community as we figure out how to bring ourselves forward into the next generation and how I'll have more say about that on Yom Kippur. And I know that we need to learn from every one of the things that we attempted this year that didn't work. And as we learn them, I am moved by words that Teddy Roosevelt once shared when he was giving a speech at the Sorbonne in France in the early 20th century. He said this..."It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. But who does actually strive to do the deeds, who grows great enthusiasms, who knows the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." He is speaking about everything and he speaking to us today in our individual lives and in our communal life. I started with a perfect game and it is a perfect model for this paradigm of imperfection, because what happened had he gotten it? Let's say the umpire Jim Joyce called it correctly, called him out. The pitcher would've failed the next game; in fact, he did. We know it from the box score... first guy up, next game, smacked a clean single to left field. In fact this pitcher didn't win another game for a month, and only one more after that, all season. So we had to walk away from that whisper of perfection, going on living, building from what you learned, knowing that there's no perfection in life even if the umpire get a call straight. So I send us off to this new year and I hope it will be a year of success, and I know it will also be a year of failure. During it, I asked us to hold on to one another and to that part of yourself that sees your own failure as the very spot you choose to start building. The writer Marshall Herskovitz wrote, "Failure is not the opposite of success. They're part of the same thing. The opposite of failure is death." So fail this year and live. Shana tova.
RABBI SUSAN LEIDER
Rabbi Susan Leider Rosh Hashanah Sermon - September 28, 2011
Rabbi Susan Leider Yom Kippur Sermon - September 18, 2010
Rabbi Susan Leider Rosh Hashanah Sermon - September 9, 2010
Rosh Hashanah 2011
In a very small town, there lived two parents with their children. They had a great big extended family. This family was huge. There were uncles, there were aunts, grandparents. The son had siblings, cousins and many family friends to boot. Everyone lived near each other and it was a warm and wonderful mishpahah.
But there was one little glitch in this family picture. All these two parents wanted was for this particular son to see the blessings of having such a family. But no matter what they did, they couldn’t get him to care for the family around him.
One day, his aunt was sick and his mother pleaded with him, “Please come with me to visit her.” He replied, “I need to water my plants, I can’t visit her.”
Another day, the boy was sitting with his IPOD in, and his father tapped him on the shoulder. “Son, your grandfather needs help. He just had surgery and we need to go over to his house and cook for him. He can’t do it by himself.” But the son could not peel himself away from listening IPOD. He shook his head at his father. “I can’t come right now, Dad.” He put his headphones back in his ears.
That night the father knocked on his son’s door. As he entered the room, he brought with him a white piece of paper with a black dot. When his father asked him what he saw, he replied, “A black dot.”
The father responded, "My son, you see only a black spot? What about the rest of the paper? It is white!”
In many ways, we are like the son, who looks at the paper and is drawn only to the black dot. We may not always notice that the black dot lives on the expanse of white paper.
But listen to what the father said to son, “My son, don’t you realize that you are the black dot and the space around you is your family and friends?”
Initially this story struck me as a simplistic story about a selfish and lonely son. But as I ponder this story on a deeper level, I realize there is a meaningful lesson about teshuvah. At one point or another, we all feel like this son and our eyes are drawn to the black dot. We often feel like we must put ourselves first. How we are going to take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves first? Like the son in our story, sometimes we need to stay home and water the plants. There are times when we need to veg out and listen to our IPODs. Do you find yourself sometimes saying “No, I cannot do for anyone else; I just need to check out?”
It is so easy for our eye to be drawn to the black dot and to overlook that big white space.
The reality is that black dot, each of our individual selves, is at the center of teshuvah. Are we not here today to take a long hard look at the black dot, ourselves – to engage in the concept known as Heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul? At the end of a meal we enjoy in a restaurant, we are presented with a heshbon, a bill or an accounting for what the meal cost. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about looking inward and examining the “bill,” with all of its credits and debits that are associated with our actions and intentions.
Just as the black dot lives in context on the white page, we as individuals live among families and communities. In fact one could say that the black dot is dependent on the white paper in order to be visible at all. While the words of the Mahzor push us to focus on self, we do not do it in isolation. The fact that we come together on Rosh Hashanah reflects Judaism’s insistence on context and community. We can’t survive with each other. We can’t live as separate black dots without the context of community. Not one of us can survive alone.
One the other hand, balancing “self” with families and community is no easy task. We live in a society that daily reinforces the focus on self. “Learn to say no.” “I need to narrow my focus.” “I can’t take on another thing right now.” This is the mantra of life in 2011.
But if we look beyond the black dot, we realize that many of our musings and struggles are related to the big white paper, how we interact with other human beings. It makes sense to expand the rabbis’ idea of heshbon hanefesh to include the idea of heshbon hamishpahah – an accounting of the family into which we were born, the family we choose and the family of the broader community. How are we taking care of mishpahah?
In order to answer this question we must first ask – who is my mishpahah? Our parents are our mishpahah. Our siblings are our mishpahah and our children and other relatives too. We point to a rich tradition of families – full of deep and abiding commitment and Emmy award-winning drama and dilemmas. From Adam and Eve to King David and his wives, we enjoy a fascinating and complicated history of family that tells us that each of us have yichus (family connection) to our version of the First Family - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
All of us are here on this earth because someone gave birth to us. Judaism demands that we acknowledge that it is our birth parents who made life possible and therefore the ten commandments include the mitzvah of “Kibud Av v’Em.”. It is as if God says to us, “The gift of life is the basis for brit, for covenant between a parent and a child. You honor your parents because they gave you life. You are in a lasting brit with them because you owe them.” The medieval sage RAMBAM reminds us that the grown child must provide parents with food, shelter, clothing and money. We must speak with respect about our parents, whether they are alive or have passed away. Those of us who still have our parents on this earth and enjoy our relationship with them, need to take stock. How often do we make time to see them on a regular basis? Or do we leave the get-togethers just for weddings or funerals?
For many people in this room, their relationships with their parents were or are fraught with many difficulties. Those of us who have been hurt physically or emotionally by our parents may find it impossible to navigate the relationship at all. The wisdom of our tradition reflects that more than 1500 years ago, the rabbis asked, “Ad heikhen kibud av v’em?, “To what extent do we need to honor our parents? Are there limits to this mitzvah?”
The rabbinic answer reflects the reality that we don’t get to choose our parents. Yes, there are limits to this mitzvah and sometimes the best way to honor our parents is from a distance. For many of us, teasing out our basic feeling of gratitude towards our parents is challenging when we struggle with conducting our day to day relationship with them. For those of us who parents are alive, we need to find alternative ways to keep this gratefulness to them front and center in our relationship.
We can express our thoughts to them in writing and thank them for giving us the gift of life. Remembering birthdays and significant occasions may be the best way for us to continue to express a grateful attitude, even if seeing them in person is a challenge.
And for those of us who have lost a parent or parents, we know about the void that this can leave in our lives. But for many of us, we are aware of how deeply our parents have shaped us and spending this time reflecting on this specific relationship can guide us in our other relationships.
Who else do we count in our mishpahah? Some of us have siblings, some of us spouses, some of us children. But for many of us, our mishpahah, not only includes those who we are related to by birth or marriage, but also the mishpahah of our choice. Since we have come into this world, each of us has been forming relationships with those who are there for us in times of hardship, loss and joy. These are the people with whom we share a brit.
I recently called the mother of a TBA congregant who was recovering from illness to let her know that I was going to drop by for a visit. I arrived at her home and we sat down to talk. She said to me, “I have never had a rabbi visit me. Please explain why you do this.” I explained to her that in Genesis Abraham is recovering from his circumcision and that the three angels visited him in his tent. This is our first example of bikkur holim, of visiting the sick that is mentioned in the Torah. “This is why I came to visit you,” I told her. “We try to model being like Abraham.” We take care of each other because of the brit we share with each other.
When we are hurting, when we are in need, we know what it feels like to have someone reach out and offer a hug. A shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, a heart that opens up in love, not in judgment. A simple phone that says, “I am thinking of you.” The blessing of a home-cooked meal, the visitor who sits quietly at bedside, this is the stuff of brit, lived out in our mishpahah
Last week, I placed a call to a congregant who was scheduled to have surgery on Rosh Hashanah. I could hear her frustration about the scheduling of this surgery, but as we spoke, she asked me how I was doing, what I was up to. I told her that I was focused on preparing for a pre-High Holiday class and she offered some very sound advice for me: “Don’t become too obsessed with preparing for classes,” she said. “The most important thing is the way we take care of each other,” she said.
I realized that I had placed the call to see how she was doing, to take care of her, but she had given me the gift of seeing things in perspective. She helped me see that I should never be too busy studying to pick up the phone and call. She had no idea that I was writing about this topic today, but this was an essential reminder to me: the most important thing is that we take care of each other. It is a big measuring stick in life.
Who are the people who are in our extended mishpahah who could use a shoulder right now? A personal visit out of the blue? Who would love to hear from us right now?
But there is another mishpahah that we have. It is the person you see who needs help. It could be the person sitting next to you today. It could be the person you sat next to last year or the last time came to Beth Am. Many of them just need to know there is someone there for them. Some of them may be carrying burdens and maybe just need the warm touch of extended mishpahah.
There are people in this room who ready to expand their responsibilities towards others. They are at a point in their lives that allows them to expand their sense of mishpahah. Perhaps their parents no longer walk this earth, perhaps their children have moved out or perhaps they don’t have siblings.
As Jews we have a covenant with fellow Jews. True, we didn’t necessarily choose each other, just like we couldn’t choose our parents, yet we find ourselves here today bound together by the covenant of Judaism.
In Temple Beth Am, we embrace the opportunity to live out this covenant with each other. We want to be an ideal microcosm of that greater Jewish value of Klal Yisrael, of of the idea that we take care of each other. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh la zeh - all of Israel is responsible for each other.
We live this value out by focusing on caring for each other, caring for the members of our Kehillah, of our community. Over the past year, I have spent many hours speaking with people all over Los Angeles about how we could do a better job of this at Temple Beth Am. I have learned much from these conversations and we are increasing the ways that we uphold our brit with each other.
In November, TBA will launch an effort known as “Caring Visitors.” We need to visit each other during times of need and this is not necessarily a mitzvah that comes naturally to all of us. But TBA will train and mentor a cohort of committed congregants to engage in this mitzvah. Caring Visitors is part of an umbrella effort here at TBA – our Kehillah, our community. I envision the day when Kehillah at TBA will involve hundreds of congregants who are able to give in this way and in many other ways that reflect the value of Caring for Each Other. Those of us who can’t visit, can make phone calls. Some of us may prefer to drop off Shabbat baskets to those people who can’t come to shul on Shabbat. Some of us may volunteer to prepare meals for a mother recovering from birth, a family dealing with the death of a loved one. Others will help create a culture in which TBA members let us know when they are in need or another member is in need. We can only help if we know what is going on in your life. These efforts will go beyond the walls of this synagogue. Each person in this room can find a way to stretch, to go the extra mile and to make his or her mishpahah just a little bigger.
This is what we are building at Temple Beth Am this year and in the years to come and we want you to be a part of this blossoming mitzvah. Each one of us needs to ask the question, “What is one thing that I can do this year? When I reflect on my heshbon ha mishpahah, what can I do for my mishpahah this year?”
We are each of us a black dot. By itself, the black dot is small, isolated. Black letters in the Torah scroll are the same way, especially in a special section of the Torah known as Shirat Ha Yam. When the Israelites were freed from Egypt, they praised God and when we read about this we see that the Torah scroll has a very distinctive pattern of black on white. The letters can look isolated on the page as they are stretched out over wide expanses of white scroll. But the rabbis teach that each letter represents a Jew crossing out of Egypt. But we were freed from Egypt together and the letters only make sense when they are viewed together. In this case, each black letter and each Jew becomes part of something bigger when we see the letters in context across the white scroll.
Likewise, by caring for one another, we create a context in which our black dot is not the only thing we see. The light of the white paper outshines the still small black dot.
Nex year, when you look at the piece of paper with the black dot, what will you see? May you see your blessings – your family, your friends, your community, your mishpahah. Shanah Tovah.
Yom Kippur Sermon 2010
In the early 1990's, my husband and I lived in San Jose, California. My mother lived two miles away from me – I saw her frequently and she used to join us for Shabbat dinner several times a month. My brother and his family lived around the corner. Where we lived was spacious and comfortable and our kids enjoyed a huge backyard. We belonged to a small shul and our kids were going to a small Solomon Schechter school housed at the JCC. I taught private voice lessons and also taught Judaica and music in several synagogues in the area. I served on the Board of Directors at the kids' school. We had wonderful friends and a nice life.
In December of 1998, after much soul searching, my husband Jeff and I decided to come to Los Angeles so that I could attend the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. During the next year and a half, I was busy applying to rabbinical school, studying advanced Hebrew and preparing for this huge transition. I was to come to Los Angeles, to take this next step in my life I was truly overcome with a full range of emotions – a profound sense of gratitude for wonderful friends, fear of leaving what was familiar for the unknown, excitement about studying to be a rabbi, fatigue from the early preparations for the move, curiosity about what life in LA would be like – what a jumble of emotions I felt upon saying goodbye and beginning a new chapter in my life.
As the days quickened towards moving day, we readied ourselves for the goodbye party that friends were throwing for us. I was anxious about saying goodbye to all of these close friends. I was prepared for this goodbye party to be so serious – filled with goodbyes and tears and angst.
Although my eyes were brimming over with tears through almost the whole party, I felt a deep and unexpected joy. Surrounded by my friends, I felt their incredible support of this life decision that I had made. In the years that followed, the joy only grew as my friends and I continue to share losses and sma'chot, joyous occasions together. I didn't realize that this could be possible when I initially thought about and even dreaded saying goodbye. It surprised me to experience joy during such a time of separation. I was experiencing a liminal moment.
A liminal movement is a moment of transition. Most of us are familiar with the word, "subliminal," meaning we comprehend something on a subconscious level. The word liminal comes from the Latin word, limen, meaning threshold. During a liminal moment, we are on the threshold of a transition and are often undergoing a rite of passage in which our social status or rank is being called into question. As we transition from one stage of life to another, our context shifts and our world is shaken up. But the difference between a liminal moment and a subliminal moment, if you will, is that in a liminal moment we are aware of and open to being touched by profound change.
This day of Yom Kippur is such a liminal moment. We participate in a highly ritualized day, structured by ancient prayers with prescribed behaviors and prohibitions. It is a day suspended between the past year, filled with error and dashed expectations and the new year, filled with infinite possibility. We can feel remorse for the errors of the past year.
We can feel deep sadness at the realization that the relationships repaired may still never be the same as before a breach. Without knowing why, we may weep at hearing a simple profound melody poured into Hebrew words. We think about those people whom we love who no longer walk this Earth. Yet, one emotion that doesn't get as much play as it should on Yom Kippur, is the emotion of joy.
It may surprise us to discover that Yom Kippur, this most solemn of all days, is one of the most joyous days in our calendar. In the Mishnah, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says there were never greater days of joy in Israel like the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. . . On the 15th Av - (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:5) the unmarried girls of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards and call upon the unmarried young men to choose among them. So why did these two days come out at the top of the list? What does a holiday about finding one's bashert, one's destined mate, and a day about fasting and penitence have in common?
The answer is joy. The joy of Yom Kippur is reflected from the carefully constructed liturgical drama, to the white kittels and Torah covers, to the fast that focuses our souls and our inner spiritual life - all of these aspects underscore Shabbat Shabbaton – a great Shabbat. During Seder HaAvodah or the recounting of the temple service in which we will participate on Yom Kippur afternoon, we recount the great joy that the Cohen Gadol, the high priest felt at completing the Yom Kippur ritual during Temple times. Imagine yourself in the year 40 of the Common Era – a mere 1970 years ago. The theatre of the Avodah temple service must have trumped any Western New Year's Eve party antics. When the Kohen Gadol emerged from the Holy of Holies, we can imagine that that people assembled erupted in joy as they were assured of a year of 'shanat sova s'mahot,' a year of abundant joy, as the concluding words of the Avodah service state.
Like our ancestors, on Yom Kippur we feel a heightened awareness of awesome feeling of Klal Yisrael – all of Israel is gathered in the synagogue. The reason for the joy is that all of us get a second chance. We come as we are with resolve to do better this year and God accepts us in love. We know that Moses got a second chance when he received the second set of the Ten Commandments on Yom Kippur as God forgave him for smashing the first set. The overwhelming joy of Yom Kippur comes from our knowing that just as Moses was forgiven so too will we be forgiven. We recognize that our sins do not define us. The joy comes from the precious opportunity to recreate ourselves.
On the question of Yom Kippur joy, the rabbis play with the name of Yom Kippur, also known as Yom Ha Kippurim and the name of the holiday, Purim. Yom Ha Kippurim literally means the Day of Atonements. In the midrash, they ask, "How do we know that Yom Kippur is like Purim?" They answered, "because the Day of Atonement is 'k'Purim' or like Purim." After all, the only difference between the spelling of Yom Kippur and the spelling of Purim is the addition of the letter kaf. And so we ask, "In what way is the day of Yom Kippur like Purim?" How can awesome Yom Kippur, the most solemn and serious day of the year be at all similar to the most raucous and frivolous day of Purim? The word Purim actually means "lots." In the Purim story, this refers to the lots that were drawn by Haman to determine which day the Jews in Persia would be slain. On Yom Kippur, we read about the ancient Yom Kippur ritual in which the two male goats, physically identical were brought, one marked "unto the Lord," and the other was hurled to its destruction. Each holiday has its own version of lots. The random nature of who lives and who dies is a part of each holiday. And yet, joy is an essential element to each of these holidays. On Purim, it is expressed on the physical level with feasting, drinking and reading megillah and giving gifts to the poor. On Yom Kippur, joy is expressed internally and communally in spiritual way that is as stripped of its physical nature as is possible.
In fact Yom Kippur itself is framed by joy. We began Yom Kippur with a festive meal. And the moment we conclude our fast, we will begin to build our Sukkot for the holiday of simchateinu, our joy. Purim and Yom Kippur each inhabit a corner of our souls. One part of our psyche is in costume and the other part in a kittel. In both holidays, we are aware of the fragility of life and know that there is truly no moment of joy without a memory of sadness too. By acknowledging both of these extremes in our tradition, we ultimately honor them both in our spiritual lives and in our bodies. We know this because at every Jewish wedding, as filled with joy as it is, concludes with the breaking of a glass, the symbol of universal tragedy, an acknowledgment that even in the greatest moment of personal joy, there is sadness.
As we glimpse these moments of joy during the course of this Yom Kippur, we ask ourselves if it is possible to ensure that these moments of joy don't slip through our fingers. How can we take this Yom Kippur joy and infuse it into our lives throughout the year? Easier said than done, you might say. I agree, but I would like to offer you a rabbinic concept for how to integrate this into our lives.
The rabbis recognized the fine line that we all walk when it comes to kevah and kavannah. Kevah – this is the idea that if we don't do something frequently enough, it will not become habitual. This is a truly vital aspect of mastering anything. Practice makes perfect. Yet the tension lies in being sure that we approach what we do with kavannah or intent. Having enough kevah in our lives allows space for kavannah to develop and joy to blossom in your life. The rabbis tell us to perform a mitzvah first and that often the joy flows from the action. I draw upon a metaphor drawn from the dance world: "Choreograph Joy."
What I mean by using this metaphor is that we should literally create a structure for joy. Like a choreographer creates dances by planning them in advance, we actually need to map out our joy. What are the dance steps that it takes to mark a joyous occasion? Most of us are familiar with this idea in the planning of s'mahot – a bris, a babynaming, a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding. In order to mark our day and delineate our joy, we plan celebrations, meals and parties. If we sow joy, we reap joy. And this can take a lot of work and often times it generates stress. But the result is a carving out of time that is precious to us, our families and our communities. It is how we mark time in a meaningful way and prevent our lives from turning into one workday after another.
But a simpler example hits home too. I recently attended a funeral in which a dear friend of the deceased ascended to the podium and told us that he had lunch with his friend every Thursday for the past seven years. From one friend to another, these two men made a commitment to choreograph joy. I imagine that not every lunch they had together was joyful. But their determination to have kevah, a fixed schedule, to make room for each other amidst busy lives was an inspiration to me. Some of us may know couples who have fixed nights of the week or month where they go out together. Some fear that these occasions will turn into scripted, stilted evenings. But talk to those people who do this on a disciplined basis. They will tell you that by dedicating this time to focusing on each other, that their relationship is imbued with a sense of kavannah. It is a case of structure first and intent later. Choreograph joy – make it happen or your life will pass you by.
I will apologize in advance for raising the topic of food on Yom Kippur. [I cannot let a sermon go by without talking about food – even on Yom Kippur.] Even though we can't eat it, we can definitely think about it and talk about it! Google "Slow Food" and you will read: "Slow food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. . .[it] links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment." There is actually a slow food movement that was initially founded by Italians when a McDonalds was due to open near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The Italians realized that this was the moment to resist the idea of how we eat food, being divorced from how food is grown or prepared. In other words, a way to feel more joy in your life, is to deepen and strengthen a healthy connection to food and its connection to the earth. Slow down, plan what you are going to eat and how you are going to prepare your food. Whether it is going to Farmer's Market and buying more berries that you can enjoy alone or making an old family favorite recipe for Shabbat dinner, you will inevitably be connected to the Jewish value of "hachnasat orhim," welcoming guests, as you joyfully share your bounty with others.
As I think back to saying goodbye to all of my friends and family and in San Jose, I am reminded of the wisdom of Abraham Joshua Heschel. This poetic and spiritual giant taught us to be radically amazed at the simple things in life. He told us that our response to the world needed to be one of radical amazement and unbounded joy. When I said goodbye, I was radically amazed at the simple gift of time and relationships with family and friends. Radical amazement can emerge for all of us - whether it the mixed emotions of losing a loved one, moving to a new place, sending a child off to college, or facing a personal transitions in our lives. Or it may be found in the simple moments of driving your kids in carpool, or seeing the figs grow and ripen on your neighbors' tree, to expressing gratitude for a simple favor from a friend.
I pray for all of you that you experience a year of potential, that at each important junction in your life you recognize the power of a liminal moment such as Yom Kippur. I wish for you the discipline of kevah and the spontaneity of kavvanah. I urge you to choreograph joy in your life. Hold the power of forgiveness in your hearts throughout the heart and continue to share it with others. Enjoy some slow leisurely meals and commit to spending time with your friends on a regular basis. And most of all, my you discover joy when you least expect it. Shabbat Shalom - G'mar hatimah tovah.
Rosh Hashanah, September 2010
There is a story about a person who finds himself in a magical castle. This story, taken from the Zohar, the core treasury of Jewish mysticism, begins with a person walking through the magical castle. He discovers that each of the rooms is filled with rich and beautiful treasures.
In one room, he spies bars of gold piled up, spilling on to the floor. As he turns a corner, his eye is drawn to a room filled with silver objects from the ornate floor to the jeweled ceiling. There are riches beyond imagination – jewels, art, fabulous porcelain dishes, bowls and crystal goblets. His eye falls on a sign that says, “Free for the taking.” Disbelief turns to exhilaration and he rushes from room to room deciding what to take with him. What does he need the most? What would his kids like the best? Which item would bring him the most financial security?
The beginning of this Jewish mystical story illustrates the intoxicating nature of free choice. What strikes me about this story is not only the sheer volume of the stuff that the man encounters, but also the idea that he can choose whatever he wants. Choosing is the ultimate expression of freedom, right?
Imagine that you were in this castle – what would you choose? What do you need most? How would you feel cruising through those hallways and checking out those rooms? While our world is not necessarily the magical castle described in the story from the Zohar, we enjoy a surprisingly high level of choice in our lives. As American Jews, we live in a time in which we enjoy unprecedented choice, especially when we reflect on the history of our people and our ancestors’ limited choices. As American consumers, we benefit from a marketplace in which we enjoy a wide range of various brands and price points. Even within the Jewish community, there are a myriad of choices of how to practice Judaism – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, renewal, orthodox, and more. We decide what to observe, how to observe and which communities to join or not.
One would think that maximizing freedom means expanding our choices. But is this really the case? Is there a point at which too many choices are paralyzing rather than liberating?
A simple case in point. My husband Jeff and I agreed that it was time to hear my daughter’s pleas to have her cell phone upgraded. So this past weekend, my husband took her to the local cell phone franchise. When they got back from the store, I asked “Which phone did she buy? Wasn’t she excited to get the upgraded phone that she had been waiting for?” They left the store, quite happily, in the end, without the phone. The myriad of choices was too complicated. And it was not only the choice of the phone itself, but also the choice of the contract, the length of the contract, how the addition of that phone affected the existing phone contract we already have with the provider, the monthly payment options available etc. . . . The new phone will wait for another shopping trip.
I am reminded of a scene from the 1984 movie, Moscow on the Hudson. Robin Williams plays Vladamir Ivanoff, a Russian saxophone player from pre-Glasnost Russia who wants to defect to the United States. In his world, choice if pretty limited – he is used to standing in line for hours to get basic groceries. He finds himself in a U.S. grocery store looking for coffee. His eyes scan the brands of coffee and he mutters to himself over and over, “Coffee, coffee, coffee.” As his excitement turns to anxiety, his muttering turns to screaming and he ultimately faints on the floor paralyzed in submission and sensory overload. Overwhelmed, he is unable to choose and never gets the coffee that he came in to buy in the first place. Vladamir’s initial exhilarated reaction when was the same as that of the man in our story from the Zohar when he walked into the castle of riches in every room. But Vladimir’s intoxication with choice quickly turned on its head and became unsustainable.
Too much choice can paralyze us, whether it is choosing which cell phone to buy, or which healthcare plan best insures our families. Dr. Sheena Iyengar, a leading expert on choice, confirms what many of us feel. While choice is a great thing, there comes a point where our brains literally stop processing all of the choices before us, even when it comes to important financial choices. For example, with regard to choosing an employer-sponsored 401(k) retirement plan, the percentage of employees who choose among employer-funded plans actually falls as the number of plan options increases. The more plans that are available to employees, the fewer employees actually participate. Apply her conclusions to any number of examples and see the trend: people prefer to make no decision rather than make a complicated choice. The fear of making the wrong choice can lead us to do nothing.
Professor Barry Schwartz, another leading expert on choice, economics and psychology notes that with greater choice, people actually enjoy less satisfaction with decisions they make. When experiences are not perfect, people blame themselves for the choices they did make and dwell on what they could have chosen.
And yet, as Americans, we rail against the idea that our choices should be limited as it seems antithetical to the idea of freedom itself. Our culture literally oozes the idea that when it comes to choice more is more. Yet, in many cases, we are actually more at peace with ourselves when we face fewer choices.
There was a time in my life where my choices seemed truly unlimited. Before I became Jewishly observant in my mid-twenties, I remember a whole different life with a completely different rhythm. During high school, Friday nights meant football games. During college, Friday nights meant date nights. As a child, I remember Saturday was the day for running errands, projects and cleaning up. My dad always cajoled me to help him with the yard work, but I had other ideas of what I wanted to do instead. As my life became more focused on singing and performing theatre, Friday nights were show nights and Saturdays meant long rehearsals. Saturday extended the week; it was the catch-all day to finish all of the stuff that I couldn’t get to during the week. As someone dedicated to getting the most out of my life, Saturdays were essential. In retrospect, I guess I felt a lot like the man in the Zohar story, overwhelmed at times, but I was taking advantage of everything available in the magical castle.
But when I was in my mid-twenties, I began to voluntarily limit my own choices by observing Shabbat. Why in the world would I choose to do this? Why would I turn my back on the riches in the castle?
I found in Judaism what Iyengar discovered in her research: I actually became more at peace with myself when I faced fewer choices. Shabbat became for me a way to limit my tendencies to never stop. When my head was saying, “Keep going, finish the work, this is what you need to do to succeed and to get ahead,” my kishkes began to tell me something else: “You cannot conquer this world with your endless to-do list. You need to stop. You need to choose life. You will not live better by completing everything you want, running after every choice, every activity 24-7.” Shabbat was a true gift to me. I actually maximized my freedom by limiting my choices. By allowing my soul and my body to rest and regenerate, my inner peace quotient increased. I literally feel like Shabbat saved my life. It saved me from becoming a sum total of what I do in life. Rather Shabbat taught me that it is what I am in life that matters. And what I am is a representation of how I spend my time and the choices I make.
Each one of us sitting here today has many choices to make. We wander in the metaphorical castle of unlimited riches and we must choose. On Rosh Hashanah, we ask: Are we going to voluntarily place limits ourselves? In a 24-7 world, how do can we live 24-6 and discover a sense of inner peace that Shabbat can bring? How are we going to place this limits in a Jewish way? Our tradition is not ascetic. We are commanded to enjoy the splendor and the beauty of creation. The midrash states that in the world to come, God will hold us more accountable for the permitted things that we did not let ourselves enjoy than the prohibited things from if we did partake of. But the great philosopher Rav Joseph Soloveitchik reminds us that Jewish tradition distances us from madness and hysteria, from overintensity and a drunkenness of the senses. It reminds us to choose spending time with our families instead of answering yet another email. It reminds us to choose being with those we love instead of acquiring more stuff. It reminds us to choose our food choices wisely instead of gorging ourselves at the buffet. Judaism makes freedom complicated.
The ultimate moment of freedom in the narrative of our people comes with yitza’at mitzrayim, leaving Egypt. The midrash tells us that as the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, God approached several other nations to encourage them to accept the Ten Commandments. When the first nation asked God about the content, God told them, “Well, it means that you can’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife.” They refused God’s offer based on their libido. There was no way they were going to enter an agreement that would limit them in this way.
The next nation asked the same question and God told them, “Well, you can’t murder anyone.” But they couldn’t imagine living under an agreement that would limit their ultimate expression of power over another human being – the taking of a life.
The third nation came and asked the question and God told them, “Well, you can’t steal.” This nation could not imagine limiting their accumulation of wealth by prohibiting themselves from theft.
Not long after embracing freedom, the Israelites accepted the brit, the covenant and by doing so, they limited themselves in what they could do in the world. In the religious civilization that is Judaism, we have a culture of self-limitation. Unlimited choice with sex, power and money has no place in our tradition, even though our American culture tells us that we can grab every one of the riches in the magic castle.
So, whatever happened to the man in our story from the Zohar? At the end of the story what did he end up deciding? The Zohar tells us that he became so hypnotized by the riches in the magical castle that he failed to find the room with the food. And he starved to death in the halls of that magical castle. He allowed himself to become so blinded by the array of choice that forgot to make the most important choice of all. His demise came because he failed to make the right choices.
And so as we walk through the magical castle how do we ensure that we that we eat? How do we ensure that we keep our gaze steady and focused, unfazed by the glitter and the glamour of unlimited choice?
In American Jewish culture, we have an expression, “Jew-by-choice.” This has become the popular expression for someone who has converted to Judaism. But I propose that every Jew is defined by his or her choices. Being Jewish means consciously choosing from less, but we end up with a life that means more.
Our challenge this Rosh Hashanah, is to be sure that in the year ahead we find a way to the room with the food. We need to be sure that the multiplicity of choices we face does not rob us of the ability to choose wisely. We live during a time when life is easier than it has ever been, but it is harder to choose even when it comes to simple aspects in life. We can become drunk on the array of options and miss the essential nature of what we need in life. Yet Judaism offers us a guiding path on how to enjoy life within limits.
I close with a cartoon – or at least the description of one. In the picture, there is a small simple tank with two fish in it. One fish says to the other, “You can be anything you want to be. . . no limits.” At first we chuckle. Of course it is ridiculous to think you can be anything you want to be while constrained with limited choice. In a world where we want the biggest and the best, why would anyone want to be stuck in a small container?
But it could be that the talking fish actually has it right. We all live within constraints of one type or another. Judaism is a paradigmatic example of this. And it preposterously says that within limits, it is possible to feel inner peace and yes, even contentment. If we shatter that tank, we have no container, we have no restraints. But if we can come to see our voluntary limitations as freeing us, we can actually be the essence of who we are meant to be. And in the magic castle, we might have a greater chance of finding the room with the food. Shanah Tovah.
RABBI JACK PRESSMAN
Rabbi Jack Pressman Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon - September 8th
Rabbi Jack Pressman Good Wishes - September 8th
A FRIENDLY WORD FOR THE NEW YEAR 5771
Rabbi Jacob Pressman • Temple Beth Am • September 8, 2010
Before I speak, I want to say something. I wish to ask you to do something, which is universally forbidden in a place such as this, and at time such as this. Please, turn to the person on your left, and the person on your right, and the person in back of you, and the person in front of you. Grasp the hand of each such person firmly, and in a strong and friendly voice say to each one in turn in a language of your choice: May I wish a good and sweet year. Or Shanah Tovah u’m’tukah. Or A guteh und a zeeseh yahr or Bien ano Nuevo. Shake hands or give a hug, if you are so minded. Please. I grant you permission and let me hear a great chorus of love fill this chamber.
Thank you. I want you to know there are some among you who are really alone or recently bereaved The family, if any may be dispersed across the country or across the sea. There may have been a quarrel at home. Your handshake, your hug may be the only one that person receives this year; or maybe you are that person.
There is no Biblical text for me to interpret tonight, because we do not read from the Torah. One symbol stands out in my mind, one I do hope you have had or will have soon after these services if I don’t talk too long. It is the slice of apple dipped in sweet honey and the prayer “She-he-che-yanu” to thank God and ask that He make the new year, a sweet year.
Candidly, I could not wait for the year 5770 to end. It has been a miserable year. It has been a year laden with grave and threatening concerns of all kinds from our national economy, to our quarrelsome politics, tragic earthquakes, killer floods, to the belching of millions of barrels of crude oil from the bowels of the earth to threaten sea and land life, to trouble in the Middle East, to the over-arching potential for an irresponsible letting loose of the demon atom by some meshugane irresponsible national leader. I suggest we park these anxieties at the door of the synagogue and that we take with us into the new year apples and honey, the handshake of a stronger, who is not a stranger because Haverim kol yisrael, all Israelites are friends. So let us push to the forefront thoughts of the blessings we have derived from friends.
Dear Friends: With these two simple words I have begun thousands of sermons, public addresses, and messages. With them I have entitled my books of sermons: Dear Friends. These two simple words have somehow invested my life with profound meaning. I noted that in my high school yearbook where the graduate’s picture appears and he is entitled to one favorite saying, mine was “Friends: they make us worthy of ourselves”. Shakespeare’s indelible words seem to reverberate in me whenever I am feeling a bit lonely: “Those friends thou hast and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”
The High Holy Days we are about to begin are replete with names. I had no idea how many until I scanned the Bible readings for the two mornings of Rosh Hashanah. There are thirty-seven in all. They are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and officials. What I found strange is that the term “Friend” is nowhere here. My curiosity was piqued and I searched in our bible stories and found only two persons who could be called “Friends:” King David and Jonathan, son of Saul. In the Book of Ruth, the relationship of Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi is regarded as a bonding of friends. Job had friends, three in particular, but if you read it carefully you would conclude: “With friends like these who needs enemies.” Perhaps there was what we call friendship but they regarded it as a very personal matter not for public note. I cannot tell. I can only repeat that friendship is one of most humanizing of the relationships that lift us above the rest of the animal kingdom, and is essential to us as mother’s milk.
Friendship is found in our Rabbinic literature. In the Pirkei Åvot, The Ethics of the Fathers I:6 we read: עשה לך רב וקנה לך חברProvide for thyself a teacher, and get thee a companion. In the Talmud, Tractate Taanit, we read the challenge: או חברותא או מיתותא Either companionship or death.
They say there are seven trillion people on earth now, and yet it is possible to be lonely. I have been blessed in that my calling as a rabbi has brought me into literally thousands of close relationships and hundreds of warm friendships. It does not necessarily go with the position. People in leadership roles are often quite lonely. I think Noah was lonely. Father Abraham, while recuperating from adult circumcision leaped into action when three men appeared to him, hot and weary from traveling, and Abraham bade them stay, ran to get them food, ran to Sarah and bade her bake cakes, ran to the herd to get meat for them. I always felt he was hospitable, but also the Bedouin life was lonely. Moses had no friends, Henrietta Szold was alone. The revered rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, wrote a book called the “Lonely Man of Faith.” A local colleague of mine once visited me with the question: “My son is becoming a Bar Mitzvah, and my wife and I have made no friends in the congregation. You can’t have friends in the congregation. What did you do for your sons?”
I told him we invited the entire membership, because we had no real friends outside the members. Shortly thereafter, when I heard that some members felt I was unapproachable, and said: “I can get the President of the United States on th phone before I can get Rabbi Pressman.” That was the moment when I chose to call myself: “Rabbi Jack,” because I didn’t want to feel like Rabbi Soloveitchik, revered from afar…and lonely. I wanted to be a rabbi and still have dear friends.
Of course, life does not leave room for a thousand close friends. Practically speaking, of the closest there can only be a few. For years, from my bed at night I faced a picture of myself on the opposite wall, and tucked in the four corners were four snapshots of four friends, made at different periods of my life, who have made indelible impressions on my very being. Sadly, they are all gone. However, I comfort myself with a favorite saying of mine: “The older you get, the easier it is to make life-long friends.” I am happy to say I have. But I still look at these four every night before turning off my reading lamp. And then, with the most precious friend of them all for seventy years by my side, my Margie, I go off to sleep with the Shemah on my lips, and a smile upon my face.
May I wish for you all: to have dear friends.
ROSH HASHANAH AUDIO SERMONS
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Rosh Hashanah Sermon - September 9th
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Erev Rosh Hashanah Remarks - September 8th
Rabbi Susan Leider Rosh Hashanah Sermon - September 9th
Rabbi Jack Pressman Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon - September 8th
Rabbi Jack Pressman Good Wishes - September 8th
Yom Kippur Audio Sermons & Speeches
Robert Ring Yom Kippur Speech - September 18th
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Yom Kippur Sermon - September 18th
Rabbi Susan Leider Yom Kippur Sermon - September 18th
Rabbi Joel Rembaum Yom Kippur Israel Bonds Appeal - September 18th