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Home Is Where the Broken Heart Is

Rabbi Sharon Mars' Kol Nidre Sermon, 2018:

 

Shanah Tovah.

Tonight, I share with you a poem called “Kol Nidre” by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat:

So that our vows may no longer be vows

we knock on our breasts with loose fists,

we speak [an alphabet] of sins.

We know the disclaimer only lasts so long;

next year we'll be back with our court

of three, holding scrolls, looking solemn.

We know how foolish we sound

but the melody is old, and makes us cry.

 

There is a song that called us home tonight.  It is the song of the soul. It is the song of the human soul weeping because it heard its name cried out from somewhere on high.  This is the song of Kol Nidre. And it is the sound, in the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, “of heartbreak, of rising hope, and of pained descent.”  High notes surrendering to the bass notes, our aspiring hearts cracking wide open. Kol Nidre is the soundtrack of our homecoming. With Kol Nidre, we make our way home.

We come home because at this time of year we feel the impulse to connect with that which only home can offer us.  A lack of judgment, we hope, and an abundance of acceptance. So we knock hesitantly on the door, and our hearts in turn knock inside our ribs.  We hear footsteps rush to grab the doorknob from inside, and feel the light breeze of the door swing open. Who is it who greets us? A familiar face, a tender smile.  What does home smell like? A waft of aromas meet our nostrils, distinctive, almost primal. Our bodies respond in kind, either tightening or loosening up, as we step boldly through the threshold.  We let down our guard- let’s stay awhile.

Old feelings and sensations swirl around us as we find our seat.  It kind of feels like we maybe never left this place. There is something intangibly beautiful here at home, something about this place that transcends the mind and memory.  Home is visceral. Home is spiritual. Home is sacred. In this place, we will be taken care of. In this place, we are always honored guest and beloved family member. A pair of arms enfolds us in a warm, tight embrace.  “You’re here- Welcome home.”

With the Yom Kippur chords of Kol Nidre, we come home.  What is it about the tune of Kol Nidre? What is the magic that draws us in?  Though it seems like it was revealed with the Torah at Mt. Sinai, it was only in 1880 that the non-Jewish composer Max Bruch was commissioned by the Jewish community of Liverpool to arrange this haunting and mysterious strain. The words were written in the early middle-ages but the tune that elicits such emotion is a relatively modern phenomenon.

It is sung and/or played three times through, some say for the benefit of the latecomers, the thought being that you should be able to hear it at least once if you had trouble finding parking!  But the 9th-century siddur, Mahzor Vitry, explains the custom of hearing Kol Nidre three times in the following way: “The first time the cantor chants Kol Nidre in a very low voice, like a person who is amazed at entering the palace of the king to ask for a favor, and is afraid of coming close to the king… The second time, the cantor ought to raise [her] voice a little higher than the first time. The third time the cantor ought to raise [her] voice higher and higher, like a [person] who is at home and accustomed to being a member of the king’s household.”

Our tradition at Temple Israel is slightly different. The first time we listen to the wordless tune on the violin - bypassing our intellect and going straight to our souls. The second time, we listen to our cantor channel the Holy One to us and us to the Holy One. The third time we read aloud together in English to insure that every member of our community can understand and connect with these ancient words.

Our beloved Cantor Moses reflects on her experience with Kol Nidre.  She told me that:  “With each iteration, only a half step higher, the notes mingle softly with the unlimited steps of surrender and release. I begin chanting the ubiquitous minor melodic motif feeling vulnerable and scared of cracking, not only of voice but of heart. The musical notes shift and swell as does my desperate yearning to become pure, begging to be absolved and granted a clean slate... The musical notes crescendo to an ultimate solo surrender leaving only one choice, to plunge into the major tonality of oneness.  I release fear, invite hope and return home.”

With every successive sound, Kol Nidre calls us home until we finally actually feel that we have arrived.  For us, the listeners, Kol Nidre cracks open the door to our heart with the first movement, penetrates deeper with the second, and flings the door to the soul wide open with the third time, until we yell, “I’m home!” Rabbi Eric Solomon describes the magic this way:  “When we are blessed with the occasion of listening to soul-penetrating renditions of Kol Nidre, each of us feels our spiritual facade begin to dissipate while the gate to our truest self gently opens. On Yom Kippur, we are preparing to bring our most vulnerable core to stand humbly before the judgment of God; ...we need a kavannah [a spiritual intention] that begins by subtly coaxing our minds and concludes with a resounding push to expose ourselves – both our proudest gifts and our shameful misgivings. Kol Nidre is that invitation; the invitation to share, to be open and to prepare for repentance. The music, coupled with the atmosphere of the night and the communal bond, give us the permission to begin serious self-introspection, to seek genuine forgiveness from God and to contemplate practical ways for self-improvement.”

Kol Nidre strikes that necessary chord of yearning inside us tonight, and through its mystical melody we sense that there is a Force in the universe that misses us too.  We miss connecting with something loving, something larger than ourselves. Tonight, the Jewish people say to God, “We’ve missed you.” And God says to us, “I’ve missed you too.”  

We as a community miss each other as well.  We yearn for recognition in each other’s eyes, that Jewish connection, that hunger that begins to grumble in our bellies this night, that sense of longing to find one another and bask in each other’s company here at home.  

The story is told:  “Rabbi Leizer survived the death camps and returned to his hometown in Poland.  For years following the Holocaust, he roamed the streets playing a hand organ. At regular intervals, amid the numerous tunes he played, he would intentionally play Kol Nidrei.  As he did so, he would look into the eyes of the children who walked by, looking for a hint of recognition. In this way, he was able to bring many children back in contact with their people.  For us, too, Kol Nidrei is a moment of recognition- a sound that brings us back to our people.”

On this awesome night, the door to our souls flung wide open, Kol Nidre welcomes us all, regulars and seekers, wanderers and homebodies.  Your people, your family greets you tonight in a warm, tight embrace. Shoo away any burdensome thoughts that you don’t belong. You’ve always belonged.  And you are precisely where you need to be. We all answered the call to return tonight - “Shuvu, shuvu, b’nei adam,” it says in Psalms- come, come back, beloved person, return to the best version of yourself, this is your place, this is your people, this is your home.”

As the Kol Nidre liturgy reminds us, tonight we are all avaryanim, that is, we are all wayfarers on the road to teshuvah, or repentance.  We wear the same markers of transgression and disappointment, we have all done things we are not proud of, and so we come together in unity, as equals, to unload our individual sins in a collective forum.  What we all have in common is that none of us is without blemish. Each of us holds our broken heart in hand, and each of us needs to show up for the other in order to heal it. The amazing thing is that we come home broken.  The true testimony to home is that it takes us as we are, travel weary, exhausted, beat, and incomplete. And yet more beautiful than ever.

“Once the Ba’al Shem Tov instructed his student to learn the deep meanings behind the names of the shofar blasts, for he would be the one who called the notes on Rosh Hashanah.  The student learned the deep meanings of the blasts and wrote them on a piece of paper intending to look at them during the service and he put the paper in his robe, next to his heart.  

When the Shofar service came, he searched for the paper everywhere but it was gone and with it, the deep meanings of the shofar blasts.  He was heartbroken and he sobbed the notes in a simple way - without knowing the deep meanings. Afterwards the Ba’al Shem Tov said to him:

‘Behold, in the palace of the king there are many rooms and halls with different keys for each and every door.  But the master key is the axe with which it is possible to open all the locks on all of the doors. The deep meanings are just like the keys.  For each door there is a different deep meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a person is truly heartbroken before [God], that person can enter every door in the palace of the blessed Holy One.’”

Though we search for home and a way into it, Kol Nidre reminds us that we have the master key in our pocket at all times.  All we need to do is be ready to share our loss, our disappointment, our joy, and our love. All we need to be ready to do is come home.  God’s Holy Presence and a community of loving people is always waiting for you there.

We have our own homes and we have the home we build together at Temple Israel.  The home we collectively build needs to be founded in mutual respect, the honoring of differences, and abiding love.  It is our responsibility to make sure that everyone in our community is never too far from home.

Home is about more than nostalgia.  It’s about taking your place at the table and thoughtfully offering a way you can to contribute to the ongoing building of home. Home is what each of us brings to it. The gift of each other’s time, the gift of our generosity, the gift of our presence. There are countless ways to make a house a home.  But the simple math is this: the more time we spend in each other’s company, the more natural home becomes, the more dreams we create together and make happen, the more we know this home is where our heart is. And we show up and create a continuous homecoming for one another.

So, this Kol Nidre evening, as we spend an extended time in each other’s presence, I invite you to locate that place in your heart’s memory which represents home to you.  When was the last time you visited that home? What was inviting or intimidating about going home to that place? Is it a physical place or it is more a spiritual space? How can you access it more often?  What intentional planning will need to happen to make that possible? How can going home transform your life for the better?

We sing Kol Nidre together so that we can find our way home in the words and the tune. We sing Kol Nidre together...

So that our vows may no longer be vows

and

we knock on our breasts with loose fists,

and

we speak [an alphabet] of sins.

though

We know the disclaimer only lasts so long;

next year we'll be back with our court

of three, holding scrolls, looking solemn.

We know how foolish we sound

but the melody is old, and makes us cry.

May that place we each call home open its doors on this auspicious day and remain a welcome, accepting haven for our wholeness, for our brokenness, and for our healing.

May this be a year of coming home. May it really be a good and sweet year. Shana tova.

Holding Each Other Through Addiction

From Rabbi Sharon Mars' Rosh Hashanah Day 2018 sermon on addiction and the opioid crisis.

Shanah Tovah!

Gerald E. Greene is a Dayton native, and this is from his poem called “Despair:”

There is a place not far from me—

a place of despair.

Its poets tell of life within,

where hope is seldom found...

“How do I survive in a place

where heroin is easier to find than hope?”

a young girl asks...

What should the preacher say?

Is she there for God’s reason

or should she flee?

The opioids beckon with sweetness

and promise of relief.

All seem happy for the moment,

with despair’s underside.

A counterfeit time sucking life

from the future, establishing its cycle.

Despair thrives in that place,

and I seek ways to help.

But answers elude.

So, I support my charity.

 

Sharon Parsons is a dentist in Bexley, Ohio and tells this story:

“My son, Sean, hurt himself during finals week in his junior year of college. He had told me that he was going to ride dirt bikes with a friend at his farm. I told him that it was a bad idea—he could hurt himself and would not be able to take finals. He did it anyway and, of course, he hurt himself. He did not want me to know what he had done, so he didn't go to urgent care or the emergency room. Instead, he accepted some pills--oxycontin--from a neighbor. They worked, he liked them, and he went back for more.  That was the beginning of the end. [Sean went to rehab, gained some healthy-living skills, and tried to regain his footing in life.] He did learn lots of positive skills while there. Unfortunately, he also learned that heroin is the same thing as Oxycontin--and pennies on the dollar. He tried to stay clean but it didn't last long. Soon he was addicted to heroin… Sean did the recovery waltz--Steps one, two, three--until he hit what I thought was rock bottom. Broke, unemployed, and hungry, [until just when things were looking up for Sean, he died of an overdose.]... The unthinkable had happened.”

 

Dr. Mike Garfinkel, one of our beloved congregants and an emergency room physician in Fairfield County, shares this story:

“I was working a shift in the ER and I was summoned into room 18 (our Trauma/critical care room) to meet the arrival of a squad bringing in a patient who had apparently overdosed on heroin. When I entered the room, what was laying before me on the gurney was a pretty young woman, not quite twenty. She was still… not breathing. Her life was gone. At that point in time, all I could do was pronounce her dead. Helpless, a horrible feeling. There was nothing I could do to help this human being. It was too late. The worst part happened next. The patient’s mother and her husband, who was carrying a baby carrier that held their 3-month-old came into the room and immediately understood that [their daughter] was gone forever. Her loved ones had found her and called 911. They lived a bit further out, the squad arrived as fast as they could, administered the correct medication (Narcan) but it was too late. Tragedy. It’s such an understatement to say that that family will never be the same. A family should not lose a daughter, a wife and a young mother like this, so fast. Clearly that child’s life will not be what it could have been.”

 

Matt Dennison is a football coach in New Philadelphia, Ohio.  Here, he reflects on his career and how daunting his job has become in the wake of the opioid crisis:

“I would venture to say that a large portion of our community doesn’t even realize that the problem of opioids is on our doorstep. Though we may not admit it, we are not immune to the challenges that we face as a country. We battle addiction and its results in our community every day. Our police carry and use Narcan on a daily basis. And we are a strong and tight-knit community. This is a problem that transcends race, religion, and socioeconomic status. We are in this fight no matter where you live.”

 

These are difficult stories to hear. But these are the kind of stories our hearts may be open to hearing on Rosh Hashanah as we contemplate our joy and our suffering and the fragility of life.  Stories help us empathize and understand. And, above all, as Jews, as caring people, we need to be sensitive empathizers and deep understanders.

If you don’t know anyone who is suffering from addiction, then consider yourself lucky, and rare.  Our state is awash in opioids and its citizens are treading water in a sea of suffering. The national crisis is a mental health emergency and “the worst addiction epidemic in American history” (Time).

Stories of suffering lead us to compassion and healing. Stories of suffering can lead us to take action since we need each other to help us out of our suffering.  Here is a story of suffering from our own tradition in the Talmud (Berachot 5b):

R. Hiyya Bar Abba got sick.

R. Yohanan came to him.

R. Yohanan said, “Are your sufferings precious to you?”

R. Hiyya Bar Abba replied, “I don’t want them nor do I want their reward.” That is, I don’t want any character building that suffering may bring.”

Said Rabbi Yohanan, “Give me your hand.”

He gave him his hand and Rabbi Yohanan raised him up (out of his sickness). Rabbi Yohanan faith-healed Rabbi Hiyya.

R. Yohanan got sick. Now the one who healed is the one who is sick.

R. Hanina came to him.

R. Hanina said to him, “Are your sufferings precious to you?” A new rabbi comes to him and has the very same conversation!

R. Yohanan replied, “I don’t want them nor do I want their reward.”

Said R. Hanina, “Give me your hand.”

He gave him his hand and Rabbi Hanina raised him up (out of his sickness). Rabbi Yochanan, the faith healer, needed Rabbi Hanina to heal him.

So the Talmud asks - Why so? Rabbi Yohanan should have raised himself up. That is, if Rabbi Yochanan could heal rabbi Hiyya then why couldn’t he just heal himself. Why do therapists need therapists? Why do doctors need doctors? Why can you give wise advice to your friend in need but when you are suffering you can’t say those same things to yourself?

And the Talmud answers this question poetically.  They say, “A prisoner cannot get himself out of his own shackles.”

Sometimes it feels like there is no escape from our suffering.  We become prisoners to our own illness. So we need someone to acknowledge our pain - our addiction - extend a helping hand which can lead us down a path to healing, and allow us to stand on our own two feet again. WE NEED EACH OTHER! No matter what your suffering is, whether it be addiction, or any of the many ways human beings suffer. It is wrong to suffer alone and as a caring, loving, social justice oriented Jewish community we must be there for each other.

Do you know how the trappers in Thailand catch monkeys?  They hollow out a coconut in a tree and put a banana in it. Monkeys climb the tree, put their hand in the coconut and grab the banana and don’t let go. Of course they could escape if they just let go. But they hold that banana so tight that eventually their lives are at risk. This is true for our brothers and sisters who suffer from addiction. They can’t let go without our help. They are enslaved and they need us to help them.

As Jews, we have experienced throughout our history what it means to be bound to something beyond our control.  We know a thing or two about slavery. Just as the first generation of Hebrews to leave Egyptian bondage could not enter the Promised Land and experience freedom for itself because their souls were still enslaved, so it is with the addicted person: There is a rewiring of the brain that happens when one is bound to a foreign substance.  There is no way to cross out of slavery and immediately into freedom without carrying the burdens of trauma, pain, and the compulsive physical and psychological desire for what one has always known on one’s back. The prisoner cannot release himself from his own shackles.

Addiction is a disease.  It is not a moral failing and the opioid crisis will not be ameliorated through a “tough on crime” strategy.  It is a disease and it is a public health crisis. Our rabbinic sages insisted that disease should be met with social and legal leniency.  In our sacred texts, the rabbis noted how drug use can lead to compulsive behavior. They understood how easy it could be to act outside of one’s own will, such as during periods of mental illness, and they allowed certain violations of Jewish law to stand so as to preserve the human being who was ill.  “A person who saves one life, saves and entire world.” Its corollary is true too - with each one of these Americans, Ohioans, Columbusites, and, yes, Jewish community members, who suffer and die from their opioid illness, we all lose an entire world. They suffer and our entire community suffers.

There is no reason to have a Temple Israel if collectively we can’t better the world.

Our synagogue has been part of an intentional process two-year long process working with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to “Move Justice to the Center of our Congregation.”  We have methodically trained as a congregation to learn the in’s and out’s of community organizing. One year ago, we formed Temple Israel’s Social Justice Team and had ten living room conversations asking this community, “What keeps you up at night?” Many of you came to these meetings and told us what you care about. You care about so much because you are caring people. You care about food insecurity, affordable housing, mental health, and gun violence; you care about anti-semitism, school bullying, mass incarceration and domestic violence; and you care about the impact of all of these things and more on children and families. You care about these and so many other things. So after an inspiring and loving process we now have the opportunity to show that we care by lifting up the opioid crisis and taking action to save lives.  We want to support individuals and families touched by addiction through action and advocacy.

Reform Jews across Ohio are standing with a coalition of law enforcement, community, faith and business leaders, and rejecting the idea that “this is just the way it is.”  Ohio has the chance to decriminalize certain drug-possession offenses and make room for us to treat drug addicts with the help they need.  All we need to do is vote this November. Ohio has long used punitive solutions to the opioid epidemic instead of treatment-oriented ones.  Addiction is a public health issue, not a crime, and we can help break the cycle of addiction and imprisonment.   We are blessed to live in a democratic America where we have the power of the vote and we must use it to bring good to the world.  There is information from the RAC out on the tables for more information as well as info on other timely opportunities for you to get involved with TI’s Social Justice Team.

This moment can have wider implications as well- if we are brave enough to help make treatment more available for addicts, maybe we can also widen the aperture and have the difficult but critical conversation within our own holy community about the pervasive reality of prescription drug overprescription, overuse, misuse and abuse.  Daniel Skinner, co-editor of Not Far from Me: Stories of Ohio and Opioids, notes, “The problem is right in our own medicine cabinets.”  Together, we can bring this subject out into the open.  There is no shame in being ill and there is only blessing helping each other heal.

If all of this seems a bit daunting, I urge you to take action on this issue in one small way to be agents for change over these next ten days.  This week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I will be going through my own medicine cabinets at home and cleaning them out! We have bags in the lobby for you to take home with you from ADAMH so you too can safely dispose of any prescription medications which could be dangerous to keep around.  This is the Torah pressing us to be sensitive and be smart: “Lifnei iver lo titen mich’shol - Do not put a stumbling block before a blind person.”  In other words, do not tempt others - friends, family members, folks who work in our homes - to get curious about what drugs we may still unwittingly have lying around after our child’s wisdom teeth surgery or our spouse’s back surgery.  “If you think you’re immune,” says Skinner, “you’re probably in denial.”

This is not someone else’s problem. This is everyone’s problem.  And now that it’s here, on our own doorstep, in our own medicine cabinets, it’s time for us as the Jewish community in Columbus be mindful and do something.

When we  “otherize” those touched by addiction, when we reduce substance use disorder to “junkies by the river” or “out of control, weak, or lazy,” we reinforce a fallacy and the stigma felt by so many struggling with addiction.  Moreover, we remove God from the picture - as the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas characterizes, we as human beings must seek to encounter the Other if we are to fulfill our job as humans: “I will say this quite plainly,” he said, “what truly human is -and don't be afraid of this word- love. And I mean it even with everything that burdens love or, i could say it better, responsibility is actually love” (Of God who Comes to Mind).

Finally, this Rosh Hashanah morning,  I want to be uber clear with the following offer - If you or someone you love is suffering from drug addiction or suffering from any other health issues, if you are suffering from a broken heart, from grief, from despair, from anything...I am here for you, Cantor Moses is here for you. Talk to us. We love you and we want to help to relieve your suffering. A prisoner cannot get herself/himself out of their own shackles - we need each other.

I ask each of us, in striving this Rosh Hashanah to dedicate ourselves to becoming our best selves, to take responsible, loving action to dissolve suffering of the Other and uplift the divine image in one another.  In so doing, we can restore and transform the lives in despair not so far from us.

May this be a Shanah Tovah, a good year, or at least a better year, for everyone.

Amen.

Thou Shalt Be Civil

Rabbi Mars' Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 9/9/18

Shanah Tovah!

 

I am so delighted that we can be here tonight ringing in the new year together.  Whenever we gather, it is a celebration of who we are- Temple Israel is a community of souls which seeks to create meaning in the mindful living of life through Jewish values.  Tonight we show up to remind ourselves of who we are, as individuals and as a community. Tonight, we have come here in order to see each other up close. Tonight we dare to do what author Bryan Stevenson calls “getting proximate.”  Stevenson coined that term in the context of justice work, noting that one reason people tend to steer clear of others who are suffering is because it’s too hard to witness their suffering up close.

 

But if we were actually convinced that proximity would truly endanger us, it would stand to reason that none of us would have dared to show up this evening.  Yet here we are. We are curious and want to test our assumptions about each other: Will you judge me or will you accept me the way I am? Are you authentically interested in where I came from?  How well do you think you know me? How well do I think I know you? We may feel a little self-conscious, but no matter. This is a safe place. Even if today is Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, I hope you can trust in the fact that this is a judgment-free zone, because Temple Israel aspires to be an open-minded, pluralistic, and loving home for all and because we know there is only One true Judge.  Any judging that happens here is strictly between you and God.

 

My soul is celebrating our being together!  But I admit: my heart is aching for us, living in a world so beset by pernicious polarization.        I can barely take in the news without having my blood pressure spike. It’s not just the content of the information but the underlying rancor, the lack of civility I hear between people, that shoots pangs of sadness and fear through me.  Maybe that’s how you feel too. Then again, maybe not. But perhaps all of us would agree that we as a society tend to shout past each other, deaf to each other’s words. Desperate for our viewpoint to be heard, we default to a defensive stance and often dismiss others’ opinions out of hand.  I admit that I myself have done this. It seems more and more rare to find people - of any political or other persuasion- who are genuinely open to other opinions and are committed to curiosity. When did we stop being able to talk to each other, heart to heart, soul to soul? Why do we seem so unable to give each other the benefit of the doubt as members of American society, regardless of how we vote?   Will we ever again be able to see panim el panim- face to face, just as Moses and God did- to see one another’s essential souls in loving relationship as members of our beloved Jewish community on matters concerning Israel, religious pluralism, or any other issue that feels precious to us as a people?

 

The rift between us is widening daily.  This is poisonous - it can affect our bodies and minds, causing illness.  It has an unhealthy effect on our kids and it is taking a toxic toll on us as a culture.  Where is the decency, the menschiness, we used to enjoy? I can answer with confidence: It is right here in this room.  Can we reclaim a certain level of civility in our interactions with others before it’s too late? I say yes- but each of us has to have a hand in taking responsibility to make that a reality.  We cannot continue to dismiss each other. It’s time to stop, get curious, and listen.

 

It starts with remembering that words create worlds and that every person is a world unto herself.  “Baruch she’amar vehaya ha’olam” comes the blessing in our morning prayers that praises God as the One who spoke and created the world.  It’s easy to forget, especially when I disagree with another person, that my words truly matter and that each of us is an entire world of undeniable thoughts, sensations, and experiences.  There is a long and winding road the other person has travelled to arrive here at my doorstep with his ideas. So I have to resist defaulting to my “download” responses and instead actively pause to make the right word choices, and maybe even allow for silence to be the most dignifying response.  Can we challenge ourselves in the moment to ask pointed yet compassionate, generative questions to unearth something of where this person may be coming from? Can we pause and cultivate patience and equanimity long enough to genuinely learn something about this person’s story?

 

It is indeed possible for us to engage in a civil conversation with someone in a way that preserves and elevates one another’s humanity, even though we may not agree on every point.  The story of Hillel and Shammai from the Talmud underscores this idea. The great sages and their pupils argued over an issue for three entire years . At the end of the day, a heavenly voice comes down to declare:  “Elu v’elu divrei elohim hayyim- both of these are the words of the living God!”  In other words, this argument has value and that argument also has value.  Each position has its inherent worth.  But at the end of the day, Hillel wins the legal debate.  Why? Not because he was right and Shammai was wrong, but because “the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. They even went so far as to teach Shammai's opinions first.”

 

It may seem quaint, but kindness and generosity of spirit, according to our tradition, will always be number one.  It will never go out of style. Authenticity counts for a lot. If I care about you as a person, you and I can engage in a healthy debate, “l’shem shamayim,” for the sake of heaven, as in the story of Hillel and Shammai.  So, while my internal voice may gasp, “ How is it possible that she came to that conclusion? Are we living on the same planet?” I can resolve to take the compassionate curiosity approach, asking:  “What makes you say that? I’m wondering how you came to that idea that the earth is flat and unicorns are inhabiting the Everglades. Please take me through your thought process. I want to learn where you’re coming from.”  That’s an argument l’shem shamayim- that’s learning for the sake of heaven.  In the end, the risk is minimal and the reward to each party is great.

 

Yes, there are some people who are fools out there, but most of us are not. Most of us believe what we do is for good reasons.   But here’s the real kicker: When we dismiss another person for their opinion, we dehumanize them; we effectively lose sight of God’s presence in the world.  But if we can lift up and honor their words by listening to them without judging the person’s legitimacy in our community even if, especially if we disagree with them vehemently, if we can lift up and honor the other person’s story simply because it is their story, and if we can lift up and honor diversity of thought because maybe, just maybe, we might learn something, we will have succeeded at lifting up and honoring the Holy One.  We will have fulfilled our mission on earth and given meaning to each other’s sacred lives.

 

I want you to know that I am regularly and personally trying to enlarge my l’shem shamayim skillset. I study Mussar with a group of rabbis every week to cultivate and meditate on developing the character traits of patience, equanimity, compassion, and generosity.  And I’m starting a class this fall for congregants as well. When I receive feedback from you, my beloved congregants, that you and I may not see things the same way and that I may have neglected to think another way about a certain issue, I strive to answer you with an invitation to sit together face to face so we can share ideas in respect and friendship. I am clear about my beliefs but I know there are people who disagree and part of why I am giving it over to is so you can hold me accountable to these values.  And so that I can do the same with you.  So when we find ourselves tempted to respond out of defensiveness or fear, we can seek to speak or enter silence from a place of love and not fear.  This is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. But as an eternal student of life, who am I to take a pass?

Are you ready, willing, and able to recommit to derech eretz-building this new year?  Professor Brene Brown of the University of Houston writes:

I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you.       

I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you).   

I can genuinely thank you for your efforts rather than criticize you for your failings.

I can model the vulnerability and openness that I expect to see from you.

I want to end tonight with a bit of modern day Torah. A poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

On this Rosh Hashanah, let us not forfeit all that we can learn from one another “from the place where we are right.”  Let us instead be ready to get proximate, willing to get curious, and able to be patient.  May our words create worlds of health and healing.  May we honor and uphold each other’s vast and genuine experience.  May we argue for the sake of heaven.

And in so doing may we allow the Holy One’s light to illuminate each other’s darkness.  It is my prayer that God grant us all a year of radiant love and abiding peace.

Amen.  And Shanah Tovah!

Crossing Borders and Boundaries (6/22/18)

I had the pleasure of visiting many of our Temple Israel kids at Camps Wise and Emma Kaufmann this week, watching them bask in the freedom of summer and the joy of Jewish learning.  I find it hard to square that with a concurrent reality: that of children and parents being separated from one another and separately detained due to America's "Zero Tolerance" immigration policy dealing with illegal entries to the U.S.  It is impossible to fathom the conditions that allow one reality to exist alongside the other.  And it makes me and many others ask, "How can this be happening here?" and "Haven't we seen something like this before?"

A recent article in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz notes the disturbing comparisons some Jews are making between the family separations at the U.S. border and those that happened in the 1930s to our own people.  While one side points out the harsh realities of the present moment that echo the past (" Images of children being held at 'tender age' shelters behind wire fences and in cage-like enclosures, far from their parents, and recordings of them crying and wailing"- Allison Kaplan Sommer), the other insists that the Holocaust was unique and that the juxtaposition is patently false ("It is repugnant, ridiculous, morally bankrupt, and even borders on denying the Holocaust to analogize U.S. border policy to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust"- Morton Klein, ZOA).

This debate, for me, is not as useful as the directive I would urge us all to take to heart.  In a statement made against the family separation policy by the Anti-Defamation League, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said:  "People need to be extremely careful in drawing comparisons to the Holocaust and the Nazi regime in whatever context it is used.  Instead of investing our energy into whether or not a particular comparison crossed a line, the lesson we should learn from that dark time is that all good people need to speak out clearly and quickly when morally abhorrent actions are taken by those in power against any group."

I will be saying more about the Jewish take on this current and pressing issue tomorrow night at Erev Shabbat services.  Meantime, we as a congregation need not feel powerless in the face of this situation.  There is plenty to do and you can add your voice in support of just immigration policies that keep families together by taking action as recommended by the Reform Movement's Religious Action Center.  For TI's part, we are collecting toiletries and toys to send to children being held at McAllen, TX.  Bring your donations to the JCC this Friday or next, or bring them to our office on E. Broad St. during the week.  We'll be shipping our collection a week from this Sunday.

May our past bless us with the courage to act in this present moment for a moral and just future for all.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sharon Mars
rabbimars@templeisrael.org

The Power of Presence (6/8/18)

Among my most impactful learning experiences as a young rabbi-to-be was when I served as a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles about 25 years ago.  Though I was "all in" in my desire to do bikkur holim (visiting the sick), I was caught unaware when my supervisor, Rabbi Levi Meir of blessed memory, gave me my marching orders on my very first day at the hospital: to make my rounds to the sick Jews there and provide them with comfort and blessing.  I remember being taken aback:  "But, how will I know what to say?"  To which my mentor answered without batting an eye: "It's not about what you say.  It's about being present for another human being."

That wisdom has stuck with me as a guiding light all these years later, and it can serve all of us well.  So, how can we each be fully present, especially for someone feeling weak and vulnerable due to illness?  Jewish tradition underscores the importance of that sacred availability and holy accessibility when it prescribes the "how-to's" of bikkur holim:  "It is a mitzvah incumbent upon everyone to visit the sick.  Even a person of great spiritual stature visits one of lesser stature.  One [may] visit many times during the day.  Whoever increases the frequency of his vists is praiseworthy, provided he does not become burdensome.  Whoever visits a sick person removes a portion of [her] sickness and relieves [her]" (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 14:4-6).

It's not easy to visit a person who is sick and may be struggling with health issues.  It takes steadfastness and courage to enter a sick person's room and simply "be there" for him.  Just showing up is half the battle.  But it is for that very reason that bikkur holim is a Jewish value and a serious Jewish commitment we make -- even without having to say so -- to one another.  So we need to visit and visit regularly, even by phone, no matter who we are, no matter who that person is, because it truly is a healing balm.  It's part of how we "do" as a Jewish community.  And it's what enables us to be, through sickness and in health, all that we can and should be for each other.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Sharon Mars
rabbimars@templeisrael.org

The Joys of Adolescence (6/1/18)

Our Torah paints a not-so-flattering picture of our ancient ancestors in Parashat B'ha'alot'cha.  Faced with a menu of limited food options - meat, manna, and quail, they are smack in the middle of the desert, after all- the people kvetch to the high heavens:  “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Num.11:4-6)  It is as if this people had the memory of Egyptian bondage totally erased from their memories!

Our fearless leader's response?  He complains right back!  (You might call this the Torah's first "kvetch-a-kvetch"):  "And Moses said to God, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me?  Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers?  Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me.  ​If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!" (Num.11-15)

This sounds less like an ungrateful, colicky bunch of Israelites complaining in the wilderness to an equally frustrated Moses, and more like a teenager and parent fighting about how unfair life is.  And this exchange resonates deeply for me as the parent of three young adults, as this passage in Torah marks the very moment when God and the people- parent and child- start to individuate from one another. Apropos of the season we're in, the Jewish people are clearly ready to graduate- the rebelliousness that characterized their adolescence now gives way to a more mature relationship with the Divine.  And the parents- both the Holy One and Moses- want nothing more than to pack them up and send them on their way to a new future, highlighted by a new-born appreciation for one another.

So blessed be you, parents of graduating high school seniors- May you know the poignant joy of entering this new stage of parenthood.  And blessed be you, dear graduates- May you know the joy of your freedom, staying anchored in the wisdom of your parents, as you enter adulthood, responsibilities and all.  Looking forward to seeing you all tonight at our Summer Send-Off!

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Sharon Mars
rabbimars@templeisrael.org

Tue, November 13 2018 5 Kislev 5779