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Signs of Our Times

Rabbi Mars's Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon, 2019

If you’ve driven anywhere within a two-mile radius of downtown Columbus over the past few weeks, You may have noticed signs with hopeful messages painted on bedsheets, repurposed banners, and plastic tarps. Brought to us by Columbus resident Cecily King with help from a crew of her friends. These banners of hope wave from overpasses all over our great city: “You are worthy,” one says. “You are valuable,” reads another. And my personal favorite in the form of an acronym: “Hold On Pain Ends.” HOPE.

Cecily King is literally hanging on to hope. She explains: “I have depression and anxiety... and I can let that dictate what I do. Or, I can...ask, ‘What makes me feel better?’ And then do that.” Her brainstorm came about when she observed that many of us drive around - we ride the road of life- without looking up as much as we could. “We grieve in the car,” she notes. “We think about what’s going wrong... We think about all the [awful] things people say to us.

It’s this little capsule of space when we’re going back and forth to work or school or the doctor or the grocery store, and it’s not good for a lot of people because if you leave your brain alone, these things come up.

So I thought, ‘OK, here’s maybe a way we can put something else in there’” (Columbus Alive, Aug. 29, 2019). And so Cecily King decided to put these signs OUT there. We all need a little hope to hang onto. No matter how busy we make ourselves, we can also feel alone. The presence of another person who sees the Tzelem Elohim, the image of God within us - even if it is in the form of a bedsheet scrawled with a reassuring message- can change the course of our lives.

Years ago, in science class we learned this to be true: That the shortest distance between two objects is a straight line. Case in point, Cecily King. But since the first time we learned that physics lesson, the poet and self-proclaimed cynic Charles Bukowski spoke his own version, saying: “The shortest distance between two points is often unbearable.” I think what Bukowski means is this: Being present for another person, really getting in there with their loneliness or fear, can be unbearable for us. It’s scary to get up close and personal with another person’s stuff. But it is our duty to “get proximate” with people, despite our own fear of them.

Civil rights attorney and criminal justice activist Bryan Stevenson dubbed the term “getting proximate” as the ultimate demonstration of our empathy for others. To get proximate is to get closer than we ordinarily might to a person in pain, and help us redefine relationships between the person who suffers and the person who wants to end their suffering. This Rosh Hashanah morning, now more than ever in fact, I stand here as someone convinced that the shortest distance between two points, especially when it comes to people, is still and always will be a straight line. Human beings are masters of diversionary tactics. Consciously or unconsciously, we throw up roadblocks between ourselves and others who need us out of fear. We take detours around people instead of taking that straight path.

So, what do we do? We GO there. We start by talking about uncomfortable things and learning all we can about difficult subjects. We stand before the folks who shape and enact laws that impact those who otherwise stand alone. We gaze into another person’s eyes, and listen without judgment or comment to their story. We take them by the hand and say: “I’m here for you. Let’s you and I walk this road together.”

In her book, Middlemarch, George Eliot asks: “What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” At Temple Israel, we are here to make life less difficult for each other. That’s been our mission for as long as we have existed-- almost 175 years. As one small but very significant example, just look at the work our Social Justice Team has done over the past year.

Last Rosh Hashanah, I announced our intention as a synagogue to lift up and support those suffering from substance use disorder both within and outside our congregation. We drew a straight line to the opioid crisis. We have learned a lot, but even more, we have done a lot to bring awareness, action, and advocacy to this issue. Ohio has the second largest mortality rate in our country due to substance use disorder, So we knew our work was cut out for us. We asked you to care and you answered with a resounding, “We will!” And then you put your minds and hearts into action. Here is what you did: You started at home - You emptied out those over-prescribed drugs from your medicine cabinets - the leftovers from that wisdom tooth or hip surgery - and safely disposed of them. You noticed that teenager who got inadvertently hooked because they got ahold of their parents’ painkillers. You became aware of that older friend who struggles with the chronic pain after multiple surgeries, who curbs their pain by overusing. You looked into the mirror, and your children’s eyes and your parent’s eyes and your spouse’s eyes, and bravely asked if this crisis was seeping into your own life. And then you made sure we heard important and difficult stories about the many faces of substance use disorder right from our Friday night bimah.

You set aside time on your day of rest to learn about the restlessness of souls in addiction. You got organized and created real-time connections with community partners (Maryhaven, Jordan’s Crossing, Bridges, the Hilltop Community Worship Center, and more) to do direct service to those who need our patience and our presence. You joined with the Religious Action Center of Ohio to build our collective Reform Jewish power for a Lobby Day this November 13th which will advocate for sentencing reform to help low-level drug offenders get treatment instead of prison time. You wrestled with all the scary news about the opioid crisis in Ohio, And decided that human beings in pain matter more than statistics. You took action! You remembered that every number represents an actual person, formed in the divine image, here on earth for a purpose, full of infinite potential; That people with substance use disorder have been stigmatized, criminalized, and otherized; And that addiction is not a moral failing- It is a disease, and it must be addressed with the same empathy and medical expertise and resourcing with which we treat cancer.

Rabbi Harold Kushner recounts the story about a girl who tells her father that she going over to help a friend who just broke his new bike. Her dad asks, “What do you know about fixing bicycles?” The girl answers, “I don’t know anything about fixing bicycles: I’m going over to help him cry.” We don’t have to know how to fix another person; We just need to be able to cry with them. Our presence can make all the difference for someone struggling, be it from substance use disorder or any other life challenge. Our presence is that ray of hope. When we offer a word of encouragement or simply sit in silence with another human being, Our presence says it all. “I’m here for you. Let’s you and I walk this road together.”

A final story for you this Rosh Hashanah morning: There is a talmudic tale about King David who goes prospecting for a good place to build the holy temple in Jerusalem. He comes to a field and senses- this must be the place! Digging sun up to sun down, he at last hits what turns out to be an immense rock. Being a king, David sees this as a challenge and he tries to wedge it out of the solid ground, until suddenly the stone itself shouts at him: “Back off! Don’t touch me!” In his shock, David asks, “Why not?” The stone replies: “Because I am the foundation stone. I am blocking the mouth of the deep. I was set here to protect the earth And to keep the primordial waters from rising and washing everything away.” Thus spoke the cosmic bathtub plug. David, however, was not one to take “no” for an answer. Prying up the stone from its place, David lets loose the primordial waters which then rush in a fierce torrent and rise to fill the earth.

Stunned, David is at a loss for what to do. The tide rising, his advisor wades through the water and hands David a pottery shard. “Quick! Write the divine name on this piece of clay and cast it into the waters. Thereupon you shall see the waters subside.” And so he does and so it does. But the problem becomes that the waters draw back so far that they vanish altogether. Life itself starts to wither and shrink before King David’s eyes. Poet that he is, David starts to sing his fifteen psalms of ascent - shirei hama’alot. With each psalm he sings, the water inches back up, refilling the earth.  As he concludes the 15th psalm, the water reaches its perfect capacity, The world is quenched and full and safe again. The stone remains precisely where David found it, And it said to this day to be the foundation stone of the Temple, That place where the Holy of Holies resides.

The flood waters have come, my friends. So very many concerns and causes clamor for our attention every day. But it’s not too late- To renew our covenant to God and to each other, To reiterate our vow to provide for and protect the world and all who are within it. God takes the straight lines that flow between us and makes a sacred circle around us. And on this Rosh Hashanah morning, we in turn promise through our deeds and our words, In the few years we have to exist on earth, To be there- truly be present- for each other, The image of the Holy of Holies l reflected in each other’s faces. The hard work of changing lives, on a micro and a meta level, begins when we find the divine essence in every single person we meet, And realize that every challenge we face as a society has a solution that is right in our own hands. There is no better moment than the present to practice being present for one another than right now.

So...let’s practice getting proximate to each other. Let’s turn to each other, the person right next to you. And repeat after me: “I’m here for you. Let’s you and I walk this road together.” May we be encircled in safety and love, Even as we cross the boundaries between ourselves and others. May our path to one another be a straight one, And always be paved with Shalom, peace. Shana Tovah!

The Curse of Blessings

Rabbi Mars' Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 2019

Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.” 

In that spirit, I have a story for you called “The Curse of Blessings”  [as told by Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz]:

Once upon a time a long time ago… there was an Officer of the Law, a newly minted graduate of the academy, filled with pride as you can imagine, in his crisp uniform of blue with brass buttons and gold epaulets, and ribbons for swordsmanship. 

If truth be told, and truth should be told in a story, he was as pompous and full of himself as he could be. Arrogant, callous even, and with his new sword gleaming at his side, bold and cold as he could be as well. 

One day he was walking his beat and heard a commotion in the alley. He ventured into the darkness and there in the distance he saw a woman in rags. “Come forward,” he commanded. “Come forward now!”  But the woman in rags did not come forward. “I am an Officer of the Law, and I command you to come forward!” The woman in rags still did not move. 

Instead, she simply shifted her weight from one foot to the other and spoke, 

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” “Do with me?” the Officer of the Law mocked. 

“Do with me? You don’t do with me! I do with you! I am an Officer of the Law and I order you to come forward.” “Ahh,” said the woman in rags, “Now I know what to do with you,” 

and as she spoke she drew her sword. “Now I know exactly what to do,” and without another word, she moved to attack.

The Officer of the Law drew his own sword of course in defense. “Stop that!” he ordered.  “Put down your sword right now or someone is going to get hurt for no reason.” But the woman in rags did not stop. “STOP!” he said again, but to no avail and as the woman in rags thrust her sword forward, the Officer of the Law was forced to retreat. Just as it seemed that the woman in rags would actually prevail over the Officer, she suddenly lowered her guard, and what the Officer of the Law had intended as a parry became a thrust. His sword ran right through the woman in rags. 

“I didn’t mean that,” the Officer of the Law cried out. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Why didn’t you stop when I ordered you to? Why did you attack me?” But all the woman in rags could say was, 

“I am leaving you, but as I do, I put upon you the Curse of Blessings.” “What do you mean?” asked the Officer of the Law, now totally confused by all that had happened in that narrow alleyway. “The Curse of Blessings is that every day you must say one new blessing, one you have never said before. On the day you do not say a new blessing, on that day you will die.” 

The woman in rags closed her eyes. 

The Officer of the Law turned away, looking here and there for someone to come and help but there was none to be found. When he turned back again, the woman in rags had disappeared. She was gone.“It must have been a dream or a nightmare,” the Officer of the Law thought. 

“I must have imagined the whole thing.” 

The time by then was late in the afternoon. The sun was setting. And suddenly, as much as the Officer of the Law tried to ignore the feelings in his own body he could not. It was sunset, the end of every Jewish day (after all this is a Jewish story), and the Officer of the Law suddenly felt his body growing colder and colder and he knew for certain from the chill that slowly crept inward toward his heart that his life was actually leaving him. In a panic he looked up at the fading light of the sky and shouted, “Oh my God, ahh thank you for creating this sunset.” 

At once warmth and life flowed back into him and he realized, with both shock and relief that the curse of blessings had been for real. 

As you can imagine, the next morning he jumped out of bed and didn’t wait a moment before finding some words of blessing to say: “I bless the power that allowed me to go to sleep last night and wake up this morning.” As soon as the blessing was uttered, he felt a profound sense of security and inner peace that lasted the entire day. Of course the very next morning, he jumped out of bed once again, this time blessing his ability to stand up, and the following day he blessed his ability to tie his shoes. 

Day after day he found abilities he could bless. That he could go to the bathroom, that he could brush his teeth, that he had teeth to brush, that each finger on his hands still worked, 

that he had toes on his feet and hair on his head. That he could speak and think, and walk, and sing, and feel another human being with his touch. He blessed his clothes – every garment. 

He blessed his house, the roof, the floor, the furniture, every table and chair and bed and dresser and lamp and window. 

When he finally ran out of things to bless, he began to bless relationships. He blessed his family and friends, his fellow workers, the people that he worked for and the ones who worked for him. He blessed the mail carrier and the clerks, the firefighters and the school teachers, the maintenance workers and the gardeners, the plumbers and the electricians and the doctors and the lawyers, the actors on stage and the musicians in the pit, and even the agents and managers, financial advisors and stock brokers. [Then he blessed the intellectuals and the simple folk, the strangers, the widows,The orphans, and the immigrants, The converts and born-into’s The construction workers and the poets, the high-tech whizzes and the Luddites. 

Young and old, millennials, Gen Z, and the Boomers.]

And as he blessed the people in his life, one after another after another, he was surprised to find that they actually appreciated the blessings. His words were not mere words – they had power, they meant something. They drew family and friends closer to him and as word got out that this was an unusual Officer of the Law, one who spread blessings wherever he went, 

people went out of their way to see him and be near him and thank him. 

Years passed, decades. The Officer of the Law had to go farther afield to find new sources of blessings. He blessed city councils and university presidents, scientists and their discoveries, students and their [mindful] struggles. And as he traveled the world he became in awe of its balance and beauty and blessed that as well. He realized that the more he learned, the more he had to bless. And because his life was long he had the opportunity to learn in every field. 

He passed the age of one hundred. Most of his friends were long gone and he turned his attention to searching for the purpose of life itself and the One Source from which all blessings flow. He had long ago realized that he wasn’t the source of blessings, just the conduit, and the channel through which so many blessings were able to flow. And even that realization became a blessing that sustained him for yet another day. 

Finally as he approached the age of one hundred and twenty, he decided that his life had been long enough. Even Moses had not lived longer than that. So on his birthday he made a conscious decision to utter no new blessing and finally allow his life to come to an end. 

Still, he realized that he could recite old blessings, and throughout the day he reviewed them – 

all the blessings for his body and his possessions, for relationships that spread throughout the world, for the awesome beauty and balance of creation and for the deep pulse of purpose that he knew pervaded his very being. But no new blessing passed his lips. 

And so as the sun was setting, a chill progressed inward and he did not resist. And as the twilight was fading a figure appeared. The woman in rags. “You!” the Officer of the Law exclaimed. “I have thought about you every day for a hundred years! I never meant to harm you. Please, forgive me.” “You still don’t understand,” said the woman in rags. 

“You don’t know who I am, do you? I am the angel who was sent a hundred years ago to harvest your soul. But when I looked at you, you were so pompous, self-righteous, 

so full of yourself there was nothing there, no soul to harvest. Just an empty uniform was all I saw. So I put upon you the Curse of Blessings, and now look what you’ve become.” 

The Officer of the Law grasped in an instant all that had happened and how blessed he had been by this angel throughout his life and his gratitude for the blessings of his life simply overflowed and he couldn’t help himself: 

“Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam….shehekheyanu, v’kiyemanu, v’higi’anu laz’man hazeh-  Bless you God for keeping me alive and sustaining me all these years so that I could reach this great moment of insight.” “Now look what you have done!” the woman in rags exclaimed in frustration. “A new blessing!” And life flowed once again. 

I wish you so very many blessings for this new year.

Shanah Tovah!


Rabbi Sharon Mars' Yom Kippur Morning Sermon, 2018:

It is a warm breezy evening this past summer in Jaffa, Israel as my family and I make it just in time for our dinner reservation.  We have arrived at Na Laga’at, Hebrew for “Please Touch.” The atmosphere inside the restaurant is festive- there is a bar off to one side and savory snacks await us on low coffee tables.  Our English-speaking server, Hila, meets us at the door to lead us inside.  “We’re gonna play a little game of choo choo,” she instructs, “so everyone line up and put your hands on each other’s shoulders so I can lead you inside to your table.”  

This is an unusual place to eat since this “blackout restaurant” operates in total darkness, giving the customers a sense of what it is like to be blind.  We enter into the inky, enveloping darkness. Suddenly, I feel like a helpless child as we navigate our way to our table in the clattering, boisterous place.  Our table for four is situated along a wall to my right, the kitchen several yards straight in front of me, and an all-Hebrew speaking party who has already had too much to drink is off to my left.  But the table itself is the key place to orient myself: bread basket at 2:00; wine glass at 11:00; dipping sauce an unfortunate casualty of my elbow at around 4:00.  Hila our server deftly fills water glasses, takes our orders, delivers them in proper order, and patiently withstands water-spilling and elbow-dipping throughout.  My family and I laugh nervously for the first few minutes, but then manage to get our bearings.  We keep finding and grabbing for each other’s hands to anchor us through the disorienting darkness.

And just before dessert, wearing what tastes like pesto sauce all over my shirt and pants, I well up with emotion.  I am utterly overcome.  Maybe it’s because our blind server Hila, whose name appropriately translates to “halo,” tells us her story of having lost her vision to illness as a teenager- “But you can still hear my joy through my voice,” she says. “You can tell that I’m still smiling!”  
Maybe it’s because we are swimming in total darkness in a room full of strangers, feeling entirely safe, right in the middle of Israel.  Maybe it’s because my family and I get to experience this all together as we occupy our little island in pitch blackness, needing each other to feel anchored.  Maybe it’s because this is yet another moment of feeling in awe of the Israeli mind that bring dreams like this to life, to help blind people maximize their potential and sighted people appreciate what blind folks experience daily.  I am moved by the culinary adventure’s ability to trigger my other senses, spark my empathy, and appreciate the uniquely human ability to see more than the eyes can take in. It is as if my eyes can hear and my ears can see.

For me, Na Laga’at, that blackout restaurant, is in many ways the perfect metaphor for my evolving relationship with Israel.  No matter how often I visit Israel, no matter how much I read or talk about Israel, I find myself constantly navigating through the murkiness that is Israel.  I am continuously having to get my bearings in that often confusing place, and choosing to love Israel in all of its holy messiness.  

Israel is the place where my Jewish identity took hold and took flight.  Living in Israel set in stone my commitment to the Jewish people and to our shared destiny.  Israel was intrinsic to my decision to become a rabbi.  I fall in love all over again with Israel each time I travel there. Walking the windy streets of Jerusalem, I feel fully at home; speaking Hebrew (and being corrected every other sentence) is sweeter than honey; and imbibing the light itself fills my neshama to the brim.  I take pride in Israel’s achievements in science and technology.  And whenever Israel is the first to lend a helping hand to other countries in need of resources or other assistance during natural or human-made disasters (which is often) I feel like our Jewish values of Tikkun Olam, literally repairing the world, are realized.

But Israel is a real country with real problems and real ways that she can do better. The intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict can lead us into despair regardless of your interpretation of its root causes.  The ongoing battle between Israelis and Palestinians appears to be helplessly spiraling out of control ad infinitum.   Bloodshed and fear drive the battle between Israelis and Palestinians.  Pain upon pain, revenge upon revenge seems the endless cycle.  Righteous indignation for the Palestinian cause clashes frequently with righteous indignation for the Israeli cause. Our Jewish college students in the U.S. are suffering as they wade through the complex and polarizing waters of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.  Whether they defend or oppose it, or are totally apathetic, I fear for the future of their positive emerging Jewish identities.  

But through all of this, I will never stop yearning for Israel to live out its true potential to be a light unto the nations, a beacon of civility, and a champion of democracy. And I will never stop working to bring about this potential. As a diaspora Jew, as a Reform Jew, and as an American, I strongly disagree with Israeli policies which denigrate Jewish religious pluralism and disparage liberal Jews.  I am dismayed by the Nation-State Bill which legalizes discrimination against non-Jewish citizens and downgrades the status of Arabic as an official language.  And, for me, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I feel particularly disheartened.  Yisrael, Israel in Hebrew, means to struggle with God, to wrestle with our deeply held truths. This is who we are as Jews - we are always open to learning, testing assumptions, refining our world view. What would it mean to live true to our name as the Jewish people, Yisrael, and wrestle with this issue? What would it mean to lovingly struggle with Israel and still “do Jewish” responsibly, upholding our sacred values?  

For me, Israel is a basic part of Jewish life and I want to encourage all of us to have an ever deepening relationship with Israel, even if it is simply because half of the Jewish people in the world - our brothers and sisters - live there. And, for me, Ahavat Yisrael, a love of Israel and the Jewish People is a core value of Jewish life. The prophet Isaiah called the Jewish People an “Or lagoyim,” a light unto the nations. Israel and the Jewish people - and every single Jewish person, and all of us in this room have a light to bring the world.  Light is born through love.  And I love Israel so that it can be that light to the world.  

We have to love Israel like a family member, which can be challenging.  Rabbi Avraham Infeld, the former president of Hillel International, would tell our college students, “You have to love Israel not only as much as you love your mother.  You have to love Israel like it’s your mother-in-law.”  That is, the most difficult relationships, the ones in which we don’t see eye to eye much of the time, still require our loving attention.  I lovingly disagree with Israel at times.  In my own relationship with the place I so adore, I have discovered that true love develops and changes over time, and mature love demands many tests, an open heart, and lots and lots and lots listening.

Listening is not a solution, but it is a first step. This past February, I was a participant on a four-day intensive tour of the West Bank, specifically Bethlehem, Ramallah, and East Jerusalem with a group called Encounter.  “Encounter is a [non-partisan] educational organization advancing constructive Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  It organizes short travel programs for “rabbis, Jewish educators, communal professionals and lay leaders - people for whom Israel and the conflict are central issues at the heart of their personal and professional lives.”  These leaders from across the Jewish religious and political spectrum gather together as “diverse stakeholders across the conflict.” 

Lest you think this program is a fringe effort of anti-Zionists consorting with the enemy, let me assure you that on this trip are leaders from AIPAC and J-Street, Yeshiva University and Hebrew Union College, Hillel, Federations, Jewish foundations, and rabbis and educators from every type of synagogue. We were all there as an expression of our Ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel.  We met with Palestinians for face-to-face encounters.  We were welcomed by Palestinians in their homes, offices, conference rooms, and fields, all for a single purpose:  to listen.  They told us their stories, political experiences, and life perspectives.  They shared their sorrows and struggles, their joys and achievements.  They spoke to us as the people they are: parents and children, students and teachers, Christians and Muslims, heads of NGOs, musicians and artists.  All were committed non-violent peace activists.

Our shared agenda was to engage in active listening and to “ask challenging questions in ways that could be heard by the person being addressed.”  As a participant, I was not asked to leave my deeply held beliefs at the door or to erase whatever information I had about the conflict.   Instead, we were asked to merely incorporate into our personal databases this new information- in the form of stories, in the form of human experience- to our understanding of the conflict.  Rather than abandoning our narratives, could we make room inside our heads and hearts for other ones?   

In the book Parallel Realities, Eric Black notes the paradox of stories, and how multiple understandings of history can diverge wildly from one another.  “It is possible for different parties to accept the same set of facts while connecting the dots between those facts in ways that lead to very different narratives.”  I found this time and again, for example, with the telling of the story of 1948.  As an American Jew and a Zionist, my own story of the War for Independence varied dramatically from the Palestinian story of the Nakba.  Nakba, Arabic for “the Catastrophe,” refers to the Palestinians’ loss in the 1948 War and the displacement of Palestinian refugees.” For me, 1948 is the watershed moment of fulfilling the hope, “lihiyot am hofshi b’artzeinu,” as in the words of HaTikvah, to be a free people in our land.  While for Palestinians, 1948 remains cataclysmic, representing the point of no return which forever changed their fate.  

To listen to such a drastically different narrative at first can feel like a traitorous act.  But let me assure you:  for me, this was a moment that exemplifies the value of Ahavat Yisrael - the love of Israel and the Jewish People. Listening is a truly Jewish act: When the Holy One asked King Solomon to choose which quality he most wished for himself, King Solomon requested a lev shomeya, a “heart that listens” or often translated “an understanding heart.” If listening was important to our exemplar of wisdom, then it should be important for all of us too. 

In listening to the stories of these Palestinians alongside my fellow fully committed Jewish colleagues, I committed even more deeply and passionately to my love of Israel.  Regardless of where you assign blame, the Palestinians’ suffering is tied up with Israel’s suffering, and if I want to lessen Israel’s suffering, I need to work to lessen all human suffering.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes our prophet Jeremiah when he asked, “Is there no balm in Gil’ad?” Is there a spiritual medicine that can heal Israel? Yes, there is. I don’t know the full recipe but the first ingredient is deep listening. 

It’s never comfortable to hear someone criticize something you love, to point out the deficiencies or the difficulties of something you hold dear.  But, notes author Brene Brown, “It’s [also] hard to hate someone else up close.”  And it’s equally hard to pretend you don’t hear what someone is saying when they’re telling you their personal story to your face.  Every single one of us on Earth has her own distinct story.  Until we see each other up close with our own eyes, we may be blind to that reality.  As human beings, we sometimes lack attention for that which is in plain sight.  Our instinct for safety may blind us to vital information, in this case, to the story of the other, the stories of Palestinians as well as the suffering of our Jewish sisters and brothers in Israel.  It takes a lot for us to “go there.”

In 1798 the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wanted to venture from Ukraine to Israel.  His family discouraged him because they felt it was too dangerous.  But Rebbe Nachman insisted- Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, was where God created the world. He had to see it with his own eyes.  After being in Israel for some time he reported back that, in many respects, Israel was a place like any other. The houses, villages, and people were all very much as he had experienced anywhere else.  But there was one distinct difference:  the dust.  There was a special quality to the dust of the earth in Israel that makes it holy, said Rebbe Nachman.  That dust had the power to spur the spirit of the Jewish people to fulfill the divine purpose for which it was created.  This dust could transform Israel from being a place like anywhere else to being a place like none other, where justice would be set right and peace would reign and light would shine forth to the world.

I think that Rebbe Nachman had a point:  the prospect of Israel can be daunting because Israel is sprinkled with dust. Even this holy dust was, well…..dusty. We will get our hands dirty when we venture to love and wrestle with Israel.  That dust is holy and has the power to spur the spirit, but it can also cover us in the soot of confusion.  

Israel is not easy - but she is worth it.  It is often that country most held under the world’s microscope and dissected for its every move and every word.  It is not fair.  And yet, we have been entrusted as the Jewish people to be strong and creative and fulfill the dream of that holy place, where justice will be set right and peace will reign and light will shine forth to the world.  Some would say this is an unreasonably high standard to hold us to.  I would argue that we have a moral obligation and a holy covenant to fulfill in making it so. Israel can be a tool that the Jewish People can shine as a light unto all nations. And, we, as Ohavei Yisrael, Israel lovers and Reform Jews, can help make that happen. 

And though I sometimes feel alienated by Israel due to its treatment of the Reform Movement, I will not despair.  That same Hasidic Master of the Dust, Rebbe Nachman is famous for saying “Jews, do not despair! It is forbidden to despair!”

Being an ohevet yisrael, a lover of Israel and the Jewish people, I will continue to seek support and guidance from organizations like the Israel Action Center of Reform Judaism (IRAC) and the Association for Reform Zionists in America (ARZA) as we make progressive Jewish voices and platforms heard.

Listening to others- their stories, their perspectives, their take on history- does not assume agreement or endorsement.   Just like loving Israel doesn’t imply the assumption that she is perfect.  Listening is just that, listening. It is so rarely done in an open and accepting way. But deep and intentional listening across difference leads to understanding. And understanding might, just might, lead to peace.

If we are brave enough to love Israel then we should be brave enough to listen too all of her stories. Just like when I was in the blackout restaurant we need to listen deeply to make it through -  we need to listen with an open heart and open ears. 

My prayer this Yom Kippur is that we challenge ourselves to love Israel in bold new ways this year, to bask in the holy messiness of conversation and active listening even when it is very, very hard to do.  And so may we be blessed with eyes that can hear and ears that can see- to listen deeply and hear things that we may not have previously seen with our very own eyes. 

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


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.

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.


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

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

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

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784