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Commentary, conversations and connections from Rabbi Heidi Hoover

The Power of Confession

posted Oct 1, 2017, 11:08 PM by Heidi Hoover

Today is the holiest day of the year. It is our day of intense repentance and confession of what we have done in the past year. I wonder if we repent today because it is the holiest day of the year, or if it is the holiest day of the year because it is the day we repent. Maybe that’s kind of a “chicken and egg” question. Without being able to answer that question, here’s another: Why is repentance so important that it is paired with the holiest day of the year?

One place to start with that question is to think about what “holiness” is. When we talk about Shabbat or the Festivals, we contrast between “kodesh”—“holy,” and “chol”—“everyday.” Sometimes “kodesh and chol” are translated “sacred and profane.” “Profane” here doesn’t mean vulgar or bad, like profane language, it just means regular, perhaps earthy or coarse. It doesn’t mean that God isn’t there when we are in the everyday time, and that God is there in the holy time. But a separation is made between the two.

In the Torah, holiness is separation. “A holy people” is a people separate from other peoples. A holy place is a place separate from other places, where different rules of ritual purity apply. We can see holiness as times and places that are especially devoted to service to God, even though God is always present.

As I often do, I’d like to take a moment to address my use of the word “God.” There is no question that our Torah is talking about God as some kind of entity that is separate from us, that is responsible for the creation of the world, that is way more powerful than we are. Some parts of our Bible and our tradition believe that God rewards and punishes us for our behavior, and that theology has been pervasive through much of our tradition. At the same time, some parts of our Torah and tradition don’t uphold that theology, and some directly challenge it.

An issue for many of us today, which has not been an issue for much of our history, is about whether or not God actually exists. Before the Enlightenment, God’s existence was not really a question. (Though there was one sage in our Talmud who lost his faith in God—he was considered a heretic and referred to as “Acher,” the “Other one,” but not expunged from the Talmud, remarkably.) Today, whether or not God exists is a question, and there are also many different conceptions of God, if one does believe in God’s existence.

For the purposes of today, I will speak of God and closeness to God, and when I do so, what I mean for myself is that there is something greater than us that wants me to be my best self, that wants to support and nurture me and help me be strong. If you believe in that too, or would like to, great. If you don’t, I encourage you to translate for yourself the word “God” into whatever it is that makes you want to be your best self, and that supports and nurtures you and helps you be strong.

OK. So holiness is times and places especially devoted to God. And the holiest of those times is this day, Yom Kippur, the day when we repent. I ask again: Why do these two things go together—the holiest day and repentence? I’m going to suggest three possibilities.

The first reason that we do our greatest repentance on the holiest day of the year is that repentance is really, really hard. Honest self-evaluation means that we have to be open to everything we normally shut out. For many of us, it means we have to learn to see what we’ve hidden from ourselves for so long that it only exists as shadows on our psyche, or as glimpses from the corner of our eye. Being strong and brave enough, and honest enough, to turn and look at what we hide about ourselves from everyone, is really, really difficult.

Admitting to ourselves and others the ways we have failed is really hard. Every year, or nearly every year, there is a point in the high holiday services when I say to all of you that if I’ve hurt you in the past year, please tell me and give me a chance to make amends. Every year I’m surprised at how hard and scary it is for me to say those words, even though—or perhaps because—I mean them wholeheartedly. I really do want to know, and also it’s hard for me to hear.

Just a few days ago I reached out to a friend to wish him and his family a good new year. We were not in touch for the last couple of months, but that’s not unusual in our friendship. I discovered that the last time we saw each other I hurt him, unintentionally and without realizing it, and he thought I hadn’t been in touch because I was upset with him, which I was not. I’m glad I reached out and he gave me the opportunity to ask him to forgive me, which he did. It was hard, though in the end, good.

For many of us, too, it is easy to overlook the ways in which we have done good, and I mean that in the grammatically correct sense of having done something morally good. It is also easy, sometimes, to overlook the ways in which we have done well, and to only beat ourselves up for when we have not done well. When that is our situation, it can be just as hard to recognize our strengths as our failings.

Some of us blame ourselves or accept blame for what we do not control, or for what others have done. This can be easier than recognizing our lack of control, or facing the true nature of a relationship in which another person wants to blame us for what was not our fault. But this is not clarity about how things happened.

For a lot of us, our past year included a combination of ignoring or hiding our wrongdoings and overlooking or undervaluing some or many of our achievements. It is the job of each one of us to try to achieve clarity and see our works as they are, giving weight to them as is warranted. This is hard to do just generally, because we’re always subjective and it’s so hard to see clearly from within our own situations. It is also hard because it means facing things we don’t like to face—or even have not been able to face.

On this holiest day of the year, our service to God is to see our lives, our failings and accomplishments, as honestly and clearly as we can. That is what God wants from us today, so we put everything else aside to try to do this very hard work for God. For many of us, if we feel we’re doing it for someone besides ourselves, it might be a tiny bit easier. And if you resonated with that last sentence, if it’s easier to be honest with yourself because someone else wants that from you, your job for this year is to learn that God is inside you, and you are worth enough to be honest with yourself for yourself, not just for someone else.

We repent on the holiest day of the year because being fully honest with ourselves about our failures and our successes is really, really hard, and we need the support of God and our community to do it.

The second reason I believe repentance and the holiest day of the year go together is because Yom Kippur is a simulation of a near-death experience. When people come close to death—in a near-fatal car accident, or in an armed robbery, or in a natural disaster—we sometimes hear them speak about how they’ve realized what’s really important in life. When they speak about this, they don’t talk about how they’ve realized that accumulating wealth or power is what’s most important. They talk about relationships.

Moses, in the book of Exodus, after the episode of the Golden Calf, when he had to talk God down from destroying the Israelites, asked to see God. I think that after that traumatic experience, Moses needed as much closeness to God as he could get. God said, “No one can see my face and live,” but allowed Moses to see God’s back—whatever that means with a non-corporeal God. One of my teachers pointed out that if we can’t see God’s face and live, that means we will see God’s face at the moment of death.

We can’t see God’s face while we’re alive, but in a near-death experience, perhaps we see God’s back. At Yom Kippur, we come as close to death as we can while staying alive. That means we come as close to seeing God as we can while staying alive, so it makes sense that this would be the holiest day of the year. When we come as close to seeing God—to dying—as possible we can understand what is really important in our lives—our relationships with our loved ones—and that leads us to the desire to repent and repair damage to those relationships.

An important note is that here I am NOT talking about relationships that have ended because of abuse or other situations that require the ending of relationships for the health of one or both persons. This is about relationships that are troubled for the normal, everyday reasons that sometimes mar any relationship.

The third reason our day of repentance happens on the holiest day of the year is because the way we repent is by confessing what we’ve done that we regret, and confession is incredibly powerful.

In the book of Genesis, there is a story of one of Jacob’s sons, Judah, whose son marries a woman named Tamar. The son dies, and the law of leverate marriage says that if a man dies without an heir, his widow should marry his brother. So Tamar marries Judah’s next son, and he dies too. By now Judah feels like she’s not so good for his sons, and anyway his third son is underage, so he doesn’t allow Tamar to marry that son. The third son grows up and Judah still doesn’t offer to have Tamar marry him. She takes matters into her own hands, disguises herself as a prostitute and sits by the road where Judah will pass. Judah sees her, “turns aside,” and does the deed with her. He doesn’t have his wallet on him, so he leaves his ID with her to promise that he’ll send payment. When he sends a goat to pay for the encounter, the “prostitute” is nowhere to be found. “Where is the prostitute who hangs out here?” he asks, and is told, “There is no prostitute who hangs out here.” This is confusing for him, but he dismisses it. A while later, his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar, turns up pregnant. His neighbors, always willing to help out, tell him about this and everyone is getting ready to execute her for adultery when she holds out Judah’s ID to him and says, “Do you recognize this?” He does, and he admits it. He recognizes that it was his duty to give his third son to Tamar to marry, and he confesses, “You are the one who did right here, not I.”

The rabbis of our midrash recognize the power of Judah’s admitting that Tamar was right and he was wrong. They connect this story to another son of Jacob, Jacob’s oldest son Reuben. Reuben has an affair with Bilhah, one of his father’s wives (NOT his mom). Though it is not recorded in the Torah, our sages say that Judah’s confession inspires his brother Reuben to confess what he did, too.

Have you ever experienced this phenomenon, that when one person has the courage to confess, it gives others the courage to confess as well? Have you ever held things inside you, things you felt bad about and consequently didn’t tell, and felt that you were the only one doing that? Then there came a time, perhaps in a group of friends, when you confessed this thing you were ashamed of. And everyone else in the group, rather than being shocked and apalled, immediately said, “Me too!” I have experienced this again and again with other parents. Not only do you get something off your chest, you find out you aren’t alone, that it’s more forgivable than you thought, and you’ve given others the gift of finding out the same things.

That isn’t all there is in the power of confession, though. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, a well-known Chasidic Rebbe, wrote: “The sins of a human being are upon his bones, as it is written (Ezekiel 32): ‘And their sin is [engraved] upon their bones.’ Every sin has a particular combination of letters which are then engraved, in malign combination, on the sinner’s bones—thus bringing the particular language of that prohibition into the realm of impurity, where it takes revenge upon him…. Through verbal confession these engraved letters leave his bones and compose the words of confession. For language issues from the bones, as it is written, ‘All my bones shall say….” (Psalm 35). And confession destroys the structure of the malign combination of letters, and reconstructs them into benign combination, creating the realm of holiness” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, pp. 56-57).

Obviously this is metaphor, and our sins are not literally etched on our bones. But imagine that idea. Our sins being etched on our bones would weaken our bones. And doesn’t it feel true that when we carry around guilt over various actions that we regret that that guilt saps our energy and weakens us? Almost as if the guilt is carving away at our bones. Rebbe Nachman says we can remove the destructive power of that guilt from our psyches and our bodies by confessing it out loud. Not only does that remove the damage from ourselves, but amazingly, it creates the realm of holiness!

Confession, which we do again and again on this holiest day of the year, has the power to take the guilt that is damaging us and transform it into holiness.

To me, the way that works is that when we say out loud what we’re ashamed of, what we’ve done wrong, we find most of the time that it’s not as bad as it felt inside us, that many others share that same shame inside themselves, and its power to damage us and bring us down wanes. This leaves us with more love for ourselves, and therefore with more love for others. And our confession has empowered others to confess, which has had the same affect on them as it has on us, and the ability to love multiplies.

There is nothing that brings us closer to God than an increased ability to love. So confession, when we do it bravely and honestly, has the incredible power to bring about both healing and greater holiness.

Repentance through confession on this day makes it possible for this to be the day on which we’re closest to God, therefore making it the holiest day of the year.

On this Yom Kippur, may the holiness of this day help us feel supported and strengthened so we can honestly assess our past year and do the hard work of repentance. May the simulated near-death experience of Yom Kippur help us see what is most important in our lives—our relationships—and inspire us to work to make them healthier. May we harness the power of confession to release the guilt that hurts us, and empower others to confess and become more free and healthier also. Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah—may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year to come. 

Yom Kippur morning service—sermon begins at 55:00:

Responding to Uncertainty, Anxiety, and Loss

posted Oct 1, 2017, 10:31 PM by Heidi Hoover

I read a lot of Jewish stuff. I can tell that that’s surprising to you. I’m not talking only about sacred texts and scholarly texts, though I do read those, but I also read Jewish newspapers, blogs, magazines—you know, current events. If you do too, you’ve probably noticed that the organized Jewish world is pretty preoccupied with concern that the American Jewish community is in trouble. Right now I’m not talking about the current political situation, though I’ll get to that later. The concerns I’m talking about are more internal.

There is a widespread sense that organized Judaism—synagogue Judaism—doesn’t interest Jews the way it used to. Synagogue membership is declining, synagogues are closing and merging. People blame liturgy that is dry and irrelevant, clergy who aren’t engaging, synagogues that ask too much from people—or not enough—the general societal trend away from membership in organizations, intermarriage.

Intermarriage is perhaps the most popular scapegoat. The majority of Jews take as a given that intermarriage is bad for the Jews. You may know that I’m not one of them. I don’t think intermarriage is bad for the Jews. I think we like to blame intermarriage when Jews who aren’t raised to have a strong connection to Judaism stop practicing it and are entirely secular—perhaps “culturally Jewish”—as adults, and don’t pass Judaism on in a meaningful way to their children. This can happen regardless of who they marry.

But when Jews are raised with Jewish practice as a joyful, integral part of their lives, they are more likely to want to continue to have it in their lives—indeed, many can’t imagine their lives any other way. Then no matter who they marry, they create Jewish homes and raise Jewish children. When I think of our congregation, and how many dedicated interfaith families there are, raising Jewish kids, participating in services and holiday celebrations, learning, questioning, building relationships in our community, I don’t see Judaism dying out.

If you are not Jewish, and you are here with us, or watching on the internet, or reading this, and you are sharing the Jewish spiritual journey, and especially if you are not Jewish and you are raising Jewish children, thank you. Jewish parents have a responsibility to raise Jewish children, but you do not. That you are willing to do so is extraordinary, and the entire Jewish people owes you a debt of gratitude. Please know that you are fully embraced in this community.

Intermarriage may not be the reason, but it does seem true that fewer people are interested in synagogue membership than used to be. Maybe it has to do with feeling more comfortable and safe and integrated as Jews in the United States, so that Jews don’t feel the need to stick together as closely with other Jews.

In our particular situation here in Prospect Park South, Brooklyn, a heyday of Reform Judaism took place in the mid-20th century, and Brooklyn housed a number of large Reform synagogues. In the latter part of the century, the population shifted. Reform Jews moved out—maybe to Long Island, or Westchester. Congregations shrank, even before the current era of struggling synagogues.

Our rabbi emeritus, Rabbi William Kloner, considered it one of his greatest accomplishments here at Temple Beth Emeth that he orchestrated, together with the synagogue leadership, mergers with other synagogues that kept Temple Beth Emeth afloat: mergers with Progressive Shaari Zedek and Temple Beth Ohr. Even so, it was hard.

In the early 2000s, the population of our area began to shift again as real estate agents expanded the definition of “Ditmas Park” and greater Ditmas Park became one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. Our synagogue began to see some growth. When I first came here as the rabbinic intern in 2006, I believe there were 20-25 children in the religious school. This year we have over 50.

Nevertheless, a series of issues starting with abruptly losing our building tenant and continuing with a number of physical issues in our over-100-year-old building have been depleting our resources over the last few years.

After many years of overtures back and forth, we are consolidating again, this time with Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom of Borough Park, itself the product of previous mergers. As we combine into a new congregation which I am certain will not be named Shuly McShul-face, we will all benefit from our combined resources of energy, creativity, caring, and money. That last item isn’t so spiritual-sounding, but the fact is, if our community is to survive and thrive, that costs money.

In one of our Torah readings tomorrow, we read the passage where Moses says in God’s name, “It is not with you alone that I make this sworn covenant: I make it with those who are standing here with us today before our God, and equally with all who are not here with us today.” The congregants of PTBAS are not here with us today. We are each having our last high holiday services as separate congregations. But the covenant, the promise that we will come together to form a congregation stronger together than either of our congregations have been alone, has been made.

We all need to be committed to that goal. There is uncertainty, anxiety, and a sense of loss on both sides, regardless of whether we know this is the right next step for our congregations. If you come here on a fairly regular basis, you probably feel it. I do. Uncertainty, anxiety, and a sense of loss are normal responses to our changing congregation. The question is, given these very common feelings, how are we going to respond?

Our own localized situation, dealing with this consolidation, is one example of change leading to these feelings. The political situation in our country is attributed by many to similar feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and a sense of loss in those who voted for Donald Trump—whether those feelings have to do with changes to industry that left people without jobs, for example in the coal industry; or a sense that white people are losing power and opportunity; or that things are just wrong in a way that’s hard to articulate.

One of the ways people respond to those kinds of feelings is by looking for others to blame. When that happens, it often leads to precarious times for Jews. We have been chosen as easy scapegoats many times in our history—we, who invented the concept of the actual, literal scapegoat as part of our Yom Kippur ritual as described in the Torah.

I have said for years that while antisemitism exists in this country and we need to be vigilant about it, we’ll be okay as long as the government doesn’t support antisemitism, either actively or tacitly. But we have now reached a time when white nationalists and Nazis marched openly in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the police neither stopped them nor guarded the synagogue they marched past while chanting Nazi slogans and waving flags with swastikas on them. Then our president refused to unequivocally condemn them. We are entering a precarious place as Jews, though our officials here in Brooklyn are still very outspoken against antisemitism. We need to be outspoken in our rejection of blaming and scapegoating—of Jews, Muslims, people of color, any particular group. It never leads to anything good.

Another behavior that feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and a sense of loss can lead to is increasing insularity. These feelings make it easy to feel threatened, which can prompt us pull away and reject those who are different. At the national level, this can encourage xenophobia as well as racism.

Both of these responses to change or anticipated change, and the feelings that surround it—the response of blaming and scapegoating, and the response of pulling back, becoming more insular—can play out also at the community level. We could respond to our uncertainty, anxiety, and sense of loss with regard to the consolidation with PTBAS by hiding our vulnerability behind attacking, choosing a person or group to blame, or sticking close with our friends and ignoring everyone else. If we all did that, the consolidation would not be a success.

But I believe that is not who we are. The changes that come with combining into a new congregation—both adjusting to actual changes and anticipating changes without knowing exactly what they will be—challenge us, unsettle us. We get to choose how we respond, though. There are alternatives to blaming and pulling away, both at the community level and the national level.

We can choose honesty about what we’re feeling and what it means, and we can choose to trust. During these High Holidays, this time of introspection, we can try to look at our emotional responses and say, “I’m feeling angry and threatened because this is important to me and I’m afraid it will change to something I don’t feel at home with.” We can choose to recognize our feelings as our own, rather than blaming someone else for them. We can choose to trust the future, other people—both new people that we will meet and people we already know—to be open to us and with us, if we offer them openness.

We can also choose what to focus on. We can focus only on our own feelings and experiences, or we can consider also what other people are experiencing. For example, some of my anxiety has to do with working with Cantor Bernstein during the Saturday morning service, when we have combined services. I’m not sure what it will be like. I can notice my anxiety and recognize it as a natural response. I can also imagine what Cantor Bernstein is experiencing. She is giving up being the spiritual leader of a synagogue. While I know this is very painful for her, she has committed herself to the success of this consolidation and to helping her people adjust to me as their spiritual leader. What she is doing is amazing, and I want to make it as easy for her as I can. Knowing what she is going through helps me to have perspective on what I am experiencing.

In our congregation, we instinctively want to pull new people in, help them to feel at home. Doing so with a large number—a whole other congregation with its own culture that is similar to ours, but not exactly the same—challenges our welcoming nature a little, but we can lean into our culture of embracing others until they are not others, but we are all simply “us.” We can choose to do that, and many of us already are.

We can start out at our local level practicing these responses to our feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and loss, and then encourage each other and our leaders to apply these constructive responses at the national level, too.

At the beginning of this sermon I spoke about changing culture around synagogues in general. There are those who believe that synagogues as the center of the way we practice Judaism are on their way out. I don’t believe that has to be so. I believe that what we do here is relevant, that we can meet people where they are.

It’s challenging, because most of what we do is what most synagogues do, and if you remember stultifying services and buttoned-up, authoritative rabbis and boring, awful religious school, you might assume that’s what you’d find here. But I really believe we do it differently here. There’s a reason some of our congregants call us “Temple Come As You Are.” I really believe this is a place where we meet you where you’re at, and help you find ways that Judaism can be alive and relevant for you. Our kids enjoy religious school here. Our Torah study is lively and irreverent at times, and our parent discussions—which aren’t just for parents—are deep, often moving, and profoundly satisfying. And I don’t know anyone who would describe me as “buttoned-up.”

Do you agree with me? Do you love it here? If so, spread the word. Tell your friends. Better yet, bring them. Let’s share the treasure that is this community.

In this time of uncertainty, anxiety, and loss at the national level and at the level of our community, we need more than ever to stand together and support each other. Our synagogue provides a structure in which we can do that. It, too, needs support in order to continue to provide that structure. Our Torah offers us trust in God as the way to keep our hearts open to one another, and to the future, without fear. It also offers us the Torah itself as the conduit to God. Moses assures us in one of tomorrow’s Torah readings that the instruction to choose life and to choose the path of God’s work isn’t far away from us: It’s right in front of us. We don’t have to choose blaming and withdrawing and rejection, we can and are commanded to choose openness, embracing, empathy, and love.

Let us not let fear of the future turn us against one another, at any level. Let us open our hearts to one another in trust and hope. May each of us, and our community as a whole, be sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come. Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah.

Facebook feed of the service, sermon begins at 1:26: 

What if We're Wrong?

posted Sep 25, 2017, 3:12 PM by Heidi Hoover

Sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashana 5778--September 21, 2017

Almost a thousand years ago, our great sage Maimonides codified 13 principles of Jewish belief. Each of them begins with the same phrase: Ani maamin b’emunah shlemah—I believe with perfect faith—and they conclude with statements including: that God is the Creator of the world, that God is a unity, that God has no shape or form, that it is right to pray to God and only God, that the Messiah will come, and a few more.

Statements of belief like this exist in faith traditions besides Judaism, in the form of creeds that are recited as part of the liturgy. In Judaism we don’t really have that. Yes, we have the Sh’ma, when we declare that God is one, and we recite a series of actions we are obligated to carry out, including loving God, teaching our children, speaking of these words when we lie down and when we get up, in our home and on our way, and so on through the Sh’ma and the v’ahavta. But there is no part of our service in which we say: I believe with perfect faith in—well, anything.

In faith traditions that include recitation of a creed in the liturgy, there is an educational component—teaching worshippers what they’re supposed to believe—and a component of weeding out those who don’t believe the “right” things. But Maimonides’s 13 principles of belief—what he thought Jews needed to believe—did not make their way into our services, perhaps partly because in Judaism, doing is more important than believing, even though belief is also important. After all, Maimonides did take the trouble to codify what he thought were the correct Jewish beliefs, what Jews are supposed to believe with perfect faith.

Ani maamin b’emunah shleimah. I believe with perfect faith. What a powerful and difficult statement!

Over the past year, as some of you know, I became close with a number of young Israelis doing a year of service in Brooklyn between high school and going into the army. A short time before they returned to Israel, I had a long conversation with one of the young men, Omer.

Omer told me that he wants to believe in God and our tradition, and that he feels like he “half believes,” but that he can’t believe all the way because he needs proof first. It wasn’t our first conversation about Judaism, and he mentioned how I talk about the Bible as not being history, and that until you get to the books of Kings, there’s no external evidence, archeological or otherwise, for the people and events in the Bible. Even once we have archeological evidence, that doesn’t mean that the specific stories happened, historically, as they are described.

This doesn’t bother me. The Bible is not a history book. It’s doing a different job. It’s teaching us about God’s relationship with the world and with us, and as my teacher Dr. Ora Horn Prouser says, it was written by people trying to communicate as best they could what their experience of God was. As humans we are limited, our language is limited and our brains are limited, and God is beyond limits, so we can’t fully accomplish the task. But the Bible is the best evidence we have of what God wants from us. So we read it, and interpret it, as our predecessors have done for thousands of years, and we try to find our best understanding of God, bringing our sense of what justice is to meet the text and figure out what we’re supposed to be doing to make this world better.

The Bible not only doesn’t offer history, it doesn’t offer proof. So I said to Omer, “You’re not going to get proof. We can’t prove God’s existence, we can’t prove that our tradition is right. That’s what faith is. It’s believing in something you can’t prove.”

Then I asked him, “Why do you need proof?” And his answer went to the core of something very, very important. He said softly, “What if I’m wrong? What if someday someone finds proof that the things I believe are right are actually the things that are wrong? And the things I believe are wrong in our tradition are actually the ones that are right? Like someone finds proof that those parts of the Bible where the Israelites go into a city and kill everyone are right? If that happened, I couldn’t be Jewish anymore.”

Omer talked about the parts of the Bible where people kill people, but that wasn’t his deepest concern. You see, this year in Brooklyn was an especially important year for Omer, because this past year he came to terms with being gay, and he came out. So when he says he’s afraid someone will find proof that he is wrong, he doesn’t just mean proof that his beliefs are wrong, but that who he is is wrong. That being gay is wrong.

There are two well-known passages in Leviticus that seem to say that being gay is wrong, and that is how those passages have traditionally been interpreted. Many people, Jews and Christians alike, continue to follow that traditional interpretation and believe that being gay is wrong. Some rabbis have wrestled with those passages and their traditional interpretations, finding different ways to understand them. I follow those rabbis, and I think Omer would too.

These newer understandings of the text hinge on the fact that in the Torah, a specific act is prohibited, but there is no sense of context—it doesn’t mention relationships or settings. This leaves open possibilities that the text is actually a prohibition of cult prostitution, which existed in other religions at the time, or a prohibition of rape. It also only mentions men. So regardless of proof, even what the Bible is actually saying is rarely as clear-cut as some people would have us believe.

Nevertheless, the understanding in our tradition for much of its history has been that being gay is wrong, though that isn’t my tradition, and it isn’t Omer’s, and it isn’t the tradition of the Reform Movement. And he and I, and I think most likely many of you, are pretty sure that we are right, and that LGBTIQ people deserve all the same rights as straight people, and their loving relationships are just as holy as straight people’s. Some of us prefer to ignore what our Bible and tradition have said before, and some of us, like me, prefer to wrestle with tradition and find interpretations that feel correct and seem to promote justice.

But tradition is strong, and there are those who continue to cling to traditional interpretations, and so the uncertainty comes, and the question comes: What if I’m wrong. What if we’re wrong?

We have embraced this tradition, this God, and found ways to understand it that we want very much to believe are right, because if it turned out that our ways of understanding it were wrong, it would be worse than feeling stupid, it would be worse than just being wrong, it would mean the crumbling of our foundations, of our identity, of the meaning underpinning our lives. So the question, “What if we’re wrong?”, if we are willing to really face it, is a terrifying question.

I sometimes get phone calls from soon-to-be parents anticipating the birth of a baby boy. With circumcision less widespread in this country than it used to be, they agonize over whether or not to have a bris. The underlying fear for many of them is, “What if he grows up and tells us we were wrong to circumcise him?”

In our Torah reading today, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeys, right to the point that an angel has to stop him from plunging the knife into his son. The Torah doesn’t tell us if Abraham had doubts, or what he thought was going to happen. What if he was wrong?

In the book of Judges, there’s a chieftain called Jepthah who makes a vow to God that if he wins a battle, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him when he returns home. He does win, and when he goes home his daughter comes out to meet him. He ends up sacrificing her. The rabbis of our tradition tell us that he was wrong to make the vow, and then wrong again to carry it out. Apparently he thought he was right, and because of it, a woman was killed.

When we interpret Torah, and when we make momentous decisions in our lives that impact ourselves and others, we cannot know for sure that we are right. In some cases, we may eventually have proof that we’re right or wrong. In some cases, there will never be proof, and all we have is belief, faith.

There are those who believe with perfect faith in God, in tradition, in things that cannot be proven. I think those people are few and far between. Even Maimonides with his 13 statements of faith, each beginning “ani maamin b’emunah shleimah”—I believe with perfect faith—I wonder if those statements were aspirational, and that he wanted to have perfect faith, but even for him, I wonder if doubt would sometimes sneak in.

We are Israel—wrestlers with the Divine. If we had proof, we would be divine ourselves. It isn’t going to happen.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, cultivate faith, and believe that when we have wrestled as hard as we can, we have come to an answer that is right. It is good and right to ask, “What if we’re wrong?” The awareness that we might be wrong is what gives us humility—we’re not so quick to condemn those who believe something different.

At the same time, we must also recognize that not all beliefs are equally okay. When I told my father that I was converting to Judaism, he responded by telling me I couldn’t revoke my baptism. I said, “That’s not what the Jews believe.” He responded, “So it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere?”

“No,” I said, “but I do believe that some beliefs are just as good as some other beliefs.”

A sincere Nazi is still wrong, and that ideology is still evil. Ani maamin et zeh b’emunah shleimah. I believe this with perfect faith.

There are many, many good, just Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and people of many other religions. Ani maamin et zeh b’emunah shleimah. I believe this with perfect faith.

It is right to recognize that every one of us is made in God’s image, and God made us the way God wants us—in all our diversity of race, gender identity, personality, everything—and God wants us to show each other compassion and support each other. Ani maamin et zeh b’emunah shleimah. I believe this with perfect faith.

I believe that we are right to be open and accepting of people who are very different from ourselves. I support Omer one hundred percent as a gay man, as well as everyone who is LGBTIQ. I believe that God does too. It is right to reject those who undermine human dignity by rejecting people with different gender identities.

Believing with perfect faith is not the same as having proof. But it is as close as we can get. Might we be wrong? Yes. Are we probably at least partly wrong? Yes. But ani maamin b’emunah shleimah—I believe with perfect faith, which to me means that I am believing as hard as I can, that when our mistakes come from trying to bring more love into the world, from trying to validate and support more people as who they are, from trying not to hurt people but to make people’s lives better, that God will forgive those mistakes. Ani maamin b’emunah shleimah, I believe with perfect faith that God—whatever, however, God turns out to be, if and when we do find out—will give us credit for trying to do good.

Let us have the courage to believe—in God, whatever that word “God” means to us; in our tradition; in our sense of right and wrong. Let us wrestle with our texts, with our tradition, with our secular world, bringing our experiences and feelings, our sense of justice and compassion, to meet what we have from those who came before. Let us respect our own experiences and use them to inform the way we understand what our tradition and our God want from us. Let us have respect for what came before, but the freedom to interpret differently for today. Our tradition is rich, and full, and worthwhile. The people who came before us gave us interpretations that help us and interpretations that hurt us.

One of the stories we’ve received in the Talmud tells us that the Torah is not in heaven—it is here for us to interpret. Our responsibility is to find interpretations that support the best that is in humanity. Judaism and the Torah will only live on if we continue to engage with their wisdom, entwining it with the wisdom we are developing in our time. And the richness that is there, in the Torah and in our tradition, mean that even though it is hard—it is sometimes anti-gay, and often misogynistic, and has a negative attitude toward non-Jews that is difficult for a congregation like ours—it is worthwhile to stick with this tradition for its ability to change; for its commitment to preserving all arguments, not just the majority one; and for the many, many good teachings it offers.

This is the time of year when we evaluate where we think we might be with God. We consider what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong in the past year. Some of us, maybe, feel that our faith could have been stronger. Some of us altogether reject the idea of faith in what we cannot prove. And here we all are, praying together on Rosh Hashanah.

I’d like to suggest that we can use this time to evaluate the extent to which our choices this year have supported the identities of others—others whose identities don’t impact our own, and who just want to be able to freely be who they are. To what extent have our choices this year contributed to stopping those who hate or discriminate based on the identity of others?

Ani maamin b’emunah shleimah—I believe with perfect faith that we can be better. I believe we can make the world better. I believe that the forces of kindness, compassion, and love are larger and stronger than the voices of hate. Let us not lose sight of that. Let us remember that more people in this country want to accept than reject.

In the interest of full disclosure, in case this wasn’t clear: I don’t really believe there is such a thing as perfect faith. I also don’t believe in truth with a capital T. But I do believe that we must commit to doing the best we can in this world, and that “ani maamin b’emunah shleimah”—I believe with perfect faith—is an aspirational goal when we determine to the best of our ability that what we believe is true.

Let us never give up. Let us wrestle, and wrestle, and hold on to our tradition until we get from it a blessing. Because the blessings are there. Ani maamin et zeh b’emunah shleimah. I believe this with perfect faith. May each of us find the blessing we need this year.

L’Shana tovah u’metukah. May the new year be a good and sweet year for you.

What Changed Your Life This Year?

posted Sep 25, 2017, 3:08 PM by Heidi Hoover   [ updated Sep 25, 2017, 3:11 PM ]

Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon 5778--September 20, 2017

Life is about stories. The stories we tell about ourselves and others, the stories we tell TO ourselves. For millenia, Jews have passed on stories about what God’s relationship is with us, and what our relationship is with other human beings and with the natural world. The central mission of Passover, our most-celebrated holiday, is to tell a story to our children.

When I think of the stories I tell, there are many that include the phrase: “…and it changed my life.” The fact is, every decision we make, every thought we have, changes our lives, whether we notice it or not. Sometimes it’s more noticeable than other times.

You’ve heard me say lots of times that there are many ways to think about God, many ways to imagine that God is. I just want to note that I use the word “imagine” here NOT because I think God is imaginary or not real, but because I believe God is so much past our understanding that we can only imagine what God might be like—we can’t really know.

One of the ways to think about God is called panentheism. Panentheism is the belief that everything is God. God isn’t separate from us; there is nothing but God. So God is you, and God is me, and God is the ark, and the Torahs inside the ark, and God is the hole in the ceiling, and God is that thought you just had about how you’re not connecting to what I’m saying, and that it’s too hot in here—or too cold, depending on how your body works, which is also God, and God is our every feeling and thought and decision and object and plant and animal and everything. And that means that God is always changing, because every new animal, object, plant, thought, decision, every everything becomes part of God and changes God. In this understanding of God, we change God’s life, every second.

Here are some of my experiences that I recognize as having changed my life:

·               My decision to go to Carnegie Mellon University and not some other college: I shudder when I think that if I had gone elsewhere, to Smith, or Gettysburg, or Syracuse, I might never have met Mike Rose, who has been my partner for more than 27 years.

·               The moment at the very beginning of rabbinical school, when Rabbi Brad Hirschfield taught that the most important thing is for us to be at peace with everything about ourselves, to be okay with ourselves, because then we’re not threatened by anyone different from us, and I thought, “YES,” and it became my life’s goal, which I’m continuing to work on.

·               Hosting Israeli teens last year for their year of service between high school and the army—I met Naomi and Shira, Yonatan, Omer, and Hadar, and I love them. They changed my life so I feel more connected to Israel, because of them I’ve been studying to get better at Hebrew, and I’m looking at life in general in a different way.

Those are all positive examples, times when my life was changed for the better. Of course, negative experiences change our lives too. My mom had cancer when I was 11 years old, and I thought she was going to die. That changed my life. She did die of cancer eventually, in 2006, just weeks before I began my internship here. Recently we recognized the 16th yahrzeit of September 11, a terrorist attack that changed many of our lives and changed our country, too.

There are those who say that everything, positive and negative, happens for a reason. That doesn’t work for me, though if it works for you, that’s great. For me, I believe we can learn from what happens, we can find meaning in it, but I don’t—I can’t—believe that there was some kind of positive reason that my mom died—that’s the most glaring example for me.

I do believe that I understand people’s experiences of losing loved ones better, having lost my mom. But I don’t believe that whatever I have learned as a result of losing her when I did will ever lead me to feel grateful that things happened as they did.

Regardless of whether we are able to find positive meaning in the difficult events of our lives, part of what we do at the High Holidays is to look for the meaning in the events of our lives. We assess the past year. What decisions that we made turned out to be good? What decisions that we made turned out to be hurtful to us or others? What decisions did we make without thinking, without even realizing we were making a decision, and what impact did those decisions have?

How were our lives changed in the past year, either for good or for bad? To what extent were we able to impact those changes with our decisions? What changes do we want to make to our lives—or what actions and ideas to we want to pay more attention to or make more deliberate—to increase the likelihood that our lives can change for the better?

The High Holidays are also about recognizing that we are not in control. We could make every decision right. We could do everything we’re supposed to, and it could still go wrong. After she was sick when I was a kid, my mom ate her broccoli, exercised daily, and was about as healthy as a person can be. The cancer still came back and it still killed her. Would it have come back sooner if her lifestyle had been less healthy? None of us can know the answer to that.

Those in the path of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma so recently, those being battered by Hurricane Maria right now, and those affected the flooding in Bangladesh and the fires in the Pacific Northwest of our country, and those impacted by the two major earthquakes in Mexico, know that there is power in this world that is beyond us. I don’t believe that God brought those disasters—as a punishment or for any other reason. We don’t know why they happen, exactly, except that we do know that our weather is becoming more severe due to global warming.

While there may be ways to lessen the effects of global warming, and I hope there are, and I hope the political will in the world will take us in that direction, we as individuals facing these storms or witnessing them happening to others, can’t stop them, can’t control them. We can control our response, the decisions we make about how much we can give to help, and what the most effective way to do so is.

And this is what it comes down to. There is so much that happens in our lives that we can’t control. When we make decisions, we can’t always—perhaps even usually—see how they will change our lives. We are blessed if we can point to moments and say, “That changed my life for the better.”

Even if we can’t point to positive moments and notice how they changed our lives, and even when the bad moments feel hard and hurtful and meaningless, we sometimes can decide how we respond to them. I’m not by any means advocating denying our emotions. I am advocating recognizing our emotions as real and not judging them. If we are mindful, we can experience our emotions and work toward understanding of ourselves and our experiences so that we can learn and become healthier.

One of the things I love about Judaism is that I find it very practical. With Judaism, it is very easy to meet people where they are, I find. The Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days that come before, between and after them, are intended to give us the opportunity to see what has changed our lives. What has changed our lives for the better, and what has changed our lives for the worse. Then we are charged with choosing what changes our lives for the better, and phasing out what changes our lives for the worse.

This is an invitation. It is Erev Rosh Hashanah, and it will be 10 days until Yom Kippur. I invite you to think about how your life has been changed in the past year. Who changed it? How? Which changes were easy to learn from? Which were hard to learn from? Which ones do you prefer to ignore? Which ones are you proud of? Which changes do you want to carry into the new year, and which ones make you want to pretend they never happened?

While every decision, every feeling, every thought, introduces some change, however small, into our lives, we can’t always choose, we can’t be fully mindful, and we definitely can’t know whether our decisions will ultimately lead to good change or painful change (or both).

The Days of Awe are a time when we paradoxically recognize our powerlessness and lack of knowledge and understanding, while at the same time committing ourselves to doing the very best we can in the coming year to make good decisions, to learn and grow, to take care of ourselves and others.

We will succeed. And we will fail. Because that is what being human is. And because we will succeed and because we will fail, next year we will be back here again, with the opportunity to assess and examine, to make amends and resolve, again, to do better. And again we will succeed, and we will fail, because we are human. And everything we do—success and failure—will become part of God, part of our own experience, and part of the universe.

Every decision we make is trivial and momentous at the same time.

In 2005, I was a rabbinical student, and I had a small job in Belle Harbor, Queens, where I led High Holiday services and a few other observances throughout the year for a small chavurah there. In 2006, they hired me for a second year. After I’d already agreed, I saw a job listing for a rabbinic internship in Brooklyn. I knew immediately that that was a job I wanted. I checked with the dean of students at my seminary to see if she thought I could do both, and she thought I could, so I applied. In the summer of 2006 I went to an interview in the home of a congregant, having studied hard to memorize the long name of the congregation. That interview was a conversation around Hazel Tishcoff’s dining room table that lasted two hours, I had a wonderful time, and I was so sure that internship was the right job for me. Deciding to apply for that internship, going for it, and getting it definitely changed my life, as I went on to intern here for 5 years as a student, and this is the beginning of my 7th year as rabbi of this community that I love so much.

Last June, this community collectively made a decision that will change the life of our community. On October 21, we will consolidate with Progressive Temple Beth Ahavat Shalom from Borough Park, and the new congregation we are creating will be in this building. We don’t know yet exactly how our life will change, which is both exciting and anxiety-provoking. Parts of it we can control, and a lot of it we can’t. I strongly believe the consolidation is good for both our congregations, and that it’s going to be work out, one way or another.

As we look back on the past year, and consider the ways our lives have changed since last Rosh Hashanah, let us notice that we made it to this day. Let us accept that we can’t control everything, and that things will go right and things will go wrong in the coming year. Let us accept both our excitement—which is easy to accept—and our anxiety—which is harder to accept—about what may come as normal, and not let either excitement or anxiety control us. Let us find meaning in everything that we do and experience. Let us go forward with compassion, courage, trust, and hope. And may the changes that come with the new year be good, so that the new year is a good and a sweet year for us. Amen and l’Shana Tovah u’Metukah.

Rabbi's Message for September 2017

posted Sep 2, 2017, 2:23 PM by Michael Rose

In 1986, the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out. I was a teenager; the film became a favorite of mine, and was iconic for many of my generation. Ferris said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” In context, this was ironic because of all he and his friends did in that day. There wasn’t a lot of stopping and looking around, though at the same time there was an appreciation of every moment.

It is true that life moves fast, and it’s easy to get caught up and forget to notice, appreciate, remember extraordinary moments. Last month, the United States experienced both the wonder and the tragedy of nature’s exceptional events.

Our hearts are full of sadness and shock at the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey’s flooding in Texas and Louisiana, especially in the communities of Houston and nearby towns. We pray for the health and recovery of those affected most directly, for the consolation of those who lost loved ones, and for the return to normalcy for our Jewish communities and all who suffer the after-effects of this terrifying natural disaster. We have posted some suggested ways to assist the recovery effort on our website and on the Temple’s Twitter feed at

Before the waters rose and the winds came, however, there was another day with a very different sky. On August 21, the United States paused in awe as a solar eclipse reached totality all across our country. In Brooklyn, there was not a full solar eclipse, but at 2:44 pm, about 75 percent of the sun was covered by the moon.

In advance of the eclipse, there was a lot of excitement, and there were many warnings. “Don’t look directly at the sun! Permanent eye damage will result.” There was testimony on the internet from people who have damaged their eyes that way. It seems bizarre that the sun, so far away, could burn our eyes. And yet, that is how powerful it is. The sun is literally vital to our survival, and at the same time it can blind us.

This is one of the metaphors that can help us think about God, especially as God is depicted in the Bible. God is so powerful that God can rescue our people, care for us, sustain us with miraculous food (the manna in the wilderness), and lead us to the Promised Land. At the same time, God tells Moses, “No one may see My face and live.” We are taught that approaching God is dangerous for anyone not in a state of ritual purity. God ensures the survival of our people, but in the Bible, if we are not careful around that power, people die.

These days, a God that penalizes people in deadly ways for sin, who causes death when it’s not clear why, isn’t really the God we want, nor are those ways of thinking and talking about God helpful in times of disaster and pain caused by natural events like hurricanes, earthquakes or floods. We want a friendly God who loves us, forgives us, and tells us that when we do what we believe is right, we’re going to be okay.

Jewish tradition gives a blessing to say upon seeing a natural wonder, like a comet or lightning: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Maker of the works of creation” or “…whose power and might fill the world.” Most Jewish sources do not advocate saying a blessing for a solar eclipse, however, but see it as a bad omen. (Tradition does support saying one of these blessings when witnessing powerful winds.)

It’s not hard to imagine how frightening a solar eclipse might have been to those who didn’t understand it. And even though ancient Jewish and non-Jewish astronomers did understand how it happened, darkness when there is supposed to be light doesn’t look good, as light is generally associated with good and darkness with bad.

I was excited about seeing the eclipse (even the partial, Brooklyn version), and I took the sheet of “solar film” my husband had ordered (an uncut piece of the dark plastic material used in Eclipse Glasses) to the restaurant where I was lunching with a friend. We sat outside. It was amazing to see the sun as the moon passed between it and the Earth.

What was more amazing was the sense of community. A man at the table next to ours heard us talking, and looked over curiously. “Do you want to look?” I said. He did. Very shortly afterward, other patrons asked about my film sheet and asked to borrow it. It was passed around, among people who would not have spoken to each other under different circumstances.

I have experienced Brooklyn and NYC unity when faced with adversity — camaraderie in response to subway delays or other setbacks — but I have few memories of New Yorkers coming together around something positive and amazing.

For that reason, I reject the idea that the eclipse was a bad omen. We didn’t need a sign for that: We know that we live in a difficult and uncertain time. We saw Nazis and white supremacists march without fear in Charlottesville, Virginia. We saw the awful and terrible power of a mighty storm bring an enormous city to a halt, and we worry that a changing climate may bring more “500-year floods” on an all too frequent basis. But we as communities can and do come together and support each other. We can step up and help out, as many volunteers and organizations are doing in Texas right now. We can simply share our wonder and awe with those around us, and open ourselves up to the possibility of connection and community every day.

In a similar vein, our community will be joining with Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom toward the end of next month. It is tempting to see this as a metaphorical “eclipse” of one congregation by another (which is which depends on your perspective). It is our challenge—and I believe we will meet it—to recognize the feelings of loss that members of each congregation might be experiencing (the light is being eclipsed), and to see that beyond the loss there is opportunity and vitality—the sun will shine unhindered again.

Meanwhile, we thank God for the beauty of nature, the ability to help and heal, the opportunity to slow down and appreciate (if we can remember to take it), and the possibility of renewal, recovery and full sun. I look forward to seeing you soon.

Shabbat Sermon 8/18/2017: Parashat R'eih

posted Aug 19, 2017, 6:33 AM by Michael Rose   [ updated Aug 19, 2017, 6:39 AM ]

This week’s Torah portion, R’eih, begins with blessing and curse. Moses tells the people they have a choice, between being blessed if they follow God’s commandments and cursed if they don’t. Moses prescribes a ritual of pronouncing the blessing at Mount Gerizim, a mountain covered with vegetation, and the curse at Mount Ebal, a bare, steep mountain. It seems straight-forward: Follow God’s instructions, and all will be well. Fail to do so, particularly by beginning to follow other gods, and all will most emphatically not be well.
Idol-worship in the sense that it is discussed in our Torah is not an issue for us today. The rabbis of the Talmud, nearly two thousand years ago, said that even then, it had been a long time since idolatry was a real temptation for the Israelites. But as I read this week about what brings about blessing and curse, I was thinking about what our modern equivalent might be.

For me, following God’s instructions means taming my basest instincts and trying to put good into the world. It means taking care of ourselves, but not at the expense of the community. The 20th-century French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas saw Judaism itself as ethics. He said that seeing God looking at you out of the eyes of every other person is what motivates you to treat that person justly. 

Turning away from God means giving up on doing what is right, engaging in sinat chinam, baseless hatred. It means considering some human lives as less important than others. It means turning a blind eye to the suffering of others and to evil.

“Evil” is a very strong word, and I don’t use it lightly. I don’t see evil in many people or places, but there are times when it is the only word to use. 

As many of you may have been, I was shaken by the white supremacist, Nazi rally that took place last weekend in Charlottesville, VA. Seeing so many young people, most of them men, all of them white, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and “You will not replace us,” waving flags with swastikas on them and wearing Nazi gear, brazenly displaying their hatred of Jews and people of color (some of whom are also Jews), was upsetting. For me one of the most chilling images was a shot of the crowd from above, after dark, with a sea of torches. I’ve been to candlelight vigils before—that’s very different than torches.

Even worse was the president’s response, equivocating, saying there was violence on many sides, that many of the white supremacist marchers were “good people.” In a world where so many issues are not straight-up black and white, this one is. You cannot embrace Nazi ideology and be a good person. Nazism is evil. White supremacy is evil. On one side of my family I am descended from the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence, a South Carolinian named Edward Rutledge. There is honor in that. However, he also owned 70 enslaved human beings. I am ashamed of that. On the other side of my family I am German. My grandfather and my great-uncles were not Nazis, but they did serve in the German army in World War II. There is great shame in that for me. 

Jews in Germany in the early 1900s had it really good. They were largely assimilated, and Germany was the center for Jewish scholarship at the time. When Hitler came to power, that turned on a dime and we all know what happened, because we carry the scar of the Holocaust on our collective Jewish psyche.

That Nazis feel comfortable marching openly in the United States is bad. That the head of our government will not condemn them unequivocally is worse. The president is bringing a curse on our land rather than a blessing. This is as straight-forward to me as the beginning of our Torah portion.

Later in our Torah portion, though, it seems a little less clear. We are told “There shall be no needy among you,” and three verses later, “If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin,” and four verses after that, “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land” (Deut. 15:4, 7, 11).

This apparent contradiction may hinge on that first mention, “There shall be no needy among you,” because it continues, “if only you heed the Eternal your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.” The fact that “there will never cease to be needy ones” seems to be an acknowledgement that the people will never succeed in following God’s law so fully that there will be no needy. But neither curse nor blessing seems to be the response to that. It’s not as clear as: Do everything right and get blessed, or do everything wrong and get cursed: There seems to be a middle ground, as there would have to be, because we are fallible humans.

When it comes to the needy among us, the plain meaning of the Torah text is that it’s talking about financial need. But we know that there are different kinds of need. 

As some of you saw that I said on Facebook today, we in Brooklyn are still okay. Our local politicians are firm in their condemnation of and responses to antisemitism. In Brooklyn, some of the people who have a harder time are people of color (some of whom are also Jewish), undocumented immigrants (some of whom are also Jewish), and Muslims. 

In order to be worthy of blessing and to do God’s work, we must pay attention not only to our own needs—though we must pay attention to our own needs also—but we must also care for the needy among us, whether they are needy because of poverty, because of systemic racism, because of anti-Muslim, anti-transgender, or anti-immigrant rhetoric and action.

This can sometimes be a little more complicated than standing against Nazis. When the Black Lives Matter movement is also pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, that can be painful for Jews. I stand with the Black Lives Matter movement anyway, but it’s not completely straight-forward. I was very moved this week when the March for Racial Equality, planned for Yom Kippur, posted an apology for putting the march on that day, suggested that there will be sister marches the next day, and acknowledged the intersectionality of antisemitism and racism. I’ll be at the sister march on October 1 if there is one in New York City.

When it’s uncomplicated and when it’s complicated, God’s Instruction obligates us not to stand by the blood of our neighbors and to love the stranger. It obligates us to call out evil when we see it, to stand up for ourselves and for those who are under attack by the forces of evil, including Nazis and white supremacists.
In the Talmud, there’s a story of how the great Rabbi Meir was being harassed by some guys in his neighborhood, and he prayed for them to die. His wife, Beruriah, a scholar, rebuked him and said should not pray for their deaths, but that they should repent of their wickedness and reform.

In that spirit, let us pray that the white supremacists and the Nazis and their supporters, including our president and many of his advisors, may repent and turn away from their hateful ways. And let us stand strong and together with the many people in our city and our country who are for justice and equity for all people. 

Amen and Shabbat shalom.

We Have to Stand Up--Post-election sermon, Nov. 11, 2016

posted Nov 14, 2016, 11:51 AM by Heidi Hoover   [ updated Nov 14, 2016, 11:51 AM by Michael Rose ]

I have to admit that I didn’t expect the outcome of this week’s election. I didn’t believe that together with the people who are racist, misogynist, xenophobic, and homophobic in this country, there would be enough people who were unhappy enough with Hillary Clinton or the Democratic party or the status quo to overlook all of Donald Trump’s attitudes and vote for him. I don’t believe that all of Trump’s supporters are in agreement with all the hateful, horrible things he’s said. I certainly don’t believe that those in this congregation who support Trump are in agreement with all the things he’s said. I have heard in our community and on the news people talking about feeling betrayed by Clinton—the Clinton Foundation pledged to help after the disastrous earthquake in Haiti, but the money did not make the difference Haiti needed; Hillary Clinton supported policies that helped lead to mass incarceration of young men of color. These and other issues may be reasons that good people were able to overlook Trump’s attitudes during the campaign.

Not everyone can overlook what Trump has said, though. My daughter Shoshi goes to a diverse middle school with kids of color and Muslim kids. Those kids are afraid. Last spring I went to her school to watch the students perform plays they had written about issues important to them. I watched an 11-year-old Hispanic boy say in his play that Donald Trump wants to make his family leave the country. That was heartbreaking. How must that boy feel today?

A friend of mine who is black, and married to an Austrian man who is scarred by the fact that his parents were ardent Nazis, already felt afraid of the police because of all the police killings of unarmed black people. She feels that anyone who could vote for Trump, overlooking his racism, is rejecting her too.

Many women who have been sexually assaulted, and statistics tell us that one in four women have, are having that trauma dredged up again by the fact that Donald Trump, a man who casually bragged about sexually assaulting women, has been elected. They think his election is a statement that what happened to them doesn’t matter.

All of us in this congregation and in this country who don’t consider ourselves racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, and don’t want to be those things, whether we voted for Trump or Clinton or a third-party candidate or not at all, have a very big job ahead of us.

Like it or not, the election of Donald Trump has, for the bigots, misogynists, and xenophobes in our county, legitimized their beliefs. Donald Trump did not reject the endorsement of the notorious white supremacist David Duke. He said he didn’t know Duke, but didn’t condemn him. On election night, Duke tweeted: “This is one of the most exciting nights of my life -> make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump!” and “Donald J. Trump now has the chance to become one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived - we have the moral high ground, 100%!” The next day, he tweeted: “The vast majority of Blacks, Jews and Hispanics - hate White Christian men so much -> they were willing to destroy this nation.” This is a prominent white supremacist, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, whom Donald Trump did not disavow. David Duke thinks Donald Trump is on his side. As a Jew, and as a person who cares about other people, this bothers me a lot.

A rabbi I know who is also a judge went to work at the courthouse in White Plains, NY the day after the election to find the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. defaced with antisemitic graffiti, and law enforcement in the courthouse investigating reports of white powder in the building. I know this isn’t new, and maybe it would have happened regardless of who was elected. It may take a while before we know to what extent hate crimes increase, but there are already reports of people being attacked and Trump’s name being invoked during the crime. People who hate are feeling validated to act on their hate. (

In Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of the Sages, we read: “Rabbi Tarfon said: You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to abandon it.” In the book of Deuteronomy, in parashat Shoftim, we read: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

Antisemitism is not justice.

Discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and homophobia is not justice.

Racism is not justice.

Xenophobia is not justice.

Misogyny is not justice.

I have spoken about all of these issues from this bimah before. Now more than ever, it is our responsibility to stand up for justice. That is the task we may not abandon, though we probably will not be able to complete it. No matter who we voted for, or what we were able to overlook to cast our vote, it is our obligation to stand against the injustice that Donald Trump, through his words in his campaign, has legitimized for the people in our country who are hateful. Again, not all Trump supporters are like that, and the ones who aren’t, together with the rest of us, must show it by being vocal and unequivocal in our opposition to discrimination and hate.

When we talk about antisemitism, it is obviously something that directly affects us as a Jewish community. But don’t think that homophobia, racism, xenophobia and misogyny aren’t Jewish issues, and aren’t issues in our congregation. We have Jewish LGBT families in our congregation who have to wonder now if their marriages will continue to be recognized. We have Jewish people of color in our congregation who already face racism and discrimination, and may be fearing an increase. We have Jewish immigrants in our congregation, including children who were adopted internationally. We have Jewish congregants who have close Muslim relatives, who fear for their safety. And of course we have women in our congregation, some of whom have been sexually assaulted, all of whom have been denigrated at one time or another for their gender, and many of whom feel personally degraded by Donald Trump’s attitude toward women.

If you don’t think it’s important to stand up for people outside the Jewish community, then stand up for the Jews who are LGBTQ+, of color, immigrant, and/or female.

There are lots of ways to do it. Join organizations that work against discrimination and hate. Donate to causes that support those who experience discrimination. Call or write to our elected officials. Blog. Sign petitions. Go to protests. No one has to do all of it, but we must all do something to stand against hate and for justice.

Last week I said that we must remember that everyone—Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, the supporters of each of them—is made in God’s image, even though that’s very difficult, even when we hate what some of them stand for. Remembering everyone’s basic humanity, that each person is somehow made in God’s image, does not mean that we don’t condemn injustice in the strongest terms. But we must not dehumanize those who hold and express hateful, unjust ideas and those who act on those ideas, even if they are dehumanizing us. If we can, we must engage them as humans.

In the Talmud, there is a story of Rabbi Meir, one of the great rabbis. Rabbi Meir was having problems with people harassing him in his neighborhood. He was very angry and upset, and decided he would pray for them to die. His wife, Beruriah, who was also a scholar, rebuked him, quoting Psalm 104:35: “Let sins be uprooted from the earth, and the wicked will be no more.” It says “sins,” not “sinners,” she said. You should not pray that these people will die, but that they will repent and change their ways. Then “the wicked will be no more.” Rabbi Meir acknowledged that she was right. That’s seeing the basic humanity, seeing God’s image, even in people who are acting out of hate.

This week’s Torah portion, Lech l’cha, is the one in which God tells Avram to leave his home, his father’s house, and his homeland to go to the place God will show him. As we read earlier, Avram takes his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot and “the people they had acquired in Haran.” Literally, it’s “the people they had made in Haran.” It doesn’t say “servants” or “employees.” The midrash tells us that the rabbis say that these were people Avram and Sarai had converted to Judaism—well, to their form of monotheism, since there wasn’t Judaism yet, really. What that means, basically, is that people who were of the same mind, who shared the same beliefs as Avram and Sarai, went with them.

Did they know where they were going? Not at first. God says, “Go to the land I will show you.” At the outset of the journey, they don’t know where they will end up.

We are in a similar position. In electing Donald Trump, our country has started a journey and we don’t know where we will end up. The truth is, that is always the case. Sometimes we think we know what the destination is that we’re heading toward, but we don’t know what life will bring and how that will change where we end up. That’s unsettling, sometimes frightening, but we aren’t alone. Avram and Sarai were not alone. With them were people who believed what they believed, and they set out on that journey with determination, faith, and trust that they would reach the land and it would be good, as God promised.

Earlier this evening we repeated an interpretive translation of one of the blessings that surrounds the Sh’ma, our declaration of the oneness of God. It invokes another journey, the journey that led to the formation of the Jewish people:

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught
before ever we stood at Sinai's foot;
that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise
passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching

This is what I’m calling on all of us who are for justice and against hate to do: Join hands. March together. Support each other. Protect the vulnerable. Fight for the human rights of every person. Stand up and reject hateful words and actions, in whatever way you choose to do it. This week was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of the pogrom in Germany November 9, 1938, when Jewish businesses were destroyed, vandalized, looted, burned. We know too well what happens when hate is legitimized and groups of people are scapegoated. We cannot be silent.

The blessing we read, and that I just read again, leads into the singing of Micha Mocha. Micha Mocha is the triumphant, joyous song that the Israelites sing upon safely crossing through the Reed Sea to escape the Egyptians. Let us find hope in our being together on this journey, and let us look toward the day when hate is defeated and we too can burst into joyous song and dance. Amen and Shabbat shalom.

Responding to Discrimination: Yom Kippur 5777/2016

posted Oct 13, 2016, 2:37 PM by Heidi Hoover   [ updated Oct 13, 2016, 2:47 PM by Michael Rose ]

When I was in college, I had a bad experience with a man on campus. He was someone I considered a friend. We had both been drinking. We were arguing about sexual assault at our university: I contended that it happened, and frequently; he insisted that it did not. The argument became heated, and in his anger, he grabbed my throat. He didn’t do it hard enough to hurt, but definitely hard enough that I could feel it. He said, “I’ll kill you if you don’t listen to me.” People intervened, everyone calmed down, no one, including me, was physically hurt. But I was terrified. Who does that? Maybe you grab someone’s arm if you feel like they’re not listening. But their throat?

I am fortunate. That is just about the worst that has happened to me, though there are other stories I could tell too. So many women, and I’m sure some of you in this room, have far worse stories. In the past few days, many women, some of whom I know personally and some of whom I don’t, have courageously and publicly shared what has happened to them. Only one of the stories that I’ve seen shared, of women and girls being groped, threatened, assaulted, sexually harassed, resulted in prosecution of the man responsible.

People who are discriminated against, disadvantaged, or oppressed respond to it in different ways. Whether they are women, Jews, African- or Caribbean-Americans, Latinos, or a combination of these identities or others, there are commonalities in the types of response to discrimination and oppression.

Some become activists. They rage against the system, insist that their treatment is wrong and needs to change. Sometimes that work is dangerous, and there are many who perceive them as rabble-rousers, extremists, people who are overreacting to a system that isn’t really so bad. Many of these activists are part of the discriminated-against group, and some are not, but are allies. Some examples of those who have stood up against various types of oppression are: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony, and Cezar Chavez.

Some do not become activists. They take the view that the world just is the way it is, and it isn’t going to change, so you just have to live with it. People for whom this is the response say things like: Men always say lewd things about women when they’re alone with other men, and there’s no way to change that; boys will be boys; racism is too deeply ingrained to be rooted out; antisemitism is always there, so don’t be too outspoken about being Jewish. These people often depend on staying under the radar, not drawing too much attention, and dismissing discrimination as something you might as well not protest against, since you can’t do anything about it.

Still others, often some of those who have become successful despite discrimination, take the view that members of their group, whether that group is women or a minority, can succeed if they follow the rules and work hard enough. They see themselves as evidence of this, and dismiss anyone who complains of discrimination or oppression as weak, complaining because they are not strong enough or don’t want to work hard enough to overcome their circumstances.

Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, an epic novel about a small German town in the years before and during World War II, does a very good job of showing all the various types of reactions people had when oppression of Jews began and increased under Hitler and the Nazi party, leading to the Holocaust. Some of the Jews said, “This is definitely bad, but we’ve been through bad times before, so we just need to hunker down, stay put, and wait for it to pass.” Others immediately began to try to leave the country. Still others became resisters. Among the Christians in the town, some were active Nazis. Some were resisters. And there was a whole range in between—those who tried not to get involved, those who reported someone to the Nazis and then experienced such remorse that they became resisters, reluctant resisters, and more.

I am not judging any of these reactions, except for the active Nazis. Them, I judge. But when you are in a group that is discriminated against and oppressed, it isn’t my place to judge anything you need to do to get through that and try to survive.

When I was in college, I thought a lot about the issue of women not reporting sexual assault. It was known then, and it is still the case, that sexual assault is underreported, and it is still true that women have terrible experiences at trials for their attackers. Women are still blamed for how they dress, what they drink, and where they are. Men are still excused because “their lives shouldn’t be ruined by one thing they did.” A well-known case in point is Brock Turner, who raped a woman behind a dumpster, was caught in the act by two other men, and who was let off by Judge Aaron Persky with a very light sentence of six months because he was a champion swimmer with a bright future. He served three months. There is little concern for the impact on the life of the woman who was assaulted.

So there are good reasons for not reporting assault. At the same time, if it isn’t reported, and if it isn’t prosecuted, certainly nothing will change. I didn’t want to place an added burden on women who had already been through a horrible experience, though. Where I landed was with the idea that if you are able to speak out, if you are able to call for prosecution of your attacker, if it isn’t too scary for you or too hard to do, then you have an obligation to do it. However, if you can’t, because it’s too much, then you should not, and you should not feel bad about yourself for that.

As we repent and atone for our sins on this Yom Kippur, we might spend some time thinking about our responses to the discrimination and oppression we witness in our lives—against us and against others. To what extent have we been bystanders? Have we listened to lewd, demeaning talk about women and laughed, or said nothing? Have we listened to racist talk and said nothing? I am not proud to say that I have done both, and that is one of the sins for which I am atoning today.

To what extent are we able to stand up against discrimination and oppression, against our own group or a group we are not part of? To what extent is it our responsibility to do so? Our texts are pretty clear that we have an obligation to take care of other Jews. The Torah tells us not to cheat or steal from our neighbors, and that means Jews. The Talmud tells us that one may break the Sabbath if it means saving the life of a fellow Jew. If we are caring for fellow Jews, that means we must be aware of and concerned with racism and discrimination against people of color, knowing as we do that Jews come in all races and colors.

But our sacred texts don’t tell us to care only about other Jews, and I’m not sure there’s anyone in this room who would say we have no obligation toward anyone who isn’t Jewish. In the Torah, 36 times we are told not to neglect or abuse the stranger living among us. In the Torah that meant people from non-Israelite tribes who had joined the Israelites, perhaps Egyptians who chose to leave with the Israelites in the Exodus, and others who joined with them, perhaps because they married Israelites. For us, today, it can mean those we encounter, and those who live in our neighborhoods and in our country, who are not Jewish.

Our society is pluralistic. Brooklyn is a place where many languages are spoken, many religions are practiced, and many great restaurants offer cuisine from around the world. In my neighborhood, and in the neighborhood of our temple, there are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and more. People are black, white, Asian, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Latino, Middle Eastern—including Israeli—and more. There are immigrants and 1st-generation Americans—I’m a first-generation American on my mom’s side—as well as those whose families have lived here for many generations—that’s also me, on my dad’s side. The vast majority of us live together in peace. This is something to be proud of. I love my neighborhood, where the Polish deli is just down the street from the Bangladeshi shop. Our neighbors might not be Jewish, but we live among them, and they live among us. We’re all invested in being safe and allowed to make a living and raise our families. Our tradition says we should all be treated the same—“The stranger among you shall be to you as a citizen,” we read. All the moreso when the person who is different from us actually is an American citizen! So it is on us, according to our tradition, to stand for the rights of everyone in our country, whether they are different than us or not.

Our haftarah for today is the book of Jonah. The short story of Jonah is a story of a guy who did not behave in an optimal way. Ordered by God to go to the people of Nineveh—the ruins of which are in northern Iraq, by the way, across the river from Mosul—and tell them to repent, he instead runs away. That doesn’t go so well for him—you probably remember about the whole getting swallowed by a big fish and all that—if you don’t, we’ll be reading it later. Eventually he does get to Nineveh and delivers God’s message. The people of Nineveh—not Jewish, let’s remember—immediately repent and put on sackcloth and ashes, from the king on down. And Jonah is angry. He would have preferred that this city full of human beings be destroyed, as if it were nothing more than a hill of ants or a bowl of Skittles. He gets more upset about the death of a plant than he would have about the destruction of an entire city-full of people and animals.

God doesn’t condemn him. The story ends leaving us hanging. Here’s how I understand Jonah. Jonah is a guy who has lived the same way his whole life, and he thinks he understands how the world works, and how God works. He’s content. But then one day he’s told the world isn’t quite the way he thinks it is. He has to interact with people who are unfamiliar, help them, because they desperately need help—their lives are in danger. Jonah doesn’t want to. He likes his life the way it is, so he resists, tries to ignore how his world has changed, and literally runs away. Maybe he’s afraid of a world different than the one he knows. Running away doesn’t work, though. So, reluctantly, he does what he was told he had to do. He gives them the message that, when they respond to it, saves their lives. God can make him do what he has to for these people who are different than he is, but God can’t make him see their humanity or appreciate their culture, or understand that he might learn from them, that knowing them could make his life richer. So at the end of the story, Jonah’s life is small and he feels alone, and he probably doesn’t even realize that that is a choice he made.

Our tradition obliges us to help each other as well as those different from ourselves, to not stand by the blood of our neighbor and to care for the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. One way to do this is to stand against racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and discrimination of all kinds. If we don’t like the way the world is changing, we can try to run away by ignoring it, but that probably won’t work. We can help others fearfully and begrudgingly, out of obligation. Or we can stand proudly, open ourselves to new experiences and people, and see that we don’t have to hide and be alone. We can have faith that as the world changes, we can help it change for the better. We can believe that if we get to know the strangers, they can become our neighbors in friendship as well as proximity, so that when we do disagree we can work it out. And we will know we are not alone, because as we reach out to others, they will reach out to us.

This world is our home. We have no other. It is often a very harsh place. In our liturgy we say that teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah—repentance or returning to the path we want to be on, prayer, and giving our money to create justice—are the actions that avert the harshness of the world. Let us do teshuvah and atone for the times we have participated in, benefitted from, and stood by discrimination and oppression. Let us remember how we have felt when we were discriminated against or oppressed, and remind ourselves not to let it happen to others, whether they are like us or not. Let us have faith that is bigger than our fear. Faith in ourselves, in our culture, in our God, in whatever way we understand that word “God”, and in our future. Let us recognize the obligation and the benefit in helping those who need it, in standing up for dignity and equal rights for everyone, with the resources of our money, our voices, our participation in civic life. Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah—may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year to come.

Anthem that followed the sermon--"Home," performed in this recording by artist Phillip Phillips:

It is Not Good for a Person to be Alone

posted Oct 13, 2016, 12:30 PM by Heidi Hoover   [ updated Oct 13, 2016, 2:35 PM by Michael Rose ]

Last Tuesday, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read from the very beginning of the Torah, about the seven days in which, the Torah tells us, God created the world. On each day, God pronounces what God has created to be good. On the sixth day, when the work is complete, God says that it is “very good.” And God rests on the seventh day. The first of the two creation stories is complete.

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, in Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s book We have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, discusses the power of words. After all, the Torah tells us that God brought the world into being with words. “Let there be light,” says God, and then there is light. After the destruction of the Temple, our rabbis made a transition from performing animal sacrifice to prayer instead—they explicitly replaced the act of sacrifice with words. Rabbi Gelfand writes, “Surely, if words can create the world, then they can also re-create and even repair the world” (p. 165). When we confess our sins on Yom Kippur, we are using our words to acknowledge and atone, to repair ourselves and our community. It is something we must do together.

After the first creation story in the Torah, second creation story is told. In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates humans on the sixth day, and it says, “male and female God created them.” In the second chapter on Genesis, the story seems to begin with the creation of the person, and it is a single person. The person is placed in the Garden of Eden. It is then that we have the first instance in the Torah of “lo tov.” Not good. God observes that it is not good for a person to be alone. God creates all kinds of animals to keep the person company, but apparently none of them are a good match. So God creates a second person, and then there is a man and a woman.

We have known since the beginning of time that it is not good for a person to be chronically alone. Today, science bears that out. There are multiple studies that show that social isolation has serious consequences. People who do not feel connected to others are more likely to have chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; they more frequently get colds or flu, and take longer to recover; they feel lonely and often depressed; and they don’t live as long as people who do feel connected to others. (Source:

There is a difference between choosing to be alone, and being socially isolated. People who are introverts need alone time—lots of it, sometimes—because that is how they recharge their energy. Someone who is socially isolated may or may not be an introvert, but they are not feeling that they have access to others when they need companionship or social interaction.

Various factors can contribute to social isolation. In our society, where extended families often live far from one another, we often don’t have the support of relatives who live nearby. New mothers can find themselves feeling socially isolated and lonely when they’re home with a newborn, trying to learn to parent. Elderly, homebound people easily become socially isolated when they can’t get to places where there are people to connect with. Those with serious illnesses, regardless of age, often find themselves alone, as friends don’t know how to interact with them and so, too often, just don’t. Those who are grieving a loss may also find themselves feeling doubly alone—without the person who has died, and without people to share their loss and pain with. And many people, including me, have trouble reaching out and asking others for help.

In high school, though I had friends and family and wasn’t socially isolated, I still sometimes felt lonely. I remember friends would always say, “I’m here whenever you need me.” They meant well, but I remember thinking, “What about when I’m not having a crisis so that I need you? What about just the rest of the time? Why are you only there when I have a specific need?” The message was that they were available when something was wrong, not just for regular, daily friendship.

Rabbi Gelfand calls isolation the Jewish “original sin.” As the first thing in the Torah that is declared “not good,” she says, “God (and the Torah) become obsessed with relationship. The relationship between human beings and God and the relationship between human beings and each other are the focus of the rest of the Torah” (p. 166).

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about unconditional love from God. Jews don’t talk about God that much; maybe because we focus more on behavior than belief most of the time, or maybe because Judaism doesn’t dictate what our relationship with God needs to be—it’s up to each of us to develop our own relationship with God, in whatever way we understand that word “God.” In our evening services, though, when we read or sing Ahavat Olam, what we are saying is that we are loved by an unending love. Maybe you feel loved unconditionally by God, maybe you don’t. I can’t access belief in that love all the time. And actually, I don’t think God loving us and being with us is enough to prevent us from feeling socially isolated. What we really need is the second kind of relationship the Torah focuses on: the relationship human beings have with each other.

Americans are not joining organizations the way that they used to. Families and friends spend less time together. Synagogues, churches, and other organizations are struggling. And social isolation is increasing. According to Robert Putnam and the Saguaro Seminar for Civic Engagement at Harvard’s Kennedy School, the number of socially isolated Americans more than doubled over the 2 decades from 1984-2004, from 10% to a quarter of all Americans. This is not because of the internet, says Putnam, it was already happening before Facebook, before email.

The reasons for Americans’ civic disengagement are complicated. The Saguaro Seminar website gives this short and necessarily incomplete answer to the question of what the cause is: “After considering a whole host of reasons, it is most likely that the cause is probably: 10% sprawl and the increased geographic complexity of our lives; 10% two-career families and the fact that men haven’t picked up the civic slack created when more women entered the paid work force; some 30% television (which seems to cause viewers to increasingly be less civic and which has absorbed more than 100% of the increase in leisure time from the 1960s); and roughly 30% generational trends (as those born after 1930 have increasingly been far less civic than those born before 1930). The final roughly 20% is probably a combination of many other factors.” (

So we Jews, and others who look to our Bible as sacred text, have known forever that social isolation is not good. More recently, science backs this idea up.

I think you know what I am going to propose as a remedy. If it weren’t Yom Kippur, you could get good and tipsy if you played a drinking game where you had to drink every time I say the word “community.” But that really is what it’s about. Those of you who are here on a regular basis, either for services or for other activities, already know what our synagogue community has to offer. It’s a chance to meet people with all different kinds of jobs and family situations. It’s a chance to spend time with people in different kinds of life situations. If you’re a grandparent with grandkids far away, there are babies and little kids here for you to kvell over. If you’re a parent of young kids with your parents far away, there are folks here who have been through it and can tell you it’s going to be okay. There is the opportunity here to socialize and become friends both with people who are in a similar life situation, and people of different generations and life experiences. We help and support each other.

One parent told me that one Saturday morning, she got a call from her alarm company that the alarm in her home was going off. She had not driven to the synagogue, so she was getting ready to walk home and check it out when another parent, who she didn’t really know, offered to drive her to her house with her and see what was going on. She gratefully accepted the offer, glad to have the ride and to not be alone if there were an intruder in her home. There was not, fortunately. But this is who we are. People who, when we notice that something is happening in someone’s life, offer help. This is not the only story that I’ve heard like this.

I think all of you know by now that we’ve been facing significant challenges with our building. We have not been able to use our function room downstairs for just about a month. This crisis has mobilized our members. A team of members who have knowledge or influence have joined our temple leadership to address this issue. If you have not volunteered or been contacted, and if you feel you have something to add to help address this crisis, please contact the office or our congregational president, Jeff Levinson.

Our congregation has been here for over 100 years, representing Reform Judaism in Flatbush, Brooklyn. I believe to the core of my being that Jewish community is worthwhile, and in particular, I love this community like I’ve never loved any other Jewish community I’ve participated in. Unfortunately, as you’ve already heard tonight, our community is in financial danger. It’s not because we don’t have devoted members, and it’s not because people who come here don’t value the community. It’s because when you’re over 100 years old, and your building is over 100 years old, and you’ve struggled through many years of financial hardship, the building needs a lot of work. And this isn’t the kind of work that philanthropists find interesting. So, financially, we’re very challenged. And if you value this community, and if you have access to significant resources, please, if you can, leverage them to help your community of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek.

Meanwhile, as a team ably led by treasurer Evelyn Shunaman and president Jeff Levinson work to balance our budget and find sources of funds to do what we need to do for the building, I continue to work with our congregants to enhance and enrich the spiritual life of our synagogue family.

I hope that among those of you who are here, and those watching our streaming video, there is no one who feels socially isolated and neglected. If you do, please, please reach out to me so that I can help and let others in our community know so that they can help.

It is our task to carry out ahavat olam, the everlasting, unending love that our tradition promises. Our texts say that that love is God’s love. As humans created in God’s image, our role is to manifest God’s love to other humans. So starting within our own synagogue community, let us support one another, even if we don’t agree politically or find ourselves in a similar life situation. Let us talk and listen to one another. Let us do everything possible to support our synagogue community—financially, politically, spiritually, and communally—so that it is here for us when we need it, and also when we don’t need it, but want to meet friends or just know that the community exists for the day when we will need it.

May we understand that our congregation is a congregation ready to offer us unending and unconditional love, and may we offer that kind of love to all of those we encounter in our community. This is a special and amazing community. Let’s all of us make sure that continues by welcoming and being ready to love everyone who comes through our doors. No one here is alone. Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah—may you be sealed for a good year to come.

Anthem that followed this sermon (here sung by the composer, Shir Yaakov Feit):

Encountering Angels: Sermon Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777/2016

posted Oct 6, 2016, 11:46 AM by Heidi Hoover   [ updated Oct 6, 2016, 11:46 AM by Michael Rose ]

My mother had a collection of angels. It was kind of an accidental collection. She got a few small angel figurines, like the German Hummel figurines and other ceramic angels, and liked them, and soon it was a collection. I don’t think the figures had theological significance for her; she just liked them. When I think about angels, I usually think of their depiction in classical art—tall, often blonde, big white wings, neutral or benevolent expressions. Or I think of the popular depiction of cherubs—plump babies with tiny wings that would never get them off the ground, so that their being in the air is really inexplicable. I also feel like references to angels in popular culture are usually Christian. Comments after a death that the person has become an angel, or one that I think is really unhelpful, “God needed another angel,” are usually in a Christian context, though they’re unsupported by Christian theology. The idea that people may have a “guardian angel” is popular too, but I don’t hear it much from Jews. I haven’t heard Jews talk about angels much, especially in the context of our own lives.

There are angels throughout our tradition, though. In today’s Torah reading, the Akeidah, where Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac, it is an angel who calls out to him and stops him just in time. In another Torah reading, Hagar and her son Ishmael are turned out into the wilderness by Abraham and Sarah. Hagar believes they are going to die, and it is an angel who comes to her and tells her not to be afraid. Then she sees a well, and she and Ishmael are saved. Other instances of angels are all over the Torah and the Bible: the angels who visit Abraham and save Lot and his family from Sodom and Gomorrah; the angel God promises to send to lead the Israelites through the wilderness; and many more.

In the story of Jacob, whose name later becomes Israel, he encounters angels for the first time in a dream. All alone in the wilderness, having fled the murderous rage of his brother Esau, he dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven. Going up and down the ladder are angels. The text doesn’t tell us what they look like, but apparently there are many of them.

Rabbi Shohama Wiener, in an article for the National Havurah Conference Newsletter, cites the medieval commentator Rashi on this passage. Rashi explains that some of the angels were the ones who escorted and protected Jacob as he traveled in the Promised Land. Other angels were the ones that protected and escorted Jacob when he journeyed outside the Promised Land. Why did they need to be different angels? According to Genesis Rabbah, a collection of midrash, or stories that fill in gaps in the Torah text, “One angel never performs two missions” (Gen. Rabbah 50:2).

Rabbi Wiener writes, “What a fantastic thought! If one angel is only good for one mission, then there must be an infinite number of angels. Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, is the paradigm for the Jewish person. What was true for Jacob should be true for us. We too must have countless numbers of angels.”

But while we may be willing to accept the idea of angels in our texts, or in folklore, can we relate to the idea of angels in our own lives? If we would like to encounter angels, or entertain the notion that there are angels in our lives, we may have to expand the picture in our head of what angels are like.

The word for angel, mal’ach, means “messenger.” Angels are messengers of God. But what does it mean to be a messenger of God? We see in the Torah that sometimes the messengers appear as people, and it’s not clear immediately that they are angels. It becomes evident because of the messages they are there to deliver.

Our sage Maimonides, about a thousand years ago, explained how expansive the concept of angels in our tradition is. In his Guide of the Perplexed, he writes that because angel also means messenger, “hence every one that is entrusted with a certain mission is an angel….” He goes on to cite Psalm 104, where the elements of wind and fire are called angels. The word “angel” is sometimes used to describe a messenger sent by a human, or sent by God to save humans, he says, giving biblical prooftexts for these angelic roles. Even functions of our minds, like the imagination and the intellect, are sometimes described as angels by our tradition, as in Kohelet Rabbah 10:20 [concerning Eccl. 10:7]: “‘When one sleeps, [the body tells the soul what it did during the day]. The soul speaks to the angel, the angel to the k'ruv [cherub] [and the k'ruv to the seraph], who then brings it before God.’” Maimonides sees here “a clear statement that the human imaginative faculty is also called "angel," and that k'ruv is used for the intellectual faculty.”

Maimonides is teaching that we can learn from our Torah, our Bible and our sages that everything God does is done through angels. The angels don’t give their opinions or argue with God, but they are the mechanism by which God’s work is accomplished, whether they are natural forces, animals, ideas, instincts, ideals, or people.

There are spots in our liturgy when we invoke angels. In Shalom Aleichem, which we sing sometimes on Shabbat evenings, we invite angels to come in peace, bless us with peace, and depart in peace. At bedtime, some say a prayer that goes like this: “In the name of the Eternal, the God of Israel, may Michael be at my right hand; Gabriel at my left; before me, Auriel; behind me, Raphael; and above my head the divine presence of God.” Rabbi Rachel Berenblat points out that Michael means “who is like God?” and so represents Wonder; Gavriel means “God’s strength,” representing Strength; Auriel means “God’s light,” representing Understanding; and Refael means “God’s Healing,” representing Comfort. So we pray to be surrounded by Wonder, Strength, Understanding, and Healing, and God’s Presence as we sleep. The four qualities—Wonder, Strength, Understanding, and Healing—are represented as angels. The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach wrote a beautiful tune for this bedtime blessing.

Maimonides cites another passage in Genesis Rabba, the collection of midrash on the book of Genesis, which reads: “Before the angels have accomplished their task they are called [humans], when they have accomplished it they are angels.” He says, “Consider how clearly they say that the term ‘angel’ signifies nothing but a certain action, and that every appearance of an angel is part of a prophetic vision, depending on the capacity of the person perceiving it.”

Last January 26 in the evening, I went to Manhattan to participate in a shiva minyan after the death of a friend’s father. I was on the subway headed home, reading a rather esoteric book about finding a spiritual path through some of the most obscure Jewish laws, called The Boy on the Door on the Ox. At one stop two men got on the train. One was white, one black. They were dressed exactly the same, in padded khaki jackets, khaki pants, and work boots. Each carried a medium-sized bag, one of mesh, one of plastic. The white guy, who was a big guy with a Russian accent, said loudly as they entered the crowded car: “Aren’t these seats reserved for the handicapped?” I was sitting in one of the two seats that are indeed reserved for those with disabilities. The women next to me jumped up and was out of there. The white guy plopped down next to me, pretty much right up against me because, as I said, he was a pretty big guy. He smelled very strongly, mostly of alcohol.

His companion had a cane, and I moved to stand so that he could have my seat, but he gestured for me to stay seated, saying, “No no, it’s fine, I’ll stand.”

“You can have this seat,” I said. “I’ll get up.”

“No,” he said again. “I’m glad to have the choice to stand.”

I didn’t know what that meant, but okay. I remained seated.

They talked, and I read, but was distracted by their conversation, carried on fairly loudly. The guy next to me was saying stuff to his friend like, “You know why I don’t go to AA meetings? Because they said I shouldn’t hang around with alcoholics, ha ha ha.”

At some point he turned to me and said, “Don’t mind us. We’re from a different walk of life.”

I said, “I’m fine; we’re fine here.”

Then they started talking with me. The guy who was standing asked what I was reading, and I explained that it was a book about Jewish law and how it can inform your spiritual life. He said he’s Muslim, but “I don’t judge anyone. I think we have to accept each other.” I said I agreed.

It came out that the man next to me, with the Russian accent, whose name was Yuri, fought in the Russian army in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. At one point he commented that Jews run the world, saying, “Look at Israel. America will do anything for Israel.”

I said, “Or maybe it’s not that Jews run the world, but that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.”

He waved a hand. “Let’s put that aside.”

I said, “Let’s put the whole thing aside.”

“OK,” he said.

A bit later he mentioned that his grandfather was “a big-time cohein in Russia.”

That surprised me because of the earlier Jews-running-the-world comment. I said, “You’re Jewish?”

“Of course,” he said.

Sometime in the course of this encounter it came out that these two men had just gotten out of prison, as in they literally had just gotten off the bus from Sing Sing, which explained the identical khaki clothing and the bags they carried.

I got off the train before they did. I found out that Yuri’s friend’s name was Marcellus, wished them well, and said goodbye, and they travelled on.

I felt that I’d had a remarkable glimpse into a world entirely different from the one I live in, and it felt like a huge privilege. I imagine the woman who jumped up and moved away when they got on the train felt afraid, or at least nervous, but throughout the experience I felt completely safe and not the slightest bit afraid. In a way that I didn’t understand, I felt protected. The moment that really showed how safe I felt was when Yuri commented about Jews running the world, I immediately pushed back. Had I felt the least bit that the situation was potentially dangerous, I wouldn’t have risked a conflict like that. I know that many of you would not have cared about whether there would be a conflict in that situation, but that’s not how I am. For me, my willingness to go there meant that I felt entirely safe, which seemed strange, given the situation. After I got off the train, I  thought, “That was amazing! And so weird! What was that?”

Then I found myself thinking, without wanting to detract in any way from Yuri and Marcellus’s humanity, that maybe they were angels. It was like the midrash said. “Before the angels have accomplished their task they are called [humans], when they have accomplished it they are angels.” And if they were angels, messengers, there must have been some task they were there to accomplish. At that time, I was dealing with feeling fearful in a number of ways, working on that issue in my spiritual and psychological life. I think they were there to show me that there are things in life and in the world that I’m not afraid of, that other people are. Wherever you are, Yuri and Marcellus, I hope things are going okay, and I thank you for being angels to me, for giving me a message I needed at that time.

I believe that whether we realize it or not, we may encounter angels in our lives, and we may be angels. As with God, we don’t have proof one way or the other of the existence of angels, divine messengers. We have no obligation to believe that they are real. But they are present in our tradition, and considering them may at least help us understand what our spiritual ancestors who invoked angels, mal’achim, were talking about.

Like the word “God,” the word “angel” can have different meanings. Many of you have heard me talk about God and say, “in whatever way you understand that word ‘God,’ which may mean the guiding voice of conscience inside us, or community, or the natural world, or the cosmos, or our sense of awe, etc.” In this sense, this word “angel” may mean: the person who showed up in a crucial moment with exactly the help we needed, or the person who made us realize something important about ourselves that we hadn’t realized before, or the comforting dream that comes in our sleep during a troubled time in our lives; or the pet that brings us comfort and companionship when we need it.

It might help us to name these kinds of experiences as angelic because it brings a sense of holiness to our lives and becomes part of our connection to the universe, to something greater than ourselves, something that cares about us. It might help us to feel that we are not alone, not ever.

Our Torah reading today is the Akeidah, in which Abraham very nearly sacrifices his beloved son Isaac. We read that when they arrive at the appointed mountain, they leave behind the two servant boys and continue on, the two of them, together. But when Abraham ties Isaac to that altar and raises the knife to slaughter him, how alone must he have felt in that moment! How could he not? But then he finds that he is not alone. There is an angel, a messenger of God, that stops him at the last moment.

It’s true that there aren’t angels that stop everything bad from happening. I don’t know why that is. It’s one of the mysteries, and that’s not a satisfying answer. It doesn’t satisfy me, and probably doesn’t satisfy a lot of you. But it’s also true that sometimes someone or something, a person or a feeling or an idea or a dream or a thought or an element of nature, comes when it is needed and makes things better—a little better or a lot better. And it’s true that sometimes we have the opportunity to be someone else’s messenger of God.

Let us look for those opportunities to be angels doing God’s work in the world. If we choose to, may we recognize where there are angels, mal’achim, messengers of God, in our lives. In the coming year, may we be surrounded by angels of Wonder, Strength, Understanding, and Healing, with the Presence of the Divine Source of Life over our heads, when we sleep and when we are awake. Amen and L’Shanah Tovah.

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