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Forgiveness--Yom Kippur 2018/5779

posted Sep 20, 2018, 3:24 PM by Heidi Hoover

In early September, a new memoir called Small Fry was published. It was written by the daughter of Steve Jobs, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. Steve Jobs was the founder of Apple computers, which expanded from personal computers to the iPhone and the iPad and other i-things. He died in 2011. I haven’t actually read the book, but there is a New York Times article about Lisa Brennan-Jobs and her memoir, and the article is fascinating.

The title of the article is “In ‘Small Fry,’ Steve Jobs Comes Across as a Jerk. His Daughter Forgives Him. Should We?” Lisa Brennan-Jobs has written a book that is her attempt to portray her life with Steve Jobs honestly, and to say that she loves him even though he treated her terribly in many ways, and that the good times she had with him far outweigh the bad.

Brennan-Jobs was born when her father was 23 years old, and for many years he denied being her father, even after a paternity test showed that he was. Once he did recognize her as his daughter, the Times article says, he often treated her viciously. Some examples, and how she interprets them:

When Steve Jobs told his daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs that the Apple Lisa computer was not named after her, it was not a cruel lie to a little girl, she insists — he was teaching her “not to ride on his coattails.”

When Mr. Jobs refused to install heat in her bedroom, he was not being callous, she says — he was instilling in her a “value system.”

When a dying Mr. Jobs told Ms. Brennan-Jobs that she smelled “like a toilet,” it was not a hateful snipe, she maintains — he was merely showing her “honesty.”


Today, Yom Kippur, is the last of this year’s Days of Awe. We are confessing, we are atoning, we are asking for forgiveness, perhaps we are also forgiving. The article about Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s memoir raises questions about how forgiveness works. There are some differences between approaches to forgiveness in different religious traditions—of course, we’re concerned with the Jewish approach.

Questions that we face all the time about forgiveness, but especially at this time of year, include: How does forgiveness work? Must we or should we or can we forgive someone who has not asked us for forgiveness? How do we go about forgiving? And who do we have the right to forgive?

In his book, On Apology, Aaron Lazare discusses different kinds of forgiveness: forgiveness without an apology; forgiveness (or partial forgiveness) in advance of an apology; and forgiveness after an apology.

The case of Lisa Brennan-Jobs is forgiveness without an apology. This kind of forgiveness is most often engaged in by people who are trying to relieve their own pain, the burden of anger or rage or hurt they are carrying, by forgiving the person who harmed them. In many cases the person who caused the harm has died, or they are otherwise inaccessible—the relationship has ended because it is traumatizing to interact with them or otherwise unhealthy or unsafe.

I don’t know if Brennan-Jobs’s approach is a healthy one: She appears to have interpreted events and behaviors by her father that seem to be nasty at best and abusive at worst as being his attempts to help her. She values the sweet, good moments and times they had together. It’s not my place to judge how she copes. I expect she has done what she needs to do to survive.

There are different kinds of forgiveness in Jewish tradition. One, mechila, means basically remitting a debt. We recognize that the person who harmed us no longer owes us anything. We might or might not feel loving toward them, but we let go of any expectation that they will pay us back in some way for the harm they’ve done.

Lazare points out in On Apology that if the person who harmed us is still around, and we decide to forgive them for ourselves without an apology, we may be giving up the chance to repair the relationship—because possibly, if we speak to them and tell them how they’ve harmed us, they might choose to apologize.

I want to emphasize that there are cases when it would be to no avail—and would be dangerous, emotionally or physically—to confront someone who has harmed us. The suggestion of telling someone they’ve harmed us to give them the chance to make amends is not for those situations. For many people it doesn’t feel safe to tell someone they’ve harmed us—there is a vulnerability to that, just as there is a vulnerability to asking for forgiveness. There is the potential to save and deepen relationships if we can trust people enough to tell them they’ve hurt us.

There are cases where people offer forgiveness—or partial forgiveness—first, which can make it possible for the person who did the harm to then apologize. In this case, the harmed person starts the journey, and the person who did the harm meets them partway, and they proceed to full repentance and forgiveness together.

The third, and probably the most desirable outcome for most of us when someone has hurt us, is for the person to wish to make things right, and to attempt to do so. If they are sincere, and if we believe them, we often can forgive. Aaron Lazare writes that a sincere and honest apology “meets the psychological needs of the offended party. It restores the damage that was done. It heals a wound that will not heal spontaneously…. The apology restores the dignity of the offended party, assures that both parties share the same value system, assures the safety of the offended party, assures the offended party that the offender has suffered, as well as meets several other needs.” (On Apology, pp. 241-242)

A sincere apology for wrongdoing is not easy. When we ask someone we’ve harmed for forgiveness, we give them power, and we are vulnerable before them. For true teshuvah, David R. Blumenthal, professor of Judaic Studies at Emory, notes that there are five elements: Recognizing your own wrongdoing (hakarat ha-chet), feeling remorse (charata), confessing what you’ve done (vidui) desisting from the sin (azivat ha-chet), and making restitution when possible (peira’on). 

 A real apology begins with recognition that you’ve caused harm. Then you must feel and express remorse for having done it—regret for having done the action, not just regret for offense or hurt experienced by the other person. When given the opportunity to repeat the sin, you don’t do the same thing again. If possible, you must make restitution.

Not every situation calls for all of these steps in a detailed fashion. If you reach out to someone and say something like, “I cut you off in the meeting the other day—I’m sorry, and I’ll try to hear you out from now on,” and the person says, “Thanks, don’t worry about it,” you’re done.

And some situations require time before the harmed person forgives, because some hurts linger and are not easily healed regardless of the desire on the part of the person who did the harm to do t’shuvah. Sometimes the harmed person needs to see a real change in the other person before forgiveness is possible.

It can be hard to get a handle on what forgiveness is, and what it feels like. This is something I struggle with, and maybe you do too, sometimes.

Forgiveness can take different forms. One I already mentioned: mechila, when you recognize that the other person no longer owes you anything. For me, this is when I realize that perhaps the other person doesn’t have the capacity to recognize the harm they’ve done, so I let go of any expectation that they ever will. That might impact the relationship, in that I change my expectations of their behavior and consequently might not open up to them as much as I otherwise would. But I’m not waiting for them to make things right, and there’s a freedom to that.

Another way to bring yourself toward forgiveness may be to think about what you love about the person. If they have expressed remorse and you believe that remorse is real, seeing it in the whole context of a relationship that has more positive than negative in it could move you toward being able to forgive. Jewish tradition calls this s’licha. We recognize that the other person isn’t perfect, they express their remorse and intention to improve, and our relationship goes forward, and we care about each other knowing that we both have flaws, and scars from the pain that was caused.

The third kind of forgiveness in Jewish tradition is kappara. This is maybe the hardest to achieve, but the one we imagine we should be able to achieve. Kappara is wiping the slate clean. Not too long ago, I had the experience of telling someone very, very close to me that they had hurt me. It was very difficult for me. They responded with real remorse, and I felt the experience of kappara—I didn’t believe I could love them more, but I did. This is a rare and wonderful experience. It comes at times, but it is not the only way, so when it is not achievable, we look to other ways of forgiving that allow us to maintain relationships and move forward with our lives.

Finally, there is the question of who we forgive. In the New York Times article about Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s memoir, the headline says that she forgives him, and asks if we can forgive him. Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor and renowned Nazi hunter, wrote a book called The Sunflower. In it, he recounts a story from his time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He was taken to the bedside of a gravely wounded and dying German soldier. The soldier confessed to him about the atrocities he had committed in murdering Jews. He wanted to confess it to a Jew and be forgiven before he died. In the end Wiesenthal said he left the room without saying anything.

The second half of the book is 50 responses that Wiesenthal solicited from theologians and thinkers from around the world, of multiple religions, as to whether he did the right thing. Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of our greatest 20th century rabbis, responded from Jewish tradition:

No one can forgive crimes committed against other people. It is therefore preposterous to assume that anybody alive can extend forgiveness for the suffering of any one of the six million people who perished.

According to Jewish tradition, even God [God]self can only forgive sins committed against [Godself], not against [people].            (The Sunflower, p. 171)

By the same token, it is not up to any of us to forgive what Steve Jobs did to Lisa Brennan-Jobs. She is the only one who can forgive him for that. We have enough to do to work on forgiveness—even if that work is to decide whether it is even possible for us to forgive—without imagining that it’s our decision to forgive or not forgive those who have harmed others.

We come here together for Yom Kippur, and we ask God to forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. It isn’t easy to be here for this long day. It isn’t easy to think about what we’ve done wrong. I expect, though, that the prospect of asking for forgiveness from each other, or of telling people they have hurt us, is harder for many of us than going through that process with God, in whatever way we understand that word God.

We are here together so we can gather strength from each other. It’s not too late. Who do you still need to talk to? The gates of repentance are open. With whom will you make amends this year? May we mend the relationships that can be mended with courage, love, and hope. Amen and G’mar Chatimah Tovah—May you be sealed for a good year to come.

Challenges of Consolidation--Kol Nidrei 2018/5779

posted Sep 20, 2018, 3:03 PM by Heidi Hoover

Kol Nidrei. The melody is haunting, the words legalistic. “All vows—resolves and commitments, vows of abstinence and terms of obligation, sworn promises and oaths of dedication—that we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement, may it find us well: we regret them and for all of them we repent. Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone; they are not valid and they are not binding. Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves; and our oaths—they shall not be oaths.”


The passage—which is not technically a prayer—declares that vows we make to God and are unable to keep will be null and void. Though Kol Nidrei is very old—it has been part of Yom Kippur observances for well over 1000 years—it has never referred to vows, resolves, and commitments between people. Vows between people are binding. But sometimes, we make promises to ourselves or to God, and we’re not able to keep them.


For example, a hot-headed person might vow never to lose their temper again. How often can such a promise be kept? Rarely. How many people vow to go to the gym regularly, and fail to keep that vow? This is the kind of thing we’re talking about in kol nidrei.


Last year, all of us who are members of this temple entered into a vow with each other, a vow that is NOT nullified by kol nidrei. We vowed, we committed, we entered into a covenant with each other, to bring together two synagogues into one. The majority of both legacy congregations believed it was for the good of both congregations, as did I, as the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth, and as did Cantor Bernstein, as the spiritual leader of PTBAS.


I think most of us still believe that our consolidation is ultimately for the good of all of us.


That doesn’t make it easy.


In fact, just about the hardest thing a congregation can undertake is to combine with another congregation. Many of you have been through this before—both legacy congregations were themselves products of other consolidations. I don’t think that makes it easier either. I also don’t know how we’re doing compared to those other experiences. What I do know is that I, and I hope all of you, are doing the best we can to navigate it.


For many of us, it’s because we are committed to the future of this Jewish community. For others, perhaps, it’s because there’s not really another option.


I wonder how many of you know the story of Hernán Cortéz, the Spanish conquistador who arrived in the New World in 1519. He had 600 men with him, and once they landed, he burned his ships. There was no turning back—they had to triumph, or not, in the New World. Two years later, Cortéz and his men had conquered the Aztecs.


I don’t tell this story because I think of Cortéz as a hero. These days, many of us don’t accept the idea that it’s right and good to come from abroad and conquer indigenous peoples, even though that’s how the United States came to be here. But the story of Cortéz’s burning his ships is a story of absolute commitment.


As a congregation, we have burned our ships. We are legally one congregation, the building at 1515 46th St. will soon be sold. The only way to go is forward, the only thing to do is to make this project work.


We chose the name Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple. The acronym is “B’ShERT,” a Yiddish word that means “meant to be.” When something happens that seems completely fitting and right, we might say that it’s “b’shert.” If we meet someone, fall in love, and marry them, we might call that person our “b’shert.” If you are here for the first time and decide this is the right community for you and you want to become a member, it’s b’shert!


I have to tell you, though, I don’t really believe in “meant to be.” And even if I did, I’m not prepared at this moment to say that Temple Beth Emeth and Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom were meant to be joined into one congregation.


I do absolutely believe it was necessary for both our congregations, but this is not a marriage of love—it’s an old-fashioned kind of marriage—an arranged marriage for the material benefit of all.


When I was a kid, about once a year my family would go and have dinner at the Popats. Manilal and Jyoti Popat are friends of my family. Jyoti is from India, and Manilal is an ethnic Indian from Uganda. They got married probably around the same time my parents did, 1968, and they’re still married. Theirs was an arranged marriage. One time my dad said to Manilal, “How can you marry someone you didn’t choose yourself? Someone you’ve just met? How can you commit to spend the rest of your life with someone if you’re not in love with them?”


Manilal replied, “How can you commit to spend the rest of your life with someone based on something as ephemeral as your emotions at a given time?”


We know that many marriages, whether they’re arranged or entered into by a couple in love, do end in divorce, and that there are plenty of successful marriages of both kinds, too.


Arranged marriages that succeed often deepen into love, and at that point, couples might look back and say, “It was b’shert.”


Psychologist John Gottman has studied married couples for decades to try to learn why marriages succeed or fail, and in fact he wrote a book called Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. One of the key points in his book is that a healthy relationship has five positive interactions for every negative interaction. He doesn’t say people shouldn’t argue or disagree, but that there are healthy and less healthy ways to do it. And regardless of the personalities and communication styles of those involved, marriages worked when there were 5 positive interactions for every negative one.


We are one congregation now, one family. Many people worked hard to arrange this union, to prepare for it as best we could. We are at the beginning of this relationship. Regardless of whether a union is arranged or entered into out of love, it is only when you actually come together that you learn who leaves their smelly socks on the floor instead of putting them in the laundry, who leaves the cap off the toothpaste, who insists on setting the air conditioner to 68 degrees and who doesn’t want it to be on at all.


Many years ago, when Mike and I had been living together for a little while, I had a popcorn habit. Air-popped, lots of butter and salt. (I apologize for bringing this up on a fast day.) You know when you make popcorn, you put it in a big bowl, pour on the butter and sprinkle the salt, and then you toss it. So that is what I did, pretty much daily, in our tiny kitchen. Well, when you toss the popcorn, there are little bits of chaff and pieces of popcorn shell that don’t make it back into the bowl, and they were settling on the counter. I didn’t even notice, but it bothered Mike. One day he said, “Look, do you think you could do that over the sink instead of over the counter, so the popcorn dust goes in the sink?” I said, “Yeah, I can do that,” and that’s what I’ve done ever since. It was just one tiny piece, one little irritant in our relationship that was removed.


Since I know all of us have been in close relationships with other people over the course of our lives, whether with parents, children, friends, or spouses, I expect most of us would agree that there are a million little irritants in relationships. Mike and I resolved the popcorn one constructively and pretty easily. We don’t always do it that well.


When we came together in this building last year just after the High Holidays, we quickly began to notice irritants in the relationship—some big, some small. As in any relationship, some of them we resolve, some of them we live with, and some of them are still an issue every time they come up. Over time, I hope and believe that things will become smoother.


Having committed to becoming one congregation and having metaphorically burned our ships so that there’s no going back, we all need to focus on the success of our new congregation—not for the sake of the congregation itself alone, but for our own sakes. We each need to find our place and the way we can feel comfortable here.


There are those who believe that Judaism is a religion of guilt, of beating our breasts and feeling bad. It isn’t. That is only one component of Judaism. At this time of year, we do face our guilt, and some of us literally do beat our breasts in our confession and repentance. But the point of this is not to continue feeling bad—it is to release the guilt and bad feelings, forgive others, and forgive ourselves. Our goal at the conclusion of Yom Kippur is to feel free of guilt, to have the sensation that we really are starting fresh, starting over.

Two congregations moved in together October 21 of last year. Some people were enthusiastic, some were cautiously optimistic, some were sad, some were angry. Some had mixed emotions, including all the ones I’ve mentioned and more.


And there has been damage. Feelings have been hurt, people have felt disenfranchised, people have felt attacked. Some of us have hurt others by mistake—because we didn’t understand that something unimportant to us was important to someone else; because of poor communication; because of what we just didn’t know about each other. Some of us have hurt others out of our own pain—we have lashed out, or been passive-aggressive, or scoffed at other people’s ideas.


Now is the time to leave that in the past. To ask for forgiveness if we are aware of harm we have done, to forgive if we are asked to—and if we can, to forgive even when have not been asked to do so.


We are in this together, and we are going to continue to be in this together. Yom Kippur urges us all to wipe the slate clean, let go of our resentments that have built up over the past year, and give each other another chance. This is something we must find a way to do in any long-lasting relationship—whether of close friends, in a marriage, or among members of a community like ours. EVERY close relationship has conflict, hurt, and grievance. We are called upon in ANY close relationship to move on from those hurts, by apologizing, asking for forgiveness, and forgiving.


When we let go of resentment, when we forgive, when we wipe the slate clean, we have the opportunity to deepen our relationships, get to know wonderful and interesting things about each other that we never saw before. Because a clean slate is also an open heart, and when we look and listen with our hearts open we encounter one another in a different way than when we are guarded and suspicious because of our pain.


I’ve gotten to know quite a few of you at least a little bit, and I’m here to tell you, every person here is worth knowing. Every member of our community is worth knowing. Let us open our hearts to one another and discover the richness of our community. As we do so, we will build trust, which will make us better able to work together and be together.


There is a little bit of irony to the word “b’shert.” I expect that many of us know of a relationship or two in which the couple didn’t like each other at first, or there were other circumstances that made a union between them impossible. Then things changed, they got together, and a long time later, they look back and say: “It was b’shert.” It was meant to be. We don’t always know that something is meant to be at the beginning. And to a certain extent, it is our openness to a relationship and our commitment to it that can make it feel, at some point, that even though it didn’t seem so at first, that that relationship was b’shert, meant to be.


So our new name, B’ShERT, is already true for some people. Some of us are enjoying this union, and believe that it is meant to be. For others of us, the name B’ShERT is aspirational. It is upon us to live out our commitment to one another and create a healthy and loving community, so that one day we will be able to look back and say, “It wasn’t at first, but I can see now that this was b’shert—this was meant to be.” And it will have been, because we made it that way.


May our confessions, our prayers, and our worship this Yom Kippur help us to value our commitments and our relationships. May they bring us to the ability to forgive and to ask for forgiveness—not just with God, but between one another. May we recommit ourselves to the health and growth of this community as a supportive, spiritually rich environment where every nefesh, every soul, who enters here can feel the warmth and find a home, and feel that it’s b’shert.


Amen and G’mar Chatimah Tovah—May you be sealed for good in the year to come.

Sarah and #metoo--1st day of Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

posted Sep 20, 2018, 2:52 PM by Heidi Hoover

Note: This year we read Genesis 21 for the first day of Rosh Hashanah's Torah reading, about the birth of Isaac, and Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael. In past years we have read Genesis 22, about the binding of Isaac--the Akeidah.

Also please note that in my interpretation here, Ishmael is a human being and a character in the story--I'm not considering him as the progenitor of Islam here--it's an analysis of these characters as people, and relating them as people to our situation today. I am not in any way impugning Islam here.

How many of you were surprised by today’s Torah reading and found it unexpected? How many people are used to hearing the reading of the Binding of Isaac, the Akeidah, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah?

The Akeidah and the reading we did today, about Isaac’s birth and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, are both traditional readings for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, depending on which tradition you’re used to. They share some themes that are appropriate to this season of the year, including trust, obedience, and near-death experiences. Both stories are difficult. Both involve Abraham endangering the life of one of his sons—in the Binding of Isaac, he directly threatens his son Isaac’s life because he nearly sacrifices him. In today’s reading of Genesis chapter 21, he indirectly threatens his son Ishmael’s life by sending him an Hagar into the wilderness where they almost die. In both cases, God saves the boy.

Of course, there are differences between the stories as well. In the Akeidah, Sarah is entirely absent. The Torah text gives no indication that she has any idea what Abraham is up to, even after the fact. In the story we read today, Sarah is deeply involved and is the one who demands that Hagar and Ishmael be thrown out of the household.

Let me review today’s reading, which may not be as familiar as the Akeidah.

At the beginning of our passage, Abraham and Sarah’s son, whom God promised to them, is born. Sarah, who laughed at the absurdity of the idea when God told Abraham that she would have a son, laughs here again. This time her laughter seems triumphant, joyful. She names her son Yitzchak, Isaac, which means “he will laugh.”

Now Isaac was the first child born to Sarah by Abraham, but about 14 years earlier, convinced that she would not be able to get pregnant and give birth to an heir for Abraham, Sarah had given him her servant Hagar to be a surrogate mother for their child. At that time Hagar got pregnant and Ishmael was born. The relationship between Sarah and Hagar soured while Hagar was pregnant, because the power balance between them shifted. Sarah was Hagar’s mistress and Hagar was the servant, but her power grew when she was able to have a baby while Sarah was not. This was not in today’s Torah reading; it happened earlier, and I mention it so that we recognize that the relationship between the two women was likely tense, at best.

After Isaac’s birth, bris, and naming, the text jumps straight to the party for when he is weaned. It’s likely he is about five years old at this time, which would make Ishmael 18 or so. Then something happens. Sarah looks at Ishmael and sees him doing something she doesn’t like. She goes to Abraham and tells him she wants Ishmael and his mother out. Abraham is distressed because Ishmael is also his son, but God tells him to do what Sarah says, and that Ishmael too will become a great nation.

Abraham duly turns Hagar and Ishmael out. They run out of water and Hagar despairs. She lays Ishmael under a bush and goes away so she can’t hear him crying. Then an angel speaks to her, reassuring her that not only will they live, Ishmael’s descendants will be a great nation, and God shows her a well. She and Ishmael drink the water, they survive and live in the wilderness.

On the face of it, Sarah doesn’t look good in this story. Abraham doesn’t either. How could they turn a woman and her child out into the wilderness, for any reason? It seems wrong.

When we look at the reason Sarah wants them out, it hinges on one single word in the Hebrew: m’tzachek. At the weaning feast, Sarah looks over at Ishmael, and sees him “m’tzachek.” “M’tzachek” means “laughing.” Sometimes it is translated in other ways, as “playing,” or “making sport.” Sarah sees Ishmael laughing and wants him and his mother expelled from the household. She says, “…the son of this servant-woman will not share the inheritance with my son, not with Isaac.”

That seems like an extreme response to seeing her surrogate son laughing. Why would that lead her to take the drastic step of demanding they be thrown out? She must know that that is a very serious and life-threatening thing for them.

Our sages had that question. They concluded that there must be something dangerous, something not at all innocent, in Ishmael’s laughter. Which makes sense. Though the Torah does not communicate it, Sarah, though flawed, is not evil. Here are some possibilities our rabbis suggested, as summarized by the Jewish Women’s Archive:

In one view, Ishmael engaged in idolatry and Sarah saw him building pagan altars and trapping locusts, which he offered as sacrifices. According to a second opinion, Ishmael engaged in licentious sexual acts, and Sarah saw him “conquering the gardens” [a euphemism for raping women] and mistreating them. In yet a third exegetical notion, Ishmael engaged in bloodshed. Sarah saw him take a bow and arrows and shoot at Isaac [i.e., he was trying to kill him] (T Sotah [ed. Lieberman] 6:6). The three types of behavior depicted here are the three transgressions regarded by the Rabbis as cardinal, for which a person “should be killed rather than transgress” (see BT Sanhedrin 74a).[1]


For our purposes today, I would like to accept the second opinion, that when Sarah looked at Ishmael, she saw that he was engaged in mistreating women—sexually assaulting them.

If this is the case, it is understandable that she would not want him in the same household with her son, splitting the inheritance with him, and perhaps encouraging him to also violate women.

The #metoo movement seems like old news now, perhaps. The revelations about powerful men who have abused women have perhaps slowed down, though it was just this summer that the academic and professional Jewish world was rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct by Steven Cohen, the leading sociologist and demographer of American Jewry, which led to his stepping down from his position at Hebrew Union College. Other scandals and controversies, newer ones, are in the headlines.

But the problem of inappropriate sexual behavior has not been resolved. And the issues that arise in response to women’s speaking out are reflected in our Torah reading, when we accept the interpretation that Ishmael was engaging in sexual abuse of women.

First: Sarah, who is fairly powerful though she is a woman, which in her society limits her power, sees a man (remember, he’s about 18 years old) doing something bad to women who are less powerful than he is. I suggest they’re less powerful because even though Ishmael is the son of a surrogate, he is still Abraham’s older son, which likely gives him power in the household.

Sarah’s response is an attempt to exercise her power to remove Ishmael from the position of power he is in, that allows him to hurt women. And, as has happened to women in our time many, many times, the powerful man she tells the story to doesn’t believe it. She goes to Abraham, the head of the household, and tells him Ishmael and by extension his mother Hagar, must leave. Of course, that’s all the Torah tells us, and I’m imagining that Sarah would have told him more, if she saw Ishmael mistreating women.

Typically, powerful men who assault women are well respected. They have friends who can’t imagine they would behave in that way, partly because they’ve never witnessed that side of the man. So Abraham says (not in the text, the text says he is “grieved because it is his son.” But I imagine that if Sarah came to him and said, I saw Ishmael sexually assaulting women, he would say) “I can’t imagine him doing that. He is my son!”

Then God speaks to Abraham and tells him to do as Sarah says. Here, God is supporting Sarah, but in the least supportive way possible. As so often happens today, the whole responsibility is put upon women for what happens to men after they are exposed for their mistreatment of women. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah says, but God doesn’t tell Abraham to believe Sarah, or that she is right in wanting to remove Ishmael from the women he is hurting.

Abraham acquiesces, and Hagar and Ishmael have to leave.

It is hard for them in the wilderness. They almost die. We don’t usually look at this as something Ishmael brought upon them with his behavior. Rather, we blame Sarah for insisting that they leave, though in the reading we’re engaging with today, her insistence was based on his misconduct. We ignore that and blame her.

When I was in high school, I became friends with a teacher. He wasn’t my teacher, and I don’t even remember how I started talking to him. But I did, and I would stay after school and talk to him for hours. I admired him and thought he was great. I was 16 or 17, and he was 33. After a while, he invited me to meet him elsewhere, and because I liked him—though I wasn’t attracted to him—I agreed. We met in the woods, at his karate studio when there was no one else there, and once he took me to lunch at a restaurant far out of town where no one would see us. A couple of times he kissed me, which was very uncomfortable for me, because I wasn’t interested in him that way—I valued the friendship. He was bigger than I, and he had a black belt in karate. I am only lucky that when I told him to stop, he did. I was alone with him in isolated places, and no one knew where I was. I was very, very lucky that his abuse of power and inappropriate behavior with a student was limited in my case.

I went off to college and had my feminist awakening, and realized how inappropriate his behavior had been. I visited my high school on a break. I spoke to my former guidance counselor, who had also been a teacher and to whom I felt close. The principal, who had been a teacher when I was there, was also present for the conversation. I told them what had happened with this other teacher.

The fact that I told them, the people in the leadership of the school, should have made it their responsibility. But they deflected that back onto me: “Well, Heidi,” they said, “you could take this to the school board. If you do that, he will probably lose his job, and you have to decide if you want to be responsible for that. If it makes you feel any better, he has not had more relationships with student girls the way he did with girls in your year.”

They communicated to me that it would be my responsibility if he lost his job for behaving in a completely inappropriate way with me. I would be the one who took away his livelihood—it would not be him who jeopardized his own job with his behavior.

This is not uncommon. Men use their power over women inappropriately, women report them, and are informed that if the men lose any of their power, prestige, or position, that is the fault of the women who have brought the charges.

I am not bashing men. There was a system in place that favored men over women in the Torah, and that system has changed somewhat, but in many ways is still in place today. The people to whom men are reported might be women who still privilege men’s experience over women. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this, but the guidance counselor and principal who cautioned me that I would be responsible for my former teacher’s losing his job if I went to the school board? They were both women, complicit in our system. And of course, while it is less common, women in power sometimes also abuse their position.

To go back to Ishmael and Hagar: They don’t die in the wilderness. Their expulsion is not a death sentence. This matters too.

Restorative justice is a relatively new approach to justice. It is based on giving those who cause harm an opportunity to understand what is wrong about what they have done and to meet with those they have harmed—if the harmed parties are willing—to determine what would constitute making amends, and then making those amends.

I’m not suggesting that what happens to Hagar and Ishmael in the Torah is restorative justice. But one principle of restorative justice can be seen to be at play: You are not defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done.

God looks at Ishmael and says, “You too shall be a great nation.” He is removed from the household in which he has abused women, but it does not end his life. He will become a great nation, somewhere else. We might hope that he has learned to treat women better. The message is that there can be t’shuvah. There can be repentance, even from very bad behavior.

Here my analysis breaks down a little. It’s not at all clear that Ishmael does any t’shuvah. We have no text at all about his life within his household, and certainly none about how he went on to treat women.

The takeaway I’m suggesting for today’s Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is that we should consider who we automatically believe and who we don’t. We should consider who has power in our communities and who doesn’t, and whose testimony we privilege or don’t based on how much power they have.

It is so hard, when there is an accusation against someone who is powerful or beloved, or both, to honestly investigate that accusation in an unbiased way. It is so hard to stand up to someone who even has limited power when they are being inappropriate.

During Mike, our daughter Shoshi, and my trip to Israel this summer, there was an incident that I am ashamed of.

We were in a restaurant in Tel Aviv, sitting at the bar because no tables were available when we came in. It became clear after a little while that almost all of the other patrons in the restaurant were part of the same tour group, a Christian group from Canada. The bartender, who was also our waiter, began talking to a single woman who, it turned out, was part of this Canadian Christian group.

The bartender offered her a free shot of alcohol. She said, “No, thank you, I don’t drink.” He continued to push the shot on her, at great length. He poured a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream, talking about how little alcohol was in it, that it was fine. She continued to refuse, giggling but clearly uncomfortable. The others in her group watched and laughed, but seemed uncomfortable too. Mike and I smiled, but we too were uncomfortable. No one said anything, though. It went on. Eventually the bartender determined who her pastor was—he was also in the restaurant—and said he would ask her pastor if he would give her permission to drink this shot of alcohol. I don’t know what the pastor said, but I know that the women left at some point in this whole episode, her food unfinished.

When we finished and left, I felt that I had done wrong. I had watched a woman be badgered and mistreated, pushed to do something she did not want to do. And I had done nothing. Why? Because I didn’t want the bartender to dislike me or spit in my food, because I hoped maybe he’d want to offer me a shot of alcohol.

Here was a person with very limited power, a person taking orders and serving drinks and food. But socially, he had the power in that restaurant, so that he harassed a woman (I do want to say that while he did harm, I don’t think he intended to do harm), but he harassed a woman and no one stepped in to stop him. This is the usual way things go in our society.

So let us question the most obvious narrative. When someone who is traditionally less powerful in society indicts someone who is powerful, let us listen rather than dismissing the claim. Let us recognize that whatever downfall that powerful person may experience is not the fault of the person who spoke against them, but their own fault for the behavior they’ve finally been called exposed for.

It is very hard to stand against the powerful in any situation, even if their relative power is small outside the specific situation. Let us be strong and do the best we can to stand up for the weak against the strong, when necessary.

Sarah is not necessarily the villain of our Torah reading today. One interpretation is that she is the hero of women who are so powerless they are not mentioned at all—they are the subjects of Ishmael’s “laughing” or “playing” without it being said at all.

It is hard to be the hero who stands up for harmed people that no one else even notices. That person is very rarely recognized as a hero, and often suffers consequences for taking a stand.

Let us resolve to not let power or affection influence our assessment of accusations of misconduct by people in power—whether it is power at the state or national level, or power at the community level, or power in our personal relationships. Let us recognize that this is not a simple matter, and let us recognize how hard it is to be able to live out this resolution.

Let us have empathy for Sarah in our Torah reading, and for the modern Sarahs who have been cast as villains when they have sought to protect others from predators.

May we increase in strength in standing against injustice and in striving to judge fairly, uninfluenced by power of the personal or professional kind, as our tradition commands.

Amen and Shanah Tovah u’Metukah. May you have a good and a sweet new year.

[1] Kadari, Tamar. "Hagar: Midrash and Aggadah." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 6, 2018) <>.


Seeds of Creation, Justice, and Repentance--Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

posted Sep 20, 2018, 2:22 PM by Heidi Hoover   [ updated Sep 20, 2018, 2:25 PM ]

Here we are, hineinu, at the beginning of the ten days of repentance. Perhaps you have spent some time over the last month, the month of Elul, preparing yourself for these ten days. Traditionally, the month of Elul is a time of contemplation, of considering what we regret from the past year, and getting ready to atone for it. Perhaps Elul passed you by, but you are here now, wanting and hoping to have a spiritual experience, or wanting and hoping for revelation—to encounter an inspiring or thought-provoking insight, or maybe you are wanting and hoping to recapture a past experience of being in a place like this, for a purpose like this, with a loved one who is not beside you anymore.

Whatever brought you here, I welcome you. This year we are using a machzor, a High Holiday prayerbook, called Mishkan HaNefesh, which translates to Sanctuary of the Soul. It is new to many of you. I find that it has really lovely poetry that is moving and sometimes gives a new perspective to help with our soul-searching. I hope you find that it opens spiritual doors for you.

At the end of December and the beginning of January, I went on a trip to Israel. While there, I had a tour of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. There was an exhibit by the renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. One installation of the exhibit was a large room in which the middle part of the floor was covered, in a rectangle maybe six inches deep, of these: [hold up porcelain sunflower seed]. Can you see what this is? [Most will not.]

Porcelain sunflower seeds by artist Ai Wei Wei
What you cannot see is a sunflower seed. But it’s not just any sunflower seed. It didn’t grow out of a sunflower. Instead, it was made by hand out of porcelain by a Chinese craftswoman. Millions of these made up that art installation. They are exquisite, and each one is different. I have a few here which I’m going to pass around so that you can examine them more closely. I do want these back, please.

I am moved by the use of millions of these individually made seeds. At Rosh Hashanah, we remember the creation of the world—we will read the account of the seven days of creation the day after tomorrow. A seed is the tiny reminder of how we can begin with something very small and grow it into something huge. As Thomas Fuller wrote in his Gnomologia in 1732: “The greatest oaks have been little acorns.” Also, sunflowers that end up taller than we are grow from little seeds like these.

Ai Weiwei, the artist who conceived this project, did not make the seeds himself. Sixteen hundred craftspeople, all from the same town in China, Jingdezhen, made them. As we make our way in the world, we are like the craftspeople, working together with the artist, God, in the ongoing process of creation.

I want to clarify, as I often do, that there are many ways to understand that word God, so I don’t want that word to trip you up as you pray and listen to me talk this High Holiday season. When I speak of God as the artist, that may be to you an abstract process of the cosmos developing and our having a part in it. Alternatively, perhaps you think of an active force or being. Perhaps you think of whatever is in the world that is not yourself. I encourage you to use whatever God-concept works for you.

As we consider our partnership in creation with the God-concept that works for us, I invite you to think about what seeds you’ve planted in the past year. What have you begun to create? Are you growing knowledge, patience, compassion? Are you growing fear, resentment, pain? I find that sometimes seeds of resentment and anger grow quickly, like weeds, fertilized by rumor, suspicion, and mistrust. Seeds of love and compassion can be harder to nurture, especially if the soil is rocky or low in nutrients.

I invite you to consider what you want to nurture and what you want to try to weed out. When we say that God created the world, that means God created all of it—the good and the bad, what we like and what we don’t like. So those parts of ourselves that we might consider weeds—the anger, the resentment, the meanness, to name a few possibilities—also come from God and have their place. A weed is just a plant growing where you don’t want it. So let’s consider carefully—when was our anger justified and when was it misplaced? When did we react to our anger in a healthy way and when did we let it harm us or others?

Even plants that are desirable in most cases may be considered weeds in others. Were there times when we allowed ourselves to be hurt because we were trying to be compassionate to others? Were there times when it would have been appropriate to stand up for ourselves more and take care of other people less?

Let us nurture the seeds of creation that we planted over the past year, and that we will begin to plant during these Days of Awe, so that they grow into plants as big and beautiful as sunflowers. May we work to control the growth of what is less desirable to us. And let us remember that each of the seeds we plant is unique, and ours alone, to care for or to weed out.

When the artist Ai Weiwei began the project of making millions of porcelain sunflower seeds, he decided to have them made, as I mentioned, in Jingdezhen, China. 1600 craftspeople were employed to make them. That is a high enough proportion of the townspeople that everyone knew someone working on the project. Everyone in this town used to make porcelain for the emperor’s court, but now there is little work for them.

Ai Weiwei chose the craftspeople of Jingdezhen because of their skill and the connection to the precious porcelain that was made there. He also chose them in order to bring employment to the town, to give them the dignity that comes with using their skill and being paid for it. This kind of social awareness is important to him, and it is also in line with our Jewish ethics. Maimonides, one of our great sages who lived about 1000 years ago, created a ladder of tzedakah. All tzedakah—giving money to help the poor—is required and valuable, but giving grudgingly is at a lower level than giving willingly, for example. The highest level of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is giving someone a job at which they can make enough money not to need monetary help anymore. That is precisely what Ai Weiwei did in employing the craftspeople of Jingdezhen. His sunflower seeds are also seeds of justice.

I invite you to consider on this Rosh Hashanah, at the beginning of the 10 days of self-evaluation and repentance: what are the seeds of justice you have planted in the past year, and what seeds of justice do you want to plant in the coming year? Did you attend a protest or contact a politician? To which organizations did you give tzedakah over the past year? Did you have a plan for your tzedakah or did you give as you were moved to? Do you want to do it the same way for the coming year? How much did you help to support this congregation, to help bring it toward financial health? Are you satisfied with what you did over the past year to increase justice in our world? How will you help in the pursuit of justice in the coming year?

We do not all have the ability to give jobs to others. We do have the ability to be ethical in our business dealings, to give tzedakah, to advocate for policies that we believe will contribute to more justice for all of us.

Let us examine our conduct from the past year and atone for times when we haven’t lived up to our own and our tradition’s ideals for justice, and let us do better in the coming year.

When I saw Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds installation in the Israel Museum, a million or more porcelain sunflower seeds placed in an inches-thick carpet dominating the center of the large room, I just wanted to play with them. My fingers ached to touch them. Then the guide pointed out two boxes, one at each entrance to the room, with the sunflower seeds in them for people to play with! I was so excited and loved running my fingers through them, picking them up and examining them. You are having the opportunity to examine individual seeds, but I don’t have enough to really play with them. I wish I did.

The boxes in the museum with the sunflower seeds you could play with were about a foot square, and maybe a quarter or a third full with seeds. Our guide said there used to be a lot more of them in there—people would steal them. Once you’ve had a chance to examine the ones going around the room, maybe you’ll understand the temptation. Please note that mine are NOT stolen from the museum, I bought them in the gift shop.

Then the guide told us something that I found fascinating. At High Holiday time, she said, the seeds start to come back. Museum personnel will find them under benches, and envelopes containing porcelain sunflower seeds will come to the museum. When Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come, some of the people who have stolen seeds feel bad about it and return them.

Of course, it’s not okay to steal from museums—or from anywhere, for that matter. But in this case, there were some people who took that sin, repented, and repaired what they did as much as they could, by returning what they stole. They turned those sunflower seeds into seeds of repentance.

Perhaps there are small things over the past year that we regret. Deeds that are tiny in themselves, like seeds, but that can grow into something much larger. For example, one small lie often requires another, and another, and another, to maintain the first one, growing from a tiny deception into a big one.

I’ve heard that most cases of embezzlement from a company start small, with an employee taking a small amount of money, intending to pay it back later. But then the amount gets larger and larger until the person is caught.

When someone does something wrong and tries to cover it up, whether it’s a child who breaks something and hides it or a politician who breaks the law or has an affair and tries to cover it up, the cover-up is almost invariably worse than the initial wrongdoing.

So what are the actions from the past year that we need to repent and atone for while they are still seeds, before they grow into bigger wrongdoing? What are the things we need to forgive in others before they grow in our minds into resentment that can destroy relationships?

Let us bring back the seeds of wrongdoing that have not yet grown into something bigger, repent and atone for the small things, and forgive the small things, while they are still small.

Has everyone had a chance to check out the Ai Weiwei sunflower seeds? Where are they now? Ushers, would you please collect them and bring them back to me? There are 8 of them.

And now I’d like to pass around these boxes. They, too, have sunflower seeds, but these are natural ones, from actual sunflowers. I’d like to invite each of you, if you choose, to take three of them.

The three seeds I’m inviting you to take represent:

·               A seed of creation

·               A seed of justice

·               A seed of repentance

My invitation to you is to keep these seeds with you tonight and until Tashlich, and think about the following:

·               For the seed of creation—what have you created in the past year that you wish you hadn’t? It could be an object, a feeling, a habit, anything that you’ve started in the past year that you’ve found isn’t good for you, or isn’t good for someone else.

·               For the seed of justice—what opportunity have you missed this past year to plant seeds of justice, to bring more justice into the world? Or what have you done that you regret, that actually contributed to the injustice in the world?

·               For the seed of repentance—what would you like to take back from the coming year, what would you like to be able to reverse? What small things do you want to atone for so that they cannot grow bigger?

Having thought about all this, bring your three seeds with you to Tashlich and throw them away, throwing away with them the guilt that has accumulated around actions you regret from the past year.


·               Consider what your seed of creation will be for the coming year—what do you want to create in your own life for a good year?

·               Consider what your seed of justice will be for the coming year—how will you plant a little more justice in this world to make the coming year better?

·               Consider what your seed of repentance will be for the coming year—what are you repenting of now, during this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that you are committed not to repeat this coming year?

Flowers lean toward the sun, their source of nourishment. Our tradition, including our God—in whatever way we understand that word “God”—is our source for spiritual nourishment. The coming 10 days, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, are our time to face ourselves honestly, to consider what we regret from the past year and what we are grateful for, to re-orient ourselves toward God as the Source of All Being and the Source of our Spiritual Nourishment.

May our self-assessment be fruitful. May we tend our souls, trimming and weeding and nurturing and feeding ourselves so that we grow to be better this year than we were last year: healthier, stronger, kinder, and more just. Amen and Shanah Tovah u’Metukah—may you have a good and a sweet new year.                                                    --Rabbi Heidi Hoover

(Check out this wonderful video about Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds installation, originally at the Tate Modern in London: )

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.

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