October 3, 2019
In our High Holiday Machzor (prayer book for Yom Kippur), Mishkan HaNefesh, we find a section on gratitude (pages 396 397). I usually include this reading in our service:
What has happened in my life, since last Yom Kippur, that makes me thankful?
Have I grown during the past year in my ability to experience and express gratitude?
Am I consistent in expressing gratitude to loved ones and friends? Do I look for things to feel grateful for, or things to complain about?
Do I feel appreciated by others? What have I done during the past year that has earned someone else’s gratitude?
What blessings have nourished me in recent years? What are some miracles that greet me every day?
During these Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I invite you to answer these for yourself. I too have been pondering these questions, while reflecting on the past 12 years during which I have been privileged to be Emeth’s Rabbi. These Holy Days represent the start of my “bat mitzvah” year with you. Included in my Erev Rosh Hashanah d’var Torah,(sermon), I talked about the importance of being aware of the blessings in our lives and expressing gratitude. So, in keeping with that message and the questions posed in our Machzor, I would like to use this week’s HaMadrich as my opportunity to thank each of you for being such a blessing in my life.
During our years together, we have seen the congregation grow steadily, both in numbers but more important in engagement of our members through excellent programs. The quantity and quality of activities that we are able to offer all ages gives me great pride. When I began, we had services twice a month and religious school twice a month. Now we have weekly Shabbat services and Torah study, and religious school every week (except for school holidays). We are involved in the communities where we live, representing Judaism in Morgan Hill, Gilroy, San Martin, Hollister, and South San Jose. We are actively engaged in interfaith and social action programs, responding where the need calls us. Our teens participate in temple life, and I treasure the relationships we build together.
Every day I thank God for the privilege of being your Rabbi. I thank you for your trust and support. You have also allowed me to make mistakes and grow as a spiritual leader, and for that I am especially grateful. I take your constructive feedback as well as your compliments to heart and learn so much from you. The bar/bar mitzvah year is a year of acquiring more knowledge and spiritual growth. I pray that will be true of my bat mitzvah year with you.
May you be written and sealed in the Book of Life. Shabbat shalom and Shana tova.
We are Stewards of this Planet
September 25, 2019
All chapters of Torah have great lessons to teach us, and this week is no exception. This Torah parsha (weekly Torah reading) is so important that it is repeated in the Torah reading on Yom Kippur.
The Torah parsha begins: “You are standing this day all of you before Adonai your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; that you should enter into the covenant of Adonai your God…”
This is a message of inclusion. Moses has an important lesson to teach us: everyone counts! He doesn’t deliver his message exclusively to the priests. He doesn’t only speak to the heads of the tribes. No, he speaks to the entire community as equals – the wise elders along with the woodcutters and water drawers. In a time when women were not held as equals in society, Moses speaks to them equally.
The message is clear: every single person is important in God’s eyes and everyone has a vital role to play. Notice that “your little ones” is included in this list. This week, the remarkable 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, reminded us that we are all citizens of this planet and share jointly and equally in the responsibility to care for it. She challenged us, “How dare you” to have let our climate reach this emergency condition. And she is right. We selfishly exploited our planet for our own immediate gratification at the expense of future generations. Our own children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will suffer because of us. How dare us indeed. And fixing this problem doesn’t only rest in the hands of politicians and world leaders. It is the responsibility of all of us – from the elders to the “little ones”, each of us is absolutely and immediately responsible.
It is time for all of us to come together and demand immediate change. This is Torah talking to us! Torah forbids wanton destruction. Destruction of nature entails the violation of a biblical prohibition, ba’al tashchit – do not destroy (Deuteronomy 20:19). We are all too late learning the wisdom of our ancient sages who wrote this midrash (elaboration on the Torah): “When G-d created Adam, God took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and God said to him, ‘Look at My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything that I have created, I created for you. Take care not to damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it after you.’” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)
Greta Thunberg is teaching us this fundamental lesson about being stewards of this planet. We are damaging this world and assuming the next generation will repair it for themselves. Greta warns us, there is no one to repair it if we don’t.
In these final days of soulful preparation before the High Holy Days, let us make this fundamental change: to be more conscious of everything we do that could potentially damage our planet. We can live without plastic straws (I have non-disposable ones I carry with me). We don’t have to put our vegetables in individual plastic bags in the grocery store. We must stop wasting resources. These are small steps every one of us can take.. And the bigger steps? Demand our national leaders act like leaders and take action to protect our natural world.
May you have a week of blessings, a Shabbat of peace, and a new year of health, joy, and repair.
Our Ketubah With God
September 18, 2019
Adonai your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul. You have affirmed this day that Adonai is your God, that you will walk in God’s ways, that you will observe God’s laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey God. And God has affirmed this day that you are, as God promised you, God’s treasured people who shall observe all God’s commandments…and that you shall be, as God promised, a holy people to your God.” (Deuteronomy 26:16-19)
A Jewish wedding ceremony begins with the signing of the ketubah, the wedding contract. Like any contract, the ketubah expresses the terms of the agreement. This week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo (“when you go” – meaning when you enter the Land of Israel), is in many ways a ketubah between God and the Jewish people. This section of Torah summarizes what God expects of us in our loving relationship. It is a version of expressing the promise to forsake all others and, in return, God will love us in sickness and in health. We have both a spiritual connection to God and a legal obligation as expressed in this Torah reading.
We read these words as we prepare ourselves for the High Holy Days, giving the words special meaning. “This Hebrew month of Elul is the time to be reaffirming our relationship with the Holy One. We struggle to become closer just as we pray that God will show loving compassion on us and forgive us for any errors we made during the past year. We all make mistakes, in our relationships with parents, spouses, friends, children, employers or employees – and God. This is the time to make amends for those errors and to ask for forgiveness, remembering that we are God’s treasured people – and as such we have specific moral and ethical obligations.” (Rabbi’s Message, HaMadrich, 2008)
Reminders as We Prepare for the Days of Awe
September 10, 2019
Today’s date on the Hebrew calendar puts us right in the middle of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the High Holy Days. In preparations for the season of repentance, I hope you are giving considerations to changes to your behavior, as I am. It’s hard work, and I’d rather be binge-watching a favorite show. But that escapism takes me away from the hardest task of all, changing my behavior. I notice that every year I return to the same difficult character trait in need of repair.
As I do this work, I take comfort in knowing that the Holy One is on my side, rooting for me to get on with it and take concrete steps to be a better me. One way I put myself into the space of connecting with God is by reciting the evening prayer, Ahavah Rabbah (“a lot of love) or the morning prayer, Ahavat Olam (“eternal love”). These prayers have slightly different words but the same theme: God’s love for us is deep and unending.
Traditional Jewish belief is that God will always be there for us, regardless of what we have done or how we think of ourselves. This is an important reminder during this time of the year, as we go through our spiritual checklist in preparation for the Days of Awe. As we struggle to make changes, to improve, we are reminded that God is with us, giving us strength and courage.
Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue
September 4, 2019
This week’s Torah parasha (designated Torah reading) is titled Shoftim, translated as Judges. The parasha begins with the command to appoint judges for all of the tribes, in all of the settlements.
Deuteronomy 16:20 is among the most known and always relevant Torah verses: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (“Justice, justice you shall pursue”). This is the classical source of Judaism’s stand that justice must be fair and equitable for all people, using procedures that protect all people, rich and poor alike, and safeguard that just verdicts are issued.
We know this word tzedek, justice. We use it when we talk about “charity” or distribute gifts to those in need – tzedakah. This term, tzedek, is found 118 times in the Hebrew Bible! The prophets in particular used this word as the foundation for social justice. You may be familiar with the quote used by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 1963: “Let justice (tzedakah) roll down like waters.” (Quoting the Prophet Amos 5:24)
This parasha, read during the Hebrew month of Elul when we are preparing ourselves for the High Holiday season by self-evaluating and introspection, is most timely. How are we applying the principles of tzedek in our lives? Do we take care of the poor? Do we support businesses that exploit their workers? Do we stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves?
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue. This is the foundation of a just society.
An Open Letter to President Donald Trump
August 24, 2019
“I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
– President Donald Trump
Dear Mr. Trump,
I had already prepared a message to my congregation on the theme of gratitude. Then, before hitting the send button, I read your outrageous, offensive, and demeaning statement that “…any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Then this morning, Wednesday, you repeated your accusation, saying, “If you want to vote Democrat, you are being very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel.”
By virtue of my position as a Rabbi, I consider myself a leader of the Jewish people and I cannot stand silently by while you repeat anti-Semitic tropes that have been used by those who want to do my people harm. I do not engage in name-calling because I try to follow a principle of avoiding what is referred to in Judaism as “the evil tongue.” But Mr. President, you have called me either stupid or disloyal to the United States if I do not agree with your vision of America. I am neither stupid nor disloyal.
In an article in the Business Insider in April, 2012, CJ Grisham wrote the following about loyalty from a soldier’s perspective: It’s easy for troops to display loyalty to their leaders. Often, they have no choice. We are in a profession that demands loyalty to ensure success on the battlefield and preparing for it. However, loyalty doesn’t mean being a “yes man.” There is a delicate balancing act that must be undertaken to ensure that, for example, a Soldier’s loyalty to his supervisors doesn’t contradict his loyalty to the Constitution. This is why Soldiers are allowed to disobey unlawful orders.”
Mr. Trump, like the soldiers employed to defend our country, the Jewish community understands that our loyalty is to the Constitution. Our devotion to the United States permits us to disagree with its leaders in the interest of the greater good.
You have evoked a tireless anti-Semitic trope in your accusation. Charges of disloyalty have long been used to attack Jews. I must ask you, what is your motivation for this hateful attack? Are you, as others implied, attempting to stir anti-Jewish sentiments with the intent to do us harm? By your words, you are teaching others that Jews must be suspect and that Jews are disloyal to America. What do you think will be the consequence of your words?
I am calling on my Republican congregants to immediately communicate with your office and with Republican congressional representatives and senators, imploring them to demand that you disavow this statement immediately. And I trust that my Democratic congregants will not be kowtowed by your attempt to isolate them as disloyal Americans.
In loyalty to the United States of America.
Awe and Wonder
August 13, 2019
This week’s Torah reading begins with Moses’ plea to God: “I pray, let me go over and see the good land…that goodly hill-country…” This is but one example of many in Scriptures that describe our deep love and special relationship with nature.
Our biblical ancestors’ experiences as farmers and herders gave us poetry that reflects the landscapes of the natural world. Not only the imagery of goodly mountains but also the trees, brooks, and native animal life of ancient Palestine. The psalms sing praises to God’s natural world; the leading one perhaps is Psalm 104, which uses the world of nature to praise God’s grandeur: “Bless the Eternal, O my soul. God established the earth on its foundations so that it shall never totter; You made the deep cover it as a garment; the waters stood above the mountains…Mountains rising, valleys sinking, to the place You established for them…How many are the things You have made, O Eternal, You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations…”
Through biblical passages and history, we learn continuously that the earth belongs to God and we are only tenants dwelling upon it. As good tenants, we must appreciate this mighty gift and strive to treat it — our earth — with love and respect as an expression of our appreciation to God for providing it. Judaism celebrates the divine presence in all of nature and affirms our kinship to all of God’s creatures and to the land.
In this week’s parasha, we also read the Shema, the watchword of Judaism, the fundamental truth of our faith. We declare that God is One, and in so doing we assert that everything exists as part of God — that God is in all of creation. God is the force that binds all of it — nature, animals, and humanity — God is the force that makes it one.
The great rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught through his writings that religion begins with a sense of awe and wonder. Perhaps that is why, when we look at a mountain or the ocean, we feel more religious, closer to God, than at any other time…it is the awe and wonder that comes from the majesty of nature.
This is the ideal parasha to read at our annual Shabbat in the Redwoods. Under the crown of the giant Redwoods, we feel the awe and wonder in a most intimate way.
Taking Responsibility: What Can We Do?
August 7, 2019
This week we observe Tisha B’Av (literally the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. It is on this day many calamities happened to the Jewish people, most notably the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples in Jerusalem.
The Rabbis who lived in the centuries after the destruction of the Temples tried to find meaning in its destruction. In the case of the First Temple, they identified the cause was idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. During the time of the Second Temple, the cause of its destruction was sinat chinam, causeless hatred of one Jew toward another.
But this is not a teaching to which I ascribe. I do not believe that we are collectively punished because of the sins of others, even the sin of causeless hatred. I do not accept that God singles out any one or any group and causes catastrophes to occur. I don’t believe some of us are blessed and some are not. I see God as loving and forgiving.
However, I do think there are lessons to be learned from this interpretation of causeless hatred. We are witnessing that now in our beloved country – in Gilroy, in El Paso, in Dayton. The fallen Temples represent our fallen America right now. All of us are sickened by these domestic terrorist attacks but we each rationalize the cause depending on our political viewpoint. This finger pointing stops us from working together to find solutions. It is evidence of causeless hatred rather than collective will.
Each of us must take responsibility for this internal war against values we hold dear. Depending on our personal perspectives, we will have different answers and solutions. But causeless hatred cannot continue to divide us if we are to heal our societal wounds. Right now, each of us must ask ourselves: what can I do to improve our country? How can I stop the madness? We need to be unified against hate and it starts with each one of us.
We cannot let America become the fallen Temples in our time.
“God is near to the broken hearted” Psalms 34.19
July 31, 2019
This week, we are all among the broken-hearted. Twice in as many months a terrible shooting occurred, one in Morgan Hill at the Ford dealership and now in Gilroy, at our beloved Gilroy Garlic Festival.
We are shocked and sickened that an event so treasured by South County and beyond could be torn asunder in this way. Even though we relinquished our Photo Booth this year, all of us are connected to the Festival like friends and family. We cannot believe someone would do in this our town, to our friends and family, because even if we never heard their names before they are like family to us.
I will not honor the shooter by giving him a name. We can never understand or justify this kind of explosion of hatred. We try to explain it, because it’s the only way to make sense of it.
When the tears stop flowing, we will argue the merits of further restrictions on the availability of fire arms and more sensible national gun laws. While we may not agree with solutions, we cannot argue the fact that on July 28 the day of the mass shooting in Gilroy, there were 59 lives lost to gun violence, in the United States, four of those at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
“Jewish tradition emphasizes the sanctity and primary value of human life. The Bible commands us, ‘Thou shalt not murder’ (Exodus 20:13). The Talmud teaches us that ‘he who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe and he who saves one life it is as though he has saved the universe’ (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). In an increasingly impersonal and alienating society, the dehumanizing of the human being and the carelessness with which human life is taken stand in direct violation of these affirmations of our tradition.” (Religious Action Center, Union of Reform Judaism)
My friends, this Shabbat morning we will have a healing circle at 10:00 AM which will be followed by Torah study, if we are ready, at 11:00 AM. Please attend, for your own sake and to bring comfort to the broken-hearted among us. May the Holy One of blessings bring all of us comfort as well as insights and determination to solve this cancer of gun violence.
Think of God’s Reaction to Our Words
July 17, 2019
I enjoy reading newspaper advice columns. First I read the “problem,” then think how I might answer, and lastly read what the columnists advise. Frequently communication is at the core of these dilemmas. “Should I tell…” “What do I say when…” “I wish I hadn’t said that…”
This week’s Torah portion struggles with the issue of communication as well. The non-Jewish prophet Balaam is hired to curse the Israelites. God intervenes and Balaam is unable to issue curses, only blessings. But for most of us, we open our mouths to speak and there is no intervention. Instead we say what is on our minds and we often are filled with regret later.
We can change this way of speaking by inviting God into our thoughts instead of waiting for God to intervene. The Hassidic master Rebbe Hayim Heikel of Amdur wrote: “Always be mindful of your thoughts and feelings. If you experience a loving moment, connect it to your love for the Creator. If you have a hateful or angry moment, connect it to your awe of God. If you feel arrogant, sit and study, for the Torah is God’s pride. The basic principle is that you should not do anything – great or small – without first thinking about its Divine source…”
If we add to that list, before speaking think of God’s reaction to our words – then we will have less to regret and our interpersonal communications will be affirmations of love and respect.
Take Care of the Stranger
July 10, 2019
In Parashat Chukat, this week’s Torah chapter, the Israelites are nearing the end of their sojourn in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. In this week’s reading, Moses and Aaron learn they will not be permitted to complete the journey and they will die before arrival.
What caused this literal death sentence? Near the beginning of the chapter, Miriam dies and therefore the Israelites were without Miriam’s well that accompanied them in the desert. Their water supply ceased and they were thirsty. They demanded that their leaders, Moses and Aaron, provide water. God tells Moses, “You and your brother Aaron should take the rod and assemble the community. Before their very eyes command the rock to issue forth its water. Thus, you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and the animals. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock? (Num. 20:8-10).”
Then, instead of speaking to the rock as commanded, Moses hits it with a stick. While water does spew from the rock, most commentators say it is for this reason that Moses and Aaron are told they will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land. Their sin seems to be both disobeying God and also taking credit for the water.
However, Maimonides (the 12th century Sage) said that the punishment was the result of Moses’ angry response, shouting “Listen, you rebels!” In Maimonides’ view, the people were desperate for water and Moses answered them not with compassion but with anger.
This is a lesson for all time. As we continue to hear about refugee children who are dreadfully sick and horribly mistreated along our southern borders, blameless children who were separated from their parents, our hearts churn with outrage and pain for these little ones. Those trying to justify their maltreatment claim they deserve it but I daresay all of us, regardless of where we stand on immigration reform, cannot abide this abuse from which these children’s souls will likely never recover. All of us, every one of us, must demand a change. Instead of following the commandment to take care of the stranger, we are in our own time “hitting the rock”.
There are many sources online; google how to help refugee children. This is not about politics; this is a humanitarian crisis. To learn the position of the Reform Movement, go to the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement (RAC): https://rac.org/help-us-end-child-detention-now. Do something now.