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Rosh Hashanah 5778

 The history of Jewish life in Canada, certainly in the GTA, has a marked difference from Jewish life in the U.S. Whereas Jewish life in the States was defined for a number of decades by the melting pot, Jewish life here has been characterized as part of multi-culturalism. Over the seventeen years I have served at Beth Emeth, we have hosted and participated in some meaningful multi-faith initiatives. Some were adult oriented and revolved around our relationships with Christians and/or Muslims. Another centered around children and had music uniting children of these three faith traditions. However, over the years, we have not participated in a regular self-sustaining multi-faith series of programs. 

 

Last Spring, with the support of our local member of Parliament and our own synagogue volunteer leadership, two meetings were held which included myself, a Catholic priest who works in community outreach from the arch-diocese,  a Catholic Priest from our riding, a Protestant Minister from our riding, and a local Muslim leader interested in cultural affairs. During the Summer, we also met once to plan a unified program for the coming year. Ironically, I spent much of my U.S. rabbinate and military chaplaincy working with clergy of other faiths towards greater understanding, tolerance, and mutual recognition. While such efforts have existed in various parts of Canadian society, our immediate community has seen very little and is just beginning what I hope will be a significant venture for us all.

As we know, during antiquity and the Middle Ages, Jewish -Christian relations were very difficult, as exemplified by the Crusades, the Inquisition, forced disputations, blood libels, Jews as Christ killers, and so much more. Tragically, the Nazis, yimach Shemam, picked up on some of the old Christian anti-semitism and brought it to a new level. Ironcially, during much of the Middle Ages, Jewish-Muslim relations were at a high. The Golden Age of Spain produced literary creativity in philosophy, poetry, and other religious writings. Maimonides and other influential Jewish thinkers shared strong ties with their Muslim neighbors. Whereas the concept of trinity in Christianity was debated by Jews as being monotheistic or not until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Islam was seen as being monotheistic like  Judaism. Allah was akin to Elohim. When many rabbis prohibited Jews from entering Churches, they permitted Jews to enter Mosques.

In the early 1960's, Vatican II reinterpreted its Catholic ideology regarding Jews and Judaism in a more positive light. Since then, many, though certainly not all, Protestant denominations also began to renew its relationship with Jews and Judaism. Evangelical Protestants became publically affirmative of Israel as the Jewish homeland. In one of my first Jewish-Christian interfaith clergy meetings held in the early 2000's between the Toronto Board of Rabbis and the Arch-Diocese of Toronto, we studied scripture passages which were theologically difficult in both traditions. When it comes, however, to Jewish-Islam relationships, we stand at an infancy level at best. In the U.S. and Canada, a handful of progressive Jewish and Muslim groups share dialogue with each other. Many of us fear and do not trust representatives of the Islamic tradition. Many of us look at North American forms of Islam no differently than their extremist and fundamentalist counterparts in the Middle East. 

It is high time for us to take baby steps and enter the arena of dialogue and understanding with our Christian and Muslim neighbors. I have heard many of us troubled by disparaging texts found in the Gospels and the Koran. Before we begin to look at those texts, I would humbly ask, 'What about difficult passages in our own Scripture?' My continued remarks today are inspired by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, in his recent book entitled, "Not in God's Name - Confronting Religious Violence."

Take the day one Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, Abraham has two children, Isaac and Ishmael. In our Jewish reading, Isaac inherits his father's covenant from God, meaning that the Jews are God's chosen people. Paul, the early founder who distinguished Christianity from Judaism in antiquity, argued that biological descent from Abraham was not enough to make you a child of the promise. For that, you needed something else, faith in Jesus. Those who have it, according to Paul, are the true children of Abraham.

In the Koran, it is Yishmael who receives the covenant of his father Abraham, leading to a whole different notion of who constitutes the children of the promise. 

How do we as Jews come to terms with God commanding Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael? Is this not a difficult text for us? How do we think a non-Jew would view Judaism vis a vis such a story in our tradition? At a superficial level, we see the older half brother, Yishmael,  rejected, and the younger half brother, Isaac, chosen. Of course, if one reads the narrative more closely, one would have noticed the following verses: "As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly (Gen. 17-20)." Slightly later, we read, " God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar and said to her, 'What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy, where he is. Help the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation."

God has not rejected Hagar and Yishmael, whose name literally means, "God has heard." Isaac has been chosen for a specific destiny, but Ishmael has not been rejected by God. In the Middle Ages, the commentator, Nachmanides, suggests that Sarah's mistreatment of Hagar was a reason why Sarah's children would one day be persecuted by the descendants of Hagar, that is, by the people of Islam. Nachmanides had witnessed and remembered the suffering of the Jews at the hands of Islamic persecutors. While the Islamic prophet, Mohammad, shaped the ideology and religion called Islam; nevertheless, medieval Jews and Muslims identify Ishmael as the precursor of Islam. How interesting that Abraham responds with a tormented soul when Sarah orders the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. Yet, Abraham appears robotic when he is commanded to bring Isaac up to Mount Moriah in the day two Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. How interesting and important to note that nowhere in the actual Biblical text is Ishmael ever vilified. 

One might think that Isaac and Ishmael lived separate lives. Yet after Abraham dies, the Torah tells us, "His sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him in the cave of Machpelah." Based on this, a rabbinic interpretation dated in the eighth century, the early years of Islam, suggests that the birth of Isaac did not displace Ishmael. To be sure, Ishmael will have a different destiny. But he too is a beloved son of Abraham, blessed by his father and by God. He becomes a great nation. God is 'with him' as he grows up. The two half-brothers stand at their father's grave. There is no hostility between them. Their futures diverge, but there is no conflict between them. Nor do they compete for God's affection. This re-reading of the story of Isaac and Ishmael is all the more powerful when it is purposely extended to the relationship between Judaism and Islam. This re-reading of the Biblical narrative is needed in the 21st century. Brothers CAN live together in peace. Perhaps, just perhaps, Canada, the GTA, our little riding of York Centre, can be that place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims can become a role model for others around the world. 

The sacred literatures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all contain passages that, read literally, are capable of leading to violence and hate. We may and must reinterpret them. I have shared with you how an eighth century midrash did just that. Elsewhere, a Biblical reference to the "wars of the Lord" becomes understood as "the debates in the house of study." The Sages who shaped our understanding of sacred ancient texts were able to shape a pacific faith capable of sustaining itself through the centuries of exile and persecution. Hard texts, like that of Isaac and Ishmael, are a challenge to the religious imagination. 

We all hope for the day when all Christians, Muslims, and Jews will interpret their sacred writings in a way that fosters peaceful and welcoming relationships with each other. While we cannot control what those outside of Judaism will do, we can begin with ourselves. While we cannot control how Jews themselves will interpret our own sacred writings in a way that will foster peaceful and welcoming relationships with each other, we can begin with Beth Emeth, and our multi-faith relationships within our own local community. 

I invite us all to share and participate in the small but meaningful steps we plan to take in building meaningful and constructive relationships with our neighbors. 

Wishing us all Shanah Tovah U'Metukah - A sweet and meaningful new year.

Yom Kippur 5778

We are living in historic times as a Jewish people. Our ancestors could only have dreamt about the State of Israel and a unified Jerusalem. During the Spring, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the six day war, which brought back the old city and the Western Wall to our people. This coming Spring, we will celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel.

 

During this Summer, the Israeli actress, Gal Gadot, brought Jewish and Israeli pride to many young people. The former combat instructor in the IDF played Wonder Woman on the big screen  to the delight of most viewers and critics.

 

Many of us may remember the most iconic photograph to emerge from the six day war in June of 1967. Photographer David Rubinger caught the sight of three young Israeli soldiers gazing upward upon the liberation of the Western Wall. Pictured were Zion Karasanti, Yitzhak Yifat, and Haim Oshri. Now fifty years later, the three of them posed together at the same spot for a photograph. This past June, the three spoke at a program called, "Through the eyes of soldiers: 1967 and now." Yifat, now age 73 and a surgeon, remarked:

 

" (Yifat described that moment knowing they were about to conquer Jerusalem, after 2000 years of submission and exile, as one of excitement and emotion). We were about to regain Jerusalem. In such circumstances, you are left no choice. You can either jump into the sea, or you can fight for your right to freedom and life. I had no doubt in my heart that the second option was the right one. If you ask me today, I am deeply convinced that a nation lacking the ability to defend its existence is a vulnerable and dependent nation. We advanced toward the Temple Mount, entering the old city through the Lion's Gate, with only sharpshooters for opposition. We reached the Western Wall. I was so emotional, so excited. I thought about my grandfather, who was an observant Jew. 

 

All of the history of the Jewish people passed before my eyes. I remembered the story of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, who reached Jerusalem in the Middle Ages and bent down to kiss the ground and was trampled to death at that moment by a horseman. I looked up at those huge stones. If they could only speak. So mighty, so holy, so impressive. It was an unreal feeling to reach out and touch the stones in that magnificent wall. We had managed to reverse 2000 years of slavery of the Jewish people. It was unbelievable. "

 

The continued maintenance and growth of Israel is challenging. Every Jew must be an advocate for Israel before the larger world which holds Israel to a double standard and before many who support B.D.S. against Israel.

 

At the same time, the diversity of Jews in Israel and Jews who support Israel from around the world also creates serious challenges. How does one define and create a society which is committed to Zionism, democracy  and Jewish values? This challenging question underscores the controversies surrounding an alternative prayer place along the Southern part of the Kotel for the Women of the Wall as well as Reform and Conservative modes of prayer. 

 

The challenging question on how one integrates Zionism, democracy  and Jewish values also underscores the controversy over the supervision of conversions in Israel, which led to the audacious publication of a blacklist of 160 world rabbis whose vouching for the Jewishness of immigrants is not acceptable. On the list were Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis, including  Canadians.

 

This past Summer, both of my sons were in Israel at the same time. Yonah has made a four year commitment to the IDF and identifies himself as a Zionist. Elie was studying and working  in an internship in his career field blending Zionism with open  minded traditional Jewish living. My own children embody the richness of diversity in Israel. Each is equally dedicated in his own way.

 

I am concerned about the extreme on the right monopolizing the definition of Jewish values. I am equally concerned about the extreme on the left questioning its support of Israel after the events of this past Summer.

 

While these and many other challenges must  be addressed, our ancestors could only dream about seventy years of Statehood and fifty years of a sovereign Jerusalem. 

 

Every Shabbat and Yom Tov, we introduce the blessings after meals with the Biblical words:

 

"Shir Ha'Maalot B'shuv Hashem et Shivat Tzion Hayinu K'Cholmim -  A song of ascents: When God will return the captives of Zion, we will have been like dreamers.'

 

This past year, the noted Israeli journalist and author, Yossi Klein Halevi, wrote an important book, whose title, "Like Dreamers," resonates from the Psalm we sing every week and holy day. Speaking publically this past Spring, he recommended that we be mindful of our audience in talking about Israel. In discussing Israel with the 'outside world,' we should emphasize Israel's unique position as the only democracy in the Middle East - one, for example that offers its Arab population more rights and freedoms than any Arab state, and that takes in wounded Syrian civilians and cares for them in hospitals in the North. While it's important to acknowledge that Israel has flaws, like any country, we should challenge Israel's critics for their bias in judging the Jewish State more harshly than its neighbors and other Western societies. But within our own community, we can let our defenses down a bit and find safe spaces to ask ourselves some open and honest questions, like, 'Who do we want to be in the eyes of our children?

 

On this Yom Kippur day, we will be asked to invest in our dream, in our vision, in our reality, called the State of Israel. What a gift we have in being able to tangibly support a real Israel, a real Jerusalem, no longer just a dream.  Invest in Israel Bonds, which transcends the political divisions in Israel. Consider fulfilling a double Mitzvah by combining your pledge with Beth Emeth's Israel Bond commitment. 

 

May we continue to be ambassadors and advocates for Israel. All the Jewish people is one fellowship. A family can have its disagreements, work to solve them, but still must be a family. Chavivim Kol Yisrael - All the Jewish people are precious!

 

Wishing you and your family Gmar Chatima Tova - May we be completely sealed for a good new year.

D'var Torah 5778

My remarks today are not based on any parsha or Jewish interpretation. As many of you know, I have found remarkable situations in my life after my parents died which I consider to be more than random chance. I have had personal experiences in which I have truly believed that my parents were connecting with me.  Recently, I found a way to organize them. This Summer, I read a  book which can be applied beyond my particular experiences. It is not necessarily a Jewish book or a general book. It is entitled, "When God winks at you - How God speaks directly to you through the power of coincidence." The author refers to those special moments as "Godwinks." His chapter titles are arranged as Godwinks are personal; Winks of hope and reassurance; God winks on transitions; God winks on comfort;  God winks on prayer; Winks on unanswered prayer; God winks just in time; God winks on family; God winks on quests.

The introduction begins as follows: "You've had another one of those days. Everything seems uncertain. You think: Wouldn't it be great to wake up one morning and have everything certain? Tentatively, your eyes drift skyward. Hello? Are you there, God? You slump. Deeper into the dumps. Then - something happens. A silly little thing. Someone you just thought of for the first time in years, telephones out of the blue - a silly little coincidence, so silly you shrug it off. "But . . ." you say, "mayyyybe . . . it's not just coincidence or chance. Maybe God is communicating with you - in a nonverbal way, making a little miracle happen right in front of you. You had a nice feeling from that small silent communication. That's what a godwink is. Every so called coincidence or answered prayer is God's way of giving you His small, silent communication. A little wink saying, "Hey kid! I'm thinking of you ... right now!" It's a clear message of reassurance - that no matter how uncertain your life seems at the moment, God will help move you toward certainty. And it's a sign that you're never alone. In fact, you're always on God's GPS, God's positioning system. 

The book contains countless true situational examples. I wish to share some of my own. You may have heard some of them from me over the years. They are my personal  godwinks:

Spring 2002 - I am leading a Beth Emeth tour to Israel with some twenty or so members of the synagogue. An intifada is taking place. Many people do not want me leading this trip or going at all. Many North American Jews and Jewish groups have cancelled their trips to Israel, so much so, that Jews from LAX no longer have a direct flight but stop in Toronto for a shared flight to Israel. I am sitting in a middle section with three seats in the row. Next to me are two members of the shul. Right behind me are a husband and wife from Los Angeles. In making conversation, I find out that the woman, several years older than me, grew up at 164 Thorndike street, Brookline, MA, right across from my home address of 167 Thorndike street. A godwink. A reassurance from my parents, of blessed memories.

Spring 2003 - My family is driving to New York to attend the bris of my nephew. We break the ride into two days. At the hotel, we are given room number 167. A godwink. Guess who came for the ride and the celebration?

Fall 2007 - My older son's Bar Mitzvah will take place on Monday, first day of Chol Ha'Moed Sukkot. He will also chant the haftarah on Shabbat, the first day of yom tov. Since out of town family and friends will be in town over a number of days, I have a number of suits dry cleaned. On Shabbat morning, the first day of Sukkot, I pick one of the suits. The dry cleaning tag has 167 on it. A godwink. I will wear it Monday as well. A reassuring presence of my parents, of blessed memories. They are attending the Bar Mitzvah of their oldest grandchild. 

Erev Chanukah 2014 - I am driving on Wilmington street to the shul for the young families' Chanukah party. The car in front of me has the license plate "167SOV." My parents were married on the first night of Chanukah. "Sov," means "spins," as in Sevivon sov sov sov, the spinning dreydl. A godwink on their wedding anniversary.

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2016 - I have just left home to pick up my sister, Andrea, from the airport. Our mother's yahrzeit is the first day of Rosh Hashanah. I am the second oldest of four children. Andrea is the fourth oldest, or youngest, of the four children. At a red light at the intersection of Overbrook and Dufferein, the license plate reads, "AH16742." A godwink from mom, reaching out specifically to me and Andrea.

June 17, 2017 - My father's yahrzeit will begin at night. I pick up a TTC stub, which reminds me that this is day #167 of the secular year. It coincides with the beginning of my dad's yahrzeit. My childhood address again. A godwink. Thanks, dad.

July 26, 2017 - I am vacationing in Brookline, MA. Soon before my father died eighteen years ago, my family donated his maritime nautical collection to the library of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay (Cape Cod). In the morning, Andrea and I drive to visit dad's collection. We have not been there in many years. An archivist arranges some of the smaller photographs and postcards of tall ships that my father had collected. Dad had an eclectic collection of cards, books, models, wall hangings of the tall ships. After looking at the smaller items, Andrea and I go to the stacks of books looking for some of the books that have dad's name plate inscribed on the inside cover. Only a few stacks are accessible. In the very last open stack, we find some of dad's books. The first one we saw with his name was entitled, "The Mystique of Tall Ships." We actually found two copies of that particular book and subsequently other books bearing his name. Fast forward - That same evening back in Brookline, I am browsing in the used book area of a store called, the Booksmith. I am standing at the Sports section looking at some old Red Sox books. In between two Red Sox books stands a book which should have been in another section. Guess what - It was the same as the first book we had seen earlier in the day at the Mass. Maritime Academy, "The Mystique of Tall Ships." Of course, I bought it. A godwink. Dad thanked me and Andrea for visiting his collection earlier that day.

These are a sampling of personal godwinks that come to mind. There are more to be shared at another time. In the conclusion to the book, the author writes: "One of the things I like the most about godwinks is that they are tangible signposts from God, making His presence known in our lives every single day. If you want to be certain that God has been in your life all along, take the time to excavate your past, to uncover prior winks from God that you didn't notice, shrugged off, or forgot about."

I am thankful to God always and in particular for enabling me to feel, know, and believe that my parents are doing well in their eternal home and are finding ways to connect with me at sacred moments of my life.

High Holy Days 2017-5778

Each Summer, I read a book for personal introspection and in preparation for the High Holy Days, A couple of months ago while vacationing in my childhood community of Boston, I purchased and read the most recent book written by Rabbi Harold Kushner. He is an inspirational writer who also challenges many age old assumptions. While he has written many books over the years, he is most well known for his first one, "When Bad Things Happen To Good People."

His most recent work is entitled, "Nine Essential Things I've Learned About LIfe." It is a retrospective after having served a career in the pulpit rabbinate. I want to share with you his nine chapter titles, excerpts from his writings, and my own thoughts sprinkled in as well.

  1. Lessons learned along the way - In the 21st century, the religious agenda will be set not by the tradition's answers but by congregants' questions.

"My job as a rabbi was neither simply to perform nor to inform, but to transform. Sometimes that meant trying to change the behavior of a congregant to embrace time-tested values, and sometimes it meant changing the observance, peeling away its ancient outer shell so that the message at its core could more easily emerge. . . . My job called on me to listen carefully to what my congregants were saying, sometimes to pierce the veil or mockery in which they phrased their questions, and to try to hear the faint echo of a soul yearning for a meaningful relationship to God if it could be presented to them in terms that they could intellectually and morally respect. . . . When I was ordained a rabbi, they told me I was ready to go forth and teach. The truth was, I was at best ready to go forth and learn.

In my own rabbinate, I try to echo these sentiments. My goal is to create, shape, and form moments of genuine transformation in people's lives, starting with my own. Every time I teach, I actually learn so much from so many people. I my early years in the rabbinate, I sought to teach others and to change their lives. In the more recent years of my rabbinate, I seek to learn from others and to have my own life changed. 

2. God is not a man who lives in the sky - "God is real, but God is real in a very different way than you and I are real. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote that God has no physical form, but because we humans can only think in physical terms, we picture God as a person. But even as we engage in it, it is our limitation, not the reality of God, that leads us to that kind of concrete thinking and speaking. "

In my own thinking, the best way to define God is to suggest what God is not - not more than one, not immoral, and not amoral. Everything else works. Our tradition describes the one and only God in multitudes of ways: A father, a king, a mother weeping over her children, a judge, the compassionate one, a shepherd, a man of war, a feminine indwelling presence, and so much more. We may choose to lock into one motif. We may vary our conception of God based on time, mood, and circumstance. 

3. God does not send us the problem; God sends us the strength to deal with the problem - "Let me tell you about the day I learned what it means to be a rabbi. I had been called to the home in which the husband and father died of a sudden heart attack. The grieving widow's first words to me were, 'why would God do this to such a good man?' . . . I realized that 'why is God doing this to me?' was not really a question about God. It was a cry of pain, and the person asking the question didn't need my theological wisdom. She needed a hug. My interactions with troubled or angry congregants have involved less explaining and more hand holding. My presence represented God's caring presence, the symbolic statement that God had not abandoned them."

In my rabbinate, I rarely do theology in a hospital room, a shiva house, or even from this bima. I talk and teach theology in an informal classroom. In the more emotional settings, I find that active listening, physical and spiritual presence, are more meaningful than anything I might say. In fact, sometimes when I hear people offering theological justifications for people's hurts, I simply cringe at what I am hearing, which has brought not comfort but pain to an already painful situation, 

4. Forgiveness is a favor you do for yourself -  "Some years ago, my sermon on Yom Kippur was on the theme of forgiveness. I suggested that just as we ask God to forgive us for what we might have done wrong in the past year, reminding God that we are only human and can't be perfect, so should we forgive the people who have hurt us or offended us. They too are only human. The day after Yom Kippur, a member came to my office, very upset with me because of the sermon. Her husband had left her several years ago for a younger woman. As a result, she has to work two jobs to pay the bills and put the food on the table. 'You want me to forgive him for what he has done to us?' I told her, 'That's right. I want you to forgive him. Not to excuse him, not to say what he did was acceptable. Forgive him for your sake, not for his. Why are you giving him the power to define you as a victim? For six years, you've been holding a hot coal in your hand, looking for an opportunity to throw it at him. And for six years, he's been living comfortably with his new wife and you've burned your hand.'Forgiveness is to take away his power to push your buttons and make you feel sorry for yourself.'"

Forgiveness, my dear friends, is not about letting someone else off the hook. It is about removing a heavy weight from your own shoulder. Some thirty years ago, I read a book on the subject entitled, "How to forgive when you can't forget." The book was a modern interpretation about the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph will never forget the cruelties perpetrated by his brothers against him. He chooses to forgive them in an effort to remove a weight from his own shoulder and to have a family again.

 

5. Some things are just wrong; knowing that makes us human - "Three teenagers, all of them excellent students from families who loved them, took their own lives for no apparent reason except perhaps the overwhelming fear of not being good enough. As near as anyone could tell, they were facing the pressure of getting into a good college. They were afraid that one B+ instead of an A would undermine their chances, and that their parents would see themselves, as failures if they had to settle for something less.  . . . Where did they, where do so many of us, get that feeling that if you're not the best, you're a failure? The God I believe in, the God I pray to, the God I turn to when I am at the point of losing faith in myself, is not a God who says, ' I gave you once chance and you blew it. How can I ever trust you again?' The God I believe in says to me, ' I have given you an incomparably valuable gift, the ability to know the difference between good and bad, between things that should be done and things that should not be done. . . . And when you find that too hard to do, when you stumble and fall, I will be there to pick you up, clean you off, and give you a fresh start, because I am a God of forgiveness, a God of second chances.'"

This is what Teshuva, repentance, is all about. To recognize our faults, recite them, resolve not to repeat them, to make reconcilation and restitution. There is no statute of limitations on try again better next time, whether it be a ritual or moral situation. In the Torah, when certain individuals could not bring the Passover offering at the proper time, Moses did not know what to say to them. Upon inquiry, God responds to Moses to have them bring the Passover offering exactly one month later, called a second Passover, a second chance. Ours is a tradition of second chances.

6. Religion is what you do, not what you believe - "The Jewish theologian Martin Buber was once asked, 'Where can I find God?' His answer: ' God is not found in churches or synagogues. God is not found in holy books, God is not found in the hearts of the most fervent believer. God is found between people.' When someone acts toward another person as his religious faith tells him to, God comes in and bridges the gap between them. They are joined for these moments by bonds of holiness. The religion of your heart becomes real only  when it is translated into action.'

Belief exists inside a person. As such, it has the power and the tendency to separate a person from his neighbors who believe differently. But authentic religion connects people rather than separates them into the elect and the misguided, the saved and those who walk in darkness. The primary function of religion is to bring people together rather than to separate them, thereby increasing their joy and diluting their sorrows. For that to happen, one's theology has to escape from the prison of the self and translate into sacred deeds shared with others, deeds sanctified by having the fingerprints of God all over them."

I would add a brief vignette found in the Talmud, where the question is raised, "What is more important - belief in God or doing Mitzvot? The answer given is that doing Mitzvot is more important. Belief may not lead one to action, but action may lead one to belief. Even so, what you do is more important than what you say. To say I believe in giving tzedakah is hardly the same as actually giving tzedakah. To say I believe in shabbat or kashrut is not the same as actually observing shabbat or kashrut. 

7. Leave room for doubt and anger in your religious outlook - "Is it ever acceptable to doubt God? I cannot believe that God would bless us with a critical intelligence when it comes to biology and psychology and then say to us, 'Stop, go no further,' when it comes to theology. . . . The Bible will remind us that some of the most faith-intoxicated people in history had their moments of doubting God's word. Jeremiah talks back to God, challenging God, asking why God has imposed on him the unwelcoming task of telling the people things they will not want to hear."

I would remind us that the very word "Yisrael" literally means, one who struggles with God. To doubt God is acceptable, to deny God is unacceptable. For me, the triad of Judaism, must contain God, Torah, and Israel. We can question and have doubts on what they mean, but we cannot remove them from the equation. I am an advocate of a traditional siddur, which is an anthology of ideas over the ages. I admit that  at times I have trouble with some ideas from times and contexts alien to my own. I will struggle with these words, try to reinterpret them, and at times perhaps not even recite them, but I will not cut them out from existence. I am humbled enough to be left with doubts and unanswered questions, for I am only human.

 

8. To feel better about yourself, find someone to help - " Helping another person is empowering. If you give a person who is in a bad way the message that you care about him, if you listen sympathetically to his story instead of interrupting him and telling him what to do, you will be strengthening him even as you feel better about yourself.  . . . There are few things better in life than the knowledge that somebody somewhere is grateful we came into their lives just when they needed us."

In my own life, I have often encountered unknown to me anonymous guardian angels who helped me at a sacred moment in time. One story that comes to mind is when I sat shiva for my father. An elderly lady came to comfort me and my family. No one knew who she was. For many years, my dad would say to mom on a Sunday that he was going out to get the paper or buy some milk only to return a couple of hours later. After we heard the tales of this lady, it became clear that my dad would help this widowed woman old enough to his mother with his carpentry and electronic skills. I  felt comforted knowing not only that dad had helped this person, but I can only imagine the satisfaction it brought him as well.

 

9. Give God the benefit of the doubt - "Abraham grew up in a world where religion meant worshipping idols. Religion meant seeking to bribe God to fulfill your request. By the time he died, religion had matured into an effort to learn God's will and live in harmony with it rather than instructing God how to run His world. Abraham grew up in a world where kings had supreme power over the lives and property of their subjects. . . . Abraham's descendants today live in a world where, in most countries, governments are the free choice of the people, and where that is not the case, we say, 'not yet.' Abraham grew up in a world where the strong dominated the weak and the weak had no recourse. That still happens in many places today, but where it does, we no longer say, 'That's human nature.' We say that the time will come when that will seem as unaccetable as child sacrifice and the divine right of kings to take one's property. 

God's gift to Abraham was the promise that his descendants would teach the world what it means to live in the presence of God. Abraham's reciprocal gift to God was that he believe him. In spite of everything that argued to the contrary three thousand years ago, Abraham gave God the benefit of the doubt. He believed that what should be but was not, one day would be. And because Abraham's descendants took up his implicit theology of 'not yet,' much of that vision has come about, and people are striving to bring the rest of it into reality. This world is still not the world God intended it to be. Some human beings have made it worse and continue to do so, while others have made and are making it better.  . . . working to bring about the day when what should be, will be."

My friends - Do not fall into despair, do not say no, do not say never, say, rather, Not Yet. As is stated in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Sages, "Lo Alecha Ha'Melacha Ligmor, v'Lo Attah Ben Chorin L'Hibatel  Mimenah - It is not for you to finish the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it." Another way of being hopeful, giving God the benefit of the doubt, and believing faithfully in not yet.

I encourage us all to read Rabbi Kushner's Nine essential things I've learned about life. Accept them, reject them, grapple with them. Allow your Jewishness to be enriched by the experience, as mine has been enriched.

Wishing you all Gmar Chatimah Tovah - May we all be sealed for a good new year.

Sat, 11 July 2020 19 Tammuz 5780