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More Than Words: A Sermon for D’varim 5775

July 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Note: A video of this sermon is available here.

Here’s a joke:
It was the middle of Shabbat morning services, and the rabbi noticed that old Irv Cohen was asleep in the third row. So he elbowed the Temple President and said, “Cohen is asleep again. Go wake him up!”

The President answered: “That’s not fair.”

So the rabbi replied, “What do you mean? Go wake him up!”

To which the president answered again, “That’s not fair.”

Now the rabbi was frustrated: “This is a synagogue, not a bedroom. Cohen can’t sleep through my sermon. Go wake him up!”

And the president answered simply: “That’s not fair. YOU put him to sleep. YOU wake him up.”


The joke about rabbis seems to be that they talk a little too much. This week’s Torah portion proves that Moses was truly the first rabbi, in that he was capable of talking for extended periods of time.

Here’s what I mean: After 40 years of wandering, our people are now standing, ready to cross over the Jordan river into the Promised Land. But Moses knows something very important. He knows that he is not going with them. As you may remember, Moses was punished by God that he cannot enter the Promised Land. He has the opportunity to stand up on a mountaintop and see the land. But he’s not going to accompany the people there, and he’s not going to be there to help them set up their new society.

So Moses takes it upon himself to give them some advice. Lots of advice. A whole book’s worth of advice, in fact, that we call the book of Deuteronomy. This last book of the Torah will consist of several speeches given by Moses – in which he’ll recount past events, go back over the places they’ve been, and give laws and advice for the people as they set up their new society in the land of Israel.

In Hebrew, we call this book D’varim, which means “Words.” Because it starts by saying, “Eleh had’varim – these are the words that Moses spoke.”

The irony of Moses giving 3 long speeches is that he is not really a public speaker. Back in Exodus, when God first came to Moses to lead the Jewish people, Moses said– Lo ish d’varim anochi – “I am not a man of words.”

But now, our man of few words has become a man of many words.

But there’s another layer here. And for that, we need to know that the word d’varim doesn’t only mean “words.” It also means “deeds” or “actions.”

And while Moses may not have been a man of words, he was most definitely a man of deeds. Here is a leader who devoted his entire life and every bit of his energy to his people. He went to Pharaoh. He parted the red sea. He climbed Sinai and brought back the Torah. He led the people through the Wilderness. And now they all lend him their ears because they know after 40 years that he is the real deal.

Moses is an example for us as Jews because he values D’varim – he values both words and deeds.

As Jews, we are people of words. The the name that was given to us in the medieval Islamic world was Am HaSefer – people of the book. We are people of the book because we find meaning by delving into ancient texts – by reading what our ancestors had to say hundreds and thousands of years ago, and challenging ourselves to find relevance in those texts for our own lives.

But we’re not only people of words. We are also people of actions. The basic unit of Jewish life is not words, and it’s not really beliefs either. It is mitzvot – commandments. The Jewish things that we do define the Jewish lives that we live.

There is a passage in the mishnah, that has made its way into the daily morning service, that begins:

Elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – These are the d’varim (the actions or deeds) whose worth cannot be measured. And it goes on to list them:

  • Honouring your father and mother
  • Engaging in acts of compassion
  • Study Torah
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Visiting the sick
  • Celebrating with the wedding couple
  • Burying the dead
  • And making peace

These are, in many ways, the most basic acts of Jewish communal life – celebration, mourning, study and prayer, and building relationships. When we live our lives in these ways, then we are building strong community, we are there for each other, and we can work deepen our own sense of self worth, and our own connection with God. Those are tasks that never end, which is why the passage refers to them as d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – actions with unlimited worth.

So maybe that’s what Moses means to say to us as he stands on the shore of the Jordan river. That the words we speak, and the ways that we relate to one another and to God really matter. That we have the power to effect goodness in each other’s lives and in the world, by being concerted and thoughtful about how we live our lives.

That’s an extraordinary power and an extraordinary responsibility that Judaism places on us. But it’s also an extraordinary privilege – to be a source of goodness and blessing to those around us.

On this Shabbat, may we recognize that responsibility and may we embrace that privilege.
May we recognize that our d’varim – our words and our actions – really do matter in the world.
Shabbat Shalom.

Combating Extremism: A Sermon for Pinchas 5775

July 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Here is a video podcast of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat on religious extremism.

Opportunities and Challenges – A Sermon for Sh’lach Lecha 5775

June 18, 2015 Leave a comment

This is the “messing up big-time” portion of the Torah. Over the next couple of weeks, we will read about two major incidents where the Israelites just simply screw up in God’s eyes. Next week, it will be the rebellion of Korach, who tries to usurp Moses and speak for God. And to whom bad things happen.But what we read about this week is maybe more fundamental, because it involves the entire Jewish people, and it involves the Promised Land. In parashat Sh’lach Lecha, we read that Moses sends a group of scouts – or meraglim – to bring back a report about the land of Israel. 

Our people have been wandering for a short time – really only about a matter of months. They’ve already reached the border of the Land. And God says to Moses:

שלח לך אנשים – “Send men to scout the land of Canaan – one from each of their ancestral tribes.” (Numbers 13:2 )

So Moses sends a group of 12 scouts into the land of Israel to see what the land is all about out. Here’s what happens:

Numbers 13:21-24: They went up and scouted the land, from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, at Lebo-hamath. They went up into the Negeb and came to Hebron, where lived Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the Anakites. They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes — it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them — and some pomegranates and figs. 

From this description we learn a couple of things:

– We learn that the land is exceedingly fertile. We know this from the beautiful fruit. In fact. If you’ve ever been to Israel, you might have seen the logo of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, which is based on this story.   

 – We also learn that the land is inhabited by other tribes.  

But what this account does not give us is an assessment, a judgment of the land. For that, we need to listen to the scouts. When they return home, they give the following report:

Numbers 13:27-29 : “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.”

And the people, understandably, start to rebel when they hear this. This is a scary moment. We’ve been traveling across the wilderness in the hopes of resettling in a new place. And we arrive here only to learn that the land we’re hoping to settle is already taken by bigger, tougher tribes. How could we help but want to go back to Egypt.

But if we keep reading, we find that Caleb and Joshua – who are two of the scouts – have a very different assessment of our chances.

עָלֹה נַֽעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּֽי־יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָֽהּ

 “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)

So here we have two contradictory versions of the same situation: One positive, one negative. One hopeful, one hopeless. How do you explain that?

And here’s the really interesting thing. If you look closely, Caleb and Joshua don’t actually contradict the words of the original report. They were there. They saw it too. They agree that the land of Israel is filled with big, scary tribes. They agree that “we looked like grasshoppers to them.” And yet they still say “Yachol nuchal lah – We can do it.”

Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

The Israelites are in a challenging situation here, and there’s not much they can do about it. They can’t change the fact that they’ve just come from slavery. They can’t change the fact that the Promised Land is inhabited by larger tribes. All they can change is what they choose to focus on.

Ten of the scouts come back from their tour dejected and pessimistic. They just can’t get past their fear of failure, and that paralyzes them. That’s why they needed to wander in the wilderness for the next 38 years – because if they had entered the Promised Land with that attitude, they would have failed.

Joshua and Caleb are the only ones who choose to focus on the opportunity rather than the barrier. They are the only ones who choose to see that although the situation is challenging and is scary, it’s also an chance to grow and accomplish. And that’s why, 40 years later, Joshua and Caleb are the only original Israelites to enter the Land.

Our lives are filled with challenging moments – at work, with our families, in our personal and spiritual lives. There are times when we feel overwhelmed with responsibility. There are times when we feel dejected and hopeless. There are times when it seems like we’ve been dealt us a raw hand. We’ve all been in all of those places. I think that in those moments, the lesson of the Torah is: Yachol Nuchal Lah – We can make it through.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy and it doesn’t mean it’s simple. We need a lot of resources to weather some of those challenges. We need loving family and friends; we need a supportive community; we need to find ways to believe in our own ability to overcome and to grow. If you think about it, there was nothing easy about 40 years in the Wilderness, but even that punishment had silver linings. It was our chance to grow into the people we needed to be; it was our chance to create the society that we wanted to have. That opportunity was on the other side of the coin from the challenge, if we could only find how to look for it.

It’s not always easy to be optimistic, but I suspect that our own challenges also have such flip sides. And I suspect that if we focus in a certain way, we can see how our difficulties and our pain help us to grow, to be better people, to come through the other side stronger and more capable and more compassionate. And I also suspect that, with practice, we can learn how to see those opportunities in the midst of our challenges.

On this Shabbat and every day:

May we surround ourselves with the support we need, and strive to be that for others.

May we seek out chances to become the best versions of ourselves.

And may we always know that Yachol Nuchal Lah – that we are capable of accomplishing great things.

Amen.

Let My People Go (For a Run)

April 2, 2015 Leave a comment

mstreiffer:

This post is both Jewish and running-oriented, so I’m reblogging it here from my running blog. -MS

Originally posted on Running On Empty:

“Freedom means the opportunity to be what we never thought we would be.”
– Daniel J Boorstin

This weekend we’ll celebrate Passover. As a rabbi, the themes of the Jewish holidays never far from the top of my mind. This one is a festival of freedom, celebrating the ancient Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. I’ve always thought that the themes of this holiday – slavery and freedom – speak deeply to modern life. Even though we are mostly free, we are rarely masters of our own time. The hours of our day are owned by work, by family obligations, by our cellphones and communication.

None of this is a bad thing. I feel lucky to have a job that I enjoy and a family that I love. But I’ve also been really bad about doing things for me. Running has helped change that a little bit.

As it has…

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Categories: Uncategorized

Maggid: Telling the Story (A Seder Supplement)

April 2, 2015 Leave a comment

NOTE: The primary purpose of the Pesach Seder is “maggid” – telling the story of the Exodus. According to the Talmud, we are meant to do so by expounding on Deuteronomy’s words of slavery and freedom – “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Here is my attempt for this year to find modern meaning in those ancient words:

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי
My father was a wandering Aramean.

What is an Aramean? It is someone from Aram – the land north of Israel. Someone who came from elsewhere, whose journey began as something else. The Jewish story begins with wandering that is both physical and spiritual – just as Abraham and Sarah made their way toward the land of Israel, so did they make their way toward a new way of thinking and believing and understanding the universe. Away from idolatry and toward TIkkun Olam. Today, we continue that journey of questioning and learning and growing. We are still wandering Arameans.

ַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם
He went down to Egypt with small numbers and lived there, and there he became a great and very populous nation.
The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means “narrow places.” We all have narrow places in our lives, times of pain, loss, and confusion. And in those moments, we may feel as though we are surrounded by “m’tei m’at” – by very little in terms of support and strength. Yet those are the times when we need our loved ones the most. When people we care about are in mitzrayim – when they are in narrow places – our role is to turn m’tei m’at into atzum v’rav – to turn little strength into much strength, to surround them with support so that they can continue make their way.

וַֽיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָֽב וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָֽׁה
And there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us and oppressed us, and imposed heavy labour upon us.
Why does it matter that we were populous in Egypt? Because it made us frightening to the Egyptians. Because we were many and because we were different, they oppressed and enslaved us. Today, we live in a society that is perhaps the most diverse in history. But we are still too afraid of the differences between us – differences of belief and practice, differences of culture and skin colour. On this festival of freedom, may we work to free ourselves of our preconceptions and assumptions about people who look, believe, pray, vote, or speak differently than we do.

וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָֹה אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ וַיַּרְא אֶת־עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶֽת־לַֽחֲצֵֽנוּ:
We cried to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.
God couldn’t see our misery beforehand?! God didn’t know we were slaves until we cried out?! Why did God allow 400 years of slavery? Why does God allow anyone to suffer? It isn’t God who “allows” people to suffer; it is us. And it isn’t only God’s role to hear the cries of our fellow human beings and act on their behalf; it is also ours. If there are hungry children in our schools, we must feed them. If there are homeless in our cities, we must shelter them. If we wait around for God to do God’s work, it may never get done.

וַיּֽוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָֹה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹֽפְתִֽים:
Adonai freed us from Egypt with great strength, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and amazing things!
There are wonders and signs of God’s presence all around us:

  • The loving family and friends who surround us
  • The earth that gives us life and fulfills all of our needs.
  • Our human capacity to grow, to learn, to dream, and to build.

On this Pesach may we challenge ourselves to better appreciate the miracles in our world, and may we commit ourselves to the task of building a better world.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Between Holy and Ordinary (or “Why I Turn Off My Work Email on Shabbat”)

January 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Once we were slaves. Now we are free.

Shabbat is Zecher Liy’tziyat Mitzrayim – a reminder of our Exodus from slavery. On Shabbat, we are meant to embrace freedom, to throw off the shackles of the things that enslave us.

As a Reform Jew, I take seriously the mitzvah of Shamor et Yom Hashabbat – safeguarding Shabbat by refraining from work. Traditional Jews refrain from all manner of “work” on the seventh day: driving cars, flipping light switches, cutting paper, sewing buttons. But these are not the activities that enslave me. These are not the activities that eat away at my time, or from which I need to be liberated.

No, what enslaves me is something different. Something less solid, but more ubiquitous. It is the constant connectedness to the outside world, to my professional life, to the everyday needs and tasks that assault me through the device that I carry in my pocket.

In the 21st century, we are surrounded by information in ways that previous generations could not have fathomed. It’s exciting: technology keeps changing; screens keep getting bigger; download speeds keep getting faster. But the danger of the information age is in the blurring of boundaries. Where previous generations would “leave work at work,” we carry our work with us. Where our parents and grandparents differentiated between office time and leisure time, we struggle to draw that distinction. Our professional obligations have the power to permeate every place and every moment… just like the Egyptian taskmasters of old.

I’d like to say that on Shabbat, I turn off my cellphone. I’d like to say that one day a week, I disconnect from the outside world. But I don’t: I text with friends; I occasionally check Facebook; I am available for congregational emergencies. As a genuine technology addict, I cannot bear the thought of being without it for 25 hours. (And actually, connecting with friends is an important part of Shabbat.) But I CAN bear the thought of being without my work email, of tuning out the ordinary needs and tasks that rule my life on a daily basis.

And so that is what I have begun to do. Every Friday, as the sun begins to set, I open the email settings of my iPhone and simply flip the switch from “on” to “off.” It is the most liberating, most empowering, and perhaps holiest moment of my entire week. It is my way of fulfilling the task of Shabbat, l’havdil bein kodesh l’chol – to distinguish between holy and ordinary.

It is a start.

The Power of Jewish Camp (or “Thoughts from a Looong Drive”)

August 4, 2014 Leave a comment

NOTE: This essay was cross posted on the rabbinical blog of Temple Kol Ami.

Sitting in traffic on Highway 400, I decide that my six-year-old son has stared long enough at his iPod screen, so I try to make conversation:

“So, Yair, what are you looking forward to the most at camp?”

We are on our way, for the fourth summer in a row, to URJ Camp George, the regional Reform Jewish camp. I will serve as rabbinical faculty for the week, and he will be what is lovingly referred to as a “faculty brat” – shadowing the campers because he’s too young to be in a cabin.

Yair loves camp. He looks forward to it every summer. So I figure there are any number of possible answers to my question of what he is looking forward to most: sports; arts & crafts; swimming. His actual answer blows me away, and makes me laugh out loud.

“Well….” (He pauses to think.) “I think my favourite is…making challah.”

Making challah? Making CHALLAH?? Of all the things to do at camp, he chose braiding bread! This kid loves to run around; loves to swim and play… and his favourite thing is Jewish cooking! I love it!

And then it hits me. At age 6, he doesn’t differentiate between which activities are Jewish and which are not. He just knows that he loves all of the things he does at camp.

THAT is what Jewish camping is all about.

I am a product of Jewish camp also. I can trace my earliest and most formative Jewish experiences back to sweltering hot summers at Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, where we prayed in Hebrew with a southern drawl, dressed in all white on Shabbat, and sweated our way through Shabbat song session. I have seen first hand, from having spent many summers in in many different camp roles, just how influential camping is on Jewish identity. Kids who grow up attending Jewish camp feel like Judaism belongs to them. They use Hebrew words naturally; they feel comfortable with services and ritual; and they integrate Jewish thinking and values into the everyday – moving seamlessly from swimming to challah baking, from eating meals to chanting blessings.

The camps are often referred the as the “crown jewel” of Jewish education in North America. They are a veritable Jewish identity factory, a hothouse of creative ideas and new approaches. Much of what liberal Judaism looks like today was born in its camps. I have no doubt that the liberal Judaism of tomorrow is being incubated there right now. Maybe even in the mind of my 6 year old son.

So I press further: “Challah baking? That sounds like fun. Why is that your favourite?”
He answers: ” I don’t know. I just like it.”

That’s OK. He doesn’t have to know yet. We can leave the philosophizing for later. For now, let’s just get to camp.

Categories: Family, Judaism Tags: , ,
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