Israel – the homeland of the Jews, the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael, Ha-Aretz. As a kid, I always envisioned what Israel would be like. I saw the many posters in my synagogue, I watched the videos and read the stories. When I first traveled to Israel in 1999, what I experienced on my first trip I could not have been prepared for. There were modern buildings. We had dinner in a mall. Israel was just like America in so many ways. As a tourist, I was in awe at the beauty and wonder of Israel. Sixteen years later, I am still in awe at the wonder that is Israel, but I am also keenly aware of the challenges and questions facing Israelis every day.
While I was living in Israel in 2007, I took a taxi with a few of my friends to go to the mall. As was usually the case, the driver started to ask us about our visit to Israel. When one of my friends, a female cantoral student, remarked she was studying to be a Chazanit, the driver stopped his cab, yelled that there was no such thing as a female Chazan, and then kicked us out of his cab. This story is a clear example of some of the questions and challenges facing Israel, even today.
Rabbi Miri Gold earned the dual distinction of being the first female AND the first non-Orthodox rabbi to receive a paycheck from the State of Israel as a rabbi. Anat Hoffman, often seen being arrested at the Western Wall for her leadership of Women of the Wall, just wants the right to pray, read Torah and wear a Tallis. These are just two incredible women doing their parts to ensure gender equality in Israel. Rabbi Gold, because she is not an Orthodox rabbi, is not granted the same status as her Orthodox colleagues. The very character of the State of Israel is affected by these unequal policies. By denying its non-Orthodox Jewish citizens equal treatment under the law, Israel violates its own Declaration of Independence, which guarantees freedom of religion.
As a rabbi, I stand 100% with Israel. I love Israel – the people, the food, the culture. However, as an American Jew, I understand also that there are opportunities for me (and all American Jews) to help shape the future of Israel. Israel is not just the homeland for Israeli Jews; no, it is the homeland for all Jews. As a Reform Rabbi, I support ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America. ARZA speaks for all Jews, providing a valuable voice for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, Religious Equality among all Jews, and for the safety, security and stability of Israel, the Palestinians and the entire Middle East Region.
So, the question is – will you step up and do your part to help create an Israel that cherishes the same values we cherish?? Each of us has a critical voice, and a critical opportunity. Israel was founded to be a pluralistic and democratic Jewish state. By supporting ARZA in the WZC election, you will ensure that the dream of the founders of Israel will be realized.
How can you be involved? Visit arza.org/election to learn more about the elections, and how your vote will matter. Beginning January 21, 2020, and running through March 11, 2020, VOTE. You can vote online or with a paper ballot. The vote costs $7.50 for those over age 25 and $5 for those 25 and under. The future of Israel is in your hands!
I had the privilege and honor to represent Temple Beth El at the URJ Biennial just a few weeks ago. There were so many opportunities for learning, having fun, socializing, praying, singing, etc. It was truly an amazing experience and one I look forward to every 2 years (or really think about it all the time!). However, just a few days after I returned from Chicago, I read on Facebook something that really hit me quite hard.
In today’s world, we often speak about privilege and what it means to be privileged. Perhaps we even take for granted things we do not realize we are privileged to have or be a part of. Attendance at the URJ Biennial is a privilege and a great honor. However, my experience was quite different from one of my friends, and I hope you will recognize very quickly how the concept of “privilege” can mean many different things for many different people. What I am about to read is an excerpt from one of the presenters/teachers at the Biennial, Marra Gad:
“For those of you who are not aware, one week ago, I arrived at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Conference in Chicago, and from moment one, things did not go as any of us had hoped they would.
When I went to pick up my credentials, I was told that the ‘REAL’ Marra Gad needed to pick up her badge. And when I replied that I was the real Marra Gad, I did not receive an apology. Instead, the person behind the desk said, ‘Really!?’
When I was eventually given my very bright orange badge that clearly said PRESENTER across the bottom….
I was assumed to be hotel staff. Twice. While wearing my bright orange badge. And told that I needed to do more to get room service orders out more quickly.
I was aggressively asked repeatedly WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? And when I would reply that I was a featured speaker on Shabbat afternoon, I was then asked what I could possibly have to speak about.
I ended up in an elevator filled with attendees who elected to whisper about me. What I was doing there. And, again, what I could possibly be presenting about. LIKE I WASN’T THERE.”
While I will read some more from Marra’s post later on in my sermon, I wanted to stop there and stress a few points I understand from Marra’s post. In the past few years, our society has become super aware of the differences between people. We have found ways to celebrate these differences, while at the same time appreciating what we have in common. There have been some great successes and unfortunately there have also been some terrible failures. It is important to point out that the way some people deal with their own embarrassment is to joke or play it off as a joke…but that does not take away from the seriousness of how others may feel, react or respond.
Assumptions are another problem. We all do this, so I am certainly not pointing fingers. However, we can, and we should do better. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, reached out to Marra privately, to issue an apology. He also wrote an outstanding public apology. Although he was apologizing for himself, he also spoke beautifully about our movement’s responsibility to prevent these types of events from happening:
“I need to publicly apologize to Marra Gad, who endured numerous acts of racism at the recent URJ Biennial in Chicago. I’m the president of the Union for Reform Judaism – and what happened to Marra happened on my watch. I’m deeply sorry for each painful encounter…”
“Her experiences took place at a Biennial at which I addressed this issue head-on. On Thursday night at Biennial, I spoke at length about embracing the diversity within our Jewish community as we simultaneously call out and face the racism within every part of our Reform Jewish community. (You can find that address here: https://bit.ly/2rtCR0C) Marra’s experience, and the experiences of other participants of marginalized identities from whom we have heard, only underscore the urgency of this work.”
During his Biennial address on Thursday night, December 12, Rabbi Jacobs instructed us in ways we can widen our Jewish tents: smashing divisions such as racism, sexism, etc.; committing to anti-racism, not just being “not a racist;” and by making people who enter our tent feel as if they belong from the moment we meet them. Most importantly, we must realize and understand that no one looks Jewish anymore and there is not one authentic way of being Jewish anymore. Rabbi Jacobs spoke about embracing those who are “Jewish adjacent,” which very broadly is defined as someone who participates in Jewish religious or cultural practices without having converted to Judaism. We are not diluting Judaism; we are bringing Judaism to more Jews by honoring diversity and strengthening our communities.
If we turn to our sacred text, the Torah, we find answers to even the hardest of topics such as this. Just one verse beyond what I read from Torah tonight is a very important moment for the future of the Jewish people:
וְעַתָּ֡ה שְׁנֵֽי־בָנֶיךָ֩ הַנּוֹלָדִ֨ים לְךָ֜ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֗יִם עַד־בֹּאִ֥י אֵלֶ֛יךָ מִצְרַ֖יְמָה לִי־הֵ֑ם אֶפְרַ֙יִם֙ וּמְנַשֶּׁ֔ה כִּרְאוּבֵ֥ן וְשִׁמְע֖וֹן יִֽהְיוּ־לִֽי׃
Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.
Manasseh and Ephraim take Joseph’s “slot” in the land holding – in the spaces around the Ark and in the Land of Israel surrounding Jerusalem once they get there! It is the passing of the blessing from Jacob to Joseph and Ephraim and Manasseh that continues the line of Abraham, continuing to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham. Ephraim and Manasseh were born to a non-Jewish woman, Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asenath.
Not only do we find Patrilineal descent, Judaism passed down from the father, here, we also find two children from a very different culture being embraced as part of the early Israelite community. Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons as his own, breaking any barrier that may have been present. We learn from Jacob the important lesson of inclusion. While we do a pretty good job of this here at Temple Beth El, there is always room for improvement…another important message gleaned from Rabbi Jacobs as he addressed the 5,000 Biennial attendees:
“Schedule a training about equity, inclusion, and antiracism in your community. Learn about unconscious and implicit bias, and how to be a better ally. Lean on our Audacious Hospitality Toolkit for Congregations and dig deeper into social justice activism through the RAC to address racism in our broader society. When marginalized members of your community find the courage to speak up, treat this as a gift, and listen deeply to what they have to say. Commit to antiracism and other active forms of fighting oppression. Take the time to reflect and make an honest accounting of your own actions. I know I will. It is time that we make every person that comes under our tent feel like they already belong.”
Will the actions suggested by Rabbi Jacobs solve all of the problems? No…but it will lead to huge improvements in the lives of every member of our community. We must acknowledge that racism exists not just outside of our community, but also within our community. The alternative to not embracing these differences is to continually alienate potential members of our community as well as current members of our community. We must do everything in our power to avoid this – for the benefit of our Jewish future and for all of our children!
Earlier in my sermon, I spoke about privilege. In today’s society, we often hear the phrase “white privilege.” It exists and is dangerous if we do not recognize and change our attitudes, not just our behaviors. Toward the end of her post, Marra wrote:
“And then, 2 of my trusted friends with whom I was discussing all of this and who also happen to be rabbis, suggested that most people really don’t understand what the experiences at Biennial felt like for me. Because they cannot. Because it would not happen to them. Because they are white. And I am not. And for a moment, that made sense. But, as I continue to consider the question, I would offer that Jews should absolutely understand because of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of anti-Semitism. Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, anti-OTHER ism…. they are all abuses of the soul. And to be on the receiving end of it is a trauma. And it is a trauma that Jews know very well.
Jews know what it feels like to be stared at. Whispered about. Not made to feel welcome. To feel unsafe.”
My friends and family, there are several common themes throughout the Torah and our liturgy. One of the most important is:
כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם
“Because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”
These few extremely important words flow through our lives as a constant reminder of what it feels to be “the other.” Marra Gad’s experiences at the Biennial are only one example of something that is horrible and avoidable. We must open our minds, our hearts and our souls to embrace anyone and everyone that chooses our Tent. At the Biennial, we were challenged to commit to doing this work together. We will because we must.
Let me end this sermon tonight with a very important prayer found in the Talmud, Tractate Berachot 58a:
“Baruch hachacham ha’razeem she’ayn da’atam domah zeh l’zeh V’Ein Partzufayhen domeem zeh l’zeh.
״בָּרוּךְ … חֲכַם הָרָזִים״ — שֶׁאֵין דַּעְתָּם דּוֹמָה זֶה לָזֶה, וְאֵין פַּרְצוּפֵיהֶן דּוֹמִים זֶה לָזֶה
Blessed are You, the Sage of all secret things for their minds are not similar to each other and their faces are all unique.” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 58a)
I have spent the past week thinking about so many things. I really wanted to begin some serious and genuine reflection on 2019 while at the same time considering the excitement of 2020. I am lucky to serve a truly wonderful community. My family feels so incredibly blessed to be here and we truly appreciate the love we receive. Thankfully, my kids and wife are healthy and happy. We are thankful we have a roof over our heads and food to eat. There really is so much to be thankful for...and spending a week in Houston with family was seriously rewarding and refreshing. Celebrating the 80th birthday of Marilyn Ozaroff was so much fun!
Hanukkah was supposed to be festive and full of joy. While there was both light and joy during Hanukkah, there was also feelings of regret, devastation, angst, fear. It seemed that every day brought a new cause for anger or fear. This was the dawn of 2020 and yet I was still faced with the same terror and trauma that has faced my community for what seems like our entire existence. This is the United States of America - the "Beacon on the Hill." This nation was supposed to be different.
I am well aware that among my group of friends and family, we have many disagreements. We have many different opinions on every topic. It is sometimes hard to come to an agreement. There are, however, some no-brainers. Hating another person because of their religion, their skin color, their nation of origin...or in any other way is not just wrong...it is tragic for all of us. Acts of violence or terror against another should NEVER be ok. I have always been proud to be Jewish...and I truly have only had to fear being Jewish a few times in my life. What I do not want is for my children (or any children) to ever feel afraid because of how they identify. Hearing of the anti-Semitic events of the past few days and weeks just added to an already awful 2019.
Don't get me wrong...there were wonderful times in 2019...many of them, personal and public. And, I am not going jump off the deep end. I am angry. I am afraid. Yet, I know I must be strong for my family, my community and for the future. So, what do I do? I write; I speak out; I act. This is the way to get things done. People need to be aware of what is going on around them. Ignorance is usually the root of evil...not always, but more often than not. People tend to be afraid of what they do not know or understand. So, their reaction is violence or terror toward the "other."
I refuse to let the actions of others define who I am or my experiences. I refuse to sit back and "let things go." I want to cry out; I want to act; I want to fight back. This does NOT mean I believe violence begets violence. Fighting back does not have to be violent. It can be with love...Love is stronger than fear...there is no doubt in my mind.
God – do you hear my thoughts? What should I do?
I am physically trembling in fear; anger; resentment.
I feel my soul being torn apart with every news cycle.
Events; Situations; Violence; Ignorance.
My brain hurts from the constant wave of thoughts.
Spiritually, I feel drained; exhausted; terrified.
I want to run and tear something apart.
Crying; Emotional; Pain; Fear.
God – I know you are there. Please take my hand.
Show me what to do; how to act and take the next step.
Tears dry on my face as I search for the right perspective.
Tired; Sleep; Awake; “Woke.”
I need to do something, to lead others away from this pain.
I can pray with them; for them; about them; to them.
My gut tells me to do more – but I do not know how.
Attacks; More attacks; Even more attacks; End?
The sun will rise tomorrow; of this I am certain.
I will pray; I will act; I will do.
God – be with me and help me to help others.
Love; Prayer; Heart; #Strongerthanhate.
I woke up and tried to look out through my window.
All I could see was grey smoke and bright yellow fire – or was it orange?
The flames seemed to overwhelm the dark sky – it was blue, then turned grey then black.
What used to be a “fire season” has become the new “ordinary.”
My friends and family members have all left their homes, heading to safety.
I hear my parents calling – time to go, will I see my room again?
I was told to pack the most basic items – how do I decide what is ok to never see again?
The ground is so dry, the air is so thick, and the fires seem to grow and grow and grow…
We arrive in our temporary homes – are they really temporary?
I have seen the destruction caused by the fire…it is not possible for us to return.
How long we stay here depends on so many things – are the fires ever going to stop?
My eyes are dry, I cannot cry anymore…my throat is sore from the smoke.
There is a solution – I know this is true. Should we move East?
California is our home – I cannot fathom leaving this land. Should we stay?
We have had to move before…but not because of the fires.
Shall we just start all over again in a new place?
We are all Americans; We are all Californians; We are all humans.
I WISH YOU ENOUGH.
Recently, I overheard a mother and daughter in their last moments together at the airport as the daughter's departure had been announced. Standing near the security gate, they hugged, and the mother said:
"I love you and I wish you enough."
The daughter replied, "Mom, our life together has been more than enough. Your love is all I ever needed. I wish you enough, too, Mom." They kissed and the daughter left.
The mother walked over to the window where I sat. Standing there, I could see she wanted and needed to cry.
I tried not to intrude on her privacy, but she welcomed me in by asking, "Did you ever say good-bye to someone knowing it would be forever?"
"Yes, I have," I replied. "Forgive me for asking but why is this a forever good-bye?"
"I am old, and she lives so far away. I have challenges ahead and the reality is the next trip back will be for my funeral," she said.
When you were saying good-bye, I heard you say, "I wish you enough." May I ask what that means?"
She began to smile. "That's a wish that has been handed down from other generations. My parents used to say it to everyone."
She paused a moment and looked up as if trying to remember it in detail and she smiled even more.
"When we said, 'I wish you enough' we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with just enough good things to sustain them".
Then turning to me, she shared the following, reciting it from memory,
"I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish you enough hellos to get you through the final good-bye."
She then began to cry and walked away.
They say it takes a minute to find a special person. An hour to appreciate them. A day to love them. And an entire life to forget them.
- Author Unknown
Today, I want to address an issue that may be in the forefront of many of our minds. One of my most cherished and holy responsibilities is being with families when a loved one is dying and then being there for and with them afterwards – from the last few moments of life through the funeral and every day after that. I have officiated at the funeral for children, young adults and even the most life experienced adults. Each time, as I sat down to reflect on the deceased to make sure I gave the proper respect to each of them, I concentrated as hard as I could on the positive. I have refused to consider the how and why of these deaths…for there is no WHY and there is no BECAUSE!
Over the past few months, I have spent a lot of time thinking about life, dying and death. I have been reading, researching and preparing for the Death and Dying Symposium as well as my HHD sermons. This morning, I would like for us to focus on the family members and friends left grieving when a loved one dies.
One of the most important resources I purchased while at Hebrew Union College is Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning.” Chapter 3 begins:
“Judaism, with its long history of dealing with the soul of man, its intimate knowledge of man’s strengths and foibles, his grandeur and his weakness, has wisely devised graduated periods during which the mourner may express his grief and release with planned regularity the built-up tensions caused by bereavement. The Jewish religion provides an exquisitely structured approach to mourning.”[i]
I have thought about, listened to, and researched the topic of mourning. There is not one right way to mourn. Yes, Judaism has a proscribed calendar of mourning. These periods of mourning contain various rituals and customs. Nevertheless, I do believe that every person mourns in their own individual way. As I sat down to think about what to write for this sermon, I decided to create a list of questions that I would want to focus on.
I believe that these questions focus on one of the key struggles for all of us right now is: what do we do after a loved one dies? Should we close ourselves off to the rest of the world? Or, should we reach out to those in our lives who are close to us? AND, what do we do or how do we act when those close to us are suffering because of the loss of a loved one? Our community and all Jewish communities throughout the world have spent a lot of time in the past couple of years in pain for a variety of reasons. It is vital, though, to stress that this sermon was guided by an extremely deep pain that I and so many others are feeling.
I do not purport to have all of the answers. What I can do is offer some of my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of scholars, teachers and others in our communities. One of the first sources I turned to was A Practical Guide to Rabbinic Counseling, edited by Yisrael N. Levitz, PH.D. And Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. In Chapter 10, Rabbi Maurice Lamm and Dodi Lee Lamm, MSW write, “…most grief reactions are normal, and most mourners will return to normal functioning. Grief reactions may exhibit all the symptoms of pathology yet be no more than a normal manifestation of mourning.”[ii] While each mourner reacts differently, it can be assumed that some sort of expressive emotions will appear. With the grief time periods that are standard in Judaism, some will return from their immense grief to normalcy even after the initial period of Shiva is over.
Perhaps you have heard of the Grieving Process. This theory, called the Kubler-Ross Model, was developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. This process contains 5 stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Rabbi Lamm and Dodi Lee Lamm continue, “The mourner may appear to have reached a stage of acceptance and everyone might breathe a sigh of relief only to see that anger sets in once again or even for the first time. Saying goodbye and accepting the loss is not a linear progression.”[iii] When comforting or supporting those that are mourning, we need to understand not only the stages of grief but also that one may go from stage to stage every day. It is most important for us to let them know they are supported, and we love them.
A few years ago, I was asked by a congregant how to speak to her children about a loss the family had experienced. I asked for advice from some of my more experienced colleagues. One of my colleagues suggested I turn to “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy,” a Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner by J. William Worden. First, let me share with you some of my thoughts: young children are not necessarily able to truly understand what “death” means, but that it is something that happens, just not to them.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with Batya after the loss of a young person. When Carlie asked Batya what happened, Batya responded, “He died.” Carlie asked, “How?” Batya then responded, “He hurt himself.” Carlie’s response, “That wasn’t very smart,” showed her ability to understand the severity of what happened. Yet, I have wondered since then if our response to Carlie was appropriate. I do understand that every parent should come to their own conclusions regarding what they tell their children. But, when major events happen in our communities, should we not explain exactly what happened?
J. William Worden presents three views. The first view, expressed by Martha Wolfenstein in 1966, says “that children cannot mourn until there is a complete identity formation, which occurs at the end of adolescence, when the person is fully differentiated.”[iv] Another, different view, expressed by Erna Furman in 1974, says “that children can mourn as early as 3 years of age…”[v] Worden’s view however, suggests “that children do mourn and what is needed is a model of mourning that fits children rather than the imposition of an adult model on children.”[vi] We could look at study after study and I am sure that we would find even more conflicting results. What does this tell us? I believe it suggests that there is NO one right way of approaching these issues.
When catastrophes occur, organizations come together and make decisions about what to do next. Sometimes, unfortunately, though, the decision that is made is the “best of the worst.” Ultimately, communities have to bond together and work together to ensure everyone in their community can mourn or respond how they are most comfortable…and we should always be surrounded by those that love and care for us – that is a MUST!
“May his memory be for a blessing…” “As a result of the actions of her children, she will live on…” “Through their indelible imprints on our lives shall they always be present…”
These three quotes are some of the sayings shared at a funeral or in a house of mourning after the death of a loved one. As we can never really understand death, we attempt to explain that death only pertains to the physical body and that the soul lives on in the next steps of living. Every idea we have about the afterlife illustrates what we value most.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in “Basic Judaism,” illuminates the point:
Death cannot be and is not the end of life. Man transcends death in many altogether naturalistic fashions. He may be immortal biologically, through his children; in thought, through the survival of his memory; in influence, by virtue of the continuance of his personality as a force among those who come after him; and ideally, through his identification with the timeless things of the spirit.[vii]
So, we find ourselves in the same place we started. There is no one right way…but then again, what is clear is that we have to speak about the realities of life and death. Having these conversations, using words that will be easy to understand and in safe places, will enable each of us to cope however we are able and need. If we are not given the chance to mourn or cope, or, perhaps, the chance to learn how to mourn and cope, we might be causing more damage. Since I came to Temple Beth El, we have experienced some great moments as well as some difficult ones.
We ought to be able to celebrate our lives as well as support each other when needed.
Dear friends, this day has been and will continue to be long and difficult. Let us bask in the glory and sanctity of our community. Let us take some time to reflect and think about those in our lives who are of the most importance. Please, please, please embrace them, tell them you love them. And, most importantly, know that each and every one of you is of extreme importance in my life (and in the life of my family).
Gmar Chatimah Tovah and Tzom Kal!
[i] The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, by Maurice Lamm, pg. 74
[ii] A Practical Guide to Rabbinic Counseling, Feldheim Publishers, pg. 165
[iii] Ibid, pg. 167
[iv] Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Springer Publishing Company, pg. 230
[v] Ibid. pg. 230
[vi] Ibid. pg. 231
[vii] Basic Judaism, Harcourt, Brace and World, pg. 160
I am a husband, father and rabbi - just trying to help to make the world a better place!