This year, as I began to think about my High Holy Day Sermons, I knew it would be important to acknowledge the elephant in the room. On Rosh Hashanah, I addressed this at the beginning of my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon. Rather than dwell on it, let me just name it and then move on. All of us that are involved with putting together these services and experiences for our community are saddened we are not together in person. We look forward to seeing all of you back at Temple Beth El next year in person.
We have dealt with loss in a variety of ways this past year and a half. On Rosh Hashanah, I preached about being in a “pseudo coma” and the grief we all faced. This evening, on Erev Yom Kippur, I am going to address loss through a different lens – the lens of acceptance and change. When we only view loss or grief in one way, we may miss out on the opportunities present for us to grow…to look at our lives through a different perspective and to learn from the loss, rather than dwell on the negative.
This summer, I was blessed to spend 2nd session at the Reform Movement’s southeast camp, URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, Georgia. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing havoc across the world, Camp Coleman (and the rest of the URJ camps) requested for faculty members to remain at camp for as long as possible. Temple Beth El is a congregation made up of all kinds of members – from the young to the most experienced in years. With 11 campers heading to Camp Coleman this summer, it was valuable for me to join them and serve as faculty for the entire 2nd session.
While at Coleman, I was able to spend some quality time with a wonderful singer/song writer/song leader/educator named Charlie Kramer, a disability and inclusion advocate and coach, and an incredibly talented musician. He shared a program with us, “Singing in the Dark,” a musical and spoken word experience. This experience challenged all of us to enter into a space blindfolded, focusing our attention on the sounds around us, and more specifically on the beautiful music we made together. Charlie himself is blind (a word he uses to describe himself); he was diagnosed at 5 years old, becoming legally blind at 15…it took him until he was 24 before he truly embraced his vision, even while being legally blind.
While experiencing, even temporarily, a moment of vision loss, I was able to listen…truly listen. I was listening to my heartbeat, to my breath, to the many sounds around me…even the shuffling of leaves in the trees. This program lasted less than an hour – and yet, during that time, I was able to think about what the word loss means. Yes, it means being without something…but it also affords each of us the opportunity to focus on what we have, truly recognizing the wondrous miracles we are blessed with every day, every moment.
At one point, he began to sing “We Will Rise,” a song he wrote in the aftermath of the 2018 Woolsey Fire that destroyed his home camp, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps in Malibu, California. His words challenged us to find the inner strength we need to recover from tragedy and pain. This is not a song about desperation – it is a song that pushes us to climb up from despair, from the depths of pain. When we found out in the Spring of 2020 that Camp Coleman would not be opening for the summer, as so many other camps in the USA, we were faced with tremendous pain. Being at Camp Coleman this summer showed us that we are able to rise from our pain. We are able to get back up and push forward. Charlie reminded us of this resilience. Resilience – a word we will return to in a few minutes…
In the liturgy of our Shacharit (morning) service, we find a sequence of blessings called Nisim B’Chol Yom, “The Daily Miracles.” Each of these blessings begin the same way: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, “Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe.” What follows this introductory phrase is one miracle, one way in which we acknowledge God as the source of all blessings. If we focus on the 2nd blessing, we find:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam; Pokeach Ivrim.
Looking at 3 different prayer books, we find 3 different translations of Pokeach Ivrim. In the gender neutral “Gates of Prayer,” often referred to as the “Gates of Gray,” we find “who helps the blind to see.” In our current siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, we find “who opens the eyes of the blind.” In our High Holy Day Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, we find “Your great power opens eyes that cannot see.”
One of the most important lessons Charlie reinforced while at camp this summer is that words do matter. As we translate the Hebrew into English, we find multiple meanings for the same Hebrew phrase. The way we translate Pokeach Ivrim matters a great deal. Charlie does not see his blindness as a disability. Rather, he recognizes the gift he has. He is truly able to see. Let me explain by turning to one of my new favorite songs, “Blind,” by Charlie Kramer.
Link to "Blind" here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qg6lu7uQQQo&list=LL
In the two choruses of “Blind,” Charlie has said and taught so much about his experience. In the first chorus, Charlie expresses the feelings of someone who is physically blind, physically unable to see. The words “I am blind” are sung 3 times – each time as an introduction of one aspect of life that is missed by only looking at the surface meaning of “blind.” I am blind: to the life that’s right beside me; to the light that shines before me; to the shadows all around me; to the absence of the blessings that are right before my eyes.
The p’shat, or simple meaning of this chorus is that we are blind to what is right in front of us. If we look deeper, though, we see that what Charlie is teaching us is that by dwelling on the “negative” understanding of being blind, we are missing out on what we are actually able to see. When we devote all of our attention to what we do not have, or what we think we do not have, we miss out on the blessings that are there – and perhaps a greater understanding of what we think we are missing out on.
In the second chorus, we find the same 3 “I am blind” intro lines; however, what follows each of these lines is an affirmation of what we are actually able to see. “And I can see what’s right before me; And I can hear the world around me; And I can feel the strength inside me; The beauty in our world, Sings beyond our eyes.” Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of physical blindness, there is a recognition of so much more. The opportunities present in our lives are so much more than we could have possibly even imagined. And that is the point – when we focus on what is “wrong” or “bad,” we oftentimes miss out on the opportunities for growth.
As I mentioned earlier, Charlie also teaches us about Resilience. It is our ability to get up, dust ourselves off and get moving that defines not only who we are, but also the potential of where we are going. During this past year and a half, we have been pushed around in ways none of us could have imagined. And, yet, here we are, at the end of the Yamim Noraim, the 10 Days of Awe…standing here in front of God – vulnerable and full of dread. We may not know what is coming next, but we are prepared to do so as a community.
On the wall in my office, I have a quote from one of my favorite movie characters, Rocky Balboa:
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.
It’s a very mean and nasty place.
And I don’t care how tough you are.
It will beat you to your knees.
And keep you there permanently if you let it.
You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.
But it ain’t about how hard you hit.
It’s about how hard you can get hit.
And keep moving forward.
How much you can take and keep moving forward.
That’s how winning is done.”
I look at these words every day when I walk into my office. In a way, these words have become a mantra for me. After all, when life hits us hard, it is our responsibility to get back up and move forward. And we can all agree the past year and half hit us hard, time and time again. We are still fighting, looking for those opportunities for strength and growth.
Yom Kippur affords us the break we need to examine and then reexamine ourselves. We do so to prepare for the next year – to challenge ourselves to be better, to do better. We do not dwell on how we have wronged or been wronged. Rather, we look for those unique chances to grow and do more. Tomorrow evening, as the Days of Awe are ending and we are standing in front of the “Open Gates,” we will read “As the Day Ends,” which begins with the following paragraph:
We stand as one before the gates of a new year--
Renewed by this Day of Atonement,
Made stronger by all who are with us
And by those whose presence we feel within…
This is the truest example of our resilience. We will be exhausted and hungry. And, yet we will stand together, strengthened by those who are with us – whether physically, emotionally or in any other way. That presence – of those who have struggled with us, not only in the past year, but also during the Yamim Noraim – will enable us to stand tall. We will look toward the Gates of Righteousness, the Gates of the New Year and ask God to allow us to enter with love and true devotion to a better year; a year filled with opportunities taken and challenges accepted.
On behalf of the entire Boxt family, all 5 of us, I wish for every one of us in this congregation and for anyone who is able: an easy fast. May we all be written in the Book of Life and may each of us have a wonderful 5782. Good Yontif!oHowHowe
Good evening and L’Shanah Tovah! Last year, our Temple Beth El family experienced a break from the normal High Holy Day experience. We, like every Jewish congregation worldwide, were faced with having to connect via the computer, the phone, and other miscellaneous technological means. While we did have some hiccups, we were able to put on quite a production. And, just like last year, I (we) owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to all of those who helped us make sure this year’s High Holy Day experience is authentic and real for every congregant.
As early as February of this year, your congregational board began discussing what this year’s High Holy Days would look and feel like. What we wanted was to create as close to the “real life in person” experience as we would be able. While I am saddened that we are not here together in the Temple Beth El sanctuary, I am thankful for the various ways in which we were able to improve on last year’s High Holy Days experience: we have a brand-new Livestream program, complete with top of the line cameras; our choir is live, rather than via a recording; we have video recordings of our Torah readers; and of course our sound system has been and continues to be managed by Lou Gross, a wonderful asset to our congregation and personally, someone I am proud to call my friend.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the incredible work of the Choir, your TBE Board, the Ritual and Worship Committee, and our HHD Tech crew. Angel continues to be an incredible blessing for Temple Beth El! Most importantly, thank you so much to Tina for all her outstanding hard work in helping to make our congregation continue to prosper during these last 2 years (and really since she started as a part of our TBE family).
Batya and I watch a lot of medical shows. Although there are a lot of similarities between the shows, each one has its own story line, which keeps our attention. One episode came to mind as I was beginning to think about my High Holy Day sermons this year. In the episode, one of the patients was in a “pseudo coma,” often referred to as “Locked-In Syndrome.” The patient was aware of all that was going on around them, but he was unable to respond in any way. While having a conversation with a couple of colleagues at Camp Coleman, I remarked that this past year + was almost like a coma and we are just now beginning to come out of the coma. One of my colleagues remarked that it was more like we were paralyzed and unable to respond, but completely aware of what was going on…. a Locked-In Syndrome of sorts. We are now just beginning to be able to respond and react to what has been going on in our lives – and there has been and continues to be a lot to unpack.
As this year has been so different, even from last year, I wanted to make sure to preach on a topic that would be pertinent to as many of our TBE family as possible. What kept running through my mind was the word “loss.” As we seemingly begin to come out of the “darkness” of the Covid-19 pandemic, and then find ourselves going right back into that darkness, our eyes, our sensibilities, and our entire beings begin to adjust to our new reality. What have we learned in the past year +? What losses have we experienced as individuals, as families, as a community? Before we can even begin to answer these questions, we must define the word loss – and how that affects us. Suffering a loss can be devastating, especially if it was unexpected. What we experienced during and since the COVID Pandemic qualifies as devastating, and there were many ways in which we have felt loss.
A few months ago, I gave a sermon based on the word “grief.” The Parasha for that week was Chukat. As you may remember, this is the Parasha in which Moses loses both his sister, Miriam and his brother, Aaron. Usually, when one thinks of grief, they refer to the loss of someone or something. Grief is not just about death. Grief can also apply to emotional loss – such as what many of us (myself included) have experienced and are still experiencing with regards to the Covid19 Pandemic. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are 5 stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While experiencing grief, some may report other stages and it is also true that people may go from different stage backwards and forwards or multiples times during their grief. Grief is just as unique as each of us!
When Miriam died, the Children of Israel were faced with continuing on their journey to the Promised Land without her. And, to make matters worse, the Torah text seems to ignore any kind of mourning period for Miriam. However, when the people approached Moses, angry at the absence of water, it was clear there was more to the story than just a lack of water. After all, the people had complained about this same issue earlier in the Torah. According to Rabbi Lisa Edwards, we can find some explanation in Numbers 20:2 - the verse tells us the “community was without water.” (Numbers 20:2) Rashi teaches that the juxtaposition of these two verses explains that the Israelites “had water for the whole forty years from [Miriam’s] well on account of the merit of Miriam.”
For the Israelites, losing Miriam was tremendous – for her leadership, her music and for her well. Moses, who would lose his older brother, Aaron, just a few verses later, dealt with tremendous loss. When he approached the rock to ask for water, as God had commanded, he instead struck the rock 2 times. Moses received a very severe punishment – he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. While he was suffering grief at the loss of his sister, and of course the Children of Israel’s constant complaining, it was his inability to follow God’s instruction and his doubting of God’s power that kept him from entering the Land of Canaan. What must be pointed out as remarkable is that even with the loss of his siblings and the new knowledge of not being able to enter Israel, Moses continues his leadership of the people, until the very end of the Torah.
Some of us in the past year have lost family members to Covid 19 or other sicknesses related to the Pandemic. We have been faced with making end-of-life decisions in a very different world – one in which our services were required to be live-streamed, rather than in person. Some of us were unable to travel to be with family to mourn the loss of a loved one…or even to celebrate the memories we made together. This has been challenging for all of us, for sure.
My dear TBE family – the grief we have all experienced over the past year and a half is very real. For many of us, denial was a very quick stage of grief – we were required to make decisions and observations of very real and dim reality. I am sure that anger will remain with us for quite some time…and yes, there has been a tremendous amount of bargaining as we have worked through the various ways, we are able to move forward into our new normal future. There is still a lot to process and no doubt there is some very real depression still apparent. Eventually, however, we will, together be able to accept what we are faced with and move on together into that new normal future.
I know that sometimes it may seem the Covid-19 Pandemic will never end. When we are tired, worn out and disheartened by the amount of those in need, we must push ourselves to continue. Rather than look out into the world and be discouraged by the grief and loss that never seems to “let up,” we should rejoice in the love we have for each other and for the greatness of our community. We have made it to another Jewish New Year, and we have so much to look forward to in 5782. We are a family and families look out for each other. Families support each other. And we will continue to strive to get through this time together.
It is my hope that in this New Year, we will continue to work together to make our family the greatest Jewish family in Knoxville. Let us strive to welcome in many, many, many more family members in the next year. May God bless every one of us and spread God’s warmth and loving embrace outward to all of those in our world who need it.
Let me conclude this sermon with a poem/prayer I wrote in March…I believe it is still very apropos today.
Covid 19 Pandemic – One Year Later:
Jenny said, “I truly miss seeing my friends and hugging my family.”
George said, “I miss flying, cruising or visiting places without a mask.”
Rabbi Stein said, “I have enjoyed the chance to write new prayers and poetry for services.”
Rabbi Marks said, “Before the Pandemic, I was always nervous about having to kiss or being kissed by everyone.”
Shoshana said, “Now, I can wave and wink at people, not worried about my personal space.”
Jack said, “I have enjoyed getting to know people I never saw before.”
Rabbi Gold said, “What do I do when I see people who want to hug me if I am nervous?”
Cantor Wolfe said, “I am truly exhausted and need a break from my screens.”
Ruth said, “I miss seeing people, for sure, but I have enjoyed my own spaces.”
Bert said, “What do I do if someone reaches out to shake my hand?”
Rabbi Schwartz said, “Breathe, relax and take it one step at a time.”
Cantor Schein said, “I can’t wait to sing and pray without my mask.”
Steven said, “I hope the Temple keeps streaming…I am not ready to go out yet.”
Jacquelyn said, “I do not miss going in the building. I am happy to stay home and pray together with my community virtually.”
May each of us have the patience to look past what we may not understand. May we spread love to all members of our community. May this New Year, 5782, bring us health, peace, and a better tomorrow! L’Shanah Tovah!
I look outside and all I see is dark clouds.
I squint my eyes, hoping to see some sort of light.
As I am about to give up hope, a sudden ray of sunshine peeks through the clouds.
It seems to be leading me somewhere, so I follow it as far as I can.
Just as the ray begins to disappear, I look out and see a marker – a sign.
As I read the words on the sign, I am immediately transported back…
I find myself viewing life as through a movie screen…the images in black and white.
What I see ahead of me is astonishing and heroic.
I see Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds with a pistol to his temple.
The German Soldier is screaming at him in broken English.
Master Sergeant Edmonds is commanded to tell the Jews under his command to report.
Edmonds, instead, ordered all 1,275 POWS under his command to report.
“We are all Jews here.” These were his words and what followed was tremendous bravery.
Master Sergeant Edmonds never revealed to his family his acts of bravery during that time.
No one but those 1,275 POWS, of which 300 were Jews, knew of his courage.
God was with Edmonds that day as every day.
Today, on Friday, August 20, 2021, his heroic acts are recognized for all to see.
Today, a monument was dedicated to Edmonds to ensure the future learns of his valor and honor.
Today, the world will know of his work to ensure the rights of all Americans.
May his shining example be one we can all learn every day.
May God bless anyone who chooses to do the right thing; May all of those brave souls, those righteous Gentiles who chose to love, rather than hate, be blessed and be honored. May all of us, no matter of our religion, race or creed be blessed with kindness, love and honor.
Last night, I was playing solitaire on my iPad just before 1 am. A headline came across the top of my screen - "President Trump tweets he has COVID 19." Immediately, I let out a "hah..." and then said, "Oh no..." My initial response was sort of "well, I guess that makes sense." Then I began to think about the United States and what it means when our president is sick. There have been a number of times in US history in which a president was incapable to continue, even if temporarily. We have a system in place that allows for the transfer of power, if necessary.
During my lifetime, there have been 3 times in which Vice Presidents have had to assume the role as acting President for medical procedures: On July 13, 1985 when President Reagan had surgery for colon cancer, On June 29, 2002 and July 21, 2007 when President George W. Bush underwent colonoscopies. Also, in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Vice President Lyndon Johnson became the President. And when President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, Vice President Gerald Ford became President.
So, of course, what was going through my mind right off the bat was the succession line of the presidency. I was worried how President Trump's illness would affect the election. I was concerned about the President's health. I will say I did not sleep as well last night as I would have liked.
I often have Facebook open on one of my computer screens. It is a way for me to connect with colleagues, friends, family, and congregants. When I sat at my desk this morning, what I began to observe right away was a lot of my Facebook feed being filled with jokes and offensive statements regarding the health/life of President Trump. I do not think it is a mystery that I am a liberal...not far-left Liberal, but Democrat, none-the-less. As I have said many times, I consider myself to be a "blue-dog" Democrat. Anyway, I was truly taken aback by so many "karma" based comments and others like it. Is that what we do? Is that we believe? Do we really make fun of someone because they didn't take something seriously?
Ok, I am no angel. I am not perfect. I have, at times in my life, wished someone to be punished or to be given their "just reward." I was wrong. When we wish for bad things to happen to others, we are allowing ourselves to go down a very steep slope. As a people, Jews have been scapegoats for centuries. Have we wished revenge on those who have wronged us? Sure. But I also think of the Rabbi's prayer in "Fiddler on the Roof" when he is asked if there is a blessing for the Czar: "May God bless and keep the Czar far away from us."
President Donald Trump is not just President; he is also a human. And no matter how you feel about him personally, wishing him to be ill or worse is not ok. I will defend anyone's right to disagree politically with the President or anyone for that matter. I will also, just as strongly, denounce those who wish ill will, sickness or death on President Trump, or anyone else. Do I believe President Trump has spoken and acted in despicable ways? Yes, sure. That does not mean I wish him ill will.
A rabbinic story (from the Talmud) that has seemed to pop up quite a bit today is the following from Berachot 10a:
There were these hooligans in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, that they should die. Rabbi Meir’s wife, Berurya, said to him: What is your thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base yourself on the verse, as it is written: “Let sins cease from the land” (Psalms 104:35), which you interpret to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? But is it written, let sinners cease?” Let sins cease, is written. One should pray for an end to their transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors themselves.
Moreover, go to the end of the verse, where it says: “And the wicked will be no more.” If, as you suggest, transgressions shall cease refers to the demise of the evildoers, how is it possible that the wicked will be no more, i.e., that they will no longer be evil? Rather, pray for God to have mercy on them, that they should repent, as if they repent, then the wicked will be no more, as they will have repented.
Rabbi Meir saw that Berurya was correct and he prayed for God to have mercy on them, and they repented. (from https://www.sefaria.org/Berakhot.10a.2-5?lang=en)
What we learn from this story is that when we wish for bad things to happen to those we may consider wicked, we are wrong. What we should do, instead, is wish for those who are wicked to change their ways. Rather pray/wish for bad things to happen to them, wish for them to recognize the wickedness of their ways and to change.
May God send a speedy and full recovery, a Refuah Shleimah to President Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, and all of those in the world who have been or are afflicted with COVID 19 or any other sickness.
The 10 Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim, usually provide some "rest" time or time to finish up my preparations for Yom Kippur. This year, the "outlook is unclear." Yes, my services are already finished - after months and months of creating, editing, re-editing, cutting and pasting, etc. of Powerpoint slides and music/video files. My sermon for Erev YK and story for YK day are complete. However, there is too much going on in the world to rest. Being a rabbi during a pandemic has given me great opportunities to grow as a rabbi. Not surprisingly, it has also provided me with many challenges to overcome.
Thankfully, I belong to the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The CCAR has provided me so many valuable lessons and resources. I have been able to turn to "older" or more experienced colleagues when I have felt overwhelmed. When I speak with God or when I pray, I always thank God for the many wonderful blessings in my life - even when it is hard to fathom these blessings. I work with a great team of lay leaders who provide me with great support in so many ways. I certainly would not be able to be the rabbi I am without them.
Do you know who never gets enough credit? The spouses/partners of rabbis (or any clergy for that matter). One of the first lessons I was taught when I entered seminary was the importance of finding a personal counselor - whether a social worker, psychiatrist or psychologist. With the sheer amount of "stuff" clergy have to process from congregants and others, we need a place to put our own "stuff." For many clergy (myself included), this burden often falls on the spouse or partner. Having a loving partner or spouse is so important. Even when they do not understand, it is vital to be able to lean on them for support. However, having a professional counselor is vital as well. There are things a clergy person cannot share with their spouse/partner. Being able to work through these things with a counselor is extremely helpful.
During our Kabbalat Shabbat/Erev Rosh Hashanah service last Friday, I was handed a note that had the following message written on it, "Ruth Bader Ginsburg died." It just so happened that our pre-recorded Choir version of Mi Shebeirach was being played. So, I had a few minutes to think about what I wanted to say...although I really do not remember what I said as the message was such a shock to my system. And, of course, this brings up another challenge of being a member of clergy - what do we do when we want to scream out, cry or just collapse from exhaustion, especially if we are right in the middle of leading a service or any number of important responsibilities we may have.
Let me digress for a moment - my Nana, my mother's mother, died on Friday, September 11. I was right in the middle of last minute preparations for my Kabbalat Shabbat service in memory/dedicated to that tragic day in American history. I really did not have a chance to really check in with myself about how I was feeling. As the days were flying by getting us ever closer to Rosh Hashanah, I found myself so focused on my rabbinic responsibilities.
A couple of nights after my Nana's death, Batya asked me how I was doing. I am certain she was trying to get me to open up about my Nana. My response was typical, "I have been so busy and I continue to be so busy, I haven't had the chance to mourn or think too much about it." This is a trap many, many clergy fall in. We may dedicate our lives to providing pastoral care to our congregants, friends, etc...but when it comes to our own emotions, we often do not take the time or give the proper energy to how we are doing...how we are mourning.
This is where the personal counselor comes in. That hour or so every 2 weeks is our opportunity to put everything else aside and truly focus on ourselves. This is really hard for me (and I would suggest for many Clergy). After all, I believe I was called to be a rabbi - so who am I to turn away or perhaps shirk these holy responsibilities.
I am a husband, father and rabbi - just trying to help to make the world a better place!