Let’s Talk About Death So That We Can Live – Yom Kippur 5776

This is going to be a difficult sermon for some of us to listen to.  But it is an important one for all of us to hear.  And today, Yom Kippur, more than any other day, is the time for us to hear it.

On this day we face our own mortality, and admit to ourselves that so much of our destiny is out of our control.  Any of us could die tomorrow.  We could be hit by a bus or diagnosed with cancer.  We owe it to ourselves, and to our loved ones, to begin a serious conversation about our own deaths.  Let this be our resolution for the new year.

Our Jewish tradition is totally unequipped to answer questions about end of life issues in the modern era.  The prayer that I have been spending a lot of time with these High Holidays, B’rosh Hashanah Yikateivun, lists the various decrees that are at God’s disposal – who by fire, who by water, who by sword, who by beast, hunger, thirst, earthquake and plague.

Notice something common to all of these deaths.  They are all sudden.  There is nothing in this medieval prayer about Congestive Heart Failure, breast cancer, kidney disease, or Alzheimer’s.

While the language of the mahzor suggests that God has decreed our fates for the coming year and there is little we can do about it, the truth is quite the opposite.  We have an unprecedented ability to extend life, in some cases indefinitely.  We do not yet have the religious language to address all of the new challenges this presents.

This is not unique to Judaism.  Until the onset of modern medicine, most human death came suddenly.  People died from things like a kitchen injury that got infected, or the flu.

For the last one hundred years, though, humanity is increasingly gaining the ability to prolong dying.  The quick progression of medicine has taken us completely off guard.  We are no longer prepared to confront our own mortality under these circumstances.

In 1900, the average life expectancy in the United Staes was under fifty years old.  By the 1930’s it had risen to over sixty.  As of 2012, it was nearly seventy nine years old.

One hundred years ago, most people died in their own homes.  Nowadays, about a quarter of us die at home.  The rest of us die in hospitals, nursing homes, and other managed care facilities.

And that means that we, our loved ones, and the medical establishment, are faced with decisions that no previous generations ever had to consider.

You may have experience with this.  Some of you have had to make decisions about whether to continue treatment for a person you love.  Perhaps you felt confident that the decision you made was perfectly in line with the decision that your loved one would have made.  Or perhaps there was doubt.  You were not one hundred percent sure.  Maybe there was disagreement between siblings.  Perhaps there is still guilt and uncertainty about the decisions that were made, or about things that were said.  These scenarios are unfortunately all too common.

My grandmother, Baba Fania, may her memory be a blessing, passed away six years ago.  She was eighty four years old, and was struggling with Congestive Heart Failure.  Baba Fania lived in her own home until almost the end.  A few weeks before she passed away, she moved to a rehab center.  There were trips back and forth from the hospital.

She continued to decline, and I, along with my parents and brother flew down to Southern California to join my aunts and their families.

When I arrived, Baba Fania was in the ICU, the Intensive Care Unit.  Her heart rate had dropped dangerously low, and so the medical team had put her on an intravenous medication to bring the rate back up.  It was not a permanent solution.  They tried to wean her off the IV, and when her heart rate dropped again, the treatment was restarted.

Then, the Resident who was running the ICU initiated a conversation with us that does not occur frequently enough.  In his own words, he said “ICU’s have a tendency to take over.”  A treatment is started, and it leads to one after another and another progressively more invasive intervention.

Our medical system is very good at finding alternative treatments to fight illness.  If the first round does not work, then there are second and third rounds to follow.  But our system does not do a good job of determining when to stop.

Doctors, after all, are trained to treat illness.  They wage war against death, the enemy.  When a patient dies, the battle has been lost and the doctor has failed.  Of course, the deck is stacked, and death always wins in the end.  Nevertheless, we ignore what is inevitable because it is too difficult for us.  That is why the conversation about whether a treatment should be undertaken in the first place often does not happen.

We were lucky.  In our case, it did.  My aunts and father discussed what their mother’s wishes would have been in this situation, since she was unable to answer for herself.  They agreed that my grandmother would not have wanted to initiate a series of interventions which had little chance of extending her life and had every chance of increasing her suffering

The decision was made to wean her off the heart medicine one final time.  If she could not support herself, then no further interventions would take place and my grandmother would die.

And that is what happened.  The medication was withdrawn and she was transferred out of the ICU into a regular hospital room.  She died there a day and a half later.  I was in the room at the time with my aunt and uncle.

We were really lucky.  Lucky that my father and his sisters were in agreement about what to do.  Lucky that my grandmother had filled out a health care directive, and that everyone was aware of it.  Most of all, lucky that the physician running the ICU that day took the time to have a big picture conversation with us rather than speaking about the next treatment options – because it very easily could have gone in that direction.

As a I look back from a six year vantage point, I wonder if it might have been better if my Baba Fania had never gone to the hospital in the first place.  She could have been enrolled in a hospice program that would have focused on quality at the end of her life.  She could have stayed in the home that she had lived in for forty six years.  She could have died in her own bed, surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and the hundreds of photographs that lined her walls.  But the discussions that would have led to that decision never took place.

It is nobody’s fault.  Most of us do not know how to have that conversation.  It is not part of our culture to talk openly about our own mortality.

The dialogue that needs to happen rarely does.

The truth is, most of us know virtually nothing about dying.  We do not understand how the health care industry functions – and this includes the people who work in it.  We know little about the various treatments and their attendant risks and complications.  We do not understand the choices that we are going to have to face.  What we imagine it is going to be like and what it actually is going to be like are vastly different.

As someone who is married to a physician and is in the business of spiritually helping people with issues relating to mortality, I probably have more exposure to these kinds of conversations than most people.  I first completed my Advance Health Care Directive when I was twenty five years old.  Dana, fresh out of medical school and entering her residency, came home and insisted that we fill them out.  Death is a fairly common topic of conversation in our home, including with our nine and eleven year old children.

And yet, I will be the first to admit that I know practically nothing.  I do not know what it is like to receive chemotherapy, unlike some people in this room.  I do not know what it is like to have the first round of treatment fail, and to have to turn to second or third tier drugs.  I do not know what it is like to be on a ventilator, or in a medically induced coma.  I have never had to go into a procedure knowing that I might not wake up from it.  So how can I possibly be expected to make a decision now about what I would want done if and when any of those scenarios become real?

So what can we do?

Many of us have filled out an Advance Health Care Directive.  We have designated a Proxy, a person who will make decisions for us if we become incapacitated.  We may even have discussed it with our physician.  We have taken responsibility.  I am sad to say that the form is close to worthless.

The California Advance Health Care Directive asks two essential questions.  The first asks do you or do you not want your life to be prolonged if you have an incurable and irreversible condition that will result in death in the near future, or if you are unlikely to regain consciousness, or if the likely risks and burdens of treatment would outweigh the expected benefits?

The second question asks whether or not you want pain relief, even if it may hasten your death.

That’s it.  In the event of an emergency, two questions cannot possibly cover the range of scenarios that could arise.  And that is assuming that the directive you filled out made its way into your medical file, and that somebody actually bothered to look at it.  And, that the family members in the room with the physician are doing their best to decide what you would want rather than what they want.

No.  Those are not the right questions.

What is needed is not so much the answers to a list of medical scenarios, but rather a conversation about what is important to us.  Begin a conversation with the people in your life who are going to have to be with you at the end of it.

I once attended a class with a Geriatrician who had a lot of experience working with patients and families around end-of-life issues.  He described the relationship with the health care proxy, the person entrusted to make decisions for another, as a sacred “covenant.”

Nobody can account for all of the possible medical scenarios which he or she might be faced – so don’t bother to try.  What is more important is that the person entrusted with making decisions for you knows your values.

What matters to you?  What are you living for?  What in your life, if you lost it, would make you feel that living was not worth it any more?  What do you want your final weeks and days to be like?  Where do you want to die?

When the person you have trusted knows this about you, then if he or she ever has to make a decision, it will be your decision.

In a 2010 New Yorker article called “Letting Go,” Dr. Atul Gawande tells the story of a colleague.  Dr. Susan Block is a palliative-care specialist who has had thousands of difficult conversations with patients and family members, and is a nationally recognized trainer of doctors and other professionals entrusted with managing end-of-life issues.

Some years ago, her work became personal.  Dr. Block’s seventy-four-year-old father, a retired psychologist from UC Berkeley, was admitted to a hospital in San Francisco with a mass growing in his spinal cord. The neurosurgeon said that the procedure to remove the mass carried a twenty-per-cent chance of leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.  Without the operation, it was a one hundred-percent certainty.

The evening before surgery, Dr. Block and her father chatted about friends and family, trying to keep their minds off what was to come.  Then she left for the night.  Halfway across the Bay Bridge, Dr. Block realized, “Oh, my God, I don’t know what he really wants.”  So she turned the car around and went back to her father’s bedside.

Even for her, an expert in end-of-life discussions, the conversation “was really uncomfortable.”  “I just felt awful having the conversation with my dad.”  She told him, “I need to understand how much you’re willing to go through to have a shot at being alive and what level of being alive is tolerable to you.”

It was an agonizing conversation for her, but he said something that totally took her by surprise —”Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I’m willing to stay alive.  I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that.”

“I would never have expected him to say that,” Dr. Block said.  “I mean, he’s a professor emeritus. He’s never watched a football game in my conscious memory.  The whole picture—it wasn’t the guy I thought I knew.”

After the surgery, he developed bleeding in his spinal cord.  The surgeons told Dr. Block that, to save his life, they would need to go back in. But he had already become nearly quadriplegic and would remain severely disabled for many months and possibly forever. What did she want to do?

She recalls, “I had three minutes to make this decision, and, I realized, he had already made the decision.”  She asked the surgeons whether, if her father survived, he would still be able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV.  “Yes,” they said, and so she gave the go-ahead for another operation.

“If I had not had that conversation with him,” she later said, “my instinct would have been to let him go at that moment, because it just seemed so awful.  And I would have beaten myself up.  Did I let him go too soon?”  Or she might have gone ahead and sent him to surgery, only to find—as occurred—that he survived only to go through what proved to be a year of “very horrible rehab” and disability.  “I would have felt so guilty that I condemned him to that,” she said.  “But there was no decision for me to make.”  He had decided.

After a difficult recovery, Dr. Block’s lived for ten more years. When complications developed that made it impossible for him to eat, he decided to stop fighting.  He went home on hospice care, received treatment to make him comfortable, and died with his daughter at his side.

Talking about our own mortality is one of the most difficult conversations we can have.  It seems so scary and daunting.  Where do we begin?  Let me offer a few conversation starters:

Describe a time when you were part of a difficult medical decision, either for yourself or for someone else.

Have you ever been present when another person died?  Talk about what that was like.

Then you can begin to talk about your own death.

Complete the following sentence:  What matters most to me at the end of my life is…

Is there something that, if you could no longer do it, would make you not want to continue medical treatment?  The equivalent of eating ice cream and watching football for Dr. Block’s father.  One Rabbi told his family that if he can no longer tell stories to children, he does not want to continue living.  What is it that makes your life worth living?

Where do you want to spend your final days?  How important is that to you?

The answers to these questions are different for all of us.  One person may want every possible treatment, regardless of the impact on his quality of life.  Another may feel that she would not want to continue if she could not feed herself.

The answers to these questions are likely to change.  This means that the subject of our mortality should not be a one-time conversation.  It is a topic that we should introduce now, when we are healthy and at full capacity.

I have had conversations about death with some of you, and I am honored to continue to help you work through these issues.  But I am not the most important person to speak with.  This conversation should be had with all of the people who are likely to be with us when our health declines.  This could mean spouses, children, siblings, parents, and close friends.

One of the greatest gifts we can give to the most important people in our lives is a conversation about our death.  We can save them from having to make an agonizing decision.  We can save them from years of guilt.  And we can prevent the kind of family squabbling that occurs when children, siblings, and spouses project their own fears on their loved one because they do not actually know what their loved one wants.

You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to them, to talk about your death.

Our Jewish tradition focuses on living in the present.  We do not have any certainty about what awaits us in the world to come, and it is certain that death waits for us in this world.  So we focus on our time here in the world of the living.  That time is made immensely more precious when we can face our mortality openly and honestly with the people we care about.

Today, or sometime in the next couple of weeks, begin the conversation with your loved ones.  Let’s talk about death so that we can live.

For the Love of Israel – Rosh Hashanah 5776

I am a lover of Israel.  And so it is with great love that I share the following:  This summer has been a tough one for Israel.  I am not talking about the Iran deal.

It started in June, when the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, one of the holiest sights in Israel for Christians, was burned down in an arson attack.  Spray-painted on the wall were the words, in Hebrew, v’ha-elilim karot yikareitun – and their gods will be cut down, lifted out of our siddur from the prayer Aleinu.

On July 30, at the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people, one of whom, a teenage girl named Shira Banki, died.  The murderer had been released from prison just three weeks previously after finishing a ten year sentence for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in 2005.

The next day, Jewish arsonists firebombed the home of the Dawabsheh family in the Palestinian town of Duma, killing 18 month old Ali, and both of his parents.  Four year old Ahmad is the only survivor, with burns covering 60% of his body.  Hebrew graffiti was found on a nearby wall with the spray-painted words nekamah – “revenge,” and y’chi hamelekh ha-mashiach – “long live the the king, the messiah.”

These are not just stand-alone incidents.  Over the last several years, there has been a rise in Jewish extremism and terrorism.  Although often cloaked in religious garb, it is classic right-wing nationalism.

Without a doubt, these actions do not represent the attitudes of the vast majority of Israelis, or of Jews around the world.  Politicians and national leaders from all parties, as well as leading Rabbis, were quick to publicly denounce violence, call for the criminals to be brought to justice, and pay condolence calls to the families of the victims.  The Israeli public was appropriately outraged.

But when it comes to taking action, it is a different story.  Israel has been slow to address the problem of Jewish extremism and racism.

Over the past three and a half years, more than forty churches and mosques have been burned in Israel, usually accompanied by biblical passages scrawled on a nearby wall.  Until this past June’s attack, Israeli security services had not arrested a single person.  No arrests have been made for the murder of the Dawabsheh family.  Not a single Rabbi was detained for encouraging students to commit violence.

Do any of us have any doubts whatsoever about the capabilities of Israeli security services to take these kinds of Jewish hate-crimes seriously?  Where were the task forces and undercover informants?

Just this summer, under pressure, the Shin Bet began using “Administrative Detention” to apprehend Jewish terrorist suspects.  It is a tool that has been using against Palestinians, with great success, for many years.  Why did they wait so long?

It did not happen earlier because there was no political will to do so.  Policies by every single Israeli government for the past thirty five years to settle the West Bank with 400,000 Jews has quietly fanned the flames of Jewish nationalist extremism.  The perpetrators are widely known to come from extreme religious nationalist settlements which often have a lot of political clout.

We cannot complain about moderate Muslims’ failure to take on Islamic extremism while we ignore our own Jewish extremism.

I know that some of us are thinking, ‘but what about all of the Islamic fundamentalism around the world?  How can we even compare what a few religious wackos are doing to what is going in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and many other parts of the Muslim world?’  You are right, there is no comparison.

But they are not our own people.  We are talking about family.

How do we, the American Jewish community, react when we hear about Jewish racism and Jewish terrorism?

There are some in the Jewish community that will never say anything critical of Israel, at least not publicly.  Others have bought in to the anti-Zionist rhetoric that portrays Israel as a gross violator of human rights.

These two groups tend to be made up of the people who yell the loudest, creating what I suspect is a false depiction of a divided American Jewish community.

Anyone who says that Israel has a perfect human rights record is either blind or does not know what ethics is.  Anyone who claims that Israel is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world is either naive or antisemitic.

Both extremists are guilty of the same assumption – that Israel must be perfect.  Those who don’t see the blemishes and those who only see the blemishes are both blind.

But we can admit it: there are blemishes.  Israel has some serious challenges.  It struggles with poverty and unaffordable housing costs.  It faces sharp social divides between different ethnic and religious streams.  It has a problem with large numbers of immigrants trying to cross the border illegally.  There is deeply-felt racism, conflict, and distrust between ethnic and religious groups.  Hundreds of thousands of people who had lived on the land for generations were displaced when new immigrants arrived.

These problems should all sound familiar, because these are all challenges that are faced: here in America, as well as in Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.  In other words, nations, by definition, struggle to balance the pursuit of security and prosperity with the pursuit of justice and morality.

We don’t give up on America because it is not perfect.  Nor should we give up on Israel because it is not perfect.

The Torah reading for this morning, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, begins with Isaac’s birth.  Abraham circumcises his son on the eighth day, and then, at his weaning a few years later, throws a party on his behalf.  At the party, Sarah, Isaac’s mother, sees Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, playing – m’tzachek.  Something bothers her, and she tells her husband to banish Ishmael and his mother Hagar from the household, “for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

Abraham is distressed, but God reassures him that all will be okay.  ‘Do what your wife tells you to do.  I will make Ishmael the father of a great nation as well.’

Sarah and Abraham represent two distinct parental concerns.  Sarah looks at Ishmael and sees in him a threat.  One midrash explains that Ishmael was bragging that he, as the eldest son, would receive a double inheritance.  Other commentators suggest that the word m’tzachek implies that Ishmael was involved in idolatry, and that Sarah was concerned that he would be a corrupting influence.  Sarah is the mother who will protect her son from any perceived outside threat, regardless of collateral damage.

Abraham, in contrast, is concerned about the effect that favoring Isaac will have on Hagar and Ishmael.  He knows that that there will be a personal and moral toll if he defends Isaac at all costs.  He understands Sarah’s desire to protect her son, but he also sees the suffering that will ensue on the part of Hagar and Ishmael.  So he is paralyzed, unable to take action until God breaks the stalemate in his conscience by assuring Abraham that Ishmael will not only survive, but will thrive.  In the end, God affirms both Sarah’s protectiveness of Isaac and Abraham’s concern for Ishmael.

When I think about Israel today, I hear Sarah and Abraham’s voices arguing in my mind and in my heart.

We have got to look out for the Jewish people, because if we do not, nobody else will.  And, we have to be concerned with morality in our treatment of the other.

In a perfect world, there would be no contradiction between these two values.  In a perfect world, Sarah and Abraham would be of one mind when it came to matters affecting their son.  In an almost perfect world, God would step in to offer a solution when our self-protection conflicts with our ethics.

Alas, we do not live in a perfect world, or even a near-perfect world.

As I said earlier, I am a lover of Israel.  But there are different kinds of love.

Any good love affair begins with infatuation.  Our beloved glows.  Everything she does is perfect.

After Israel gained independence in 1948, Jews around the world were infatuated.  Israel could do no wrong.  What was the narrative?  Israel had risen out of the ashes of the Holocaust.  The New Jewish soldier-farmers fought a scrappy war of Independence against all odds to enable the Jewish people to come out of exile and reclaim our place in history.

In 1967, Israel’s sneak attack and victory against menacing Arab armies created an illusion of invincibility.  It was David against Goliath, and we were David.

In 1982, that image began to crumble.  Israel invaded another country in a war that was optional.  It was not, like the others, a fight for survival.  The IDF found itself an occupying power in Southern Lebanon.  Atrocities were committed.  While Israeli soldiers looked the other way, Lebanese Christian Phalangists murdered over two thousand civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

International condemnation followed, and the Israeli public was furious.  Ariel Sharon, the Defense Minister at the time, was found to be personally responsible by an Israeli commission of inquiry, and was forced to resign.

The Lebanon war was followed a few years later by the First Intifada, Oslo, the Second Intifada, The Gaza pullout and subsequent wars with Hamas.  You know the stories.

It has been a complicated thirty years in which Israel is no longer David to the Arabs’ Goliath.  Israel has struggled to balance security and morality as a powerful nation with dangerous enemies and sovereignty over people who refuse to accept it.

And all of this occurs in the spotlight, under a magnifying glass.  I do not need to tell you this.  So what kind of love do we bring with us?

For those of you (I do have to exclude myself) born before 1967, your foundational memories of Israel are of a nation that can do no wrong.  The American Jewish community, especially after the Six Day War, was infatuated.

But for those of you born after 1982 (again, I have to exclude myself) – the only Israel you have known is one that has struggled, in the most public way, with being depicted as an immoral aggressor.  You never had a chance to experience infatuation and fall in love.

In recent years, the rise of the BDS movement on many college campuses has created such an oppressive atmosphere for Jewish students, that some feel the need to hide their identity, and not get involved in Jewish life altogether.  The rest are put in the position, as 18-22 year olds, of defending Israel on behalf of the rest of the American Jewish community.  It is a tremendously unfair burden.

Some American Jews are so turned off by all of the attention that they check out.  Why should I care?  Why should I get emotionally invested in something that attracts so much conflict?  For those Jews, Israel does not play much of a role in their identity.

That is unfortunate.  Israel has been central to the Jewish people throughout our existence.  When God first spoke to Abraham, it was to send him to an unknown Promised Land where his descendants would one day constitute a nation that would serve as a blessing to the world.  When our ancestors left Egypt, their destination was Israel.  At the Covenant at Mount Sinai, we committed to accepting the Torah and the mitzvot and God committed to settling us in the land of Israel in peace and prosperity.

And so, Ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel, both the people and the land, has been central to Jewish identity from our formation as a family, as a religion, and as a nation.

But what kind of love?

Not infatuation that blinds us to seeing our beloved as she truly is.  Real love is not blind.  Real love requires our eyes to be wide open.  Real love is conditional.  I love you because of who you are, not regardless of who you are.

So what would a mature, lasting love of Israel look like?

On Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the beginning of the new year, we engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh, taking stock of our souls – not just as individuals, but also as a people.  What does Cheshbon HaNegesh mean on a national scale?

It means lively and respectful debate about where we are as a Jewish people, here in our local community, in America, and as a global Jewish community.  Israel, as our eternal homeland, must be part of that debate.

Unfortunately, so many aspects of Israel have become polarized.  If you are a Republican, then you are against the Iran deal, against Obama, and for Netanyahu.  If you are a Democrat, you are for the Iran deal, for Obama, and against Netanyahu.  We have to reject this kind of “issue packaging.”  A person can be against the Iran deal and still like Obama.  A person can be for the Iran deal and against the settlements.  It is possible to be disappointed in both Netanyahu and Obama, or to be fans of both (not very likely).  We have allowed the loudest voices to polarize the Jewish community in a very unhealthy way.

Let me tell you about the Israel I love.  As you may know, my family and I recently returned from a five month sabbatical, most of which we spent living in Israel, so I’ve had a lot of time recently to think about this.

I love that Israel provides an opportunity for the Jewish people to bring the values of our tradition into the real world.  When we read the Bible and pay close attention, we realize that Jewish sovereignty in the Bible ultimately failed.  The Torah presents a model of a society that, in addition to an elaborate system of ritual worship, emphasizes justice, ethical social and economic interactions, and righteous treatment of all members of society, including resident non-Israelites.  The biblical Prophets are constantly railing against both the leaders and the populace for failing to live up to the standards established by the Torah.

The modern State of Israel, as a democratic Jewish State, offers us an opportunity to bring Jewish values into the world, with all of the messy challenges that are entailed.  And while not perfect, I think Israel’s record is pretty strong, especially considering how many challenges it faces.

I also love the expansion of interest in Jewish life that has been taking place in Israel in recent years.  More and more secular Israelis are turning back to our religious tradition and our texts for spiritual fulfillment.  In contrast to a shrinking non-Orthodox Judaism in America, the liberal movements in Israel are growing.

I love all the ways that usually go unreported that different groups interact with each other positively.  In June, Dana and I participated in the Zarzir Night Run.  Zarzir is a Bedouin Village in the Jezreel Valley close to where we lived in Kibbutz Chanaton.  Our kids drove through Zarzir every day on their way to and from school.  On full moons during the summer time, a running store on the outskirts of Zarzir hosts a night run on paths through the fields.  Well over a thousand men and women showed up, including religious Jews, secular Jews, and Arabs.

I love that Israel is expanding it’s national parks, and making them more accessible.  I love that Hebrew has been revived as a spoken language.  I love that Israel has an entire month dedicated to books.  I love Israeli pop music.

There are also ways in which I wish Israel did better, and it is love that makes me care so much about where Israel is off the mark.

I am horrified that there are racist Jews, and even more so that there are members of our people who commit terror.  And I am disappointed that Israel’s leaders have been so slow to do anything about it.

I wish that the government supported education equally for all Israelis.  Currently, there are different funding levels depending on which public school system a child is learning in.  Arab Israeli students receive far less education spending than their Jewish counterparts.  That is wrong.

I cannot stand that the Rabbanut is allowed to impose its will on the rest of the country in matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, and conversion.  I wish the Israeli government recognized the rights of non-Orthodox movements so that, for example, a wedding officiated by one of my Masorti colleagues would be recognized by the State.

I wish the government did not continue to encourage new Jewish settlement in the West Bank.  I think it makes peace more difficult and sends unspoken messages that encourage extremist behavior.

Israel is a complex country that is far from perfect.  And yet, to me, it is special and unique.  I think it ought to be that way for all Jews.  So I am not asking any of us to love everything.  I am asking all of us to find what it is that we love about Israel, and love it even more.  And if we can identify aspects of Israel that we think are off the mark, it is ok to disagree, as long as we are not disagreeable.

Why Doesn’t Christmas Violate the Separation of Church and State? – Vayiggash 5775

I hope everyone had a wonderful time on the national holiday of the Twenty-Fifth of December.  I sure did.  It’s one of my favorite days of the year.  The shul is closed.  The streets are empty.  No responsibilities.  I get to sleep in.  We usually go on a family hike.  This year, it was a beautiful crisp, sunny day.

Growing up, I was always pretty sensitive this time of year.  When I was in first grade attending public school in Atlanta, our music teacher had us singing gospel songs that were certainly of a religious nature.  I told my parents, and my dad was on the phone with the principal that night.  The next day in music class, the gospel songs were gone, and a token Chanukah song had been added to our repertoire.  So yes, I was the Jewish kid who destroyed Christmas.

I think this was a pretty common experience for Jewish kids growing up in a largely Christian society.

We are fortunate to live in a time when there is a great deal more sensitivity to these kinds of issues, and in a part of the country that is especially diverse.

But the dominance of Christmas is still inescapable.  How is it possible that in a country like the United States, which prides itself on having a separation between church and state, one of our national holidays can be Christmas?

Let’s take a look at the First Amendment.  It begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The separation of church and state is understood to have two clauses.  The first is the anti-establishment clause, which is summarized quite well by Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority in the 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education.

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another … in the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State’ … That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

Simply put, the government cannot establish or favor any particular religion, or even religion in general.

The other aspect of the First Amendment is known as the free exercise clause.  The government is not allowed to curtail the beliefs of any individual or group, nor can it restrict a person’s religious actions unless those actions are “subversive of good order.”

How is it possible that Christmas could be a federal holiday?  Is not this a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Probably not.  But maybe.

When did Christmas become a national holiday?

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill passed by Congress creating the first federal holidays in the United States.  Most of the states had already established state holidays, but this was a first for the national government.  Initially, it only applied to employees of the federal government in Washington, D. C.  Several years later, it was expanded to include all federal employees.  There were five days.  The bill’s title was:

An Act making the first Day of January, the twenty-fifth Day of December, the fourth Day of July, and Thanksgiving Day, Holidays, within the District of Columbia.

It went like this:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the following days, to wit: The first day of January, commonly called New Year’s day, the fourth day of July, the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day, and any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fast or thanksgiving, shall be holidays within the District of Columbia…

Notice a couple of things.  First, the title of the bill does not mention the word “Christmas.”  It says “the twenty-fifth day of December.”  The bill itself also uses that expression, adding, almost as a sidebar, that the day is “commonly called Christmas Day.”

In 1870, just five years after the end of the Civil War, there were still deep divisions between the North and the South.  Northerners tended to get really excited about Thanksgiving, while Southerners made a big deal about Christmas.  One impetus behind the federal holidays bill was to create national unity.

As you can imagine, there have been cases brought to the courts, usually regarding Christmas displays on public property.  The courts have basically drawn a line between what they see as secular symbols and what they define as religious symbols.  For example, a nativity scene in which an angel is holding a banner with “Glory to God in the Highest” written in Latin was seen as religious.  Images like Santa Claus, reindeer, a Christmas tree, or a menorah, for that matter, are typically seen as secular.  In a court case involving Jersey City’s public holiday display, the presence of symbols from different traditions like a Christmas tree, Kwanza symbols, a Menorah, Frosty the Snowman, and a sign expressing the city’s intention to “celebrate the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its people” was accepted by the 3rd Circuit in 1999.  As long as minority traditions are also included with the majority, the courts tend to permit it.

As a people, we have had to deal with being a minority in the midst of a dominant culture for most of our existence.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, Joseph is finally reunited with his family.  He invites them to join him in Egypt, where they will thrive under his protection and favored status, but it is clear from the beginning that they do not in.  Joseph instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh that they are breeders of livestock, because that is a profession which is abhorrent to Egyptians.  By telling this to Pharaoh, Joseph’s family receives rights to settle in the fertile land of Goshen, and to receive a special commission to care for the royal flocks.

On their way down, God appears to Jacob with a message of assurance:  “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.  I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back…”  The commentator Ha-emek Davar explains that God is reassuring Jacob that his descendants will not forget who they are.  They will maintain their distinctiveness first as a family, and eventually as a nation.

Initially at least, we see tolerance on the part of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  They permit this tribe, with its strange customs, to live in Egyptian society, and to maintain their cultural and religious practices.  In next week’s Torah portion, when Jacob dies, the Egyptian dignitaries participate with Joseph and his brothers in the mourning rituals as they bring their father’s body back to the ancestral burial site in the Land of Canaan.

Unfortunately, this tolerance does not last, and a new Pharaoh arises who does not know Joseph, and who does not share his predecessor’s generosity and open-mindedness.  So we understand well how important it is to protect the religious freedoms of others.

I have always felt that, as a Jew, I had a greater awareness of the experiences of minorities than those who were in the dominant culture.  Being a minority prepares us to better respect religious diversity.

But what if Jews were in the majority?  How would we deal with issues of religious freedom then?

In 1948, Israel was established as the nation state of the Jewish people.  The Declaration of Independence, issued shortly after the United Nations Partition Plan passed, “declare[d] the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

It went on to declare certain freedoms which should sound familiar to us:  “…it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

So how can Israel, on the one hand, be “the Jewish State” while also ensuring equality and freedom for all, irrespective of religion?

To be fair, many, if not most of the world’s democracies have official state religions, or offer certain favorable status to one particular religion while still protecting religious freedom.  It is the United States which is unusual in not favoring any particular religion.

In building a new nation in 1948, Israel’s founders had some important decisions to make.  Most of them were fiercely secular Jews, yet they looked to Jewish history, traditions, and customs to determine some of the core aspects of the State.

One basic question they had to address was: when is the weekend?

In the U.S., the weekend was originally just Sunday.  The two day weekend developed over the course of the twentieth century.  Would Israel follow the example of the rest of the Western world and go with Sunday, or would it copy its Muslim neighbors and choose Friday?

Of course, you know the answer.  Shabbat has been the weekend of the Jewish people for thousands of years, not just in religious terms, but in national terms.

What about holidays?

Again, Israel’s founders looked to Jewish tradition and established the Yamim Tovim, the holidays on which work is religiously forbidden, as national holidays.

In the Ordinances of Law and Government, Section 18a, subsection 1, paragraph a, it states:

Shabbat and the Jewish holidays—the two days of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, the first day of Succot and Shmini Atzeret, the first and seventh days of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—are the fixed days of rest for the State of Israel.

What about non-Jews?  Israel’s founders were emphatic about ensuring equality and the right to freely practice religion.  This brings us to paragraph b.

For those who are not Jewish there is reserved the right to observe their days of rest in accordance with their Sabbath and holidays. These holidays will be set in accordance with each community by the government and published in the public records.

To summarize, the law states the following in subsection 2:

The laws of work hours and rest of 1951, which apply to weekly periods of rest, will apply:

a. To Jews—on their holidays

b. To non-Jews—on the Jewish holidays or on the holidays of their community, whatever is acceptable to them.

In other words, if you are Christian, you can take your weekend on Sunday, and celebrate all the Christian holidays when they occur.  If you are Muslim, you can take your weekend on Friday, and celebrate all the Muslim holidays when they occur.  And those are not considered to be vacation days, but rather national holidays.

While it can get kind of complicated in the workplace, and I imagine that it is a nightmare for Human Resources departments, this is practiced and taken very seriously in Israel to this day.  Every religion gets its own weekends and national holidays.

We had a taste of something like this when we lived in New York.  Ostensibly to keep the streets clean in the five boroughs, but really to discourage car ownership, the city imposes alternate side of the street parking rules.  Pretty much every day of the work week, car owners have to get in their cars and move them to the opposite side of the street to make room for the street cleaners.  Failure to do so results in a fairly hefty ticket.

But what if you are an observant Jew (and there are a few of those in New York) and it is Rosh Hashanah, when it is forbidden to drive a car?  To deal with that situation, there are holiday suspensions of the alternate side parking restrictions.

“Wait,” you say.  Isn’t that a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Not if you make the holiday suspensions available to everyone.  Here are just a few examples of holidays on which alternate side parking restrictions are suspended:  Yom Kippur, both days of Shavuot, Purim (driving is technically allowed, but you can probably guess why the city doesn’t want Jews getting in their cars on Purim), Good Friday, Holy Thursday, Ash Wednesday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Diwali, and the newest entry in the list, the Asian Lunar New Year.

So I guess having a national holiday on the 25th of December does not bother me as much as it once did.  I can accept that for many Americans, as well as the U.S. courts, it is seen as a secular holiday.

So to all of us, Happy National Holiday of the 1st of January, coming up in just a few days.

 

Limits on Kings and Presidents – Shoftim 5774

In Hebrew, the name of the United States is not a translation of “United States of America.”  If it were, it would be something like Medinot HaIchud shel Amerika.  Instead, our nation is described in Hebrew as Artzot HaBrit, “Lands of the Covenant.”

While not a direct translation, this name expresses an aspect of our nation that is particularly valued in our Jewish tradition.  What is the covenant of which Artzot HaBrit speaks?  It is the Constitution of the United States of America, the supreme law of the land.

This concept appeals to us because we are the first people in the history of the world to have a document that functions as the supreme law.  Of course, it is the Torah.

Having a written brit, or covenant, at center of national identity is not the only similarity between Judaism and the United States.  Both polities imagine some of the same qualities in the ideal leader.

The Declaration of Independence, after establishing the fundamental human rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” along with the rights of people to reject a government that fails to ensure those rights, lists a number of grievances against the King of Great Britain.

In establishing the Republic, the Founding Fathers wanted to draw clear distinctions between the monarchy that they had rebelled against and the democracy that they were establishing.  They understood the need to have a unitary executive, but they were fearful of the abuses that could ensue if power was left unchecked.

In creating the office of President, the Founding Fathers limited his powers and ensured that he would have to serve the Constitution, rather than the other way around.  That is why, when the President is sworn into office, he promises to “Preserve, Protect, and Defend the Constitution of the United States – so help me God!”

The Federalist Papers were published in the years 1787 – 1788 under the psuedonym Publius.  They were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to promote the ratification of the Constitution by each of the States.

In Federalist Paper number 69, Alexander Hamilton enumerates some of the differences in power between the President of the United States and the King of England.  He notes that the President is limited to a four year term, while the King serves for life.  The President can be impeached and removed from office, while the King is personally sacred and inviolable.  The President has veto power, but he can be overruled, while the King’s veto is absolute.  Both are the supreme commanders of the military, but the President cannot independently declare war, sign treaties, or raise armies, while the King can do all three.  The President does not have unlimited power to appoint officials, and the King does.  And finally, the President has “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction,” while the King is the “supreme head and governor of the national church.”

At the time, these kinds of restrictions on the power of a national leader were unique in the world.  But the idea of subjecting the leader to a written covenant, limiting his warmaking powers, and otherwise preventing him from self-aggrandizement was not unheard of.  In fact, it bears striking similarities to the Torah’s vision of the ideal king, as presented in the Book of Deuteronomy.

I do not suggest that the Founding Fathers explicitly modeled the Presidency on Deuteronomy’s laws of kings. but there certainly seem to be similarities.  How did this come to be?

In the 18th century, a complete education included learning classical languages like Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as acquiring extensive knowledge and mastery of the Hebrew Bible.  Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth have Hebrew inscriptions on their university seals, and until 1817, Harvard graduation ceremonies included a Hebrew oration.

For Puritan colonialists, what for them was the Old Testament had great significance.  I think it is safe to say that the Founding Fathers’ critiques of the overreaching of King George and their imposition of limits on the power of the President were influenced, at least in spirit, by the Torah.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, teaches us much about leadership.  It commands that judges and officials administer the law justly and impartially.  It mandates the establishment of a higher court that will issue rulings on cases that are too baffling for local leaders.  (The Rabbis understand this as the basis for the Sanhedrin, the court of 71 rabbis, judges, and priests who function as the High Court of the land, with added legislative and executive powers.)

The Torah portion also deals with kings, albeit with ambivalence.  Unlike its treatment of judges, officials, and the High Court, the Torah does not command the appointment of a King.  It is optional.  “If,” Moses tells the Israelites,

after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, asima alai melekh –  “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself… (Deuteronomy 17:14-15)

So what powers does a King have?  If we go exclusively by what is written in the Torah, absolutely none.  The King only has limitations.  Listen to these restrictions on the power of the monarchy.  Does this fit your image of a King?

• He is not allowed to accumulate too many horses, or send people down to Egypt to get more horses.

• He is not allowed to acquire too many wives.

• He is not allowed to amass too much gold and silver.

• He must have a copy of the Torah, written by the Priests, always at his side.  He must read it constantly so that he will learn to revere God and follow its laws.

• He may not act with haughtiness towards other people.

Nowhere in the Torah are the people actually commanded to follow the king and do what he says.  In the relationship between king and subjects, the responsibility is unidirectional – it is the king who serves the people.

When we think about royalty in pre-modern times, we usually think about the unlimited exercise of power.  The king’s word is law.  He rules by divine right.  The people owe him their total obedience and respect.  He can impose taxes and raise armies.  He gets to live a life of extravagance and pleasure.  As a famous monarch once said, “It’s good to be the king!”

Parashat Shoftim’s model is that of an anti-king.

Not only is he not allowed to build up the army, impose heavy taxation, and live the good life, he is also bound by a constitution – the Torah.  His job is to promote and enforce the commandments, and lead the people in observing the terms of the covenant not with a human king, but with God, the King of Kings.

It is a utopian vision of leadership not so dissimilar to other systems that place a wise, benevolent executive in charge of leading a society in accordance with principals of justice, “the good,” or philosophy.  Think Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and so on.

But is such a utopian vision realistic?  Apparently not.

After the Israelites conquer the Promised Land under the leadship of Joshua, they split up into tribes.  Various local and regional chiefs lead the people through one crisis after another.  Order gradually breaks down over the next two hundred years, and the Israelites have finally had enough.  They turn to the Prophet-Chief Samuel and ask him to appoint a King over them.  Tnah lanu melekh lshofteinu – “…appoint a king for us, to govern us…”  (I Samuel 8:6)

Samuel is disappointed, but God reassures him and tells him to ascede to the people’s request.  Samuel’s reaction is surprising, because the Torah already anticipated the Israelites’ future desire to be ruled by a human king.  Had not Samuel read Parashat Shoftim?

The nineteenth century Polish Rabbi, Yehoshua Trunk from Kutna (1821-1893), points to a subtle distinction between what Deuteronomy allows, and what the people request.  In Deuteronomy, when the people ask to set a king over them, they say asima alai melekh.  Whereas in Samuel, the people say t’nah lanu melekh, give us a king.  What is the difference between setting and giving?

Without going into the complexities, Rabbi Yehoshua from Kutna says that Deuteronomy’s vision of sima, setting a king, implies that he is going to be immersed in the people, and his job will be to guide them in the ways of God, influencing their thoughts and actions, and helping them to focus on the innermost realm of the heart.

When the Israelites in Samuel request n’tinah, to be given a king, they are asking to have a leader placed above them.  What they want are the pomp and circumstance, the external trappings of power that characterize the leaders of all the other nations of the world.

But God does not want Israel to be like the other nations of the world, and certainly does not want its king to fall to the hubris that afflicts so many human leaders.

In telling Samuel to go along with the people’s request, God knows that they are not motivated by the lofty ideals of the Torah, but as the saying goes, “people get the leaders they deserve.”

Samuel warns the people what the king is going to do them.  He will draft your sons into his army and your daughters as cooks and bakers.  He will seize farmlands, vineyards, and orchards.  He will tax you, and consign you to serfdom.  Eventually, you will regret this decision.

But the people insist that they want someone to go out in front of them and lead them to victory in battle.

Things start to unravel almost immediately.  The first king, Saul, turns out to be deeply flawed.  David brings the nation to greatness, capturing Jerusalem and expanding the borders, but not without his share of trouble.

His son Solomon builds the Temple, but violates every single  one of Deuteronomy’s laws about Kings, fulfilling Samuel’s warnings from just three generations ago.  He imposes heavy taxes and forced labor to build the Temple.  He buys horses and chariots from Egypt.  He accumulates vast riches.  Solomon marries seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, whom he allows to introduce their idolatrous foreign practices into the Holy Land.

When Solomon dies, the united monarchy ends as the northern kingdom of Israel breaks off from the southern kingdom of Judah.  The righteous king, as described in Shoftim, is an ideal that turns out to be exceedingly difficult to implement.

The establishment of Israel in 1948 has reignited issues about Jewish power that have not been practical considerations for nearly two thousand years.  Is Israel a nation like any other, or do Jewish history and values make it different?  What should the role of Torah and Jewish law be in a country that is committed to freedom of religion and equal rights?  Who is authorized to interpret Jewish law?  How does Israel maintain itself as a Jewish state and a democracy?  What does it even mean to be a Jewish state?

You might be surprised to know that Israel does not have a constitution.  According to Israel’s Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948, there was supposed to have been Constitution in place by October 1 of that year.  But the above questions were so difficult to resolve, the question of an Israeli constitution was placed on the back burner.

Because of the international and domestic pressure cooker that Israel always finds itself in, these questions are being dealt with and tested on a daily basis.  Israelis wrestle with the dilemma of creating a society based on the lofty ideals and values expressed in Jewish law and tradition while facing the very real and practical challenges that often are a question of survival.

One of the reasons that Israel is so important to Jews everywhere is because it creates powerful opportunities to put Jewish values into practice on a national level.  That is a possibility that did not exist for nearly two thousand years.  As we see on a daily basis, it is not easy.

We refer to the modern State of Israel in our prayers as reishit tz’michat geulateinu, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.  The question of whether that is true or not depends on how Israel the country and Israel the people deal with these challenges.  I take it as a positive sign that Israelis, as well as Jews in the Diaspora, are actively engaged in wrestling with the question of how to exercise power in ways that embody the ethical principles of the Torah.

Coming Face to Face with Poverty – Vayechi 5774

In the last few weeks, I have been approached on two separate occasions by people, both Christians, about our community getting involved in charitable causes.

The first was for limited involvement in Santa Clara county’s Faith-Based Reentry Collaborative.  For a criminal who has served his or her time, getting back into society can be extremely difficult.  There is a high rate of recidivism, of people not being able to get their lives back together and winding up back in prison.  People often don’t have the social resources to become self-sufficient.  Perhaps they have burned their bridges with family members who could take them in.  Or maybe their criminal record makes it difficult to find work.  They fall back in to unhealthy social circles.

As a society, we do a terrible job of helping people reintegrate into society in a healthy and productive way.  The county has recently begun to establish partnerships with local houses of worship that will welcome former prisoners into their communities and provide them with mentorship and support.  So far, three local churches have opened up reentry centers, and the county is still trying to figure out ways for other faith communities to help.

I was approached about getting the Sinai community involved in a limited way.  A newly released prisoner often has nobody to come and pick him or her up.  Furthermore, the prison does not issue clothing, so they wear what they came in with, which may not be sufficient.

Members of our community could help out in that critical first 24 hours by picking up a released prisoner at midnight, bringing a set of warm clothes, dropping him or her off at a motel which we paid for, and providing them with a meal.  There would not be any further obligations.  Just that one night.

The second program about which I was approached is called Refugee Foster Care.  It is sponsored by Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County.  It would involve a far more substantial commitment.  A family or individual would become foster parents for a child who has no parents, either because they were killed, or because they gave them up.  The kids are between 12 and 17 years of age and come from war-torn places around the world.

These two solicitations for our community’s involvement got me thinking.  Would Sinai members be interested in taking on causes like these – causes which bring us face to face former criminals, with children who have experience suffering most of us cannot even imagine?

Why is it that many Christian communities seem to be so motivated to get involved with human suffering in this way?  Why are we not involved in projects like these?  Projects of bringing people into our cars, or our homes.  Causes that demand us to give of ourselves?  Aren’t these essential Jewish values?

Our ancestors make the transition from a family into a people in this morning’s Parshah, Vayechi.  Jacob dies, and his sons carry out their promise to return his body to the land of Canaan to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah.  After the mourning period ends, the brothers are terrified that Joseph has only been behaving civilly to them out of respect for their father.  Now that he is gone, they worry that Joseph is going to take revenge for what they had done to him so many years before.  They send word to Joseph that their father had wished for him to forgive his brothers.

Joseph’s reaction surprises them.  He cries.  So they appear before him themselves, offering to become his slaves.  Joseph reassurs them that it was all part of God’s plan.  He has no intention whatsosever of taking revenge.  Not only that, he offers to help.  “And so, fear not.  I will sustain you and your children…” he says.

Joseph has introduced the idea that will be elaborated extensively throughout the Torah – that a Jew who is in the position to do so has an obligation to provide for other Jews who need help.

It is significant, perhaps, that the transformation into a people and Joseph’s commitment to care for them occurs outside of the Promised Land, in the Diaspora.  For millenia, Jewish communities in far-flung locations around the world found themselves in situations of having to take care of their own.

Until the last century, most Jewish communities were poor.  They also tended to be tightly knit.  Most people knew each other.  The community had to take on the responsibility of caring for its own poor – because there was nobody else to do so.

This was done in a variety of formal and informal ways.  There was a communal tzedakah fund called the kupah, with elected collectors and distributors.  It served as a kind of tax to cover communal expenses and provide a safety net for the poorest members of the community.

In addition, there was the tamchui, which was kind of an ad hoc soup kitchen.  The official collector might show up at your doorstep to collect a meal on behalf of another individual or family in the community who needed it.

At celebrations, the needy would be welcomed to attend.  They did not need an invitation.  People would go out of their way to invite poor people to their Shabbat and holiday tables.

Consider the passage that we recite at the beginning of the Passover seder.  We open the door and announce “Let all who are hungry come and eat…”  I don’t think it used to be a metaphorical statement, as it is for most of us today.  I think there were times, until very recently, when those who could afford it would invite those who could not to their dinner tables, including those who might have been homeless.

In Pirkei Avot (1:5), the collection of ethical teachings that was compiled nearly 2,000 years ago, Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem teaches “Let your home be wide open, and make the poor into members of your household.”

Just think about all of the folktales from our tradition, covering all periods of history except the modern era, in which poor Jews are welcomed into the homes of other Jews.  I assume that those stories exist because things like that used to actually happen on a regular basis.

Synagogues used to function kind of like homeless shelters, especially on Shabbat.  Travelers, poor students, and people who did not have anywhere to stay would sleep on the benches of the shul.  The community would often provide them with a meal.

As Jews, we used to come face to face with poverty regularly.  Thankfully, Jewish communities today are wealthier than ever before.  It’s not to say that there are not plenty of Jews who struggle financially.  There are.  It is undeniable, however, that the global Jewish community has thrived in contemporary times.

Our empasis on tzedakah (charity) and gemilut chasadim (act of lovingkindness) remains important, but the way that we express those values has shifted along with economic and social realities.  Jews continue to give a lot to charity, but instead of a mandatory tax on the members of our community, everything is voluntary.

With the almost total acceptance of Jews into American society, the proportion of funds donated to Jewish non-profit organizations has fallen dramatically, especially among younger generations.  Our giving is directed to causes that we care about.  But rarely is money or assistance given face to face to needy members of our own community.

Like in most synagogues, a minuscule portion of Sinai’s annual budget goes towards charitable activities and social action.

Sinai has had some great Tikkun Olam activities over the past couple of years.  But for the most part, our efforts have not put us into direct contact with poverty.  We have served several meals at local soup kitchens, but even then the contact with the homeless is limited.

We have not invited the homeless into our synagogue.  We have not sponsored programs that would assign members of our community to be mentors to people who could really benefit from that kind of guidance, whether former prisoners, kids who cannot read, or refugees.

How would we respond if someone who was obviously homeless walked into the synagogue during Shabbat services?  Would we welcome that person with open arms?  Would we be worried about safety?  Would we ask him to leave?

In the Bar Area, there are churches, and even some synagogues, that house rotating homeless shelters.  Why not us?

There are other religious traditions that seem to place a much greater theological emphasis on direct service to the poor.  For example, there is a story in the New Testament of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples’ feet.  The new Pope, Francis, recently made news when he washed the feet of 12 juvenile prisoners.  Back when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he would frequently wash the feet of AIDS patients and drug addicts.  It is about humbling oneself in service to other human beings.  For Christian communities who are trying to literally follow Jesus’ example, having that direct contact with the poor makes sense, theologically.

For most of Jewish history, our communities could not afford to direct so much of our charitable activities beyond our own communities.  Facing so much discrimination, Jews had to take care of their own – and they did a phenomenal job of it.  But now that the direct need is either not as great, or just more hidden, what should we be doing?

My goal this morning is to raise questions.  Should we be devoting considerable resources to directly serve those who need it most?  Should we open up our synagogue, or even our homes, to people who would otherwise never enter our lives?  Should we give substantively of ourselves to non-Jews?

The answer is not easy.  Jewish communities around America are struggling to retain and attract sufficient members and funds to remain viable.  Can we afford to send our limited resources outside our community?

When asked, American Jews seem to recognize the importanec of serving humanity.  A 2001 study asked American Jews about involvement in this kind of work.  It found that around ninety percent of American Jews agreed to the following statements:

  • “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and minority groups”
  • “When Jewish organizations engage in social justice work, it makes me feel proud to be a Jew.”
  • “Jews’ involvement in social justice causes is one good way to strengthen ties with other groups in society.”

The difficulty is, it is possible to feel just as strongly about working on behalf of the underserved without attributing those motivations to Judaism.  I do not need to be Jewish to help the poor.  What is it from our own tradition that would compel us to give so much of ourselves to non-Jews?

It is an open question.  The invitations stand  As a Jewish community, do we want to help human beings who have made some wrong decisions in life get back on track after they have been released from jail?  Do we want to encourage and support Jews in our community who are willing to foster a teen-ager whose life has been torn apart by war?

I would like to hear from you – either today during kiddush, or some other time.  What should we be doing as a kehillah kedoshah, as a holy Jewish community?

When Joseph makes the commitment to his brothers, “fear not, I will sustain you and your children,” he is committing to serve his own siblings.

In the 21st century, who are our brothers and sisters?

Making Our Insides Match Our Outsides – Rosh Hashanah I 5774

Most of us probably don’t spend much time thinking about what we want written on our gravestones. As a Rabbi, I actually do think about this quite a bit, because I often help people design their family members’, or even their own markers.

Here are a few epitaphs, messages inscribed on gravestones, that I did not have a hand in.**1**

Some describe the manner of a person’s death, as in:

Here lies a man named Zeke.

Second fastest draw in Cripple Creek.

Others seem to be more about the living:

Sacred to the memory of

my husband John Barnes

who died January 3, 1803

His comely young widow, aged 23,

has many qualifications of a good wife,

and yearns to be comforted.

Gravestones sometimes say something about the deceased’s personality:

Beneath this stone, a lump of clay,

Lies stingy Jimmy Wyatt.

Who died one morning just at ten

And saved a dinner by it.

And then there are those that purport to give advice to the visitor:

Reader, I’ve left this world, in which

I had a world to do;

Sweating and fretting to get rich:

Just such a fool as you.

Sometimes, a person has specific ideas about his or her own epitaph. Thomas Jefferson, the founder of my alma mater, the University of Virginia, left clear instructions of what he wanted to appear on his gravestone at Monticello. The inscription reads:

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

Father of the University of Virginia

Our third president, a man who accomplished so much in his lifetime, wanted to emphasize what he had given the people, not what the people had given him. These three accomplishments stand out as legacies that continue to shape the lives of millions to this day.

The message that we leave behind on a tombstone, or in most cases, the epitaph that is placed upon our tombstone by others after we die, is one of the ways in which we leave our legacy to the world. The advice I give is that the epitaph should say something about who this person was, and what they cared about.

How was she known in the world? Was she kind and generous? Was he a loving father and grandfather, or maybe a patron of the arts? Was she a musician, a great reader, or a gourmand?

Six generations from now, will a descendant be able to gain an understanding of his ancestor when he visits the grave?

What happens when there is a discrepancy between how a person sees herself and how the outside world sees her?

I experience this as a parent. Our children want to be recognized and acknowledged. They want the reassurance that they matter. They want to be truly seen for who they are.

And the truth is, this does not end at childhood. Most of us want to be seen for who we are. But few of us feel that we are. There is a disconnect between our internal and external experiences.

Each year, Rosh Hashanah presents us with an opportunity to realign our outsides with our insides.

One of the aspects of Judaism that many people seem to admire is its emphasis on action. It is not what we think that matters, but rather, what we put into practice. When the day of judgment comes, we will not be held accountable for all of our ugly thoughts, the times when we lashed out at each other in our minds. What will be piled on God’s scales of justice are our actions. What did we do in our lives?

People seem to like this aspect of Judaism.

But we also emphasize the interior life. We affirm the existence of something called a soul. We speak of God’s Presence dwelling within us. We point to a Divine Spark that is buried deep within the heart of every human being. The interior life matters also.

What is the definition of a person who is at peace? It is someone whose insides reflect what is outside – tokho k’voro.

Who among us can claim this? That the self we express out to the world is the same as the ideal self that we would like ourselves to be?

In the Haftarah that we read this morning, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we encounter someone who experiences this disconnect between internal hopes and external experiences. We meet Hannah, favorite wife of Elkanah. Hannah is unable to become pregnant. Inability to conceive is a common Biblical motif. The basic pattern goes like this: The woman is beloved of her husband, but is unable to have a child. The people around her make fun of her, which exacerbates her suffering. God intervenes on her behalf, and she becomes pregnant. Within a year, she gives birth to a boy, who lives a remarkable life. This is a motif that repeats itself numerous times. Think of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, the unnamed mother of Samson, and Hannah.

The story of Hannah is remarkable in that it describes both the internal and external sides of the story. We know how the outside world is interacting with Hannah. We are also told what she is feeling, what she does not express. There is a discrepancy between Hannah’s inner self and the self that she portrays to those around her.

Every year, she would travel, with her husband, her husband’s other wife Peninah, and all of Peninah’s numerous children, to offer a sacrifice at the shrine in Shiloh, where the Priest Eli presided.

This was a particularly sad time for Hannah, made worse by Peninah, who would deliberately make fun of Hannah by flaunting her numerous offspring in the face of her sad rival.

Elkanah sees that his wife is depressed and tries to comfort her in his way. “Hannah, why are you crying and not eating. The food is getting cold. Why are you so sad? Aren’t I more devoted to you than ten sons!?”

While everyone else is experiencing food coma, Hannah gets up to pray. Eli the Priest looks at her, sees her lips moving without uttering a sound, and immediately jumps to conclusions: she must be intoxicated. “How dare you defile the Lord’s sanctuary in your drunkenness!” he yells. Here she is, pouring her heart out to God, and God’s own Priest completely misunderstands her.

Hannah is experiencing great pain. She is not the person who she wants to be. She is not living the life that she has imagined. Nobody sees her as she sees herself. Nobody understands her pain and sorrow. Instead, they insult her, or patronize her, or misjudge her. Hannah is utterly alone. She has nobody with whom she can share her suffering.

So what does she do? This is how the text describes it: “Hannah was bitter of soul, and she prayed to God, all the while crying her heart out.”**2**

She channels her anguish and pours her heart out to the Lord. If no other human being can understand her, perhaps God can.

Hannah’s tale has a happy ending. The woman who begins the story bitter of soul has her prayers answered by God. She gets pregnant and gives birth to a son whom she names Samuel. He will eventually become a chieftain, prophet, and anointer of kings. At Samuel’s weaning, Hannah returns to Shiloh to dedicate her son to a life of service to God. Again, she opens up her heart and this time offers a prayer of blessing and gratitude to God.

Our tradition identifies Hannah as the model for heartfelt prayer. Whenever we are feeling that the words in our siddur do not resonate with us, do not express what we are feeling in our hearts, we would do well to remember that the early Sages did not think that fixed words were the most authentic way to pray. Hannah’s way is the ideal to which we ought to aspire. To bring what is internal, whether sorrow, gratitude, or joy, and make it external.

To do this, we must appraise ourselves honestly. What is the ideal self that we wish we could be?

Perhaps I strive to be generous, or to make a difference in my community. Maybe I want to be well-read, or knowledgeable. Or perhaps I want to be a reliable friend and confidant? Maybe I want to have a healthy body.

We often try to teach our kids: “It doesn’t matter what other people think.” Well, it is not exactly true. In fact, there are some people in our lives whose opinions matter. People whose views of us we should care about. What we should be teaching is to be selective, to figure out which people are the ones whose opinions count.

Pick one person in your life whose opinion you care about. It could be a spouse or partner. Maybe it’s your mother or father, or possibly a son or daughter. Maybe you have a friend whose opinion really matters. Or perhaps a mentor, teacher, or someone you work with.

Let’s take a few moments to ask ourselves: How do I want this person to see me?

Now let’s ask the more difficult question: How may this person actually see me?

Put another way: If this person were to write my epitaph, would it be the same as if I had written it myself?

I am going to guess that there is a difference between how we want to be seen, and how we are seen.

So what will it take to become that person that we strive to be, and to be known that way by others?

As the Nobel Prize winning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer said: “We know what a person thinks not when he tells us what he thinks, but by his actions.”**3** By focusing on our actions, maybe we can change ourselves from the outside in.

One of the Sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Ila’i, teaches that if you want to know what a person is like, you have to look at three aspects of his or her behavior.**4**

Amar Rabbi Ila’i: Bishloshah d’varim adam nikar.

“Rabbi Ila’i said: A person is known by three things.” Then he makes a little pun.

B’khoso, uv’khiso, uv’kha’aso.

b’khoso – by his cup, uv’khiso – by his pocket, uv’kha’aso – and by his anger.”

What do each of these things mean?

Let’s start b’khoso, by his cup. In Rabbinic literature, a kos, a cup, is a euphemism for wine. Our tradition sees alchohol, potentially, as a great blessing: “Wine gladdens a person’s heart,”**5** Psalms teaches. But the Rabbis also recognize the harm that overindulgence can bring.

And so, b’khoso is about enjoying the world. A person is known by the way in which he or she takes pleasure in life.

The Talmudic Sage Rav taught: “A human being will have to give account for all that his eye beheld and he did not eat.”**6** The world that God created is a blessing, one which we are meant to appreciate and enjoy.

A person is known by the quality of his enjoyment of the world. Did he hold back, denying himself the ability to experience pleasure? Perhaps he overindulged, consuming so much that he could not appreciate the earth’s blessings. Or maybe he found the sweet spot, cultivating a sense of gratitude by being constantly open to the world’s bounty, recognizing it as a gift from God that must be appreciated, conserved, and shared.

However we enjoy the world, people will know us by it.

A person will also be known b’khiso, by his pocket. How we spend our money says something about us. What percentage of our income do we give to tzedakah? Which causes are the ones which inspire our generosity: hunger, curing disease, education, the arts?

How much do we tip?

How well do we save for the future?

Do we give gifts to our friends and family members?

How do we choose to spend money on ourselves?In contemporary society, with widening income gaps and disposable consumerism, a significant portion of our community has the ability to buy and buy and buy – with much of that buying making no difference in our quality of life. How have we managed to resist those pressures?

Our peers, and our children, see how we choose to spend our resources. What lessons are they drawing about where our priorities lie?

Finally, a person is known b’kha’aso, by his anger.

Anger is not a bad thing. Anger is important. Anger can tell us when there is injustice. Anger points us towards wrongs in our world that need to be corrected. Our challenge is twofold. On the one hand, we have to learn to pay attention to our anger. On the other hand, we have to not allow ourselves to be consumed by it.

So what makes you angry? Needless violence? Children who start school already behind because they don’t have any adults to read to them? Pollution in our air? Dirty clothes left on the living room floor? “The size of a man is measured by the size of the thing that makes him angry.”**7**

Once you are angry, what do you do about it? Nothing? March in the streets? Donate money? Volunteer? Start an organization? Start yelling and waving your arms? Anger is a useful emotion only so long as we direct it towards righting that which is wrong.

We will be known by the things that make us angry and what we choose to do about it.

Our task is to make these aspects of our lives reflect the kind of person we imagine we can be in our hearts.

We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the new year, the day on which God created all that is. In our mahzor, we state hayom harat olam. “Today the world is conceived.” Not 5774 years ago. Not four and a half billion years ago. Today. Creation is renewed today – in each one of us.

Rosh Hashanah offers us the choice of becoming a new person. The past is gone, never to be repeated. There is only the eternal present, and hope for the future. What can we do to make our outsides match up with our insides? To make the self that others see reflect the self that we want to be?

This year, focus on three things: b’khoso, u’v’khiso, uv’kha’aso. By our cup – the way that we enjoy the blessings of the world; by our pocket – how we choose to prioritize our resources; and by our anger – how we express our moral outrage.

This year, let us become new people.

**1**I found these epitaphs at the following websites: http://www.webpanda.com/ponder/epitaphs.htm and http://www.et.byu.edu/~tom/jokes/Funny_Epitaphs.html

**2**I Samuel 1:13

**3**Isaac Bashevis Singer, New York Times Magazine, Nov. 26, 1978.

**4**BT Eiruvin 65b

**5**Psalms 104:15

**6**PT Kiddushin 4:12

**7**Attribution cannot be confirmed. Most likely J. Kenneth Morely or Christopher Morely.