So, I understand there’s a football game tonight. I guess the Huskers didn’t realize it’s Kol Nidrei, huh?
Oh well. I’m glad you’re here.
And who knew football was going to be such a hot topic this Yom Kippur?
* * *
So, speaking of football: What do you think is the difference is between football and real life?
(I know, a lot of you are mumbling: What is this guy talking about? Football is real life.)
But there actually is a big difference, at least in one respect.
Football is a zero-sum game. One team wins and the other team loses. Black-and-white. (Or red-and-white, as the case may be.)
But life? Life isn’t a zero-sum game. Not when it comes to relationships.
When it comes to conflict, and heartache, and bruised feelings and bruised egos, and who’s right and who’s wrong – very rarely is there a clear winner or a clear loser.
Life’s just not that simple.
Our Sages say in the Mishnah: “For sins committed by one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until the one who acted wrongly has appeased the person he wronged.”
The point is this: the one who acted wrongly has the responsibility to reach out and apologize.
But the problem is: when there’s conflict between two people, it’s rarely the case that one person is completely in the wrong and one person is completely in the right.
Relationships just aren’t that black-and-white.
Usually, both of us end up doing things and saying things we shouldn’t, things that cause pain and hurt to the other.
And since we’ve both acted wrongly, it’s both of us who need to reach out and apologize.
And that’s the hard part.
When someone has caused us pain, it’s hard to reach out to them and say “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“He’s the one who hurt me! He’s the one who should be asking me for forgiveness!”
Yes…he should. And…
It’s just not that simple. Relationships aren’t a zero-sum game.
Some of us here tonight, I know, are struggling with the pain of unresolved conflict. It’s weighing on us. It hurts. And we’re not sure what to do about it.
–Maybe it’s a friend. We’ve had an argument or some kind of falling out, and we haven’t talked in a while. And we miss them.
–Maybe it’s our spouse. We haven’t made enough time for each other lately, and we’re drifting apart – and home feels cold and tense, instead of warm and peaceful like it used to.
–Maybe it’s a colleague. We had words over something, or a confrontation – and now our interactions are awkward and uncomfortable. So instead of talking it out, we just avoid each other.
–Or maybe it’s our child. They’ve told us we’re too critical, too judgmental, not understanding or supportive enough. And they’ve stopped calling. And we feel abandoned and alone.
I want you to know: Whatever it is that you’re struggling with, you’re not alone.
I’ll tell you right now: I’ve got some wounds that still hurt pretty badly. I get it.
I learned something recently from a mentor of mine, and it’s helped me tremendously, and I want to share it with you.
It’s called the Doctrine of 100-Percent Responsibility.
Here’s how it works:
It says that every person is 100% responsible for his or her own behavior – no more, and no less.
Unfortunately, when we have conflict in our relationships, we have a tendency to do one of two things:
–Either: because we feel guilty, we accept more than our 100% share of responsibility – and take responsibility for the other person’s behavior, in addition to our own.
–Or, because we can be self-righteousness and “stiff-necked,” as the Torah puts it, we refuse to admit any fault, and instead we blame our own bad behavior on them.
Both of these tendencies are mistaken.
We can and must take exactly 100% responsibility for our own behavior – no more, and no less.
–So, if we’ve been unkind to someone, we’re 100% responsible for that – even if they’ve been unkind to us, too.
–If we’ve spoken harshly to them or about them, we’re 100% responsible for that – even if what we said is true.
–If we’ve lost our temper and lashed out in anger, we’re 100% responsible for that – even if we feel they drove us to it.
Whatever they may have done, they are responsible for it.
But it’s no justification for our failure to be our highest self.
We are 100% responsible for our own behavior, no excuses. Period.
Simple as it sounds – boy, is it hard to get there.
It’s natural to think of it in black-and-white terms, and say: “They’re clearly in the wrong, and I’m clearly in the right.”
“And yeah, maybe I’ve done some things I shouldn’t have. But seriously? That’s because of what they did to me! And what they did is much worse!”
And we hold to that line – because it feels like if we were to concede any fault on our own part, it would somehow cause our story to crack, and undermine our legitimate feelings of being wronged, and mean that they aren’t as guilty as we say they are.
But of course, that’s not the case. It is possible to hold two truths at the same time:
–It can be completely true that they behaved horribly toward us and wounded us terribly;
–And, at the same time, it can be completely true that we said and did things that caused them pain, too.
And neither of these truths takes anything away from the other. Because both are true; both are reality.
And once we see that, we have to own it. We have to own our transgressions, and do what God demands of us when we’ve transgressed:
And that’s t’shuvah: atonement.
“For sins committed by one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until the one who acted wrongly has appeased the person he wronged.”
That means we have to reach out to the other person, and say “I’m sorry.”
Maybe we write a letter, maybe it’s a phone call, or a face-to-face conversation.
But one way or another, we have to do it. There’s just no way around it.
* * *
This isn’t just a sermon for me.
As I said, I’ve got wounds. And they’re fresh, and they’re raw – just like yours.
And I’m not telling you to do something I haven’t done myself. Recently.
I know it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really, really hard.
But doing t’shuvah is a mitzvah, a religious obligation – and it’s the right thing to do.
I’ve struggled with this mightily. I’ve studied it intently, and I’ve prayed about it intently.
And here’s the approach I’ve come up with to that letter we need to write, or that conversation we need to have.
* * *
First: Acknowledge the good in the other person.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav teaches that there’s good in every single person, even the worst people, because we’re all created in the image of God.
The problem is: when someone has hurt us, it’s hard to see the good in them. Or, maybe more to the point, it’s hard to remember the good that’s in them.
After all, most of the time, the conflicts we have are with people who are close to us, people we care about – people who, at some point in the past, we liked, or loved.
So it’s a powerful spiritual practice to remind ourselves of the good – their good qualities, the good times we’ve shared, the good things they’ve done for us.
The good is there, in them; we just may not want to acknowledge it.
But we need to acknowledge it anyway. And we have to do it straight-up, and with no qualifications.
Tell them: “You’ve been a good friend, or a good parent, or a good child, or a good sister or brother to me in the past.”
And tell them how. And thank them for it.
Because it’s true.
Sadly, we tend to hold on so tightly to the negative that we lose our grip on the positive.
But being honest about the good in them is important, because it helps us see the full picture of who they are, and we may have a little less difficulty taking responsibility for the wrongs we’ve done to them.
* * *
The second principle is to confess the sins we’ve committed against them.
Maimonides says confession is the essence of t’shuvah – that even if we’ve admitted our sins to ourselves and to God privately, we still haven’t made t’shuvah until we’ve confessed our transgressions directly to the person we’ve wronged.
And that’s painful to do.
Probably because speaking our sins aloud or putting them in writing makes them feel real in a way they just don’t if we only think about them internally.
And that’s the point.
Genuine t’shuvah requires us to really feel and internalize the wrongs we’ve done – and we can’t do that unless we confess them. Outwardly and specifically.
So we have to dig deeply, and be completely honest with ourselves about how we’ve behaved in the whole conflict.
And when we do, we’ll know what we’ve done wrong…
And we won’t feel at peace until we confess it, and take 100% responsibility for our actions, and say, “I’m sorry.”
Straight-up, no qualifications, no excuses:
–“For criticizing you and judging you unfairly, I am sorry.”
–“For ignoring you, or dismissing you, or not validating your feelings, I am sorry.”
–“For being too self-absorbed and not being there when you needed me, I am sorry.”
Do it honestly and do it sincerely.
Because confessing our sins directly to the person we’ve wronged – even and especially when we feel wronged by them, too – that’s the essence of t’shuvah.
* * *
The third and final principle is: Do it unconditionally.
Genuine t’shuvah isn’t something we do because we expect something in return.
It’s something we do because taking 100% responsibility for our own actions is a mitzvah.
It would be great if, after we find the strength and the courage to do the right thing, the other person would respond in kind.
And maybe that will happen.
But we have to go into this knowing that it might not.
–They may never say, “thank you for your honesty.”
–They may never say, “I forgive you.”
–They may never give us the apology we know they owe us.
–We may never even hear anything from them.
And we have to be OK with that.
Should they do the right thing? Absolutely.
Will they? Who knows?
We can’t control what they do.
But we can control what we do.
And if we do t’shuvah unconditionally, then, regardless of how they respond – whether or not they respond at all – we can be at peace knowing we tried to bring about healing and reconciliation.
* * *
Yom Kippur starts now, tonight.
And here’s what I’m asking you to do. Everyone in this sanctuary.
Think of one person whom you know, deep in the hidden recesses of your heart, you need to apologize to.
Pray about it; meditate about it; reflect on it.
Find the strength, and the courage, and the humility that’s in you.
And sit down, and write them a letter. Or give them a call.
And do t’shuvah.
–Acknowledge the good in them, and thank them for it;
–Confess your transgressions honestly, and take 100% responsibility for your own behavior;
–Do it unconditionally and wholeheartedly. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.
–And do it before the day is out tomorrow.
Because if we can do these things, even in our pain and our hurt – then our t’shuvah will be genuine, and it will be transformative.
And it will bring us, and the whole world, one step closer to wholeness.
To remember, in Judaism, is about much more than simply recalling the past.
It’s about keeping the past alive, actively, and deliberately – now in the present, and for the future.
To remember, in Judaism, is to transcend the boundaries of time.
* * *
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik tells a beautiful story from his childhood about the power of living memory.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father was a renowned Torah scholar, and his home would constantly be filled with students sitting around the table discussing the sacred books.
The young Joseph remembers sitting quietly in his room, listening to his father and the other scholars study.
They were vigorous conversations.
The scholars would discuss a passage in the Talmud about heroes of ages gone by, like Moses, and Hillel, and Rabbi Akiva. And then they’d argue about interpretations by Rashi, and Rabbenu Tam, and Rambam.
And not only would the scholars argue about these giants of Jewish thought; they would argue with them. Passionately.
So passionately, that the young boy, listening intently through the door, felt as though Akiva and Moses and Rashi and Rambam were sitting right there at the table with his father.
And these heroes of times gone by became such a presence in the young Joseph’s home, and such a presence in his life, that he came to think of them as his friends and his constant companions.
One day, someone who had noticed how intimately and affectionately young Joseph spoke about these great men, said to the boy: “You know, Akiva and Rashi and Rambam – they’ve been dead for centuries.”
And the little boy’s response was powerful.
He said: “Dead?! They’re not dead! I just had a conversation with them this morning!”
That’s what it is to remember.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father taught him that to remember is about more than just recalling the past.
To remember means more than just reading their books, and it means more than just talking about them.
–It means talking with them. All the time.
–It means inviting them to our table, and making them active participants in the conversation, and looking to them for guidance.
–It means making them our constant companions.
–And believing it so strongly that we can really feel their presence – tangibly, and intimately.
That’s the Jewish way.
Our ancestors are our teachers and our role models.
We look to them for guidance, and wisdom, and advice – every day.
They’re not dead to us. They are very much alive!
Because we remember them – not as people who lived a long time ago, but as people who are with us and who are important to us, now and in the future.
To remember, in Judaism, is to transcend the boundaries of time. Through memory, past, present, and future are one.
* * *
Think about the loved ones you’re remembering today:
Your grandparents and great-grandparents. Your mother. Your father. Your sister or your brother. Aunts and uncles. Cousins.
They’re here, now. Can you feel their presence?
Invite them to sit with you.
Whatever it is you’re thinking about on this Yom Kippur, invite them into the conversation.
–Maybe you’re struggling with a difficult decision you have to make. Who’s the one who was so good at helping you think through these things?
Ask them for advice, now.
–Maybe you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed at work. Who’s the one who you could just call and dump it all on them, and they would listen patiently and let you talk?
Talk to them now.
–Maybe things aren’t great at home. Your child is sick, or having a hard time with friends; or you and your spouse are in a bad place right now.
Who’s the one you want to call and cry to, and just let yourself melt because you know it’s safe to be vulnerable with them?
Cry to them now.
They know you better than anyone.
They shaped you. They were there for you.
And they still are.
Because you remember them.
* * *
This year, let’s do what Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father did.
Let’s teach our children what it means to remember.
Let’s introduce them to our loved ones who have passed: the people who shaped us and knew us; the people we look to, even now, for guidance, and comfort, and wisdom –
So that our children will come to know them, and love them, and look to them, too.
Let’s teach them that our loved ones are, and always will be, very much alive, as long as we remember them –
Not as people who lived a long time ago, but as people who are with us and important to us now, and in the future.
Because to remember, in Judaism, is to transcend the boundaries of time.
Through memory, past, present, and future are one.
Temple Israel is searching for a Director of Engagement and Communications who is creative, energetic, and proactive, with the ability to bring people together and facilitate relationship-building among members of the community. The Director of Engagement and Communications will be responsible for membership recruitment and engagement, managing temple communications, and working in collaboration with the clergy and professional team to create vibrant and engaging programming for all demographic segments within our congregational community, including young families and empty-nesters. This is a part-time position, approximately 20 hours per week.
- Develop a membership outreach and engagement strategy in conjunction with the senior rabbi, the professional team, and the lay leadership, and serve as the primary senior staff member responsible for implementing that strategy.
- Create programs focused specifically on membership outreach, engagement, and retention, including opportunities for congregants with similar interests to connect and make relationships.
- Build relationships with congregants, get to know and track their particular interests and talents, and connect people across constituencies and centers of activity in the temple to encourage engagement, community-building, and synergetic creativity.
- Develop and implement a strategic communications plan to tell Temple Israel’s story, to help increase participation in temple life, and to bring Jewish content and community to our members online.
- Oversee the production and distribution of all print and electronic material, including, but not limited to, newsletters, brochures, flyers, social media, and the temple website.
- Write weekly articles for publication in the Jewish Press highlighting Temple Israel’s activities, initiatives, and people.
- Cultivate and sustain partnerships with the Omaha Jewish Federation and Temple Israel’s partners in the Tri-Faith Initiative.
- Previous experience with membership, communications, and programming.
- Excellent writing, editing, and verbal communication skills.
- Skill in using social media.
- Comfort with and affinity for working with people.
- Ability to build relationships and connect people across diverse constituencies and demographics.
- Ability to think strategically and about the “big picture,” as well as to produce and implement detail-oriented programs.
- Willingness and ability to work a flexible schedule as needed, including nights and weekends.
- Knowledge and comfort with Reform Jewish principles and practices.
If you are interested in becoming Temple Israel’s Director of Engagement and Communications, please send your resume to templeIsrael@templeisraelomaha.com by October 27th.
Rabbi Deana Sussman Berezin
Shalom, Shana Tova, and welcome to tonight’s game of “Make Me a Match.” In this game, I will be introducing you to three contestants, and after we meet each of them, we’ll make a match! Let’s begin!
Contestant Number One is a Commander in the Army, and has spent the last five years working to protect our country from threats to our safety and wellbeing. This contestant is outgoing and has a memorable personality. When asked what we should know, Contestant Number One replied, “My relationships are very important to me. I protect the people I love. I want to be someone’s rock, their safe place in the storm.”
Contestant Number Two teaches at a local middle school and has spent the last decade shepherding students as they navigate the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. This contestant has a kind and gentle personality and wants to find a match who is interested in the work of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. When asked what we should know, Contestant Number Two said, “I like to share everything with my partner. I want to create a relationship of harmony and comfort, where my partner feels safe coming to me when they need help.”
Contestant Number Three is an artist and the creator of several world-renowned pieces of artwork. When you look at this contestant’s masterpieces, you see the incredible way that the colors come together to create visually striking scenes of the natural world. This contestant is idealistic and visionary. When asked what we should know, Contestant Number Three said, “There is no better feeling than finishing a piece of art and knowing that it will change people. When I reach that moment when I can look at my work and say, “now this, this is good,” it’s an indescribable feeling. I’m looking for a partner who wants to discover the magic of the world around us and who will inspire me to create something new each and every day.”
So, matchmakers, now it’s time to Make Your Match. Did any of the contestants appeal to you? None at all? Don’t be nervous, any answer is ok, because I’m not talking about finding your Love Match, I’m talking about finding your God Match! Yes, you heard correctly – your God Match.
Now God is a very difficult subject for most of us to talk about. Why? Because we can’t actually say all that much about God with any degree of certainty. So many of our books and movies and TV shows tend to portray God as an old man sitting in the clouds presiding over heaven and earth, but not everyone believes in that image of God. And when we don’t believe in that particular image of God, many of us are left without the language or the tools for how to think or speak about God.
Throughout history, human beings have struggled with this idea because in order to speak about God, you need to know something about God, which brings us back to my original point – many of us feel that we don’t really know God. But what we really mean is that we don’t know the God that the TV shows and the books and the movies show us. We don’t know the God that other people speak about because it isn’t how we understand God. But Judaism doesn’t have just one way to understand or connect with God – each and every one of us can and should have a different relationship with God.
In our game of “Make Me a Match,” I presented you not with three potential suitors, but with three potential images and understandings of God. Contestant Number One is the militant warrior God that we see throughout biblical literature. The psalms describe God as “my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer. In God I take refuge… and I am saved from my enemies.”
Contestant Number Two is the gentle, compassionate God who we lovingly imagine to be our shepherd in the wilderness of life. The prophet Isaiah describes God as a “shepherd that feeds the flock, that gathers lambs in God’s arms, gently leading them.”
Contestant Number Three is the creator God, the artist who created the heavens and the earth. God said “Let there be light, and there was light.” This is the God who looked at the work of creation and proclaimed, “v’hinei tov m’od” “and it was very good.”
Maybe you connected with one of these three versions. Maybe part of you connected with all three, or maybe you connected with none. But the connection is the key. In our relationships, it is our feeling of connectedness that creates the sense of intimacy that we feel. We want to feel that the people in our lives have similar values to ours, that we know what motivates them to get up in the morning, what inspires them to do the work that they do, what challenges them, what frightens them. In our relationships with God, we simply don’t know. We can’t answer any of those questions. And yet our relationship with God is, for many of us, one of the most intimate relationships in our lives.
For centuries, human beings have searched for ways to know and understand God. Ancient Greeks imagined multiple gods with unique powers, from Zeus who ruled the skies to Poseiden who ruled the seas. Our ancestor, Abraham, the world’s first monotheist, recognized that there was only one God, but we have spent centuries searching for ways to understand that one God.
Even here and now, we are still searching. Pop culture is bursting with examples of human beings’ attempts to know God.
Star Wars speaks of an energy field created by all living beings known as the Force. This metaphysical and ever-present power surrounds all creatures, binding them together, and drawing them to the light side or the dark side.
The wildly popular TV show, Game of Thrones, has many conceptions of God. It speaks of the old gods and the new gods, the lord of light, and the god of many faces. Each of these has their own representations of the Divine with their own sets of beliefs.
And while the Greek gods and Star Wars and Game of Thrones seem to be wielding vastly different religions from the ones we know, the truth is that they are all in search of the same thing: a way to know and understand God.
As is often the case, Judaism does not have a definitive answer of how to know and understand God. There are many, many ways. But the conceptions of God seen in our mainstream culture, like Star Wars and Game of Thrones, were not created in a vacuum; they bear striking similarities to some of our own Jewish theologians’ beliefs about God.
In Star Wars, The Force is the energy of the universe that pulls us in different directions, toward good but also toward evil. All of humanity is connected by the Force and therefore the actions of one affect the lives of many. Mordechai Kaplan, one of our modern-day philosophers thinks of God as a power or process. Human life, he says, is redeemed by God. Now, if that’s true, then Kaplan’s God is “the totality of those forces in the world that render human life worthwhile.” Here, as in Star Wars, God is the connective tissue that links us to one another and creates meaning in our lives.
In Game of Thrones, we first encounter the Old gods, who were manifest in nature – in rocks, streams, and trees. Worship of these gods involved communing with nature and finding peace in the presence and shelter of the trees. There is an element of the supernatural in the Old gods, an idea that they transcend time and space in ways that we cannot fully understand. Abraham Joshua Heschel echoes these ideas in his concept of what he calls “radical amazement.” When we gaze upon the beauty of creation – the trees and the flowers and the star-studded sky – we feel a sense of wonderment that we are a part of something greater than ourselves which we cannot fully comprehend. Heschel writes that we must embrace this sense of awe because it is on “the level of wonder and radical amazement, in the depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our awareness of the ineffable,” that “great things happen to the soul.”
The New gods in Game of Thrones are known as The Seven, whose multiple sides come together to form one god. Followers worship the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Smith, the Crone, and the Stranger—each representing a different aspect of God. As we consider our own ways of thinking about God, we often call God by different names depending on our needs. In our Midrash, we read:
“When I am judging created things, I am called “God,” and when I am waging war against the wicked, I am called “Lord of Hosts.” When I suspend judgement for a man’s sins, I am called El Shaddai, Almighty God, and, when I am merciful toward My world, I am called “Adonai,” for “Adonai,” refers to the Attribute of Mercy…”
The many names that we use for God represent the many attributes we understand God to have. But Rambam, a medieval commentator, cautions us against taking these descriptions too literally. He reminds us that this language is metaphorical and that the expressions were adopted to help us as human beings, conceptualize God. But we cannot definitively say what God is or is not –God is simply beyond human comprehension.
The Many Faced god in Game of Thrones uses human beings to do his work. The Faceless Men worship the Many Faced god and do his bidding. It follows then, that a spark of divinity lives within each of us, a widely held Jewish view of God. The I-Thou theology of Martin Buber, another modern day thinker, tells us that when we intentionally connect with another, when we enter into a genuine and meaningful relationship with that person, we also find God.
Every single person in this room likely has a different understanding of God. There are as many ways to think about God as there are stars in the sky. Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes that “Because by most definitions God is not limited or physical, and because many conceptions of God assert that God is infinite and inherently mysterious, it will be no surprise that no conception of God will be totally adequate to our experience.” But in considering these different ways of understanding God, it is my hope that it will prompt all of us to reconsider and reevaluate our own beliefs and find our connection. The important question here is not “what does it mean to know God?” but rather “what does it mean for me to know God?”
Once we begin to develop our personal relationships with God, we can begin to answer the other questions of how or if we interact with God on a daily basis, understanding the purpose of prayer, and whether we believe God to be omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipowerful.
But it’s not enough just to know God. We also have to engage with God, and we have to ask ourselves the most important question of all: What is God calling me to do? And how will I respond?
A word of caution: oftentimes more challenging even than responding to the call is knowing if we’re correctly interpreting what we’re being asked to do. Imagine for a moment, that you’re Abraham and God calls upon you to sacrifice your son, your only son, the one whom you love. I can imagine Abraham thinking to himself: “Am I understanding correctly? Is God really asking this of me?” We know that Abraham did indeed climb the mountain with Isaac, prepared to sacrifice him. What we don’t know is if he interpreted the call correctly.
How many times have we heard people claiming to be doing something “in the name of God?” And how often have we heard that phrase in conjunction with violence and destruction? Perhaps the story of the Akedah was meant to teach us a lesson, to show us that sometimes even the best of us may misinterpret what God is asking of us. As Abraham raised his knife to sacrifice his son, an angel of God called out, “Stop! Do not lay your hand upon the boy or do anything to him.” God does not want us to sacrifice our children, God does not want us to cause harm to others.
When we are listening for God’s call, God will never call upon us to inflict pain and suffering on another human being. God gave us the commandments to serve as our framework for living. We read on Yom Kippur, u’vachartah ba’chayim, choose life, that you may live. Part of knowing God is knowing that God will never call us to infringe upon another’s right to live.
So, then, what is it that God calling us to do? If we look at our texts, from Biblical to Rabbinic to Kabbalistic to Hassidic, we know that God calls upon human beings to be partners in creating and repairing the world, in taking care of the earth and its inhabitants, in creating holy community with one another. It is incumbent upon each of us to ask ourselves, “what are my unique gifts, and how is God calling upon me to use them?”
Throughout your life, God may call upon you in different capacities. Sometimes God may call upon you as God did Abraham, to lech lecha, to go forth into the unknown. To journey onward and leave behind everything that you know to be true about the world. To go with the understanding that others will disagree with you, will try to sway you from your beliefs, who see the world as it is instead of how it should to be. Go anyway. Stand on the edge of the precipice and don’t let fear hold you back. Go forth and walk into the unknown.
Sometimes God might call upon you as God did Moses, to stand up to those who would oppress others. To find the courage within yourself to stand up and demand justice for those who cannot demand it for themselves. To raise your voice in order to break the shackles of oppression even if you are afraid, even if you aren’t sure you’re the right person for the job. Stand strong in the face of evil and confront it head on.
Sometimes God might call upon you as God did Joseph, to be a visionary and a dreamer. To see the world’s complex problems and find new ways of solving them. To stand toe to toe with people who don’t believe in you and convince them to try something different, something new, something that has never been done before.
Sometimes God might call upon you as God did the Prophets of the Bible, to hold the community accountable when we are at risk of succumbing to temptation and wickedness and modern day idolatry – placing more value on things than on people. To say what is right even if it is not what is popular. To point out our flaws and dare us to change our ways. To comfort the challenged but challenge the comfortable.
Sometimes God might call upon you as God did Queen Esther, to put yourself at risk for the safety and security of those you love. To proudly proclaim who you are and what you stand for. To fight for what you believe in and refuse to take “no” for an answer.
Sometimes the call will be obvious, sometimes more subtle. But rest assured, God does call upon us. The Torah reminds us that God calls to each of us and asks that we answer the call as Abraham did: hineini, I am here.
What is God calling you to do? And how will you respond?
The High Holy Days represent an opportunity for us to think deeply and intentionally about these questions. What does it mean for me to know God? During these Days of Awe, may we meet the Force that renders our lives worthwhile, may we see the world with radical amazement, may we ponder the immeasurable aspects of our infinite God, and may we remind ourselves that God can be found in our relationships with one another.
What is God calling me to do and how will I respond? The prophet Micah reminds us that the answer is simple. “What does God require of you? Only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” The rest, as they say, is commentary.
Rabbi Brian Stoller
The first time I walked into this building last winter, I was struck by the incredible windows.
You know what I’m talking about. They’re everywhere:
The tall, wide windows that let the light pour in, casting a clear, panoramic view of the landscape.
And these windows surrounding our sanctuary! It feels like that light of the first morning of Creation, God’s own light, is shining on us, and enveloping us with warmth and love.
It feels holy.
You might not know this but, according to Jewish law, a sanctuary is required to be built with windows – so that you can look out toward the Heavens, and be stirred by the majesty of it all, and really feel God’s presence?
And that’s what it’s all about, right? That’s why we’re here.
Whether we know how to express it or not, deep down in our souls the reason we are here is to feel connected to something bigger than we are, to somehow touch the transcendent, and uncover a little bit of the mystery.
We’re here to be part of something holy.
In a day and age when we are running constantly from one thing to the next, when our time and our resources are scarce and the demands on them are immense – that’s why we choose to be part of this temple:
Because we want to be part of something holy. We need to be part of something holy.
And that majestic, divine light streaming in through these windows?
It’s the same light that lives inside every human being.
The light of God – the light of God’s goodness, the light of God’s love – shines inside every single one of us –
And it’s that light which this place is holy.
It’s the people who make this place holy.
–People who are warm and friendly, and smile, and welcome us when we walk in the door;
–People who share our values, and our concerns, and our struggles;
–People who will embrace us when we’re scared and troubled by things happening in the world, like Charlottesville, and antisemitism, and white supremacy, and the hurricanes, and the earthquakes, and the feeling of powerlessness.
It’s the people who make this place holy.
And that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’ve been coming here for thousands of years:
Because we humans have an innate spiritual need for connection – connection to holiness, connection to each other, connection to community.
And Temple Israel is a holy community.
* * *
–A holy community is one where people feel known – not just recognized, but really known, and accepted, and loved by people who genuinely care.
–A holy community is one in which people feel inspired – inspired to change their lives and to change the world.
–And a holy community is one where people feel valued – valued for who they are and what they have to give.
We all need to feel these things. And when we do, we feel alive; we feel a sense of purpose; we feel connected to God, and we live in ways that are godly.
That’s why we’re here.
And lest we doubt it: see the light pouring in through these magnificent windows;
Look around at all the faces, young and old, radiating with the light of God;
Hear the whisper in the gentle morning silence:
Our purpose here – mine and yours together – is to be a holy Jewish community – for ourselves, for each other, and for our children.
* * *
This spiritual need to be known is profound.
We walk through so much of our lives unknown to the people around us.
At the coffee shop, at the dry cleaners, at the store; even at work, and in the kids’ school, and on the soccer field, and on social media –
We might know about each other to one degree or another, but we don’t really know each other’s lives in a meaningful way.
But we have a deep and innate spiritual need to be known.
That’s why we can be surrounded by people from morning till night, and have a thousand friends on Facebook, and still feel profoundly and painfully lonely.
Remember the theme song from “Cheers?”
(My wife told me I’m dating myself with this old-timey cultural reference, but that’s OK; I think it makes the point nicely.)
The song said: “Sometimes you want to go / where everybody knows your name.”
And that’s it: It’s about feeling known.
–Feeling that people understand who you are, and what’s important to you;
–It’s about feeling that people know the challenges you face at home;
that you’re struggling with depression or that your spouse is sick;
that you’re pained because your child is estranged, or you’re still grieving your mother’s death all these years later…
and the key is, they don’t judge you for it.
–It’s about feeling like you don’t have to wear a mask when you walk in the door, or be embarrassed, or get it together…
because the people in this community know you, and love you, and accept you for who you are and where you are in your life – no matter what.
These kinds of connections are powerful.
They’ve certainly been powerful for me, in my life.
Now, I admit: until I worked as a rabbi in my first congregation, I never realized a community like this was something I longed for.
I just didn’t think about it much, to be honest.
But then I experienced it. I made these deep connections with people, connections rooted in shared values, shared love for Judaism and tradition and learning, and genuine affection…
And they became my extended family.
They nurtured me, and loved me, and welcomed my children into the world, and celebrated simchas with us, and comforted us in times of sorrow.
They became part of me.
That’s what holy community can be, if you’re willing to invest yourself in it.
To make connections like this, we have to be willing to be vulnerable and trusting, and open a window into our lives so that others can see in.
And, in turn, we have to make the effort to know them, too.
–It’s about being friendly and interested in our fellow congregants; asking about each other’s families and each other’s lives, and really caring about the answer.
–Going beyond asking, “what do you do?” or “what can you do for me?” – and asking, with genuine interest: “Who are you? What makes you cry? What brings you joy? What brings you here?”
–And when we’re sitting in the Community Court waiting to pick up our kids or waiting for services to start, we have to remember that we’re not a collection of isolated atoms who happen to be occupying the same space;
We’re an intertwined human family who have all come here to be part of something holy.
That’s why we’re here.
* * *
Cheers, the bar on TV, was the place where everybody knows your name. And that’s what Temple should be, too.
That, and more.
Because a holy community is one where people not only feel known, but also one where they feel inspired –
–inspired to learn and grow, spiritually and intellectually;
–inspired to look inward and change their lives for the better;
–inspired to be a role model for the next generation, and to keep this tradition alive for them;
–inspired to go out and change the world.
So instead of sitting on the bar stool chatting about idle things and sucking down empty calories, this holy community talks about things that matter…
Things like: Torah, values, morality, God, the soul, justice, peace, and service.
At first, these may feel like just words to us.
–But then, we learn something in Torah study so profound that it changes the way we think – and we’re awed by the brilliance of Jewish wisdom, and we want more of it;
–Or we experience a life-cycle ceremony so powerful that the feeling of God’s presence is tangible and life just makes sense, if only for that moment – so we decide to seek out more spiritual connection like this in our life;
–Or we see our child’s eyes light up as they blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and we feel a joy in Judaism that we never felt before;
–Or at a Habitat for Humanity build or a picnic across the street, we meet a family from the other side of town or from the other side of the world…
and although we’ve heard it a thousand times before, the commandment to “be kind to the stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt” reverberates in our bones for the very first time…
And suddenly, we feel inspired – and those words, which before felt like just words to us, suddenly come to life!
And they become part of us; and they change us. Forever.
That’s why we’re here.
To teach, to inspire, to bring the words and the values to life;
To search together, to struggle together, to help each other live with humility, and awe, and faith…
Because we know that there is far more to life than what we can see with our eyes.
That’s why we’re here.
* * *
We all have a role to play in creating and nurturing this holy community.
The clergy can’t do it alone. The professional team can’t do it alone. The lay leadership can’t do it alone.
It takes everyone – us and you, together – to make it happen.
So I invite you, this year, to take ownership of this. Let’s make it happen, together.
Because a holy community is one where every member adds value, and every member feels valued:
–Valued for who you are as a human being;
–Valued for your experiences and your ideas;
–Valued for your whole self, and everything that your presence brings to our community.
I want you to give of your skills, and your creativity, and your time, and your energy, because I am absolutely certain that this community will be enriched by your participation.
And I want you to give – not only because of the value that you will add to your community – but also because of the value that you will add to your own life.
Working to help the community is, in and of itself, a portal to Jewish meaning and purpose.
–To help build a holy community where others feel known and loved, and inspired, and valued…
–To help build a caring community, where people feel accepted, and safe, and nurtured…
–To pray, and seek, and cry, and rejoice alongside people you love – people who know you, and love you…
That’s what it is to be part of something holy.
* * *
–So this year, when one of the clergy or a temple volunteer asks you to help, say yes – because this community needs and values what you have to give.
–This year, try something at Temple you haven’t done before – a class, a service project, prayer, a community outing – and be open to being inspired and changed by it.
–This year, when you find yourself standing by someone you don’t know – reach out, be kind, and interested, and get to know them.
–And next time someone reaches out to you, dare to be vulnerable. Open a window into your life, into your light, and let them know you.
Because that’s why we’re here.
And lest we doubt it: see the light pouring in through these beautiful windows;
Look around at all the faces, young and old…
Each unique, each searching, each yearning for connection…
Each radiating with the light of God.
Hear the whisper in the gentle morning silence:
Be Holy, Hear the Whisper
By Peter & Ellen Allard
Be holy, hear the whisper
A quiet gentle voice.
Be holy, hear the whisper
That helps us make the choice
To be like God
Be holy, hear the whisper
Present every day
Be holy, hear the whisper
It teaches us the way
To be like God
HaKadosh Baruch Hu
HaKadosh Baruch Hu
Be holy, hear the whisper
That guides each word and deed
Be holy, hear the whisper
Reminding us we need
To be like God.
Be holy, hear the whisper
The warmth of love’s embrace
Be holy, hear the whisper
Giving us the grace
To be like God.
HaKadosh Baruch Hu
HaKadosh Baruch Hu
Message and Appeal
from Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
and the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas
September 14, 2017
Dear Congregants, Chai Members, friends, colleagues, members of my former congregations, and so very many others:
It is now a full week since the fury of Hurricane Irma hit our islands. St. Thomas has been hit quite hard. Conditions on St. John are significantly worse than that. We are only beginning to be able to take steps, take stock, and get a sense of what we need to do to move forward. We have not even had a chance to read all of the greetings, good wishes, messages of love and support that have come from family, friends, one-time visitors and those who have never even been here. And your heart-felt offers of assistance are deeply moving. We are so touched by your love – and we are so grateful for your support.
Yesterday afternoon, just before curfew, we held an emergency meeting of those members of our Board, congregational leadership and Temple staff who were able to attend. We shared news, for the first time in a group setting, of what we know about those in need, and the roles we can play to help in the recovery effort as a whole.
With humility and gratitude, we accept your many offers of help
We will use your support in four distinct ways: aid for recovery for the island, support for members in need, repair of the damage we sustained, and support for the congregation as a whole.
• As aid for the island and community as a whole.
Part of the heart of the Reform movement of Judaism is a sense
of connection to the community, to the world of which we are a part. Our island is in pain and in need, and, with your support we will be there to help everyone here get back on their feet. Heroes are born all around us; our members are, as we always have been, playing very important public roles here. We hope to use our community house as a distribution point or a health center. We are working directly with civic, volunteer and public agencies. To paraphrase Hillel: “If we are only for ourselves, what are we?”
• As support for members of our own congregation in need.
As you can imagine, we have among us those who have lost roofs, walls, or entire homes. The house my family is renting lost part of its roof, flooded, and we just managed to get a FEMA tarp today. And we fared better than many others. Businesses are, at best, in a state of uncertain suspension. Some are relocating for medical or other reasons. Insurance and disaster relief aid will help; it will not be enough. We are in the very early stages of assessing our own needs. “If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?”
• To repair and restore our historic sites.
Our historic cemeteries have been very badly damaged. We face needs there to preserve and protect two of the most ancient Jewish cemeteries in the hemisphere. There is also damage from water and wind in the synagogue itself and in Lilienfeld House, our social and community hall across the street.
• For ongoing work to enhance Jewish life in the Virgin Islands.
We are reluctant to use a disaster as “fundraising.” We find the prospect… distasteful. But we face a new reality here. Life-cycle events and special visits are already being cancelled. This may continue. Your visits and your sense of connection here are a pillar of our congregation. Our work to sustain and grow a vibrant Jewish community in the Caribbean depends on you. Our synagogue is a living partnership, unique in this continent, with others all over the world. We are, indeed, a place where history and destiny meet. We need your help, to preserve this special story – and to be with us, as we write the next chapter. “If not now, when?”
We are establishing HIRE, a Hurricane Irma Relief Effort as a segregated line item to address all of these needs. Your support is, of course, tax-deductible to the extent permissible by law.
We expect US Postal Service to resume soon. Our address is
The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas,
PO Box 266, St. Thomas, VI, 00804-0266
Or you may contribute directly through our webpage, at www.synagogue.vi.As soon as internet connections are restored, we will update the site to make this easier.
The day will come when we will return to the plans we had: opening our doors for a “Taste of Judaism” to the general community, promoting a new and more nuanced sense of Jewish identity, deepening our connections with Israel, promoting pluralism, equality and education through our Martin Luther King, Jr. scholarship awards, serving as an active voice for tolerance and progressive values in the general community, hosting B’nai Mitzvah and weddings, welcoming visitors in large groups or individuals who wander up synagogue hill.
But before we can do those things, we have immediate needs to address… and a High Holy Day season in which all of our plans have been – often very literally – turned upside down. Your assistance in picking us up, helping us recover from this devastating blow, including such basic acts as delivering and distributing food and water in some cases… it is… essential. And appreciated.
With love and with determination, and, always,
L’shalom (in peace),
Michael L. Feshbach
Hundreds of families in Houston’s Jewish community are out of their homes and lost all their PJ Library books along with the rest of their belongings. Although the best way to contribute to a disaster of this scale is to donate funds directly to a trusted source, PJ Library families across the country have been asking how else they can help. PJ Professionals in over 50 communities are coordinating with the PJ Library national office to send packets of books directly to the PJ Library professionals in Houston to replenish the libraries of each family. If your family has duplicates of PJ Library books you’ve received, or even gently used PJ Library books that your children have outgrown, please consider donating them to this effort. Collection bins will be set up in the main lobby of the JCC as well as the lobby of the CDC and in each of the synagogues from now until October 15.
At Temple Israel, in addition to the bin in the lobby, you may bring the books directly to the tot services, 9 a.m. on September 21 and 30, as well as the Tot Shabbat, 9 a.m. on October 7, and Temple Tots at 10:30 a.m., Sunday, Ocober 15.
PJ Library provides free books & music to children ages 0-8 in Omaha families with a Jewish connection (with PJ Our Way serving ages 9-12), while the Jewish Federation of Omaha organizes programs offering opportunities to connect with other families with young children. Contact Jennie Gates Beckman, firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-334-6445 for more information.
During the month of Elul, we are called to do a cheshbon ha’nefesh, an accounting of the soul. We are asked to take stock of our lives – our actions, our relationships, our decisions. We reflect on the past year and think about how and why we will change in the coming year. One of the ways we do this is by changing our “business as usual” mentality, and giving ourselves permission to step out of our routines and dive into the hard work of the High Holiday season: understanding ourselves.
One of the ways that we do this is to recite Achat Sha’alti during the conclusion of our service. This verse, from Psalms 27, asks us to consider what it is that we want from our lives.
One thing I ask of Adonai, only that do I seek:
to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of Adonai, and to frequent God’s temple.
Elul is a time of searching, oF reflecting, of challenging ourselves. We ask ourselves a litany of questions: Who am I? Am I the person that I want to be? Do my actions reflect my values? What do I need to live a life of meaning?
Elul is our opportunity to think about how we’re going to do better and be better in the coming year. Let’s make it count.
I am completely and utterly amazed at our community’s overwhelming response to the devastation in Houston from Hurricane Harvey. Our community’s generosity is nothing short of incredible, enabling us to respond to the need quickly and launch a successful gift card drive. Thank you to each and every person who contributed, and to our volunteers who made this gift card drive possible. Temple Israel has raised over $17,000 which we will be sending to Congregation Emanu El in Houston to distribute to their congregants.
Please see Rabbi Pam Silk’s touching response to our community’s generosity below.
Again, many thanks for each and every contribution,
Rabbi Deana Sussman Berezin
|From: Rabbi Pam Silk
Date: September 5, 2017 at 11:33:15 PM CDT
Subject: Re: Temple Israel Omaha Gift Card Drive
I’m speechless. And those who know me know that I’m never speechless. The words thank you fall so very short of the gratitude we have for the magnitude of the gifts you’re sharing with us. The generosity of your community is overwhelming and will help to wrap our community in such love and care as so many rebuild their ruined homes.
From our congregational family to yours, thank you, thank you, thank you.
A Message from Cantor Shermet for Elul
In The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade wrote: “For Judaism, time has a beginning and will have an end. The idea of cyclic time is left behind. [Yahweh] no longer manifests himself in ‘cosmic’ time (like the gods of other religions) but in a ‘historical time’, which is irreversible.” To me this illustrates Judaism as a faith with fixed markers. Elul is one such marker; during this month we prepare ourselves for the hard work of forgiveness and real repentance. It is so hard to say and mean that we are sorry. It is even harder to accept someone else’s apology. And it is hardest to forgive oneself.
The month of Elul is an excellent time to take stock of the year that has gone, with all its own markers of good and bad. We are b’tzelem Elohim, made in God’s image. If Abraham and Moses could argue with God and ask God to “re-think” certain actions, if God could promise never to again bring a flood upon the entire earth, why do we expect ourselves and others to be infallible? We cannot change past actions nor can our friends and family. We can expect and work toward being better humans. Let’s all start with this, in this month.
–Cantor Wendy Shermet