Sunday, October 13, 2019

People, Needed by Other People

People, Needed by Other People ( Kol Nidre 2019)

            Our Torah reading for Yom Kippur day is a bizarre one for moderns. Two goats are selected, one is sacrificed in the Temple, and the other is sent out into the wilderness, to be unceremoniously destroyed, thereby, symbolically, carrying off the sins of an entire nation. He goes off to what is called” eretz gezerah”, the land of the decree, but also, the land of cutting off.

            Gezerah, the Talmud tells us, is a land of steep cliffs, where the scape-goat is hurled down. Gezerah is a land cut off, a land of no return. That is the feeling of being in the wilderness. Ishmael, who featured in our first day Torah reading, was left to die in the wilderness.

That wilderness is described, in Jeremiah(2:6) as “ eretz tziyah v “tzalmavet” אֶרֶץ צִיָּה וְצַלְמָוֶת , a land of drought and utter darkness,   a land where no one travels and no one lives. The word for darkness here is itself a composite of tzel and mavet “ the Shadow of death”, a phrase you well know from the common translation of the 23rd Psalm. Being alone in the wilderness, where no one travels and no one lives, isolation, is to be in the shadow of death.

            I sympathize with the goat. He is a very contemporary personage; all the sins of the world are pressing down on his twisted horns and his is left, abandoned, in the wilderness, where no one travels and no one lives. We feel, ourselves, often, alone, in the midst of the crowds, in a land where no one travels, even while surrounded by many. So, if last week, I spoke of us being frustrated pigeons, tonight, we are forlorn goats.

 It turns out that we feel part of a tragedy, which, according to its Greek roots, is, aptly enough, the song of the goat, a very weak, poor “ba-a-a”!

            Alone in the wilderness. The modern condition, the song of a poor goat.

 The goals of society over the last two centuries has been to free us from social pressure, to free us from the imposition of the expectation of others. But as our society,  economy and technology  give us the tools to live as we choose, we find ourselves very much on our own, out on a limb. The price of the breakdown of neighborhood, community, and family is very steep.

            Last week, I went into Psychology 101 with my story of pigeons and racoons. Today, I will go into Sociology 101. There truly is nothing new under the sun, at least in the past centuries. The father of the study of society, Emil Durkheim, coined a word for us, “anomie”, a state of having no norms, no guidelines, that society used to provide us. Durkheim used the term "the malady of the infinite" because desire without limit can never be fulfilled; it only becomes more intense.

To borrow from Durkheim, “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free him from all social pressure is to abandon him to himself and demoralize him.”

Do you need proof? Think of a Jerry Epstein, who denied himself no pleasure, violated all social norms, and ended miserably hanging in his cell. This is our “ goat” par excellence, off, on his own, in the wilderness.

When we are cut off from our fellow human beings and at the same time, cut off from our moral and spiritual anchors, we are the forlorn goat in the wilderness.

There is nothing new under the sun.  We feel ourselves, in the words of an ancient Persian poet, “Into this Universe, and why not knowing, Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste, I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.” ( Ruba’iyat attributed to Omar Khayyam).

It is picked up in modern sentiment by musicians of my heyday, such as Jim Morrison, Into this house we're born, Into this world we're thrown Like a dog without a bone,An actor out alone.

So we clutch at straws. We do anything to be remembered.

Some forms of getting noticed are benign, like getting into the Guiness Book of Records for eating the most hot dogs and buns at one sitting. Others, often our most creative and talented, in the midst of adoration and adulation, simply burn out, their bodies and minds spent at a young age. Then , there are those who want the world to take them seriously, like the Unabomber or the mass shooters who have plagued us in recent times.

So, do we have the cure? Remember the poor goat? He is sent off to the wilderness. But we are not that poor goat, with his goat song, his tragedy. We are the people standing in the ancient sanctuary, who have unloaded on that goat our shortcomings and are seeking to turn ourselves around.

So , we have needs, deep set physical and emotional needs and we come here, on Yom Kippur, to address those deep needs:

            A great humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, spoke of us as seeking to fulfill needs, the highest of which is self-actualization, achieving our highest and noblest aspirations. That is something we wish to achieve on this day. But we can’t get to it if we don’t fulfill some very elemental needs first. Those that deal with our simple survival are first, but , for us, moderns, for most human beings, in the past century, survival is less of an issue than it was for the preceding 5700 years or so since Adam. Some of the other needs, that are considered higher needs, may actually be easy for us to meet in modern life, the need for knowledge and understanding. I think where we all get stuck is in the middle- we he called “ belongingness.” It is finding ourselves in our friends and family, in our loved ones, in our close-knit communities, such as we have at our temple, when we participate regularly.

As the story of Adam has it, “ Lo Tov He-yot adam levado”- the human being is not happy alone. We don’t want to be the lone goat in the wilderness. We want to get to the top, but we are stuck in the middle.

Do you remember the popular song by Barbara Streisand (Funny Girl, written by Bob Merril).

“People, People who need people, Are the luckiest people in the world.”

Well, no, not really. Everyone needs people, even the unluckiest. But, too often, we feel, as the philosopher, Sartre, put it, “ Hell is other people.” So we hide, or run away from this essential need.

So what is the solution- if we need other people, then we musty make ourselves needed. Other people need us, and that is where we solve our essential need.

If our illness is that we are alone, the cure is to make ourselves needed

Abraham, when he sets out on his new venture, to go to a land that he had never seen and never heard of, gets this one great promise:ְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְגֹ֣וי גָּדֹ֔ול וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃ Gen 12:2. “ I will make you a great nation , I will bless you and make your reputation great—and you shall be a blessing.” What is it “ heye brachah” – to be a blessing?

Rashi, the father of all commentators explains — Blessings are entrusted to you; hitherto they were in My power — I blessed Adam and Noah — but from now on you shall bless whomsoever you wish (Genesis Rabbah 39:11), As the Ramban added,  that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, and not just the people of his land.

So what does it mean “to become a blessing’? Proverbs tells us “A generous person enjoys prosperity; He who satisfies others shall himself be sated. He who withholds grain earns the curses of the people, But blessings are on the head of the one who dispenses it. ( 11;25-26)

You want to gain a blessing- gain it by giving it.

If I were rewriting Funny Girl, I would reword the song” People” to say, People, needed

By other people, are the luckiest people in the world.”

So how can I become “ needed.” How can I become a brachah. Chasing others pushes them away. Helping others, giving of ourselves, brings them neigh.

It can take many, many forms. Obviously, people who have close family and friends, have and hold them by virtue of making themselves essential to their loved ones: support, care, compassion.

But, in truth, many of us live as singles, or in some form of isolation, what is sometimes called a singleton. One and only, but it doesn’t have to be lonely. There are so many ways we can make ourselves a blessing and be wanted as well as needed by others.

I was in contact with one of our members, Yuri Sokolow, and I asked him what projects he knew of that you here today could involve yourselves in. Make yourselves needed.

He had mentioned that here in West Hollywood, we have a good number of home bound elderly. Why not ask our people to volunteer to deliver food, Meals on Wheels.

We know that in the midst of plenty, there are people who are hungry. We do have the SOVA box outside, but someone has to stand at the SOVA counter and hand out the food. Why not that?

We know that social scientist have been warning us that the greatest danger facing youngsters growing up today is the absence of a strong family. This is especially true of young males who lack a positive father-image and whose mothers struggle with giving them guidance alone. Why not volunteer with Big Brothers and Big Sisters. There is a specific Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters, but it doesn’t just have to be with members of our Tribe. Here is a chance to make a difference, be a blessing, make yourself needed.

Finally, we are a community here. You do not have to feel alone. Even if you feel miserable, and down and out, just sitting down with us on a Shabbat morning, joining in on breakfast and study, worship and more food is a healing of the human condition. Like they say, “Support your local Sheriff” and “ Support your local shule.”

            In the end of all ends, a Jewish soul may never be a lone goat and forlorn, cast off into the wilderness. Everyday, in our early morning prayers, we are reminded, even when we may feel down, we can feel  “ashreinu u’ Mah tov Helkeynu”- We are happy, for our portion is good, and our destiny is pleasant, and our heritage is so beautiful.

As Jews, we are privileged to be part of history’s oldest club and fellowship, we have in it our path to the highest of needs, of finding our true selves, of lifting ourselves about the mire of daily life, and becoming a blessing,  to lift others up out of the mire as well.

When we keep that in mind, we have our true Yom Kippur, Our True atonement, our true “at”one-ment.”

Friday, October 11, 2019

We are Not Afraid

We are Not Afraid 

(Yom Kippur 2019)

Note: This sermon was delivered just before word came of the murders outside the synagogue in Halle, Germany. As a representative of the community said, there, Jews are being targeted by right, left, and Islamic extremists.


            There is an image making the rounds on news media of a Jewish youngster bowing and kissing the feet of a Muslim classmate. The Jewish boy was surrounded in a local park by a dozen other youngsters, all of them students of a prestigious private school in Melbourne, Australia. He was taunted, threatened and forced to bow, full prostrate, to kiss the feet of his classmate.

When the Jewish parents confronted the Muslim parents, they did the right thing-they reprimanded their boy and taught him what it was like to be picked on, because they had experienced the same thing. That was the right thing to do.

 What was disgusting was that the school officials at first refused to do anything about this. Anti-Semitic bullying was not their business.

This followed on the heels of another incident in which a five-year old Jewish kindergartner also in the Melbourne area was harassed to the point of break-down by his classmates because he was circumcised. Again, we all understand that children can be mean, especially five-year olds. However, when the school principal was approached to teach the children about anti-Semitism, he refused to deal with the issue because he didn’t want to “make the other children feel uncomfortable.”

We are learning that it is OK to walk over us Jews.

It used to be easy to walk all over Jews.  For almost two thousand years, after the Roman conquests, and after subjugation and denial of equal rights under both Christian and Muslim rulers, we learned to survive by going, yarmulka in hand, to the powers that be. In Yiddish , it was called “ shtadlanus”, the original form of lobbying, but lobbying from a point of weakness. It would include begging and bribing the local ruler.  Our approach was one of “ Shah, shtil”, just shut up and don’t make waves.

At its most pathetic, it would be this image, by the great Hebrew poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik, after the Kishinev pogrom of 1904:

“Concealed and cowering,—the sons of the Maccabees!
. . .It was the flight of mice they fled, /The scurrying of roaches was their flight;
They died like dogs, where they were found!אַחֶיךָ, בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ וּבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם שֶׁל-הַמַּכַּבִּים..מְנוּסַת עַכְבָּרִים נָסוּ וּמַחֲבֵא פִשְׁפְּשִׁים הָחְבָּאוּ וַיָמוּתוּ מוֹת כְּלָבִים שָׁם בַּאֲשֶׁר נִמְצָאוּ,.

“… And as you stretched your hand So will you stretch it, And as you have been begging So are shall continue to beg!”

וְכַאֲשֶׁר פְּשַׁטְתֶּם יָד תִּפְשֹׁטוּ, וְכַאֲשֶׁר שְׁנוֹרַרְתֶּם תִּשְׁנוֹרְרוּ.

We would assume, that after the failure of “ Shah, shtil” in Nazi Germany leading up to the Holocaust, and with the rise of Israel, and with the image of a New Jew, who could fend for himself or herself, we would no longer be the world’s “ chopped liver.” No one would threaten us again and we would walk proudly in public, as much or as little visibly Jewish as we want. 1948- Independence,1956, Suez,  1967,the  6 Day war, 1973, the Yom Kippur War. The people of Israel, representing the Jewish people, would no longer be stepped upon.

And in the 1980’s, an energized and confident Jewish people, in the US and in Israel, with the help of great friends in America and elsewhere, were able to leverage pressure to liberate the Jews of the Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain came tumbling down shortly thereafter, in great part because of this movement on our part. And, as a bonus, I gained several beautiful grand-children from my Soviet-born son in law and daughter in law.

As I look back on those times, I remember thinking to myself in those years, how safe this country was from terror and how safe we Jews felt here.  We Jews in America had really made it.

Now, it seems that so much has changed.

A week before Rosh Hashanah, we had a meeting here with a security advisor to set up a team of some of our key people so we would keep on top of any threats. While the FBI is watching for the “usual suspects”, there is an increased concern for terror attacks here from Islamic extremists who have their agents imbedded here.

All of a sudden, we are worried for our “American Dream.”

We are but a year away from the killing of Jews in a Synagogue in Pittsburg and but a half year away from the attack on a synagogue in neighboring Poway.

We have seen a march in Charlottesville in which the marchers shouted” Jews will not replace us” and media have been feeding us with a frenzy of worry of an alt-right about to take over America.   

So, we say, these are our old enemies, the white supremacists, the KKK’s, the neo-Nazis; “the deplorables”, “ white trash” or “ trailer park trash”, “rednecks” and all the other derogatory terms that enlightened people use. These are the remnants of people whom history, and economics, has passed over and these are the futile thrashings out of a dying breed.  We have our own well-greased Jewish institutions that are working hand-in -hand with government agencies and reaching across community lines for mutual support. In truth, classic, old world “white supremacy”, blatant Jew-hatred, has been on the decline in the past decades.

We have witnessed, however, a very well-documented increase in incidents targeting Jews from a very different corner. Anti-Semitism of the respectable, the educational and cultural elites. It has been prevalent in Great Britain and Europe; it is now creeping in here. It has come in under the cloak of “ anti-Zionism”, a way of hating the Jew via the surrogate, Israel.

There is an anti-Semitism that is now making its way in “respectable” circles. We only have to look across the “pond”, to Great Britain, where Jews in the Labour party have increasingly been pushed out, made to feel unwanted in the party that had always been their home. Even, today, on Yom Kippur, there is a session scheduled to oust a local Jewish Labour MP because she criticized their party leader on this very issue.

Just  this past, Columbia University hosted ,of all people, the President of Malaysia, Mohammed Mahatir for a public forum. He has been a successful leader of the officially Muslim country of Malaysia. He has no need to demonize Jews, since Malaysia is just about Judenrein.

Yet this is the man who announced that he is “ proud to be an anti-Semite” and mocks Jews for their “ hooked nose”.  These are his words:

“They invented socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong, so that they can enjoy equal rights with others. With these they have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power.”

Straight from the pages of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or from Die Stuermer, the Nazi rag of Hitler. The lumping of socialism, communism, human rights and democracy together as inventions of the Jews is classical core fascism.

When he was asked by the moderator at the event about his comments on Jews, he gave this gem, “When you say ‘you cannot be antisemitic,’ there is no free speech.”

I will give this to his credit. There are many who claim to be “Anti-Zionst” but not “ Anti-Semites.” The Prime Minister made clear that there is no such distinction. In his speech to the respected Oxford Union, he asked “why we can’t say anything against Israel, against the Jews?”

Clearly, it is one and the same. At least he has been honest. And, he was roundly applauded for his comments as well. Was he given a pass because he is non-white, no-European, or because Jews were his target?

Would a major University in this country have invited a ‘White supremacist” to speak? Unimaginable! Student groups have successfully blocked Israeli speakers on campuses with wild and disruptive protests, in the past few years, but an out-spoken anti-Semite can speak, and no one walks out, no one disrupts in violent protest.

You can talk about Jews because we are too polite. We are still in “ Shtadlan mode”, “sha, shtil.”

Here’s what’s been happening on campuses.

Antisemitic acts involving the singling out of Jewish and pro-Israel students and groups for personal vilification more than doubled, with a tripling of expression falsely implying these students or groups are linked to “white supremacy, according to Amcha, an organization of concerned academicians.

What is extremely worrisome is that faculty members, those who should know better, are often leading the pack. This is the atmosphere in which the future leaders of our country are being trained. What will happen as these youth become adults and decision makers for American society?

Only now, begrudgingly, have the world leaders woken up to the fact that Anti-Semitism has been rearing its ugly head from right, from left, and from the Islamic world. Even the United Nations is waking up to this issue as their Special rapporteur on Religious Freedom, Ahmed Shaheed has issued an official warning on the dangers!

So, now, on Yom Kippur, Yizkor day, when we are reminded of those we have lost, and when so many of us here are survivors of anti-Semitic regimes, or their descendants, what are we to do?

Fortunately, in America, the great bulk of our country-men and women are open and tolerant, much more so than we are told by a media fixated on the extremes.

In general, Americans are becoming more, not less tolerant, of different religions, this according to the respected Pew organization, and this is happening across all ages, and across political divides. Among all religious groups, guess who comes in as Americas favorite, just ahead of Catholics and Protestants. Us! Jews.

So, while on the one-hand, Jews are the number one object of hate attacks among all religious groups, attacked far more than Muslims, by the way. Yet in terms of affection, we are the object of affection. Hot and cold. Go figure. 

So, we can take comfort, that while our highly vaulted sanctuaries of intellectual open-mindedness make Jews feel ill at ease, and while the down-and-out deplorables, the failures of society, must flail against us for their own failures, the vast majority think well of us.

Evangelical Christians love Israel, and Jews, more than we do. Within the Catholic Church, too, there is the start of a love fest as Pope Francis has recently reaffirmed : “Their covenant with God has never been revoked, for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”  

Even in our relations with Muslims in the US, there is much good to be found. While Muslim populations around the world have been infected with Judeo-phobia, American Muslims are very much aware that we  are both minorities, and that an attack on one inevitably morphs into an attack on the other. While the waters have been muddied by some prominent young politicians, and I won’t go into name calling, and a large Muslim-brotherhood affiliate has become the public face for the media, there are many, many Islamic groups, in the US and abroad, that seek to bridge the gaps between us. There are Muslims here and abroad, Shiite and Sunni, who are looking to improve relations between our communities and who even call for recognizing the State of Israel as a Jewish State, just as almost all other nations are so defined by their constitutions, as the state of nation “X” or “religion “X”.

The same can be said of other minority groups. We know they want to work with us, not against us.

With all this said, we cannot, and will not, go back, to kowtowing to whoever is in authority, whether in government, or in the university. And we certainly not cower under the covers as we once did in the time of the Kishinev pogrom .

We are here, together, Yom Kippur, at Yizkor. We bring our memories of close family whom we have lost . But we also have our memories of the ones lost at the hands of the Nazis, and we have the memory of the Israeli soldiers shot like sitting ducks at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, on this very same day, and of Jews who, in this century, have been victims of the world’s oldest hatred. .

            We stand here, proud as Jews. We shall never again “scurry like roaches”, never “stretch out our hand” for pity. Never shall we apologize for being “a model minority” or being successful, for having made it in this country, nor shall we apologize for our support of the people of Israel.

We stand here together in common memory, brought together, to recommit ourselves as Jews, to Jewish thought, to Jewish learning, to bringing truth and justice in this world, yet never at the cost of rolling over for everyone else’s cause. We recommit ourselves to the Jewish people here, abroad, and in Israel, now, past, and future, and we recommit ourselves to this congregation and community. Amen

Friday, October 4, 2019

God is Missing - and They Think WE Did It!"

God is missing - and they think WE did it!"

            I always wonder if, on Rosh Hashanah, when we sit together in this shul, on such an auspicious night, what it is that we are looking for.
Let me tell a little story then that encapsulates what we are about tonight.
A couple had two little boys, ages 8 and 10, who were excessively mischievous. They were always getting into trouble and their parents knew that, if any mischief occurred in their town, their sons were probably involved.
They boys' mother heard that a clergyman in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her boys. The clergyman agreed but asked to see them individually. So the mother sent her 8-year-old first, in the morning, with the older boy to see the clergyman in the afternoon.
The clergyman, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, "Where is God?".
They boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there with his mouth hanging open, wide-eyed. So the clergyman repeated the question in an even sterner tone, "Where is God!!?" Again the boy made no attempt to answer. So the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "WHERE IS GOD!?"
            The boy screamed and bolted from the room, ran directly home and dove into his closet, slamming the door behind him. When his older brother found him in the closet, he asked, "What happened?"
           The younger brother, gasping for breath, replied, "We are in BIG trouble this time, dude. God is missing - and they think WE did it!"
            If God is missing, AWOL, dead , then we have to face the music, like those two boys,”we did it.” So, we can’t let God be missing, or we are in trouble.

          So, on this Rosh Hashanah, we are in on a game of hide and seek. God hides; we seek.
        That is why we are here tonight, Rosh Hashanah, as we usher in our sacred Jewish year. We are all seeking the something which hits the spot, the something which fills the emptiness inside us human beings, and emptiness that chicken soup alone does not fill. We seek the sacred in life, we seek the Shechinah, God’s presence, we seek the ruakh hakodesh, the divine inspiration in our lives.

            Many years ago, Dennis Prager used to host a weekly talk show, Religion on the Line. Some of you may remember it. It was on the graveyard shift of KABC, somewhere around Mid-night of Sunday to Monday. I appeared on it a few times and was always surprised to get feedback from people I knew who were up long enough to listen in.
            The lead question by Prager for that evening was-
“In what way are you different from a non-religious person who is just as nice or good as you are?”
We were quite different that night - Catholic,  Mormon, and  Jew- but what was most astonishing is that the answers of the three of us were quite similar. Each one of us made a similar claim, that life is more than just being nice or doing good, that each of us seeks to find meaning and purpose in our life, and that religion serves to give us that deeper sense of purpose in our existence.
            We spent our session trying to determine what was the great malaise of modernity. It all boiled down to one central concept-- Our entire sense of the Holy is missing. In our contemporary lives, there is nothing to help us distinguish beyn kodesh lekhol-between the holy and the profane. Modern life does not glorify the sanctification of the profane, and too much of what we see is designed to profane what is left of the sacred.
            You know that for many years, there has been a travelling exhibition, last here is LA only a year or so ago, of preserved human bodies. It was purportedly a scientific endeavor to teach the public about the wonders of the human body. As Jews, we encourage the use of the bodies of those no longer living if it makes possible saving those who are still living but this went many steps beyond. Bodies were opened, hung, posed, as if this were an art exhibition. I intentionally never went to see it. I may be exaggerating but it is evocative of a far more evil version, of the use of the human body, for scientific purposes, in the hands of the sadistic Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz.  It turns out that I am not alone in this perspective—there were accusations of body parts stolen from China, issues of legality, and issues of morality leveled at this display.
            I thought of the Jewish attitude to the body. The body, while alive, is sacred, to be cared for, kept clean, kept healthy. Yet, the body of those no longer alive retains its uniqueness. It becomes, ironically, tamei-impure-- yet the impurity is not due to evil—it is a rather a method to force us to properly care for and respectfully set aside the vessel which once held life, not to be abused or disposed of as yesterday’s newspaper.
            In the absence of a sense of the sacred, museum exhibits of bodies at an exhibition is a matter of artistic choice. Some paint the body with oil, some sculpt in marble, and others “plastinate” cadavers. Its simply a choice of the medium.
            Perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps there should be no sacred. Modern society was shaped by creative people like Thomas Edison, who declared “Religion is bunk” or Freud who considered it an “illusion”. Maybe we are letting bunk get in the way of usefulness.
But I stand here as a Rabbi. I represent some 3500 years of what Edison called “bunk”. I can not speak for Protestants, Catholics, Moslems, or Buddhists, I can only speak for Jewish “ Bunk”. And I know, that our sense of the sacred means a lot in this world.
            America is a very Biblical nation at its roots, and when it has been at its best, it drew its political force not just from the secular European enlightenment, but also from our side of the Bible.
            Our Torah speaks of freeing of slaves, of fair ownership of land, of free loans to help those in poverty pull themselves out, and of giving a part of one’s bounty to help others out.
 It is our Torah which provided the theme for the Liberty Bell- Ukaratem Dror-Proclaim liberty throughout the land.
All of these great ideals are stamped with the declaration “ I am the Lord your God”. It is that sense of sanctity that gave power to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was that sense of sanctity that infused the thinking of a Lincoln as he justified the blood that had been shed because this nation could not be half free, half slave.
So where, shall we, as Jews, find our sacredness?
We, as Jews, have a very special perspective. It is that the realm of the sacred is not limited to what is above but must be grounded on what is here and now.
            Our Jewish idea of the Holy -kadosh-- is not  some weird mysterious halo in heaven- Rather holiness is to be found and made, here on earth, when we walk by the way, when we lie down and when we rise up. It is in the day to day, the nitty gritty, that we find our uplift. That has always been goal of our mitzvot, of our observances. It is what my teacher in Rabbinical school, Max Kadushin, called” normal mysticism”, the sense of the sacred that is found, not in the monastery nor in the Ashram, but in the mundane act of eating a toast with jelly. The Holy is to be found in the cell, in the molecule, in the elements of the universe which make us up. We express our connection to the sacred, as we appreciate “  the miracles that are with us everyday”, the sense of wonderment at the universe around us that comes with the mornings dawn. We consider God as “mehadesh bechol yom Maseh bereshit”—every day, the world is being created anew.
            The old Kabbalists taught that every action, every mitzvah , affected the very universe. The doing of the good and the right repaired the universe and elevated the lowest of the lowly to the highest realms. They said we are created for Zorech gavohah—a higher purpose, to restore unity between God the creator and the world, the creation.
            We are, by our teachings, forced to recognize the divine, the holy in our fellow human being. A sense of the divine, a sense of shared sanctity must guide us in our attitude towards every human being. Rabbinic tradition reminded us that even the most hardened criminal, who deserves and should have punishment meted out, is still not to be debased in the eyes of his fellow, and he is still in the image of God.
            From a Jewish perspective, each of us is invested with inherent holiness. We are of great value and therefore, must care for our selves with dignity, with respect, with love. We therefore have the obligation to keep physically well and mentally well, to avoid serious physical danger, to avoid serious mental danger. We are not a curiosity to be hung in display.
       There is a debate in the Talmud, about How many Mitzvot there. It starts with the count of 613 commandments and then chips away at that number, to find what is the most essential distillation of all of the Torah. The debate whittles down from 613 to 18 to 11 to 6 to 3 and to 2. The ritual commands, of ritual purity, of sacrifice, of kashrut, are ignored. Finally, it is all boiled down to one single idea, "in the words of Amos,"Dirshuni vihyu"--God calls to us with the words, "Seek me and live." If we indeed learn to seek and see God's presence in our fellow, in ourselves, in the world about us, then our lives take on meaning, take on depth and purpose, then we truly find life. God is not missing, and we aren’t the one’s who lost him, and we are not in trouble like the two mischievous boys. On this Rosh Hashanah, may we all be blessed with richness of heart and spirit, as well as with material richness. Amen.

Neither a Pigeon nor a Raccoon

Neither a Pigeon nor a Raccoon
the sermon for the first day of Rosh Hashanah 2019

Every year at this time of year, I wonder if I need to give everyone of you your money back for tickets and donations. Why do I say that? Well, last night, I said we are on search of God, and if you didn’t find him/her or it, then I owe you one.  As a follow up, if we're here on Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgement, and then, on Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness, well we're hoping to walk away a changed person. And if I can’t change you, don’t I owe you your money back?
What does it take to be changed person? Maybe you or I don’t want to change. Maybe you or I am perfectly happy as things are. Is change even possible?
Some of you may know that when I was in my prime, I was a student of psychology.  I majored in psychology and the Department at NYU was heavily influenced by the behaviorist school of BF Skinner.
In fact, all of us, as incoming freshmen, were made to read his book, Walden Pond II, about the perfect society, in which all was well planned and controlled, and , consider that this was the rebellious Hippie/Yippie/SDS baby boomer generation, I was myself shocked at how my cohorts thought it would be a great idea. Then we discovered turn on, tune in, drop out, and you know what happened to us baby boomers.
Going back to those years, I was reminded of my very first clients, not people, but pigeons. Yes pigeons, those were our clients. They were much easier to handle and less temperamental, much nicer than lab rats and at the end of the year, they may have ended up on the dinner plates of some of the faculty.
Our task was to replicate the experiments of Skinner and determine how behavior could be modified by operant conditioning, the simple practice of giving rewards to a pigeon.  Place a button in front of the pigeon, and he will eventually peck it just on the spot that releases bird food. The pigeon soon connects the pecking on the button with the release of food and eats happily. Eventually, the pigeon is full and quits the job.
How can we get the pigeon to keep on pecking and not quit on us? We modified the schedule.
If we give the pigeon the food every other time, he learns quickly that he needs to peck the button twice and he still gets what he wants to eat and he is full and happy. We can go on and making push the button 2 * 3 * 4 * 5, even patterns of one out of two or some varied combination. As long as the reward is consistent, the pigeon is happy getting his food and eventually, would be full, and quit the job. In the same way, if the pigeon doesn’t get any food, after several attempts, he would also quit.  Either way, the pigeon is in charge.
As far as the pigeon was concerned, he had us well trained to deliver food on his command.
How could we keep the pigeon from quitting?
We changed the setting on the button so that sometimes he would get a nibble and sometimes not, in a random order. The pigeon could never predict which peck on the button would make the food appear. Instead of quitting he starts attacking the button, pecking furiously and frantically, sometimes getting the food. Then he would resume the pecking, sometimes getting, sometimes not, in no discernable pattern. We had ourselves a pigeon addicted to pecking and  very, very stressed
That pigeon is just like us.
Are we controlled like our pigeons?
People who have obsessive gambling problems, for example, are the human pigeons. Go to the slot machine, pull the arm on the one-armed bandit and sometimes money comes out, sometimes it doesn't. The exactly probability of getting some kind of payback is tightly controlled by a computer, so that while the order of the pretty pictures on the slot is purely random, the number of images available on each line is perfectly calculated to keep us pecking-or pulling- as the money flows out of our pockets.
That is true with a lot of things in life, where we keep on pushing buttons and there's no guarantee that something comes out. We drive ourselves ragged . The conclusion we all learned from our course is that we're all pigeons.
Then, there is always the other side. This conditioning doesn’t work if biology interferes. Give a racoon a coin, and he can be trained to drop it in a box. Give a racoon two coins, and he will insist on rubbing them together because that’s what racoons do with their food. Always. Now , you’ll see my point.
We have these beautiful commercials for ancestry tests:

“I always thought I was Scottish until I discovered I was German”, and suddenly, the figure in the ad changes from Kilts to Lederhosen.
My identity, my value system, is now determined, not by how I was raised but by who my great-grandmother really had a fling with. I must admit, I myself have submitted to such testing, and, surprise of surprises, I am 98 % Ashkenazic Jewish and a little Central Asian squeezed in. One DNA ancestry website shows me with up to 12,000 matches, but there are only 2 relatives that I could vouch for. Another family tree research ties me in with Pharaoh, Jesus, and Mohammed, but I haven’t asked them to confirm it.
That doesn’t worry me.
But there are the DNA tests for medical problems. That, too.  by itself, doesn’t worry me. What does worry me is that we are coming to discover that many medical conditions are also behavioral conditions.
What I do in the next few moments may just as much be a result of my gene pool as of my behavioral conditioning. So not only am I a pigeon, but I may also be a racoon, forced to rub things together, without any say.
 This has terrible implications when we ask if we can determine the likelihood of anyone of us to rise or fall based on the lucky draw of our parents’ genes.
Some of you may have seen the documentary about triplets, Three Identical Strangers. Triplets had been adopted into 3 separate families, but the families did not know that these three were triplets, that they had siblings elsewhere, nor did the triplets know that they had any other siblings. It was an unsettling experiment, as it was the project of a Jewish doctor who himself was a Holocaust survivor. Experiments with twins and triplets immediately evoke the image of Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz, although, to be fair, this experiment was many degrees removed from that monstrosity. These 3 triplets eventually discovered each other and their families and discovered that they were, in their behavior, almost identical even though raised by different parents with different parenting styles, and different educational, professional, and financial status. They come out strikingly similar.
You understand the very dangerous implications this has. If we can identify potential shooters by the tweets and instagrams they post, can we identify them by a swab of the cheek before they do anything?  Can dangerous individuals be identified at birth? Can impulsive, self-destructive personalities be identified at birth? Can groups be linked to certain traits?
We have seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. Early eugenics and social Darwinism made possible the targeting of people like us ,Jews, and other undesirable populations.
 So we come to our dilemma.  
Am I being shaped because someone is giving me pigeon food, or dollars, or “likes” of “followers”?  Am I being shaped because my DNA is mixed that way?
If either, or both in combination, are true, then where am I in all of this. Do I have any say in what I'm doing?
Dear Rabbi Weinberg, please give me back my money, because no matter how much I beat my chest, I will fall flat on my face or just have a charmed life of all wins, no matter what I do.
The ancient Greeks, who shaped modern Christian and Moslem civilization, described this malaise very well for us.
We were determined by three very old women, the Fates, who spun the threads of our destiny.  Clotho, the weaver,  spun the “thread” of human fate, Lachesis, the allotter, dispensed it, and Atropos, the inflexible one, cut the thread of life itself. Anyone familiar with the Greek myths knows that no one, no one ever escaped the destiny that these three laid out.
Even for us Jews, we too, sometimes feel trapped in whatever thread God has woven for us. Es ist bashert- it is fated to be. We like to think of it as a word for finding one’s soul-mate, but it is, at its root, fate, no choice, no option.
Look at our Mahzor, for the High Holy days, right at the core, one of the  prayers that we can’t imagine doing without; it is the Une Taneh Tokef. We are all used to joining in the refrain, “ B’rosh Hashanah Yikatevun”.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
It goes on, as we well know it, to encompass our hopes and fears for the coming year.
And so, just as this prayer has us feeling like the poor, frazzled pigeon in my experiments or the hapless victim of some bad genes, it comes with an important caveat, which the Chazan belts out with force:
U t’shuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah, maavirin et roah hagezerah.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree
Teshuvah, the return to our better nature, our better selves, is possible. Tfilah, asking for help to do what is right. Tzedakah- Doing acts of help and charity towards others so that we thereby prove our worth. Maavirin et roah hagezerah. They move the severity of the decree, they work to alleviate and repair the consequence of our actions.
For You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that he turn from his path and live. Until the day of his death You wait for him.
Neither pigeon in a cage, nor racoons, like a Lady Macbeth, obsessively rubbing things out.
No. Each and every one of us is a human being capable of taking charge of his or her own fate.
Therefore, we have a classic rabbinic statement:
 Hakol beyedei Shamayim- Everything is determined by the heavens except for the fear of heaven.
As Rashi explains : We may be born tall or short, into poverty or wealth, wise or foolish , or of any color of skin. However, the one element that is most important , the one thing that God in heaven cannot control, is the fear of heaven, that ability to choose righteousness or evil, tzadik v rasha (Berakhot 33b).
The rabbinic debate goes further, “ all is in the hands of heaven except for hot and cold.” Cold and heat are forms of harm that are in the control of the human. ( Ketubot 30a). The commentaries explain, if it’s hot, you can always stay in the cellar, where it is cool! ( Tosafot)

In other words, we can take charge of those things in this world of practical reality, that affect us daily- hot and cold, eat, sleep, work, neighborhood, family and friends. We can also take charge of those things that deal with our world of values, our spiritual self, our core self, which can choose to go on the path of destruction or construction.

Ultimately, while we may differ in our approaches and emphases, I, as a Rabbi, share this concept with the priest and with the Kadi. Each of us believes that in the hearts and minds of the people who listen to us, there is the power of change, change for the good.  I don’t mean that it is easy, I don’t mean that it takes a blink of an eye. But it is possible, and for us, as human beings, we need that belief in order to make it to the next day.
I will end with a story, a very unusual one found in the Talmud, of a great Rabbi who had an uncontrollable urge. You can guess what.
(Avoda zara 17)
They said about Rabbi Elazar ben Durdayya that he was so promiscuous that he did not leave one prostitute in the world untouched. Once, he heard that there was one prostitute in one of the cities overseas who would take a purse full of dinars as her payment. He took a purse full of dinars and went and crossed seven rivers to reach her. They started out, and in the midst of an embarrassing moment, the prostitute blurted out :Elazar ben Durdayya will not be accepted in repentance, even if he were to try to repent.
This statement deeply shocked Elazar ben Durdayya, and he went and sat between two mountains and hills and said: Mountains and hills, pray for mercy on my behalf, so that my repentance will be accepted. They said to him: Before we pray for mercy on your behalf, we must pray for mercy on our own behalf He said: Heaven and earth, pray for mercy on my behalf. They said to him: Before we pray for mercy on your behalf, we must pray for mercy on our own behalf.He said: Sun and moon, pray for mercy on my behalf. They said to him: Before we pray for mercy on your behalf, we must pray for mercy on our own behalf. He said: Stars and constellations, pray for mercy on my behalf. They said to him: Before we pray for mercy on your behalf, we must pray for mercy on our own behalf
Elazar ben Durdayya said: Ein hakol Taluiy ela bi. It all depends on nothing but myself.
He placed his head between his knees and cried loudly until his soul left his body. A Divine Voice emerged and said: Rabbi Elazar ben Durdayya is destined for life in the World-to-Come.
In the final moment, it is the recognition that each of us in command of our ultimate choices, it is that recognition that gives us the ability to be in the image of God.

So, I go back to my opening statement.  If you aren’t a changed person when you walk out, don’t blame me. Life comes without a moneyback guarantee, so let’s look to make good choices, healthy choices, virtuous choices. Neither pigeons nor racoons, so we can do well for ourselves and others for the coming year. Amen.