Monday, January 27, 2014

Rabbi’s Speech (English Version): Auschwitz Liberation Day

Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany
January 27, 2014

It has become tradition on such occasions to chant a version of our memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim, to the martyrs of the Shoah.  But as we listen to these words and hear the melody, we also need to remember that before martyrs become martyrs they are victims, and before they are victims they are subject to discrimination, violence and displacement, and before they can be so treated they must have been dehumanized.

In the Shoah those subjected to this progression of horror were not only Jews, but as well mentally and physically handicapped, political opponents of National Socialism, Roma, Sinti, Slavic peoples, POWs, religious dissidents, homosexuals and transsexuals.  All were subject to a type of de-humanization before the mass mobbing could take hold and inevitably lead to genocide.

Now here we are today in Germany, doing that which is so critical—gathering together with youth, concerned citizens, members of the Jewish community, leaders of the civic community and brothers and sisters from other religious traditions.  We are gathered here to remember but what we really need to do is to be present to the dehumanization of today.  It has been 69 years since the liberation of the mere thousands that remained alive in Auschwitz, and Europe is once again full of words meant to dehumanize minority groups.  The rhetoric against Roma and Sinti, against minority religions and even against religious traditions themselves as well as the rising rhetoric against Jews should be seen as the reality that it is: we are quickly forgetting.  And then today we see to the east that this same rhetoric being used against homosexuals has now moved the process of horror past dehumanization and already to mobbing, discrimination, violence and displacement.  It is to our shame here in Germany that we gather here today but as a society are scarcely discussing these events.

We hear the words of El Malei Rachimim not only to remember the past but I pray as well to warn us of and drive us away from our present apathy to the cruelty of our own age.

(Recording of El Malei Rachamim for the Maryrs on Youtube)

G-d full of compassion, Eternal Presence of the Universe, grant complete rest under the wings of Your Presence to those that shine in Your glory – to the 6 Million Jews that were victims in the Shoah in Europe – to those martyred, killed, burned and destroyed and Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Majdanek, Treblinka, and all the other work, concentration and extermination camps.  Source of Mercy, let them find eternal refuge under the shadow of Your wings, and let their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life.  The Eternal One is their inheritance and the Garden of Eden their souls’ destination.  May they rest in peace, and let us say: Amen.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Parachat Chayei Sarah, 5774 Duisburg

I am not the first nor even the thousandth to comment on the dissonance between the name of this week’s Parashah and the content—although called “Chayei Sarah” or the “Life of Sarah,” the portion begins with Sarah’s death at the deeply symbolic age of 127 and then proceeds with Abraham’s attempts to procure a proper tomb.  One the one hand, there is no dissonance at all, as the “titles” of weekly Torah portions are not thematic headings, simple the first uniquely meaningful words in the section.  Yet on the other hand, I tend to believe the words of sages that state that every word and even letter in Torah has meaning—I may not believe this for the same reasons they do—but I believe it nonetheless.  Therefore I believe it important to think about the implications of naming a portion “the Life of . . .” where the content is “the Death of . . .”

After having officiated at over 40 funerals in the last 18 months alone I have had to spend a lot of time finding meaningful words to offer in a hesped (eulogy) that celebrate life when we are in the midst of death.  While meeting with families before the funeral, I try to get at the details that are truly meaningful for life.  What most families find easy to explain are birth dates and places, education, jobs and names of family members.  Basically families are quite comfortable presenting a CV.  In the case of my congregation, most of these interviews are done through an interpreter as 98% of the congregation speaks Russian— so my attempts to delve deeper are as much thwarted by culture as by tendency.  Yet there are always ways with patience to get there.  For example, the Rabbinical Assembly’s “Moreh HaDerech” – their Rabbi’s guide for life-cycle events—comments in the section “Questions to ask in preparing for a hesped:

Ask the gathering to describe their loved one, not so much with adjectives, but with memories—

What images come to mind in thinking of (him / her)?
What did (he / she) do to make you laugh?
What was (his / her) greatest love?
What were (his / her) sources of joy?
What concerned (him / her) the most?
Were there any sayings (he / she) was fond of repeating?
In your daily life, what will remind you of (him / her) the most?
What did Judaism mean to (him / her)?
What did you do together with (him / her)?
What will you miss most about (him / her)?
(source: Moreh Derech: The Rabbinical Assembly Rabbi’s Manual Part Aleph, Pages E-9/10, The Rabbinical Assembly, New York, New York, 1998.)

            To this I usually add: “What is the one thing that someone who never met (him / her) that they need to know?” and “What makes you smile when you think now of (him / her)?”

            Although it is still challenging to get past the resume recitation, often some meaning can be gleaned if one patiently nudges a family in the direction of these sorts of questions (although I have at least twice been presented with actual CVs, some translated, some not, and have been told “We cannot talk to you.  It is too painful.  Please use this.”)

            All of these thoughts bring up several issues.  Why, for example, is it that the deepest contemplation of life comes through death, and moreover, why is it that we realize in this contemplation that we seldom know as much about our loved ones as we probably should?  The average life expectancy in the world as of 2010 is about 67 years – how much of that time do we spend focusing on knowing (truly knowing, not controlling or possessing) those around us?  What about ourselves?

            I remember from years ago the somewhat kitschy saying passed around when someone was working a little too hard.  “No one lying on their death bed says, ‘Gee I wish I would have spent more time in the office.’”  Unfortunately I think there are a few people that would think that, but the point behind the kitsch remains clear—as a people, we tend to spend our lives focusing on exactly the things that in the end will not mean as much as they seem to mean in the moment.  We easily give meaning and life energy to the life-or-death seeming deadline where we ramp up the stress hormones in order to please someone who probably is not capable of being pleased while husbands and wives and children and girlfriends and boyfriends and the people that really matter wait at home and pray that the insanity calms down that they may some day find a way back into our lives.  I remember a poignant story of a mother dying of cancer, asking her adult child which experience that they had together had meant the most.  The daughter talked about a late night discussion they had had when the child was a teen and how close she had felt to her mom in that moment.  It wasn’t the Disneyland trip or the movies or the zoos or the interminable car rides to rush to get to that moment of coolness that will surely provide the meaningful meaning to a child’s life.  It wasn’t the noise; rather it was the quiet moment of interconnectivity.  At the end of one life the only memories that carried true meaning were the ones we tend to give the least attention in our busy lives.

            And this insight comes at the moment of death instead of the time when we could have changed our priorities.

            I think that the title “the Life of Sarah” given to the narrative of our matriarch Sarah’s death carries neither coincidence nor dissonance.  I believe that the seeming contradiction is meant to light up one of the most difficult aspects of our humanity.  Today, with few exceptions, we must work or rely on someone working in order to maintain hearth and home.  We evolved as a species based partially on the survival ability to complete repetitive, often tedious tasks.  Somewhere along the way, we began giving those tasks meaning beyond the implied survival, essentially making clear idols and bowing down before that which should be a means rather than an end.

            Yet there is choice, even if it feels like we have none.  In these times of financial trouble for so many it feels like there is much less of a choice or that all the choices are bad.  But the first step in all aspects of spirituality is awareness.  Maybe in this moment the choice is between 70 hours a week in the office, three part-time jobs, or no food.  But there is always the choice on how we choose to use our energy.  When we get home, are we truly home or is our work still bouncing around in our head?  When our child asks us a question or wants to show us a new painting, do we shoo them away so we can take another 10 minutes of Daddy/Mommy alone time and think more on how upset we are at that one thing that happened?  Maybe the choices are bad, but the essence of spirituality is to be aware and then still make the most healthy loving choices within those bad choices.  An essence of Judaism is to ask, are we bowing down before an idol that is taking us away from the commandment to love our neighbor as our self?  Do we even know our neighbors or families or even selves any longer?  Is our family going to have to search hard to find those answers when we chas v’chalilah pass from this earth?  Is it only through death that we finally allow life to have meaning?  As the old tale is told:

One evening a Tsalagi (Cherokee) elder told his grandson about the battle that goes on inside of people.

He said, “My son, the battle is between the two wolves that live inside us all. One is Unhappiness. It is fear, worry, anger, jealousy, sorrow, self-pity, resentment and inferiority. The other is Happiness. It is joy, love, hope, serenity, kindness, generosity, truth and compassion.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The elder simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’”

Shabbat Shalom

(My thanks to and Suzanna Skully for recounting this tale.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Paraschat Vaera - Duisburg 5774

            Years ago I worked as a pastoral counselor with a gentlemen who had a remarkable story. About 10 years before I began working with Matt, he had in a short time lost all that at the time had meaning to him.  In the space of several months his wife left him (taking most all of the family friends) after which he fell pray to a Reduction In Force – the painfully euphemistic way of saying “was laid off.”  Quickly the debt piled up until the only phone calls he received were those from creditors.  Feeling alone and without hope, he began to plan his own death.

            Two warning signs of how serious a suicide wish is are having a concrete plan and physically writing out the note.  Both had been done, and on the day of the plan he recounted that he had said to himself, “If there is a single person in the world that still cares about me, I will not go through with this.”

            That night, after returning from the last day of the temp job he had taken to try to pay a bill or two, there was a message on the answering machine.  Sandwiched in between a dozen calls from collection agencies was the voice of a former roommate who had once been a dear friend and confidant that he had not heard from in years.

            “Hey Matt, just thinking about you a lot lately and you were really on my heart today.  Just wanted to touch bases and see how you were.  I love you.”

            Needless to say, since I am able to retell this story, Matt filed away his note to remind him of what he almost did, and moved on.  Ten years later he still had a lot of issues to deal with, but had achieved a sort of peace and success that he could not have imagined during that painful period.

            This idea of someone unexpectedly appearing in our life appears quite often in the Tanakh.  This week in Vaera the narrative begins with “The Eternal appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest time of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing across from him. When he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.” Gen 18:1-2.

            First of all, unless there is a narrative gap between verse 1 and 2, it should come as somewhat of a shock to read that the Eternal appeared to Abraham in the form of three men.  I believe it is more helpful to see the text as a spiritual truth that the work of the Eternal is accomplished by the hands of humans—that the original meaning of “angel” was simply that of messenger – he or she that acted as was needed in a moment to help someone else onto the right path or off of the wrong one.  As a matter of interpretation and expansion of these themes, I was particularly affected this week by the “D’var Acher” in’s “10 Minutes of Torah” for Vaera.  Rabbi Jay TelRav, of Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut writes:

I am often asked by congregants about the words in parentheses found in our prayer book, Mishkan T'filah. There are other examples, but the one most often noted is in the second paragraph of the Amidah wherein we offer a blessing to Adonai who "gives life to all," but then are given the alternative to recite in its place "[You] revive the dead." That traditional formulation had been removed from previous Reform liturgy, but has been returned in our new prayer book (Mishkan T'filah, p. 78).

Brandeis professor, Jonathan Sarna, explains that earlier Reform Jews found the theme of resurrection to be too challenging to their theology. The traditional translation of this prayer suggests that there will be a resurrection of all who ever lived at the coming of Messiah. Reform Jews, preferring a more rational liturgy that focused on the physical world around them, were more comfortable reciting the words "God gives life to all." Yet, as I reflect on Rabbi Kroloff's teaching, I am reminded of the Talmudic lesson supplied by the editors of Mishkan T'filah (see p. 79).

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of twelve months [makes the blessing]: "Blessed are You, Adonai, who revives the dead" (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 58b).

In other words, when I bump into someone who had drifted from my current thoughts and has returned as a surprise, I can thank God for bringing that person back to life-that is, back to my life. This alternative allows me to recite our Amidah prayer with a new intention-as I thank God for all the other blessings in my life, so too, I am thankful for the renewed awareness of individuals who reappear in my life and remind me of their preciousness and value.

I love this for two reasons:  First of all, I am constantly fighting against the perceptions that our texts—from Torah to Tanakh to Talmud et. al. need to be seen through literal eyes.  If my interpretation does not match the interpretation of those with whom I am having a discussion, I am accused of interpreting texts to suit my own needs.  Other than the fact that that is completely true, it is simply a very Jewish thing to do!  There is no absolute meaning to “revives the dead.”  Like all other texts we can indeed look at clear meaning of the text, but that is only equally as important as interpreting symbolically, allegorically or even through the eyes of mystical tradition.  Here our sages show exactly how it is done: Take a text and then breathe life into it by making it spiritually meaningful to our every day lives.  Second, I think that this interpretation says a lot about those of us without the gene or inclination to stay as connected as we most likely should—we get so caught up in our every day that we forget to work at making sure that those we love are alive to us.  We ignore and forget until we are blessed by that unexpected visit or phone call or Email and we can say “Thank you Eternal one for reminding me of my love for this person and their love for me.  Thank you that they are alive in me.”

I would personally, however, like to put a slightly different spin on this.  The Talmud states that we recite the blessing, “Blessed are You, Eternal, who revives the dead,” but it does not state who is dead.  The assumption is that those that we see after the year have been like dead to us, but what if we are the ones that are dead?

As we sit in our tent at the hottest part of the day, are we alive to the needs of those around us?  Every day we get little sparks of intuition in the back of our minds and hearts.  Some name or face pops up and we think, “I wonder how they are doing?”  When we are metaphorically dead—when we are purely in the state of self-absorption in our own lives and problems—the thought comes and goes and we move forward on our path.  But what about Matt’s friend?  She had felt the spark and heard the internal question and as she was alive and beyond her ego enough to actually listen. She made a phone call and literally saved a life.

Certainly every moment of intuition is not a life and death situation, but as one of those people that gets these thoughts all the time and all too seldom does anything about them, it is worth using these passages to ask the question, are we right now alive or dead to those around us?  Is our own daily grind so much more important that a 2-minute email or 5-minute phone call? 

Are we prepared to be there when the Eternal needs to appear through us to help someone else?  Are we alive?

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sukkot Sermon, 5774

There is an old joke that I heard in Montana – perhaps a little too real to be funny – but that seems to often be the case with the jokes that are worth using in a sermon.

A couple, recently married, are very much in love.  They own an Ford pickup with those old bench seats that allow the two to sit arm and arm, shoulder to shoulder in the truck.  As they drive by, all see the loving couple sitting next to each other and smile.

Twenty years later, after the relationship has naturally changed in the course of time, the partner in the passenger seat has a moment in a small argument that the two are having while driving and says, “Hey, why don’t we sit next to each other anymore?”  The partner that is driving replies, “Well, I haven’t moved.”

It is not just that we seem to have an illusion that change in a relationship is bad, it is that when we notice that change has taken place – sometimes profound change – it is hard to deal with this without anger, sadness and disappointment.  It is so easy to accuse “Why have you changed so much?” and use the accusation as ammunition.

But isn’t change absolutely integral to relationships?  To look at this through the lens of an extreme example, think of the relationship of a five-year-old child to a parent.  In a healthy family, this relationship can feel ideal.  The child looks in wonder at the parents that, although occasionally stern, are the perfect paragons of protection, strength and wisdom.  To the parent, the child – completely and utterly trusting and dependent on them – fulfills deep pools of the need to be needed and seen in such a trusting way.  Yet when the child is fifteen and there is absolutely no change in perception or relationship manifestation for either parent of child, would we consider that relationship to be healthy?  What about when the child is 25?  Is this still an ideal relationship or a desperate cry for therapy?

I think that this seems so clear as to be absurd – yet if this is truly so absurd, why do we treat our adult relationships so differently?

So often in marriage counseling I hear some variation of “We have lost our romance.”  It is a very easy way to say things are very different now 5, 15, 25, 55 years after a relationship began.  Yet as adults, don’t we as a normal course of existence constantly change?  Perhaps the change between 25 and 45 is not as profound as between 5 and 25, yet somehow we have the expectation of change for the latter but in a relationship are terrified for the change in the former.

Clearly, the five-year-old needs to grow up.  And that change can indeed be terrifying.  So often the next level of maturity comes only through pain, disappointment and alienation.  All are experienced when a child realizes that the parents are not perfect, likewise when the parent realizes they are no longer the center of their child’s existence.  Yet without this, life cannot exist.  It is terrifying, but so necessary that without this society cannot function.

So finally we arrive at Sukkot.  Without naming today’s festival, I have tried to explain why it is so necessary.  The path of least resistance for most of us is at any time maintaining the fantasy that nothing is changing.  Everything is fine.  But every year, we build the very symbol of impermanence and make it the centerpiece of one of the longest festivals in the Jewish calendar.  Sukkot is the breaking of the illusion that life as it is, is not necessarily life as it shall be.  Our fantasy walls of permanence are for a week made of materials we hope will not blow over in a strong wind.

We treat our religion in quite the same way as we treat our relationships.  We build so much of our understanding of G-d and prayer and community by how we interact with them when we are five.  G-d is that perfect father figure that provides us comfort when we are scared and our synagogues (and churches and temples and mosques) remain our childhood houses to which we run when danger lurks outside.  Yet what do we do when we learn as well that our religions are not perfect—when we have to reconcile our religion with how the religious often act or even our G-d when we encounter such as the holocaust. We demand, “How could you allow that to happen?” instead of demanding of ourselves if it is our ideas and understanding of G-d that need to change.  Our tradition is full of change and the pain of change but it is so hard to see through our desire that nothing should change.  G-d spoke very differently to Adam than to Noah, Abraham, Moses, the Prophets and our sages.  Our sages made radical changes to laws of the bible and built in processes by which we could change our laws as society evolved and change was required.  And here we have Sukkot, a holiday that celebrates impermanence!  It is as if our tradition reaches out and says, “I know how terrifying this can be, but if we celebrate impermanence and embrace it rather than demanding that nothing around us change, then we are more able to not be destroyed by the change that is completely inevitable.”

If we lock our ideas into the perspective of a child looking for the protection of a father, then we will never allow ourselves the deeper joy of adult relationships, in our personal relationships or our relationships with our places of worship, our worship, our clergy and yes even our G-d.  The secret of Sukkot is the mitzvah that that we must rejoice!  That adult relationship has so much more potential to move the soul and inspire us to greatness then being the completely dependent child.  Sukkot rehearses this every year that we are willing to accept and understand the necessity of change – and through this experience the joy that only the more mature relationship can bring.

Chag Sukkot Semeyach!