The trees are bare here in Baltimore. But in the land of Israel, coinciding with Tu B’Shevat, the almond trees begin to blossom ushering in the first sign of spring.
In the book of Jeremiah, in his earliest prophecy, God asks Jeremiah what he envisions? He sees an almond branch in full bloom – the almond branch a symbol of the imminent nature of the prophecy itself. (Jeremiah 1:11-12).
In the book of Numbers, Chapter 17, following the challenge to leadership by Korach, God through Moses, sets up a challenge to establish God’s preference for headship of the Priests. Twelve rods are set up by the Tent of Meeting, and the head Priest will be the one whose staff blossoms. Aaron’s staff shoots up an almond blossom and fruit, indicating that Aaron will be first.
Not just an ancient symbol for beginnings and firsts, the almond tree is immortalized as a “first”, on the new orange 100-new-sheqel note in Israel. On this new currency note, a picture of the Israeli poet Leah Goldberg, is accompanied in small print with a line from her poem: “In the land of my love the almond tree blossoms…” as she refers to the fleeting nature of Spring in the land of Israel.
On Tu BiShevat, at our Seder, as we eat our first taste of fruit, known as “fruit with shells” the almond is a common taste that is in our first line-up of fruits. We will sing joyfully:
“The almond tree is growing,
A golden sun is glowing;
Birds sing out in joyous glee
From every roof and every tree.
Tu B’Shevat is here,
The Jewish Arbor Day
Hail the trees’ New Year,
The fruit-with-shells, our first taste of the Seder celebrating the New Year of the Trees, is often represented by almonds. The fruit-with-shells, in our mystic tradition, is a symbol the notion of the world of here-and-now. In our mystical language: it represents the world of Assiyah “doing”. The sweetness of the fruit is inside an encased shell, teaching us that as we live our lives in the present, we are encased by God’s effluence. God protects us.
January is the beginning of our Gregorian year.The Talmud offers us the maxim: “All beginnings are hard”. There is something comforting in the symbolic reminder of the almond-first-fruit, the fruit-with-shells, that in here-and-now beginnings there is a sweetness to be consumed, and that our lives are surrounded by God’s loving protection.
Happy secular New Year to all. Happy Tu B’Shevat to all. A time of good and positive beginnings for all.
Diane Gabaldon’s well-read NY Times, best-selling novel, and now a STARZ TV series, Outlander, is, for those that like historical romance, a double historical-time setting whammy. In 1945, a retired World War II nurse, Claire Randall is on a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in Scotland. She finds herself suddenly transported to 1743 – and to survive she marries Jamie, a handsome Scots warrior who becomes enmeshed in the Jacobite uprisings. Eventually discovering that she can time- travel, Claire becomes caught up between two different men, two different lives. In the narrative that traces her journeys and experiences, she brings insight and wisdom from the future into the eighteen-hundreds, and a sense of the yearning for the past into her future twentieth-century reality.[ii]
In Jewish narrative time, our next few weeks are also hanging between two different historical eras, each with its own story and each with its own lessons.
In our Torah readings, we are commencing the Joseph cycle. The story of the chutzpadik dreamer, Joseph, tossed by his brothers into a pit, then sold to slavery, tossed into jail, and then rescued on the back of dreams, which prompts his meteoric rise to being 2nd in command to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt.
In our calendrical story, the three parshiot that tell of Joseph, always run concurrent with the festival of Chanukah. The Chanukah tale is set in a different time of our history. During the Syrian Seleucids rule over the Holy Land, and it tells of the Maccabean rebellion against the tyranny of religious oppression, the reclamation and purification of the Temple, and the establishment of the Hasmonean Dynasty.
In our prayer services and in our studies, like Claire Randall who jumps between historical times, we as Jews will swing back and forth though history. We will oscillate between Egypt circa 1600-1700 BCE, and the Hasmonean period of 167 BCE – 63 CE. The narratives always juxtaposed in Jewish narrative time, are separated by about 1500 years.
Since nothing in Judaism is circumstance, what can we learn between the consistent matching of these two stories? At first glance, the story of Joseph and the story of Judah Maccabee seem to have little in common. But if we look a little below the surface, beyond the narrative to the themes, there are lessons that can be derived.
The story of Joseph and the story of the Maccabees are both stories that speak of the relationship between a group’s particularistic identity and its interaction with outside influences.
Joseph, is an acculturated Egyptian. Born a Hebrew, he adapts to Egyptian ways and mores, to survive and eventually thrive, in a foreign culture. He swaps his coat of many colors hand-woven by his father, for the royal robes of the viceroy of Egypt. Underneath it all he is a Jew – he announces to his brothers at the end of the tale: “I am your brother Joseph,” but on the outside he has fully integrated and could be easily mistaken for a typical Egyptian.
Joseph is the young immigrant to the lower eastside of NY. Who shed their European peasant clothes for western garb made in modernized factories. Who spoke to their children in English rather than Yiddish. Who changed their names so that they could advance in the world. No longer peddlers on the streets, or piece workers in the schmatte business, they aspired to be doctors and lawyers, reporters and managers, and people of “regular professions” as well as practicing the Jewish religion.
Joseph is the early German Reform Jews who wanted to be taken seriously in a world that had emancipated them from ghetto life. The synagogue became the Temple in order to promote a concept of loyalty to their home country. The chants and tropes of Chazzanut were rejected for more contemporary music played on an organ like in a church. The Rabbi wore robes like a priest and no longer just taught and adjudicated, but was expected to attend to clergy duties such as visiting the sick and leading services. Both rabbi and congregant shed kippah, tallit and tefillin as garbs of yesteryear. They were modern on the outside, and Jewish on the inside.
Joseph is the culinary Jew of today. One who attends a meal for the Passover Seder with only the first part of the Haggadah read, or no part of the Haggadah read – but boy is the food, yum! They might light candles at Chanukah – if they remember! And the Bar Mitzvah is mostly about the party. Oh boy, do they like lokshen kugel (which they call noodle pudding) and kneidlach (which they call matzah balls) and Chocolate Babka (which is so delicious that it is acceptable to use its Jewish name). They are Jewish to the core in their culinary tastes, just not Jewishly religious.
The Maccabean story, and its’ heroes, thrive using a different approach. Living in an era when Jewish identity is suppressed and oppressed, they yearn and fight for greater adherence and practice. Jewish survival for them is not found in adaption or appropriation of outside customs, but rather in “authenticity.” Identity for Maccabean type Jews is built through an insular approach and maintaining traditions.
The Maccabees are the Chassidic Orthodox Jews of today who reject outside influences, such as television and Google and high school educations, who wear the garb of their Polish ancestors, and who prefer instead to immerse themselves in the study of Torah and Jewish practice in Yeshivot.
The Maccabean Jews of today are those adherents to Classical Reform Judaism as their religion. The folk that reminisce how in the day, all the prayers were in English – except the Shema. No-one wore a kippah. The music was to be performed and respected as the audience/congregation listened. And the Rabbi’s word was the word of God. They advocate that the essence of Reform Judaism is in such traditions, and that is the way Reform Judaism should be expressed today – and ever more shall be so.
The Maccabean Jews of today are the Israelis that preach that Judaism will only survive in the land of Israel because one can only be truly Jewish in a Jewish land. Where the seasonal music is not Christmas melodies, but rather Jewish festival tunes. Where Shabbat is in the airwaves of the radio station and traffic comes to standstill on Yom Kippur. And where the norm for bakeries is to rival each other on who makes the best challah or sufganiyah.
Perhaps the lesson of reading the Joseph narrative and the Maccabean revolt together, during this time of year, is to present us with two extreme ways of being Jewish. The extreme of the assimilated Joseph who is all Egyptian with a tad of Judaism, and the extreme of the dogmatic Maccabean who is all Judaism and rejecting of most of modernity. Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation in Toronto suggests that “Today, both approaches are embraced by different factions within our people, to varying degrees. There will always be room at the Jewish family table for both the Josephs and the [Maccabean] brothers.“[iii]
This is true. But the Jewish family table is filled with more seats…
Most of us would not place ourselves on the extreme sides of preferring secular living or Jewish practice. We contemplate finding balance in the middle. We seek a personal mixture of integrating into society, and, making our lives Jewish, in a way that works for us and our families. This of course is the essence of Reform Judaism. Balancing modernity with our Jewish faith. As we sit in the middle of the table, we must advocate that our place setting is valid and authentic. As we sit in the middle of the table, let us be mindful of the balancing act we create in our daily lives.
The juxtaposition of the Joseph narrative and the Chanukah story, the presentation of one extreme versus another, begs us to ask the question of ourselves: How can we be authentic moderns and Jews at the same time? As we revisit two periods of Jewish narrative time, Egypt circa 1600-1700 BCE, and the Hasmonean period of 167 BCE – 63 CE, we are challenged to ask essential questions of our own Jewish identity as we balance being Jewish now, for ourselves, today.
Wishing you all a happy Chanukah. May your sense of Jewish self and modern self, find a re-contemplated balance, an admixture of Jewish identity that brings meaning to all your days, and inspires the next generations and eras to come.
[i] This sermon was inspired by the teaching of Rabbi Daniel Korobkin in this article: https://www.cjnews.com/perspectives/opinions/many-lessons-chanukah
[iii] Op cit. Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Like all interesting television, there was a cutting edge premise.
In 2014 Jill Solloway produced a comedy drama for Amazon studios that went on to win multiple Golden Globe Awards. The series was based on her own experience of her father coming out as transgender. In the series, Transparent, the story was told of a Los Angeles Jewish family, the Pfeffermans, whose father – Mort – transitions to become Maura.
For those of you who have seen the series, you will know that many of the themes are distinctively Jewish, including a well-portrayed female rabbi, Holocaust switchbacks and a trip to Israel. Also, many of the neuroses portrayed are Woody Allen style stereotypically Jewish – from food obsession to personal angst and guilt.
But the primary purpose of the series is not its Jewish story-line, but rather to explore ideas of gender identity through, as Jill Solloway worded it: “a wounded father being replaced by a blossoming femininity.” In order to make sure that this was authentic as possible, Jill Solloway set about to create a transfirmative action program, hiring transgender individuals to write, work and consult on the show.
A Jewish transgender television series in 2014 might be conceived as cutting-edge to mainstream America, but from a Jewish viewpoint, this concept was not a radical endeavor.
Our Torah portion Vayera begins with Abraham sitting in his tent in the hot sun, when three strangers/angels wander by and Abraham hurries to offer them hospitality, enlisting his wife Sarah in this project. At the finish of the meal, the strangers ask where Sarah is, and they are told she is inside the Tent. The visitors then predict that, at this time next year, Sarah will bear a son. We are told in the Biblical text that Abraham and Sarah are old. Sarah beyond child-bearing years. And Sarah laughs. Abraham however questions Sarah’s mirth – for is anything beyond the power of God?
The Talmud, in Yebamot, pursues an interesting tangent from this biblical text. The rabbis seek to understand why our forefather and foremother are infertile.
Rabbi Ami… and this is where it gets interesting… Rabbi Ami suggests that Abraham and Sarah were Tumtumim, people whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured, and God turned them into male and female gender, specifically for the purpose of procreation.
Then the Talmud surprises us with a differing viewpoint… Rab Nachman quotes Rabbi Bar Avuh, and he declares that Sarah was an Ay’lonit, an individual identified as female at birth, but who develops male characteristics at puberty, and hence is infertile. He offers as a proof-text the words of Genesis 11, “she had not child,” to indicate that she did not have a womb.
We tend to think of Abraham and Sarah, the original progenitors of our people, as a man and a woman colored by our growing up in a world that has seen binary gender as normative.
On our birth certificates the doctor declares us male or female. Forms ask us if we are masculine or feminine. We attend Camp Airy if we are a boy. Camp Louise if we are a girl. Genesis 1 declares that in the beginning God created Adam and Eve, male and female God created them. American society is greatly influenced by Christian values which understands gender as simply male or female.
Reuben Zellman tells the story of a College student walking down the street of a major U.S. city when a woman shouted out and began following the student down the street. “Hey,” she yelled. “I’m talking to you! Are you a man or a woman?” as she cut off the student’s path. “Just tell me what you are.” When the student did not respond, the woman said: “You’re a woman right? I knew it, you are a woman.” Finally, the student responded: “No.” “Well, fine, you’re a man then.” And again, the student responded: “No”. The woman began to scream “Which are you? Why won’t you tell me?” The student swallowed and said as evenly as they could: “I’m neither man nor woman. I am neither. I am both.” The woman, and her friends, began to laugh incredulously. “You’re both! You can’t be both.”
You can’t be both.
President Trump and his Administration have taken such limited view of gender as binary. This stance has received much press in the last week. An article in The Guardian explains: “US officials have been pushing for the rewriting of General Assembly policy statements to remove what the administration argues is vague and politically correct language, reflecting what it sees as an “ideology” of treating gender as an individual choice rather than an unchangeable biological fact.”
Our Jewish tradition from Mishnaic times, would disagree with this understanding of the existence of only binary gender. Our rabbis saw the world as being filled with gender diversity, defining at least six possible genders that they understood as present in this world.
Their first two categories are the traditional male and female many of you were raised with as normative. Zachar, or male, is a word derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. Nekevah, or female is based on the word for crevice and refers to the female anatomy.
But there is more diversity in gender. In the Mishna and the Talmud and Classical Midrash, a period spanning from the 1st through 16th centuries of the Common Era there are exactly 499 references to the Androgynos. This is a person with both male and female sexual characteristics. The first Androgynos was Adam in Genesis 2 – a human who then was split into two genders.
Already we have heard arguments over Abraham and Sarah’s gender. Rabbi Ami suggests that both our ancestors were Tumtumim. The Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash and Jewish law codes have 516 references referring to people who are Tumtum.
Rab Nachman quotes Rabbi Bar Avuh suggests that Sarah is an Ay’lonit – a person who is female at birth but develops male characteristics at puberty and is infertile. Mishna, Talmud, Midrash and Law Codes speaks of such individuals 120 times.
Then there are Saris, a person who identifies as male at birth but develops female characteristics at purberty, and, may or may not be lacking a penis. According to 535 references in Mishna, Talmud, Midrash and Law codes one can be a natural Saris, or one may become one through human intervention. Our rabbis even knew of transgender surgery!
It is clear in our texts, that Jewish tradition has historically understood that there is diversity of gender, even if in the more traditional communities the marriage of a man and a woman is seen as an ideal. The acknowledgement of a richness of gender is part of what Judaism sees as the reality of the world. No surprise then that a Jewish sitcom, Transparent, should be one that brings to the fore of American consciousness a discussion of gender diversity.
Caitlyn Jenner, once a male Olympic athlete, then a minor character in a reality TV show, and now a transgender rights advocate and author, wrote an opinion piece in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled: “I thought Trump would help trans people. I was wrong.” 
Caitlyn writes of her dashed hope to work within the Republican system on transgender rights. She speaks of her many trips to educate and lobby members of Congress, Washington policy makers and powerful influences.
Following two years of efforts, Caitlyn laments: “The recently leaked Department of Health and Human Services memo that suggests – preposterously and unscientifically – that the government ought to link gender to one’s genitalia at birth, is just one more example in a pattern of political attacks. One doesn’t need to look back far to witness the president assault our nation’s guardians with a ban on trans people serving in the military or assail our nation’s future with a roll back of Obama-era protections for trans schoolchildren.”
Rightly, Caitlyn Jenner sees people denied humanity.
It is important to see humanity in all its diversity. Our rabbis saw this diversity. If writing today, they may have even been even more nuanced than the six or seven genders recognized in our text.
Last summer, when I attended the new 6 Points Jewish Arts Academy, each child who attended, each adult on staff, was asked what their preferred gender pronoun was. I am seeing this question asked more often in schools, at conferences, in houses of worship and at camps. Seeing people for who they are acknowledges and celebrates their humanity.
The impact of Jill Solloway’s TV show Transparent, and its exploration of multiplicity of gender identification, was and continues to be profound in the American societal context. From a Jewish point of view, it is not a cutting-edge premise, to acknowledge what is the reality of gender identification, in a TV show or in daily life.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that every human being – each of us, is made, B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. God cannot be perceived as one gender, or another gender. God is beyond gender. God is all genders.
As a Jewish community, with a long historical understanding of a multiplicity in gender, we need to promote what is real and true. Like the rabbis before us, we must advocate for a world where people are people, defining themselves in a way that is comfortable for them to be authentic. Inspired by Jewish text and perspective, let us lobby for equal treatment and recognition under the law.
It is our mission to be part of tikkun, mending, to create a world, where all are honored, because we are all perfectly- made in the image of God.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.
 Prudom, Laura (July 12, 2014). “Amazon’s ‘Transparent’ Season 1 to Debut Late September
 Genesis 18
 Yevamot 64a, 64b
 Terms for Gender Diversity in Classical Jewish Texts by Rabbi Elliot Kukla, 2006 in Transtorah.com
Why be part of a congregation? Can’t I just be spiritual by myself? Why do I need organized religion? Why do I need a Har Sinai Congregation?
Let me begin in Africa.
Boyd Varty grew up on the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa and he tells the story of a baby elephant called Elvis. Yep. That is Elvis like the singer Elvis! The elephant was born with a deformed back legs and pelvis and when she walked she sorta did a pelvis dance like Elvis Presley.
Everyone thought that because of her disability, Elvis would have little chance of surviving in the wilds. However, for five years she kept returning in the winter months to the Game Reserve and all the gamekeepers and guides were always excited to see her. One day, they followed Elvis and her herd to a small watering hole.
Boyd describes: “I watched as the matriarch drank. And then she turned in that beautiful slow motion of elephants. And she began to make her way up the steep bank. The rest of the herd turned … and began to follow.
And I watched young Elvis begin to psych herself up for the hill. She had a full go at it. And halfway up, her legs gave way and she fell backwards. She attempted it a second time. And again, halfway up, she fell backwards. And on the third attempt, an amazing thing happened. Halfway up the bank, a young teenage elephant came in behind her. And he propped his trunk underneath her, and he began to shovel her up the bank.
And it occurred to me that the rest of the herd was, in fact, looking after this young elephant. The next day, I watched again as the matriarch broke a branch. And she would put it in her mouth. And then she would break a second one and drop it on the ground. And a consensus developed between all of us who were guiding people in that area that that herd was, in fact, moving slower to accommodate that elephant.”[i]
In his observation of Elvis the Elephant, Boyd Varti said that he learned to expand his concept of community. No longer was his focus on one elephant but the interaction of that elephant with the whole group. In South Africa, where he is from, there is a notion of ubuntu – which Varti translates as: “I am because of you.” Each elephant in that herd became greater than their individual elephant-selves because of the “love me tender, love me true”[ii] way they treated Elvis.
In synagogue terms, our humanity is heightened by the people around us.[iii] Our congregation elevates us. We are more than just ourselves. Through Har Sinai Congregation, our soul is sharpened and shaped in religious terms by the people who are on this journey of Judaism beside us.
Reverend Lillian Daniel, a Protestant Minister and author, puts it this way:
“Sometimes our best thinking can only get us so far, especially since any God we create will likely agree with our point of view on everything… Religious tradition should be like sandpaper against a culture that is constantly asking ‘How can we meet your needs?’ It should require something of you. Any idiot can find God in a sunset. Finding God in the woman sitting next to you whose baby cries during the entire sermon takes grit.”[iv]
Our synagogue is sandpaper grit sanding our individual beings: refining and clarifying them in the reflected spirituality of our neighbor. Spirituality is self-seeking, it is about “me”. Religion requires “us”.
In the story of Elvis the Elephant, we can find another reason for belonging to a holy congregation, separate to Boyd Varty’s reading.
Elvis the Elephant’s disability was a gift for her herd. Elvis brought, in Jewish terms, her Torah to the group. In the giving of her Torah, her disability, she made that herd special.
In the book of Numbers/ B’Midbar, Moses and Aaron and Miriam brought their own gifts, their Torah teachings to the fledgling Israelite community. Moses provides leadership as the conduit to God’s will. Aaron supervises appropriate ritual. And Miriam ensures that there is water to those who are wandering the desert.
In the book of Numbers, there are characters who bring unlikely gifts but when analyzed are Torah none-the-less.
The prophet Balaam and king Balak brought their Torah, for in their desire to curse the Israelites, the blessing of the Israelite’s tents and homes were expressed.
The rebel Korach, brought Torah, because in his rebellion he teaches the Israelites that Moses is the real deal, the one through whom God speaks.
Even the spies who ventured into the land of Canaan and brought back bad reports – their contribution was a gift – for it brought forth the realization that the generation who left Egypt were not yet ready to enter the Promised Land.
It may be that your gift is not obvious to you at first, yet each of us has a gift, or in Jewish terms, Torah, to bring to the congregations we belong too. A sacred community is made up of the multiple Torahs each of us share in the small groups that make up our congregational whole. You become more than a reflection of self, and so valued, for each of the gifts that you bring to our Har Sinai Congregation.
Your Torah might be greeting the new person at the Pre-neg on Shabbat. Your Torah might be helping with the community finances. Your Torah could be singing at services to help create a warm spiritual atmosphere. Your Torah might be blowing the Shofar or playing a drum. Your Torah might be giving time to stuff envelopes in the office. Your Torah might be sharing your wisdom with a Bible study group. Or leading a class. Or teaching a group of congregants to play Mah-Jong. Your Torah might be leading a Havdalah hike or arranging for a speaker for a Brotherhood or WoHSC event.
Whatever your Torah thank you and our community needs you! Giving to your congregation will make you not only feel good but will make you more integral to our community and will make the congregation special.
At Har Sinai Congregation, we are who we are because of us.
At Har Sinai Congregation, we are because of the Torah you give.
But there is more.
At Har Sinai Congregation, we are greater because of purpose.
All people need to live larger than the daily grind… we flourish when we pursue a life of meaning. Within a congregation we define and act out purpose together. And for so many reasons, this is easier and better to do in a group.
I love the following set of analogies by an anonymous author, to make a case for the benefits of being in a congregational community with purpose.
It is another lesson from the animal kingdom.
This time here in North America.
There is much that we can learn from the North American geese whose purpose is to head south for the winter as they fly in a “V” formation!
Here are some of the lessons:
Science knows that as each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following and hence they can fly further than if they fly on their own.
With a congregation we meet people who share a common direction and we can get there more easily because we are travelling on the thrust of each other.
When a goose falls out of its “V” formation, it feels the drag and resistance of going it alone, so quickly tries to return the formation.
As congregational members we can keep to the task of our communal purpose the more we remain together.
When a goose tires, it rotates to the back of the “V” wing and another goose flies at the point.
In congregational communities, we can take turns getting the job done, but when we tire we can help each other to our destination, so we can get more easily succeed together.
Geese, as they fly in their “V”, honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up with their speed.
When we live in congregational community we become the cheer leaders for each other.
Finally, when a goose gets sick or is wounded by gunshot, and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out with that goose, and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay by the fallen goose’s side until it can fly or until it dies. And only then, do they launch out on their own, or with another formation to catch up with their group.
In congregational communities, we are more than ourselves, we are there for each other in difficult of moments.[v]
We need the sense of geese to stand beside each other and be buoyed by community and community purpose.
Here we sit on Yom Kippur morning in community as Har Sinai Congregation.
At Har Sinai Congregation, we are who we are because of us.
At Har Sinai Congregation, we are because of the Torah you give.
At Har Sinai Congregation, we are each more because of purpose.
And in addition, at Har Sinai Congregation, we are more because of the chain of tradition that is passed on by us all.
Let me begin with a traditional Yom Kippur place.
Our Torah Portion that you will shortly hear.
This morning we read from the book of Deuteronomy:
“You stand here today, all of you, before your Eternal God – the heads of your tribes, your elders, and officers, everyone in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water – to enter the sworn covenant that your Eternal God makes with you this day…” This covenant that we will read about in the Torah was made with the Sinai generation and the generations not yet born[vi]
Being part of congregational life is important because we are all of us, part of a community who values continuity. We are part of a long chain, a covenant of values that was given to all of us together at Mount Sinai. The covenant of Judaism is our common inheritance, whether by birth or by choice, the thing we share with each other, it is in the concept of our Jewish DNA. It is for us to pass it on.
Being part of a synagogue, enables us to understand this in context. Our kids comprehend that being Jewish is important when they see their family practice, its traditions and mores. Tradition even has more weight and standing when it is done by many people around them, in a synagogue, living Jewish lives. We are strengthened in our heritage through each other’s valuing of tradition and each other’s participation.
At Simchat Torah we will read the words of Deuteronomy that end the Torah. Moses will have just finished reminiscing and remembering all that has occurred. How he journeyed and was changed by the Israelites in the wilderness. His life is integrated with theirs, because of their mutual experience from the time of Egyptian bondage, through the desert, to this moment on the mountain.
At this poignant moment, he stands at the top of the mountain looking at the vistas of the future in Canaan that he knows he will never see.
Why be part of a community? Why be part of a congregation? Can’t I just be spiritual by myself? Why do I need organized religion? Why do I need a Har Sinai Congregation?
There will come a time, like Moses, when we will stand at the top of our life’s mountain, looking backwards and ahead as well. When we do, we will have benefited from the enormous blessing of being part of something, a synagogue, our Har Sinai Congregation.
We will find blessing because our lives were refined because of those who surrounded us.
We will find blessing through our gifts which have been amplified in their sharing.
We will find blessing because we were able to journey in a community of support and shared purpose.
We will find blessing in being part of a chain of tradition that will continue beyond ourselves into the future.
These blessings come naturally with being part of a Kehillah Kedosha, a holy community, a holy congregation.
These blessings can and should be ours. Here, at Har Sinai Congregation.
[ii] Song Title, Elvis Golden Records, 1958
[v] A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul
[vi] Deuteronomy 29:9-14
The Yiddish writer S. Ansky, in his play The Dybbuk, described it with these words:
“Once a year… the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies in order to pronounce the ineffable name of God. And at this immeasurably holy and awesome moment the High Priest and the people of Israel are in the utmost peril, for even a single sinful or wayward thought in the High Priest’s mind at that instant, might, God forbid, destroy the entire world.”[i]
During Yom Kippur afternoon, we re-enact this moment described in Ansky’s play. We relive what is known as the “Service of the Sacrificial Cult.” While we do not physically perform a ritual sacrifice here on the Bima (!), we verbally imagine the ancient High Priest’s rite on Yom Kippur, in the days when the Temple in Jerusalem stood.
We read the three confessionals that the High Priest offered for his own sins and those of his family, those of the priesthood, and those of the Israelite people.[ii] It includes a dramatic full prostration in the service, at the very moment, when the High Priest would utter the ineffable name of God.
So strong the power of this moment, that our own founding rabbi, David Einhorn, despite the early Reform rejection of the Temple and its’ sacrifices, included a long interpretation of this rite in his prayer book Olat Tamid.
He reinterpreted Israel’s unique mission as a priestly people, who must be an Olat Tamid/ an eternal offering on behalf of all humanity. The High Priest, for Rabbi Einhorn, was a symbol for “God’s priestly people, who are to “carry the hope of salvation” and “show the path of life to all.”[iii]
The priest’s power is established in the biblical book of Leviticus. So strong this Yom Kippur ritual of the priests, that their influence is felt long past the initiation of rabbinic Judaism, and is continued still today in our Reform Machzorim, in Gates of Repentance and in the newest Reform Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh.
The Book of Leviticus, the Priest’s book in the Bible, establishes for the Israelites a clear place, and a defined religious ritual, that will sustain them in their wanderings from Egypt in the wilderness, and later, in the Promised Land.
Jacob Milgrom writes, that the book of Leviticus also founds values. He says: “Values are what Leviticus is about. They pervade every chapter and almost every verse…. Underlying the rituals, the careful reader will find an intricate web of values that purports to model how we should relate to God and one another.”[iv]
The role of a holy community has always been to give a sense of place, ritual and values. And in today’s modern Jewish world, there are many types of successful holy communities who create place, rituals and values in a variety of ways.
In Olat Tamid, his prayerbook, Rabbi Einhorn knew the importance of reinterpreting, to make Judaism relevant for his time. Har Sinai Congregation stands at a Mount Sinai moment, about to reform itself for its future, and must ask important congregational questions:
who can we be,
what can we stand for,
and how can we measure our success?
For many years, in the congregational world the success of a congregation was measured by its size. Even twenty five years ago when I began in the rabbinate, the questions in the elevator at rabbinic conferences often turned to how many family units are in your congregation… I remember that men of a certain era would jokingly ask: “How big is yours?” It was seen, as a type of rabbinic promotion, to place in a congregation that was larger.
Indeed there are many successful large congregations and their accomplishments are great. But the thinking about size in the worship world has changed. There are also amazingly successful mid-size and small congregations.
Once the Gerer Rebbe, questioned his students. “How is Moshe Yaakov doing?” One disciple didn’t know the whereabouts of Moshe Yaakov. Another did not know how Moshe Yaakov was faring. “What!” shouted the Rebbe, “You don’t know? You pray under the same roof? You study the same book? You serve the same God? – yet you dare tell me that you don’t know how Moshe Yaakov is, whether he needs help or advice or comforting? How can that be?”
The Gerer Rebbe in this story, notices that Moshe Yaakov is missing. A smaller vitalized congregation provides the ability for a rabbi to be more attentive to what is happening to their congregants, and to have, a greater personal presence in their lives. The Gerer Rebbe in this story was also disturbed by his students, because they did not know where Moshe Yaakov was to be found. Just as importantly, the Gerer Rebbe’s anger was manifest because his students did not know about Moshe Yaakov’s well-being. They had failed at being intimately connected to their friend in their small community.
In a small community, the ability for clergy to be connected, for individuals and families to know each another, and to be familiar and care for each other, is their very real, small group advantage. Robin Dunbar scientifically confirmed that humans are only capable of 150 meaningful, stable, intimate social relationships at one time.[v] Large and even medium congregations struggle with that sense of intimacy and connection, trying all types of configurations and arrangements to create structure to mimic what is more natural in a small community.
Our special Har Sinai Congregation, like congregations across this country, has grown smaller in numbers. Demographics and affiliation trends do not indicate we will be larger soon. But we have the incredible opportunity to be a successful smaller congregation, with a smaller foot-print, that structures and leverages itself for success.
To do this we need vision. I am inspired by small congregations who have taken up the challenge of, as Priya Parker words it, the “art of gathering… the conscious bringing together of people for a reason and committing to a bold, sharp purpose.”[vi]
The Levitical Priests had such a bold, sharp purpose. Their drive was not maintaining the grand Temple or the dramatics of ceremony, it was not the communal gathering of the people, or the sacrifices, or the wording for the expiation of sin. If you drill down deep, deep, into this ancient ritual, the Priest’s central raison d’etre is found in the utterance of the Ineffable Name. The bold, sharp purpose was to create connection to God. So powerful was their purpose, that we still include it in our Yom Kippur ceremony today.
A building, the size of a congregation or how people connect, worship, dues structure, program, religious school, committees, caring groups, education, are all means – they are not the bold, sharp purpose of a congregation. They are all vital for the running of a synagogue. But those means are not and should not be mistaken for mission. Ultimately, they are all infrastructure, that needs to connect in some way to the bold, sharp purpose that a congregation chooses.
In Cincinnati OH, Temple Sholom took their floundering congregation on the down-turn, and invested in change, by focusing on their unique purpose in a town that held several Reform synagogues. Concentrating on the mission of spiritual justice at their center, they sold their building, and moved to a rental, put half the money they made aside not to be touched, and took half the money for ramp-up programming, focusing on their new, defined purpose. Initially they lost members. But in defining a “bold, sharp purpose” they have, within a short period of a few years, expanded their membership to numbers greater than before, and have engaged younger generations than they expected.
Other small congregations have understood that they cannot be everything to everyone, and are successful also, because they are clear about what drives them.
Lab Shul in New York, a synagogue without walls, focuses on being “an artist-driven, everybody friendly, God-optional pop up experimental community for sacred gatherings.”[vii] They attract the money and the participation of Millennials, Generation Y, Gen Next, iGen, who attend their services and events. It is seen as a place to be, and people wait with anticipation to see where they will pop up next in the city, inspired by their creativity, innovation and experimentation in cool atypical venues.
The Kitchen, in San Francisco, is a sacred Jewish community “provoking awe and purpose… believ…[ing] that Jewish religious practice can transform: It can change lives, make meaning, and invest people in the world.” The folk in The Kitchen, have envisioned and rethought what congregational life can look like, placing themselves in an unconventional space, and rebranding everything to match their purpose. They’re run by a Cabinet of folks (as in the Kitchen Cabinet), with well-branded bios of each member, so we know by perusing their website what they bring to the Kitchen Table, and how their presence relates to community purpose. On Shabbat morning, the community davens for half-an- hour, and then does an interactive Torah reading – changing lives with storahtelling. Then they invite those who have walked into their Shabbat morning Kitchen to lunch: “Shabbat lunch is on them”. Awe, purpose and investing people at the center underpins all they do. So much so, who wouldn’t want to buy their “swag” and display it with pride?
Locally, or internationally, we need look no further than Chabad, to see a successful community with a bold, sharp purpose. The Rebbe encouraged his followers to create communities open to Jews, bringing them closer to Judaism, mitzvah by mitzvah, anywhere and everywhere in the world, from Baltimore to the Himalayas. They invite you to every mitzvah – sit in their Sukkah on a truck, wave the lulav, try out some tefillin, and they will bar mitzvah your boy (if his Jewish credentials are right) for minimal work. They have a central financing system, sustained by people who give money to them, from within their community and without, because people are inspired by Lubavitch’s seeming openness, attention and reach.
These synagogues know what they do well and focus on it. They prosper by attracting members that buy into their unique visions. They create a boutique community and their purpose defines them: their doing, their praying, their gathering, their operations.
Sarah Van Breathnach tells of a business trip her husband took to the beach, where she and her daughter enjoyed the mornings, while he attended workshops. One afternoon it was announced that there would be elephant rides for the children in the hotel parking lot. Her daughter, Katie, was delirious with excitement.
Sarah told her: “Life is always full of wonderful surprises if we are open to them. Some mornings you will get up not knowing what will happen, and you get to ride an elephant that day!”
When they got home, there was an invitation for Sarah to join a group of journalists on a trip to Ireland. She was tired of traveling, and not really a spontaneous person, so she told them she probably would not go.
Her husband, overhearing her, said: “So you are not going to ride the elephant?”
She decided to go.[viii]
Two years ago, when I interviewed to come to Har Sinai Congregation, I shared my vision, my bold, sharp purpose. My aspiration…
My dream is to create a community that is willing to pray, govern, learn and play, in out-of-the-box meaningful ways, and willing to live a creative Judaism that is rooted in the values and traditions of our people.
Har Sinai Congregation would live out this vision of creative and relevant and participatory Judaism, run not by staff alone, but by us all. It would make us unique in Baltimore. My aspiration would make us an inspiration.
Imagine being run not by a large Board, but by a smaller group of a dozen Imagineers – visionaries – creators.
Imagine not committees, but multiple groups of people working on unique short and long-term projects that underpin our congregational life.
Imagine various small unique, creative Jewish purpose gatherings, meet ups, celebrations, workshops, adventures, where you would arrange the event, could connect and get to know each other – how I would kvell at your motivation and inspiration!
Imagine services, yes, in the synagogue, but also in the woods and in libraries and in restaurants. Services with sermons occasionally, but also with learning or games or stories or drama or music as the focus of the teaching moment or in prayer.
Imagine Torah reading and a teaching at Farmer’s Markets under a tent just as it was read in the Talmudic times in public places.
Imagine family and singles in people’s homes doing Jewish meals and activities on Friday nights, Shabbat mornings, with food catered by the participants of our cooking club.
Imagine going from house-to-house as we help each other build and decorate our own Sukkot.
Imagine an ice cream flash mob on Shavuot at The Cow.
Imagine creating a group of storytellers within this community, a bluegrass band, a barbershop quartet and a kid’s choir.
Imagine musicians-in-residence, Artists, cantors, soloists, brought in for 3 to 6 months or even a year at a time, to lead our music and work with our congregants, to create a unique, varied and participatory musical identity.
Imagine bike rides and golf games and hikes with Torah study.
Imagine learning in cafes and doing a God Shopping exercise in the Mall.
Imagine while working in the Food Pantry creating a mural to illustrate the Tzedakah principals to cheer up the Food Pantry’s walls.
Har Sinai Congregation, of my aspiration, would create modern Jewish souls rooted in traditions, creatively interpreted for today.
You hired me on the passion of this vision.
For some, riding an elephant with this vision may not seem like a good idea, for you love the familiar, and are resistant to change. We have traditions, customs and programs, which are important to people, that may limit, and have limited, what we can do new.
Riding the elephant of one’s vision means making a leap onto its back. On occasion, I feel like I have tentatively got onto the elephant, and many times have said I will ride the elephant later. Or that ascending the elephant is not a good idea for now.
I also know, that the vision of a congregation cannot be entirely my own – rabbinic input has import, but our purpose needs to be communally shaped. All of us ultimately desire connection, support, caring, interaction and holiness, and we need to figure out how to make our Har Sinai Congregation that place in the twenty-first century for the older and younger and future generations.
That is why I have encouraged the Futures Committee to go out and speak to you and gather input. To survey you to find out what is important, and what is essential to you in our Har Sinai community. To meet with you in small groups to figure out our reason-to-be. To discover as Priya Parker recommends: our reason for the “conscious bringing together of people for a reason and committing to a bold, sharp purpose.”[ix]
That is why tomorrow afternoon I have invited Har Sinai Congregation members with a vision to drill down deep on their thoughts in a fishbowl meeting during the “Sharing Our Stories” hour.
Let us find the narrative, what in the business world they call the “WHY” that moves us.
We have important work to do to ensure our success. We have exciting work to do to take us to new places. The time is now, this is our Mount Sinai moment, as we look to the new Har Sinai Congregation beyond these walls, to ride a whole herd of elephants into our future.
And how shall our success be measured?
Not by our financial wealth alone, though certainly we need money to survive. And we know that people give money to places that inspire them. Let us be that place.
Not by number of congregants alone. Though we know that places with boutique purpose attract those with a similar mission, and the exclusiveness of mission generates excitement. Let us be that place.
I commenced my words this evening with words from The Dybbuk, at the moment the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to utter God’s ineffable name.
S. Ansky tells us that “…even a single sinful or wayward thought in the High Priest’s mind at that instant might, God forbid, destroy the entire world.”[x] Distraction from the High Priest’s purpose destroyed worlds. Keeping to purpose created and sustained a world, and worlds to come.
Our triumph will be in Har Sinai Congregation’s purpose and the world we create. Our success will be measured by being clear about the congregation’s “WHY” within, and without our community, and having that mission create meaning in people’s lives.
We are Har Sinai Congregation. We are not the walls of this building. We are more than the structural programs we offer, or the services we run, or the Board and committees that are found in every synagogue.
We are what was in our 176 years past, but we need to be more than what was. As Rabbi David Einhorn imagined, in our reimagination of Judaism we like the High Priest can “carry the hope of salvation” and “show the path of life to all,” for ourselves, and the generations ahead of us.
We are what we will be.
A Kehillah Kedosha – A Holy Community. A creative, joyful, cutting-edge, participatory synagogue, for the future.
[i] The Dybbuk and Other Writings, S. Ansky, ed. David G. Roskies.
[iv] Leviticus: A Book of Rituals and Ethics, Jacob Milgrom, Fortress Press, 2004
[vi] The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker, Riverhead Books, 2018
[viii] Therocketcompany.com (Passionate Living vs.Fear)
[ix] The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker, Riverhead Books, 2018
[x] The Dybbuk and Other Writings, S. Ansky, ed. David G. Roskies.
A fictional tale in honor of Grandma Lillian and all the amazing mothering aunts in my life.
Let me tell you about my Grandma Lil. She was the best cook in the world, well at least I thought so, and that thought was shared by many others.
One day, my Grandma Lil thought she would do a Mitzvah and took some chicken soup over to Mrs. Roseman whose husband was ill. “I don’t feel right accepting a gift from you,” she said to my Grandma Lil. She insisted my Grandma take a few coins. And Grandma Lil went home and put those coins in a little jar on a shelf in her kitchen.
The next week, my Grandma Lil baked too many rugelach cookies for Shabbat. She took some over to her friend Mrs. Bancroft. She insisted my Grandma take a few coins. And Grandma Lil went home and put those coins in a little jar on a shelf in her kitchen.
The following week, Mrs. Barnett came to visit. “My daughter is getting married. Would you make her a beautiful wedding cake? I will pay you for your ingredients and time.” My Grandma Lil was chuffed. Grandma Lil put those coins in that little jar on her shelf in the kitchen.
As time went by more and more people came to my Grandma Lil and asked her to bake and cook her delicious foods for them. It helped them out in their busy lives because they did not always have time to make something home-made. Didn’t I tell you that she was the best cook in the world? And those coins they paid her would go straight into what was now a big jar on her kitchen shelf.
One day my brother and I asked – “Grandma, what are you saving all the coins for on the shelf?”
“I am going to buy a whole new set of dishes for Rosh HaShanah,” she told us. “I’ve seen a set, a beautiful set of dishes, with painted rims filled with flowers and birds, just right for the holiday that celebrates the world’s creation. They remind me of the dishes my mother used in England to celebrate the holidays when I was a child”
The money in Grandman Lil’s large jar continued to grow and grow. When it was almost full, she counted the coins out carefully… even the pennies. She had $360, ten-fold double-chai, just enough for the set of beautiful dishes she had seen at the department store downtown, the with painted rims filled with flowers and birds that reminded her of creation and the set her mother had owned in England.
My Grandma Lil put all the money back into the large jar and decided to take the coins down to the bank to swap them out for some notes. Behind the counter was Mr. Davis. “That’s a lot of coins” he said. He adored my Grandma Lil who would often bring home-made lokshen noodles to his house for his wife to put into their soup. “What are you going to do with this $360, Lil?”
And my Grandma Lil told him all about the beautiful dishes she had seen in the Department Store downtown, that reminded her of the set her mother had in England. Just perfect with painted rims filled with flowers and birds, just right for the Rosh Hashanah holiday that celebrates the creation of the world.
The crisp dollar notes in her hand, on the following day, she set out for town to make her big purchase at the Department Store.
But when she got to the store…. there was not a single dish with the painted rims filled with flowers and birds to be found. You cannot imagine how sad my Grandma Lil was. She had been saving so, so long for these special dishes. And that Rosh Hashanah she was so looking forward to setting her table with those plates and cups and saucers.
“I don’t have new dishes, but I suppose I can fill my old dishes with the foods that everybody loves, and it will still be an amazing Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps no one will notice that the dishes are not the new ones if they are tasting my chocolate babka and honey cookies.” And with a sigh of resignation, my Grandma Lil made her way home.
As she came up her street she saw all these cars. “Someone must be having a party, she thought. And then when she entered her house – she saw that my brother and I and my Mum and Dad were there. Mr Davis with Mrs Davis. Mrs Barnett and her newly married daughter and their whole family, Mrs. Bancroft and Mrs. Roseman, and so many others. “Wow, I am the one having a party…” she exclaimed. And then she noticed. Every single one of us was carefully holding a dish, a cup or a saucer, a plate or a bowl. Each dish was decorated with painted rims filled with flowers and birds, just right for the holiday that celebrates the world’s creation, the festival that marks the beginning of creation.
“Surprise!” we shouted. “Thank you!” we said.
As everyone all at once shared with my Grandma Lil how magnificent her cooking was, what it meant for our families, and how it helped make our celebrations and sad times and gatherings so wonderful. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,”– “Thank you for your food that so often has brought us all together.”
You know what my Grandma Lil did next?
She went into her kitchen and she began to cook. She invited all her friends and acquaintances to come back and join her on Rosh Hashanah eve for fancy breads and pickles and brisket and fruits and all the wonders that she created. She cooked the recipes she recalled that her Mum had made in England long ago. And she plated it all on those dishes with birds and flowers on the rim, which reminded her of creation and Rosh Hashanah’s past with her family.
What a sweet Rosh HaShanah that was – eating Grandma Lil’s food, the best food in the world, on those plates with birds and flowers on their rims, that reminded us all of God’s creation on Rosh HaShanah, with the community brought together around Grandma Lil’s cooking.
Inspired by the story Grandma Roses Magic by Linda Elovitz Marshall
I think you might know this one:
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.[i]
Ah. “The times’ they are a changin’.” Now this is a song that would have resonated with the Israelites about to leave Egypt.
William Bridges in his brilliant essay on transition management theorizes that the story of the Exodus is the archetypal transition-management project.[ii] Moses is the head of this organization called “Israel” who since the time of Joseph had lived in Egypt and were content with their power. But by the time Moses took up the helm, they were in bondage and needed change, and he began looking for ways in the system to “Let My People Go”.
Moses discovers that it is hard to move a system. The first reaction is for the system to tighten its grip, and that is indeed what happens, as the Pharaoh says: “No, no no, I will not let the people go!” And then he adds hardship to the Israelites daily lives.
Then as usually happens at the beginning of a time of transition, plagues of problems begin to develop that are disruptive to the organization’s life: blood, frogs, livestock diseases, darkness. The plagues are simply symptomatic of old ways that no longer work. Moses does the difficult task of a good leader managing transition – he lets the problems escalate, so it becomes clear that something needs to be done. By the time of the death of the firstborn it is BEYOND clear that the Israelites NEED to leave Egypt. Moses allowing this escalation of plagues, also works at caring for his people during the full impact of the outbreaks by putting a mark on their door. One must protect in the old system elements that will be needed for the new system to be built.
Then Moses gathered together pivotal people, Aaron, Miriam, Jethro, who will help build a new structure and a new vision for “A Promised Land.”
Our Holy Congregation, our Kehillah Kedosha, our Har Sinai Congregation, is at the cusp of change.
I am certainly no Moses. The last two years of my rabbinic leadership here have followed a prototypical healthy transition management story as set out by William Bridges.
Even before I became your rabbi, it was shared with me that challenging decisions needed to be made in this congregation for its financial survival and for its growth in this community.
We have as William Bridges would term it: our metaphoric Pharaohs who have wanted to ignore these realities, holding on tightly to “the old ways” and “old systems”. And there have been some plagues: those who have left, withheld their pledges, some staff turnover, and, well we are Jews… so some kvetching.
As in the William Bridges’ Exodus analogy, we are providing as this reknown re-organizational expert suggests, protection signs. They are symbolized in the biblical text by the paschal lambs’ blood smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites’ home. Here at our Har Sinai Congregation, the Cantor, the staff, lay leaders and I have sought firm and meaningful protective marks on the doorposts of our spiritual home. We have ensured preservation and celebration of our history, sacred services, simchas, programs, and a strong Posner JEM. These are essentials to take with us into our future.
Our President Anne Berman established two committees of pivotal people to work on alternate visions – one a merger with Temple Oheb Shalom and one to look at the continuance of Har Sinai Congregation in another form. One path has emerged as the stronger viability for multiple reasons – and the Futures Committee has reached out to you for your input into the vision of our Promised Land.
We are only part way on what is a typical path for a successful transition journey. We still need to get through the split of the Red Sea – to sell this building and find a new home. We still need to wander through the wilds of the desert as we figure out what the new structure of our Har Sinai Congregation is going to look like, but:
If your Temple to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.[iii]
Once there was a couple that lived in a house who one morning found a pomegranate tree growing out of their living room floor. In their marriage, they had always been avoiders of hard conversation. Typically for them, they decided to ignore the obvious problem of a pomegranate tree in their living room.
The pomegranate tree grew. Its branches blocked the television, so the husband moved the TV and they continued to live their daily life.
The tree grew, its red seeded fruit smashed onto the couches, it’s trunk blocked access to the dining room table and made the floor buckle. Neither husband or wife said a thing.
They kept finding ways to avoid discussion about that ever-growing tree growing in their living room. They kept finding multiple solutions for existing around a tree in the living room however inconvenient these were.
The pomegranate tree grew, the roots effecting the plumbing and foundation, its branches began to lift off the roof of their house, and the walls began to fall.
This morning I want to name some tree branches in our spiritual living room. Let us talk about limbs that are bewildering within our synagogue in transition. Naming is powerful. It helps us understand. It helps us move on our journey. It helps us strategize.
This morning let me point out, that in our spiritual living room, we have a branch named: fear. Human beings are animals and we have a natural instinctual fear built in our beings. Elizabeth Gilbert refers to this animal instinct of fear in her book Big Magic[iv]:
“If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. The tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown.”
We all have fears. But as human beings we are able to reason and become greater than our fears.
Har Sinai Congregation is a place we love. Some of you are from legacy families who remember the beginning of this community 176 years ago. Some of you recall when this was an 800 plus household congregation when there was a lot more staff and a greater capacity for programming by the professionals. Some of you recollect sitting down for High Holy Days under the beautiful dome on Park Heights Avenue. Others of you were instrumental in the plans to move Har Sinai Congregation here to Walnut Avenue and worked so hard so that our congregation could prosper in this locale. Some of you are new and have just found your spiritual place here in our walls.
Our future at this moment is unknown and hence a fear. What will a different locale mean, a smaller building or a shared building, new programming, and what does it mean for our “status” in Jewish Baltimore? The branches of fear grow naturally. But if we let fear run our lives we would never leave the door of our houses, we would never leave our parent’s homes, we would never have children or move jobs or create a painting or write a story or a song.
Yes, let us acknowledge fear and yes, let us dare to be brave and embrace reason. Some of the things we love about our beloved Temple will come with us on this new journey, and some of those things will be left behind, because “the times they are a changin’”
This morning let me point out, that in our spiritual living room, we have a number of branches named: mourning. As we sit in this beautiful sanctuary of Har Sinai Congregation we are aware that this may be the last or the near-to-last High Holy Day services in this space. Some of you built this building. Some of you have never known another spiritual building. Some of you have made this your community home because you were impressed by this building.
Those of you who have known the true nature of the finances of our congregation over the last ten years have recognized that these days have been imminent for a while. Others of you may feel that you have just heard the news a few months ago.
We are all at different stages, different branches, of a mourning process. We are in what William Bridges calls the of the “Neutral Zone” about to leave Egypt and the life we knew for a life in the wilderness, and we are anticipating what the Promised Land will be. We are in a difficult space that Pauline Boss labeled “ambiguous loss”.[v] A time of mourning with an undefined closure, we see no ending yet, though we know resolution will come.
In that uncertain wilderness each of us travels the circuitous path of the seven stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kubler Ross – shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and some of us may even be at the stage of the upward turn of reconstruction and acceptance and hope.
A healthy transition process will ultimately turn to reconstruction and acceptance and hope. But for now, our community members are all in different emotional places. And there is ambiguity as our Futures Committee investigates several viable paths of possibilities.
Eventually the pomegranate tree in our sacred living room will be uprooted, and we hope that you will journey with Har Sinai Congregation to our Promised Land, our synagogue of the future. That you will move with us from fear and loss, to the possibility of abundance. From scarcity to possibilities.
“How many seeds are in this pomegranate?” asked a facilitator in a workshop to a group of participants. She held it aloft for them to see.
The workshop broke into small groups to come up with how to answer this question. Each group had a different way of calculating this answer. One group quartered the pomegranate and counted the seeds. Others estimated based on the pomegranate’s weight. Another group tried to visualize the inside of the pomegranate. A predominantly Jewish group consulted Jewish text which said there were 613 seeds for each mitzvah in the Torah.
Each group were hundreds off each other’s estimates.
The facilitator asked the workshop if they wanted to know the exact answer?
Of course! Wouldn’t you? And then the facilitator revealed:
“The correct answer is: that there are enough. Enough seeds to save and plant next year, enough seeds to give to the neighbors so they have pomegranate trees, and enough seeds to create more seeds.” [vi]
We live in a moment which can be, if we reframe our fears and mourning, filled with abundant possibilities for our community. Our congregation can reimagine who and what we are to build a community of success for the future.
What lies before us in this year 5779 is a year of sacred opportunity.
On Kol Nidre eve, I will continue this important conversation as we move through this transitional moment in our history. I will speak about my vision for Har Sinai Congregation’s future. On Yom Kippur Morning I will speak about why we need a congregational community. On Yom Kippur afternoon I have asked congregants to share with you their thoughts of what could be.
This is our message: We have abundance and sacred opportunity.
I am positive we have enough. I am certain that we can dream together a plethora of possibilities for success. I am sure we will traverse this wilderness of uncertainty and reach the Promised Land.
Journey with us.
If your Temple to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.[vii]
[i] Bob Dylan
[ii] “Getting Them Through the Wilderness” by William Bridges, 2006
[iii] Bob Dylan
[iv] Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2015, p. 20
[v] “Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief” by Pauline Boss
[vii] Bob Dylan
This is how it started.
In the beginning Abraham looked around his father’s idol store and said “What the heck? How can these be the power behind the universe?” He took up a broom and smashed the idols to smithereens.[i] And then he had to run from his father and his family. And when he wanted to worship the one and only God, he would just start up a conversation or make a sacrificial offering.
In the second era, his grandson Jacob, also running from home, built a cairn or altars in his encounters with God – for God was in that place and he, he did not know it.[ii]
In the third era, Moses and Aaron made the worship center portable so that it could travel with the Israelites through the desert. They called it the Tent of Meeting or Mishkan.[iii] At its center was the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ten Commandments, the original broken set and the whole complete set, that had been given at Mount Sinai.
In the fourth era, the Priests set about unifying worship in a holy building. They created the cult around two magnificent Temples in Jerusalem where it is said that God’s presence dwelt. There was pomp and sacrifices. Three times a year the people would pack up their families and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals at this centralized shrine.
In the fifth era, community centers emerged, small temples, then synagogues. Teachers known as rabbis, began to lead the people. When the Temple was destroyed, these houses of prayer and study became the centers of communal gathering – places of worship, study and celebration.
In the sixth era, our grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, members of small synagogues in shtetls and shtetlach and cities, moved to suburbia. They needed to find their “people” for they did not live near each other anymore. They reimagined a synagogue center.
They invented a place you could drive to filled with Jewish stuff and called it their Temple. Home rituals like the lighting of candles were brought into centralized walls. Jewish study could be traditional or secular. Being Jewish was hanging with Jews as they swum, danced, played basket-ball. You could participate in Mitzvah Days and do communal good. The Brotherhood hosted a Shabbat spaghetti dinner in the building and there was a Sisterhood store to buy all the Jewish items you needed. A one-stop Jewish place of being.
In the seventh era… ah, the seventh era… here we are folks. On the 5779 future Frontier, you, me, Har Sinai Congregation. Here we are having to ask an old, important and essential Jewish survival question. The one our people have asked in all these eras: What does our sacred place of the future look like?
In their national best seller, Ros Stone Zander, a therapist, and her husband Ben Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, suggest some basic rules to foster “The Art of Possibility”. Their first rule is:
It’s All Invented.
And once you accept that all of life is a construct, and thus can be re-constructed, you get to the second rule:
Stepping into a Universe of Possibility.
This is an identical idea to the basic Rosh HaShanah myth, Genesis 1.
HaYom Harat Olam: Rosh HaShanah is the anniversary of the world’s birth. At first there was nothing, tohu v’vohu. So, God Invented. Step-by-step, day one, day two, day three, through to – day seven. God created a Universe of Possibility.
On Rosh HaShanah we are urged to look at the Invention that is our lives, ask ourselves if we need to reinvent, and then step into the Universe of Possibility that the New Year brings.
It is the same with creating Kehillah Kedosha, A holy community of sacred meaning.
Our ancestors in different eras Invented what their holy communities looked like, stepped into a Universe of Possibility, and step-by-step creating an infrastructure that would sustain the generations ahead, taking with them from the past what they believed would sustain the future.
The reinvention of holy community has always been based on tradition.
Abraham, Jacob, the Israelites and the Priests still maintained sacrifices, even if the form and locale differed in each era. The order and names of priestly sacrifices became the underpinning structure of our synagogue prayer services we know today. The one-room synagogue and the house of study of the small contained Jewish communities of the shtetl and city, were absorbed into the large destination Temples built in the suburbs.
Like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” generations before us have keenly felt the pull of “Tradition” while realizing that the world around them was changing, and that they needed to open themselves up to possibilities to sustain Jewish continuity.
Congregants tell me all the time that they love our Har Sinai traditions. “We love this building, we gave money to this building”, they say. “My late wife’s name is on the wall.” “The rooms and hallways are named after my loved ones.” “Here in our halls there are plaques and pictures on whose shoulders we stand.” “There are programs we could not imagine doing any other way.”
Certain Har Sinai/MiSinai melodies tug on the heartstrings of our memories. The rhythm of Hebrew, or the poetry of an English translation, or a certain prayer book has a strong and important attachment. A Huppah makes a wedding. A Bat Mitzvah reading Torah and leading most the Saturday morning service is seen as essential. And the demand for our grandson to have a Brit Milah on the eighth day is deep in our religious psyche. The emotional attachment we have for Har Sinai Congregation customs is real. These are powerful pulls to generations of congregants who are invested in these Har Sinai ways of doing Jewish. These traditions are what makes this community ours.
If you are entrenched in this Invention, that is now Har Sinai Congregation, you may be asking: “Rabbi, are we really standing on a 5779 Frontier at all?” To you I say, you do not need to look far afield to see that in our generation, and in generations to come, the sense of community is changing.
People today live within multiple communities and are juggling complex and diverse demands. The traditional family, friends, interest groups, volunteer committees and synagogue are still part of their lives.
Then there are the new communities they are members of. They are constantly on the road between different groups, listening to the podcast or radio show that has also become a community for them too. They email and text and tweet and put a picture on Instagram, and instantaneously find connection to a wider community.
How many of us here are on Facebook, and have “friends” whose lives you are part of virtually? How many of us at work no longer travel to meetings but rather use Zoom or Facetime or Skype to conference across cities or the world? How many of us met our partners not by introduction by family or friend, or at a party or a bar, but rather on an on-line dating service? How many of us have attended a rally or meet-up organized out of electronic air?
Stores like Apple and Starbucks are built around creating town-square community experiences and JC Penny is just about to experiment with that new format too.[iv] Our children play games with their friends while sitting in different houses and they text each other even when in the same room to communicate. You can even now worship online at Har Sinai Congregation, you just need to tune into our streaming from our webpage.
These are all communities we are part of and that we juggle in our lives.
Try telling someone who participates in these newer community experiences that this is not a community. Or that what they are participating in does not have meaning. Our technology, our mobility, and our world view has widened the walls of what we understand connection and interconnection to be.
And ultimately, my friends, it cannot help but impact what our kehillah kedosha, our holy communities looks like.
On the 5779 frontier of the Jewish community we need to ask: How will we structure the community of the future that will expand to encompass these ever-widening walls of connection? We have difficult and emotional questions we need to ask and seek answers for.
Do we need a huge campus for the community to gather, or a smaller space that can be ours, or at least our center? Do we need a traditional synagogue, or can our center be a house or a store-front, or a restaurant, or a club? Can it be a shared space with another synagogue or holy community?
Do we even need a physical place, or can we be without walls? Can our community be made up of non-traditional meeting places like coffee shops and people’s homes and a museum, a conglomeration of virtual and moveable meeting areas?
What sort of programming can connect us into being Jewish and works in the new ways that community is created? What sort of leadership is needed in such a community? How will that leadership meet? What is the membership model and the investment model of this new emerging entity?
And it is also important for us to ask: What is essential to bring with us? What is indispensable to our continuity, our chain of tradition? And what are we able to let go of, and what might hinder us from creating the new Har Sinai Congregation future?
It is time for us to apply ourselves to thinking about community on the 5779 Frontier. This is the first of a series of sermons this High Holy Days that will do so. I have more questions than answers, and need you, need us, to help find the way forward.
It feels like an oh, so risky conversation. It is a hard topic for the builder generation and the legacy generation sitting here that has invested in this special congregation. It is risky and personal for me. It is my job, the Cantor’s job, the way we staff, our employee’s future. It is a hard discussion for the people in the pews that were dragged here by their families, because we are asking them to re-engage, to think about reinventing with us, to create a community that does mean something to them. It is a hard dialogue for those who have chosen not to come and be here, because we are asking them to identify what is wrong with something we hold precious and help us figure out how to make it work.
Yes, risk hangs here, right here, right now, in this moment, in this place that we have Invented.
On the 5779 Frontier, I am reminded of a beloved 1981 Debbie Friedman song. She begins with the quotation from the book of Joel, a prophet that looks at what was invented in his time and advocates for a Universe of Possibility. “That the old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions.”[v] Debbie Friedman echoes that idea in her present:
Today’s the day I take my stand, the future’s mine to hold.
Commitments that I make today are dreams from days of old.
I have to make the way for generations come and go.
I have to teach them what I’ve learned so they will come to know.
That the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions,
And our hopes shall rise up to the sky.
We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.
Give us time, give us strength, give us life.
All is Invented, and the future demands that we step into a Universe of Possibility. We are at a transitional moment in history where our conceptions of community are changing. We must manifest sacred community with meaning for now and lay the creative groundwork for the future.
Steeped in the very meaningful history of Har Sinai Congregation of the past, we can re-form the Har Sinai Congregation of the future, step-by-step.
It is our time to invent. “We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.”
Let us step into the world of possibilities.
Bereshit. Beginnings. L’Shanah Tovah.
[i] Gen. R. 39:1
[ii] Genesis 28
[iii] Exodus 25–31 and 35–40
[v] Joel 3:1
When Rosh HaShanah arrives in two weeks, we will celebrate the sixth day of God’s creation, the anniversary of the emergence of humankind, a being called “Adam”.
What was that newly-created being like? In Genesis Rabbah, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman comments on the peculiar wording of the phrase in Genesis 2: “Male and female God created them” and gives us a startling image of that first human we call Adam.
Rabbi Shmuel explains it thus: “When the Holy One created Adam, God made him with two fronts, then he sawed him in half, thus giving him two backs, a back for one part and a back for the other parts.” (Genesis Rabbah)
Traditional commenters have remarked that if Adam was once one-being, split into two-fronts and two -backs, its stands to reason that the original Adam, before the split, had two faces…
An Adam with two faces! A two-faced Adam in English idiom would mean a duplicitous character. It calls to my mind, and perhaps yours, some popular fictional characters that have had two faces.
Comic book aficionados, of the Batman narrative, will remember the character aptly named Two-Face. He began his career as the Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent. Scarred on the left side of his face when a mob boss threw acid chemicals upon him, he then greets the world with a double face, scarred and unscarred. His two-face actuality converts his personality – he becomes a criminal with a personality conflict – as he flips his behavior with the toss of a coin also damaged in that acid accident, and he oscillates between good and evil.
We are also reminded of the Harry Potter series of the character, Professor Quirinus Quirrell, who served Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry, as a teacher of Muggles Studies, and then later, as a teacher of the Defence Against the Dark Arts. His body is overtaken by the darkest-of-dark art experts, while he researched the subject of the Dark Arts, prior to the beginning of a school year. His being is hijacked by Lord Voldemort, and we are witness as the plot unfolds and he is revealed as a wizard with two faces: his own who teaches the classes and mentors the students; and that of Lord Voldemort, hidden in a turban. The Professor is turned into a vessel which struggles between himself as a good Wizard, and the evilest of wizards Lord Voldemort, who seeks and eventually is successful in usurping his body and mind.
With both fiction characters, the two-face image is used as a symbol to convey the conflict between good and evil, that is always in-potential within each one of us. The rabbis call this the Yetzer HaTov (the good inclination) and the Yetzer HaRa (the evil inclination).
However, in Jewish tradition the good inside of us and the evil inside of us are not relegated to comic strip or children fiction black-and-white, either-or terms. The rabbis teach that our good inclination and our evil inclination, are needed in moderation inside each one of us, so that we can function as our best human being selves.
As was famously taught by the rabbis in Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 69b). Even evil is necessary for us and the world to exist. They tell this story:
The ancient sages decided that they were going to capture and imprison evil and banish it from the universe. They ordered a complete fast day and the Yetzer HaRa was vanquished.
The Yetzer HaRa came out of a room in the Temple called the Holy of Holies like a fiery lion. The Yetzer HaRa said to them – “Realize if you kill me the world is finished.”
The rabbis imprisoned the Yetzer HaRa for three days, and then they looked in the whole land of Israel, and not an egg could be found. No chicken had procreated.
One of them asked: “What shall we do now?” Another asked: “How will we survive?”
So, they put out the Yetzer’s eyes, and let him go.
As the eighteenth-century Italian rabbi, Moshe Chaim Luzzato taught: “Each of us is a creature created with the purpose of being drawn close to God. Each of us is placed between perfection and deficiency, with the power to earn perfection. Each of us must earn this perfection, however, through our own free will… Our inclinations are therefore balanced between good (Yetzer HaTov) and evil (Yetzer HaRa), and one is not compelled toward either of them. One has the power of choice and is able to choose either side knowingly and willingly…”
Another means we might understand the two faces of Adam lies in the Hebrew word for faces. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for face “Panim” is the same in both the singular and the plural in Hebrew. Many of us, accustomed to the English, think of a face as the outer layer of a person. But if we were Hebrew speakers we would hear a double entendre in the word “Panim” with the word “Pnim” meaning “interior”. “Face” and our “inner being” are from the same root word. The message: the outer layer of our countenances are connected to our interior selves.
After Rosh HaShanah we will turn to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, also known as Yom Kippurim. Our rabbis played with this name of Atonement Day in the Hebrew – and read it not as Yom Kippurim, Atonement Day; but rather, as Yom Ki-Purim, a day like Purim. A day like the day we wear masks and are other than ourselves.
Yom Kippur is the exact opposite of Purim. It is the day we strip off our facial masks and seek to become our most authentic selves. For many of us, our face is a mask for our feelings. We have learned to smile when we feel sad, to shed tears as a manipulation of others, to look concerned when we feel no empathy, or say yes when we mean no.
That the Hebrew for “panim” our facial mask, is similar to “pnim” our interior selves, teaches us an important lesson. Our faces should reflect who we really are. Ecclesiastes 8:1 suggests “The wisdom of the person shines in the face.” Our faces and what are inside of us should mimic each other.
We are told that the 16th century Kabbalist, the Ari, had a gift. He could read people’s faces. This was known by so many people that when seeing the rabbi in the street, they would cover their face. They were ashamed about what he could see inside of them.
The task at this season is to work on our interior beings so that our faces shine with beauty that we have created inside of us. So that unlike those who passed by the Ari on the streets, we are proud of the beauty reflected in our countenance. As the Yiddish speakers among us would say: a sheine punim.
This evening is Elul 14th, means two weeks till Rosh HaShanah. The month is literally a High Holy Day and festival count down, where each day we are reminded by the sound of the Shofar that the month of Tishrei approaches. And that we have work on ourselves to do.
Each day of this month of Elul, we are asked to turn inside ourselves, to reflect on who and what we are. We are urged by this season to wrestle with our balance, our proclivity towards good and bad. We are urged by this season to wrestle with our outward countenance so that it reflects a holier inner being.
It is a startling image – we are descended from the two-faced Adam. And our task, during Elul, is to take that split and make it harmonious once again. So that when Rosh HaShanah arrives, we are a reflection of the original Adam, born again, undivided, anew.