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.
Our tradition has always embraced disagreement.
One might think that the most famous rabbis of disagreement were Hillel and Shammai.
In the first century BCE the Babylonian Hillel migrated to Israel and worked as a woodcutter as he studied. He lived in such poverty that he was unable to pay the fee to study Torah. It is said, because he was known for his kindness, gentleness and concern for humanity, (in other words he was a mentsch), it was decided to abolish the Torah study fee.
His contemporary was Shammai, born-and-bred in the land of Israel. He worked as a builder, was a man of some wealth, and was also a teacher of Torah. His views on everything were strict, usually because he worried about the assimilation of the Jews into the Roman world. He was considered dour, quick-tempered and impatient.
Two more different personalities would be difficult to find. But at the end of the day, they served on the same Sanhedrin and mixed in the same intellectual cohort. Colleagues. They agreed on many basic issues of Jewish law, though they came at the law from different perspectives.
So why might one think that they are the most famous rabbis of disagreement?
Perhaps because their disciples were often in conflict. They followed the philosophies of their founders. Hillel based his rulings on his concern for every individual’s welfare, while Shammai was concerned with the strictures of the law. The Talmud records 300 cases of disagreement between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai.
A disagreement is also the central theme of our Torah portion Korach. Korach, Datan and Abiram stage a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of raising themselves above the community. All of Israel, argues Korach, Datan and Abiram, are holy. Moses responds by suggesting that God will decide who is holy, who is worthy of leadership, by accepting or rejecting incense offerings that they bring.
Our portion does not hide that the Moses and Aaron’s leadership, did, endure its challengers. The rebellion, the arguments against our esteemed Biblical leaders, are there for us to struggle with, argue over and see. Our tradition has never been one that glosses over disagreements or writes them out of history.
This week at the National Assembly of the United Nations, the United States, represented by Nikki Haley, laid bare a disagreement with the most recent resolution condemning Israel for excessive force at the Gaza Border. The resolution, Nikki Haley articulately pointed out, was biased against Israel, and did not take into account, or condemn, the irresponsibility of Hamas not looking after its own population in Gaza nor did it condemn Hamas’s constant attacking of Israel through rockets and terrorist attacks.
In Haley’s words: “The nature of this resolution clearly demonstrates that politics is driving the day. It is totally one-sided. It makes not one mention of the Hamas terrorists who routinely initiate the violence in Gaza….”Advancing peace is not the goal of this resolution … (It blames everything on Israel.”
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was arguing for an acknowledgment of dual narratives. That neither side was totally blameless. But to ignore the rockets and attacks on Israel by Hamas was to present a bias towards only one part of the story. As such, the U.S. could not support or vote for this resolution.
Like Nikki Haley’s words this week, our tradition has always embraced duality. And in doings so, it has always acknowledged the counter-argument along with the argument. We know both the positions of Hillel and Shammai. We know Korach’s objections, Moses response and God’s judgement.
I recently finished Yossi Klein HaLevi’s new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor”, free for download in Arabic. I opted to pay full price for the English version on Amazon!
This book is a follow up to Klein HaLevi’s less-well-known volume he wrote years ago, where he journeyed and documented the narrative and story of Palestinians. In between books, the intifadas, and dashed hope for peace. He has finally reached a psychological place where he can pick up the dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian once again.
The book’s purpose and structure is just as its’ title suggests. It is 9 letters to his Palestinian neighbor who lives across the protective wall that divides Jerusalem and deters terrorists. The wall that he can see out his window from his home.
There are many striking things about this short volume. One of the best books I have read in a long while on the dispute.
First, how beautifully Klein HaLevi details our Jewish history, our physical and spiritual connection to this land. This book is written to create an understanding in the Arab world, to ask them to look beyond their biases, to understand that the Jewish people have a right to Israel that is true and just. In doing so it does not shy away from condemning Arab anti-semitism but also asks for an openness of mind and for a consideration of the truth he has to articulate.
The second beautiful thing that Yossi Klein HaLevi does in this volume, is acknowledge that the Palestinians also have a narrative. And that it is not, an either one narrative is true or another narrative is true. He advocates that two opposing narratives can exist and both be true. And that is a place that Jews and Palestinians need to arrive at for productive peace talks, for a two-state solution to happen, for our peoples to live together, legitimately, in our land.
Our tradition has always embraced disagreement.
One can move forward in disagreement when one has a great purpose in mind. Rather than becoming rooted and stuck in one’s narrative versus another’s narrative – keeping an eye on a higher goal can create a productive dialogue.
For three years there was a dispute between House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, the former asserting, “The law is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “The law is in agreement with our views.” Then a bat kol, a voice from heaven, announced, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, “These and those are the words of the Living God,” adding, “but the law, it is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”
At the end of the day, when the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagreed, they were both right and they would go home and break bread. A way forward was found that could be lived with. But both had truths.
Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim. When we finally realize that being right does not necessarily make the other person wrong, we can truly listen to each other and move forward in productive creativity, onto new and beneficial realms, that is somewhat fair and will benefit all.
Prior to Shabbat, we celebrated the last day of Pesach. The seventh day Torah reading is Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, the victory melody the Israelite’s chanted when the sea closed over their Egyptian pursuers on the escape from Egypt. This is a war victory song – singing of God’s triumph over the Egyptian army – part of which you know from the “Mi Chamocha” found in the text which has made its way into our morning and evening prayer services.
Following the Shirah, the song, is another very short victory song. Just two lines. The Song of Miriam:
“Sing to the Eternal, for God has triumphed gloriously
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.” (Ex 15:21)
While you may not be familiar with those exact words, through Debbie Friedman’s melody which we sang this evening you are familiar with the context.
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them…” (Ex 15:20-21)
Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam Song” written in 1988 and its popularity, brought to the fore the story of Miriam and how it was written out of so much of our Jewish history. It became popular in the 1980’s just as Chabad women were popularizing Miriam’s Tambourines and with the advent of the Women’s Seder which included the Miriam’s Cup.
As I wrote in the Women’s Seder Haggadah we produced last year, compared to Moses and Aaron, we know little of Miriam’s story:
“Our Torah is sparse. All we really know is that Miriam watches baby Moses hidden in the bulrushes and suggests to the Egyptian princess, that Yocheved should nurse the baby. All we really know is that her victory song at the sea is cut short to two lines. All we really know is that her speaking out against her brother marrying the Cushite woman is punished with leprosy while her brother Aaron goes unchastised. All we really know is that she is mourned by the Israelites when she dies. Nevertheless, the Torah’s dismissal of what was her immense role as a prophetess lives on: “… I brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4)”
What happened to Miriam, herself, is a leitmotif for how our culture has traditionally treated women. It is too easy to think that because this congregation has a woman rabbi and a female cantor on staff, or because women have run for president and vice president of this country, or because there are some female CEO’s out there, that the time of women and men as equals has arrived. It is too simple to believe because we now read female authors and poets, that some of our most popular musicians and composers are female, or that there are some households where men share in the domestic duties, that there is no patriarchy.
April 10th is Equal Pay Day. This date symbolizes how far into the working year women need to work for women’s earnings, on average, to catch up to what a man earns for the same job . In other words, if women could add to their working week, a work period from January 1 through April 10, they would then be earning the same amount as men. On average, women are paid 80% less of what men are paid for similar work. And while the gap is narrowing, at the current rate, women will not receive equal pay until 2059.
Recently our own Reform movement led by a collaboration of the movements professional organizations for rabbis, cantors, educators, early childhood educators and administrators, documented the wage gaps between men and women throughout our own congregations. For a movement that is dedicated to egalitarianism and justice, it is shocking to see that Reform Jewish women professionals are routinely paid less than their male counterparts. So recently our Movement formed an association called the Reform Pay Equity Initiative, to address the need to narrow the wage gap, provide the Reform Movements female employees with resources and training, and to educate the employers, professional and lay leaders of our synagogues and organizations about the wage inequity, Jewish ethical employment and the interventions that can be used to counter this injustice.
Equality and equity is not just about pay. Miriam’s prophetic words are rarely recorded into the annals of Torah or traditional rabbinic texts. Studies show that women’s words are often consciously or unconsciously not “heard” or are “dismissed”.
It is a well-known and documented phenomenon in the business world which has analyzed women’s experiences in the work place, that often when a woman suggests an idea, it is not given validity by management (whether they be male or female), until the same idea is expressed by a man. Likewise, it is not uncommon for men to feel the need to mansplain to women their own experiences, or to feel the need to have the “last word” in a conversation, or to “decide” to usurp a role that is not their job description, because they perceive that a male will be more effective. Speak to most women who have been in the workplace with men and they can share such personal experiences.
Feminist commentators have wondered, whether the scant mention and the lack of words of the prophetess Miriam in our text is because of the perception that a woman would not make as an effective prophetic role model. There seems to be a double behavioral standard for women and men in society. Women wrestle with these unconscious biases as they navigate their lives. A woman standing her ground is seen as stubborn, while a male standing his ground is viewed as having integrity. Women showing emotion are understood as weak, while a man showing emotion is seen as sensitive. A woman who brings who changes her child’s diaper is doing her job, while a man doing the same task is lauded as a good father.
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them…”
The inequity that today is still pervasive in our society has reached a tipping point… and we are beginning to see women using their voices and their voices to speak out against this injustice. The Women’s Marches and the #MeToo movement are indicative of female led chants for a more equal world.
In her December Op Ed in The Forward, Rabbi Jody Gerson added her voice by speaking out about her recent experience at the URJ Biennial.
“All attendees wore name tags which gave our congregations and locations. For Rabbis, these tags included our title, but not our positions (i.e.-Assistant Rabbi, Associate Rabbi, Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Educator or Solo Rabbi).
My tag read: Rabbi Jordie Gerson, Greenwich Reform Synagogue, Greenwich, CT. It seemed simple enough, but the conversations that would follow were jarring. Over and over again, my nametag prompted the same discussion.
“So, where are you?” Someone would ask. “I’m the Rabbi in Greenwich, Connecticut,” I’d say, gesturing to my tag. And then, almost immediately, they would ask, “So who’s your senior [Rabbi]?” or “You’re the Associate?” or, in its most frustrating iteration, “So — you must be [your older, male predecessor’s] assistant?”
I am none of these things. I am The Rabbi. The Only Rabbi. The Solo and the Senior Rabbi; The Rabbi, Ha Rabbah, the Big (Kosher) Cheese. But, apparently, I don’t look like it.[i]
There is so much more that we could and should be doing to ensure that the time will come when men and women are regarded as equal in talent, in voice and in leadership in our society. Even amongst ourselves here in the Reform Movement, here in Baltimore, and here at Har Sinai Congregation.
My colleague Rabbi Kari Hoffmeister Tuling made some concrete suggestions about where we might consciously start in that process in synagogue life.
She suggests that we refer to every colleague as Rabbi last name or Cantor last name – no matter how cute/young/approachable/bubbly or fun they are. That we pull out our adult education brochure, and count, how many male experts versus female experts we have. If women are not hitting the 50% mark, notify those in charge of choosing that from now on your expectation is 50%, starting with the 2018/2019 year. Make sure every hiring committee and every personnel evaluation committee has specific training in spotting gender bias. Women routinely get evaluated more negatively than men. Educate ourselves others regarding the latest in feminist thought in your various forms of communication. Never have all-male panels or celebrations. And always consider a woman or women are on the list to be considered for a task in leadership. Point out female credit when credit is due: if a man repeats an idea or point originated from a woman, nicely point out who the true originator of that idea is so that the woman’s voice is heard as her voice. Rabbi Leana Morritt adds to this list: To constructively call out comments that marginalize, objectify or minimize women. They may seem innocuous, unconscious or even well meaning, but shining a light to this dynamic is the only way to begin really tackling this pernicious problem.
Timbrels and chants. Let us examine our ways of operating, seek a new melody of which will create a world that is equal. Where women are acknowledged for the work they do, the ideas they bring and are treated as talented partners in the world we are making. In doing so we will: “Sing a son to the One whom we’ve exulted.” And like Miriam and the women by the shores of the sea, our celebration of equality between genders will be worth dancing the whole night long.”
Blessings. Va’y’hi is filled with them.
As Jacob lies on his deathbed, Joseph brings him his sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Jacob blesses Joseph through his children, prophesying that both will be the progenitors of great descendants, but as is oft the case in the biblical narrative, the younger will be more eminent than the older.
To this day we mimic his words when we bless sons: “Yismach Elohim K’Ephraim vKi’Menashe – May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” (48:20) Ephraim and Menashe, the first brothers in the Biblical narrative, who did not quarrel, but lived in Shalom. Joseph merits a double inheritance, extra prosperity, through both his sons.
This becomes our aspiration for our boys, when we bless them with the same words. That they are men of peace and prosperity. “Yismach Elohim K’Ephraim vKi’Menashe – May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.”
Blessings. Va’y’hi is filled with them.
As Jacob lies on his deathbed he calls forth his other sons. He offers them too a final blessing. “Come together and I will tell you what will befall you in days to come” (49:1). The blessings seem to take on a prophetic tone, some of them are so negative, these blessings are really akin to curses.
The Midrash (Gen R. 98:2) teaches it is at this very moment of Jacob’s blessings, that foresight of God leaves Jacob. What seems like prophecy is not prophecy at all. The commentator, Rashi, alludes to this in his commentary: Jacob is so filled with the “I,” that the blessings are Jacob’s own, and not infallible predictions of God.
From the biblical story’s perspective, Jacob’s blessings of his sons and their future progeny, are predicated on each of his son’s behaviors and traits. Each child’s individual virtues and flaws are illustrated in Jacob’s words, and written as predictions that will speak of their later tribal identity.
These are prophetic blessings (or curses) based on his stereotypical view of each of his sons.
The danger of stereotypes, of any kind, is that they can become self-fulfilling prophesies in themselves. Think of the under-achiever at school, whose teachers and parents expect lack of effort, and who consistently receive it. Think of the musical phenom, whose talent is nurtured, and who grows up to be the great artist that everyone predicted. Stereotyping can thwart free will. It can spoil our ability to change. It stops us in our tracks.
Along that line, the Hasidic commentator Or Ha’Meir on this very passage, suggests that in the absence of free choice, a complete revelation of what the future holds, would bring about the end of history – our story. Without choice, without awareness, without making our own stories and narratives, there is no point to living. He writes: “What good is it, if a great sage comes along and tells us each our own secret, that which we were supposed to discover of our own free will?”
Rashi writes of Jacob: “He sought to reveal the end to them, but God’s presence departed from him.” If Jacob’s predictions of his son’s behavior had been God-filled words of prophesy, they would have been irrefutable statements of the future. They would not allow for free choice and change of behavior and future narrative.
Our tradition speaks of the power of blessing, the power of our curses, the power of our words. Yes, they can be predictive. But when we offer them, when others offer them to us, they are not God inspired prophecies.
Each of us has free will to shape our own future, to forge our own path, to become who we might be. We can choose how to understand the circumstances of our own lives – as a glass half full or a glass half empty. We can choose how to respond to life itself – with positivity or negativity. We can choose the paths and byways we traverse.
Blessings. Va’y’hi is filled with them.
Blessings. Predictions. Our lives are filled with the words of how other’s see us. But they cannot be prescriptive. For if they are, they are restrictive.
Va’y’hi, the opening words of our Torah portion mean: “and it was”. Jacob then proceeds to offer blessings that speak of the future – how it will be for his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe, and his other sons. How it was, does not always tell us how it will be.
We are blessed. Not just with the words people offer us – for how others see us can be both blessing or a curse. Our ultimate blessing is in the path we choose for ourselves.
You may have caught the news story on NPR this week of the female inmates of an Indiana prison who had been taking a class on public policy. Vanessa Thompson, 17 years incarcerated, was watching a news story about the over 10,000 abandoned and neglected homes in Indianapolis. She brought a proposal to her public policy class:
“It’s a double restoration — not just of the house but of the person…. “What does Indianapolis need? A solution to this housing crisis. What do women in prison need, more than anything? Ownership. Of our minds, of our bodies, and of our physical homes.”
The idea she and her classmates developed is that the inmates would rehabilitate the houses, and when they finally left prison, would be given one of the homes they had restored to live in. The women of the class networked with organizations and individuals that could help them, set up a Go-Fund-Me page, established an Executive Board with a Director by using technology for communication. In early April this year, via video, they put their proposal before the State Legislator. In unanimous approval the Assembly approved their “Constructing the Future” proposal.
Getting the idea off the ground, meant the women had to learn and understand a cultural context different to their lives and living conditions so to advocate for themselves.
Our father Abraham, in the Torah portion tomorrow, is placed into a position where he needs to learn the cultural context of what is happening around him to succeed. God decides to reveal to Abraham God’s reasoning for eradicating the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorah. 
“Should I hide from Abraham what I am doing? … For I have selected him, so that he may teach his children and those who come after him what is right and just, so that the Eternal may fulfill for Abraham all that has been promised to him.”
Abraham becomes aware of what was about to occur and why. With a sense of injustice Abraham tested the waters of arguing with God. No-one prior to Abraham had entered into a dispute with the Eternal. Will you save the cities for 50 innocents, 40, 30, 20… 10? Abraham also did not know the boundaries of what he was undertaking in untested waters. Would he be sidelined, would he succeed?
Figuring out the boundaries to cultural context is a necessary step in undertaking change. We can only succeed in changing the status quo if we understand its ethos.
Earlier this week I was on a conference call with Rabbi Andrea Weiss who teaches at Hebrew Union College Institute of Religion. Concerned about the tone of rhetoric in the last election, she approached 100 theologians to write a set of letters for the first 100 days of the new Administration speaking to American values. You can read all the letters online at valuesandvoices.com
The 100th letter was written by Dr. Elsie Stern, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Bible at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She wrote on the 100th day of this new government:
… Some contemporary Jews use the Omer to focus our attention, one day at a time, on the attributes that we share with God—attributes that enable us, as individuals and communities, to live up to our highest potential and to move toward our highest and holiest aspirations.
In essence, this has been the aim of the 100 letters we have sent you over these past 100 days. We have called you to enact in your leadership the crucial American values that are our greatest strength as a nation. The American Values Religious Voices letter writers provide a snapshot of the America that you have pledged to serve. We are men and women, from red states and blue states. We identify as African-American, Asian, Latinx, Native American, and White. We are Buddhists, Christians of varied denominations, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Some of our families have been in this country since before it was “America”; others are immigrants ourselves.
Yet, despite this diversity, our letters call attention to the same values: justice, compassion, protection of the vulnerable, hospitality, equal rights, and respect for all people, regardless of gender, race, religion, or status. Our writers have prayed that you will govern with wisdom and humility, putting the common good above individual concerns. In our diversity, we agree that these are the American values that must guide us as a nation.
In their writing, the 100 theologians suggest that there is a consensus among a majority of Americans as to the values that make America great. An aspirational cultural context. For can any cultural context be fully known?
There are times when the cultural norm is clearly unclear. A few chapters after the Sodom and Gemorrah incident, within this parasha, Abraham finds himself in Gerar. He tells the King of Gerar that his wife Sarah is his sister, and the King kidnaps our matriarch, to have relations with her. It is revealed to the King in a dream, that Sarah is in fact Abraham’s wife and calamity will befall if he harms her. As moderns, this narrative is confusing. Why would Abraham lie? Why would he put Sarah in danger? Or himself and his entourage, should his lie be discovered?
However, if we research the history of political liaisons in the ancient near east, and learn that a wife who was also a sister is revered and given status, or wives were sometimes offered as political gifts, we might have a sense that there is more to this incident than meets the eye of us moderns who read Bible. What is really going on is unclear. The narrative reflects a variety of cultural patterns and the developing new Hebrew ideals. Poor Abraham, trying his best to survive in a changing and developing system!
There are times when the cultural norms are quickly and radically changing. My day off this week was on a mission to visit and speak with some of our elected officials – Democrat and Republican – in Washington DC with a group gathered together by The Associated. The impetus of this mission was to thank our elected officials for the work they are doing on security for the Jewish community here in Baltimore, their work to combat anti-semitism and their advocacy for Israel.
A take away from our conversations was an awareness that here is constant change in the culture of Washington, the culture of the parties, contributing to the challenge of concensus across the aisle.
Reality is that shift happens constantly in culture, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes as undercurrent, sometimes as a tidal waves. Culture is complex and multiple cultures can clash or interact or undermine each other. Even when you think you understand…you learn you do not understand…
The women who were incarcerated in Indianapolis who developed the “Constructing the Future” program, and who learned the political rules to achieve their programmatic goal, are concerned about the execution of their proposal. Post the legislatures unanimous resolution to adopt the program, Correction Commission Robert Carter wrote to the students congratulating them for their “out of the box” idea, but that he could not guarantee he would implement it as they proposed. The women are concerned that this will become a program for the state’s male inmates, and not for them as the vocational programs offered to women in the prisons, are gender divided. The culture of politics butts up against the culture of patriarchy.
Even when one learns the system and operates within it, shift can happen, resistance can occur, other cultural pieces can clash. Just as it is true that figuring out the boundaries to cultural context is a necessary step in undertaking change, it is also true that we can only succeed in changing the status quo if we understand that culture is a changing target and not monolithic but complex.
There is a story that when Harry Truman was speaking at a Grange convention in Kansas City, Mrs. Truman and a friend were in the audience. Truman in his speech said, “I grew up on a farm and one thing I know is that farming means manure, manure, manure, and more manure.”
At this, Mrs. Truman’s friend whispered to her, “Bess, why on earth don’t you get Harry to say fertilizer?”
“Good Lord, Helen,” replied Mrs. Truman, “You have no idea how many years it has been that it took me to coach him to say manure.”
Ah, change is slow. Change is complex.
But we forge ahead, piece by piece, towards our aspirational values in a context that is ever-developing. Sometimes achieving advancement, sometimes retrograding only to advance again. Figuring out the permeable boundaries to cultural context is a necessary step in undertaking evolutionary progress. We can only succeed in changing the status quo if we understand its transient character. It is a challenging ongoing mitzvah, as individuals and communities, so that we can live up to our highest potential and move toward our highest and holiest aspirations.
 Genesis 8
 Genesis 18:17-19
 Genesis 20
A true story. Sort of.
Grandpa Solomon put up the Mezuzah hanging it straight up-and-down.
“Look Jacob. See how straight I place the Mezuzah.
At Passover, we remember how in Egypt when we painted blood on the doorposts of our house God guarded us from the angel of death. The Mezuzah reminds us of that night.
Have I told you the story about a king who sent a pearl to a rabbi and and asks for a present of equal value in return? The rabbi sent him a mezuzah but the King was angry. He felt that a Mezuzah could be purchased by anyone. So, he wrote an angry letter to Rav.
The rabbi wrote back to the King: You sent a pearl. Now I require guards at my house. I sent you a Mezuzah. Surely that is more valuable? The Mezuzah guards your house!”
“This Mezuzah” said Grandpa Solomon, “guards our house!”
“Grandpa really? A box on the doorpost guarding us from harm? Do you believe that?” said Jacob.
His grandson always seemed to question everything.
“Ah little one, now in real life you disagree with me! I dream about you disagreeing with me! We have traditions little one. Ours are not to change the traditions.”
“But what if they don’t make sense? What if they don’t mean something to me? countered Jacob.
“Shush! Jacob. It is tradition!”
Jacob grew up to be a great scholar whose teachings were so beautiful that they touched people’s hearts. He was always looking for meaning and a way to love God.
One day he was putting up the Mezuzah with his daughter Fleur.
“Look Fleur, see how I place the Mezuzah on the door lying flat.”
“Why Papa? Everybody else places the Mezuzah up and down! Why do you need to be creative? Why do you lay it down?”
“Little Fleur. You ask such good questions.
When we carried the Ark in the desert we placed the Ten Commandments and the teachings flat on the bottom of the Ark. That way they could not fall as we carried them around the wilderness.
I love putting up the Mezuzah this way. It makes sense to me. It shows how much we love God and God’s teachings. We give the Mezuzah a kiss each time to remind us how much we love Torah.”
“But Papa, everybody else hangs their Mezuzah up and down. Why do we….”
“Shush, Fleur. We must play with Judaism so it makes sense to us. It should be beautiful.”
Fleur grew up. She and her children and their children’s children loved being Jewish because Jacob had taught them creativity beauty. To honor her father, she hung the Mezuzah flat to remind them of the love of God’s teachings.
Others in their family followed the tradition of Grandfather Solomon. Tradition! They honored the idea that God guarded their door.
Who do you think was right?
What is more important?
Creativity and a a love for Judaism?
The members of Solomon, Jacob and Fleur’s family followed different customs down the generations.
One hundred and fifty years later they took they went to a Rabbi from outside their family and asked: Which practice is better? Should the Mezuzah be up and down – guarding tradition? Should the Mezuzah be flat – displaying creativity and love?
The Rabbi came up with a great solution.
Both ideas were right!
He suggested that we place the Mezuzah slanted, pointing forwards into the room. Rooted in tradition but pointed to creativity and love.
That way the people could choose, Sometimes, they could see the Mezuzah as upright, honoring the tradition. Sometimes they could see the Mezuzah as lying down, reminding them to be creative to find ways to feel their love of God and God’s love for them. Sometimes they could see both as important.
The Mezuzah teaches us that we can choose.
We need both tradition and creativity that expresses our love for being Jewish to be true.
Let us say a blessing. A blessing for affixing the Mezuzot of our lives on a slant. Rooted in tradition. Searching for meaning. Searching for love. Towards the future.
Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, asher qideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu liqboa’ mezuzah.
We bless You, Adonai our God, Channeler of Universes, who gives us awareness of holiness through Mitzvot and directs us to affix a mezuzah.
Note for our adults in the room.
I began by telling you that this is a sorta true story. The people of this story were real people in Jewish history and rabbinic texts. RaSHI, Rabbenu Tam, Fleur de Lis Kolonymos, the Tur. The argument is a real Jewish argument.
If you want to know the emet, the truth, the multiples sources, the midrash, and more behind this tale… feel free to come and study it with me! An open invite through the door of Jewish learning!
Let’s open the door with a story.
(open the door)
A true story.
Grandpa Shlomo placed the Mezuzah on the door vertically.
“Look Yaakov, see how straight I place the Mezuzah.
Grandpa put on his rabbi-yalmuke. After all Reb Shlomo bar Yitzchak was known for his teachings. Everybody read RASHI. “The Mezuzah, little Yaakov, represents the blood of the lamb smeared by our ancestors on that night when they stood between the doorway of slavery and the doorway of freedom. God guarded us from the Angel of Death as we went forth from Egypt.
The Mezuzah continues to guard all of us who put it on the doorpost. It stands upright. It reminds us that the God up in heaven, protects us here down on earth.
Once king of Parthia once sent a pearl to Rav and asks for something of equal value in return. Rav sent him a mezuzah but the King was not pleased with this strange gift. He felt that a Mezuzah could be purchased by anyone. It could not be of equal value.So he wrote an angry letter to Rav.
Rav writes back to the King that the pearl he sent requires him to set up protection at his house at great expense. But the Mezuzah he gifted the King, is actually a more valuable treasure, as it will offer protection to the King when he is at home.”
Shlomo felt especially proud that he could tell a midrashic story his grandson Yaakov would understand and remember…. “The mezuzah, my Yaakov, guards us from harm.”
“Grandpa really? A box on the doorpost guarding us from harm? Do you believe that?” said little Yaakov.
His grandson always seemed to question everything.
“Ah little one, now in real life you disagree with me! In my dreams, I held you as a baby and you touched the Tefillin on my head and I saw that in the future you would disagree with me about the order in which we place passages in the boxes on the Tefillin. We have traditions little one. Ours are not to change the traditions.”
“But what if they don’t make sense? What if they don’t mean something to me or to my generation? Shouldn’t we make them meaningful?” countered Yaakov. “Are we to be guards, standing firm in a tradition that does not mean anything, resistant to change?”
“Shush! Yaakov. It is tradition!”
Yaakov grew up to become a great scholar like his grandfather Shlomo. Like his mother Yocheved, his father Meir and his brother Shmuel. He was called Rabbeinu Tam by those who knew him. Rabbeinu Tam meaning “our straightforward teacher” because his teachings touched the heart of those in his generation. His reputation spread far and wide.
Once, Rabbeinu Tam, also known as Papa Yaakov, was standing outside the door of his house with his daughter Fleur de lis.
“Look Fleur, see how I place the Mezuzah on the door horizontally.”
“Why Papa? Everybody else places the Mezuzah vertically! Why do you do we do it differently?”
“Little Fleur. You ask such good questions. Fleur de lis, in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, we showed our love of God, by laying God’s teachings flat in the Ark, the Torah scrolls and the Ten Commandments. Flat to keep them safe, so they were less likely to fall or be harmed. When we affix the Mezuzah horizontally on our doors, we remind ourselves of our love of God’s teachings in the Temple, how much we cared for them, and the preciousness of God’s teachings in our lives. As you enter the door, give it a kiss each time to show your love of God and God’s teaching.”
“Why Papa, why do you always need to be Jewish differently?”
“Not differently, little Fleur, we need to make being Jewish meaningful. The horizontal Mezuzah teaches us about God’s love for us and our love for God. Isn’t that a beautiful thought?”
“Yes Papa, it is beautiful like your poems that everyone recites, but what about tradition? Everybody else says that we are changing Judaism!”
“Shush, little Fleur. It is important for Judaism to make sense and mean something.”
Fleur grew up. She and her children and their children’s children loved being Jewish. And they always looked for meaning in their practice. They affixed the Mezuzah horizontal for love, as Fleur’s Papa had taught.
Others in their family felt that the rules of tradition came first. Like their father and grandfather and great grandfather RaSHI, they affixed the Mezuzah vertically to remind that God is the guardian of our door. They’d always done it that way. Without rules, without boundaries, Judaism would not be the same.
Who do you think was right? Is the tradition more important than touching the heart? Is touching the heart more important than the tradition?
- What is more important? (Some examples… if you need to draw them out)
- Keeping the rules of Shabbat or finding things that feel Shabbastik to you?
- Eating Kosher or being aware that eating is holy?
- “MiSinai melodies” that remind us of Jewish history or contemporary tunes that you identify with?
- Reading Hebrew or praying in a language that you understand?
- Reading the Haggadah or making the story your own?
A hundred and fifty years later, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher also known as The Tur, asked the same question. Some people were hanging their Mezuzot vertically. Some people were hanging their Mezuzot horizontally. Is the tradition more important than touching the heart? Is touching the heart more important than tradition?
Which will open the door to our Jewish continuity?
He could not decide… the tradition gave Judaism roots and authenticity. The creativity and touching the heart allowed Judaism to speak emotionally.
So the Tur split the difference. He wrote in his book that we should place the Mezuzah on our doorpost slanted, pointing forwards into the room.
Our Jewish continuity always stands at that place. The Mezuzah hangs on our doorway between tradition and meaning. We incorporate tradition for roots and authenticity. We search for heart-soul connection for Judaism to have a meaningful future.
Let us say a blessing. A blessing for affixing the Mezuzot of our lives on a slant. Rooted in tradition. Searching for meaning. Towards the future.
Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, asher qideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu liqboa’ mezuzah.
We bless You, Adonai our God, Channeler of Universes, who gives us awareness of holiness through Mitzvot and directs us to affix a mezuzah.
 The first name of Reb Shlomo bar Yitzchak (RaSHI) who ruled that the Mezuzah should be applied to the doorpost vertically.
 The first name of Rashi’s grandson, Rabbenu Tam, son of Rashi’s daughter Yocheved.
 Sefer Haagadah (check reference
 Traditional legend
 This tradition is according to the opinion of Rashi, Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch. It is still the custom among Sephardic Jews to hang the Mezuzah vertically.
 Meir ben Shmuel
 Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), 15 years his senior. His other borthes were Isaac (Rivam) and Solomon the Grammarian)
 The children of Rabbenu Tam were: Yitzhak Tzarfati; Shlomo Tzarfati; Moshe Tzarfati; Fleur de lis Klonymos, of Falaise and Yosef Kalonymus-Tzarfati. You know I picked the daughter because of her gender! We need to write women back into history.
 The origins of the custom of kissing the Mezuzah are obscure. It may have been introduced much later by the Arizal. It is custom recommended by some rabbis and vilified by others. I have taken the liberty here of attributing it to Rabbeinu Tam.
 Arbaah Turim, Yoreh Deah, 289
Is it a professional hazard, or personal interest, or a bit of both? I am not sure. However, I watch a lot of Jewish YouTube videos. People send them to me in emails and messages, they are found in the scrolling on my Facebook page, and sometimes I seek them out for a program, lesson or sermon. Several years back, around this very time of year, I was sent a Rosh Hashanah YouTube video made by Jewish Impact Films.
Scene one: shows a young man seeking to open his garage door with an automatic door-opener, attached to the sun- visor of his car. He tries and tries, but the garage door refuses to budge. He then takes the door-opener off the sun- visor, pushes the button in the car, out of the car, shakes it while pressing the button, in vain attempts for the garage door to open. Humorously, he tries licking it, banging it on top of his head, and makes noises of frustration. Finally, with a countenance of despondence he seems to be giving up hope.
Scene two: The young man notices a second car pulling into the driveway. In this car, a traditionally dressed Hasid in black garb takes out his Shofar, blows a multi-note Shevarim, and the garage door miraculously opens!
Scene Three: The Hasid drives by the frustrated man, gives him a nod and a thumbs-up. The young man looks perplexed, but gives an acknowledging grateful nod back.
The YouTube flashes then to a caption… “These High Holy Days stick with what works.”
Next scene: the young man is blowing a Tekiah on a large Shofar to open the trunk of his car and smiling with joy at his success!
A banner ends the short movie with the saying “Shofar, So Good.”
Our Shofar Service is one of the highlights of the our Machzor. It is divided into several captions preceding scenes.
Shofarot, Shofar Blasts.
Each caption is an existential door opening a scene of High Holy Day reflection and prayers, culminating with a Shofar blast, a door-opening reminder to link our reflections and intentions into the scenes of our own life.
Scene One. Malchuyot. This is the door that opens our relationship to God. The Shofar blast calls us to pay attention to God’s divinity or divine power. This is part of the construct of authority in the ancient world.
A parable from our tradition tells of a King who enters a province and asks: “May I be your King?” The people respond: “What have you done for us that we should have you rule over us?” What did the King do? He built a city wall, he provided the infrastructure for a water supply, and he fought wars in their defense. Then when the King asked for a second time: “May I be your King?” the people responded “Yes!”
Likewise, the parable concludes: God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, divided the sea for them, sent down manna for them, brought up a well of water for them, provided them with quail to eat, and fought a war with Amalek on their behalf. Thus, when God asked: “May I be your King?” the people responded “Yes!”
Our Malchuyot prayers ask us to accept a hierarchical relationship with an infallible, divine sovereign who controls all. Yet in most modern countries today, kings and queens are symbolic, or have limited powers. In England, Queen Elizabeth does not dictate laws, Queen Margerethe of Denmark has her role limited by the country’s constitution, as does King Abdullah of Jordan. Moderns balk at a supreme authoritarian construct. It brings discomfort, and is discordant with our conceptions of relationships both human and Divine. Thus, the Shofar calls of Malchuyot are, for many of us, jarring on this day.
Yet there is also opportunity in dissonance. The calls of the Shofar can be reconfigured as the door-opener to struggle with our relationship with the Holy One, and what it means for our lives. As I often teach, we are called Israel, God-wrestlers, for a reason. Let the Shofar calls of Scene One, impel us to question and wrestle with God, like our ancestor Jacob, who famously wrestled with a being Divine.
The first Tekiah of Malchuyot begs us ask the question of ourselves: What is our relationship with God?
Scene Two is Zichronot, the scene of our service that arouses our historical memory. Our prayers have us reflect on Jewish history. The relationships of God with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel are evoked. We consider how Moses, and David, and the prophets connected and spoke to the Holy One, and how they evolved their understanding of Judaism and God, through history.
Our Zichronot reflections should have us ask how we are connected to the Jewish story l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation?
At this very moment, my brother and sister-in-law are taking my nephew Jake on a pre-Bar Mitzvah trip to Poland, England and Israe,l to research his Jewish family roots. With a written explanation of the origins of my father’s family, dating back to the time of the Inquisition in Spain, he will relate to his ancestors by viewing a large Kiddush cup once donated to the London Great Synagogue in the early 1800’s, and take part in the search for a Torah that was gifted by my family there.
He will view the denization papers given to my family by King George III, and visit the graves of our ancestors centuries old, and ancestors not-so-old. Including a great-great uncle who was a pilot in the English air-force and downed in World War Two.
Jake will learn details of the lives of his Polish family through letters now featured in the Jewish Museum in Poland, found in the attic of his Australian grandfather, the Polish correspondents who perished too-soon in the Holocaust.
He will visit the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, where pictures of my mother’s Egyptian family are on display – a Seder in Egypt before their 1956 exile.
The prayers of Zichronot, are the door opener asking us to consider making our own connection to Jewish history, theological or actual, whether it be an old or recent, whether it be mythical or documented. The Shofar calls us to consider our rapport to the chain of tradition from its beginning, to our day, and how we can work to continue that chain of tradition in the generations beyond us.
The second set of Shofar calls, Zichronot ,ask us: What stories and history do you wish to perpetuate into the future of Judaism, to ensure that Jewish life is rooted in the past, but remains relevant for today?
Our final scene, Scene Three, is Shofarot, the call to us to return to Jewish revelation and Jewish practice, part of the process in bringing about redemption. As Reform Jews, we are asked to consider the Covenant and the Mitzvot, the gamut of Jewish tradition, and work to shape Jewish lives of meaning and relevancy for ourselves, our families, our communities, so that we can look back with a sense of fulfillment.
This requires attention. This requires intention.
“A knock on the door and a man selling Shofars…” begins a story by my friend Mitch Chefitz.
The salesman says to Gabriella, the girl who answers the door: “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”
“How much?” asks Gabriella who had just received seven dollars and seven cents for her seventh birthday.
“Seven dollars and seven cents.”
“That’s good then because that’s all I have,” she replies. “Give me a Shofar to make me strong.” And she hands over the money, for what else is she to do with such a strange amount?
The next day Gabriella tries to blow the Shofar and not a peep. But day after day she tries again and again, different angles, different breaths, and eventually eek! A sound is made. Slowly steadily she expands her strength to blow and eventually a squeak becomes a Tekiah! A Teruah! A Shevarim! A Tekiah Gedolah!
As Gabriella grows, her lungs become stronger and stronger from her Shofar blowing. It enables her to become an athlete that can run the field like the wind itself. At seventeen she has a party where she blows out the candles with one breath.
Then, a knock at the door. The man selling Shofars is on the other side. “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”
“I remember you,” says Gabriella, “you have not changed.
“But you have changed,” said the man. “You have grown up nicely.”
“So how much to buy a Shofar?” asks Gabriella.
“More than you can spend,” said the man, “but you could trade.”
“Well, I have had this one to make me strong for a long time, so I’ll swap it for one to make me pleasing.”
Gabriella does not try the new Shofar right away, after all she had her blowing technique down! But when she gets around to picking it up, she hears that she had underestimated how difficult a new Shofar could be.
She practices and practices, day after day after day. She finally learns to sound a sweet Tekiah, Teruah, Shevarim and Tekiah Gedolah. She even learns how to fashion her lips to play different notes to create sweet melody. People are fascinated by her skill and come from far and wide to hear the mistress of the Shofar!
She keeps this Shofar safe and clean. Thinking one day soon, she might swap it for another, and learn yet a new skill.
Ten years pass. But the Shofar salesman does not come.
Twenty years pass. But the salesman does not come.
Thirty years pass. A knock at the door. The man selling Shofars on the other side.
“I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”
“I expected you to be back years ago,” Gabriella said, “I am ready to trade, I have been keeping this Shofar in good shape for you. This time I want the Shofar to make me wise.”
“Sure,” said the Shofar salesman. “But this Shofar comes with a task! You will need to paint its inside.”
Not so hard, thinks Gabriella. I will just fill the Shofar with paint. And she agrees.
When she finally looks at her new Shofar, she notices it is almost closed at the mouthpiece. She pours in blue paint, but it just slides right out, the horn on the inside still clear of color. The paint store suggests she try different colors, different types of paints, different techniques. Nothing works.
She went to consult a scientist who suggests multiple experiments.
She went to a biologist who examined the horns DNA.
She sought out a mathematician at a college who taught her calculus.
But nothing could teach her how to paint the Shofar with color. She went to all types of teachers looking to learn the answer. Along the way she learned cosmology, relativity, string theory, chemistry, literature and so much more.
Decade after decade passed, and at age ninety-seven, after gathering much wisdom, and trying in vain to color her Shofar, a realization came to her in a flash.
She held the small tip of the Shofar to her mouth. Even a large breath would be too much. Gentle. Gentle. She sighed a sigh through the small opening. Slowly, steadily, her heart and soul, streamed into the horn to color it with her spirit. The Shofar proclaimed more than a sound. It called out understanding and redemption. Love and acceptance. Grace and beauty.
At that very moment, the salesman of Shofars appeared. “You reached me,” he said. “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”
“I am happy to see you, said Gabriella, “I am ready to trade up…”
And she held out her Shofar for the next one.
In Scene Three, Shofarot, we are called to shape our Jewish lives through strengthening Jewish skills, by making Jewish life pleasing, by learning Jewish teachings, to create a long-lived Jewish life. The Shofar calls out to us to recommit ourselves to Jewish doing and knowledge. The Shofar calls of Shofarot, are the door-opener for you to question, what should you be doing to create that Jewish life around you?
With each blast of the Shofar service, we are reminded of the existential choices that form the key elements of our Jewish existence.
In the YouTube short film, the Shofar is blown by a Hasid and opened the garage door. “These High Holy Days stick with what works,” proclaimed the caption. The Shofar is the door-opener that calls to us to ask the questions, to figure out what will work in our modern Jewish lives:
Malchuyot – how do we shape our relationship with the Holy One?
Zichronot – how do we connect ourselves, and generations to come, to Jewish history?
Shofarot – how do we connect our lives meaningfully to Jewish doing and knowledge?
The Shofar miraculously opens the doors of these important questions for us. We choose whether the Tekiah, Teruah, Shevarim, Tekiah Gedolah, will resound inside of us, speaks to us at this season, if they will be “Shofar, so good,” Shofar calls for good.
 Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Bahodesh, Chapter 5.
 “Gabriel’s Horn” from the Curse of Blessings by Mitchell Chefitz. It was suggested by the author to use Shofar rather than horn. I have changed the child to a girl for my sense of providing some gender balance to this sermon.